Mérida is empty and silent like I have never seen it before. There is no one in the streets. Today I didn’t hear the man that rides by my house every day on his bicycle with his trailer selling popsicles, playing horrible music on a rickety amplifier, and calling out to people in their houses. There were no rusted metal buses cruising way too fast past my window, or even roosters crowing from my neighbor’s backyard. ”It’s a day of reflection,” a friend tells me. “A day to sit and think about your life and all the good things you have. It’s the day that Jesus died for us.”
As a non-religious foreigner, I graze over that last part in my mind as part of a world I will never fully understand. Catholicism to me is a cultural trait: a quintessential part of the Mexican experience. It’s what gives them their values, what guides their behavior and their decisions. It is a part of what makes them who they are, and what makes me love them. Still, I don’t belong to their world, and the values instilled in them since childhood are not all the same ones I grew up with.
Yet I find something beautiful in reserving a day for reflection. Especially because, despite the fact that there is no work today, no one is out sipping beers in the cantinas. They are really at home. Really quiet.
I wake up, put on my tennis shoes and run through the city streets. Running, as I have always told my Mexican friends, is my version of Mass. I ingest my environment through all my senses: I smell the hibiscus trees and the tacos being sold on the street, I see the sky, the architecture, the curious faces of the people I pass. I hear the traffic, Spanish being spoken on street corners, and the rhythm of my soft shoes on the cracked concrete sidewalks.
Something in my rhythm and my breath makes my thoughts have logic and meaning, and when I’m finished, my world always makes a little more sense. I feel the sun on my skin and the pain in my muscles and feel alive — and grateful. When I return home I clean my new house, which is slowly becoming a physical reflection of myself. I sweep the floors with a Maya hand-made broom and mop with white vinegar and water the way my mother always tells me to. There is order in my house, and somehow there is suddenly order in my life.
No one calls. I connect to the internet and find that I have no e-mails. No one is on line and at mid-day, the streets in their silence are calling me. I venture out, and with my first step into the Yucatecan sun I feel the familiar feeling that the heat is falling on top of me, pushing me down into the earth where I will melt into a pool, leaving nothing behind but sunglasses and blonde hair.
In the silent city nothing seems the same. I pass houses and wonder what people are doing inside. Are they praying? Sitting at a table with their families? Sleeping through the afternoon sun? I listen for laughing Yucatecan voices and hear nothing.
The colonial houses seem older and wiser today. They sit in silence with closed doors as if they too are reflecting. I walk and try to remember how the city looked when I first came here seven years ago, when everything was new and mysterious and confusing. When Spanish was just a series of mumbled sounds, and new smells on new street corners excited me in a way I had never known before. I think of what it was like when I didn’t know that I would return someday – that this city would slowly become my city, and the streets would feel like home. I remember the first time I smelled Mérida’s familiar scent, the way it haunted me when I wasn’t here, and the way it wraps itself around me every time I return and puts my mind and my soul at ease.
I think about the friendships I have had, the ones I’ve maintained since childhood, and the ones that have returned after my indefinite separation from this city. I think about mistakes and about new beginnings. I think about my family, about my mother’s freshly baked bread, and about games of hide-and-seek with my nieces.
I think about the quiet happiness that has filled me since I moved here, and wonder if it comes from this place or if it comes from me. I wonder if I will be walking down this same street someday with this same smile twenty years from now, or if I will be somewhere remembering this moment I shared once with the city that treated me so well. I think that maybe it doesn’t matter where I am, as long as I am able to carry Mérida with me in some small corner of my soul.
I look behind me and suddenly realize that lost in my thoughts I have traveled from one end of the city to the other – from my quiet neighborhood of colonial houses and stray dogs to a new version of Mérida peppered with commercial grocery stores, photo shops and modern bars. And I’m still in love.
My friend drives up and pulls over. “What are you doing?” he asks me. I’m not sure how to answer. “Reflecting,” I say and smile. And I realize I have discovered the meaning of viernes de Luto, or as I prefer to call it, “Good Friday.”