I arrived in Merida, a UNESCO heritage site, in the beginning of December, 2011 with a certain idea of what I’d do there. It took a short week or so to leave behind those plans and schemes and sink into being in the now. I stepped outside of my usual work-it, work-it, self and slowed down enough to hear the spirits speaking. In Merida, I embarked on a journey of self-realization and inspiration.
Rosy, Ismael and their adult daughter Ileana welcomed me with warmth, helping to ease the initial feelings of loneliness one can experience in a strange new place. Little did I understand from my isolated American perspective that renting a couple of rooms from them would make me an honorary part of the family immediately. Rosy and Ismael are both very open to other cultures. They have treasured memories of other gringo friends and of their travels to visit their son, who lives in Europe. We passed many evenings together, eating, sharing a glass of wine, laughing and talking.
In the streets of Merida, I walked and walked, wrote and drew, visual inspiration appearing again and again.
Merida, a sun kissed jewel, is an enigma waiting to be revealed. The city with it’s beautiful colonial buildings and hundreds of trees glistening in the sunlight, lazes through the day, sleeping in the afternoon.
Unlike other European and colonial cities there are very few sidewalk cafes. The sidewalks are hot, hot, hot with a very narrow passage between street and buildings. Massive buildings with dark, often closed doorways and windows hide her treasures from casual strangers.
One day I discovered a charming cafe for hot chocolate, while walking down a street I’d walked many times before. That same day I discovered a very interesting antique shop which I’m sure I’d passed many times without seeing. Could it be the Mayan Portal which hides and then reveals these places?
The Mayan Portal was a running joke between Rosy, Ismael and I concerning the 2012 phenomena. The Yucatecans have had many experiences with 2012 scholars, experts, and followers of all types over these past few years. Oddly enough I wasn’t thinking of 2012 or the Mayan Calendar when I chose Merida as my winter destination.
This is a painting, inspired by visits to ancient Mayan cities, was started in Merida and finished back home in New Mexico. I was playing with the portal concept which Rosy, Ismael and I had joked about so often. View other work from my time in Mexico on my online gallery.
The city comes alive at dusk, offering up a world of surprises. The houses, which were closed and silent in the heat of the day, now glow with muted colors in the night light. An open door reveals a rose colored living room suffused with soft light, ceiling fans turning. Beyond an arched door opens to the green of courtyard and family together. I pass a corner store, stark white against the deep cerulean blue of the evening sky. The crescent moon, joined by brilliant Venus, lights my way.
But the pulse of modern life takes its toll on this aging beauty. Buses and cars rumble down the narrow streets, spewing exhaust and heat. Plastic trinkets fill the locals stores, music blares everywhere. I had forgotten how noisy it can be in Mexico. And there’s the serious problem of the old colonial buildings abandoned and in varying states of decay. The cost of renovation coupled with the difficulty of navigating the labyrinthine government rules and regulations result in abandoned and falling down buildings. There’s a beauty in this decay until it gets to the point of no return. Then it’s just very sad.
But not to worry. It’s Mexico where everyone accepts their lot (usually) and then gets dressed for the party. Merida puts on a free party almost every night during the winter. A short stroll takes you to free jazz or classical music concerts in beautiful old theaters, folk and contemporary dance performances in outdoor spaces, theater performances, art openings, artists selling on the street and of course the street performers in the Plaza.
The biggest celebration of all was held on January 6, the city’s birthday. In 2012, Merida celebrated 470 years as a city. It’s really older than that, as before the Spanish came it was the Mayan city of T’Ho. True to Spanish habit, they built Merida with the stones of the Mayan city they destroyed.
The celebration began, as all celebrations in Mexico do, at midnight of the day in question. Performances had been going on all evening of the 5th. Merida’s folk dancers and trova singers were all out in traditional costume. Actors were strolling, dressed as the gentry of the henequen hacienda period.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fortunes were built from the humble henequen plant, whose fibers were used to make strong rope, in demand worldwide. Korean workers were used as contract laborers on the henequen haciendas. similar in feel to southern plantations. Great wealth was produced for a few, some of whom built the mansions that line Paseo de Montejo, modeled after the Champs Elyseés in Paris.
As midnight of the 6th approached, the dancers and musicians, together with all the folks, formed a long line on 60th Street and paraded the 4 blocks from Parque de Santa Lucia to the Plaza, singing and playing Trova music. I was with an American friend and somehow or another we managed to get ourselves situated in the Plaza, right in front of the large stage set up in front of the Municipal Building.
What an amazing performance! Over the next hour, different groups of dancers and musicians took the stage to dazzle us with their art. Finally a few minutes before midnight all the performers filled the stage and delivered a rousing version of Las Mañanitas, the Mexican Birthday song. At midnight, a stunning firework display soared in the tropical skies above the hot pink Municipal Building. I felt like a kid in a candy store.
The year 2012 had begun with great joy and celebration. I felt enriched by my experiences so far in the Yucatan, while looking forward to the adventures waiting for me in my last few weeks.