by by Jennifer Anthony
Everyone loves a vacation. But for list lovers (aka Listlubbers) such as myself, it is bliss, a chance to indulge my love and slightly manic preoccupation of constructing:
• Checklists; and/or
In addition to the daily written and unwritten varieties, I have a set of lists I make in stealth preparation for my trips:
• Packing list (even though most are inherently the same).
• Shopping lists (on various size Post-its and always a mere fraction of the actual amount of things I will buy).
• List for the pet sitter (although she has taken care of my pets for five years and knows them just as well as me).
• List of Extremely Critical Tasks to get done at work before my departure (the list that makes most sense and is therefore the least interesting).
A Listmaker’s Codependent
Because most of the travel guides are more than willing to cater to my OCD with lists of their own, the lists do not necessarily have to stop once I embark upon my journey and lean my head against the scratchy mystery material of the airplane pillow. So even as the headphones beckon to me, singing Siren songs of cinematic splendor, I find myself reaching into the depths of my backpack and wrenching out my travel guides.
My recent trip to Yucatan was no exception. No sooner had the flight attendants served a breakfast of rubbery sausage and my neighbors had begun to drift one by one into satiated sleep, than I was wrestling my backpack out from underneath the seat, extracting my beefy guidebooks that make the Bible look svelte. I had packed two books on this trip: Moon Handbooks: Yucatan Peninsula, because I am just as cool and open-minded as the hipster twenties travelers for whom Moon and Rough Guides and Lonely Planet are scripture. And Frommer’s Mexico, because it is just so gosh-darn-comprehensive and a good value.
Frommer’s is a listmaker’s codependent. As soon as page nine (after the table of contents and a list of maps), is a section entitled, simply, The Best of Mexico. It seems harmless enough. But what ensues is enough to have any Listlubber squealing in delight. For this section includes enumerations of The Best:
• Beach Vacations;
• Cultural Experiences;
• Archeological Sites;
• Active Vacations;
• Natural Mexico;
• Places to Get Away From it All;
• Art, Architecture, and Museums;
• Luxury Hotels;
• Unique Inns;
• Inexpensive Inns;
• Spa Resorts; and
• Mexican Food and Drink.
But my Moon handbook was there to satisfy a craving, too, and while Frommer’s basically handed me the Tequila bottle, this other guidebook was more subtle, disguising the tequila with ice and strawberry flavoring and a rim of salt. For it, too, had a section of lists disguised by the following playful headings:
• The Best of the Yucatan Peninsula;
• An Eco-adventure Week;
• Mayan Architecture and Culture;
• Diving and Snorkeling;
• Family Fun; and
• Ten days in Campeche and Tabasco.
Listing Back and Forth in a Hammock
By the time I arrived in Ek Balam, a Maya pueblo just outside of the same-named ruins that were restored in the 1990s, my mind was swirling with to-dos and best-ofs and don’t-you-dare-return-unless-you-do-these-s. The cab driver drove past the thatched-roof and cement homes of the 300-person village, down the dirt road, and came to a halt outside the eco-resort. Foreheads beading with sweat, we grappled with my luggage in the 98-degree heat, pulling it over the gravel and up to the shaded, reclusive patio of my private bungalow.
I collapsed into the apricot-colored hammock stretched horizontally across the porch, and used one earthbound toe to sway back and forth. I stared out over the verdant grounds where plants boasted elephantine leaves, a Blue-crowned Motmot bird called from a low-hanging tree branch, and vociferous frogs croaked hellos from the pond and pool. A svelte lizard scampered past.
It was hot. Very hot. Hotter still if I did something silly, like stand up and walk. Suddenly, the lists seemed, perhaps, a little ambitious. Perhaps I would just take things easy, let things happen.
My new modus operandi was easier to carry out in the abstract. The next morning, after a breakfast of chaya eggs, banana pancakes, and an assortment of tropical fruit, I found my right hand crawling, tarantula-style, over to one of the guidebooks and flipping it open absentmindedly. I snapped the book closed with my other hand and took down a second cup of coffee.
Breakfast tables around me were festooned with travel books, their owners flipping happily through them, creating their own lists. I wondered if they, too, had a list problem, or if they reserved that activity for trips such as these. I tried not to stare.
A family at the next table, also from California, struck up a conversation. When they wanted to know what I thought of the Ek Balam ruins, I told them that I had only just arrived. Before long, I found myself running to get my bag and joining them in their rental car. We drove to the ruins in the mid-morning, before the scalding heat could claim our sanity. Guideless and alone except for three other people and a half dozen dozing dogs, we wandered up and around and over the bone-colored buildings, built as long ago as 100 B.C. We strode down the wooded trail behind the central pyramid, past the sunbathing iguanas, and, panting and sweating, climbed up to the top of the building.
The central building is higher than any in Chichén Itzá, the view stunning. The top of the building affords a panoramic of acre upon acre of forest, laid flat and stretching in all directions. The reward for our exercise was a dip into Cenote Samulá, a natural underground pool just outside the small town of Valladolid where a surface hole casts a spotlight onto the water below and tree roots dangle just above the surface.
Listless at Last
By day end, I was able to mentally check the Ek Balam ruins off my purportedly non-existent list. But I had a problem: this was the major to-do in the immediate area. In other words, I might actually have to stick to my new mantra and just take life as it came. It was daunting, this idea of Change.
But the heat was helping. A lot. The next morning, when I was already sweating at the late hour of 8 a.m., fellow travelers asked what I would be doing. Face beaded with perspiration, I shrugged and said, Quien sabe?
As the days passed and I sweated out several bottles and glasses of water, horchata, and cerveza, I found that life, with its many activities and funny stories and bizarre happenstances, came to me. I didn’t have to chase it, checklist in hand.
I’ll admit I wasn’t cured. Now that I am back and entrenched in my regular Listlubber lifestyle, I can’t help but retroactively create a list of some enchanting moments:
• Attending the pueblo’s elementary school (K-6) graduation party, just down the road;
• Acting as official photographer at an impromptu early morning wedding at the ruins, officiated in Maya by a shaman from the nearby village;
• Having dinner and tortilla-making lessons in the home of a warm, welcoming Maya family;
• Photographing basking iguanas among the ruins;
• Looking out at the forest and the ruins from atop El Mirador (an observatory) at twilight;
• Striking up a conversation with village boys who caught me taking pictures of their turkey;
• Discovering a snake slithering across the jeans I had laid to dry in the sun (and inadvertently exclaiming “I found a snake in my pants!”);
• Befriending the various dogs, birds, and ducks rescued and rehabilitated by the ecoresort’s owner; and
• Braving the flooded streets of Valladolid after an afternoon thunderstorm.
These events may or may not happen to others who visit Ek Balam. But if they set the guidebooks aside for a few days and let life happen to them instead of artificially creating it, they just might be assured of equally magnificent things.
Lodging: Genesis Eco-Oasis
Ek Balam, Yucatán, Mexico
Tel: 9220.127.116.11.80 (Lodge cell)
Tour guide: Alberto Morales (speaks English and Spanish)