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Hunting for Hammocks in Tixkokob

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On paper, it sounded like a foolproof plan. Pop over to nearby Tixkokob, find someone who makes hammocks, snap a few pictures, head home. In and out, 60 minutes max. But it turns out that despite Tixkokob’s status as Mérida’s “Hammock Central,” it’s not all that easy to find someone making them.

Hammocks are an essential part of life in the Yucatán. The majority of locals sleep in them, and not just for a short afternoon siestas, but every single night. In fact, we met a couple people who claim to have never slept in a bed at all. Yucatecans swear by the health benefits of hammocks, which are supposed to be especially good for the spine.

We had already bought ourselves a nice, cotton hammock and now we wanted to see one being produced, so we went to Tixkokob and found its hammock factory. But after a frustrating discussion with its unaccountably paranoid manager, we were refused entrance. Strike One.

That was alright, a factory might have been fun but it wouldn’t have offered the kind of romantic images we were really looking for. So we went back into town and found a small hammock shop. The guy working there explained that his hammocks are handcrafted by neighborhood women, but he refused to give us one of their addresses. That’s totally legit, but still: Strike Two.

Undaunted, we returned to Tixkokob’s main square with another plan: hire some local kid. Soon enough, we met Fernando and had taken seats in the back of his trico. “My whole family makes hammocks, so you picked the right guy!” And now began a ridiculous tour of Tixkokob. His hammock-making cousin wasn’t home (Strike Three). His hammock-wizard aunt wasn’t home (Strike Four). His friend the hammock-master had just finished one and wasn’t about to start another (Strike Five). Another aunt had a hammock half-done there in her courtyard, but was eating and wouldn’t let us in (Strike Six).

Eventually, we ended up at the house of his great aunt. She was busy grinding corn into pozole and when Fernando explained what we were looking for, she went into her house, dragged out a giant loom with a half-completed hammock, grabbed her shuttle and started weaving. Perfect! I turned to give Fernando a thumbs-up, but he was already snoozing away. In a hammock, of course.

It had been a difficult day, but also a lot of fun. At the very least, we got to know every square inch of Tixkokob. If you want to undertake a similar quest, skip the factory and the stores, and seek out Fernando. He (or another guy with six thousand hammock-making aunts) will probably be hanging out in the main square.

Location of Tixkokob on our Map

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February 16, 2014 at 2:54 pm Comments (3)

The Hats of Bécal

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The statue of two monumental Panama hats which reigns supreme in the center of Bécal’s main plaza is strange, but leaves little doubt as to the town’s claim to fame. Found about an hour south of Mérida, Bécal is best known for its traditional hats made of jipi.

Hats Becal

We made a day trip to Bécal in order to see how the hats are made. The jipi is a type of palm tree from Guatemala. Here in the Yucatán, the weather is much drier and hotter than in the Guatemalan highlands, leaving the jipi fibers too brittle to weave into hats. To work around this, the artisans of Bécal work their magic in both natural and man-made caves, most often found in their backyards.

It took no time at all for us to find one of these caves. A foreign face in Bécal usually means just one thing, and we quickly had people offering to introduce us to their hat-making friends. Minutes after stepping off the bus, we were crouched inside an artificial cave in some guy’s yard, watching him weave a child-size hat.

The thinner the fiber, the higher quality of the hat, and the best require over two weeks to finish. It was fun to watch his fingers weave strand over strand with incredible speed and dexterity. After he had shown us how it’s done, we followed him into his shop. I’m not the kind of guy who can successfully pull off a Panama hat, and they weren’t all that cheap, but we bought one anyway. We kind of had to.

Location on our Map

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February 3, 2014 at 11:42 pm Comments (0)

The Legend of the Makech

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Jürgen and I aren’t the types to spend much time thinking about jewelry. Neither of us owns a single piece, not a ring nor a bracelet, and I very rarely notice the jewelry worn by others. But when the piece in question is a living beetle, it’s a little hard to ignore.

The Yucatan Makech

The Makech is the strangest fashion item we’ve ever seen. These large beetles, found only in the Yucatán Peninsula, have broad shells that can be decorated with gemstones. They feed on sporophores which grow on a specific type of wood endemic to the Yucatán, and can live for up to eight months. Attached to a golden chain, they’re worn as pendants by Maya women and kept as pets.

According to legend, a Maya princess was destined to marry the prince of a neighboring kingdom, but instead fell in love with a noble warrior from her own village. Enraged, her father announced his intention to kill the warrior. The fear-stricken young woman wailed, and pleaded with the king for the life of her beloved. If he were spared, she swore, she would willingly marry the prince as had originally been the plan.

The king listened to his sobbing daughter and consoled her. Her handsome warrior would live. And the promise was kept… in a way. A wizard was called in and, before the eyes of the court, turned the handsome young man into a wretched beetle. Horrified, the princess scooped him into her hands and ran off to her room. She adorned the beetle with the most beautiful jewels she could find and placed him on her breast, so he would always be near her heart.

The Makech is a custom on its way out. Today, it’s exceptionally rare to see women actually wearing one, and finding a store which sells them can be tricky. We asked around Mérida’s Mercado de Artesanias, on Calle 65/58, and eventually tracked down a shop that had a few richly-decorated makeches stumbling around a little cage. I held one briefly. They’re quite large and powerful, and I couldn’t imagine it crawling around my chest all day, even if it were my lost beloved.

Location of the Mercado de Artesanias

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The Yucatan Makech
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February 3, 2014 at 6:01 pm Comments (3)

The Casa de Los Venados

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The largest privately-held collection of modern Mexican art in Mexico can be found in the home of John and Dorianne Venator, in Valladolid. The couple have been indulging their passion for over 35 years and have packed their house, one of the city’s most historic properties, with over 3000 individual pieces.

Casa de Los Venados

Casa de los Venados, or “Home of the Deer”, is both a play on the Venator surname and a nod to the importance of the animal to the region and to the ancient Maya. Though this is a private home, the Venators open it daily at 10am for tours. They’re originally from Chicago, but after John made a fortune as the CEO of a non-profit organization, they chose to settle down in Mexico.

The villa is found just meters away from Valladolid’s main plaza, and stepping inside can be a shock to the system. Almost every conceivable inch of wall and floor space is occupied by a piece of contemporary Mexican art. The famous skeleton figure of the catrina makes frequent appearances, as does Frida Kahlo (not her works, but her likeness). There are amazing chandeliers, one-of-a-kind paintings commissioned by the Venators, strange pieces of furniture and colorful modern sculptures. I half expected to peer around the backyard and see a team of enslaved artists working on new pieces.

The Venators made sure to grace our tour with their presence, so that they could point out their latest purchases and tell us about upcoming acquisitions. They don’t seem to be pausing their obsession anytime soon, so if you’ve got a sweet tooth for Mexico’s colorful modern art, don’t pass up the chance to peek inside the doors of their one-of-a-kind house.

Location on our Map

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January 30, 2014 at 6:29 pm Comments (0)
Hunting for Hammocks in Tixkokob On paper, it sounded like a foolproof plan. Pop over to nearby Tixkokob, find someone who makes hammocks, snap a few pictures, head home. In and out, 60 minutes max. But it turns out that despite Tixkokob's status as Mérida's "Hammock Central," it's not all that easy to find someone making them.
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