Saturday, April 30, 2011

Wanderings: A Quiet Getaway at The Pickled Onion

I am sometimes a bit contrary and often find myself swimming against the tide. During the two weeks' vacation for Semana Santa, a large part of the population of Mérida goes to the coast to escape the heat and relax. The result is that all accessible beaches are jammed with people. Tens of thousands of people. Many of these folks' idea of relaxation conflicts with mine. While many here enjoy the Easter vacation with music, food and liberal quantities of beer, accompanied by large numbers of family and friends, I am much more able to relax and "vacation" some place where it is quiet and uncrowded.

In pursuit if my idea of vacation, this past week I put some distance between myself and the crowds-and-loud-parties beach holiday scene. I chose Santa Elena, located a bit more than an hour from Mérida between Uxmal and Ticul, in the interior of the Yucatán, as the site for a peaceful two-day retreat. I stayed at The Pickled Onion B & B and restaurant. In sync with its un-Yucatecan name, the place is a little bit different.

If you are arriving on the Mérida - Uxmal - Ticul highway, when you get to Santa Elena you need to follow the signs that direct you to Campeche. Just on the outskirts of the pueblo on the Campeche highway, at a tricky three-way intersection, you'll see the giant red onion sculpture that marks the entrance. What you'll find is not fancy, and not plain. It's just right. The modest, slightly-quirky Mayan-style cottages are new, clean, and nicely appointed, with beds and hammocks, fans, fresh linens, and clean, modern bathrooms.
The pool is new and long enough to swim laps in, with a nice view of the gardens, planted with palms, neem, flamboyants, flor de mayo (plumeria), blue agave, maguey, cactus and other native and drought-resistent trees, shrubs and plants. My favorite feature of the pool is the hammock strung above the water under an arbor full of maracuyá vines. It's a great spot to keep cool, and one of the beauties of this place is that there are only three cottages, so you'll rarely have to wait to use it. It's always pretty quiet. If you can't quite manage to stay disconnected from the outside world for a day or so, there is WIFI, although when I was visiting, service was sporadic. [There also is free public WIFI in Santa Elena's plaza.]

The Pickled Onion is the creation of Valerie Pickles, an Englishwoman who lived many years in Canada before moving to Ticul, Yucatán a few years ago to teach English. When the job was over, she didn't want to leave, so she bought this land in nearby Santa Elena and opened her restaurant. Over time, she says, she has gained a great respect for the Mayan people of the area and their way of life. She commented to me that she feels very fortunate to live in the area and have her business here. On the About section of her blog, she writes, "There is a more connectedness to nature, people, a way of life far different from the big city. The word magical has been used so many times with the tourists that pass by the restaurant and stay a few nights."

Expanding: Owner Valerie PIckles supervises work on a new guest house at The Pickled Onion.

The restaurant menu features Mexican and Yucatecan specialties, plus American-style sandwiches, burgers, fries, and delicacies such as berry cheesecake, home-made banana bread and coconut ice cream. It also serves iced and hot espresso drinks, beer and liquor. If your tastes on a hot afternoon run to Cuba Libres or gin and tonic, Valerie can probably whip one up for you. My favorite restaurant offering is the breakfast, which is included in the cost of a room. It includes liberal servings of fresh fruit, plus juice, coffee, banana bread, toast, granola and yogurt. Eggs and other hot breakfast dishes also are available.

The rental cottages idea took hold when restaurant customers began asking where they could spend the night. Now it has become the kind of place where folks sometimes arrive planning to stay one night, and find they like it so much that they decide to stay over a day or two. And there are many reasons to stay. Santa Elena is nestled right in the heart of the Ruta Puuc, known for its numerous archaeological sites including the famous and unforgettable Uxmal, caves, haciendas, and for its many opportunities for contact with traditional Mayan culture. 

Santa Elena's church and plaza. The blue sign announces recently-installed wireless internet.

Santa Elena itself, although not the largest attraction in the area, is worth looking around. This is a very traditional and ancient Mayan town, whose imposing Spanish church looms over the landscape from atop a rocky outcropping. It's worthwhile taking a little time to walk around the centro, where the church, colonial-era buildings, some with Mayan carved stones visible in the facades, interesting locally-crafted sculptures of traditional Yucatecan dancers in the square and the mummy museum are the chief attractions. I tried to see the mummies, found in the church crypt some years ago, but both times I stopped by the museum the attendant was asleep at her desk. It was very hot that afternoon, and I didn't have the heart to awaken her. It's a small pueblo. The mummies have been there for a few hundred years, at least. I decided to visit them another time and headed back to The Pickled Onion for a swim and my own siesta.
The Pickled Onion is a comfortable and convenient, economically-priced base for exploring a fascinating region of Mexico. It's also a restful destination in itself. Valerie and her friendly staff do what they can to help their guests have the experience they are looking for. Valerie can also recommend a reasonably-priced local guide (more about this in a future post or see the website) for those interested in exploring off the beaten path or visiting with a Mayan family.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Nature: The Tree

Near Xcanchakan, Yucatán -- After you've driven about three kilometers on the rough ejido road through rocky, scrubby Yucatán monte and passed by one pyramid, one small planted field and through two cattle gates, the tree comes into view. You walk back to your vehicle after closing the final rusty gate behind you and tying it securely with the frazzled piece of rope that dangles from its bars for that purpose. If you know where to direct your gaze at that moment, you will glimpse the top of the tree's canopy, spreading high above its neighbors.

It's fairly wild country. As you look in the tree's direction, you are likely to glimpse the local vultures and falcons high in the air above. You'd be well advised to keep one eye on the ground, too. A variety of serpents, including boas, rattlers and coral snakes, not to mention tarantulas, scorpions and innumerable thorny plants, make a comfortable living here.

After passing through the second gate on the vantage point of a rocky cerro, the track again descends, but from this spot forward, because of its height the tree is always in view. Now, if you tap the horn, the hacienda's owner, Jonathan Harrington, still half a click away, will probably hear it, and may start walking down his grassy front drive toward the dirt road to greet you. If he walks briskly while at the same time you drive slowly and carefully to avoid splitting open the crankcase on one the many large rocks in the way, you might just meet Jonathan in the vast welcoming shade of the tree, which stands a couple hundred meters directly in front of the columns and arches of his front terrace.

Likely as not, if Jonathan has heard the horn and meets you by the tree, he will direct you to drive under the high arches of its branches and continue on just a bit further, where there is a second driveway, the old worker's entrance, that brings you right up to the side of the house.

This tree is known locally by its Mayan name as pich (pronounced "peach" by English speakers). Scientifically it is called enterolobium cyclocarpum. Commonly it is also known as an elephant ear tree, ear pod tree, monkey ear tree, devil's ear tree, monkeysoap tree or guanacaste.

The English common names come from the shape and properties of the seed pods, which resemble an ear, and whose waxy interior can be used to manufacture a kind of soap. The seeds inside the intact dry pod make a nice rattle, and are also used in a variety of crafts.

The massive size of this tree is impressive. On a recent visit, I paced off the diameter of the circle of shade the tree casts on the ground around midday, and found that it measures approximately 45 meters (about 148 feet). This means that the tree's canopy shades about 1590 square meters or nearly .4 acres of earth. Looking at my photos later and using the diameter measurement for scale, I estimate that the tree rises at least 23 meters (75 feet) into the air. 

In doing a little research, I discovered that this is not a terribly large example of the species, which is known to reach an altitude of 35 meters, or more than 110 feet. This pich, if not a youth, is no more than comfortably middle-aged. I suspect in this region that the biggest obstacle to longevity for these trees is the occasional hurricane. But so far, this tree has managed to weather storms pretty well. Jonathan tells me that an elder in a nearby pueblo, who was about 90 years old, once asked if the tree, remembered from his childhood, was still alive. Apparently this pich was already a looming presence on the hacienda nearly a century ago.

It is hard to appreciate the size of this organism without spending some time hanging out under it. Coming into its shade you first notice the dark and the pleasant coolness. The lower branches, which arch high in the air where they leave the massive trunk, eventually come low enough at their extremes to be touched by a person walking by. The roots, looking like the gray, scaly tails of living dinosaurs, have as they've grown pushed large rocks upward to the surface. 

Interestingly, the tree's doubly-compound leaves, which grow in clusters, are feathery and tiny, but that does not keep them from creating the remarkably dense and cool shade beneath the branches. Many types of organisms, including orchids, epiphytes, and various species of lizards, birds and insects take advantage of the temperate micro-climate of this umbrella.

If you follow this blog you probably are familiar with the legend of La Princesa (part 1, part 2). You might be interested to know that during the period of my investigation and rumination on this story I always envisioned her ghost languishing in the twilight gloom of this very tree. It fits the role perfectly.

The other day I told Jonathan, a serious poet, that I was going to blog about his pich, and jokingly started quoting the famous Joyce Kilmer poem that I had to memorize as a kid in school. At this, Jonathan rolled his eyes. All of the information I have shared above is interesting, but to me the fascination of this tree is something more. The magnificent creation that is this tree is not something that approaches poetry... to me it far surpasses poetry. And so Kilmer, as overused, tired and trite as he may be, is appropriate. Therefore, if you will excuse me (with apologies to Kilmer)...

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a pich.

Jonathan Harrington poses under the massive pich that marks the driveway into Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Friends from the Blogosphere

Blog friends on a Yucatan beach outing

I have been participating in a phenomenon for some time now and it took me a while to realize it.

I've been e-dating.

Well, not really. It would be more correct to say I have been e-socializing.

To backtrack a little, I was invited to many parties and met quite a few expatriate residents of Mérida when I first came here about eight years ago. Although many were nice people, few of my initial acquaintances from those days became long-term friends. The expat population of Mérida is equivalent in size to a very small town. The pool is limited. Finding others with common interests or attitudes is not always easy if you want a relationship that extends beyond discussing the ins and outs of living here and restoring and decorating old houses, which is the topical lingua franca among expats in this area.

Actually, I have never been the type to hang out with a drink in my left hand and a little napkin cradling cheese on a cracker in my right and make easy conversation with strangers. My stock of small talk is not large, so at these events I tend to hug the wall and observe. That's not the best strategy if your purpose is to "meet and mingle." I now have a full social life with Mexican friends and a small handful of foreigners, so quantity of social contacts is not an issue. But I have at times longed for more of the type of friend with whom I have a lot in common, who always knows where I am coming from. That's not easy to find across cultures and languages.

I never considered the internet as a way to make friends (I am not talking about "friends," as in Facebook, here). However through blogging I have discovered a new way to get to know people and develop new friendships.

Steve, whom I met through blogging, has mentioned from time to time visits with people he has met via the world of blogs. Steve has traveled a lot throughout Mexico, and in many places he goes is able to visit with people he has gotten to know first through their blogs. It appears to me that Steve has made many interesting acquaintances, and some real friends, through his years of blogging. It looks as if I am on that same path.

What usually happens is that I start reading a new blog because the author has begun to make comments on An Alaskan in Yucatán. Or, I notice an interesting blog and begin making comments there. Occasionally that begins a dialog, which may lead to emails or other types of communication. Often we focus on a common philosophy or interest, usually having to do with Yucatán or Mexico. Some of my contacts are people who live here, and others are travelers, visitors or dreamers who hope one day to live or visit here.

Following a good blog for a while allows you to learn quite a bit about the author, who may be someone you've never met. If you read and comment back and forth a while, you get a good feeling for shared interests and attitudes. If you finally meet the blogger in person, the need for "getting acquainted" small talk has been dispensed with, and there is usually a lot to talk about.

Some months ago I met face-to-face for the first time a blogger whose point of view I appreciate and with whom I had communicated for the better part of a year. He'd been reading and commenting on my blog for some time as well. In a final email before he came with his wife to Mérida for a seasonal visit, he wrote, "I feel as if I already know you." I felt the same way. And when we sat down for the very first time to talk, the feelings were proven to be correct. We dove into a conversation that rambled as if we were picking up where we'd left off on a previous meeting, and we continue to get together on a regular basis when he is in town. The rest of the time, we keep in touch through our blogs.

If you read this blog you probably are interested in the Yucatán or Mexico. I encourage you to browse through some of my favorite blogs, listed in my blog roll, "Mexico Blogs I Read," to the right of this post. Some are informal and chatty like letters to family, and some are of professional quality or approach the status of literature. All have something interesting to offer. Take a look. Offer a comment. Who may make new friends.