Saturday, February 28, 2015


The real beauty of Merida is difficult to see or imagine by just walking the streets of the city. The flavor is there with the painted facades but the homes are all packed block by block like cans of sardines their windows shuttered and closed. Like Don Quixote it's not the outer shell, but the beauty that lies within.
Every Wednesday expat, Keith Heitke, conducts a tour of three separate and diverse homes in central Merida. He pulls from a catalogue of over twenty homes so the tour is never quite the same. If your stay in Merida overlaps more than one Wednesday you can do the tour again and again and see a different collection of homes each time. The tours originate from the Casa de Cultura. You don't need a reservation. You only need to show up prior to the 9:45am starting time. The Casa de Cultura has a small café where you can grab a coffee or dolce prior to the tours beginning. The Casa de Cultura was established by a local filmmaker and includes an enclosed outdoor cinema right out of the celluloid closet of Cinema Paradisio. The cost of the tour is two hundred pesos. The money is donated to a charity. You get to choose from three: an elder home, an educational opportunity for disadvantaged children or a fund to feed the many dogs that roam the city.
Keith begins the tour with a somewhat lengthy history of the city and description of the architectural heritage of Merida. The tour is a walking tour. Sometimes the tour is concentrated on homes that are virtually across the street from each other. In our case it seemed we walked from one side of the city to the other and then back again. We were lucky with the weather on the day we took the tour but it can get exceedingly hot in Merida. Bring a hat or an umbrella and some decent walking shoes if you intend to do the tour.
The three homes Keith chose for our tour couldn't have been more diverse. We started out with a home that was under construction. You began to wonder about the tour and the quality of what he was take you to see when inside the first home you had to climb over piles of rubble, debris and everything you touched was coated in a layer of limestone dust.
There had been some rain that morning leaving the streets outside glistening in a coat of rain. Inside the mix of our wet feet and the powder like dust left a Hansel and Gretel path of footprints throughout.
It was difficult, at first, to get a gage on the design intent of the owner. We began our tour in the front of the home. Most of the homes from this period were built with similar floor plans, very narrow long lots with a central courtyard. You entered through a pair of iron gates behind which was a set of doors. Guests would arrive by horse and carriage into this entry. It was sort of their version of our garage. It was the only way in and out of the home. Every casa was its own little fortress. The gates, doors and single entry were all for security. From there we were led into what we would call the parlor where our tour began. The room as in most homes here had very high ceilings presumably allowing the heat to rise above the heads of its occupants.
The floors in each room where tiled in a local flooring material called "Pasta". Made in molds from finely ground limestone, the tiles were then colored and baked. The density of the limestone made the tiles almost indestructible. The antique tiles have survived for centuries while new tiles continue to be made using the same process.
The detailing of the original molding is French while the new reproduction lighting is Moorish
and the new construction looks as if it's going toward a very stark modern aesthetic. Clearly they have a ways to go.
We traveled from a home in reclamation to one slowly falling into ruin. Once we entered into the large front room you knew you were in the presence of the sole of its owner. I felt like a surgeon pressing through her breastbone to get a look at her heart. The eighty-eight year old owner had lived her entire life in this house, as had her parents and their parents before her.
The stenciled art nouveau walls fading in shades of peach and pale blue hung with paintings purchased decades ago when the room welcomed visitors as the music of Mexican guitars played on well into the night.  
A lifetime of a former prosperity was on display stuffed into cabinets and nailed to the walls.
You knew that at some far off time this elderly woman had walked through the spice markets of Marrakesh as a little girl on the hand her mother or a maiden aunt.
The only thing remaining were the three front rooms, one containing her bedroom where tucked in the corner on a thrift store chair was a set of four dingy dolls that no one no longer played with.
Beyond the wall delineating the meager amount remaining of la senora's past was the rest of the building; a pile of rotted supports holding a corrugated roof over a dilapidated kitchen
and an open courtyard filled with broken concrete flamingos.
Here is where she sat during our tour, her son wearing a broad smile as all of us filed past thanking her for allowing us in as her guests. Her son tapping her on the shoulder as each of us walked by. With each tap she would raise her head and seem to brighten and nod in our general direction.
The last home on the tour looked depressingly the same from the outside but once inside you could smell the difference. The air wasn't choked with the dust of construction or laboring under the weight of eminent collapse but filled with the smell of a more complete and prosperous side of the Yucatan.
The home belonged to our guide and his partner, former New Yorkers, now living the good life in Merida.
Keith's partner, David Sterling, the chef and author of Yucatan: Recipes for a Culinary Expedition, had completely transformed a centuries old building into a modern day incarnation of hospitality Merida style.

The home flowed around an open central courtyard with a sparkling plunge pool.
Circling the courtyard and pool were two bedrooms with adjoining en suite bathrooms,
a huge study with a wall of books, the main entry room,
and a huge dining room with a hand-painted mural circling a dining table meant for twelve.
The focus of the house was the kitchen, the gourmet kitchen, a kitchen that doubled as a cooking school where tourists and expats learned the art of cooking Yucatan style.
The amazing part of their story, the part that made you want what they had, was the price: $40,000 spent on the shell of the building and then $250,000 spent on the renovation. That totals less than $300,000. I don't think there are many places in the United States that could match that bargain. The unfortunate part of this is you have to live in Merida with summer heat reaching one hundred and fifteen degrees. It was still tempting.

Paseo de Montejo is Merida's millionaire's mile. The avenue is lined with old money now mostly devoured by banks and industry and turned into offices and commercial space. A few homes remain in the hands of private owners but most have slipped from residences to alternative uses. One remaining home is the Quinta Montes Molina Mansion. Still owned and lived in (although infrequently) by the family that has had it for generations. The home is a mix of styles prevalent at the turn of the twentieth century. A grand staircase leads to a neoclassical entry, a hexagonal turret standing asymmetrically to its left.
While the current owner, a niece of the original owner's daughter, holds ownership she continues to allow tours to walk through the house even when her and her family are in residence. The main floor harbors a central hall flowing from front to back. The large doors at the front and the back are kept open allowing for a cooling breeze to whisper through the space.
A group of French architects were commissioned to design the space. Their influence can be seen in much of the ornamentation on the ceilings and dripping down to the cornices encircling many of the public rooms.
Tiffany was also popular at the time and any home of importance had to have at least one Tiffany inspired window added to their home.
The art nouveau movement went hand in hand with Tiffany. Much of the decoration in the home is representative of this fad from lamps and sculptures to the bedroom furniture.
With the humidity always present in this part of the world wallpaper was a luxury not even the rich could get to stick to their walls. To acquire that art nouveau flavor walls were painted and stenciled with designs of William Morris and Bradbury and Bradbury.
Cool marble floors run the length of the main hall and public spaces but the traditional pasta tiles add warmth to the family's sleeping quarters.
There's a tradition of sleeping in hammocks throughout the Yucatan and even in the most luxurious of homes there are the traditional wall hooks where most people chose to sleep even though conventional beds were offered as well. As tall as the mansion appears there is no second floor.
All of the homes main rooms remain on this one elevated floor. Underneath is where the servants live and work, still sleeping in hammocks, cooking in the kitchen and hand scrubbing the laundry in wooden tubs still used today.
With most cities what is opened up and put on display are the remains of its wealth, the homes and public buildings were money could buy style and importance. In Merida and its surrounding areas the majority of its architecture forms a patchwork quilt of the very poor.
As you push to the outskirts of Merida or take the opportunity to peek into the open windows of the city's side streets you'll see a world of tiny one room homes filled with multi-generational families eking out an existence without the benefit of electricity or even indoor plumbing. Some of these homes date back to the abodes of the original Mayans. These are one-room oval huts made of mud and limestone with a single door and a thatched roof. Wealth and poverty are more frequently separated. In Merida they can exist side by side. The contrast is sometimes hard to understand.

Monday, February 23, 2015


From Merida you can day trip to either Uxmal or Chichen Itza, Merida sits about equidistant between the two sites. You have a choice; you can do either one or the other or both. We, for some reason, abandoned our normal modus operandi, and actually sought out advise on how to approach the ruins. Our instinct had been: one - get an individual guide to take us around and two - go to both sites. We started playing the role of inquisitive minds with our driver, Gabriel, the man we had arranged through our hotel to pick us up at the airport in Cancun. It's a four-hour drive from the airport to Merida and our hotel; Gabriel had plenty of time to pontificate on the wonders of the Yucatan. He had plenty to say about touring the archeological sites around Merida.
First was a comparison of Uxmal and Chichen Itza based on the number of people ponying up the two-hundred pesos ( at the time about fifteen dollars) entrance fee at each site. Since Chichen Itza is about a two-hour drive from Cancun and Uxmal would take you seven and a half hours from the same starting point, Chichen Itza wins the attendance competition hands down. About six thousands people a day go through the Chichen Itza turnstiles
while Uxmal has a mere five hundred. For me this a game similar to golf where the low score wins. Gabriel took a second swipe at the Cancun based Bermuda short Chichen Itza patrons telling us they frequently mispronounce it "Chicken Pizza". I'm not sure if they think they're going out for dinner instead of a cattle trip through ancient history. Because of the number of travelers being herded through Chichen Itza the authorities have been forced to make some adjustments to the way the site is viewed. You can no longer climb or touch any of the ruins at Chichen Itza. Your tour is well monitored and policed. My assumption is the Cancun crowd was probably a little more rowdy and possibly inebriated as well, Cancun being more known for its party atmosphere than its intellectual pursuers. Monuments were getting vandalized and since there's no real protection like railings once you've reached the height of ten stories there were too many accidents where intoxicated revelers either intentionally or inadvertently took to flying off the pyramids. His last negative for Chichen Itza was the vendors that constantly run along side pushing their trinkets in your face. We'd been to Giza and seen the, "Baksheesh" brigade constantly swarming over you looking for any kind of change for any little service. We weren't looking at having to swat small children away while we were trying to observe the ruins.
Gabriel's vote: go for Uxmal.
Once at the hotel, our host, Daniel, confirmed Gabriel's appraisal. He added a bit of information about the light shows at each site saying neither one was particularly breathtaking. Given the two tours you could sign up for: the nine to five or the noon to nine, he recommended passing up the evening tour and going for the earlier one. He also told us you have a choice between a group tour and an individual tour. Cost between the two types of tours was significant but the costs for individual or group tours were the same for either Uxmal or Chichen Itza: the group tour was 525 pesos per person including lunch but not the entrance fee where as the individual tours were 2000 pesos for one to four people excluding lunch, gas, tolls and entrance fees. Because Uxmal had far less visitors, more free time, and a free lunch with the group tour it seemed the best option for starters. Then if we were still interested we'd pop for the individual tour to Chichen Itza. We could request an earlier departure for Chichen Itza with an individual tour to hopefully miss the higher traffic time and the cooler weather.

At its most fertile time approximately twenty-five thousand people lived in the area known as Uxmal. The Mayans as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans were a highly intelligent and sophisticated culture. Especially given their isolation in the midst of a very thick jungle. The land was rich for agriculture but limited in its sources of water. For their survival the Mayans created underground cisterns and a complex drinking water system of collected rainwater.
Architecturally Uxmal is a salient example of the Puuc style of architecture characterized by two horizontal bands. The bottom band being a very simple flat surface broken only by a series of doorways while the top band is highly decorative.
Uxmal itself is laid out not duplicating any geometric pattern but instead in a form relating to astronomical phenomena.
This is where the penis comes in especially as it becomes significant in the layout of Uxmal's sister city, Kabah. The phallus is instrumental in pointing out the days of the Mayan calendar as it whips its shadow through the arched portals along the top of the Palace. The portals when aligned with the sun help to establish the vernal and autumnal equinox.
The Mayan calendar is based on a nineteen month year with eighteen months each having twenty days and the one remaining month having a mere five days.
If you were Mayan and luck enough to be born in this five day month you got to be put on the list of potential human sacrifices, celebrity status I'd be willing to relinquish. At Kabah only the base of the penis is still in place although the head remains about fifty yards away lying circumcised on the ground in some sort of Mexican modesty. I'm thinking the natives don't want to scare away the conservative Christians by placing it where it belongs but leaving the mystery up to those astute enough to put two and two together.
The calendar dates held great significance for the Mayans. In addition to deciding if you were going to have a chance at old age or be sacrificed before you reached the age of nine, it also determined if you were going to be an eagle or a jaguar - good or evil.
Much of the architecture uses the eagle and jaguar imagery in its motifs and at Uxmal the Nunnery Quadrangle puts the eagles on one side and the jaguars on the other with what felt like a huge playing field between. For some unexpected reason if you ventured to the middle of the field and clapped your hands or spoke in  an announcer's voice the acoustics carried the sound to the far reaches of the quadrangle.
Another obstacle to old age, sorry ladies, was being a woman. The average life expectancy for Mayan men was around sixty while for women it was between twenty-five and thirty-eight. Because of the lack of any livestock women were forced to nurse their children until they were well past being toddlers. If you were giving birth to upwards of eight or ten children this put a real strain on your calcium. Childbirth was a quick route to no teeth, no breasts and then no life. It's also the reason you see reference to a king's second, third or fourth wife. They just didn't live as long. To this day the Mayans still worship the two female gods of fertility and suicide. Birth and death are considered destinies worth pursuing.
The most magnificent piece of architecture at Uxmal is the Pyramid of the Magician. It is the most photographed of all the archeological artifacts at the site.
I didn't see anyone try to climb the Magician's Pyramid but the Great Pyramid was another matter. A tip here: the best way to go either up or down this steep staired incline without becoming a sacrificial lamb is on your butt hands spread wide for support.
As we were returning and getting ready to board the bus to Kabah our guide inquired whether any of us had seen an iguanas or rattle snakes. The site is apparently infested with both. We did see an iguana or two. Thankfully we met none of the serpentine variety their rattles at the ready.
Please don't look for corroboration with any of the material I may have attributed to fact here. My only source was our tour guide who kept pronouncing knowledge with the "k" intact. I tried to look this information up and couldn't find a back-up source to any of it.
Our final decision: We decided that after Uxmal there wasn't any real reason to subject ourselves to "Chicken Pizza". Nine hours with 6000 possible inebriates in the sweltering ninety-degree Mexican sun was an opportunity we felt we would decline

Rick doing his best Indiana Jones inpersonation