Savannah Morning News
Jan. 28, 2018
I’m moving to Mexico.
Not today, not tomorrow, probably not next year. But I’d like to, maybe to Merida on the Yucatan peninsula, probably in the winter. Summers are scorching. The people are kind, they are good workers, they love the earth, they love their children, they love their fruits and vegetables, they take care of their elders. On Sunday afternoon, they go to the town square to walk around or sit on the benches. They schmooze. When the band – lots of horns, musicians of all ages – starts playing they start dancing. On Sunday morning in Merida they close the main street to cars from 8 a.m. to noon. Only bicyclists and walkers. This is for the people who live there, not the tourists. Their tilework is exemplary, so too the marble. They eat a lot of turkey. One palm tree might produce 120 coconuts in a year; you can risk losing a finger by trying to pry open one of those suckers or you can give them to a neighbor, all of them. There are white pelicans. An Uber trip across town cost $1.67; the dollar is strong. Most drivers don’t speak English. You do not need a car to live there; buses work just fine and drivers are accustomed to looking out for people on bikes. Health care – available to everyone, resident or visitor – is cheap.
At restaurants, waiters serve women before men. Old school.
True to today’s world economy, the town has a Walmart, a Cosco, a Krispy Kreme, a Sears, a Best Buy, a Sam’s, a Starbucks, a Fuddruckers. In a corner variety store that sold soft drinks, tortilla chips, candy bars, Bubbaloo bubble gum, tamarindo candy, candy fruit chews, Saliditoes (salted plums and apricots), Our Lady of Guadalupe candles, the daily newspaper and celebrity magazines, workers in hardhats and dirty jeans line up to buy lottery tickets. I did not pass anyone asking for money or sleeping in a cardboard box. There was a police presence but not a crime vibe. The drug cartel does not target the Yucatan. The peninsula is out of the way; it’s on the way to nowhere.
There seems to be a keen sense of aesthetics, including the large murals in the walled courtyard of the downtown Governor’s Palace by Merida artist Fernando Castro Pacheco (reminiscent of Diego River’s work at the Institute of Art in Detroit) and an impressive night-time laser show against the front of the Cathedral.
As with many of the colonial houses – or haciendas – they were built by the indigenous Mayans, often forced by the Spanish to re-use stone blocks from their own temples. Mayans, who date back 1,000 years B.C., still have a presence in Merida. Of the million or so residents over half speak Spanish and Mayan. At the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya – or the “bird’s nest” museum, reminiscent of the one in Beiijing – many of the explanations are written in Mayan, a series of hieroglyphics or symbols presented as blocks in columns.
Our guide, Ricardo, whose grandparents on one side of his family were Mayan, knew a little of the language (probably as much as I know Yiddish), but, he said, it is still taught in certain schools. There appear to be lots of “k’s,” apostrophes, dashes and spaces between the words. Mayans, he said, were obsessed with construction. They would burn limestone into dust in their construction, a process that required high temperatures, which resulted in deforestation. “They were victims of their own success,” he said – and of the conquering Spanish.
“You can see Maya traits,” he said. “Black, straight hair. Big nose. Asian eyes. Brown skin. Not too tall. Like me. I’m a mestizo. Spanish and Maya.”
He founded forgiving toward the Spaniards. “The place you are at this very moment is the one you have to accept,” he said.
The spirit animal of the Maya people is the jaguar. (Just saying, Jacksonville).
That the pyramids, sacred temples dedicated to the Mayan gods, still exist – and are still available for tourists to see (although like Pompeii access is limited; you can no longer climb on them) – is a testament to the building acumen of the Maya people. The limestone blocks are fitted so tight, Ricardo said, a single piece of paper couldn’t slide through. Mayas were masters of physics, mathematics, the calendar and the astronomical system.
With balconies, ironworks, and curved doorways, the streets of Merida resemble New Orleans and/or Cuba. Except for the two-seater concrete chairs in the shape of an “s.” Painted white and called saillas tu y yo – you and me chairs – they are unique to Merida. They are connected by arms on opposite sides so when you sit down you are facing the other person.
Houses sit close to the sidewalk; each neighborhood has a square, a church, a market, a bar/restaurant and sometimes a movie theater. When I was there, “The Shape of Water” was playing, a movie that had not yet come to Savannah.
I’m moving to Mexico.