[ 23:50 friday 21 january - shipton street, london ]
last friday was the third anniversary of michael young’s death. i saw his face looking up at me from a pile of junk newspapers and undelivered mail in a box downstairs. it turned out to be the local council’s monthly rag, full of notices for employment training and drug counseling. i wonder if anyone ever reads it? the article was a routine one-page sweep through his career, trumpeting his connections with this part of london. it was nice to read it though; an quick visit from an old friend.
the despatch that follows was written at the beginning of the month whilst i was traveling in mexico but i wasn’t able to send it until now. at the start of december i was really feeling the need to get away for a couple of weeks and started scouting for bargain air tickets to leave immediately after christmas. i was primarily looking for sri lanka, thailand, india and the maldives but the best deal that came up was for cuncun on the yucatan peninsular so i grabbed that and flew out on the twenty-eighth of december. on this occasion i was fortunate not to get what i wanted. it was a wonderful journey. as i write these words my new nikon film-scanner is whirring and humming through the slides that returned with me.
but enough of the present, i return to the second of january and to another world.
[ 18:12 sunday 2 january - bus from merida to santa elena, yukatan state, mexico ]
i’m writing this on my smart-phone, bouncing along in an elderly bus with forest pressing in on both sides. to form words i tap a plastic stylus against a miniature image of a keyboard on the screen. normally i’m quite deft at this but the irregular motion of the bus makes it tricky and errors are frequent.
from merida, yucatan state capital, this service meanders through a succession of remote towns and villages before arriving at campeche, capital of the eponymous state, several hundred miles to the south. there are about forty people on board, most of them returning to their villages with packages and bags after merida’s sunday markets and festivities. there generally seem to be more passengers than seats on these services, often by a significant margin, and several people are standing in the aisle clutching the luggage racks as the vehicle sways and lurches. six passengers, including sergio and myself, are evidently tourists. the remainder mostly have the nut-brown skin, sloping nose and high cheeks that signify mayan genes. many of the women sport the traditional white smocks colourfully embroidered with flowers and birds, very simple but each one different.
as we leave behind the streetlamps of merida the driver snaps out the interior lights and no light is visible except the swinging loom of the headlamps on the road, the stars blazing above the flat horizon and the blue glow of my smart-phone screen as i tap away. there is no sign of habitation in the surrounding landscape, the savannah is empty blackness as far as the eye can see.
sergio and i must exit the bus shortly after it passes through a
village called santa elena. we’ve heard of a place with a few rooms where we hope to stay the night. there’s no telephone and no address, and of course it might be full; but we seem to be lucky more often than not. in the morning our aim is to reach the ruins of the mayan city of uxmul a few kilometres from santa elena, whose architecture is reputed to be breathtakingly sophisticated and expressive.
sergio and i arrived in cancun on tuesday evening, delayed by five hours as our plane had been sent to rescue stranded tourists from the maldives. cancun is not a place to remain so we immediately headed south down the caribbean coast. we spent a couple of days at tulum where we slept in a bare stick and palm leaf hut on the beach beside the mayan ruins. there was a storm during the night and we woke with a start to cascades of water splashing down on us from holes in the roof. i thought we were going to have to pack everything and abandon our simple home, but there were enough sound parts of the roof that some judicious rearrangement proved sufficient and we went back to sleep.
on new year’s eve we decided at the last moment it would be fun to be in merida, 200km away, to celebrate the new year. a surly lady behind the counter in tulum’s little bus office told us flatly there was no space on any service to merida that would get us there in time but we hung around anyway and pestered the driver of each bus that came through. sure enough after a few hours we got a space on very comfortable first-class one and off we went.
we reached merida around nine in the evening, found somewhere to stay in a turn-of-the-century merchant’s house (nineteenth-twentieth century, that is), and headed into the centre. at midnight we found ourselves seated on the road in front of a slightly surreal italian restaurant beside merida’s main jesuit church (consecrated 1618). they gave us a wonderful sicilian wine i’d never encountered before. this somewhat made up for the fact each course took an hour and a half to arrive. we politely bailed out after the primo and wandered round the streets.
so now, speeding through the yucatan night with my smart-phone clutched in my hand, i smile and think of my friends. i wish you all courage and joy for this year 2005.
: c :