Life as an expat in Merida

This post is long… I hope you’ll read all the way to the end

On Friday night Jorge and I went to a party hosted by our long-time friends, Chloe and Jorge.

Almost all the women who attended have lived in Merida, the lion’s share of their lives, and their husbands, except for youthful sojourns of short duration, have lived here forever.

I arrived in 1976, and it was 16 months before I ran into Lynne at Komesa, one of the few grocery stores we had at the time. I rejoiced! She was a Californian; I come from Vancouver. English was our native language. We missed our mothers and hated cockroaches. And THAT was more than enough to engender a life-long friendship. I wanted to hang onto her ankles and never let go.

But I digress… back to the party. What did we talk about last night? We lamented that our mothers and our mothers-in-law are either resting in peace or close to doing so. We brought one another up-to-date on the lives of our children… And yes, we talked about how much we still hate cockroaches.

We also commented on the huge number of people who have come from other countries in the past ten years. They have settled in Merida, and they call themselves “expats.”

The term has never been my favorite; I have always used “international resident”.

My online dictionary stresses that “expat” is an abbreviation. The proper word is: expatriate.

However in Merida, “expat” is commonly used, so for today, we’ll stick with it.

I have observed five basic types:

  1. Expats who blend in
  2. Expats who stick out
  3. Expats who hunker down
  4. Expats who are mover-shakers
  5. Expats who are chameleons


Blend In

Blend In expatriates arrive in Mexico, jump into a taxi or bus, and head to the market for local-style clothing. In restaurants, they order a regional dish, observe and then emulate the way the locals use tortillas to spoon food into their mouths. Within weeks, Blend In expats have learned the names of their neighbors and local shopkeepers. Their door is always open.

Blend In expats know they aren’t nationals and don’t pretend to be something they aren’t. But they are keen to adapt in every possible way. Their homes soon become an eclectic mix of local art and their home culture. A Blend In will set the dining room table with rustic textiles and Grandma’s fine china that she carted here bit by bit. Blend In expats rejoice at local success and weep when the country struggles.

They know blending takes effort. They adjust to different standards of dress, learn as much of the language as they can, and relinquish behaviors that don’t fit in with the new location. They are eager for challenges and treasure the personal growth that comes from succeeding in an unfamiliar setting.

Stick Outs

The Stick Outs are not known for their cultural sensitivity. The men can often be seen wearing baggy shorts and stretched-out T shirts, even at the Symphony. The women favor Capri pants and loose colorful blouses. Most of them are very into “happy hour,” and can be heard calling loudly down the supermarket aisles to one another, in English, when everyone else is conversing in Spanish. The Stick Outs say that Spanish is a “hard language”… they claim that after a certain age, the brain cannot absorb a lot of new words.

With the help of local English-speaking architects, lots of them have renovated an old colonial house. These places are full of Talavera tile and Frida Kahlo prints, but thank god, there is a Home Depot in town where they have been able to procure American-made bathroom and kitchen fixtures. They say they love Mexico and the Mexicans but don’t really socialize with them. They enjoy having a variety of “colorful” experiences but don’t attempt to integrate.

Many of the Stick Out expats moved to Mexico when they retired because their savings go much further here, especially with the current exchange rate. They don’t seem to realize that this is a different country. They want to live in Merida but don’t intend to modify their standards and don’t expect to be changed.

Hunker Down

Hunker-down expatriates are harder to find because they are “hunkered down” in restored colonial mansions, villas by the sea or expensive new high-rise apartments. They are here because their job or their spouse’s job sent them, and they are counting down the days until the ordeal is over and they can return to a “civilized place”.

Television and internet are lifelines to the Hunker Down expats. They know little about what’s going on in Mexico but they devour the news about what’s going on “at home”. Fear of the unknown, a distrust of the unfamiliar and distaste for a “sandy, sweaty lifestyle” makes leaving the confines of their home an ordeal.

“You shop in the market?” a Hunker Down once asked. “Don’t you worry you’ll get sick? Or hot? Or lost? Or cheated? I buy absolutely everything at Costco or Sams.”

When the Hunker Down expats accepted the move to Mexico, they prepared for a long, lonely existence. Rather than engage in the culture, they use their children, their cats, or their at-home projects as excuses to never leave their “refuge”.

The Mover-shakers

These expats seem to think it is their duty to save the Mexican culture from itself. They see local styles, customs and practices as “stone age” and they are bound and determined to introduce new and better business ethics, products and aesthetics.

The Mover-shaker expats are here to make money. The “untapped market” in Merida is ripe for innovation. Maybe it is, but is it necessary to “throw out the baby with the bath water”?

The Chameleon.

This is where I find myself.

I run around in capris, and I complain about the heat and humidity (a lot). When returning from a trip “home,” I pack a suitcase full of items I can’t find in Merida. I have acquired more than my fair share of Talavera and Frida memorabilia, and Grandma’s tea set sits proudly in my china cabinet. I waste too much time on-line, and use Skype to talk for hours with my far-away friends and family. I certainly enjoy a cocktail – or two. And believe me, if I could afford to restore a big old colonial mansion, own a villa by the sea or set myself up in an expensive new high-rise apartment, I would do so in a heartbeat. I am totally in favor of embracing comfort.

On the other hand, I speak Spanish. My husband is from Merida and our children grew up here. Over the years I have made many local friends. You may conclude that my situation is “completely different” from most other expats, but it isn’t… not really. I find myself immersed in the Yucatecan culture, but in no way have I shrugged off my own.

I love where I come from and I love the place I moved to. However, I realize that for all the gains I have made because I live in Yucatan, I have lost part of the intimate belonging to my home culture. Not quite fitting in is the price I must pay for having a foot in two cultures.

Local people look at me, and think: She’s not from here. The expat community has decided: She has lived here for so long, she isn’t quite like us. My family and friends in Canada say: She moved away a long time ago…

So I have become a chameleon, and I am not alone. People like me try to adapt to whatever situation presents itself. We are not always successful, but that’s OK too.

It’s all food for thought, I think… Now, what kind of “expat” are you?


Haciendas of Yucatan

Talk about the splendor of the past!

In its day, Uayalceh de Peon was one of the largest haciendas in Yucatan. I believe, one of the fifty-two that belonged to the Peon family. Hacienda Uayalceh processed 1,000,000 sisal spikes each week. Can you imagine that?

In 1763, Alonso Manuel Peon acquired 10,000 hectares of Yucatecan countryside, and the family estate was kept intact ( in fact, added to) until 1935 when the agrarian reform expropriated many of the vast holdings.

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The agrarian reform initiative, under President Lázaro Cárdenas, was meant to bring equality to the lives of the country people. Unfortunately, the government did not provide the technical assistance the farmers needed. The agricultural workers understood how to plant, harvest and process the henequen (sisal) but they did not understand the intricate crop and field rotation practices, or the marketing and sales aspects of the industry. This lack of skills and the introduction of synthetic fibers were the main causes of the decline of the henequen industry.

In 1983 the Banco de Crédito Rural Peninsular purchased the manufacturing plant at Hacienda Uayalceh and local families operated it until 2000. But today, even the machinery is gone. The Decauville train track that was laid down through the fields (in order to carry the harvested sisal leaves to operations center) has been torn up, and the rails lay stacked in a former corral. I suppose they will be sold as scrap iron.

I’m afraid that the principal residence, the manufacturing plant, and paddocks have deteriorated to the point of no return. Many of the floors are caved in and the walls are decrepit with mildew. Bat guano and cobwebs adhere to the beams of the 20 foot colonnade ceilings that surround the house.

The chapel, run down as it is, is still used on Sundays

Nonetheless, it is still obvious how marvelous this complex must have looked during the time when the sisal industry was at its peak.

Of course the splendid life was enjoyed by just a few families. The rest of Yucatan’s population was indentured labor.

The caretaker allowed Michael, Jorge and I to explore the buildings and grounds. Jorge and I have been to Uayalceh several times, but on each occasion we have been awed. It is a majestic place, and well worth a day trip.

Especially when combined with lunch at Hacienda Ochil.

Hacienda Ochil entrance
Hacienda Ochil entrance

The entrance to Hacienda Ochil is right across the highway from the turnoff to Abala (the road you take to Uayalceh)

Hacienda Ochil also dates from the XXVII century but it has been tastefully restored as a restaurant for families from Mérida, and travelers to the ruins of Uxmal and the Puuc route.

A niche in one of the workshops
A niche in one of the workshops

We also saw artisan workshops where souvenirs could be purchased, and a small but interesting museum, with relics and photos from the henequén era.

Jorge wants to ride too!
Jorge wants a ride too!

The old Decauville train tracks are intact, and the children seemed delighted, riding around in a wooden cart pulled by a small engine. We didn’t swim, but we saw a natural pool (like a cenote) where another bunch of kids were splashing around.

The swimming is behind the roots
The swimming is behind the roots

Our day excursion to the Uayalceh and Oxchil haciendas was the perfect follow-up to the night we spent at Uxmal.

If you live in Yucatan, avoiding the heat is a major focus. But this weekend showed me that climbing out of that rut is good for body and soul! Yes it is hot, but there are ways to cool down again and the excitement of seeing the sights, far outweighs the discomfort.

Indeed… we need to get out more often and enjoy the wonders, all around us, in Yucatan

Lord of all he surveys
Lord of all he surveys

And as my friend says… stay cool like the iguanas!

Alma Reed – Peregrina

The concept of duality is central to the Maya way of life. Balance must be maintained in all things – there can be no day without night, no good without evil, no heat without cold.

Jorge and Joanna 1976
Jorge and Joanna 1976

When I moved to Yucatan in 1976, embracing duality was paramount. I faced challenges, but I also enjoyed many benefits. One of these was frequent travel to the archaeological sites, and of them all, my favorite was Uxmal.

The splendid complex is located in the arid Puuc valley, but the hotel where we always stayed, the Hacienda Uxmal, was a lush green paradise. Indeed, examples of duality were everywhere!

Uxmal has a long history of hospitality. Back in the 1860s the Empress Carlota visited in the area. Explorers such as Stephens and Catherwood  documented Maya sites all through the Puuc valley. And later in 1923,  Alma Reed, the American journalist known as Peregrina  stayed at the working hacienda located about a kilometer from the site of the present-day Hotel Hacienda Uxmal.

The entrance to the Hotel Hacienda Uxmal
The entrance to the Hotel Hacienda Uxmal
The hotel's gardens are spectacular
The hotel’s gardens are spectacular

The Hotel Hacienda Uxmal was built by the Barbachano family in the 1950s and is still operated by Mayaland Resorts, their tourism-based business.

The hotel’s tasteful appointments, excellent service and delicious meals have attracted tourism for decades. The inn has also played host to world leaders, entertainment personalities and European royalty. Past guests include Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip of Great Britain and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

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For Fernando Barbachano – CEO of Mayaland Resorts and grandson of the founder – honoring the past is a passion. The lobby and hallways of the hotel are hung with historical posters that tell the remarkable story of the Hacienda Uxmal and surrounding area. I am told that a book is also planned. The hotel’s suites are named for illustrious former guests. La Suite Peregrina is the most recent addition.


Our friends, Michael Schuessler, author of the best-selling account of Alma Reed’s life, and his colleague, Sara Poot Herrera, a professor from UC Santa Barbara and founder of the FILEY, invited us to join them at the special commemorative event, organized by Don Fernando and the Mayaland’s Director of Cultural and Sustainable Tourism, Enrique Valdés García.

Revisiting a favorite place from our early years together seemed like a delightful idea… I knew there had been extensive renovation at the hotel, and I wondered what changes I would see. But happily, the property still retains its characteristic ambiance. The modifications are all positive: AC in the rooms, updated bathrooms, a larger pool and additional outdoor dining areas.

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After cutting the symbolic ribbon, we dined al fresco with Fernando Barbachano and his honored guests,including Merida’s historian, Gonzalo Navarette and the mayor of Muna.

This little guy woke us up!
This little guy woke us up!

After a solid sleep, Jorge and I awoke the next day to birdsong (or should I say bird tapping) and after breakfast and goodbyes to the rest of our group, we had the pleasure of showing Michael Schuessler, a few of our favorite places in the area.

More to come mañana!

Have you lost your nerve?

Driving is one of the topics I write about in my book Magic Made in Mexico. I state that a person should NOT drive in this country if they’ve lost their nerve. Well folks, I am starting to wonder if I have any left.

When I pull gingerly out of my garage, there are usually parked cars lining the entire street so the vision is lousy. Often, I am inched half way out and another car will barrel around the corner, nearly bashing me on the side. At a minimum he/she will give me a nasty look – sometimes they shake their fists or shout something obscene – and so begins my daily “drivers’ challenge”

On a drivers’ license exam there is usually a question similar to this:

  • If another car is passing you, you should:
  1. a) slow down
  2. b) speed up
  3. c) maintain the same speed?

It seems that most drivers on Merida’s roads these days think “b” is the correct answer.

There are many questions about traffic road signs, but there should be another question:

  • If the car ahead of you is attempting to enter the periferico (the ring road where every kind of motorized vehicle from put-put motorbikes to double semis are speeding along at 20 – 50 Kms above the posted limit) you should:
  1. wait your turn, then proceed with caution
  2. gun your motor and ram your car ahead, before the other driver gets his chance
  3. not pass, but blare your horn until the other car’s driver is so frazzled he leaps onto the periferico, even when it isn’t safe, causing the cars already there to swerve and invade other lanes.

“b” or “c” is NOT the best option, but it is what happens all the time. Driving the periferico scares the s _ _ t out of me.


road rage 2In many parts of Merida, road maintenance is not a priority. In the least expected places, you’ll encounter pot holes and – topes – speed bumps. Have you made acquaintance with the unpainted “tope maximo” between Chicxulub and Progreso, known as “The Berlin Wall”? I bet it is 15 inches high. Your car’s suspension will take a beating, no matter how slowly you try to cross over.

You need to watch out for drivers making left turns from the far right lane or right turns from the far left lane. Running stop signs and red lights is common, and you have to be constantly alert for the jaywalkers, who cross anywhere at anytime without regard for their own safety or that of others.

If you dare to change lanes, the driver behind you, even if he is way back, will probably try to blind you with his high beams (if it is night time) or lay hard on the horn (during the day) How could you be so “rude” as to get in front of him. The speed limit is a foreign concept and tailgating is the norm.

road rage 3Truck drivers and bus drivers will try to run you off the road. But the worst – the very worst – are the motor cycles. They are like a hoard of wasps buzzing on your left or on your right. It doesn’t matter to them. They seem to believe they are invincible. But I know if I hit one, the driver will be seriously injured, and so will his passenger (often a small child)

Bicycle riders are brazen, “flipping you the bird”, as they wobble in front of your car. The operators of those three wheeled carts, especially in the villages, totally disregard the lines of vehicles behind them. Why don’t they pull over once in a while and avoid the crazy passing that escalates about 10 cars back?

When a driver commits a blatant and flagrant traffic violation that almost causes you to have an accident, he/she will probably swear at you, as though you are at fault. In Spanish or English – Sí Señor – in Merida, I see gringos as well as locals, driving like swarming locusts.


Could I be more emphatic? The authorities need to take action to reverse the trend or more and more lives will be lost. As well, my nerves will be so shot I will be forced to give up driving and take buses and taxis everywhere.

Of course my bus or cab driver will likely be the type of driver that drove me to sell my car, but I’ll just have to sit tight, close my eyes, put in my earphones and swoon away with Enya, until I (hopefully) get where I am going.

FILEY 2015: Yucatan’s International Readers’ Fest

Only a complete recluse would fail to see that Merida is one of Mexico’s most culturally focused cities. There are dozens of venues that can easily accommodate large audiences, and during the past decade, both the state and municipal administrations have increased the frequency of musical and theatrical presentations. Many are free of charge or the admission is nominal. Our city also has an abundance of galleries, cultural centers, shops and parks. There are restaurants that serve every type of cuisine, as well as dance clubs, and street performances.

The writers' craft
The writers’ craft

Certainly there is no shortage of entertainment in “the white city.”

Writers and readers also thrive here. In 2013, the UADY – The Autonomous University of Yucatan – sponsored an event known by its acronym: FILEY, an international festival for book lovers.

FILEY opening ceremony
FILEY opening ceremony
Yucatan's governor and honored guests
Yucatan’s governor and honored guests

Nationally and internationally renowned journalists, essayists, novelists and historians like: Elena Poniatowska, Denise Dresser, Michael Schuessler, Rosa Beltran, and others arrived in our city to give keynote addresses, conferences, workshops and to participate in panel discussions.

Sara Poot and Elena Poniatowske
Sara Poot and Elena Poniatowske

As well, the FILEY provided an opportunity for emerging and established local writers to showcase their work.

At the publishers' fair
At the publishers’ fair

A publishers’ exposition was organized and Merida’s readers had the opportunity to see and buy books from more than 200 editorial houses from all over the country. The first FILEY was successful beyond anyone’s expectations, and the University of Yucatan made a commitment to hold the event annually.

School children participating
School children participating
Learning about using the five senses in writing
Learning about using the five senses in writing

An UADY team now works all year to plan the FILEY. However, no matter how much dedication the local organizers and volunteers are willing to give, the FILEY would never have come to be without a madrina – a godmother – who conceived, promoted, organized and loved it into being. That person is Dr. Sara Poot Herrera.

Eminently specialized in Mexican and Spanish American Literature, Sara is an internationally acclaimed authority of the life and work of the XVII C. Spanish colonial poet, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

Sara has written over one hundred publications, including books, book chapters and papers. Her articles about Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo, Elena Poniatowska, and others, have been published in both academic journals and popular magazines.

She has received prestigious awards for her investigation on Sor Juana and other women writers, Mexican culture, and theater, contemporary romance and short stories. Known as the initiator of the FILEY, she is also co-founder of the UC-Mexicanistas Association, an Intercampus Research Program of the University of California System.

Sara divides her time between her two academic positions at the UADY and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Her love for Yucatan and her devotion to her craft are evident in everything she does.

Last evening, Jorge and I attended the inauguration of La Casa de la Escritora – a retreat-like setting she has created in the garden of her home in Merida’s Santiago neighborhood. Once the FILEY has ended, I will ask her to give me more information about this project.

If you are a foreign resident of Merida, even if you do not speak Spanish, I think that attending the FILEY will help you to understand more about the vibrant city you now call home.

A complete calendar of events is available at the Siglo XXI Convention Center. FILEY events will be held there, from 11 am until 8 pm, until Sunday March 15th

*** Photos: All images of the FILEY are from local news sources

Writing and Intercultural Living…


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