roadside burnings, and wrong turnings;
ancient temples, fear of vegetables;
no tortillas, but quesadillas;
successive topes, sacrificial cenotes;
gasoline pouring, Mike Schiff snoring;
Caribbean waters, chicklet daughters;
churches neoned, rulers peoned;
magician's creations, night illuminations;
jaguars snacking, gamers hacking;
horchatas drunk, statues sunk;
agua purificada, Chaacolate enchilada;
Madonna singing, fishes winging;
Belgians thumbing, meals running
To find out what the poem means, scroll down and read the explanations below, which will, in non-linear fashion, detail the events of the trip. You can also click on a phrase in the poem and go directly to the relevant explanation.
As we drove down the main highway from Merida to Coba, we began to notice the stench of burning leaves and plumes of smoke, and finally we observed small patches of flaming debris along the side of the road. At first we thought that people had dumped and burned garbage there, but soon we came upon a great cloud of smoke almost too thick to see through, and driving into it we came upon Mexican workers with blowtorches and gasoline setting fire to the greenery at the side of the wrong. In this way they were apparently carving out shoulders from the dense jungle.
We were trying to get to Ticul the evening after we saw the Uxmal ruins, since it looked like the nearest spot that had a reasonable choice of restaurants. With twilight descending we pulled into a very small town which we took to be Ticul. There was nothing there except a small central square, in which we left our conspicuous motorized vehicle. Tied to a tree in the square was a large black bull. Some sort of fair seemed to be going on; a small number of tables and games (like "hit the balloon with the dart") were being set up in the fading light. The most unusual thing about this little town, whose name it turned out was Santa Elena, was its church. This monstrous, crumbling edifice sat on a hill above the square, many times larger than any buildings around it. A great wide stairway, once majestic but now crumbling worse than the Mayan pyramid steps, led up to this gargantuan Catholic structure from the square. The unadorned, crumbling facade was crowned crazily by a large, neon cross shining out into the darkness. We climbed the steps, carefully, and peered inside the church. Originally designed to comfortably hold hundreds of people, it now contained, tiny in that vast emptiness, six pews at the far front.
That church made a great impression on us.
The Temple of the Warriors, Temple of the Phalluses, Temple of the Initial Series, Temple of the Turtles, you name it, they had it at the Mayan ruins.
It's well known that in Mexico it is dangerous to drink the water or eat unwashed produce. Throughout the trip we were engaged in a continuous inner struggle about what we could and couldn't eat, and where. At first we carefully pushed the raw tomatoes and lettuce to one side of our plates, but ate the pickled onion. At fancy restaurants, vegetable-vitamin-starved, we sometimes gave in to our baser urges and swallowed, at our peril, a small piece of unclean food. Thankfully, we suffered no ill consequences.
Finally arriving in Ticul after a slight misadventure (see "Wrong turnings"), we entered the "Los Alimendros" Restaurant some time after 7:00. It was a small place, and two or three of the tables were occupied my locals finishing up their meals. After we seated ourselves, someone who appeared to be the owner or head waiter came out and, folding his hands together in praying position in a way he must have felt was highly communicative, said "blah blah no tortillas blah blah blah." David, who by virtue of having a dictionary in his pocket knew more Spanish than us, tried to ask if they were closed. No, the response seemed to be, but we are out of tortillas. "That's okay," we said, "we don't mind." The man shook his head like we were crazy. A few more people, all tourists, came in, we ordered, and suddenly we noticed that the restaurant was empty. As our food came, a worker was putting the chairs up on the other tables. The waiter brought out a steaming heaping pile of tortillas. "un poco," he said, explaining that they had managed to find a few lying about in the kitchen.
It was clear to us that these folks wanted to go home before closing time, but instead of telling us they were closed, invented the fiction that they were out of tortillas. After all, as every Mexican knows, you can't eat a meal without tortillas. We would have, but didn't have to.
Finally got to have some on our last night in Mexico. I'd been hungering after them for days. Got them at "jimmy's no problem tacos" in Playa del Carmen, along with three "jimmy's no problem" T-shirts. ("Don't worry, they won't shrink," Jimmy said. Mine is now one eighth its original size.)
How do you get crazy Mexican drivers on long, straight highways, going a million kilometers per hour over the speed limit, to slow down so poor Mayan villagers can cross the street? What's that, you say? Stop signs? Red lights? Police? Get real! The Mexican solution is "topes", or speed bumps. Ah, but no ordinary Macy's parking lot speed bumps are these! They are cleverly designed to send both vehicle and occupants rocketing into orbit if encountered at anything over six miles an hour. It makes driving in Mexico extra fun, especially when your car is riding low under the weight of added Europeans (see "Belgians thumbing").
A cenote is a large natural well. Since lakes and rivers are scarce in the Yucatan (the porous limestone sucks rain water down below the earth) cenotes were an important source of water for the Mayans. At Chichen Itza there was a large, almost perfectly circular cenote, maybe 60 feet in diameter. The water was very deep, and the surface lay shiny and black far below the rim. Human sacrifices were pushed over the edge here, and even today there are no railings of any kind to prevent overly-curious tourists from hurtling into the murky depths. If you go, bring shoes with good soles.
Several days after renting our car, we pulled into a gas station outside Merida to fill the tank. When the deed was done a great puddle of gas formed under the car, having dripped down all over the piping and other underthings that cars have. At first we thought that maybe the attendant had spilled gas all over while filling the tank, but the next time we got gas the same thing happened. Apparently there was a large crack near the top of the gas tank. It's a bit scary starting the engine with the bottom of the car coated with an explosive substance.
Needs no further explanation.
These waters are blue, blue, blue, blue! It's hard to believe the color is real. We stayed one night in a small cabana on the beach, all fine white sand (which blew in under the crack in the door and made intricate patterns on the floor) and palm trees and azure-brilliant sea.
A not uncommon sight in Mexico are small children, usually little girls, carrying around boxes of small packets of chicklet-like gum which they would "sell" to raise money. It seemed to be an organized form of begging. Out- side the Coba ruins we got into a "conversation" with two cute little girls we had just bought two packs from. The trunk of our car was open and they kept rummaging through stuff (books, etc.) to see what it was all about. The younger one kept pulling at the hair on the legs and and arms of Mike and myself, which I guess they thought was unusual.
See Wrong turnings.
The vacation couldn't go on very long before someone suggested we play that great card game, Dahimi. We started the night of the cabana (see "Caribbean waters"), and continued by candlelight after the electricity went off at 10:30. The players in the game are ranked, the highest being the "Grand Dahimi" and the lowest the "peon". The Dahimi rules by decreeing where the players shall sit, and by demanding and receiving the peon's best cards. What makes the game interesting are the upheavals that take place, sending the Dahimi plummeting into peon-hood and vice versa.
Uxmal's largest pyramid, the site's most striking attraction, was said to have been created in a single night by a magician dwarf as part of a contest with the governor. Experts say the story is probably not historically accurate.
The sites of Chichen Itza and Uxmal both have sound and light shows at night; we attended the one at Uxmal after returning from dinner in Ticul (see "No tortillas"). A great array of colored searchlights plays across the surfaces of the monstrous edifices while a multi-phonic sound show describes the lives of the Mayans and re-enacts historic events. It's a silly kind of thing, but is quite satisfying after having spent all day clambering among the ruins, taking them seriously.
The friezes carved along the outer walls of the Temple of the Warriors at the Chichen Itza ruins site showed gruesomely detailed jaguars and eagles clutching steaming human hearts which they were about to devour.
The ball court at Chichen Itza was where the sacred Mayan "basketball" game was played. The losers (or the winners, according to some) were sacrificed to the gods. The friezes carved into the side walls of the court are still in excellent shape, and feature representations of one player, sword in hand, holding a recently removed head up by the hair while blood pours from the severed neck. The body kneels opposite, blood spurting up out of that half of the neck as well.
Oh heavenly drink of Merida! The horchata, a cold sweet refresher made of rice, cinnamon, and honey, was perhaps our greatest culinary find. David brought back a large bottle of horchata syrup concentrate, so enamored were we of this concoction. But after drinking some at home he felt ill.
In the clear blue waters off Cozumel Island, where we snorkeled among tropical fish, is a statue of Jesus that was ceremoniously sunk some years ago, and now perches happily on a coral rock a half dozen feet below the surface. Instances of Jesus' symbol, the fish, are in constant attendance.
Two words of Spanish you must learn if you want to stay happy and healthy in Mexico! We drank a lot of this stuff.
Yes, we had some yummy enchiladas en mole. Chaac was the Mayan rain god whose image adorns many a ruined facade. Chaac! Chaac! Chaac!
We were treated to a half hour of this on the ferry ride from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel Island. A compilation of Madonna videos, from "Borderline" to "Vogue" (for those who don't know, that about covers the whole span) played continuously on the television screens of this "luxury" boat.
We saw many bizarre and beautiful species of fish while snorkeling off Cozumel Island. One was a large, very flat, rounded fish with a long, thin fin atop and abottom. To swim, it would flap these appendages side to side in unison, like a gliding bird turned on its side. Looked mighty odd.
In the fading twilight of Coba we picked up two Belgian hitchhikers who wanted to go to Tulum. With their heavy packs in the trunk and their heavy bodies in the back seat, our car began riding so low that it was nearly impossible to go over topes (see "Successive topes") without a dramatic thunking and scraping. By trial and error, we discovered that if we literally brought the car to a dead stop after the front wheels had gone over the topes we could avoid hitting the bottom of the car. This was of great concern to us, since the slightest spark (think of a loose muffler dragging on the pavement!) could have blown us all sky high (see "Gasoline pouring"). The Belgians repaid us by directing us to some lovely cabanas on the Caribbean beach where we spent the night.
The Mexican term for the large multi-course lunch (the main meal of the day) is Comeda Corrida, or "running meal".
This page last modified June 10, 2000.
Zev Handel / zev_web#namkung.com