Church, Dzemul, Yucatàn
I have become increasingly interested, after residing in Mèrida now for a few years, in the cultural, natural and human resources that the Yucatecan countryside has to offer. It is a bountiful place, but the riches are not always obvious. Sometimes you've got to look for them; all you need to do is exert a little energy and go explore. It is a tranquil and safe region. You can't get into much trouble if you use common sense. And you meet the nicest people and see the most interesting things in the countryside.
In November I took a day trip, accompanied by my friend Victor, a fellow teacher and Yucatecan of Mayan ancestry who is a human encyclopedia of the flora, fauna and culture of the region. We decided to drive through the countryside, visit several pueblos, eat lunch, and maybe stop at the beach in the afternoon before turning back toward Mèrida.
We headed northeast, which means crossing a good portion of urban Mèrida; it takes at least 20 minutes to get out of the city traffic and pass under the Periferico, or modern ring road, that encircles the city. In another fifteen minutes we left the divided highway and entered the pueblo of Baca, the Mayan name of which is pronounced about the same as the Spanish word vaca, or cow. I couldn't resist. Approaching the pueblo, I asked Victor if there really is any difference the way Yucatecans pronounce Baca and vaca. "No, not really," he replied. "You mean we're in Cow....Moooooo?" "I suppose," he said, as we both broke up laughing. Well...we thought it was funny...maybe you had to be there...
There are haciendas in the area, and Baca is located at an intersection of old highways. The centro of Baca contains numerous large old colonial buildings; obviously this was a significant commercial center in the heyday of the haciendas. For anyone interested in colonial architecture, it is worthwhile to take a look around. This pueblo is still far enough from Mèrida to have retained its country tranquility and its own identity. This is not a prettified, over-restored tourist trap. These venerable, sometimes slightly cracked and crumbling structures are still being put to much the same uses as they have been for centuries, as homes, workshops, warehouses, small businesses, schools and public buildings. Baca doesn't depend upon tourism and for that reason is authentic. That's refreshing and makes it more interesting.
We parked by the city hall and walked across the plaza to visit the church. As we returned to the car, a man I had spoken with for a few minutes on an earlier visit came up to shake my hand and chat. Within a couple of minutes, the subject turned to why didn't I marry a Yucatecan and then there was something about his sister. I figured it wise to make myself scarce before the conversation moved beyond the joking level, so with a handshake, smile and a friendly wave, we got back into the car and headed out of Baca, saluting as we got out of earshot with a friendly "mooooooo."
Pepsi break in Baca, on the plaza
On the main street out of town we saw a tiny nursery with small coconut palms for sale. Since my big coco malayo in Mèrida suddenly died a few months ago I have been thinking about getting another, and Victor wants to plant some coconuts on a lot he owns in his home pueblo. We speculated about prices, and promised ourselves to stop and check them out on the way home.
Between Baca and Dzemul, there are a number of old haciendas. One, on the outskirts of Baca, tempts the sightseer with a fantastic vision of old arches looming in the distance. Upon arrival, however, one comes face to face with scenes of neglect and rural poverty that contrast starkly with the opulence of the old house. Much of the population of rural Yucatan is of modest economic means, but many people have land, and it is possible to live well and provide for a family without too much cash. In these places you usually see busy people, healthy animals, well-tended fruit trees, and often flowers around even the most humble of homes. For some reason this hacienda seems to be different, with scant plantings or healthy trees, dirt and trash, dilapidated, drab houses, skinny dogs and people looking tired and staring disinterestedly into the distance. There's a story there, but I don't know what it is.
As if to revive our spirits, back along the road the wildflowers beckoned me to stop several times. This area is incredibly rich in flowers. Some of the varieties we saw this day are kinds I have never seen.
There are several interesting pueblos and haciendas located along the route. However, we were hungry and wanted to get to Dzemul, so we didn't make any more stops until we got there.
Arriving between the yellow-washed stone walls that mark Dzemul's entrance around noon, we parked across from Enrique and Rita's little lunch stand on the plaza, and stayed for grilled chicken, salad and pasta soup. A hearty lunch for two, including coke and an endless supply of salsa and tortillas, costs about sixty-five or seventy pesos, or maybe five U.S. dollars. After eating, we drank coffee and spent a good while chatting with the owners, lifelong residents of the area, who are extremely friendly and helpful. It's become my habit when in this area to eat and talk with these nice people. Lunch always takes quite awhile, due to our rambling conversations, and afterward I usually walk off the urge for a siesta in Dzemul's centro, enjoying the shade and looking at the old houses, which encircle the plaza.
Spanish colonial house, Dzemul
Older men talking in the shade, Dzemul
We did just that, and then briefly watched kids play soccer in front of the church before getting back in the car. We had a couple of unexpected surprises in store for us in the afternoon. I'll post part two of the story in a few days.