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.
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.
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.