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."