Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mexican Dentist

The morning--for the first time--I went to a Mexican dentist for my 6-month check up and cleaning.

When I retired last October, I opted NOT to take the state's dental insurance plan (but I DID take the health insurance plan). I figured that so many Americans come down here to get dental care, that's what I would do. And I did.

Guess what? I survived! Actually it was perfectly pleasant. The lady dentist has an office up in the fancy part of town. She was recommended to me by some Americans I met at the Merida English Library. The appointment was originally for Monday, but when I arrived, she apologized, "my compressor isn't working, and I'll have to reschedule your appointment." Oh well, that kind of stuff happens.

So I went back this morning. Modern dental chair and equipment. She wore face mask, gloves. The dentist, herself, did the cleaning, not a dental hygenist. It was the most complete cleaning, certainly, I've ever hour and a half! And she pointed out some ongoing gum problems and gave me a prescription to treat the issue.

All that for $42 U.S. (and she's considered expensive)

I've met two other Americans here who've come on "dental vacations." One, a new friend from North Carolina, had a root canal and crown done. He told me the cost for the dental work, the flight, and a week's hotel was STILL less than what he would have paid at home. Three other folks I've met have had dental work done here.

Open wide. Say "Ahhhh....I'm saving money."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Crime in Mexico

Yes, it is serious.

The ongoing violence between rival narcotrafficking gangs and between gangs and police has increased dramatically. Some U.S. officials are even calling Mexico a "failed state," much to the chagrin of Mexican leaders. This violence has been largely confined to the northern tier of states: Chihuahua, Sonora, and Nuevo Leon, plus Baja California. There have also been problems in Guerrero (Acapulco) and Quintana Roo (Cancun). The victims have largely been police, military officers, political officials, and drug gang members.

The most recent incidents in Cancun went like this: The federal government sent in a retired Army general to clean up the narcotrafficking in Cancun. The bad guys KIDNAPPED THE GENERAL and members of his guard, tortured and assassinated him. The Army, in return, came into town, surrounded the Cancun Police Department, and arrested the chief of police, who they accuse of being involved. The mayor replaced the police chief with a woman (the gangs, however, have not respected gender or age, killing woman and kids in the past). Then, the head of the local prison was arrested, also for being involved with the drug gangs.

In Chihuahua, yesterday, the state governor's motorcade was attacked, with one person killed. To date, there have been something like 5,300 drug-related murders in the last year throughout Mexico. Ciudad Juarez is the most dangerous town in the country. There, the drug gangs threatened the police chief, that if he didn't step down, they would assassinate one cop every 48 hours. He stepped down. Also the mayor of Ciudad Juarez was also threatened unless he steps down. He moved himself and his family across the border to El Paso, Texas.

Today's headline in the Diario de Yucatan is: Next Step, An Intense Fight.
Here is a link to the Houston Chronicle's story about crime in Cancun:

The crime wave ISN'T everywhere, even though it is widespread. Here in Merida (and also in Campeche), it's perfectly quiet. Even with the craziness of Carnaval time this last week, no crime reported. Personally, I feel comfortable here. At any time that I don't, I will leave. But right now, the city is filled with tourists and all is well.

Ni Modo

I witnessed a little scene yesterday that I think typifies the Mexican personality (if you can generalize to that extent). Here's how the story unfolded:

It was in the middle of Carnaval (Latin equivalent of Mardi Gras....goes on for a week here). The city was crazy. About 200,000 people watching the parade. Most major streets in the central city blocked off for the parade. Lots of noise. I'm walking down the sidewalk, just minding my own business. A car, turning into a parking lot, turns left in front of me. The entrance is a stone archway....this clearly used to be a commercial or residential building. All that is left is the stone facade.

So the driver (with passenger), turns left....and doesn't cut it quite sharp enough. The car swings left, over the sidewalk, and SPLASH!! his front right fender bangs into the side of the stone doorway. You hear the "crunch" of sheet metal. All the bystanders cringed. Me, too.

So: what would you have done? Said a bad word (yep, probably)? Screamed? Pulled out your insurance card? Cried?
Well, the Mexican guy just smiles at us, shrugs his shoulders as if to say, "oh well...." backs up, and tries it again, successfully. No concern at all... In Mexico, there is a saying, "Ni modo." It means "no big deal."

At the time I thought how different the reaction of most folks back home would be.

Show me the money:
Unlike the dour portraits of men on U.S. currency, Mexico has a woman's portrait on one of their currency bills, the 200 peso note. Sor Juana (Sister Jane) was both a Catholic nun and Mexico's first woman poet, journalist, musical composer, favorite in the court of the Spanish Viceroy, and and early intellectual (in the 1660's). Her life was impressive in any context, but especially considering the role of women in the 17th century. And the macho Mexican society honors her on their currency. For more information, here's a link to Dartmouth's Sor Juana Project--
Names of three local businesses I noticed as I was walking by:

The first, a muffler and wheel alignment shop called, "Miracle of God" Muffler Shop.
OK, I've had cars like that...getting anything to work right was a miracle of God.

The second: a bakery called, "The Return." So...they're advertising that customers return their products? What?

And the third: "1000 Jokes" Restaurant. Would those be jokes about getting sick in their restaurant?

Why I like comida corrida

Comida corrida is one of my favorite things about Mexico. It literally means "everyday food," or, we'd say, "special of the day." When you go into a local restaurant, the simpler places will have 1-4 specials of the day offered (in addition to their regular menus). I always go for the comida corrida, since it's such a bargain.

My favorite place here in Merida is called El Trapiche, which means something like "The Sugar Mill." Today, they offered 4 choices of comida corrida, a couple of chicken dishes, breaded fish, and another that I didn't recognize.

I ordered the fish. First, comes an order of tortilla chips with 3 salsas....just to get you started. Then comes a big bowl of soup. Today's was a tomato/pasta soup. Then comes the entree (fish) with a side of rice and beans, and a small salad on the plate. Oh, it's served with warmed soft tortillas (in lieu of bread). And a cold drink is included. Price, 33 pesos ($2.30 US). When was the last time you had a meal like that for less than $2.50? Maybe 1960?

No wonder most Mexicans do their big meal in them middle of the day (between 1-3) and then only have something small at home for dinner.

My New Amiga

This is the owner of the hotel's new puppy. Her name is Lena, and she's my new best friend. The old dog, Whiskey, isn't sure what to make of his new playmate. Both are Scottish Terriers.

Going Native

Remember the story about the Indian princess Pocahontas who fell in love with and married the English colonist in America, John Rolfe?

Well, the Yucatan has its own similar story, that of Gonzalo Guerrero (pictured here).
This is the TRUE story, as described under the painting at the Governor's Palace:

"This brave mariner survived a shipwreck (in 1511) on the coast of Yucatan along with a priest named Jeronimo de Aguilar. When they reached land, they were captured by the Mayas, who kept them in cages. Eight years later, Hernan Cortes--who was passing through Yucatan--rescued Aguilar, but Guerrero, who had married the daughter of the chief of Chetemal (today Chetumal) and had a family refused to go with Cortes. Guerror fought beside the Maya against the Spanish and died heroically in battle on Aug. 13, 1536 in Puert Cabello, Honduras. Guerrero is considered the father of "mestizago" (the mixing of races) in Yucatan.

Painting by Fernando Castro Pachecho (1971)

this painting--one of 27 monumental works at the Governor's Palace in Merida-- represents the Mexican national symbol, an eagle devouring a snake. It represents a myth from the Aztec culture and is today on the center of the Mexican flag. The tricolor flag is represented in the background with red, white, and green.

Governor's Palace

This is the upstairs room which serves as a state reception room and gallery.

Merida, Governor's Palace

Located on the main public square, across from Casa Montejo. It's built in the classic Spanish Colonial style around an open courtyard. Upstairs is a history exhibition with monumental paintings by artist Fernando Castro Pachecho (1971).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Casa Montejo

This is the oldest building in Merida, built in 1549 (ahh...I remember it like yesterday)by Francisco Montejo, the conquistador of the Yucatan peninsula, who arrived in 1542, after a couple of failed attempts by his father to conquer the local Mayan Indians. It faces the main town square/park.

In the construction of this mansion, they used stones from Mayan temples they dismantled on the site. And, "to the winner take all," they incorporated a little attitude in the carvings surrounding the front entrance, which is flanked by two tall, elegant Spaniards dressed in armor(Montejo the Elder and Montejo the Younger), with their feet resting on the heads of two Indians. You can see from the open mouths of the Indians, they don't look particularly happy with this arrangement.

Currently, the structure is being renovated by Banamex (a large Mexican bank). They've built a modern banking facility in the center open courtyard. And they use some of the historic rooms for meeting rooms and offices. They will open parts of the restored building to the public when completed. Interestingly, you can still see the original stones "recycled" from the Mayan temple in the walls and walkways of the Casa Montejo. The are fossilized shells embedded in the stone.

Thing is, the Montejo family lived in this palace from 1549 until 1970. 400 years in the same house? Wouldn't you get tired of the wallpaper or something? Maybe want to move the kids to a better neighborhood? The max I've ever spent in one place is five years. Clearly, I'm not cut out to be a conquistador.

Skype vs. Yahoo Voice, Hint: Skype is Better

It's an easy call. Skype is better by far. Both, of course, are VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) telephone service providers. Both allow you to make phone calls from your laptop computer to any landline (or other computer) anywhere in the world.

As many of you know, when I started on this long journey, last October, I signed up for Yahoo Voice. It works just OK. The salient feature is that it's super cent a minute. So, I was able to call businesses and friends back in the States. Downside, the connection and sound quality were lousy. One my end, I could hear just fine. But on the other end, folks kept saying, "what did you say? You're breaking up. Are you still there? I can't hear you. Repeat that, etc."

So, here in Merida, 4 months into my trip, I met an American guy from North Carolina. He was using a voice-over-computer service here in the hotel lobby, and apparently having no problems with it all. I asked. He told me, Skype. Now, I had known about Skype, but thought it was a pricey subscription service. Nope. I went to their Web site, and discovered that you can "pay as you go," in other words put in $10 US into your account, and start making calls until you use up that amount.

With both services, I can also call within Mexico. Strangely, that's considered a "long distance" call, and the rate is something like 11 cents a minute. But it's still useful to call onto the next town and check on hotel availability. It's "computer as telephone!"

So, being a reformed academic type, I put them to a test. I did a couple of side-by-side tests, calling a number in the U.S. first on Yahoo Voice, and then calling back with Skype. The call recipient on the other end said Skype was "100% better," and "like being in the next room." The cost is a little more, about two cents per minute anywhere in the U.S. But, in my opinion, well worth the cost to have a clear connection.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hotel Mucuy in Merida, A Great Place to Stay

I love this little hotel, The Hotel Mucuy. It's a 3-star place (rated by the Mexican government) and the rates are 255 peso/night ($18.50 US).
Ofelia, the owner, lives here and is around all day. I've gotten to know several guests: Canadian, American, French, and Swedish. It's a neat international ambience.
The 20 rooms are along one side of an open courtyard with a garden filled with plants, a small pool, and a second-level terrace with umbrella table. That's where I have my breakfast every morning.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Yucatan Was Built on This

This is henequen, a fiborous plant in the agave family. It's fibers are used to make rope. Sometimes its confused with hemp, the difference being you can't smoke henequen.

Even so, it's commercial value was exploited on a massive scale in the 19th century, with the Yucatan being an ideal land for its cultivation. At one point, the Yucatan peninsula produced over 90% of rope and burlap bags in the world! It also made henequen plantation owners very, very rich. The multi-millionaires of Mexico weren't only silver barons. The life of privilege, lived in a European style, is still apparent in the handsome haciendas and mansions in Merida and surrounding countryside.

All that from a little rope. Who'd guess?

Sex Sells

This woman is following me.
Actually, I've been using the ATM machines at Santander Bank. They have branches all over the country (and world...based in Spain). What I find curious--from an advertising point of view--is the use of a blatant "sexy" sell for a financial services company. There are posters of this lady in every window with headlines like: "I'm super good (with businesses)," and "Come with me," and "Get to know me inside."

Now, having worked in marketing for 30 years or so, there is nothing inherently wrong with a sexy ad. For beer? You bet. Cars? Sure. But for a big, established bank? I don't get it.

Speaking of sexy, this is Carnaval time in Merida. And each night is a different parade. And while I have a strong dislike of crowds, I thought, "Rod, go down and take some photos of the parade. How often do you get to see Carnaval?" So I walked down to the main square. The streets are all blocked off for the parade. The city has taken advantage of a money-making opportunity and sells seating in reviewing stands along the parade route. So, on many streets downtown, you cannot cross from one block to the next without showing your parade entry ticket. Pain in the you-know-what.

The parade started about 8 p.m., much further up in the city. About 8:30, I walked down to see if it had arrived. Nope. Seemed like a good time to go to bed, being elderly and all. So I came back to the hotel. What luck! One of the local TV stations was broadcasting LIVE from the Carnaval parade. It can be summed up easily...lots of Las Vegas showgirl types with enormous headdresses up on floats. The headdresses were the largest piece of clothing the girls had on. And they were shaking their moneymakers like they were going out of style (they never go out of style). is where the commercial comes in....They turned their backs to the camera to display the names of the sponsor. In this case, TEL-MEX, the privatized Mexican telephone system. With the logo plastered right across their booties.

Like I said, sex sells.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Of Condoms and Pink Onions

Some random observations about Mexican culture:

Every time I go into a restaurant, I am served a little side dish with condiments. One, which previously had been unidentifiable, is little pink crunchy vegetable slices. Finally I asked a waiter. What? The mystery solved: they are pink onions. And how did they get pink? They are soaked in beet juice. This isn't just one restaurant, but restaurants all across Mexico. Me? I'm perfectly happy to take my onions in plain old white. But pink must be considered something extra fancy here.
In the U.S., we say it's "black & white." In Mexico, it's always "white & black." Why? I don't know, and I'm not going to do any linguist anthropology here.
Last night, bored, I turned on television. It's a real treat to have TV, since my hotel in Campeche was TV-less. Here, it's not cable, but just local stations (in Spanish). To my SHOCK, I happened to turn on a COMMERCIAL. In the commercial, a mouth, speaking into a microphone, was reading off a list of veneral diseases. All of a sudden, a hand places a condom over the microphone, and the list is silenced. made its point. But it's a commercial that would never, ever, be allowed to air in the U.S.
Since I enjoy wandering around in bookstores, I've done that in Mexico, too. Some thoughts.
1. There are many fewer bookstores in Mexico. Only in larger cities, or near universities will you find bookstores. Reading for pleasure is done at a much lower rate than in the U.S. or Western Europe.
2. Most are independent bookstores. Nothing is like the big U.S. monsters, Barnes & Noble and Borders
3. The selection here is much more limited. Fewer books and fewer titles.
4. Surprisingly, the Mexican bookstores always have a much richer assortemnt of poetry titles. Those romantic Latins!
5. And the most frustrating--Whereas in the States, booksellers do everything they can do to get you to thumb through their books, including allowing you to take them into the instore cafe and browse over Mexico every book is shrink-wrapped in cellophane. What are they afraid of: that by looking through a copy you might actually want to BUY a book? Duh!
6. Think maybe #5 and #1 are correlated?

In U.S. department stores, women's fashion is always placed near the entrance on the first floor, men's stuff on the second floor. In many stores in Mexico, I've noticed the reverse. Men's on the first, women's upstairs. Probably the remnants of the macho male-oriented society.

A year an a half ago, I had an astrological reading done by an astrologer based in Utah. She knew nothing about me other than the time and place of my birth. In our conversation, she (unprompted) said, "do you know Merida, Yucatan? It's a very good place for you to be." And here I am. Hmmm...

When I was here in Merida two years ago, I met a guy at the American Library who had a Mexican friend who runs a tourism school here. I took down the name and address and walked over to ask about teaching English there. Fast forward 2 years to today. After checking in and getting settled in my hotel (which I found on the Internet), I went out for a stroll. Directly in front of the hotel, across the street....the very same tourism school. Chance? Maybe.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Another Day, Another Town

After 11 days in Campeche, boredom set in. It is a neat little town, but I had done everything there was to do. I took a 2.5 hour bus ride, and now I'm in Merida.

I was in Merida (the capital of the state of Yucatan) two years ago. Surprisingly, it was at this same time of year, during Carnival (Mardi Gras) season. Merida has one of the most important Carnival celebrations in all of Mexico. The 3 biggies are Merida, Veracruz, and Mazatlan. So, the city has erected grandstands for viewing parades. There are 6 distinct parades, one each day beginning this Thursday through next Tuesday.

Tomorrow's (Wednesday)celebration isn't a parade but a ceremony in the main square, the burning of "Mr. Bad Attitude" (Mal Humor). I can certainly participate in that, although Mr. Bad Attitude hasn't been around much since retirement!!

I'll be here about a week, then over to Playa del Carmen south of Cancun to visit with my Chicago friends Barb & Ian.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Twenty Twenty Vision

Remember the last time you went to have your eyes examined? The optometrist places your head so that the chin is resting on a little support thingie. Then he slides over this big apparatus which tests for various lens strengths. “Look through here, “ he says, “which is better? One....or Two. Now again, Two....or One?”

I thought about that last night in the context of which typical Sunday evening experience was better for me, One or Two.

Lens One:
Last night, I sat in the town square park on a wrought iron park bench watching the Municipal Band (love those tubas). Even though the day had been hot, the evening—at 7 p.m.--was pleasant, with a light breeze blowing off the Gulf. Families were out with their kids. An older gentleman sits down next to me on the bench, and we begin a conversation about Campeche's weather and hurricanes and the cost of living. His wife arrives a few minutes later and they scuttle off. Snapshots: a little boy cruising on his tricycle with a pull toy trailing behind. A balloon vendor walking around, followed by a roving cotton candy seller. Couples, old couples, walking around the bandstand holding hands. A little girl in her starched pink Sunday-best dress. The (electrified) gaslights lit. The lower level of the double-decker bandstand is an open-air cafe, where you can order “just a lemonade, please” and they're perfectly happy to serve you. A couple of girls training the tiniest poodle puppy I've ever seen, bouncing along behind them. The cathedral lit up like a pastry confection, doors open to all. The streets on all four sides of the square are closed to traffic, and the long stretch in front of the church is given over to 10 tables or so of the local variant of Bingo, “Campeche Lottery”: same idea, just different pictures in the squares instead of B-5, etc. The “caller” turning the handle of an enclosed basket with the various lots, drawing them one by one and calling the names into a microphone. And the ladies (almost all players were women) playing multiple cards with exactly the same intensity as you'd see back home in a church basement bingo hall or casino. A few street vendor ladies with carts selling cookies and cakes made at home. I swear Norman Rockwell would grab his paintbrushes. It is a little slice of 1940. Very sweet and charmingly old fashioned.

Lens Two
Rod at home back in Phoenix. It's Sunday night. I walk the dog, watch a little TV, maybe iron a shirt for work Monday. So, which is better One or Two? Again, Two or One. You guess.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Campeche Cathedral from Town Square

A Valentine's Day Present from Campeche

Here are some shots of sunset over the Gulf of Mexico. They speak for themselves. I hope your day is this wonderful.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Raindrops are Fallin' on my Head

Last night, I got caught in the rain. One of the few times on my entire trip.

I was headed down to the waterfront for my nightly session of sunset and sea breeze, when I noticed the sky clouding up—completely. I'd mentioned the cloudy weather to the guy at the pool (more about that later) this morning. “No,” he assured me, “it never rains at this time of the year.” OK, he lied.

As I got about three blocks from the malecon, I felt a great big drop of moisture on my head. “That must be rain,” I surmised, not being one to let anything slip by me! And then another (nope, clearly not bird poop). By the time I reached a sheltering overhang on the side of a building, it was a full downpour. The streets were running rivers. “So that what it must be like during hurricane season,” he said wisely.

Girls with sandaled feet were sloshing about, hair plastered against their heads. I felt sorry for one motorcycle courier who was (neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail) going to make a go of it. He unbuttoned his shirt and was sliding his parcel inside for protection, when—just in time—a buddy pulled up in a car and gave him a (dry) ride. I just hung out for half an hour or so along with a dozen other folks. When it finally let up, I made a zigzagged dash over to the library, about two blocks away. It was perfect weather for sitting with a couple of newspapers, and slowly paging through them.

About the pool thing: I discovered that Campeche has a municipal sports center. It's as big as an airplane hanger, and looks something like that. It's all open-air, with a huge roof covering the courts area. There, they have basketball and martial arts competitions. Around on the other side are tennis courts and a baseball field. And, on the corner overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, is an olympic-sized pool. I inquired, and between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., it's open to the public for $1.75. Other times, it's used by swim teams and school kids. I've taken advantage of it the last two days running. Cool, clean, refreshing. Today, I had one of the athletic trainers work on my shoulder and back. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!

The day before yesterday, for my big outing of the day, I went over to one of the super-modern chain stores, much like a Super Target or Super Walmart (groceries + other things). I was just killing time, wandering the aisles, looking to see what was there, when I had two quite different experiences:

Experience #1: I get called “Whitey” again. This is no longer new or shocking. So, I responded to the guy, “So?” This is inside the store. He comes over—drunk or stoned—and asks if I want to buy drugs. “No.” I figured no explanations were necessary. Then he launched into a long story about getting beaten up and robbed, and would I give him $10 pesos (about a dollar). “No.” End of experience #1.

Experience #2: In the same store, about 15 minutes later, and older Mexican couple comes up to me. “Where are you from?” “The U.S.” That launched a lengthy conversation. They had had some good American friends here who recently “threw in the towel” and moved back to the states (Springfield, MO) at ages 92 and 90. They asked if I'd like to go over to the little cafe in-store and chat. So we did....for almost an hour. It ended with them asking me if I'd like to come over for coffee some day, or they would be happy to show me around town by car. Incredibly nice, and not something that would likely happen in a store back home. As a blond, pale, gringo I stand out (especially in non-touristed towns), which has its “rock-star” qualities. Some good, some annoying.

I'm falling into my own little routine here. Get up at the crack of 8 (didn't know 8 had a crack, did you?) Have a little breakfast of fresh tangerine, banana, and a croissant I've purchased the night before. And I snack at a small table in the open atrium right in front of my room. Then time for a walk around town. Then a swim. Then lunch at the same place, The Parish Restaurant, which serves a 3-course special of the day for $3.50. They have a WI-FI connection there, so I bring my laptop and do some computer work after lunch. Then it's home for nappy time (essential, after a hard day). When I get up, I walk down to see the sunset, then over to the library for a quick look at the day's papers. A light supper is next, then hanging out in the town square/park.

I'm liking retirement. A lot.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


A look back.....and forward (without the use of a mirror, thank goodness!):

Today is Feb. 10. That makes it a full month that I've been on the road again.
In that time, I've seen Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, Merida, and now Campeche.
This make 22 towns I've seen since I started on this journey, trek, walkabout, perambulation (whatever you want to call it) last November. Now that I've counted up the number, it is really a bit overwhelming. By way of analogy, it's as though you'd traveled to most of the major towns in the U.S.....and not just in one region, but Midwest, South, Northeast, West Coast...the whole country. That's a lot of traveling.

I've realized that I like to travel.
Which shouldn't be surprising to anyone. I got the “bug” immediately after graduating from college back in 19 (uh, hum...) whatever. I gave myself a European tour for a graduation present. And I had a ball. And then—some of you remember—I worked 6 years for that international travel company (Thomas Cook Travel). During that time, I went all over the world: Russia, China, Europe, South America, Africa, Fiji, New name it, I went there. And, being a travel agent, mostly for free (or for very little). Not bragging, just grateful to have had the chance. So now that I'm having my second childhood (did the first one ever end?) it shouldn't surprise anyone that I simply said---as the name of the blog clearly denotes—“to hell with it, I'm out of here.”

Why Mexico? Well, it's closer than Chile or Argentina, for one. And cheaper. I can be back “home” in the States (wherever that is....not sure any more) in a half-day's flying time. Mexico is a Spanish-speaking country, and I want to improve my Spanish. I find the people, by and large, sweet and friendly. I'm getting accustomed to the pace of life. It's slower. I want to start a radical movement : “DEATH to Multi-Tasking!!!” God didn't make us to do six things all at once. Now I don't have to.

On this trip I've been to coastal places, to mountainous places, to hot places, and cold places, to urban places, and hick town places. Why so many? Partly because I'm having fun doing it. And partly because I didn't start out with a clear idea in my own mind of what I was looking for. That's clearer now: I don't want to be in a big city. I've done the Chicago and Phoenix thing; now it's time for something slower. I don't want to be cold; after nine years in Phoenix, hot is better. And being close to water is awfully nice. In Chicago, most of the year you could find me at the lakefront.....running, biking, walking, sunbathing. I find water soothing. So, anyway, I'm getting closer. It won't be Utopia, but it will be my own little slice of heaven.

Snapshots of Campeche
Sunday night, and on most weekends, they close off the streets surrounding the main town square/park. This last Sunday, they had the Campeche Symphony playing open-air, under the stars, free....right in front of the town's decorative bandstand. Several of the restaurants ringing the square take advantage of the festivities and move tables out into the street for diners. I took advantage of the dining alfresco service at Hotel Campeche. I sat having a nice spaghetti dinner, watching the orchestra, with a gorgeous big full moon in the sky right behind the illuminated main cathedral. Wow! It was a stunner of an evening. After the orchestral “set,” another group came on stage, this time an Andean music group from Chile. Since I spent several months living in Chile about 17 years ago, this was a pleasant trip down memory lane. They even started off with a bit about the crimes of the Pinochet regime. All very familiar, since I was down in Chile in the year or so immediately following that period.

I go to the public library on the main square each day to read the local newspaper. It's a handsomely renovated colonial structure, with completely modern facilities inside. I like to sit at the long tables in the reading room, each table lit with a long built-in florescent overhead. The librarian asked me to please NOT reshelve books after I'd thumbed through them and came me a little slip of paper, a call slip, to fill out in order to request a book. In her free time, she crawls up a set of moveable stairs and dust the bookshelves. It's so “Marian the Librarian.”

Each evening around sunset, I like to go down to the Malecon (seaside walkway) to sit and watch the sea, and folks out for evening strolls. It's kind of a small town, enjoyable pastime.

Yesterday, I took the city's official tourist trolley (sponsored by the office of tourism) on a 45-minute ride around town. There were only eight of us, so we got a personalized version. Folks from the U.S. (me), Holland, Germany, and Mexico. One of the stops was at the church which marks the site of the very first mass said by Cortez and his crew when they first arrived in Mexico. In another neighborhood, San Román, we stopped to see the Black Christ.

It was a long, but fascinating, legend. It goes like this (from

The legend goes that a beautiful crucifix hand crafted in Civita Vecchia, Italy was sent to the church via the port of Veracruz. A man by the name Juan Cano was to take it from Veracruz to Campeche City. Looking for someone to take him and the crucifix by sea he came upon a protestant Englishman who refused to take him on his ship. Another man, a Spanish merchant, agreed to take Cano to Campeche and in fact removed some merchandise from the ship to make space for the Black Christ. During the journey up the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, there was a terrible storm. However, the ship made it to Campeche on September 14, 1565. The Englishman's boat dissappeared during the storm and no one ever saw him again. And that was the first miracle attributed to the Black Christ.

My miracle was, the day after viewing him, I found out the State of Illinois had sent me a letter saying they are holding unclaimed property (money) in my name. I have no idea from where or how much. But every little bit of sunshine is welcome. One more happy tourist. One more miracle.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Germans in Yucatan

I went to Sam's Club and to Wal-Mart today. Yep, just like back home. They are super popular here in Mexico.

When you get homesick for a little touch of Missouri, you can always stop into a Wal-Mart de Mexico. And, today, it was even MORE like Missouri. I thought I had been magically teleported from here back to Warsaw, Missouri. There in the food court sat three large families of blond, blue-eyed Mennonites in bib overalls, and the ladies in bonnets. Little tow-headed kids running around. Speaking German (and Spanish as well).

It really is startling. Just when you've become accustomed to a mestizo Mayan Indian/Spanish cultural're in the middle of folks that look like Missouri country farmers. I know that there was a large Mennonite settlement up in Chihuahua. Very successful. But I didn't know that they were down this far southeast in the country.

Here's an explanation from Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online:
Land shortage led the Old Colony Mennonites of the Durango Colony at Nuevo Ideal, Durango State, Mexico, to look for new tracts of land in the early 1980s. A number of states made offers, but always problems with "ejido " lands (communal land destined to be cultivated by landless Mexicans) loomed on the horizon. When in 1983 the State of Campeche offered several thousand hectares and conditions seemed favorable, the mother colony in Durango decided to buy the land. Immediately settlement began with 88 families near the town of Hopelchen. By 1987 the new colony had 737 inhabitants, of which 211 were church members. Six schools, with as many teachers, were in operation. Two of them also served as meetinghouses for Sunday morning worship services.

The two colonies in Zacatecas State, La Batea and La Honda, also had daughter colonies in Campeche, the former consisting of about 30 families, adjacent to the "Durango" colony; the latter, consisting of ca. 40 families and located 50 km. (30 mi.) to the southeast. The La Honda colony, begun in 1987, was optimistic about the choice of terrain and more families were expected to follow.

In all colonies High and Low German only were used in church and school. Agriculture, with accommodations to the regional climatic and soil conditions, was the main occupation.

Three Foot High Sidewalks

Some (not all) of the sidewalks in the Old Town historic center of Campeche are three-feet tall. Imagine! They come up to my waist. There are little cut-out steps to get up to the top level. During the rainy season, there are heavy rains and flooding. By making the sidewalks this high, and the doors to homes and shops that high, it helps to prevent a good interior soaking. Notice, no guardrails. Fall off one of these puppies, and it's to the orthopedic surgeon with you. Do not pass "Go."

Hotel Atrium

These are shots of the central courtyard/atrium at my hotel. Interesting thing is that it's open at the top. There IS a roof, but it sits on legs about two feet above the level of the top of the atrium, so that light and air circulate. In the super-hot summers, the heat rises from the atrium, and can escape around the four edges, rather than being trapped inside.

Blast from the Past

Check out the super-antique switchboard used at the Hotel Colonial in Campeche.
The other shot is of their second level sitting room.
All this furniture is handmade.
The floor tile is pretty cool, too. Vintage 1930 I'd say.

Cool Vintage Furniture in My Hotel

Scenes from Campeche

That turret-looking thing is a "baluarte" (English, "bulwark"), part of the defensive walls which once ringed the city. Large sections of the wall remain, and 7 of the baluartes. Some now function as museums or public gardens.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Pretty, Historic, and Cheap

No, not me, silly! Campeche.

That's where I am right now. It is the capital of one of three states in the Yucatan peninsula. Campeche State, Campeche city. The town is located on the northern coast of the peninsula, facing the Gulf of Mexico, directly south of New Orleans. Recently, the city was granted the United Nations (UNESCO) World Heritage Site designation. They call it “Patrimony of Humanity.” And, as a result the city fathers (and mothers) VERY wisely decided to spruce up the town. Within the historic center of the city, which is encompassed by the remnants of the original town walls, they have repaired the facades of all the old buildings and painted them in gorgeous pastel colors. And they've hired a crew of street cleaners and trash removers. As a result, the place is lovely—clean, pretty, architecturally interesting. I plan to walk into the local tourist office and compliment them on their sound planning. I suppose they are looking to increase tourism, and this seems an excellent way to go about it.
I flew from Guadalajara, via Mexico City, to Merida. I'd been there before...a couple of years ago. So I only stayed one night before taking the bus over to Campeche (it's only a 2.5 hour ride). Watching local television in my hotel room in Merida, I was taken aback by a couple of things: first, as I was in the bathroom, I heard the 5:00 newscast come on and I simply could not understand it. I thought, well, maybe I'm too far away to hear properly. So I went into the bedroom where the TV was. Still couldn't make out anything. “Gosh, I'm losing my Spanish skills,” I thought. Then, the title came on the TV screen: “News in Mayan.” Ummm, no wonder I couldn't understand. The Mayan language isn't one I've mastered.
The second odd thing was a commercial came on TV for an upcoming bullfight. I watched with great interest because I like bullfights, and have been to several (I know that's not politically correct). But this bullfight---get this—was a bullfight with MIDGETS as matadors. It seemed to my Americanized sensibilities shockingly politically incorrect to see these little people running around in the bullring, dressed as matadors. I didn't attend. It does, however, represent a different, Mexican, take on life. I've written earlier of how Mexicans think nothing about calling friends: “whitey,” or “darkie,” or “fat-so,” or “shortie.” I had one explain it to me as, “if that's the way God made you, why should we try to tap dance around it?”
Water Closets. I never clearly understood until now why bathrooms are called “water closets.” The hotel I'm staying at in Campeche, the Hotel Colonial ($14/night), is an incredible time machine. It was a centuries-old mansion, converted into a hotel. I will post some photos of its plant-filled central atrium here. In my room, a bathroom has been literally carved out of a space the size of a closet. A tiny stand-up shower that's impossible to turn around in (no shower curtain). A tiny hand sink. And the toilet set off from the shower by a narrow wall. The whole thing is enclosed in a wall that doesn't reach to the ceiling (ceilings are about 20 feet). So, indeed, it was added as a much later afterthought, a closet with water pipes. Oh, and a footnote about the toilet itself: I've never seen one like it. The flush mechanism isn't a tank with a lever, but a turn-valve right on the water intake pipe. Works just fine. Just have to remember to turn the handle completely off, or it will run forever! The toilet seat is built right into the porcelain. No plastic seat. So, not to be indelicate, but you sit right on the porcelain. And, of course, it always feels like you're going to fall in. But it's not the normal rim of a toilet, but a maybe 6-inch wide porcelan lip all the way around. Never have to remember to put the seat down. However, this is a fine idea for girls, but for boys, not so much.
Also in my room are two thick metal eyes, about 3” in diameter, mounted right into the stone/cement walls at opposite corners of the room. Look like they've been there for a century. What's the purpose, you ask? Ahh, hammock hooks. In the olden days, folks here didn't have beds, just hammocks. Better air circulation all around your body on those incredibly hot nights without air conditioning.
Another weird little thing I've seen in most drugstores: a plastic nose insert. Yep, they've got a poster with photos showing how to use the things. The local indigenous population is Mayan. The Mayan people have a prominent hooked nose. This device, when inserted into the nose, reshapes the nose (temporarily) into a more aquiline profile. I suppose that's someone's idea of more beautiful. But we Americans can't talk. We've got tattoos, piercings of more body parts than I want to know, Botox injections, and lipo. Oh, Sweet Vanity, you are truly cross cultural.
My taxi driver told me a famous saying by Benito Juarez (Mexico's much-loved Indian president...sort of a Mexican Abraham Lincoln). It goes like this:
“Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.”
Nice, huh? This from the guy who ordered the assassination of Emperor Maximillian (after the French intervention in Mexico). Sort of like "you be nice to me, I'll be nice to you. If not, I'll murder you."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Flying the Friendly Mexican Skies

So here I sit at the Guadalajara airport, looking out the window at my Mexicana plane that is in the process of unloading passengers and getting ready for those of us waiting here at the gate. On my wireless laptop computer.

For those of you who think of Mexico as a Third World country....I'm sitting at a Starbucks, a little table, polished marble floors gleaming, fancy Italian designer shops, national and international chain restaurants. Of course, Starbucks shouldn't be the definition of Third or First World. It's just that Mexico enjoys many international benefits. And--of course--a mountain of poverty. There's more here for a sociological discussion. But plane is boarding. Tonight, Merida!

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

For the last couple of days I've been in Guadalajara.
This was a "take two." I was here two years ago, when I stayed with a local family and studied Spanish at a language school. I didn't like Guadalajara then. It seemed way too big, dirty, and uninviting.

Guess what? The city hasn't changed. And (more importantly, I guess) neither have I. I still don't like the place. Right now, they are undergoing major public works, with half the downtown streets and sidewalks torn up. You walk across dirt where sidewalks once were....big gaping holes, trenches waiting for drain pipes, perfect to fall into. Dust blowing everywhere. My eyes and throat stinging. Where I'm staying, it's really dodgey. This hotel is clean and nice the window they put a handwritten sign: Promotion! Rooms for couples, 8 hours, $160 pesos!! Hmmm, does that mean what I think it means?

Anyway, I'm on the road again. I fly this morning out of here to Mexico City and then on to Merida. I plan to go from Merida to Campeche (both on the Yucatan peninsula) within the next couple of days. I was in Merida a year ago, but never got over to Campeche. It's like an untasted chocolate in the box. Forrest Gump was right.