The Beaches Near Merida: Progreso And Chicxulub

The nearest beach to Merida, Mexico, is Progreso. The ancient Maya frequented Progreso to collect sea salt from lagoons near the coast. Salt was a valuable product for trade for the ancient Maya – so valuable that many Maya made the trek frequently, despite its semi-arid obstacles. And so, after walking around on the beach via Google Street View for a while, I decided to make the 30-minute or so drive to Progreso while staying in Merida. With bottled water in tow, I hit the straight-shot road that connects the two cities and arrived to the port city of Progreso just in time for lunch.

When I noticed the shirtless, drunk man pacing back and forth on the sidewalk behind my car, which I’d parked where the pavement meets the boardwalk, I hesitated and made sure I’d locked everything up. Reminding myself to hope for the best, I tucked my anxiety away and began my leisurely walk down the boardwalk. The sky was mostly empty of clouds revealing a crisp blue canvas. The ocean water’s color changed like Ombre hair – a deep, midnight blue yielded a bright sea-green at the sand. Progreso‘s famous pier, the Terminal Remota, protruded out toward the horizon, spanning a full four miles. Although it was a Saturday afternoon, the beach town was sleepy, which worked out well because I was sleepy, too.

%Gallery-175115%I weaved my way through stores selling Mexican tchotchkies. A charismatic young man offered me “unbeatable” deals on each item I touched in his store. He spoke to me in English with an unidentifiable accent. He was a student of the world and a speaker of many languages. It wasn’t easy to walk away from his melodic tongue, particularly where the French and Spanish accents merged into an indecipherable, charming blur, but I was hungry. I left only with his suggestion of where to find a vegetarian lunch.

As I strolled leisurely down the boardwalk with the Gulf to my left side, restaurant owners emerged out of their shaded corners, reciting their most popular dishes for me as I passed. But I had my sights set on what had been recommended to me and when I finally found it, a restaurant called Flamingo’s, I initially doubted my devotion to the local’s direction.

In line with the sleepy atmosphere of Progreso that day, I sat at the table awaiting service for 10 or 15 minutes. But when service arrived, it came boldly and warmly. An order of just-squeezed orange juice yielded an overflowing pitcher. Guacamole, refried beans, salsa, vegetable soup, lentil soup, fajitas, tortilla chips and fried bananas proved to be more food than my husband I could consume, but not for lack of fresh flavor.

My car was still parked and in tact when I returned for it, as was the shirtless drunk man, who was sitting curbside and rambling. I decided to make the 10 minute drive over to Chicxulub after lunch. Chicxulub is located at almost the exact geographical center of the Chicxulub crater. The crater, although unobservable, is an impact crater that extends into the Gulf. Created by the impact of a comet or asteroid around 65 million years ago, the Chicxulub crater is believed by many to be evidence of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event – the event that destroyed the dinosaurs.

I wanted to see this place for myself, although there was nothing to see (the remnants of the impact crater are buried far below today’s topsoil.) I walked out to the beach, which was littered with boats and debris from the sea. The sand smelled like cat urine. I stood there for a moment, thinking about the scientific importance of the ground on which I was standing, and ignoring the putrid scent.

Stray cats scurried away from my car as I approached it and I considered for a moment the delight these cats must take in the fish to be found in a port city like Chicxulub. I thought about the impressive degree to which mammals have evolved since this crater was formed. I dodged stray dogs on the way back to Merida and found myself back in my hotel room and preparing for a night out on the town before the sun began to set.

Read more from my series on the Yucatan and the Maya here.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]

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]