Posted March 27, 2000 at 5:37 pm 2 Comments

Chichen-Itza is the site of some of the last remnants of the ancient civilization of the Mayas.  One such remnant is the unusual temple pictured above, which puzzled archeologists and anthropologists for many years.  British erudite J. Eric S. Thompson, perhaps the foremost scholar in Mayan cultural studies, knew that there was something unusual about this temple from the first.  The Mayans were advanced mathematicians; more than any ancient civilization they appreciated the geometric beauty of perfect symmetry, and this was reflected in their architectural style.  Unlike most Mayan structures, this edifice had no apparent symmetry; it seemed that each level of the temple had dimensions that bore no correspondence to the other levels.  This led Thompson to believe that it was built by barbarians who had conquered the Mayans, perhaps in a crude imitation of Mayan building styles.  It was not until 1967 that the astronomer Anthony Aveni discovered that this building was in fact one of the most remarkable remnants of the Mayan civilization.  The building’s secret is that its shapes and angles were carefully designed to correspond to alignments of the stars. Almost 30 separate cosmological events were hidden within the structure of this amazing building; its spectacular complexity led Carl Sagan to describe the Mayans as the most scientifically advanced of the great Mesoamerican civilizations.

In a tribute to the Mayans, Scott surrenders
his blood at  the ancient sacrificial well.

All of this was explained to us by our tour guide Francisco, who knew a great deal about Mayan language and culture.  “The name Chichen-Itza,” he told me, “is derived from the ancient Mayan ch’it ch’in it-za, meaning ‘shore of the magician’s spring.'”

I asked Francisco if many of the place names on the Yucatan peninsula were derived from ancient Mayan names.

“Yes,” he replied.  “For example, the name Cozumel comes from a Mayan phrase meaning ‘island of the swallows.'”

“Fascinating,” I said.  “What does Cancun mean?”

“Ah, Cancun,” Francisco smiled.  “Cancun is Mayan for ‘lair of snakes.'”

“The Mayans had remarkable foresight,” I told him.

“Yes,” Francisco chuckled.  “Perhaps they read the destiny of Cancun in the stars.”

You may wonder why I had such a negative impression of Cancun, a city renowned for its picturesque beaches and exquisite coral reefs.  I suppose my opinion of the city had been tainted by my experiences the previous night.

Apparently this wall carving depicted
some sort of ancient Mayan fellatio ritual.

I was strolling along the beach early in the evening when I thought I’d take a rest on a patio behind a nearby hotel.  I climbed some steps and sat on a deck overlooking the ocean, admiring the view.  I had been sitting there for several minutes when I was approached by a uniformed police officer who was scowling at me and pointing his finger menacingly.  “Qué usted está haciendo aquí?” he demanded.  “Ésta es pista privada! Usted está violando!

“I’m sorry,” I stammered in return, “but I don’t speak Spanish.”

“You are trespassing, señor,” the officer told me, and began calling into his walkie-talkie.  It sounded like he was requesting backup.

“Excuse me,” I said, and stood up.  “I’ll go home.”

“Sit down,” he barked, gesturing toward the ground.  “You are from Estados Unidos?”

“Yes,” I said, “I was just walking along the beach.  I didn’t know that this was private property.”

The officer frowned and continued speaking into his radio.  Finally he stopped and signaled for me to stand up.  “Follow me,” he ordered.

I walked with him across the grass until we came to a secluded area behind the Dos Playas hotel.  “Stand there,” he said sharply, pointing toward a nearby wall.

Up until this point I wasn’t particularly worried; I figured I would get off with a warning.  But when the police officer pulled a billy club from his hoster and began striking it threateningly against his palm, I started to wonder if the law treated trespassing differently in Mexico than it did in the United States.

“You trespassing,” the policeman repeated.  “This mucho problemo.”  He lifted his walkie-talkie to his mouth and asked me if I wanted “mucho problemo with policia.”

“No, I really don’t,” I told him emphatically.

“I tell you what amigo,” he said conspiratorially, his palm held outward.  “You give small tip, and no problemo.”

“Ah, so he wants a bribe,” I thought to myself.  Somehow I wasn’t too surprised.  Unfortunately I had just spent my last hundred pesos on dinner.  I opened my wallet and showed him that it was empty.  “No money,” I said apologetically, hoping that he wouldn’t ask for my camera or my watch.

I suppose he noticed the ATM card in my wallet, because he pointed at it and asked “Banamex?”

“Yes, Banamex” I said, assuming he was asking if my card worked in the Banamex ATMs.  What he didn’t know was that the card in my wallet was from my bank account in high school, which I hadn’t used in three years.  The last time I had received a statement for that account, my balance was fifteen dollars.

“There is Banamex adyacente al Fat Tuesday’s,” the officer told me pointing down the street in the direction of the dance club.  “You go Banamex, get money.   In cinco minutos, come here, bring 300 pesos.”

“OK,” I said.  “Five minutes, 300 pesos.  I got it.”

The police officer watched me from under the trees as I walked nervously toward the bright lights of the dance club.  I reached the small booth containing the ATM, opened the door, and stepped inside.  My mind was racing as I inserted my card into the machine, knowing full well that there was no way I could produce 300 pesos.  In the reflections of the glass walls of the booth I could still see the policeman, watching me from the distant shadows.  After a minute I pressed the cancel button and pretended to retrieve some money from the dispenser slot.  Nonchalantly, I opened the door and stepped outside.  Then I turned and ran as fast as I could.

I’m not sure if the policeman chased me, because I never looked back.  I ran like a scared rabbit, past drunk partygoers and taxi drivers who gave me strange looks, around palm trees, through bushes, and over flowerbeds.  I ran and ran, and when I came to a fence I vaulted it and continued running.  I wasn’t until I was deep beneath the shadows of the trees on a golf course that I stopped to catch my breath.

“Oh great,” I thought to myself, “now I’m probably trespassing again.”

I climbed another fence and found myself back on the main road.  I walked back to our hotel at a brisk pace, and my heart skipped a beat when a police car zoomed by with its brights flashing.  Finally I arrived at the hotel, my hair disheveled, my clothes covered in dirt, and with several bleeding cuts that I had acquired while going over the fence.  I slumped down in a chair and took a deep breath.  Just then, Scott ran into my room.

“Come quickly!” he shouted.  “Dave is hurt!”

I followed Scott down the steps and out the front door of the hotel.  “He’s at the Ameri-Med,” Scott explained as we ran toward the hospital a few buildings down from our hotel.

The parking lot outside the Ameri-Med hospital looked like a crime scene.  There were puddles of blood everywhere, a large one where Dave had emerged from a taxicab and streaked bloody footprints leading up to the door of the hotel.

“Dave was walking barefoot through the grass,” Scott explained, “and he must have stepped on a broken bottle.  Blood was gushing from his foot at an unbelievable rate.  I swear it was like a sprinkler.”

“Did you tie it off?”  I asked.

The entrance to the Ameri-Med hospital.

“Yeah,” Scott said, “we tied a shirt around his ankle as tightly as I could.  Finally I got a taxi to stop and pick us up.  The cabbie streaked down the street at 90 miles an hour — he must have run every red light.  But by the time the cab got here, the bottom of the cab had an inch and a half of blood in it.   What you see in this parking lot happened ten minutes after he was first cut.”

“Holy shit, he must have hit an artery.  The guy probably lost two pints of blood by now.  Is he still conscious?”

“Yeah!  That’s the remarkable part.  He seemed to be holding up just fine.”

We entered the hospital and waited tensely until they told us we could see Dave.   He was lying in bed with his foot elevated and tightly bound to stop the bleeding. “Hi guys,” he said, and smiled weakly.  “I feel a little dizzy.   I guess my foot is going to need some suturing.  And I may need a blood transfusion.  But I’m going to be OK.  The nurse asked me if I wanted some shots of tequila to kill the pain, but I think she was joking.”

Somewhat reassured, we stepped out to the hospital waiting room and began chatting with the people there to pass the time.  One poor college student had been walking along the street when some men had driven by and shot him in the arm with a metal dart.  He showed us the mark on his arm where the dart had been removed.  Then he showed us the dart; it was a skinny cylinder of metal about five inches long, a little thicker than a mechanical pencil lead.  “One of the guys at the hospital told me that this has been happening a lot lately,” he said.   “They’ve had four patients with dart wounds in the last few weeks.  Some of the darts are even longer than mine.  I’m lucky it hit me in the arm, and not the chest or the head.  But the doctors say they still have to run some lab tests, in case the dart was infected with AIDS.”

Cancun was rapidly losing its sense of glamour.  We were told that Dave would be spending the night at the hospital, so after bringing him some drinks and snacks we began walking back to the hotel.  On the way, we stopped to watch as a drunk college student staggered out a bar and was approached by several taxi drivers proffering rides.  He waved them off, calling them by a nasty racial slur.  Almost instantly, the taxi drivers swarmed around him and began punching him in the face and stomach.  Several police officers stood by, watching with idle curiosity.  They made no effort to quell the violence.

I wasn’t surprised at the sudden ferocity of the taxi drivers, because for the past several days I had noticed that the majority of the locals treated American tourists with a thinly veiled contempt.  They were polite when they had to be, often even cloyingly obsequious; after all, Cancun’s economy is built on tourism and the American dollar.  But underneath the mock servility I could sense a brooding resentment that was welling up and waiting to burst to the surface.  Not that I blamed the locals for their resentment — I was astounded at the rudeness of most the tourists, who were obnoxious, ignorant, and boorish, and seemed to lack any sense of respect for Mexican customs, language, or culture.

Ooh, “McPatatas”.  How exotic.

Perhaps now you see why I felt that the Mayan name for Cancun was so apt.  I would describe Cancun as an idyllic tropical paradise hopelessly besmirched by American greed, lust, and consumerism.  The once beautiful beaches are littered with shattered bottles of Dos Equis and the coral reefs are strewn with sweat socks and discarded candy wrappers.  In startling contrast to the poverty of downtown Cancun, the streets along the lagoon are lined with glitzy clubs and high-priced shopping malls, where American teenagers visit a transplanted American city with looser liquor laws, eating dinners at McDonalds and shopping at the Gap.  Spring break in Cancun is vaguely surreal, a trip to another world that’s a mixture of excitement and depression and entertainment and nudity and friends and filth and pounding techno music, all flavored with tequila and smelling faintly of stale vomit.  In the next few days I’ll continue to document my spring break — and don’t worry, I’ll try to avoid another jeremiad.


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  1. Sorry, but I really do not know what you are talking about!!!

    Cancun is just beautiful all around and I can even say that I had never fallen in love with any place more than I did here.

    Now, I live in Cancun, in the poor town you just described as the poorest site in the world and to me it’s just so nice, where is the depresion and the vomit?

    Have you heard that we can only see what we want to see, o what we are prepared to see. I invite you to come a second time to Cancun and without that critical point of view, try to enjoy the warm nights and the fun of young American teenagers walking around.

    Only a twisted mind could think that Mexicans are resented that Americans have the dollar. No, we are happy we have all of these beauties and share them with the world.

    No, we cannot be resented since we are honest, friendly people and we are happy to be born in Mexico, this besmisched land like you call it since it has another kind of richness.

    The reason why I write is because Cancun does live on American tourists and with reviews like yours, you could be afecting thousands of families.

    So when you write something, remember that there are always positive and negative sides to everything. And that negative ideas bring negative consequences.

    Comment by Susana — August 30, 2006 #

  2. love this blog! stubled upon it searching t shirt contests(design contests) and your desc. of cancun is what i imagine it would be

    Comment by wiley — October 18, 2008 #

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