Sick unto death

catrinaFOR MANY years before relocating to Mexico, I was a big fan of the Day of the Dead tradition. In my Houston condo, I had a ceramic Catrina on my bathroom counter, one that a Mexican crafts store outrageously overcharged me for, which I didn’t know then.

It had been marked up about 10 times. Double is the norm. Those crafty Mexicans.

By pure dumb luck I settled in one of the two most popular and highly publicized towns in the entire republic for Los Muertos, as the Day of the Dead is commonly known in Mexico. The other is Oaxaca.

This really tickled me 19 years ago. Now I’m just ticked off. The tourist mobs have grown to stunning levels and, for that reason, this year we are fleeing for the first time.

We’re riding a bus to Guadalajara late next week.

I have not been to Guadalajara since 2000. Our mountaintop town is located about halfway between Guadalajara and Mexico City. Actually, it’s a bit closer to Guadalajara. In spite of that, I have visited Mexico City a gadzillion times, and I have not returned to Guadalajara since my mother (R.I.P.) and my sister visited in that long-ago summer. I picked them up at the airport there, and then returned them a week later.

We’ll be staying in a downtown hotel that’s two blocks from the Hotel Morales, which is where I stayed three nights after flying to Guadalajara from Atlanta on January 19, 2000. It’ll be fun to take a peek into there for ole times sake. I tried to book a room at the Morales, but nothing was available for the dates of our visit.

We’ll be visiting the famous zoo and eating some Vietnamese pho, which I love. Other than those two things, nothing much is planned. We’ll just wander around. This will be our first trip to someplace “new” since our 2013 visit to Mérida. We don’t travel much.

What I remember most about Guadalajara is the atrocious quantity of pigeons that pollute the downtown plazas. I’m not a fan of pigeons, nasty birds.

But there will probably be more tourists here next weekend than there are pigeons soiling the center of Guadalajara. Gotta pick your poisons.

Swearing off San Miguel

YEARS AGO a friend said we were in a rut, that the two of us rarely did anything different and new. He was correct.

He was referring to travel, but the accusation likely was accurate in other life activities. I attribute it mostly to age. I used to enjoy travel far more than I do now.

I wonder if I’m becoming as big a fuddy-duddy as was my father all his life. He thought if you’ve seen one city you’ve seen them all. He didn’t want to go anywhere. Of course, that’s ridiculous. There’s a huge difference, for instance, between Houston and nearby New Orleans and even San Antonio, Texas.

I’ve never been to Omaha, but I bet it’s quite a switch from San Francisco.

I was sitting in the central plaza of Mérida years ago, or was it Puebla? I recall looking around and thinking that I could be sitting in the plaza of any Mexican colonial city. Why did I blow airfare and hotel costs to come here?

Colonial Mexican cities are indeed quite similar.

But I have decided to branch out a bit, travel-wise. Not to do it more often, but to go to new places. Part of this change is the decision to never, ever visit the silly city of San Miguel de Allende again. Never, never, never.

It had become a habit, a pattern, on deciding to get off the mountaintop for a spell, to go either to Zihuatanejo on the Pacific Coast or to San Miguel de Allende. They are about the same distance from the Hacienda, but in opposite directions. We were in a rut. Didn’t really give much thought to other options.

With rare exceptions, when we travel we drive. We don’t fly. If memory serves, the last time we flew anywhere, it was to Mérida in 2013, just a year after we flew to Havana for our 10th anniversary. Both jaunts were on Interjet, a nice airline, by the way.

I’m not going to swear off Zihuatanejo because a beach is a beach, and it’s the nearest beach. We’ve gone to Zihua so often, however, that it’s getting a bit ho-hum.  And you’ll sweat your ass off. We haven’t been there in three years.

But we’re swearing off San Miguel. No more. Enough is enough. In spite of having some great restaurants, places you don’t easily find elsewhere in Mexico, it’s just a laughable town inhabited by some Mexicans and lots of goofy Gringos who parade around in funny clothing. It’s amusing at first, but that wears off.

I’m making a list of new places to visit. We’ll be driving, and they are either one day or two days away. We’ll spend one night en route for those two-day spots.

Having just begun this project, the list is short:

  1. Guadalajara. Oddly, we are a bit closer to Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city, than we are to Mexico City. Yet we’ve been to Mexico City a thousand times, and I’ve not been to Guadalajara in 17 years, and just briefly then. My child bride and I have never been there together.
  2. Xilitla, San Luis Potosí. This idea came from one of The Moon‘s frequent visitors, Peggy Langdon. She went to Xilitla once, and I saw her mention of it on Facebook. There’s a place called Las Pozos in Xilitla. I want to see that.
  3. Zacatecas. I’ve been there just once, many years ago. It’s my wife’s favorite Mexican city, and she’s been to most of the biggies. She’s visited every state save one, Quintana Roo. She racked up those trips as a result of her 14 years working as a civil engineer for the federal highway department. She loves Zacatecas, and we can visit Aguascalientes at the same time. Trivia Department: Zacatecas is Mexico’s northernmost Colonial city.
  4. Tequila, Jalísco. This idea came from Steve Cotton who visited there recently. It looks like a fun place. This would be a two-day drive. We’d likely overnight in the Gringo-infested town of Ajijic or nearby. Ajijic, like the aforementioned San Miguel de Allende, is always good for eye-rolling.

That’s the entire list for now. I’m open to suggestions. New places would have to be within a two-day drive. My ideal one-day drive is six hours max. More than six hours turns a drive into an ordeal in my book.

Don’t suggest places that require planes. If I get on a plane, I’m going to Colombia, not to the other side of Mexico.

As for San Miguel, I wish you well, amigos. Try to get on without me. I won’t miss you, but thanks for the hilarity you’ve provided through the years.

Souvenirs of Mérida

Merida

WALKING PAST the living room this morning, I noticed how sunshine through the big windows fell on these little framed prints that we purchased last January in Mérida.

They were about the only souvenirs we brought back from the Yucatán, not being big souvenir people. And they were not purchased so much as souvenirs as they were purchased because I liked the three little prints.

One is an old woman just sitting. Another is a woman washing clothes in a big pot over a fire. The third is an old couple sitting on a concrete love seat. We spotted those concrete love seats in many parts of Mérida, in parks and plazas. I have never seen them anywhere else.

One evening we were walking the nice, dark streets near the Casa Alvarez, the downtown guesthouse where we stayed in a penthouse room, very nice place to stay if you’re ever in Mérida, by the way, and we happened upon a bunch of shops and restaurants abutting a plaza.

That was where I found these three prints, which I bought immediately. They were cards really. Perhaps there was a place for an address and stamp on the back. I don’t recall. But if you put most anything in a frame, it rises to any occasion with a new-found elegance.

They are hanging now next to the stone fireplace in the living room.

It was my first — and last — extended stay in Mérida, but it was not my real first. That happened back around 1975 when I was working on the San Juan Star  in Puerto Rico. The newspaper’s union, run by a pack of pinche communists, went on strike, and it looked to be a lengthy one.

The devil, I said to myself, so I packed my bags and got on a plane to Haiti. After a few days in Haiti, I got on another plane to Mexico City. That flight first landed in Mérida, and everybody on the plane was hustled off to get shots against any Haitian cooties we might be carrying into Mexico.

I never got out of the Mérida airport that day, but it did count as a visit to the Yucatán, I think.

Mérida is an okay place, a nice Colonial city that looks pretty much like all Colonial cities in Mexico, something I wrote about shortly after returning home from that trip. It’s quite touristy and very popular among Gringos who are smart enough to move across the Rio Bravo.

I could never live there due to the climate. I have sweated enough in my life. And there are no mountains. Living without mountains is like eating a pizza without anchovies. It’s no pizza, a sham, a joke.

It’s midday now, and the three framed pieces have moved into the near-constant, cool dimness of the living room where they will not be very noticeable until tomorrow morning, assuming it’s not overcast.

Amazing how three postcards can inspire this many words.

Epiphany in Mérida

penthouse
Our penthouse atop the Casa Alvarez

GOING ON a Mexican vacation is much easier for us Mexicans than it is for Gringos.

Here’s why:

1. We don’t need a passport.

2. We don’t need to strip, bend over, and spread our cheeks at the airport.

3. We don’t have to be afraid to travel in Mexico because we know better.

Our Mexican vacation started on January 10 when we took an ETN bus from the nearby state capital. ETN buses are very nice with extra-wide seats and legroom galore.

vacationThe bus only got us to Mexico City where we spent the night at our little condo. The next day we flew on Interjet to Mérida in the Yucatán. Interjet is a very nice airline that we had used once before when we celebrated our 10th anniversary in the communist dictatorship of Cuba.

(Yes, sometimes we do odd things.)

Then we checked into a very nice small hotel called Casa Alvarez where they gave us — without our even asking — the Penthouse Suite! The brother and sister who run the Casa Alvarez are named Alvarez, and they are very nice people.

It was my first visit to Mérida, and I was surprised to see such hordes of tourists. At times I felt I was back in downtown Havana, the only differences being that Mérida is far better maintained, and there were smiling faces due to capitalist prosperity.

We did typical tourist stuff. We rented a car for three of the seven days we were there. We drove to the beach at Progresso on the tip of the Yucatán peninsula. We visited a cenote in a mangrove swamp. Another day, we drove to Uxmal (Ooosh-mal).

Uxmal is my third set of major Mexican pyramids. The other two were Teotihuacán north of Mexico City (2002) and Palenque in the State of Chiapas (1999).

A photo display at the Uxmal visitor center shows shots from the early 20th century, before and during the renovations. This was very educational in that it makes clear that what we see today at these sites are, to a great degree, reconstructions.

These are not just sweep-and-patch jobs.

No matter. They are fascinating. And that main Uxmal pyramid is one tall mother.

Lucky for us, there were very few other visitors on the Thursday we showed up. I doubt that would have been the case at Chichén Itzá, which is why we didn’t go there.

Back in Mérida, the mobs of tourists were off-putting. Tourist mobs are a mixed bag. They help the local economy, sure, but they really screw up the atmosphere.

Near Mérida’s Plaza Grande, you’ll find lots of store employees standing in doors hawking their goods and yapping at you in half-assed English. Buy our guayaberas! Buy our Panama hats! You wanna buy my leetle sister, meester?

Well, not that last one.

But it wasn’t that different from passing hawkers outside strip clubs on Bourbon Street, or outside stores on Puerto Vallarta’s flashy, hyper-touristy malecón.

* * * *

One fine afternoon I was sitting alone on a bench in Mérida’s central plaza while my child bride shopped. The January air was cool, and lovely Latinas walked by. Out of the blue, it hit me. A shocking epiphany!

* * * *

The Mérida epiphany

I had been there before. Not to Mérida specifically, of course, but something similar, very similar. A light bulb blazed right there over my head, a revelation from on high.

All Mexican colonial cities are basically the same.

If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all. Why repeat yourself? Of course, there are differences, but they’re mostly trivial details, often having to do with topography.

I was sitting in the plaza of Mérida, but it could just as well have been a large plaza in Guanajuato, Mexico City,  Guadalajara, San Miguel de Allende, Taxco, Zacatecas, Puebla, Morelia, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, all of which I have visited.

But not just Mexican colonial cities. Also, San Juan, Puerto Rico; Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic; Havana, and so on. The Spanish came, and they built cities, large and small, in the New World, and they built them from the same template.

The differences are in the details. Mérida, for example, will melt the skin off your bones during much of the year. Mexico City and Guadalajara are huge. Zacatecas looks more like Spain than Mexico. Taxco has silver. San Miguel has hordes of goofy, old Gringos with ponytails, and I’m talking about the guys.

But if you’re dropped onto a major plaza in any colonial city, you’d be hard-pressed to rapidly identify the town from your wrought-iron bench.

The “charming” part of colonial cities is right downtown, El Centro. On the outskirts, you will invariably find cinderblock shacks but also modern residences. You will find upscale shopping in Gringo big-box stores like Costco, Sears and Best Buy.

You will find Burger Kings, T.G.I.F Friday’s, Chili’s, Subways, Sirloin Stockades, IHOPs, and many other eateries of that ilk, courtesy of Gringo enterprise, God bless it.

As the epiphany fell on me, I thought: Why am I spending so much lucre and time to come here when I can just go downtown where I live and see the same thing?

No more of this. Better to visit Paris.

* * * *

(Note: Here are two restaurant recommendations. First, in Mérida, on Calle 62, just two or three blocks north of the Plaza Grande, is the Chaya Maya. Second, a seafood restaurant the name of which I forget, but it’s the first restaurant you see on entering Progresso’s one-way malecón, and it’s directly next door to La Casa de Pastel, where Pedro Infante, the late Mexican movie star once spent time with his girlfriend. Great grub at both.)