Where the Streets Have No Name

As I pore over the lunch menu, I hear a low, menacing voice behind me. “Give me all your dollars,” a man growls, as he points a rifle at my startled companion’s head. My first reaction is not fear, but befuddlement. What am I to make of this? His snarl sounds real enough, but his theatrical stance – feet wide apart, face drawn tight, eyes narrowed to cold slits – is almost comical. Plus, this guy was the maître d’, wasn’t he, who recommended cheese enchiladas to me as his restaurant’s speciality just a few minutes ago? The next moment the rifle is lowered and our assailant dissolves into laughter. “Welcome to Mehiiico!”, he cheerfully calls out and poses again with the hopefully unloaded rifle, calling me over to get a picture clicked with him.

Safely past my first shock of the day, I ease back into my chair. My lunch spot overlooks a public square in the Mexican city of Merida. An open plaza with tree-shaded benches and free wi-fi, the square is bordered on two sides by the city’s Cathedral and the Town Hall. It’s a sunny day, and grandmothers looking after toddlers have found leafy spots for themselves around the plaza, where they hand out grains to dancing flocks of pigeons.

Despite being the largest city in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, many parts of Merida retain an unassuming, small-town charm. Most roads are just about two-lane wide, faded yellow Beetles resolutely scamper on brick-paved streets, and neighbours sit gossiping at the doorsteps of colourful houses in various stages of disrepair. Unlike the party capital Cancun or the cosmopolitan beaches of Playa del Carmen, both of which are overrun with tourists at any time of the year, Merida allows the curious traveller to get a feel of residential Mexican life and mingle with the locals.

Row of colourful houses in Merida

Row of colourful houses in Merida

After stuffing myself to the bone at lunch I am aware that some remedial walking is called for. I exit the restaurant, take a random call and turn left into a by-lane. Here, small grocery shops find themselves wedged between artisan stores selling hand-crafted items. Handmade hammocks on perpetual sale (“20% off only for today”, on repeat every day) swing between adjacent doorposts, and shirts embroidered in dazzling yellows and reds greet you with open sleeves. Open garages sell trinkets of all kinds, and are overrun by young girls trying on intricate bead necklaces and DIY style earrings.

I pause every now and then to photograph a row of multicoloured houses, or a skeleton peeping out of a window. Papier-mâché skeletons abound in the shops and houses of Merida, waiting for their annual outing during the Day of the Dead holiday when families get together to pray for departed family and friends. Throughout Mexico, people celebrate Day of the Dead on the 1st and 2nd of November by visiting cemeteries, cleaning their loved ones’ graves, and leaving behind some offerings – flowers, food, candies, tequila for adults and toys for children. Contrary to expectations, the holiday’s tone is not sombre like some Memorial Day or spooky like Halloween. Instead, Day of the Dead is a celebration of life beyond death, and grinning skulls and skeletons dressed in their festive best are apt motifs for this holiday.

Skeleton lady walking her skeleton dog

Skeleton lady walking her skeleton dog

All this while, walking down lanes and skipping across streets, I have kept an eye on the numbers marked at street corners. Merida is laid out in a rough grid, and streets (calle) here truly have no names, only numbers. Addresses may be given out as “Calle 62 #123 x 59 y 61” which, in words, translates to “Building#123 on street 62 between streets 59 and 61”. Streets running from north to south are even-numbered and streets extending from east to west are odd-numbered. Although the grid is systematically patterned, with street numbers increasing from north to south and from east to west, newcomers and the numerically challenged may find themselves lost for good unless they shed their pride and ask locals for precise finger-pointed directions.

I realize this now and stop to seek help from a man in a white vest walking towards me. With an apologetic smile and a mugged-up ‘por favor’, I show him an address scribbled on paper. He gives me detailed instructions in Spanish – absolutely wasted on me – and walks on with a friendly nod. Having spent two days in Merida already, I can now diagnose the issue which had vexed me initially: why did so many people, when asked for help by an obvious foreigner, respond in a fluent stream of Spanish, instead of the infinitely more helpful hand gestures? The surprising answer turned out to be this: apparently I look Mayan to many of them, so they assume I would be conversant with Spanish! Merida has a large population of indigenous people of Mayan lineage, and an Indian who looks like I do is more likely to be considered Mayan at a first glance rather than a foreigner.

I scurry after the man and break it gently: No Spanish, only English please. He looks at me in disbelief, the kind of look nationalistic Indians might give an expat kid who says to them with an accent: No Hindi, only English please. Once he is convinced that my ancestors had no Mayan bearing to the best of my knowledge, he decides to take me under his wing and tell me all about his city. With, however, a disclaimer: “English – I no speak. But Broken English – I speak perfect.” His version of the Queen’s language suits me just fine, and I give him a free hand to tweak my itinerary with his suggestions.

As night falls, I look for dinner options and decide to try a small, nondescript restaurant near a bus terminal. The restaurant is painted in bold strokes of red and white with cursive letters spelling out ‘Coca Cola’ – by far the most ubiquitous brand in Mexico. This red & white logo is painted on houses, splashed across shops, and all over the side panels of buses. Most importantly, at any given moment, several Mexicans within view can be found swigging down bottles of Coke, certainly the best form of advertisement that no money can buy. Mexico is the world’s largest consumer of soft drinks, with the average citizen downing nearly half a litre of sweetened beverage every day. Not surprisingly, this has made Mexico one of the most obese countries in the world, and in January 2014, forced the national government to introduce a landmark tax on sweetened drinks and sodas, targeted at citizens’ waistlines. Undeterred, however, I seat myself at a corner and order a tortilla wrap and nachos – with a Coke. There is, after all, something to be said for living like a local.

Mexico and its Coca Cola obsession!

Mexico and its Coca Cola obsession!

32 thoughts on “Where the Streets Have No Name

    • Thanks, Alok! Glad Merida struck a chord with you. Parts of Mexico do have a reputation for being associated with drugs or drug-related violence, and a local cabbie in Merida warned me about some places in other parts of Mexico (didn’t visit any of them eventually, but only because they were too far out of the itinerary I had in mind). But there’s nothing like that even remotely in the air in places like Playa del Carmen and Cancun, which are most often visited within Mexico and considered very safe for visitors. :) I’ll check out your post now!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. With the world a global village now I wonder which language will eventually be the world primary language? English for the time being but what about Spanish, and for that matter Mandarin?

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      • I see English as an important communication language into the immediate future. English after all is a mix of many languages, Latin, French, German and even a smattering of Sanskrit based languages. Wherever the English colonized they borrowed some of the culture. Now England is being colonized through migration in turn.

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  2. This is an extremely well written post with amazing photos to boot. I would really love to visit Mexico and have thoroughly enjoyed gaining a deeper insight through what you’ve written. Greetings from India.

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  3. You have filled in beautifully some things I didn’t know about Merida, from its street numbering system to the bandito. 😊 We stayed in Playa de Carmen for a week (about 20 years ago), rented a car and went through Merida after visiting Chichen Itza. Had a cervesa and nachos. Absolutely lovely colonial town. Wished we had more time there.

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  4. Sometime ‘broken English’ can be the best thing, no Ami?
    Nice to know about the way they go about numbering the houses. :)

    Lovely writing as always, Ami. I hope you are doing great.

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  5. What wonderful place Merida is !! The calle seem really confusing but most interesting. It seems as if the most wonderful life is happening right there in all its vibrancy and sounds :D Mayan features are definitrly similar to Asians/Indians … A beautiful post.

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  6. I really love this post, Ami! I was quite frightened for you at the beginning, but smiled as I read on. Your descriptions of the town are so beautiful and colorful, I felt like I was walking along with you. What an insight into the workings of the town! This is a very lovely post!

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  7. Lovely post on Merida. I simply loved this city when we visited last year. Though it’s a big city, it has retained its small town charm. Bright colored houses on the brick / cobblestoned streets is a treat for eyes.

    And yes, they have numbers of ‘calle’. We roamed the streets using a map and it actually helped. BTW, did you attend the Sunday market where whole city joins the song and dance party at the main plaza, in the city center? This was one of the main reasons we had visited Merida. Another being that we had to stop in Merida to head towards Celestun on Gulf of Mexico.

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    • Thanks for sharing your Merida story, Suyash! Looks like I missed a great Sunday market-party, aw – well, another reason to visit again some day. :) I stopped at Merida for a few days and visited Chichen Itza and some other places while here. Then I moved on to Playa del Carmen. Just googled pictures (and some LP recommendations) of Celestun, and looks like that must have been a blissful stay as well for you guys. :)

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      • There is always a reason to visit again a beautiful place like Merida. And what better than this reason :) :)

        Merida is a good base for visiting all these places. We however made Cancun our base for traveling in Yucatun Peninsula area. We visited Tulum, Valladolid (for few hours though), Merida, Celestun and Isla Mujeras.

        Celestun was very much fun, watching the link flamingoes in their natural habitat.

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  8. Well so charming and lovely… I was thinking some negative thoughts… and then I read this Merida with colourful houses, building, seats where neighbours can sit and chat, feed that bird etc… it is just the sort of life i would like cheerful, happy, free from fear… and that address enquiry with that person who speaks broken english made me smile… lovely descriping and lovely city(: … also the introduction was nice though I guessed it already this must be the case, so no surprises there… nice read.

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