Monday, May 9, 2011

The Heart of the Jaguar

Everyone told me I was crazy to want to go to Mexico. Didn’t I read the newspapers? Mexico was under siege. Tourists had been abducted in Acapulco by drug lords. Bodies dangled like earrings from bridges above the freeways, or so they said. When I confessed my fears to my friend, Jean, she laughed. Jean and her husband, Brian, had invited me to join them for a long weekend at their condo in Playa del Carmen, in the Yucatan Peninsula.
“You’re not going to be kidnapped by drug lords,” said Jean.
“Maybe not,” I said, “But I heard that body parts are strewn all along the freeway south of Cancun. Heads, arms, feet. Jez Jean, that’s pretty frightening.”
“The real danger is in Acapulco, and that’s on the other side of the country. If you aren’t dealing drugs, you don’t need to worry. In Playa, I never worry.”
I felt compelled to respond, just in case there were drug lords listening, “I don’t do drugs, Jean.”
“Well, that’s a relief. You can bunk in with Brian’s mom. She doesn’t do drugs either. You’ll be perfect roommates. You're going to love Mexico.” If Brian’s ninety-year-old mother was not afraid of drug lords, then neither was I.
Ten years ago, the thought of taking a vacation in the third world would have spun my neck into a knot. I booked family trips to South Carolina, where I diligently dug moats around sandcastles with my children. When I look back at a lifetime of vacation photographs, they look the same; a sunburned family on the beach by a castle, ignoring the impending doom of the incoming tide. Now, after a divorce, there is no husband, and the children are grown. I am alone. Call me crazy, but despite the warnings of friends, I decided to explore the Mayan Riviera with Jean’s family.
I wanted to come to Mexico to scuba dive. I wanted to see a Mayan ruin, and ask the question- if the Mayan calendar goes no further than 2012, what then? How long do we have before the end? I had spent my life preparing for catastrophe like a Girl Scout. I had an earthquake kit collecting dust in my garage and neatly folded emergency blankets in the trunk of my car. I had been caught off guard by the biggest tragedy of my life- the divorce. I would not be blindsided by the end of the world.
As I lounged in luxury on the beach in Playa, staring across twelve miles of turquoise water to the island of Cozumel, a foreboding feeling crawled across my arm like a tiny spider looking for a location to secure its web. I shivered and wrapped my blue towel tightly around my arms. Brian appeared. His freckles and pink flesh gave him a boyish look. He leaned his head back and with bright teeth, laughed. “Jean was up all night throwing up and with diarrhea.”
“Oh no,” I said. My stomach tightened at the thought of my own future on the terracotta bathroom floor.
“Don’t blame Mexico. Mom was sick the night before she flew in. We brought the bugs with us from New York. You’ll be next.”
“No, you’ll be next,” I responded with the enthusiasm of Donald Trump, but it had already happened. I had been cursed. I smelled salt, sunscreen, and French fries around me. I convinced myself that I was feeling nauseous. I decided to try and walk it off.
As I negotiated the narrow pathways through the labyrinth of lounge chairs, I listened to the endless beat of techno music that droned and droned from the nearby restaurant speakers. I was getting a headache. Thirty-five years ago, before the Cozumel Ferry crossed the channel for the first time, Playa del Carmen was a sleepy fishing village. Now waiters rushed through the sugary sand serving icy margaritas to the hundreds of thirsty tourists working on their tans. A bald man reclined in the blue shade of his umbrella. A tattooed maze circled his nipple and spilled over to his left arm, transforming his body into geometry. When he turned, I saw the stern eyes of a Maya face inked above his shoulder blade. I remembered the ancient prediction. 2012 was rapidly approaching. Those hypnotic eyes had hooked me like a carp. I had to tear myself away.
I concentrated on the pretty pink and yellow hotels that form a protective barrier like a Band-Aid between the bikinis on the beach and the town. There is an ordinance in Playa that no building can be taller than four stories. This enhances the seaside charm. I noticed three men gathering coconuts beneath a palm. They saw me watching their activity, stopped, and smiled with guilty grins. Perhaps it was against the law to take coconuts from the beach. I picked up my pace. They could be pickpockets, but then, my bathing suit had no pockets to pick. Behind them, in a sandy lot enclosed by a rusty wire fence, a small hut made from a tarp stood without apology. A sombrero hung from the packing crate door, and a water jug sat by the entrance. Towels dried on driftwood. A woman in a white masseuse outfit poked her head from the makeshift entrance. Is this how the Playa natives live? I felt guilty that hotel staff might be living beneath a painter’s drop cloth. I felt guilty that I had thought the worst of the coconut gatherers. I smiled at the three men and attempted, ”Buenos Dias,” but the words sounded wrong, and no one responded. I drifted on.
A short woman, maybe twenty or thirty, strolled toward me. She had sunburned freckles, and brown hair. I could hardly breathe. She looked like a young version of myself. She could have been plucked from my mother’s photo album. She smiled as she glided by. Did she have any idea that she has just seen her future self? I wanted to tell her that she and I were identical, but she was gone and the moment was lost.
At dinner that night, I told Brian and Jean about the young woman from the beach. Brian gulped his margarita and teased, “It was your doppelganger.”
“I bet you’re right,” I said.
“I wonder if she knew it,” said Jean.
‘Naw, they never do,” said Brian.
“So when did you become the expert on doppelgangers?” asked Jean.
“Oh everyone knows about doppelgangers. If a friend sees your doppelganger, you’re going to get sick. If you see your own doppelganger, it’s an omen of death.”
“Brian!” I said. Brian burst into laughter.
“Oh he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” said Jean.
“Oh yeah? What’s the chance that what you saw could have been your reflection?”
“Then it was a sinister form of bilocation. A harbinger of bad luck. You’d better watch out.”
“Shut up Brian,” said Jean.
“Nice,” I said. The cafe table sat on the street. I pulled my chair as close as possible to the curb, hoping not to be hit by a car while eating. The restaurant owner presented us with a fresh pitcher of drinks while a three-piece mariachi band thrummed an off key Guantanamera in the corner of the room. All the diners looked down at their plates and secretly crossed their fingers that the skinny singers would stroll away to the next restaurant before having to dole out a tip. Only the owner clapped at the end of the song. My stomach gurgled, and I fondled the Imodium in my pocket.
That night, Brian’s curse came crushing down upon me. I held myself on the floor of my bathroom as tightly as a tourniquet, trying to stop the sea waves that slammed into my gut. I hallucinated on my doppelganger and saw tattooed eyes. Techno music drilled down my ear canal to the center of my brain. I thought of the Mayan calendar and decided that I did not want to live until 2012. Even though the printed sign above the toilet clearly stated- please do not flush toilet paper, I willfully broke the law. I flushed. I was too sick to care. When I emerged from my bathroom cocoon, Jean said that a full day and a half had fluttered by. It was another lazy beach morning, and the plan was to drive to Tulum.
Tulum was one of the last great Mayan cities. It is an hour south of Playa, and the southernmost point of the Mayan Riviera. Jean slowed our SUV as we passed a military checkpoint. Handsome camouflaged soldiers in sunglasses and flack jackets held machine guns and glared into our windows. I wasn’t nervous. I had survived the night. I was no longer worried about drug lords. I glanced at the neatly mowed grass by the side of the road as we sped up. The row of palm trees in the median was interspersed with large sculptures of seashells, angelfish, and dolphin. This highway hardly seemed the place to find a piece of an errant arm or a lone severed foot.
I leaned my head against the car window and peered at the passing beaches that nestled like nursery moons at the base of the coastal cliffs. The blue water formed the perfect palate for the red, green, and yellows dive boats that anchored near the shore. The world’s second largest coral reef begins here and extends all the way to Guatemala. I knew that exotic fish were waiting for a rendezvous just below the sea’s surface, and I dreamed of diving.
When we arrived at the Tulum archeological site, the man at the ticket booth gave us sage advice. “Without a guide, its just a bunch of rocks and a few iguanas.” What a sales pitch. We paid for an authentic Maya guide.
I laughed when we boarded the tractor tram, disguised to look like a steam locomotive that would take us to the once powerful Tulum. The city had been reduced to an old lion in a circus cage. I could see behind me rows of souvenir sombrero shacks, post card venders, and hammock hawkers. Before me, high above the Caribbean Sea on a cliff, beckoned the ancient ruins. With the exception of the tentacle-like roots of the Banyan trees that reach around and through the stones of the outer walls, the entrance stood as it had eight hundred years ago. Stones and roots now protected the Maya ghosts.
A cool wind rushed through a low passage that pierced the wall where our guide, Julio Cesar Villagomez Villalobos, stood waiting. His square face squinted into a broad smile, and he introduced himself in broken English. He proclaimed that, thanks to his grandmother, he was one quarter Maya. I asked our one-quarter Maya leader the question that had been puzzling me.
“Is it true? According to the Mayan calendar that we will all be dead at the end of next year?”
In a thick accent, he responded, “No. December 23, 2012 marks the end of a 5000-year cycle. The Maya olders have been waiting patient. The new cycle will begin. My friends, the new cycle will be positive. “
“So we aren’t going to die?”
“No, my friend. When the Milky Way and the solar system have a cosmic cross in the sky, a new time will begin. We celebrate.”
In a silly way, I felt relieved. I enjoyed strolling through the remnants of rock foundations adorned with green orchids. Chubby columned temples tilted like drippy sand castles looming above the palms trees. Rectangular doorways waited for the solstice light to pierce their darkness and reveal some cosmic secret. Julio flipped his charts with enthusiasm, while I watched stone colored iguana sun like tiny dinosaurs on grinding stones. Julio discussed every rock in Tulum. He pointed to the top of a looming temple staircase where prisoners were sacrificed. Souls had died here. The wind blew up from the sea, and we stood in respectful silence. At the king’s palace, Julio pointed to a relief carving on a lintel above a doorway. “My friend, this is the Diving God.”
“Hey, that’s my god. I am a scuba diver.”
He continued, “It could also be a bee.”
I stared at the carved winged man. “No. It’s not an insect. Definitely a man.”
“My friend, honey was important to the Maya.”
“Maybe so, but it looks like a man diving straight down.”
“The Diving God comes from heaven. He descends to the underworld through the waters of sacred sinkholes knows as cenotes. My friend, this is how the Maya enter the afterlife. Very holy. Very important to make sacrifices to the cenote.”
“Were people sacrificed?” I asked.
“Yes, my friend, many people.”
The world’s largest system of underground rivers is found on the Yucatan Peninsula. These subterranean rivers were the only source of fresh water for the Maya people. In two days I would leave for home. I knew that I had one final thing to accomplish before I left Mexico. I needed to make my sacrifice to the sacred sinkhole by diving a cenote.
However, I was concerned. I was pushing the eighteen-hour no fly limit, the hard, fast rule to prevent the bends. I was weak and dehydrated from my illness. I emailed a friend who was a scuba expert and asked his opinion of diving the cenote. My friend’s response was immediate. No single dive was worth it. I considered his warning. I remembered my doppelganger.
“What are you so worried about?” asked Brian. “Nothing’s going to happen to you. You aren’t going to get bent.”
“But I am…” and I listed off a litany of excuses for not going under.
“It’s incredible down there. Are you crazy? You don’t want to miss it.” Brian was right. I was tired of missing things. What the hell? I had never gone into an underwater cave. I would be brave. I called a dive shop and arranged my trip.
My dive master, Pierre Claver, was from France but had fallen in love with Mexico. He had moved to the Yucatan with his girlfriend. She had left, but he was in love again. This time with a cenote. He had planned our dive at Cenote Chac Mool, south of Tulum.
“Chac Mool means The Thundering Paw. The entrance to this cenote is in the shape of a jaguar’s paw. It’s one of my favorites.”
The parking lot was as still as a chapel. I could sense that this was a holy place. I could feel the spirit of a spotted jaguar with padded paws watching from the underbrush. I breathed in the jungle air. I needed to become the jaguar.
“Hola,” Pierre called to leathery man in a white shirt standing in the distance. “He is my friend. He is teaching me Mayan.” Pierre bounded across the parking lot for a brief conversation. “Today’s word is polok. It means fat. I now know nohache polok pek. That means big, fat dog. I also know Mich ba, which means, I am doing good.”
“Mich ba,” I said. I was weak and tired, but I breathed a jaguar breath. Pierre bubbled on about cave diving.
“We have come here early to see the halocline. You’ll see why. It’s magic.”
In a cenote, the halocline is the horizontal plane where salt water meets fresh water. Once divers flip their fins through the juncture of the two layers, visibility is blurred. Pierre wanted me to be the first diver of the day, so that I could experience the halocline without distortion.
“After we put on our equipment, we’ll go down about twelve feet to equalize.”
“Twelve feet?” I looked at the shallow water puddles that covered the rocks at the entrance. “That water is no deeper than eighteen inches.”
“The fresh water is so clear, you can see for 200 feet. It’s an optical illusion here.”
And so it was. I had never seen clearer water. We submerged and followed yellow ropes that marked our pathway through a horizontal world of boulders, stalactites, stalagmites, and fossils. We passed from cave to cave, swimming between massive rock slabs and toward diagonal bands of light that flooded the caverns. The clarity of the water played tricks with the reflections of the jungle foliage above, washing the water in turquoise and bright green. I felt as if I was swimming against an aquarium backdrop. Where there was no light from above, the cave was dark and still. There was no current, no fish, no movement of any kind other than our own bubbles and fins. We were in the underworld, and my fascination replaced any fear.
We reached a cave where an air pocket had formed. We surfaced and without the aid of regulators breathed the ancient cave oxygen. Banyan roots drilled through the top of the limestone ceiling, forming golden columns worthy of a gothic cathedral; columns created without stonemason or priest. We floated alone on the surface of a black lake, our flashlights illuminating the stalactites around us.
“Wow,” my voice echoed.
“Wait to you see the halocline,” said Pierre, and down we went again. I was the Diving God descending. I was swimming in a timeless darkness. We passed a painted sign at the opening to another cave. My light illuminated a skull and crossed bones, and a warning that 300 deaths had occurred in the next cave. Sacrifices to the cenote. More souls for the underworld. We swam away following our guide ropes. I was the jaguar. This was not my day to die.
When we reached the halocline, our three-dimensional world changed. In water so clear that it seemed like air, I could see the flat plane that divided the salt and fresh layers. I envisioned someone stretching a film of plastic wrap in the middle of my vision. It seemed impossible, but I could see in two-dimensions. As we swam through the halocline, the rocks became a cataract blur. I stayed closed to Pierre’s light, the firefly leading me back to transparent water. We swam to the cenote entrance where the jungle shimmered in green from above. We surfaced like turtles, leaving the silent underworld behind.
Back in the parking lot, I saw Pierre’s Mayan teacher bend over to pick up cement chunks and place them in his rusty wheelbarrow. I felt sorry for such an old man struggling under such a heavy load.
“Does he make much money?” I asked.
“He is a wealthy man,” said Pierre. “He is the owner. Look at his car over there.”
Parked under a carport was new silver Toyota minivan. “In the land reform, the cenotes were given to the Maya.“
I smiled and reminded myself that things are not always what they seem. As we drove away from the cenote, Pierre remarked, “I think I know a place to rent near here. It’s a simple one room house with a hammock and a solar panel for power.” His eyes looked toward the jungle. “It’s away from people, and it has its own cenote behind the house. I could dive every day.”
“You could have your own entrance to the underworld.” We smiled and nodded in silence. We headed to Playa, and the next day I flew back to New York.

Not everyone can live his passion. In the Yucatan, Pierre discovered that his paradise lies in the jungle, at the entrance to the underworld. Jean and Brian know that their retreat is found on the Mayan Riviera, where life is slow, and the water is turquoise blue. And it is here that I found the answer to my question. The answer clung to the windy cliffs of Tulum. It floated in the still water of the cenote. We really don’t know when our lives will end. It’s not about dying. It’s about living. I think of my doppelganger and wish her the heart of a jaguar for every adventure that lies before her as she strolls along the Caribbean Sea and beyond. That’s the best we can do. Mich ba

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