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ourpercyPOINSETTIA: THE AMERICAN CHRISTMAS FLOWER

Most flowers, herbs, and plants used at Christmas are associated with very ancient celebrations. In those years before blooms could be airlifted to brighten our bleak mid-winters, the presence of a colorful , growing plant in dark December seemed miraculous, and therefore many stories and tales grew up around these plants. Think of holly (Christ Thorn), ivy (ivy clings, as people should cling to a religion) and mistletoe (used by the Druids as a plant with good luck powers, and as a sign of love in Norse mythology).

But the poinsettia is a much newer addition, the New World’s contribution to Christmas.

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Note the small green flowers in the center

In 1825, Joel Roberts Poinsett of South Carolina, a diplomat who was the first American minister to Mexico, was intrigued with the brilliant red “flowers” topping spindly shrubs all over the country. (The “flowers” are actually brightly-colored bracts, or specialized leaves, which attract pollinating insects to the hidden, tiny green flowers). The local people called them “flame flowers” or “flowers of the Holy Night” because they were used as decorations in Mexican Nativity processions. These flowers, native to Mexico, were known even to the Aztecs, who regarded them as a gift from the gods and called them Cuetlaxochitl.

Dr. Poinsett was an enthusiastic botanist and he sent cuttings home for his greenhouse and to share with friends. They belong to the Euphorbiaceae or spurge family. The botanical name for poinsettia is Euphorbia pulcherrima (in Latin pulchra means ‘beautiful’, so this means ‘most beautiful’).

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Light yellow

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Coral with cream edges

About a hundred years later, Paul Ecke of California saw these plants and began to cultivate, interbreed, and experiment with them. The Ecke family built up a thriving business, which supplies thousands of growers around the world with cuttings that produce millions of holiday plants each year.

We can now enjoy red, pink, white, yellow, and marbled colors to brighten the holiday season. Pointsettias can range from miniatures in pots, to 10 to 15 feet tall trees in tropical and sub-tropical countries, like Mexico. I remember tall poinsettia trees in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) when we were growing up.

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Trees–hard to imagine when we buy our pots here!

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Shrubs

Pointsettias are not poisonous to people, but some people have a skin reaction to the milky sap. Also it’s best to keep pets from eating them, as the leaves can cause gastric reactions.

December 12 is Poinsettia Day, to mark the death of Joel Roberts Poinsett in 1851. Interestingly, in Mexico December 12 is the Dia de la Vergen (Day of the Virgin Mother) and on that day pointsettias are also displayed.

On one of our Christmas CDs we have a quirly song called “Percy the Puny Pointsettia” by Elmo and Patsy, so now our family tends to call all our poinsettia plants Percy! But, mostly they are not puny, and in fact one of our daughter’s Percys stayed alive for about 3 years in a pot in her house. A fun new tradition!

 

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We saw many pelicans

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Merida has many interesting street signs

waterBEACH, BIRDS, AND BYGONE CITY

If you don’t fancy the crowds along the Maya Riviera, on the Caribbean coast south of Cancun, Mexico, a great alternative is to use Merida as a base. This pretty Colonial city on the northwest of the Yucatan Peninsula is within easy distance of many famous Mayan sites (Chichen Itza and the Puuc Route, with Uxmal), the northern biosphere, and good sand beaches.

On this daytrip, we went to Progresso for the beach, the sea, and the sun; to Uaymintun

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Progresso beach

for the lagoon and flamingo viewing; to Xtambo for a Mayan ruin and more flamingoes. We returned to Merida on side roads, passing through typical small Yucatecan villages.

We decided on this as an alternative to flamingo viewing at the Celestun Park to the west. On a previous visit to Celestun we felt concerned at how the tourist boats on the estuary are disturbing the birds, especially the flamingoes. Another plus—this way is free.

We drove north out of Merida on Paseo Montejo, noting the richer colonial side of the city, with wide streets, mansions and shopping complexes, and even a Sams Club!

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Part of the lagoon—if you look closely there are a few flamingoes there

Progresso, Merida’s port, is about a 30-minute drive, past a huge abandonned henequin factory (which produced ropes, mats etc), evidence of the previous wealth from this crop; and Dzibilchaltun, another ruined Mayan city with an excellent museum of Mayan history. It’s a worthwhile stop if you’re interested in the Maya. The site also has the famous House of the Seven Dolls, and an interesting cenote (steep-sided natural well.)

Progresso has progressed, compared to our visit four years before. Parking is plentiful along the esplanade, rebuilt after the hurricane a few years ago. All the usual tourist facilities line the esplanade, in a scaled-down version compared to the Caribbean coast, and we found it much more pleasant. A wide sand beach, with beach chairs, palapa huts, and beach restaurants, looks out over the calm blue water, tiny waves lapping.

After a swim, and lunch at one of the beach restaurants, we headed out east along the

flamingo

Beautiful birds

coastal road, palm trees on one side, stubby salt-flats bush on the other. There’s a string of development in the narrow strip between the sea and the biosphere, mostly brightly-painted houses, some holiday flats and hotels.

We followed the coastal road to Uaymintun, a small village with a tall wooden lookout tower over the lagoon; a great way to see part of the lagoon and biosphere preserve and do bird-watching, especially with binoculars. (The lookout tower is free, but you can rent binoculars there). The biosphere extends for hundreds of kilometers: lagoons, shallow lakes and waterways with small islands and mud flats. Scores of flamingoes were walking in the shallow water, many still bright pink even though this wasn’t nesting season. We saw many other birds too, including pelicans.

A few miles further on, the sign for Xtambo ruins is on the right. The drive is along a miles-long causeway over the lagoon with views of an amazing number of birds, especially flamingoes. The road is not busy, so stopping is easy. What a marvelous place for viewing and photographing birds in their natural environment: pelicans, oyster catchers, sandpipers, cormorants, white herons, blue herons, turkey buzzards.

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Xtambo

Xtambo ruins are just off to the right after the lagoon, along a narrow dirt road between tall grasses and stubby trees, swampy areas just to the side. The name means “place of the crocodile”, and we could easily imagine there might be a crocodile in there somewhere!

These Maya ruins are bigger than we expected, and much still remains to be excavated. It was a salt distribution center, reaching its peak around 600AD. The bases of two large structures are in a clearing before the main ruins: the low Pyramid of the Cross, and other buildings around a courtyard. All are grey stone, with little visible ornamentation now other than some stone masks. Xtambo was important as the port for Izamal, a bigger town inland, which was far away for people in those days. We’d known that the Maya traded, but did they travel by sea?

There were no other visitors, so we rambled happily around at will. The structures are not

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A mix of Mayan and Catholic beliefs

remarkable, compared to Chichen Itza, for example, but it’s an interesting little site. Of note is the small Catholic Chapel of the Virgin at the base of the temple, built 50-plus years ago after the Virgin of X’Cambo appeared here, showing us that old and new beliefs can co-exist. The view out is to scrubby palm trees and swamp, rather than jungle, but it’s completely isolated, giving us a real feel for what it must have been like thirteen centuries ago.

On smaller roads south back to Merida, prolific vines are creeping over almost everything, and the jungle encroaches on both sides of the road. It’s not hard to see how they could ‘eat up’ the area again. We passed through a number of villages, all arranged around a central square. This can be hazardous driving. Topes (speed bumps) slowed us down, but people walk along the road, or ride bikes, or pull carts loaded with firewood. Children play in the unpaved streets lined with banana trees, and animals wander at will. Huts with thatched roofs, or low houses with tin roofs and faded, chipped paint, are in dusty yards, with washing draped on fences, pigs tethered to small papaya trees, mangy dogs prowling under acacia trees, and a group of kids playing in the dirt, their noses running.

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Scrubby jungle around Xtambo

This is local life, as it really is, not a sanitized version for tourist viewing. We felt privileged to see this natural version of life in rural Yucatan.

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Merida’s cathedral—one of the oldest in the Americas

PRACTICAL INFORMATION—MERIDA:

Given the sometimes-poor state of the roads, this is more than enough in one day. Start early, especially if you want lots of swimming time. There are gas stations in Progresso, but not on the smaller roads.

Picking up a rental car at Merida airport is very easy. The airport has a Tourist Information desk and an ATM for cash. The best Tourist Information Office is on Calle 60 in town, on the edge of Parque de la Maternidad, two blocks north of the main square (see below). General information at www.travelyucatan.com/merida_mexico.php

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Balloon sellers are popular on the main square

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Traditional Yucatecan dancing

DSCF0045.JPGPlaza de la Independencia, the center of downtown Merida, is a green oasis. On Sundays, the streets around it are closed, so everyone can enjoy the bustling Sunday market, and free music concerts and traditional Yucatecan dancing. Don’t miss the huge cathedral, and the Governor’s Palace, with a series of enormous, strikingly colorful, abstract murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco of Merida, depicting the history of the Yucatan.

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Part of the colorful Merida market

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Many tasty tropical fruits

The Anthropological and Historical Museum on Paseo Montejo has an excellent, although small, collection of ancient Mayan artifacts.

Around the main plaza, and Park Hidalgo—another square one block north—are many restaurants, food stalls, bars, and coffee shops (most with internet connections).

Merida has many hotels in all price ranges. Two of our favorites (with swimming pools, and parking facilities offered) are Hotel Dolores Alba, with rooms arranged around the courtyard of a restored colonial house

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Imagine a hotel in a lovely old Colonial building

(www.doloresalba.com); and Gran Hotel, a grand 100-year-old Italianate building on Park Hidalgo. Tel: +52 999-924-7730, fax +52 999-924-7622, www.granhoteldemerida.com.mx

Friends stayed at Hotel Colonial and were very satisfied, www.hotelcolonial.com.mx (in Spanish)

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Variety of chile peppers

 

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Palenque: Encounter on top of Temple of the Cross, or Rod’s Hippy Friend (October 2003)

The second afternoon at the site we just wandered around, absorbing more of the mystique and magic of the place. I (in spite of a fear of heights) managed to climb up the steps to the big temple in the Cross Complex, and there is a wonderful view out (as Kev and Rod said yesterday).
Rod wanted to sit on a ledge at the top, to contemplate the site, the jungle, the world. There he met another meditator on the ledge around the corner: an aging hippy guy from Canada, long hair tied back. He greeted Rod with, “Welcome to my office”. Lots of chatting, as Rod was fascinated. He doesn’t want to live in Canada or USA now, traveled in Asia for years, and now has ended up here in a kind of commune, where they bake and sell cookies and brownies, dance and sing (hopefully for the tourists).
He told a bit about living in Mexico, and how you can’t own property so near the border. He also told Rod about a woman and a place where you can get mushrooms – imagine that! Rod was actually quite excited about talking to such a different kind of person, and afterwards jokingly called him, “My Hippy Friend”. An interesting, novel experience, which I eavesdropped on from below the ledge

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October 2003, Merida, Mexico.

“I just want to practise my English…but come to my shop/my brother’s shop/my friend’s shop”, or, “I can speak a bit English. I want to practise and I can help you. I guide you in Merida”.

These guys are very persistent, especially around the main squares, and most tourists have trouble resisting them. They trail around after you, and many people are afraid to be rude, especially in a strange place. Today, I decide to get the better of one of these touts.

“Hallo, you speak Spanish? No, English?” I hear the familiar refrain and smile.

“Today is my day off, but I want to be a guide, so I want to speak more English with tourists like you. My English is not good”.

He crosses the street with me and we stop outside the big cathedral, the plaza teeming with tour groups. He launches into his spiel about where to go and what to do here in Merida, with the inevitable mention of an Artisans Shop.

I smile again and tell him I’ve been to Merida twice before, then launch into my own spiel. “It’s interesting that you want to learn English. I teach English to foreign students in the USA”. I proceed to ask him what he’s doing to help learn the language, asking about books, TV programs, courses, and offering all kinds of suggestions.

He listens, dumbfounded, then says, “Thanks. I have to go now”. He disappears round the corner, and later when I see him on the main square, chatting up another tourist, he avoids my eye.

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