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The Protean Waters of Yucatan

“In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.” Wallace Stevens

It is not an ocean for the faint of heart. It is changeable. It is not always pretty. It can be ferocious, mysterious and aggressively interesting. The Gulf of Mexico as seen from the beach towns of Yucatan – Chuburna, Chelem, Progreso, Chixchulub, Uyamitun, Telchac Puerto, San Crisanto, and Dzilam Brave – has a deep, dark quality in winter and a warm-as-bathwater green/blue inviting air about it in the summer months.

I first saw the Gulf from American sand. It was August in Wakulla county Florida and the sea was murky and fetid. The beaches there were wild, populated with sea turtles, snakes, deer and bears, and I suppose the ocean reflects the land. An eclectic miasma of God-knows-what including a bio-entity introduced to me as sea pork, which is one of those Precambrian animal-vegetable things that still grow in our more peripheral seas, it defies one’s idyllic idea of Florida’s sumptuous coast. My hopes for the natural beauty of my future home dimmed somewhat then. But take heart, dear readers. We’ve barely scratched the surface.

The first time Malcolm and I risked the bus to Progreso we were so pleasantly surprised by how lovely the water was we immediately bought swimsuits from a Malecon stand and wriggled into them in a sweaty restaurant bathroom. We walked and walked out toward to longest pier ever and still were never deeper than our waists in refreshing, clear, calm, very salty ocean. Progreso is a port town and a carnival. It’s easy to take the bus to or drive north from Merida and follow the signs straight ahead to the strip of sand, boardwalk, sidewalk, restaurants, bars and makeshift shops. It’s got that Coney Island desperation and democratic fun feel just barely below the surface of good time tourist town in training. Spend an afternoon listening to live music, drinking beer and enjoying the botanas at Eladios, a chain restaurant with some of the best fish in town. (Try the filete with avocado sauce, like whoa). There are palapas on the beach and you should pick any old one, order a drink and try the coconut shrimp. Buddy’s is kind of an ex-pat hangout run by Remko the salty Dutchman. Go there for American TV events like the Superbowl or just to hear English spoken by your fellow foreigners. Progreso in the afternoon is a family friendly, busy, breezy hang out spot. We’ll all be there tomorrow. Join us…

The first time I ever thought, “Holy Fuck, you expect me to live here!?” was as our quasi-realtor, Canadian Mormon and potential Mexican pop star Karita drove us through Chelem proper. It was all dressed up for summer, but we didn’t know that then. It was our first experience of topes, gaunt but still happy-go-lucky street dogs in abundance, colorful flags strung across the square and our first sighting of busloads of Mexican families out for a day at the shore. In short it was one of the last lazy days of La Temporada, the summer season, when Chelem is bright and bursting with seafood smells and song and don’t forget coconut pie, etc. It was all stimuli that day in the strong sun. I barely remember the houses we looked at out that way, but I have a very vivid memory of feeling very conspicuous, overwhelmed and in a way smitten by all the unfamiliar, authentic, poor but so rich goings-on.

Cut to San Crisanto, a far off place out of a Caribbean dream. The water was placid and the single coco palm perfection on the unblemished beach sand. We drove quite a way through palm plantations and other jungle until we reached an almost entirely unpopulated place. It felt remote. It felt like a magical destination and a place to be still. But, as Gertrude Stein famously once said of her former hometown in California, there is no there there. San Crisanto is like an opium den filled with dozing sheep and warm milk. I’m saying it’s sleepy. Gorgeous but for us not ideal. And that worked out well since the house that we had an offer on was ejido, and therefore could not have been purchased by not at all Mexican us. Let’s not get into all that again. All you need to know: Ejido is like Teenage Suicide – Don’t Do It.

Next we trekked to Telchac, which was in the midst of locust fallout on our first trip. Telchac Puerto is a little more and a little less than Chelem. It boasts a little lighthouse, two seafood restaurants: Le Tiburon (the shark) and La Picuda (the baricuda?), both of which are perfectly pleasant and passable. Try diabolo shrimp at the Picuda if you dare; if it’s fajitas and burritas you crave you’re better off at the Shark. At either you can absorb some local color and local beer, e.g, Sol. Telchac is a fishing village like Chelem and offers the usual weekend fare of cochinita pibil on Sundays, fairs for the kids on Saturdays and some diversion or other on Friday nights. There is a bus station, two rudimentary but serviceable liquor stores and a handful of local candy stands. There is a road to the interior and if you keep driving out along the beach road east you will eventually get to Dzilam de Bravo, an end of the world place described by Malcolm in a post about his birthday.

And we’re back to Chelem, this time at night. We were standing on what is now our porch looking out at the late winter Gulf at night. It was stormy and the tide was high. Yes, we lost some sand in a hurricane a few years ago. Erosion happens. Buy a big lot. That night I loved the sound of the sea. It was raucous and unpredictable. The waves aren’t sizeable exactly, but loud; they assert themselves against the impinging foreign hordes. Or so it seems sometimes. In truth, they have been as such for millions of years and will continue to rise and fall, ebb and flow, crash and be still for millions of years yet. We matter very little in earth time. We matter not at all to the ocean.

I do want to be very clear when I say that this ocean is dynamic and awesome, in the truest sense. You notice yourself changing as the rhythm of this ancient ocean smacks and retracts with constancy unknown to the moon. What other body of water can seem serene as a paddle pool one month and like an environment charged with chimerical creatures the next? And speaking of chimerical creatures, stay tuned for the Internet’s first photographs of Mexxie, the primordial creature who has just been spotted in the Gulf.

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