Monday, March 21, 2022

on the back of the snake

Tolstoy had it partly correct.

All happy trips are alike, but every trip is special in its own way.

That was certainly true of our trip to the Yucatán peninsula. The three of us (my cousin Dan, his wife Patty, and I) have a certain fondness for the peninsula with its history that makes it feel almost like a country separate from Mexico.

That may be because it almost became a separate country -- twice. Due to its Maya cultural heritage and its isolation from the rest of Mexico, it was almost inevitable that the people of the peninsula would seek their own national destiny.

The first time when it declared its independence from the Spanish empire in 1823; the second when it declared its independence from Mexico in 1841 following Texas's example. Had it not been for the unfortunate Caste War, those dreams of independence may have been realized. Politically, the peninsula is part of Mexico. But, to this day, its residents see themselves as a people apart.

There was a second reason, though, why this trip was special. Dan and Patty ran a business and lived on Cozumel several years ago. As a result, they have formed some long-lasting friendships. Around September they are making a permanent move (or as permanent as wanderers who are not lost can be) to Mallorca. For them, this trip took on the aura of a farewell tour, where my family's wish of "next year in Jerusalem" was replaced with "next year in Mallorca."

Our first stop was to set up our base camp in Valladolid for the first eleven days of our stay at La Dichosa, a bed and breakfast owned and hosted by Carlos M. Gonzalez and Teresa Castillo, friends of Dan and Patty during their days on Cozumel. Dan told me to be ready to be amazed -- and I was.

La Dichosa is not so much a bed and breakfast as it is a functional piece of art. Carlos is a wood craftsman. No. That does not do his work justice. He is an artist who works in wood -- and soil -- and stone -- and ceramic.

La Dichosa currently consists of two buildings. The main house that offers a master suite, and three bungalows. Each room is decorated with Carlos's creations.

The lamps. The tiles. The furniture. Carlos created each piece to give the rooms their own character with all of the furnishings echoing the uniform theme. It is like living in a disciplined artistic mind.

Rooms are always an important consideration at any bed and breakfast, but Carlos extended his artistic theme into the surrounding pool and garden. One of the great Maya myths is Kukulkan -- the War Serpent, who is probably best known these days in his depiction of a shadow that undulates down the stairs of El Castillo at Chichén Itzá each equinox.

Carlos incorprated the myth into his design of the garden that joins the bungalows with the main house. The three levels are divided by undulating walls echoing Kuklkan's serpentine shape. A pool tops it off.

The overall effect is similar to a secular monastery. Time runs at its own pace. The effect is complemented by the shifts of birds that visit the trees on the property each morning. Each with its own colors and song.

I am not so naïve as to believe that the birds were there for my pleasure. Most birdsong, if translated literally, would go something like: "Hey, birds. Get out of here. This is my property. Go -- or I will peck out your eyes." Sometimes it helps to be monolingual.

Maybe that is one reason I am an advocate of bed and breakfast accommodations when I travel. There is no better way to know an area than to sit down with your hosts and fellow guests during the day to discuss respective discoveries.

Valladolid is not a traditional tourist destination. It is best known as a central point to see the sights of the peninsula. That is how I used it on my prior two visits in 2010 and 2014. But that is changing. And our fellow guests were examples of that. They had come to see Valladolid as much as they had come to see reconstructed Maya cities.

And a cosmopolitan lot they were. Most of them young. Primarily European -- two French couples, two young women from Switzerland, and a young couple from Chile. And all spoke multiple languages, with the exception of an older Canadian couple. 

Carlos may have provided the artistic integration of La Dichosa, but it is Teresa that keeps it running with the loyal assistance of Alonso. Food and drink magickly appear. Dishes are whisked away. All of that is as much of an art as are the individual tiles in the bathrooms.

We have all had the experience of tagging along with people visiting their friends -- people we have never met. For shy people like me, that can be a recipe for social disaster.

Carlos was going to have none of that. Even though he was not my years-long friend, he made me feel a part of every conversation and gathering. He has raconteur's ear for ferreting out interests and avoiding social landmines.

Of course, food is the great leveler. Yucatan food always interests me because it is different than Jalisco food. For Carlos, that meant a meat-fest.

The same thing happened when we visited Cozumel. On one of their last extended visits to the island, Dan and Patty stayed at Rancho Chichihualco, a 77-acre bed and breakfast owned and operated by José Qunitana Ahedo and Adriana Barrena. Her grandfather, while he was the commander of the nearby Air Force Base, had acquired the property. She and José have developed it into a bungalow-oriented bed and breakfast.

Even though we were not guests, they invited us over for an afternoon-long barbeque that drifted into the evening. There is something magic about cooking that much meat for a group of people. Almost Mexican alchemy that turns a pleasant few hours into hours that pass unnoticed amongst the company of people with backgrounds I do not encounter where I live.

Tales were told in a mixture of Spanish and English. Large portions of meat were washed down with ambiguously-described beverages. And people, who did not know one another well a few hours before, were now unwilling to break the circle of fellowship.

I will write about the sights we saw and the journeys we took because they are an integral part of the trip. But it was the relationships that we recreated and extended that will have the longest-lasting effect on me.

To share my life with my cousins, with Carlos and Teresa, and José and Adriana, with the young people from France, Chile, and Switzerland who I suspect I will never see again, was an experience I dd not anticipate, but one that I thoroughly appreciated.

And what could be better than that?

Maybe we will find out in the next installments.

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