Merida: The Consequences of Not Being Generous

Merida is one of my favorite cities in Mexico (and the ancestral home of PNB’s Nick Ade!) I first visited Merida in 1997 on the trip that whetted my appetite for Mayan ruins and I’ve visited it several times since. It’s almost a second (or third) home to me!

Like many places in the Yucatan Peninsula Merida was built over the ruins of a Mayan city, this one called T’ho (Tuh-ho). Conquistador Francisco de Montejo, whom the Maya fought valiantly to protect their city, established the Spanish settlement. His home, the Casa de Montejo, stands on the main square and shares it with the cathedral and city and state government buildings, demonstrating his importance and dominance.

Merida, now a city of 1,000,000 Meridanos, wears its colonial history proudly, with many antique buildings in the historic center converted into museums, shops, restaurants, hotels and residences. There’s a very fine arts museum, the MACAY, which champions contemporary artists – both Mexican and foreign. Each year Merida selects a different country to send recent outdoor sculpture to be displayed on its streets. The Peon Contreras Theater is a masterpiece of 19th century opera house design and a sample of the Francophile taste of that century’s long-ruling Mexican president, Porfirio Diaz. I attended a performance there in September 2009 of the excellent Yucatan Symphony in a program of all German composers (but the encore was written by a Mexican!).

The Paseo de Montejo, which runs north from the historic center, is a broad tree-lined avenue designed to rival Paris’s Champs Elysees and Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma. The former mansions of Yucatan’s “sisal barons” on the Paseo clamor for attention, each one more elaborate than the next. They stand as testament to the riches that flowed into Merida through the cultivation, production and sale of “green gold,” the sisal and henequen fiber that made up all the world’s ropes before the invention of plastic.

I particularly love the mansion that now houses the Museum of Anthropology, both for its elegance and amazing collection. Here the best items found in Yucatan’s archeology sites find an urban home easily accessible by many (although the indigenous people living now in those sites might rightly prefer that their history had remained at home).

Merida is a homey first stop on my three-week exploration of the states of Yucatan and Campeche, and the countries of Belize and Guatemala. New adventures are exciting and addictive but it’s also nice to insert a bit of the familiar into a journey.

And familiar Merida is – when I was here in December 2007 it gave me a chance to pay back my good fortune, both to return to a place I love and for my life in general these days. But I wasn’t paying attention.

Within five minutes of arrival a pigeon defecated on my head as I sat on a park bench – just moments after I had refused to give some coins to a beggarman whose neck was adorned and disfigured with a goiter the size of a cantaloupe. What an abrupt reminder about karma and my good life. Expect the unexpected when you least expect it.

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