Perry’s Whirlwind Mayan Adventure
Read Perry’s fun experience on his last trip to Mexico while working on our new Riviera Maya map.
Part One, “The invite”
My last meal of the day, 8pm, at a new restaurant in the resort town of Akumal, Mexico. It was a day that began at 6am with a long colectivo van ride (like small buses) from Tulum, Mexico, north to Puerto Aventuras, Mexico.
No bike on this day, I depended upon my feet and a few taxi rides. I had already dined at seven restaurants, but the bulk of those were around lunchtime. In the afternoon I walked miles of beachfront, some lined with beautiful sand, but most nothing but rocky shoreline dotted with rental properties. For the first time in days I was actually hungry and this restaurant was one I had never tried. A cerveza (beer) is definitely in order.
My cerveza Sol (a favorite brand) was brought to me teeth-chilling cold and with a broad smile by my waiter Wilburt. I was the only patron, so Wilburt and I shared some conversation on a beautiful night (This is how so many close friendships in the Yucatan began). After enjoying a nice meal, Wilburt mentioned that he had three days off and was going home to his village for a visit—I was welcome to join him.
Like many Mexicano’s who work in the resort areas, Wilburt leaves his family behind, shares housing with others in a similar situation, and returns to the village to take money and spend time with his family—a family that I would eventually learn included a beautiful wife and two small children.
In Mexico, public transportation is abundant. Vans leave from larger cities throughout the day destined for dozens of tiny villages, some up to four hours away. Wilburt was catching the last van from Tulum (the same city I was staying in) at 10pm. I wasn’t going to make this trip, but I promised to join him the following morning.
Part Two “Regrets”
Morning arrives. I awake at 6am, quickly run outside and see that there is no rain; the streets are dry—finally a day with no rain! I quickly prepare my equipment for a day of research. This includes running from corner-to-corner in the room, pulling batteries from chargers…oh yes, the charger in the bathroom. Camera, CHECK! GPS, CHECK! U.S. phone, CHECK! Mexican phone, CHECK! Backup GPS, CHECK! Backup camera, CHECK! Laptop, CHECK! Money, CHECK! Ziplock bags (for all that food I’ll throw away throughout the day), CHECK! Raincoat, NOPE. I’m leaving it behind today!
I run from my room and catch a colectivo van north to get started on another day of research. As I ride along next to the tired workers-some heading home-others just beginning there day, I remember my promise to Wilburt— Crap! But work is more important, and I must take advantage of this clear day.
After a full day of research I made a point to stop back into Akumal and drop off a letter of apology for Wilburt. The sun has already set as I hand the note to a co-worker and explain what happened. His response (in perfect English), “Oh man, that’s too bad. Wilburt was really excited about you coming!”
Guess who feels like total crap?
I run the full kilometer to the highway, catch a colectivo van back to the hotel, shower, shave, and call Laura to tell her that I’m heading into the jungle. She won’t hear from me again until morning—at the earliest. Then I set out to find the colectivo van to the village of San Ramon, where a disappointed Wilburt and family will be waiting.
Part Three “Getting There”
In my broken Spanish, I’m asking, “Donde Esta es el Combi a San Ramon?” (Where is the van to San Ramon?). No one knows the answer. A van pulls up. I ask, “San Ramon?”
“No, Francisco May” (a different village)
I seek out the van for nearly an hour. Then move on to the taxis.
Broken Spanish, “Me puede llevar a San Ramon?” (Can you take me to San Ramon?)
They talk among themselves, but don’t seem to know San Ramon.
I move on.
In Mexico, taxi locations (like many things) are based on class stature. Those who are connected get the best locations; others are left to roam the backstreets scrounging up whatever fairs they can find.
I head for the backstreets, and quickly flag down a rickety old taxi driven by an elderly Mayan man. “Me puede llevar a San Ramon?” (Can you take me to San Ramon?) The answer is, “Yes”
We agree on a price that includes waiting for several hours, stop for gas and snacks, then head into the darkness. I notice that the gas gauge did not move off of empty; as we accelerate down the dark highway the speedometer does not move off of zero; the temperature gauge bounces wildly between hot and cold—and we roll down the road farther from my nice bed (ok, it wasn’t that nice, but at least it didn’t have fleas or bedbugs—but that’s another story).
Part Four “What a Ride”
Wilburt was kind enough to make me a map of the route to his village. He also told me how to find the colectivo (that didn’t go well), and that it would take about an hour to reach the village (that wasn’t correct either). We continue our drive deeper into the jungle!
The road narrows, but due to a detour, this narrow road is now shared with semi trucks that barrel past us in the opposite direction, shaking the car as they pass. The jungle scratches against my window as the driver tries to give them as much room as possible. At one point the jungle engulfs the entire road in a tunnel of darkness, the moon disappears; the tunnel is void of any light beyond our weak (and perhaps only one working) headlight. As we pass a broken down car, I think to myself what an idiot this man is to drive into the darkness of the jungle at this time of night; then I quickly realize the real idiot is sitting beside him, actually paying for the privilege…LOL!
My driver and I pass the time trying to converse, but the impasses come quickly and often. Music fills the gap as the radio reception goes in-and-out.
We pass through several tiny villages that provide a quick glimpse of light in the otherwise vast darkness (they all seem to have electricity). As we approach village number four (nearly two hours after our departure), my driver announces, “San Ramon!”
Part Five “Surprise Wilburt”
To those of us who live in beautiful homes, drive comfortable cars, visit the gym for our exercise, dine out at nice restaurants, and fill our evenings with entertainment on a flat-screen TV, it may seem impossible that perhaps the happiest, most content people I’ve ever met were in the poorest villages. Perhaps we all need a late-night Whirlwind Mayan Adventure to realize what is important in life. It’s love, friendship, kindness, sharing, and it includes what I had just spent hours pursuing, a promise kept! But I get ahead of myself. You must learn what I found in the tiny village of San Ramon.
My instructions are to find the “tienda” (store), which is not difficult since I only see four structures surrounding a large plaza flooded with water (it had rained here all day and was still sprinkling). The store is made of stucco, in front is a single, ancient arcade game and a small crowd of boys watching another playing. Inside I look around the store only to see three hammocks; there are no shelves of groceries, no coolers of Coca Cola, nothing that seems to be for sale. A man approaches from a rear door that looks exactly like my new friend Wilburt, plus 20 years. Barrel-chested with chiseled muscles, he smiles and holds out a hand. He knows who I am, I know that he knows, but he speaks Mayan. We cannot confirm our knowledge in words. He speaks in Mayan to the taxi driver, we all pile in, and drive a few kilometers to a small concrete structure along the road—Wilburts house. Wilburt peers into the darkness at the oddity of a taxi and is extremely surprised to see who steps out. His expression makes the journey worth the effort.
But my true reward is yet to come!
Part Six “Perry Learns to Make a Hammock, (sort of)
Part Seven “Home”
We enter the store, pass through the back door, and enter the family’s living area. A stick structure with dirt floor; thatched roof; no screen covering the openings; a single table in the center; a stucco, wood-fired oven along one wall; and a tiny, child-sized table with small stools next to the oven. Along one wall a wooden cupboard housed all the family’s belongings, along the other wall, an ancient, treadle-style sewing machine.Wilburt’s mother—in traditional Mayan dress—returns with a bowl of dough, puts a few more sticks into the wood oven, then sits down to press tortillas. Wilburt’s brother brings freshly made tamales from his home and a dinner table is set—this is gonna be GOOD!
Part Eight “New Friends and The End”
I seem to be somewhat of an attraction that distracts the neighborhood children from their arcade game. They begin to crowd the house. Two small girls (Wilburt’s nieces) have never seen anyone with my shade of skin and blue eyes. They stare at me in amazement and giggle.
I have something that I have always done with children, and I made the mistake of doing it on this night. I will shake their hand, then continue shaking wildly as if they are the ones that won’t stop. As our hands shake wildly I declare, “Deja de hacer eso!” (Stop doing that!–i think that’s what it means–LOL) Wilburt translates into Mayan and the room erupts in laughter. Every child lines up for a handshake and I continue the game until my arm aches. Luckily I was saved by the smell of warm tortillas on the table.
The food was incredible. I took a bite of my chicken tamale as a chicken passed through the room—his turn would come. After dinner I walked through muddy fields to see Wilburt’s father’s crop. He works the land growing corn for the tortillas, and also keeps bees for honey. Even in the darkness, with the light of my flashlight showing the way, I could see that the corn—grown in a thin layer of soil that covers a bed of limestone—was a fraction of the size of corn stalks back home in my native Iowa. If only Wilburt’s father could visit Iowa, perhaps even attend the Iowa State Fair. But perhaps it is best if such things don’t happen.
As the time grew late, the translated conversation continued, and as I prepared to leave, I realized that somehow I was going to leave part of my heart behind in the tiny village of San Ramon. Those big brown eyes of the smiling children, the kindness of complete strangers, and the simplicity of life both added to my life and perhaps even changed me. The goodbyes were long and extended, and included neighbors who I had not even met throughout the evening.
On the return trip, as the temperature gauge bounced, and the music faded in-and-out, my taxi driver chatted and smiled as if I followed his every word. I realized why he was crazy enough to drive me into the dark of the jungle. He was Mayan, perhaps he understood I had a promise to keep!