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Preface & Reader Response



Open to the world in a way that would signify impudence or imprudence in overly sophisticated societies, they were the model of confidence.

 


NOTES ON BARE EXISTENCE



Patterns from a Rooftop

DRAWN TO SCALE

The Casual Confidence of the Yucatan

Chapters: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

by Jerry Murley

There was something curious in the walnut eyes of girls of the Yucatan. Even girls at young ages invariably possessed eyes that were intelligent, inspecting, sure, and enduringly stable. Whether bedecked to shine in festive garb, clothed in everyday embroidered whites, or wrapped in the colorful weave of the local Mayas, these girls stood lean and sturdy. Often each girl seemed a miniature version of the mother beside her. In the former land of the Mayas there was no adolescent chasm between child and adult. Braced slightly to one side, perhaps balancing on a hip a younger sibling or a container such as a basket or an urn of water, attending to their charges only as required, they watched. Seldom at play, they surveyed strangers as they sold goods in the market or accompanied a parent on errands or to events in the public square. More often than not, there was not a shade of apprehension in those calm, deep eyes. Open to the world in a way that would signify impudence or imprudence in overly sophisticated societies, they were the model of confidence.


On a bus trip to visit our first Mayan ruins, we stopped in a small village near Uxmal. A few of the homes were western-style Spanish block houses, like jails in the movies. The rest were thatch-roof huts, sometimes with wooden floors. They were often enclosed, along with domestic animals, by a low stone wall fence. Within the enclosure might be tools, maybe a storage hut, and various other scrap items, such as pieces of timber, rope or mud: the makings of a playground or workshop. The walls of the huts were usually composed of vertical sticks with three or four more attached horizontally to secure them in place. They were fabricated in sections and wired together. The walls were supported by several layers of these sections, made durable when wet mud or red clay, mixed with straw, was forced between the sticks and layers and left to harden. For half a mile along either side of the highway, there was row after row of these huts on regularly subdivided lots serviced by dirt roads. Some huts had concrete at the base, on the floor and about two feet up the wall; a few had concrete completely covering the walls, presumably both inside and out. The walls were seldom painted, but the stone wall fences were sometimes white washed. The thatch was slanted but evenly cut and thick, giving it the appearance of a tent-shape Beatle wig worn slightly askew. As to what was within each house, I could not record in detail, but I did see one big common room, visible from the outside through a couple of open doorways and windows. Hammocks hung from the walls, and children sat on the floor and in the hammocks intently watching cartoons on a black and white television set.


Back at our base in Merida a day or so later, we went to the mercado for bananas and oranges, ate sandwiches, then went to inquire about a bus to Dzibilchaltun. We learned that there was a spring festival in Chaltun, that the buses would be running continuously, and that we must wait and pay on the bus. We waited in the sun with a few families for about one hour, watching a couple of farmers stuff seven piglets and a pig into a bus for Progreso. When our bus arrived, we pushed forward as we were shoved from behind in the rush for seats. I was among the last on the old Ford school bus, but Mike had a seat saved for me. There were a few more stops as the bus eased its way out of the city for stoplights and stragglers. Meanwhile, we baked in the humidity of a hot metal bus filled with the spices of musky bodies, crying babies, and the rustle of stiff white Sunday dresses. As we left Merida's city limits, we noted the range of diversity between the communities of huts we had seen and admired and those on the outskirts of town consisting of large mansions with patios and stucco staircases, a country club, a football stadium, and the like. Then we reached the main highway.


Past our stop for the Mayan ruins, we landed in the center of a village. Simultaneously, the restive, expectant throng inside the bus jumped up and shuffled out. To our surprise, upon separating from the bus, we found before us a double-tiered arena-like structure, primitively constructed of a single layer of lumber propped up at rather large, seemingly precarious, intervals by two-by-four scaffolding. The heavily shaded ground floor consisted of dirt and a few supporting timbers. The outer wall and the roofing on the top story were composed of tied sticks with palm leaves roughly woven through the interstices. The interior surface was left mostly unclad and open for the viewing of bullfights. There was a wooden hand rail used by youngsters on the top story of the scaffolding, as they sat on the flooring, dangling their legs at the top fringe of vision of those seated and standing below on the ground. Those below stood in the cool, homey shade of the second floor above them. The interior rails of the bottom story were fastened parallel to the ground and positioned closer together in order to prevent a bull from penetrating the barrier. Should a bull have broken through the few pieces of protective wood that made the arena a functioning bullring, the structure would surely have collapsed. But it seemed nearly enough to hold against a half-effort attack. Still the feel of the whole structure, considering the number of people on and within and the impact of a charging bull, made calamity a credible contingency. Inside the ring, in addition to the bull and horses, there were leaping matadors, in tattered, faded, ill-fitting and ill-worn uniforms, who seemed genuinely frightened by the bull's every charge at their flailing fleeing bodies.


I walked across the dirt road for a beer amongst the backslapping and staggering men doomed to immobility or senselessness before sunset. I was warned to be attentive by laughing, half-teasing, half-frightened men and boys, as a gray, lanky Brahman bull was prodded, pushed, and thumped by some six or seven cowboys with ropes on his horns and sagging hump. With a bit of naughty, if not vicious, amusement, the bull was finally coerced to participate in the bullring only after being whipped, having his tail twisted, and being slapped in the testicles, which swung like tender melons tossed about in a soiled pillow case.

Within the bullring, as we watched from a ladder to the second story or through the dark shadows, and bare or sandaled feet, while standing at the outer opening to the first level – or as Mike saw from the main gate to the shanty arena – the bulls were forced into the fray. Once in the middle of the ring, a bull's head and one front leg were bound to a center post. He was then disentangled from the other ropes while one was tied to his head in a slip knot. He was then provoked in some manner so as to set himself free and fall into the trap of being made angry. The first bull I saw had a heavy matador's cape flung over his face by a rural bumpkin masquerading as a fighter. This faux-fighter, not completely unlike others, was rather awkward, rotund, and deliriously drunk. Mike said he saw some of the official crew of tormenters tie a firecracker to the bulls. They also tied a ribbon to the horns of the bulls. Eventually the suavest exhibitionist of them all, or the most sober of those volunteering for the dusty ring, defeated the bull, or symbolically emasculated him, by grinning insincerely to the crowd and slyly easing up to the bull and grabbing the ribbon, or rather untying it gently so as not to further irritate him.


Mike, at the main gate, while watching the second bull at his back – who was swaying, warily eying his prospects – was bewildered by the cries and flight of the Mexicans around the gate. He and Patrick, an American we had met at the hotel, were startled when they saw the first bull running toward the gate from the ring with cowhands in hot pursuit. The first bull was headed straight for the two of them. With only a second's hesitation, Mike and Patrick began scaling the outer wall of the arena as a couple of hundred spectators laughed at the inattentive gringos awkwardly scrambling in hasty retreat.

This sort of spectator scare happened several more times. One particularly fast and irate black bull frightened the crowd on the lower tier with a direct attack at the perimeter railing. Embedded in the thick of humanity in the lower tier, having been pushed deeper into the flimsy structure by the press of onlookers, I was suddenly pushed back against the outer wall. At the charge, Mike jumped on a stone wall, which immediately collapsed, eliciting more guffaws and finger-pointing, as if he were a clown – a part of the show.


We wandered about talking as best as we could with the friendly people who approached us. We soon discovered, in the dirt of the village street, the vastly more uneventful butchering of two or more of the bulls by husbands whose wives waited in the shade for hand delivery of slabs of fresh meat. We learned that this was a traditional part of the fiesta held once a year in celebration or in reverence of spring. The laughing, the heat, and the drinking continued. One man befriended us and defended us from loose bulls who came upon us unawares.

This was strictly an audience-participation-type rodeo without the dry ritualistic oles or the studious technical analyses from the bleachers. Not missed by us were the bloody weakening of the bulls with lances backed by the muscle of a horse or the sword thrusts through the shoulders and lungs – the routines that characterized the more refined protocol of big-city bullfight venues. In those more urbane quarters, one could be certain that each of six bulls, after twenty-five minutes of maneuvering in a tight circle and being run-through by a sword, would falter, drooling blood as from a fountain with his stomach jerking, slumping six inches and then re-inflating himself for a brief comeback, only to drop to his knees or have his front legs give out altogether, then hitting the wall and collapsing, followed by an assistant matador thrusting a long knife near his skull and twisting it about until he was dead. After this elegant pageant, the handkerchiefs stopped waving, having been set in motion by the crowd's pathetic moan out of drunken habit at the bull's fatal fall. For one's extra entertainment, sometimes the knife failed and the bull rose and the people jeered and whistled until he finally died. This was the program six times a Sunday every Sunday. But in Chaltun, there was a carnival atmosphere with far less brutality, executed once a year as part of a primal quasi-religious commemoration laced with fun, and partly justified by the necessity of obtaining protein to grace family tables.


As the bull fighting and butchering continued, we walked past drunks asleep on the roadside and next to the day's as yet untested bulls, docile while tied to trees near a row of mud and thatch-roof houses. We hitched a lift on the back of a pick-up truck which had stopped to avoid a local man stretched out drunk in the road. We went to Dzibilchaltun to swim in the inviting water hole of the Mayan ruins there. We changed inside a roofless, windowless stone structure and dove and swam for about forty minutes. Several local boys, some of whom were picnicking and listening to rock music, were also swimming and hanging around the area.

Afterward we walked toward the main temple. I changed in the shell of the Romanesque apse of a nearby structure and we walked on beyond it about a quarter of a mile on a stone path, in a clearing free from the surrounding uniformity of tall brush, cacti and low trees, toward a simple, not much more than two-stories-high pyramid facing the four o'clock sun at our backs. Its window openings were black and its sides lay in a cool blue-gray shadow. There were simple protrusions at the top of the stairway above our heads in a rectangle around the temple; they projected like eroded stone arrowheads and struck me as being similar to Gothic gargoyles. I was hardly qualified to make more adequate cultural connections between the details and meaning of these protuberances and the carved lizard-lion heads lining the steps of Aztec pyramids or the monkey-bat faces of Gothic cathedrals. These Mayan stone works resembled stiff reproductive appendages. Whether they were striking serpents or evil threats, whether they were representative of a god-protector or a vengeful god or a fertility god or god-abandonment or a fearsome anti-god, I did not know. However, I did presume to conclude that the Mayan ancients – and the modern people of the Yucatan, though perhaps poorer, fewer, and less zealous – were just as practical, sensitive to aesthetic pattern and scale, and attuned to the rhythms of nature as any other great people.


We joined in mimicking bird calls with some playful boys on the site, one of whom was a coke vendor, then we turned to leave. As we passed out from the rectangular grid of stone steps, which stood like bleachers intended for a solemn ceremony, we saw the sun alighting atop a rough monolithic stone column standing some fifty yards back down the clearing from the temple. The spring festival was aptly concluded – for us, if not for the bulls and the town's people soaked in the juices of the season.

We hitched a ride to the highway. Mike and I packed onto a bus en route from Progreso to Merida that a crowd had flagged to stop. The day that had lifted us had deadened us, too. But impressions of that fertile day did not die: they arise once a year in spring.

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