Below the Surface
...finding what's right about Mexico means fixing what's wrong with us

by Art Busse

The wind blew strong and steady, as it had for the past three days here on the Mayan Riviera, churning up the ocean and sending waves in an endless caravan from the eastern reaches of the Caribbean to crash upon the shore. A half-mile out the coral reef was taking a pounding, giving up its dead cells to be ground into the fine grains of the white beaches up and down the Yucatan coastline. With the wind blowing like this, the sand was everywhere, getting into everything, reminding us yet again that things were permeable here in Mexico.

The surface world was full of junk; tourista crap, cinderblocks and rusted out cars, bottles and wrappers, particle board pieces and plastic bags, newly paved roads built on barely compacted sand with no provision for water run off, visibly, obviously doomed from the day they were laid. Nothing was ordered. Nothing related. Nothing could be relied upon. Menus were full of what restaurants didn't have. Bars that advertised being open until eight closed at five. Margaritas were missing the Triplesec to sweeten the bitter limes, and no one had change. Some things went smoothly, like the way our plate would come quickly from the kitchen piled with fresh fruit and the catch of the day. Some things didn't, like when it was time to settle up at the end of the meal. It was a jumble, a cacophonous mess, a series of circus sideshows with no main event. It was an environment that couldn't sustain expectations, and the more we fought it, the worse it got. The roadside resorts were loaded with clenched up tourists, gritting their teeth, trying harder, while Mexicanos offered to help with the illusory salve of whatever the gringos thought might make life better - reliable transportation, familiar foods, free drinks or spotless accommodations - none of which ever seemed to materialize, despite having been paid for in advance.

But when we finally gave up in frustration, when we really let go, when we shifted our minds into neutral, put our arms over our heads and leaned back, we could slip through that cluttered and permeable surface, the way the fine sand blew through the mosquito netting and onto the bed in our cabana. We could find our way to a land beyond that was free and natural, where each moment was ripe with soft surprises, and the moments were gently woven together into long hours and languorous days. Like the way our tiny Mayan yoga instructor intoned the word 'inhale', sweet and childlike, while our quads screamed bloody murder. How she shaped-shifted at night into a killer Spanish flamenca, dropping her heels spot on the rhythms of a Buleria with the finality of a village carpenter nailing the lid on a coffin. The brown eyes, the dark moles, the cool liquados from the beach bar reintroducing us to how badly we were wanting each other. The thatched roofs and starry night skies inviting us to stay and explore and enjoy.

The Yucatan peninsula is perfectly flat and covered in a scrub jungle whose trees and shrubs all seem to stop growing at the same height. From the Google satellite image on an extreme angle it looks like a giant crab grass lawn that goes on forever, supremely uninteresting. Not so long ago in geologic time, it was all a huge coral reef just beneath the surface of the sea. Something happened with the global climate, the sea receded, and the reef rose into the air. Rain fell for millennia, transforming the coral to limestone, sinking through its porous surface, creating underground chambers full of stalactites and stalagmites and clear, fresh water. The entire peninsula became riddled with these watery caves connected one to the other and every so often a section of the surface would collapse, creating an entrance from above into this hidden world; crystal pools of cool blue water, cenotes, the one unexpected exception to the dull rule of the Yucatan jungle.

Yesterday we swam in a cenote. It was a few miles out of town away from the coast along one of those doomed new roads, past some hand painted signs and patched together fences, next to a house that never quite got finished. We had signed up for a snorkeling tour at our resort's front desk and proceeded to get handed off to a group of amateur divers when they overbooked our tour. That meant unwelcome delays as we were shuttled around town picking up people who had to be briefed, and equipment that had to be checked out. After an hour and a half we were cranky and wanted to call it off and get our money back. By the time we finally arrived at the underwhelming site called Gran Cenote, we had had it. We left the divers to their gear, descended the rickety wooden stairs to the overgrown jungle pool below, and jumped in the water.

When perfection arrives unannounced in the midst of the daily grind, when the struggling world gives way to what we can barely imagine, when we float with our mask-clad faces on a surface of jewels - who can remember when the world lacked wonder, when we were put out by the price of the tour? The water was just cool enough to snap us awake, and what we awoke to was a world of greens and blues, shadows and light, a castle with a hundred different rooms and no clear boundaries as the water disappeared into darkness, receding under the jungle floor around the pool's perimeter. The light glinting off the iridescent tropical fish at the bottom of the pool far under the cavernous ledge was mesmerizing. It reminded me of the big blue butterflies that floated slowly through the dark green canopy surrounding our cabana. These delicate living things seemed to be spot-lit from within, and once in command of our attention, and having called us to presence, became small moving spots where the painted fabric of diverse reality thinned and the ineffable light of some inner, nameless, essence shown through - the dappled glimpses of God.

The first lesson Mexico has to teach us gringos is this - it is our well ordered minds that create the mess we see. Our eyes search for symmetry and balance to match what's in our minds, the cognitive categories that stack so neatly upon each other. Not finding it in the world, we declare the world to be a mess, a junk pile, a room that needs to be straightened before dinner. We dismiss it all and retreat to our vacant virtuality, our need for consistency draining the magic from life, leaving us lost in the barren moonscape of our minds, until ours is the wasteland that eclipses all others, and we are condemned to wander there alone...until we can't take it anymore. Then somehow, if we're lucky, the mighty edifice of rationality succumbs to the smiles and the delays and the mix-ups and the heat, and we give up and dissolve into the welcoming sand and sensuous sea, floating away on our dreams, taken at last by the tide of our own true selves.
This artical can be found in Story Blog, Searching for Common Ties, published in May 2007.
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