After some initial trepidation, we’ve settled in – thanks to our amazing host. I expect I’ll be referring to him that way quite a bit; perhaps I should ask him to create his own superhero name!
Day 1: on our first evening, we headed for Plaza Santa Lucia in search of dinner, but ended up bypassing its high-priced touristy restaurants for 2012 Espacios Mayas on Calle 62, where we enjoyed not only the food, but also the ambience. We learned about “cheladas”, Mexican beer coctails which are akin to a large margarita but made with fresh lemon juice and beer instead of lime and tequila – complete with salted rim. I’m not sure it will become a favourite, but I can see the attraction to replenishing salt and liquid in this hot climate. The other option was a michelada – basically a Bloody Mary with beer in place of the vodka.
Day 2: time to get some groceries. This was our first daylight exploration of the neighbourhood, which is a bustling place. Streets are all set up for one-way traffic, which seems to move very fast relative to walking on the narrow sidewalks. The sidewalks themselves are “interesting”, if interesting means uneven, cracked, and occasionally completely non-existent, replaced by tamped down earth not quite covering the “buried” water pipes. It’s not a place for fancy shoes!
Our nearest big grocery store is a chain called Soriana. It has a wide selection of grocery items, and I realized quite quickly that my goal of cooking like a Mexican is going to be 100% aided by what is available to buy. As in Canada, beef is expensive while chicken and pork are reasonable. There are more kinds of beans and spicy salsas than I’ve ever seen, but no sign of international foods like the Indian sauces and ingredients so ubiquitous in Canada.
The most interesting part of the shopping experience, for me, was the bakery section. Fresh baked goods are piled in big bins, but there are no plastic bags. Instead, you pick up a round tray and a pair of tongs at the counter, and pile everything you want onto the tray. The tray then goes to the bakery counter cashier, who bags and prices it so that you can proceed to the storefront cashier, where all your groceries are tallied and bagged, often by a senior citizen. Oh, and the bagger always gets tipped, 5 to 10 pesos (0.35-0.50 CAD).
Our second priority, after food, was getting Mexican SIM cards and phone plans. Our friends recommended TelCel, where we purchased 2 SIM cards plus a 30 day “Amigos Sin Limites” cell plan which gives us unlimited Canada/Us/Mexico calling and texts, plus 3 Gigs of data each, all for a whopping $35CAD. We’ll have to renew every 30 days at $15CAD each – the cheapest cell plans we’ve ever had.
Day 3: after a tough day of supervising the cleaners and being on the receiving end of all of Chris’ generosity, it was time to try out the new stove by frying a coil of Mexican chorizo and making a batch of spicy papas bravas (fried potatoes), and then after dinner heading out to experience some of the local entertainment. Every Thursday at 9 p.m. in Plaza Santa Lucia, just 2 blocks away, there is live music, poetry, and dancing. While we didn’t understand much of the poetry, the band, guitar trio, solo vocalist, and dancers were all enjoyable. Next time we’ll know to arrive early to snag a seat instead of having to stand for an hour.
Day 4: after a bit more grocery shopping (each trip being only for what we can carry home comfortably), and making grilled cheese sandwiches (with manchego cheese) on the new stove’s griddle, we spent the siesta time of day just relaxing in the courtyard. It’s lovely being inside and outside simultaneously.
Dinner was homemade chili con carne, using fresh white onion, plum tomatoes, green bell pepper, Mexican spiced black beans, charro beans, paprika, chiles, and a couple of dashes of Gary brand Diablito Habanero sauce – and accompanied by totopos (tortilla chips) and beer.
It was gently raining into our kitchen’s courtyard, but we were dry in the kitchen, just enjoying the romantic light shed by the ornate lanterns.
Tonight’s entertainment was again just a few short blocks away: a light show on the side of one of the many beautiful churches here in Merida Centro. The show was called Videomapping Piedras Sagradas, which translates to “videomapping sacred stones”, and was presented on the façade of the San Ildefonso Cathedral, which is also known as the Mérida Cathedral. It was the very first cathedral to be finished on the mainland of the Americas and the only mainland cathedral to be built entirely in the 16th century (begun 1562, completed 1598).
We arrived early enough to get seats and watch the set-up of the videomapping, which was really interesting. Twelve different projections of the cathedral itself had to be lined up exactly to the physical architecture of the cathedral in order to allow the final show to use those 12 as one huge connected image. The light show told the story of the cathedral, beginning with the unspoiled flora and fauna of the Yucatan (gorgeous hummingbirds, flowers, and butterflies flying and growing on the cathedral walls). Next came a series of images acknowledging that the cathedral was built on the site of Mayan ruins, using Mayan building stones, followed by images of the arrival of the Spanish via ship, the cathedral being built, and ending again with flowers.
After the light show, we took a walk through the adjacent Plaza Grande/Plaza Principal de Mérida to check pit the Christmas lights and huge nativity scene featuring the 3 Kings from the east: one with an Arabian horse, one with a camel, and the third with an elephant.
The Plaza is surrounded by interesting buildings, including the Palacio Municipal (city hall). We’ll have to go back in daylight.
Day 5: totally lazy. THIS is what staying in one place for 5 months after 11 months of non-stop travel is all about: a slight cool breeze circulating through our courtyards, video-chatting with our grandsons in British Columbia, drinking coffee, reading, peroxiding our itchy mosquito bites (I see a trip to the pharmacia for Benadryl spray or eucalyptus oil roll-on in our near future), and listening to guitar music on Spotify.
We’ve quickly realized that the best times of day to be outside are before 11 a.m. and after 6 p.m. Tonight’s walk took us to the Remate de Paseo de Montejo, 4 longish blocks away at Calle 47, for an 8 p.m. event called “Noche Mexicana”. A “remate” usually means an auction/final sale, but can also mean an architectural or decorative element that is put at the top or at the end of a thing. In this case, the Remate de Paseo de Montejo is one end of Montejo Boulevard. Paseo de Montejo
The show was eclectic, but fun – basically a revue featuring acts mostly from Mérida, but occasionally from other parts of the Yucatan or even other Mexican states. Given that it’s December, the first portion of the show was Christmas themed and aimed at children: a musical Grinch tale that somehow involved Rudolph, Santa, a wooden horse and Mexican sombrero, and Mickey and Minnie Mouse. The second act was a wonderful young singer in traditional dress. The final portion of the revue was performances by the students of Open Dance Merida dance academy, performing jazz ballet numbers that told the story of animals important to Mayan/pre-Hispanic Yucatan: the jaguar, the hummingbird, and the deer.
The Remate itself was decked out in Christmas lights.
On our walk home we noted again the marked difference between the well-kept plazas and parks, and the sometimes squalid-looking streets. We’ve learned since staying here that Mérida has the third oldest historic centre in the Americas ! (Mexico City and Havana, Cuba are #1 and #2) Sadly, the colonial homes lining the city streets here are in various states of disrepair and renovation. The townhouse in which we’re living is part of a minor renaissance for “Centro” as more and more people like our landlord are moving into the old buildings and reviving their former glory. Chris told us that the townhouse right next to his has just been bought by a Swiss couple planning to turn it into a historical musical instrument museum. Maybe once more and more homes are renovated, the city council will tackle the sidewalks (although maybe not if what we hear about crazily low property taxes is true).
Day 6: it’s symphony day!!
Day 7: surprise, it’s back to the grocery store, but this time with a detour through the absolutely massive Mercado Lucas de Galvez, a market where you can buy absolutely everything – IF you can speak Spanish. All I managed to get was a bag of spice rub for meat. Not too piquante – that much I could specify at least. The grocery store is much easier to navigate, although somehow I always manage to start out in the wrong cashier’s lineup (Rapido, for 6 items or less) and having to switch to a much longer line.
Tonight we headed to the Plaza Principal de Mérida (Plaza Grande) and the area in front of the Palacio Municipal (city hall) for “Vaqueria Yucateca”, advertised as a celebration of the town festivals dating back to the 18th century, presented by the Mérida City Council. A vaqueria is actually a dairy farm, so we weren’t sure what to expect. What we got was an hour of Yucatan folk dances by a wonderful young group of dancers.
This form of dance is similar to Irish dancing, in that the upper body is held erect while the fancy footwork is executed. In fact, the dancers’ posture is so perfect that they are able to dance and spin with trays of bottles and glasses filled with liquid balanced on their heads – and no, there’s nothing special about those metal drink trays. The young man in the photo below was able to spin so fast that water actually flew out of the tops of the glasses!
Day 8: bowling! Our friends Theresa and Kent, who are spending their third winter in Mérida, belong to a social 10-pin bowling group of expats who meet once a week. While it was a very small turnout this week (more folks will likely arrive after Christmas) it was still fun, although I came in last – by a mile.
We took the opportunity of being in the modern northern part of Mérida to check out the huge shopping mall, and pick up a roasting pan at Walmart. It may be hard to believe, given that we’ve been in so many countries without a car of our own, but tonight was our very first experience taking an Uber. I have to say it was quite enjoyable, and our young driver with his very limited English was more than happy to try having a basic conversation with me in clear, slow Spanish after I told him I was planning to start language lessons this week.
Day 9: La Calle, escuela de español. At an event earlier in the week Ted and I met Jane, a Brit/Canadian from Montreal, who told me about the Spanish lessons she was taking in Mérida. Her Spanish was already quite good, so her particular classes would not have worked for me, but she happened to mention another language school that might be suitable, and it is only steps from our front door. So… on Monday I emailed them, on Tuesday I completed what I could of their written test, and this afternoon I went in for an oral Spanish language assessment. My previous Spanish experience is limited to 10 total hours of classes back in 2000 before travelling to Cuba for a 2-week vacation.
It was no surprise to hear that I need to be in the most beginner of beginner classes.
Small format classes (2-6 students) are not particularly cheap, but certainly reasonable: $200MXN/$14CAD per hour, with a minimum required commitment of 4 weeks at 4 hours/week. That’s effectively $3200MXN/$220CAD per month. I’m hoping that if I persevere for 4 months I’ll be able to hold rudimentary conversations; in that case I’ll consider it money well spent. If, on the other hand, month 1 isn’t giving me the results that I expect, there’s no further obligation.
We’re quickly discovering that the trade off for having opted to forego modern surroundings is having lots of resources and a very vibrant cultural community virtually at our doorstep (plus a farmacia where I got a tube of antihistamine gel to try to quell the mosquito bite itch).
Yesterday a new attraction opened in Mérida: the Christmas Floral Path, described as featuring famous Christmas characters made from over 30,000 plants. As is the case with so many of the special events in the city, this one also takes place here in the historic centre area: in La Mejorada Park, 3 blocks from where we’re living. Sadly, the display was underwhelming, but the evening stroll to get there was lovely nonetheless.
Day 10: routines established. It seems that we’ve settled into what may be our winter routine: the cooler mornings alternately spent doing the few chores left to us (laundry in small loads that can be hung on racks to dry) or picking up fresh bread and a few groceries; hot afternoons spent reading (mostly on our ipads) or in Spanish classes (just me); breezy cool evenings after dinner walking to one of the plazas to take in whatever entertainment is on offer.
The only thing we’re really missing is some effective daily outdoor exercise. We’d become very used to being able to take long, fairly brisk, walks every day – even in big cities. Toronto, Vancouver, Berlin, Vienna, Trieste and Greenwich all have large grassy urban parks in their city centres, sometimes in the form of free public gardens around historic buildings. There are none here, and the dreadful state of sidewalks throughout the city precludes walking fast; you simply have to be constantly vigilant for the hazards underfoot. We’re (occasionally) reaching our minimum 7500 step per day goal, but not nearly every day.
Sadly, we may just have to eat less.