Why am I not there?
At Peet’s Coffee Shop in Menlo Park, California, a fellow describes how he rented a house every year in a little village in the Yucatán, where he and his family go barefoot all day and buy their fish fresh from the fishermen who pull their boats up onto the beach and drinks his beer with lime and salt at the cantina and no one speaks English and they are the only gringos in the village. And outside the coffee shop it was late January, bleak and cold, and I ask myself why I am here and not in the Yucatán. So I obtained a phone number and called the Señora in Mérida who owns the house they rented and between my proto-Spanish and her Hispano-English we decide that for some pittance I can have the house for the following month. And so, with less deliberation than I might spend in choosing a movie, I was on an airplane bound for the Yucatán.
In a matter of minutes I went from the comfort of my plane seat, with its first world amenities and the quiet, reassuring hum of familiar machinery, into the preternatural brightness of a florescent-lit cement block building filled with a disorienting babble of foreign voices and strange sounds. My companions of the last six hours all at once begin speaking a foreign language and disappear into the darkness with strangers, abandoning me in an empty baggage room where I am eyed suspiciously by men with guns.
Outside, it got worse.
It was dark when I arrived at Mérida. It is always dark when I arrive in the Third World. It may only be the adverse selection of memory, but it seems that the more unfamiliar the place, the later in the evening is my arrival. It is always morning or midday when I get off the plane in Europe, and it is always between eleven at night and two in the morning when I reach Belo Horizonte or Chichicastenango.
Outside, at the cab stand, I go mano-a-mano with the Third World. One of my problems in travel is that I am suspicious of people in third world countries who speak English. It is my theory that it is harder to defraud people if you don’t speak their language, and if a person speaks English he may have made a career of preying upon tourists. Jet-lag-induced paranoia, perhaps, but it is a rule I live by. This means, of course, that I wind up with drivers who don’t have a very clear idea of where I want to go, but such are the trade-offs.
And so it was when I arrived late that tropical night at Mérida, chief town of the Yucatán. My driver, reassuringly unlearned of English, hurled his cab into the Mexican darkness in search of the Señora from whom I would be renting my house. It was an exciting ride, falling in behind a police car going code-three. For a while we dealt with the realization that neither of us knew where we were going, but in the fullness of time we found the Señora, who loaded me into the family Honda and we headed off for the village of Chicxulub Puerto, where I would be staying.
After a long, disorienting ride we reached the village where we stopped at a cantina to find Tiberio, the handyman who took care of the house. I asked the Señora about sheets for the bed and she seemed to say that there were no beds, but it was late and I assumed my Spanish was not yet fully operational and I might as well see how things were when we got there, as I knew no one would rent a furnished house without beds.
But it turned out that I had understood her correctly.
There were no beds
The Señora expressed surprise that I had not brought my hammock, for everyone in the Yucatán sleeps in a hammock. In each of the bedrooms -- i.e., the rooms in which there were no beds -- there were hooks in the walls to hang your hammock. Did not everyone know this?
Tiberio said that he would be by at three the next afternoon to connect the hot water and attend to other needful things, and then he and the Señora departed and I was too tired to care whether I had a bed or not. In a storeroom I found a mattress and tried to sleep on it. But the mattress was uncomfortable and there were mosquitos in the room and it was cold and I had no cover but a very thin beach towel and outside the wind and the surf were churning and howling.
Some people find the surf restful. I do not. And that night it was even worse, a disorienting roar of unfamiliar noise, sounding like a radio playing loudly in the distance, but just below the threshold of intelligibility. It was Mexican radio, with that distinctive rhythm of hoom-boom-boom, where every commercial sounds like the proclamation of a revolution and the tinny music blurs and dissolves into the undifferentiated roar of the wind and the surf.
We had traveled through darkness to reach the house, and from the windows I could see other houses, but there were no lights or any sign of human presence. But as I lay on the mattress on the floor I could hear what seemed to be indistinct voices mixed with the churning jumble of noises of wind in the trees and surf rolling on the beach and wood and metal striking together in the wind, or perhaps kicked by the foot of an unseen figure who quietly in the darkness approaches the house, a long knife grasped in his hand while in his mind ferments the memory of some ancient wrong.
I did not sleep well that first night.
The next morning I awaken, unmurdered.
Morning, with sunlight and birds singing and a fresh wind in the palm trees outside the windows of my bedroom. The house, seen in daylight, is large and airy. A two-story, cement block affair, with tile floors and furnishings from the 1950s. In the kitchen are dishes marked “Made in Occupied Japan”.
And outside the front door, a clean white sand beach running straight east and west, and the flat blue expanse of the Gulf of Mexico losing itself on the horizon under huge, towering white cumulus clouds that fill the sky and arch over me and lose themselves in the palm trees behind the house.
Wanting breakfast, I walk toward the town and see that the house I am staying in, and those nearby on the beach -- now boarded up -- are part of a line of comfortable and well-built homes that stretch along the beach, standing between the ocean and a disordered cluster of poorer homes with plank doors and unglazed windows that comprise the village of Chicxulub Puerto.
At a little store I bought beer and coffee, bananas, bread and cocoa, and walked back to my house for breakfast. On the way I met Alberto, who is principal of the grade school and invites me to come visit his class.
I sat alone at the long dining room table over breakfast of coffee and bananas and sweet bread, and thought how strange it was to find myself, just one day from my blustery northern home, here in this large house, with a tropical paradise outside my front door and third world poverty at my back fence.
Exploring the house I found in the downstairs bath a spider the size of a Japanese automobile. I decide the downstairs bath can be his. In the kitchen I found a large and diffident cockroach who, when I discover him, pretends that he isn’t there. I call him “Charlie” and we will have amusing, if one-sided, conversations in the days that follow when we run into each other in the kitchen. Somehow it seems that sharing the house with an insect and an arachnid is better than being here all by myself.
As Tiberio said he would be by at three to connect the hot water, I wait around the house.
But Tiberio did not come at three, nor at four nor at all that day. Nor the next day. After all, this is Mexico. In the days that follow I see him around town and he waves and speaks and is quite cheerful, but does not stop by the house to connect the hot water or attend to the other needful things. I figure out the gas by myself. The water heater is a peculiarly incomprehensible piece of equipment, but if I shower in the heat of the day I have no problem, and am probably more comfortable for doing so. On the sixth day he appears, as cheerful as ever, and turns on the hot water. I give him a beer to ease the strain of his labor.
Toward the end of my time there I would write what I remember as an hilarious letter describing my dealings with Charlie the Cockroach. Despite his gringo name he was authentic Mexican and we had many humorous encounters, some positively Feydeauesque. We exchanged a great deal of playful banter -- I supplying both sides of the conversation -- full of stage-Mexican dialogue and affectations -- in those days we all understood that ethnic humor was meant affectionately.
This was before I had met the love of my life and, as a consequence, cast my pearls heedlessly, and all this went into a letter to an acquaintance now long removed from my life and I kept no copy and my happy times with Charlie the Cockroach who lived in my kitchen in Chixulub Puerto are now probably lost forever.
I realize that if I actually had the text before me it might not be as hilarious as I recall, but this is how I choose to remember it.
(to be continued . . .)
[The eight posts of this series are collected in a more convenient form as a single document, which can be accessed by clicking on "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán" in the upper righthand corner of this page.]