Stuck in Xtacumbilxuna’an 

Tuesday, Jul 3 2007

We’d left our cell phones at the hotel.

They’d been off all week. Nuvia and I were on our honeymoon and didn’t want our romantic dinners and excursions to ancient cities interrupted by chirp and chatter, but now we were stuck.

We’d intended to go to the Caves of Xtacumbilxuna’an, but they were closed. When a piece of metal wrenched loose from the car and shot into the jungle, we had a fairly good idea that we were screwed. I tried to restart the car, and the engine made a sound like a tropical bird being squeezed by the neck. As rain began to fall, it occurred to me what a foolish thing it was to have rented a car from Alamo in Mexico.

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After a few minutes of pushing, with the temperature in the 90s and humidity at 100 percent, I was breathless and exhausted. The day before, while sitting in the shade of a ceiba tree, I’d stomped on a bug that had flown into my leg. Within 20 minutes, a line of red ants smaller than grains of sand had dismantled the insect, separating its head from its thorax, and carried it down an ant hole. “That’s what this place will do to you,” I thought as I pushed the useless husk of my Chevy Astra up the road. I needed to be like those guys we’d passed on the highway, their bicycles loaded down with firewood, peddling so slowly they seemed not to be moving at all.

A man who’d been planting corn in the fields stopped and gave us a ride to the closest town. Abraham, who wore a conical hat and suspenders, spoke no English, only Spanish and German. He took us to the village of Bolonchen and dropped us off at the police station as the rain really started coming down. The station was housed in a small blue building. An ambulance and a pair of pickup trucks were parked in front. Inside, the walls were painted a lighter shade of blue and were patinaed with grime. An old CB radio, the backside of which was caked with dust, sat upon a battered wooden table pressed up against a dingy wall. Scattered about the room were red plastic chairs that bore the Coca-Cola logo. A balding, soft-spoken man with the demeanor of a civil servant invited us to sit; instead, we put our dripping bags on the chairs.

Nuvia explained our situation and asked to use the phone. The man said our calling card was useless in Yucatan, but we could use his for 30 pesos. While Nuvia counted out the change, I fished the rental agreement out of my overstuffed backpack and gave the policeman the number. He fingered the buttons on a white phone housed in a wooden box, but for some reason he couldn’t get through. I tried to ignore the pornographic DVDs stacked on the desk. In a darkened room in the back, more cops reclined in hammocks, and beyond that I could see a courtyard littered with Coke bottles and the soggy remains of institutional dinners. As the rain pounded the cement, someone began to howl. I went from hoping the policemen in the back were watching a scary movie to praying we hadn’t blundered into one.

“We have a Cuban,” said a sleepy-looking policeman, his distinct Mayan features creased. He told us that Bolonchen meant place of nine wells and taught us how to pronounce Xtacumbilxuna’an (shta-cum-beel-shoo-nan). He knew everything there was to know about broken cars, vast caves and long-distance calls, and soon we were on the phone with Alamo and the policemen were saddling up to check on our vehicle.

It was going to take a few hours for a replacement car to arrive. Nuvia and I walked to a loncheria down the street, where we met the proprietor’s teenage daughters, Cindy and Erika. Our arrival caused a minor sensation: Curious boys rode by on their bicycles, girls walked arm in arm, whispering. The two sisters, well aware of their role in this drama, peppered us with questions, and showed us photos from Cindy’s quinceañera. They were delighted to discover that their mother had spent more on Cindy’s dress than Nuvia had on hers.

Once the rain died down, the policemen appeared in their open truck, two in the cab, four standing in the bed, their hands clutching the roll bars. We waved, and the porn-loving policemen of Bolonchen waved back. Erika asked Nuvia if I was a jealous husband. She told her no, and Erika, who was 12 but looked 10 and acted 20, noted that this was good because it meant I was a calm person. I laughed and thought how wrong she was. I may have looked calm, but inside I was anything but. Calm? That was the old mestizos peddling their firewood down a jungle road. I promised myself that when I got back to California I would try to live my life at the speed of the Mayans.

Erika pushed a pen and a piece of paper at me. “Can I have your e-mail address?” she asked.

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