By 9am I was waiting for the bus back to Mérida. “En cinco minutos.” Time enough to run to the corner store for a Nescafé.
Among the small group of locals waiting for the bus was a man with two bulging plastic bags. He was of indeterminate age and unremarkable appearance. He struck up a friendly conversation. Maybe he was curious about the lone gringa, I thought. Maybe he wanted to sell me something.
He told me that he was bringing baskets he had made to sell in Mérida. He showed them to me. They were constructed from some kind of woven sticks—more decorative than functional and unlike other basketry I’d seen in Mexico. I recognized their uniqueness, but they wouldn’t have caught my eye in a market. He said he had no trouble selling them.
The bus arrived, and I found a seat. The man sat with me, gently squeezing his bags into the seat across the aisle. Ordinarily, the obligation of conversing in Spanish is tiring, so I often try for a seat by myself. This man, however, seemed pleasant and somehow innocent yet unrestrained.
As it turned out, the next two hours were the among the most significant of my time in Mexico.
It was almost as if this man had chosen me. As though he had a message. For me. And for you.
He was very measured in the way he spoke. His Spanish was slow and easy to understand. If I asked a question or the conversation meandered somewhere, he would gently circle back to the topic he wanted to talk about. Finally, I just let him speak.
His name was Daniel Uc Chi. He was Maya. He lived in a village of 11 families called Lopxul Tinum. Both Maya and Spanish are spoken in the village. It controls a lot of land (“propriedad privada”) which I think was apportioned to the village by the government.
“Everyone is content in the village,” he said. “There is no fighting. The village is clean, and the families work together. No trees are cut down; no animals are killed. Only fallen trees are used to make charcoal, which is very efficient for cooking. Other villages have a different attitude.
“It isn’t hot in our village. The trees are shady and cool, and a refreshing breeze comes in the afternoon.” (I thought ruefully of the steamy streets of Mérida where we were heading.)
Most of the people in Daniel’s village are campesinos who work in the field. His family works together to make and sell their special baskets, a skill they’ve passed down for generations—he learned from his mother. He explained to me how they do it.
Sticks are gathered in the forest from a certain plant, which are then prepared and soaked. The sticks must not be too wet or too dry, so once they have soaked enough, they are worked quickly and then dry in place. He is very exacting about his basketry and is proud of his family’s trade.
“We are asked why we don’t sell to the vendors at Chichen-Itza. We could make more money, but I don’t want to sell that way. I want a direct relationship with the clients. I want to explain the process and have them understand.”
He talked for a long time about how his village lives in harmony with nature. He knew about the lunar eclipse—the blood moon—that had happened the night before (April 15, 2014), and that another would come in October. He talked about the signs for a hurricane and for rain. “When a certain bird sings early in the evening, it will rain soon. When the bird sings later in the evening, the rain will come in two or three days.
When certain fruits drop green and others rot on the stem, a hurricane will come. Then the people reinforce their bungalows and palapas. (Everyone lives in traditional houses; there is no cement.)
“I have experienced four hurricanes in my life that caused great damage in Cancún and other places. There was no damage in my village. The trees and the mountain took the impact,” he said.
Daniel told me that he is 40 and has six children. They go to school in the village. The village has electricity but not gas (LP). He has a computer, but no Internet. He seems aware of and interested in the machinations of the outside world, but is wise enough not to be enthralled by them. He knows, I think, that his life is rare and precious. He wants to share it and talked about a plan to very selectively invite people come to stay in his village for short periods, like a tutorial or immersion experience. But he has no interest in compromising his birthright.
The bus pulled into the hot, noisy, crowded streets of Mérida. I was exhausted from listening so intently. I felt as though the door to Paradise—to another realm—had opened a crack. It was a world as it could have been—as it should be. I tried to readjust to where I was—it was as though someone had suddenly switched on a blinding light in a candlelit room. I had been so immersed in the world that Daniel described, and it had been so compelling that I didn’t want to leave.
Sometimes, the memory of that two hours floats through my mind like a haunting scent. Somewhere on this ancient earth, a small village lives in harmony within itself and with the natural world on which it depends. One living organism.
I live in a forest now, too. The nearest asphalt road is over a mile away. But every day, I hear tractors, or chainsaws, or guns, or motors, or tires. Lots of trees are cut down; lots of animals are killed. A large cement pad for fracking was installed only a few miles away until it was abandoned when oil prices fell. An oil flare burns just a mile away. And this is in the heart of northern Michigan. People here have no hesitation about selling whatever will bring in money, the GMO corn or the resources deep within the earth.
I am a child of this culture, and I yearn for the world Daniel described. I know that you can live richly without a bedroom suite or the latest iPhone, or even without electricity or running water. Yet, I have no idea how to interpret the signs for rain or what plant will cure a headache. I can live with little, but I don’t know how to live in harmony with the natural world.
This was the gift Mexico left with me just days before I left it. This is the truth I want to share with you.