Recently, I had the privilege of visiting the touristy city of Cancun, Mexico. This was my first time out of the country so all of it was a unique experience to me. I visited the beach, got to go snorkeling, ate lots of authentic Mexican cuisine… the typical stuff most people do when they go to Cancun. However, I was able to experience true local culture in a way not many people have. Allow me to explain.
Being this close to the Mayan Ruins, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, I felt it was my civic duty to see it with my own eyes. My friend and I also have a slight sense of adventure so we signed up for an excursion that claimed to offer both. Little did we know, we had just signed up for a life altering experience.
The tour guide picked us up at our resort at 7 am. We climbed in a van and went from resort to resort picking up other curious participants and began to head to our destination. Just shy of three hours in to the haul, we started going through very small, low income villages. The walls of the homes were made of some combination of concrete blocks, small trees tied together, and/or smaller wood planks pieced together. The roofs were made from a tree similar to a palm branch, one piled on top of the other. The flooring… was dirt. All of them. No carpet, no tile, no hardwood, not even concrete. Dirt. And only dirt. Window coverings, if at all, were tattered rags at best. Doors were few and far between. Each house was nestled so close to the next, one could virtually hand their neighbor something from the window. Every so often you’d see an older car, sometimes a bike. And there were lots and lots of dogs roaming and sunbathing in the villages.
We eventually turned down a dirt street heading into a village, and I know my eyes became the size of dinner plates. I instantly began to recall the list of rules we were told to abide while visiting. “Don’t venture far from your resort”… “DO NOT visit any of the local’s villages or homes”…. Thoughts of fear and yet curiosity filled me, wondering if this is where we were actually supposed to go or if this is where my life would come to the end. Eventually, one of the other members of the excursion broke the silence. “Where are we going?”
The tour guide had just exchanged words with a local, complete with a high five. I could only assume their conversation was discussing where to dump us unsuspecting sitting ducks for the kill. The tour guide turned around and began to explain.
This was his village where he grew up. He still had several family members and friends here, which was how he became the liaison between the tour company he worked for and the senior members of the village. Nearly 20 years ago, the owner of the tour company approached the village with the idea of bringing tourists in, in exchange for improving the village by providing electricity, internet, and exposure of their crafts like handmade items and honey. After years of talk, the village finally agreed. This program has gone on for the past 13 years.
The excursion included repelling into a collapsed cave, hiking back out of it, ziplining across it, kayaking through a swamp, trekking through the jungle, participating in an ancient Mayan cleansing ritual to neutralize our energies before entering the jungle, swimming in the clear
waters of a cave, more ziplining, and eating an authentic meal prepared by the women of the village.
While the entire experience was completely unforgettable, the realtor and the humanitarian in me cannot get over the way this culture lived. To them, it’s all they know. But transplant one of us into their way of life and I don’t know that we would make it. As my friend said “it’s a big ol slice of humble pie”. Truer words have never been spoken.
On the way back to the resort, I mustered up the courage to ask the tour guide a few questions, prefacing it with the fact that I didn’t want to be offensive. In our conversation I learned the following:
There are actual tradesmen that are hired to build the homes, and others that specialize in the roofing.
The roofs are guaranteed to last 3 years, but are usually replaced about every 5 years.
They opt for dirt floors due to the cost, and because many of them still practice ancient Mayan burial traditions where they bury their loved ones in the floor of their homes.
Most doors and windows aren’t fixed. Some folks only put up some sort of barricade during their rainy season, which is only 2 months out of the year. The weather during the remainder of the year is too hot to have a completely enclosed home.
They don’t have running water as we think of it. Instead, each village has a water tower with water lines running to several homes. On top of the homes with the water service, there’s a large black tank the holds the home’s water supply. The village opens their water tower for two hours a day. Whatever amount of water flows from the tower to the individual tanks is all the water they have for the day. And often times, several homes share a tank. I’d estimate the tank to be about the size of a 55 gallon barrel.
When I inquired about the large amount of dogs and zero cats, I was told that their cats weigh about 90 pounds, and most refer to them as jaguars. When the dogs hear the jungle cats, they all bark in unison, detouring the cats from coming any closer.
And finally, I learned I was one of the most inquisitive tourists the tour guide has ever had the “joy” of hosting. I will be going back!