Last Sunday on a whim I decided to go by myself to Valladolid, a city about two hours northwest of where I live. I made the decision in my bed at 9, and at 9:30 I was on a bus zipping west through Mexico.
And then I learned that if you’re going to go jumping on Mexican busses willy nilly, you should consider asking whether anything where you’re going will be open.
On an average day in my little town, stores close from about 2-6, which makes sense because that’s when it’s brain-meltingly hot. But I figured, Valladolid—it’s a tourist destination! So I arrived at 12:30, ambled from the bus station to the town square, had a nice ham sandwich, watched a parade go into a church, and mapped out the rest of my day.
And then I discovered that everything had closed, nothing would reopen until Monday, and the bus back to Carrillo wouldn’t go for another six hours. And then it started to pour, like this:
When it finally cleared, I reconsidered my options. I’d read that Valladolid had a cenote in the center, a limestone swimming hole, common in this part of Mexico. I’d brought a bathing suit just in case I got the urge to take a dip, but I hadn’t really planned on using it.
There are a lot of cenotes in the jungle near my apartment and I love them but the really vary. There are the magical ones, with aqua blue fairy water and tarzan vines, and the murky ones with weird warm spots that make you imagine blobby white monsters breathing on your legs.
I figured a city cenote would be the murk plus the urine content of a public pool. But it was either that or sit on a bench for six hours
So I paid a grumpy man 3 pesos to let me change in a smelly bathroom, bought my ticket to the cenote, and walked in through the entrance (an underground cave where I was the only one there). And then I was so very glad I’d come.
Cenote Zaci was the fairyland type but on crack, a huge cavern half open to the sky, stalagtites hanging from the ceiling, swinging vines, sparkly water. The walkways to the swimming area were built into the cave walls so it felt like spelunking to get there.
There were only a few swimmers in the water, all weirdly wearing clothes instead of bathing suits so I felt momentarily sheepish about my bikini. But que sera! The water turned out to be super buoyant I think perhaps because of minerals. I bobbed, fended off nibbly catfish and watched the clothed families splash. And then I realized I’d forgotten a towel so I sunned for as long as I could stand it.
Once I’d dried, it was back toward town. And still everything was closed. So I decided I would view Valladolid as a museum.
The first thing I noticed was that Valladolid looks really different from Carrillo. My town has a lot of squat square houses that are either concrete or traditional Maya with wood-pole walls and thatched roofs. Valladolid, on the other hand, looks like like old timey Spain: low colorful, decaying buildings with huge doors, slow-moving fans, and giant shutters. There are also cantinas that have honest-to-god swinging saloon doors.
Then I noticed that Valladolid had an awful lot of white people who didn’t seem to be tourists. This is now a weird thing for me, since in my daily life the gringos are really just my coworkers and the occasional pair of wandering, sunburnt Jehova’s Witnesses.
And then I had my first real Mexican history face-slap.
It occurred to me that my town looks like it does because that’s where the Maya remained independent the longest. Valladolid looks like it does because there the Spanish conquered the Maya, and built their Spanish style homes on the rubble. The white people I was seeing were their descendants.
And then I started to notice the number of brown ladies walking around town dressed in indigenous huipils–the beautiful white Maya dresses with embroidered flowers at the chest and hem. This made me realize just how differently things played out here than in the States, that despite the conquering, the cultural oppression, and the general awfulness, the Maya had really stuck around. And I wondered what the U.S. would look like had history gone down just a bit differently.
So this is what happens when you pay attention to where you are.
When I got tired of walking, I perused the town center’s tourist stalls—which never close—and ended up having a nice chat with a Maya tchotchke seller. Once I shared my two phrases of Maya (Bix a bel and Ma’alob which mean approximately ‘How are you?’ and ‘Good thanks’) , he stopped trying to sell me a “traditional” mask with a hockey logo (Bruins) and pointed me toward a museum that was open.
The museum was a nice five-minute distraction, in an old church, that basically confirmed the history that I just told you.
Then I went back to the central park and watched tourists take pictures of a fountain, and this one guy who had trained four cocker spaniels to sit in a row. He didn’t seem to be looking for donations; he just really enjoyed showing people the trick.
And then somebody closed off the street next to the park, and rows of red plastic chairs materialized. Within half an hour the seats were full.
And as the sun set, dance performances began, first a sassy woman in her 70s doing flamenco, then a flamenco quartet. And then the chairs moved back, the band started and the street became an open dance floor. Everyone got to their feet, old white ladies, small brown couples and little girls twirling.
And that’s how I left it, to go catch the bus.