A Beach Moment that Lingers

Seaside in Progreso, Mexico is unforgettable.

If I concentrate, I can still recall sitting on the beach at Progreso, digging my toes into the sand and sipping a piña colada made with sweet, fresh pineapple and soft, sugary coconut shavings. I remember the waiters, who had to cross the beach boulevard from the Crabster restaurant to keep asking me if I needed anything else.

It was not a cruise ship day, otherwise there would have been hundreds more people like me, tourists mulling about looking for T-shirts, or souvenirs, or bathrooms. The first time we journeyed north from Merida by bus and disembarked in this sleepy beach town, we heard the jolting noise of English being spoken with a southern accent. The words, already foreign sounding after a few weeks staying in Mexico, hit me from the tables along the avenue leading to the ocean. Gray-headed travelers in tropical shirts sat ordering beers and margaritas and eating barbecue marinated in the sour orange and lime of the Yucatán rather than the dry rubs or smoke of the places their accents said they hailed from. We walked on without belying our compatriotism. I just wanted to sit in the warm breeze, to feel the sun on my skin, and to look out on the Gulf of Mexico. I wanted to be mesmerized by the waves and by the squawking of flocks of gulls who undulated the same way.

We ate pork tacos with habanero salsa. Huge shrimp encrusted in coconut batter and fried. Beach vendors passed by often, selling colorful whipped sugar candy merengues and caramelized peanut palanquetas. They hawked all sorts of wares held aloft on their heads or in big backpacks. A man selling large baskets had half a dozen draped over each of his arms and more piled on his back. One vendor rode the bus back to Merida with us at the end of the day, his pastry tray stowed somewhere below in a luggage compartment. The ride cost the equivalent of $1US each way. So, we rode with a crowd, though most appeared not to be traveling to sit on the beach.

I watched the fluttering of the umbrellas and palapas, the thatched roofs of dried palm leaves. They shaded tables and chaise lounges set up along the shore. I listened to the surf. I watched a Mexican family pull two white plastic tables together to accommodate everyone for a child’s birthday party. 

Further down the beach large palapas stood at the ready to accommodate more people in search of shade. And still further a newer restaurant with a multi-level, open-air deck that ensured every table had a view of the sea. Swings on ropes and palm trees growing up through the rafters made the place feel like an Instagram picture from Tulum. That made it more expensive than the other places.

Yes, I like piña coladas. This one has a coconut sugar rim, Mexican cinnamon shavings that are like the more relaxed version of cinnamon sticks, and a skewer of fresh pineapple and berries.

Only a few more historic establishments remain after decades of hurricanes and the ebb and flow of tourism on this sleepy coastline. But the city rebuilt the seaside in the last few years. The malecón is now a low concrete wall, turned into seating in spots and undulating along the ribbon of beach kept the sand and water on one side and a wide boulevard on the other for pedestrians, bicycles, and every hour or so a truck full of police decked out in military-style uniforms and holding automatic rifles. In places like Mexico this show of force is a comfort rather than a threat I suppose. I prefer the bicycle cops of California beaches who seem harmless, and yet ready to confront whatever trouble comes. 

Sleeping dogs flopped in the warm sand against the sea wall and lay contentedly snoozing, flipping their tails like horses to defend against the odd fly. The mid-80-degree temperature was perfect. I waded out into the water far enough to feel its December chill, but I never got too warm sitting on the beach to require more water dunks, just more pina coladas, or Mexican beers, or Topo Chicos.

Boats on the Gulf.

The beach faced north, so the sunsets faded out of view. And we meandered back to the bus depot to board the ride back to the city. It was only a little over an hour along the highway. We disembarked at the stop by Paseo 60, the huge new complex right around the block from our rental house. It had a massive open-air plaza with a waterfall cascading over plexiglass, a stage curtained with sisal ropes, old henequen manufacturing equipment turned sculpture. Escalators and shops, a hotel, a coach depot for high-class road trips daily to Cancun and elsewhere. We walked along the narrow sidewalk and turned down Calle 37 toward our house. Weeds edged out from cracks and the concrete crumbled in places. We passed old single story colonial houses, one that had been turned into a boutique hotel on the corner.

It was one key to open the wrought iron gate over the front door, and then another key to unlock the wood door, weathering badly in the tropics. I stepped into the cool of the cavernous living room, slipped off my flip flops to spray the sand off my feet with a water bottle left on a little towel just beside the door. The tile was cool beneath my bare feet and I padded across it into the kitchen and sank down into one of the equipale chairs of pigskin and slats of cedar. The sun of the beach still felt warm on my skin.

If I concentrate, it still does.

A Bit of String in Merida

The cathedral in Merida, Mexico is the oldest church in the Americas.

A labyrinth of concrete, some crumbling, some intact. Facades painted pink, periwinkle or warm orange. Black wrought-iron gates and railings. Oiled hardwood doors. Narrow sidewalks. Cars speeding along thin streets. Centuries old buildings standing silently bragging, like elders, with the assurance that only comes from having seen several lifetimes. This is a place called Merida, Mexico. 

The ancient Maya people of the Yucatan peninsula built massive structures for sport and religion here more than a thousand years ago. They had their own calendar and written language. But when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, they brought Catholicism and erected the large cathedral in the grand plaza in the center of Merida. It stands over the site of much more ancient Mayan structures. In fact, its constructed with stones from the Mayan buildings. So are the colonial houses and buildings that radiate out from the plaza. 

Three centuries later, at the end of the 19th century, wars and innovation brought sudden wealth and growth to the Yucatan again, in the form of string. That’s right, twine. The Mayans had long before used a variety of agave plant called henequen to make rope fiber called sisal. They wove it into hammocks, clothes, and hats. The Spanish decided it was also good rope for their ships. But mid-19th century hacienda owners began growing the plants in earnest. They brought in newly invented machines to strip the leaves and dry the fibers. The demand was so great that it spawned dozens of sisal millionaires. Millionaires! From string!

Henequen plants still being cultivated outside Merida, Mexico.
The fibers from the henequen plant’s leaves are dried to make strong fibers for rope and other textiles.

The wealthy elite built large mansions all along the wide boulevards of Merida. They built schools and hospitals, paved streets, and installed sewage systems. And when the string industry succumbed to politics, revolution, war, other suppliers around the world, and the invention of synthetic fibers, these stately homes and most of the haciendas where sisal was produced were abandoned and fell into disrepair. Some lasted into the middle of the 20th century. Many became hotels. Some became businesses or government offices in this city that is the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatan. Some are now part of the newest industry in Merida—tourism.

We toured the Casa Gemelas, an impressive mansion built from string money back in the day. This house just opened a few months ago for tourists to peek inside the palace. The awkward young man who was our guide said the place was at one time host to Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Grace. He said to google it. 

At the end of our (overpriced) tour, our guide whispered for us to lean in closer. That was a little awkward. But when Ron and I obliged, along with men from Guadalajara and New Jersey, he told us in hushed tones that the owner of the house had just walked by. He discreetly pointed out an older woman as she was leaving through the back gate. Our small group had no idea what to make of that. It was like seeing Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey, skulking around the back of the manor house, embarrassed to have been forced to become a tourist attraction for financial solvency.

A view from our backyard in Merida, where we have our own pair of henequen, or “green gold” plants.

I doubt the Mayans who roam the streets of Merida hawking colorful embroideries feel this discomfort. They’re just trying to make a buck. And the Mayan calendar knew a thousand years ago that history repeats itself. Sometimes you’re conquered, sometimes you’re on top. And while string may make a bunch of people rich for a while, it’s power actually lies in the sturdy tie it makes to fasten around whatever you need held fast.