Sunday, June 15, 2008


[Sunday Scribblings prompted us with the word guide. See what other folks came up with here. For me, it brought to mind one particular person on a special trip.]

In 2004 Chelle and I went on a vacation to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. Most of the trip was spent in or around the pool, or next to the beach at the all-inclusive resort in Playa del Carmen. But there were a couple of side trips, one notably to see Chichen Itza.

Departure time was early (at least as far as vacation schedules go), and there were two buses lined up for those of us heading inland for the all-day trip. We were a long way from Chichen Itza, long enough we would be stopping for lunch on the way there. The guide on our bus was Jesus (pronounced in with a "hey" sound in front). Since he wasn't the driver, he could pay attention to us, the paying customers.

Jesus made it his business to tell us about Mexico today, passed around some old coins, talked about the current political and economic situation. He told us about the plant life we saw outside the bus as well as how he had learned about it on excursions into the jungle with a botanist friend, where he came across small groups of people who still spoke Mayan as a language. As a kind of party game he asked for our birthdays and told us what saint-names we would have likely been given had we been born in Mexico. He told us about his family and told us that he was studying German so that he would be able to lead tours for German-speaking tourists, increasing his marketability.

Our bus passed first through the downtown area of Playa del Carmen, where we saw trees being re-planted in the median strip, the former ones having been damaged in Hurricane Ivan. We saw a building going up along the road where workers were lifting concrete into place one bucket at a time; an honest-to-goodness bucket brigade getting the job done two stories above ground. And we passed startlingly-familiar shops like McDonalds and WalMart.

Our road went on highways and byways. In one town we passed through, Jesus pointed out that the church was built on the site of a native temple, and that it was, in fact, built of the very stones of the former place. The conquerors had torn down one holy building in order to put up their own.

Jesus pointed out the kinds of trees we could see over the walled yards in town. Many were faster-growing varieties that recovered quickly from the winds of the hurricane. Once we were out of the town, we passed onto smaller roads and eventually into areas where a few houses were immediately at the side of the road. A small naked toddler walked out of the front of the house to pee in the tiny front yard. Since there was no indoor plumbing, Jesus pointed out, this was probably a good place for him to do it, since it kept him away from the vegetables that were likely planted in the back.

Jesus taught us about the geology of the Yucatan Peninsula, that it was made of limestone and so porous that water doesn't stay on top. There are no above-ground rivers in the Yucatan, all are below ground. After seeing Chichen Itza, we would get to visit a cenote (pronounced say-NO-tay) which is an underground water hole.

Lunch was at a tourist-trap buffet with entertainment provided by bored dancers, but we were at least sure that it was clean. Onward we went into the jungle, the temperature and humidity rising with every mile.

When we finally arrived at the ruins of Chichen Itza, we were each handed two bottles of water and cautioned to stay hydrated since we would be sweating a lot in the heat. Jesus, himself, acted as our guide at the ruins. We saw the ancient observatory from a distance, closed to the public now since so many people had been carrying parts of it away.

We saw steps that were a funny proportion, with tall risers and short treads, tough for my size-11 feet to navigate. Round and square pillars stood upright in an area believed to have been a marketplace. Further along other pillars, all round this time, stood in a long line into the trees, the original cement still holding the stones together. We were told that local contractors all claimed to use the same centuries-old recipe in their own construction. We saw the entrance to an ancient bathhouse/sauna. Jesus pointed out the original wood at the base of a Mayan arch, made from the chicle tree. He told us contractors working on a new porch at his own house were waiting for the right time of the month to cut chicle trees for supports; that when the chicle's sap is drawn up into the tree, it helps to act as a preservative.

We saw stones laid out in an archeologist's attempt at a giant jigsaw puzzle. We passed enormous buildings that had housed warriors, some of their images carved into the rectangular pillars in the front (each image different from each other one).

Jesus told us about the number of steps on the four sides of the largest building, how with the top platform, they total 365. He told us about the magic of the equinoxes, spring and fall, when the sun is in just the right place to cause a jagged shadow to crawl down to complete a "body" for the representation of the serpent-god, Kukulkan.

He explained the ball-court game. He helped us interpret the carved images along the side of the biggest court at Chichen Itza. He pointed out the raised area at the end where royalty would have sat to watch, so as not to favor one side or the other. The top galleries, Jesus told us, would have been covered to keep the citizens cool in the heat of the sometimes days-long games.

After the tour at Chichen Itza, and somewhat revived by the air conditioning in the bus, we went to the cenote. We walked down steps carved into rock, down into the cave, where the air grew cooler as the light dimmed. Jesus pointed out the tree at the opening of the cenote, how it wasn't much to look at, but to hold our judgement. Chelle actually joined a few other folks for a swim. I decided to let her tell me how cold it was (and then decided it was going to be too cold for me). From where I stood looking around, I could see the roots of the tree Jesus pointed out. They reached down and down and down for stories, all the way down to reach the water of the cenote. The roots were pretty impressive.

As we finally headed back to the resort, with the sun going down and most of us wiped out from the heat and excitement of the day, Jesus finally stopped teaching and let us watch some movies or fall asleep.

That night we compared notes with the folks on the other bus. Our bus was full of people who ranked the day and the whole trip quite highly. The other bus was full of people who were much more indifferent. Since we went to the same places, saw the same treasures, the difference had to have been our guide. And we were quite glad we had lucked into a day with Jesus.


Janet said...

I very much enjoyed reading about your adventures with Jesus :-)

sister AE said...

Hi, Janet. Glad you liked it. Sometime I'll post more fun from that trip - the stuff without guides!

Granny Smith said...

This is a wonderful travel story! A good guide makes all the difference, doesn't it?

sister AE said...

Hello, Granny Smith. Exactly so.