There was one other incident in Mérida that might be worth mentioning.
Early one evening I was sitting by myself at a table reading the menu in a little open-fronted restaurant facing the park in the center of town. I was puzzling over the local Yucatecan dishes when I became aware that the fellow at the next table had started a conversation with me.
Pointing to the restaurant’s name on the menu, Nicté-Há, he asked if I knew what it meant. Something to do with a flower, I said knowingly, making use of the fact that there was a picture of a flower on the cover.
Ah, you have some knowledge of the Mayan tongue, he said, introducing himself as a teacher of that language.
We talked of this and that. Or rather, he talked and I nodded, mostly keeping up with what he was saying. He quoted some Mayan poetry and in general made the point that any educated person ought to know this ancient and still widely-spoken the language, to all of which I smiled and nodded assent.
He asked for my journal and said he would write down some common Mayan words that would be useful for me to know if I were to be spending time in the Yucatán.
He wrote in my journal for a few minutes and then handed it back. On the left side of the page he had written a phrase in Mayan and across from it the same phrase in Spanish. I was relieved to find that he had written the Mayan in Roman letters, as I might have had trouble with glyphs.
Bix a bel? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ¿Cómo está?
Tux ca bin? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ¿A dónde va?
Max a kabáh? . . . . . . . ¿Como es tu nombre?
Jaipé jab yantech? . . . . . . . ¿Que edad tienes?
He had written ten phrases and went through them, pronouncing them for me. The “x” was pronounced “sh”, as it was in 16th-Century Spanish when Indian names and words were transliterated into the Roman alphabet. He told me I could also find some language books at Libreria Burrel, the big bookstore near my hotel.
Later, I looked over the list of phrases he had given me: How are you? What is your name? How old are you? Would you like to go for a walk? Would you like to dance? Would you like to go to bed? and of course, Thank you.
My, my. I suddenly saw a pattern. How practical. What a handy list of phrases to give a lone gentleman in an unfamiliar town where Mayan might be spoken. How considerate of my teacher.
On the way back to Chicxulub Puerto on a slow local bus, an old Indian got on board and saw a friend. Bix a bel?, he said. Tux ca bin? I was delighted, though of course that was all of their conversation that I was able to follow.