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.


  1. In 2009, I probably thought Yucatan was the capital of the Yukon, so I'm glad you re-posted this.

    1. Glad you enjoyed my little flight of imagination.

  2. Thanks for the re-post, Marc. I enjoyed reading it both times.

    1. You read the original? You are one of a very few hard-core original readers of this blog. Allow me to invite you to lunch when next we find ourselves in the same neck of the woods.

      Interestingly, reading this I notice how my blog writing style has changed. Now I write a little bit more like you...I certainly have shortened my sentences and paragraphs over the past few years.

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks. I often get these sorts of feelings when I find myself in the country. I enjoy the dream, and then I come to my senses.

  4. You certainly can turn a phrase Marc. With a few words you can transport a person to a different place and time. I am envious of your writing skill.

    1. Thank you, Shannon. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  5. Ah, the country house fantasy. I exercise similar fantasies, and can spend hours browsing or or similar sites where real estate can be found.

    We recently stayed with a friend in her condo in Xochitepec, Morelos. It was in a gated fraccionamiento, nice, with well-kept common area, and a lovely pool. But it was only about 4 years old, and such a condo is not my fantasy. But it prompted me to look in the area, and I was astounded that one could find 200+ square meter houses on 1,500+ square meter properties nearby for less than $2 million pesos.

    A fun fantasy, but likely not to be. After three days there, we grew bored and returned to DF.

    I guess I'm a city boy at heart.


    Kim G
    DF, México
    Where we will enjoy the snow- and ice-free weather until Wednesday.

    1. In Mérida it's possible for many of us to have the best of both worlds. Often the old houses have deep lots, and the blocks are large enough that in the back patios we hear no traffic. I've got my old house that faces on a city street and everything I need within walking distance, but out back it's all green trees, flowers and birdsong. Not a bad combination. I often long for the country, but this is a darn good setup.

  6. Possibly like Steve, I've read your entire blog, though I wasn't reading it from the time you first started writing. I quite like your style and enjoy reading your posts.


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