It was 5:15 PM and I guesstimated I had about two hours to reach Agua Azul Falls, the last significant item on my list of things to do in the Palenque area of Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. First, I purchased corn on the cob cooked over the coals and covered in mayonnaise and chili powder. Mmmm!! Next, I purchased a couple of cups of freshly cut mango from the stall at the entrance to Roberto Barrios Falls and bought a couple bracelets (like the ones my daughter makes) to placate some children who offered to guard my car for free (arghh), and drove away. (To clarify, I am confident that this location is very safe and the people are wonderful but they offered to guard it – claiming it was for free mind you – in the hopes of some money.) After about going only 1 mile, the road turned to dirt and got significantly steeper and more treacherous. Not exactly what my compact economy rental car was built for.
After traveling a mile or two more I realized that, in fact, I would prefer to hang out with vendors than see the falls and turned around. I returned to the father selling me the mangos and asked if I could take him and his family (including his wife) to dinner. After a broken Spanish discussion back and forth, he apologized and declined. His brother’s family, however, would like to join me.
His brother’s name was Francisco and his wife was Bella. They had a son, Irving. Francisco was 24-years old and had completed 6 years of grade school. His wife, Bella, was of similar age but she had completed preparatory (12 years) of school. Francisco met Bella as she walked back and forth past his house down to the river to bathe. They also encountered each other at church and other community activities. They married 3 years ago and had Irving one year into their marriage. While poor, they seemed happy (though this is not a justification that they should stay poor or that this level of poverty is to be tolerated).
Francisco showed me his home across the dirt road where we could eat. (There were no restaurants in this small village.) The house was a small single room about 25ftX25ft that was owned by his grandfather. It was the same house that Francisco grew up in. There was a main area with a hammock strung across it and a refrigerator in one corner. The walls were decorated with some paper family photos along with two large female “pinup” pictures. In the other corner was a small 10ftX10ft area separated by a 5 ft. wood wall and a sheet for a door. This small area was where Francisco and Bella shared a bed along with their two-year-old son. The other two corners also had a 5 ft. wood wall where other family members slept. (Additional pinup pictures were in the larger of the two cornered-off areas.)
The entire room was lit by a single lightbulb. To get electricity, they connected their phone to a mini-USB cable where they entered codes they had purchased in exchange for electricity. There was a tap over by the outhouse/bathroom for water along with a toilet which was flushed with a bucket.
It was difficult for us to figure out dinner. Where do we eat? What do we eat? Is there enough space? In the end, we walked next door to a small wooden building and Bella chose some groceries (a few eggs and some spaghetti) which I paid for at a cost of 2.50 USD. Although I repeatedly offered to help cook, it was declined.
Instead, I wandered back down to the river. It seemed like it was “bath time” as all the kids were down by the river splashing away and swinging on rope swings. The women (and several teenage girls) were hard at work washing clothes – the “washing machine” being their arms rubbing their clothes against flat rocks at the side of the river. (Again, I am reminded of Hans Rosling’s magic washing machine video, which hopefully you have seen by now.) Some people walked back with clothes dripping – having bathed and washed clothes simultaneously – perhaps to wear them again tomorrow I wonder? As the men arrived back from work, they too wandered down to the river in a different area and stripped to their skivvies to bathe as well.
I also walked up to the other end of the street with a boy named Benjamin. He took me to another wooden house where they sold pieces of paper with codes for Wi-Fi. (There didn’t appear to be cell service out here.) The Wi-Fi only worked in the street and it cost 20 pesos (1 USD) for 2 hours. I used the connection to call home and to download my COVID-19 test results from the morning. Yay, I was negative. Not only have I mostly been quarantined this week, since taking the test I have barely been inside at all and barely encountered anyone within less than 6 feet and only with a mask. In other words, if I didn’t have COVID this morning, I was extremely unlikely to have it now – so that was good.
We ate dinner in the kitchen. Bella and Francisco’s mom had cooked over the coal stove to prepare tortes and a spaghetti dish mixed with a few pieces of chicken and spiced with some hot salsa and Picante. It was quite good. Although they wanted me to eat first, I requested that we wait until everyone had food so we could eat together. They willingly complied. In all, we had Francisco’s grandparents, mom, three immediate family members, and two other women that stopped by. It was crowded but comfortable.
Over dinner, we had a good discussion (bearing in mind that my Spanish is limited) the summary of which was that life was good. They didn’t really have any complaints. COVID is surely the biggest problem in Mexico right now, but not a significant issue in this community at the moment. We discussed a little about the differences between Mexico and the United States. The biggest and most obvious being – the people in the United States have a lot more money. I didn’t attempt to describe the difference as I think the disparity between life in the two countries is overwhelming and hard to comprehend. The disparity between lifestyles is obviously not surprising since no-one in the room had jobs outside the home (the women clearly worked very hard in the home) and Francisco was self-employed, selling coal-cooked corn on the cob for 25 pesos to people walking back and forth from the falls.
Over dinner I was told that Tzeltat was, in fact, their native language and no, they were not Mayan (Wikipedia says that Tzeltat is one of many Mayan languages so I’m not sure how to interpret to seeming contradiction besides my misinterpretation). They told me that there are roughly five or more people groups in Mexico and Tzeltat is one of several languages spoken other than the colonial Spanish. It surprised me that I hadn’t learned this over the past week already. Interesting! Also, how naïve I had been to think that Spanish was the only language except for a very small number of native Mayans who were trying to live separately. Ughh!!! Sorry!!
After dinner, Francisco repeated an earlier invite for me to stay overnight. I was conflicted. I had already purchased accommodations (a bedroom in a house) an hour away in Palenque and my host was expecting me there. Was Francisco just being nice and, in reality, I would be an inconvenience? Was he eager for me to stay? Would I be able to sleep all night in a hammock? What about mosquitos? These buildings were certainly not mosquito-proof. It was already dark and driving when it is dark is certainly not safe in Mexico, so if nothing elsem I really should either stay here or sleep in my car as soon as I am out of the village. To complicate matters, I was going to try to leave Mexico two days early, which means I had to be at the airport – 3 hours away – by 8 AM in the hopes of catching a last-minute flight for which I did not have a reservation. Etc. etc. etc.
I chose to spend the night. I was to sleep in the hammock that was strung across the main area in the one-room house. I said my thanks and bid everyone goodnight before I changed clothes to minimize my mosquito exposure and went to bed early knowing the planned 5 AM departure and the expectation that I might not sleep very well. People pattered in and out for quite a while after I put my cap over my eyes, but I was able to doze off okay. For example, I missed when Francisco hung a towel so the light was no longer shining on my head. Also, sometime before midnight, Francisco woke me with a seemingly new blanket that he pulled out of a bag. I suspect he somehow went to purchase it late in the evening. I didn’t think I would need it, but they said that it would be good. And, when I woke a few times in the night I adjusted it, grateful for its warmth. (One wakening was due to the tigers – I mean howler monkeys – off in the distance.)
In the morning, my alarm woke me at 5 AM and I slipped on my sandals and headed to the car. Francisco greeted me as did his mom. We said our goodbyes and Francisco accepted the payment I gave him for the accommodations. I considered offering him a few of my things that I was expecting to part with but you can’t really tell whether you are insulting rather than gifting and so I left only money.
While it was still dark, I followed a local minibus taxi, figuring they knew the roads better so if I stayed close behind them, they would essentially guide me. It worked well. Once it was light, driving was a lot easier. At one point I pulled over to check on flights and discovered that my planned flights were full and similar routes wouldn’t be available till Sunday! Stink! That ruins my plans to surprise my family two days earlier. Stink! I called, searched, and eventually figured out a routing. While not exactly cheap, it would get me into Spokane just before midnight so I booked it. If all goes well, I will be home by the time you read this.