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Maya intervention

Two New Orleans women use the wisdom of the ancient Mayas and the landscape of two sunny Mexican islands to rejuvenate.
The sun sets near Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres, an island off the Yucatan Coast, Mexico.
The sun sets near Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres, an island off the Yucatan Coast, Mexico.Anja Schlein / AP file
/ Source: Islands Magazine

Always refuse if offered a flaming drink, and definitely decline if this flaming drink comes with a straw. Trust me, I’m from New Orleans. That’s why I was a little surprised one Mexican evening when my friend Prisca and I found ourselves — two New Orleanians — poised with straws in hand, the other ends dunked into glasses whose contents had just been set afire. The liqueur in question was xtabentun, made from honey that comes from a type of flower grown only in the Yucatán. Our friend Nacho, who was hosting a seafood dinner on Playa Norte (all the stops: tiki torches, glittering slice of moon, waiters with silver trays), wanted us to try something Mayan. And what better setting than this small island just off Cancún and the Yucatán Peninsula.

We readied our straws. The other dinner guests encouraged us, telling us it was a rite of passage on Isla Mujeres. Had I known then that the Maya calendar predicted that the world will come to an end in the year 2012, maybe I wouldn’t have even hesitated.

Prisca finished first and laughed, but the laugh wasn’t real — it was what I had come to identify as the post-Katrina laugh (PKL). Behind it lay an edginess that said, “If I laugh too hard, I might scream or cry or crumble.”

But that’s why we had come to Mexico: to scream, to cry, to crumble and then to emerge.

Although I had left the city six months before Katrina and had only lost a house, many of my friends lost that plus everything in their houses. And how exactly do you define yourself when you don’t have things? How do you rebuild? Those who stayed in New Orleans after the storm sought those answers and, while they did, they transformed. I watched Prisca bounce from happy and carefree to weighted. Burdened.

So last spring, when I visited the city, I took her aside and confided my plan, code-named Maya Intervention. She resisted. Mexico? How could she think of herself? There was too much work to be done, she told me. She didn’t have time to find herself on Isla Mujeres. Maybe, I said, we can learn something on this so-called island of women. Maybe we can see how the Yucatán Peninsula coped after Hurricane Wilma, a storm that followed Katrina in the 2005 season. Maybe, I insisted, we can venture into the lost cities of the Maya — wasn’t there a connection we could learn from? Wasn’t New Orleans’ culture at risk of being lost like the Maya culture that suffered from the arrival of the conquistadors in the mid-1500s, then the missionaries? Prisca remained unconvinced. So I pulled a New Orleans trick: “Maybe,” I went on, “we’ll drink tequila under the Mexican sun and gorge on ceviche. We’ll be mediums for the ancient knowledge of the Maya. Their ghosts will talk to us, teach us!” Her eyes shone for an instant — long enough, anyway, for me to book tickets before she could change her mind.

Later that spring day, I reserved a room for us in an inn whose name triggered my imagination: Casa de los Sueños. The House of Dreams seemed a promising place to start.

And it turned out to be exactly what we needed at first: a beach fairy tale. The island was easy to navigate at only five miles long, and we developed a routine. Prisca and I slept late, taking our coffee in the open lobby that overlooked a peaceful sea, Cancún sparkling in the distance. We spent afternoons on popular Playa Norte, a beach with water so inviting and blue I wanted to dive in and never come up for air. We ate heaps of fresh ceviche at Picos on the seafront avenue, Rueda Medina. We got to know our neighborhood ice-cream man: a señor in a sun-bleached cowboy hat wheeling a white cart hand-painted with the word Tuggui (a brand name of a popsicle). Each night on the 10-minute cab ride downtown, on our way to pedestrian-only Hidalgo Avenue, we’d pass the roundabout near Playa Lancheros where they make tikin xic: whole, seasoned fish squirted with lime and thrown on a grill.

Downtown, we’d sip tequilas at La Adelita, avoiding the new slew of timeshare hawkers. Or we’d mingle, making quick friends like Nacho, who manages Posada del Mar; and César, who owns the Elements of the Island Café and who, the day after the xtabentun, introduced me to chayote, a vegetable cultivated by the Maya and which, because of its high vitamin C and amino acids, had become a hangover godsend for a New Orleans girl who should have known better than to take any alcoholic drink through a straw.

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As I slurped a chayote drink, flipping through the local newspaper, I became restless. Yes, Prisca and I had come for an escape, but we had also come to lose life’s distractions in order to find … something. So, despite our original plans to stay on Isla for a week, I turned things upside down. I wanted to dig deeper.

“Let’s go to Chichén Itzá on the mainland,” I suggested, “to see the ruins — to learn something.”

Prisca tossed a brochure my way. “After, let’s go here,” she said. “Xaloc Resort on Isla Holbox. It seems lost, unheard of. And it’s whale-shark season.”

Great, I thought, a half-day excursion on a boat. Boats are tedious to me. I faked a smile. I threw a PKL her way. “OK,” I said.

It was quiet as we pulled into Chichén Itzá’s parking lot only 10 minutes after it opened. We shelled out $45 for an English-speaking guide, Willy, who started his tour by walking us over to a glass display case where a mini-version of Chichén Itzá had been constructed. He talked a bit about the landmarks of this Maya city that had flourished between 900 and 1100 but had eventually been overtaken by the Yucatán jungle until being excavated by archaeologists in the 1920s. Then, squeezed between historical and statistical facts, Willy added this bit of flair: “The Mayas predict the world will end in 2012.”

That woke me from the zombie state that had overtaken me after a sunrise wake-up call and a three-hour drive from Cancún.

“What do you mean — 2012? Is that fact? Do Mayas still believe that today?” I asked.

“Yes.” Willy seemed taken aback by my sudden interest.

“Why? Why do they believe that?” I prodded.

“Well, the Mayas were right about so many things. They accurately predicted solstices and eclipses.”

“But those are scientific, astronomical. They must be predicating the end of the world on a celestial event, then?” I asked.

Prisca had woken up from her sleepwalk, too: “Do they see signs of this in today’s world? Are we getting close to the apocalypse?” It would explain New Orleans’ bad juju to both of us. But Willy didn’t know that he had suddenly become the medium for the ancient knowledge that we were seeking. Prisca and I were looking for explanations of why a flood so apocalyptic could have happened.

Willy, out of his league, changed the subject.

“You’ve heard of Kukulcan?” he asked as he led us outside and down a long dirt path to the famous symbol of Chichén Itzá, the Pyramid of Kukulcan. Willy indicated the stone serpent that represents Kukulcan, the feathered serpent and supreme Maya god. “The sculpture casts its shadow during the equinoxes, pointing to the Sacred Cenote, or sinkhole,” he finished. “Cenotes were very ritualistic places.”

Willy walked us to the funeral platform decorated with skulls: “The Mayas believed in an afterlife …”; then to the Venus Platform where, he told us, offerings were made to Kukulcan, the messenger; we ended at Caracol, the observatory. The Maya were obsessed with astronomy and calendars, Willy said as we stood in front of the structure.

With that, he shook our hands and bid us adios. But I caught him before he turned:

“Which cenote should we go to? I hear Dzitnup is the place.”

“No,” he said. “Go to Ik Kil. It’s more private.”

Whether Ik Kil was as lesser-known as Willy promised, I didn’t know; I had nothing to compare it to. But it seemed to be well set up: They charged an entrance fee. Then you paid for a towel rental, a locker and a life vest. After running around for all these accessories — minus the life vests — and changing into our bathing suits, Prisca and I were sweaty. A stone staircase led us away from the steamy Yucatán jungle and deep into the sinkhole where, after a couple minutes of walking, we found ourselves alone and near a delicious pool of water. Sunlight, filtering through a large hole in the ground about 80 feet above us, spot-lit the water a deep blue. Tree roots twisted into the cenote. Water dripped off limestone walls. Then the first signs of a devilish underworld came into sight: fish — dozens of them. Catfish? Mini-sharks? For a brief second, I even thought piranhas. But I was too hot to care. I stepped in, using the wooden ladder. Prisca swooshed in after me. The water was chilly, refreshing. We were utterly alone.

“This is the best thing we’ve done since we’ve been here,” I shouted. Prisca laughed. And it was an amazing sound — not the PKL, but a real laugh — the kind you make when you forget everything.

“If the world is really ending in six years, I feel like I really don’t have that much to do anymore,” she said, laughing. “I’ve been wasting my time.” We treaded water under the filtered sunlight.

Then suddenly dozens of people, all wearing life vests, like some anti-death cult, were watching us from the staircases. Private party over. Some hidden world. I imagine the Mayas said the same thing when the Spanish arrived. I resisted the urge to tell them all to take off their vests. The world was ending.

The sky turned dark as we retraced our route, driving east again toward Cancún and then finding the turn-off, a road that heads north to the Gulf Coast where ferries depart for Isla Holbox. It rained, then drizzled, then stopped, then poured. It was a constant game of pulling off my sunglasses, putting them on, turning on headlights, turning them off and adjusting the windshield wipers accordingly. It was a lot to deal with. Each village had topes: speed bumps. They surprised me every time as I slammed on my brakes to avoid bottoming out. During one spell, I found myself behind a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that read, “Es posible.” I felt revived by this secret message. I wanted to show Prisca, but she had fallen asleep, lulled by the rain. In one village, two teenagers on triciclos, three-wheeled bikes with carts, sold us fresh sliced mango squirted with lime juice in plastic cups — a nice roadside snack.

We finally came to the dusty port town of Chiquilá, where a man on a triciclo loaded up his cart with our luggage and headed for the dock. The sky cleared up for the first time that day, serendipitously for the 7 p.m. ferry crossing. The sun lit the flatlands with brilliant reds and oranges — shades that are only possible in Mexico.

Our journey had gone off plan — sort of like our lives — and we were both happier. A yellow-checkered golf cart idled near the dock on Holbox on the south side of the island. We waved and the driver jumped out, barefoot, and hauled our luggage into his cart – our things seemed excessive for the first time in a while. Three locals piled in, and they stared at our luggage.

“Xaloc,” I said. And off we went, heading to the north coast, driving down sand roads, passing by small buildings made of tree trunks and thatched roofs, dropping off the other passengers at their destinations. Mud, earth, dampness lingered in the air, a swampy odor. Dark-haired isleños zipped down Calle Tiburón Ballena (Whale Shark Street) on scooters, bicycles and golf carts. On the corner of Whale Shark Street and Calle Porfirio we passed a café, La Isla del Colibrí. Four tables with floral tablecloths were outside on the sand underneath a palapa overhang.

I tapped Prisca’s arm: “I predict that in an hour, we’re going to be sitting there with margaritas in front of us.” She smiled. A real smile. A smile that said: “Here we are. This is all there is. The world is ending.”

Our driver unloaded our belongings and puttered away, leaving us in the still darkness in front of Xaloc, with a sprinkling of stars overhead.

As I predicted, in less than an hour, we were at Colibrí with its folkloric sheep and birds doodled on the exterior of the rickety wooden structure. We sat at an outdoor table, eating ceviche with giant chunks of lobster in it, a black Labrador plopped at our feet. People walked by barefoot. A 7-year-old drove by in a golf cart, his foot barely reaching the pedal.

After our lobster snack, we walked back to Xaloc along the beach, not entirely sure if we were going the right way.

“Look at the sky. The moon is a perfect crescent.” I pointed.

“I can see why the Maya were so into the stars,” Prisca said. “Without TV — or even books — what else is left but the sky?”

We stayed as long as we could, looking for some sign, some pattern in the stars that signified the end of the world. We couldn’t find a thing.

Prisca and I rented a golf cart the next day and splashed through giant puddles to the beaches — shore upon shore on this 25-mile-long, largely undeveloped part of the Yum Balam Biosphere (or, translated from Mayan, “Father Jaguar” Biosphere). We drove on the beach until we dead-ended at a tidal river (there was no bridge) that drained into the Gulf of Mexico.

A colony of pelicans had congregated on three or four sandbars in the gulf. I climbed out of the cart, took off my flip-flops and stepped into the mucky, ankle-deep waters, suddenly wanting to connect with this state bird of Louisiana. Needlenose fish and dogfish darted out of the muddy bottom. We walked out toward the pelicans, but they slowly moved to the next sandbar as we made landfall on the first.

Pelican wings flapped. We moved closer; they moved farther out. “Shall we call this water-hiking or sandbar-hopping?” I asked Prisca as I looked 300 yards or so back to shore. But she was busy sorting through shells that had been swept onto the sandbar. Then we each found a feather: pink feathers. We twirled them in our hands, fascinated by the unbelievable coloring, suddenly feeling very lucky.

Flamingos, we were told by the receptionist at Xaloc, are definitely on Holbox. She recommended heading to the northwest side of the island at sunset to see them. “They are almost always there,” she told us. We stared at an empty sky for about half an hour and then we went back to the room.

We liked roaming around on the golf cart, which is how we found the “lost city” near the tidal river. Concrete houses were freshly painted with their palapa roofs mostly intact, but large chunks of concrete had crumbled from the homes. Most of them had just three walls. It’s amazing that they hadn’t collapsed. I got out and walked around this modern-day Chichén Itzá, albeit smaller. A hot tub was strewn on the beach, a stove outside. On the roofs sat blackbirds.

“Wilma?” Prisca asked.

“I guess.”

We were silent, not exactly sad, but thoughtful. We somehow felt less alone.

Then a shadow flickered over us.

“Look up,” Prisca said.

And there they were, like needles with wings attached. Flamingos.

We both laughed, happy to see that — for some bizarre reason — those things you seek always seem to come to you when you’re not really looking.

Not so with the whale shark. That was a premeditated search that started at daybreak. We motored past mile upon mile of empty white-sand beaches with a few scattered palm trees. We cruised across the waves hard, cracking our spines. After a two-hour boat ride to who knows where, our Spanish-speaking-only captain slowed down and began scoping the waters for a whale shark. We were looking for a giant needle in a giant haystack. Then, after another hour, our captain spotted manta rays. He became excited and mimed for us to put on snorkel gear. Apparently, mantas — plankton feeders like whale sharks — converge near the mammoths of the sea. Prisca and I waited for the signal from the captain and together plunged into the water. Less than 10 feet below us was the local celebrity. It was awe-inspiring to see the real thing after strolling down Whale Shark Street where hand-painted signs and photographs of the fish decorate many storefronts. I saw its depiction so often that, when I closed my eyes at night, I saw spots.

Prisca and I laughed so hard as we dived in again and again to see the shark that we nearly drowned. “This is extreme snorkeling,” I choked out. “I can’t keep up with the pace.”

We didn’t drown, though. We lived, and we were less depressed about it, too. As Prisca muttered one evening as we meditated on the stars, feeling quite expansive, “We are part of a great tribe.” And I knew exactly what she meant. We are in it together, each and every one of us, even if the world will end in 2012. Which it won’t. Willy got his story mixed up. I did the research when I got home and this date marks the end of a cycle on a Maya calendar. But as an old cycle ends, a new one begins. So 2012, you see, isn’t the end. It’s just the beginning.

When the stars shift on that warm December day six years from now, New Orleans, I predict, will be back. Prisca and I will be together, eating the best cheeseburgers in the world at Martin Wine Cellar, Uptown on Baronne Street (that’ll come back, too), and as we chew, we’ll remember the whale shark, the xtabentun, Kukulcan and all the gifts that the Maya gave to us that one summer long ago when we thought our lives were over, when we thought New Orleans was done.

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