Saturday, January 26, 2013

Wanderings: Finding "Old Tulum"

It had been ten years since I'd stayed in Tulum. When my visiting friend Paul suggested we drive over and spend a couple of nights there before he headed to Cancun to fly north, I wasn't sure what to expect. Tulum has changed a great deal over the years, and I was not sure I'd like it.

I am not terribly interested in fancy vacation hotels, and my budget does not allow for frequent expenditures of this sort. I enjoy myself, better appreciate a place and find I meet more interesting people when the accommodations are simple. I was afraid that this would be hard to find in modern-day Tulum.

I needn't have feared. Although fancy and expensive resorts have spread like a fungus down the Tulum beach, pockets of "Old Tulum" still exist.

By "Old Tulum" I mean what I remember Tulum to be when I first visited years ago. Of course "Old Tulum" means something very different to local residents who remember the place before tourism became the basis of the local economy. But my memories of Tulum are of a quiet, casual place, where most visitors carried backpacks and slept in hammocks strung between palm trees or in rustic Mayan-style cabañas. The cabaña we rented years ago had no electricity and a "path to the bath." When we checked in we paid about twenty dollars, if I am not mistaken, and were handed matches and candles. It was an idyllic spot.

It can be idyllic still. Using the internet, Paul found a rustic rental identical to my memories of the "hippie-in-a-hammock" days. We were right on the beach, used candles at night, and the bathhouse was twenty steps down a palm-lined, white sand pathway. It was just about perfect.

The most noticeable difference now was that to both sides of us, naked Europeans were paying hundreds of dollars per night to lounge on queen-sized platform beds placed on the sand, and to have their umbrellas adjusted, pillows fluffed and drinks served by armies of attendants while they languidly ignored everyone around them. These tourists were entertaining. What I found even more delightful was the fact that we were paying a small fraction of the cost to enjoy the same world-class beach, warm, crystalline water and beautiful weather.

Certainly we lived differently from the package tourists; our accommodations (picture above) were just a notch or two above camping. We kept our drinks and snacks in an ice chest. There was no maid service and showers were cool. But we had a fantastic time and I would not have traded our place for one of the others.

One thing that time has improved in Tulum is the choice of restaurants. Some are very expensive, but good, reasonably priced meals are still to be found in the area. The thin-crust pizzas at OM, on the beach, are delicious. Back on the highway, El Camello, located on the east side of the road on the southern outskirts of Tulum, provides generous servings of economically-priced, delicious seafood. The mixed ceviche at El Camello is hard to beat for price and portion size.

And there were other nice details, like the young man where we stayed who would climb like a monkey up a nearby palm, knock down some coconuts, whack off the ends with a machete, and present them, straw inserted and ready to enjoy, for a few pesos.

But the best thing about Tulum is the beach. Miles of fabulous, pristine, uncrowded beach. No large hotel developments have been constructed along the beach south of the archaeological zone, and I hope the situation stays that way. It would be a great loss if Tulum ever develops in the way of Cancun...and if the last of the rustic old-style beach accommodations is some day closed down.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Lila Downs Visits Mérida

I was introduced to the music of Lila Downs, the Oaxaca-born Mexican-American singer and actress, in 2003 when she sang in the high school auditorium in Juneau, Alaska. That very month I closed on the purchase of my new home in Mérida, Yucatán. In my first blog post, I wrote about how my fascination with Lila and her powerful music intertwined with my transition from Alaska to a new culture and way of living in Mexico.

Ten years after singing in my Alaska hometown, as if to affirm my Mexican life this week Lila performed in my adopted home town of Mérida.

One difference when I see her these days is that due to circumstances, now I have a personal connection. Several years ago I met Lila's godmother Victoria at a concert in Lila's hometown of Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca. Since that time I have been privileged to make many visits to Oaxaca to attend concerts, the baptism of Lila and husband Paul Cohen's son Benito, and to hang out in the city of Oaxaca, explore pueblos, and to visit Lila's home in Oaxaca and Victoria's home in Juchitán. It has been a fascinating opportunity to make new friends, and to get an insider's view of the region's fascinating culture.

It was a wonderful concert. The energy and flexibility of the singer's performance and the virtuosity of the entire company is of international caliber. I tend to like the old Mexican standards, and there were plenty of those this time, songs like La Martiniana, Naila and La Cucaracha, but also rock-, jazz- and rap- inspired contemporary themes.

Lila talked during the performance and to the press about how this visit to Yucatán may inspire a new project. She wants to come back to Mérida to study Yucatecan traditional trova with the goal of interpreting it in future recordings. She indicated, to the roaring approval of the crowd, that she will be back, and she confirmed that to me as we chatted briefly after the concert. That's exciting news.

I love the music and it was wonderful to see Lila, Paul, Benito, Lila's wonderful assistant Eddaliz and the band in Mérida at long last, but for me there was more to this event.

As I sat with the audience along side of Mérida's Plaza Grande, as always I was mesmerized by the spectacle, passion and intensity of this music. The entire crowd, which numbered in the thousands, swayed and pulsed with the beat. The cheers, clapping and chorus of voices rose and fell with the music. There seemed to be nothing but the moment and we were one soul together in it.

The moment was yet another indication, accompanying the many quieter and less flamboyant ones that I experience daily, of why I love living here.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Hacienda Dreams (revisited)

This is a favorite piece from 2009. Three years ago An Alaskan in Yucatán was new and had few readers. I recently realized that this post has had very few hits, so I've decided to share it again.

Sometimes I go on the road with a purpose. On other occasions I go just to see where the highway leads me. I rarely fail, in wandering around Yucatán, to return home with an interesting experience or having seen something thought provoking, mysterious, or beautiful. Recently I went, purportedly out of curiosity, but in reality just on an impulse to go, to spend a couple of hours tramping around a parcel of land that's for sale a bit more than an hour's drive from the house in Mérida. On the return trip, I took an old two-lane highway that meanders quietly, and with more bicycle and pedestrian than motor traffic, through hennequen plantations, ranches, and groves containing native trees like cedro, ramón, ceiba and chacá. Along the way it threads through several small pueblos and old haciendas. The road then abruptly melds into a more modern, divided four-lane highway, quicker and more efficient but far less satisfying, that leads back to the city.

I had passed through here before, but until this day had not noticed a gate and big old house, mostly hidden by very large trees, set back a bit from the road. The casona is situated on a straight stretch at the approach to a community; on past trips I must have been slowing down and watching more for animals, bicycles and topes, or speed bumps, than looking at the scenery. 

I squinted. This was a hacienda. Large tracts, thousands of mecates of spiky blue-green hennequen plants grew here. When they were harvested, the pencas, or leaves, were bundled and heaped on horse-drawn trucks which ran on a narrow-gauge railroad from the far reaches of the property to the factory buildings. There the leaves were processed into sisal fiber, the basis of all variety of ropes and lines for the world's navies and merchant fleets, and baling twine for American Harvester machines. There probably was a huge chimney here, taller than the nearby church belltower back when enormous, belching smokestacks meant progress, prosperity and wealth for Yucatán's landowning elite. 

It was a Golden Age. Mérida became fabulously rich on this trade. Due to the vast quantity of ships coming into nearby Sisal and Progreso harbors, it was easier to travel to ports in the U.S. or across the Atlantic than to go overland to Mexico City, and Yucatecans looked abroad. European-style mansions mushroomed on Mérida's boulevards. Women wore the latest in French styles and directed vast housholds of servants while ensconced in salas furnished with the finest, imported furniture and carpets; men smoked Cuban cigars and drank the finest whiskies, wines and liqueurs from across the ocean. Not only did hacendados send their privilieged offspsring to the Old World for schooling; the wealthiest are rumored as well to have sent their clothes for laundering there to avoid having the fine fabrics damaged by Yucatán's hard water. Haciendas like this one made it all possible...for awhile.

As the sun prompted trickles of perspiration to tickle my neck, I came out of my waking dream. The house is not terribly well-kept, but neither has it been abandoned to nature and fallen into ruin, as rapidly happens in this climate. Someone, probably a caretaker or watchman -- an older señor living in more modest quarters nearby -- keeps the weeds trimmed back near the house, most likely by putting a few animals out to graze on the place, and maintains gates, doors and windows in repair and locked. Nevertheless several other visible structures, farther back in the trees, are nothing but shells, their roofs long gone, columns vine-encased green cylinders, arches intact but no longer supporting the load they were designed for, and with mature trees dropping an ever-thickening compost of leaves onto floors where once people lived and worked and mopped away the dust.

There are rocking chairs on the front terrace of the old main house, but they are weathered silver, warped and beyond reclaiming, woven bottoms long rotted and the shreds carried away by the wind or nesting birds. The walls, once painted a rich "hacienda red," are streaked by many years' accumulation of black mold and at the same time bleached pink by neglect. A section of the delicate French tiles on the porch roof, molded and fired in Marseilles and imported to Yucatán more than a century ago as ballast on a returning hennequen ship, have fallen and shattered. It is easy to imagine that decades ago, one morning after breakfast, the doors had been locked when the owners left on a trip, and because of some incident lost to history they never again returned to live here. Thereafter, for a long time the house was perfectly maintained like a time capsule, ready for the owner's imminent return, only to very, very slowly edge into decrepitude as hope eventually faded and the household staff aged or dwindled.

I have dreamed from time to time of finding an old place such as this, fixing it up just enough, bringing in furniture and my books, hanging pictures and putting in a garden. Perhaps I would get a dog and keep a few other animals. I would eat my own wonderful fresh fruit, gather eggs hidden by the hens in far reaches of the garden, escape the heat by swimming daily in the ancient cistern's invigoratingly cold well water, and live a long, healthy life of genteel rusticity. Then I begin to wonder if I, too, perhaps out loneliness, isolation, illness, wanderlust -- for economic or some other reasons -- might one morning finish my coffee, casually lock up and drop the keys in my pocket, walk away, and never manage to make it back home again.