Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán

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 obtain 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 find myself on the sidewalk in 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.

Some days I walk along the beach.  The sand is clean and white and the line of the surf runs straight and unbroken.   Save for the occasional fisherman coming ashore in a small, bright-painted wooden boat, the beach is empty.  To my left, ten or fifteen kilometers distant, is the long iron pier stretching out into the Gulf at the town of Progreso.  To my right, the line of white sand and the edge of the sea and the shoulder of palms all come to an indistinct point where the world stops.  Somehow, I always knew paradise would be boring.

I took a bus to the old colonial town of Mérida to spend a few days and found small, nice hotel with white walls and tile floors and large potted plants.  It was in an old building being worked on at the moment and there were unprotected holes in the floor where you could look down through into its nicely appointed lobby, but as I did not think I would be roaming about in the dark, I was sure this would be no problem.  At the hotel I learned that the following morning someone was driving out to the ruins at Uxmal, so I arranged to ride with him.

Plato & Aristotle in the Yucatán

He was a young, well-educated Mayan fellow and had been to the University and spoke good English.  As we drove across the flat scrub country toward Uxmal he mentioned that his home was in a nearby village.  I asked if it were true, as I had heard, that in the villages they still made sacrifices to Chac, the old rain god.

    “Yes,” he said, a bit shamefacedly.  “I suppose you would say that they were still pagans.”
    “Oh, well,” I said, “so were Plato and Aristotle.”

    He broke into a big smile.

When we say “Mayan” we can mean either the high civilization that flourished and passed away before the Spanish arrived, or we can mean their descendants who still live in that same area and speak their same language today.  The high civilization with its priestly and political superstructure is long gone, collapsed of its own weight.  The Mayan themselves are still here, speaking the same language that their ancestors a millennium ago carved into the glyphs of monuments that we have been for the last century extracting from the jungle.
    The gods who demanded blood to maintain the cosmic order and whose ways and intentions could only be divined by priests have passed away, along with the haughty lords and puffed-up warriors who had been part and parcel of that old elaborate and expensive regime, but Chac, the old god whom the people knew before and who brings life-giving rain and may be approached directly, is, it would appear, still with his people.

I almost hate to mention this, but how often do you get the chance to tell a charming story about a Meso-American deity?
    When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were visiting Mexico in 1975, they were guests at a light and sound show at the ruins of Uxmal.  At the high point of the presentation  --  and I can only imagine that it must have been a spectacular show because they are spectacular ruins  -- the audio played an ancient prayer to Chac.  Whereupon, the skies opened and a furious rain poured down from heaven.
    This happened in late February, at the mid-point the dry season.

There was one other incident of my visit regarding the Mayans 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.

Late one afternoon in Mérida I wandered into a large old church.  Inside, it had that beautiful and lived-in feel of old churches that every day for hundreds of years have been open to the life of the world around it.  There was no service going on and only a few poorly-dressed people  --  a family, I think  --  up near the front, lost in prayer, and a flicker of candles at a side altar.  I heard a flutter of wings high up near the dark ceiling of the nave: birds, surrogate for angels, who had made their nests in the inaccessible rafters and interior cornices of the old structure.  I was tired and sat down in a worn pew and let my mind relax and wander among the familiar images and associations of the sanctuary and drifted off into peace as one does when you are in a comfortable, familiar place, even if, as here, it is one that you have never actually been before.  I pondered nothing earthly-minded and time became unimportant.

A bit later I became aware of motion at the rear of the church and glanced back to see that a small party of tourists, apparently Americans, had entered and were hesitantly looking around at the furnishings of the sanctuary.  Noticing others apparently in prayer or at some pious observation, they were speaking in whisper and trying not to disturb and it seemed to me being a bit awkward and uncomfortable to find themselves there.

This seemed strange to me.  Elaborated as its decoration might be, this was not some obscure East Asian temple where hashish-crazed natives danced and sacrificed before a pagan idol with a jeweled eye and a taste for virgin’s blood: it was just a church.  A Roman Catholic church just like the ones I am sure these people had passed by most every day of their life.  However protestant one might have been  --  and scornful of the pomps and presumptions of the Pope in Rome  --  how odd that a visiting American would be uncomfortable in a Christian church.  I would have thought that in a foreign city the church should be the most familiar place, the most comfortable and reassuring and homelike.  But perhaps they were unaccustomed to being in a church even when at home and I suppose that when you travel you also learn about your own kind, though I still think it unfortunate.  A part of the country they have come to visit that is invisible to them.

For the birds fluttering around the ceiling, it was their home, too, though for them it was just another cave.

I had just taken what looked on the map to be a short walk in the bush and arrived suitably exhausted in a little town.  I bought a cold drink and was slumped on a bench in the shade on the dusty little square facing the massive, featureless side wall of an 18th Century church.  Some old Mexican men were sitting around on the other benches, lazing away the late afternoon.  The sun was setting behind the church and its shadow was reaching across the street to where we were sitting.
    A late model American stationwagon drove up to the square and stopped and an American lady got out, looked around, pointed a small camera at the church, apparently took a picture, then got back into the stationwagon and their party drove off.
    I thought it was silly because she was photographing directly into the sun and all she was going to get was the black mass of the church and a blinding glare of sunlight.  While I suspect the old Mexican gentlemen around me might not have picked up on these photographic nuances, they still thought it was the funniest thing they had seen all day.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the American tourist were a stock character in Mexican humor.

On my walk that day I had noticed carved stones, apparently from some ancient structure, built into an unmortared wall beside a cornfield.  I doubt that the stones would have been carried far from where they had been found, and likely had been removed from the field to make room to plant the corn.  They had come from something, probably a Mayan structure abandoned long before the Spaniards arrived, but looking around I saw only cornfields and forest.  There are still ancient places out there, overgrown by jungle or hidden under a cornfield, and no one knows they are there.

To settle into the life of a place, at least to the limited extent possible, I go to the barbershop.  There was one of these in Chicxulub Puerto and it was straight out of the 1880s.  Had you seen a Clint Eastwood character sitting in the oak and horsehair-stuffed barber’s chair with its shiny nickel-plated fixtures you would have thought nothing amiss amid the worn, white marble counter tops; tall, cracked mirrors (no bullet holes, but if there had been you would have understood), strops and straight razors, fancy tonic bottles, shaving mugs and the whole tonsorial paraphernalia.  I would have paid admission just to sit there.
    As I had hoped, locals drifted in while I was there and we chatted, at least to the extent of our mutual language abilities.  One fellow, after the usual my-home-is-your-home business, asked me what my camera had cost.  I had bought it used for $450 but thought that might seem a bit much, as I had no doubt that what was unremarkable in Palo Alto might appear unseemly hereabouts, so I said $100 and immediately decided I had made a mistake as the poor fellow acted as if I had pole axed him and I, who had never had the slightest concern for my security as I walked around the village at any hour of the day or evening, suddenly realized I might have just revealed that I was carrying in my shoulder bag the most valuable piece of movable property in Chicxulub Puerto.
    What a bother.  For the next few days I didn’t carry my camera, but eventually decided it was safe to do so, as it turned out to be.
    It was a nice haircut.  The scented tonic was a bit much to my taste, but I considered it all part of the experience.  I was around town for a few more weeks and when I would go by the shop I would stick my head in and say ‘hello’ to the barber, who greeted me like I was one of his regular patrons, which was the point of the whole thing in the first place.  I let him know when I was leaving and he said come back any time.

Out on a walk around the village I saw Alberto, who reminded me that he had invited me to visit his school.  He said today was Flag Day and I promised I would come by to visit the next day.  I wanted to come when nothing in particular was going on, in order to be less of an inconvenience to my host.  So when I came the next day I was surprised to find the Flag Day celebration in progress, which Alberto explained was being re-staged for my benefit.

It was delightful.  It was a grade school and the children were as wonderful as little children always are.  They marched around and ran up the flag and sang songs, all of which I was appropriately appreciative of, then they handed me the microphone to say a few words.

On this trip I had been remiss at practicing my Spanish, but fortunately at that moment I received the Gift of Tongues and delivered myself of a long and enthusiastic speech on the glory of Mexico and the great affection we in the North felt for their country.  I reviewed their illustrious history from the Aztecs through Cortez and Benito Juarez and I have no idea what else.  The children were enrapt.  I had never spoken the language so fluently.  I have no doubt that the enthusiasm of the moment caused me to invent my Spanish as I spoke, the words tumbling out in such a torrential flow as to sweep my listeners along and communicate with them directly the emotional sense of my meaning, unmediated by grammar or recognizable vocabulary.  Sort of like opera.

The whole experience left us all exhausted and happy.

Alberto said we must do this again sometime.

I read and wrote in my journal and sometimes wandered around the village.  I met only two foreigners, a young couple passing through.  Every so often I go to the Post Office to check the Lista de Correos for mail and a couple of times find a letter, which I take to an outdoor table and order a cold bottle of Cerveza Negra Leon  --  my then current favorite  --  and perhaps even a bite to eat, and in general make a production of reading it.  I am not a frenetic traveler and a letter from home waiting for me at the Post Office in a quiet little town is a satisfying amount of excitement for me.

If I have a book that I particularly enjoy, I like to read it slowly.  It has always seemed wrong to consume in a few hours what an author may have spent months or years to produce.  So for many days I was content to idle around the house, leisurely making my way through John Lloyd Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatán, in two volumes, with drawings taken on the spot by Mr. Catherwood.  Stephens had come to the Yucatán in 1841, when little was known of the country and essentially nothing was known of the high Mayan culture that had flourished there and had gone into decline hundreds of years before the coming of the Spanish.

Stephens, with Catherwood and a few servants, traveled around the country and by the simple device of asking the Indians if there were any “old walls” about he was led to discover and describe forty-four Mayan sites.  His book is a steady narrative of ruins and haciendas and Indians and fevers and wildlife and every other marvel that passed before him, and Mr. Catherwood’s careful drawings show us extravagant gods and mysterious artifacts and monumental temples locked in writhing coils of jungle growth.  Even if paradise is boring, books about paradise don’t have to be.

Movie night in Chixculub Puerto

I saw from signs around town that there would be a movie, though it was unclear where.  Apparently since everyone knew where the movies were, there was no reason to say.  So that evening I fell in with some children who led me to a large building with a crowd of people.  Alberto, the principal of the school, was taking tickets and waved me in, refusing my money.  People standing in line smiled and seemed to think it was just fine, though I was embarrassed by the special treatment.
    The auditorium was a large room with folding chairs and some old theater seats and large fans on either side that little boys threw things into.  It was a Kung Fu double feature.  The predominately young crowd talked and argued and had a fine time.  Afterward, I walked home along the beach under a bright moon.  I got in about midnight.  I was always a little surprised that I was able to find my way home so easily coming back along the beach since none of the houses out there were occupied and there were never any lights.

The place I have been describing isn’t there anymore.  Reading about the village online, it seems to have been discovered  --  rentals are quite a bit more than the pittance I paid, and life there is now very exciting, at least if the tourist literature is to be believed  --  opinion seems to differ as to whether sharks are a problem  --  and foreigners are buying houses and there is an ex-pat community.  They wouldn’t have re-staged the Flag Day celebration for me or waved me into the movie if they had been used to foreign visitors.  I am pretty sure they don’t do that nowadays as we are no longer the rare birds in Chicxulub Puerto that we once may have been.

copyright 2011. Davis E. Keeler

[This trip took place in February, 1984.  Twenty-seven years doesn’t seem that long ago, but it appears that home is not the only place that you can't go back to again.]