Category Archives: Life in the Yucatan

The good, the bad and the ugly. Telling it like I see it for over 10 years now.

The Aftermath

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.

On the Road, Again

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!

At this point, this little bird was still blinking

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.

UPDATE:

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.

The sign says “Exceso de Velocidad”

Primera Piedra

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. 

May 18, 2020. On Hunkering… Down

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.

May 4, 2020 – UnCivil Discourse

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.

Civil discourse indeed.

April 24, 2020. Facemasks. Or Something. Rabbits.

We’re so used to exchanging polite smiles in our daily social interactions that I found it strange to see that the cashier at the supermarket wasn’t returning my supposedly friendly smile.

I thought that maybe he was having a bad day but then it dawned on me that he had no idea what was going on underneath my protective face mask that covered my mouth and eyes.

Jeez here I am all motivated to write this and I do a quick search for the subject, I see that it has already been written about, and probably much more thoroughly than I could have done, here What else can I write about. Hmm. Rabbits?

I cooked a rabbit the other day. I had gone out to one of the little villages about 45 minutes from Merida to deliver a couple of despensas and one of the ladies said she wanted to give me a rabbit.

Do readers unfamiliar with Mexican Spanish know what a despensa is? It’s a package/box/bag/collection of usually food items for folks that are needy. Needy as in they need them, not a personality trait.

I asked the lady if the rabbit was already beneficiado, and she assured me that yes. Was it cleaned I asked? I didn’t want to pick up a rabbit that I would have to skin at home and then rip the entrails out of. Nor did I want a “lucky” rabbit’s foot.

Again with the definitions. Some words work better in español so chill OK? Beneficiado means killed, slaughtered. It sounds nice, doesn’t it? Beneficiado. Sounds beneficial; positive.

She assured me that it was in her fridge and clean and so I drove back to Merida with a bloody rabbit in a plastic bag in my trunk. I mean it could be a cat for all I know, there is no way for a cooking aficionado like me to tell.

It made it home; no stops at police checkpoints with uncomfortable questions about what the dead animal in the bag in the trunk was and I quickly popped it into the fridge for later preparation.

A day later, I found a recipe online and with a minimum of effort, prepared the rabbit according to instructions. Cooked it in the oven at 175 for 90 minutes.

Ketchup and sugar figure into the recipe. Weird. Should I include the video I made of the preparation here? Probably not.

The rabbit was delicious! Served with some white rice and green beans on the side, it was a delectable feast and made me think about how the folks in the rural village that I am taking despensas to are eating rabbit (and probably venison) while I am cooking up Costco chicken. What the hell is that all about?

That’s my report for today. Have a great night everyone!

Dream of rabbits.

You’re so mean, ‘dream of rabbits’ Geez.

April 20, 2020. Sweeping as Therapy

Who knew?

My morning routine, such as it is here in the COVID19 era, involves taking a broom and sweeping the driveway. 

In case you don’t live in Yucatan and don’t know, we are at the height of our dry season and many trees are popping seed pods off by the thousands in preparation for the rains that will soon come. Nature is smart that way. 

Each morning finds our treed driveway littered with hundreds of cracked open seed pods, their contents strewn randomly and wastefully all over the concrete. These pods are dry and have the consistency of hard plastic. Stepping on them results in a satisfying crunch that will make you jump in anticpation to the next step, just to crunch every pod you can, like a six year old stomping in a puddle. The satisfaction is similar to that achieved when you take that piece of bubble wrap and pop all those delicious bubbles. Step on these hard shells with bare feet however, and you will be reminded of that time you stepped on your kids/cousins/brothers/sisters lego in the middle of the night. Ouch.

But, once again I digress.

The morning sweep with the headphones on comes after the morning walk and the morning coffee enjoyed by the morning fire. There is a certain satisfaction moving that broom back and forth, hypnotically watching the seeds, leaves and dirt accumulate, while listening to Bill Maher trying to be funny from his backyard and without an audience, or the New York Times Michael Barbaro emphatically interjecting yet another “HMM” during an interview with an enthusiasm usually reserved for Mayan mestizas during a particularly juicy piece of gossip.

Once the sweeping is finished, it’s back to the morning coffee and attending to pressing decisions about what to cook for the day’s lunch, whether or not it’s garbage day, washing whites or colors, or any number of mundane tasks that could be undertaken to take my mind off the fact that this situation is dragging on and on (and on) and I have no legit means of income and what will happen when my meager savings are used up and my credit cards limits have been saturated…

Where’s that broom? 

 

Toksel – A Yucatecan Classic, made with Rocks.

Yes, you read that right, rocks. It’s a very old recipe, traditional and all that, some say it goes back to pre-españoles Mayan times. I was going to say pre-conquest but that opens up a whole can of uncomfortable worms.

This dish is made with ibes, (EE-behs) which are the tender ‘new’ beans (phaseolus lunatus) fresh off the vine.

The origin of the word comes from the Mayan tóok (to burn or scorch) and sel/kel which means roughly ground up.

Take the beans and boil until tender, drain and mix them together with ground-up pepita which is/are of course pumpkin squash seeds – ground up with the shell on I might add – and available at any self-respecting market in any Yucatan town. This mix is cooked to completion in a clay pot which also contains some red-hot rocks (cleaned and preheated over a fire) stirring all the while.

The pot is then covered with a cloth and the pepita will emit part of its natural oils and some of the ibes will become slightly burnt. This is what gives the dish its exquisite flavor.

You can serve the toksel in hot corn tortillas or as a topping for panuchos. To accompany the dish, it is customary to use the cooking water from the ibes seasoned with a little lime juice and chile.

A Day in the Life – Installing a Boiler

The young man behind the long counter at the periferico Boxito megastore smiled knowingly in what could be described as an almost-smirk, as he heard me out patiently on my third visit to this famous Yucatan plumbing supply institution.

“So why did they sell you that?” he asked with a friendly yet slightly chiding laugh. It was a general question, not one that required an answer because the only answer was to say I was stupid, that I believed the ‘expert’, or that the guy who sold me ‘that’ was an idiot.

For those who don’t know me, there is a reason I don’t attempt to fix things around the house myself; it’s because I am a complete idiot with a wrench or any hand tool for that matter. Anything I try to fix becomes more broken, anything I try to replace I ruin with my clumsy attempts at being a handyman. Plumbing, electrical, anything mechanical, it matters not.

Our hot water heater, thanks to our hard Yucatan water and its age; two years of life which seems to be the lifespan of electrical appliances and plumbing fixtures, died. It sprung a leak from somewhere in its bowels and there was no replacing the water tank and so, it was time to find its replacement. And what with our chilling Yucatan winter, the hot water was a must, even if it was just for the washing machine or the kitchen sink. There is something about washing dishes with hot water…

Changing a boiler – how hard can this be? Disconnect input and output water hoses, disconnect gas. Remove boiler from where it is and put a new one in its place. Re-attach water and gas lines. Simple, straightforward.

Maybe for a normal person, but not for me.

The disconnecting process went smoothly. A couple of turns of my one all-purpose wrench and all the hoses were disconnected and the boiler was on the ground on its side, purging itself of its 40 liters of accumulated warm water.

I then went to Boxito (boh-SHEE-toh) a very well-known plumbing supply company in Merida, to buy a new boiler. Nothing fancy, as a previous experience with a snazzy Bosch water heater at 10,000 plus pesos had taught me that the more expensive brands are too delicate and no match for the rougher elements of the Yucatan. I found something cheap, under 2,000 pesos and brought it home. I figured that at that price the boiler was almost disposable, should I screw up the installation in a major way.

Turns out that the hoses feature 3/4 inch connectors on the old boiler and on this newer, smaller version, they are 1/2 inch. I will need a reductor to make this connection. I also wonder where the spark comes from to light the gas and heat the water

Back I go, on my second visit. I mention to the Boxito man that I need the little piece that will convert my 3/4 inch to a 1/2 inch whatever and we had the longest possible conversation on this admittedly trivial subject.

The salesperson I was talking with accompanied me to the counter where the ‘experts’ and their computer screens are, explained the situation and the conversation took many exciting twists and turns. The most interesting aspect of the dialogue is that it was all between the salesperson and the expert. The expert would ask questions about what I, the client, wanted or needed. I reminded him that I was actually standing in front of him and he could simply direct his gaze and questions at me, which resulted in a rather sullen attempt at customer service, completely at odds with the optimistic motivational posters behind him describing the importance of customer service and how important us customers were to Boxito.

We then went into a lengthy discussion on whether or not the boiler needed batteries. I explained to him that the flames will ignite only with the help of a spark which must be created by either an electrical connection, a battery or a little miniature caveman with flint fire creation tools inside the boiler. The expert was adamant that it did not need batteries and so naturally my response was to go to the showroom floor and take the demo and place it in front of him, opening the battery compartment for him to admire. At this point he admitted that yes, that model needed batteries.

Finally, with the connectors (and two D cell batteries) in my hand (after paying at what appeared to be a bank teller window where a humorless and disinterested woman took my money with a minimum of amiability) I headed back home to complete my installation.

Of course, these connectors did not work, as they were missing the female or male  (can’t remember which) threaded part where you actually screw the hose onto the thing. Not being a plumber, I stupidly did not become aware of this fact until I was actually trying to put all the pieces together. The batteries remained in their blister pack for the moment.

A third and thankfully final visit to Boxito was the charm. Another expert, this time one who actually knew what he was talking about, quickly and after the chiding (above) was over and done with, furnished me with the appropriate part. The third visit was worth the 19 pesos it cost me for the connectors.

At home, the connectors worked, the batteries were inserted and voila – nothing happened. At the end of all this, I had to call in my plumber to finish the installation; he did the wrapping of the connections with Teflon tape and stopped the leaks from my rather poor installation and switched the position of the batteries (I swear I did this and nada) and lo and behold: hot water in the kitchen sink.

How nice it would have been to have those folks at Boxito actually know what they are doing and take preemptive action to ensure the customer’s happiness that seems so important to them, at least on the posters. Not everyone knows what they are doing but this was a pretty cut and dry case and I could have left feeling like they actually were interested. All the radio advertising in the world with offers of free tacos (they do this often) are wasted if this is the customer experience, in my somewhat opinionated opinion.

For now, I will continue to rely on my plumber and my electrician and my mechanic for all my home (and car) repair needs.

April 10, 2020. Random Thoughts on Life at the Moment

Random ideas, this is the idea of going out for some Frijol con Puerco.

I thought I would jot down some random ideas and thoughts on staying at home for a prolonged period of time with this social distancing thing during the coronavirus pandemic in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.

Sugar and Carbs. I seem to have a craving for sugar and carbohydrates – is that a thing when you are stuck at home or in a crisis situation? Did the kids trapped in that flooded cave yearn for cookies? Did the people held hostage on that airliner back in the day in Entebbe, besides wanting to get the hell off the plane, also want cake? I don’t know. It seems I can’t get enough sweets. Even my once-beloved Doritos don’t do the trick. I baked Ghirardelli instant brownies the other day (no THC, thank you) and practically finished them myself. I ate all the cookies from Maru’s baking cookies video, myself. Which could mean that maybe it’s not a thing if no one else around the house has this craving? Although that package of Mars chocolates (Milky Way, Snickers, M&M’s) is becoming very depleted and it’s not me…

There are the mood swings. One day or even one minute I am feeling like yeah, we will get through this and there is hope, and the next I am in a depressive funk that can only be described as worrisome. Snapping at loved ones is also not good – a sign of cabin fever, which is a real thing, as all Canadians who have been in a winter cabin know and as even New York state governor Mario Cuomo has pointed out repeatedly in his popular press conferences.

The news also ranges from hopeful (a new drug, a vaccine coming soon, the curve is flattening in Spain) to deadly depressing (the economy will restart soon – back to normal!, record deaths in NYC, anything AMLO, Trump or Bolsonaro related). I am trying to limit my intake of news to a brief morning check at CNN, AlJazeers, CBC and BBC followed again by an evening look to see if anything has changed.

And there is walking for exercise that I never did before and which has become a daily habit, in part because if I don’t, I will lose my mind and also to work off some of the calories I am consuming (see sugar and carbs, above). I am blessed in that I don’t live in a condo or apartment and have some green around me where I can walk, alone or accompanied, and get out from between the four or more walls of my place of refuge. I now pay special attention to cyclists and runners since a recent study shows that they leave behind a trail of whatever bacteria and virii they are carrying and they can contaminate others who follow too closely. Their social distancing needs to be a lot farther than the regular brand.

Speaking of walking, the number and variety of birds that are out in the mornings and in general is truly amazing. We have, in our area, pigeons and doves of course, as well as the ubiquitous and human-friendly black grackle, our version of the crow. Then there are the red-headed woodpeckers, the scandalous gangs of green parakeets who inhabit the tops of trees between burst of flight, the large brown chachalacas and their turkey-like gobbling/screaming and a few more whose names I do not know.

Finally, there is David Geffen

What was he thinking? Is he that isolated in his bubble that he didn’t think this was going to create just a tad of media backlash? There are nurses in garbage bags trying to help sick patients in hospitals in his country and this clown posts this on his Instagram account? Unbelievable.