by George Thomas
I woke up in a less familiar Mexico. The Mexico I knew was contained to
storefronts like those on W. 18th; taquerias and cantinas with a neon cactus glowing through frostbitten windows. Midwestern brick is painted adobe tan and depicts street-side exhibitions of Azteca deco and bucolic murals of the Tex-Mex fringes, where cactus shadows are swallowed by the desert come dusk. It’s synonymous with the borderlands, but where we landed, it was just an afterthought. The sober American vista, as far reaching as it is, cannot be glanced at, cannot to size up like a thumb raised to the moon. Palm trees bend toward the sunrise along La Zona Hotelera. Our taxi delivers us to a Riviera with so many likenesses of suburban decadence — Outback Steakhouse, Margaritavilles, Señor Frog’s — las casas del Bud Light. Cancún, crown of the Yucatán, a foreigner’s comfortable respite from true Mexico.
Skip coffee, head to the pool bar for a tequila sunrise. I look into the windows of the resort, peek in on brunch crowd, and watch them — those families from Bakersfield and right-outside-Cleveland — eat chilaquiles and french toast. Behind me there are men moving stones, building a bigger patio. Their hammers clang in unison with forks tolling against mimosa flutes in the dining room. I see tourists’ lips flicker and gape all the while hearing the slang of my coworkers back in the states. This week, I’ve traded in my steel-toed boots for a pair of flip-flops, but still turn to join the workers as they pause to look to the beach as a lambently draped figure dips her foot in the sea.
By bus we travel inland to Chichen Itza. It rains on the way there, but our guide Arturo is compelled to assure everyone aboard that the dripping in the vents above us is from the air conditioning. He offers us Gatorade at two US dollars each, and asks us not to crap in the rear lavatory. Solamente numero uno.
I fell asleep and woke up to the same scenery — a freshly watered span of trees swaying up and down like they were fanning the bus across the freeway. The water, whether it was truly rain or just a/c condensation, cooled my scalp as it brought with it a stream of chilled air. Arturo was describing the earth of the Yucatán before I fell asleep. How thin yet rich the soil is, how the plant life flourishes because of it, how impassable the untouched jungle is. Now he’s telling us about the ancient city, Tulum. The Spaniards could only write about the city from their ships. That was some six-hundred years ago… from our resort it’s a two hour drive.
The skies cleared as we entered the gates of Chichen Itza. The path leading to the site is a winding flea market of native bric-a-brac and novelties; tables of sugar skulls and Mayan calendars fashioned into magnets and analog clocks and printed onto tie-dye tee shirts. The peddlers compete with Arturo for our attention. Regalos de Maya, Come take look, Cheapah than K-Mart! Sellers run up to us and offer real wooden masks, insisting that any tourist tap it to prove to us all how wooden it is. One Mayan dollar, they’ll say. That’s forty dollars to you, Arturo says. Even the descendants of the Mayans themselves, the Nativos, approach us with handfuls of embroidered hankies for twenty pesos each.
Arturo instructs our group to clap towards the steps of the Temple Kukulkan, and when we do, a moan begets from the peak of the temple. To breathe life into the temple is to revive it from centuries of silence, and there are fewer simple joys than to hear our own echo. Within this temple is a smaller temple, Arturo said. Here, the Mayans had defeated an enemy, and to honor their victory had built an even bigger temple over their enemy’s. Eventually, the Spanish arrived and you know how the story goes, but they kept the temple, adopting it in their language, El Castillo. Today, a fence surrounds the entire site. Property of the Mexican Government — ticket prices vary.
Conquerors are conquered. Subjugation invites revolution. Profiteers live forever, enshrining so many legacies onto the façades of coffee mugs, of which I bought two.
Originally published July 12, 2013.