Across the Yucatán with a Ragtag Carny Crew

by Matthew Asprey

16 February 2011

'Huichol Yarn Painting' image (partial) courtesy of Mexican Art Dealing.com  

Jazzin' Mérida

Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatán, was the first city I’ve discovered on this global prowl that seems a viable place for an expatriate writer. It’s affordable, culturally dynamic, slummy, small-scale, and chaotic, beautiful in the way a ragged novel by Dostoevsky is beautiful, which is to say not despite but because of its decay and grime and energy. Wandering around town at night is like being on the set of Touch of Evil: the town’s garbage provides the mise-en-scène.

The Israelis had travelled to Mérida ahead of us and left us word where they would be staying. We walked from the Mérida bus station over to the city’s Zocalo. This central square features the Cathedral of San Idelfonso, built in 1598, as well as an unimpressive Museo de Arte Contemporáneo. In the middle of the square there are clowns and buskers, young women weighed down with blankets for sale, and men selling hammocks.

In the hostel common room we had an unexpected reunion with two members of our Ragtag Carny Crew. Nadine from Berlin lay sprawled on the couch. “I’m sick in the belly from this Mexican food.”

A two-year old boy seemed to have the same problem. He threw up over the hostel’s kitchen floor. We tried to talk to him in several languages—“Where is your mother and father?”—but all the kid could do was grunt. Nicola and Nadine changed his nappy and vomit-soaked shirt. The boy was soon back to running wild in the hostel.

The centro historico of Mérida is densely populated. The even numbered streets run vertically and the odds horizontally. Once you understand that it’s easy to navigate. Most of the streets, perhaps all of them, are one-way and narrow. The footpaths are narrow, too. For some reason there are plenty of ancient VW beetles on the road. I was able to play ‘punchbuggy’ for the first time since childhood. Few of the buildings in the city are taller than two storeys. At night on the corners you find stalls selling hot dogs, churros, tacos, and tamales. Plenty of news kiosks, too, with a relaxed attitude to selling soft- and hard-core pornography. Across Mexico papers such as El Grafico and La Prensa put photos of headless bodies, victims of the drug cartels, on the front page.

The bootleg DVD stands and clothing shops blast music at an unbearable volume. Some shops have professionally-designed interiors and others are dark caverns. You pass numerous barber shops and beauty parlours. Many alleys lead to parking stations. My favourite discovery? Some of the pharmacies have poker machines.

The local population is mostly descended from the indigenous Mayans. Some of the old women are tiny, barely four feet tall, and they stalk alone along the streets, weighed down by their bags. Few people have mobile phones. Many of the bars for locals are screened off from the street by saloon doors. One night I wandered into one of these dive bars. Black breasts were shaking on a TV screen and a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe was keeping an eye on things. The bar was a grimy green. I was taller than all the other men by about a foot. Everybody turned to stare at me.

Hola,” I said.

Buenos noches,” said a smiling guy in a cowboy hat. This was not a place frequented by gringos.

A guy with no legs crawled into another bar to beg. I followed behind him because I heard a live band up ahead. Beyond the first room was a brightly-lit performance hall with a long bar. I bought a bottle of Sol cerveza and sat down at one of the plastic orange chairs. Gringa bikini babes advertised Sol on big banners. On the bandstand a quintet was performing some sort of Mexican ska. The musicians all wore purple. Not many people were listening. A grey-haired couple danced. A few dusty workers knocked back shots of tequila.

Night activity in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico - photo by Matthew Asprey

Night activity in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico - photo by Matthew Asprey

Middays in Mérida were hot. Clare and I tried to stay indoors and take a siesta. One day a few members of the troupe from Valladolid checked in to the hostel. I said hello to the New York actress.

“Oh, hey again!”

The wild two-year-old kid’s calloused knees allowed him to crawl across the floor tiles with the speed of a cat. Unfortunately he stumbled and smacked his forehead against a wall. He screamed.

“This is crazy,” said the New York actress. “Where’s his mom?”

That night I was, as always, after live jazz. In the darkness I walked up Calle 56 to the block between 55 and 53. I was looking for Jazzin’ Mérida, the only jazz joint in the city. It was closed. Hadn’t been open for ages. The street was deserted except for a passing nun and a tailor sewing in an open garage strewn with clothes and cardboard boxes.

The next morning I walked to the Mérida English Library, north of Zocalo Square on Calle 53 between 66 and 68. The library has a small shelf of second hand books at ten pesos each, but mostly it operates as a lending library which you can join for a small fee. The place is a hangout for older American expatriates.

“I came down here in 2007, partially for political reasons,” a mature blonde woman told me. “It was still Bush then. I wanted to escape the Fox News onslaught and all that craziness.”

“Why do Americans come here to live?” I said.

“Well, the health care is unbelievable. And when Americans come down here they love the creative atmosphere. Mexico has been misrepresented in the media. The gasoline is dirty and you should fill up on the US side. False. It’s full of swine flu. False. And the drug war? Well, Mérida is the safest place in Mexico. I feel safe here. I used to live in Namibia. Now that’s dangerous. You walk the streets afraid somebody will kill you for your wristwatch. But Mérida is safe. The people are wonderful.”

She said that the English Library was a way expatriates could repay Mérida for its hospitality. The expatriates were organising art shows and other cultural events such as lectures on ‘Aging Successfully’. Right then a large group was about to begin a tour of the expatriates’ gardens. Would I like to join it? Unfortunately I had work to do. I wrote all morning in a small reading room decorated with biblical paintings.

A notice board in the library featured advertisements for Spanish lessons, acrylic painting and drawing classes, tango lessons, and apartments for sale or rent. Here’s an example of the kind of deal you can get for US$600 a month: a furnished apartment on Calle 53 (right in the centro historico) with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, with all utilities including DSL. No wonder American retirees are coming down here. A 2006 article in International Living explores the affordability of private health care in Mexico, as well as the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social, Mexico’s social security, which is available to foreign residents for US$300 a year. The Mexican government requires people seeking residence to have a guaranteed monthly income of $1,000 plus $500 per dependent.

It was time for Clare and I to say goodbye to our Ragtag Carny Crew. The global prowl must continue. Ari and Malka were about to head back to Valladolid. The Carny Kids were staying on in Mérida. And as Nadine and Nicola prepared to leave for Campeche, they said: “You two should really check out Berlin…”

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