Mayan Mysteries Shimmer in Merida; White City Reflects Duality in Culture

Article excerpt

Byline: Harvey Hagman, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

MERIDA, Mexico - Four hours by bus from Cancun's turquoise waters, talcum beaches, all-night discos and manicured boulevards lies this architectural gem, a world away from the playground of the touristas.

For centuries, Merida was the stronghold of Spanish colonialism in the land of the Maya. Dubbed the White City because of its clean streets, white facades and the white clothes worn by its residents, this bustling city of one-way streets and narrow sidewalks is home to 1 million inhabitants.

Yet Merida, with its quiet pleasures, feels like a small town. It prides itself on being crime-free and is a perfect base from which to explore fascinating countryside. You can see most of the city on foot.

I chat with two elderly gentlemen in white outfits, hats and leather sandals. They laugh, showing broad smiles, and tell me in rapid-fire Spanish where to eat and to drink good Yucatecan beer and then ask what I'm writing on a notepad.

I tell them, "It's a novella about you." That brings more laughs and a flood of Spanish lost in translation. We're crowded together in folding chairs under the granite arches of the pink city hall awaiting "Merida en Domingo," a free Sunday night Yucatecan folkloric ballet.

Across from us is the zocalo, or plaza mayor, a historic center filled with balloon sellers, stands of steaming food, silver jewelry, Panama hats and anything anyone could want. Horses pulling brightly decorated calesas, or carriages, canter past. People chatter and meet as the quadrangle around the dance area fills.

Behind the zocalo looms the massive double-towered, sandy-colored cathedral, exuding colonial power. Once the zocalo was the center of the powerful Mayan city T'Ho, now only a dim memory reflected in the broad features of its Mayan descendants. The conquistadors, dazzled by the city's brilliance, named it after the Roman city of Merida, Spain.

A slightly inebriated uniformed gentleman brings a gaily dressed elderly woman a chair, calls her "tia," or aunt, and requests a "proprio," or tip. She grabs him and gives him a kiss. Her female friends explode in laughter, then cheer.

Viva, Mexico. Never dull, never predictable.

"Momentito" blares over the public address system. The band fires up, the music flows, and the colorful Yucatecan dancing begins as a candle-carrying procession of men in white pants, hats and jackets, with hanging red handkerchiefs, picks up the step.

Veiled, candle-carrying women, wearing colorfully embroidered white dresses and white dancing shoes, form the other half of a triangle. A mestizo wedding is re-enacted in solemn splendor and ends with a kiss and a yell, "Fiesta."

The women's veils come off, revealing colorful flowers in their black hair. Partners pair up, twist, stomp and turn, form lines and move forward and back. Groups circle and weave; heels and toes tap; and fingers snap to the joyous rhythms. Dancers grab brilliant ribbons, then weave complex patterns as they circle a pole in the traditional Mayan ribbon dance. Each new dance reveals intricate steps as the past comes alive. Three nights a week, Merida offers folkloric dances - Sunday at the zocalo, Wednesday at the Parque Santa Lucia and Friday at the University of the Yucatan.

As Merida's mayor says, "Music is an important part of our lives." Merida offers the best carnival festivities, the week before Lent, in the Yucatan.

Come morning, we set off with our guide, Carlos Sosa, to explore the city's superb restaurants, markets and unique blend of Spanish, French and Mayan architectural styles. Streets are numbered, not named, with even numbers going north to south and odd east to west in this perfectly square city. Centuries-old signs or symbols on buildings - a cowboy, a horse, a chicken - that once pointed the way for the illiterate survive today. …