Monthly Archives: October 2007

Chichen Itzá

A visit to Chichen Itzá recently was very interesting, since I hadn’t been there in probably 10 or more years!
Turns out you can no longer climb the Castillo – with all those tourists visiting (some estimates put the annual figure at 30 million!) there would be just too much erosion. Back in the day, you not only could climb the Castillo and admire the wonderful view that probably was enjoyed only by the Mayan priests but also go inside the Castillo to see the jade eyes of the jaguar found in its interior. Anyone who had the chance to climb those claustrophobic, humid one-person-at-a-time steps will remember the experience fondly, although the wet smell of all that sweaty humanity was a bit of a turn-off.
Also, the sellers of kitschy souvenirs were outside the ruins, not on the actual grounds as they are now. This is a real distraction when trying to appreciate the grandeur of the ruins; having someone in your face waving a carved mask saying “my fren my fren, goo price for jew” or “here fren” as if you were some kind of dumb ass that was going to obey this canine-like command. Now they are all over the site, which might not be a bad thing if it was a lot more discreet, a little more authentic and they actually sold things made in the region by locals. But to see those mass-produced fleece blankets with the aztec warrior waving in the hot sun was a little jarring.
Think of the money that pours into this site with all those visitors! Walking around the ruins and the entrance lobby, stores and nearby “market” you can only think how awful it looks. Not the ruins, all the crap around it. The restaurants and little ‘shops’ look like they were designed by a … I can’t think of anyone suitably unqualified. They are not designed at all. Ugly, half-painted concrete, dirty, run down and staffed with indifferent sallow faced employees. No money has been invested in the infrastructure for decades, or so it seems.
I sat in the market area, where you leave the site, watching 2 out of 3 red-faced tourists stumble on the uneven paving stones while glancing over their shoulders at the depressing spectacle of 4 or 5 half-naked Mayan men and boys wearing plastic feathers and half-heartedly performing pieces of a ceremony. Under a tree, a guayabera-wearing young man with a microphone was announcing that the show was free, that people could take pictures at no cost, that the show was about to start, that the show was a real Mayan ceremony, it would start in a few minutes. He narrated what they were doing, which seemed to be the same thing over and over again, in preparation for the show that would start ‘eena few meenits”. It never really started and no one really took any photos. It was a joke, like the Indian shows at some tourist stop in the US or Canada, or the Aztec dancing at the traffic lights in Mexico City. Is this what the Mayan culture has evolved to? Doesn’t anyone see how pathetic this all looks and feels?
While the ruins at Chichen Itzá are as imposing and majestic as ever, it is extremely difficult to reconcile the obvious culture and knowledge of the ancient builders of this impressive site with the mediocrity and complete lack of good taste or sensitivity aka culture of the modern chimpanzees charged with the administration of Chichen Itzá today.

San Bernardo de Sierna de Don Juanito – Valladolid

The other day, the Critic was invited to Valladolid to have lunch with friends. The restaurant chosen is the oldest restaurant in Valladolid, and it’s a mouthful in itself: San Bernadino de Sierna de Don Juanito.

Apparently Don Juanito is now in his 70’s and the Critic didn’t have a chance to meet him, but did get a glimpse of his shotgun hanging on the wall, as well as a photograph of him carving up a roast pig on one occasion when the restaurant, still twice the size it is now, was filled with 2,000 people. The waiter informed the Critic’s party of this fact; no historical sources were researched to authenticate this nugget of information. 2,000 people does seem like a lot… Also, the Critic’s party members were intrigued by the stuffed ‘pavo de monte’, a pheasant like bird common to the Yucatan at some point, in an unlit glass case in one dark corner. The Critic suggested perhaps it was some offering to coincide with the Day of the Dead celebrations coming up, but the waiter informed everyone that the owner had shot this bird many many years ago and then had it stuffed.

The menu is ample and there is probably something for everyone. The Critic’s party however, came for the Yucatecan food and for this hungry party of 5, the waiter suggested bringing out plates of all the Yucatecan dishes on the menu (there weren’t that many after all, and the Critic’s favorite, queso relleno, was reserved for Sundays only) and this was agreed on.

So, after getting plates, cutlery wrapped in a paper napkin and some watery agua de lima (lime water) with ice, the dishes arrived. The papadzules, soft corn tortillas stuffed with egg and covered with pumpkin seed sauce and tomato sauce, were delicious as was the brazo de reina, a corn masa loaf made with chaya (spinach-like vegetable very common in Yucatecan back yards) and also served with the previously mentioned sauces. The lomitos de Valladolid (small pork chunks cooked in a tomato-y sauce and seasoned to perfection were very good, while the poc chuc – a marinated and very flat strip of pork – was extremely tasty but unfortunately also cooked to the point of shoe leather. Cochinita pibil and it’s feathered cousin, pollo pibil, which is essentially the meat seasoned with annato seed paste among other things and baked in banana leaves in underground pits, were also quite good, with the chicken getting mixed reviews from the others in the party. The Critic’s personal favorite was the longaniza, the chorizo like sausage Valladolid is known for. Fried, it was crispy crunchy on the outside and smoky and flavorful on the inside. Wonderful in a hot tortilla all by itself with a dash of habanero chile salsa on top for an extra kick

A big disappointment were the tortillas, which arrived luke-warm and had to be sent back to be nuked in a microwave. Also, they were not hand made, but rather the assembly line stamped by a machine variety which are so common these days.

After dinner Xtabentun, a local liquor, was not available, since they had “just run out.”

The service was excellent, the waiter most attentive and informative without being overly familiar as is occasionally the case when Mexican waiters are dealing with tourists.

Bathrooms are in pretty bad shape, considering that this is supposed to be a tourist town. They are not clean and there is no place for garbage as in paper towels when you have dried your hands. The toilets are of the hover variety, which means they haven’t bought toilet seats so you have a choice of hovering or placing the delicate white skin of your buttocks directly on the unwashed porcelain. There is no flushing of toilets with paper permitted; the standard battered plastic bucket with used toilet tissue from previous visitors stands at the ready, presumably waiting for you to finish hovering. The soap dispenser, on the other hand, is electrically motivated, completely at odds with the rest of the ‘ambience’ and will make you jump when you place your hand under the dispenser and a light comes on, a motor whirrs and liquid soap squirts into your hand.

This restaurant is not bad, but has deteriorated since the Critic last visited it. What is needed is a thorough cleaning and revamping of the building itself with a special emphasis on the bathrooms since this will gross most people out. The menu is not bad but tries to cover too much ground and should be whittled down to emphasize the Yucatecan dishes; in addition, the Critic would capitalize on the fact that if it is indeed the oldest in Valladolid, the restaurant is practically a historical site and should be promoted along with the story of the owner.

And they might want to think about buying another bottle of Xtabentun.

SAN BERNARDO DE SIERNA DE DON JUANITO
CALLE 49 #227 X 48 Y 50 BARRIO DE SISAL
(985) 856 46 53

Rating? On a scale of 1-5, this restaurant currently gets a 2.

Great Service – Gasolinera Maya

Here is a note about some really nice folks – the staff at the Gasolinera Maya Pemex station on the highway to Progreso (the one that has a crappy 7-11 on the premises).

This gas station has always struck me and my better half as being leagues above the norm in customer service. When you arrive at the pump, the greet you with a smile and “welcome to the Gasolinera Maya” and they actually look like they are happy to see you. They are also one of the first gas stations with a remote credit card terminal so you can pay with debit or credit cards from the comfort of your vehicle.

Yesterday, I filled up one car and paid with my debit card. 2 hours later, I stopped by again with a second vehicle and had that one filled up as well. When I tried to pay with the debit card, there was a communication problem with the terminal and, after two attempts, I tried with the credit card. None went through. Not having any cash on me and with no ATM around, I half-jokingly said, “well, you know who I am, I can come back later and pay you”. And guess what? That’s exactly what happened! These people just asked me to sign a small slip of paper, leave my name and number and to come back later when the terminal was working again!

I have got to say I was blown away by their confianza and goodwill! I would rate their customer service, on a scale of 1 to 10, at a solid 10. Don’t subject yourself to indifferent or bad service (Servicio Campestre, across from Sam’s is a consistent and depressing -1 on the service scale, for example) by buying your gasoline anywhere else!

What is the Attraction of Konsushi?

The Casual Critic has had the opportunity, so to speak, to have lunch at this extremely popular sushi restaurant located behind the Pemex gas station across from Sam’s Club on the Prolongacion de Montejo , thanks to invitations from extended family members who seem to enjoy it.
Do you enjoy hot, crowded, noisy, rushed-service sushi restaurants? Then this could be the place for you.
You can call him a snob, but the Critic cannot find anything remotely attractive about this sushi restaurant. The creamy dips and things give the Critic the willy-nillys (hygiene and temperature issues come to mind) and most of the rolls have artery clogging philadelphia cheese throughout.

On one occasion, the Critic had to visit the washroom and, in spite of Mini-Critic’s warnings against doing so, visited the men’s room. The accompanying photo can give potential diners of what they will find. The complete absence of any aesthetic considerations is astonishing. Note the professional electrical installation with several wires sticking out next to the tiny sink. The lack of any kind of toilet seat on the WC is another nod to third world expectations.

If this is what is visible to the public’s naked eye, what doesn’t happen in the kitchen?

But they are a very popular choice. Price seems to be the main attraction, along with the fact that they are feeding to their clientele what that clientele thinks is exotic Japanese food. On weekends and nights, the place is jumping.

The Critic gives it a solid 2 out of 5.

Starbucks – November 9th, 2007 in Merida Yucatan

Here is living proof that the former Wendy’s site, next to the Gran Plaza mall in northern Merida, will very soon be a hang-out of all the local wanna-be’s who can afford to spend 40-60 pesos for their coffee.

One has to wonder why people get so upset about Starbucks coming into an area – Starbucks isn’t exactly pointing guns at people’s heads to make them buy coffee there are they? I mean if it bothers people so much, don’t go and Starbucks will eventually leave. Business is business.
The Critic also wonders what all the coffee places are thinking? Will they re-train their staff to be better, friendlier and faster? Or will they throw their hands in the hair, stomp their feet and whine that it’s ‘unfair’.
The Casual Restaurant Critic gets a special kick out of the folks (American Walmart Bashers mostly he suspects) who lament the demise of the “traditional cafés” in Merida!
Let it be known: There are no traditional cafés in Merida!
A brief history of coffee in Merida:
The first one to offer a cappuccino was Mario’s, a hole in the wall in Plaza Fiesta that served some pretty horrendous cappuccino complete with heavy carnation cream as milk and watery sweet coffee. This was in the mid-80’s. From way back (probably as far back as the time of the Conquista, judging from the size of some of those rodents) there was the rat-infested Louvre who, along with many others, served (some still do) a piss-poor excuse for coffee, also known as agua de calcetin because it had the consistency and flavor of water that a well-used sock had been soaked in.
All the rest of the cafés in the Yucatan served Nescafé instant coffee. If you wanted black coffee, you got hot water along with your chipped plastic cup and a jar of Nescafé. Café con Leche? No problem – you got the same chipped grey plastic cup, this time filled with hot instant Nido milk into which you poured the instant coffee granules.
All the other coffee places came much later – Italian Coffee, the Coffee Factory, Segafredo, Café Havana, VIPS, Sanborns – and none of them are local.
This isn’t Veracruz folks! There isn’t even a tradition of drinking coffee in the Yucatan. Please don’t make the ridiculous accusation that Starbucks will hurt all the local charming cafés because that’s just a crock. Starbucks will only hurt them if they offer a superior product, in a superior environment, at a reasonable price. The Critic sees the latter as a problem, since Starbucks is pretty pricey and Yucatecans are pretty tight with their pesos… this could lead to a problem for Starbucks once the initial furor has worn off and the status quotient has reached it’s zenith. Are there enough gringos with enough cash (remember that many come here because it’s cheap and so are in the same boat as the Yucatecans) to support this Starbucks?
Anyway I will be in there from time to time for an espresso con panna, although I can already get this at Segafredo (they use artificial whipped cream though, ugh) and Italian Coffee, where it is pretty darn good.
Your comments are always appreciated.

Notes on Mall Sanitation Methods

This morning, as I headed to work in my store in the Gran Plaza mall and prior to its opening to the public, I observed a cleaning person standing next to the electric escalator, his grey haired mop horizontally positioned on the hand rail. It took me a minute to realize what he was doing: “cleaning” the black, rubbery handrail that moves along with the electric escalator! As he looked around and watched the comings and goings of the people around him, his probably less-than-sanitary mop was wiping the handrail without any effort on his part whatsoever.

While not a particularly effective way to clean, it is most assuredly another fine example of Mexican ingenuity!

Something to think about next time you are at the mall, going up or down on one of those escalators and reach out to grab the handrail…

Carls Junior Relocation / Wendy’s Closes / Starbucks on the Way

For those of you who are fanatics of a decent hamburger (and who isn’t) the sight of Carl’s Jr. closing their one and only Montejo location across from Sam’s Club was terribly upsetting. Even more so when Wendy’s also closed their location next to the Gran Plaza mall. While Wendy’s was having some problems, they did have a decent burger… but who suspected that Carl’s Jr. was having any difficulties?

Turns out though, that everyone can rest easy; Carl’s Jr. has reopened in the Mexico Norte colonia, in a new L-shaped shopping center (Mérida has so few, that it is imperative that more of these be opened almost on a weekly basis) located beside Planet Bol (bowl) which has won awards for it’s clever use of local vegetation in it’s landscaping and it’s spacious parking lot. Not.

You will be glad to know that the Critic checked and the good news is that the burgers at the relocated Carls Jr. are as big, sloppy and tasty as at the original location; the service is somewhat lackluster and unenthusiastic and the Cartoon Network blares away for the benefit of the employees who watch glassy-eyed as Bob Sponge indulges in his latest adventures.

For those of you interested in the back story (chisme!), Carls Jr. is owned by the same folks that own Burger King and it seems that BK wanted the Montejo location and so Carl’s was sacrificed to give the King more visibility on Mérida’s most important traffic artery, offsetting the imposing McDonald’s just a few hundred feet away.

As for the Wendy’s location, there will be a Starbucks there very soon. Yes, Starbucks is finally arriving in Mérida and it is rumored that they will be opening in the upcoming malls at Liverpool and Altabrisa as well as that other one being built by Hines on the periferico.

Hewlett Packard Service in Merida, Yucatan

One Christmas, not too many moons ago, my much better half bought me a computer for Christmas; a brand new, top of the line HP computer from Liverpool.

Living as we do in the land of the CFE, the national electricity monopoly that works for the “progress of Mexico” (it says so right there on their logo) while remaining unable to maintain a continuous flow of electricity to its over-paying client/victims, it was inevitable that one day the computer would sputter to a halt, as a result of an afore-alluded-to power problem.

I therefore headed off to Liverpool to ask about service and repair; where to obtain same, and was informed that Liverpool had nothing to do with it since it had been longer than the in-store guarantee and I should visit the ‘authorized’ HP service center, a company by the name of Genesis located on Avenida Cupules in this formerly white city.

At this once-stately Garcia Gineres area address, Genesis has haphazardly and tastelessly converted a formerly elegant residence and made it into a junky looking office where it is the authorized service center for not only HP but Epson as well. Unsmiling, unhelpful employees abound and eagerly await your departure so they can get back to whatever important tasks they are undertaking.

The receptionist, also unsmiling and rather sad looking, kind of like a mistreated pet, listens with a face totally devoid of either interest or empathy as you explain the problem. She then proceeds to make out a service order in her computer which you then take and off you go.

About a week or two later, I was informed that no problem had been detected with the CPU (a cooling fan problem that caused the machine to shut down at start-up) and that the problem probably lay with my electrical source (ie wall plug). OK. It was running fine here in the shop, they tell me. Fine. I pay my service charge (about $20 USD) pick up my computer and take it home, eager to get it up and running.

You know what happens next. I connected everything and voila, same problem. “Falla en el tubo de ventilacion, se apagara el CPU para evitar daños a la computadora” or something to that effect.

I call them, just a little miffed.

“Well it was working fine here” they answer.

“But it’s not working now, here. Can’t you come and get it and check it again – here where the computer is actually plugged in – to make up for what was obviously a complete waste of my time and money for the first reparation?” I insist on thinking like a foreigner.

“No, we don’t do that.”

After asking for and speaking with a supervisor, Genesis agreed that they would come out to pick up the CPU and take it back to the shop, as a customer service gesture, which was evidently not something normally within the scope of their operations.

“When can you come?” I ventured, still on the phone.

En el transcurso del dia de mañana” – sometime during the day.

“Could you be a little more precise since there is no one in the house and I would have to come back from work to get you access to the PC so you can check it out.”

“No, we would call you before coming to let you know. Can you give us your home number?”

“If I give you my home number, no one will answer it because there is no one there. I can give you my cell phone number and you can call me and we can meet at the house.” I am starting to think that not only are these people not particularly service-oriented, they are also a little cerebrally challenged. And here comes the best line of this whole exchange:

“No, a cell phone won’t work.”

“Why?” This is wierd.

“We just need a regular phone number, not a cell phone.”

“Are you telling me that you can’t or don’t have permission to call cell phones to communicate with your clients?!” I am suspecting this and can not believe what I am hearing.

Asi es” is the response I get.

To keep this story from going on forever: I finally wrangled a three hour time frame from them and we were set. The technicians came and checked the computer, which did not respond to their repeated attempts at starting it up; the technician doing the rebooting was even spinning the ventilation fan by hand and saw that it was indeed, stuck. So they took the CPU back to the shop. That was mid-July.

A few days later I was informed that the CPU was working fine and it was indeed a problem with my electrical outlets. Knowing the CFE and how electricity comes and goes, I did not consider this outrageous and resigned myself to hiring an electrician to come and break apart my walls and re-cable everything. Viva Mexico. At the shop, a different technician, one I hadn’t seen before, escorted me into the back area where my CPU was, to demonstrate to me that it was working just fine, there in the shop. The technician I had previously talked to was on the phone with me at the same time making sure that the gringo (me) could see that it worked and would he please leave us the hell alone. The technician in front of me flicked the switch and lo and behold, “Falla en el tubo de ventilacion, se apagara el CPU para evitar daños a la computadora“. There is a god and he is just, I am thinking.

The guy on the phone wants to talk to the technician “no puede ser” he says to the guy in front me.

“I’m looking right at it.” he replies. “Yes, it’s the right computer” he insists.

OK. Now they will have another look at it. I should come back later. They will let me know.

In the last week of August, having heard nothing about my computer and having received no phone calls (at home) to update me on what was happening, I visited the sad receptionist again and she informed me that the problem was now the motherboard and they had not gotten a price for its replacement and that is why they hadn’t called. Oh. And would it not have been nice to let me know that they had made this discovery and perhaps given me a call to inform me about the ongoing saga and perhaps get an opinion from me as to whether or not to proceed? This unreasonable remark provoked only a shrug from the sad receptionist and I again left with the idea that I would be called as soon as they had a price for the new motherboard.

On September 30, I drove for the fourth and last time to Merida’s Hewlett Packard ‘service’ center. No, I hadn’t received a call (at home). I just figured it was time to rescue that CPU before the technology became completely obsolete and my family photos were lost forever. A sallow faced individual who was obviously there against his will on a prison work experience program judging from his attitude, looked at my worn piece of paper, got my CPU and asked me to sign. He also asked me to pay. For what? I asked. Nothing has been done and the original ‘revision’ had already been paid for. Oh yeah. OK. Es todo. And I was free to go.

Hewlett Packard – you should be ashamed at having these people represent your company! All that advertising money spent so that people take this memory with them when they have a problem with your equipment! Why should anyone buy a HP product and not a ‘patito’ brand instead? The service will be the same, so why pay more?