For the second interview in our “Expat Avenue” series, we spoke with Mr. Dan Karnes, President of the Board of the Merida English Library.
TYT: How long have you lived in Merida?
DK: Seven years
TYT: What attracted you to move here?
DK: You know what? I get asked that question a lot. I don’t really have an answer. I first came to Merida in 1973, a long time ago. And of course it was very different back then, there was no Periferico, not even Circuito Colonias.
TYT: What was the purpose of your vist back then?
DK: I just came for vacation by myself, I rented a car and drove all around the peninsula, I went to the beaches, and I loved it. So, then I went back to the US, I was living in New Orleans, and then I went back and moved to Washington DC. But I always kept Merida in mind, and also many other parts of Mexico. I’ve been to Mexico City many times, I’ve been to San Miguel de Allende many times, I’ve been to Acapulco, to Puerto Vallarta and also to Matamoros and Reynosa in Tamaulipas.
TYT: From where did you relocate?
DK: New Orleans, I was living in New Orleans when hurricane Katrina hit, and for a couple of years after Katrina, life in New Orleans was sad. So one day I said to a friend of mine who lives in Dallas, and another friend who lives in Cleveland Ohio, let’s go to Yucatan for a few days, just to relax. So they came along with me, we came to Merida and we stayed at the Villa María (on the corner of 59 and 68), that were guest rooms (Casa de huéspedes) at the time, and it was charming. In fact it is still there, it’s now called Villa Martin, same people though, charming, nice people.
And then we went back home after 4 days, and I liked Merida so much that I started coming back like every 3 or 4 months. I would come for long weekends, three or four days. I did that for 2 years, I got to meet some people, and I came to the library of course… in the meantime, in those two years, my parents both died.
And so, having no family or siblings left (except “primos“), I thought I have no reason to stay in New Orleans. I was a little bored up there, decided to sell everything, well, a couple of properties and moved to Merida; and so I did.
I bought a small house on calle 68, across from the La Cruz Roja (Red Cross), it was already sort of renovated, but I added a little pool and made it a little more comfortable.
TYT: That was back in what year?
DK: 2009, January of 2009 when I actually moved down here.
So there were several things that attracted me: one, I think the people here in Merida are wonderful, they’re sweet, they’re kind, like the people in New Orleans they like to have parties. So, that was a big attraction, the people were so incredibly nice.
I was attracted to the Maya culture, even though I worked as a lawyer my undergraduate degree was anthroplogy, so I knew a good bit about Maya culture, and I was attracted to it. I also studied in Peru for a period of about 10 years off and on. I studied with a group of indigenous people who are called the “Karo” that are direct descendents of the Inca, so I knew a lot about Inca spirituality, I studied with shamans, curanderos and one brujo too, down there in Peru.
And so when I came here, I discovered that the Maya spirituality is very much like that of the Incas; so I felt quite comfortable. just like at home.
I don’t find Mérida to be visually beautiful, it’s not a beautiful city in the same way as Cartagena, Antigua or some other colonial cities that are more visually attractive, but there is something about Merida that is wonderful, part is the people, part is the Maya and of course being from the south of the US, I am used to hot weather, and so I love the weather here. I stay here all year round, I don’t go back and forth. I do go back a lot, I go to the states three – four times a year, but usually just to visit relatives or friends, but only for three or four days, or a week at the most.
So, that’s not really an answer, but that’s the best way I can tell you why I moved here.
I was bored with my life, and I always had the tendency to move about every ten years, and so I decided that if I ever was going to be an Expat, Mérida would be the place for me you know. When I moved down here I was in my early sixties, I was still in good health, and I am still in good health, and so the timing was good.
TYT: Do you plan to stay in Merida?
DK: Yes, my plan is to live here until I die, although I was thinking about maybe exploring other Latin American destinations like Nicaragua, Ecuador or Colombia, but we’ll see.
TYT: How does Merida compare to other places you’ve lived regarding issues like security, services, medical facilities, air connectivity etc?
DK: Well, starting with security, I think I am much safer here in Merida than I was in New Orleans, and part of the reason I think it’s because there are very few guns in Merida, most of the violent crime in the US involves guns, and in Merida there very few guns, and so there are very few crimes involving this type of weapons.
I’ve never had any bad experiences here in Merida, crime related bad experiences, and I feel safe and very comfortable walking all the way across Centro at midnight, after a dinner party or something, without any concerns about insecurity.
In some ways Merida is similar to New Orleans, where I moved from, like I said, the people are very nice and they are very food oriented, people here eat a lot… and also party a lot, and in New Orleans it is the same you know, there is a festival every weekend, and same here, there is something interesting to do almost every day in terms of music, culture, food or entertainment.
So, there is a feel, that I guess I would describe as Caribbean. Because New Orleans is the only city in the US that was under Spanish rule, then under French rule and then American rule. And of course, Merida has that French (or Austrian connection (due to Maximillian) and I’ve always felt there is a strong connection between Merida and Europe, between Merida and Cuba and of course, Merida and New Orleans.
Although the architecture is different because there are very few wooden houses here, in New Orleans there a lot of wooden houses, particularly built during the Victorian era, prior to that time, there were a lot of colonial masonry houses brick and stone and mampostería, just like Merida; except instead of using rocks, they used wood and covered it with mud and stucco. But the architecture reminds me of home, cause there is a lot of Spanish architecture in New Orleans, pre-eighteenth century. So, there are some similarities.
The Medical care here is first rate, there are wonderful doctors, I have full confidence in the Medical system, and it is much more reasonable of course than the medical care in the US. Obviously, there is excellent medical care in the US, but it is sort of overdone, I mean they want to have all the possible tests, and I think medical care here is more personal, and like I said, more reasonable in terms of cost; and I would not hesistate to have any kind of surgical procedure down here. And the people that I know, that have been in the hospitals here, they all say they have been quite pleased.
The biggest dissapointment for me right now, is the lack of convenient air routes. For example, there is only one daily flight to Houston, which is now back in the mornings, which is good, we have an Aeromexico flight to Miami, and soon we will have a new flight on American Airlines to Dallas. But other than that, you have to go Mexico City, or else you’ve got to go to Cancun. Of course that is not so negative to me, because I go to the States a lot, but I go through Houston, so it is not a big deal for me.
Another thing, and this has been changing a lot, when I first moved here 7 years ago, you couldn’t even find brown rice here, I had to bring my brown rice from the states, but now there are a lot of so called “gourmet items” available.
There are several grocery stores down here that cater to foreigners, or even restaurants like Pacsadeli, but also, Chedraui Norte has a a very good selection of items, they even have potato chips made in New Orleans! They’re really good! Also Superama is pretty good too. So now it is easier to find stuff that you want.
TYT: Do you ever have relative or friends coming to visit?
DK: I do, there are actually some here right now. They’re not staying with me though.
TYT: Do you usually encourage them to stay with you?
DK: if they’re close friends or relatives, I do, but never for more than 3 or 4 days.
TYT: What do you think about hotel accomodations in Merida?
DK: I think there are plenty of good hotels here in Merida. There are even three of four high end expensive hotels, there is Hacienda Xcanatun which is a little out of town, Casa Lecanda, Rosas & Xocolate. So I think there is plenty in every level, I think. So I think people have different options in terms of where to stay.
TYT: Do you think these hotels provide good quality service?
DK: Yes I do, I really do. But, you know, it also depends on the traveler, some travelers like to stay on B&Bs (bed & breakfast), others like to stay in boutique hotels like Casa Lecanda or Rosas & Xocolate, some of them like to be in a full service hotel and so they go and stay on the hotel zone. I even stayed at Hotel Casa del Balam more than 40 years ago, and that was fine.
So I think there are a lot of hotels for different types of travelers, in my opinion, I do not really know if there are many options for conventions or that kind of tourism, but when my friends come down here, there is no problem.
When people come down here to visit me, I encourage them to stay for at least 4 days, because you need at least 4 days to see Mérida, or maybe a couple more days if you want to visit Uxmal, Chichen Itza or other archeaological sites.
We actually get a lot of tourists here at the Merida English Library, they come here looking for books or advice on where to go, where to eat, what to eat, that sort ot things.
TYT: Have you noticed improvements in any important areas during the time you’ve lived here?
Yes, now that we were talking about food, I think the restaurant scene has improved a lot, seven years ago, when I came to live here there was really only one excellent restaurant, that was Xcanatun. But now, we have Nectar, Rosas & Xocolate, also Cook (which I don’t like that much, to be honest)… but now we have plenty of upper end restaurants to eat at.
And the food here in Merida is very important. For me, there many many places where you can get good basic food, many cocinas económicas, taco stands or restaurants or tacos árabes (I love tacos árabes).
TYT: Do you eat food from cocinas económicas?
DK: I do, yes. At leat once a week, I do. When I get food for the people that work for me at my house, I also eat the same food. For example, we are having “frijol con puerco” today, because it’s Monday. And you know what, we have that same tradition in New Orleans, except the beans are red beans instead of black beans, but in New Orleans Monday is bean day.
I have three favourite taco places, one is Tacos Arabes on Circuito Colonias, Taquitos PM and I also like Wayané.
TYT: Now you’re talking !!!
DK: Do you like Wayané too? I love the tacos de castacán at Wayané! They’re fabulous !
I also like Taninos Wine Bar, the owner Elliot Diaz is a wine expert, he helps us a lot at the MEL with our monthly wine tasting events, and gives us great prices on high quality wines.
So I think the restaurant quality has improved, but I think there’s still a gap in the middle. There a lot of really good expensive ones and a lot of non expensive good basic ones, but there is a gap right there in the middle.
There are quite a few good steak houses like “La Rueda” that could fit there in the middle. I think there are a lot of places where you can get a decent meal for three to four hundred pesos, many other basic restaurants where you can have a good meal for 100 pesos, but just a few high end where you can have an excellent meal for 600 to 700 pesos per person.
And then we have a lot of restaurants in Mérida that are expensive but very inconsistent in my opinion. You can have a great meal at one of these renown places, and go back the next day and have a horrible meal, so you end up not going there anymore. You can give them one, two or even three chances, but when they are so inconsistant, you just give up on them. I used to go to this glamorous restaurant for prime rib, it used to be the only place in town where you can get prime rib, and the last two times I ordered prime rib, just couldn’t eat it, so I gave up and don’t go there anymore.
I think that the biggest problem in Mexico is corruption, and it affects the utilities. Because a lot of people steal electricity, you know they steal reasonable, but they could be a lot less. I know people who don’t pay electric, gringos, but mostly Mexican. And when I was re-doing my house someone came and told me: “I know someone who works for CFE and he can come and fix your meter so instead of paying $10,000 (my bill average is 10,000 pesos), you could pay $1,500 instead, and I said no thank you. Because it is not the right thing to do, and I know that if they catch you, they disconnect your power, and then to turn back on, you need to pay a much higher rate or something, so it is not worth it.
I can understand that people that don’t have much money might need to do that.
TYT: Would you recommend Merida as a place of residence to friends and relatives?
DK: Have done it many times. And in fact, some of them have actually moved down here… not because of me, but they came to visit me, or came to my recomendation and ended up staying.
One of the pleasant things we have here is The Yucatan Times. It is a good asset, it’s good for the English speaking community to have a this type of online media to know what’s going on. And at least as far as I know, it is neutral, it is not biased in one way or the other.
Also the Merida English Library is a good resource for the local English speaking community, but we are also making a big effort to reach for local Yucatecans, and to young people, and we are making some progress, we have many more local student members than we used to have, every Saturday at 9:30 we have children story hour, which is mostly Mexican families that bring their kids so they can learn and practice their English, because the stories are in English, and then we have Monday night “Conversaciones con amigos”, in which we generally have between 75 and 100 people who come and sit out here to chat.
TYT: How many of them are American and how many of them are Mexican?
DK: It’s about 3/4 Spanish speaking and 1/4 English speaking. Which is a problem, we try to get more English speakers because you sit at the table and you have only one English speaker, and six Spanish speakers, it’s better if you have two or three English speakers per table, or it’s better if they’re even, but it`s hard to get Americans to come (I don’t know why). We do reminders on our newsletter but for some reason we get more Spanish speakers than English speakers.
Finally, I want to tell you that we have 4 new members of the board at MEL. They are great.
TYT: OK, we will publish it on TYT. Thank you very much for your time.
Interview by Alejandro Azcárate for TYT.
The opinions expressed in this interview reflect those of the interviewee and not necessarily The Yucatan Times.
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