Friday, December 30, 2011

Living Here: Contrasts

Life in Mexico becomes more interesting as my social world expands. It is also a study in contrasts. One thing I have discovered is that my social life is spread over a much wider and more diverse spectrum here than it ever was in the states.

Here's what I did last weekend.

Very early on Christmas Eve, La Noche Buena, I flew from Oaxaca home to Mérida and from here drove out to be with friends in a small Yucatán pueblo. After receiving arrival handshakes from the men and kisses on the cheek from the women, I was served tacos of relleno negro and wonderful pibil-style turkey. The animal, which had been raised in the back yard, was killed earlier in the day and cooked in the traditional Mayan way, wrapped in banana leaves, placed on a bed of hot coals and rocks at the bottom of a hole, and covered with branches, leaves and earth.

At one point in the evening, a prodigal son, who in recent years rarely had visited home and was not expected, suddenly arrived, to the great joy of his parents and sisters. It was a beautiful and touching moment. The party shifted into high gear.

After eating many servings of food followed by dessert, then lingering late over a few caugamas (liter bottles) of beer, the family group, consisting of a pair of elder parents, their numerous children, and some grandchildren, nieces and nephews, slowly began to hang hammocks throughout the small house and drift off to sleep. I was given a place of honor -- a hammock hung in a corner, near one of the two fans in the house -- in a room with seven other hammocks. A few family members stayed up very late drinking and talking in the back, and only lay down to sleep when hammocks were left free by the early risers.

On Christmas morning we sat around the table and drank coffee, ate leftovers, which had been boiled -- no fridge here -- and took a walk in the monte to observe wildflowers and visit a cenote. Later I helped hang new window screens, which were my holiday gift to these friends. I received a pair of beautiful, handmade pillowcases from the "mom" of the house. After a bucket bath, more food and a lazy afternoon siesta rounded out my relaxing "pueblo Christmas."

The activities of the days preceeding this could not have been more different. I was in Oaxaca to attend the baptism of Benito Xilonen, son of the singer Lila Downs and Paul Cohen. I'd helped my friend Victoria Dehesa, godmother to Lila and Benito, obtain a few items for the ceremony and she'd invited me to visit Lila and family with her and to attend the baptism and fiesta.

It was an elegant event. After the ceremony in a small church, we walked through the pueblo, led by a brass band and announced with voladores, skyrockets, to an old renovated hacienda. As the hacienda gates opened onto a vast lawn, waiters lined both sides of the walkway, offering trays of drinks and ice cream to cool and revive the arriving throng. It was a very eclectic group: lots of local Oaxacan and Mexican folks mixed with an international crowd of family, friends, musicians and artists.

After resting in chairs placed in the shade of large umbrellas, listening to live music and being served appetizers and more refreshments, we were ushered inside the large casona to lunch. Seated at long tables we  dined on a delicious mole as a jazz ensemble played. This was the first of five different bands to entertain us this day, one set each. Jazz was followed by a Oaxacan brass band, then pop music, Oaxacan dancers, and more traditional music.

 At one point in the afternoon I was invited onto the dance floor by Lila. Later, I danced as she sang La Sandunga from the floor nearby. Lila Downs has been my favorite performer and recording artist of Mexican music for many years. For a long-time admirer and follower of her music, these unexpected experiences were right up there with the best of Christmas gifts.

After about ten hours of fiesta I had to call it a night in order to get ready for an early morning flight back to Mérida and my pueblo Christmas, but as I said my goodbyes at midnight it seemed that the party was just warming up. I've enjoyed few such events more and was sorry to leave.

I had two very different experiences in different parts of the country last weekend, but they had much in common: the abundant hospitality, warmth, sharing of important traditions, and genuineness of the people were all very much the same. They were both wonderful celebrations. I feel blessed to be able to walk with equal comfort here in many circles.

To all of my friends and readers, Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Architecture: The Colonial Obsession

This is a photo of the street where I live. Interestingly, although I live in the center of colonial Mérida, there is not single authentic colonial building in this image.

I ought to clarify my terminology. To me, "colonial" is something dating from the colonial era, and built by the Spanish before Mexican independence in 1810. Anything newer might be "colonial-style," but it's not truly colonial. The houses in the picture above, including mine, were mostly built within the past 100 years or so on land that probably was a patchwork of cultivated areas and smaller, less-durable structures, such as Mayan houses, in colonial times. There are two or three buildings on the other side of my large block that might be colonials.  But the houses in this picture were most likely built when the spacious lots that surrounded most early homes, sometimes called quintas, were subdivided between heirs or sold off as Mérida urbanized in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I started thinking about the obsession with things colonial when I noticed that a house on my block, which has been renovated by a foreign investor as a vacation rental and is now for sale, being advertised as a "200-year-old colonial." The fact is that although the house has a traditional facade, it is a 20th century house, with steel I-beam-supported ceilings, probably built during the 1930s-1950s. The investor had the entire structure demolished except for the facade and front room, and behind this built an ultra-modern two-story home, painted in bright colors. One of the few original interior details that was preserved, a squarish entry arch, is very Yucatecan, but the Spanish never built anything like it during the colonial era.

The same investor also bought another house nearby, which before being altered unrecognizably inside was also a nice traditional Yucatecan structure, but likely not more than 70-90 years old. Now renovated this, too, is being advertised as a "colonial."

A twentieth-century home recently turned "colonial"
Then I noticed a large crew of albañiles, construction workers, laboring on a recent Sunday. Sometimes when construction crews work on Sundays it's because they've got a deadline, but more often it means that they are working on a project without permits. Sometimes the permits are impossible to get because the homeowners want to change the appearance of downtown historic buildings that are regulated by INAH, The National Institute of Anthropology and History. So, people do what I call "Sunday projects," which are completed quickly over a weekend when regulatory officials are off work. By Monday morning everything is cleaned up and no one remembers anything about it.

This Sunday project was a house probably built in the 1940s or 1950s with higher ceilings, nice spacious rooms and a unique, very interesting facade. I saw the owner and asked him what was going on. He told me the facade needed to be "more colonial."

That's too bad, because Mérida has a lush architectural history, of which the colonial era is one aspect. To make it more interesting, many of the true colonials, often very plain structures, were modified with European and Victorian flourishes during the 1880s through the early 1900s hennequen boom when Mérida property owners had lots of money.

Twentieth century styles
Mérida also has a lot of nice Beaux Arts, Art Noveau and Art Deco buildings, along with interesting Mexican versions of these and 40's, 50's and 60's styles. These frequently are influenced by Mayan design, which preceded the colonial era and is the true native Yucatecan architectural style. Unfortunately these buildings often are not appreciated for what they are, and in fact some even show up on local real estate web sites labeled "colonial." And uninformed colonial-obsessed buyers often take the bait hook, line and sinker, thinking they are buying an authentic colonial. Then, if their new houses don't seem colonial enough, they go columns-and-arches crazy, and add the colonial touches they feel are lacking.

Traditional Yucatecan, not colonial
I have seen many lovely homes of various styles turned into fake colonials. One of the saddest examples is a very nice original art deco home with curved walls that was wrecked when all of the deco details were chipped off its facade. Then brand-new colonial-style doors and windows replaced the beautiful porthole-window originals of wood and wrought iron. A great many nice old Mérida buildings have had unique Yucatecan architectural features erased and pseudo-colonial facades added in recent years.

I can understand the interest in the colonial era. Colonial design is often very beautiful and is functional in this climate, with high ceilings, interior courtyards and large doors and windows. However real colonials in Mérida are not as common as people think. Many are more like my traditional house, which possesses many colonial-style design features, but although it is very Yucatecan, it is not colonial.

Although the colonial influence is still extremely prominent in Yucatán, this region's architectural history is a lot more diverse than that. I think it's sad that fascinating slices of the legacy are being homogenized and lost in the name of this obsession with the "colonial."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Good Cafe on Parque Santiago

I first drank a cup of coffee in La Flor de Santiago in 2003, the same summer I bought a house three blocks down Calle 70 from this historic cafe. The Mérida barrio of Santiago was already hundreds of years old when these heavy wooden doors first swung open for business in the 1920's. Now as the oldest operating cafe and restaurant in Mérida, La Flor has earned its own place in local history.

That's only one of several reasons why I was concerned a couple of weeks ago when I walked in for a session of backgammon with my friend Diane, to be told by her that there was almost nothing available from the menu. The place was getting ready to close down, according to one of the waiters. And it certainly looked that way. The baked goods display cases were empty: bakery closed. There was no espresso coffee: machine broken and not being fixed. As we ate toast, drank our cafe americano and rolled dice, workers walked back and forth carrying loads of buckets, bottles and boxes of miscellaneous junk from a storage area to the sidewalk. There, as soon as the items were set down, scavengers and recyclers scooped the items up and hauled them off.

A mesero waits for customers on a recent slow day
It was hard not to notice that we were just about the only customers. The few others were elderly regulars who drink coffee and while away the hours talking, reading newspapers and watching traffic pass by outside the large street doors. La Flor is a big place with a lot of staff, and overhead must be high. Selling cups of coffee to customers who hang out for hours, request lots of free refills and don't eat a lot probably doesn't pay the bills. Things weren't looking all that good for La Flor.

When I first lived in my house the kitchen was not functional, so I ate out most of the time. Hot mollettes, made from french baguette baked in La Flor's own wood-fired ovens slathered with refried beans, cheese and hot salsa, and washed down with fresh-squeezed orange juice and lots of hot coffee, became a frequent breakfast of mine. Or, I'd eat choco lomo across the street in the Santiago market and afterward cross to La Flor for coffee while leisurely reading the morning's copy of Diario de Yucatán.

After I got the house fixed up and started living in Mérida full time I patronized La Flor less, but it has always been a special place. And just over the past year or so I've been spending a lot more time there again.

To be honest, the coffee in La Flor is not the best in town. But there is more to a good cafe than just coffee. La Flor is a place to meet. It's part of the neighborhood and reflects local culture. It's a place for people watching. There are old timers, many of whom arrive at the same hour daily and order the same thing they have for years. The waiters are mature, professional, friendly and remember your likes and dislikes. La Flor is a real, traditional cafe. Very few exist these days.

Most contemporary "cafes," and particularly the popular chain versions, although they may prepare a good cup of coffee, just don't compare to an established, old-style cafe. I've seen a couple of the nice old cafes in Mérida centro close over the past few years. I've tried -- and abandoned -- several of the newer ones where the staff is young, poorly-trained and managed, the music is loud and apparently played for the pleasure of the staff and not the guests, and any ambience or personality that exists seems to be more superficial marketing strategy than anything else.

I've heard since that La Flor de Santiago may remain open, but that the owners are looking for new ideas to improve the bottom line. Let's hope they manage to stay in business without changing things too much. It would be a sad loss to the community if yet another tradition fades away.

Here's Hammockman's post on La Flor.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Living Here: Quiet Moments at the X'matkuil Fair

I always go to the Yucatán fair held each November at X'matkuil, on the outskirts of Mérida. Typically I go during off-hours, when there aren't too many people in attendance.

I drove out to the fairgrounds Friday afternoon just a little ahead of the crowds that would mob the place on this, the last weekend before closing. I like to avoid the jostle and crush. The razzle-dazzle of lights and noise, the midway, huge crowds, and the throbbing music of the beer gardens, concerts and other attractions just aren't my style.

What I like about X'matkuil is the old-time country fair aspect: prize animals, agricultural displays, crafts and the horse-riding events. I enjoy wandering and observing in the nooks and crannies of the fair, away from the the bright lights, big noise and clamor.

One of the beautiful things I saw late Friday was this pair of lovely horses. I am not a horse person, so I can't say what kind these are or describe them in accurate horsey language. One was white with gray spots, with a deep brown-red "cap" on it head that flowed like a cape down its back, and strands of reddish mane that hung down its face. The other was a soft silvery gray, with wonderful chocolate-brown freckling all over its body.

The horses were well socialized. They both noticed me and moved closer as I began to take photos. Then, at once they moved together toward the division between their separate stalls and took turns stretching their necks across the divide to nuzzle and caress each other. All the while, they maintained eye contact with me, as if posing and communicating, "See, here's my good buddy."

I enjoy watching displays of horsemanship, roping and riding, so I moved on to the arena to see what the charros, cowboys in traditional dress, were doing. I witnessed a moment of pageantry as teams of competitors entered the arena to the rhythm-heavy clamor of a four-piece band. It was great to watch the riders salute as they rode their beautiful animals around the arena. It was moving to participate moments later as the competitors and audience removed hats and applauded for one minute in memory of a fellow competitor who had recently passed away.

I visited the butterfly exhibit, a large screened-in area full of native and non-native species. It's fun to be able to walk among hundreds of free-flying butterflies, who seem to be unafraid and go about their business. In this exhibit it's possible to observe various species up close, and also to watch butterflies hatch before ones' eyes. If you stand still, it's not unusual here to have a butterfly land on you. One perched on my forehead for a moment (leaving no time to get a picture, unfortunately) before fluttering on its way.

It is interesting to see so many exotic butterflies close up, and great fun to watch the children react to the situation. Many school groups were in attendance this day, and the younger crowd is particularly enchanted by the sight of so many of these colorful insects up close. They were equally fascinated by the fish in an artificial pond inside the butterfly area.

Then there were the pigs. What can I say? I like them, especially the native Yucatecan cerdo pelon, or hairless pig. They are small, dark and bald, and I enjoyed watching a group of them rapidly vacuum up a large container of leftover tortillas in about half a minute. This is a species utilized by the Maya and that was once ubiquitous on the penninsula, but whose numbers had fallen drastically over the years as many pork producers shifted to larger, faster-growing commercial breeds. However recent efforts to revive pure genetic lines of this native animal, which is perfectly adapted to the climate and forage available in Yucatán (reducing the need for small producers to buy expensive commercial feed), seem to be successful. The population is growing, and efforts to market products from these animals as specialty items appear to be paying off.

Those are a few highlights of my afternoon at the fair. I did get into the crowds some and enjoyed a bit of the music and high-energy activity, but these quiet moments were the ones I appreciated most. X'matkuil offers something for everyone, and tens of thousands of people attend the fair and find much to enjoy. I am completely content to forego many of the big attractions in favor of exploring the smaller exhibits and quiet corners of the fair.

Here's an earlier post about the fair at X'matkuil, Yucatán in the Snow Zone.