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Destination: Mexico : Dancing in the Streets : After the party ends in Merida, the music never stops and the caterer keeps the great food coming

November 05, 1995|BARRY ZWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Zwick is a Times assistant news editor. and

MERIDA, Mexico — I had come to this graceful Spanish colonial capital because it was awash in flowers and bathed in art, because old men in white played guitars and marimbas in the city's parks, because the food was the best in Mexico.

How was I to know there was a party going on?

It was Carnival time in Merida, four days of pre-Lenten merrymaking. Mardi Gras with a touch of innocence. The streets were flooded with gold and silver balloons, tiny children snacked on corn, teen-agers flaunted taut bodies, men with weathered faces leaned against storefronts and clutched frosty bottles of Negro Modelo in their thick brown hands. Half a dozen pale American men in their 50s and 60s, on a tour for the newly sober, chain-smoked and gulped down coffee.

And then we heard the sirens. We jumped behind the barricades and cleared the streets. The parade was coming.

For two hours, I watched a dazzling show of energy, beauty and infectious music. The street overflowed with sequins, sparkles, flowers, floats and thousands of magnificently costumed dancers. No one stood still. The dancers laughed, preened and blew kisses. They threw candy, ice cream, soft drinks, fruit juice, water bottles, corn chips, toys, lipstick and tampons. Once I was hit in the head, and a liquid that tasted like bubble gum ran down my shirt and pants. But hey, this was Carnival.

After the last float passed by, we jumped the barricades and thronged the streets. Tens of thousands of us snaked toward the zoocalo , the central plaza, the eternally beating heart of the city. Dancers mingled with us, taking compliments and showing off their costumes. The male dancers drank bottles of Montejo beer; the female dancers kissed little shawled men on the tops of their heads.

Musicians assembled in Parque Santiago, a few blocks from the parade route, and drumbeats shook the city. The music was festive, and exotic to foreign ears, but the musicians, knowing Americans were in the crowd, sang out, "Hot, Hot, Hot!"

From as far away as the Hyatt Regency, uptown from the zocalo, revelers echoed back, "Ole, ole, ole, ole!"

*

Merida may seem like an odd spot for a party. It rests on a flat plain, in a steamy state with no lakes or rivers. You'll find no dense rain forests here. What you will find is a city of painters, of planters, of people who turned to the worship of beauty, beauty that they themselves created. Where scrub once ruled, a garland of parks now rings the city.

Merida is laid out in a tidy grid of numbered streets. Even-numbered streets run north and south; odd-numbered streets run east and west. You can't get lost. Though the city has nearly 1 million people, the tourist's Merida is a walkable village. In four days here last March, I never needed a taxi.

(Merida's landscaped terrain, infrastructure and services were "completely untouched" by hurricanes Opal and Roxanne last month, according to Jorge Gamboa, regional director of the Mexican Government Tourism Office in Beverly Hills and a native of Merida.)

The zocalo is the city's village green, the sprawling front yard of the 16th-Century complex of cathedral, city hall and governor's palace. Under spreading laurel trees, villagers sit on confidenciales --benches shaped like S's so friends can face each other and gossip quietly. If you live in Merida, the zocalo is where you hold hands with your beloved, teach your babies to walk, buy drinks of guava and papaya juice, laugh at puppet shows and duck to avoid the priest.

A typical Mexican plaza? Not exactly. While many zocalos smell like lard and diesel fumes, Merida's smells like oranges and plumeria, Yucatan's cousin to frangipani. I never heard the blare of a mariachi band at the zocalo, never saw a taco or a painting of baby Jesus on black velvet. No prostitutes hustled me, no one tried to shine my shoes. No barefoot little girls tried to sell me Chiclets.

The Yucatan peninsula, making up the states of Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatan --of which Merida is the capital--has long been the Other Mexico. It was the last area to be conquered by the Spaniards, the last to accept Catholicism, the last to speak Spanish. Yucatan seceded from Mexico twice during the early 19th Century and rose up against Mexican rule in 1847 in an insurrection so bloody that ultimately half its Mayan inhabitants were killed.

The rebels raided the cathedral and stole its art treasures, leaving it oddly barren inside, in contrast to Merida's other gleaming Spanish colonial monuments, built around central courtyards dense with palms and giant ferns and rich in murals and statuary.

Like most visitors to Merida, I was using the city as a base of operations for day trips to the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and Uxmal. And as much as I loved climbing pyramids, I still looked forward every day to the soaring Spanish architecture, the Moorish arches, the dense gardens and the spirit of joy in Merida.

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