Taking two steps up a pair of offset cinder blocks, I crept behind the cheap, pink, plastic shower curtain, cordoning off an open air toilet, raised, just high enough, so the shit and piss could drain into somewhere out of sight. Twenty four hours into Mexico, the only object witnessed marking manufacturing ties to the US were these glistening stools, seen both in upscale, but mostly in the down-scaled squats, screen printed “American Standard.”
Trying my hardest to not touch foot skin to the grimey cement, I pulled my swim trunks over my black shoes, and my black, calf high socks. Stepping back down from the DIY outhouse, I walked to the overhang where the stewards to this illegal commune, grilled skewered chicken thighs over an open fire.
“One hundred pesos” the man with a tightly cinched belt called out. His jeans pulled up high above his belly button, turning them into high waters. Shirtless, his skin was deep brown, leather.
“Would you like a pair of goggles?”
At the equivalent of $5 US dollars, our dip in their cenote was all ready four times the norm. “No thanks” we said, thinking the addition might jack up the price.
“Here…you cannot go in there without these.”
The leathery gatekeeper handed us a pair of swim goggles to share.
“I have some weed too, if you’d like to test it?”
“No thanks,” I responded, as politely as possible. I could tell from the deep red, the overexposed blood-shot-ness of his eyes that his self-testing had been a success. He didn’t need me to be his guinea pig.
I’d wondered how we got our apartment rental so inexpensive?
The entrance to the complex was a long and arduous paver brick road above scorched earth, winding into the jungle. As we walked, we could hear tinkering in the woods. Of foundations being laid. Rebar hammered into the ground. Of the metal innards injected into open architectural cavities. All man-made sounds, coming from deep in this Yucatanian wilderness. Until we turned a corner.
At this junction, the left side of the road opened up to avail a medley of modern, Miami style condo complexes of cinder block facades, rosewood accents, and thatched roofs. Florafauna.
Those cozy, regional names, celebrating the jungle-scape that each impending building trampled under hoof. We switched back, we switched forth, meandering through a small expat city freshly imprinted into the earth.
Aldea Zaman was the name of the neighborhood. Zaman village, our upscale Condo.
Antiseptic inside. A paradise of palms surrounding a shallow, lima bean shaped pool in the courtyard where, under the water, alternating lights mimicked the Gulf of Mexico casting hues of red, green and blue into the pumped in, chlorinated waters.
The Mayan Super greeted us.
His left eye, milky and dead with blindness. His right, avoiding direct facial contact.
Opening his left hand, he gestured us through a heavy, rosewood door. Its panels connected by medieval rivets, able to withstand a small army’s battering ram, or a impending Yucatanian, pagan jungle.
With his right, he unlatched an adjacent, unembellished passage, and stepped into his darkness.
With the grandiosity of the Mayan pyramids, the sacrifice of warriors, both of their sweat, tears and of themselves, to the Gods, to the Chieftain, to the perpetuity of the existence of their people, I wondered with what means, with what impetus, a boat load of Spaniards successfully made their way this far inland?
Those paintings at this 18th century colonial mansion, told a brindled story: Walking from frame to embellished frame, traversing beautiful, imported tiles, I gathered an interpretation of a one-sided conquest.
Near the entrance of the mansion, there was gold flake memorabilia in the diminutive case. Its reception desk, overlooking the Catholic Church at city center.
I didn’t have to look far to find my answer.
Outside the colonial home, we chose an alley and headed north.
Here, in the Yucatan, the golden hour seems perpetual, reflected within its urban interior through the choice of architectural pastels. Each house, each mechanic shop, the bodegas, all interconnected with narrow corridors radiating from city center outward and eventually into the no-mans land of the almost infinite jungle-scape.
Could it have only been a nine minute walk?
Ducking off a busy thoroughfare and underneath a stucco arch, this gate was kept by a tiny woman in a thatched hut. The scene was reminiscent of an American, old-timey lemonade stand. I gave my thirty five pesos, the equivalent to $1.50, and instead of lemons, I was granted entrance into a cave.
On the path leading into its mouth, a family of Mayan children hocked woven woolen bracelets in bright tones of orange and red, accentuated with cream fringe. Their mats littered with salvaged plastic beads, in an assortment of motley sizes. Each pieced together on a stringed necklace: perfect to help a foreign tourist remember.
We descended a switchback of stairs, opening one hundred feet below into a giant cenote. At the bottom, looking directly above us, an outcrop, which was the lip of the cave’s mouth, hosted a giant nest of bees swarming ancient roots that crept through the karst, surrounding a giant pool of “sweet” blue, fresh water.
Bat guano infused the stagnant air.
In and out of shadows, hopping from stalactite cubbies created by millions of years of seeping water, a black vulture balanced precariously on the rock’s edge. It watched the swimmers below, in hopes, quite possibly, that someone might float lifeless to the top.
To the left, up high, overlooking the massive cenote, a school kid strummed a guitar. And with a bamboo flute strapped to his neck, whistled, on repeat,
And “It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth The minor fall, the major lift..”
He will always lord over this image in memory; my reminiscence of a true Mayan temple. He is, unbeknownst to him, the “baffled king on his throne composing hallelujah.”
I could see the blinded Super just shy of his threshold. Though it wasn’t he who woke me, it was the birdsong. The calls and cackles. The whistling. Of the Melodious Blackbird. Yucatan Jays. Pairs of Chacalakas, with their ornate tail fans, their unnecessarily long necks, bellowing praise for morning.
Through this fresh experience, I naively hoped the birds were calling to us.
From the roof I watched the sun rise. It cast light on the trees, black specs, rising in and out, littering each. And in the distance, the white froth of surf in a sea that connected from where I came.
Amongst it all, rising up in the Mayan jungle, several obelisks stretched no higher than four stories. They served as totems of fledgling conquests to the environment, by fresh, white conquistadors.
The higher the sun, the more pitched their frequency.
I had heard rumors this was more common near the equator. The last frontier of arable lands.
The birds weren’t inviting, they were requesting our mass exodus.
Daniel was betrothed to the jungle. From Mexico City, he moved here to the Yucatan almost twenty years ago to be better connected to a somewhat primitive landscape. He was here before the resorts, the influx of central European tourists. He was here before the squatters made him pay to enter this cenote.
￼“Ts’onot,” from the Yucatec Maya, anglified into “cenote.” Where limestone bedrock dissolves and exposes groundwater.
Ts’onot; of mystical properties, a connection to the spiritual world, what the Mayans regularly chose as a dump off for human sacrifice.
Cenote; we experienced, as middle class, white vacationers from the US, simply as a way to cool off, in this blistering, subtropical winter.
Daniel dove in, head first. The water’s clarity allowed us the view of his perfect, inverted arc underneath and across. For no less than ninety seconds he remained submerged, surfacing when he reached the other side. He ducked in again, and with much less propulsion, made it back to the other shore, where we sat, in shock of his endurance.
Daniel told us that this pool, this cenote, was the most natural that he knew of in this stretch of the Yucatan. Unlike the others, mostly cut into cave systems, this pool was strikingly different. Primitive, exposed to the elements, the acrid smell of sour salt dried up on the mangroves roots that enveloped this hiding place.
We learned from Daniel that the farther inland you go, the more “sweet” the water becomes. Here, near the coast, brackish water serves home to sea creatures. Sheepshead, fiddler crabs, and the mythical “Sebalo.”
With multiple fins on its back, jagged scales serving as a prehistoric armor, If you’re lucky, he said, you will see it dipping in and out of calm water like a serpent.
Daniel mentioned that he had only seen the Sebalo here, in this mangrove swamp.
The sun dipped lower on the horizon, the water’s chill bit a tad harder, as I jumped in one last time. Pulling the cheap, plastic goggles over my eyes, I began doggy paddling across the pool. Underneath me, in the expansive deep, I hoped for corinthian columns, reflecting some grandiose empire, lost to grandiose cause and effect. But where the karst withered away over centuries, giant, amorphous boulders lay piled instead. As I waded, the water became colder. I could feel my skin shrinking closer to bone as I paddled my arms in circles, balancing myself in the brackish water just long enough to take a mental picture of what lay below and beyond.
I scissor kicked, one-two.
I waved, right arm up, left arm down.
And on that downward stroke, the downward spiral of my wedding band began as it slipped off my boney finger.
Through my cheap goggles, I watched it slowly descend into the schools of sheapshead as they darted in and out of their rocky homes.
A myriad of other smaller, unidentifiable fish turned circles on the outskirts.
Panicking, I heaved myself, head first into the water.
But it was a futile, reactive thought squashed quickly by the rational mind of a poor swimmer. Raising my head above water, the sun setting to close, the shadows below gained darkness.
Tumbling through the currents below, I could only hope my wedding band would be swallowed.
By a fish, evolved from the environment, a fish that belonged here.
Or maybe even the mythic Sebalo. Gulped down through what I envisioned to be its otherworldy sized mouth.
The king of this body of water.
Until the day, inevitably, when this mangrove forest gets trampled into a sandy beach for an Eco hotel.
With its tin roof, white hurricane shutters, and dapper servants with name tags stating where in the world they came from: Estonia, South Africa, Hollywood-Florida.
They will call it “Sweetwater Preserve” or “Playa Del Sol” or simply, “The Mangrove.”
And on that beach, a tourist, from somewhere far away, will pluck that fish.
They will hand it over to the kitchen where the head and tail will be sheared off.
It will be properly de-scaled.
And when the knife begins to fillet its abdomen, the gullet will reveal an ancient, Mayan relic: that black band, a paradox, encompassing the secret marriage of a lost Yucatanian civilization and the environment that enveloped it.
Photo by Brian Adams