Episode 376 – Festivities, Food, Fashion, Fire, and New Friends

“White Christmas” is definitely not a concept familiar to Mérida, except as a seasonal song performed for expats. A sunny, hot, green Christmas suits us just fine though. We don’t miss cold and snow one single bit.

But… we both love Christmas music, so have been very pleased at all the options here. Of course, there are lights and decorations too, but amid all the bright colours of the buildings and the always brightly lit streets and courtyards of the downtown they’re less noticeable than they would be back in Canada.

December 13: Altabrisa Mall, where we’ve bowled on the past couple of Tuesdays, was decorated for Christmas. Despite the fact that the mall is full of lovely stores, without a single empty storefront, it was eerily quiet compared to Canadian malls. It seems that only “rich” Mexicans, and expats, shop here; “normal” folks frequent the independent street-front stores. It was no challenge at all getting photos with the giant Christmas bears or the huge Christmas tree. There was no Santa in sight, but then again he is also a much more North American concept. Here the big seasonal gift-giving is not related to Santa, but to the Feast of the Three Kings (Dia de Reyes) on January 6th.


December 15th: We walked to Teatro Armando Manzanero (Teatro Mérida) “¡Hoy Es Navidad!” (It’s Christmas!) to see a one-night-only musical revue with 6 vocalists, a troupe of wonderful Rockette-like dancers, and a terrific band. Now that we’ve discovered this gem of a theatre, we’ve booked return visits in February and March for more music!


December 16: Cuarteto Yucatan presents “Noche de Paz: Obras de la Temporada Navideña” (Silent Night: Works of the Christmas season) at Iglesia de Monjas (the church of the nuns). This string quartet is another of our landlord’s ensembles – which occasionally practices in the music room on the ground floor where we live. It’s magic!

The Iglesia de Monjas was built at the end of the 16th century, making it the second oldest church in Yucatan. It began as a convent to house a congregation of Conceptionist nuns, and opened for public worship in 1633 as “Our Lady of Consolation” chapel. There’s lots of historical data about its foundation at Walls of faith: Church of Nuns, building of architectural and historical interest (you may need to use Google’s “translate” option to read it). Its altar was dismantled in 1863 and most of the property rezoned for housing and shops, but the building remains, used for events like tonight’s concert, and still occasionally as a place of worship. The Mayab Cultural Centre is currently located in what were the cloisters.

Inside the church for the (absolutely wonderful) concert.

It is considered Gothic in style, but is vastly different from the imposing Gothic churches we’ve seen in Europe. The high arched ceiling of the sanctuary certainly shows Gothic styling, but otherwise the building is much more like the Spanish missions we’ve seen in the southern United States, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.

In the courtyard after the performance, for wine, Christmas cookies, and conversation with the other concert-goers.

Legend has it that there were tunnels and passages that allowed the nuns to go from the convent to the cathedral (San Ildefonso, about 350m/0.2mi away) and other churches in the centre of the city, but apparently no archeological evidence exists.


December 17: And now for something completely different: POKTAPOK.

Kevin and Lucia, a couple we met at the string quartet concert, told us that we absolutely HAD to goto a Saturday evening poktapok game in front of the Mérida Cathedral, and to go early to get good seats. Lucia is a Merida native, so we appreciated the recommendation to do something we hadn’t seen advertised. I have to say: wow!!

Poktapok is an ancient Mayan ball game, historically also played in Guatemala and Honduras, played on a long narrow court – which would have been many times bigger than the demonstration court set up for the game we attended. It seemed absolutely appropriate that the court was set up on front of San Ildefonso Cathedral, which the Spaniards built using Mayan stones. The games had both religious and competitive significance, blessed by a priest and dedicated to the gods, much like ancient Greek olympiads. The game is a team sport played with a 9 pound solid rubber ball (originally made from a specific kind of rubber tree), with the aim being to put the ball through a vertical hoop. The ball can only be touched with the right-hand side of the body: chest, hips, right arm, right leg and foot, and not with hands at all. It’s quite exciting to watch, especially when players slide on the ground in order to try to get a rolling ball back in the air.

The demonstration game began with a ritual “smudging” of the court and stands with an incense that smelled like eucalyptus, a Mayan blessing of the spectators (represented by 6 males and 6 females chosen from the stands), chanting, drumming, and blowing of conch shell “horns”.

Then the “tattooed” players took the court and were blessed with smoke and fire.

The game began, accompanied by rhythmic drums and chanting, and continued until one team scored 2 hoops. Apparently ancient games on the massive playing fields could take as long as two weeks!

The “goal”.
“Our” team. The young man second from the left in the top photo was an absolute star, scoring both the team’s goals and demonstrating some incredible ground-level sliding manoeuvres. The long blue sash on the player on the right indicates that he is the team’s “captain”.

After a short break, there were 2 further competitions: an individual shoot-out (again using only the right side of the body and no hands) and a FIREBALL team competition!! In this second game, ONLY hands could be used, and the flaming sisal-wrapped ball had to be passed at least 4 times before being shot, and could not touch the ground. It was incredibly exciting!

The players’ hands were black with soot after the game.

December 18: a rare dinner “out”. Wherever we have kitchen facilities, I mostly cook, except for arrival day when we’re both generally tired, cranky, and hungry and just want someone else to feed us. When we do eat out, it’s often just snacks like ice cream – or today’s fresh churros with caramel sauce from one of the dozens of food trucks that surround the Plaza Grande on Sundays.

Tonight, though, we had plans to have dinner with a Canadian couple who follow our blog. I was pretty excited about it; I’m always a bit envious of the people in the Facebook Senior Nomads group who meet random fellow nomads for coffee or a meal. Unfortunately, one of the couple has been fighting a nasty cough ever since arriving for their single week in Mérida. We – and the entire city – are still very cautious around any kind of illness, so our planned dinner for 4 at Lou’s on Calle 55 became dinner for just Ted and me.

It was a lovely dinner, although decidedly not Mexican food (our dinner guests had requested Italian). The evening was enhanced by wonderful wait staff, most especially Luis who patiently persevered through my halting Spanish and even taught me some useful words. The young man bussing tables turned out to be from Port Moody BC, on a 5-month family sojourn with his parents and 2 younger siblings. We were interested to hear that he’s doing his Canadian schooling on-line, and amused to hear that his mom “volunteered” him for the restaurant job during a family dinner there. “Mikey” was very personable, and certainly seemed to be enjoying his time in Mérida.

L to R: Mexican lager; a Verano (“summer”) made with gin, basil, cucumber, and lime; Gambas con ajo – garlicky delicious prawns.

L to R: eggplant lasagna; the kitchen, with a very appropriate sign above reading “blessed are those that hunger and thirst”; meat lasagna

L to R: cappuccino; cinnamon apple compote in a crumble crust, served with vanilla ice ream and blue shortbread crumbs; Michu, the resident cat (who will be your best friend forever if you feed him – at the owner’s suggestion – your shrimp tails)

Oh, there was some retail therapy today too: I bought “una falda blanca”, an ankle-length (on me, it probably sweeps the floor on most Mexican ladies) white lace and cotton gathered skirt. Tomorrow I’m planning to return to a different shop across from the Plaza Grande to buy a matching blouse with long loose bell-shaped sleeves. I hadn’t thought to bring long sleeves to Mérida, where even the evening temperatures don’t go below 22°C/70°F, but we’re learning that long cotton sleeves are no hotter than bare arms, and provide at least minimal protection from the ubiquitous mosquitoes.

Detail from the 4” (10cm) wide cinch-belt for my white blusa y faldo, satin-stitched in beautiful bright colours.

December 19: “es muy dificil” (it’s very hard). After only four 2-hour Spanish lessons, apparently our entire group (some of whom have been doing two hours every day instead of just twice a week like me) are no longer considered beginners, and were moved into the “intermediate”room with a teacher who speaks NO ENGLISH AT ALL, and who was somehow surprised at all the things we didn’t know. My first task was to try to describe the poktapok game we’d attended on the weekend – in Spanish – to my classmates who had no idea what the game was. I’m pretty sure that after my attempts at describing it they still don’t.

This is definitely “immersion” learning. I’m sure I’ll still learn useful things this way, but I really miss my German teacher (and friend) Hildegard’s situational teaching style mixed with grammatical theory.


December 21. We managed to meet our fellow Canadian nomads for drinks tonight at Café Chuc, and were impressed with how fast they move, changing locations every couple of weeks. Just thinking about all those travel days is enough to make me break out in hives; they’re certainly making the most of their first year of being “homeless”.

Our very first Senior Nomads “meetup”, at Café Chuc, with Ron and Doris from Saskatchewan!

We enjoyed a couple of hours chatting over drinks before our new friends headed off to experience one of Mérida’s French restaurants, and then Ted and I stayed put for a selection of salbutes (puffed deep-fried Yucatan corn tortillas) topped with roasted turkey marinated in achiote and served with avocado and sweated red onion; salbutes layered with hardboiled eggs, lettuce and salsa; and tacos with pork skin, peppers and onions. All the combinations were tasty, as were the 20 peso ($1.40 CAD) Mexican beers!

6 comments

  1. I’m with you on those who live nomadically but move every week or two. When we were doing it, we never stayed anywhere less than three weeks and much preferred four or five weeks.

    Hope y’all have a great Christmas and best wishes for 2023!

    Liked by 1 person

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