February 18, 2008 | BITE: My Journal
On Vacation from My Vacation 

Beauty queens in feathers and spandex ride the floats at Carnaval. Photo: Steven Richter
 Beauty queens in feathers and spandex ride the floats at Carnaval. Photo: Steven Richter

     We arrive in Merida, capital of the Yucatan, midway through Carnavaleach day there’s a different group on parade. On Sunday it’s sleek beauty queens in feathers and elastic; two nights later, sturdy local matrons, proudly declaring their heritage in embroidered muu-muus. Crowds surge along the length of Paseo de Montejo, Merida’s version of the Champs Elysées, dotted with kiosks in the unabashed red and white of Coca-Cola.

     A trio of maids is mopping floors and making beds as we arrive at our newly-restored little colonial house with soaring ceilings and decorative tile near the center of town. I love this quarter, with its low buildings and small bodegas, almost always deserted and quiet at night, except for music, often Cuban music, coming through a curtained window. No way to know if a mansion or a tumbled hovel lurks behind any gate. Rather like Marrakech, where an innocuous door in a wall can lead to a prince’s palatial pied à terre.   The small market of Santiago with its dozen or more food stalls is two blocks away. The weight of heat radiating in the meat market, with scrawny unidentifiable parts hanging on hooks is scary. But I can buy an armload of daisies for $4, beautiful bananas and half a dozen tangerines for $1.50. A veteran of the don’t-drink-the-water and be-wary-of-street-food circuit, I wonder if we dare try the little tacos and tostones, with slivers of pork and turkeythe locals are eating at painted metal tables set up on the perimeter of the market. 

     Indeed, after an unfulfilling dinner of stringy chicken wrapped in a banana leaf and some muddy
 A "chica" size spicy shrimp cocktail. Photo: Steven Richter
tacos pollo al mole in a neighborhood restaurant, I feel a desperate need for seriously good ice cream as we trudge home in the heavy air. Even a chocolate truffle would help. Leftover coconut sorbet in the freezer from some previous occupant is not the answer.

     The Road Food Warrior and I don’t usually go tropical. We like Buenos Aires or San Francisco in July (when it’s winter) but we were drawn here by photographs of the Mayan ruins – reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia (well, in the photographs anyway). Touching the ancient step, sensing the vibrations of human sacrifice. 

     At the big market on Sunday I finally feel that this trip is going to work. We enter the Mercado Lucas Galvez through the hat department, stop to buy a plaid plastic tote for $2, wander past women sitting on the floor selling balls of ground masa that look like pastry dough – pozol, flavored with coconut or chocolate that will be turned into a drink. The gleaming fruits piled high make the fruits of our local market seem quite meager. We pass stands with towers of brightly colored, rust, red and black pastes. Tom, our Spanish-speaking friend, asks what they are…the answer is mysteriously unrevealing. I will find the key here, I am sure.

     After criss-crossing the maze of souvenirs and crockery, our friend leads us to the seafood market with its many snack counters and we are dipping into cockteles de camerones in an ice cream glass under the florescent lights of Neptuno del Mar. A burly counterman with a big smile and a chipped tooth sets out small dishes of chopped onion and minced cilantro to toss on top and extra packaged saltines for each of us. I can’t help thinking of the unpeeled tomato that made the salsa. And then decide to just go for it. Sweet little shrimps, not very many – but then this is the chica size for just $1.70 – tangy and delicious and a few drops of the liquid fire from a covered bowl of habanero salsa on the counter makes it even better.

     A detour to the handicraft shop for a t-shirt and some embroidered drink coasters leads to tacos al pastor at one of the small stalls outside and rellena negra – slivers of turkey and some hard boiled egg on small tortillas in black chile sauce with pickled pink onions on top. I’m starting to feel immortal.

     We probably wouldn’t be in Merida if it weren’t for Ellyne Basto, a force from New Jersey, married to a Meridian. Because of Carnaval and our last minute plans, I couldn’t turn up a vacant apartment, a house or even a hotel suite. Then I found Cascadas de Merida bed and breakfast, looking very cute on its website and got Ellyne’s voice on the phone. She didn’t have a room but she did know people arriving a month late for their winter retreat with a house they might be willing to  rent. That’s how we scored the pad.

    Steven and I joined Ellyne and her husband ChoCho and some of the B&B guests for fajitas, guacamole and salad between halves of the Giants-Patriot game. “It’s got to be okay to eat this salad?” I asked her, still the wary gringo, still my cautious mom’s careful daughter. (I like to be in India or Hanoi a week before actually eating a leaf. I think you build up immunity by brushing your teeth with the local water and not swallowing it. Please, don’t email me otherwise.)

    "I soak everything in water with Microdine,” she said. And there you are, my friends with the sensitive tummies. Two or three drops – it smells like iodine – but it lets me toss a salad of the most exquisite bibb and romaine lettuces I found at the giant Mega supermarket while Ellyne scoops up croissants and ciabatta rolls by the dozen. Not that I didn’t spend a few hours wondering…waiting, taking my pulse. “Mee-crow-dean-ay,” you tell the woman at the farmacia.

    Have a lemon slush in the spanking clean and modern reception area sfter traipsing in and out and around Chichén-Itzá? Of course.

 Reading in my hammock at Las Palapas in Playa. Photo: Steven Richter

    Not that we really needed a vacation from Merida. But after four nights of heavy rain – thunder and lightening and a pouring out of the skies that threatened to send our small swimming pool flowing right into the living room - and everyone canceling dates, cocktail parties, dinner, I thought how snowstorms and black- outs never keep us from dinner in New York. But even the Road Food Warrior decides it isn’t safe to walk the streets with lightening so near since we are taller than most everyone else who might attract a bolt. Stuck at home with a most unyielding refrigerator, I call a German Deli that delivers $20 worth of sandwiches and a soup of mayonnaise they called potato salad. At moments like this I need something restorative, not even a bag of gummy bears is enough. Then Aspen friends email insisting we try their favorite restaurant on the beach outside Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean. I must say a four-and-a-half hour ride in an air conditioned bus suddenly seems quite reasonable. Of course I didn’t realize dubbed movies in Mexico have such exuberant sound tracks, much panting, aural anxiety cues, chains dragging, brake screeching, wailing of women filled the bus.

    By 4 o’clock that same day, the magic hour for sun-phobics, we are on the beach – a magnificent stretch of sand – steps from our palm thatched “hut” at Las Palapas - off a gaudy but not tawdry
 Tulum look out over the Caribbean. Photo: Steven Richter
shop-and-eat strip called Fifth Avenue. Pretty room, king size bed, verandah overlooking a small lawn, no telly, no CNN, no phone.

    The cab driver parked at the hotel drive next morning wants $120 U.S. to take us to the ruins at Tulum, 40 minutes away, then to lunch at Al Cielo, and back by 4 p.m. We offer $100, probably only $30 or $40 more than necessary. After all, we’re on vacation from our vacation. His name is David, he tells us.


    “David Copperfield,” he responds. He drives like a demon. Demons don’t need seat belts.  

    Compared to the monumental architecture of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá -- recently named one of the seven new wonders of the world -- Tulum is small, more human sized, spread out on cliffs, just 45 feet high, jutting over the sea.

 With us, it's all about Al Cielo for Lunch. Photo: Steven Richter

    We could have gone diving near the second longest coral reef in the world, Or snorkeling in a cave, might have trolled the reef in a glass bottomed boat…but who are we kidding? We are here for the lunch. Al Cielo at Xpu-Ha. I’m not sure why we had to reserve – I guess to know if the place is open – it closes occasionally for weddings. It is indeed magical, with floaty white drapes, platters of flower petals on the floor, a big Buddha face on one wall and colored glass balls. There are just four rooms, all full for tomorrow’s wedding. And people with sarongs over bathing suits are drinking cocktails on the beach.

    We’re alone on the terrace just out of the sun, loving the pair of ceviches that arrive in twin water glasses set into a black wooden tray – silken little shrimp “cooked” in a classic tomato sauce with onions and cilantro and beside it, bits of scallop in a mild and limey tomatillo sauce. Big round toasted crisps are fabulous too and the warmed French bread is not great but the best bread we’ve seen so far. The arrival of clams in a salty green sauce is my first clue that the waiter’s charming and agreeable English
 Fabulous ceviches by the sea. Photo: Steven Richter
doesn’t mean he understands it. We’d cancelled the clams when we discovered the paella was for two. I remember him peating. “No clams.” As for the grilled lobster ordered “not too cooked” in what I thought was pretty clear almost-Spanish, it is huge, a clawless beauty but wildly tough and overcooked, in fact, inedible. But the paella, crusty in its black iron pan, is delicious and more than enough for both of us.

    What can I say? For us the enchantment is Al Cielo itself, the setting, its isolation, the welcome of Andres, the owner, the flowers everywhere, hibiscus petals on the tablecloth. Andres’ gift of a perfect crème brulée on a plate with a pouf of cream and a primitive lattice painted in delicious chocolate.

     Back in Playa after a swim and a nap, we can not even think of dinner. We walk along the pedestrians-only Fifth Avenue trying to get interested in buying something. Gelati seems a good idea. Ciao Gelato, advertised “100% natural-low in fat,’’ sounds sane. I try chocolate and passion fruit., wimpy, not worth finishing.  Afterward we spend almost an hour while Steven chooses a Mayan moon goddess from dozens of other whimsical figures. I stand by my man, trying to help. “Why not buy two,”I suggest. Decisions are so exhausting.

     “How about Häagen Dazs?” says Steven. Once the Moon Goddess is chosen and wrapped. “That other stuff wasn’t rich enough.” It is twice as expensive, $15 for two “bols,” no toppings (we could have had M&M’s or crushed Oreo’s or hot fudge), but I hope I won’t sound like an ugly American when I admit the ice cream is three times as good. Belgian chocolate and caramel with truffles. A suitable finale for a vacation from my vacation.


Patina Restaurant Group