Acting Like Tourists
Yesterday afternoon, we took the family for a stroll. We’d spent a few days of self-imposed imprisonment in the house while we worked and schooled, and each of us felt the need for an outing.
First off, we walked from our house toward Santa Ana, our closest church and square. I paused to read the Latin at the top of the church: Verbum caro fact vm est et havitavit In nobis or “The word was made flesh and dwelled among us.” Addy and I walked along, me sweating in the jeans I felt I should wear to try to fit in.
Addy hummed happily, occasionally belting out a verse from “Let it Go.” After awhile, she said, “You know, Mommy, I would risk my life for any of my family.”
As the huge, diesel-spewing, rattling devil buses roared by me, frail human on the narrow sidewalk shielding her young, I laughed. “Yes, I’d risk my life for you, too, Addy!”
In just a few minutes, we arrived at Santa Lucia Park, where we were greeted by a 4-foot-tall Mayan man with silver teeth, who asked us politely to buy one of his sisal hammocks. Despite the fact that this made us look like tourists, which we hate to be, Kevin acquiesced and bought one. Not until, of course, bartering for 20 minutes with the kindly man, who’d pleaded, “Won’t you buy one only because you love me?” (Never heard that one in the schtick before.) Kevin paid about $16USD for it, happily stuffing the vibrant turquoise netting into my bag.
After that, we parked it at the Parque Gran, the main square in the centro historico district. We tried out the traditional, cement, side-by-side conversation seats, and marveled at the fat roundness of the many pigeons strutting around. Every Yucatecan who came by looked at us, their brown eyes surprised as if it were the first time they’d seen white tourists. I knew this couldn’t be true with the number of visitors and expats who are here. I used to believe it was only our whiteness they were looking at; now I wonder if it’s not the sheer number of us that surprises them!
When we got tired of sitting, we walked over to the Merida Cathedral, on the east side of the plaza, but didn’t go in. Instead, we craned our necks looking up at the massive structure. The Cathedral was built, we read, by the conquering Spaniards (1556-1599), who dismantled the pyramids and used the stones as the foundation for the cathedral.
“Wow, that’s twisting the knife!” Andy said.
We walked around the entire square, passing the Municipal Palace (1735) and Casa de Montejo (1542), which was the former home of the conquerer of the Yucatan. We will go back to visit these places (in more depth) another day.
Getting Lost and Seeing New Things
It was Laura’s turn to find a place for dinner and lead us to it. She’d looked on Google Maps, then cross-checked with Trip Advisor for reviews, and carefully chose a place called Amaro. We had some trouble finding it and ended up way out of the way in the neighborhood called Santiago. We took a break in front of the church, where there was a playground (very exciting for the 5-year-old!), and then soldiered on back from whence we came.
As is often the case when getting lost, we were about a block away from it when we took a wrong turn. But, as is also the case when getting lost, we saw things we wouldn’t have seen if we’d been more efficient with directions!
Dinner was notable in that the waiters were very funny and kind to the kids, making a paper frog for Addy and showing the boys a few napkin tricks. We were the first ones to arrive at the restaurant, but it quickly filled up with an international crowd before we left. The food was so-so, the price about what we pay at home. This was a tourist place and not somewhere I’d choose to go more than once. But it was still a good experience. As always, people putting their heart into it made it that way.
Before we’d gone in to the restaurant, a guy came up to us and said he could see that we were new here. “Well, duh,” we thought. “What gave it away, the pale skin or the lost and confused expressions on our faces?”
He told us about the Mayan Ball Game which was happening that night, back in the main square, at 8 p.m. We’d heard about this event—which happens every Friday night right in front of the Merida Cathedral—but hadn’t attended yet.
Mayan Rituals in Front of the Catholic Cathedral
So after dinner, we made our way back to the square, after arguing about which direction to go. When we got to the Parque Gran, we could hear the rhythmic tribal drumming and some kind of eerie wind instrument that preceded about a dozen guys coming out dressed like Mayans from thousands of years ago. Some wore special feathered head dresses. But most of the men’s bodies were covered only with brief shorts and a whole lot of paint. All were barefoot.
We stood on tiptoes to try to see as well as we could, with Addy on Kevin’s shoulders, especially as the ball game began. Hundreds of people crowded around the ‘court.’ Players shuttled the ball back and forth from team to team, and later, tried to get the solid rubber ball through a vertical stone ring—made more difficult as the players did not seem to be allowed to use their hands.
As the game got more intense, the drumming picked up and people started to clap in time with the music, breaths drawn, willing a player to get the ball through the stone ring. Every time one came close and missed, a collective groan filled the plaza.
Finally, one player succeeded in getting the ball through and the crowd cheered. Some people started leaving. I thought about turning our pack away from the game, too, and heading home, but I thought maybe I could get a better photo of the players if people in front of me started clearing out.
I’m glad we didn’t rush off.
If we thought it was cool watching this ancient Mesoamerican ball game at first, we were riveted by what happened next.
The scantily-clad men crouched together in the center of the court and lit a fire there. I knew that this game has its roots in religious ceremony and that the losers were often killed as sacrifices to the gods. With all of this, a fire made sense to add to the ritual nature of it all.
Then I realized what was happening: they had lit THE BALL on fire!
Once it was lit, they kept playing, throwing the flaming ball to each other with their bare hands. They leapt around, just barely missing the glowing embers that had fallen from the burning orb. Of course, no one kept it for long. It was an amazing thing to behold: the dark black of the night, the people cheering and clapping maniacally, and the huge stone church towering over us like a conquering madman.
A tall, older American next to us chortled out uncomfortable laughter every few seconds, unable to contain his mirth at this unexpected turn of events. He cackled so abruptly once that he scared the tiny, black-haired baby in front of us, who, unaffected by the primitive pain-inducing game in front of him representing his ancestral tradition, was scared witless by the slap-happy, insensitive American behind him.
And through it all the drums pounded the fearful beat of this primal game that pre-dates Christ and the fiery ball flew bizarrely through the inky, still humid air of the Mexican night.
When we got home, I peeled sweaty jeans from my tired legs and tucked the girls into bed. And when I closed my eyes on the day, bright spots of light passed through my mind, the specters of a blazing ball, as I pondered how many unearthly human scenes have been played out on this planet in the name of religion.