2018 Merida Artist Studio Tour

There are two different ways of looking at the world—you can walk on the path or you can walk through the hedge and I think that’s the beauty of art—that it just makes you step aside from the normal way of walking or looking.” – Andy Goldsworthy

Artists do have a unique way of viewing the world, and for one day every year, the Merida English Library (MEL) invites us to do just that—step off the path and into the studios of Merida’s artists.

On February 17th, over 450 art lovers, students, visitors and local Meridanos did just that—walked, cycled, and carpooled to studios as diverse as the art itself. With 35 painters, sculptors, photographers, glass, ceramic and wood artists to choose from, the hardest decision to make was whom to visit, what to buy and where to stop for that cerveza.

MEL has a long history of interacting with the burgeoning creative community here in Merida. More than 30 years ago, a printmaker, a painter and a photographer opened their own studios in what was to become the home of the Merida English Library. Since then, MEL had grown from being a lender of books to a community outreach of culture, exchange and learning. The Artist Studio Tour is one of the most successful fundraisers for MEL, generating much needed funds for ongoing and new programming, children’s books, computers and administrative expenses.

In a true symbiotic relationship of mutualism, both MEL and the artists benefit from combining their talents, their energy and their resources to create one of the best experiences you’ll find in Merida. A great big thanks to the tireless organizers, volunteers, artist helpers and especially, the artists—you just keep getting better!





Merida on the Map

Hacienda magic

A new Palace of Music. The recently opened Centro Cultural la Cúpula. Gastronomic experiences and award-winning cuisine, charming boutique hotels and AirBnb’s. Day trips to beautiful haciendas, cenotes, and mayan ruins, and mini road trips to beach destinations like Isla Holbox and Tulum. Merida and the Yucatan are on the hipster ‘not-to-be-missed’ lists, and for good reason.

Here are just a few of the stories I’ve come across lately…enjoy!

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/01/07/travel/places-to-visit.html?_r=0

New York Post: http://nypost.com/2016/01/12/the-mexican-getaway-thats-better-than-cancun/

Conde Nast Traveller: http://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2015-08-27/a-locals-guide-to-the-best-of-merida-mexico-yucatan

Travel and Leisure: http://www.travelandleisure.com/slideshows/exploring-the-chic-inland-towns-of-mexicos-yucatan-peninsula/14

Oasis in the Yucatan

o·a·sis n. pl. o·a·ses (-sēz) A situation or place preserved from surrounding unpleasantness; a refuge: an oasis of serenity; Hacienda San Jose Pachul

What to do when it’s 40C in the shade and your very soul demands to be quenched? You find an oasis. The Yucatan is classified as a tropical desert, so on a scorching day in April, I sought out refuge with five equally parched compañeras who also longed for cool waters, salty breezes, a richly layered ambiance and delectable comestibles. We found our oasis, sin salty breezes, at Hacienda San Jose Pachul. I have written about HSJP before, and taken many trips with visiting friends, always to great jollity. Two hours inevitably turns into four, and on this particular hot and sultry day, we arrived before noon and left as the sun was beginning to set. It was our monthly book club and Evelyn suggested we enjoy our discourse of ‘Tasty: The Art and Science of What we Eat’ by spending the afternoon surrounded by ‘umami’. We hired a driver and in 45 minutes, were bobbing in the pool, accompanied by rustling bamboo and Richards’ home grown sour orange margaritas. We had arranged with Chef Jose to have a ‘plating’ lesson which I was very much looking forward to. My lack of plating skills means I serve everything on a platter (very forgiving and easily impressive) or family style, in lovely serving dishes that share the table with the wine and conversation. Our first course was a luscious Banana Gazpacho made with bananas (plantains actually) from the hacienda. It was cool and sweetish with a bit of heat and left my palette longing for tart and fresh. Jose has beautiful dishes which are a huge component in successful plating. Also, colour and texture and remembering to lovingly wipe off the soup from the edge of the bowl (my bad). Course #2 was a refreshing Butter Lettuce with Mango and Panela Cheese. This was a perfect combination of fresh mango, Panela cheese, sweet yellow and red peppers, grape tomatoes and parsley, topped with julienne of jicama and drizzled with a combo of sour orange and ‘unclassic’ caesar salad vinaigrettes. Yum. After savouring the last of the wine pairing we traipsed back to the kitchen to help assemble the Stuffed Poblanos with chicken, Oaxaca cheese, fruit and vegetable crudités, nestled in Tomatillo Sauce. The crowning touch was a honey chile pasilla sauce drizzled ever so sparingly across the peppers. A final dip in the pool and we were back preparing a seriously umami dessert of Hacienda Banana Cake filled with coconut cream in a strawberry tres leches and topped with chile ancho chocolate sauce. I’ve begged for the recipes and am happy to share one with you here—buen provecho!

Hacienda San Jose Pachul’s Banana Gazpacho:

Hacienda San Jose Pachul's Banana Gazpacho

Hacienda San Jose Pachul’s Famous Banana Gazpacho

1/4 cup vegetable oil 1 medium white onion finely chopped 2 garlic cloves finely chopped 6 ripe medium/large plantains peeled and sliced 1/4 cup sugar 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock 1 tsp habanero sauce salt and pepper to taste 3 cups milk 1/2 cup finely chopped celery, red onion, red bell pepper 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley

  • Sauté the white onion and garlic in oil over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes.
  • Add sliced plantain with the sugar and continue to sauté stirring constantly.  If the mixture is too thick, add some stock if necessary to cook through and a smooth consistency is reached.
  • Add the rest of the stock with the habanero sauce and salt and pepper and reduce over medium heat for about 10 minutes, taste for seasoning. Add more salt, pepper or sugar to balance the flavours, depending on how sweet the plantains are. Remove from heat and let cool.
  • Once the mixture is cooled down, mix in the blender some soup base with some of the milk, blending only to achieved medium light and silky consistency. Do not over blend, you want to leave some texture. Do this in batches until the banana mixture is finished.  You may need to add some more milk or stock to achieve the right consistency.
  • While blending, taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
  • Chill mixture.  When ready to serve portion soup into bowls, and garnish with the finely chopped celery, red onion and bell pepper, sprinkle some chopped parsley and finish with a spritz of olive oil.

Day of the Dead, Night of the Living

In the Yucatan, this centuries old celebration is called Hanal Pixan, or Food for the Souls, and lasts over a week. The Mexican people look at death just a little differently than we do, and I was very moved by my experience in Merida. This is a snapshot. (Story below, all photography by artist Ric Kokotovich)

From the darkness of night, the tiny room shone like a beacon. “Adelante”, the old woman said, and beckoned us forward. The room was no larger than a walk in closet and it was wallpapered with vestiges of the deceased. Whole lives were framed in cheesy plastic, the grim faces of uncles and aunts, grandparents and cousins, together again in their place of honour, surrounded by icons of Catholicism. Small gourds containing favorite foods meant to sustain them on their journey, were really there to say, “Mira, this is how much we loved you.”

I caught her husband’s eye as I quietly walked the perimeter of the room. He was handsome, and dressed for the occasion in what was probably his best guayabera, washed and hand pressed that day I assume. A bottle of mezcal that looked like it had been unearthed from the pib, stood nearby, an instigator of joy and pain. His eyes followed me around a room that was ablaze with strings of blinking Christmas lights and candles, their chipped glass cups blackened from smoke. A vase of flowers that had had their moment in the sun, still made an attempt at life.

Asleep in a hammock strung the length of the tiny room was a babe swaddled in love. “Preciosa”, I said to the old woman, to which she beamed, “Mi nieta”. “The hammock is like a cradle”, she said, and I loved the word in Spanish. “A la cuna”, I repeated to her, and we both smiled.

On my way out the door I caught her husband’s eye one last time, his smile in the large glossy picture reaching out to me as if to say, “This was my life, my family. I will always be remembered and I will always find my way home.”

Learning Spanish is like Learning Salsa

The competition is good but we are more BADASS

The competition is good but we are more BADASS

One of the reasons we wanted to live in Mexico was to learn to speak Spanish. We thought it would be relatively easy, given we live amongst Yucatecans who speak little English. Truth is, we get frustrated with our limited vocabulary and inability to speak in anything but the present tense. So we muddle along, getting our ‘cajones’ mixed up with our ‘cojones’ (one means ‘drawer, one definitely does not), and hope that one day the proverbial lightbulb will come on and all will be illuminated.

What I have learned from studying Spanish is this:

  • It’s way more fun to learn in a class with other like-minded people
  • It helps to have a great teacher who is funny and interesting and who brings the cultural element into the equation (e.g. what to say when your neighbour wants to borrow money, what NOT to say when she doesn’t pay you back on time)
  • Not all programs work for all people so check them out before you ‘buy’, and really think about how you learn things e.g. do you love manuals, do you want to flush your manuals down the toilet
  • You can’t get anywhere by doing your homework the morning of your class, guilty as charged
  • You mustn’t be afraid to practice in real life, even though you know you sound like a doofus

One of the favourite topics amongst my fellow expats who are valiantly attempting to get past “Donde esta el bano“, is the study of espanol. More specifically we ask one another, “Are you studying? Do you have a teacher? What method are you using? Are you learning on your own? How do you practice?” etc. One friend here speaks online with a tutor twice a week for an hour of conversation—they discuss topics he is interested in so he can learn the vocabulary around those topics. Another immersed herself in telenovellas (Mexican soaps). And friends who live in Merida just spent a month in Chiapas, hoping their daily language classes would leap frog them past the present tense.

One thing’s for sure. You have to maintain structure and establish a consistent learning environment, otherwise learning a new language is like a salsa lesson—one step forward, two steps back.


Swimming with the Whale Sharks

Jaws. It’s all I can think about as we race towards the feeding ground of the great whale sharks. From a distance I can see the familiar black triangles moving ominously across the water. Suddenly one is upon us. Its cavernous mouth grows larger by the second, as it drinks in the ocean with each arc of its massive body. I am sure this is to be my Jonah moment when the creature just as suddenly veers right and swims past. For a split second my fear is usurped by the awesome beauty only inches from my outstretched hand, but it’s short lived as Captain Eduardo shouts, “Vamanos! Into the water!”

All my life I have dreamt of swimming with whales. Perhaps it’s because I grew up on the Canadian prairies, or maybe it’s a metaphor for something much more profound. Regardless, it was on la bonita Isla Mujeres that I leapt into the sea with over 100 whale sharks.

Our trip started from Merida, an easy 4 hour drive and 20 minute ferry ride away. A friend offered us her beach house and we jumped at the chance to wake up to the sound of the sea.

If you’ve never been to Isla Mujeres, bypass Cancun and head straight there. For 4 days we ate our bodily weight in the freshest ceviche this side of Manzanillo and walked the white sand beaches and narrow funky streets. It was here that we met up with Bonnie and Ariel of Sea Hawk Divers. Theirs is a tale as old as time – beautiful Canadian girl from the prairies falls in love with handsome Mexican boy from Veracruz. For over 25 years they have been guiding people around the waters off Isla Mujeres, and the Whale Shark tour is one of their most popular.

At 8:30 a.m. we shimmied into our wetsuits and Bonnie sent us on our way with Ariel, Captain Eduardo and our guide Tito, along with 8 other people from Japan, Sweden, Denmark and San Francisco. Captain Eduardo radioed ahead to get the exact locale of the whale sharks, which on this fine morning was a 45-minute boat ride over relatively calm seas. We spotted flying fish and dolphins along the way, and you could feel the collective hum of anticipation.

Words cannot describe what we saw. Eduardo guessed there were over 100 whale sharks, going back and forth across the surface of the ocean, eating their bodily weight in tobico (fish eggs). The biggest fish in the sea, these whale sharks average 20 tons and reach the length of a city bus. Imagine that coming towards you. I elected to go last because I was personally talking myself down from the anxiety of being in the water with something that had ‘shark’ in its name. The teeming throng had subsided once I jumped in the water but as I spotted the first one coming toward me, my only thought was, “Do not drown, and do not crap in your wetsuit”. Thankfully, neither happened. I conquered my fears and now have an experience surreal beyond my imagining and one I will never ever forget.