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Campeche, city of colors and lights

Visiting Campeche’s old quarters is like stepping back into the past.  This might be because as a UNESCO world heritage site, the area needs to look and feel like it did back in the mid 16th century soon after the Spanish began the conquest of the Yucatan Peninsula.  The best part of UNESCO sites are that they seem beautifully authentic, even if they are anything but.  And even if they are just facades, they do transport us.  Sometimes a little imagination and some turning off of skepticism can make the world seem brighter, and in fact, in Campeche, by allowing ourselves to be transported back in time, the walls that line the streets do seem more colorful.  On top of all this, although a bit Disneyland-esque, when the clock strikes 8pm, there is an entertaining light show accompanied by playful music in the main plaza of the old quarters.  Both locals and tourists come to the square to partake.

One of the highlights in Campeche happens just before sunset while we enjoy a ceviche cooking class.  We learn to make several varieties of ceviche, and throughout, we get to taste many other dishes of the region – panuchos, salbutes, sopa de lima, and more.  The scene romantic, the food fresh, the drinks smooth, and the evening warm, we wonder the typical question leaving any cooking class: They made that seem so easy, so what are the chances we can reproduce this back home?  The answer is maybe, but taste is only one part of an experience and reproducing all in its entirety will be nearly impossible.  Thus, we make sure to cherish and love the moment while here.

A couple crime thrillers

Leading up to and during the trip throughout Mexico, I enjoy reading Don Winslow’s two books on El Chapo, “The Power of the Dog” and “The Cartel”.  Although fiction, there is also a strong tie to truth throughout.  In thriller fashion, the books include violence, drugs, sex, scandal, criminals and cops.  But I also appreciate how many “normal” citizens they include that were trapped in the crosshairs of this war on drugs.  The passage that spoke to me the most was from the second book, “The Cartel”, and it was written by a journalist who felt completely trapped by his circumstance.  I’ve copied it below:

I speak for the ones who cannot speak, for the voiceless.  I raise my voice and wave my arms and shout for the ones you do not see, perhaps cannot see, for the invisible.  For the poor, the powerless, the disenfranchised; for the victims of this so-called “war on drugs,” for the eighty thousand murdered by the narcos, by the police, by the military, by the government, by the purchasers of drugs and the sellers of guns, by the investors in gleaming towers who have parlayed their “new money” into hotels, resorts, shopping malls, and suburban developments. 

I speak for the tortured, burned, and flayed by the narcos, beaten and raped by the soldiers, electrocuted and half-drowned by the police. 

I speak for the orphans, twenty thousand of them, for the children who have lost both or one parent, whose lives will never be the same.

I speak for the dead children, shot in crossfires, murdered alongside their parents, ripped from their mothers’ wombs.

I speak for the people enslaved, forced to labor on the narcos’ ranches, forced to fight.  I speak for the mass of others ground down by an economic system that cares more for profit than for people.

I speak for the people who tried to tell the truth, who tried to tell the story, who tried to show you what you have been doing and what you have done.  But you silenced them and blinded them so that they could not tell you, could not show you.

I speak for them, but I speak to you – the rich, the powerful, the politicians, the comandantes, the generals.  I speak to Los Pinos and the Chamber of Deputies, I speak to the White House and Congress, I speak to AFI and DEA, I speak to the bankers, and the ranchers and the oil barons and the capitalists and the narco drug lords and I say—

You are the same.

You are all the cartel.

And you are guilty.

You are guilty of murder, you are guilty of torture, you are guilty of rape, of kidnapping, of slavery, of oppression, but mostly I say that you are guilty of indifference.  You do not see the people that you grind under your heel.  You do not see their pain, you do not hear their cries, they are voiceless and invisible to you and they are the victims of this war that you perpetuate to keep yourselves above them.

This is not a war on drugs.

This is a war on the poor.

This is a war on the poor and the powerless, the voiceless and the invisible, that you would just as soon be swept from your streets like the trash that blows around your ankles and soils your shoes.

Congratulations.

You’ve done it.

You’ve performed a cleansing.

A limpieza.

The country is safe now for your shopping malls and suburban tracts, the invisible are safely out of sight, the voiceless silent as they should be.

I speak these last words, and now you will kill me for it.

I only ask that you bury me in the fosa comun—the common grave—with the faceless and the nameless, without a headstone.

I would rather be with them than you.

And I am voiceless now, and invisible.

I am Pablo Mora.

Becal, a quick hat detour

On our way from Celestún to Campeche, we learn of a city named Becal known for its panama hat trade, so we drive to the central plaza to investigate.  Getting more adept at navigating our rented Ford Aveo through the pot holes and speed bumps, we arrive at the plaza in front of the main church and then aren’t sure what our next move is.

Like a lost child entering a large room and moving our gaze constantly, we are all but asking for someone to come up and try to sell us something.  And within seconds while still in the car, someone tries to get us to roll down our window like it’s a fast food restaurant or something.  We don’t, but this guy is persistent.  He gets on his motorbike with a wooden love seat attached to the front and starts following us around the square.  If the bike didn’t look so ridiculous, I might have thought that we had a tail.  But, we slow down, and the bike/love-seat pulls up alongside us, we size him up as small, friendly and mostly harmless, and open our car window.

His first question is if we’re looking for hats.  Are we that obvious?  And yes, we are, and we read online that this is how hats are sold in Becal.  There are no storefronts, no vendors in the plaza, just folks waiting to take you to where the hat-making magic happens.  We follow this friendly man in the safety of our Aveo and we pull up to a modest, clean home where we learn how panama hats are made from plant to finish.  We also learn this is a family affair with many generations involved.  They are like a hat mafia, but instead of running organized crime, they’re in the business of beautifully crafted headwear.

We learn of quality differences between hats ranging from $5 to $300 USD.  I am clearly skeptical that such a range exists and that the most expensive of hats actually take a month to fabricate, but after trying them on and feeling them, I can differentiate.  The highest quality feels very smooth, almost like a soft fabric; it sits better on our heads, and it even looks better.  So we agree that there’s no reason to get the most expensive, but there’s also decent rationale not to go for the cheapest.  After a little bargaining, we walk away very happy customers with a new sombrero each.

Becal is legit: Many locals make their living weaving these jipijapas (the panama hats).  The best hats are then exported to connoisseurs in foreign cities.  Now, we know a guy who makes panama hats in Mexico in case that ever becomes useful.

More of the Yucatan

The Yucatan was full of moments as we explored the sites from cenotes to dry caves to small towns.

Tall pyramids, narrow steps

It’s hard to call Chichen Itza and Uxmal “ruins”. They’re hardly ruined at all, still possessing the spirit that I imagine filled the air more than 1,000 years ago. Chichen Itza and Uxmal, both around Merida, were built by the Mayans. Today, Chichen Itza is a buzzing marketplace with local craft makers drawing nearly as much attention as the magnificent towers around them whereas Uxmal is a less well-traveled, but larger ruin. At Uxmal we took the opportunity to climb the steps of a pyramid, eager to get the complete view of an ancient town that seemed to extend back and back. The view was stunning and the climb down the steps, terrifying. The mystery that remains is why the pyramids were built for such narrow feet.

 

Frida and Diego

As we tour Mexico City, the day weaves through Frida and Diego’s lives, their homes, their communist beliefs, and their tumultuous, unfaithful marriages.  Marriages is plural because they were in fact married twice.  In the morning, we visit their dual houses in San Angel – Kahlo’s blue and Rivera’s pink connecting houses.  The houses look functional not comfortable, connected only by a high, narrow bridge.  There might be some analogy to their marriages.

Later in the day, after strolling through a couple more city neighborhoods, we visit Casa Azul, the Blue House in Coyoacan, which has been made into the Frida Kahlo Museum.  It is both her birthplace and now the home of her ashes in an urn.  There’s undoubtedly some circle-of-life reference to draw here.  Parts of Frida’s life seemed to repeat constantly, so this just feels fitting.

Part of the fascination with today is that their lives are like a great telenovela including their relationship together, their internal conflicts with themselves, and their battles with the outside world.  Rivera painted the injustices to the indigenous people and the commoner.  Kahlo painted more personal problems like her constant pain, miscarriages, and infidelity.  Together, they were very much in the public eye, including a fun jaunt to NYC for a time.  Had “Us Weekly” been around, they would’ve had lots of juicy material.

Teotihuacans, Mayans and Aztecs

The Mayans and the Aztecs were little more than a seventh grade history lesson before visiting the National Archeology Museum in Mexico City. Here, the civilizations came alive through the remains of long dead rock, carved into stories both intentional and functional.

We arrived at the Museum after dark, greeted by the sounds of the wind and pounding rain from the fountain in the outdoor plaza. The fountain introduced us to the story of Mexico, using images to give homage to an Aztec legend that is now represented on the Mexican flag. In this legend, a god in a dream visited the leader of a nomadic tribe. The god told the leader that when the tribe saw an eagle, perched on a cactus, eating a snake, they were to settle there. This, of course, happened in Mexico City, then known as Tenochtitlan.

Inside, we were captivated by the richness of the beliefs that led their lives. The gods drove almost all of their actions, as they believed they had the power to control everything, including the rising and falling of the sun. In fact, they played a game to represent the battle between day and night to keep the gods happy, often ending in sacrifice of a player or even the whole team, though it is unclear whether the winning or losing team would be killed as sacrifice was an honor.

From drawings on walls and in scrolls we see that they believed heaven to be underground, and didn’t have a concept of good and bad. No action on earth would be punished, per say, you just died one way or another, and that would determine your experience in the afterlife. For example, warriors who died in battle would have a pleasant afterlife, while people who died of natural causes may have a less pleasant afterlife.

We travel often, and rarely see things that are truly foreign. Everyone we meet is driven by love. Everyone we meet has a desire to protect his or her family. Everyone we meet wants to be happy. But this, this was foreign. It seemed irrational at best, stupid at worst, and it took some time for us to remove judgment and listen. Perhaps the thing we have most in common is that we’re all looking for meaning, and long ago that meaning was found in the building of incredible pyramids, one stone at a time.

Mexico city through pictures

The taste of a grasshopper

Grasshoppers, or chapulines in Spanish, are more of a texture than a taste.  Crispy like a corn nut balanced by a bit of chewiness with pieces that stick between teeth like Milk Duds.  For the rest of the day, I’m picking out imaginary or not so imaginary grasshopper legs from between my teeth.  The taste of this insect is up to the chef’s discretion.  We try one cooked with salt and citrus, and another with garlic and spice.

Along with my parents, we try these little treats in Mexico City at the Mercado de San Juan as part of a historical/food tour.  I’m not sure I’ll be buying a bag of these creatures anytime soon, but maybe I’ll try the salt made from their remains.

Cousin wedding

It is a beautiful weekend celebrating cousin Ben & Emily in Puerto Vallarta.  Aside from all the activities – snorkeling, boating, dancing, singing, pool lounging, zip lining, and a bit of clubbing – the best part of the weekend is simply being together.  It reminds me of how lucky I am to be surrounded by such a loving family with so many role models starting with the oldest generations.  Within eyeshot of my seat during the wedding reception is a black and white photograph of Grandma Trudy and Poppy Gerry when they were younger.  Their legacy rings loudly at this wedding.  Their four children, so many of their grandchildren, and even a handful of their great grandchildren dance around the hora.  And although they aren’t physically at this wedding, their presence is as strong as ever.

The beautiful color of the ocean, the salty smell of the beach, the overflowing guacamole and totopos, and the oversized margaritas make this occasion both a true wedding celebration and a tropical vacation.  Then, listening to the bride and groom share their vows next to a setting sun with the soft interruption of waves feels like something out of a movie.  How lucky I am to be transported to another world while still surrounded by the people I love.

Mazel tov, Ben and Emily #vivabemily!