Thursday, January 04, 2007

A Chicano's time in Yucatán - part two

(continued from Dec. 28th's post)

Our hotel's a few blocks from Mérida's main plaza (referred to as a zócalo throughout Mexico). We hit the regular tourist spots: Artesania Craft Market, Parque Santa Lucia, Plaza de la Independencia, etc. It's a job we can't shirk; we're tourist-students: we must find and purchase bits of Yucateca arts and crafts to take home a whisp of our experience.

Not surprisingly, Mérida's downtown smells like New York City, given that it's more ancient, though not as densely populated. But these people are in no hurry--slowed by the humidity--and often take time to smile or greet us, sometimes in English. Of course their economy subsists on us tourists, but their amiability goes deeper than that.

Mexico's "white city" has a reputation for the overall light tones of its architecture and its cleanliness, some of it I think attributable to rains washing away the calles' trash, into the quickly filling sewers, up to street level; this peninsula is only a few meters above sea level. They have a slogan here I love: "Ponte chulo, Mérida," and trash bins are marked organic and inorganic in keeping with one of the most progressive recycling programs outside Costa Rica or Boulder, Colo.

A guide tells us the history of the main cathedral, of course built on the former site and from stones of a Maya pyramid that stood here, at the end of the 16th century. The altar's 21-foot, second-largest-in-the-world sculpture of Christ, carved by Maya converts, seems like an amateurish attempt by the conquering clergy to erase the pyramid's former grandeur.

The north floor is lined with stones engraved with the names of worshippers who restored the church after a fire. To get to the altar, at times we're forced to walk on the names, some of which are Chinese, many names already blurred from countless footsteps. At Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, you're no longer allowed to erode the pyramids' history with your shoes. In Mérida, the Catholic hierarchy lets us grind down these testaments to the sacrifices of the devout. Some institutions continue their conquerer attitudes.

During our stay, I repeatedly encounter one family of Maya vendors in traditional attire--a mother, two daughters, one of high-school age. She's one of few who carries a chip on her shoulder, maybe about tourists, maybe about having to degrade herself selling goods in public--I don't know which, but I share her disgust. But it's the daughter as old as my second graders back home who gets to me. My tourist guilt nets me a belt, purse and ten pulseras faster than my wife can grab my arm. By trip's end, we'll do more transactions with them, but never enough to assuage the older girl. In the long run, maybe no one can, except Marcos.

On the outskirts of Mérida at the Universidad Marista, we tour an aguaculture facility, a system integrating fish, fowl, water and crops, civilization's attempt to refine how Maya rural people feed themselves. It utilizes aboveground, four-foot-high concrete "ponds" the gov't built for the indigenes to store water. The Mayas gave up using them because of small children drowning in the rainwater. This new system keeps the level low, sparing the children, but deep enough for tilapia and ducks to thrive. The entire exhibit is about conserving, recycling valuable agua dulce to embellish the Yucateco diet.

I ask the techs if they considered using duck poop as pond sealer, as done elsewhere in the world. Over time, poop that sinks to the bottom solidifies and turns impervious. But there's little topsoil on the peninsula, limestone below, making digging difficult. This didn't stop the ancient Mayas from digging their own rain barrels. I don't understand why, with rented jackhammers and indigenous labor, such couldn't be done again, eliminating the cost of concrete, no doubt a burden on villagers.

But I'm just a tourist, not expected to know much, and either my poor Spanish or the camera around my neck prevent my words being taken seriously. I decide the techs maybe already considered the idea unfeasible and take a photo of the ducks.

Under a hut where beehives are housed, we get more info on the cycle of life, food and culture. A Maya gardener who's been trailing us while working begins explaining something. As the whole class listens, he transforms from university gardener into shaman-historian, describing indigenous practices still conducted in remote areas.

It is a tale of communal ritual, of elders sharing the harvest, their pueblo's wealth. It is a story of dark forces vented on those who violate the good of the community. It is a transcendental glimpse of the Mayas, maybe thousands of years old. Though this might be the gardener's usual spiel to thrill tourists, I let him take me, I accept his words as true, and for several minutes, I'm his willing receptacle--not of the words and story, which I've already lost, but of the "sense" of elsewhere. If I try, I can almost smell burning copal, hear the hombre espiritiste and make out quiet drums keeping time to a chant in an exotic tongue. Whatever his intentions, if only for moments, he's given at least me a different perception of the soil I stand on.

I'd prefer to stay for more, but we head into the university to hear a university professor's lecture on the Maya. Through no fault of his own, he will have a difficult time capturing my ear.

The Maya professor Jose speaks Mayan and laces his history of Maya civilization, their astronomy, math and study of time with Mayan words and phrases. It sounds more exotic and melodious than what I heard in the theater from Mel Gibson's cast. The film isn't available here, except pirated, until next year, so I don't ask him which sacrificial ritual should be used on Mel.

Jose gives us enough Mayan orientation that we'll go around for the next days sprinkling our speech with xmá (no), maló mac (ate well) and in caba Rudy (my name is). Half a million Mayas are bilingual, another 50 thou, monolingual in some dialect. We're not parroting a dead language. (Jose only taught us orally, so my spelling is probably a bit off.)

At lunchtime, the cafeteria is opened just for us, and we eat prepared Maya dishes with our host, the university professor Tony. I can't feel guilty about our privileged status, since I chalk it up to our Profe's skills at building personal relationships, the way it's still done in Mexico.

Wandering the almost empty campus (it's Xmas fiesta time), I hear construction workers talk about going to ask what our lunch would cost them. A couple go to the counter and return with ample plates. Then another half dozen go over. From the smiles on their faces, I think they got free meals since there's no one around to eat what we didn't; it would just go to waste. I feel good the presence of our tour inadvertently fed someone else.

Hugo, the artist in our bunch, is out too, with pen and pad in hand. I ask if he's going to draw a tree with huge, splendidly variegated gold and yellow leaves; he responds it would take him weeks. I snap off one of the leaves, press it between the pages of my spiral; it makes a better memento than most things I will purchase.

As part of our total immersion, each night at dinner we do oral presentations of the day's activities. I love this stuff--the opportunity to talk to a captive audience, in any language. After a seafood lunch on the coast (details in my next post) that shamefully equaled an ancient Maya lord's feast, we dine at La Casa de Frida, a Vegas-type recreation decked out with Kahlo reproductions, a poblano menu to match. For my report, I try combining recent events into un acertijo, a riddle: Qué pesa más que una puerta del Consulado Americano? Tres platos de ceviche en Progresso.

I think I'm being clever, but even the Profe can't understand the joke. Despite not having drunk more than soda, I have to explain literally every word, thus totally deflating my future propsects as a Chicano Cantinflas. I decide the remainder of my stay will be filled with fewer prosaic trabalenguas, but more of the Yucateco people, as detailed in my final installment.

© Rudy Ch. Garcia 2007

The last installment of this will appear tomorrow, Friday, in lieu of Ramos's regular post; he needed some time off.

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