Posts Tagged With: Mayan

Lost Kingdoms of the Maya – Bella Guatemala Travel

My latest journey with Bella Guatemala Travel. Get to know one of the most fascinating civilizations and cultures on Earth, as they take you on an intrepid expedition to discover the “Lost Kingdoms of the Maya” world! (Filmed on location in Guatemala and Honduras)

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Lost Kingdoms of the Maya – El Mirador

I just peeled off my sweat-soaked mask and kicked off my mud-caked hiking boots upon returning from a 2-week expedition through Guatemala, exploring some of the “lost kingdoms” of the ancient Maya world with Bella Guatemala Travel. One of the highlights of the tour, which is, as aptly advertised, called “The Lost Kingdoms of the Maya” tour, was an adventurous visit to the remote jungle region of Petén in the northern part of the country to explore the Pre-Classic site of El Mirador, the largest Mayan archaeological site ever discovered. Accessible only via helicopter or a mud-slushing 3-day trek through an uber-dense forest, which is home to the feared fer-de-lance snake and the highest population of jaguars in Central America (I took the helicopter), El Mirador was one of the earliest and most powerful of the ancient Maya city-states, dating back to over 700 BCE. Pictured here is La Danta pyramid, the tallest pyramid in the Americas (230 ft). It is part of the most massive Mayan complex ever built, and one of the largest manmade structures of the entire ancient world (even larger in volume than the great Egyptian pyramid of Giza). Construction of La Danta dates back to 300 BCE. Though most of it is still buried beneath the jungle, El Mirador is one of the most significant discoveries ever made throughout the Maya world. Recent discoveries that researchers are making here are forcing archaeologists to rethink Maya chronology and rewrite chapters in the history books of these fascinating “Lost Kingdoms”.

Stay tuned for more about my recent adventures with Bella Guatemala Travel!

   (shot with my DJI Phantom 3 Pro…aka the “G-Bird”)

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Midas Resort – BELIZE!

Some resort destinations just have that perfect touch.  I had the pleasure to experience this recently, as I filmed a promo piece for Midas Resort, located in Belize’s fascinating jungle interior in the town of San Ignacio. Any trip to Belize MUST include a journey into the Cayo District, which is the country’s most prominent nature, eco-adventure and Mayan history region. The exploration opportunities here are endless…just like the tropical serenade of the native green parrots who frequent the resort grounds. Next time you’re in Belize, be sure to pack some nature-trekking gear along with your swimsuit, crack an ice-cold Belikin and come see what the “Midas Touch” is all about!


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Gringo With A Green Bag – Finding “Balance” in Guatemala

It’s just something I’ve ALWAYS wanted to do 🙂

Bella Guatemala Travel

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Humbled in the Jungle – Calakmul, Mexico

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What is it about trekking through the jungle that sends omenously cool vibrations sprinting down my spinal column? It’s wild, unpredictable, mysterious – kind of like walking into a strip club in Vegas on your 21st birthday – it’s just an exhilarating (and intimidating) place to be. So when I heard about this massive ancient Mayan site embedded in the remotest of remote  jungles near the southern end of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make the trip down to check out the remains of what was once among the most influential sites in the history of the Mayan Empire:  Calakmul.

From what I understood, it was a bit of an effort to get there. There’s only 1 hotel within a 60km radius and if you Google “Calakmul” on a map you end up with a location marker that lands in the middle of absolute nowhere within a huge Biosphere Reserve just north of the Guatemalan border, several hours away from anything remotely familiar to the average Mexico traveler. This is the beauty of traveling to places like this. Only the adventurous few will make the effort, so the experience will feel unique and untainted and you’ll never have to worry about crowds, traffic jams or crying toddlers in strollers begging for ice cream while you pass through the turnstile. (No, I’m not a big fan of Disneyland, you guessed correctly.) An exit south off of highway 186, which slices horizontally through the state of Campeche, took me on a long, lonely road flanked by endless miles of a subtropical forest that has seen only the most intrepid of travelers pass through its sequestered corridor.

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After a lengthy drive deep into the jungle, with every revolving digit of the odometer reminding you that you are advancing one frame further from civilization, I arrived at the Calakmul visitor’s center/museum. Plenty to see there while killing time, but my eagerness to explore had ignited my appetite so I grabbed some Doritos and an empanada and then hopped in a van with a few other travelers to make our way down another long (dirt) road, which really reassured me of the remoteness of this ancient wonder. Upon arrival to the ruins site, I performed my typical jungle-trekking ritual of mosquito repellent-bathing, calf-stretching and a second round of mosquito repellent-bathing. There was a lovely scenic walking path leading to the actual ruins, passing through an expanding canopy of dense forest with filtered sunbeams penetrating the jungle roof like a laser light show transmitted from heaven. The environment here is raw, stimulating, overwhelming to the senses…it kind of reminds me of walking through the olive & pickle market in Spain back in the day. The deeper I get into it, the more I start salivating. I finally arrive to the actual ruins and am immediately thrown into the set of Apocalypto (“please don’t let me run into a black jaguar on its lunch break”, was my first thought). The ruins were imposingly present throughout the area and seemed in a very natural state. I climbed to the top of the first structure I saw. The view (and the 60+  steps) took my breath away.

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Standing above the jungle canopy atop the remains of an ancient structure of a kingdom that once rivaled Tikal as one of the grandest and most powerful cities of the Mayan world will quickly halt your mind into “pause” mode – and then force you to reflect on the former reality and historical scope of your surroundings. This was the land of rulers and kings…the turf of brave and brutal warriors and conquerors (and angry little monkeys, but we’ll get to that). The view of adjacent temples popping up through the blanket of vegetation in the distance is one that your brain will quickly file into the category of “Holy Shit – Awesome!”. Several large structures were scattered throughout the area, and if each one could speak I’m sure it would have countless tales spanning centuries of discovery, war, peace, famine and wonder. (That, or it would tell me to “clean your shoes before walking on my face, jerk!”) The surrounding jungle sprawls out endlessly in all directions, and the louring echo of howler monkeys adds an eerie soundtrack to the surreal scene that quietly envelopes you. When you sit there and think about the history that a place like this has written in its fraction of existence on Earth, and the countless lives that lived and were lost here, you are humbled…and you are also reminded of your very fortunate place in the annals of time. We live in a time where science answers many of the natural wonders that the original inhabitants of this land would never understand…a time where technology allows us to connect with and discover the farthest corners of the globe…a time where you won’t get sacrificed for being on the losing side in a game of kickball. As I explored Calakmul, I remained humbly cognizant of its historical significance. I walked among symbols of great power and strolled through ancient hallways of artistry and wonder.

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Now let’s get to these monkeys that were ready to engage with me in a full-on turf war. What began as a cordial initial encounter, with the natural underpinnings of curiosity, quickly turned into a Clint Eastwood “Get off my lawn” scenario where the native tree-dwellers began to express to me just how peeved they were with my presence in their “jungle hood”. I hadn’t been briefed on the hospitality of the local monkey community before entering the area, therefore I just continued to go about my business, observe them, photograph them and proudly reinforce to them (by standing my ground) that there wasn’t gonna be any Planet Of The Apes-inspired ego flung in my direction. What WAS flung in my direction, however, was a tree branch straight towards my head by one of the two feisty little hairy bastards that I was shooting in the trees above, followed by some maniacal gestures of chest-beating and flashing of the teeth (those teeth are no joke!). This isn’t how I typically like to be received into a new place. The capuchins in Costa Rica posed for my camera like girls auditioning for a Lowrider magazine cover on Instagram. There was no “Welcome” mat on these two monkeys’ front porch. They began shaking the tree branches and beating on their chests like little King Kong wannabies. Oh, hell no. It was getting serious now. I was dealing with some bonafide bullies. As soon as that tree branch came flying towards my head, I was reminded of my surroundings in this “wild” and “unpredictable” jungle environment. This isn’t like being at the zoo where you’re able to laugh and make faces at an animal and feel safe from retaliation due to the security provided by the double-paned glass or steel cage that lies between you and the animal. This was the wild wild west of Mexican jungles – untamed and virtually unexplored – and these monkeys were the last holdouts of their village who weren’t gonna backdown from any foreign “bandits” armed with cameras and binoculars. I must admit, the intimidation tactics did work. (Again, those teeth are no joke!) I didn’t stick around too much longer to find out of they were bluffing. I wasn’t in the mood for a face full of poo that day, or a couple of jungle hoodlums trying to bully me for my bananas. Their aggressive behavior was enough for me to wrap up my photo shoot and quickly move along. Monkeys 1 – Gringo 0.

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The fact that you can visit one of the world’s most fascinating remnants of ancient times and experience the full ambience of the natural world that surrounds it makes Calakmul a “must-see” destination on anyone’s Mexico travel list. Here, you can enjoy Mayan ruins that rival all of the grandeur and scale of the ruins of Chichen-Itza, but in a much more exotic and remote (and far less manicured) environment. You’ll also escape the crowds of day-trippers and local vendors trying to negotiate the “good price for you” sale of painted jaguar masks and plastic pyramid paper weights. If Chichen-Itza is Starbucks, then Calakmul is your out-of-the-way coffee shop reserved for enjoying an authentic blend in a quiet environment. Calakmul offers its visitors a chance to enjoy some seriously impressive ruins and experience the environment the way the ancient Maya saw it – in a natural state, remotely enclosed by the very jungle that witnessed its rise and fall. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a close encounter with the modern-day native inhabitants of this exotic land…the wildlife. There is an abundance. Just watch your back. As soon as a tree branch comes flying towards your head it might be your cue to continue your tour and move on to the next structure. As I was reminded, it’s best to never outstay your welcome in the wild…a lesson I also learned in the chaotic urban jungle of Mardi Gras in New Orleans back in 1996, but that’s a story for another day.

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Fresh off the spool…hammock shopping in Mexico

I love seeing this portrait of a local Mayan woman putting the finishing touches on a beautiful hand-crafted hammock for me. I drove around Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula for several days looking for a traditional homemade “hamaca” that I could bring back to my parents. Not that it was on their wish list or anything, or that they would ever use it. All they ever ask for is either a magnet or some sea salt. But I once bought them a rug in Morocco that was most likely manufactured in Taiwan (it had to be, it was way too cheap), so I was aiming for a little redemption here. Besides, the origin of the hammock dates back over 1000 years and is credited to the Maya. If anyone knows how to weave a proper hammock, it’s these people. So, with a few inquiries to the locals, a kind villager directed me to the town of Tekit, where I was told to look for the “blue house”. (That’s how directions work in this part of the world. No addresses, just colors.)


After erroneously knocking on the door of the first blue house I saw, I ended up finding the right “casa azul”, as I saw this woman carefully crafting a lovely, tropical-colored 10-footer that was hanging in her workshop. I don’t know if I was just craving Skittles or what, but this rainbow of intricately woven fibers caught my eye immediately. Major score! Now, there’s a difference between “homemade” and “handmade”. Handmade just means it was made by someone’s hands. Factory workers in China make “handmade” items all the time. Doesn’t mean it was made by a local artist, or that it isn’t a replica. Burgers at McDonald’s are handmade. They’re crap. “Homemade” is exactly what it says it is…you get it from someone’s home, sprinkled with love and genuine family-coated TLC. It’s like grandma’s banana bread. Always best to get it straight from the source. (If you get a homemade item in Spain it may come sprinkled with the scent of cigarettes. But hey, I’d much rather have an aesthetically inferior item of authenticity over a polished replica any day, albeit tobacco-tainted.) Nothing more discontenting than getting excited about purchasing that local Peruvian alpaca scarf, only to find the all-too-familiar “Made in Indonesia” tag sticking out from the bottom (unless you’re actually in Indonesia – but even then, alpacas in Indonesia?).

I didn’t even negotiate the price, which is common practice down in Mexico. I was so happy to be getting an authentic item of the finest local quality and variety, directly from the artist (who’s ancestors invented the thing). To me, this is the equivalent of a gallery curator being handed a Rembrandt from the man himself. Authenticity is at the core of “real world” life experiences. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll hear me preach about it often. Can a brother get an “amen” up in here? I could have saved some valuable time and energy and bought a hammock from any of the numerous roadside tourist souvenir shops I passed along the way to Tekit, but I’ve grown weary of the typical (and universal) salesman’s pitch of “100% authentic”, “handmade”, “indigenous”, “local artisan” – blah, blah, blah. If you pay a lot of money to go somewhere or purchase something, you want it to be legit. It’s an investment in great experiences, great memories or a product you will be totally satisfied with. After all, that’s what travel is really all about. If you don’t care about having a true experience, cancel that trip to Paris and take your butt to Las Vegas. You can visit Paris, New York, Rio and Venice all in the same day for a fraction of the price (unless you get sucked into that stupid Wheel of Fortune slot machine at the Rio. I emptied my wallet on that rigged-ass money-guzzler. To this day, I still curse at the sight of Pat Sajak every time I see him on TV.)

Only thing left for me to do now is to teach my mom how to lay in a hammock without flipping over like a sunscreen-slicked fat kid jumping on a wet intertube at the community pool. I never get tired of seeing that though. 🙂

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Of course, I gotta give a shout out to the kind gentleman who pointed me in the direction of the “blue house”. He wasn’t selling his hammock that day. Hope he got a commission though, or a plate of whatever she was cooking up in the kitchen that afternoon.

Yucatan, Mexico


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Beyond the surface – exploring Mexico’s “underworld”


What if I told you I knew of a little place on the map where its truest beauty runs deep beyond the surface? A dark, sacred world that nourishes the roots of the storied land above it. A mystifying place where an ancient civilization once conducted ceremonies of worship and made sacrifices to its dieties. What would you say if I told you that for a few dollars and a shower you can visit this exotic and mysterious world and swim in its pure, crystalline waters under a natural dome of stalactites, subterranean roots and Neotropical bats? You’d most likely freak out with excitement at the opportunity…or simply just freak out. This isn’t a theme park attraction at Universal Studios folks. This is an amazing natural feature of the ancient Mayan land. These are the unique sites found in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula: Cenotes.

I had first heard of the cenotes (natural water-filled sinkholes) while researching my initial trip to the Yucatán several years back. Like most travelers to this part of the world, all I knew about this area was that you can climb a pyramid in the jungle, spend your days lazing on a dreamy beach and that there is a mega nightclub named after a frog somewhere in the city that represents the world’s premiere Spring Break playground. I had no idea that there was action beneath the action…like people swimming underground, diving through a network of water-forged cave passages and taking photos in their swimsuits and snorkel masks with insectivorous bats flying overhead…all while the rest of the world above is busy footslogging through Mayan ruins, sipping colorful rum concoctions and applying Aloe Vera to their sun-baked backsides. This created a fascinating level of intrigue to me…and to honor rule #3 in my Gringo With A Green Bag Travel Handbook:  When the Gringo is intrigued, the Gringo must explore!

So, months later, I found myself on the outskirts of a little village called Chunkanán in the heart of the Yucatán. I was here because my research, and some trusted natives, pointed me in the direction of a town called Cuzama, where they said some of the best cenotes were located. I had heard that there was a way to see 3 amazing cenotes via a guided horse-drawn “truck”  tour in this town, which lies only a short 45 minutes from the Yucatán capital of Mérida. But my introduction to the cenotes would not happen via this tour, rather via a result of my independent traveler-intrigued mind and faulty navigation, which led me to mistakingly pass the town of Cuzama and end up parked near a sign on the side of a dirt road several miles away that read “Cenote Aktun-Ha”. There were no tour guides here, no horses, no people, no rental cars, no hotels or post-card stands…my idea of paradise my friends! I had to see what the hype was with these cenote things. So, left turn down a road seemingly to nowhere…this is how it’s done.

I arrive at a traditional Mayan thatched hut with a few dogs outside and some children’s toys and clothing scattered throughout the area. A woman comes out of the home with a little girl by her side and I greet them with a “buenos dias”. I told the woman that I was looking for the cenote. She pointed to an area behind the house and said that she would lead me over to it. She politely asked for a donation of about 40 pesos ($3) to see the cenote. I eagerly paid her, and suddenly found myself face to face with this…


“Whooooooaaaaaa!”, I uttered in Spanish (it translates the same, I think)…then proceeded to back up a bit.


Are you kidding me?? Now I’ve done some risky & adventurous stuff in my lifetime, and have always come out alive, but usually I can see what the hell I’m getting myself into. I can’t even see the bottom of this thing! It’s pitch black down there! Holy Sinkhole, Batman! Heck, even the Dark Knight himself would probably think twice about scaling down that iron death rail. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what it is…an old rail track from the henequen industry days, welded to another one below and converted into a ladder. Look at how it’s rigged…rusted chains and weathered rope bound to a suspect piece of rock…is there an insurance policy included in that 40 pesos?? And what was that other rope for? To carry out the remains of unfortunate tourists who never made it back up?? Ok, calm down…after a few deep breaths and a reinforced blessing of confidence by my host, I tightened the straps of my green bag, checked the structural integrity of the ladder and headed down into the darkness.

Descending the vertical railway into this dusky cavern was an adventure all to itself. It felt sturdy enough (a bit wobbly), but at about 40 feet up from the bottom, there was ZERO room for error. One slip and you’ll be considered the next sacrificial subject to the Mayan Rain God, Chaac. I slowly lowered myself down in true baby step form, headed towards a glimmer of water down below at the base. (You really don’t want to look down, as they always say.) I noticed a good number of spider webs criss-crossing the corroded metal frame that was functioning as my life support, which led me to wonder when the last time was that someone had actually been down here. Then, all of the sudden I hear an eerily familiar “squeek, squeek” sound. Yup…you guessed it…freakin’ BATS! Two feisty bats zipped right across my head, with several others hanging from the ceiling of this crazy underground Legend of Zelda looking labyrinth, which just made me want to get to the bottom faster. I finally get to the last few steps and find them submerged in about a foot of water. Damn. Off go the shoes I guess. There just happened to be a bucket within reach on the end of that rope, which I’m sure is intended for retrieving water and not for storing Nike cross-trainers. But walking around all day with soggy feet sucks, so it served a practical purpose for me.


Once I was able to secure my footing and get a 360 degree view of this place, I was left stunned. You can’t even imagine that something like this exists below the ground above, which is pretty much a flat, consistent layer of porous scrub jungle. This was an outer-worldy underworld. What time was the warlock returning to close his sky roof I wondered? It’s obvious why the Maya viewed the cenotes as sacred sites and portals to the next life. This place emitted strong metaphysical vibes concealed under a dome of unimaginable beauty. The fresh cenote water (home to a rare species of eyeless fish) is as strikingly blue and clear as you’ve ever seen. Formations of stalactites and stalagmites above and below face off like armies on opposite ends of a battlefield. The air was thin & humid and I was melting like a snow cone in Sedona. A splash of crisp cave water on the face never felt more refreshing. I spent a good 45 minutes down here all by myself (except for those bats dangling overhead), photographing the details of this murky and fascinating underground lair while sweat steadily dripped down on my dewey camera with the frequency of a metronome. This was an amazing experience. And to think, had that little section of limestone rock not caved in from above, this place would have never be seen by a human being. That’s the beauty of the cenotes…there are literally thousands of these throughout the peninsula, most of them still undiscovered. Luckily for us, many of them have been discovered, and you don’t have to go far from wherever you are in the Yucatán to see one. Now, hold that ladder lady, I’m comin’ back up!


Since that initial Indiana Jones escapade down into my first cenote, I’ve had the opportunity to explore many more, and they are all glorious. They definitely earn top rank as the highlight of my experiences in the Yucatán Peninsula. Besides their remarkable beauty, they are all so unique in size, ambience and form. While most are found underground (easy to access, thanks to the locals who maintain them), there are also many that lie right on the surface. To attempt to describe each one with a worthy level of descriptiveness would grossly over-estimate my ability to do so. Therefore, I’ll shut up and let the images do the talking. All I can say is, if you come to the Yucatán, kick off your shoes, put your adventure hat on and get to know these unique natural wonders that the Maya dubbed “Ts’onots” (“wells”), referring to any place with accessible groundwater. Some are more easily “accessible” than others (as I learned from my first cenote experience), but the true adventure lies in one’s willingness to explore the unknown.

Contrary to popular belief, the Mayans never attempted to predict the “end of the world”. However, they were among the lucky few to discover sites like these…where the physically familiar world we know ends, and an unfamiliar one begins. That, my friends, is what draws me to travel. Encounters with the unfamiliar always result in fresh ink in the diary of life experiences. So get your pens ready and add Mexico’s cenotes to your bucket list. Just don’t forget your shoes on the way out. 😉















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Familiar paths, familiar faces…

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.

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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. Senor Jose 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. Don Siviliano-smaller Don Siviliano-2 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. Senor Jose-2 smallest Senor Jose-3 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! Tres Reyes-3 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! Tres Reyes-1 Tres Reyes-2 Tres Reyes-4 Tres Reyes-5 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.

Valladolid-1 kid-1-smallerEk Balam-1Ek Balam-1

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. 😉 Blue shirt man

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