More Than A Market In Mexico: Merida’s Sunday Market

A marching band, or what sounded just like one, woke me up on Sunday morning. I’d celebrated my husband’s birthday with him in downtown Merida the night before and although the brassy wake up call was early, I was happy. We’d been serenaded by a beautiful Spanish-style guitarist and classical singer at a restaurant just hours prior. When the waiter realized it was my husband’s birthday, he brought out giant sombreros for us alongside a candlelit piece of cake. Everyone I’d met in Merida had been filled with an unmistakable warmth and an earnest affection for foreigners. Everyone I’d met had been curious and kind. If these people were to be any indication of the kinds of people I’d meet at Merida’s Sunday Market, having woken up early was a privilege.

I sprayed myself with sunblock, donned the only hat I had, took out cash from the ATM and walked over to the Plaza Grande, overwhelmed and unsure of which direction to go first. All along the perimeter of the plaza were food vendors. Mexican, Yucatec Maya and general fried foods created an oily scent that wafted through the entire area. Coca-Cola, an eerily ubiquitous drink in the Yucatan, seemed to accompany every meal at every table. My husband purchased one as I wandered up the stairs and into the elevated area of the plaza wherein the vendors sold the non-edible.

%Gallery-174496%The first booth, and many that followed, sold jewelry. Intricately beaded bracelets, bright silver necklaces, large amber stones adhered to rings and coconut shell earrings were sold by most vendors. Other vendors sold traditional Maya clothing, thick with threading and vibrant with color. All of the clothing, Maya or not, was lightweight and primarily white. White dresses and shirts flapped in the wind, barely hanging onto their respective stands. Pipes and masks had been carved locally by hand and brought out to the tables for sale. Artwork, purses, vitamins and teas were for sale, too. A live band and a comedian entertained a huge crowd that had gathered on the other side of the Plaza. Every few minutes, I could hear a swelling uproar of laughter from the kids who were there and most interested by the show.

Unlike so many other markets I’ve been to, I was surprised when I found no vendor pushing me to purchase. Relaxed and seemingly carefree, the vendors at the Sunday Market were more interested in general conversation than sales. The products, if desired, would sell themselves, I suppose – and they did. I walked away with a decent stash of jewelry and presents for family members. But what left a deeper impact were the stories I left with.

One man with fair skin and light-blue eyes identified with me, both of us standing out among the crowd filled with dark complexions. He was Mexican, however, and told us a story, spawned by my appearance, in Spanish. It wasn’t a feel-good story, but as he told it with tears in his eyes, I understood that it was important to him that he tell us. He described a Doberman he’d once taken in from the street. Unsure of how to treat dogs, he mostly left the dog outside and fed it scraps. He didn’t bother to train the dog, rather, he seemed to just kind of let the dog live on his land. A young girl, around age 15, came through his property one day. She looked like me, he said, as he scanned my face up and down, almost trembling. Looking the way I look, the way this man looks, is rare in this area of the world, he said. It’s exotic. The dog, seemingly without cause or warning, mauled the young girl’s face. She lived, but her face, which was such a rare beauty for the region, was destroyed. The man’s eyes flooded as he told the story. He didn’t know anything about dogs and because of the attack, the dog was put down. He takes the time out to train his dogs now; he now seems to better understand the relationship a dog needs to have with its master. We walked away from his booth with heavy hearts and empty hands.

Indeed, the Sunday Market in Merida isn’t just for shopping or entertainment. No matter what you buy, no matter what you see, the people at this market make the experience complete.

Read more from my series on the Yucatan here.

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

Cenotes And The Maya: When Sinkholes Become Sacred

The Yucatan peninsula lies on limestone bedrock. Water erodes passageways through limestone in a sporadic sort of way in this area. Andrew Kinkella, a Maya archaeologist, describes what happens as a “Swiss-cheese effect underground.” Some of these eroded passageways have ceilings that eventually collapse after enough of the limestone beneath has been etched away. From land-view, they’re sinkholes. If the hole reaches below the water table, a cenote is created.

The sun was beginning its afternoon descent just ahead of me where the horizon meets the long stretch of road. Since I’d decided to take the free roads from Cancun to Merida instead of the more time efficient toll highway, I still had a few hours to go before I’d get to my hotel in Merida at the pace I was going. And still, I wanted to stop at a cenote somewhere along the way. I’d read about three cenotes in the town of Valladolid, which I would be passing through soon. Although I’d intended to go to the most famous of the three, Dzitnup, the signs for Suytun caught my eye as I passed them and I turned the car around a half-mile or so down the road to explore.

A long dirt road guided me into an empty dirt parking lot; it was empty if you don’t count the scores of peacocks that were grazing the premises. The glow of the late-day sun bounced off of their slick turquoise and purple feathers. When I exited the car, they followed me around. I took photos of the birds and, accustomed to the act, they seemed to pose for me each time my camera focused in to capture them. Finally, I walked up to the counter, which was a mix of a Guadalupe shrine and concession stand, and inquired about the entry fee. Less than $5 USD later, my husband and I were walking yet another dirt path toward the cenote.

%Gallery-174276%We came upon a structure that looked like a large well. The blackness within the rock’s hole was impermeable, but I knew from my research that crisp, teal water was below. Just beyond the stone encasement was a staircase. It was a steep and long staircase and at its end, there was only darkness. I stepped carefully down the stairs and with each step, the light left. When the stairs ended and I turned the corner, I was overcome with that feeling that so often overcomes me when I am underground: humility. Humbled by nature’s intricate and secret architecture, I stood still at the mouth of the cenote. A cavernous room stood before me, alight only with the few sunbeams that made it through a small hole in the cave’s ceiling and a handful of man-made lights. Sea-greens and golden yellow hues colored the cave walls and a stone pier protruded out into a body of perfectly clear, blue water. We were alone and so I began to sing, humbled by nature’s unmatchable reverb. I entered the chilly water feeling more peaceful than I remember ever feeling in recent history, perplexed by the groups of black fish that scurried away at each movement or sound. I stood there in that beautiful water and took it all in. I understood in an instant why these places, cenotes, were such an important part of ancient Maya culture.

As one of the only sources of fresh water in this region, the Maya saw the region’s cenotes as sacred. Revered as one of the three entryways to the underworld, the ancient Maya would visit cenotes to communicate with the gods and ancestors. Offerings were thrown into these waters and sometimes the sacrifices given to these waters were human – several human skulls have been uncovered at the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza. Chac, Chac Chel and The Water Lily Serpent were the three main Maya gods associated with cenotes and water. Clean water is necessary for life and for the ancient Maya, its scarcity and necessity deemed cenotes holy.

Cenotes are still an important part of life for the modern Maya and all other residents of the Yucatan. Rivers in the Yucatan run underground and they cut through these caverns and fill cenotes with one of life’s most precious commodities. I’ve heard there are somewhere around 30,000 or so estimated cenotes in the Yucatan and only around half of them have been explored. Although I wasn’t the first to explore Cenote Suytun that afternoon, the quiet of the empty cavern gave me a glimpse into the standstill awe that the ancient Maya must have felt when they first discovered these otherworldly places.

Read more about the Yucatan and the Maya in my series, “Life At The End Of The World: Destination Yucatan.”

Dyker Heights Christmas Lights

During a time wherein many things are famous that don’t seem to warrant all of the attention, it’s refreshing to have found an attraction worth all of the buzz it gets: the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights. I drove out to see the lights on Christmas Eve in this southwestern Brooklyn community with my husband unsure of what to expect.

Driving around and taking in the best of the local Christmas lights on Christmas Eve was a tradition in my family growing up. My sister and I would dress up in our favorite velvet dresses, the kind that usually had lace and pearl necklines, and we’d brush our hair and do our best to look worthy of the mound of presents we’d receive the very next morning. We’d pile into the family car with my brother and parents and make our way to church for the Christmas Eve service. Our little hands that cupped the hot chocolate we’d drink after the service were usually red from candle-wax burns. We were blushing and excited, at least according to my memory, and then we’d race to the car, careful not to slip on the icy pavement, and my father would drive us all around town looking at the beautiful Christmas lights.

%Gallery-174271%Even as I got older, some of the lights would manage to dazzle me. The immense effort some people take in putting together spectacular Christmas light shows would amaze me, even as a surly teenager who refused to wear or own a fancy velvet dress. The quiet of Christmas Eve can be magical, even long after you’ve stopped believing in Santa. And those twinkling lights capture enough of that magic to make even the most stereotypically seasoned and jaded New Yorkers flock to Dyker Heights each December to see the lights.

We nosed around the neighborhood looking for the 13th avenue and the 80s streets after having been told that’s where the best of the best lights would be. We parked and walked around in awe and we were in plenty of good, excited company. Parents propped their children up on their shoulders for a better view. Adults posed for photos in front of an elaborate collection of moving, singing carolers perched atop a front yard fence.

I’m not crazy about a lot of facets of Christmas, but the lights are fun, no matter which way I look at it. I’ll admit, however, that I was just as impressed with some of the Dyker Heights houses as I was the lights. Nothing quite accents ornate Christmas decorations like your dream Brooklyn house.

If you haven’t seen the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights yet, some may still be up! If not, pencil the trip in for next year. It’s worth it.

The Stray Dogs Of The Yucatan

“Dog!” I exclaimed to my husband, who was driving our small rental car along a toll-free road that meanders slowly through the towns of the Yucatan, slowly meandering much like the many stray dogs along these roads. Sometimes the dogs would sleepily walk into the road and stop, find a warm spot and lay down in the sun. These dogs don’t know about time; their previous moments determine their next and that is all. I rescued one of my two dogs a year ago from a street in Laredo. He casually trotted in front of a car that screeched to a halt to avoid hitting him while I closed my eyes and hoped for the best. When I peeked out to see that he’d made it back onto the sidewalk, I got out of the car and beckoned him over. He didn’t have tags, a chip, “wanted” signs or any ads online. And so I took him home with me and he’s been a part of my family ever since.

The last thing I wanted to do during my recent trip to the Yucatan was hit a dog, so I watched the roads vigilantly as my husband drove. We didn’t hit any dogs while we drove around the peninsula, but we came close. Since there are so many stray dogs in the Yucatan, they don’t get spayed or neutered and the stray dog population keeps growing. There isn’t any sort of government-operated SPCA or Humane Society in the Yucatan. Private organizations try to combat the situation and a Planned Pethood in the Yucatan aims to aggressively implement spay/neuter programs throughout the region, but the problem is still widely apparent. For anyone who has traveled to areas of the world wherein programs like these aren’t financed fixtures, stray dogs are usually just an unfortunate truth of travel.

%Gallery-174158%Winding our way through the small towns between Cancun and Merida, the dogs came in all sizes and colors. We occasionally passed an identifiable breed – a Doberman here, a litter of newborn Rottweilers there – but most of the dogs we saw on these roads were that recognizable mix of everything. Usually tan with a medium build, these dogs were wherever people were. Begging for food or attention, they weaved their way through pedestrians and cars in the towns we passed. Some of them looked surprisingly healthy with shiny coats and smiling faces. Others were mangy and diseased. Some were dead.

The reality of the stray dog problem in places like the Yucatan cannot be negotiated without concerted effort. These dogs are part of the culture and landscape of this peninsula, for better or worse, and for all intents and purposes, they always have been. Ancient Maya communities included domesticated dogs. The Maya used the dogs for hunting, companionship, food and sacrifice. They fed the dogs corn and some Yucatec Maya today continue this tradition and give dogs tortillas. Spanish explorers in the 16th century visited Merida and documented the breeding, feeding and sale of dogs in the city.

Maya literature incorporated dogs, too. The Popol Vuh is the K’iche’ Maya creation story. According to it, the gods failed horribly at their second attempt to make humans. The legend says that these humans were made out of wood. These humans were emotionless and would not feed the dogs, so the dogs retaliated in anger and destroyed them. The lesson in this story resonated with the Maya and they placed strong emphasis on respecting and feeding dogs. Associated with human life, renewal and death, dogs were of incredible symbolic importance to the ancient Maya. They held the job of leading people into the Underworld and protecting the home. Dog remains have been found buried alongside humans in Maya graves and royal homes. Presumably, the dogs were buried with their owners in order to guide them into the afterlife.

I clenched my teeth each time we passed these dogs, dead or alive. Dogs have long been an important component of human life. A dog was found buried with a human in Palestine in a 12,000-year-old grave. A dog and human were found together in a 14,000-year-old burial site in Germany. In my experience, most people who grasp the unique relationship between dogs and humans have a difficult time witnessing the kind of abundance of stray dogs I saw while navigating those small-town roads in the Yucatan.

As I was getting ready to leave the market in Merida one afternoon, two little girls walked past me, both cradling tiny, dirty puppies in their hands. I asked the girls how old the dogs were and if I could pet them. I crouched down in the plaza and held one of the one-week-old puppies. I didn’t know whether or not they belonged to the girls or the street and in that moment, it didn’t matter. Just like every other puppy from every time period and every part of the world, the little dog eagerly welcomed my affection.

Read more from my series on the Yucatan here.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]

Failed Doomsday Prophecies From Around The US

The world didn’t end and we knew it wouldn’t. Here we all are on this planet and it’s still spinning the way it should spin and we’re all still online with working Internet connections, just as we should be. Cue Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place.”

Now that the unfortunate chunk of history wherein we misinterpret the Maya people and make their culture popular for all of the wrong reasons has come to a close, perhaps now we can continue in earnest learning about the Maya people. After all, the Maya people did have beliefs and practices worth noting and discussing – but the world ending on December 21, 2012, was just never part of their ideology. Even if the Maya people had predicted that the world would end, what credence would that prophecy have deserved?

False prophecies always have been and still are rampant. The past is behind us and although there is much to be learned from history, great gains have been made that have led us to the present and these gains shouldn’t be undermined by overemphasis on past Doomsday predictions. At this point in technology, it’s incredibly unlikely that the end of Planet Earth will come without modern warning. Objects coming from space will be seen, man-made weapons can largely be tracked, and a number of natural disasters can be predicted before the fact. We’re not as advanced this year as we will be next year, but that same logic applies retroactively and should be used when considering the impact of prophecies made in the past. Before some of us attach ourselves to the next Big Doomsday Prophecy, let’s take note of some of the more popular End Times predictions that have come and gone while humans continued to procreate.We have documented apocalypse predictions at least back to 634 B.C., but let’s just take a look at the failed Doomsday dates of the last couple hundred years, give or take. National Geographic and Wired are just a couple of publications that have outlined some of these failed predictions nicely.

1843: The Millerites. William Miller, a New England farmer, predicted the world would end between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. The date was later changed to April 23, 1843. Thousands of followers went with him down this path and they all, for better or for worse, lived to see the light at the end of the rabbit hole. Some of the “Millerites” went on to form the Seventh Day Adventists.

1910: Halley’s Comet. A fear spread through the media and populous that the Earth would pass through the tail end of Halley’s comet in 1910 and that the End Times would be triggered.

1982: Pat Robertson. Televangelist Pat Robertson, from Virginia, told his “700 Club” TV audience that he knew when the world would end. In fact, he guaranteed that end to be 1982.

1994: Pastor John Hinkle. In 1994, John Hinkle, from California, predicted that the Biblical End Times would be upon us as of June 9, 1994.

1997: Heaven’s Gate. San Diego’s UFO cult, Heaven’s Gate, concluded that the Hale-Bopp comet’s falsely reported tail-end UFO was a signal that the world would end soon. All 39 members committed suicide on March 26, 1997.

2000: Y2K. People have long speculated the influence technology might have over the end of mankind and during the months leading up to the year 2000, these theories were everywhere. Nuclear holocaust and worldwide blackouts were just some of the End Times predictions made related to Y2K.

2000: Icy End. Richard Noone wrote a book in 1997 titled “5/5/2000 Ice: the Ultimate Disaster” and the idea took on, for some. He predicted we would suffer an icy death cued by the aligning of the heavens.

2008: Biblical End Times. The minister of God’s Church, Ronald Weinland, predicted in a 2006 book that 2008 would see the end of the world. Weinland went on to predict that the real date was May 27, 2012.

2011: Harold Camping. A radio minister from California, Harold Camping, predicted in May 2011 that the End Times would begin on May 21, 2011, and that the world would totally end on October 21, 2011.

And now, with the December 21 prophecies that have been tied to the Maya out of the way, I’ll continue in my series, “Life At The End Of The World: Destination Yucatan,” by exploring the Yucatan region and culture.