Last time I kicked it in atrocious hotels, while enjoying miles of jungle scenery and small Maya villages. Now it’s time to explore Mérida, the capital of Yucatán—and a place that promises some unexpected experiences.
Saturday, January 31 – Wednesday, February 4 (Days 939 – 943 of the Great Adventure)
My days in Mérida went by fast. Like a few other favorite stops, I stayed longer than I planned. And just as in the others, one of the highlights was the food.
I have an ability to sniff out great places wherever I go. The first one was easy to spot, because of the long lines of locals waiting for a table. It’s called Restaurante La Chaya Maya and offers some of the best Mayan food you’ll ever find. It’s so popular that they had to open a second location two blocks away, and the lines still stretch out the door during comida (the big late afternoon meal). Luckily, I still eat on an American schedule so stopped in around 6:30 one evening, when there was no wait at all. Mayan food consists mainly of pork prepared with a variety of amazing sauces, served in anything from an oversize tamale to a smothering of red onions soaked in lime juice.
(This is also where I first had chaya, a local green sometimes translated as “tree spinach” and delicious when cooked.)
Another place caught my eye only because of the atmosphere. I was on a quest for a coffee shop and this place looked more like a diner, but something made me look twice. It turns out Cafetería Pop is a local landmark, the inside dominated by an oversize line drawing of three unhappy men. When I finally went in, it was heaven: the food was good and the silence was golden.
As far as I can tell, Pop is where Mexican men come to read the paper and get away from the world. It could only be more grandpa if it smelled like aftershave. I sank into a seat at one of the orange tables and read over my coffee and huevos, no one speaking to anyone. Blissful.
(I never did find out what the deal is with the old guys on the wall. I asked twice but my Spanish couldn’t handle the answer. As best I can interpret, I was told, “They’re three disco stars who used to come here to dance.” I’m sure that’s right.)
I did find my coffee shop, in spades. The one I liked most is Café Chocolate, where I could sit in overstuffed arm chairs at antique hardwood tables and write in perfect silence. But the one I went to most often—for its convenience and its strong wi-fi—was Café Bolero. This place would have the ambiance of a lesser Starbuck’s except that it has a large outdoor terrace, partly open air and partly covered by a roof high above. It was sort of a mini-plaza squeezed between the cafe and a religious bookstore. It was a good place to do client work for hours on end.
This is where I was sitting when a downpour hit Mérida one evening. I made sure to move under the roof, and continued working. But when I looked up I saw a homeless man stumble out of the rain, into the shelter of the plaza, so soaked he trailed a river behind him. I watched as he went into several stores, probably asking for help, and was driven out by an angry manager. My first thought was (of course): please don’t come talk to me.
And he never did. He looked toward the cafe terrace a few times, but had probably been run off before. So he forsook the shelter of the plaza and stood in the rain on the sidewalk, throwing water at himself and screaming up at the sky.
I became angry at myself, and at my desire that he leave me alone. It suddenly seemed despicable. Abandoning my coffee and computer, I crossed the plaza to talk to him.
“Pardon me,” I said. I had a $200 peso note in my hand, but he didn’t know that yet.
“My watch,” he said. “I’m looking for my watch.”
I nodded as if I understood. I didn’t; I can’t pretend to know whether he was mentally ill or just looking to get attention. And I wasn’t going to get pulled into delusional talk.
“I don’t know where your watch is,” I said. “But I thought this would help.”
I put out my hand, not making the bill obvious, and we shook hands. He discovered the money and his demeanor changed, and for a moment no one was crazy or not crazy. Then he filled one hand with falling rain and pushed it on my head and made the sign of the cross. It was a better blessing than most.
“Thank you,” I said.
He didn’t try to draw me into conversation. I returned to my laptop, the cafe staff watching uncertainly; he sat down under the shelter of the plaza. I was still there when he left. He stepped out into the rain, turned and looked at me, smiled and waved, and then disappeared. I waved back.
Riding with Martín
Every Sunday there’s a large crafts and arts bazaar that spreads in the plaza outside my hotel, and down the street toward the centro. I deftly wove through the crowd as I came and went, avoiding sales pitches and cookie-cutter artesanías. But somehow I caught a glance of the t-shirt vendor—and stopped in my tracks.
T-shirt shops are usually the lowest of the low in tourist goods. In New Orleans they range from “I’m with Stupid” and “Thing 1/Thing 2” pairs to the truly elegant “I Got Bourbon Faced on Shit Street,” an essential for any gentleman’s wardrobe.
Mexico’s souvenir t-shirts can be slightly better, featuring sugar skulls and Aztec gods; similarly trite, with yet another Frida Kahlo; or they can be indistinguishable, with the same Homer Simpson faces and frat bro slogans translated into Spanish (or not). But they’re all identical from shop to shop and city to city. I categorically ignore these vendors.
Until I tripped past the one in the Hidalgo Plaza. These t-shirts weren’t cookie cutters. They featured original artwork, with a sort of pop postmodern look to them. You could describe it as Mexican-cultural-heritage-meets-Portland-zine.
The vendor was a young man with dark rimmed round glasses, looking every bit the part of the revolutionary Latin intellectual. I had no doubt he was also the artist, and after passing the stall several times I asked his name.
“Martín,” he said.
Martín and I hit it off. I bought one of his t-shirts (featuring two indigenous shamans in deer headdresses shaking rattles) and he was very interested in my journey. He does some cycling himself, sometimes several hundred kilometers or more to do beach trips with his friends. He asked if I wanted to go for a ride the next day.
“Absolutely,” I said.
The next day we met up, taking a few minutes to look over each other’s rides. The first stop was a public market, where Martín treated me to a liter of fresh squeezed orange juice for the road; then a friend’s house to see if we could pick up a third rider (the friend was out). We crossed a highway and headed toward the outlying villages surrounding Mérida.
Our destination was a trail Martín had only heard of, never ridden on. An older man in the village knew where it was and offered shaky directions. I thought my Spanish just wasn’t up to snuff, but once out of earshot Martín turned to me and said, “Did you get any of that?” We went in the direction he had pointed and intuited the rest, pretty soon finding the trail head.
The trail was a rock and dirt affair through a section of forest. My bike isn’t really made for off-roading, but with high quality tires and no gear to carry he did pretty well. We had no particular destination, just a shared desire to go somewhere we hadn’t been before.
Out in the middle of the woods we stopped for a bit. Martín smoked and I stared at the sun through the leaves. We talked about what creatives talk about: dreams, careers, women, what is art and who can call themselves an artist; and women again. (Martín’s prefers to say he is only a student, and that it will take many years for him to be ready to say he’s an artist. I grinned and asked if he really believed that or if it was just good marketing.)
Martín is originally from Monterrey, and he dislikes it about as much as I did. He came to Mérida to make a career as an artist, because it’s a more cultural city. It’s also cheaper and has a large tourist industry, which has allowed him to make his entire living from his t-shirt sales. He creates the designs himself, starting with historic images and photoshopping them to something eye-popping or whimsical. He also prints them himself, with his own screen printing studio in his apartment.
His girlfriend is Argentinian (“she won’t eat the meat in Mexico, it’s not high quality enough”) and also an artist. Together they’ve been driving to other tourist destinations in Yucatán to suss out shops that can sell his t-shirts.
After our bike ride Martín and I went to another public market and got lunch. He suggested that after I finish the Mexico trip, I should consider living in Mérida, not Valladolid.
“There’s nothing in Valladolid!” he said.
“That’s kind of why I want to go there,” I said.
Still, he had a point. Mérida has more to offer creatives, and now I had a friend there. He promised he could introduce me to more people, and even offered to help me find a place to live.
I have to admit, he got me thinking about it.
(You can find Martín’s t-shirt catalog on Facebook or his whole portfolio here; he hopes to offer international orders soon. If you ever visit Mérida, stop at the Parque Hidalgo during the Sunday Market and check them out in person.)
Listening is the Spiritual Education of Humanity
One evening I got dinner at an open-air cafe on the central plaza. The usual parade of “ambulantes” wandered by: women begging for money, girls selling candy, boys with roses, vendors of every kind hoping to tempt you with an impulse purchase. This can happen in any city in Mexico, but it’s frequent in Mérida and I learned to tune it out.
As I was eating, a boy of about 13 years approached my table. He had an assortment of leather bracelets and cuffs.
“Excuse me—” he started in Spanish.
“No thanks,” I said. I was reading while I ate.
There was a pause. Sometimes you have to say no two or three times before a vendor leaves you alone. But I didn’t expect what came next.
“LISTEN.” It was pronounced in clear, commanding English.
I looked up and blinked. “Excuse me?” I also changed to English, looking the kid up and down.
“Listen to me,” he said. “Because listening is the spiritual education of humankind.”
My mouth fell on the table. As I sat dumbstruck, he proceeded to speak with the voice of Moses coming through him. His English was far from good—he pronounced it slowly, carefully, and didn’t always put the words together right. But his confidence never faltered. In this halting way, he delivered a sermon.
He said, essentially, that I don’t have to buy something from him, but I should listen to him, and look him in the eye, and recognize him as a human being. He said that our problems come from people not listening to one another, and that whoever learns to listen begins creating a better world.
My friend Cole likes to say that sometimes, you meet someone who just might be a god in disguise. I almost looked around to see if anyone else could see this kid.
When his talk was over I asked him to pardon me. Then I asked his name and told him mine. And this was the moment of truth: he had my attention, would he go for the sale again?
No, this kid had dignity. His sermon wasn’t a pitch, it was truth, and he wasn’t going to sour it. We shook hands and he continued on his way.
There is one part of my time in Mérida that I can’t explain. It’s a spiritual breakthrough. There was a moment of revelation that came one night as I sat reading on the rooftop terrace. I can say that the experience involved a polytheist journal and Jim Morrison (and no drugs). It was as if the moon became brighter and a voice spoke from the sky.
I’m not ready to talk in detail about this experience. For days it left me feeling different, moving and acting like a better version of myself, much like my Vodou initiation did. And still, months later, these words are echoing with me:
“In order to Meet the gods, you must Be the gods.”
I intend to write an essay specifically about this experience, and will release it here when it’s ready.
Mérida was nearly the end of my Mexico journey, but I felt no need to rush on. Even so my time there was too short. Martín invited me to come see his studio and meet his girlfriend and friends, but it never happened; I was too busy with work. I hope to see him again one day.
Next time I’ll saddle up and begin the final few days of riding—the days that will bring me into the heart of Yucatán, to the famous pyramids of Chichén, and to my destination, Valladolid.