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Mérida's Moment

Over the next week, Powell and his partner, Josh Ramos, become more friends than guides. They invite me to their house, an oasis inside a battered exterior, just south of the city center. (I am struck by the beauty of its old polished-concrete floor tiles in exuberant Moorish patterns, as common in Mérida dwellings as linoleum is in American basements. The ever-resourceful Powell offers to take me to a factory in Ucu where the tiles are still made.) We barge in on other B&B operators, Southerners who could be characters in a comic novel in the style of Evelyn Waugh. Powell even takes me to the doctor. I'm not sick and he doesn't currently practice medicine, but Dr. Roberto Guzmán, another antiques dealer, is a tonic nonetheless. He invites me to his mother's house in the prosperous neighborhood of García Ginerés for a holiday party, where the men smoke cigars on the terrace and the women sit inside sipping coffee. We drink Cokes—what else?—from glasses brought on a silver tray. Dr. Guzmán asks if I will be ringing in the new year in Mérida and tells me about two longstanding New Year's Eve traditions in Mexico.

The first is to eat 12 grapes, one for each stroke of midnight, for good luck in the coming year. The second insures even more good luck: "On New Year's Eve," the good doctor informs me, "everyone wears red underwear."

When I prowl the flea market in Santa Lucía Square, just north of the Plaza Grande, I look for red boxers and find Dr. Guzmán, who has a stall there. I snap up four sterling silver-and-glass highballs from him for 150 pesos ($15). In another corner of the square, a band plays onstage for couples of all ages, until a teenage girl in tight white jeans gets up and belts out "I Will Survive" to a recorded track. I purchase her CD, which she signs: "Con todo mi amor para David, su amiga, Tania Dinarzade" ("With all my love to David, your friend, Tania Dinarzade," with stars instead of dots over the i's in her name). I run into Deborah La Chappelle, a friend of Powell's (he really does know everyone), who directs me to a stand where a woman named Sabrina sells panuchos (bean-stuffed turkey tacos), salbutes (soft turkey tacos), and Coke.

The cuisine in Mérida is irresistible, influenced by Mayan, Caribbean, and Spanish cuisines and fired with habaneros, chiles so hot they make a jalapeño taste like a cucumber. At Powell's urging, I try elote, an ice cream made with corn and guanábana, a fruit that looks like a hairy radioactive pickle but tastes as sweet as a mango. At Wayané, a tiny stand in the Itzimná district, we wash down tacos with a barley drink called agua de cebada, possibly the sweetest, lumpiest digestif in the world; later, we dine by candlelight at Néctar, a lounge-style bistro with Mexican-Asian fusion dishes such as Vietnamese taquitos and duck chimichangas. Fortunately, the kitchen has run out of huitlacoche, a delicacy that Powell insists I try. And that would be?

"Corn smut," he says. "It's a fungus, like a mushroom."

"Más tarde," I reply.

Despite all our efforts, neither Powell, Ramos, nor I have been able to find a restaurant that serves the traditional Christmas dish of pavo en relleno negro (blackened-chile turkey). I tell them that I will prepare this for them before I go, which seems like an extravagant thank-you. But they don't know that I have enrolled in a one-day course at Los Dos, Mérida's first Yucatecan cooking school, which has two guest rooms for rent and is located in the lavish colonial residence of David Sterling. Though he is semiretired as an art director, Sterling is no culinary dilettante. In his blue-and-white-tiled kitchen, he holds forth on the history of Yucatecan cooking techniques. The menu runs from crema de cilantro soup to a salad made of jicama and pepinos, and, of course, the turkey. When the bird is finally stuffed with ground pork and a boiled egg, I offer to do the trussing, unaware that he has no needle to draw the strings through the bird. (If you have ever contemplated sewing a turkey shut using a nut pick, I have one suggestion: Don't.)

By the time the turkey goes in the oven, I have lost my appetite. It will take a siesta before I can face the fiesta. I leave word with my instructor that I will join the party más tarde. The dinner is a stunning success. My teacher proclaims me "best in class" for turkey trussing and grants me a second serving of caballeros ricos, a chocolate bread pudding.

The next day, I depart for the Hacienda Petac, a half-hour drive on bumpy roads from the center of Mérida. As serene as the city is bustling, it is a nearly 100-acre compound with 17th-century pink buildings sporting curvaceous Moorish arches that have been beautifully restored by a Texan couple, Chuck and Dev Stern. "Even in the terrible state we found it in, we could tell Petac was a jewel," Chuck Stern tells me. They hired Salvador Reyes Rios, a Mexico City-based architect and historic-restoration expert, who added water features and a game room decorated with graffiti and machine parts from the hacienda's former sisal processing factory.

Petac is designed as a vacation villa and is rented, complete with meals and a staff of 16, to groups of up to 10 people. I spend three delightful days there as the sole guest, acclimating easily to the hot days and cool nights and the warmth of the staff, including one local woman who is also the sheriff of Petac. My room, originally a threshing facility for sisal, has ceilings that soar to nearly 30 feet and a carved wooden bed that could comfortably sleep three. Over meals of pork poc chuc and pumpkin pudding, Nancy Lara, the manager, instructs me in the Yucatecan dialect. I must make my vowel sounds last longer, she says, and speak aporreado (with strength).

Powell picks me up at Petac one morning in a battered jeep to tour the area. Fortified with Mexican pastries, we climb a ruin undergoing reconstruction at Acancéh, as a boom box somewhere nearby blasts out Eminem. We visit Izamal, a village known for its yellow buildings and the convent of San Antonio de Padua, which has one of the largest cloistered courtyards in North America. There, we are met by Paula Haro, a cultural emissary from Banamex, which, as part of its community development initiatives, helps native artisans build their trade. It has also established an Izamal art crawl, the more grandly titled "Rutas y Paseos de Artesanos y Fiestas." Haro leads us to a horse-drawn carriage, our transport for the tour.

Despite the language barrier—my Spanish is bad, but my Mayan is non-existent—the people of Izamal are as welcoming as Méridans, who have clearly seen more of the benefits of tourism. We meet a wiry man of indeterminate age and unbelievable strength who carves wagon wheels out of cedro, a local cedar. In a dirt-floored workshop on the other end of town, a husband-and-wife couple polishes nuts from the cocoyol tree to create deep-brown beads for jewelry. Our last stop is a small house that sells herbal teas in the living room and has a piñata factory in the yard.

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