From tacos and temples to mariachi bands and chilied mangoes, we learn that in this Mexican city, God is in the details.
colonial-style buildings to restaurant interiors like the one at Pancho’s, where characters from Mexico’s past are proudly displayed on the walls.
On my first night in Mérida, I find that even after darkness descends, the evening offers no respite from the heat. Sweat soaks through my shirt. From across the room, a woman stares. This woman, she has a moustache. Her eyebrow – yes, only one – it stretches across her forehead like the great Yucatecan millipede, thick and black. My waiter takes my order and he leaves without speaking. Outside, the streets are filled with dangers. In the distance, a chicken screams.
I look away and drink mycerveza. Beads of moisture roll down the sides of my glass. Then, from the next table, a voice breaks the silence: “Do you need a place to worship while you’re in Mérida?” The voice, it belongs to a Canadian. His name, it is Joseph and, like the priests who accompanied the Spanish conquistadoresto the Yucatán centuries before, he has come to Mérida to spread the word ofDios. He is now spreading it on me. He speaks of false prophets and tells me of the one true way, but this land is very old, and over time it has made room for many truths.
Frida Kahlo keeps a watchful eye over the tables at Restaurante La Casa de Frida, whose food is worth crowing about.
Today, it is making room for more. Many who come to Mérida seek transcendence and illumination. They see the Yucatán Peninsula as the nexus of the New Age, portended by the final days of the Mayan calendar – after 5,125 years, the present Great Cycle will end on December 21, 2012. With shamans to guide them, these disciples will bow before the temples in Uxmal. They will see dense flocks of yellow butterflies and think of locust swarms. And they will marvel at the wonders, and wonder about the marvels.
You may assume that the approach of 2012 is what has brought me to Mérida, that I am here to be humbled by ancient wisdom or mysterious forces, but you would be wrong. I am not here to search for gods or magic; I have no faith and am not in the market. The story I have told you is mostly true. But studded within it, like seeds in the pod of thepichtree, are lies. The staring woman? She is Frida Kahlo, or her likeness, and she hangs on the wall of Restaurante La Casa de Frida, a friendly and convivial place. The streets? They are dangerous, it is true. But this is because the sidewalks in Centro Histórico, the city’s historic core, they are very narrow, and the cars, they drive very fast. Also, I do not normally write in a voice that sounds vaguely like Ricardo Montalbán channelling a cheap imitation of Gabriel García Márquez.
Oh, and the chicken? No chickens scream in Mérida.
This land has always been shaped by gods. Standing in the shadow of the main pyramid at Chichén Itzá, the most famous of the Yucatán’s ancient Mayan ruins, our guide, historian José Humberto Gómez Rodríguez, describes what was once a vibrant jungle metropolis. We learn about its sacredcenote, or sinkhole, said to be the home of the Mayan god of rain, and walk through the Ball Court where, under the watchful eye of priests who would spiritually interpret the outcome, teams competed against each other in a game that was similar to basketball. Except this sport had a deadly twist: The captain of the winners would be put to death, an honour that was willingly embraced.
The principal temple, or castle, also hides a backstory. “Inside, archeologists have discovered another, smaller temple from another era,” says Gómez Rodríguez. And inside the smaller temple, like a Russian doll, there is thought to be yet another. In this land, even when one nation conquers another, they do not vanquish them. Theyabsorbthem. In some faces – those whose features are a mix of Mayan and Spanish – this truth is written in their blood.
I stumble upon this cultural amalgam at Catedral de San Ildefonso, Mérida’s main place of worship. Anchoring Plaza Grande, it was built in 1598 with, fittingly enough, the stones of the dismantled Mayan temple that once stood in its place. We enter through large doors and, while the devout light candles, take a seat in the back row, near a plaque commemorating the visit of Juan Pablo II (a.k.a. Pope John Paul II), who once performed a service here. But even the Catholic faith, so intractable in certain matters, has not been afraid to merge dogma with ancient rituals, customs and beliefs. On our way out, we notice a hand-drawn poster tacked to a wall. It advertises an excursion to nearby ruins and another sacredcenotewhere, almost surreally, a catechism will take place.
American expats Josh Ramos and John Powell, of Urbano Rentals, lease tastefully restored colonial mansions.
Although gods have shaped this place, the hand of man has also played its part. Speeding down cobblestone thoroughfares with John Powell and Josh Ramos, two ex-New Yorkers who’ve made a permanent home in Mérida restoring and leasing Spanish colonial homes, we pass street after street crammed with centuries-old architecture. The motherlode is on Paseo de Montejo, a boulevard lined with spectacular mansions; most were built during thehenequén, or sisal, boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Mérida was rumoured to have more millionaires than any other place in the world.
We shoot by Parque Santiago, where we will later dine alfresco on habanero-laced Yucatecan specialties such as sopa de lima and panuchos at La Reina Itzalana while a guitar-and-vocal duo bangs out a tune – yet more evidence that almost everywhere you go in Mérida there’s music. We pass Parque de Santa Ana, whose night vendors sell sweet, tequila-flavoured ice cream, and circle Plaza Grande.
But soon a sense of déjà vu takes over: Haven’t we been by here before? Many of the streets are dominated by pastel-, white- and cream-coloured structures, lending a uniform esthetic to much of Centro Histórico and likely the reason Mérida earned the nickname “The White City.” After a while, the streets – and, indeed, the city itself – appear to meld into a single, disorienting blur.
Maybe that’s why, at first blush, the city seems to exist behind doors. Homes and buildings come right up to the sidewalk, their windows shuttered to beat back the heat that during the humid summer months consistently passes 35°C. Behind the doors, however, there is much going on. A half block from Plaza Grande, we spy a sandwich board for a currency exchange; we enter through its nondescript doorway, only to find ourselves at the threshold of an opulent hotel courtyard with a sweeping marble staircase. On Calle 64, transecting a block where the buildings are a near-identical shade of pale, we almost miss Alberto’s Continental. But passing through the Lebanese restaurant’s heavy wooden gate we set foot in an open-air oasis where a fountain gurgles under a canopy of trees that practically obscures the sky.
Small wonders, it turns out, appear magically. Under a blood-red Coca-Cola awning on Calle 57, we seat ourselves at a streetside plastic table in El Cangrejito, a tinycocina económica(budget kitchen) that is the very definition of “plain.” On the walls, there are pictures of matadors and the ever-present Juan Pablo II, as well as a beefcake photo of a man in a swimsuit striking a Johnny Weissmüller pose; hanging from the ceiling, inexplicably, is a mirror ball. Not the sort of thing that inspires confidence in the kitchen. But the corn tacos, filled with fresh grouper and lobster and slathered in guacamole and peas, are the best I’ve ever eaten.
By now, I start to expect the unexpected. While we’re roaming around the city with Powell and Ramos, Powell mentions Lorenzo Hagerman, the director of photography on the 2009 Academy Award-nominated documentaryWhich Way Home. At almost that exact moment, Hagerman walks past us, his son in tow. “What are you doing later tonight?” he asks, while shaking my hand. “If you’re not busy, come by LA68.”
A few hours later, we walk through a courtyard where food and drink are served, and tour a gift shop that sells a well-chosen selection of local handicrafts, still unsure as to what exactly LA68 is. Hagerman escorts us through to a packed outdoor theatre, where about 75 documentary fans are raptly watching a film about the resurrection of the tango. “In the past two and a half years, we’ve screened about 100 documentaries and sold 7,000 tickets, giving 60 percent of the revenues to documentary filmmakers,” he says, while his wife, Paula Haro, hands me a coldcerveza. The film ends and the crowd – many here tonight know one another – spills into the courtyard, immediately transforming LA68 into a house party.
Looking around, I assume that the Oscar nod must have transformed Hagerman, too. “Has the Academy nomination made things easier?” I ask. He smiles and looks at his wife. “No,” says Haro, laughing, “because now everybody thinks he is very expensive.”
After a while in Mérida, even the cynical begin to believe. Not in deities, perhaps, but in the everyday magic of the place as it reveals itself. At the sprawling Mercado Lucas de Gálvez, the main market in Centro Histórico, we happily get lost in the labyrinthine pathways lined with produce, dry goods and hole-in-the-wall food stalls where massive whole turkeys are being reduced to tacos the size of a sand dollar. One day, we find the streets around Plaza Grande closed to traffic, the square turned into a veritable carnival with clowns, handicrafts, musicians and, everywhere, food. We buy a plastic bag filled with mango, sprinkled with salt, lime and chilies. It’s sublime.
On Plaza Grande, pick up some fresh fruit sprinkled with salt, lime and chilies.
At one corner, a male mime dressed as a virginal woman in white robes and geisha-like face paint stands silent and still. I toss 10 pesos into a hat and suddenly the statue comes to life. Extending her arm, the statue hands me a fortune:El arte, maravillosamente irracional, no tiene sentido. Y a pesar de todo es necesario. “Art, wonderfully irrational, is pointless yet necessary all the same.” Indeed. So many things we value are.
At 10 o’clock one evening, we make our way to where Paseo de Montejo dead-ends. Once a week, the Remate del Paseo de Montejo, thejardín públicothat straddles Calles 47 and 49, is closed to traffic for Noche Mexicana, yet another fair that draws mostly locals from all parts of Mérida to Centro Histórico. At one of the food stalls, Ana Sabrina, a striking middle-aged woman dressed in a traditional black Mayan frock, grills small corn tacos heaped with fillings made with chicken or pork. Although we are still full from dinner, we order four.
Sample corn tortillas any day at El Supremito at Mercado Lucas de Gálvez.
On a large temporary stage, a mariachi band is in full swing. The singer, he is a sexy man. Tonight he does the sexy dancing for theseñoritasin the audience, who sit politely in chairs arranged in an amphitheatre-like semicircle. As the singer continues to gyrate, I attempt to interpret his act. Is he trying to be funny? Ironic? Erotic? The cynic in me would likely roll his eyes at the entire thing, but tonight, the cynic in me has gone missing.
We lean back in our chairs, eating our tacos. The band plays on. The night is hot. The music is good, the food excellent. There is no other place on earth but here.Dios está por todas partes. God is everywhere.