Friday, January 05, 2007

A Chicano's time in Yucatán - part three

(continued from Jan. 4th's post)
On our way to a coastal village near the port of Progreso we pass lagunas of flamingos; signs read "Vívoras Venenosas", but our host and guide Tony assures us we're safe if we don't go looking for the slithery things. He introduces us to local fishermen whose primary source of income, the pulpo-catching season, has just ended. Ordinarily, they can subsist off the ocean, but don't prosper off-season.

Tony is assisting 15 families with an ecotourism project, to supplement their income without degrading the ecosystem. The men ferry us out in lanchas to remote beaches, where they tell us los cocodrilos won't bother us if we don't bother them. In a kayak my wife and I make our way past sandbars up to handmade fences that protect a bird refuge, from us. Most have migrated, but the pristineness of the place will one day make it a vacation destination.

The fishermen tell us the names of the fish, birds, other wildlife, in English, even. Despite their commercial means of income, their world is filled with cocodrilos y pulpos, the natural. I envy them, though I try to keep from noble-savaging their existence. When I see the new four-wheel black, American truck one of them purchased with his season's profits, any thought of noble savage disappears. Our influence of keeping up with the Joneses will ruin the place--which is why I won't reveal its location.

To head back to the village, I decide to change lanchas, though I don't know why. As the other boat begins disappearing on the horizon, I'm sure I took the wrong one. Until the dolphins show up. Unscheduled, unannounced and randomly leaping for only seconds. So, Ek Chuah, the Maya god of travelers, must have whispered in my ear. These descendants of ancient dolphins who once shadowed Maya pescadores stay with us long enough to determine our intentions harmless, I assume. The seawater stings our eyes, the wind threatens to take our hats, the small lancha teeters threateningly as it bounces hard over larger incoming waves, but however much I cringe at capsizing in dark waters, at least los delfines blessed our stopover in this bit of undeveloped world.

Profe's fishermen connection gets a restaurant opened just for us, no matter it's off-season. We're served pescado frito caught that morning, snails I've never eaten, and more ceviche than we can gorge, chased with rounds of Mexican beer. I could stay here forever.

The restaurant owners' young kids, Evelyn and Jasmine, run around with a large bundle wrapped in a blanket. I tease them until they unveil a huge, blonde, Anglo-skinned doll. Even unto the toys of poor, Yucateco children...

We return to Progreso for a service learning project, volunteering in the Comedor Comunitaria, a "soup kitchen" serving a meal a day to the needy, sometimes over a 100; today it's spaghetti and meat sauce. We have a great time preparing, cooking, and packaging. While we wait for the clientele, I ask the older women volunteers if I can photograph them, assuring them I have a setting that'll take twenty years off them. One of my targets responds I need a setting that takes 20 pounds, or more, off. I had them laughing before, but now we're all howling. This is not a vacation, it's life.

Another student and I get the task of giving out tickets at the door. It's embarrassing handing them to people who say gracias, as if I'd paid for the food. I replace de nada with éntrale, por favor, which sounds better, feels right.

A frisky, diminutive old woman in a homemade camouflage-material dress, bejeweled and made-up like she's headed to Sunday mass, is one of the last to leave. She puts us both in stitchs as she proceeds to hit on me like she's 50 years younger and I'm a lot less married, so I pretend the female student with me is my wife. This doesn't phase the viejita, who retorts she's only looking to borrow, not keep, me. Our profe shows up, his twice-her-size distracting her long enough to spare me the thrill of a Maya anciana romance. In certain ways, this can be dangerous country.

We spend an afternoon with residents of a Casa de Ancianos, a Church-run retirement home. Thankfully, we don't play bingo, but we do bring Santa Claus, Profe, all done up in sweaty costume, even though los Reyes Magos don't bring gifts until Jan. 6. Back home he might have been called Scrooge for handing out candies and bars of soap, but here, Santa's warmly received and applauded.

I chat with Ramos, a not-yet-ancient resident, who takes me out back, away from the crowd. He still does carpentry, earning money for personal items, and proudly shows me hurricane shutters he constructed. He's in charge of the housedog, and we trade stories about pets. When I gotta pee, he leads me to a nearby unit where a guy's snoozing in a hammock. On our return we run into one of the nuns who run the home. She gives me a forced smile. I think both guys are in trouble; one for not attending the activities, Ramos for letting me use a non-visitor bathroom. The nun needs him for some task, and I don't see him again.

I stay with the others, not wanting to get anyone else in trouble. A woman volunteer and her daughter tell me they take English classes to improve their chances of employment. We have fun practicing counting to 20, and they're not embarrassed by how badly they do, maybe because they must learn it to survive. The tentacles of tourism reach almost everyone.

Later I realize how the ancianos' response to bars of soap connects to my American privilege. The passage of NAFTA was calamity for them, forcing down Mexican fishing, agricultural and other prices, impoverishing many. Poverty rose considerably with the '95 devaluation of the peso; wages decreased 20 percent. This led to the Zapatista uprising and dramatically increased illegal immigration to the U.S.

I will hear about NAFTA's "benefits" many times. From a young mother whose son asked why she had to work the Sun. before Xmas; she explained because she could once buy herself 7 dresses a year, but this year, only 1. He understands because NAFTA took the home they been paying on for 8 years.

Or from university business professors who, despite their individual, entrepreneurial spirit and success, acknowledge NAFTA was detrimental to Mexico's lower classes.

Or from an older portly woman who survives from the tourism. One of her sons, an electrician, moved to California and rarely calls. She doesn't know his address, but hopes he's doing well. I ask her her impression of Americans' behavior: she hates how they never want to pay regular prices and always try to get her to lower her prices. If bartering is Mexican "tradition," maybe it's because of America's "traditional" economic leverage. After this, I don't bargain with any vendor; I don't want the association.

And as our chauffeur drives us down Avenida Montejo, he explains we're passing the homes of los ricos. I ask him what these houses cost, and he quotes a price equal to my middle-class American home. That fact emphasizes how interrelated my relative "wealth" is to Mexico's absolute poverty, exacerbated by NAFTA's continuation.

We go on until our driver takes a road meant only for four-wheels, to get us to a remote cenote. It is not open like those at the ruins, and we climb a ladder made of limbs and rope into the grotto where we briefly disturb the bats. The water's 150 feet deep, and if you dive for bottom you go on the last cruise of your life into an underground river that ends at Xibalbá. A limb and rope crucifix up top could be of such a swimmer. I didn't bring a suit, so I content myself with relishing a site used by the ancient Maya, and snapping photos. There's so many bared, pale gringo swimmers, I have to use the backlight feature.

Both at Dzilbilchaltún and Uxmal, we arrive too late for the winter solstice and the sun breaking through doors or windows. From the pyramid we are allowed to climb in Uxmal, we can see other monuments of Maya civilization, tourists below and the monte. They don't call it a selva, a jungle; those are further to the southwest, down into the Peten where the Maya began.

From up here, though, I get a sense of what these pyramids imparted to a people who lived thousands of years amid a growth of deep foliage. Yes, from the ground they could see the stars or stand on a beach where their world opened up, but only on these structures could they gaze at all the stars and overlook the canopy. The Rocky Mts. give this feeling, and going up a skyscraper mimics that. But I stand atop a pyramid closer to the first of 13 levels of the Maya heaven Caan. In repeated bursts I know I am feeling some of the same awesome sensations, the exhilaration the pyramid builders felt upon completing their work. If I sacrificed Mel Gibson for the distortion in his film, I'd let him stand quietly here, to learn one last thing.

Later we have drinks by the Xcanatun Hacienda pool, no lights on. The sky is different here, enough to disorient me, 17 degrees above the equator. Bats swoop low over the water. It's a quiet time, the students enjoying a chat. Everyone seems mellow. Our time together is almost ended.

We return to Uxmal for the light and sound show, a telling of a creation myth and another tale. It's our last night, and we load the cooler with beer to sneak in. I'm not surprised, since we've been immersed in ourselves as well as Spanish for a week; the hectic schedule wore on everyone. But I do wonder if these Americans of European heritage would drink beer at Stonehenge.

One place I never get to is the Experimentos Científicos being done of the Chicxulub Crater, the impact site of the K/T meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It's on a drilling rig miles out in the Gulf. Profe suggests I hire a boat and go out there. What would they do if I just showed up uninvited?

But I'm old now, it's not Dec. 1974, and it's not easy doing daring deeds. (I later learn of a Chicxulub Scientific Drilling Project on the Yaxcopoil Hacienda, on the road to Uxmal.) I only wanted to sit at the site, relish its import, and take in the remnant ambience of a 10km.-wide, falling star smashing into the Earth; there must still be some. Then too, my second graders would have loved some impact breccias or melt spherules from the K/T boundary sediments. Next time.

Still, I return with special memories, but not of museums, mercados, merchandise, restaurants or architecture.
Because of the class curriculum, our Profe's adeptness in Mexican ways, the very cordial Maya people, a bit of luck--and by shedding some of my own verbüenza--I got to do more than visit the home of the Maya people.

© Rudy Ch. Garcia 2007

TOMORROW, Saturday, we post a review written by Chon Noriega about Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, which one of his UCLA colleagues thought Bloga readers should see. Check it out.


Anonymous said...

while your trip to the Yucatan was evidently quite memorable for you, I don't think you should have indulged yourself or punished us with 3 long, long accounts of your time there - the first column was enough to make me feel good about the Yucatan - always leave your audience wanting more, not being glad it's over - it is over isn't it? there won't be a fourth installment....please

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,

However self-indulgent (as blogs tend to be) or "long, long" my 3 accounts were, the theme was to "share a more accurate description of the Mayas than portrayed in Apocalypto and undo a bit of Gibson's travesties." I didn't just want "to make [you] feel good about the Yucatan." That's your travel agent's job, but I'm glad part 1 did that for you.

The theme aside, I wanted more: for my audience to "feel good" about the Yucateco people, not just the place. And for the audience to feel "bad" about how our country influences Maya life. Thus, the purpose for parts 2 & 3.

I'm glad you somehow made it to the end. Hopefully, some of your "glad it's over" feeling results from my telling you things your travel agent, or President, never will.

About the series, another reader wrote: "It's well written, instructive, interesting. Your skill as a writer subverted your goal to keep people away. I plan to visit, now that I've had your introduction. -- M." I couldn't have done that with just part 1.

To my understanding, your advice, "always leave your audience wanting more", applies more to fiction, not nonfiction. For instance, a computer users' manual can't leave its "audience wanting more", tho some do.

But if what kept you reading was reaching your goal of "glad it's over", then the content was serendipitously fruitful. To delight you even more, no, there won't be a fourth installment.