During my surfing years I had explored Yucatán in search of waves. The 1960s highway went through Mérida and crossed the northern part of the peninsula. I passed through Chichén Itzá. The site was undeveloped at that time. I recall stopping to see the big pyramid. The end of the road was a village named Puerto Juárez, mostly thatched roof huts and only a handful of local fishermen. Some five years after I was there, developers began to install a resort named Cancún. The result was decadence.
About ten years after the new millennium opened, Yucatán again attracted my attention, this time for the Maya ruins there. Karen and I set out to explore them.
The Book of Mark reminds us that travel is not for everyone – it is fatal to bigotry, prejudice and narrow-mindedness, and many people rely sorely for comfort upon these attitudes. For our part, travel elevates us. We cross borders and lines with every opportunity, and each crossing sparks a cultural exchange that heightens awareness.
Out of Customs into the chaos. Our big bird had landed in Cancún and we were inside the terminal. The jungle of hawkers, pullers, grabbers, and yellers all wanted our attention. No wonder the locals refer to Cancún as Canculo. We hurried toward the exit, knowing that the crowd outside contained car rental people from offsite. We snagged two agents, and after bargaining over price and car, they drove us to their office off the airport site. Without Spanish we would have been doomed. But the agents were true to their word and we drove away smiling.
Over the next several years we enjoyed a half-dozen excursions to Yucatán. All were dedicated to Maya archeology, with modern Maya culture, artesanía, and cuisine as lagniappe. My presentation here is photographic, focused on archaeology, culture, art, and culinary pleasures.
Do not expect here to read about Cancún other than this disclaimer:
From Cancún to Tulum, the Maya Riviera, is solid tourism. The roads off the highway to the beach are all locked, guarded and unavailable. One cannot escape the hoards by back roads. The Riviera stretch, about 60-70 miles long, depending on how you measure, is simply a long Duval Street of Key West, or a Zona Dorada of Ixtapa, places we avoid. Thrill rides, water slides and amusement park activities thrive on the Riviera, as do parachute skis, jetboats, kayaks, and divers. Almost everyone we met was lodged in an all-inclusive resort or bed-and-breakfast type bungalow. The few tourists with whom we spoke reported that once the resort has you captured inside, escape is expensive and discouraged – the tourist arrives, enters the compound, and leaves only with supervision. Almost every American said that it was their first time out of the USA, and that they did not want to leave the resort anyway. So did the tourist see Mexico? No. Mexico is not on the Riviera.
Modern Valladolíd is known by the locals as Zaci, its Mayan name. Colonial Zaci served as one of our basecamps to explore Yucatán. It is a small town, lacking city inconveniences, easy to navigate, mellow, laid back. It is well centered to visit places of interest like Chichén Itzá, Ek Balam, Río Lagartos, Colorado, Tizimín, and various cenotes.
The callejero street dogs of Zaci are proud and muscular, and prance with tails erect, and this reveals legions about the gente of Valladolíd, who claim their city is limpia y tranquilo. Agreed. Our strolls through vacant calles after dinner at the Oasis Familiar took us through barrios where the people noticed Karen sweep by in her long falda, and they came out to get a closer look, and the buenas noches were the only sounds in the still neighborhood, and the only lights were their beaming smiles.
Oxkatzcab is pronounced by Mayas as uush-khatz-khap. Uush like swoosh, khatz like cots, khap like cop. The Mexicans say ooosh like tooooast, khatz like cots and khap like cob. We say Osh Kosh. Our basecamp there was the Hotel Puuc. Osh Kosh is the departure point for many Maya ruins, foremost Uxmal, and for the Loltun caverns. From Osh Kosh I left with Xaidi for Camp Coati, as told in my account presented in this Anthology.
Osh Kosh is known as the orchard of Mexico. Well deserved. I have never seen so many pickups filled with oranges, grapefruits, bananas, tangerines, passion fruit, star fruit, melons, and dozens of types I did not recognize. Locals in restaurants drank from pitchers of iced fruit juice. One local explained that the name of the village means the place of the ramón tree, tobacco and honey. The skin and large seed of the ramón are eaten. Despite the name containing the word tobacco, few in Osh Kosh smoke that nightshade plant.
Saturday is country come to town in Osh Kosh. The field trucks arrive washed spic-n-span, and the best-clothes-on jovenes young men riding like cattle spill out and hurry to the cantinas. These grinning lustful campesinos are greeted by the hotties who sell their personalities and corporal attributes – tight pants, tits out, red lipstick, burn you faster than the Yucatán sunshine. Spend all your week’s pay in one rumble in the jungle room. Just shows what work is for, eh?
The Friday night music from the plaza had reluctantly ceased only at 4 am Saturday morning. Now it’s Saturday afternoon and the baile picks up again. We have arrived for the Orange Festival. The Mayas begin to fill the plaza and the streets are stuffed by dusk. Look around! See the technicolor Maya ladies, the eerie powder-pale transvestites dressed as Gisha girls, hear the blast of música banda, whiff the stench of beer and vomit and urine. They dance, bottle in hand, and they wobble, and stumble and fall, and they love one another, and the harvest is celebrated, and the only two gringos in town waltz with them.
Restless Karen roamed the back calles after the dance. Around the pool at the Puuc I sipped Flor de Caña and watched the fireflies dance over the still water. Through the clouds the stars peeked out. I decided that here is not Mexico, rather is its own country. There is separation of Latinos and native Mayas here, and the Mayas have not been watered down by foreigners, other than those Mayas who have chosen to become Latinos. Like more than one Maya has told us, they were right to hide their daughters in the caves to keep the Spaniards from fouling the race.
Clapping brings a response from the little window in the pyramid.
A Few Tales from the Road
Karen shopped for rebozos all afternoon and found none. The next day, at the cenote, she looked, too, but none for sale. Abruptly, one of the Maya ladies offered her own rebozo to Karen for cien pesos and Karen accepted. It was beautiful. Back in the room Karen discovered that the shawl carried the fragrance of choza smoke, a true treasure, as authentic as can be, worn by a Maya in her smoky hut. Lovely, not used, rather truly seasoned. Rebozo con corazón.
Into the markets. Rub against the Mayas. Codo a codo bailen los gringos con los Mayas – elbow to elbow with the Mayas we dance through the narrow aisles between booths. Ya andamos con la gente – now are with the people. Maya women in colorful dresses. The aroma of flowers, spices, fresh bread, raw meat. Baseball size tangerines for 3 cents each, softball size radishes, piles of red, orange and green habaneros for sale by the kilo, flowers of every color, a conspicuous absence of melons, spice sections with bee hive shaped barrel sized chile de arbol, pumpkin seeds, and achiote,
Leather goods, hardware, handmade slingshots called tira hule rubber throwers or slingshot resorteras, and cheap shoes by the thousands tempted shoppers. Repair work for shoes, or, in my case, for my mochilita, was available.
On the calle outside we found an abundance of sugar coated dulces covered with bees, and bowls of chile so hot the sweat ran down the plastic. Rows of rickshaws lined up to carry shoppers with bags to their casas. We point at a rickshaw. What do you call this? Tricicleta, not a bicicleta, because it has three wheels. Stone streets slick with snot, slobber, and puddles of spit, but no feces. The stench of diesel exhaust. Mercado Yucatán.
Throughout the market old women followed and surrounded us. Most only as tall as my shoulder, most without teeth, all gathered to hear the extranjeros speak and act. We were the freaks come to town, so get close to them. Wonderful. In America the odd is to be rejected and scoured, and isolated in institutions, but in many places the odd is to be praised in wonder. Many cultures wear white to funerals and consider homosexuals, deformities, and cripples as gifts from God to mark the special.
The waiters were a trip. They considered us to be Mexicans after learning we were not Españoles, rather güeros from New Mexico El Norte. They liked my blue eyes, and when I winked and said “los cheles,” they broke out laughing. Later Karen pulled out a roll of 20 peso notes and I remarked “la big mamá con pachocha.” This brought a burst of laughter and knowing nods and amazement. But the best came last. I asked for “la cuenta con tres gendarmes.” The puzzled waiter asked “¿tres policias?,” and we told him about Frenchman Maximiliano, and he understood the dicho to mean “bring me the bill with three policemen,” a common saying. To our surprise and delight, a while later appeared the waiter and two others wearing Poncho Villa sombreros and bearing long flintlock rifles they had taken off the decorated walls to lay across our table. One waiter raised his fists like a boxer. It was a total hoot and it brought down the house. Ya llegaron los tres gendarmes. A carcajada erupted and a few men took to their feet clapping. This is a true cultural exchange. Bienvenidos a Merida, Chele.
Thumbs up, pulgar arriba. This hand sign is called vientos, or winds. Give the sign and say vientos. Means the same thing as in USA. OK, good luck, awesome, good job, etc, but nothing to do with the wind. The word truly arises from the corruption of bien, meaning well or good. B and V are almost indistinguishable in Spanish. So bientos, which is not a real word, is bastardized to vientos, a real word with a double meaning.
The Spanish word for water is agua. This word also has a double meaning. Other than the liquid you are forced to drink when beer is lacking, the word means “Be careful!” When crossing streets, mothers caution their children with aguas. Always plural. Stepping out of a cab into traffic, the taxista always cautions aguas.
The mesero asks, “Want another beer?” Answer. Todovía no, a lo mejor que chupar poco a poco. Not yet, better to sip it slowly. To this penchant, the Yucateco responds, Poco a poco le entra agua al coco. Little by little the water enters the coconut. This is the story of life. The baby knows nothing at birth, an empty head, but learns as he grows, and he is incomplete until death brings a full coconut, a full head. This dicho carries moraleja, the moral of the story, and it is common in Yucatán. Moraleja demands dos más, so we sip ahead.
Ask a Maya. How do you say buenos días? Malo kiin. How do you say gracias? Yuun bootik. How do you say you’re welcome? Miix baa. How does all this sound to a Spanish speaker? Imagine a Mexican hearing a Maya say malo kiin as a greeting. He hears malo, meaning bad. Bad kin eh? No wonder they fought. What about thank you as yuun bootik, pronounced un bote, meaning a throw away can of beer. So the Mayas greet you with bad kin and when you respond they tell you to toss the beer.
The play on words about the buenos días and the malo kiin requires a second thought for the gente aquí because they are so accustomed to hearing the two phrases. They don’t separate the languages, so they don’t hear malo meaning bueno. When they hear the word play explained, they break out in laughter, and as such verify that it is their the first awareness of this. Ahaaaa! Malo y bueno. The Mayas say malo is bueno. And the Latinos accept it. And neither one realizes it.
The common form of addressing another nameless person here is to use jefe, chief. ¿Que tal jefe¿ How you doin’ Chief? Or, ?De vacaciónes, jefe? You on vacation Chief? We never heard anyone use gringo, and our use of it produced grins. Especially using Gringolandia for the USA, or me referring to Karen as La Gringita. A common form of greeting here amongst male friends includes the word boludo, like ¿Que hay, boludo? While the tradución sana for this word is guy or fellow, it carries the connotation of huevos, balls. What’s goin’ on, Balls?
Another greeting uses the word güey, pronounced way. ¿Que onda, güey? Güey means friend, fellow, mate, and comes from buey, meaning ox, but suggesting huevos, or balls, or huevón, the ultimate dumbass. Another way to use güey is to mean something stupid, like a dumb ox, as tan güey es, like one might describe a soccer player after he made a bad kick. In Sonora, the gente would say tan burro es. I receive a grin when I use Chilangolandia for Mexico City, my corruption of chilango, a person from Mexico City. An Oriental girl from the capital really grinned when I called her a chinanga.
We rolled into the low mountains toward the big cave at Lol-Tun. The guide led the two of us and a covey of six long-skirted, high-collared, bonnet-headed Mennonites accompanied by two adult males and two boys into the darkness. We walked over treacherous slippery rocks through chambers of stalagmites and stalactites for two kilometers. Praise the Lord that not a single pink dressed Mennonite hit the deck. The air was hot and wet, unlike any cave I ever visited. Most are cool.
At one point guide Enrique stopped all of us and turned out the lights to show the deep darkness. He had prepped the group by explaining that the Mayas had entered the cave to meditate in the silent darkness, and that we should seize the opportunity. Sadly, as soon as it went black, the Mennonites began to whistle, hoot and cackle. Like the rowdies in the balcony when the lights go out. Enrique asked for silence and respect but none came. Instead arose a popular Christian hymn about seeing the light. Then cackling laughter inspired by nervous fear of the dark. Karen loudly asked, What does silence sound like? But none came, just more nervous banter and babble. The Moment was lost. Darkness and Fear won.
Back in the parking lot, I asked Enrique about that incident. Not surprised, he answered. He told that only Mayas still themselves in the darkness, that foreigners and Mexicans do not.
We parked ourselves at the Parrilla in Hidalgo Park. The squat singer rendered Julio Iglesias and other romantics and the chupaderos sipped and swooned and we did, too. On the closed street now filled with tables and funlovers, orphans passed by, who received food not eaten, and we watched as no salsa was wasted, and young stomachs were filled, and we admired the generosity of la gente. Never in El Norte. Throw it in the trash there.
The tables around us contained couples our age, and the ladies sang every song. Most surprised were they when I sang one.
I am one of those who dreams of liberty… Captain of a sailboat without a sea… always looking for a place… a quixote from an ageless time… a singer of silences… a vagabond who does not live in peace…who comes from the world beyond… looking, looking for my Dulcinea.
You Always Know When It’s Time to Go
During the afternoon the tourists began to arrive. The mostly empty Hotel Ojo de Agua, named for the freshwater spring that comes to the surface some thirty-meters off the beach, making what appears to be a greasy spot in the turquoise water, one inviting a quiet float in the water, became full and rowdy. This was a sure sign that it is time to go.
The big pizza cost 130 pesos. A tourist standing outside declared that the ex-pats say this is the best in town. What I noticed was that their salsa habanera was commercial shaker sauce. First time I’d seen that here. Another sign that it’s time to go.
Evening brought an unusual wind shift and a breeze from the west. The sulfurous stench of mangrove decay drove away the fragrance of flowers in the sea breeze, leaving us knowing it is time to go.
Having expressed all this, I must always caution myself about being jaded. Like during a recent rumbo where I found Yosemite Valley just another glacial basin, unable to rival a half dozen I have seen in the Andes or Himal.
Always I must remember that every perfect traveler creates his own country.
Don Quijote, the Spanish classic, revolves around a noble gentleman victimized by reading too many romance novels. He decides to become an errant knight, wandering from adventure to adventure in his pursuit to revive chivalry. The don believes that he must have a lady, so he invents one, the very model of female perfection. Her name is Dulcinea, from dulce, meaning sweet.