From market to oven

Today seemed to be the hottest yet. A cab driver told us it had reached 38 degrees. We started the morning by visiting the mercado publico, which is just a couple of blocks from our hotel. I love Mexican markets. The atmosphere is lively, the people are friendly, the produce is amazing and the variety of goods on sale is nothing short of astonishing.

Once again, as we walked towards the building, a Mexican man stopped us to talk. He pointed out the nearby post office and its adjacent museum. He asked where we were from and when we said Canada, he exclaimed, “So that’s why you look so white!” Laughingly, we bade him farewell and plunged into the market.

While perhaps not as extensive as Oaxaca’s, the mercado in Merida certainly has its attractions. Both inside and outside of the building, old women sold bunches of huge radishes that were so big I thought they were small tomatoes. One stall sold nothing but hot peppers. A number of stalls offered all kinds of chilli powders. Ana checked out two of the stalls, and an old man with only one tooth let her taste one of the powders that he sold in baby-food jars. This one was dark brown or black in colour.

It was so hot that she decided she had to buy one more, this one the more traditional red, from an equally toothless old woman on the sidewalk outside the building. The woman had several varieties and explained them all to us. Unfortunately, most of what she said sailed right over our heads. Chances are, Ana would have bought a few more jars, but no one could change a 200-peso ($20) bill. The jars were about $1.50 each, and we’re looking forward to using them when we get back home.

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Photo gallery: Mérida’s market

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Another part of the market building sold used books. I bought a couple of racy graphic novels in Spanish, their covers featuring lurid illustrations of scantily-clad women preparing to be ravished by tough-looking, gun-toting hombres. I was going to buy more traditional novels, but I figured it would be a better vocabulary builder if I could look at the pictures as I read the books. Unlike the similar novels we bought at a train station in Italy a number of years ago, however, a quick perusal of the interiors showed these Spanish comics did not fulfil the lurid promises of their covers. One of the books was published in 1981, the other just this year, but the styles of both had not appreciably changed. It’s nice to know some things remain as they were.

Another section of the market was devoted to shoes. Just as Toronto has a shop that calls itself the World’s Biggest Bookstore, this market could easily be the world’s biggest shoe store. Other stalls sold religious statues, my favourite being a six-foot-high depiction of a bloody Jesus hanging on the cross. A shoemaker worked his magic with equipment that looked to be 100 years old. There was a profusion of backpacks, bags, toys, ceramic skulls, tools, electrical parts, kitchenware, light bulbs and all kinds of knick-knacks, many of which would be considered of questionable taste back home.

A number of fast-food stalls featured delicious-looking Mexican food, but the heat had killed my appetite and I wondered about the state of food storage in the old facility. A couple of bands at each end of the market cranked out lively Mexican tunes.

We later learned that part of the building we were in, including the stairs to the second floor, was built with stones from Mayan temples which the Spanish pulled down, and that the adjacent post office and museum were built on the site of a huge Mayan temple, again destroyed by the Spanish occupiers.

By this time, it was about 11:00, the sun was getting high and we were starting to look like wet rag dolls in the heat. We walked back to our hotel through a street that looked as though it was imported directly from Havana’s crumbling Malecon as it was 20 years ago. Once back at the hotel, we needed a siesta of a couple of hours and some blessed air conditioning to recover.

Still not in the least hungry, we headed out in the heat of the day to see the Paseo de Montejo, Merida’s answer to the Champs d’Elysée. A number of 19th-century mansions in the French and Italianate styles were the former homes of the Spanish overlords who worked the unfortunate Mayans like slaves on the haciendas that grew and processed the sisal plant. In one of these former mansions is the Regional Museum of Anthropology, where we took refuge from the stifling heat.

A guide introduced himself to us as we came through the door and offered to conduct a tour. We agreed and for two hours learned more about Mayan culture and history for the princely sum of $12. Our guide, Elias, explained that Ujap-me (which we had learned from Victor, our Mayan guide at Chichen-Itza) was one of several that scholars thought may have been the real name of Chichen-Itza. There were a number of prints of Mayan ruins made in the 1880s by British photographer Edward Herbert Thompson and reproductions of drawings made in the 1840s by Frederick Catherwood. It’s astonishing how much the temples, made of soft limestone, have eroded since then. We hadn’t realize what a valuable record these 19th-century British explorers left us.

Back to the zocalo, where we had another delicious lunch at the same restaurant as yesterday and firmed up arrangements for a tour of the Ruta Puuc on Sunday, a followup to our tour of the ruins of Uxmal tomorrow.

This evening was laundry night in Mexico at the hotel. The lights in the laundry room weren’t working, so we enjoyed the breeze in the adjacent garage as we sat in lawn chairs and read our books, waiting for the laundry to be finished. Strange noises from outside, sputtering circular florescent lights and the stained concrete and tile surfaces made this a perfect Eraserhead moment.

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