On my first trip to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in 2011, the one thing I was most fascinated to learn about and photograph was the lifestyle of the modern Maya people. After all, it is among the most mysterious and renowned cultures to ever make it into the history books. If I were gonna travel here, I was gonna be sure to experience some true modern-day Mayan flavor…and not let the movie Apocalypto haunt me with images of black jaguars and savage natives chasing me through the jungle. I also had to find out about all of this “end of the world” ballyhoo. So, I set out to explore some villages in the Mayan heartland to meet the locals and take some “authentic” photos of life beyond the tourist decoys, sunburned drunks and tequila-soiled beach bars of Cancun and the Riviera. Not that I have anything against sunburned drunks, I’ve been one on several occasions. But I have matured as a traveler, far beyond my port-crashing Navy days of old, and my mission for this particular visit was to ensure that the best “shots” I would get during the trip would be the ones produced by the camera, not by Pedro the bartender.
During my 2 weeks there in 2011, I visited a dozen or so villages and met some of the nicest and most generous people that you can imagine. I would speak with them, accept an invite into their homes (have a few beers at some, play with the kids at others) and learn a little about who they are and what life is like there. It was exactly what I had been looking for. This was the “real life” that most travelers never get a chance to see. Of course, before I would bid farewell to each of my new friends I met on that trip, I had to work my camera into the game. I would kindly ask for a photo as a keepsake for my travel archives and would be pleasantly, and sometimes shyly, granted permission every time. Luckily, the Maya are nothing like those stuck-up broads at the Playboy convention who demand $15 per photo.
So, on my return trip to the Yucatán this past April with my girlfriend, I thought it would be really cool to visit my village friends once again and present them with a copy of their photo. It was the sort of project I had wanted to do for a long time, but was just waiting for the right opportunity. I whipped up about 14 prints, ironed out my maps and made my way back through the same village route that I had traveled back in 2011, on a mission to find each of my photo subjects where I had originally met them. How would they react? I had no idea, but would soon find out. My first stop was the village of Nuevo Durango, 6th house on the left. I had met Señor Jose here a year and a half earlier. Señor Jose will always represent my introduction to the world of the modern Maya, as he was the first person I met in my travels there. I remember first seeing his innocent, puppy dog eyes and smiling face as I entered the village. It struck me as an irresistible opportunity to get a nice portrait of a local Maya man in his traditional home. I knew I had to stop and say hello. In that initial encounter, I introduced myself to him and commented that I liked his house. Next thing you know, he invited me in and showed me the inside of his rustic, one room “palapa” hut. This was my first time inside a Mayan dwelling. It was awesome to see. The simple life is truly defined here…hammock for a bed, a weathered wingback chair, basic cooking and eating utensils, an old television, mini-fridge, and plenty of tools for collecting food and cultivating the land. He spoke of his life there and gave me some delicious guava fruit from a tree in front of his house. I asked for a photo, and he agreed. After getting a great portrait, I said goodbye and I left feeling like I’d just had the coolest experience I would probably end up having on the entire trip…first village, first stop, first encounter. Upon arrival this second time around, I was eager to reconnect with Señor Jose . Unfortunately, he wasn’t home when we arrived, but his son who lived across the street told me he was around town and didn’t know when he would return. His son was probably wondering if I was a government liaison looking to bring his father in for questioning or something. I explained how I knew his father and showed him another portrait of a gentleman I had met in one of the fields on the outskirts of the same town. I asked the son if he knew where the other guy lived. He responded, in Spanish, “Yes, that’s Don Siviliano. He lives 3 houses down.” Luckily for me, the average village only has about 200 people or so. A local directory service probably isn’t in high demand when you can just stop and show someone a photo of who you’re looking for. 🙂 So, I decided to go knock on Mr. Siviliano’s door while I waited for Señor Jose. My girlfriend and I approached the house and saw a man lying undisturbed on a hammock inside. I walked up to the door and greeted him. I immediately recognized the face as Mr. Siviliano’s. He appeared to be dressed more in “vacation mode” than when I first met him working in the corn fields under the harsh mid-day sun in 2011. His flowing silver hair was naturally impressive, as its shorter version had been tucked under a hat when I last saw him. I asked “Do you remember me?” He grinned instantly, nodded, and was sort of speechless with surprise, as you can imagine. I mean, how often do foreigners show up to your door with a photo of you that they took on a previous trip to your country? I’m guessing never. I imagine it doesn’t happen in the remote villages of Mexico much either. After his initial bewilderment settled, he thanked me for the photo with a humble grin and asked me, “How much do I owe you?”. My girl and I melted from his warmth (in addition to the blistering heat of Mexico’s interior) and explained to him that it was a gift. I told him that he looked thinner and younger and he responded with a chuckle and a “muchas gracias”. The universal compliment, works every time. :] After a brief conversation and “catch up” session, he graciously posed for an updated portrait, thanked us and wished us well in our travels. That was something out of the “super cool” book right there. I knew right then I was really gonna enjoy this journey. After visiting Mr. Siviliano, we decided to drive through the village hoping to spot Señor Jose. I handed my girlfriend his photo and directed her to “look out for this guy”. We saw an old man approaching us on a bicycle cart (typically used by locals to haul wood, food, or building materials). With an exuberant tone, I said “This could be him, it looks like him.”. As he got closer, sure enough, we confirmed his identity and were both elated with excitement to find the first friend I had ever made in the Mayan world. I stopped the car, showed him his picture and he immediately displayed that infectious smile and made the instant connection with the same amount of enthusiasm as Mr. Siviliano. We decided to meet back at his home to reminisce a bit. Señor Jose is one of the most endearing people you will ever meet. He opened his doors to us and welcomed us inside to chat and escape the heat. The inside of his home seemed like nothing had moved since I first saw it almost 2 years ago, almost like some sort of exhibit. He seemed really pleased with the photo and the efforts we made to visit him. He just kept thanking us and giving us hugs of gratitude. He shared his story with us that his wife had died 25 years ago and that he’s lived by himself ever since. He is a genuine, hard-working man who seems to endure with the guidance of the blissful memories of his past. I really enjoyed visiting with Señor Jose. I politely set him up for his “2013 portrait”, he posed graciously and he hugged us each once again as we made our way onward to our next destination. I hope to reunite with Mr. Siviliano and Señor Jose again someday. Maybe I’ll bring my DJ gear along and we can throw a block party. The next stop on my quest was in the village of Tres Reyes. I had met a family there with whom I had spent the most time on my previous trip. A few new roads in town threw my bearings and memory off as to the exact location of their home, but a nice local villager pointed us in the right direction upon seeing the photo of the family. This was the home of Doña Dora. This was a really interesting visit, because when I said goodbye to them last time, I mentioned that I’d like to return sometime and they gave me a phone number and said that I should call them if I ever came back so they could prepare a nice meal and provide accommodation. I view that as friendly dialogue, sort of a general and casual invitation, not really expected to be acted upon literally. So, I didn’t call. Just showed up. I guess I like the element of surprise. In hindsight, a deliciously prepared home-cooked meal would have really hit the spot upon arriving the second time around. The family was really surprised to see me walking up to the house, unannounced, with some photos and a few toys for the kids, as they would let me know: “Wow, you should have called us, we wanted to cook you a nice meal! We were waiting for your call last year but never heard from you.” They really wanted to show off their cooking skills apparently! This family is sweeter than Mayan Chocolate Cream Pie. (The Mayans did cultivate the first known cocoa plantations ya know.) Visiting with them and seeing their home is how I would describe the typical Mayan family living in the 21st century. There are 5 kids and 3 adults, all living under one roof constructed of palm fronds layered over a frame of vertical wood beams supported by a concrete foundation. The doorways seem designed with the height of a Smurf in mind, which is always fun for my 6’1” skeletal frame. The home is divided in two, separating the living space from the kitchen space. All you’ll find inside are the bare necessities to get by. There’s some hammocks, cooking utensils, pots and pans over an open fire pit, a wooden table, buckets for storage and carrying water, farming equipment, and some scattered clothing and toys for the kids. They raise pigs, chickens and turkeys for food and commerce and access water from a well behind the home. When you talk with them, you would think they live the most comfortable lifestyle in all of the Peninsula. They all smile from ear to ear, and seem generous beyond words. It was a real treat to see how a family of 8 can live a happy and self-sustaining life with the absolute minimum of resources and amenities. I actually had 4 photos to give to them, as the kids were so adorable to shoot that last time around. They delightedly posed for a few new photos, showed us around the house and reinforced their invitation for next time with an updated phone number. Believe me, I will be redeeming that invite for some Mayan home cookin’ next time ’round! I had several more stops and photos to hand out in the remaining days of the trip. To my delight, I would find everyone I was looking for in a handful of villages scattered throughout the area. From the cute kid who had painted his face like a Mayan warrior to the lady who crafted beautiful hammocks in her front yard…they were all just there, not waiting for me to come by, obviously, but it had almost seemed that way. They all expressed the same sense of shyness, gratitude, surprise and openness to being photographed once again. There was one lady, however, who wasn’t quite ready to have her new photo taken upon my arrival and request at an early hour of the morning. Though she did ask me if I could come back in an hour so she could put some makeup on, lol. Women will be women no matter where you go! She did clean up pretty nice, I won’t lie. Then there was another old lady I was looking for who I had met in an outdoors market, but the market was closed upon arriving the second time. I was about to throw in the towel on that one until I got up off the stool for the 12th round and I decided to ask a few ladies that were sitting next to my rental car watching a soccer game if they happened to recognize the woman in the photo. When you get a response from a random bystander of “That is my mom!”, that’s when you know this was all meant to be. 🙂 She asked her young daughter to take me to find “grandma”, who was not too far from where I had photographed her the first time. Grandma was wearing a similar traditional Mayan dress as she was in my original image, so I knew it would be a great photo to show the “then and now”. Her friends giggled as I set her up for a photo, and she maintained her composure while I snapped a few images and thanked her for being such a wonderful model.
After finding “grandma”, there was only 1 portrait left to deliver. I knew finding my last photo subject would be a little tricky, as I had met him at a roadside fruit stand on the side of a highway about 3 hours south. Luckily, I was able to narrow it down to about a 25-30 mile stretch. Keeping my eyes peeled among the dozens of roadside fruit vendors, I eventually recognized the stand where I had found the man with the blue shirt and smartly-styled straw hat, but it was an empty stand. My technique of asking around to locate someone hadn’t failed me yet, so I gave it another shot. The vendor across the street confirmed the identity and location of my photo subject, saying he would probably show up in about an hour. My thoughts: “Hmmmm…an hour…man I’d love to hang out and present him with his photo…but I have a long drive back and a full day of snorkeling and beach bumming lined up…what if an hour turns to 2 hours??…time stands still for everyone in this part of the world…who knows when he’ll show up…but it’s my favorite photo of them all…he’ll be thrilled to see me…I really want a new photo of the guy…Caribbean is calling my name…hungry girlfriend in the car…damn it’s hot out here!…agghhhhh…ceviche and cold beer with my feet in the sand…uh…SOLD!” I’m a sucker for ceviche and cold beer! So, here is the photo of the man with the blue shirt and smartly-styled straw hat…left exactly where I found him, with a little note tacked behind. I would have loved to see his face when he arrived to find a mysteriously placed 8×10 portrait of himself waiting for him at his workplace later that day. I imagine his smile would stretch even further than it had in the picture. Maybe I’ll have another opportunity to find out from him someday. Like I said…it was all meant to be. 😉
Very cool project!