A divertimento this week, in honor of summer.
The monkey had seized his Pepsi, an act that left Estefan somewhat agitated. He had never liked Mexican spider monkeys ever since he had seen one snap his brother’s index finger like a twig back when they were boys. Twenty years later, the sight of one would reduce him to a state of medieval terror. The fact that the monkey was now sitting next to him on the tailgate of one of the pickup trucks belonging to the university’s archaeology department, with its legs crossed like his, helping itself to his bottle of Pepsi and behaving like any of the other diggers under the shade of some mangroves, had left him in a state of descolada.
Of course, Estefan also disliked thunderstorms, mud, bus drivers, Coca-Cola, and norteño music; the latter being something on which the two of us often agreed. This was not lost on Heraclio, another digger at the archaeological site and our truck driver, who would gleefully read the weather report to Estefan whenever it included a prediction of rain, deliberately drive closely behind buses on the narrow roads of the central portion of Quintana Roo, and turn up the volume whenever Los Tigres del Norte were playing on the radio. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Heraclio had trained the monkey to steal Estefan’s Pepsi.
The relationship between the two diggers, who were also cousins, would have made for an execrable journey had it not been for the fact that they were taking me to what they described as “a beautiful cenote [or sinkhole]” so that I could experience Yucatan-style surfing. As we were about twenty-five miles from the coastline, my curiosity was piqued some by a surfing opportunity in the middle of the flat, dry llano. That and I had never seen a sinkhole that could be described as beautiful.
So, as we drove through towns named after either Christian saints or monstrous Mayan royalty, as Estefan and Heraclio bickered about technique, I heard about the main feature of the
“We do not use surfboards, doctore,” said Estefan. “We use rododendro. You will see; it is pura Yucatán” Heraclio just laughed and nodded like a bobble-head doll.
My Spanish has always been horrible. In fact, the university staff would label what I spoke “kitchen Mexican”, so I didn’t think it odd that Estefan had just said that they surfed using houseplants. I just assumed that I hadn’t understood him over the roar of the loose muffler and the top 40 norteño hits that Heraclio had blaring from the truck’s radio. That is, until we got to the cenote.
Truly, if a sinkhole could be beautiful, this was the one. It was introduced by a stark opening at ground level of approximately seventy-five feet in diameter. Crude stairs that looked rather ancient had been cut in the limestone walls in a rough spiral from the opening to the small patch of earth and sand about three stories below that served as a type of beach at the bottom. The remainder of the sinkhole’s base was liquid. Aided by the minerals in the earth and vegetation that grew within and around the opening and down its dark shaft, the water at the bottom of the cenote was made azure; capturing and magnifying the available sunlight but retaining a refreshing coolness.
Second only to the water in vividity was the verdant vegetation that clung to the sides of the shaft and dropped their roots from the sun-soaked surface thirty feet down to the water, lacing into strong knots of vines that formed basketball-sized root balls just below the water’s surface. It wasn’t until I saw the cousins grab these vines and begin to swing themselves from the spiral steps to just above the water level that I realized the plants were, in fact, tropical rhododendrons. Remarkably, I had heard correctly; they did use rhodadendro instead of surfboards.
The sport, as I came to learn it, in sinkhole surfing is bending both vine and body so that the soles of one’s feet, at the right moment of the parabola, make contact with the water and, if timed right, enable the “surfer” to release his grip upon the vine and glide across the water’s surface on a buffer of surface tension. It wasn’t a long ride, and the cousins would loudly celebrate even a five foot glide, but it also wasn’t easy. In fact, learning the nuance in a Hawaiian short board was probably simpler. For over an hour, once I was assured that the vines would hold my weight, I repeatedly sent myself inauspiciously into the water with a sizable splash. However, in the second hour, I was beginning to get the hang of it.
While it was a hot, humid day and a dusty ride after a long week of fruitless digging among the remnant stones of a pitiable Mayan archaeological site, when Estefan suddenly remembered that on his last trip to the cenote he had hidden a number of bottles of Noche Buena in the cool deepness, it turned into one of the best and most memorable days spent in any kind of water. Our fatigue from work, and Estefan’s descolada, were cured.
In fact, to this day, after a particularly good session of conventional surfing, if asked how was the water, I sometimes respond that it was “pura Yucatán”.
[Excerpt from Reading Water, all rights reserved ©2011]