Saturday, April 19, 2014

Semana Santa in Mérida

image from Yucatan Today
(for a more indepth description of Semana Santa, just
click on the above link to their web site)
Semana Santa, or Holy Week,  is a big deal in Yucatán. In addition to the religious importance of Easter, there is also celebration all around. This is the beginning of the 'beach' season for Yucatecans. Just when most of the US and Canadian snowbirds head for cooler digs, the hundreds of beach bungalows, which have been virtually abandoned for most of the year, welcome the arrival of throngs of people. The beach towns dotting the Gulf Coast come alive with laughter, music, and partying into the wee hours of the morning. This is not exactly our cup of tea any longer and we will likely not venture to the gulf so often during the summer as we prefer walking late afternoons along a mostly deserted beach.

We decided last night to take a stroll down to Parque Santa Lucia, just a few blocks from the house, to pay a visit to the new Dairy Queen. We no longer keep ice cream in our freezer for late night indulgences ( which has most likely contributed greatly to the weight loss for both of us), and DQ has become a once-a-week routine to reward ourselves for not giving in to the temptation to purchase  a half gallon of Blue Bell for more than 150 pesos. So, loathe us all you want, you haters of anything 'American' that has invaded Mexico. Did I mention that only once have we run into another expat sneaking a cone at DQ? The fairly steady stream of patrons are Yucatecans who have discovered that a blizzard or a cona cubierto (chocolate dipped vanilla) is soooo refreshing on a hot evening.

As we turned the corner to the parque, we saw a throng of people silently proceeding down Calle 60 toward the Plaza. Led by a group of priests, these faithful walked in absolute silence fully feeling the significance of their action. It was a moving sight.

Our tummies full, we walked back home, thankful to have found a home in this culturally rich city.
And thankful that DQ is just a short stroll from there.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Superb Dining Adventure...

Elizabeth and Chef Pedro
Our friends, Elizabeth and Anne, had been wanting us to accompany them for dinner at K’u'uK, a newer restaurant in Colonia San Ramon Norte, for months. Last week we finally made reservations for five on Tuesday night. None of us had been there before, so we printed directions from Google Maps and thought it would be easy to find. We decided to pick up Elizabeth, Anne, and Bob, who are on staying on Calle 66-A, at 6:30 for a totally unfashionable reservation time of 7:00 PM. It seems we all like to dine ahead of the crowds which usually ensures better service and has us all home at a reasonable hour.

We pulled away from their house right on time, thinking we would be early for our reservation.  At 7:30, after driving around for an hour trying to find the restaurant, Alan phoned them and asked for help with directions. It seems we were in the correct neighborhood, but as we later found out from the Chef, Google has not accurately located the exact address. We had followed dead end streets on dirt roads with no luck. The doorman remained on the phone with us as he guided us directly to their front door. Talk about service. Once inside, we were offered our choice of tables, inside or on the terrace. We chose inside for the air conditioning that seemed just right. At that hour, even 45 minutes late, we were the only patrons. We were offered a tour of the kitchen and other areas of the restaurant either before or after dinner. We chose to eat first as we were all quite hungry.

Once seated we were given two menus -the tasting menu and the a la cart menu. We were also served a special house agua infused with chamomile and apricot. The tasting menu was explained by the maître d' and we all chose the 10-course selection (they also offer a 14-course).  Each course consists of only a few bites, but after the meal we all were satisfecho. After a Sorbet macaron, we were served Chaya con huevo (Chaya with egg) on a potato film with chaya leaves and herbs from the garden. The lechuga local included edam cheese, avocado, baby potato, Yucatecan chili ashes, and herbs. There were then two fish courses, the first being tuna cured for 3 days in Celestun pink salt with grapefruit puree, mustard, and maltodextrined twice-fried pork belly. Then came Hogfish snapper with white cucumber, mango with chîa seeds and habanero chili. There were courses with Cerdo Pelón (Creole suckling pig) and rabbit with slow cooked, crunchy corn roots, garden spinach and underground cooked corn.

Each course was served with just the right interval, leaving time to have conversation and enjoy the ambiance. The final course was, of course, dessert. Three of us had the Sorbete de remolacha, beetroot sorbet with confitura de limón amarillo, tierra de cacoa, espuma de yogurt nitro y aceite de oliva. The other two were served ice cream (dulce leche) over cubed fruit and flavored purees. All delicious. Presentation is sublime at K’u'uK. Each course is served on a different and unique plate or utensil, all of which are extraordinary. When you consider that dining in this restaurant is an event and not just dinner, the price seems reasonable. It is like an evening at the Symphony or the Opera. You will be no less amazed.

 The two owners escorted us through their fabulous kitchen created with materials exclusively from Yucatán, a point which they can justifiably make with pride. They then showed us the lab where they experiment with flavors, concentrating the essences to be infused into their various sauces, creams, and even drinks. It all seemed very scientific and state of the art.

 I should mention that the chef asked if we would mind being filmed during the presentation of our meal for an advertisement to be aired on local television. In appreciation Chef Pedro presented Elizabeth with an autographed copy of their incredible book explaining the concept of K’u'uK complete with beautiful photographs of their creations. This was truly an amazing dining experience and a night to remember.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Here's a Color to Write Home About

I discovered this renovation while taking a peek at a friend's new home several weeks ago. I'm not sure if it's a home or a business, but it's huge and bright lavender. A really lovely facade.

Could this have been a place where horses were once kept?

The building stretches along a good length of the entire block

Not sure how to describe this pediment, but to me it appears to be neoclassical
with a touch of art deco

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Personal Account of Quality Health Care in Mérida

Much has been written on blogs and discussed in forums on the issue of health care in Mexico and, specifically Yucatán. We all know that many people from the United States and Canada come to Mexico for quality and less expensive care. Until you experience it yourself, these testimonials really don't carry much weight. What is one person's good experience can be anothers nightmare. Let me tell you my story of disappointing results from a procedure a little over two years ago in Virginia. I don't usually like to discuss my personal health issues, but I believe that in this case it could help someone who might be having trust issues with the Mexican health care system.

On a routine eye exam, my optometrist discovered that the intra-ocular pressure in both eyes was too high. After monitoring this for a few months, with no change, he referred me to an ophthalmologist who specialized in this condition. I was given a prescription for eye drops to lower the intra-ocular pressure. The side effect was dilation of the pupil for a couple of hours in the morning and again at night. This interfered greatly with my work, which consisted of being in front of a computer for the better part of the day. After a few months of this, I was told that a solution would be to perform the same surgery for removing cataracts, although I did not have sufficient cataract advance to warrant the surgery at the time. However, it would be needed eventually and this surgery could (and I stress could) result in a lowering of the intra-ocular pressure. The surgery entailed removing the natural lenses and implanting artificial lenses, a very common and low risk procedure. I agreed and selected a newer type accommodating lens, which just means that one lens is for distance and the other for near vision. I was told that my vision would not be perfect, but that I would probably no longer need glasses except for reading fine print.

To make a long story shorter, I had the surgery and recovered well and quickly. I was told that it is common for this type surgery to produce scar tissue after a period of time. This will cause some blurred vision and can be remedied with a quick laser procedure. Sure enough, after about six months, my right eye (the one with the near vision lens) became blurry. I like my vision to be clear and sharp so I went in for the laser procedure. The blurriness improved a bit, but gradually returned and became even worse. I was told, simply, that the Cristalens brand that I had implanted was not yet perfected and that I would just have to live with the blurred vision, which seemed more like an oily film coating my eye.

Fast-forward to Mérida. I needed to have my eyes checked so I found an ophthalmologist, specializing in cataract and corneal transplant surgery, with an office at Alta Brisa. Dr. Alejandro Claros Bustamante, a young physician in practice with his father, provided a thorough examination and consultation. He even asked his father to take a look at my eyes. The opinion was that some vitreous humor was leaking and coating the lens, thus causing the blurriness. I was told that a quick procedure called a vitrectomy could be performed which would eliminate the problem.

Two weeks later, I had the surgery and have had amazing results. The blurriness is completely gone and I can see clearly for the first time in almost two years. I'm not sure why the doctors in Virginia never considered that this could be the problem. It seems that they have only about 5 minutes of time to consult with you after a technician has performed all the tests. You wait one to two hours past your appointment time, are served coffee and cookies to make up for this long wait, then rushed out with a polite handshake. This is the unfortunate state of health care in the United States.

I'm so happy I found my doctor in Mérida.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Let's Back Up Here...

This is a time when I am guilty of engaging in one of my own pet peeves -making sweeping generalizations about an entire group of people. In my blog, a couple of days ago, I made a judgement concerning how dogs are perceived and treated in Mérida. What I said is that "In Mérida, or so it seems, dogs are to be sequestered in the home, not walked or exercised, and definitely not socialized". 

What a ridiculous statement and how utterly untrue. I was quite gently and justifiably called on this by a friend and former fellow blogger. Although what I said can apply, generally, to the culture of dogs in the Centro Histórico, it most certainly does not apply elsewhere in the city. There is a very good reason why dogs are kept inside the colonial homes in the Centro. My commenter had this to say:

Please don't think that the tension you're noticing is 100% cultural; it could also just come from the stress of sharing a dense, urban place with lots of feral dogs as well as pets, and if you explore another neighborhood, you might find more smiles.

Walking a dog in a dense, urban setting is not only daunting, but dangerous as well, both for the owner and the animal. Our dogs, on many occasions when spotting a stray cat across the way, have almost broken free of the leash. With the unending traffic in the streets, this could be a disaster. And, as far as Yucatecans loving their animals, I saw this first hand when I volunteered for a day at the Kanasín Spay and Neuter Clinic. It was a moving experience for me.

Time to rethink my assumptions about many things...

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Is the Honeymoon Over?

It is said that retirement can be one of the major stressors in life, toward the bottom of the list behind such catastrophes as death of a spouse, divorce, and jail time. I would probably include moving to a foreign country in the top ten. Everyone, of course, sees this as an amazing adventure which creates joy and a sense of freedom.  It does do that, but such a major change can wreak havoc with one's health. Soon after arriving in Mérida, Alan came down with a head cold which turned into cough and congestion that lingered for weeks. Shortly after that, I contracted a very annoying gastrointestinal bug which stayed with me for more than a week, necessitating a course of antibiotics. A few weeks ago Alan had an infected finger which stubbornly required two courses of antibiotics. We have yet to figure out how or why that happened and can only suppose that his digging in the garden played a roll. Then it was my turn for the head cold which, thankfully, lasted only a few days. All this to say, if you are in the process of such a move or even contemplating a major life change, be prepared. Your body will, most likely, resist such change with a (hopefully) small catastrophe of its own.

I believe that most of the expats who find themselves in the Yucatán, and Mérida in particular, come here with star-studded eyes, lured by the slightly European feel of the city and the lasting intrigue that Mexico offers. But what happens when the stars fade, leaving the harsh reality of crumbling sidewalks littered with carelessly tossed trash or the contents of a neighbor's garbage bag strewn about by a starving cat looking for an elusive meal?  Or the harsher reality of a city and culture not enamored with dogs and the glares received when seen walking your dog? In Mérida, or so it seems, dogs are to be sequestered in the home, not walked or exercised, and definitely not socialized. This has been a stressor, not for our two dogs, but for their sensitive owners who want more than anything to not be seen as rude or arrogant extranjeros. We occasionally see another expat walking their animals and I wonder if they feel the same tenseness at what was once a relaxing exercise for both dog and owner. Because there are no green spaces in our neighborhood (or our back yard), we go out armed, not only with our little plastic poop bags, but also a squirt bottle full of water for rinsing off the light pole or the sidewalk. For now, this is all that we can do. Still, a part of me wants to meet that glare with a smile and a statement. Esta es mi ciudad ahora, también! This is my city now, also.

Are we disillusioned, wondering what could we have possibly thought moving to Mérida? We certainly visited the city enough times to know that it is not the paradise that some chorus. What drew us here was an opportunity to experience and integrate into a fascinating and sometimes enigmatic culture. Understanding it all doesn't happen overnight and sometimes requires stepping into unfamiliar situations and even making mistakes. We will never feel integrated if we hide ourselves inside the confines of an expat enclave. That doesn't mean that we will avoid friendships with other expats. As newcomers to this country we need the advice and friendship of fellow expats to help us navigate through the sometimes frustrating bureaucracies, and perhaps along the way we will forge lasting friendships with a few.

The honeymoon might be ending soon but, hopefully,  the relationship will continue to grow and blossom.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Daily Grind...

If you Google 'daily grind', you'll get multiple sites for coffee shops and cafes. I chose to title this post as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the flexible and spontaneous routine of a retired person living the dream in the Yucatán. But, now that I think about it, we do begin our day with a cup or two of French press or, if we can't wait for the water to boil,  pop a capsule into the Nespresso machine and froth a bit of San Marcos semi for a latte. This actually takes place after we have walked and fed the dogs and cat. They come first. Always.

Next is a quick check of email and phone messages. I'm not sure why I check for phone messages because, to my knowledge, no one has left a voice message on our Amigo plan. That's a pay-as-you-go phone and data plan through Telcel. If there is anyone out there locally that has my cell number, would you please call and leave a message? Just be sure to call after midnight so that I will not automatically answer the phone. We'll consider this a test of my Amigo plan.

Once I've caught up on Facebook, checked my Blog roll for new posts, satisfied myself with news of the world,  and probably put on a load of wash, it's time for lunch. My God, where did the morning go? Are we going to snack, make some lunch, or run out to one of our favorite lunch spots? Whatever we decide, once we've eaten, it's time for a little more web surfing, reading, or a siesta. Every few days we will make a trip to the market, the grocery store or to Home Depot for a new dimmer switch to replace the one that has fried due to the fluctuating electrical grid that is Mexico. Once that is completed it is just about time for the late afternoon dog walk. My God, where did the afternoon go?

In between all this strenuous work we have managed to add soil to our little garden plots, plant a few new tropical specimens, keep our somewhat large pool sparkling clean, and make arrangements to ship our motor home back to the dealer in Florida from whom we purchased and who eagerly agreed to buy it back for a sum substantially less than what we paid. This last task involved a consultation with our favorite Yucatecan attorney, two visits to Hacienda (which turned out to be totally unnecessary), coordination with the shipping company and a United States custom broker, and multiple forms which had to be completed, scanned, and emailed. Oh, and money.

The upside to our visit to the Port of Progreso was that we had a mini-tour of this quaint gulf-side city as well as the vintage cottage, just steps from the beach, that is owned by our attorney. We also got to drive out to the very tip of the 8-kilometer bridge where we waited for almost two hours for the final inspection of the van before we said our farewell and gave thanks for our safe passage through Mexico.

It is a relief to have sent the motor home back to the US where, hopefully, someone else will make good use of it. After traveling through Mexico we decided that weekend excursions in a 20 foot van would simply not be that enjoyable. Also, motor homes are like large boats which require constant maintenance and, at least in the Centro, there is no covered parking that will accommodate this size vehicle. We accomplished our goal of moving to Mérida with our animals while avoiding the cramped confines of a car or the torture of shipping them by air cargo. After all, we were only kidding ourselves because we are both truly homebodies. An occasional travel adventure can be fun, but then it is always good to get back home where we can just putz around. Besides, even something as mundane as grocery shopping can be an adventure in Mérida.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Settling in to the Daily Routine...

We moved into our home, for good, at approximately 4:00 PM on Sunday, October 20th. We've owned our house four months shy of 3 years, and in that time our longest stay was 10 days. We've been here for 10 weeks now and we honestly don't know where the days go. We have a routine that has existed for almost twenty-five years which revolves around our animals. We awake around 7:00 AM  (much earlier when we were working stiffs), take the dogs for a 20 minute walk, return home, prepare their breakfast as well as the cat's, and have our own coffee and breakfast. Now that we are retired, instead of heading off to work, we generally check our email, our phones for any messages (not that we get very many), and our Face Book pages to keep up with what everyone in our small world has experienced in the past 24 hours -like viewing a photo of their breakfast, a picture of their children or a quote that has inspired them . It's comforting knowing that our friends actually eat!  Now that it's winter in the Yucatán, our daily morning swims have ceased because the pool water is a tad too cold. If we do something around the house that causes us to sweat profusely (which is mostly everything) a dip in the pool can be refreshing after first plunging in and vocalizing a loud #&%* (insert your favorite word here). We've never had a pool before, so we are meticulous about skimming, checking chlorine and pH levels, filtering, circulating, and backwashing. Actually, the filtration system is on a timer but we have to manually do the other things. This takes about an hour which includes standing back and admiring how clean and sparkling the water looks. Once a week we vacuum the bottom, being careful not to fall in while managing the 15-meter hose attached to the telescoping pole with a vacuum attachment on the end. This is not at all like our Dyson, which we regrettably left behind.

The little Klobenz we purchased at Liverpool (or was it Sears/Say-Arz?) manages, but really does not have the power to remove six months of el Centro dust that has infiltrated the sofa we purchased last April. The Yucatecan house cleaners are pretty good at beating the dust out, then brushing it away with a clean cloth.  Most seem to avoid anything electric which is understandable with the cost of electricity in Mexico.

So, after ten weeks in Mérida, are we comfortable, happy, and settling in? Definitely happy and comfortable enough for this stage of our transition.There are almost daily adventures for the most mundane chores, and although some trigger a bit of anxiety at times, we are learning our way around on our own and communicating well enough with our basic Spanish to accomplish our tasks. We try to study an hour each day and will likely begin private lessons soon.

Happy New Year / Feliz Año Nuevo

Update: We conquered an algae bloom in the pool, which followed a heavy rain and easing up a bit on the chlorine. Now I understand why the pool man kept it super-chlorinated. I don't like swimming in chlorine, but algae is worse.