During my first years in Yucatan, I learned a lot about common practices in the area. And inevitably when I asked why almost everything happened in such established, prescribed way, I’d be told – “Es costumbre” – “This is the way it’s done.”
For example, it was considered folly to wash clothes in the afternoon. Shopping at the market also happened only in the morning. Floors had to be mopped with kerosene-laced water, and fish could not be eaten at night. As well, it took me some time to accept “the little basket” beside the toilet.
I came to apprecite the reasoning behind many of the cast-in-stone commandments. But I couldn’t get my head around the resistance to less traditional options that might make life easier or safer.
More than four decades later, sometimes I am still stumped – and yesterday was a good example of this.
Our friends, Allison & Cliff came along with Jorge & me to visit Cenote Kankirixche. The road into the cenote’s location was a rough go, but we expected this, and at just 30 pesos a person, the entrance price could not be beat. We were pleased to find a palapa with bathrooms and a small restaurant. We also saw a strong wooden ladder for climbing down into the crystalline water. We figured the local government must have assisted a cooperative of villagers to build the infrastructure. Well done – we couldn’t wait to swim.
But in the cenote cavern we encountered wasps – many, many, many of them – darting in and out of about 50 nests suspended overhead.
Even the bravest, non-sissies will flinch at going into an enclosed space where they are likely to get stung. In fact Allison emerged from the depths with several welts on her upper arm. To me, the wasps sounded agitated, and I climbed out quickly. I asked the people working at the cenote why they hadn’t moved the nests? In my opinion, angry wasps and tourists are not compatible. If you want the wasps to be happy and not go into frenzy, you can’t allow people to disturb their habitat. If on the other hand, the cenote is meant to provide visitors with a unique water adventure – and increase income for the families that depend on this – then the wasps should be taken elsewhere.
I should have known better. My suggestion that the nests be removed was not at all well-received. I had definitely overstepped. “The wasps are used to going in there,” one young man told me. “The trees are flowering and that’s why there are so many of them.”
“Yes, I noticed,” I replied, “but some people are allergic to bee or wasp stings. If the insects swarm, they could cause serious injury.”
“Well if people want to come here, they have to take the wasps,” said another of the cooperative members.
I can understand that people who live close to nature respect the wasps’ right to build their nests where they have always built them. But surely the Dept. of Ecology or an environmental conservation agency must have ways to relocate their nests. In fact I looked it up on the internet, and yes, this can be done. I sincerely hope the members of the cooperative will consider this option.
The four of us hurried back into the car, and a short distance from the cenote, we arrived at Hacienda Mucuyche. The cost to spend the day here is 250 pesos, but with our INEPAN seniors’ cards we would only have to pay 150 pesos each. We would have enjoyed touring the hacienda where the Empress Carlota stayed during her visit to Yucatan in 1865. And we could have spent all day swimming in the cenote and picnicking. But it had grown fairly late by the time we arrived at the hacienda, so we decided to come back another day. As we got set to drive away, one of the employees told us that the hacienda has been purchased by the owner of X’caret.
Continuing along, we came upon Hacienda Huayalceh de Peon – in its day, this was one of the largest haciendas in the state, and processed as much as 1,000,000 sisal leaves a week! The operation continued on a smaller scale until 2000, but a hurricane in 2002 damaged much of the machinery, and looting finished the job. Now, the owner is elderly and he rarely visits his formerly majestic family estate. The villagers use the chapel for Mass once a week. Only the caretaker is on site full time, and he had no objections to us walking around the property. Jorge and I have visited this hacienda on many occasions. Even though the entire place is now in ruins, it is easy to see how grand it once was. Here too we were told that “an outsider” is interested the hacienda – about twice a month he shows up and offers to purchase it – he is told it is NOT for sale. I wonder if the would-be-buyer is the same person who bought Hacienda Mucuyche?
Time seems to stand still in the Yucatecan countryside, and in many ways this is beautiful. But if the people who live in these tucked-away corners of the peninsula are to prosper, they should consider their alternatives. If not, financial interests will prevail – and the last of the great haciendas, as well as natural attractions – will be developed for new purposes by those who are not adverse to change.
When I return to the area in a year or so, I hope I’ll see that the wasps have moved on and the cooperative is flourishing in the hands of the local villagers. I’ll definitely spend a day at Hacienda Mucuyche, and hopefully I won’t have to pay the price I would pay to enter X’caret. I wonder if Hacienda Huayalceh de Peon will still be in the hands of the family whose ancestors built the grand estate in the 1840s.
In the Yucatecan cities, villages and countryside, the threat of mismanaged change lurks alongside the potential for positive innovation. I hope that forward-thinking leadership, entrepreneurs and citizenry will work together to ensure a prosperous, dignified future for our amazing state.