Lizards the size of squirrels scudded across the white gravel road that cut into the flat, tangled Yucatecan scrub. Buzzards circled overhead in the torpid air, tracing a bull's-eye with our little green VW in the center of their lazy swirls. At every bend the brush seemed about to swallow our rented car. What would I tell Hertz? I had a vague idea of our location, but our destination was in the hands of a Mayan we had met the day before.
"Keep going," he kept saying. "Don't be worried." I was.
We were in the middle of the Yucata'n peninsula, about midway through a three-week tour of that thumblike protrusion off Mexico's southern end. Like the rest of Mexico, the Yucata'n is a cheap vacation spot these days for people packing greenbacks. As the peso keeps losing value, even travelers on a budget can play rich. But unlike Mexico's mountainous midsection, the Yucata'n is hot and flat. It's known for ruins, henequen, hammocks, honey and -- more recently -- Cancu'n, the trendy man-made resort on the peninsula's Caribbean coast. But beaches and tour buses were not on our immediate agenda. In the Yucatecan interior, we were in quest of Mayas.
When you read travel books about the Yucata'n, you'll find plenty about the glitter of Cancu'n or the grandeur of the ancient Mayan ruins, which rival Egypt's pyramids. But the books neglect an important point: The Mayas never left. They quit the fertility rite of cutting the hearts out of virgins -- now they burn the hearts of chickens and spread the ashes on their fields. They turned great cities like Chiche'n Itza', Tulum, Coba' and Uxmal over to the Spanish, to time -- and now to the tourists who scramble through the ruins. Now the Mayas live in small villages or towns thickly spread across the peninsula. A car, a sense of adventure and luck will take you to them.
The guide for our unscheduled trip into the back country was Florentino Vargas, a 26-year-old Mayan whose high cheekbones resemble those of the ancient statues staring down from the temples of Chiche'n Itza'. He's short and broad, like his ancestors. His first language was Mayan, a guttural tongue with clipped words that barely escape from the back of the mouth. He was born in a nah, the thatched Mayan hut with walls of upright saplings. He slept in handwoven hammocks slung over dirt floors. At age 16, Florentino moved to the city, but life hasn't changed for most Mayas. Every nah on the road still has a hammock or two.
We met Florentino by chance in Valladolid, a Mayan town on the two-lane road between the major west-coast city of Me'rida -- where we rented our car -- and the Caribbean coastal town of Puerto Jua'rez, near Cancu'n.
Valladolid is a quiet town of 38,000. The tour buses bump through on their way to nearby ruins but rarely stop. Here, the sun rules. In the early-morning coolness, people gather at the mercado (market) -- by noon, it's too hot for thinking or trading. After school, young boys dive 50 feet off rocks into the town's cenote -- a natural depression in the friable limestone filled with water -- while their giggling girlfriends gasp at the bravado. By night, lovers stroll in the large central square and face each other in the "S"-shaped seats, made for spooning. Americans are few, but welcome.
We set out from Me'rida that April morning, drove through sleepy villages and shimmering stretches of two-lane highway, and by late afternoon we reached Valladolid, turning ochre as the sun turned orange. We ignored suggestions from the guidebook's recommendations and stopped at a place called Hotel Zaci (the Mayan name for Valladolid).
The low-slung 20-room hotel with swimming pool, tiled promenade and garden courtyard was virtually empty. For $11 a night we felt as if we had our own hacienda. Some of the rooms were painted with murals, and two oil paintings of Mayan villages hung on our whitewashed walls. In shaky Spanish we asked about the paintings and were directed to the pool, where we encountered the hotel manager, Florentino Vargas.
Florentino was shy, but his brown eyes were warm and friendly. Between my high school Spanish and his English, we explained that we wanted to visit a village and perhaps find the artist who painted the scenes in our room. With a car, he said, anything is possible. We made arrangements to meet at 3 p.m. the next day.
At the appointed hour, we headed south on a paved two-lane road through open, treeless plateau. It was deserted except for an occasional Mayan walking with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Florentino assured us they were hunting wild boar, not lost Americans. The landscape rolled uninterrupted to the horizon: no artists or unarmed Mayans in sight.
By the time we reached the next town, Chichemila, we were parched and stopped for a soda. In the withering heat, I was starting to wonder what I was doing on a jaunt with this Mayan fellow. I could have been wriggling my toes in the Caribbean, or at least swimming in the Hotel Zaci pool. Noting my flagging desire for adventure, Florentino asked if we would like to take a swim in a cenote in a small village. We agreed and found that the nearest cenote was in a village named Xocen, about 10 miles away down a "camino blanco," or white (gravel) road.
On the way to Xocen, Florentino began to tell his story. It helped keep our minds off the lizards below and the buzzards above.
He was born in a village south of Campeche on the Yucata'n's western coast. His early life was circumscribed by the village, where oranges and bananas were plentiful, turkeys and pigs roamed until they were ready to eat and teen-agers learned to hunt deer in the hills. Most people never leave, and his family remains there. At the age of 16, Florentino gave in to wanderlust, the lure of oil money and urban life. He left the village for the city of Veracruz.
Just as Florentino told us his village resembles Xocen, which means "learn about me" in Mayan, the dense brush opened up to a clearing. It was late afternoon. Barefoot women wearing huipiles -- traditional white cotton dresses with brightly colored patterns around the neckline and hem -- walked along the roadside. Further into the village the dirt street gave out on to a wide flat field with a huge crumbling church on the far side. (The Mayas may sacrifice hens, but they still profess Christianity.) A trio of turkeys strutted toward us as if they were a greeting party. We pulled to a stop in front of a large nah, about 15 feet by 30 feet, that Florentino said was the local store. Only silence greeted us.
The storekeeper was short and shirtless. His square face and warm eyes were not threatening, but I felt uneasy in this dark hut, in this tiny village, in the approaching twilight. He directed us to the cenote, about 100 yards away in a grove of cottonwood trees. Women walked by, balancing pails of water. Older women ignored the visitors; young ones offered demure smiles and giggles. We passed yards with tethered goats and trees hung with ripening oranges.
The cenotes were a pair of rock-lined slits in the ground, and the water was about 15 feet down -- for drinking, not swimming. Women lowered their buckets into the water by hooking their pails to a heavy rope slung over a post frame. We sat on a rock ledge and were joined by a young bare-chested man with hot pink pants and a gold tooth in his broad smile.
Florentino, who had grown quiet and wistful, told us a Mayan fable about two lovers, a cenote and the green tree that always grows by the well. In this tale the young woman disappears one day, and when her lover searches the village, a voice from the cenote says he will find her there in the evening. He returns to discover that his lover is calling him from the green tree. She calls to him, telling of her love, but he says she is ugly, not the woman he loves, and he walks off full of sadness, never to return. Shortly after, when the young man dies, his lover walks out of the tree, as beautiful as ever. The moral, said Florentino, is that beauty is only skin deep, and a lasting love is a spiritual bond.
By this time, the sun had almost set, and the sky was striped with lavender and pink wispy clouds. We walked slowly back to the car for the drive to Valladolid, back to modern Mexico. The man with the gold tooth waved us off.
Florentino was pensive. This had been his first visit back to a Mayan village in many years, and it stirred memories of a simple, quiet life where carne (meat) walked the streets, food grew on trees and people cared for one another. Now he worked for money, usually not enough, to buy what once was free. We asked him how he wound up in Valladolid and discovered the key to his ease with English.
When he was in Veracruz, Florentino met an American woman named Carol. She was a few years older, a few inches taller, freckle-faced and red-haired. They fell in love, returned to Florentino's village and married. For three years they lived in a nah and Carol adopted all the ways of the Mayas. Life was difficult. Their first baby died in infancy because there were no doctors nearby. When their second child died for the same reason, Florentino and Carol left the village and settled in Me'rida, about 100 miles away.
In Me'rida, Florentino found work in a tailor's shop, and Carol taught English in a local school. They had the first of two healthy babies and accepted an opportunity to move to Valladolid.
Now, two years after their move, life in Valladolid is good. They have another baby, Carol is teaching and tutoring, and Florentino is managing Hotel Zaci. We made a date to meet Carol the following day before continuing our trip to the Caribbean coast.
The next morning was typically sunny, dry and hot. Before the sun climbed too high, Florentino fetched us at Hotel Zaci and we walked through the back streets of Valladolid until we came to the Vargas home. We found Carol tutoring six students in the front room. She was instructing with her 2-year-old daughter on her hip, while the 1-year-old smiled from a playpen in the next room. We visited for a few minutes, just long enough to learn that Carol was from Wisconsin, that she didn't miss living in the United States -- which she considered to be rife with knife-wielding muggers -- and that she planned to remain in Mexico with no second thoughts. Could we send something from the States? Nope.
As it turned out, the mail was to go in the other direction.
Florentino had asked us to send him some paints and brushes. Three months later, a package came in the mail. Florentino wrote to us in English. He was the Mayan painter, and there it was on canvas: the green tree, the women in huipiles, the cenote and the nah. He included two other paintings of Mayan life and invited us to his village.
Now the painting hangs on our wall. And the trip is in the works.