I recently had what would truly be considered a first world problem, I needed a holiday from my holiday. More than anything, I needed a holiday from my attempt to stop smoking and the sameness of what we have been doing for the last couple of months.
So it was Sarah and I decided to take some time off and go see a bit more of Mexico. We rented a car in Playa del Carmen for $40 a day, filled a small backpack and hit the road. Destination? Merida. A big town near the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula and three to four hours drive from Playa del Carmen. I love to drive, and am a true believer in the phrase “Life is about the journey, not the destination.”
One of the things I have come to love about Mexico (in particular Quintana Roo and the Yucatan) are the small towns sprinkled along its back roads. Each one seems a slightly different arrangement of another, some a bit bigger and others barely big enough to deserve the moniker of town. Almost all however are comprised of the same basic ingredients. An old yellow church, a town square, and a tortilleria. Strangely enough most also sport a basketball court in various states of disrepair. All however are as quaint as hell.
As you drive in to town the first thing that grabs you is how quiet it is. Sleepy streets act as a stage for the occasional group of kids playing with a stick or adults wandering idly along while staring off into space. I guess the rest of the town are either having a siesta or off at work somewhere. What they would do for work in these small towns is beyond me. The only real sign of exertion you see is the occasional house being swept out, or a store owner changing the channel on an old TV with a tiny screen. It is like stepping into a highly stylized movie. It seems impossible that places like this could actually exist.
Roads covered in dust and broken into sections by endless speed bumps crawl sleepily through these hidden places with hardly a soul in sight. Small corner stores are painted with giant Pepsi or Coca Cola logos and dogs lie lazily in the shade of overgrown trees. These out of the way places are for me the best part of a road trip in Mexico. You can get lost here. You can leave behind your busy need to be busy and your desire for things.
I walk into a small shop with a giant Pepsi logo spread across its old walls. In the silence it seems deserted, like the owner thought better of coming in today and couldn’t be bothered to close the doors.
I call out, my voice and the gentle hum of a refrigerator the only sounds breaking a heavy silence. It is cool inside and barely lit, snack foods and cold drinks line shelves who’s parts seem to come from a thousand different manufacturers. A slight rustling rises from behind a stack of mixed items and a small woman heavily wrinkled with age emerges, smiling with a look of surprise in her eyes. She seems amused at my presence in her sleepy little town.
“Hola?” she says back, and then continues saying something I have no hope of understanding. I smile and shrug hoping the universality of gestures holds true here and she smiles back knowingly.
I buy a Pepsi, thank her and we exchange smiles again. As I walk out into the light I am returned to a place almost void of activity. Sarah and I sit on plastic chairs outside the shop, shaded from the biting sun by a tree completely motionless in the still air. Nothing seems to want to move here, even the trees seem relaxed.
The shop faces onto a square, to one side of which sits a small church, painted yellow with its doors open to would be worshipers. A man rides past slowly on a bicycle. One of those slow almost effortless rides which suggest he really doesn’t have to be anywhere anytime soon. He barely even notices us as his legs flow with the pedals, it’s like he’s sleep cycling.
We drink the Pepsi in silence, soaking up the calm inherent in this place and in these people. The town has only a few dozen buildings split into blocks by even fewer roads. Some of the houses are barely standing and obviously abandoned to time, trees and grass spilling from their interiors as they are taken back by nature. I wish I could maintain a lifestyle and a mind state such as the simplicity I see here. For now though, just visiting once in awhile and seeing how the world can be is enough.
We finish off the Pepsi and cross the square to our car, there is barely a soul in sight to bid us farewell. As we drive out of town a few small groups of people are gathered here and there. They stare hard at us, unused to tourists passing through. We exchange smiles and waves and then we are gone, leaving them to wonder at our existence for a few seconds more before they return to their own realities.
On the road again, driving past broken down signs and gateways of old Rancheros either abandoned or barely in use. Past more little towns forgotten by time, waiting for a random set of events to pull us into another random town most often missed by tourists and locals alike.
There seem to be thousands of these small towns spread across the Yucatan and Quintana Roo. As you drive along signs pop out of nowhere with names you cannot pronounce, pointing to a barely visible road which leads to another barely populated place.
There are a number of big old colonial towns like Valedollid and Merida which pull in the tourists, local and otherwise. There are also mid sized towns like Izamal which occasionally bring “big city life” to the middle of nowhere. For me though the true heart of Mexico lies in the little towns spread sporadically along its back roads. Surrounded by dense jungle and swallowed by a time outside of time, their names forgotten as one blurs into the next, clones of each other yet each one somehow unique.
They remind me, even if only for a short time, that all the stuff, all the issues and perceived problems I deal with daily, imagined and otherwise, all that stuff just really does not matter. I need to refocus on why we are living this lifestyle and the opportunities it provides. I realize the not smoking is bringing me down, but I need to man up and get over it. I mean, I’m living in Mexico for little baby haysooses sake!
Little Baby Haysoos