Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Those Legendary Cenotes

I said goodbye to the discount hammock emporiums. I´d had my fill of air-conditioned restaurants with in-house cumbia bands and two-for-one Montejo beers. It was time to leave Mérida. I was headed for parts less traveled: Oxkutzcab.

As I passed the market zone and approached the second class bus station, the city grew dirtier around me. Plastic soda bottles lay dead in the gutters. Political graffiti disfigured the walls. I entered the station and bought my ticket, my big new suitcase tagging along behind me. I was the only light-skinned person there. People were staring.

Thing was, I had to go to the bathroom. The bathroom door was narrow. My suitcase wasn't, and there was no baggage check. Looking around, I spotted a young woman sitting primly on the edge of her seat, cell phone perched in manicured hand. I took a chance. "Would you do me an enormous favor," I asked, "and watch my bag?" She nodded.

When I returned, my new friend asked me where I was going. As I told her (in Spanish) about my grant to study Mayan culture, the elderly woman next to her leaned in to listen. She was wearing an hipil (huipil in other regions), a white shift with colorful embroidery at neckline and hem. Her hair was pulled back in a circular bun (tulux) and she was in flipflops. This is how Mayan women traditionally dress for their daily activities.

Soon my young friend had recruited this woman to teach me a few Mayan phrases (she tried her best: it isn't easy). They asked me what I liked best about the Yucatan so far. "Maybe the cenotes," I said, thinking of the lovely swim I´d had in a limestone cave just the day before.
"There's a nice cenote in my town," the older woman said. "It's near the Huay Cot."

"Ooh, really," the younger woman exclaimed.

"Do you know the legend of the Huay Cot?" the older woman asked. "It's just a story, of course. But some people say it's true."

Know this: the Mayans have a long tradition of telling legends. Here´s one I like:

There´s this batab (village leader) who lives near the cemetary. After seeing a lot of funerals, he begins worrying about his own death. "I wish," he says, "I could make Death my compadre (best buddy). Then I wouldn´t have to worry about dying." As soon as he says this, Death Incarnate appears before him. "Did you call me, Compadre?" Death says. "Uh, yeah," the batab says, his eyes bugging out a little, "um, could you tell me how much longer I have to live?" "As a matter of fact," Death says, checking his PDA, "I'm coming for you tomorrow." "But I´m still young and full of juice! Cut me a break," the batab says. Death shrugs. "Sorry, Compay. Tomorrow's the day."
So the batab decides to shave his head k'olis (bald), thinking Death won´t recognize him that way. He goes to the vaquería festival in town and has a few cold ones. He dances the jarana and chats up all the pretty women. Meanwhile, Death shows up at the batab's house. When he doesn't see the batab, he feels sorry for him. Aw, he thinks, my poor compadre is scared. Death takes a walk into the village while he ponders his friend's fate. He sees a drunk, bald guy and thinks, maybe I can send this crazy guy down to the underworld instead of my compadre the batab. He grabs the bald guy and drops him into the underworld.

"Wait!" the batab says, "Have mercy, Compadre!" That's when Death realizes his error. He tries to pull the batab out, but his fingers slide on the batab's slippery, sweaty-from-partying bald head and down goes the batab, down, down, down into the underworld on the exact day destiny had already set aside for him.

"Huay Cot," the elderly woman told me, means the Sorcerer´s House. (Huay is an old Mayan word for people who could transform themselves into animals. The glyph for huay is one I managed to learn just because it´s so cool -- it´s a squished together version of the glyph for person and the glyph for jaguar.)

"In that house, there used to be a family of merchants," the woman told us. "Every day they´d sell lots of things. By night time the house, which was also their store, would be empty. But by the next morning it would be full of merchandise again. People said it was witchcraft."

"Wow!" said the young woman.

"It´s just a legend people like to tell. Really, there were probably caravans of merchandise that arrived at night. But whether that legend is true or not, they made a lot of money. People say they hid it in the cenote."

"Do lights appear over the cenote at night?" the younger woman asked.

"That´s another legend," the older woman told me. "It has to do with what happened during the War of the Castes (this was a Mayan uprising that began in 1847 and ended in 1848, or, depending on your definition of 'ended', in the late 1930's--Miss Judy). Many people had to leave their villages. Before they left they buried their money. But sometimes the village got burnt down and they couldn´t the spot again. Or maybe the person who knew where the money was got killed in the fighting. It´s said that if you see a candle burning in the air at night, that´s where a Mayan treasure is buried. But if you tell anyone what you saw, when you dig there you´ll find a lump of coal and nothing else. It´s just a story people like to tell."

"There are people who say it's true," the younger woman insisted. "I know people who say they've seen the flames."

"That's what people say. I don't know if anyone saw lights there, but the archeologists did find treasure in that cenote. It's almost time for my bus," the older woman said. "But have you heard the joke about what the Yucatan has in common with a beautiful woman?"

"No," I said.

"Well. The Yucatan has CENOTES, and a beautiful woman also has SENO-TES (big breasts)!"

We laughed.

Lifting herself up slowly and slipping her purse over her shoulder, the elderly woman said: "That´s just a joke people like to tell. Have a good time in Oxkutzcab, and I hope you learn a lot."