In downtown Merida, there is a small shop, una refresqueria, that sells soft drinks, water, salty  chips, and assorted cookies wrapped in bright shiny paper. For those who are on foot, and feeling the effects of the merciless sun, the unpretentious pit-stop has the allure of an oasis. ¡Agua por favor!

The proprietor or his wife always urge their weary customers to sit down on one of the chairs lined up along the back wall. Many gratefully accept the small kindness, and once they start feeling the welcome effect of the restorative liquid, they notice their surroundings. Hanging above the counter is a striking photograph of a withered old crone, and underneath the portrait, hangs a hand-written sign:

You haven’t truly experienced El Centro until you’ve been hit across the back of your head  by Yaya.

Yaya? What kind of name is that? And why would this person be whacking others across the head?” they ask.

No one knows where Yaya comes from. I would guess she’s probably in her mid 60s, but I can’t confirm that with her because she’s profoundly deaf and cannot speak. I often notice how she winces as her bowed legs propel her through downtown’s congested streets. Yaya has an aversion to bathing, and as well, she is obviously schizophrenic.

Nonetheless Yaya has found ways to cope for what she lacks in conventional communication skills.  She caws like a crow and her arms flail in the air when she wants something. Her eyes keenly observe everything that comes into her line of vision. By our criteria of ownership, Yaya does not have anything of value. But from her point of view, that is just not true. She collects discarded cardboard boxes, fills them with scraps of this & that, and wherever she goes, she pushes them along in front of herself. Sometimes she amasses many, and obviously, keeping them all together is a struggle. But don’t ever make the mistake of trying to help her; she’s independent and suspicious of anyone getting too close to her belongings.

Yaya has a job she takes seriously. Every morning she goes to the back door of a furniture and appliance store and receives a handful of flyers that she passes out on the street. And that’s where the whack on the back of your head can occur; she doesn’t take kindly to a refusal to accept her paper advertisements. When she has distributed the daily quota, I’ve been told that she uses the employee restroom and the manager gives her ten pesos. The merchants in her radius, including the couple from the small shop, give her food and drink. Periodically a trio of ladies from the Catholic Action League convince her to let them help her have a bath, and then they give her a set of clean clothes. When she is sick, the local pharmacy gives her a remedy for what ails her.

At night, Yaya corrals her boxes and sleeps on the sidewalk well out of the wind. She has a big blanket, a Christmas gift from someone, to cover herself.  She steadfastly refuses the social workers’ attempts to place her in a facility where she would be safer and healthier . Why? I imagine she knows she won’t be happier.

This description of Yaya is written in present tense, but in fact, Yaya is no longer to be seen limping through Merida’s Centro. Nor are her buddies, a collection of other street people. Just before our city inaugurated the latest entertainment venue, El  Palacio de la Musica, the “kings and queens of the road” disappeared. Their song was not wanted anywhere near the spiffy new palace.

And I think that’s sad. As most people know, for many years, the peninsula of Yucatan was separated from the rest of the country by extensive swamp lands. Before the highway to Mexico City was completed in the 1960’s, the journey inland was difficult, long and expensive, so residents did not often leave. This nurtured a strong regional identity; Yucatecans were happy with their tropical, slower-paced lifestyle. They enjoyed a way of life that was all their own, and as long as they were not dangerous, the locals had no animosity towards the eccentric street people like Yaya.

Now many people from other parts of the country have moved to Merida, and from other countries too.   They have brought their customs, foods, businesses, music and attitudes with them. The explosive growth of the peninsula’s  tourism industry has also greatly affected the tranquility of the Yucatecan lifestyle. The local population likes some of these changes, but do not appreciate the erosion of their established way of life. Today, after approximately 35 years of steady migration, Merida is a cosmopolitan city that is home to many. Yucatecans are pragmatic and have found a way to deal with this.

But that is not to say they like being put in this position. Improvements to the infrastructure, and to the appearance of some of the city’s traditional neighbourhoods, was badly needed, but is gentrification of everything desirable? I think people like Yaya and businesses like the soda shop make our city more humane and authentic.

Maybe all of us should be a bit more judicious before we accept the building of more malls, hotels and re-dos of every house on the block.  And we would also do well to remember the more gentile manners of decades past in Yucatan.  Fast-passed, and cutting-edge makes for more stress; never missing  siesta would be healthier than getting the shopping “done” during the heat of the day.

If we work too hard at getting our adopted home too convenient, we’ll be living in the place we left.

This will be a special Christmas…

With friends at TTT’s annual Christmas party

Just one more sleep and Emma will be here! It has been 3 years since I spent the Christmas Holidays with my granddaughter, and I am absolutely over-the-moon with joy.

For the past month, I’ve been cooking everything I know she likes to eat. I have wrapped her presents with shiny paper and puffy bows… Her unicorn and flamingo floaties are inflated and ready for her because even though the water seems cold to us, she’ll want to jump into the pool as soon as she gets here.

And as I wait for the moment she arrives at my door, I am remembering past Christmases when I felt this same excitement… As a little girl, for several Sundays leading up to Christmas, my parents would pack us kids into the car, and off we’d drive to see the extended family who did not live in Vancouver like we did. I had two favourite girl cousins, born within 6 months of me and we loved one another like sisters. My teen years centered around parties with friends; and once I was living independently, I would travel through the worst winter weather so that I could spend my three-day Christmas break with the rest of my big family.

When I met Jorge and moved to Mexico, missing my family at Christmas was always “an issue”. It may be silly, but the desire to be with my long-distance loved ones at Christmastime is intrinsic to who I am. This is not to say I don’t also revel in the company of my family and friends who live here. Actually, they are the reason I can’t leave Merida at this time of year. And I suspect I am not alone with my foible.

But those who know me will agree that I am every bit as practical, as I am sentimental. Through the years, I have developed strategies to chase my melancholy away, and I’ve been lucky to have help with this. Jorge is as into the “spirit of Christmas” as I am… In fact our family’s celebrations and traditions have grown into nostalgic memories for the two of us, our children, our Yucatecan family and our many friends.

All year long, Jorge and I like to entertain. But during the Holidays, this bumps up several notches. We host dinners and parties… and we visit people. We like to play carols and I don’t care if I go overboard… I decorate! It does take effort and it is not uncommon for me to whine that I’m tired. But for as long as we are able to, Jorge and I will continue making a Merry Christmas.

I hope that everyone reading this post will have special moments over this year’s Holiday Season… Maybe you’ll plan an adventure that turns out differently to what you figured it would be… but somehow… it will seem better than expected?

And if you are missing the holidays of the past, create a new one for yourself this year. After all, every day of our lives is all about change.

LOS DOS: Respecting tradition and moving along…

Mario Canul at the presentation of MERCADOS

In 2003, David Sterling, a renowned chef working in New York, moved to Merida with his partner, and within a short time, he opened LOS DOS, a culinary school and cultural experiences tour company. He hired a young tourism student, Mario Canul as his assistant, and so began the long and mutually satisfying collaboration between the two of them.

The entrance way to LOS DOS

In Yucatan every celebratory occasion features copious quantities of delicious food, and Merida is internationally known for its gastronomic offerings. Of the 32 states in Mexico, Yucatan’s cuisine is ranked number 5, although some critics argue that along with Puebla, ours should tie for first place. Puebla and Yucatan both feature dishes made with a great diversity of meats, grains, vegetables, seafood, condiments and spices; Puebla incorporates more dairy products than Yucatan, but our state uses more seafood.

LOS DOS specializes in authentic half-day culinary workshops, and over the years has welcomed legions of visiting home cooks and foodies. As well, many of the industry’s luminaries have collaborated with David, including Diana Kennedy. In her highly-acclaimed books about traditional Mexican dishes, Kennedy provides detailed descriptions of each state’s classic recipes. She has high esteem for Yucatan’s complex integration of Maya and European techniques and ingredients. After spending time with David Sterling at LOS DOS, she put him in touch with Casey Kittrell of the University of Texas Press. Chef David felt gratified when the two women urged him to write a cookbook, and he agreed to do so; but his meticulous nature forced the volume through umpteen revisions.

During the five years he spent writing and editing the book, Mario accompanied David throughout Yucatan, searching for sources of the finest natural ingredients; they also visited regional cooks who shared their tips for making the crispest panuchos, fluffiest flans, and other kitchen secrets.

The iconic LOS DOS kitchen

Martha Stewart spent time with David at LOS DOS in 2012, and Rick Bayless featured him as guest in a segment of his popular show, “Mexico – One Plate at a Time”.

Finally, in 2014, “Recipes from a Culinary Expedition: YUCATAN”, was published. It received food critics’ acclaim, as well as the endorsement of cooking enthusiasts and foodies everywhere.

Two details of the living room’s mural thatdepicts Merida’s Main Plaza

David Sterling felt honoured when his book was nominated for the James Beard Best International Cookbook in 2015. And then, to his surprise, and great pleasure, his book also made the shortlist for “Best Cookbook of the Year”. He won both awards, and the popularity of the cooking institute and his publication soared.

For David Sterling the attention and celebrity had dual affects. On one hand, who would not take great pride in such lofty professional accomplishment? But he had always been a reserved and quiet person, so the demands for his attention and the requests for access into his personal world made him feel uncomfortable. He found himself the object of greater curiosity than he wanted any part of.

Rosana Angele and Mario Canul, – the hard-working young duo now in charge f clssesaaaaaaat LOS DOS

Under David’s guidance, Mario Canul had grown into an extremely professional and capable chef. He is Yucatecan, naturally personable and energetic; he gladly took on many of the behind-the scenes details, which allowed his mentor to maintain the time and private space he needed to keep his creativity engaged. David Sterling continued to give classes, but he also had room in his schedule to research his next literary project, a comprehensive look at his principal source of inspiration.

The complexity and subtle diversity of Mexico’s open-air markets fascinated David. Mario says that his teacher wanted to explore and find out why each had a special charm, all its own. He set out on excursions to photograph and record what he saw.  But it soon became apparent that David’s health could not withstand the daily demands required for travel into remote areas, nor overly-busy city centers. Mario offered to accompany David on his trips and was rewarded with new insights. He reflected how early on in his career, his employer taught him all about the multiple processes behind balanced menu planning, skillful preparation, and the art of presenting a beautiful meal. Now, on these travels through the markets of Mexico, David introduced Mario to his understanding of the spiritual relationship mankind has with the food that nourishes him. Mario appreciated David’s perspective on this topic, one he had always been exposed to but never actually named .

Another detail of the mural at LOS DOS… who is that smiling man waving at us?

It turned out that David did not live long enough to complete his second volume, “Mercados – Recipes from the Markets of Mexico”. However, Mario Canul had been with David Sterling all the way; he had first-hand knowledge of the markets and knew which recipes David wished to use; even the photographs had been selected. Some of the ingredients’ exact measurements were missing, but Mario was able to fill in the blanks and complete the book as David had envisioned it.

Their last trip together had been in October 2016, one month before David died. When I asked Mario about the markets, and which had been the all-around favourite of theirs, Mario immediately said that Teotitlan del Valle’s market would certainly be his and David’s choice because it surpassed all others in charm, visual and aural attractiveness. He added that the market is indigenous and sustainable; it is clean, the produce is fresh and the market vendors, respectful of their traditions. He also mentioned that this market has “the best” freshly baked bread.

“Mercados – Recipes from the Markets of Mexico” and the David Sterling’s first book, “Recipes from a Culinary Expedition: YUCATAN” are both available for purchase on Amazon. But what about LOS DOS, the cooking school created by David Sterling? Fortunately, Mario Canul is able to carry on his mentor’s legacy at the school too, and he is now mentoring his assistant, Rosana Angele. They are a young team who place high emphasis on the authentic presentation of Yucatecan recipes and techniques, as well as their clients’ personal enjoyment.

Reservations to take a class can be made on line at: https://los-dos.com/cooking-classes/ .