Dear Mom and Dad,
The streets smell here. They are living smells of raw meat and oil and salt. Panaderias with their sweet breads and baguettes, and the street vendors with their sizzling pile of roasting Al Pastor, and their fried hot dogs and their tacos and marquesitas. As a warning, all the bread’s a little bland, but good with coffee. Get churros from the couple who set up their stand next to the Cathedral on Sundays. The couple doesn’t also cook french fries with the oil, just the one thing, the churros.
Watch where you walk. There are holes, curbs, and rushing buses at any given moment. No one turns right on reds, but they will run the last few seconds of a red light if nobody is coming. Pedestrians don’t push their luck. Most people seem to avoid drinking the tap water if they can, which is why we buy the garafon of water from the corner store. Put your used toilet paper in the trash can, not the toilet, folded, please. Really, it makes more sense than our system, which leaves the job to the water treatment plant.
Everybody says the police are corrupt, so try to avoid them as best you can. But the cops don’t bother the gueros, gringos, extranjeros (all of those are us) because cops work for the government, and the government wants tourists. Expect to see men in front of banks and consulates and other governmental buildings with semi-automatics. It’s safe here, not because of the guns, but because people are out on the streets most day and night. Because locals pride themselves on this city being tranquilo, calm, safe, friendly, familiar. You are not as strange as you feel.
Locals tend not to refer to this place as Mexico. Instead, this place is Mérida, in the state of Yucatan, what still is el mundo Maya. Cancun is not in Yucatan, it is in Quintana Roo, an entirely different state. When people ask you where you are from, de donde eres, you can reply, Soy de Chicago, and then ask them where they are from, too.
Expect parades at any moment. Or a protest with tents set up in Plaza Grande. Or most likely, in the evenings, there will be dancing, in Parque Santiago, or Santa Lucia, or Plaza Grande. The government pays for free outdoor concerts daily, salsa and cumbia and more traditional music from elsewhere, like marimba or mariachi, and old couples dance in the closed off street or in the park. The couples stand and chat between songs and don’t begin dancing right at the first beat of the new song, but wait a few breaths, as if needing to learn the beat all over again. Fireworks are probable too. Not the big showy ones like on the 4th of July, but just the quick and loud ones. Sunday morning? Fireworks! Tuesday night? Fireworks! A soccer match? Fireworks. And lots of cheering. We know when there’s a match on television when, in any given location in the city, we hear shouts and squeals every three minutes. There could be singing too, loud, balladeer singing, coming from around one corner or another.
There are the ubiquitous making-out couples in any given plaza. That’s okay. It’s okay to sit on a bench and stare at everyone walking by too. Pete called the early evening in Plaza Grande a meat market, and I think it’s mostly just us creatures allowing ourselves to be fascinated by each others’ presence. Kids stay up late, and they are allowed to chase pigeons or walk up to a performer during a public concert as she’s singing and dancing. Lots of people are allowed to stay up late, and most indoor concerts or shows start at 9PM.
You will not shiver here, unless you get the flu or dengue. It’s warm, by my standards, all of the time, so people leave their doors and windows open most of the time too. Movie theaters still perform the function of being an air-conditioned relief from the heat. The city really is quite green, it’s just that except for the plazas, most of the life is inside the high walls of the city blocks. The walls offer protection from the sun, too, so mid-day, like the locals, walk on the shady side of the street so you don’t sweat as much.
Men don’t wear shorts in the city. Younger men wear well-fitting jeans or bright-colored denim, the older men wear jeans or slacks. Lots of women are currently killing it in those high heels that are just one, thick, fluted sole, though flats are fine if you don’t want to show off. People aren’t afraid of being bright here. Men can wear pink or purple or anything. And of course women do. Some locals own sweaters, hoodies, and even puff jackets, which they pull out the second it drops below 74. Pete saw mittens the other day.
We live in an apartment building that is also a hotel. We have front-desk staff who seem to be all 20-year-old nephews and sons of the owners, a couple that lives in the attached building next door. They close the gate every night, and in the morning when Pete and I go to the gym, which is a whole other story, in order to get out, we have to wake the unlucky guy who has to spend the night (every night?) in the front office. Harmless little ants are always on the rove in our kitchen, especially when it is warm, so every crumb must be caught. We have a gecko, too. And the lizards in the courtyard are quick to hide beneath the large waxy leaves of the vines.
Gracias is thank you, but when you are turning someone down who is asking something of you in the street, which will happen often, you can say disculpa or perdon. Excuse me, or pardon. Same thing if you do something awkward, and want to apologize. No one says lo siento on the street, it is a deeper, more significant apology. If you need to pass by, you can say con permiso, a request, with permission. Here people more often than not say hasta luego, until later, which is friendly, a hope and a wish.
The trash in the streets and the flaky-paint walls and the rebar and cinder blocks might make the streets look dirty and poor to you, but look past those things, like the people here do. The surface of things here don’t seem as important as the heart of them. The spectacular concert hall and symphony, the Pacheco murals, the new exhibitions, the music, the dance, the fresh joy of creating and being and loving, the quiet courtyards, the conversations.
This is just the beginning. The briefest sketches of life here in Mérida. Living is always so much more than explaining. I will say that I do love it here, which might be the continuation of a running joke between the two of you. Oh, Alex, loving yet another home. And it’s true, I have loved every place, sooner or later. Some places at first appear easy, but then become quite difficult to love. Other places have shut me out at first, but then let me eke in, day by day. This place is one of those. Everyday, I am dumbfounded and tossed back. And everyday, if I choose to go out, I am rewarded by the smallest secret. Like the lone couple framed by the doorway, laughing and dancing to no music last night. Or the moth fluttering around the chandelier in the concert hall during Tchaikovsky. Or the lone ukulele player in Plaza Grande, finishing his haunting song and walking off. Or a new word.