Lucy Ferriss

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I've called this blog "Travelin' Thoughts" in the past, because I kept it mostly as a journal to record impressions of new places and cultures. But in a way, it's still a place for traveling thoughts--ideas that move through and past me, and out into the world. Some of these are literary, some just about life. It's a good place to open up the conversation, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Swimming in the Yucatan

March 19, 2017

Too often I find myself taking notes on a journey as I return home. That’s the case now. The flight will land soon in Hartford, leaving the Yucatan and the Mayans to memory.

            We’ve been a week in Mérida, the capital of the Yucatan, a place I chose because it’s a historical city surrounded by interesting day trips. I didn’t want to pack and repack my bags on this trip; I wanted to be in one place, but a place with different restaurants and alleyways and easy access to a variety of experiences. We rented a small apartment from Georgia, an ex-pat American artist (about whom, more in the next post), about a 10-minute walk from the city center. It was what you’d call in the States a railroad flat—living room facing the sidewalk, then bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, a small patio in the rear with a dipping pool. Ground floor: almost all the residential buildings in Mérida seem to be one story. And with the heat the first few days, we left what little window access we had—to the street—open for the cross-breeze back to the patio, which made the nights noisy. My memory of sleeping in this place will always be of the white noise of the overhead fan (tremendously high ceilings) and beyond it, the grind and whoosh of buses and cars, even on a residential street. Still, it was a good location, and nice to be able to spread out since we were there for a week.

            We arrived at midnight, and spent the next day wandering the city, starting with huevos divorciados for breakfast and a free 90-minute tour of the main square. The cathedral and the museums, formerly grand houses, were mostly building with limestone blocks taken from the five pyramids of T’ho, the Mayan city that sat on this place centuries before Mérida; the civilization went defunct around 900 AD, but Mayans still occupied the Yucatan Peninsula when the Spanish came to convert and enslave them. After a lunch on the main plaza, we wandered to a little park, where we met a professor Mayan studies who wanted to practice his English. He pointed out the façade of the church on the square, where Mayan inscriptions were almost unnoticeable. One of them, like a pair of intertwined snake or waves, denoted eternity; the other, a series of X’s, time. He talked about the tension between these two ideas in Mayan thought and about the conceptual difference between writing in glyphs, as the Mayans did, and writing with an alphabet. It was so fascinating that I made it my Lingua France post for the week. He told us a big Mayan festival was about to happen, showed us on our map the little village where it would be centered, told us about a Mayan ball game that would kick off the festivities by the main square of Mérida that evening, and pointed us to an artisanal shop where the goods were authentically Mayan, handmade, etc., and not a tourist trap. He was so charming and convincing that we betook ourselves to the shop and proceeded to buy as much as we could cram into our little suitcases.

            We napped in the afternoon, then returned downtown for a mediocre dinner at a lovely restaurant that used to be the house of [Mexican poet]. Then we walked back to view the ball game, which was strange and wonderful. Two teams of three mean, body-painted, with elaborate animal-themed headdresses, swatted an oddly shaped ball, slightly small than a soccer ball, back and forth with their hips. This move often meant sort of sliding to the ground and twisting to pop the ball up. The goals differed; one game was reminiscent of soccer, another of basketball, except the hoop was a sideways ring held about two meters off the ground.

Cathedral made of Mayan limestone, downtown Mérida

Imagine trying to butt-bounce a ball that high into a ring about 3x the ball’s diameter, and you get the idea. Lots of locals & tourists out on the square in the evening, families and lovers and groups of young people, grateful for the slight cooling off after the hot day.

            Next day we rented a car and headed, not to the cenotes where I’d planned, but to better cenotes that our Mayan friend had described, at Homùn. We’d though we could just drive to these underground swimming holes, but a motorcycle rickshaw found us wandering around lost and informed us that cars weren’t allowed onto the dirt roads that led to the cenotes; that we had to hire him or someone else. So we hired him, and really lucked out. He was kind, informative, generous with his time. At the first cenote he took us to, we changed to our suits and climbed way down the steep ladder into the ground to where stalactites and stalagmites framed a crystal-clear and very deep pool that was actually an accessible spot in an underground river—so there were fish and slight current into the water. There we also met Andrea, a young woman from Sweden who was traveling alone through the Yucatan. She had come with her own motorcycle rickshaw guy, but in short order we persuaded her to ditch him and come along with us. She was charming, funny, whip-smart, fluent in 5 languages, and apparently able to enjoy the company of a couple of geezers like us. We went on to three more cenotes, each different from the others, to an abandoned hacienda, and finally to a cave renowned for its red clay, which woman apparently used as a facial masque. The cave was fine at first, though Andrea & Don had both unfortunately changed to clothes that got soaking wet as we waded into it. But then our guide misunderstood Andrea’s suggestion that we not continue on to the “challenging” part of the cave experience. He thought we wanted to be challenged. So onward we went, slithering through narrow openings between stalactites & walls, slipping on damp muddy rocks, bumping out heads . . . until finally we called it quits. Were we sure we didn’t want to spelunk downward to the pit of red clay? our guide wanted to know. Yes, we were sure. We finished up at a rural lunch spot, then paid & bid the guide goodbye. We headed on to Tixkokol, where our Mayan friend the day before had told us we would find the hotbed of the Mayan festival. But there was no festival, only a sweet little town. We got an ice cream and headed back to Merida, getting lost several times before we managed to locate Andrea’s couch-sit place. Ate that night at our neighborhood Italian restaurant, hardly Yucatecan but simple & quiet after a fairly exhausting day.

            Next post: Celestun & Uzmal.

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