"Perhaps he knew, as I did not, that the Earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road."
- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa
"Harold and Maude" - Hal Ashby, 1971
- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa
Dog Days are Over - Florence and the Machine
Last Thursday, I flew to Cancun, and spent six days with dear friends near the beach in Tulum. Tulum is a tiny coastal town that reminds me a lot of my tiny home-coastal town, despite its obvious differences. The water in Tulum is so many shades of turquoise and royal...when you look out at the water, it's like someone has taken a watercolor brush and dipped it in every shade of blue that you could imagine and just wiped it in horizontal stripes across the horizon. The sand is white and tan, there are tiny rocks and coral and sea urchins, and palm trees. The wind whips around every surface through each moment of each day: all things are coated in sand and salt water. Everything is hot and the sun is bright and beats down in the most lovely of ways.
You You You You You - The 6ths
Better than the beach, or at least equal to the beach in beauty and sheer amazingness, are the cenotes. Cenotes are natural limestone pools that are partially or entirely underground. They were made by underground rivers and dot the Yucatan peninsula from the ocean westward. We went to many cenotes, each unique and each cenote trip had its own story.
Muscle - MIA
The first was Grand Cenote, a cenote just minutes outside of Tulum. Grand Cenote is half-open and is wonderfully accessible to people. At Grand Cenote, there is a huge cliff wall that faces you as you stand on the small deck preparing yourself for jumping in. Once you jump, the water is cobalt blue and clear. There are small fish that swim around and nibble on your feet; there are water plants that have green-brown top sides to their leaves and purple bottoms. There are mot mot birds that warble their strange song from trees above; they are especially vociferous at sunset. There are swallows that make their nests in the cracks and crannies of the cave walls, and swoop and fly about your head as you swim back into the cave. There are bats that perch, upside down, waiting for the dimming of the light to start flying with their swallow neighbors. There are two hidden caves that you have to trust are there: aiming for a friend's feet you can find the air pockets as you duck under stalagtites that plunge deep down into the water. Once in the first air pocket, you can hold on to the craggy rocks and push yourself through the crevices to another, larger, private pool inside the cave wall. In the pool you can sit along the walls and look down at perfectly white slabs of limestone that have settled on the pool's floor, or you can just sit and wait for the water to settle and become perfectly quiet.
One Fine Day - David Byrne and Brian Eno
The next day's cenote was called Tancash Ka (and I am sure I am mis-spelling its name), an egg-shaped, totally underground cenote with diving boards and a roof of camel-colored stalagtites that bend down and look as if they might fall on you as you glide underneath them, floating on your back in the blue water. There are formations that look like distinct shapes: there are fans of limestone, chandeliers, ribbons and some that look like gills sticking out from the walls. Diving down, you can see formations that are shaped like a million pearls all laying on top of each other. These walls surround the pool. You can look up and see your friends jump off the diving tower and splashing loudly and perfectly in the clear water. You can float and stare upwards, you can dive down and look at the rocks on the pool's floor. You can crawl up what seems like hundreds of stairs when the lack of fresh air becomes a bit much and sit outside in the fierce sunshine and drink beer and look at the trees and the bushes and the sky and the clouds and realize how gorgeous it all really is.
Take This Waltz - Leonard Cohen
If you are really lucky, and I most certainly am, you will have friends who will take you to the town of Cuzama, to Los Tres Cenotes. The names of the cenotes - Chelentún, Chansinic'che, and Bolonchoojol - are interesting enough in themselves, but this is the cenote visit when you get to travel back in time by climbing into a horse-drawn carriage that takes you over 9 kilometers into the campo in search of three cenotes.
Silver - Bonobo
Imagine traveling back in time and place. Pass through several towns, some small and some large, and when you come to Cuzama, imagine passing a pink Colonial cathedral, a grey Colonial cathedral, and then an orange and white Colonial cathedral. Imagine a central jardin that is painted in Easter egg colours: yellow and purple. Drive through town, through neighborhoods and past people sitting in the front gardens. Park on the right where you see a series of palapas and a pasture of scrawny, tiny horses. When you park, you are informed that $250 pesos gets you a horse, a buggy, two guides and an hour and a half in the cenotes. You hop on the buggy that is set to coast on an ancient, tiny train track, fasten your cooler and bags to the platform at the back, and take off at a fine clip through the campo. Staring at the henneken plants, the cacti, the scrubby trees, I was reminded of all of my years in Austin out in the country looking for swimming holes. Being on the buggy feels a bit like a rollercoaster, a bit like a carnival ride, and really gives meaning to the understanding that things in Mexico sometimes are just so magical and different you just have to go with them. The guides release the horses at each stop and off they run in circles to the right or left of the track. Down you go, down steps or ladders into cenotes that are much more popular with local people than the tourists you find at the cenotes nearer Tulum. The first one is covered with graffiti from the thirties through the present day....the second is entered by a perfectly straight and perfectly terrifying ladder and has pockets of light that peak through from the surface and cascade pure sunlight down into the water. In the center hang huge tree roots and a pile of limestone rocks. To one side is a large tree that grows into the rocks and the water. If one of your group is a cliff jumper, he can climb back to the top and find a spot all the way up, about 20-30 feet, find a landing spot with the help of another friend, and leap fast through the air, and plunge into the water. The third and final cenote, accessed by a slippery and short stairway, is expansive with little cliffs, hanging tree roots that you can do pull-ups on, clear blue water that you can dive down and see for such a distance it is incredible. If you hang on the tree roots and look up, you can see a hole in the ground above. Framed in that natural opening, you see tree branches, tree roots, leaves, and light. It is a beautiful sight: a perfect picture of how this place is magic, and that magic is everywhere.
Take Care - Beach House
There were other days, and other adventures on this trip. There were great discoveries, and Mayan ruins. There were walks, and beautiful dinners under dim lights. There were wonderful conversations and tamales off street carts. There was sleep in hot, dark rooms and time in vivid sunshine. There were realizations of how no matter what you may think, life happens and gifts are given and it is up to you to recognize them for what they are.
Tonight, it is getting late. In Philadelphia, it is relatively quiet: possibly because it is rainy and grey outside. I know that 3,271 miles away, there is a place that I intend to get back to. That place whose skyline I looked upon the other day from the roof as I was hanging up laundry is small and dusty, with beautiful people and beautiful water, everywhere.
There is more to write, but not yet. Suffice it to say, I wish I was at a movie theatre in Playa del Carmen, or a small house in Tulum...but until then, I am here, wrapping up the loose ends and packing the boxes. Oooooo life!!!!
"Harold and Maude" - Hal Ashby, 1971