By Phil Hall
For most of the journey I was slap up against a secretary from Mexico City. It was a cramped 36 hour drive.
When we got there Julie and I walked, slowly unfolding, heading towards the cheap hotel in the dark. It was 2 am. We could hear the leaves rustle, but couldn’t see trees.
There was a taco shop on the way. Three wide-awake people inside. The following evening, the secretary phoned me from her hotel room.
“Hello, remember me?”
“Yeah, I remember you.”
That first night they prepared our tacos Merida style with a filling of cochinita pibil.
First, fatty pork is marinated in achiote and dissolved in orange juice. Achiote is a red ochre paste made from a type of berry native to the Yucatan. The pork is then baked slowly in banana leaves . The wrap is placed in a clay pot in the oven or in a pressure cooker. It’s ready in an hour and a half or so. When the pork is cool, practiced fingers shred the meat into its fibres and the fibres soak up the juice and oil. Then the cochinita is spooned onto hot tortillas.
“Some chili sauce, please.”
They look at me. “It’s very hot.”
“I know.” They pass me the bowl.
Basic Salsa, Yucatan style
Habanero slices and chopped red onion rings soaking in sour orange – the same orange that grows on the trees along the Merida avenues.
The following morning we took a bus to Chichen Itza for the summer solstice. The journey was much shorter. We see the observatory, the Caracol. We wander around the site, admire the snake heads at the bottom of the flight of steps, climb to the top.
I stand at the top. Look down at the people below. A voice calls out over the loudhailer system.
“It is time. Will everyone please come off the monuments?”
I wait a minute. About fifty unfriendly, pale faces look up at me impatiently from the base of El Castillo. Most of them look like Americans. But, also staring at me, is a Mexican-American – at least I guess he is Mexican-American.
I am the last person on the pyramid, and I go down quickly before the solstice begins.
A few thousand people are at the base. Julie and I meet up and decide to stand at the fringe of the crowd. A hundred gueros start to circle the pyramid ceremoniously, setting up little eddies.
The glossy, steak fed Mexican-American takes off his coat and climbs up the pyramid as the equinox approaches. He is dressed like a Mayan.
He performs an ersatz dance on one of the ledges at the base. Voices in English call out, chanting. The dancing man moans and hums; it sounds rather like a Sioux Indian song.
A murmuring of irritation spreads through the Yucatan crowd and the loudspeaker makes another announcement:
“Will the tourists who are on and near the pyramid kindly show some respect for our culture and stop what they are doing, right now.”
The fraudulent Mayan does another little jig and then we are rid of him. He comes off the monument to the sound of boos from the Mexicans in the crowd.
We watch. The sun, when it arrives at midday, casts the shadow of the steps onto the side of the pyramid in the figure of a serpent. The shadow grows until the body of the serpent joins the Snake heads at the base.
The sun has hushed the crowd.
I watch carefully, and feel no uplift. All I see is stone, light, shade and people.
The next day Julie went on a side trip and I decided to go to on my own to the beach. I went to Progreso, a small fishing town by the sea, not far from Merida.
It was more nothing. The beach was broad. I walked along it. The waves were quite rough, so I decided not to swim. The sand was an oddly depressing grey, and heaped. There were a few battered fishing boats that had been hauled up out of the water and piles of rotting seaweed.
After an hour there I went back to Merida.
Later, in the library of the Anglo Mexican Cultural Institute I looked up Progreso and found that it shared a beach with another town; Chixulub, only a kilometer away. Progreso was the exact site of the K-T extinction. Progreso was the epicentre for the catastrophe that destroyed most of the species on the planet. My intuition had told me nothing about it.
Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.