Another thing I’ve noticed about parties in Mexico is that they really seem to go on much longer than you’d think. Carnaval, for instance, can carry on into Lent if you live in a very small town and have to wait for the thrill rides and the rest of the traveling fair to get to you. And most holidays get started at least the night before the supposed date.
And Hanal Pixan dragged on well past November 2. Four days later, my mother and I stopped off at Hacienda Chichen, the super-swanky old hotel next to Chichen Itza. It’s a bellhops-in-white-gloves kind of place. Here’s the entrance:
We weren’t there to stay, believe you me. Instead, we were looking for Jim Conrad, aka the Backyard Naturalist. My mother is a devotee of his weekly email newsletters, and knew he was living on the hacienda property. We had a 20-minute window in our schedule. In the hotel lobby, I asked where we might find him. “Oh, the man who walks around in the forest taking pictures of plants?” said the glove-clad man at the door. “Right this way…”
He sauntered down the front steps, across the lawn and out through a gate in a wall…and just up the path was a traditional Maya-style hut. And sitting in front of the hut, reading a book and sipping a mug of some hot drink, was Jim Conrad himself. It was exceptionally cold around this time–I mean relatively, maybe 70, but this was enough to prompt the Yucatan government to start emergency cold-weather services, dropping off blankets and sweaters in small villages. Jim was all bundled up in a sweater over several layers, but barefoot. He didn’t exactly look like your typical Hacienda Chichen guest.
I wish I’d taken photos–I know my mom would’ve liked to have a pic with him, but she’ll probably see him again soon enough, as their nature-education paths cross in a big way. But even photos might not convey the surreal quality of seeing Jim in his super-traditional hut just around the wall from the resort lobby. I spend my working life in Mexico interacting only with the public face of fancy hotels. It felt very Scooby Doo, somehow, to slip out of that world just by walking behind a wall. But then, all resorts have that quality a bit–you know there’s an entirely different story there, going on beyond your own weeklong vacation.
I asked Jim about a forest fruit I’d heard of, a pinuela, sort of a wild pineapple. He took us up to the next clearing to see one that was bearing fruit right then.
Doesn’t it look just a little like something out of Alien?
The fruit was tart and seedy, but also succulent. If I were stuck in the woods with not much to eat, I’d be glad to have it.
While Jim was explaining his theory that perhaps the lords of Chichen Itza had cultivated special versions of plants in pleasure gardens around the site, some hotel staff in uniforms came into the clearing and started digging a hole in the ground. Actually, they’d already dug the pit–now they were just uncovering it.
The men dug out a big stash of tamales. I thought they must be for some hacienda feast, but the guys said they were for “rituals.” Related to Hanal Pixan, they said, but didn’t explain.
Off they want with their stash of tamales, and Jim said, “Oh, yeah–the guy who brought you over here”–the lobby greeter in the gloves–”he’s the big shaman for the community.”
Until then, I’d known in theory that Maya rituals and culture were still strong. But I’d never seen it so clearly, the continuity, right next to Chichen Itza, even as a whole tourist infrastracture had been plopped down around and in between them, even as everyone got dressed in industrial-grade poly-blend khaki slacks and snap-close short-sleeve shirts.
I can’t extrapolate much more from the moment, as I didn’t get to talk to these guys more than a few words. But I treasure every single reminder I get that a place or a culture doesn’t exist to entertain tourists. It’s just there, and sometimes the best way to see it is to not even try.
*Jim Conrad is on call for nature tours, even if you’re not staying at the hacienda. Drop him a note via his website, and don’t listen to him if he says you shouldn’t pay him. You should. Knowledge should be rewarded.