||After a summer of waking early every morning to catch the employee bus to my job at Xcaret on the Yucatan Peninsula, I should have had no trouble waking early this morning. After all, today was the day I was supposed to catch an eleven-thirty flight back to the United States. But as it turned out, I had slept late and might have slept straight through the day had not a gust of wind slammed back the shutters over my window and rattled me awake. I rose with a start, suddenly aware of the bind I was in. I packed hurriedly, threw my bag over my shoulder, and rushed out to the coastal highway.
Once there, all I could do was wait. I stood, staring up the road for a ride to take me to the airport. Then after a bit I sat down next to my crammed backpack. From the highway, I could see the sun rising through the low clouds over Cozumel and thought of the approaching day. My lack of planning had left me plucking at the brim of my work hat, a hundred kilometers from the airport.
While fiddling with the weathered hat, I thought of something E. L. Doctorow once said, that writing a novel is like driving at night. You may only be able to see as far as your headlights, but its enough to get you all the way. Well, my experiences that summer had felt like the beginning of a novel. The beginning only. It wasnt over yet and I still had a lot to figure out.
My life in Mexico was nothing like my life in Seattle. In Mexico, I had been surprised to discover that I could always count on seeing my friends. We rarely had to schedule a get-together because the rhythm of our lives brought us together in the town square, on the roads to and from work, and in the few nightspots we frequented after the sun went down.
In Mexico, I wasnt nearly so nervous about what lay ahead in the darkness. I had spent much of my time-off that summer hitchhiking the roads of the Yucatan, walking miles in the blistering heat that was broken by an occasional afternoon thundershower, submerging myself in another culture, and taking responsibility for myself in this very different part of the world. Indefinite plans were no longer as threatening as they once had seemed. I felt that I could handle the darkness ahead of me, beyond my own headlights. I was ready to move out on my own, and even impatient to discover what the future held, impatient to live outside the shelter of my parents.
The sound of a distant truck woke me from these thoughts. I stood up, slung my bag over my shoulder, and stuck out my thumb. A minute later, the truck rattled to a stop a few feet in front of me. I asked the driver where he was headedpleased that my Spanish came more easily nowand to my good fortune, he was headed in the direction I needed to go. I jumped up onto the tailgate of the truck, swung my legs over the home-made sideboard, and took a seat on a bag of concrete.
As the truck bounced over the potholes in the road, I thought of the experiences I would tell my friends about when I returned to Seattle. I remembered my countless close-calls and numerous blunders that would have made my experience inconceivable in the United States. I laughed out loud, thinking of how many times I had misread bus schedules and been forced to sleep under the stars. I thought of how different my life had been here in Quintana Roo than back in Seattle.
For instance, in Seattle had I remembered a plane flight at the last minute, I would have to give up on it. It would have never even crossed my mind to race down to the bus station, where I would undoubtedly spend hours waiting. Nor would I run out to the road and stick out my thumb, only a crazy driver would pick me up. In Mexico, my mistakes could be remedied.
In Valladolid, if the bus wasnt coming for a while, I could walk down the road with my thumb out. In the worst of all possible cases, the bus would pick me up in route. More likely, however, the first truck that passed would offer me a ride. As we rattled northward I began to wonder what it was in the structure of our two countries that allowed me to be there, in the back of a this strangers truck, clicking off miles to the airport. What made that scenario impossible to imagine in the United States? Why are these two countries that were developed on almost the same land, at the same time, so different from each other?
Much of our strength is founded on the Puritan ethic. Many believe that the United States is a society that values quantifiable results above everything. Whether that means profit margin or time efficiency, every success can be measured. We would not be the powerhouse country we are today if we did not drive so hard for results. However, the United States is so addicted to this mathematical efficiency, that it can easily overlook the spontaneous side of human life. It is the human ability to adapt to swiftly changing situations that helps set us apart from other animals. One must not forget that charts and schedules should never govern life to the exclusion of the human spirit.
Mexico has not forgotten what it is like to live life like driving at night, and for better or for worse, the time I spent in the Yucatan was not wholly lost to the ticking of a clock. However, from a quick look at Mexicos governmental and economic situation, it seems that Mexico has likely suffered in the absence of the result-oriented structure we Americans can enjoy. Being on my own in the Yucatan made me ask myself what it is in these two countries that pushes their people in such different directions. What hidden factor in the skeleton of our societies can make two neighbors emphasize such different aspects of life?
When I returned to Seattle and school started, I changed my classes to include a Latin American Independent Study course. For my project I have been writing a guide to the part of the Mexico where I lived and worked. Perhaps by writing what I observed of the Mexican-Yucatan culture, I will better understand what makes our two countries such strangers to each other.
Towns in the Yucatan
Cancun is the epitome of the American resort paradise. Its a tourists heaven of white sandy beaches, high-rise motels, and loud night life.
Cancun is located on the Northeastern tip of Mexicos Yucatan peninsula. The tourist zone of Cancun is basically a fourteen mile long breakwater running down the coast. Its at no point wider than half a mile, but still home to roughly one hundred resorts. The turquoise water pulls gently at the beach, offering a perfect place to read your John Grisham navel and nurse your rum and coke. While nature offers you that perfect place, often the people will try their hardest to ruin it for you. The sheer mass of tourists that Cancun attracts can often snuff a peaceful vacation, and turn it into a horror movie of wailing kids, hyperactive twelve-year-olds, and doddering seniors.
Being the largest resort in Mexico and perhaps the world, Cancun has much to supplement nature. It has just as many night clubs, bars and discos as it has hotels. It hosts the Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood, Senor Frogs, and two of every imitation known to man. At around eleven oclock, when the sleeping contingent of the town has gone to bed, another world emerges. Cancun turns into Mexicos Vegas. The neon signs flash (in English) and fast music pulses from the discos, Reggae bumbles from the bars, and seventys rock floats out of the night clubs into the thick air.
Playa Del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is the place to be in Mexico. Its located about an hour down the coast from Cancun, and it is the main port to Cozumel. Playa entertains weather, water and sand as does Cancun, but doesnt host a myriad of resorts.
Playa is Mexicos new artsy, ex-patriot town. One could not imagine walking down a street and hearing more languages than are represented in Playa. A sign explaining the boat schedules to Cozumel is written in Spanish, English, Italian, French, German, Portuguese, and Mayan. Playa has small hotels, palapas, hostels, and posadas in place of the mammoth resorts. It appeals to the graduate students on their honeymoon, looking to escape the rigors of their life for a short time, and take refuge in a quiet posada on the beach.
The tourist part of Play del Carmen is touristy, its just a different type of touristy. While Cancun tourists arrive at their reserved resort room in a rental car, Playa-goers hike in from the highway and ask a local for the best place to sleep. Playa has its nightlife, a key element of any tourist town; its just set to a different octave. The bars have less universal names, Capitan Tutix and El Limon for example. Theyre sure to be playing either Flamenco, Reggae, or slow rock, because there are only three resident bands in Playa, one of each. The six or seven bars in Playa share them, as well as the aspiring or traveling musicians who happen on the scene.
Valladolid has none of the characteristics of the of coastal towns like Playa and Cancun. Its an old, Spanish colonial town, not unlike many towns in central Mexico. Its located more or less in the middle of the peninsula, in the state of Yucatan.
The town is not geared towards any tourist activity whatsoever. A bus drops you off on the outskirts of town and its about a twenty minute walk to the central square and market district. Valladolid, like all Spanish colonial towns, is centered around the church and the square. The church was once a massive affair, yet years and weather have pulled it apart.
The squares elegance, however, seems to compliment the church and together they radiate the character of Valladolid. The square is a large garden with cobblestone walkways and a fountain in the center. Narrow paths off from the main walkways lead to shady dead ends and white cast iron benches. The central square is littered with curiously shaped chairs placed beneath large trees. The chairs are engineered so that the two chairs are fluidly connected yet they face each other, obviously designed to host young lovers staring deep into each others eyes.
The central square is always bright with the tropical sun, Yet, through leaves, branches and chirping birds, you can see the rounded gray church looming above, adding a timelessness to the scene.
Piste is the smallest of the towns I have mentioned. Its a balance between tourist-geared towns and the purely Yucatec towns. Its located about an hour west of Valladolid, in the middle of the state of Yucatan.
Pistes sole livelihood comes from the fact that it is about a half a kilometer from the ruins of Chichen Itza. Nearly every tourist who visits Cancun and the Yucatan visits Chichen Itza, the most picturesque of Mayan ruins. If they visit the ruins, they are sure to pass through Piste. The town takes full advantage of its location. Every store is over flowing with Chichen memorabilia; miniature pyramids, hand carved statues, sacred Itza stones, and every other handcraft that can be related to the ruins. However, other than curio shops and a few small hotels, Piste is a modern Yucatec town. The tourist shops make up just about one block, but the rest is a little more quiet. Piste has its contingent of stray dogs and messy haired little kids.
Since it is mainly geared towards day tourists, there is very little night life. The locals will often set chairs out in the sidewalk and watch a T.V. in their friends store. If a tourist is starving for nightlife and other Americans, his best bet would be to walk down to the ruins and watch the Chichen Itza night show.
Hitchhiking has become almost a taboo word within the past two decades. My Parents always tell me stories about their childhood adventures, but in the same breath they say never to do it. Hitchhiking, without a doubt, as its dangers and is not a thing to blindly do. I speak of hitchhiking in Mexico only because in America one is rarely burdened with the necessity and offered the opportunity to do it. In the Yucatan it is a reliable form of transportation.
The game of hitchhiking is very straight forward. One must present themselves as a good, respectable person who simply has the earnest desire to get somewhere. This is easily achieved by smiling, wearing a clean shirt, and not bringing any type of weapon. Location is the next most important thing. The exits and entrances of small towns usually have topes or speed bumps. They are very strategic points because the cars must slow down for them. The drivers are forced to look at you and reject your plea for a ride, rather than simply ignore you. Rejecting a weary hitchhiker can play heavily on a drivers conscious. Ive noticed that the opposite seems to be true in America.
Use common sense. Hitchhiking can be very dangerous if you dont use good judgment. Just like sex, there are many ways to cut the risk of hitchhiking. Dont go alone, especially at night. Dont get rides from mean looking people in mean parts of town. Try to get rides in the back of trucks, rather than tinted cars.
No one was going to stop me from seeing Chichen Itza. My flight back to the States was in two weeks and I knew that I could never get on the plane if I hadnt climbed the steps of el Castillo. I had sent so many postcards of Chichen to my friends that I had to at least visit the place.
My work mates warned me that Chichen was a long ways away. I would be lucky to get there in four hours, just in time for sundown. I consulted my 1988 National Geographic one more time and decided to disregard their skeptical advice. I would forge a new way to Chichen, instead of going through Cancun, I would speed down the coast, and cut through the more remote jungle near Coba.
My plan started perfectly. I raced out to the coastal highway and immediately caught a bus to Tulum. I strolled into the Tulum bus station confident that I would set a new record to the Yucatans interior. However, my imagination slowly crumpled as I read that schedule, the next bus for the interior didnt leave until six oclock, that was two hours away.
This was just a small setback, and I didnt give up hope. I walked out to the highway junction and started west. Chichen was about 200 km away, but surely someone would pick me up. Half an hour later, a truck offered me a ride and I jumped in the back. My spirits lifted as the truck bounced its way through the small towns and we clicked off mile to Chichen Itza. The drivers were apparently metal workers, the back of their truck was littered with blow torches, saws, heavy gloves, and pieces of pipe. Shortly it started to rain and I was grateful when the drivers pulled over and got a plastic tarp out of the cab. After all I was getting pretty wet. They smiled at me and proceeded to carefully cover their equipment.
Buses are by far the most widely used form of transportation. Bus travel in the Yucatan is not even the same idea as bus travel in the United States. The bus is at the root of all transportation for un-walkable distances. They operate very efficiently and if one does not mind them, there is no reason to own a car.
Every town will have a bus station or stop, depending on the size. There are basically different classes of bus; tourist, first class, and second class. The Yucatan is served by roughly five main bus companies, and many small ones. Just like inner-city buses in the States, each bus will run a route throughout the day. The bus stations and stop will offer a very loose schedule for the buses.
The tourist buses are clean, air-conditioned, and run on schedule. Greyline is the only company that runs a true tourist bus. They are expensive, not as expensive in the United States, but nevertheless require more than pocket change. Their largest luxury, however, is the fact that they dont overcrowd. The driver will only sell as many tickets as there are seats. On long trips, nothing is quite so refreshing as having your own seat.
First class buses are simply cheaper versions of tourist buses. Theyre not quite so clean, and they are not geared towards Americans. Tourist buses in the Yucatan often have signs translated into English. The first class buses are much more dedicated to Mexicans on long bus rides. They make more stops than the tourist buses, but rarely do they pick people up from the side of the road.
The second class bus is the converted school bus with chickens and crates strapped to the top. They appear as if they are not only the personal property of the driver, but his home as well. The are, in-fact, usually owned by a company, but rarely do they look like it. The driver will pick up passengers anywhere, at any time regardless of how crowded the bus already is. One will often find themselves in such a crowd that they cannot tell the driver where to let them off. The price difference between first and second class becomes irrelevant as you helplessly pass by your stop and the bus chugs on to the next city.
Taxis are the rich persons alternative to buses. They are the same as taxis in the United States except they are much cheaper, and instead of charging by the mile, the driver will give you a fixed rate for transportation between two sections of town. For example, from the bus station to the hotel zone of Cancun costs forty pesos. Taxis are also much more abundant in large-town Mexico than in the U.S.
Colectivos are the medium between buses and taxis. A colectivo is often an old VW bus that is painted to look like a taxi. They are basically taxis that hold many people. Once a colectivo is flagged down, the driver will ask you where you want to go. If he is going in the same general direction he will take you. It is as if you and some strangers got together and chartered a bus. Every person that the colectivo collects defrays that cost of the overall trip. However, every person must be dropped off in a slightly different place.
Tourists will discover that eating out is very cheap and very commonplace among other tourists. The truth is that they are right. Eating out in Mexico is cheap when compared to American food of the same calibre. Many tourists stop there. The think that they have found good, cheap food, and refuse to believe that it can get any better. I made that very mistake when first I visited that Yucatan. It was not until my friends dragged me away from the tourist restaurants that I realized what I had been missing.
The local restaurants are often half the price of the cheap tourist restaurants. The food is exactly the same, but it is less garnished. As long as you are in the mood for Mexican food, nothing can really beat a local Mexican cocina. Playa del Carmen has one street where you will find all that tourist restaurants. The tourists rarely venture off that one street, and if they do, they are quick to return. In one case, I found that I was, in fact, eating at the back door of one of the tourist restaurants. At one end, they charged five dollars for a moleto torta and served it on a wooden plate with a sliced lemon. At the other end they served the same thing on a paper plate for a dollar fifty.
The coastal Yucatan is world renowned for its nightlife. Cancun, the largest 5-star resort city in the world, is often called Mexicos party city. You cannot walk a block in the hotel zone without passing at least three bars. While Cancun carries the flag for Yucatec nightlife, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen contribute their fair share.
The Yucatan hosts two major types of nightspots; discos and Caribbean bars. The discos are just as anyone would imagine. Theyre dark, with lots of pink strobe lights and fast music. Its all computer-generated techno music and, after an evening, you may go crazy listening to the same beats pound through the head second after second. They are populated strictly with young drunk tourists from other nations than Mexico. If questioning what to wear, consult MTV.
In other parts of the town you will see local disco clubs. They are much lower key and generally involve some type of show.
The Caribbean bars feel much more natural to the climate and the atmosphere of the Yucatan. They are generally open air with a thatch cover in case it rains. The music is usually live, and its almost always some sort of reggae. The environment of the bars is much more relaxed than that of the discos. Rather than perpetually dance like malfunctioning robots, the bars encourage dancing to select songs. At a bar, it is not heresy to sit down and nurse a beer rather than toss back five shots of tequila.
Chichen Itza is the jewel of the Yucatec Mayan ruins. It has remained almost un-weathered throughout the millennia. Its located in the northern center of the peninsula. Today Chichen is a huge tourist attraction, forcing everyone who visits the Yucatan to see its glory. There is not a single postcard rack in the entire Yucatan that will not have a picture of Chichens Castillo or el Caracol.
In Mayan, Chichen Itza means mouth of the well of the water wizard. The ruins were built around a sacred cenote that has recently revealed gold idols, jade jewelry, and human skeletons. These were offerings to Chaac Mool, the rain god, and the most powerful among Mayan gods. Chichen flourished as a power center of the Mayas from A.D. 950-1250. At around 1250 it mysteriously declined along with most of the Mayan culture, but the stones still stand as a testament to its once upon a time might.
Tulum is a ruin that one would never hear of if it were not so close to Cancun. The Mayas were terribly afraid of the water, so thus it is a small ruin with no impressive towers or pretty architecture. It is the largest of the coastal ruins and likely was a port of trade with southern powers.
Coba is the Mayan city that has yet to have been discovered by Cancun. It is hidden deep in the rainy jungles of the eastern Yucatan. My first visit to Coba promised to be a very bad one. As soon as the brick truck dropped me off, the clouds bust open, and within minutes I was soaked to the bone. I walked about fifty feet and noticed and sign on the roadside, COBA 8km. I asked you to let me off at Coba, not a healthy walk outside of it! I yelled into the deafening rain. I yanked off my dripping shirt, and began marching.
Three hours later and still cursing the truck driver, I trudged into the small town of Coba. The rain had driven everyone inside. I stood in the empty street like a cowboy in a western movie. I walked to the end of the ghost town and looked for signs to the pyramids. I found nothing. I slowly began to doubt my 1991 National Geographic, what if this was a different Coba? What if I took a wrong turn? I hadnt seen a single living thing since the truck dropped me off on the highway. I remembered reading about a group of anthropologists who visited sacred Incan ruins and soon after died of a mysterious illness. What if the village was cursed and I was to be another perpetrator killed in my sleep by spirits and demons!!!
The road followed along the grassy edges of a lake. I couldnt see the opposite bank of the lake, it was lost in the rain. I was busy imagining all the terrible things that were going to happen to me, when I looked up from the puddles in the road and through the jungle canopy I saw a huge, looming shadow disappearing into the rain. My heart froze, and I immediately bolted in the opposite direction. I ran full speed all the way back to the town. As I came to the main street I nearly stepped on a little Mexican boy playing in a puddle. He jumped about three feet into the air and let out a terrible yell. The boy was obviously frightened and he ran back towards his house. A second later he came out with his mother talking in frantic Spanish. All of a sudden I felt like an idiot of biblical proportions.
She suspiciously approached me with the child pointing at me from behind her legs as if he was fingering a mob boss. She eventually asked me who I was and what I was doing. I was silent while my brain felt around for a lie. I was training for a marathon, and needed to practice in the rain?..on muddy roads?
.um.. The story quickly disintegrated. The mother and son took several steps backwards looking at me as if I were a three legged kangaroo. I sheepishly cut off my sentence as they backed out of listening range. Terribly embarrassed I said goodbye, and mucho gusto, but by then they were safely behind their door.
I ran through the rain back to the looming pyramid. It was the tallest pyramid on the entire Yucatan peninsula. I hiked to the top and sat in the doorway of the temple, while rain pounded on the stones as it had done for centuries.
The Mayans were arguably the most advanced of all the pre-Colombian western civilizations. The height of Mayan Civilization lasted from roughly A.D. 250 until A.D. 900, three times longer than the United States has been a country.
The Mayans were incredibly advanced in architecture and astronomy. With crude stone tools they created a solar calendar, and calculated the path of Venus to within fourteen seconds of its true course. Every major construction of the Mayas is built around an astronomical phenomenon. The pyramid at Chichen Itza is the most famous of all their creations. During the spring equinox, the sun casts a shadow from the temple on the top of the pyramid. The shadow creates the image of a serpent, and throughout the day the serpent climbs the steps and enters the temple. In the fall, the serpent descends from his lair in the temple and escapes into the jungle until the following spring.
Every day scientists are discovering new astronomical significances in Mayan constructions. Perhaps you may be there at the right minute, of the right day, of the right year to discover a new one. The architecture of the Mayans will never be stagnant even when it is destroyed and returns to the Earth.
New To Spanish
It was my second day in Mexico, and I was manning the information booth of the eco archaeological park where I worked. It was also the height of the Mexican tourist season, and I was not yet comfortable speaking Spanish. On this particular day, it seemed that every person who approached me asked, Where is the bathroom? They used every possible Spanish synonym for the word bathroom, many of which I had never heard before, and it wasnt long before I became convinced that they were trying to stump me. After all, I decided, they could probably tell that I was an American and thought they would have a little fun at my expense. Near the end of the day, a man came up to me and asked if I had seen his wife. He spoke quickly, and I didnt recognize the word esposa. But I was pretty sure I knew what he meant.
I calmly pointed down the trail and told him to turn left at the post; from there he would see the bathroom. A puzzled look came over his face, but he did as I instructed. He turned and walked down the trail, only to return a short time later and tell me that she wasnt there. She wasnt there? What was he talking about? I wondered. Chuckling to myself, I left the information booth and marched him down the trail to the bathroom. Again, a puzzled look came to his face. Exasperated, I opened the door and pointed at the toilet. At that point, this seemingly small man became a very large presence and backed me into a corner. His ears had turned scarlet and obscenities were pouring from his mouth as I fruitlessly tried to explain myself. Finally, I was rescued by another employee of the park. But not until ten minutes later did this friend explain my blunder to me.