Souvenirs of Mérida

Merida

WALKING PAST the living room this morning, I noticed how sunshine through the big windows fell on these little framed prints that we purchased last January in Mérida.

They were about the only souvenirs we brought back from the Yucatán, not being big souvenir people. And they were not purchased so much as souvenirs as they were purchased because I liked the three little prints.

One is an old woman just sitting. Another is a woman washing clothes in a big pot over a fire. The third is an old couple sitting on a concrete love seat. We spotted those concrete love seats in many parts of Mérida, in parks and plazas. I have never seen them anywhere else.

One evening we were walking the nice, dark streets near the Casa Alvarez, the downtown guesthouse where we stayed in a penthouse room, very nice place to stay if you’re ever in Mérida, by the way, and we happened upon a bunch of shops and restaurants abutting a plaza.

That was where I found these three prints, which I bought immediately. They were cards really. Perhaps there was a place for an address and stamp on the back. I don’t recall. But if you put most anything in a frame, it rises to any occasion with a new-found elegance.

They are hanging now next to the stone fireplace in the living room.

It was my first — and last — extended stay in Mérida, but it was not my real first. That happened back around 1975 when I was working on the San Juan Star  in Puerto Rico. The newspaper’s union, run by a pack of pinche communists, went on strike, and it looked to be a lengthy one.

The devil, I said to myself, so I packed my bags and got on a plane to Haiti. After a few days in Haiti, I got on another plane to Mexico City. That flight first landed in Mérida, and everybody on the plane was hustled off to get shots against any Haitian cooties we might be carrying into Mexico.

I never got out of the Mérida airport that day, but it did count as a visit to the Yucatán, I think.

Mérida is an okay place, a nice Colonial city that looks pretty much like all Colonial cities in Mexico, something I wrote about shortly after returning home from that trip. It’s quite touristy and very popular among Gringos who are smart enough to move across the Rio Bravo.

I could never live there due to the climate. I have sweated enough in my life. And there are no mountains. Living without mountains is like eating a pizza without anchovies. It’s no pizza, a sham, a joke.

It’s midday now, and the three framed pieces have moved into the near-constant, cool dimness of the living room where they will not be very noticeable until tomorrow morning, assuming it’s not overcast.

Amazing how three postcards can inspire this many words.

My Haitian vacation

Fish

WHILE WRITING THE PREVIOUS post, which was for April Fool’s Day, I went looking for a black dude in a top hat for the illustration. I did a photo search for Papa Doc Duvalier, and there it was. No surprise.

Papa Doc, a nasty piece of work, was a longtime dictator of Haiti, and he died in 1971. Just four years later, I landed, traveling alone, on an Air France plane in the capital of Port-au-Prince. I had flown there on a whim after quitting my job on the San Juan Star  in nearby Puerto Rico due to an ongoing strike.

(Thanks go out to the Communist Party for that, Red amigos.)

I was footloose, in my early 30s, and jobless with no gainful employment in sight.

I had a reservation at a guesthouse. I don’t recall how I found that guesthouse or made the reservation. It’s been a long time, and the internet did not exist in those ancient days. I took a taxi to the guesthouse from the airport. I asked the cabbie who was president, and he told me it was Baby Doc, the son of Papa Doc.

Obviously, I had done little homework before flying to Haiti.

What I recall about the guesthouse, which was very nice, is that it was painted canary yellow and had a big swimming pool. The only other guests were a couple of fellows from France prowling for underage prostitutes. One evening they invited me out on one of those excursions, but I took a pass.

I remember nothing of my room at the guesthouse. What I recall is the sunny side porch where we were served breakfast eggs while a parrot sang nearby, and I remember fresh orange juice and cut fruit.

And I remember swimming solo in the pool on warm afternoons.

Taxis took me downtown, which was not far away, and I would wander through mobs of people. Once I took a jitney to somewhere, probably just so I could say I did and write about it almost 40 years later. A nice-looking passenger offered to be my “girlfriend” for a price, but I took a pass on that too.

The tongues of Haiti are French and Creole. I speak neither, and I encountered few people who spoke English. This was a major problem, of course. I had no French-English dictionary or phrase book. At one point, I needed toothpaste, and I had no idea how to ask for it. Funny what sticks in your mind.

One thing that stuck with me was a night walk through the very center of town. It wasn’t late, 10 p.m. or so, and the unlit sidewalks were strewn with sleeping bodies, homeless people, lying head to toe. The quantity was shocking, and there I was walking among them in the dark. A dictatorship is safe.

Another day, wandering aimlessly through a shanty town, I saw the word Bar at the entrance of a small cinderblock building. I entered, sat and ordered a nice cold one. There were no trappings of a bar, and the “bartender” told me he would be right back. He vanished out onto the dirt street.

About 10 minutes later, he returned with a cold beer that he had clearly purchased elsewhere, perhaps on credit. I drank that beer and paid. I did not order another because I didn’t have all day.

Okay, I did have all day, but I left anyway.

Another day, I don’t remember when or even how many days I was in Haiti, I visited the Grand Hotel Oloffson just so I could say I had been there and sipped booze in the beautiful bar. Graham Greene set much of his novel The Comedians  in the Hotel Oloffson during Papa Doc’s terrible times.

I see the hotel has dropped Grand from its name, but otherwise it looks the same.

Yet another day I went snorkling on a coral reef, motorboated there with a bunch of tourists who looked more touristy than I did with my black pirate beard. I said nothing to them, and I remember treading water on the sea’s surface, snorkle in my mouth, looking at the sinister mountains, dark and green, in the distance.

Haiti is not a happy place. Though the colors are bright, and so are the fish in the emerald sea.

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(Note: I touched on this trip in a post I wrote years go on the now-defunct Zapata Tales.)