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Paradise Lost

Farewell happy fields,
Where joy forever dwells: hail, horrors!

-John Milton, writing on a Monday, I’ll wager

So we’re leaving Mérida .

We were over two hours early for our flight. We got evicted from our rental house early in the day, and security screening at the aeropuerto took less time than we had any right to expect. We took an Uber ride to the airport. We’d never Ubered before we went to Mexico, but it’s very much a way of life in Mérida. Today’s driver was a cute young woman, a first for us. We had been carted to and fro by a cadre of amiable men of various sizes and shapes and ages for the rest of the week. She listened to peppy Mexican pop the whole ride and was generally jovial and made us even less enthusiastic about leaving, if that’s even possible.

We visited parts of the airport we missed the first time, because we’re walking Spanish out of the country this go-round, instead of invading it. We walked through long, spacious and airy corridors, all floored in that nifty tawny stone they have all over the place. If it were tile, it would be a dreary wasteland of patterned patternless ground to cover, but each tile is lightly veined in endless variation, with the occasional substantial splotch of renegade stone mixed in by an unseen artist a million years ago or so.

There are multiple checkpoints, each manned by formidable musclebound military police with automatic weapons, looking like they haven’t heard a good joke since high school. Just kidding. Why does everybody think Mexico is Mad Max with tacos? Only the little strip of dirt on either side of the US border is a disaster zone filled with enough violence to compete with east Saint Louis. In Mérida, each waypoint is staffed with diminutive beauty pageant runners-up in smart sportscoats and too much makeup for their young years. They smile and apologize for their poor English skills using a vocabulary unknown to valedictorians in American schools. They just ask you if you have any food or foolishness in your luggage, and then send you off along the line with cheerful smiles.

Eventually you reach the final boss, who smiles broadly if you attempt any Spanish, no matter how feeble the assault on his language. If you’re expecting an interrogation, you’ll be disappointed, unless being asked if you had a nice visit counts as one. He dutifully stamps your passport and sends you on your way into the concourse.

The concourse had many strange things appurtenant to it. You could actually buy one of those ridiculous pool-cover-sized sombreros covered with sequins and other assorted tacky flair. It’s exactly the kind of hat no one in the country will be caught dead in. They all wear what my wife and I started calling “hippy-hoppy” trilbys, if they wear any headgear at all. Panama hats are definitely a thing here. They’re actually called jipijapa hats, but it comes out sounding like hippy-hoppy to our gringo ears. Selling Panama hats to tourists is the second most common job in Yucatan, I think, after making them, I guess. I suffered through so many sales pitches for them I could recite one from memory. I’ll spare you a full recitation. You can only hear that a hat was made by hand by children in a subterranean cavern so many times before you interrupt the sales pitch and offer to drive to the cave and get those kids out of there. This stops the sales pitch dead, generally. They are nice hats, though, but too rico for my blood.

There are cake shops in the mall. My wife puzzled over them. Who wants to buy a giant cake in an airport? It was mysterious enough as a concept, but when we saw a woman buy a whole stack of them, and watched the clerk sorta duct tape them together into a tower of confectionary Pisa, we went from curiosity to downright disbelief. You’re bringing a pillar of cake onto a plane as a carryon? Some people are built different than us, is all we could figure.

Then we encountered, finally, real fear. Terror, almost. We’d been warned by everyone about Mexico, and they were finally right. We ran smack dab into a fire-breathing, wirehaired goblin, his huge mouth agape, his raiment in tatters, beckoning us to our doom. Yup, Guy Fieri has a restaurant in a Mexican airport.

We had two hours to kill, so we ate in there. You have to sort of unhinge your jaw like a snake to get your mouth around the hamburgers. They come wrapped in a paper winding sheet, which was somehow appropriate, because you’ll need a stent for dessert if you finish the thing. They served us lemonade in a crystal skull, for obscure reasons. I’ve never sipped non-alcoholic drinks from the craniums of my enemies, or even my friends. I have to admit that sticking your thumb in an eye socket makes it easier to grip a beverage.

By arriving so early, the correct gate was still in use for another flight on another airline. “Viva” is another airline around there. We were on AeroMexico coming and going. It was very buttoned-down and efficient. I gather Viva is a cut rate carrier for shorter hops and vacations to places sensible people avoid, and similar destinations. I don’t really trust an airline with any form of enthusiasm in their name, like Viva! I don’t care for any excitement added to my air travel. I generally eschew any wild and wacky hijinks at 20,000 feet. I prefer airlines named like serial killers. I think they should even have middle names, like Wayne, to further banish any attempts at conviviality.

All the remaining steps in our travel home were steps down. The further we got, the more annoying and unpleasant things became. Atlanta was a zoo. The AeroMexico flight arrived early, which is a blessing when you have another plane to catch. Of course Atlanta didnt have a gate for it. We taxied to and fro all over the gigantic tarmac carpet, while Atlanta tried to make up its mind about about where to park our plane. By the time we got off, we had to scurry to make it to the next flight. The airport security personnel were literally crazy. At one point, we were made to go through one of those interminable switchback mazes designed to handle overflow crowds, even though there were none, just to approach the machine that x-rays your luggage. The whole time, a female linebacker shouted over and over, “We hain’t got no trays! Put everything in your pockets in yo luggage. We hain’t got no trays!” At the next checkpoint, two security personnel were breakdancing and rapping, while a third waved us past wordlessly.

The flight was a misery, but we expected that. The weather had turned cold. We got off the plane in the middle of the night in Portland, a dreary, desolate place. It was raining in sheets, and we couldn’t find our way out of the parking area. We came up against one barricaded exit after another, and finally discovered a self-serve stanchion that would process our parking ticket. It cost more to park for a week at that airport than a meal for two at the most expensive restaurant in Mérida .

The machine intoned: PLEASE inSERT your PARking ticket, over and over, in a crazy Teletubbies singsong. Of course the machine didn’t work. We tried several times, without any luck, until either a homeless man or a parking attendant without portfolio (they’re stamped at the same mill in Portland I gather) walked up to our window and told us our ticket must be dirty. He wiped it on his greasy camouflaged poncho, and failed to get it to work, with extra steps this time. He suggested we back up, and head to the only open attendant booth in the airport.

The woman in the booth was about two feet from us, but somehow didn’t see us as the minutes passed by on the clock. She was very busy, because no machine anywhere on the premises was working, and she was yelling instructions to travelers unseen into a microphone, and pressing various buttons with vigor. I was starting to get peevish about being ignored for so long. I’m sure her spider sense started tingling, and she opened the window between us, and my anger immediately morphed into pity. Her booth was wired to lord knows how many self-checkouts, and she could hear every one say, PLEASE inSERT your PARking ticket, over and over, all at the same time. I wanted to rescue her more than a hippy hoppy child laborer in a cave, I tell you what.

We drove home in silence, exhausted, hours in the car added to our traveling penance. When we got to the stop sign about a thousand yards from our house, the timing belt in our old Volvo let go, the valves stayed open, and the pistons slammed up into them and destroyed the engine.

Our car is perhaps more sensitive than us, but we understood how it felt. It would rather commit suicide than go back home.

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Discovery Beats All

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done —
But then, with a grin, he replied
He’s never been one to say it couldn’t be done —
Leastways, not until he has tried.
So he buckled right in, with a bit of a grin;
By golly, he got right down to it.
He tackled The Thing That Couldn’t Be Done!
And goddammit but he couldn’t do it.

— Anonymous

The human race loves to travel far afield from familiar things. It yearns for discovery. Sometimes the voyage is as simple as doing a crossword puzzle, just to see what words might appear on a grid. Other times you’re suffering from scurvy and sunstroke while Vasco da Gama tries to figure out which way is east, and asks you for the hundredth time if you smell curry, too. The urge for discovery is the same, only the circumstances and the stakes change. It’s the same reason you watch Nicholas Cage movies on Tubi. It’s very, very doubtful, but there’s an off-chance that something interesting might be there, so you go exploring.

And so it went with our little thought experiment: What’s My Line. I offered two photos I took on the Paseo de Montejo in Mérida, Mexico, and challenged my readers to guess what function the building served, just by looking at it. The urge for discovery ran deep in the comments, and many tried to divine the building’s use. But a riddle that goes unsolved after many attempts just gets annoying, so I’ll spill the beans.

Here are the pictures again:

Of course the stakes were very high. A Don Rickles cookie was in play if anyone could guess what was going on inside this building. Many intrepid souls stabbed it with their steely knives, but they just couldn’t kill the beast. The guesses ranged from amusing to understandable, but not very close to the mark. There’s a reason for that, and I’ll explain it, along with the answer.

You see, I knew no one would guess the answer, because I didn’t have any idea what was going on when I passed by the building for reals, more than once. I marveled at it, but I didn’t understand it. In true explorer fashion, when I couldn’t puzzle it out, I went in and asked. And got an education, so to speak.

The reason that I couldn’t figure it out is the same reason nobody else could figure it out. Our American minds have been marinating in our own cultural formaldehyde that we can’t see things properly any more, or even imagine things anymore. We’re boiled frogs.

That building is a school. An elementary school, I think, my Spanish skills are poor, and the different levels of schooling in Mexico is obscure to me. That’s it, a children’s school, nothing more. When I asked, I figured I’d misheard, and asked again. Is it a museum of an old elementary school? Nope. A fancy private school? Nope. Just an elementary school. I stood inside that open vestibule you see there, and inside was a beautiful greensward, lined with a colonnade with classrooms doors in a row. That flowering bush tumbling over the wall on the exterior rambled all around inside, too.

I didn’t recognize it for what it was for the same reason my readers didn’t. It didn’t look like a medium security prison, like it would in the United States.

Wonderful World. Beautiful People. The Caffe del Centro


La Sicilia restaurant in Merida, Mexico. They have a regular dining room, but how can you resist the siren song of an open air courtyard next to the ice machine and the bathrooms? We couldn’t.

We ate at that Italian restaurant in Merida I mentioned. We brought friends. It was pretty good, all in all. It was amusing that the menu and the walls were plastered with the bona fides of the restaurateurs: Maps of New Jersey. They used to live in New Jersey. Case closed, they thought.

Everyone working there was Mexican, of course. Because of television, people everywhere seem to think that the cuisine in the Bada Bing Club must be the finest Italian food in the world. I’ve eaten Italian food in New York and New Jersey many times, and not once thought what I was eating was nearly as good as Federal Hill in Providence, or the old North End, or even Los Angeles, never mind eating in Florence. Amusingly, the greatest Italian restaurant I ever ate in was in a strip mall in Connecticut, and everyone in the kitchen was Vietnamese. It’s a funny old world.

So we staggered out into the night, freighted with Garden State/Yucatecan saltimbocca and British gin, the four of us an instant gang instead of a pair of wanderers. We shimmied down the slender sidewalk in the evening twilight towards the Caffe del Centro. Andy the tout saw us coming from a half a football field away, and started his convivial bombing run early, calling out to us to try the ice cream that could make a stone Madonna weep tears of joy.

Andy stopped short when we hove into visual acuity range. It struck him, I think, that these strange norteamericanos weren’t fibbing like everybody else. We had returned. His smile went from incandescent to supernova, and he called out our names like an old friend, which I guess he was. We’d known him for almost eight hours now, making him our best friend in the city center.

A good tout knows his lane, and doesn’t stray. Andy started his spiel again to entice us to try the ice cream. I held up my hand in mock anger, and explained that if he went inside and got reinforcements and weapons, they still couldn’t keep us out of that place without taking casualties. Queremos helado! Queremos helado aqui! Queremos helado ahora!

You’ll notice that Caffe del Centro isn’t Spanish. Caffe is Italian for cafe in English. The owner turned out to be a Sicilian. His name was Fabio, because of course his name would be Fabio. Everyone who worked for Fabio in the restaurant was Cuban. I’d been trying desperately to expunge all the Italian I knew from the back pages of my mind, longing to replace it with Spanish that would do me more good in Merida. I still suffered the occasional Romance language pratfall and burped out Io when I meant yo, and adesso when I wanted ahora. Now the tables were turned, and I wanted to resurrect the fallen language, and had a deuce of a time. I did manage to annoy Fabio in two languages that he spoke perfectly, and finished him off by annoying him in English when I ran out of everything else. Io non parlo l’italiano molto bene, amici, mah io capisco l’italiano un po. Mi moglie vorree gelato!

I told Fabio I was part Sicilian, and told him my grandparents’ name, which made him cross himself, I think. The beautiful women behind the counter plied us with little samples of their flavors, and then we climbed the stairsteps of their portion size. They offered a shot glass and we shook our heads. Cone? Nope. Little dish? Keep going. I bought tubs of everything for everyone and we sat in their charming forecourt and had a hell of a time eating their wonderful ice cream, or helado, or gelato, depending on which language you were butchering at the time.

I asked the young lady server what the biggest propina (tip) she’d ever gotten. She told me, and I slapped 50% more on top of it and made her day, I hope. She desperately tried to tell me something, but my Spanish engine blew a gasket and left me stranded in the breakdown lane of the communication highway. She may have told me I was a handsome, wonderful person. She might have told me I was standing on her foot. I know which way I’d bet.

Then Fabio gave me the biggest compliment I’ve ever received, except this one time when my wife told me I wasn’t a half-bad husband. Fabio called out from the back of the store: Man of la Mancia! “Mancia” means tip in Italian. It was the second time in my life I was called that. My wife and our friends went to Florence, Italy, once, over 25 years ago, the only other vacation my wife and I have ever taken. My buddy Eddie and I tipped everyone like mad because before the Euro, the lira was like Monopoly money compared to dollars and it was easy to be generous. I remember Emmanuel, the concierge at the hotel, telling us they called us Men of la Mancia everywhere we went, because it was so rare.

We laughed, joked with the staff, and posed them all for pictures like family, and generally annoyed the other customers, who sat and wondered what sort of imbeciles could have that much fun eating ice cream.

It’s easy to explain, really. Wonderful world. Beautiful people. The Caffe del Centro!

How To Win Friends and Influence People: The Tout

Look hard enough, and I’m in this picture. Proves I’m not a vampire, anyway.

I’ve read lots of books about political economy. Lots. They mostly resemble the parable of the blind men and the elephant. It is dangerous to ladle conclusions cooked up in a little financial saucepan over economies baked in industrial ovens. Certain things might be true, but hardly universal. Other things work great right up until they don’t work at all.

One of the most common economic tropes is creative destruction. While the destruction of livelihoods is painful, whatever gets erased is supposed to be superseded by something much better, or so they say. You lose your job making buggy whips, but get a new one assembling Fords.

What if your job goes away, and there’s nothing to replace it? Someone, somewhere is making more dough, but you’re out in the cold. This is not a theoretical condition for me. I’ve worked in a lot of industries that simply disappeared, one after another. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been standing in a bucket while yanking up on the handle my whole life. Most of America has made-up jobs, or no jobs at all at this point, due to creative destruction which isn’t very creative outside of a Goldman Sachs office.

In Mexico, I noticed a lot of people working who wouldn’t be in the United States. I have no idea of the reason why so many people in Mérida work at jobs that would be automated in the US. In Mexico, they send three guys to do the job of one man with lots of equipment in the states. The other two guys currently stay home and play X-box until they can collect Social Security here in the US, so don’t be quick to judge what “progress” means. Certain things are traditional in Mexico, I think, and stick hard. One of them is The Tout.

Many, if not most businesses in downtown Mérida have a tout out front. There’s a guy, mostly, or occasionally a gal, gladhanding passersby and importuning them to go inside and try the wares. None were hardcore car salesmen types. It was like they were having a city-wide contest to see who could project the most engaging personality. Andy the Cuban won, hands down.

We were walking down the sidewalk near our house one afternoon. This portion of the street was lined with shops and restaurants and banks and so forth. We espied an Italian restaurant we’d heard of, and decided to go there later in the day. A couple of doors down, Andy was ranging around the pavement, shaking more hands than a mayoral candidate, and getting people to go inside a cafe and try a free sample of their helado — ice cream.

Andy was two barrels of monkeys with a smile and a handshake like a bishop’s blessing. He shifted seamlessly from rat-a-tat Spanish to halting English when he saw us coming. Being a foot taller and several Pantone decks lighter than everyone else is a dead giveaway in Mexico. I can’t imagine what a pasty beanpole like me must look like to guys like Andy, nut brown, husky, with a beaming round face, breathing air below my stratosphere. He must have thought he was trying to sell ice cream to Eskimos, as the saying goes. Hell, to a Cuban, someone from Maine is an Eskimo.

Andy shook my hand like a locomotive getting going, complimented my wife’s looks just the right amount, and expounded on the wonders of ice cream simultaneously. I assured him that we had heard of ice cream, and had been meaning to try it for many years, but had never gotten around to it. I had trouble following along completely, because his English trailed his enthusiasm in the race for my attention, with my Spanish a distant third. I gathered that the helado inside would transform our lives like a trip to Lourdes. We’d be taller and better looking after eating it, which was a pretty high bar to clear according to Andy, what with us being rated as movies stars or something already, but this ice cream was up to the task.

I made a mistake. I told the truth. It’s the one thing a tout is unprepared to hear. They never hear the truth, so they don’t recognize it. A tout’s pitch is a form of pleasant persuasion, and the average person can’t deal with pleasant persuasion. You make up a lie to get out of the OODA loop of marketing. I’m allergic to ice cream. My mother died in a freak popsicle accident and I’ve never gotten over it. I have ten minutes to live if I don’t find an antidote to the snake bite I just received at the art museum. That sort of unanswerable lie gets you off the hook and walking again. But I told Andy that we were going to eat in the Italian restaurant two doors down that evening, and we would return afterwards.

He didn’t believe us, of course. He kept going, looking in the dark for the correct key to the lock of our attention. I was preparing to cut the cord and wander off, when a very attractive young lady came out of the shop and spoke something like seven words in the wrong language to my wife, and that settled the matter. We were inside testing little spoonfuls of helado in about seven seconds. Female humans get shit done where ice cream is involved.

We promised again to return, and they didn’t believe us. But we did.

[To be continued. Thanks for reading and commenting and recommending Sippican Cottage to your interfriends. It’s greatly appreciated]

Escenas de las Calles de Mérida

Well, nothing left to do but wander down the street and gawp at things. This is just a random selection of houses near the centro of Mérida. I like the ones left to weather the decades as much as the spanking painted ones. Patination is wholly underrated in the United States. That’s why most everything is plastic or powerwashed. But Mérida is a kind of paradise for me. Everything is real.

Roll up doors like that one are pretty rare, thankfully. Iron gates or wooden doors are the common thing.
That’s about the only really big car I saw in town. It looked out of place on the slender streets.
There is almost no way to tell what’s behind the facades. A house 8 feet wide might be 150-feet deep. Love the Juliet balcony, and Romeo’s little pickup truck.
This terra cotta color is all the rage.
Under this sun, yellows really stretch out and get some exercise.
This house is really big, and quite elaborate inside. That tank you see up on the roof is the water supply. Some places have cisterns in the ground, but most have a tank on the roof like that one.
Peach and red and 75 years of weather.
Looks like a John Ford western set.
There’s that golden yellow again. Mexico designates certain districts in a few towns as Barrios Mágicos, and sometimes everything gets painted golden yellow like that. It reminds me of the Centennial United States painting entire neighborhoods of New England homes white with green shutters.
There’s plenty of Art Deco stuff in Merida.
Poiple is common, too.
And pank.
The walls of a lot of the buildings are literally mortared rubble, and the rustications are applied as surface treatment.
Powder blue looks great under the unrelenting sunshine.

[Thanks for reading and commenting and buying my book and hitting my tip jar. It is greatly apppreciated]

What’s My Line?

OK, all you fine folks. It’s time for a contest.

We walked by this building in Mérida, Mexico a couple of times. I thought it might be in the running for the most charming structure on Earth, but maybe that’s just me. We mulled it over as we walked, trying to guess what function it might have served. It’s not readily apparent. It started to bug me. I must know! So the third time we passed by, I asked, and was very surprised to find out the answer.

Now it’s your turn. Everyone gets three guesses. What is this building for? What would a person do there? The only clues are what you see in the two pictures.

In the great tradition of Don Rickles, the winner gets a cookie.

The Prettiest Little Church in Christendom

[We’re still traipsing around Mérida, Mexico and gawking at everything like toddlers. Hope you (still) like it]

The big square in Mérida has a lot of names. The Zocalo is the one we settled on. The big cathedral is there, fronting one side of the spacious park. It’s Franciscan, massive, and somewhat austere, inside and out. Just one city block away is the park everyone calls Hidalgo Park. The park’s official name changes every so often, bending to political winds, but Mérida is not a transient city, and when people call something a certain something, it sticks. A hidalgo is a form of aristocrat, although it’s the lowest form there is. There was some sort of club or gang or bowling team of hidalgos back in the day, and they used to hang around the park, and people started calling it after them.

It’s a nice park, with a statue of someone or other on a pedestal in the middle, and lots of shade and benches. Lively, day and night. But just one block further, there’s a wonder. Another church, pretty big, but no match for the scale of the nearby cathedral. The Iglesia de Jesus.

US Americans are unaccustomed to churches named after the big fella himself. Churches are named after saints and whatnot. But this church was built by the Jesuits, and they’ve got the original CEO of Catholic, Inc. embedded right in their name. Why not their church, too?

The exterior is the usual masonry affair. It looks bland, but it isn’t. When you get up close to it, just looking at the patterns of the stones that comprise the very thick walls is endlessly intriguing. A building built bit by bit. The larger stones came from a demolished Mayan temple of some sort (sorry, Kukulkan), and are fascinating in their own right. There are lots of fossils embedded in the stones. Seashells and little fishie skeletons. It’s marvelous.

We didn’t tarry in the Hidalgo Park, because there’s another park right on the other side of this church we couldn’t stay out of, day or night, because it’s the pleasantest place on the planet, day or night. I’ll bore you with that some other time. Let’s go in the church and impress your rods and cones and at least one hemisphere of your noggin first.

That would make a pretty sweet church, but that’s just a chapel. Churches like these are laid out in a cruciform shape. Bang a right off the nave (the long, straight section leading to the main altar), and you’ll sometimes find chapels like this one in one of the transepts.

You might think to yourself, “Now we’re getting somewhere. Now that’s an altar.” Sorry, nope. Another chapel in the other transept. Let’s see what’s in the apse:

Yeah, you can always tell the main altar. They got a stone corral to keep the priests in and the parishioners from cutting the line at communion. The last time I was in a Catholic church in the US, I thought it was a converted car dealership. I forget the name of it, but I think it was named after the patron saint of vinyl siding. There’s none of that in Mérida.

Looking back towards the front door, there’s a choir loft and a nicely decorated barrel vault over the nave.

And you just have to have a dome where the nave and the apse and the transepts meet, or the Franciscans will snicker at you. No one snickers at Jesuits and gets away with it.

Here’s a video of someone passing through the church. It’s easier to get a feel for the place when you’re moving through it. And yes, there really are mendicants with their hands out in front of the church, and yes, you damn well better believe I pressed some pesos into their hands. Unlike the US, there really was something wrong with them that didn’t involve a liquor license.

The streets really bustle outside. The city posts people on the corner who speak multiple languages, to help lost souls like ourselves. We met Mario twice out front there. He was as pleasant as all get-out. He was a college professor, and went to the gym more often than I do. Or you do. Or a football team does. His English was perfect, and he pointed us back to our digs in Barrio Santiago, because we’d been wandering and were disoriented.

I had no way of knowing if he was correct about the directions, but when Mario points, you go that way. The Mexican Techno Viking isn’t just listened to. He’s obeyed.

[To be continued. Thanks for reading and commenting and buying a book and contributing to the tip jar. It keeps this place going.]

Mayan My Own Business

[New around here? We’re Mainers temporarily lost in the Yucatan. I promise we’ll go home and shovel more snow eventually]

There are distinct strains of Mesoamericans wandering around Mejico. Everyone in the US sorta lumps them all together, but they’re quite different. In the Yucatan, pretty much everyone is mestizo, i.e., mixed with Europeans, but the original gene pool is Mayan. I’m not capable of sorting out the Toltecs and the Aztecs and the Mixtecs, and the Zapotecs or even the Tlaxcaltecs, who had a (stone) ax to grind with the Aztecs, and helped Cortes conquer them.

The Maya civilization encompassed what is now the Yucatan peninsula, Guatemala, and Belize, plus parts of Honduras and El Salvador. I’d been in Guatemala before, and everyone in Mérida looked like long-lost brothers to them. The Mayas weren’t mud hut people, that’s for sure. They built stuff like this:

Click on the picture to visit the Wikiup and see a great big version of the picture.

That was nicknamed The Castle by the Spanish freebooters who showed up post-Columbus. Unlike your humble author, it’s in great shape for its age. It’s fun to compare it today with the way it looked in 1892 when they Indiana Jonesed it out in the jungle:

It’s in Chichen Itza, along with a lot of other interesting, monumental structures. It’s a day trip from Mérida. There’s a new train called the Tren Maya that runs from Cancun, too. I don’t know what gets into human beings that makes them stack block on block in a pyramid shape, but it gets in their heads all over the world. It’s always been a Minecraft world, just waiting for computers to be invented.

The Maya were a pretty fierce polity. I think you might have descended those stairs with fewer internal organs or heads than you climbed up there with. I don’t judge such behaviors. Queen Elizabeth I was still burning people at the stake around the same time. It took the Spanish hundreds of years to beat the Mayans. In comparison, the Aztecs folded their tents pretty quickly. Then again, they might have mistaken the Spanish for gods. And you can’t blame them for being cautious about frontin’ some conquistadors. You don’t want to FAFO with anybody who might be Mexican gods, from the look of them in the museums.

They had a set of gods to put the Greeks to shame for variety and ferocity. The Guatemalans call this gent Quetzalcoatl, and the Mayans call him Kukulcan, but whatever you want to name him, he’s mostly pictured getting up to hijinks like this:

Putting on my archaeological thinking cap, and using my prodigious powers of observation, I gather he was either a serpent god, or a tax collector. In any case, even when he’s pictured at rest, having already devoured everyone within arm’s length, he always looks like he hasn’t heard a good joke in years.

We went to the Museo Regional de Antropologia on the Paseo Montejo, a sort of Champs Elysee in Mérida. It was full of Mayan stuff, but I would have gone to see it if it was emptier than a politician’s promise. Look at this baroque pile, will ya:

The interior is downright staid compared to the exterior. I doubt it was like that back in the day. Museums want you to look at the stuff, not the walls, so they have a tendency to paint everything in a plain color scheme. Still majestic in there, though:

That’s our friend Abby from Mérida. She was a good person to take along on these excursions. When in doubt, she could talk to whoever was giving you fits in rat-a-tat Spanish. I was getting along better with Spanish by this time, and didn’t even have to call her over to save me when I got yelled at for leaning on an exhibit. I took my beating like a caballero.

Here’s the more or less patron saint of the place, even if his halo is a little dented.

Desire Charnay got permission from the Mexican government to wander around and find archaeological treasures, and he only pocketed some of them when no one was looking. He appears to always have his likeness taken while standing on a subway grate. Someday when I’m old I’m going to start combing all my hair straight up like that.

Here’s a few things from the exhibits:

I like the Yucatan, and their museums. All the gods on display are either laughing at you, making funny faces, wearing a funny hat, or sticking their tongues out at you. It’s like a shrine to being in the fourth grade.

[To be continued.Thanks for reading and commenting and buying my book and contributing to my tip jar. It keeps this place going]

Santiago Streetscenes

[If you’re new here, I went to Merida, Mexico and it’s more interesting than recounting how we shoveled snow for two days when we got back, so I’m sticking with it]

Across the street from our little house.

We were living in a barrio called Santiago. It’s not quite the center of town. A little south and west from the Zocalo, the big square where they flense the pesos from the tourists. Santiago is considered a nice neighborhood, but hardly the nicest in the city. There are some mansions in Mérida that defy description. Mérida is like New Bedford.

I know that last sentence makes you want to lay a hand on my forehead to gauge my fever, and to instruct me to lay down before I keel over. What I mean is that for a certain period of time, both were the center of the commercial world, and money flowed through their streets in rivers. And then it dried up as fast as it appeared. In New Bedford, and nearby Nantucket, it was whale oil that made the towns into some of the richest in the world. At least until Colonel Drake drilled a hole in the ground in Pennsyltucky and ruined it for everyone. In Mérida, it was henequen.

You think you don’t know what henequen is, but you do. Before Pier 1 did a swan dive into the deep end of the Chapter 7 pool, it was full of henequen. We USA-ers mostly call it sisal. It’s a plant that grows in evil-looking, thorny, spiny blades that can be crushed, shredded into fibers, and woven into very strong rope, and twine, and suchlike. Ships used to require a great deal of rope, and henequen was just the thing for it, especially during the late 19th century. During the Spanish American war, we got to monkeying around in the Philippines, and they stopped sending us rope made of hemp. Henequen plantations went from making their owners well-off to making them very, very, rich indeed when they, ahem, took up the slack.

Thirty-five years or so later, you couldn’t give the stuff away, and the Yucatan turned into a sort of ghost town. It reminds me a lot of western Maine, only here it was paper mills that went belly up instead of henequen plantations. Luckily for the Yucatan, you can also make booze out of henequen. That’s what agave is. First you make pulque, which is the equivalent of Thunderbird wine of the house of henequen. You can distill mezcal from the stuff, too. Tequila is a kind of mezcal, I think. I can’t remember because I drank a half-dozen tequilas once, in one sitting, about thirty years ago, and my mind is still a little fuzzy. Here in Maine, you can’t make anything worth drinking out of poplar pulp, so they switched to cooking meth in the trailer parks instead when the mills closed down.

So Mérida was nowhere, and they it went way, way up, and then way, way down, and now it’s on its way up again. Everyone loves that story. I think it’s usually called Cinderella. Anyway, here’s some more street scenes from a city that stayed put, and persevered, and got rewarded for hanging in there.

Yellow (amarillo) is popular in Merida.
There’s an interesting rhythm to the facades. Really varied, but coherent somehow.
Doorways that give Beacon Hill a run for its money.
Doorknobs that put Beacon Hill in the shade.
Lotsa churches (iglesias). All still busy with parishioners.
My wife’s favorite forecourt. In my little neighborhood growing up, we used to call that BVM on the halfshell. There are icons everywhere, and they’re not used as kitsch, either.

[To be continued. Thanks for reading and commenting and buying my book and contributing to my tip jar. It keeps this place going]

A Marvelous Mérida Maisonette

[If you’re just zooming in, I’ve been desolating the internet landscape with recollections of our recent trip to Mérida, Mexico for a week now]

There I go with the French again. It’s just not done in Yucatan. But no other word can describe our little rental house in Mérida as accurately as maisonette, or at least none with the amount of alliteration I require for my headlines. The only thing better than alliteration in a title is some succulent sentence sibilance, and we ain’t got any.

Pied-à-terre falls short of describing the housing stock in the Barrio Santiago where we were staying, although it’s close. Translated, it means “foot on the ground.” I think it does, anyway. French class was a very long time ago. Sorry. It refers to an apartment you keep empty but ready for occasional trips into the metrop. New York used to be full of them, for instance. A goodly portion of the city’s apartments were empty for most of the year. I think the internet killed the pied-à-terre concept dead. Everything that can produce a revenue stream, produces a revenue stream. A goodly portion of the Barrio Santiago neighborhood is for rent at any given time.

People think up new ways to refer to old things. “Grab an Uber” has replaced “calling a taxi” for a lot of people. “An AirBnB” has replaced any reference to a hotel room in many people’s lingo haversack as well. But modern euphemisms often mask underlying facts, many of the unfortunate variety. Ask a Millennial if they aspire to live in a tiny house. You betcha, that’s awesome! How about a single-wide? No way, that sucks!

We at the Cottage are not immune to such shifts in nomenclature. We did the Air BnB thing, only using their competitor, VSOP, TSOP, or VTOL, or whatever it’s called. And the last thing we would call our digs, but what it really is, is a time-share condo. It’s ever so much more flexible, and you don’t have to buy in forever, but the idea is the same, with social media thrown in.

In the city center of Merida, the houses are almost always attached. They show a variegated but unbroken wall of facades fronting the streets. Like this:

It’s very European to my eye, and medieval, with more than a dash of Classical Antiquity thrown in. Forget about judging these books by their covers. We discovered that you can’t really tell what’s going on inside any particular residence by looking at the front of it. It’s common for the houses to be only 10 or 12-feet wide, and 150 feet deep. There are interior courtyards, and pools, and gardens, and guest houses, and not a hint of any of it visible to passersby. There are literal palaces in this town that look as nondescript outside as that mustard-yellow job in the last photo.

Here is our little place. The hosts call it the Casa Gatita. The front (blue) is entirely covered with a steel louvered grate. Some form of wrought iron or steel gate is common, almost universal down there:

The man-door in it is open a skosh. The entire gate is a garage door, with an electric opener. You can park on the street, but they’re crowded and skinny. Lots of people have garages like this. Do you have a garage like this? I doubt it. This one is tiled:

It’s not really a garage. It’s more accurate to call it a gated forecourt, but whatever it is, it’s pretty nifty. The flooring is called pasta tiles. I believe the European version of this is called encaustic tile. They’re similarly durable and attractive and wonderful. [Jeez, the uploader has already pulled the video. Here’s a pretty similar process from a guy in Egypt]

Pasta tiles were popular around the turn of the twentieth century, when a lot of the houses in Mérida were built. Realtors point them out as especially desirable finishes in restored homes. They’re nearly indestructible, and amazingly vibrant and colorful. Carpets are basically unusable in Yucatan. It’s too hot and damp. So the patterns and colors you might get with a rug, they get with tile floors.

I’ve already told you that Mérida is quite safe. So what’s with the locking gates on the houses? The city seems to have the same vibe as the old Russian proverb, Doveryay, no proveryay. That means “trust, but verify.” In some ways it reminds me of many people in Maine. They’re very friendly, but they mind their own business for the most part. The gates perform that most useful function in decent environs: they signal to your friends that you’re not home.

In the second picture above, you can see a true Yucatan doorway. It’s really old, but restored nicely. It allows a series of different opening schemes to let in the desired amount of light, breezes, and street views, along with the amount of privacy you want on a door that faces a street. Here it is from the interior:

Louvers and frosted windows.
Screens for the bugs, who never showed up.
Wide open to move a couch or something.

The denizens of Merida lived here for a long time without air conditioning. It routinely gets well over 100-degrees, but they knew how to manage the temps pretty well. The houses are massive masonry affairs. Everything is either concrete, block, or parged rubble stone. The walls are really thick, and absorb a lot of heat during the day and meter it back in at night. The ceilings are very high, and airy, with lots of fans to get a draft going. And even though the houses are mostly only one or two-rooms wide, they get air to pass right through them if they can. Here’s the vestibule just inside the door:

Straight on through to the kitchen and living area.

There’s a big bedroom upstairs, with a full bath, and a half bath under the stairs in the foyer. Out the back, there’s this:

That’s open to the sky, with an indoor/outdoor area in the foreground. There’s a laundry room behind the mural that gives the house its name. Splash pools like this are popular in Mérida. The mural is not just a put-on. We sat outside in the evening, and watched cats commuting over the rooftops and parapet walls, pausing only to give us dirty looks on the way by.

Everything was included in the price of the rental, but you’ll have to bring your own girl with you if you visit the joint. I took the one in the picture home with me.

[To be continued. Thanks for reading and commenting and buying my book and hitting the tip jar. It is greatly appreciated]

Tag: the other Mexico

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