One of my favorite guilty pleasures is to watch the show House Hunters: International on HGTV. I’m not going to lie, it’s kind of my dream to one day be featured in an episode. In any case, my introduction to Merida was while watching this show one fall day after Thanksgiving a few years ago. I distinctly remember feasting on leftovers on my parents’ couch while watching a couple navigate a number of beautiful colonial homes located on sunny spotless streets. I remember a scene where the couple negotiated a price for some pleasant-looking fruit on some lazy day with a smiling old lady. It looked so charming and perfect, I inserted myself into the scenes immediately and knew that one day, I’d have to check in for a visit.
Fast-forward to two days ago: I am getting off the bus and taking in my first breath of Meridan air. Much like the lovely town of Valladolid, from where I had just come, the streets are lined with one and two story pastel-colored colonial buildings. Immediately I notice however, that they are just a bit faded. The colors aren’t as bright as they were on TV. I take a step into the street and narrowly avoid being hit by a massive bus. I catch my breath.
Making our way through the streets to find a place to stay, I can’t help but compare Merida to Valladolid. The architecture is very similar, but everything seems dirtier. I am not charmed. Maybe I’ve just lost my stomach for the big city, I think to myself.
Before long Austin finds us a room at a good price. Our hotel is a perfect illustration of my impression of Merida – old, grimy, but well-loved and, as the day progresses I decide, strangely appealing.
On our first night we walk the Paseo de Montejo – a street designed after the Champs-Elysees in Paris. We are promised a stroll besides beautiful colonial mansions. There are some mansions on the street (most are now occupied by major banks), but there’s also a Walmart. We approach a crowd of locals assembled around a restaurant. It is the only place on the way that’s even remotely full. ‘What kind of traditional delicacy is served here?’ I think to myself as we get closer. It turns out the main attraction of the Paseo de Montejo is a Starbucks – complete with valet parking.
In the morning we head out to explore Merida’s famous market. I imagine myself trading pleasantries with kind old ladies in a lazy sort of way, just like the House Hunters episode. The reality is much more frantic. The cement building is packed with stalls. There are clothes, jewelry, food being cooked, meat being butchered, and, amongst it all, several musicians playing mini-concerts. I want to stop and stare, to take it all in, but everyone is moving so fast. To stop or even slow down would be to separate myself from it all, to identify myself as a foreigner (as if they didn’t know already). Austin whispers into my ear. “Feels a little bit like you’ve been spun around in circles with a blindfold, huh?” That’s exactly how it feels.
In the afternoon we make our way to the zoo. It is 12 blocks from our hotel, so we decide to hop on the city bus. Merida is the first place I’ve visited where public transportation actually decreases your mobility in an otherwise pedestrian city. Not only do the city buses whirl around corners and down streets at terrifying speeds (I have lost count of how many times I was sure I would be hit), but they take the most out-of-the-way routes possible to the major sites. Our bus was signed with the name of the park where the zoo was located, but never actually came very close to the entrance. Instead it proceeded to take us all the way out to the edge of the suburbs before coming back around to a spot where we could get within a reasonable distance of our destination.
The zoo turns out to be magical. It immediately calms my shaken nerves. I have been dying to see a jaguar ever since I inspected their sculpted images at Chichen Itza, and I am not disappointed. The zoo also houses a variety of other big cats, a huge collection of tropical birds, and Austin’s favorite – the monkeys. A chimpanzee makes kissy faces at us as we walk by. I decide to name him after my boyfriend.
After dinner on our last evening in Merida, we make our way to the Palacio del Gobierno. Once the home of a wealthy colonial governor, it now houses the state of Yucatan’s executive offices. In the common areas are murals by a local painter. They tell the story of the region. They illustrate the brutal domination of the Maya and the harsh realities of Spanish colonialism. They highlight a few important historical figures. Some of the paintings are a bit morbid, but they are all beautiful. The truth is that this place has a cruel history. I find the acknowledgement of that to be refreshing. It’s honest.
It’s because of this that I decide I like Merida after all. The pamphlets in the lobby of our hotel describe the city as an ‘undiscovered Mexican gem.’ I don’t believe that’s true. The city is crawling with tourists, and it’s not shiny enough to give credit to any fine gem. But in its flaking paint and dirty walls there is honesty. And that’s harder and harder to come by these days.
Merida has taught me that sometimes, there can be beauty in a truth that isn’t so pretty.