The Yucatan thus hasn’t developed much since the last days of the great Mayan civilizations, except for the city of Merida on the west coast of the peninsula, closest to Mexico City. The rest of the Yucatan has mostly just been forgotten, although has always been home to numerous scattered villages populated by the survivors of that long ago advanced Mayan realm. And from the air, the Yucatan appears to be a vast, uninterrupted sea of green, which it mostly is. Sure, during the last 25 years, Cancun rose from a one boat fishing village on the eastern Caribbean coast in to the mega-mess it is now. But even from above, it’s a speck on the edge of forever wilderness.
Exactly half way across the peninsula, is the small city of Valladolid, which is the Yucatan’s third largest population center. But it’s really just a large small town. Traveling 10 kilometers west from Valladolid, you reach the tiny settlement of Uayma. And then 11 kilometers more, you’re in Tinum (population 2,000). Isolated in it’s own jungle-locked way, Tinum has no neighbor villages to the north, Dzitas is 21 kilometers to the east, and going south 11 kilometers on probably the world’s most unused road, you eventually reach San Francisco. So, yesterday we rode our bikes to San Francisco, and it’s always a fun place to visit because it’s half the size of Tinum, and thus a lot of interesting things can happen there.
Along the road there’s nothing but jungle and milpas, and only two cars passed us during the hour we were riding. We came to San Francisco with only the intention of wandering up and down the streets and generally just filling our eyes with the unique sights found there. Plus, Rob wanted to see if he could find an old friend named Felipe there, a guy with a very unique story to tell. We rode slowly through the back road neighborhoods, admiring the many stick huts and houses with animal pen yards, and we saw dogs, turkeys, chickens, and pigs wandering the streets at will. Women wearing huipils washed clothes in their backyard bateas, while old men swung in hammocks hung between coconut trees. Kids invented games with what we’d call garbage, and there were so many colorful trees and bushes that the village was ablaze with color. And the entire village atmosphere was even more rustic than Tinum, and where Maya was predominantly spoken.
When we got to Felipe’s house, it was easy to tell that no one was home. Too bad, because Rob had explained to me that Felipe (28) was a master carver whose work was obviously a cut above the rest, and he wanted me to see some of it. But he said that the really fascinating thing about Felipe, was the one time that he exposed a very personal secret of his.
It happened once when Rob was in San Francisco, and he and the some friends ended up at Felipe’s home. It was just a social visit that turned into lunch, and then some beer drinking afterwards. Well, the spontaneous celebration went on into the evening, and a time came when the remaining group began taking part in philosophical and contemplative discussions, something that doesn’t really happen very often. And it mostly focused around a simple curiosity about how Felipe could carve so well.
Well, no one was really expecting to hear what they did hear next, but Felipe ended up slipping into an outspoken and profound state of wonder about himself. He mumbled in a soft voice and often in Maya, which Rob obtained roughly translated, and his eyes were either almost always closed, or wandering unfocused through the shadows on his guano ceiling. He said that he was well aware that he could fashion some pretty amazing things out of a single block of wood, but also said he’d never really practiced doing it very much, and that he’s always just been able to carve well. “But how?” everyone wanted to know. And then an amazing disclosure ensued.
After a long period of silence, Felipe told that all during his life, he’s had occasional reoccurring dreams during nighttime sleep, in which he is taken from his house by a number of Alux to a variety of ancient Mayan city sights, and shown the art of sculpting. But Felipe seemed a bit uneasy about a recent such experience, in which he woke up with the piece of wood he was working on in his dream, next to him in his hammock. Despite the obvious fascinating implications of an extraordinary occurrence like that taking place, Felipe seemed more a man perplexed and confused by it all than someone feeling an elation for being specially chosen, blessed, and seemingly honored for some reason. He said, that the actual act of learning to carve was something he would wake up feeling he comprehended fully and was exciting for him. But it was the part about being with the Alux that he didn’t understand, and that didn’t settle well with him.
The Alux were cordial enough in his dreams and never threatening nor demanding. But just he being witness to, and then being involuntarily directly involved in their phenomenal yet mystical powers and abilities of elevation, time travel, and subjectivity, left Felipe confused and leery. He said that what he saw and experienced was completely amazing, and that it was all a privileged insight into the otherwise unknown. But he also didn’t necessarily like being taken away and in a sense kidnapped by beings that he couldn’t really see but feel, and that he couldn’t really hear, but knew how they wanted him to carve. He knew he was supposed to just trust them, but that was understandably a hard thing to do. And he just had no idea what it ultimately all meant for his life. Would he perhaps someday never return and stay with and become an Alux himself in some other dimension? Was all the carving a test of some kind? Or was it some sort of divine intervention that would ultimately aid him or someone he has a relation with? Or was all of it just a giant dreamt up illusion and nightmare, and simply all signs that Felipe was just an ill man on the verge of losing his mind?
Continuing on our explorations, we soon ran into another unusual San Franciscan Rob introduced me to as Doña Lordes. The chat we had with her was short and sweet and friendly, but as we walked away, Rob filled me in on her own odd once upon a time tribulation. Rob knew Doña Lordes because she had family in Tinum, and she used to make hammocks for him long ago that guests who came to town could buy if they wanted or needed. Anyway, Rob said that he once returned to San Francisco after not seeing her for a year or more to talk to her about making more hammocks, and of course the conversation started by asking her how she was.
Well, she said that the last year hadn’t been too good for her. She said that all of a sudden one day, she started having strange pains in her arms. Then several days later, thorns began sticking through her skin from the inside out. Rob was convinced he’d heard wrong, but Doña Lordes went to a rose bush and plucked off a few thorns to show him what she meant by thorns (espinas). Her arms were indeed scared with tiny marks, and she said that with time, thorns began poking through her skin all over her body. Well, Doña Lordes was quite alarmed as you can imagine, and went to seek medical attention from doctors in both Merida and Cancun, who told her she had a mental problem. Even visiting doctors from the United States couldn’t help her, and she decided to go and see the town curadero.
The curadero was quick to conclude that Doña Lordes had been cursed. Ya see, it’s actually a quite common phenomenon in small town Yucatan village life, that a scant few of the people you live amongst are secretly witches (brujas) and/or warlocks (brujos), and do practice a variety of forms of witchcraft for whatever they think it’s worth. I mean, curaderos themselves are pretty spooky folks themselves and who knows what they’re capable of. And there are still a few knowledgeable elders around who specialize in medicinal plant applications that may just bend the rules a bit. As a result, your neighbor may suddenly decide one day that they don’t like you for some reason, and if they have the ability, may place a curse on you. Or, I’d imagine, that if you knew a bruja and had irreconcilable issues with someone else, you could have the bruja devise and cast an unpleasant spell over them. Rob says that on occasion in Tinum, he’s known individuals who have been ill and have outright blamed their discomforts on someone they thought was a bruja and bewitched them. Anyway, the curadero sat down Doña Lordes in the midst of a circle of burning candles and began chanting hard and loud. Then he dripped the blood of a freshly killed chicken over her head, and she’s been fine ever since.
So we turned down an inviting lane which ultimately led us to a dead end. And then while stopped to turn around, we were approached by a bunch of curious, barely clothed kids who studied our bikes and wanted to know who we were. As we got turned around, a man unknown to us came out of one of the nearby houses with two plastic cups of Jell-O, complete with plastic spoons, that he offered to us for no apparent reason. You can’t ever turn down a friendly gesture like that, even though we wondered if the water used to make the Jell-O might make us sick for days. The kind gentleman then invited us into his house, where his wife and daughter were trying to fix a broken sewing machine. We chatted for a while about trivial everyday stuff, and I took the opportunity to look around the inside of the house to investigate how they lived.
It was a typical na, one room, with a thatched roof, stick walls, a fire smoldering in the corner, and hammocks hanging for beds and somewhere to sit. I didn’t see a refrigerator, which meant the Jell-O must have come from the corner store, but I did see a big color television and a stereo. Usually that means that someone in the family has some kind of paying a job, and sure enough, it turned out that a daughter worked in a store next to the ruins of Chichen Itza, only a short distance away. She was eager to try out her English on us for practice dealing with the many tourists she encounters daily. We were more than willing to accommodate her and thought that we could perhaps teach her something, seeing as how she actually knew very little. She only knew a few phrases, like “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Thank you,” and “You’re welcome.” Then we tried out some numbers on her, and it turned out that she knew every single number that we asked her in Spanish in English! She had no problem translating quince, veinte uno, and ochenta y tres into 15, 21, and 83. But also knew without hesitation that dos mil seis cientos cuarenta y siete, and quinientos million sesenta mil y cuatro cientos were 2, 647 and 500,060,400 respectively. She told us that numbers were important to know in the store since prices were always being haggled, and that as a consequence had learned English numbers and almost nothing else of the language. Well, she blew us completely away and we complimented her profusely on her unique ability. Then we left her giant ear-to-ear smile, and rode home.