First Impressions of Merida

Overview of Merida:

Taxi drivers are the first impression of a city. Merida’s came in the form of a short, brown, smiling taxi driver who beamed at us the moment we got out of the car, and said, “Bienvendos a Mérida”. I think he genuinely meant it. It was the beginning of many such encounters. People on the street stopping as you searched a map to ask you if you needed help. Always, they would say welcome to my beautiful city. Sometimes, they would reach out and shake your hand. Often they would give you a history lesson on whatever cathedral was nearby. I don’t mean, just a three or four sentence overview. They could be tour guides. Maybe they moonlight on their days off. All I know. No one wanted anything in return except a promise to explore and learn more about the place.

The Mayan Creation
The Mayan Creation

For you see, Mérida is a city full of ambassadors who are proud of their history and their culture. After love of family, I think it is the next most important thing about who they are.

Merida is flat. Palm trees peek out from interior courtyards of homes and parks abound. Although a thirty-minute drive from the Gulf, there is a tropical breeze in the air. I’ve heard it is a steam bath in April and May. This is February, one of the best times to come to Mérida. Today, it is even a little chilly and I’m glad I brought a thin little jacket. (I will end up wearing that jacket every day of the trip.)

The Paseo de Montejo, a wide boulevard with grand houses and government buildings reminds me of places in Europe. The architecture is a mixture of Italian, French and Spanish. The best way to see the Paseo is to walk, beginning at Calle 47.  Walk up to the Monumento a la Bandero on one side of the street, then cross and walk back to the beginning.  You can also explore on a horse-drawn carriage (calesa).  The Turibus has a stop at the Museum of Anthropoogy at the corner of Calle 43.

Sundays are the best time to explore the older part of the city when streets are closed to cars.  It’s a great time for bike riding.  Notice all the families out together.

In the Historical Center of town, again you find more of a European influence in the buildings with many in need of a new coat of paint. I’ve never been to Havana, but sometimes a street reminds me of pictures I have seen of it (but with new cars), then one turn later and you find yourself on a new street that has been totally refurbished to its former glory, often by retired Americans and Canadians. The colors are varying degrees of pastels. The streets are made by Mr. Clean:  they are spotless.  The sidewalks are Mexican: rutted, crumbling in places and definitely warrant caution. I wince at the missing coverings for utilities that lie below the concrete sidewalks. One step in them, well, that would be a vacation-killer.

Merida SquarePlazas and Parks:  There is always something going on in the evenings at most of the plazas.  Older people dancing, bands playing, dancing groups performing, festivals, and my favorite, people watching.  In Plaza Grande, there is free Wi-Fi.  DSCF3317Dean and I shared the white-painted, love seats that are scattered around the park.  Enchanting.  The main thing:  pick a park and park.  Listen to a local soloist or a band.  Step back in time.  It’s only a wee bit but it is enough to recharge your 21st Century soul.

Some cathedrals are really grand but we found this sweet one that didn’t have an ounce of gold in it.  DSCF3319



My Encounter with an Afilador – Knife Sharpening Vendor

It could have been a missed opportunity. I could have ignored the melodic flute sounds coming from the street as I sat in our upper floor patio of our Merida hotel. From a long ago memory, I thought of one of my earlier visits to Mexico as a kid. I woke up one morning to the sound of a man urgently calling out: “Tor-TEEE-yahs” and pushing a ramshackle cart full of fresh, hot tortillas. Maids carrying woven baskets came out in the early morning light and filled their baskets. To this day, I still think those tortillas were some of the best I ever tasted in Colonia Florida in Mexico City.

So these flute sounds, which had the timing of a car alarm, beaconed me to peer down below to see what was going on.   Below I saw a straight-backed, thin man pushing a similar version of a handmade wooden cart as the guy selling tortillas, except this one had a bar-height stool attached to it. I wondered. What the heck is he selling? Afilador

Only one way to find out. I grabbed my camera and raced down the stairs out onto the street. The man, who I now could see was quite elderly was talking to a woman in her doorway. She handed him something and he returned to his cart, pulled out his chair and sat in front of his jalopy cart. It was then that I approached him, and told him I was a tourist and I was curious. What was he doing? He showed me the knives and scissors he had been asked to sharpen. His cart had a belt and foot pedal, much like an old sewing machine and he began to sharpen first knives, then scissors. I asked if I could photograph him which pleased him. (Thank God. The last thing I wanted to do was offend him.) Between a combination of scissors and knifes, we talked. His name was Eduardo and he was 77 years old. He had at one time belonged to a special security force that protected “Politicos”. [I should add here that often in Mexico, politicos (or politicians) are also called ratóns (rats).] He told me how he used to stay in five-star hotels when he had to travel with dignitaries, but now he was poor and had nothing to show for it. I asked about family, and he said he never saw them anymore. Tears filled his eyes. He told me, “God is my family now”, and looked up at the sky.  Whatever pain he had felt earlier, melted away from his face.

I knew there was a story there. A story about his family, but one that I needed to leave alone. I watched him finish his work and could tell he was proud of what he did. I remembered a pair of manicure scissors in our room and asked if I could get them and have them sharpened. He said, “Por supuesto”, Of course.

When I returned with them, he had finished his transaction with the woman in the neighborhood. He was sitting on his little stool waiting for me. He told me the cost would be 25 cents. I told him the last time I had a knife sharpened professionally, it cost me ten dollars. His face crumbled in horror, and he said, “Eso es muy caro.” That is too expensive. I wanted to say: Hell, yeah.

Afilador.2I watched him gingerly sharpen my tiny scissors. His concentration so keen as he worked the pedals turning the grinding belt. His bare feet were swimming in a pair of backless shoes. He was skinny. Too skinny. I tried to imagine what his life was like. I tried to imagine where he might go at the end of the day. I hoped it wasn’t too far. His frail body needed every once of energy possible.Afilador-shoe2

I paid him way more than 25 cents. I now wish I had paid him even more. His face will join the others I have met along the way in Mexico: the less fortunate that cross our paths in travel. There was one ancient-looking woman in downtown Mexico City I will never forget even though it has been decades. It isn’t the image of her face that I recall as much as her extended, whithered, brown and leathery hands that I see in my mind’s eye. I saw her, hesitated but continued down the busy city street. After walking two blocks, I simply couldn’t shake her. I retraced my steps, but it was too late. She was gone.

Her face with a thousand winkles haunts me but it is always her hands that the memory ultimately rests upon. I can almost look at my age-spotted, arthritic and bony hands and see hers.  But, don’t get me wrong.  Not for one moment have my hands suffered like the poor and labor-burdened people of the world.  No.  I should keep my mouth shut.

Eduardo, wherever you are:   It was such a pleasure meeting you. You proud, sweet man. I am so glad I ran down those stairs to meet you.

The Day Before Merida


Tomorrow, we head for Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatan in Mexico. Located in the northwestern part of Yucatan, it is about a four-hour drive to Cancun, which we will not be visiting.   We choose Mérida because it is a good base for exploring Mayan ruins, cenotes (underground rivers), feasting on Yucatecan cuisine (perhaps my favorite of all the regions in Mexico), celebrating Carnival this week – which means plenty of people watching — exploring the town and looking for a cool hammock for the backyard. (Mérida is known for their hammocks.)

Mérida has a population of almost a million, so this isn’t a sleepy little village. The people are largely indigenous persons: about 60% are Maya ethnicity. The city was founded in 1542 by two Spanish dudes, both with the first name of Francisco. Because the city was built on the site of a Mayan city, Merida is considered the oldest continually-occupied city in the Americas.

I’ve just told you in a nutshell what the tour books initially say about Mérida. I went there back in the 70’s and I only remember that I felt freakishly tall among these short people. White clothing seemed popular, probably because it was summer and hotter than hell. (Air conditioning was as common as Eskimos in Florida.) Skillfully sown embroidery in every color imaginable adorned almost everything I saw. That’s about all I remember beyond a plaza with trees and lots of couples, families, and friends enjoying a time-out in the middle of the day.

Other than a few shows I have seen about Merida on House Hunters International, which showed star-struck Americans buying 100 year old houses that had been abandoned after the “Sisal Crash” (I’ll get to that in another posting), and actually believing their architect when he said construction would only be three to four months, (when it ended up being nine to twelve), I am going back to Merida pretty much like a first-time visitor.

Probably one of the reasons we choose Mérida for a vacation really can be attributed to a book we both read a couple of years ago: “1491 – New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann.   Now, this is a thick book, and I could have easily come up with a million excuses not to read it, like I could break a fingernail reading it, but when you can’t go to sleep at night because your husband keeps reading excerpts from a book he is reading, which are so fascinating that after a while you can’t wait to get your hands on it. (Hey, the Mayans were out there, man. They understood the concept of zero, something the Egyptians didn’t know. Yet they didn’t have the wheel, which would have been nice since they didn’t have any beasts of burden like horses and mules.) Anyway, I got the book, and by the time I finished it, Dean had found the sequel, “1493 Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” by the same author. Now this book was even more mind blowing: What was life in the New World like AFTER the Old World spent one year in it.

I’ve just glanced at the clock. I still have a few more things to pack. Bringing my dancing shoes, because it turns out the people of Mérida love music and dancing. (My husband, Dean will wince when he reads about the dancing. I don’t think he owns dancing shoes, just like I know he doesn’t watch “dancing shows”.) Anyway, every night there is something going on in one or more of the plazas. I’ve got dinner reservations at a couple of restaurants, hired a tour guide for Chichen Itza, and have a list of suggested restaurants and things to do from someone who used to live in Merida. However, I’m hoping for the unexpected (and unresearched) to become what will become the most memorable on this trip to Mérida in 2016.