OFF THE TOURIST TRAIL IN CAMPECHE
I'm sitting with friends at an open-air restaurant, sipping coffee and listening to people chatting in Spanish at neighbouring tables. Pots of bright yellow marigolds, heads nodding in the breeze, fringe the patio, and the slant of sun across the stone flagged courtyard lends a sense of leisure, warmth, lassitude. It is my first day in Campeche, Mexico and I'm savouring the unhurried hours.
Campeche's historic old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is contained within an octagonal border of white-washed walls with gates at the four points of the compass. Were it not for the presence of traffic nosing past rows of tightly parked cars, it would be easy to imagine that I am back in the 17th century walking along these narrow lanes, the sunlight throwing octagonal shadows across the walls of Spanish-style houses painted vivid blue, red, green and yellow, and where the clop of horses' hooves ring out against the cobbled streets.
Yet, back then all was not quite so tranquil. The Spanish having subdued the indigenous Mayan population, were complacent in their enjoyment of the good life – lush surroundings, fertile land, balmy weather. They were to be shaken out of their easygoing lifestyle as marauding pirates swept across the town, pillaging, raping and killing. Alarmed, the Spanish settlers turned Campeche into a fortified city with battery equipped forts, two of which are open to visitors.
We explore one of them: the Fort of San Miguel where cannons along the battlement overlook the sea. The rooms in the Fort which housed soldiers and army officers, now offer a display of Mayan artifacts – mainly sculptures of Mayan men and women, with their squat physiques and stubby limbs. Some are squint-eyed, a much prized mark of comeliness. Their descendents, though often of mixed Spanish and Mayan descent, are also diminutive in stature, have high bridged noses and flattened cheeks.
Campeche's Spanish heritage is on display in Casa #6 a Moorish style house situated by the town square. It offers glimpses into the lifestyle of a well-to-do family in the early part of the 20th century. A passageway with slate tile flooring, marble columns and stained glass arches encircles an open patio, and doors leading off from here take us to bedrooms, living rooms, a spacious dining room and kitchen. We peer at old photographs, water colour paintings, period furniture and elaborate china vases. An evening gown with a flounced skirt is displayed in the master bedroom; wearing this in torrid 38o Celsius temperatures in summer must have been an ordeal.
We drop by the town's zocalo (town square) – a pleasant green space with shady trees sheltering wrought-iron benches. There aren't many people about: a couple on a bench hold hands, the girl exchanging flirtatious smiles with her boyfriend, a tiny Mayan woman offers passers by a few trinkets, and two women, carrying shopping bags chat as they board a nearby trolley car. There isn't a single foreign tourist in sight.
Later that night, the zocalo is livelier. Local families have gathered to watch a series of dramatic images and music depicting the essence of Campeche – its history, its celebrations, and its traditions – projected across the facade of an adjacent building. Larger-than-life scenes and characters dance across the screen that stretches across an entire block. I am held spellbound till the last image and music fades out.
I join friends on a shopping trip to the local meat and produce market, a far cry from our sanitized Canadian supermarkets where meat is packaged in Saran wrap, and vegetables are tidily stacked in bins. Here carcasses of de-feathered, pimply-skinned chickens and joints of beef hang from skewers; several varieties of fish, slashed and bloody, lie on slabs, and raw prawns the size of my fist sit in tubs. Fruit stalls are stacked with ripe mangoes, papayas and cantaloupes. Vendors and customers haggle vociferously, and throngs of people fill the narrow aisles.
A retreat from the stress of modern city life, Campeche offers simple joys: strolls along the town's malecon, a broad boulevard flanking the seawall, where I pause to watch boats bobbing at anchor and fishermen selling their catch of the day. There's the tranquility of evening as the sun dips below the rippled sea and the sky turns mauve in the afterglow. As dusk envelops the town, lights twinkle along the malecon and the night is filled with lap of water against the seawall and the distant sound of guitars wafting out of a seafront restaurant.
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PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts
1. A narrow cobbled street in the historic old city of Campeche
2. A squint-eyed Mayan mask displayed in the Fort St. Miguel gallery
3. Mayan artifacts on display at the Fort St. Miguel
4. A fisherman sells his freshly caught fish by the side of the malecon (seafront boulevard)
5. A Spanish lady's formal gown on display in Casa #6
6. An elaborate porcelain plant stand in the formal living room at Casa #6
7. One of the images that flash past the audience at the amazing sound and light show staged in the zocalo.
8. A Mayan woman sells her produce in the marketplace.
9. Chickens for sale
10. The fish market
11. Sunset on the malecon
12. Dusk falls on Campeche
13. Dining alfresco in Campeche
14. Mayan ladies posing in their traditional hand-made turnós, (tunic and skirt)
15. Smiling for my camera in her hand-embroidered jubónTravel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.TravelWritersTales.com
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