Drop Lucy at the dog resort. Pick up rental car at airport. Drive home. Drive back to airport. Wait at YYJ for flight to Vancouver. 15-minute flight is 1 hour late. Wait hours at YVR for flight to Mexico City. Five hour flight. Aeromexico serves light meal an hour in, at midnight, but nothing, not even coffee, before landing. Encounter a thousand people ahead of us in line for passport control. Take anti-stress pill. (Hey, I made it through two flights without one.) Wait hours at MEX for flight to Merida. 90-minute flight to Merida. Taxi to house in central town. Struggle with complicated door locks. Survey the colourful house. Take nap. Walk to store to buy drinking water (not needed, later we find the casa has potable water). Walk to restaurant to order pizza. Wait for pizza. Take picture of passing horse-drawn carriage. Carry dinner to house on Calle 54.
¡Finalmente, nosotros comemos pizza en Mexico!
As to the photo, there are lots of horse-drawn carriages on Merida's streets and while I like the clop clop clop soundtrack of the horse hooves on stone I don't know quite what to think about this, the horse-drawn carriage thing. Is it bad for the horse? Does it enjoy pulling a carriage in car traffic, or would it rather be out eating grass? I'd guess the latter so I won't encourage the practice but I will take the occasional picture.
After a good sleep we woke refreshed and spent the day exploring the town and picking up some groceries. We passed through the city's main square, Plaza Grande, where we caught a glimpse of the cathedral. We also saw a lot of colourful buildings along our way.
We looked at a couple of artisan markets featuring colourful items, many with a Dia de Muertos theme. We especially liked the wood and ceramic masks. Then, waiting at a traffic light, a fellow talked us into checking out another market, which seemed fine at first, except he quickly handed us off to another fellow who clearly wanted to see us take home some art by the end of the day. The whole experience soon began to remind me of a Ephesus carpet salesman who used everything from Van cats and flirts to get us into his store in hope of sending us home with a Turkish carpet. In both cases the salesmen were disappointed as we didn't buy anything.
For dinner we went to a neighborhood Mexican restaurant/bar that features botanero, which is like a Mexican version of tapas. In addition to our entrees Paul ordered a beer, and the beer order came with a tableful of small plates of food. When the waitress brought our order we thought she had the wrong table, it was so much food.
This morning we had breakfast at a cafe on the Paseo de Montejo, a wide boulevard which was closed to traffic for bicycles, what they call Bici-Ruta and held every Sunday. There were bicycles (and bicyclists) of all shapes and sizes, tandems, tricycles, chrome cruisers, covered 4-wheelers, even a bathtub-like bike. Lots of families and lots of dogs being walked, too. Accompanying this was very good live jazz music.
Later in the day we were on the main square which was turned into a market. On one side of the square there was more live music with lots of dancing going on. I'm really liking the music.
Like most homes in Merida, our place, which is called Casa Iguana1, is flush to a narrow sidewalk with little street presence, just a door and a window. At least ours has some colour.
But inside is a different story. It's largely stone and polished cement, with tall ceilings, colourful art, attractive though not-very-comfortable furniture, and a swimming pool. In the unlikely event one wants to cook a complex meal, the kitchen is well equipped. There's potable water, laundry, built-in barbeque, three giant flatscreens, and what appears to be every television service on the planet.
The location is convenient though it is noisy late into the morning, especially on weekends and the days before weekends. A morning cappuccino is from a cafe within a minute's walk, and there are four delicious and trendy restaurants (grasshopper guacamole, anyone?) just as close. Merida's central square is about seven blocks walk.
Merida didn't make a great first impression on me. It was like when our bus entered Atacama after crossing the Andes, I looked around and asked myself why am I here? I certainly didn't entertain my usual traveling thought, would I want to live here? But I have learned to give it time, to acknowledge first impressions but not hold them too tight.
It started as the plane appoached. Merida is tabletop flat, its roads ruler straight. Then there's the heat and humidity, it's not Bali but I was soon sweaty, even in my poly pros. And close up it's no better: most blocks look the same, a row of low, disheveled cement buildings punctuated by the occasional gentrified home, the narrow crumbling sidewalks, and the rusty collectivos spewing brown exhaust.
But my attitude is evolving. The Meridians are super friendly, even to gringos like me. The sidewalks may be uneven but there's little trash laying about. The drivers, while lacking Canadians' fervent respect for pedestrian crosswalks, stay in their lanes and stop at red lights. And the colours of the buildings and the details in their facades are helping to win me over.
We were drawn to Merida by a TV show, believe it or not; it introduced us to the local architecture. And it has certainly lived up to expectations. Lots of often-colourful old buildings fronting beautiful interiors with lush inner courtyards. This design language combines street-level privacy with a gradual reveal and then surprise as one enters a building. I like it.
We found our house, which follows this design, via Trip Advisor and we're happy with it. The one hiccup, no propane, was quickly addressed by the property manager. The gas company arrived the next morning and a plumber came soon after to re-light the pilots. You really appreciate hot water when you don't have it.
We are steps from several elegant restaurants, Oliva Enoteca for Italian, 130 Degrees for steak, Micaela Mar for seafood (ate there last night, excellent), Catrin for Mexican, Latte Quatro Setta for lattes and fresh pastry, and La Morena, a high end food court/bar. Wouldn't be surprised if there are more, hiding behind the stone and cement facades.
But there's one unfixable issue with the house and that's noise. It turns out at least two, Catrin and La Morena, have live music until the wee hours. And it's outdoors, in their courtyards. It's great music, but it is loud and some nights, like last night, we decided to close the windows and turn on the a/c just to get some sleep. Yeah, I know, first world problem. Now I understand why a few properties around here have hung signs saying "Basta de ruido. Queremos dormir. Necesitamos solucion hoy." So, it's a great neighborhod for our short visit, maybe not so much for a long term stay.
Walking down the street, just a couple blocks from our house, we bumped into a dance exhibit. The music and face paint was inspired by dia de muertos.
Today we visited Uxmal, an ancient Mayan city about an hour out of Merida. We hired a driver, Alex, to take us. He and his wife Joanna own Destino Merida tours.
Alex picked us up early in the morning so we could see the ruins while temperatures are at their coolest (least warm might be more descriptive) and when there would be few visitors. As promised, when we arrived we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Once at Uxmal he handed us off to a local fellow who guided us through the town. Afterwards Alex drove us to the charming Hacienda Ochil for a Yucatan lunch. Ochil was once a working plantation and it is well preserved; it's complete with extensive beautiful grounds, artwork, railroad, and even a cenote. As we talked with Alex we learned more about Mexico and the Yucatan and, this being US-election eve, we even talked a little politics. Alex is very informative and we had a nice tour. I'd highly recommend him.
For dinner tonight we walked all the way to the end of our block --- in other words, we barely moved --- where we ate at the Italian restaurant Oliva Enoteca. It's the fourth restaurant we've visited on the block. Each has been stellar.
The nearest airports to San Miguel (SMA) are Leon (90 min) and Mexico City (4 hours). Reserving a shared shuttle to/from either airport is easy and the vans are, well, vans. The tradeoff is time at the airport versus time on the road.
While Leon's small airport looks pretty new the MEX airport is old, it's all drab cement grey alternating with garish screens. It's windowless, run down, and where I was lying on the bench seats I felt my eyes seared with an endless loop of annoying ads, I felt in a Black Mirror episode. Even the departure board loops with ads, and the useful information doesn't stay on long enough to find your flight. You have to keep watching the ads, the same f*ing ads. An ugly depressing place to spend time. A shame the new airport was cancelled.
We got up early, Ubered1 to the Merida airport, then flew to Mexico City. We waited for awhile at arrivals then I called the shuttle service. They apologized. We were met by a fellow from Bajiogo shuttle. We quickly discovered it was piloted by Mad Max. So I put in some earbuds, listened to the last chapters of a Trollope2, and kept my eyes averted from the road and threatened carnage ahead. After several hours of pedal to the metal, dodging between cars, trucks, and construction zones, Max suddenly slowed. We'd arrived in quaint, cobblestoned San Miguel. This is looking very different from Merida.
Our driver left us at the door of a striking ultra-modern glass and cement architectural delight. From what I've seen so far, of the house and the colourful city, it looks like San Miguel will be a visual feast.
In the meantime, we gotta eat. So we stocked up the fridge from a nearby grocery then headed out for dinner. Tired, hungry, we'd not eaten since breakfast at the airport, we resorted to our fave cuisine, pizza. Yeah, I know, pizza in Mexico, why would one eat pizza in Mexico, but why not? And they had my numero uno, a thin crust Margherita with anchovies.
Upon leaving the aptly named Neapolitan Pizza, which by the way was excellent, we found ourselves refreshed and surrounded with murals and I love murals. The first time any murals caught my attention was in Valparaiso. The colourful public art transformed the town, the seaside setting being beautiful but the architecture not. Turns out, San Miguel de Allende has murals, too, though they are just an added bonus to the charming architecture. I've a few mural photos below.
1We'd not used Uber prior to Merida. We quickly became fans of the no-cash-needed service.
2Trollope's stories of life in Victorian England are absolutely nothing like Mad Max.
Despite what many assume, civilized coexistence in a culture of tolerance is not always the norm, or even universally desired. Democracy is a hard-won, easily rolled-back state of affairs from which many secretly yearn to be released. Uki Goi, an Argentinian writer, in the New York Review of Books
A discouraging thought, but I figure it's better to face the reality that we aren't all on the same page as to how best we should live. The recent election has driven home the point. It should have been a blue blowout, instead it was a draw. I'm left wondering how half the electorate could be such idiots.
We're having a wonderful time in SMA (San Miguel de Allende). The weather is great, with clear skies and comfortably cooler than the Yucatan, the food is good and nicely priced, the music is everywhere and pleasing to the ears, and the town is full of eye candy. Topping it off, the house we are staying in is an architectural work of art --- we've even befriended the architects, but more on that in a future photo-filled post.
SMA has a reputation as a gringo town, and while there is a large community of ex-pats plus tourists, it's still overwhelmingly non-gringo, which is a good thing. As in Merida, the locals are very friendly and helpful, they are always ready with a smile and a buenos dias, and they take my feeble attempts at Spanish with good humor. This certainly contrasts with my experiences in France.
A couple more kudos which also apply to Meridians: they have the queueing thing down, all you have to do is see how they line up for the collectivos. And I rarely smell cigarettes, when I do the source is usually a gringo. A big contrast with, say, Italy and Greece where it feels like everyone chain smokes.
Complaints? Hmm, the sidewalks could be wider. But it's an old town, there's only so much space, so aside from banning cars I don't see a solution. At least the sidewalks here and in Merida are clean and in reasonable condition. As I've written previously, Buenos Aires retains the crown for crappiest sidewalks, both in terms of disrepair and dog poop.
I'm listening to War/No More Trouble by Playing for Change.
We ubered out to Galeria Atotonilco to see Mayer Shacter's collection of Mexican folk art. An impressive collection, with so much on display that at first it's a bit overwhelming. The building, which doubles as Shacter's home, is by Cathi and Steven House, the same architects for our home. It's about 20 minutes from SMA. Most of the artwork is for sale, with prices in the range of about 1,000-75,000 pesos.
If only the universe could pause for awhile, to extend the duration of the evening light. I know, the soft light offers itself twice a day, but I've not the dedication most mornings to catch the early one.
This shot captures the typical narrowness of the sidewalks in the two Mexican towns I've visited.
Vicente Fox, president of Mexico from 2000 to 2006, spoke in San Miguel this evening. A member of the National Action Party (PAN), he was the first president to break the hold of the International Revolutionary Party (PRI) since 1929.
Fox talked on a broad range of political, economic, and humanitarian topics, took questions from the audience, and then concluded with a discussion of one of the nonprofits he is working with, CRISMA, a therapeutic service for low-income families in SMA.
Coming into the evening I knew nothing of Fox other than he held office as president of Mexico and that he was in an over-the-top video announcing his candidacy for president of the United States.
Fox shared his thoughts on everything from the European Union (he considers it hugely successful), referendums (BREXIT and the recent cancellation of the new Mexico City airport, both of which he's in strong disagreement), NAFTA, the wall (the US will have to waste its own money if it wants one), the migrant caravan (refugee problems are best solved at the source), drug trafficking and its associated violence (he favours legalizing all drugs), populism (dangerous but hopefully the pendulum swings back soon), and whether running a government is the same as running a business (it isn't).
Fox made no effort to hide his disdain for the current occupant of the White House. Fox came across as rational and pragmatic, and a bit right of center. He gave short shrift to the problem of income inequality, preferring to focus on wealth creation versus redistribution. But he took challenging questions in stride, such as the correlation between Coke consumption --- Fox was once a Coke executive --- and obesity.
Curiously, there was no visible security for the ex-president. As far as I could tell Fox had no secret service and there were no metal detectors for the audience, he was just a guy on stage giving a talk and answering questions from the audience. Um, who said Mexico was a dangerous place?
I'm listening to David Sylvian's Nostalgia.
Our house, Casita del Maguey1, is one of two houses squeezed onto a narrow city block on Calzada de la Presa2 in San Miguel de Allende. The architects, Cathi and Steven House, live nearby and use the casitas as rental property and as an exhibit for architecture students. In fact, shortly after we arrived a class of Cal Poly architecture students came for a visit. The Houses are friendly and helpful, and we've run into them numerous times in town, such as at last night's address by president Fox.
Our one bedroom, one and a half bath casita is a visual treat, with tall ceilings, walls of glass, cantilevered walkways, multiple decks, comfortable modern furniture, and tasteful colors and art. It has in-floor heat plus whole-house potable water so you can drink water from any tap. It shares a small pool with the slightly larger casita next door. The location is perfect, a short walk to el centro but with none of its weekend nightlife. The blocks-long maze of the Mercado de Artesania, resembling Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, is just steps away.
Cathi and Steven designed the house to be light and airy and to feel more spacious than it really is. Interesting architectural details abound. It is a feast for the eyes as well as being a comfortable place to hang out while visiting SMA.
The house has downsides. This is not a place for those who like privacy. Being so open inside, you can't, say, listen to music in the living room and have someone sleeping in the bedroom. The house has so many lights and so many light switches that I find myself going up and down the stairs searching for the switch that controls that last light left on before going to bed.
But the biggest problem is the house seems to be unheated3. I figure the in-floor heat, first floor only, isn't up to the task. The house design and construction --- large interior spaces, single-pane glass walls and skylights that run the length of the house, gaps around the exterior doors --- don't match its abilities. Outside it's just above freezing, inside we are wearing long johns, winter coats, and wool hats.
But it sure is pretty.
2Calzada de la Presa changes its name almost block by block, to Chorro, Barranca, Murllo, and Nuez.
3An exaggeration, but if there's any forecast of cold be sure to bring warm clothes. It's worth it, though.
A cold morning in San Miguel, it is 0° (32F) outside and 13° (57F) in la casita. Hoping for some sunshine. In the meantime we are heading out to look for a cafe that has some heat
La Parroquia de San Miguel Archangel, the current parish church of San Miguel, is unique in Mexico and the emblem of the town. It is one of the most-photographed churches in Mexico and the two tall towers of its neo-Gothic facade can be seen from most parts of town. The church was built in the 17th century with a traditional Mexican facade. The current Gothic facade was constructed in 1880 by Zeferino Gutierrez, an indigenous bricklayer and self-taught architect. It is said Gutierrez's inspiration came from postcards and lithographs of Gothic churches in Europe; however, the interpretation is his own and more a work of imagination than a faithful reconstruction. Wikipedia
The inside of the church is well done, but it's the exterior that is so striking. The pinkish-orange colours and the three-dimensionality of the steeple are like a Disney fairy castle.
A willing if untalented gardener, he collages cuttings in pots in strange combinations, confuses weeds and plants. He's not much of a painter, carpenter, or plumber either, though he does a little of all of these things: milusos, as Mexicans say, a thousand uses, a handyman. Tony Cohan, On Mexican Time
My hands are freezing as I write this, I can only drink so many cups of coffee to keep warm, I'll be jittery if I don't stop. We emailed Steven last night regarding the heating problem and in short order he was at our door. I didn't share my thoughts on the construction of the house. He assured us the heat should be up to the task and said a serviceman had been called. I just hope by serviceman he doesn't mean Alejandro, the friendly caretaker who makes me think of Hilario, the handyman in Cohan's book
Steven stayed awhile, he's a bit of a raconteur, a person who finds talking easy and dominates conversation, but fortunately his talk is interesting.
My mother used to say avoid the word "I" in conversation if you want to be considered a good conversationalist, and it's stuck with me; when I listen to others my mother's voice has me counting the I's in their sentences. So it's a word to avoid, but avoiding doesn't guarantee anything, you still need something interesting to say. And while Steven is free with the I's he keeps my attention.
He saw my battered copy of Cohan's book and brightened, Tony is a friend and client. I probed for an answer to the location of Calle Flor and Steven confirmed my suspicions, Calle Flor is a made-up name, the author's perogative to change a name to protect something. Tony's house was not on Calle Flor, it was on Jesus, a three-block street between Tenerias and Umaran, and that makes sense, it aligns with the descriptions of neighborhood shops, intersections, and views of the cathedral from the rooftop. Walking Jesus will be on today's itinerary.
Steven talked of his travels and his photography. We pulled out one of his books that is sitting in the casita, Mediterranean Villages. It's chock full of beautiful black and white photos and drawings made by Steven and Cathi. Paul and I have been to many of the same places, we have similar favorites, the Greek islands, Santorini and Monemvasia, and small Italian hill towns. It's a coffee table book I'd consider, unlike Kramer's coffee table book about coffee tables1.
Alejandro comes by. He studies the thermostat, he changes the batteries, he studies it some more. He touches the floor, caliente he says, well it's been mildly caliente all along, but not enough caliente. I don't have high hopes for heat.
We have a similar in-floor system in Otter Point, though ours is more complex, two floors and eleven zones. It took us awhile to find someone who could diagnose our heat issues, even the company that installed it couldn't fix it. They sent out a guy who stood in front of the system studying the manuals and talking to the manufacturer, all on our dime. I've come to think in-floor heat is one of those technologies that isn't quite ready, it takes almost a degree in engineering to understand the settings, and even when you understand it it is problematic. Slow to heat, inflexibly embedded in concrete, with a Rube Goldberg, or Wallace and Gromit, complexity; obscure settings and sensors and actuators and pipes and so many wires it's a wonder when it works.
I'm listening to Patty Griffin's Heavenly Day.
We checked out the Bellas Artes to see the beautiful building, study some art, snack on cheesecake and cappuccino, and attend a book signing/talk/slide show on West Africa. The Bellas Artes is housed in a former convent. It has a large central courtyard around which are exhibit spaces, an auditorium, and workshops for a wide range of arts, from music and dance to weaving and painting. Entrance to the building and exhibits is free, like most of the Mexican museums we've visited, which is great as it makes it accessible to everyone.
The Mercado de Artesanias is an interesting place to shop. It is a couple of minutes walk from our rented house. To get to it we walk past the gym/pilates/yoga/zumba studio that fills the morning air with the sounds of pulsing, energetic music, past the tortilla factory with it's bready smells, then turn the corner into the Mercado de Artesanias and the adjacent food market, Mercado Ignacio Ramirez. They comprise a three-block-long narrow pedestrian street lined with merchants of many types. Fresh vegetables, cooked foods, meats, bicycles, clothing, zapatos, pewter ware, and on and on, every imaginable type of good is available for sale. There are metal smiths making jewelry, women roasting corn, and butchers cutting meat.
We walk through the Mercado at least once a day. It's clean and neat and the merchants are friendly and relaxed, unlike the high-pressure salesmen in the somewhat-similar Istanbul Grand Bazaar.
San Miguel is chock full of stores, beautiful, artistic, eye candy stores, as you walk down the narrow sidewalks almost every turn of the head fills your eyes with another tempting place to shop, and we do, but we especially like the Mercado.
After tasty Yucatan tacos and pibil at Mercardo del Carmen we walked through the packed-with-people Jardin Allende. I noticed that many women were sporting rings of colourful flowers in their hair, it's a cool look. And I saw lots of families with children, the kids playing with rocket-like inflatables that they shoot into the air.
I was walking down Zacateros in San Miguel, looked to the right, and then saw just what I'd been wanting, a leather bag big enough for my Fuji and a second lens, and not much more. So I bought it from this fellow, who is also the maker and proprietor of Artesanias Bufalo. He kindly agreed to let me take his picture.
Although the United States appears to have pursued an inconsistent policy toward Mexico, in fact it was the pattern for the U.S. Every victorious faction between 1910 and 1919 enjoyed the sympathy, and in most cases the direct support of U.S. authorities in its struggle for power. In each case, the administration in Washington soon turned on its new friends with the same vehemence it had initially expressed in supporting them. The U.S. turned against the regimes it helped install when they began pursuing policies counter to U.S. diplomatic and business interests. Wikipedia, United States involvement in the Mexican Revolution
Today is Revolution Day in Mexico. The Mexican Revolution brought the overthrow of Army general Porfirio Diaz after 35 years as president of Mexico (1876-1911). It was a long conflict, lasting almost a decade, and was accompanied by the usual death and destruction. In the end, the government of Mexico was transformed into a system not unlike that of the US: a central government that shares sovereignty with the governments of the 31 individual Mexican states, and the federal government organized as three branches, the executive, legislative, and judicial.
Today is also the day we're heading home, back to cool, grey Vancouver Island. It's always good to go home after being away, back to our beautiful house, my espresso machine, Lucy the dog, our friends. But it's been a good trip, fun, educational and photogenic.
Despite spending most of my life in border states, my only prior visit to Mexico wasn't much of a visit, it was wading across the Rio Grande near the mouth of Santa Elena canyon, in Big Bend Nat'l Park. So until now my impressions of Mexico have been received second hand, and second hand isn't enough to get a taste of the art, food, architecture, and people. The people are the best part of Mexico, they are warm, friendly, and polite. Travel expands your head and now my vision of Mexico is a lot bigger and better. Ahora es muy positivo.
Speaking of revolutions, well that's a bit of hyperbole, but there is a big government change being considered right now, as we speak, in BC. And by this I mean the referendum on proportional representation. The referendum asks should we continue to elect MLAs1 using first-past-the-post (FPTP) or change to one of three proportional systems? I say sure. The only challenge to me is ranking the three options.
Option 1: Mixed member proportional (MMP) where each voter is represented by two MLAs. One is selected by FPTP, the second is based on party popularity at the whole province level.
Option 2: Rural urban proportional (RUP) combines MMP in rural areas and single transferable vote in urban areas.
Option 3: Dual member proportional (DMP) where most electoral districts are combined with a neighbouring district and represented by two MLAs. The largest rural districts will continue with one MLA elected by FPTP.
I confess I wonder whether I'm capable of an educated opinion on the proportional systems, perhaps the ballot should have stopped at the first question? But I'm going to come up with a ranking and along the way I'll expand my mind a bit as I study the proposals, and then I'll drive it over to the elections office. Having Canada Post on strike is awkward in the midst of a vote-by-mail election.
I'm listening to Balvin and William's Mi Gente which I also heard at the Revolution Day parade in San Miguel.
1Members of the Legislative Assembly
I couldn't step back far enough to get this whole building, Merida's Casa de la Cultura Juridica, into one shot. The street, calle 59, is just too narrow (and I'd left my 12mm at home). So I took three shots to stitch later. Here they are, one stitched using Microsoft's ICE, another with Lightroom.
I love the pink Direccion de Cultura. Compare it to the drab grey building shown in the second photo, that from Google Streetview. Yes, it's the same building. And it gets better. While standing in front of the Direccion just turn around, you find yourself facing the beautiful blue Casa de la Cultura Juridica.
My first stop most mornings in Merida. Just steps away, my only complaint was they opened late, 8am. (I should have appreciated it, in San Miguel it was 9.) The same two ladies greeted me every morning, I usually got a latte for $55 or a cappuccino for $45. Sometimes a biscotti or cookie. Supposedly under same ownership as the excellent Oliva restaurant a few doors down. There's a lot of good eats on calle 47.
Paul, Noema and I had Sunday brunch at a cafe on the Paseo de Montejo and while we ate we were entertained by a jazz ensemble playing classics from the likes of Brubeck and Coltrane.
Not far from Uxmal is Hacienda Ochil. It's a place where sisal was once grown and the leaves harvested then processed into fibers. It is now a restaurant and event space, as well as an open-air museum.
I'm listening to Brian Eno's An Ending (Ascent).
It didn't surprise me when walking around Merida I felt the desire to buy a fixer upper because the town first caught our eye on one of those house-renovation shows. Sure enough, Merida has many tempting properties, from fixer uppers like this to finished places like our rental, Casa Iguana. And the properties only got more tempting in San Miguel.