Venturing ever-further out with the pandemic still ongoing, Better Half and the Critic recently visited the relatively new breakfast spot La Libertad, located in Temozon Norte, a suburb of Merida outside the periférico and just beyond La Isla shopping mega-complex.
Not quite open, the restaurant sets up chairs outside for people to wait in a safe and socially distanced way. Once inside and the obligatory gel squirts and temperature pistol to the head protocols complied with, the Critic and BH were seated. Breakfast items were varied and plentiful, from an açai bowl to chilaquiles to real sourdough bread sandwiches.
What makes the place more special is that there are trees everywhere, even in the parking lot outside; there is a distinct Tulum-ish vibe going on which you will feel when you go.
The food was delicious and the service charming and friendly. Definitely, a return is in the cards, as there is much to try and the ambience is very appealing. Terrace and inside dining available.
We are returning from a very early morning visit to Celestun and are taking the back road to Merida, via the haciendas and Maxcanú. One of our stops is at the village of Kochol where the ruins of a once majestic sisal plantation slowly disintegrate.
My travel companions/guests wander over to the ruined hacienda building for a photo or two. Looking around, I see someone in a red baseball cap on the ground nearby.
“¿Que está haciendo?” I ask what turns out to be an ancient campesino sitting on the ground, determinedly scraping the dirt.
“Estoy sembrando, mira.” He waves his arm out around him, looking up, squinting, at me. “Ahi tengo mais, frijol, calabaza.”
His ‘milpa‘ is a patch of dirt behind the village public school and on the grounds of the crumbling former sisal hacienda, a short distance away. I don’t see corn, beans, or squash, but I realize that in his mind he is back in his fields, doing what he and the Mayans have done for hundreds of years.
I look over to see that the village drunk has stumbled over to socialize with the selfie-taking pair by the broken steps of what used to be the hacienda’s ‘casa principal‘. Another individual on a motorcycle shows up as well. My travel companions/guests are two women, Americans. Always a target for would-be Lotharios.
La cultura trae conocimiento. El conocimiento conduce a la conciencia. Y cuando nos hacemos conscientes, estamos a un paso de ser socialmente responsables. La cultura es la clave
Note: a version of this article is soon to be published in the Yucatan Today magazine.
Maria furiously swings her cane, over and over, beating on the defenseless form at her feet while I and a few others stand in a circle around her and watch a mixture of respect and a touch of alarm at her energetic, almost frantic, efforts to rip open the piñata.
“I do not want to get on her bad side.” This thought rushes into my mind as she vents a hidden fury.
While the concept of
volunteering is not as evident as it is north of the border, Mexico does have a
long tradition of individuals and social organizations responding to help those
in need; particularly through the church. Of late, as more and more people find
themselves in need, more and more individuals, organizations and even private
companies have stepped forward to provide relief.
She looks up, her hair
wildly out of place and flashes us a huge toothless grin. She has succeeded
where the tender fists of the few children who had come to the Refettorio’s
first Christmas brunch had not; candies now lie strewn about, and everyone
–young and old – scrambles on all fours to grab their share. Everyone loves a
The latest entry into the
world of social assistance from the private sector is a joint venture involving
non-profits including Italian chef Massimo Bottura’s Food for Soul and our very
own Fundación Palace Resorts. In a meticulously restored colonial mansion in
the heart of Merida’s centro, a space has been designed to provide those who
need it with a dignified and communal place to eat healthy, beautiful
three-course meals served by volunteers. There is art on the walls, silverware
on the tables. Meals are planned, based on what donations have been acquired
and how they can be combined in a nutritious and attractive way. Each plate, as
designed by chef José Angel Zamudio, rivals anything you will find at any of
Merida’s finest restaurants, both in presentation and in deliciousness.
As the children and the
adults return to their seats, a small band plays music and a few of the people get
up to dance. Many of the guests, homeless or in otherwise precarious
situations, are able to enjoy a moment free of tension, worry and hardship. The
Refettorio is a place where they not only enjoy a first class meal, but also
have the opportunity to take a shower with fresh soap and clean towels, obtain
a change of clothes if necessary and even, on certain days, get a haircut.
All of this is possible
through the support of the Palace Resorts and the logistical backing of Food
for Soul. A minimal staff under the expert supervision of Claudia Bolio runs the
operation and the active participation of dozens of volunteers – in the kitchen
and in the dining room – provide the hands that ensure the work gets done.
Since opening this past
year, in the middle of a very unplanned pandemic, the Refettorio has:
21,000 plates of food
8 tons of food
participation of over 100 vulnteers
organizations with donations
attended over 350 individuals in need in Merida’s historic centro
There’s one other bit of data missing: how helping out has affected me, as one of a score of volunteers. Many of the families and individuals I had the opportunity to visit in their homes when we were doing meal delivery and now those who have come to the Refettorio to enjoy a meal I know by name and they know me. It has been a blessing to have found Claudia and this program, as it has allowed me to get out of my often-negative pandemic headspace and do something productive and feel useful.
If you have the time and the inclination, helping out at the Refettorio is a great way to give back to the community and assist those who need it most. See their website for details and contact information.
We’re in the middle of our hurricane season and so far we’ve seen Cristobal, Gamma and Delta work their way across or along the coasts of the peninsula leaving behind not so much damage in the way of wind, but plenty of concerns over an excess of water.
The water table in the city of Merida sits at about 8 meters below ground level. After the heavy rains dumped on the peninsula by tropical storm Cristobal in June, not a historically rainy month, the ground became saturated and the water table began to rise as underground currents pushed the water towards the coastlines (Progreso, Campeche, Cancun) and there, the unusually large volume of water, finding normal resistance from the sea, was pushed back. However, there was nowhere to go but up. And so the water table continued to rise.
Tropical storm Gamma, that moved across the peninsula, dropping massive amounts of water as it went, hit the coast near Progreso and then turned back, dropping down onto land again and making its way slowly towards the city of Campeche.
Finally, hurricane Delta hit the coast of Quintana Roo and moved across the peninsula in a northwesterly direction. It did not directly impact the city of Merida but the rains accompanying the storm impacted further the already waterlogged state.
The water had nowhere to go and so, it broke the surface.
Flooding has been rampant. The newer neighborhoods of Las Americas and Caucel seemed especially hard hit. Entire streets were converted into lakes and rivers. Homeowners, desperate to see the water disappear, took the unfortunate and ill-advised step of removing the grates from the drains, thereby exposing the wells to garbage, leaves and more. The wells were, in fact, not absorbing water; rather, they were acting as springs, spewing up groundwater into the streets around them.
The city’s only underpass, a constant source of amusement for citizens who love to criticize and often the victim of the Yucatecans acerbic wit, was flooded once again. Below-ground parking lots at the La Isla and Harbour shopping malls, as well as Chedraui, were flooded to the roof. There are spooky videos online of divers in the underground/water parking lot of Harbour.
The only Costco in the world with a cenote, now had a cenote with water you could almost reach out and touch.
In our neighborhood in the northern part of Merida, we have seen severe flooding that hasn’t – as of this writing, 3 days after Delta’s tail passed through – yet receded. Many people all over the city are up in arms, complaining on social media about poor planning, the lack of drainage wells, the criminally negligent architects and engineers, and of course, the incompetence and useless efforts of the hated politicians, both city and state.
Pumping – A Possible Solution?
Calls for more pipas (tanker trucks with pumps that will remove water) are a popular theme. City and state officials are happy to comply although they probably are aware that this is a short-term, mostly cosmetic solution. These are not puddles or pools of water that can simply be emptied. This water is the water table for the entire peninsula that has risen to historic levels, breaking the surface in many areas that are low enough to be impacted. Any attempts to suck it up and take it somewhere else (where, exactly, is a mystery) are doomed to failure as it will simply seep up again.
The only real solution is to wait. This is less than comforting if your living room has a couple of inches or more of water or you have lost your furniture due to flooding, but there really is nothing that can be done. The water under our feet must move to the ocean and the water table must drop, in order for the surface water to disappear. It behooves us all to pray/wish/manifest that there be no more rain as that would prolong this slow process.
The Mexican Solution is Humor
The best part of any tragedy or ostensibly negative situation is the Mexican acute sense of fatalistic humor. It never ceases to amaze me the creativity of people coming up with these ideas and how quickly they make their way into everyone’s Facebook, Instagram and other social media accounts.
A group of heavy black howler monkeys clustered on the roof of the opera house. Their growling and grunting had suddenly stopped, and an eerie silence seeped into the air. In the plaza below, a lone human stood among the bursting saplings and greenery, its exuberant jungle energy straining against paving stones and inexorably buckling concrete and asphalt.
The facade of the once-great cultural monument inaugurated to great fanfare in 1897 with money from wealthy rubber barons in what was then to be the most important urban center in the region, and for many decades afterward, the gateway to the Brazilian Amazon, was now a scene reminiscent of one of the darker chapters of Edgar H. Sullivan’s literary masterpiece The Lost Civilizations. Bright green vines snaked wildly across tiled floors and reached up to strangle pillars and columns, filling in arches. Here and there, the stained glass had broken where a branch had poked through a window and at night, fruit bats swarmed out into the cool, moist air, to hunt for insects in the abandoned mass of glass and concrete that was once Manaus.
Back in the plaza, the man – the human the apes had noticed, was a man – stood marveling at the steaming mass of plants that were obviously thriving thanks to the extended absence of human feet. Of the famous Abertura dos Portos monument placed in the middle of this space, only the outstretched arm of a bronze woman holding a torch – upon which now perched an indifferent black vulture – could be seen through the tangle of green. The undulating, epilepsy-inducing black and white tile plaza floor was buried under decomposing leaves and marching ants. The scene was peaceful yet somehow menacing at the same time.
The man wiped his forehead and, swinging the machete, began to hack his way towards what used to be the grand staircase leading up to the entrance of the grand building.
He had always wanted to go to the theater and this seemed a good a time as any.
UPDATE: Please also read the tragic update, below, written just one day after publishing this.
We are all getting back into the swing of things with a sigh of relief at being “let out” and also a bit of apprehension as this virus is nowhere near controlled just yet. (at the time of this writing Mexico has not reached anything resembling a plateau or flattening of the curve) But, we can now order alcohol again (home delivery only) and move about more freely. More stores are open, not just grocery and OXXO either. Roadblocks are fewer and far between and so, traffic is on the upswing as well.
In much of the peninsula outside the main urban areas, there has been little to no traffic with access to many a small town restricted. Now, with these impediments removed, vehicles are once again returning to the highways of the Yucatan. This will lead to the inevitable death of many birds and other creatures who have quickly become accustomed to the lack of human activity and have ventured out from their forest homes to inspect the open and asphalted areas that are perfect for picking off insects and other small natural food items.
All manner of animals have been spotted around the peninsula, from crocodiles and deer to even a jaguar at an empty Bahia Principe hotel, near Akumal. And maybe it’s just me, but there seem to be so many more birds around than before.
Just this week, on a drive back from the village of Telchaquillo, I came across a flash of bright orange on the highway and pulled over to have a look. It was a yuya, which is a kind of local oriole, very beautiful with the typical orange, yellow and black plumage that was lying, motionless, next to another bird that had obviously been hammered by a vehicle at high speed and then run over by another.
At that moment a truck whizzed by and the unflattened bird blew from one lane to the other like an empty bag of Doritos. And its legs moved!
I got out of my car and picked it up. It didn’t appear to have anything broken but was obviously in distress and just blinked in confusion. Probably it had also been hit by a car and had injuries that were not readily visible. As I looked at it and took a photo, it stretched weirdly from head to toe – like a cat does – and then remained motionless. The bird had just died in my hand.
I set it down in the underbrush on the side of the road and got back in my car.
If you are reading this and are driving, please be extra careful out there on the highways to as not to accidentally hit anything. Maybe even slow down a bit! It’ll be better for you, better for your gasoline bill and better for the environment.
It’s strange – almost eerie – that just a day after publishing the above, I encounter this on the entrance road to the La Ceiba golf course. This beautiful animal was killed by someone in a too much of a hurry driving far too fast. Can we please be aware and SLOW DOWN? This is tragic.
Note: this article was started in 2010! I found it lurking behind the mayonnaise in the back of the fridge and after a quick re-read, thought it worthy of sharing. Enjoy!
I witnessed today what was probably an historical event. It was what those of us who speak English would call a ‘groundbreaking’ ceremony, where officials and businessmen have a little event aka a photo op where someone with completely un-calloused hands grasps a shovel for probably the first time in their life and pretends to actually dig something while mugging for the cameras of the eager press. In the Yucatan, where digging is a physical impossibility in most cases due to the half an inch of topsoil covering a solid limestone rock layer that extends from the hills of Muna to the coast, the groundbreaking become the ‘primera piedra‘ ceremony.
In this particular case, we were witnessing the unveiling and blessing of the ‘cornerstone’ of yet another Centro Comercial (mall) this one to be built by a conglomeration of business interests, most of which are foreign to the foreigners who read this so I will stick to generalities. The fine folks who gave us the Gran Plaza mall have gotten together with the modest Carso group (owners of such fine commercial ventures as Sanborns, Sears, Dorians, Mixup and more (including TelCel and TelMex), the Ramirez clan who own the Cinepolis chain of cinemas, and Yucatan’s largest franchise owner/operator who owns/operates most of the franchises you see in southwestern Mexico such as Kentucky Fried Chicken (known locally as simply Ken-Toh-Key), Pizza Hut (not to be confused with the local Pizza Hot), Burger King (yes, there is a Burger Queen in Merida) and the Bisquets Bisquets de Obregon franchise from Mexico.
The new mall, to be built on the new avenue that takes you to Cholul, will be spectacular, according to all those present. But this article is not about the new mall; rather, it is about the groundbreaking ceremony itself.
Once your car was parked by the obligatory valet parking, you found yourself on a corner of the property designated to soon become treeless and filled with more concrete, the scene was set with billowing white tents, hundreds of exotic candles providing subdued lighting and lounge-style background music. ‘Lounge’ is the latest style to hit Merida and everyone wants to incorporate it into their festivities to make them so much more hip. Plants were everywhere, all rushed in at the last minute and to be removed soon after the last guests had left. All kinds of fine upstanding folks were there, from the proud and fan-waving (it was a hot night) parents of some of the investors, potential contractors (lighting, construction and other) engineers doing their best to schmooze with the investors and line up some work, slim tall edecanes (female models) holding ends of ribbons and standing behind the men at the presidium table like so many exotic flowers, along with local politicians and church officials.
It is important to break here and mention that when you are starting a business in Merida, or perhaps anywhere in Mexico, it is vital that you have a ceremony where a symbolic ribbon is cut by someone important and that someone from the Catholic hierarchy drops by to say a little spiel and splash some holy water around to´’bless’ the new business venture. You can be the biggest crook in town, but if you have enough cash, all this can be arranged without any difficulty whatsoever. Now the more important you perceive your new undertaking to be, the more exclusive the list of invites. In the case of this new mall, it was a Very Big Deal indeed, because the mayor did not send a representative as he usually might do; he came himself. The governor also showed up, in person. This speaks well for the investors of the mall; that these important people, who must have very busy schedules, would take the time to come to a private function such as this and utter a few mumbled words of encouragement and take advantage of the situation to remind those present that all this development was the result of excellent government at both the municipal and state level. Of course.
But your event is complete if you can persuade some higher-up from the Catholic church to perform the Water Ceremony; and who better than the arch-bishop of Yucatan himself? Well lo and behold, he showed up in his newly acquired wheelchair with plenty of help to push him around and a vial of the necessary holy water. The size of this particular project and the actual stone itself compared to the amount of ‘holy’ water in his little vial, reminded him of a case where he had gone to a car dealership to perform this ceremony and the owner had asked him, as he splashed his water around, if that was ALL the water he had brought. He had replied “Do you want me to bless your dealership or wash the cars?” A stand-up comedian! In a wheelchair. The irony.
I don’t know where this was to end when I wrote it in 2010, but it was a work in progress that I found while cleaning up bits and pieces, odds and ends, of my writings and thought it was worth sharing.
Some new words and phrases have entered out lexicon, hand in hand with COVID19: social distancing, N95 facemasks, PPE, shelter-in-place and more. One term I have seen used all over the place – and used myself – is the phrase hunkering down. Everyone is hunkering down these days.
Hunkering sounds to me like something out of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel, something a sailor might be doing, crouched on an island in a shelter made out of palm fronds along with bits and pieces rescued from a broken sailing vessel. Or a man stranded alone in the mountains, protected from the elements by pine and fir branches, perhaps staring out at a small fire sputtering in the drizzle directly outside.
It is rare if not impossible to find hunkering all by itself. You can’t just hunker. “I’ll be hunkering over here for a while” just doesn’t work. You have to hunker … down.
Dictionary.com has five definitions but it is the third one on the list that definitely applies at this moment:
“to settle into the safety of one’s home or other designated shelter for a potentially long time, as would be necessitated by a natural disaster or an outbreak of a contagious disease”
It’s first recorded usage dates back to the early 1700’s and is possibly derived from the Old Norse hüka which means ‘to crouch’ This in turn is similar to the old Dutch huiken or modern German hocken, both of which mean ‘to squat or crouch’ so that theory seems to make perfect sense.
To my untrained ear it sounds very old-British and some have even traced its use back to Scotland. I fact, the Oxford English Dictionary describes how to hunker: “squat, with the haunches, knees and ankles acutely bent, so as to bring the hams near the heels (hams? really?) and throw the whole weight upon the fore part of the feet”.
An interesting and digressive factoid: the term was popularized in south-western United States dialect form by U.S. President Johnson in the 1960’s.
No matter its origins; while the hunkering down we are doing is less about crouching on haunches in the wild, it is about staying in one place, safe from the outside world and its inherent and contagious dangers, and staring – like the shipwreck victim or the mountain man – balefully out at the bleak world just beyond our shelter.
While we are all in the coronavirus state of mind, involuntarily or voluntarily hunkered down in our homes, we spend a lot more time on the internet, on social media; in my case, Facebook.
Recently, I was invited to join a private Facebook group that purportedly fosters “civil” discussion between left and right. It’s called “Bridge the Divide – a place for civil political/cultural discourse.
What a shit-show.
A few hours this past week reading, answering and commenting and reading some more, convinced me that it’s a Facebook page designed by the Russians (or the Chinese or – insert evil and foreign villain here – ) to further divide the crumbling United States of America and erode any last shred of empathy and understanding between its citizens.
First of all, the questions posted. Designed to incite rather than inspire, they are asked by what appear to be trolls (always ‘new members’) who will “innocently” ask ridiculous questions like “Is there racism in America? I’m really wondering.” and “Is Trump a decent person?” in order to provoke reactions and the exchange quickly becomes heated and childish.
The conversation train then jumps the rails and bogs down in the swamp of predictable hate and playground-style arguments, as expected.
“Look who’s talking” is a popular comeback. After unsuccessfully trying to make a point about why Trump is far from decent, I was told to watch Shapiro, Glenn Beck and OAN to learn the truth and to avoid the “mainstream media” This person seemed very serious.
One woman posted that racists are those who are constantly pointing out people’s skin color. TO which I replied “said the white person” and of course I got the “case in point” answer. That’s settled then – I’m a racist.
White guy: “Racism? Doesn’t exist. It’s about people and their choices. Self-determination. And reality. Like if I try out for the basketball team I am not going to be as good as the guy born 6′ 10″. That’s just the way it is.”
Me: “First of all, no one is born 6′ 10″. Second maybe you should look back at your family tree to see how many of your ancestors came over chained to a ship. That might determine your present situation”
White guy: “You don’t know my situation.”
Yea, you’re right, I don’t.
There are long posts, paragraphs that would initially seem to indicate some sort of intelligent life dialogue happening until you actually read them.
The more I read, the more I feel the need to rebut some of the more egregious statements, knowing full well that it is useless. Also, I can feel my blood pressure rising. So, while it is entertaining and frustrating and infuriating all at the same time, being a member of this community just isn’t for me.