A Stay in one of Merida’s ‘Better’ Clinics – Clínica de las Americas

One of the most popular questions retiring expats have when researching a new place to call home, is the availability and quality of medical care in the potential new place of residence. Merida, being so popular, is no exception and a quick look around shows that medical care is generally pretty good in the formerly white city, with hospitals such as the Clínica Mérida, Star Médica and CMA (Centro Médico Las Americas) in the forefront, along with several smaller clinics and those serving the masses through the IMSS system with their long lineups, horrific bureaucracy and significantly less-than-five-star service.

In today’s rant, I am going to point out a few details that I have noticed thanks to a necessary and prolonged stay at the CMA by a beloved family member. Remember, this is one of the city’s better hospitals.

First of all, when you arrive, you will be greeted by a street that is trash-strewn, bumpy and a sidewalk that will present you with the very distinct possibility of breaking an ankle or fracturing a femur, should you fall into one of the many holes or cracks, or trip over the irregular sidewalk unions from one property to the next. In other words, should you survive your illness or are done with your doctor’s appointment and are able to leave, you just might fall and break a hip on the sidewalk outside, which, I suppose, is a handy place for that to happen.

On the side streets, many CMA affiliated clinics and other services abound. One service offers “mobility care” featuring a prominent drawing of a wheelchair on their facade. Interestingly, their minuscule parking lot means that cars are parked blocking the crooked and dilapidated sidewalk completely, making it necessary for anyone traversing this stretch of street to actually roll his or her wheelchair into the street and traffic. Amazing.

Should you enter the Clinica Las Americas through their ‘Urgencias’ (emergency) doors, with it’s tiny entrance for an ambulance that is frequently blocked by taxis, you will be greeted with paint-challenged walls and the words “soap” and “water” come to mind almost immediately. It gets worse inside the small area where emergency patients are treated or evaluated. While the doctors come and go in Mercedes and Audis, the patients are definitely in their own third world experience.

To check in, it is necessary to give your personal information as you would in any hospital admittance procedure. Enjoy your time here, as this is the most attractive space in the entire complex. The patient is then wheeled from the emergency area with its cadaverous white lighting and stained walls, to a room, this one called a ‘standard’ room, which is only a slight improvement over the emergency holding area.

A friend who had the need to visit the hospital described as a kind of throwback to a 1960’s American motel. The vinyl furniture surrounding the hospital bed, the awful lighting, the decor such as it is, all are reminiscent of another time and place.

The nurses, who seem to change shifts every 6 hours or so and a new group comes in to do their checking and medicating, mention that is suggested or rather imperative, that a family member of friend spend the night with the patient. This is apparently to inform the nurses if something should go wrong. Do not make the mistake of running to the nurse’s station in the night after waking up from your uncomfortable snooze on the rock hard vinyl bench that poses as a bed, IN BARE FEET as you will get an earful from the nurse on duty about not wearing footwear in the hallway. Bring flip-flops.

The nurses range from clinical to efficient to friendly to chatty. Like Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates analogy, you never know which kind you are going to get, except for the head nurse, who is obviously the pro and knows her way around a bedpan like nobody’s business. She is also not afraid to point out that she is working a double shift because she can’t make ends meet, thereby somewhat subliminally making you aware of the time-honored Mexican custom of tipping the nurses, preferably the head nurse first.

Occasionally groups of chatty nurses male and female will congregate in the hall outside the patient’s rooms, under the sign that says “favor de mantener silencio” and have a loud gigglefest. Should you pop your head out of the room and remind them to keep the noise down you will be met with a blank stare or two before they get what it is you are on about. They might even move elsewhere, if you’re lucky and look fierce enough.

Other details you might notice:

  • upon entering through the main doors, you will see a very modern reception area on your left. As mentioned above, this is where patients are admitted and it is the nicest part of the hospital, bar none. You will not see anything this nice again after finishing the paperwork. Straight in front of you is the little desk tucked under a stairwell in a masterstroke of architectural genius (the Cubbyhole School), where visitors to the hospital are ‘required’ to register. Often there is no one there, an open, ancient book open on the desktop. You can quite comfortably and without any trepidation completely ignore this desk and walk right in and stroll around, off the street. No worries. If you were a narco chieftain having your appendix out at this clinic, you should probably bring your own bodyguards because those sicarios from the other narco outfit can just waltz right in and wipe you (and the family member who is sleeping on the rock-hard vinyl bed contraption with you at night) out.
  • nurses and cleaning personnel are almost uniformly unfamiliar with the concept of doorknobs; the fact that turning the doorknob will make for a quieter door closing is something not taught in nursing school apparently. Each entry and exit is therefore accompanied by the relatively loud snapping of the door mechanism, making it so much more peaceful for the patient.
  • everything is childspeak in nurse-landia. Body parts such as brazos (arms) and piernas (legs) become bracitos and piernitas, cabezas (heads) become cabecitas and even medicamentos (medicines) become medicamentitos and so on. Urinating and defecating are referred to as pipí and popó, which is useful in making the patient feel less like an adult and more like a dependent child-creature, to be dealt with in a decidedly paternalistic way.
  • the building is fugly. Really, really ugly. Whoever designed this abomination should have his architecture license revoked. And so much has been added onto the original building that it is a maze of tiny corridors and weird stairways and badly lit hallways that join them all.

The city of Merida, boasting its cultural attractions, liveability and wonderful lifestyle, really needs to take a hard look at this hospital and its surroundings. Making the (probably rich since this is the whole point of a private clinic) owners fork over a few extra pesos to improve the area around the hospital as well as an overhaul of the facility itself to bring into the modern world, and not in the third world it is in now.

All in all, the medical care at Las Americas is decent and you will get better. Doctors are qualified as are the nurses and even with all the neurotic observations I have mentioned, it is a far cry from the horrors of hallway heart transplants at the public IMSS clinics. But it has a long – very long – way to go before even remotely resembling anything first-world.

Inside the La Isla Food Court – OnThai

At Merida’s second-newest (the newest being Via Montejo) monstrous shopping mega shopping mall, complete with a let’s-turn-Merida-into-Miami artificial lake, there are some shops now open and the food court is fully operational and worth a visit. The Critic is talking about La Isla at Cabo Norte.

It is a strange food court, in that all the locales, with the exception of a few at the entrance area, are owned by the same company, Distrito Gourmet. They all look alike: lots of black backgrounds with white lettering and yet, at the same time, different. There are tacos, sushi, Thai, steaks, pastas, but they are all under the same company umbrella. This was the info provided by one of the employees when asked why the sushi person was in the taco place and vice versa. Also, you can see the same company-labeled drinks in all the countertop refrigerators, like horchata, piña con chaya etc as well as the usual Cokes.

Speaking of those drinks, do not have the piña con chaya drink as it is quite horrendous, so artificial tasting that you might as well be drinking Fabuloso. The horchata is much more palatable. And if you do, notice the ingredients labels on the plastic bottles. Here are some photos so you can reach your own conclusions (it’s probably not even legal to have this lack of information on a food product but the Critic knows nothing about such things) regarding what’s in that drink:

That’s right, the ingredients are: water. Notice that they are also free of protein, fats and sodium. No sugar either. OK.

Anyway, back to the food.

The Critic and MiniCritic decided on Thai at OnThai for something different than the usual boring tacos. The one employee commented that he was the only one who had been trained in Thai cooking and was therefore working 12 hours a day, every day. Every day.  No days off. How a probably successful company (and the owners are probably doing very well thank you) can exploit an employee this badly in 2018 is beyond the Critic’s imagination, but again, what does he know about Mexican labor laws which look great on paper but are completely ignored in real life.

Back to the food.

The Critic ordered Pad Thai and the Mini-Critic a rice dish. As it turned out they were exactly the same: same ingredients (Mini-Critic chose shrimp and the Critic chicken) same sauce; they even looked the same. So much so that it wasn’t even worth it to take a photo of the rice. They were very tasty though and the Critic would probably go back to try something else from the limited menu of available items (about 8).

Hilarious non-related observation: there is a lifeguard watching the artificial lake.

Enjoy the photos and excuse all the ranting!

A pastry and dessert shop

Something healthy looking

Something Spanish

Pad Thai

Was it good? Yes!

 

Miyabi Revisited – What is Wrong with these Servers

Don’t misunderstand – the Casual Restaurant Critic loves Miyabi’s food. And hanging a whack of plywood sheets from the ceiling is apparently is a design concept that is award-winning so there is that. The food is always amazing too; the ramen is the best in town and the fish is always fresh.

What is really puzzling is the staff. With attitudes that range from the completely and defiantly indifferent to the almost Valium-like spaced-out-ness of a lobotomized Walking Dead character, the Critic can’t understand why the service end of this potentially first class restaurant is so bad.

The Critic would also like to add that he has been coming to Miyabi for years now – alone and with several iterations of familial critics – so it’s not like staff doesn’t know who he is which is not implying that a red carpet needs to be laid out, but a simple ‘Hi, glad to have you back’ every once in a blue moon would signal to this particular client anyway, that there is some life, some enthusiasm, some passion for service, behind those rather dead eyes.

Walking in, one is greeted with the sight of several chefs behind the sushi bar, some of whom will look up and then get back to their important work. No greeting is proffered, not even a raised eyebrow acknowledging one’s existence. “Sit anywhere” is not only recommended, it is the policy and that’s what you are told when you ask someone who finally looks your way.

A waiter then eventually slinks to your table, and it is highly recommended that you make the most of this interaction, as any additional visit (to take an order, to replenish a drink, to clear away a dish) will require enthusiastic hand-waving and yoga-like contortions (if the server is behind you) in order to get anyones attention.

Amongst themselves, they are a happy bunch, smiling and laughing but when it comes time to deal with guests, the smile disappears and it’s all slinkiness and tail-between-the-legs standing there, awaiting instructions. Sales pitches for drinks or specials or anything really, are unheard of.

And thank goodness for cell phones, since this is what entertains both waiters who have nothing to do as well as yawning cashiers and anyone else not involved in the cutting of fish or the preparing of rice.

It’s a mystery. Perhaps it’s that they are content in letting the food be their strong card – which it is – and so, if you can put up with the sub-par service, you will be fine.

Playa del Carmen for Tourists

The strange roof top pool at the weird but comfortable Reina Roja hotel in Playa del Carmen

Having just come back from a little overnight in Playa del Carmen after dropping off the kids at their hotel in Tulum, I thought I would share a few impressions from Playa – as folks around here call it because it’s too hard and time-consuming to actually say Playa del Carmen – from a visitors/slash neurotic foreigners (the original viewpoint of this blog when it started 20 years ago) point of view.

Playa is heavily policed

In the touristy part around the 5th avenue area, the police presence is massive. There are armed policemen at every intersection and at one spot that I saw, a tank-like armored vehicle that probably came from the US Army’s surplus after the Iraq invasion was successfully completed.

Since you hear a lot about the gangs, the narcos and the violence that has plagued the area, this dark undertone to all the happy people selling stuff on the street and the trendy restaurants and shops, should be reassuring and not threatening. How you will react is entirely up to you. And in spite of their rather intimidating aspecto, what with their bullet-proof vests, machine guns, and all-black uniforms, they seem friendly enough though and don’t mess with anyone.

The touts

Touts is one of those weird words that I have trouble writing, just because it sounds so 18th century. But apparently, that is the official word for those guys in the street, that are trying to get you to come into their (or a friends or employers) store along the Quinta Avenida.

Predominantly men, they pester each and every passerby, inviting them to come and see their cigars, their hats or their tours. If they are waving a plastic covered menu, it’s a restaurant they want you to try. And listen to their banter, which is incredibly original – “hey, I remember you” and funny (sarcasm). If any females walk by, you can be sure that they will have a #metoo moment and be ogled and commented on by the touts, who usually hang around in small groups. As a tourist you can ignore them completely and if you don’t understand Spanish, the better it is for you since you won’t know what crap it is they are spouting.

Discounts galore

Beyond the verbal sales pitches of “good price” “cheapest price” and “best price” there are signs everywhere advertising discounts of up to 50% (on selected items). These are crappy things that never sold as well as they were expected to and so, are things you don’t want anyway unless you can’t pass up a good bargain on some plastic Made in China glass holder that says Playa del Carmen or the purple top with fringes from last year.

Pharmacies

Mexico is famous for its lax pharma laws and cheap drug prices and that, combined with the ridiculously high prices for prescription medicines in the US, means you will see pharmacy counters in the gift shops advertising everything from anti-depressants to anti-biotics to erectile dysfunction drugs with dubious labels. There are legit pharmacies a few blocks away where you can buy real drugs and medicines at local prices and so, you really don’t need to shop here unless you are afraid to venture into the “real” Playa del Carmen, a fear which is unfounded (read the part about the police, above)

The rich and the poor

You can see the disparity between the rich and the poor on the touristy streets of Playa. The wealthy tourists from abroad and from within Mexico stroll past high-end shops especially around the luxury shopping mall complete with Starbucks and all manner of luxury brand stores, while the miniature young women from Chiapas with their wares displayed Mayan market style on the very same streets right outside. Note that these women usually have small children in tow, who are entertaining themselves on cell phones, and who add a sympathetic look to the scene, invoking a sense of guilt to passers-by and thereby perhaps making it more probable to get that sale.

At one point, a shiny black Mercedes Benz coupe drove past a police checkpoint which was interesting since a) it was a black Mercedes that costs probably about a million and a half pesos and was driven by a twenty-something-year-old and his female cohort which might raise an eyebrow or two; b) they had a child on the lap of the female in the front seat, a clear violation of transit law and c) the car had no plates, another violation and normally a reason for the police to pull the car over.

Weekend getaway

In any case, Playa del Carmen is a great destination for a weekend escape from your routine if you enjoy a little beach time and some great restaurants. Other than that, I wouldn’t come back for more than a day or two as the whole ambiance seems just a little too much for my laid back Yucatecan self.

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Numen

While the Casual Restaurant Critic is a meat lover (and dairy and fish and and and) some members of the Critical Family are vegan, and so, with a resigned sigh and little hope of a decent lunch, the Critic and the Family had lunch at the well-known vegan restaurant Numen, in northern Merida. The result was a mixed bag. Some good food, some OK food and some food that was quite forgettable.

The best option was the tacos al pastor, which is a local favorite and Numen has created a vegan option of this classic. Don’t ask, don’t tell is the Critic’s motto when it comes to what is actually in the vegan version, but it was tasty and satisfying. If he came back, the Critic would definitely have those again.

Most forgettable dish? The pozole. Pozole is a rich broth with all kinds of meaty juices and in this case, it was sliced mushrooms and hominy floating in a barely salted broth that was really quite watery. Not satisfying at all, ITCO. In between was the Critic’s dish, a pasta with tomato sauce, which he could have made at home but was tasty enough and the Critic devoured it down to the last spiral of fusilli.

Some photos will illustrate that the dishes are beautifully presented. The service was average, not horrible, but not particularly gracious or charming either.

Pozole

Pozole

Tacos al Pastor, vegan style

Torta de Empanizado, which was sort of a bean paste, and not great at all

Pasta w Tomato Sauce and vegan “cheese”

Avocado tacos

The accompanying fries were the best part of this empanizado torta

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic Hitting and Missing at the Gran Plaza Mall

Every once in a while, the Casual Restaurant Critic finds himself in the mall – the Gran Plaza mall to be exact – to do some banking, pay the CFE or TelCel or whatever, and the timing works out in such a way as to necessitate a bite to eat.  The question is always: where will it be this time? Such a situation occured twice in the past week, resulting in one hit, and one awful miss.

Besides the one or two restaurants in the mall, there is the hilariously-named Food and Food food court. Choices abound! Will it be the MSG-laden offerings of Win Fa’s Chinese food, with the promise of ever-lasting thirst for hours; or the line-up infused hamburgers of Burger King? Or perhaps deal with the indifferent doñas at Doña Gorda, who make deep-fried and oily gorditas that will inspire a rush on the local omeprazol supply? The salad place is sadly dead and gone with its healthy options and so other choices might be Alabama Mama with “southern food” or some fairly decent Trompos tacos (try their heart-valve-bursting nachos especiales if you really want to gorge yourself with calories.

The Critic, however, found two new additions to the Food and Food food court, one was a definite and resounding miss, while the other promises to be a hit.

The Miss

The Critic has a soft spot for entrepreneurs who make the effort to provide something new and in this case, it was a Yucatecan food outlet that calls itself Pibilxito (which in Mayan means absolutely nothing), among all those tacos and hamburgers and cheap pasta. It is exceedingly hard to please Yucatecans with Yucatecan food since everyone has an aunt or a mom or a grandma or a suegra who makes their favorite dish just so. It’s an impossible situation, the Critic believes, and this place will go the way of another attempt at Yucatecan fare that met its demise in this very same Food and Food food court years ago.

Some of the most famous Yucatecan items are on the menu like cochinita pibil, relleno negro and the Critics favorite, queso relleno, which he proceeded to order from the rather bored and uninspired young man alternately playing with his smart phone and looking up blankly at the zero clientele stopping there. The Critic paid his 70 pesos for an order, a full 10 pesos more than the other orders, a price point explained to him by the hapless employee with the help of a prop: an actual Queso de Bola marca Gallo kept under the counter to prove the worthiness of that 4 dollar expenditure.

The food, ordered to go and unpacked from its mismatched plastic and styro containers at home, was pretty well inedible. The Critic’s cat did, however, get into it and managed to down a few swallows of the unappealing white ground meat that had not a hint of a raisin, a caper or an almond, let alone an olive, accompanied by the afore-mentioned Gallo brand cheese, all served in the traditional corn flour kol. The tortillas that came with the order were of the store-bought variety, rounding out the exceptionally gnarly experience.

Highly not recommended. Avoid at all costs.

The Hit

Having just opened, the new Thai Bistro Express, an offshoot/expansion of the popular place by the same name in Chuburna (beach, not colonia) promises to be the real deal. The super-friendly, engaged and energetic owners are right there and are happy to see you, happy to explain their food offerings to you and happy to cook it for you too. What a difference a smile makes!

The Critic had the Pad Thai, with pork. It could have a little more punch to it but was very good in any case. The iced coffee is absolutely delicious and a treat in the land (Food and Food food court land) of Coca-Cola and other gaseous beverages. What the Critic liked best was the fact that the owner asked how it was and seemed genuinely interested in some constructive criticism, offered with the sincere interest in making their place a well-deserved success. Price of the meal? $120 pesos for Pad Thai and Iced Coffee.

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Pueblo Pibil, A Club Sibarita Event

The Merida-based Club Sibarita (https://www.facebook.com/clubsibaritamx/) organizes events both in Merida and the outskirts, featuring themes or restaurants worthy of note and this time it was the famous comida enterrada (food cooked underground in pits called pibes) that the Yucatan is known for and that the restaurant Pueblo Pibil in Tixcocob does masterfully.

The last event the Critic attended was in Merida and before that, an event at the spectacular Chablé resort/hacienda and this one proved to be as well-organized and the food as delicious as promised.

If you haven’t yet been to Pueblo Pibil, put this on your to-do list ASAP. It is an amazing lunch destination, well worth the 30-40 minute trip from Merida.

Here are a few photos from the event.

In the backyard patio of Pueblo Pibil, the pits are unearthed and the food is taken out, cooked for hours and hours on hot coals. Chef Silvio supervises the process and proceeds to hand out samples. iPhones record the moment and guests wait for their samples, in this case, the exquisite relleno negro (the best the Critic has ever had in the Yucatan) and owner Karina, out hostess for the day watches.

Then it’s off to the restaurant, where two large tables have been prepared for the group. There are two representatives from Casa Madero – the oldest wine company in the Americas by the way – who will be serving wines with each course and talking a little bit about each wine and how it complements the Yucatecan food served.

And of course, the food. Each dish is beautiful and as delicious as it looks, truly. The relleno negro has to be tasted to be believed and the hand-made corn tortillas, thick and luscious, are divine. The house signature dessert, el merengue de la abuela, was presented by the abuela herself, where she confessed that she won’t share her recipe with just anyone.

Last but not least, a shot of a few of the waiters and hostess. An amazing experience! If you like good food, good wine, and good company, join the Club Sibarita and come along on the next culinary adventure!

 

Friends with Benefits – Giving Away Your Business

In the years I have lived in Mexico, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon among business owners and their friends, that I can only attribute to cultural differences between where I grew up and where I live now.

In Canada, and I suspect this also happens in the U.S.,  when you open a new business, you put out the word and where do you start? Friends and family of course. And your friends and your family will come and check out your new venture, congratulate you perhaps and wish you well; they will also buy stuff. No matter if you are making empanadas or ear wax candles, they will probably pick up something to support your latest entrepreneurial effort. They appreciate the time and work put into the logo, the concept, the locale if you have one, and the actual products themselves and they want to support you, so they buy something, even if they really have no use for it. They’re your support base and they want you to succeed, so they do.

Here in sunny Mexico, things are a little different. You open your doors or Tupperware container on the corner and let your friends and family know. They will all show up of course; they do love you after all and most of them want you to succeed except for the ones that don’t who will voice unwanted opinions on your product, your idea, your enthusiasm. The goal is to not let you get ‘too big for your britches’ so to speak; they do it out of love and for your own good and that when you fail, you won’t feel so bad and they can say “te lo dije” And, as George Lopez would say “so you learn”

And while they love you, they love anything free even more. And this invitation to see your new business is exactly that: an opportunity to get something for nothing because you’re family! So instead of buying anything, they will ask – in some cases demand – that you invite them to everything on the menu, or in the case of ear wax candles, a free candle to take home. This is not hinted at; no, this is expected and you had better cough up or else your friendship or familial relationship will be in peril.

Where does this come from I wonder? I am not an anthropologist but would love to hear from anyone who has a theory.

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Nacion Gourmet

One night not too long ago – but long enough that the Critic cannot remember what it was he ate – visited Nacion Gourmet with a large group of amigos. The concept is basically what Mercado 60 and that monstrous place downtown on 47 that is the scourge of all the poor folks who renovated their homes and now have to live with all the goddamn noise coming from this “hot spot”. A bunch of small restaurants in a circle-the-wagons set up with communal tables in the middle, with the added bonus of a stage set up on a platform over the bar.

Again, the food was entirely not memorable, so the Critic does apologize for those of you looking for a review of food; however, the experience, in general, was so meh that it behooves him to warn you, dear reader, in advance. The service started off well enough and went downhill from there, as more people arrived and the wait staff basically ignored the table. Food came out in spurts, no timing at all to ensure that the guests at this table would be eating more or less simultaneously, thus resulting everyone watching everyone else eat as food appeared. Great concept. It got better when the live music folks appeared and blasted out old Ana Gabriel hits and other such tropes at a volume entirely non-conducive to conversation. It may be of course that the Critic is just getting older and less patient with this crap.

Below, some photos of the various offerings at Nacion Gourmet. The Critic did not feel particularly gourmet-y at this venue. Your mileage might vary.