We’ve seen Chichen Itza and Uxmal. We’ve even been to Palenque. We saw so many ruins in the Yucatan last year that it’s hard to remember which one was which. Every morning we go jogging along the beach in Progreso. We’ve had plenty of sun and sand. We were going to go get SCUBA certified until Lydian caught an awful cold on this trip. So last weekend we had to be creative to come up with something sufficiently entertaining and fun to do, yet “low-key”.
I’ve read that “fun” is something that happens when people are optimally challenged. In order for something to be “fun” (except situations that involve some form of intoxication) it can’t be too easy or too hard to do. This is a difficult balance for families to strike, especially when some of the kids in a family are really young and others in their teens. I’m definitely in favor of keeping kids on the slightly fearful side of the spectrum no matter what their age (it fosters trauma-bonding). This isn’t difficult with little kids, but finding optimal experiences for adolescents can be a bit more challenging.
So this weekend, we decided to try to do something semi-anthropological since watersports were out. The goal of the weekend’s activities would be to do something decidedly un-touristy. No sight-seeing allowed. The Diario del Yucatan had a whole page
of stories throughout the state about people whose houses had burnt down after the New Year’s festivities. Fireworks and thatched roof palapa dwellings don’t go together very well, but still bottle rockets are totally legal here. One of the news stories about charred homes was titled, “One Woman Asks for Help.” John and I both decidedly independently that finding this family would be the crux of our weekend’s efforts. Just tracking them down would be part of the adventure.
In a very small, far-off town, at the end of the road (literally) in the southern part of the state of Yucatan was a family that lost everything in a fire while they were out on a posada. We decided that rather than going to another set of ruins, we would go try to find this family and give them approximately the same amount of money that we would spend on an afternoon at Barnes and Noble (including coffee and snacks). We had no idea what a sufficient donation would be in this part of the world, so we figured this would be a balanced figure.
There was an “address” in the paper so we felt confident we would be able to find the house. First, we rented the smallest, most uncomfortable car we could find. Then, we awkwardly folded ourselves into it and set out with nothing but our Builder’s Bars and some Fritos toward a town called Oxkutzcab. On the way, I grabbed a paper with headlines about a nearby town called Tekax that’s always afflicted with some sort of plague. Last year, it was an overpopulation of street dogs. This year, it was a bad batch of Maxi Carne meat. The photo on the front page was of a young lad with stomach cramps walking into the hospital along with the 446 others who ate the bad the meat. We patted ourselves on the back for
starving instead of being poisoned to death at street stalls on our trips abroad.
Getting to Oxkutzcab was easy enough, though slow going. We had gone this way before on the Ruta Puuc to see the various Mayan ruins and convents in the region. Small towns with obnoxious topes made the trip much longer than it needed to be but I was blessed with new insight about the speed bumps this year. Last year we cursed them vehemently, but having walked along the dangerous, un-policed roads in Costa Rica, we realized the practical value of topes. Chickens, children, and goats can all live happily and safely in a small town with plenty of topes because vehicles and their occupants are shaken and beaten to oblivion by the big bumps in the road if they don’t slow down. Rather than cops on every corner and hefty fines, people in the community have
poured cement in discreet mounds along the roadways to make them slower and safer. One of the reasons why it’s safe to walk in Progreso and other Yucatecan towns is because there are topes everywhere that can pop up quite unexpectedly (in a day or a couple of hours even) to rattle drivers’ brains if they’re going too fast.
Once we finally arrived in Oxkutzcab, we took out the news story and started asking around about the family. We stopped a fellow on a motorcycle. He told us that the family was in Yaxachen, an entirely different town. He pointed us in the approximate direction that we should go. We thanked him and then went in that direction.
We headed outside of Oxkutzcab, down a desolate road past what looked like a cemetery with graves that were marked by nothing but piles of rocks and sticks with empty Pepsi bottles on the tops of them. I looked closely at the map. The newspaper mentioned the town “Yaxachen” but the only somewhat nearby town with a similar name was “Yaxbachen”. As the road wound around over the hills outside of Oxkutzcab, I started thinking perhaps the motorcycle-man was illiterate. We decided to go back and get a second opinion.
This part of the Yucatan is populated primarily by Mayan families. The houses are made of sticks, a manure and hay mixture, and palapa roofs. Pigs, goats, and chickens crossed the streets and clucked around inside people’s houses and yards.
We went back to the outskirts of Oxkutzcab where we found a group of teenage girls to help us. They were very giggly, but eager to be involved in our arbitrary mission. They reaffirmed the location of the family as Yaxachen. John presented the map and they all gathered around it to show us where to go. They spoke to us in Spanish but to each other in Mayan which left me scowling, nodding absently, then shaking my head, and squinting a lot as I tried to understand. They told us to continue toward “Xul” (pronounced Shool) and then on to Yaxachen.
I made the observation to John when we got in the car, that I could stop anyone on the street and ask them a question and they wouldn’t hurry me. No one in these parts was in a hurry to get anywhere. In the U.S. when we stop someone on the street to ask questions, first, they think we might pull out a gun and kill them and next, they think, “I have somewhere I have to be…” and then they cut the conversation short and scurry away as fast as they can. Communication gets easier in places where time is infinite and the people are friendly, even when there are language barriers in the way.
The road to Yaxachen was only as wide as a one-way, but cars squeezed past each other going in both directions. Trees encroached on the asphalt highway, ate away at it, leaned over the top of it. Topes and street dogs slowed us down at each town we drove through, but eventually we got there.
Needless to say, the streets were not marked. It was hardly the type of place frequented by tourists. No tourist infrastructure here. We drove to the end of town and looked for someone to give us more directions. A couple of teenage girls were walking together on a dirt road up ahead. We drove up beside them and handed them the newspaper article.
They recognized the family and knew where they lived. This was lucky and “easier than I’d thought it would be” given our location, language limitations, and the obscurity of our mission . One of the pair told us to go back to the pink convenience store and turn right, go past two corners and then turn left.
We did this and ended up at the end of a road that was filled with trash. So we went back and turned at another convenience store (a beige one) and followed the same directions again. This was where the car-journey ended and we were able to finally stand upright again. We showed a small Mayan man our newspaper and he nodded vigorously, went inside his little hut and got a shirt and waved for us to follow him, this time on foot.
Tourist attractions don’t make me giddy or slightly nervous. If I go to the Roman Colosseum or the pyramids in Egypt, I don’t have to wonder what’s going to happen to me, unless I go by camel or on foot or use some other unconventional method to get to there. But with a little bit of thought and planning, a person can concoct other situations that are much less straightforward. Though I admit, sometimes it’s nice to just go look at pyramids or ruins, eventually, even exciting tourist attractions get boring. The exciting part of tourist attractions and really everything we do is always people. Even reading a book involves other people (an author, publishers, distributors, etc.). Like addicts, perhaps we’ve been exposed to too many ruins, too many theme-parks and historical attractions. It takes more and better stuff to give us a travel-high. Anyway, there’s nothing better… or worse for that matter than not-knowing what’s going to happen next.
Spit Soup and Poop Crackers — By Jennifer Shipp
Yaxachen Family in the Yucatan: Photo Gallery
Ruined Part II: In Search of a Family in Yaxachen — By Jennifer Shipp
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