Contrast: The state of being strikingly different from something else.

I took part in two strikingly contrasting cultures over the weekend. Fire pit is a term for cooking food over wood fires. Fire Bird is a classical ballet performance.

Last weekend my friend Alondra invited me to Carnival in Teabo, her pueblo 2 hours from Merida. It was my second visit with the Ick family, Gaspar, Elsie, 7 siblings, dozens of cousins, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and aunts and uncles, many of whom dropped by over the weekend. Coming from my pueblo, Berkeley California, I couldn’t help but notice that no one hugged or kissed when they met, both deeply entrenched Berkeley customs. In fact they barely acknowledged one another. I don’t know if this is true for all Maya families but it’s true for the Ick Clan. But I’m a hugger so I hugged the Icks and their guests and they hugged me back, albeit halfheartedly. I was just showing them my pueblo’s custom.

Elsie started the cooking fires at 6:30 Saturday morning. She got the logs about 8 feet long and 6 inches around burning under 3 grills and grates. They have a gas stove but don’t use it much because propane is expensive, but they were out of gas anyway. Fires hot, she cooked breakfast, eggs from their hens, scrambled with bacon, and the ubiquitous stack of tortillas.  As soon as the breakfast dishes were washed Elsie stoked the fires to cook Comida.

Pozole was on the menu for Comida and Elsie simmered hers over a fire for 6 hours in an aluminum, industrial sized, lidded pot 3 feet in diameter and 2 feet tall. She roasted a heap of tomatoes, onions, and garlic on a grill, put them in a blender, and strained the mixture through a sieve. She diluted the thick tomato sauce with water and this became the base for pozole, which means hominy. Elsie’s was rojo pozole but there are also verde and blanco versions. Various dried chilis, seasonings, and hominy, huge kernels of white corn were added, and after simmering for several hours, generous amounts of pork were added and cooked until the meat fell off the bone.

She served up bowls of pozole with unsalted crispy tortilla chips, which were crunched and added to the pozole like we add saltines to soup at home. Delicious doesn’t adequately describe the flavors that flooded my taste buds. The hominy lent a tender, slightly chewy texture not unlike garbanzo beans, and the pork satisfied in a way that, well, only pork can. I passed on the pig’s feet.

Much of Ick family life seems centered around food and eating. While far from wealthy the Icks have sufficient money to eat well. Gaspar drives a produce truck round trip to Cancun twice a week and Elsie has a weekend restaurant that does a brisk business. So many relatives dropped by to eat I wondered if Elsie routinely feeds less fortunate relatives out of a sense of family duty. She also left a bowl of pozole on the stonewall for her neighbor.

Alondra and I wore pirate costumes for Carnival. Friday night small children as young as 5, dressed in homemade, primary colored costumes. The tiny boys and girls danced and shook their small bodies con gusto. Precious came to mind. Everyone in the standing crowd was related to someone performing.

Unlike my last sleepless weekend in Teabo I figured out how to navigate a hamaca and actually slept well considering the plethora of mosquitoes buzzing around this particular weekend. I spent most of Saturday sitting on the patio doing my best imitation of a fly on the wall.

I took a bus to Merida early Sunday morning because I had a ticket to the 1:00 matinee of Fire Bird, performed by the Bolshoi ballet. The bus trip took 3 hours instead of the usual 2, making dozens of stops along the way to Merida. It was already hot in the morning and the open bus windows didn’t provide much relief.

I got to my apartment with time to spare, shaved, showered, and put on my Bolshoi Ballet clothes, shoes, a clean shirt and a pair of pants that weren’t jeans. I’d been to the Peon Contreras Teatro for the symphony so I knew the layout when I purchased my ticket last month. I sat 7th row center right, perfect because I was close enough to watch the performers act as well as dance.

They performed selections from several ballets. A friend mentioned this was the Bolshoi’s 4th team so to speak and having seen the 1st team in San Francisco I did notice some difference. But I’m not discounting the marvelous performances.

2,000 years of Maya history is obvious in the faces of the Yucatan people. In contrast the Russian ballet dancers have pale, chiseled faces. The Russian’s lithe bodies contrasted with Maya bodies, which can most politely be described as leaning toward chubby.

The Carnival crowd was 100% Maya. When I looked around I wondered if non-white folks at home feel the contrast in the manner I did, one different color pebble on a beach of pebbles all the same color. No one seemed to notice me. Perhaps the Maya are simply polite but I appreciated not being reminded of the contrast.

I can’t imagine a more colorful, culturally rich, contrasting weekend.

 

I snuck in a photo of a stray dog I practically cried for. Skinny, hopeless. Tried to feed him but he rejected the food. Tiny, probably less than 10 pounds. Ok, a tearjerker.

Beginning to plan a trip to Chiapas, a mountain community at the tip of the Yucatan.

Quality time is an expression single parents frequently use to describe the time spent with children not living full-time with them. It’s particularly significant for moms and dads whose children live with an ex-wife or husband most of the time. It’s not allowing visitations without some amount of emotional and intellectual contact. It’s the opposite of putting a child in front of a television instead of engaging them.

Quality time has a different meaning for me as a single man in Merida. I use the word single to connote alone as opposed to available. Angelo and Lisa Caiazzo, friends from New York just left after a weeklong visit. We did everything I could think of to enjoy Merida’s myriad wonders, including the amable, kind, calor, warm people of the Yucatan. Tasty dinners, walks through neighborhoods, tequila, and the many free concerts in town were sufficient entertainment. They were here for Merida’s 476th Anniversary marked with 2-weeks of concerts, dancing, and other celebrations.

They left yesterday and the first thing I noticed when I woke-up today was that my abandonment issue had been triggered. This is old stuff dating back to boyhood that rears its ugly head from time to time. Since I recognize it I’m able to work through it fairly rapidly. I talked with Nancy about it this morning.

I took a 2-hour walk after Nancy and I spoke that helped me move through the emptiness I was feeling. I stopped at the end of my walk for a gordita, which is a thick corn tortilla with a pocket filled with whatever you like, kind of a Mexican pita. Mine was carnitas with green salsa. Lots of people of all ages at a restaurant called Gordita located on a busy esquina, corner, of Calle 60.

Now that I’m home my thoughts are about what I miss most being so far from Berkeley. While I am a stranger in a strange land called Merida I feel less so after 3-months here. While I miss everyone reading this blog what I miss most is the touch, smell, and companionship of a woman, Nancy. I watch couples walking hand-in-hand, laughing and sharing moments and I yearn for a woman’s company.

The absence of a woman, my woman, is the single most difficult aspect of being away for the past 3-months. The loneliness I feel at times can’t be easily assuaged even with friends I’ve made in Merida. I yearn for the feeling of being enveloped by a woman’s physical and emotional embrace. I want to drink wine and cook dinner with her. I want to smoke a little ganja and fall into bed with her. I want to watch Netflix and talk about the film afterward. I want to hike in Tilden Park on a sunny, cool morning with Monty and her and feel the magic when I return in mid-April.

I’m certain I’ll repeat my part-time expat experience next year, more likely for 4-5 months instead of 6. I say this knowing I’ll have to re-experience the occasional loneliness again but it’s just too rich not to repeat.

My friend Alondra, whose parents hosted me at their Maya home in Teabo for a weekend invited me to an annual 3-day Fair in Teabo that’s held each February. There are rides, food, live music, dancing, and more. The first night everyone wears costumes. Men dress as women and vice versa. Alondra insists I dress like a woman, but since I left all of my transvestite costumes in Berkeley her mother will provide one. Without exception the Maya are the warmest, kindest people I’ve ever met so I think the Fair and the weekend will be special. I’ll be treated like family and given a hamaca, hammock to sleep in.

Meeting the Ick family remains the highlight of my journey thus far. Merida is foreign but the Maya are even more foreign. Their language and customs are ancient and don’t resemble life anywhere else in Mexico.

Their every day lives center around family. Tios y tias, aunts and uncles, primos y primas, cousins, nietos y nietas, grandchildren, hermanos y hermanas, brothers and sisters, and abuelos y abuelas, grandparents make up a constant flow of traffic in and out of the Ick’s simple home and no one would ever think of calling ahead. Visitors just show up and help cook, eat, take showers, and catch up with each other, and the teenagers watch Telenovas, soap operas, on their small television.

Nancy and I visited the Anthropological Museo, filled with ancient Maya pottery that I’ll endeavor to copy in a ceramics studio when I return to Berkeley. I did this last year after we visited Monte Alban, a ruin outside of Oaxaca. There was a photo exhibit of a family in Teabo in the Museo that has produced the most magnificent embroidery work for generations. I took photos of the name of the family and showed it to Alondra. They’re her boyfriend’s father, grandmother, and sister. Small world indeed. I asked if I could meet them when I’m in Teabo because I’d like to write an article about them. Her reply was, por su puesto, of course.

That’s it for now. The photos are Maya pottery and my friends Angelo and Lisa.

 

 

 

My Associate arrived 2 weeks ago from a chillier clime. Initially her enthusiasm wilted with the unrelenting tropical sun and unfamiliar humidity. As I raced along fueled by my morning 4 espressos and my eagerness to show her all of Merida’s charms she dragged damply along for the ride.

Weather notwithstanding we walked the streets when the midday heat abated, ate countless cooling helados, some truly outstanding dinners including a Pasta Amatriciana with a runny poached egg on top of a mountain of spaghetti, visited the Museum of Anthropology,  (a little gem), and the Macay Contemporary Art Museum, downing limonada after limonada along the way. A special thrill for me was introducing my Associate to my freshly minted Merida friends.

We spent a night in the only guest house on the Yaxtopoil Hacienda, an old henequen ranch that supplied the raw materials for rope before synthetics. My Associate couldn’t pry me from the hamaca on the guest house’s front porch, where we were served a traditional Maya dinner that featured Sopa de Lima, a soup loaded with shredded turkey to which we added salsa fresca and fresh squeezed limes that my Associate relished despite the heat. The rest of the dinner was 3 tamales wrapped in various leaves.

Two days later we ventured to Izamal, one of Mexico’s 5 Magic Cities. The entire town is painted Amarillo, yellow, in honor of the corn gods. We clopped around town in a carriage pulled by Pepe who wore a dashing straw hat. Unfortunately my Associate had a run in with another god, Montezuma, who took his revenge for as long as it took to get her to an Emergency Clinic where a doctor who looked to be in his teens cured her.

Since my Associate began her regimen of antibiotics we’ve been leisurely threading our way through the crowded streets of Merida.

Pewee’s Great Adventure continues.

 

Yucatan Symphonica

I was delighted to attend my third, and sadly last performance of the Yucatan Symphonica in El Centro, Merida this past Sunday afternoon. Each performance features a guest soloist. The first was an American flautist, a woman who wowed the audience. I sat fourth row center. Seems there are always a few good, single tickets available on the day of the concerts. The orchestra dresses in gunmetal grey, guayabas for men and gunmetal grey dresses for women. I’m certainly not an expert regarding classical music but the beauty of each performance thrilled me to my core.

The second performance featured a French horn soloist from Spain. I sat second row center for this performance, which was every bit as sweet as the first.

The third performance was the grand finale for the season and featured the full orchestra as well as a huge choral group of men and women. When they sang Halleluiah I couldn’t hold back the tears, which flowed freely and unabashedly. This last performance ran much longer than the previous two and was an extravaganza. The audience went wild with prolonged, enthusiastic applause and the conductor, a tall, flaco, skinny, young man brought everyone to standing and played several encore pieces. I sat in the first balcony for this performance and enjoyed the view from higher up.

The symphony starts up again in January and I’ll surely attend as many performances as possible. Tickets are $6-7 and the audience is Mexican with a smattering of expats. Feels strange to fall in love with the symphony at 72, but I suppose better late than never is an applicable bromide. The opera also begins in Enero, January, and while I know little about opera I’ll likely attend anyway. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the costumes and music.

Gifts That Will Keep On Giving

The ceramics class I took was terrific and if felt great to get my hands in clay again. My best piece blew up in the kiln but I did have 4 good pieces, an ornate coffee cup, a small serving dish, a piece to hold tortilla stacks in place, and a spoon rest. Okay, the tortilla weight was actually a top for a terrific jar I made that blew up in the kiln. I decided to give these pieces to my friend Alondra’s family in Teabo for hosting me for a weekend and inviting me for a return visit. I included a kilo of Chiapas coffee since I know they like coffee but don’t buy it because it’s expensive. Their only eating utensils are soupspoons and shallow plastic bowls but I admit I worried some about how my gifts would be received. My style is more primitive than refined, which is the result of poor small motor skills.

Alondra told me they went absolutely bananas for the ceramic gifts and in fact her madre, mother, called all of their many relatives in Teabo to come see them. Who knew? I feel a deeper connection with these warm, hospitable Maya now and will go back in January for another fin de semana, weekend, visit.

Nancy

Nancy’s coming to visit this evening for 2 weeks, and as I sit afuera, outside, in a wonderful café I frequent on the magnificent boulevard, Paseo Montejo, eating huevos rancheros and drinking espresso I’m imagining how her visit might play out. We haven’t seen each other in nearly 2 months, although we speak daily. I haven’t forgotten we’re in a relationship but since it’s not a daily, in-person situation I have forgotten how it feels to hold Nancy and kiss her.

I’ve sorely missed sleeping with Nancy, especially spooning and hugging all night long. That I only moved into Nancy’s bungalow 6 weeks before leaving for Merida is on my mind, especially since the last few days we were together were sketchy. I think we were both anxious about living together and also my leaving so soon for 6 months. Actually I had to change my ticket home since it exceeded the 180 day limit by 3 days, which sounds like no big deal but in fact is a very big deal with the Mexican authorities. So I’m returning to Berkeley April 15th.

I’m having my apartment cleaned while I’m eating breakfast so it’s as sparkling as possible for Nancy. I bought a shower mat because the shower gets slippery, and a bath mat too. I stocked the kitchen with fruit, the peppermint tea she likes, milk for her coffee, and a large bottle of amazingly suave, smooth, tequila. I made reservations at the best restaurant in town for tomorrow evening. It’s Oaxacan food, which both Nancy and I love. Nancy asked me to leave a few stones unturned so we could explore things together. Considering how large Merida is that wasn’t difficult.

Two couples, friends I’ve made here asked if Nancy could bring some Indian spices. Okay, actually I volunteered Nancy for this task but she was gracious, especially after I mentioned it would endear me to them. One couple is from NY and lives in Merida 7-8 months a year. Rob is a retired restaurateur, who served in the Peace Corp in Africa way back when, and his wife, Manju, is from India and they met when she was studying in New York 40 years ago.  I went to a wonderful dinner party at their home and met Frank Wicks, an 80-year old playwright who I’ve become friends with. Dinner featured Indian food and Manju is an incredible cook. It was when she lamented she couldn’t buy Indian spices in Merida that I volunteered Nancy’s services since Berkeley has several Indian groceries.

The other couple has lived around the world. Jack, the esposo, husband, is a retired diplomat. I met Jack’s esposa, wife, Catherine in ceramics class and they have had me for dinner parties twice. Their last posting was in India and Catherine also lamented the lack of Indian spices available here. This caused me to ask Nancy to make a second trip to the Berkeley groceries and while she wasn’t as warm about it as my first request she complied.

We’ll meet both couples for dinner because I want Nancy to give both couples their spice gifts, and they’re very interesting people I think Nancy will enjoy.

That’s it for today. I’ll write about Nancy’s visit in a few weeks when she leaves. We’re spending one night at a huge Hacienda, about 20 kilometers from Merida. We’ll be the only guests in what was once an enormous working ranch. A local Maya couple will cook dinner and breakfast for us. Sounds wonderfully romantic and I think Nancy will be thrilled.

I bought her a pair of earrings at a craft fair last weekend as a welcome to Merida gift. She always likes the earrings I buy for her. Even though I take Uber daily here I have to take a taxi to the airport because Uber is only semi-legal here and none of the conductores, drivers will risk driving to the airport.

Wishing everyone a happy, joyous, and healthy New Year.

Parque Santa Lucia is in the heart of El Centro. It’s located on la esquina, corner, of Calle 60 and Calle 55. Besides several good restaurants the Parque hosts many free evening events like concerts, dancing, and folklorico. It’s my favorite place to sit and catch up with friends at home on the phone.

Lunch or Dinner

Whenever I can’t decide where to eat I go to Chaya Maya, Merida’s favorite restaurant always packed with locals. I had Vaporecitos for lunch, turkey marinated in achiote and sour oranges, rolled into thin tamales, cooked in a banana leaf and served with delicious sauce. Took half my lunch llevar, to go. Love this place. Women creating tortillas fresh for each order.

Walking through the Plaza Grande on Calle 60 today and noticed a beautiful baby in her mother’s arms. With the sun on her face she looked angelic. Her mother said it was ok to take the 2-month old baby’s photo. Her name is Ebony.

Wave Studio

Had my first recording session at Wave Studio. The young man who runs the studio for his father in their home couldn’t have been nicer. Dr. Roberto Paredes is my host and he practices medicine at a local hospital when he’s not running the studio.  Merida has 3 medical schools.

Roberto had fresh Chiapas coffee waiting for me and had set up the studio exactly as I asked. I worked for 3 hours and needed a break. I asked where I might find a restaurant for lunch and he said he’d drive me to the shopping mall and pick me up when I was ready to return. What hospitality.

The enclosed, air-conditioned shopping center could have been anywhere in the US.

After lunch I worked for another hour and then quit for the day. 4 hours is all I can handle in one sitting. I’m renting the space Tuesday and Thursday from 9:00-3:00. This studio is good quality and the work I’m producing meets Audible’s rigorous standards.

It feels good to work. I need some amount of structure. Lately I’m thinking about being useful but it has a different meaning than when I was younger. I’m coming to grips with the notion that my life is ebbing, albeit slowly enough, and trying to maximize the quality of life left. My biggest fear isn’t dying, but rather not living fully.

Pile of Ropey Looking Stuff

The photo of ropey looking stuff is henequen, the agave plant that was used to make rope before synthetics. This is the plant that made Merida the wealthiest city in the world for a very brief period. The wealthy henequen barons built their mansions along Paseo Montejo.

Zapote

Discovered a new fruit, zapote, which looks like a miniature football and is dark tan. Cut in half and eaten with a spoon it tastes like pudding much like the cherimoya from Hawaii but only 2 large seeds. Eating lots of fresh fruit daily. It’s good quality, inexpensive, and ready to eat.

 

Orquesta Sinfonica De Yucatan

Not sure what to do today so I decided to go to the Merida Symphony for a Sunday noon performance featuring LeeAnne Thompson an American Flautist. The symphony hall is splendid with a large seating area on the main floor and 5 tiers of balcony seating. Interesting crowd composed mostly of the whiter citizens of Merida, as was the orchestra.

I’m not the most knowledgeable symphony-goer but the performances were so beautiful they made me teary. The orchestra and conductor were dressed in gunmetal grey long-sleeve shirts and matching pants. The audience was similarly dressed, men in long sleeved shirts of various colors and women in dresses.
I so enjoyed the performance I bought tickets for the last 2 of the season the next 2 Sundays. The Symphony starts up again in January after the holidays.

On the way home I stopped at Parque Santa Lucia and watched locals dance to Cumbia music played by a live band. Wow, can these people shake it. Salsa dancing that was incredibly energetic.

The proverbial best restaurant in town is in Parque Santa Lucia, Apoala. I made reservations to dine afuera, outdoors, for Nancy and me for the 2 Saturdays she’ll be in Merida.

Life in Merida is fabuloso. I can’t imagine being happier.

 

The very small bathroom contains a sink, toilet with no seat, which is typical in rural Mexican homes, and a shower area with a sloping floor for drainage. No hot water. A stack of toothbrushes, a bar of soap, and a few tubes of toothpaste sat on a small counter next to the sink, which I took in without judgment or opinion. It’s just what is. I knew ahead of time it would be critical to suspend any sense of judgment regarding how local people lived. I was trying to be an adventurer in the real sense of the word.

The noises during the night were different and noisy. First it was dogs barking, which was later replaced by birds singing, and around 3:00 am hundreds of roosters in the barrio, neighborhood crowed into the early morning hours.

I woke up around 6:30 Sunday morning to the sounds of people stirring, motorbikes passing, and dogs barking. I’d slept in my jeans and T-shirt and got out of my hamaca, put on my flip-flops and used the bathroom again. Sitting on a toilet without a seat was a new experience that I got used to but didn’t feel entirely comfortable with.

I walked through the living room out on the patio where Mama, her older sister, Alondra’s sister, and Padre were stoking 3 fires simultaneously and cooking Sunday Comida, the biggest meal of the week.  There were huge pails of cooked turkeys, various types of peppers and onions being grilled and giving off an aroma that assaulted my nose and made my eyes tear, shredded cooked pork, turkey skin pouches the size of footballs being stuffed with something and sewn up in the cooked turkeys and boiled in a rich gravy with lots of seasonings along with several of other dishes cooking on fires. The olores, smells, were overwhelmingly inviting but Comida was still hours away so I went to the store with Alondra and bought some cookies for breakfast. She made me coffee, which was instant and unfamiliar to my SF taste buds, but sufficed.

Like the day before, relatives came and went in droves. Some stayed and helped cook, others watched television, and some just sat and talked with each other. The informality was refreshing and no one ever thought to call before showing up.

Sunday Comida was a major taste sensation. The stuffed turkeys that had been cooking for hours in a heavily seasoned broth were cut up and the stuffing put into bowls. The grilled peppers and onions were put out with the turkey along with a huge stack of fresh tortillas about a foot tall. There was also a dish whose name I can’t remember but it was finely diced turkey gizzards and other internal organs that were cooked in two huge turkey skins for hours with muy picante seasonings.

There’s always some sort of soup to put turkey and all the other ingredients into and eat with a spoon and fingers. All I can say is that it was muy rico, delicious, rich in flavors and a real taste sensation.  We drank beer with Comida and people came and went, eating and talking during the 2-hour late afternoon lunch. It was remarkable how easily the family traffic flowed.

After Comida, having not slept much the night before I lay in my hamaca and fell asleep instantly. An hour later I woke and sat on the patio in the middle of the family flow and spoke with Padre for a while. His Spanish was easy to understand and we spoke at length about life in Teabo and other topics he was interested in discussing.  After I told him about my novia, girlfriend, Nancy he invited both of us to visit at Navidad, Christmas for a few days. But after describing my experience to Nancy she said she didn’t feel quite so adventurous so I’ll likely go back to Teabo again on my own. I understood how she felt without judgment.

Instead of taking a colectivo back to Merida since they don’t run on Sundays Alondra suggested we take the bus but when it was time to leave around 3:00 pm her uncle who had brought her abuelo, her 86-year old grandfather to Comida, offered to drive us to a town near Merida. When we arrived in the town Alondra, her novio, and I took a bus to Merida. It made a lot of stops along the half-hour trip and I watched the scenery change from sparsely populated to a thickly populated one. I noticed over the weekend how quickly Alondra transformed from a Merida university student to a pueblo girl again.

I took a taxi from the bus terminal to my apartment, a ten-minute ride. When I arrived home I collapsed from exhaustion, took a long shower, put all my laundry together to take to the lavenderia Monday morning, and fell asleep for an hour. That night I ate some fruit I had and woke up today, Monday morning, and went to a café to write this blog with help from 3 espreso dobles, double espressos.

I’ll need some time to process the weekend in depth because it was so packed with new experiences and people. It was an extraordinary 36 hours I was agredecido, grateful to have experienced.

 

After the warm greeting I was told to leave my backpack in one of the rooms and invited out to the patio, a large cement deck about 30×30, with a corrugated tin roof, and 3 different cooking fires all burning simultaneously, the smoke wafting on gentle breezes. The primitive nature of the constantly stoked and replenished cooking fires, enflamed all my fantasies about how people live outside the cities.

Mama, who is in her mid-60s, her older sister, and Padre, Alondra’s father were in various stages of cooking Comida, the main meal of the day typically eaten around 2:00 to 3:00 every afternoon.

I noticed something about the women in particular. Every woman had tiny hands that felt like miniature catcher’s mitts. Strong, muscled hands and fingers born from working masa dough and laboring hard every day. When I shook each woman’s hand I was instantly reminded of how hard they work. Even Mama and her older sister lifted huge, heavy pots of food from the fires and carried them to a worktable to cut up. They carried large bottles of water like we use in coolers at home as if they weighed little.

Beyond the patio was a large, yard with a gentle upslope whose only landscaping were a few trees. The groundcover was dirt and large volcanic appearing rocks protruding from the ground. It was about a 1½ acres and was filled with animals. There were 3 dogs tied up around the yard to protect the large number of pavos, turkeys, pollos, chickens, and other birds the Ic family raise for food.  I noticed their neighbor raised goats as well as turkeys and chickens.

The padre, father, proudly showed me around the yard pointing out each animal, telling me how old each was and what he feeds them, the dogs barking constantly as I intruded their space. The large chicken wired areas that held turkeys and chickens were clearly not cages for pets, and even the dog runs had a purpose, to protect the livestock.

I was already numb from the sensory overload and struggled to remain able to take in more of what I knew would surely be much more to come. Alondra’s sisters, a slew of nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles constantly circulated in and out of the home, the front gate and front door of which were never shut.

It was time for Comida and I was invited to sit at the kitchen table on one of only a few chairs. A harina soup, a heavily flavored masa liquid, was the main dish that each person shredded some turkey that was set out on a large plate. The soup was finished with big dollops of a muy picante, spicy, red tomato sauce that had been cooking outdoors. A large stack of fresh corn tortillas sat in the middle of the small table where everyone could reach them.

Mayan Yucatecans eat with cucharros, spoons only, no forks or knives, but mostly they eat with their hands, using tortillas to scoop up pieces of turkey from the harina soup. This was a simple Comida for a Saturday afternoon. People came and went and many sat and ate for a few minutes before leaving.

I was emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted already and I’d only been in the Ic family home for a few hours. So much action that it was hard to keep up with. I went to the Mercado a few blocks away before Comida with Padre to buy cerveza, beer, and he refused to let me pay. He told me I could pay when he comes to San Francisco, which I knew was never going to happen.

I was able to comprehend the majority of the dialogue from nearly everyone. They didn’t speak Mayan to me but did to some family members, which of course I didn’t understand at all. It’s not remotely Spanish. Mayan is unique and is making a huge comeback in elementary schools all over the Yucatan.

Some younger family visitors came over and just lay in hamacas and watched television throughout the day but none stayed longer than an hour. Some arrived on foot and others on motocicletas, motorcycles.

In the evening I walked 2 blocks to town with Alondra and her novio where Alondra’s mother runs a small restaurant that’s only open Saturday and Sunday evenings. She cooks in a thatched hut over a few propane gas rings and serves just a few different dishes. This is the only restaurant in town. The Saturday night I was in Teabo she cooked 3 different, deep- fried corn tortilla dishes. No beer, just sodas. Families came to eat and some, llevar, to take out. Everyone knew everyone of course.

When we got back to the house it was time to sleep and I was given the largest room to sleep in alone. A freshly laundered hamaca was hung on hooks on opposing walls and a piece of fabric meant to be a door hung for privacy. The television was tuned to a Mexican soap opera that I’d watched with Alondra and her novio, boyfriend, for a while. Classic Mexican soap, highly emotional and expressive.

After a short while I was given a blanket and left to my hamaca for the night. Okay, here’s the truth. I didn’t have an iota of an idea how to sleep in this type of hammock. It wasn’t remotely like a Pier One rope hammock that you just flop onto. It was just a bunched up nylon hamaca, which I stretched open and plopped onto hoping I wouldn’t fall on the cement floor. All I can say is that most of the night I kept trying to figure out how to get comfortable, especially about turning over without falling out.

I got up in the night to piss and walked by Padre who was asleep and snoring like a freight train in his hamaca strung on hooks in the living room. I noticed he had wrapped himself up in his hamaca like a cocoon, which gave me some idea how to manage mine.

 

I’m a big fan of the weekly NY Times articles headlined 36 hours in (fill in the blank). I just spent about that amount of time this past weekend in Teabo, a small pueblo of 6,000 Mayan people an hour from Merida. My first impressions of small villages in Mexico have become fairly accurate since visiting many over the years.

Colectivo

I met my friend Alondra at La Catedral in El Centro Saturday morning to travel to her family home in Teabo. Instead of heading for the bus terminal we weaved our way through a series of crowded mercados to a side street where she knew there would be a colectivo, which in this case was an old van nearly full. Alondra squeezed in the back and I sat in front with two other people. As we drove on the highway I had a quick thought that I just as quickly dismissed from my consciousness. I considered the llantas, tires, and hoped they weren’t suave, smooth.

One of the lessons I’m learning on this exceptional journey to Mexico is not to have any expectations about new things, but instead just wait and see what happens. I catch myself in mid-thought sometimes when I’m facing something new and instead of hoping, wondering, or wanting, I try to relax into just letting it all unfold. This is proving to be an enormous help since I’m learning to relax, accept, and enjoy without any anxiety related to what will happen. Lesson not entirely learned, but learning.

The owner of the colectivo played Cumbia music loudly on the radio for the passengers’ entertainment. I’ve always loved Cumbia, a combination of horns, percussion, and singers. It’s the kind of music that’s hard to listen to and sit still. The colectivo made a few stops at small pueblos along the way and an hour after we left we were dropped off in the center of Teabo.

Sensory Stuff

My first sensory sensation was the aloro, smell, of smoke in the air emanating from the ubiquitous cooking fires coming from every home in Teabo. The smell of lena, pronounced lenya, the 2-3 inch round 4 foot sticks of wood used for cooking outdoors are a part of every pueblo, and the smell is one I’ve always loved and associated with a hominess I’d wondered about but had never seen up close.

The second sensory sensation was the obvious rural quality of the pueblo. In one photo is a bull tied up to a tree downtown, the meaning of which is clear. They have an active Corrida, bullfighting ring in Teabo. The tied up bull was being prepared for the Corrida. I was definitely in the country, which is the only place one would see a bull tied up to a tree downtown.

The small town square isn’t ornate of even particularly pretty but there are stores lining it. A small Mercado, grocery and whatever else locals need store, and a series of other stores that se vende, sell products geared to local needs. All of the signs were written in Spanish and Mayan, a language spoken by everyone in Teabo.

We walked 2 quadras, blocks, to Alondra’s family’s home, which is halfway down a small, quiet street behind a low, whitewashed stone, wall and an wrought iron gate. Her family was waiting for us and everyone came to the door when we arrived.

First impression of their home was a very old cement and stucco house, small windows to keep out the heat from the sun, rough cement floors, and not a stick of furniture except a few dressers scattered around the 4-room home. Everyone in Teabo sleeps on hamacas, hammocks, which they attach to hooks in opposing walls at night to sleep.

There are a few small televisions in the house and an altar high up on the wall of the main room with candles lit.

The kitchen has a small plastic table and a few plastic chairs, a propane stove that is rarely used since gas is expensive, and not much else except a small counter. 90% of the cooking is done outdoors.

Alondra’s mother and father greeted me with huge sonrisas, smiles, and welcomed me like I was someone they’d always wanted to have visit their home. It was genuine and sweet and I relaxed into the emotional glove they offered. During my time at the Ic family home there was a non-stop flow of relatives visiting, helping cook, and small children just running around.

No one needs an invitation and the Ic family home has roots that go back a hundred years. And since they are related to a large percentage of Teabo people the flow of family traffic, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and grandchildren only ends when everyone goes to bed.

 

 

I’m just beginning to discover the Merida art scene. I can’t remember what list I signed up for but I received an invitation to take a one-week ceramics class with Valentina Sandoval, a famous Mexican ceramicist and sculptor, from Nov. 22nd to 29th. The class will be taught at her husband’s art studio. Here’s a link to the invitation.  https://shoutout.wix.com/so/0L_eAaok?cid=f264b26f-a98a-4f3b-987b-5e58d8a843fa#/main

I went to La Sala art gallery on Calle 60 to sign up.  I mentioned Calle 60 in the past because it’s Merida’s University Ave. It’s where I met Laura Garcia, the gallery owner. Her husband is a well-known painter, some of whose work hangs in New York with Andy Warhol’s.

 

 

 

Laura is a delightful woman and another terrific source of information. I asked if she knew of any cooking classes taught in someone’s home rather than at big school and she gave me the name of a cleaning woman who also happens to be a well-known Yucatecan cook. I took cooking lessons 30 years ago from a woman at her home in San Miguel and after we’d cook a large meal she would invite me to stay and have comida with her family. Comida is the big meal of the day typically eaten in late afternoon. People come home from work for 2 hours and families sit down together for comida. I’d like to duplicate that experience in Merida and based on my experiences with the friendly people here it might not be a longshot.

When I left Laura’s art gallery I walked a few blocks to Paseo Montejo, the magnificent wide boulevard for breakfast and met Margie, a woman from Texas who moved here with her husband 3 years ago. She volunteers at the Merida English Library where I’m headed in an hour to join a mentoring group for college students. I miss tutoring at Richmond College Prep and I hope this program gives me a similar feeling.

Merida English Library (MEL)

MEL hosts a myriad of weekly events for locals and expats. Besides the Monday evening Spanish/English conversation class I attend there is a mentoring program in which college students are paired with Americans to improve their English skills since they’re all studying to be English teachers and want to talk with native speakers to improve their abilities.

My group has an American couple from Manhattan, Bob and Manju who is originally from India, and two students, 5 of us in all. We are asked to only speak English. Aleyda and  Estafania are sweet young women who had to work incredibly hard to get into university. They both come from small villages an hour or so by bus from Merida. Our first outing is next Saturday and we’re meeting at La Catedral in Centro. We plan to go to the Macay, a contemporary museum that I visited when I arrived in Merida.

We’ll go to lunch afterward somewhere Bob and Manju know since they’ve been living here for 4 years. Coincidentally my new apartment is just a few quadras, blocks from Bob and Manju’s home in Merida and since we’re neighbors we plan to get together. I can’t have too many friends.

An Oscar Tomayo and A Diego Rivera taken at the Macay.

 

 

 

 

 

Luis

Saturday night and I’m meeting my friend Luis, the college student/waiter for dinner. This is our second get together. I speak Spanish, which Luis corrects, and vice versa. It seems like there are quite a lot of Yucatecans interested in learning to speak English and one of the problems is that in the universities none of the teachers is a native speaker. Students don’t get the colloquialisms or the easy way Americans speak English.

Got to take my routine second shower of the day before meeting Luis. It’s pretty hot in the afternoon and after walking any distance during the day a second shower feels appropriate. Fortunately getting my laundry done at the lavenderia around the corner is inexpensive and overnight. My laundry omes back neatly folded and wrapped in plastic. Okay, I know, plastic pollutes but I’m not here on an environmental crusade. The Yucatan will have to figure that one out without my assistance.

Nancy

Missing Nancy and thinking about her frequently, especially when I visit an interesting museum, monument, or restaurant. I’m excited about sharing the places I’m discovering.

We talk every night kind of early for her because I’m 2 hours ahead. There’s no daylight saving time in Mexico.After updating each other about our days our conversations focus on our relationship. We’re still hammering out some issues and we don’t necessarily have the same sense of how well we’re doing but we do share a vision for a future together. We’re a glass half full glass half empty couple and I’ll let you guess who is which. Our enneagram numbers are 4 and 8 respectively and if you know much about the enneagram distinguishing our respective numbers will also be easy.

Everyone knows relationships are difficult but I can’t envision a future without Nancy in it. I’m working on my patience deficit. Merida is a good place to work on that since not much happens quickly here. I’m relaxing into waiting for things like food to be brought to the table in restaurants, drinks to be poured in bars, getting la cuenta, the check afterwards, and lots more. I’m doing pretty well so far and haven’t lost my temper in the 2 weeks I’ve been here, which may not be impressive for many people, but is a definite improvement for me.

Sunday Blues

Sunday is a day for strolling in the parks and the streets are closed to cars for the day along Calle 60. It’s called Bicicleta day and bicycles are available for rent by the hour. Couples holding hands, small children playing, and basically everyone in Merida out for the afternoon.

Sunday is a bluesy day for me here although I met my friend Julei from Martinez for desayuno, breakfast at Chaya Maya, a local fave. Not many tourists in Merida yet but December starts the season. Since Merida isn’t on the coast they don’t get nearly the number of tourists as coastal towns. Unlike most cities I’ve visited in Mexico restaurants in Merida are overflowing with locals.

Chaya Maya is a half block from Calle 60 and a 10-block walk from my house. Here’s a link to Chaya Maya if you’d like to see photos of the restaurant and menu http://lachayamaya.com. I love menus with photos. It’s a fantastic restaurant specializing in Yucatecan cuisine. It’s jumping from the time they open for breakfast until they close late at night and there’s usually a short to not so short wait for a table. Chaya Maya is indoors but it’s also afuera, outdoors because the center of the restaurant is open to the sky. Terrific, friendly service and killer food make this place a local scene. I had huevos divorciados, which literally means divorced eggs because there are 2 sunny side eggs on 2 tortillas with a different sauce on each. I’ve enjoyed this breakfast dish all over California and Mexico, but they do it with a Yucatecan flair here and it was muy rico, delicious.

I spoke with Nancy briefly while she was driving to the second day of a weekend workshop that she wasn’t particularly enjoying but needs the continuing education credits to maintain her license. She was looking forward to the end of the day. I felt badly for her because she’s a major-league seeker who absorbs knowledge like a dry sponge and she wasn’t absorbing much from this workshop. I miss Nancy, not so much in a heart-wrenching way, but more in a dull aching way brought on by watching couples hold hands, strolling the streets and parks of Merida It’s a hollow feeling and even though our separation was my doing I know that no experience is ever perfect.

Most journeys are replete with mixed feelings and mine is not an exception. I didn’t come to Merida because I craved isolation but it is a component of my experience. I’m agradecido, grateful, I’m still young and healthy enough to embark on this journey and I take comfort in the emotional work I’ve accomplished over the years that serves as a backstop. Knowing how to process my feelings, while sometimes complicated and awkward, is ultimately doable.

The friends I’m making here help keep the blues away. I genuinely like people and am thoroughly enjoying becoming acquainted with new folks who I seem to meet almost daily. I recognize everyone I meet has a life already, which makes their willingness to include me feel special. It’s good for my self-esteem because their warmth and openness signify I’m an okay guy. What a difference a few decades has made, even though my progress over the years has been difficult and even painful at times. I’m proud that I’m no longer little Kenny from Medford in terms of not trusting anyone, particularly strangers. My heart and mind are open to new people and new ideas. Ain’t life grand.

There’s a raucous fiesta, party, in progress next door this Sunday afternoon. There’s a live band playing Mexican music, a grill cooking meat for tacos with all the trimmings, and dozens of people enjoying themselves in the back yard. They’re playing the kind of Latin music that it’s impossible to listen to and sit still. I just had to investigate so I slowly strolled past to find the source of the ruido, noise, and by the time I asked the hostess if the fiesta was privada I was noticeably drooling. Of course it was private and even my friendliest, most beseeching cara, face, failed to evoke an invitation. Mexican people sure love to party and this fiesta was a full-blown doozy. It’s later now and the music has toned down to Mexican ballads so I think the fiesta will be over soon.

The smell of food cooking next door is forcing me out of my house to go on a taco hunt, which isn’t really a hunt in Merida as much as a choice since tacos restaurants are ubiquitous in Merida.  Off to eat.

 

Progreso

Progreso is a small beach town on the Gulf of Mexico 30 minutes from Merida. Alondra, my friend from the library Grupo accompanied me. We met at La Catedral in El Centro, a magnificent 15th Century church, the oldest in Mexico.

 

 

 

La Catedral

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alondra Ic May de Teabo

 

 

 

Progreso, like many Mexican beach communities I’ve visited in Mexico has a plethora of shops selling junky stuff but it also has lots of terrific seafood restaurants. We ate fresh fish for lunch sitting at a table under a palapa on the beach. It was predictably muy rico, delicious. Hot day with cooling Gulf breezes. Perfecto.

 

I’d planned to take the bus to Progreso but Alondra suggested we take a colectivo, a van shared with a dozen other beachgoers.It was a $1 each.  We walked along the boardwalk, the malecon, which parallels the beach. The view is the longest pier in the world, an unbelievable 7 miles long, at the end of which huge cruise ships dock. You’ll notice a cruise ship in the photo and it looks small because it’s 7 miles away.

 

 

A Fantasy Becoming a Reality

Alondra invited me to visit her family for the weekend of the 17th. They’re Mayan Mexicans and speak a Mayan dialect as well as Spanish. Alondra’s name is Mayan. They live in a small town an hour away by bus. Her mother owns a tiny restaurant, has 7 children and lots of grandchildren. Some of her siblings still live at home. This is an experience I’d fantasized about, spending real time with local people. Their family home has 2 rooms for sleeping, and no beds. They sleep in hammocks.

She was concerned that might be a problem for me but I assured her I can sleep anywhere. To be invited to a local family’s home is a big deal to me, and to be invited for an entire weekend is a fantasy come true. Her mom raises turkeys, pavos, in the backyard. Turkey is ubiquitous in Merida cuisine and it’s often marinated then cooked in banana leaves in a sauce. It’s the most popular ingredient in Yucatecan cuisine.

Long day and I’m exhausted after walking on the hot sunny beach. Got home and took a very long, cold, refreshing shower. Unlike much of Mexico there’s no water shortage here because Merida is on an aquifer. Ordered pizza delivery, my first attempt at doing business, negocio, on the telephone. A smiling guy showed up on a motorcycle with my pizza 30 minutes later. Success.

Zapatos

I needed to buy a pair of shoes, zapatos, because the pair I brought unfortunately is uncomfortable. James and Lori, the Philly folks I had pizza with last week suggested I visit a shop near El Centro that makes custom shoes. I told them custom shoes were out of my price range but he suggested I’d be pleasantly surprised. B&G Attelier is a shop owned by Alicia, a local woman, who learned her shoe making craft in Switzerland from a master craftsman at a two-year artisan college. She came back to Merida and taught two young Mexican men how to make shoes.

 

She’s a thoroughly delightful and gregarious woman who speaks 5 languages, but we did our transaction in Spanish, which pushed my limits and taught me conversational Spanish. I picked soft as butter, black leather and asked for a low cut, lace-up desert boot. I picked them up two days later and they feel amazing. They’re the lightest shoes I’ve ever worn and are wonderfully comfortable. Alicia and I have had a few long conversations about her shop, her training in Bern, Switzerland, and life in general. If I were reading this I’d be curious about the price of the shoes too, so I’ll tell you. My enthusiasm isn’t due solely to the price, but even more because owning a pair of handcrafted shoes is truly special.  $75  Happy feet

I’ll continue to seek out artisans like Alicia who represent the finest Mexican artisanal efforts. Nancy and I are big fans of the Mexican arts.

Hard to believe I’ve been here 2 weeks. Been busy much of the time, which is how I like it. Accomplishing some of the goals I set before leaving Berkeley. I’ve connected with Americans and Mexicans and hope to develop ongoing friendships with all of them and hopefully more. I’m confident I will.

I’m blogging a lot because there’s so much happening all at once and I want to share it before I forget. I’m probably going to slow it down as I settle in more. I’m excited about what’s happened already and eager to experience what’s to come. Looks like I’ll have 3 or maybe 4 visitors to show Merida, Nancy included.

It’s all, good!