A few years ago, we visited Merida, Yucatan. Neither of us speaks Spanish, but communication also occurs with eyes, hands, nodding, and a few basic words of greeting come quickly.
We were warned about being "targets" in Mexico of beggars, pickpockets, and dangerous characters. But with a bit of research, we learned that people in the Yucatan consider themselved Yucatecans, not Mexicans, and Merida is proud of its low crime rate and clean city.
We flew in late at night and took a cab to our hotel, which was very nice and clean. After a fabulous breakfast buffet we walked a few blocks to the town square where vendors sell mostly hand crafted items. Some of the vendors do not speak Spanish. They speak Mayan, as their ancestors did. Vendors and nearby cafes serve tasty local cuisine, much like you can buy in Los Angeles. But don't drink the water or drinks made with local water! Big mistake.
The Cathedral was built in the late 1500's by the Spanish conquerors of the Maya. The Spanish destroyed the sacred sites of the Maya, and used the stones to build a Catholic cathedral, saints and all. It is a beautiful building, but I found the destruction of the Mayan temples and then using that material to construct the cathedral very insulting and disturbing.
The town square is a beautiful park, surrounded by lovely buildings from the 16th, 17th and 18th century, some of which were build by Italian businessmen. One huge and gorgeous home is now a museum with marble staircases, mummies, and skeletons. The skulls of children were shaped into a point by attaching boards on the baby's head. How that must have hurt.
I was impressed by the friendliness and courtesy of the Meridians. As I descended the huge marble staircase of the museum, clinging to the marble banister and using a cane, a mother noticed and told her son, about 8, to "help the lady," so he offered his hand although he was obviously embarrassed to take my hand. The side walks are narrow in Merida, and each day we met up with teens from a nearby school. They wore uniforms---boys in white shirts and dark trousers; girls in jumpers over blouses. They stepped off the sidewalks to let us "old folks" pass and many of them smiled shyly and said, "Olla." They seemed to be about 13 or 14. I remembered a parade in Devils Lake when boys of that age were standing in a gang on the sidewalk. Older ladies walking in front of me, saw them, hesitated, and crossed the street. I knew the boys, and walked right into their "mob," and they all backed up, smiled sheepishly and as if at attention, said, "Hi, Missus Light." Why are so many adults leery of kids?
While in Merida, most days we took tours of ancient ruins: Chichen Itza, Tulum, and others. We signed up for the tours at a table in the hotel. Very interesting to see the craftsmanship and the knowldge of the stars the ancients had learned as they watched the stars from their observatories. I sat down to rest on a rock pile and soon I had company. Within moments Iguanas, some little and some as long as four feet, began coming out of the rocks to see who was sitting on their homel They were as interested in me as I was in them.
The earth, ground rocks, is white around Merida. It was once sea bottom, and is now made of billions of shells, so it is calcium and white. Our hotel was constructed of large white cubes of this rock, and with careful examination, you can see the shells of the ancient mollusks.
The rural area is called a "jungle." it is dense shrubs, no tall palms. There are no rivers or lakes, no surface water. All water is all underground. The depressions are deep holes, deep enough to contain water falls, draping vines, and even trees. They are called cenotes (Sen-no-tay). Some you can get down into and even swim in the emerald water.
People are always interesting. The Mayans are short and agile. I suppose they had to be to build those huge observatories. We met a photographer who teaches in Texas. He is a Cuban and came here via immigrating first to Italy, then to the US as an Italian. An older gentleman from Australia befriended us. His family lived in Holland when World Word II began. Even though he is not Jewish, his entire familly was sent to a Concentration Camp and killed. To escape the Germans, he walked all the way to Portugal, sleeping in fields and eating whatever he could find on the way. He was fourteen! From Portugal he was hired to work on a ship and did so the entire war. At the end of the war, he had no family and no home, so the captain suggested he go to Australia. He did, married, and ran a restaurant and had one daughter--both now dead. In spite of all the losses in his life, (or perhaps becasue of his suffering?) he was one of the kindest people I have ever met. Although he was denied formal education because of the war, he is a great reader and a wise man. I met two women from the south of France, who were astouded to meet a person from North Dakota and very curious about life on the Prairie. They live in the coastal sun, and were quite complimentary about my Swedish, winter pallor!
While we were in Merida, George W Bush arrived to have talks with Vincente Fox. They met in a beautiful old building right off the square. We saw the presidential plane at the airport and we witnesses a parade in protest of Bush---with hand made signs in English. (They knew how to swear in English and did NOT like Dubya). Everywhere we looked were armed police---should we feel safe or afraid?
We went in February and the weather was beautiful. Wherever we have be fortunate enough to go, we research in advance, pay attention to the weather and local attractions, and appreciate the history, the people, the foods, the countryside.
Who knew there are entire villages where the language is still Mayan? And there are still people whose profiles look just like the people carved on the stones of the ancient sites.