No Plans: Teaching on a Whim and a Dare

by Maria Alvarez / Jan 15, 2012 / 0 comments

When I ‘planned’ my last visit to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, I decided to arrive without a plan - no itinerary, no specific purpose, and no set destination. I was just going to fly into Mérida and take the local transportation wherever it would take me. I wasn’t going to teach. I wasn’t going to research. I was just going for a nice visit on a whim and a dare; and I decided I would find places to stay as I traveled the Peninsula. I speak Spanish fluently, Mérida is very familiar to me, and as I have so many friends scattered across the Peninsula, my plan of ‘no plan’ felt totally comfortable. I don’t usually travel this way, however. I always go with a purpose - or at least a purposeful reason. For this trip, I vowed to silence my ‘gotta have a reason’ voice. So I landed in Mérida, and I took the bus - many buses - all over the Yucatán. Ironically, I ended up teaching three of the four months I was on the Peninsula, anyway! I know, what happened, right? Well, it all started with my quest to find a kayak eco-tour…

 

Lodgings, Ruta Puuc

Lodgings, Ruta Puuc

 

Plaza Merida

Plaza Merida

 

 

I had already taken local buses along the Ruta Pu’uc through Mayan ruins and villages, stopping in small hotels or in the homes of old friends, and this time I even paid a ‘love offering’ to a local shaman to guide me through the Lol Tún caves rather than follow the typical tours. I wish my Maya, or his Spanish, had been better. He interjected many words in Maya - some I didn’t know - and I couldn’t leaf through my dictionary fast enough to catch the complete message. In any event, he blessed me warmly and I learned a different interpretation of the fresco paintings on the walls. Don’t miss these caves if you visit the Peninsula - the experience is unforgettable.

 

Surface Cenote

Surface Cenote

 

 

I then found my way to the village of Chunkanán, determined to visit the three Cenotes at Cuzamá this trip; but because I had heard of a beautiful, big surface cenote in Homún, ‘just up the road’, I went there first. I expected a ride on the typical ‘colectivo’ or small passenger van into Homún, but instead I found myself on the back of a wooden flatbed pulled by an old but capable horse with a family of German visitors completely bemused by the entire experience. A three mile journey means nothing at all until you travel by a wagon pulled by a horse - we had plenty of time to get to know each other. The driver only spoke Spanish and Maya, however; and the family only spoke German and English. I don’t think the German family knew we were going to Homún; but once I explained the change in destination to them, they were okay with the detour, for which I was grateful. English and Spanish emerged as the common languages between us, so I served as the translator on the back of that rickety wagon. For this kind service the German family bought my - by then - very late lunch at El Dzapakal, a restaurant serving delicious and typical local fare under a fabulous ‘palapa’. If you have never seen these amazing ‘palapas’, or roofs made of thatched palm leaves, they are as fascinating as they are beautiful. I have been under them in the heaviest of rain storms in the Yucatán and never got wet…but I digress.

 

under Palapa

under Palapa

 

 

The other reason I wanted to go to Homún first is because I had heard on my last trip that Homún’s big cenote, Cenote Tza u hun kat, attracted UFOs. People actually gather on any given evening and watch them come and go. Whether legend or not, enough people had seen them coming and going to have this information filter among those interested in this sort of thing. We didn’t get so lucky, it was morning after all; but we did stumble upon the Santa Maria Su’chul Caves. The cave entrance is marked by a tree and a deep hole. No kidding. That’s it. The cenote was only a few feet away from the cave ‘entrance’, in the middle of a big field, which was pretty impressive and actually made it much easier to believe that UFOs probably do come and go from this place all the time.

 

Cenote Chichen

Cenote Chichen

 

 

This cenote is really big, perhaps even bigger than the cenote at Chichén Itzá - and it is really beautiful and clean. For those of you unfamiliar with these geological marvels, ‘cenotes’ are sinkholes. In the Yucatán some are found on the surface and some underground. To me the cenotes hidden in the earth are the most spectacular. For readers who love geology, the Yucatán sits on a porous limestone shelf and all the fresh water rivers are underground. Where the fresh water collects underground, you will find these impressive caverns and caves - complete with stalactites and stalagmites - some with spectacular domed ceilings. Quite often gaps in the ceiling allow filtered sunlight to settle on the water, giving the cenote an absolutely magical quality. I will never find the words to adequately express this supernatural beauty. There are over 2400 cenotes officially registered on the Peninsula - some are, of course, more spectacular than others- and who knows how many more are not on the maps. In Cuzamá you can see three all in the same day: Chelentún [laying down rock], Bolom chojol [nine drops of water or nine mouse holes, depending on who you ask], and Chakzinik’che [tree of the red ants]. They are all beautiful.

Once you venture down into cenotes and into the watery caves, you immediately understand why the Maya used them for their most secret and sacred rituals. According to the shaman who took me through the Lol Tún caves, quite a few marvelous underground cenotes remain a well-kept secret among the local Maya families. The authorities know they exist but because the living Maya still practice their ancient religion, these cenotes are protected from public traffic - especially tourists. I would like to share a word of caution to the more adventurous reader - please don’t venture into these underground caves and geological cavities alone. The local guides are excellent and they will keep you safe, which is a nice segue to get back to my story about Homún…

The Santa Maria Su’chul Caves in Homún are not for the faint-hearted, and claustrophobia is a reality in a few spots. However, if you can shimmy down the hole, the wonders that await you are well worth the minute discomfort. Our local guide took us in and through the caves - you will be down there a while. The rock formations were absolutely breathtaking. We emerged muddy and tired and extremely happy. We didn’t waste any time getting into the cenote to cool off and just luxuriate in the beauty. What might have been an ordinary day emerged as a full blown adventure despite the missed UFO sightings. Next time I visit I will have a plan, and I will definitely sit under the stars and watch for the saucers.

 

Wagon

Wagon

 

 

Hesitant to take the horse drawn wagon back to Cuzamá, the German folks - who were absolutely giddy after the cave and cenote experience - caught a ride back with me on the same ‘colectivo’ that then took me on to Mérida. There I hopped on the 11 pm bus for the 6 hour ride to Chiquilá, where I would hop a ferry over to Isla Holbox [pronounced “hohl-bohsh”]. I was hoping to see the giant Whale Sharks in season - they only feed between May and September. Isla is quiet, secluded, and offers access to Isla Pájaros, a marvelous bird sanctuary. Oh, and you can also swim with the ‘dominos’, the local term for Whale Sharks. Lest you are wondering - I didn’t want to swim with these gentle giants, I just wanted to see them; and I didn’t want to miss the Flamingos at Ría Lagartos and Celestún this trip, either. Once I had a little breakfast, I started asking around for a good kayak eco-tour. I stumbled onto the fishermen’s cooperative- a group of fishermen who give eco-tours during their offseason. Kayaks, I quickly learned, were not the way to see the whales - or the flamingos. They had “lanchas” or small boats for such tours.

 

Flamingos

Flamingos

 

Guide

Guide

 

Into the Mangroves

Into the Mangroves

 

 

 

As it always happens with the friendly Yucatecos, they generally want to know absolutely all they can learn about you. Once they learned I was bilingual and a professor, the president of the cooperative explained they wanted to improve their ‘business’ English to better accommodate Canadian visitors. They also wanted to translate their brochures so that English speakers and expats living on the Peninsula could read them, which they hoped would promote their fledgling business. He immediately offered me a place to live on Isla and as many boat trips and bike rides as I cared to take in exchange for English classes. My quest to see whales and flamingos ended up as three months on Isla Holbox exchanging English lessons for almost daily boat trips and birding excursions through some of the most lovely estuaries, lagoons, and unspoiled mangroves in the Yucatán Peninsula. I had already done this very same work with the fishermen’s cooperative in the quaint, seaside village of San Cristiano near Progreso on a previous trip, I could hardly refuse. Besides, living on Isla had infinite perks. I hope it stays an unspoiled secret.

 

Mangrove spring

Mangrove spring

 

 

 

So what started as a trip to the Yucatán Peninsula on a whim and a dare, ended up a very unplanned, but productive, four months of travel and three months of English classes. I translated all of the brochures into English and French, and offered ‘business’ English and conversation classes every evening Monday thru Friday. I never had the same fishermen in class- but I always had a full class. As it is with students anywhere- some had a natural ability and some struggled with certain aspects of the language; but ALL of them were enthusiastic, extremely grateful, and diligent students. In return I was happy to help the hardworking, industrious fishermen’s collective; and I had the privilege of visiting areas of that incredible coast I would have never seen otherwise. So if there is a hidden moral or message to this story, it is this: Perhaps the best travel plan might really be not having a plan at all.

 

This is part of our ESL Educators Blog Carnival - hosted at My Several Worlds! Click through to read more great articles on Teaching & ESL.  

 

 

Maria Alvarez is the ESL Editor for Wandering Educators 

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Maria Alvarez