Category Archives: Life in the Yucatan

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

Sunday Morning – Breakfast Musings

An innocuous Sunday outing for breakfast and an encounter with the chica in the red Mini Cooper had my neurotically creative juices flowing. And while my dear wife laughed at my snarky commentary, I reminded her that this is what I do; observe the human condition.

We pull into the Tulum/Holbox-inspired breakfast restaurant in Temozon Norte named “freedom” in Spanish and are impressed and supremely surprised that there are no bleary-eyed people sitting in the little plastic detention-style chairs by the road, waiting to be summoned inside for their huevos and waffles. Usually, there is a wait of at least 30 minutes. Our progress through the parking lot is halted by a young whitexican (thanks Alex) of the female sort maneuvering a shiny red Mini Cooper, with not much success, into the space right by the front door, because evidently walking will require far too much effort. There are plenty of spaces under the trees a scant 25 meters away, but no, she has to put on a demonstration of her driving skills in front of us and the entire restaurant. After several attempts including the tires jumping over a raised sidewalk, she manages to back the shiny thing into where she wants it to minimize those exhausting steps from car to restaurant front door.

This becomes even more ironic when she steps out and we can appreciate her purple spandex gym outfit painted over her lithe form. Obviously she has just come from a gym or some sort of exercise event and is so drained that now she just does not have the energy to negotiate those extra steps to breakfast.

Once we are seated and enjoying a great cup of strong coffee I observe at the next table a young couple with a small child in a high chair. The child is glued to a cartoon on the iPad while the parents enjoy their breakfast. Every once in a while, the child’s eyes never leaving the screen, it opens its mouth – robot-like – and mom shovels something into it. I begin to wonder, like the old person I am, what the hell is wrong with people today that they are raising little video-addicted automatons who will have no clue about how to behave in a restaurant when they grow older.

After watching the couple that arrived after us get their breakfast, my food finally arrives but my dear wife’s doesn’t. I stare at my “chilaquiles gourmet”, thinking about the totopos getting soggy for a while, then get up to ask the guy who appears to be the manager about the other breakfast as I, well, don’t want to eat alone. He apologizes and indicates that it is coming, and soon enough my dear wife has her huevos benedictinos and we happily eat. The food is very good and the portions are huge.

The young couple at the next table finishes and gets up, wishing us “buen provecho” and their act of civil courtesy makes me regret having judged their parenting skills and also realize that I have officially become the grumpy old man. Oh well.

Onwards and upwards.

The Casual Restaurant Critic visits Yakuza

Yakuza in this case, is not the Japanese mafia, but the tiny, new sushi restaurant tucked into a small space in the interestingly-named Victory Platz (can we please just name things in Spanish for crying out loud) in northern Merida, on the avenue that runs from the pocito roundabout to the Walmart at City Center (again with the non-Spanish vernacular) at the periférico.

A mysterious little music box sits on each table.

It is very small, with a bar for 8-10 people, about 3-4 tables and a blossoming cherry tree in the middle of an almost all-black decor. One can safely assume that this tree is not real. The staff, and there are many of them, more than customers even, are all in black and the black COVID mask looks like it was designed for this restaurant. There is a slightly smoky haze in the air which makes you wonder if the place is on fire or has a fireplace somewhere but no, it is some sort of room ambientizer (invented word) that injects fragrance and some sort of steam/smoke into the air.

The cherry blossoms

Service was friendly and professional; a smiling hostess shows you to your table, approximately 4 steps from the door, but still a nice gesture, and then male wait staff appear to take orders, offer drinks and such. The Casual Restaurant Critic ordered a Sapporo beer to follow a Topo Chico mineral water but that never arrived; perhaps a little more attention in this area would make for a higher check and income. Interesting was both the name taking for an undisclosed purpose and the fact that everyone working there was communicating via earpieces and microphones. Perhaps this is to convey the feeling that they are all real Yakuza gangster bodyguards? Not sure. If you dear reader, find out, do add this information in the comments section below.

The menu has some of the tiniest printing ever seen in a restaurant by the Critic and his ever-present and always-amazing Better Half. The Critic is convinced that to fit the entire menu – which is vast and varied with hot and cold dishes – onto two pages it was necessary to reduce the font size to 3-4 points. It is REALLY tiny. Bring a magnifying glass. Or, better yet, go with the pandemic QR scanning option and read it on your device. By the way, dynamite as in dynamite roll is spelled incorrectly.

Some rolls were ordered, as well as ramen soup with pork belly, which was fine. Particularly good was the roll with smoked eel and foie gras. One of the servers brought these out and proceeded to give them a shot of fire with a handheld torch, which, in the darkened room, was dramatic and the taste of slightly heated smoked unagi is sublime. The food was satisfyingly good and together with a couple of mineral waters, the bill came to 1400 pesos before tip. It is not cheap. It is not over-the-top spectacular either. Would the Critic return? Probably, if he was in the area and felt like sushi. But if he was planning a nite out at a sushi restaurant, Kuro Uma or Miyabi (Montejo-árbol) would be first on the list.

Torching the sushi – on the right is the delicious eel/unagi with foie gras

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”