(Rob's Story) Years ago, we got this great idea. We wanted to hire a town taxi (coche) and stuff it with as many people as we could, because we’d discovered that we knew quite a few folks in town, young and even old, that had never been to nearby Chichen Itza. We figured it’d be fun to see the looks on their faces seeing them seeing the ruins for the first time, and immediately began asking around to find out who might like to go. Well, the first person we encountered was 40-year old Doña Julia, who said that she would love to go, but couldn’t. We couldn’t imagine what she could possibly have planned for the following Sunday that could be worth missing her chance to witness something she really should see at least once in her life. But, she told us that she had to dig up the bones of her dead husband, and that certainly qualified as a good enough reason. Yet, we were quite positive that we must have misunderstood what she said, and asked her to repeat herself. And she gladly did, yet stated the exact same thing over again. Then luckily after a long silent pause, and after seeing that our mouths had dropped wide open, she followed with an explanation that her husband had died four years earlier of cancer, which we knew but never knew him, and that it was now time to dig up his bones, something that we didn’t know was a Tinum fact of life.
Ya see, when someone dies in Tinum, for the first 24 hours, they are first laid on a table in their home, with burning candles placed in each corner. Then anyone who wishes to pay their respects to the deceased, can stop by and visit the body. The town carpenter is also one who makes an appearance, mostly because he needs to take measurements for the building of a coffin. And when he completes his task and returns with a freshly cut and assembled casket, the corpse is then tended to and prepared to be put inside. First, a strip of cloth is tied under the jaw and up and over the top of the head to keep the mouth closed. Then, another cloth strip is tied around the ankles to keep the legs together. Then finally, the arms are crossed on top of the chest, and yet one more cloth strip is tied around the wrists. The body is next wrapped up loosely in a sheet and placed inside of the coffin, and then the top is nailed on. A procession then carries the deceased to the town cemetery where the casket is placed in a dug grave, which is then covered by two to three feet of dirt and topped with a thin layer of cement. Sometimes the plot will be built up and some sort of a headstone included, especially in larger towns and cities, but most of the time, it just remains undecorated. Then strangely enough, after four years pass, usually almost to the day, it’s all dug up again.
So, Doña Julia instead enthusiastically invited us to watch how it was all done instead of going to Chichen Itza, and then insisted we attend a party to be held afterwards. And when early Sunday morning did come, Heidi and I found ourselves following Doña Julia’s father Don Augustino and her cousin Edgar to the cemetery. There, the town gravedigger was waiting with a pick and shovel, and was a wild looking old guy with tattered clothing and long, unruly eyebrows. But before any work began, Augustino exposed a tall bottle of Caballo from a bag he’d been carrying, which is an absolutely nasty tasting, clear, 80-proof liquor that costs $1, and is usually mixed with Coke to make “highballs”. The three men then each started their day with a long tip of the bottle, while Augustino uttered something seemingly ceremonious in Maya. Heidi and I declined our offering from the community jug, because we were already quite drunk ya see with wonder about what was going to happen next.
Well, the gravedigger easily broke apart the layer of cement covering the grave, and began shoveling away the dirt from within it. Meanwhile, the three men chatted in Maya as if they were gathered around the water cooler, telling stories, gossiping, and even laughing. They took time out for another round of shots, and soon the early morning sun began to warm the day. Heidi and I were very still and very quiet, not at all sure how we were suppose to be acting, and whether it was even right to be witnessing such a thing. Finally, the gravedigger hit wood, and stopped to take another shot.
The casket lid seemed rotted, and was partially collapsed and caved in, and the gravedigger knelt over from the edge of the grave and pulled out what intact pieces he could. He eventually just got into the grave, with only a flimsy pair of sandals on his feet, and gave Heidi and I an excited look when he uncovered the first signs of the sheet wrapping. It too was very soiled, and tore apart easily and was removed in fragments. But at last, the gravedigger announced he’d found what he was looking for.
The group then took another shot, while Augustino appeared with a small wooden box perhaps two feet long, one and a half feet wide, and another foot deep. He also produced a large silk cloth, that he unfolded and laid in the box so that its ends draped generously over the edges. Apparently, it was now time to begin the real work, and Heidi and I kept wondering if Doña Julia was ever going to show up. But then out it came, the first bone. The gravedigger held it up to show us, and told us what it was in Maya, and kindly Augustino translated that it was a costilla (rib). He placed it with delicate care into the box, and then went back for more. I found it interesting, that the bones that were being exhumed, were taken straight out of what seemed like to be just a pile of everyday looking dirt, and saw it as being evidence that we all do indeed someday, actually really turn right back into earth.
Next, the radius and ulna bones from each forearm were exposed, and the gravedigger carefully put those bones from the left arm on the left side of the box, and those from the right side, on the right side of the box. Finger bones though, were a bit tough to determine given their small size, and the gravedigger would periodically stand from his stooped position in the grave with a hand full of dirt, and like trying to find the screw you want from an assortment, would painstakingly try to distinguish pieces of dirty bone from pebbles and dirt clods. And then, when he was certain of what he’d selected, he’d throw the random phalanges into the box like dice.
There was still no sign of Doña Julia yet, but something very perplexing happened next. When the gravedigger had removed the sternum and most of the ribs attached to it, I took notice of what was inside. And right about where I’d figured the heart to be, was an area of dirt that looked much darker and richer than anywhere else, and resembled good potting soil. I even whispered and pointed it out to Heidi, not that I had to whisper anything in English, but as I was doing so, two young boys suddenly came running into the cemetery from somewhere out on the street, and ran right up to the edge of the grave.
The gravedigger rose calmly from his excavation chores and without a single word from anyone, the boys pulled up their pant legs and exposed a series of warts each had on their legs. Then as if it was routine, Augustino reached for the bottle of Caballo and popped its cork once again, but didn’t drink. And the gravedigger reached down into the chest cavity of whom he’d be working, exactly where I’d contemplated the “heart dirt”, and filled one hand with its fine, dense texture. Augustino then poured a few drops of alcohol onto the organic matter in the gravedigger’s hand, which the gravedigger then carefully mixed into a pasty mud with his finger. No one had still said anything, and the boys seemed excited, yet respectfully curios, as the gravedigger applied generous helpings of the moistened mixture with a finger to each of the boy’s warts. They then dropped their pant legs and ran away as fast as they came, to I guess go play somewhere. And the gravedigger went back to work.
The skull came out next, easy to get a hold of it seemed, if you grab it by inserting a thumb and forefinger into the eye sockets. And there was still hair on top of a head shape I could recognize from seeing pictures of Doña Julia’s husband. The pelvis, legs bones, and feet and toe bones followed until the box was full, and the grave now empty and available for the next guy. And then as Augustino was tying together the ends of the silk cloth and nailing the box closed, Doña Julia came walking up. Yet, there was still one thing to do, place the box and the bones in their final resting place.
All around the edges of the cemetery, usually side-by-side along the walls that confine the graveyard, are small concrete-constructed receptacles known as casitas. But instead of putting corn in these casitas, the boxed bones of often entire families remain in them forever. The casitas are vary in shape and size, and are all decorated quite differently. But they all have similar tiny doors that can be locked with a pad lock, and do protect their contents well against the elements. But when Augustino was about to place this day’s new box into his family’s casita, a few other relative elders arrived on the scene that had concerns for one of the other boxes already in the casita, and removed it. And then the next thing we knew, it was opened.
Apparently, some moisture had gotten into the casita, and there was fear that the contents in this one particular box may have been at risk to damage. And lo and behold, it was clearly evident right away, that the silk cloth that was wrapped around the bones was badly mildewed. So, with a new box with a new silk cloth placed on the ground beside the other, the gravedigger transferred all of the bones from the old box to the new one. All conversation between everyone on hand was in Maya as usual, and Heidi and I didn’t want to bother anyone to try and find out whose bones were being cared for. But we could easily tell that it was an old woman, who had long, gray hair in a braid still dangling from her skull. The gravedigger still worked with obvious respectful care, although a couple of ribs did mistakenly slip out from between his fingers and rattled across the ground a ways. But eventually both boxes were tucked away in their casita, and we all went to Doña Julia’s house for a big party, during which nobody ever mentioned Doña Julia’s husband, no one ever cried, and no one ever even looked to cry, because that all happened four years ago. Most folks just ended up silly drunk on Caballo, but Heidi and I were as sobered as we could be.
Several years later, after I’d just returned from somewhere I’d gone for a few months, I ran into Doña Marbella on the street. She was quick to invite me to the digging up of her deceased daughter Nelly, who’d also died of cancer at an early age, and then to the party afterwards in her memory. I knew that these functions were usually reserved for family members and extended family members and had no idea why I’d been asked to attend, but perceived the distinction as an honor. I told that I would most certainly be at the party afterwards, but that I’d have to miss the dig up part of it early Sunday morning because I had a previous engagement (compromiso) teaching English to Daniel who’d be riding in from Loopxul.
So, when I got to Doña Marbella’s house, I found the men in the front room chatting and drinking. I quickly escaped certain offers of unlimited beers and Caballo shots to see what the women were doing out back in the kitchen, and as usual, they were well engaged in cooking activities. I had a seat on a block of wood and helped out dicing onions for a while, as the smoke from the fire swirled up through the guano roof and baby chicks pecked around on the floor at my feet. It’s common, that at first there’s lots of talk about me in Maya between the ladies at any kitchen gathering that I may not see on a daily basis. But when I’m eventually invited to share my perspectives on things and they switch into speaking Spanish, they always see that I fit right in, and everyone becomes relaxed. After all, it must be odd for them to suddenly have this tall gringo guy with a huge nose and relatively very white skin from some other world they no very little about, hanging out with them instead of with the guys, when men traditionally aren’t ever much of a presence in kitchens. But they always appreciate that I can carry around heavy pots for them, am willing to grind spices, and usually say or do all sorts of silly things that make them laugh, … often times not at all on purpose. I tend to bump my head a lot on low crossbeams. I always mutilate any attempts I make at speaking Maya. And, I tell crazy stories from a long list of mishaps of mine, compiled during my years trying to learn and understand all of the strange cultural and traditional things they do that I’d never seen or even imagined before.
But on this day, I was family, when one of their own was being remembered. Yet when she became a topic, the room became suddenly quiet and cold, and everyone seemed to drift off into a deep state of contemplation. Finally, one of the gals simply opened up and began spewing her thoughts, luckily in Spanish. She said, “ But I was there four years ago when her jaw was tied closed, and they tied her feet and wrists together, and they wrapped her in the sheet. I saw it all.” And she went on to explain, that things at the cemetery that morning, didn’t at all turn out like they always otherwise do.
It seemed, that when the gravedigger opened the top of the casket, that had remained mostly in tact instead of rotting and crumbling apart as happens half the time, he discovered something unexplainable. The sheet that had been wrapped around the body was no longer wrapped around the body, and in fact, was nowhere to be found within the coffin at all. It had disappeared. Plus, the strip of cloth that had been tied under the jaw had been torn apart, and the head of the deceased was tilted back as far as it would go, and her mouth was wide open as if frozen in a silent scream. Additionally, the cloth tied around her wrists had been untied, and her arms were lying down along her sides, her fingers spread apart as much as they possibly could be. And the cloth strip tied around her ankles had also been untied, and her legs were pressed hopelessly against each side of her inescapable wooden confines.
I had only one question at that point of time, and after clearing my throat softly asked, “Is all that a good thing, … or, a bad thing?” Well, Dona Marbella stood up from her chair, and with a look of a spelled apostle on her face said quite sternly and convincingly, “Everyone must hear of this glorious act of God and rejoice in his heavenly plan for us all. No man should ever doubt God’s great word nor his righteous teachings, and no man would ever be the wiser for losing their faith in his unconditional love for us. Praise God! Praise God! A miracle has happened!” And then just as I was positive she would next climb up on the table and in full voice assure us of even more, she instead added in a delicate angel’s whisper, “Roberto, … it’s a good thing.”
Well, nothing more was ever said about it all, and everyone ate and appeared to have a normal good time. I even ended up with the men out in the front room and drank my fair share of Caballo too, which was also a ‘good thing’ given the circumstances. And as evening turned into night and idle chitchat turned into a slurred guessing game of what each other was trying to say, one by one, the men stumbled off into the darkness until I was the only one left with the husband of the deceased. I eventually felt that I had to ask him how he saw, and what he made of the day’s unique revelations, because to me it was all still quite puzzling. Perhaps I thought, he could help shed some light on the issue for me, with possibly some personal views of his own that may have been inspired by the closeness he had with his wife. Or maybe, he had some other in-depth perspectives to share that could give meaning and purpose to what had happened, … or at least, a simple explanation. But after giving it much deliberation, or maybe he just passed out for a while there in his chair, all he could say was, “It’s a miracle.”
The next morning was brilliantly sunny, although my head was a bit cloudy and I felt like I’d been kicked by a horse (caballo), and I decided to go to Doña Piedad’s house to beg for a tortilla and share my experience from the day before with her. She listened very intently while patting away to what I had to say, and afterwards told me that she’d never heard of anything like that before. But she did tell me, that while I had been recently away, a middle-aged man who lived around the corner from her suddenly died, and was subsequently treated like every other person who dies in Tinum and every other small village across the Yucatan. Well, during the night of his burial, the poor soul was more than shocked and surprised to suddenly find himself “six feet under” for no apparent reason, and had to work like the devil to get out of his coffin and out of his grave. Sweaty, dirty, and exhausted, the resurrected gentleman then walked across town from the cemetery to his mother’s house and knocked on her door. When she opened it and realized who it was, she dropped dead on the spot, and he had to burry her two days later.
“So,” I jokingly said to Doña Piedad, “What else is new?” And she replied with, “Do you know that there is a big hurricane coming?” Well, I was out of there in a hurry, and rushed to the center of town on my bike in hopes that someone had been to Valladolid already that morning, and had gotten a newspaper that I could look at. And oh boy, the news wasn’t good. A monstrous Category 5 hurricane named “Mitch” was poised off of the eastern Yucatan coast, and all forecasts called for it to make a direct hit on the Yucatan Peninsula by the next morning. In fact, the middle of the “cone of certainty” was directly over Tinum in the picture.
The town was already planning to set up a shelter in the elementary school, but other than that, no one seemed nearly as panicked as I was. Everyone was of course used to hurricanes, being in a tropical location, but the last Category 5 to hit the Yucatan was Hurricane Gilbert ten years earlier, and it seemed that everyone had forgotten about the force that a big hurricane can have. Well, I went home and secured everything that I could, and told all the kids that I saw that were 10 years old or younger, that they were about to experience a natural event like nothing they‘d ever imagined, and should talk their families into taking every caution possible, because a disaster was looming. But I guess there wasn’t much anyone really could do. No one had cars to flee in, and no one had cellars to hide in. And it was probably better being just calm about things, instead of acting like a lunatic like I was.
But I’d never experienced a hurricane before, not while having an association with or being in Tinum, or any other time or place for that matter, but have always thought that it would be something cool to live through. During many early summer thunderstorms in Tinum over the years, I was always an avid tree climber, the highest around, just to feel the pelting rain and driving winds and watch for lightning bolts. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s when I earned my reputation in town for being a bit loco. Anyway, the thrill of being able to experience Mother Nature turning up the burner a bit and showing her potential wild side is exciting to me, like during a tornado, which I have briefly experienced in Iowa once. But I guess a Category 5 hurricane for my first tropical cyclone event was a bit more excitement than I was ready for, and everyone just told me to take my paranoid self home, and stay there.
Well, when it was finally bedtime, I closed all of my doors, not knowing if they’d still be on their hinges by morning. But when morning came and I woke up, I didn’t hear any rain and didn’t hear any wind. And in fact, when I went outside, the sky was only partly cloudy, and all of Tinum was still in tact. So, I rode back to the center of town to find out why every tree for miles around hadn’t been blown over, and why I’d been deprived of a fantastic spectacle of nature. Well, Hurricane Mitch had done the completely unexpected, and turned south out of harm’s way. But unfortunately, it slammed hard into Honduras and Nicaragua, where it killed more than 11,000 people, and left more than 8,000 others missing.