A WINDOW HALF OPEN ON THE MAYAN WORLD
by Annabella Fitch Hutton
Arriving from Atlanta we reached a different world in barely two hours of travel and a one hour time change - this 'window half open on the Mayan World’ - all around are people who do not look like us, but they smile, seem honest and very healthy. In spite of the bustling cities, the areas nearby are less populated. People live on dirt roads in tiny concrete homes with what appear to be scarcely a chair or table. This could be a false picture gained from the window of the bus as I drive by. They are tiny with deeply brown skins, straight black hair and wonderful eyes. I can see a great love of vibrant color in the chosen clothes but this does not seem to extend to the houses which look drab and somewhat uninviting.
Visiting the Yucatan Peninsula inland by about a 100 miles from Cancun and inland in light years from the cacophony of that tourist place, our hotel - Villa Maria Merida, is a tiny boutique hotel of just 11 rooms, all lovely, not perfect and precisely designed, but done with care and thought for the traveler, situated within the historic core of the city of Merida. There is some elegance here in the almost Arabic courtyard with its fountain, carefully laid tables and promise of good food and wine. The two story room that we will share for 5 nights is a pleasure, white clouds of netting surround the four poster bed and above a smaller bed for my college age son. He will sleep close to the stars while we are surrounded with pictures of the Madonna and other religious emblems, not intrusive but decorative and peaceful. The bathroom has a deep oblong marble bath almost like a burial place I think. Perhaps this is a cultural expression - a type of Mayan bath - I have never seen a bath shaped like this before with its steps up and its depth and length. Outside our room the diners enjoy good wine and food with an overlay of lovely music.
The exterior of this hotel belies its interior of calm and elegance. Opening immediately onto the busy local street with many cars even some trucks, this does not look like to be a good place to be. Located at Calle 59 and the junction with Calle 68 - by the end of 5 days that conjunction had much more meaning than at first, after numerous forays into the town to see the town square, enjoy a guided tour, visit the Tourist Office, book some tours to the ancient sites, and especially to join my fellow travelers in expeditions to specially recommended restaurants, which proved to lack the elegance of our hotel courtyard dining, but what these other restaurants lacked in elegance they gained in a sense of being part of the world of Merida, local restaurants with fresh fish, good vegetables and even pizzas, usually with a Mexican hot sauce or something to make it different.
We dined at El Trapiche on Calle 62 where service was fast, the food inexpensive and popular with locals and tourists. For lunch we tried a recommended fish restaurant in town, the Marlin Azul Restaurant y Cockteleria. We were crammed up against a wall on a small table barely large enough for 3, but the food was outstanding. My choice was pescado relleno (fish breaded and filled with shrimp, octopus and other sea creatures), really too much for lunch but quite delicious. Outside just a few feet from our table the cars, buses, motorcycles and vans pounded the streets and probably filled our lungs with unchecked emissions, but it was a strangely good experience.
Everywhere people are selling things - mostly things that I would not want. However, there was one little girl enjoying a wooden toy of hens which pecked the ground depending on how she moved the toy or pulled the strings. I had bought one just like this for my son, some time ago, - in Yugoslavia not Merida - how did the pattern for this toy travel between these countries and to which was it original? Wandering in the main square, a short man of mixed heritage - clearly a mestizo as the Mexicans say and they have a story of the original Mestizo family - engaged us in conversation. His English was good. He said he was a teacher and wanted to practice his English with us. Ok for a while we thought but not too long. He proved to be an interesting person and soon led us to the shop where the Mayans sold their crafts of silver, weaving and paintings, explaining that all the money from this co operative enterprise made its way back to the Mayan villages, whereas for the majority of the shops only a tiny portion of the money earned got back to the craftspeople themselves. We bought a few interesting pieces and were encouraged quite vociferously at some points to buy more. Much bargaining took place and was expected.
Earlier we had taken a free guided tour of the plaza Mayor and its surrounding buildings, learning that the Spanish Duke of Montejo and his son were the conquerors of this part of Mexico, inhabited by the Mayans of the Yucatan peninsula, and that the Aztecs from another part of Mexico were conquered in one day but it took 4 weeks to conquer the Maya - even the Spanish considered them to be a strong and healthy people. The Mayans themselves believed that they were born from a head of corn and the modern paintings in the Government building on the square show this happening. There is another painting which depicts the story of the beginning of the Mestizos in the Yucatan.
The Mexicans here claim that everyone is a Mestizo, but to the uncultured eye of the North American or European there appear to be many people with not a drop of Spanish DNA and only Mayan heritage in their background. The story of the Mestizos is told as being the result of a Spanish sailor shipwrecked on the Yucatan Peninsula and captured by the Maya Indians. He taught the Mayans Spanish, and how to thwart the attacks which came from them. Eventually, he married a Mayan woman and their children are called the first mestizos. This was in the 1600’s.
Three thousand years ago Mayans were living on this land. Gradually, they became agriculturalists and built villages and developed a fantastic series of explanations for why things were and what they needed to do to be sure that things would continue that way. The gods needed sacrifices, in some cases human but jewelry and artifacts were also given to the gods. Perhaps one of our most outstanding experiences was the visit to Chichen Itza - in itself a strange and mysterious name conjuring up all kinds of unusual and perhaps slightly frightening assumptions about life.
The complete structure of the world was different – many gods, great buildings of strange shapes, a world where the sun would not come up without a human sacrifice of the best of the best every 52 years, followed by a strange ball game with what appeared to be the almost impossible task of getting a ball through a small stone circle attached to a wall high above the field. The huge ball field was surrounded by the tiers and balconies for the long ago audiences of Mayans, now thronged with guides and visitors. Somehow the Harry Potter game of Quidditch seemed strangely similar. Mayan ancestors built these amazing places, using the stars and the sun in their calculations and provided doorways and other places at exactly the right location for the sun to strike at certain times of the year. Still filled with Mayans the area surrounding the temples is used as a place to sell the artifacts of today. There are many temples in this area; much that we did not see. Many weeks could be spent here from the coast to the interior viewing all the buildings created by the Maya.
We were told that outside of the main towns like Merida 80% of the people still speak Mayan, a language filled with x's and z's and at first all the names seem impossible, but after listening carefully for a while it is possible to learn quite quickly how to pronounce something that initially seemed undoable like Izamal, Dzibilchaltun and Hacienda Xcanatun. (said Ishcanatoon) – this lovely place, once a farm, growing sisal a key product of the agriculture of this region, is now a completely luxurious hotel. Five stars, lovely gardens, pools and restaurants - a place for honeymoons and Heads of State - President Clinton stayed here when he visited Merida.
We took a local bus to the Hacienda about five miles out of town, and went from very local to absolutely international in a short space of time. A glass of highly chilled wine after a tour of the 7 acres of grounds and the hacienda was most welcome as the temperature was around 80f with high humidity. The farm was built in the 18th century, now with a few additional buildings all in the same style.
Later we visited another section of Merida, close to the impressive Museum of Anthropology with its collections of Mayan statues and artifacts and very good descriptions of life and culture that helped to make it all make sense. In this section were some impressive residential houses and wide tree lined streets - different from the narrow treeless streets of the inner town. The large American style hotels in this area did seem out of character. Why did one need a large American hotel in Merida - the answer of course conventions, incentive tours and conferences for businesses both American and Mexican and judging from the accents heard around a fair sprinkling of English, German and other nationalities too.
There is a very good cooking school in Merida that looks fun and we talked to them but were not able to attend. It sounded like a good idea to learn the cooking of the area, and to visit markets and cook and taste the food in the company of other people and with Chef David Sterling who researches all the Yucatan recipes and founded the school in 2003.
Departing gently from the tiny airport in Merida, made one wish that Atlanta and the USA might not be so huge and so crowded and that we could somehow put off our arrival and stay in this simpler more connected place. But simpler on the surface is not always simpler in its entirety and living here there could be other problems, other difficulties and challenges that we could not see now. There was a sadness to leave that could not be explained by the marvels of Chichen Itza and Mayan culture and the lovely hotels and restaurants we found and was due more to a sense of being part of something that is closer to the way humans need to live, knowing and seeing that they are dependent on each other and need to find a way of interacting with each other.
Communication face to face is a large part of that - using our skills of language, touch, sight, taste and empathy to find a way to interact with others, as people do in Merida.
Visits to this part of Mex8ico can be booked through: The British Connection Inc. www.thebritishconnection.com; E-mail: email@example.com
TEL:(800)420-2569; (404)373-1420. They are planning a special garden and craft tour to Mexico for June, 2010 lead by a well known garden and interior designer.
Flights and time zone
Merida is + 1 hour ahead of East coast time.
American, Continental and Delta fly to Merida from US Gateway cities through Mexico City or Cancun.
When is the best time to travel to Merida? – We traveled there for Christmas. The weather was pleasant, sunny and warm with a few showers. For cooler but warm weather choose November to March. April to October the weather can be hot or very hot, especially in the summer months of June to September with sudden tropical afternoon storms.
Casual clothes to keep you cool and cool clothes for the best restaurants and hotels.
Where to stay?
We chose Villa Maria Hotel a Boutique Hotel:
Villa Maria Hotel & Restaurant
Calle 59 No. 553 x 68, Colonia Centro, Merida, Yucatan, +52.999.923.3357; +52.999.923.7620
Cooking School in Merida
Los Dos, Calle 68 No. 517, Por 65 y 67 Colonia Centro, Mérida, Yucatán 97000