Let us introduce only some of the Yucatecan faces we met this past winter.
We stopped in a small town called Uayma, famous for its decorative church. I snapped a quick photo of these two beautiful children running and playing along the street. When the boy saw the camera, he stopped his bike and held out his hand for money. Unfortunately, I had none with me so he carried on with his biking. I remember being shocked by his request. I thought, it doesn’t take long before they learn to ask for a handout. But then, in this land of so much poverty, I thought, why not?
While exploring our neighbourhood, we strolled by this diminutive woman sitting sedately and quietly on a cement block in front of her casa. Approaching her, I asked permission to take her photo. She nodded. Smiled.
Later, when we returned to give her a print copy, she was not at home. A male neighbour next door watched as we knocked at her gate. Before giving him the photo to give to her, we could see inside her home. Total chaos. Half-completed projects. Cement dust everywhere. Tired looking clothes strung across a cluttered alleyway in her small courtyard. She was probably a grandma but who knows? Everything in disarray. The face of poverty and hopelessness.
We do not have a good feeling about her future.
Meet John Venator, an American who lives with his wife, Dorianne, in a magnificently restored ‘home/museum’ called Casa de Los Venados (House of the Deer) in central Valladolid. This arthouse shows off more than 3000 exquisite pieces of Mexican folk art.
John and his wife were present during our tour of their ‘home’. He told their story of purchasing this abandoned 400-year-old hacienda-style property in 2000, after which they supervised extensive renovations that took 8 1/2 years. All donations from visitors are shared among local charities.
Although the art is magnificent, that was not what hung in my brain. Not far from her husband, Dorianne sat nearby, confined to a wheelchair. She had obviously suffered a severe medical crisis that left her immobile and struggling with her speech.
I thought how tragic that they have worked so hard together to create this magnificent museum for the benefit of others. And now, despite their obvious wealth, she could never enjoy it as much as she should.
It’s time to introduce Xuol (pronounced Shul), a Maya artist/salesman extraordinaire who is the fastest talking but most lovable scoundrel we encountered at the handicraft market.
What? You don’t want this? Why not? Surely you will like this fine piece over here then.
Sir, I can tell you your exact age from this Maya calendar. I can make you any piece of Maya art you want.
His tongue is fast. His English is good. And if he’s the artist of all the pieces in his booth then he is very good.
Each morning Xuol bikes from outside Valladolid to man his booth at the handicraft market and each evening he bikes back (in the dark). I hope he has a light, or some reflective tape, to protect him. We saw so many riders of bikes without lights or reflective tape at night in Valladolid that we shivered in fear for their safety.
While exploring the Gulf of Mexico coast in the small but burgeoning resort town of El Cuyo, we stopped for lunch at a beachside Italian seafood restaurant.
Enter Franco, our waiter and manager of La Barcaccia (boat). One of the joys in encountering new faces, like Franco, is their story. Fluent in both Spanish and English, Franco gave us an update on what it was like living in this fairly remote vacation spot: how it is very windy three out of four weeks. Not a desirable environment if you want to lie on the beach without blowing sand covering your body.
Franco is from Spain. Young, with no other obvious attachments, he decided to check out Mexico. Settled for awhile in the high tourist area of Tulum, just under 2 hours south of Cancun. He said he also bought a ‘place’ in Valladolid in a good neighbourhood while working there, an area we recognized to be so. Valladolid is still waiting for him.
Owners of this newly-renovated restaurant offered him more responsibilities in a slower beachside economy with fewer tourists. For Franco, the move opened up new possibilities as manager and when needed, as waiter. With 8 months under his belt, he had a ‘good’ feel for the laidback lifestyle of the area, the weather, and the people.
For now, he says, he will remain in El Cuyo. See what happens. Until his feet get itchy again.
By some lucky quirk of fate, Norm and I rented a small casa called Villa Lupita in Valladolid. With perfect owners. The first hint of perfection was a welcoming bottle of red Italian wine and a bouquet of local flowers, both waiting on a desk in our bedroom.
Saving the best people for last, let me introduce owners Evelín y Iván, also our next-door neighbours.
For three months we gradually got to know each other, communicating via Spanglish and Google Translate. Any questions about the city or where to find a car rental agency or a fish market were quickly answered.
On occasion they treated us to delicious tidbits of Yucatecan gastronomic specialties:
Starfruit (carambola) – a sweet and sour fruit
Chaya and pineapple juice – highly nutritious drink. Chaya is the Maya spinach only more nutritious than Popeye’s favourite
Sweet potato side dish – tastes as delicious as it sounds
Ceviche - a method to prepare raw fish by covering it with citrus juices
Panuchos and Salbutes – an area specialty snack prepared with a fried tortilla base and topped with chopped turkey, sometimes egg, pickled onion, cabbage, refried beans, avocado.
Mezcal – close relative to tequila but better!
Iván introduced Norm to the proper toast when downing mezcal (or tequila!):
arriba (glasses up); abajo (glasses down); al centro (glasses to the front to wish everyone present good health); pa' dentro (mezcal goes inside, like drink your drink!)
…we hope to see these Yucatecan faces again.
And down our mezcal with the proper toast!
*quote attributed to Irvin Kershner