In Merida we stayed with Jorge the architect. He is a single, middle-aged guy – extremely nice (like extremely). It was his first foray into Couchsurfing and he was a great host. He had a spare apartment in his house with a big clean bed. After days in the jungle in Chiapas with mosquito nets and staying in ramshackle hotels at seedy Gulf towns, we were overjoyed to have a clean space all to ourselves. When Jorge got off work which was usually pretty late, around 9 or 10pm, he would still muster up the energy to take us around the city. We fell in love with the colonial architecture and wide boulevards of Merida. The main avenida which runs north-south through the city has some phenomenal mansions with beautiful gardens running along it. Around the start of the 19th century, Merida was one of the world’s wealthiest cities due to the henequen plant, the fiber of which was used to make rope and clothing. We were really taken by Merida also for the amenities it has to offer. There are numerous restaurants (like trendy restaurants – not just street stalls with plastic chairs and tables). There are huge, richly decorated malls with fountains and stores selling things that first-worlders would actually want or need. There was a Costco just two blocks from Jorge’s casa. We went to see what they had but unfortunately couldn’t afford to shop there. The prices, as well as the merchandise, is almost identical to the stores in Canada. (That perfect Monsanto corn they sell freaks the crap outta me.) Luckily we had Jorge as a guide and he took us to all the best places; the oldest ice cream parlour in town, the spot to play pool, and to some amazing traditional restaurants. I can say without prejudice that Jorge was one of our most thorough hosts in conveying the culture, cuisine and experiences of his region. We also we thrilled to have the opportunity to walk Jorge’s three adorable, if spirited, beagles while we stayed with him.
Running north from Merida is the flattest, straightest, best maintained road in the entire country. A half hour driving brings you to a small seaside town called Progresso. Progresso is famous for having the longest pier in the country running 6.5 km from shore due to the shallow coast. It is a major seaport for all of southern Mexico and beyond, hence the pristine highway leading to it. Beyond the pier is a charming, throwback beach town with lots of character. There is a paved main road which runs parallel to the coast and the other roads are sand and gravel. There are some shops and quaint restaurants along the main drag and the rest of the town are humble concrete block homes. Even the homes along the ocean are owned by Mexican families. Many are rented to tourists during the winter months but the town is not at all overrun by tourists – neither Mexi’s nor gringos. The town is still exceptionally Mexican despite its coastal locale and scenic beauty. We discovered Progresso through trying to track down some volunteer work in the area. Similar to Chiapas, the vast majority of voluntario opportunities offered were by NGO’s who rely on volunteers who pay to play. I have never been interested in funding organizations monetarily if I am offering my time and skills to their cause. During our search we learned about a woman from Winnipeg that lives in Progresso and is involved in a multitude of projects for the community. It didn’t sound as if she ran her own NGO but rather that she just informally helped out in her community. She runs a food bank that regularly distributes food to needy families. She helps to run the seniors home by recruiting other ex-pats to volunteer and solicits donations to handle the facilities maintenance. Unfortunately, when I contacted her by e-mail she said she was just leaving to go back to Winnipeg for two months and wouldn’t be around while we were there. She did, however, let me know about a baseball program for the kids which she also helps with.
We got all the information and drove up to Progresso from Merida super early on Saturday morning to meet up with John and Bonnie from Toronto who were running the program in the interim. They met us just outside town and took us to the field where a group of Mexican children varying in ages from 5 to 15, were warming up. They looked very sharp in their matching uniforms and when I looked closer, I saw that the front of the jerseys read, “High Park Little League.” This was my little league team when I was a kid in Toronto! How funny. John and Bonnie had solicited some old jerseys from the league for the kids in Mexico. I tried to decipher whether these might have been a jersey year that I would have worn. We helped the kids warm up. Tanya worked with some of the toddlers showing them how to catch and I hit some balls into the outfield. The game was pretty mishmash and I could see that many of these kids would be tough to coach when they started yelling and getting ornery when we tried to separate them into two teams. Some of the kids wanted to stay together and it turned into a bigger deal than such a minor imposition would have warranted back home. Obviously the behavior of poor Mexican youngsters with numerous siblings and few opportunities is going to be drastically different to kids from a middle class urban neighbourhood in Toronto. But when the game finally started, I was really impressed with the skills of the kids. They were certainly rough around the edges, considering baseball isn’t a super popular sport in Mexico, but they showed incredible athletic ability and instincts. I was coaching out near second base and watched as a kid about 8 or 9, although sloppy, managed to turn a double play. Everyone seemed to be having a really good time, but unfortunately, due to approaching midday sun, the kids started begging off after each side had been up to bat just once. I guess it is tough to motivate dedication in 40C heat. For me, being back on a baseball diamond, I was prepared to play all day if the kids wanted. After baseball, John and Bonnie invited us back to the beach front house that they rent for 6 months during the winter. We sat around the pool, took a dip in the ocean as the sun went down and then helped to prepare an amazing home cooked meal. John and Bonnie were great company. We also got to meet some of their friends at the local pub later in the night. All super down to earth folks some of whom had been coming to Progresso for 20 years or more. I felt like the ex-pats here had really cultivated a sense of community with the locals and were not just flying in for cheap drinks and a beach and then flying out again.
We fell in love with this whole area and after having travelled through a good portion of the country, I could see us making this a regular vacation spot. Real estate in Progresso, even on the ocean is incredibly affordable. The town isn’t overrun by gringos yet like the other handsome beaches throughout the country and it is still definitely Mexico but without the trash and crumbling buildings of the busy, squalid Mexico tourist towns. The proximity to Merida is great for amenities, culture and for some excitement when life on the beach gets too boring. There are also tons of Mayan ruins nearby including Palenque and the magnificently preserved Chichen Itza just a 2 hour drive away. Also throughout the Yucatan Peninsula are hundreds of geographic formations called cenotes. Cenotes are craters caused by a pre-historic meteor shower. Many have filled up with groundwater and make incredible subterranean swimming holes. It is also widely speculated that the gigantic meteor which caused the ice age hit somewhere close to Progresso. Apart from Jorge, John and Bonnie, we met some incredible people in this part of Mexico. I found people to be extremely helpful, friendly and educated. There is also a moratorium on violence here. According to Jorge, the Narcos have declared Merida and its surrounds as a no operating zone and many of the narcos have thusly moved their families here.
On my ride from Merida to Chichen Itza, my bike inexplicably ran out of gas. I should have still had another 70 km worth of petrol in the tank but the bike just stopped dead. Maybe I hadn’t filled it right to the top at my last petrol stop. Anyway, I was panicking being on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere and unable to leave my bike because of my luggage strapped to it. I could see an overpass across the highway in the distance so I took off my helmet and jacket and started pushing my bike hoping to at least find some shade. You won’t even believe what happened. Within five minutes I saw a BMW 1200GS motorcycle shoot past me. The rider saw me in distress and immediately pulled over to the shoulder to wait for me to reach him. When I got to his bike, I explained that I’d somehow run out of gas. The man, who was from Merida said he was heading to Tulum for the weekend with his girlfriend who was riding pillion. He said the next gas station wasn’t for another 40km but he would run ahead, get gas and bring it back for me. I was gob smacked. What a generous, unselfish thing to do especially when you on your way for a romantic weekend away. I thanked the pair, who both spoke English, profusely and propped myself up on my backpack with a book in the shadow of the overpass to wait. In about an hour the pair returned with an old 4 liter coolant bottle of gas. I tried to offer the guy 200 pesos for the gas and his trouble but he wouldn’t hear it. He said, it was his pleasure and that he’d been there before too. Then he jotted down his e-mail address and said if I ever needed anything during my time in Mexico, I was welcome to phone him. What a standup guy. I hate to belabor the point, but seriously, what’s the likelihood of something like that happening in Canada – and within just five minutes of getting stranded. Chalk up another point for Mexico.