Category Archives: Life in the Yucatan

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

What Fart?

A deep dive – plug your nose – into the bowels of Mexican slang.

Pedo, in Mexico, is not a pedophile. Hopefully your search engine and those algorithms at Google et al won’t punish you for reading this. Did you turn off your cookies?

A pedo is a fart, but the word is so much more versatile than just describing the (hopefully) occasional escaping of noxious fumes from one’s behind. It is a most amazing and useful term that can be applied in all manner of situations from when one is pleasantly inebriated to those that could be defined as unmistakably problematic.

¿Que pedo? is a greeting, which could be friendly and also threatening depending on the tone and body language employed when emitting the statement. Literally “what fart?” it’s meaning can range from the friendly “what’s happening” to the aggressive “what are you looking at” common at bars in the sketchier neighborhoods of northern Mexican cities.

Tengo un pedo is the lament of someone who has a problem and is coming to you for help or comfort.

No hay pedo means there is no problem at all, really. You asked someone to help you with a ride to the mall or home from the bar and you thank them and this is an acceptable reply.

Speaking of bars and such, you might be drinking a lot and become pedo. You see it also means “drunk” and can even be turned into a descriptor for the entire process of getting to be pedo in the first place. An extended bout of alcohol consumption resulting in unconsciousness or comas is called a peda.

From pedo come derivations and permutations. Un pedorro is what you call someone who is a braggart, who is constantly on about how great he is, how shiny his car is, how he is rolling in money and so on. He is a great farter.

Note that the use of pedo in everyday conversation should be limited to people with whom one is comfortably familiar. This is not something that should come up in a chat with your bank teller, your doctor or the lady that comes to clean your house on Thursdays.

The lady that comes on Tuesday? It’s fine. No hay pedo.

Speaking English in Mexico – Entitlement 2.0

I’m in line at my local Scotiabank, waiting and watching. At the cashier, a gringo is telling the cashier – in English – that there had been a mistake when he paid his fees for his wife’s residency permit (immigration) and that he needed to correct the name on the receipt as it didn’t match the name on the passport and therefore, the folks at immigration did not allow it .

The cashier listens patiently and informs the gringo in broken English that she would call a manager. The manager comes and explains – in English – that they are unable to change the receipt information,

The gringo nods.

No es problema” he manages to say, and with a garbled “solo es dinero” and “es my fault, mi problema, ok ok ” reaches into his pocket to fork over another wad of bills to pay the immigration fee a second time, in order to get the receipt with his wife’s name spelled correctly and complete.

This exchange got me thinking about how a Mexican who shows up at a bank in the US or Canada would be received under similar circumstances, speaking no English, only Spanish.

I’m not talking about dealing with a latino bank employee – of which there are many in Texas and Florida – although those can often be the biggest assholes. No, I have in mind the sense of entitlement that enables one to walk into a bank in a foreign country and without speaking the language, simply expect people to help you or speak in your language to help you. Would a Mexican even attempt this? I doubt it. Never in a thousand years would the executive from Las Lomas de Chapultepec or the bracero from Oxcutzcab even consider just throwing out the Spanish and expect to be understood, let alone be served. Even the most entitled, rich and aloof white Mexican would speak English.

Español? The cashiers would just stare at him like he is completamente loco.

“I’m sorry sir we don’t speak Spanish” they would say to the Mexican, the ones with Ramirez or Rodriguez on their name tag adding a barely perceptible smirk to the statement.

Why doesn’t the cashier here say “Perdón señor, no hablamos inglés” to the gringo?

Is it the desire to serve? Are Mexicans so much more service-oriented than gringos? Is it an inherent (and erroneous) understanding of the gringos assumed superior social position?

Whatever the reason; if this intrigues you like it did me today and you’re a gringo or gringa, take a moment to observe your privilege and fully appreciate the friendly reception Mexicans provide for recently arrived norteamericanos as compared to the reception the mexicanos get up north.

Oh, the Noise, Noise, Noise, NOISE

“Sleeping is hard”
the old gringo suggested
at a meeting of townsfolk
the salón quite congested

Many residents turned out
to see what could be done
for the noise levels of late
too high had become

Others nodded that they,
too, had difficulties sleeping
for the bars down the street
towards them now were creeping

Merida’s yuppies, you see
from their north city perch
were “discovering” centro;
and drunkenly they’d lurch

from cantinas to bars
and from bars to cantinas
they puked on front doors,
cackling, like in-heat hyenas

They peed on parked cars,
and on trees newly planted,
in flower pots, on gates;
they sang and they chanted

The gringos of course,
with restored antique homes,
were sick of the partying,
the watts, volts and ohms

The loud music you see,
was the worst part of all,
booming into the night,
it would shake every wall

El derecho ajeno…
tired expats would quote
Benito Juarez’s speech
they all knew now by rote

A conflict was brewing
with resentment in the air
both sides were quite angry
and tempers would flare

The partyers were offended
and angrily cried
“We’re reviving our customs;
our city hasn’t died!”

They continued like this
the spoiled yuppies would foam
“If the gringos don’t like it,
they should pack up and go home!”

Some went a bit further,
xenophobic and furious
“stupid gringos should have known,
and bought land in some curious

hacienda or village
far away from the city
no bars or cantinas, and
an existence less gritty.

What they didn’t realize
kids privileged and bored
was that the gringos had come
and their downtown restored

It was they with their love,
with their patience; their money
who fixed up El Centro
and wasn’t it funny

that now Merida’s centro
had recovered its charm,
new restaurants and bars
all started to swarm

and what once were just houses
on quiet residential streets
became targets for investors
to increase their receipts

So now here we stand
at an impasse, it seems
while the conflict continues,
El Diario prints reams

about musicians and artists;
this regulation, that norm;
about sleep-deprived gringos;
and an imminent storm.

The Memory of the Milpa

Tales from the World of Tourism

Sembrando mais, frijol, calabaza

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.

Casa Principal – Hacienda Kochol

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.

Time to get back to work.

Hacienda Kochol – February 2020

Merida’s Very Own Refettorio

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

Massimo Bottura

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 piñata!

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:

  • served over 21,000 plates of food
  • reclaimed over 8 tons of food
  • organized the participation of over 100 vulnteers
  • supported 34 organizations with donations
  • registered and 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.

2020 Weather and the Yucatan’s Water Table

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.

What Happened

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.

The Results

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 underpass, subject of much controversy when it was built by Angelica Araujo and an ongoing subject of criticism by the populace

The only Costco in the world with a cenote, now had a cenote with water you could almost reach out and touch.

Costco. Looks like it’s Photoshopped but no, it’s real.

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.

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.