producer, guitarist, founder of Windham Hill Records
March 25, 2002
It wasn't really Anibal's fault. He drew the map and I never asked for its scale. Turn right toward Merida and take the first left and then drive to the town with the church and turn right. I quickly got to the town with the church and turned right. The road dead ended at a school. It occurred to me that maybe there was another town with a church. I got to the next town. It had a church. I turned right. I followed it until it ran out of pavement and then was forced to turn back when barbed wire crossed the road. It was then I employed the earlier logic - "maybe there's another town with a church." I think you see where this is going. Mexico is a Catholic country and a very religious one at that. Before they would build homes, the people would erect the edifice of the church. Every town has a church and a road leading to the right of it.
I reminded myself that what I was actually after were the three Cenotes, so I tried to shorten the process by driving up to the church and waiting for someone to walk by so I could roll down the window and point down the road to the right and ask "Cenotes?" so that they could look puzzled and ask "que?" and I would ask "Cenotes?" and they would demonstrate recognition and say something like "oh, Cenotes" and I would say "si, Cenotes" and then they take a long look down the road to the right as if searching their souls and finally say "No. No Cenotes." At this point they would usually turn to me, lean into the window and begin speaking Spanish at an dizzying rate, my three or four words of mangled Spanish somehow having convinced them that I was fluent in the language. I was required to do what the ignorant do everywhere - smile, nod my head as if suffering some medical affliction and say "gracias" a lot. Finally when they determined that I was either on the right track, deaf or irretrievably stupid they would push off from the car and turn back into the quiet town. I would then employ the earlier logic; "maybe there's another town with a church.
I know that I'm writing a story and using a word (Cenote) which is obviously very central to that story without defining it. This would seem to be a cheap trick, but I swear it's not. Please understand I am in an utterly flat jungle, driving from town to town and stopping at churches asking if there are any Cenotes nearby without having any clear idea of what a Cenote is. Anibal told me to go, and I did.
I had one other hint. Don Victor. Anibal had said to look for Don Victor and that Don Victor would take me to the Cenotes in a "Trucko." I was not certain where Don Victor was, but wherever he was, he was to lead me to the three circles on Anibal's map once I found him. I cannot tell you how many towns, villages and fields I stopped in asking for Cenotes or Don Victor. I honestly think it was something on the order of twenty-three. In one town a guy drove up to me on a mountain bike and asked if I'd come to see the Cenotes. Si, si, si, si Cenotes, Cenotes I said. He offered what was clearly a monetary figure and I said, "No no, Don Victor." He glowered and rode away. The space that he had filled in front of me was now occupied by a church which had a road leading to the right. There was no reason to believe this would prove any more fruitful than the others and I expected to be knee deep in a pig farm in a matter of seconds. I turned right anyway.
The road miraculously continued to wind through old agave fields. On the left appeared an abandoned sisal plant, a relic of the decaying Banana Republic. I stopped to take a photo and as I did so a little man appeared silently out of nowhere. I asked him if Don Victor lived here. "Si," he said, "I am Don Victor." This was just a bit too much like being in a Carlos Casteneda novel for comfort. Still disbelieving I asked "Cenote?" "Si, Senior, Cenotes, Tres Cenotes!" It felt like I'd found a sunken ship of gold. Don Victor led me down the street a bit and I now saw there were a few small houses and gardens. The requisite chickens ran everywhere. We turned into a small yard just behind a square white house. There were three horses, all looking directly into the dirt. All three seemed to be determined to avoid work by avoiding eye contact with Don Victor. It was the white horse which blinked first and Don Victor walked over and put a harness on him. He then went over to a small wooden platform on wheels, a miniature flatcar, which Don Victor pushed forward across the dirt to the beginning of a tiny set of railroad tracks just like the ones on which Margerita hauled the guests at Hacienda Katanchel. Don Victor looped a rope from the horse's harness over a huge hook on the front of the flatcar where he sat. There were no actual seats, just a big platform of wood with an ancient square cushion which had been compressed over the years to the thickness of worn shoe leather . I sat down, Don Victor spoke to the horse by name, Careto, and we began to trot past the few huts, goats and barking dogs of the village. Away we went through miles of old agave fields and tumbling stone walls. I learned later that these little railways ran everywhere throughout the Yucatan and had supplied the workers to the fields in the morning and had hauled the cut agave out in the afternoon. There must be thousands of miles of these tracks still running through what are now jungles in the Yucatan. Don Victor had figured out how to make a living off of them once the sisal boom was over and little railways had been abandoned by everyone else.
Perhaps forty minutes later I was in a reverie; lost in dreams of this land in other times when the fields were productive and the people had work and an economy - of a time before everything fell asleep and returned to the jungle. Careto was slowing and we came to a stop. Don Victor tied Careto to a tree and we turned into the jungle and walked just a few feet before I saw the top of a ladder disappearing into the earth. Don Victor motioned me to his side. He stood over a hole in the ground, probably just big enough for me, but not without scraping the rocky sides a bit. A rusted metal ladder of questionable engineering projected out of the hole for about three feet and disappeared in the darkness after about ten rungs. Leaning out and grabbing the top of the ladder, I placed my feet on the first rung and started down. A hot wind rose past me as I descended. My eyes could make out nothing but the rungs as I went down. But when my feet hit the earth again and I turned to my left I was looking into a cave of incredible size and colors. It must have been at least 100 feet across. The walls were white, red, yellow and orange and stalactites of six to eight feet in length hung from the roof. The scene was lit by a natural circular hole in the ceiling which cast light directly onto the most impossibly translucent light blue pool imaginable. The water was so clear that it was literally impossible to tell where the surface began and I had to throw a pebble into the water for its ripples to reveal the surface. I was expecting that it would lie at least six feet below me. For a moment I couldn't even see the ripples until my eyes comprehended the impossible and adjusted to a plane of concentric ripples no more than six inches below me. Nor could I guess the depth of the water. The stones on the bottom were so clear and revealed such detail that I guessed it must be quite shallow, perhaps two or three feet deep. Was it safe to dive in?, I pantomimed to Don Victor. "Si," he said but I was not convinced. I held my hands apart, and again pantomimed to Don Victor a question about the depth. "Dies Metros" he said; ten meters, more than 30 feet! With my mind trusting Don Victor and my eyes telling me otherwise, I dove deeply into the pool. The cool water washed over me. I glided silently in the momentum of the dive and came up directly below the shaft of light in the center. I came to the surface laughing. I had come here not knowing what I was coming for. I had come here with a map so vague that I had seen every village between here and Katanchel and could write a book about the local churches. I had come here on a little railroad behind a horse named Careto at the side of a little man who must have known Don Juan. I felt very grateful.
I'm not going to tell you exactly where the Cenotes are. I will give you one hint, however. Just turn right at the church.
Photos by Will Ackerman