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Traveling in Style : THE MIRACLE OF THE YUCATAN : No, It's Not the Mayan Ruins, It's the Line-Stripping, Rod-Bending, Reel-Spinning Mosaic of Color That Is the Caribbean Bonefish

March 05, 1995|David James Duncan | David James Duncan is the author of the novels "The River Why" and "The Brothers K." (Sierra Club and Doubleday) "River Teeth," a collection of stories, will be published by Doubleday in June. He lives in Montana

Mention the Yucatan Peninsula and most people will think of the Mayan ruins at Tulum and Coba. On my first visit to the Yucatan, my wife, Adrian, and I spent long days exploring these ancient sites. I found both places beautiful. In the jungle that has swallowed Coba, I went bird-watching and added four gorgeous orioles (the Hooded, the Spot-breasted, the Altimira and the Scott's) to my life list. I'd consider a trip to anywhere, any day, just to see such birds again. Yet the ruins themselves left me depressed. When Adrian peruses the stone steles and temples, she falls into complex reveries on the mysteries of a lost civilization. Perhaps this is because she majored in anthropology and art in college.

I spent the same years rolling 300- to 700-pound bales of recycled cardboard onto a flatbed truck. So when I sit atop a 250-foot-tall stone pyramid at Coba, amid 40 square miles of ancient stone development, including miles of stone aqueducts, viaducts and a 62-mile-long stone road, I see not the mystique of a lost civilization but the utter non-mystique of a delicate people hand-chipping stone cubes out of hellhole quarries, then schlepping them miles down molar-loosening stone roads on contraptions that looked like sight gags out of "The Flintstones." I see surly soldiers sitting in the shade with a leer and a spear, asking if anybody was tired enough to volunteer as tomorrow's sacrifice. I see half-mad kings, disgruntled with the progress on their mountains, ordering the arbitrary lopping of heads. I see the beauty of the contemporary Mayas' featherweight hammocks and thatch-roofed palapa huts. And I see a glaring, not at all mysterious, reason why these ancient cultural centers were so "mysteriously" abandoned. If life itself is sacred, and meant to be enjoyed, building stone mountains by hand doesn't cut it.

This is why, given a second chance to ponder Tulum, I beep and wave at the taxis and tour buses, and gun my VW on past without a hint of regret. I'm headed for Bahia de la Ascencion, a beautiful bay named after the final, gravity-defying disappearance of Jesus Christ. I'm going fishing.

I'd like to be able to rear back and declare this auspiciously named bay a "sacred place." The truth is, though, that when it comes to declaring things sacred, I feel a little underqualified. The sacred, as I understand it, is any word, song, creature, thing, place or situation that puts a person in touch with the Undying, the Ever-True, the Unchanging. That's a lot to ask of a fishing hole.

I'm also daunted, in trying to locate the sacred, by the mysterious fact that one person's hell can be another person's paradise. Mahatma Gandhi said he liked being thrown in prison because it gave him a chance to talk to God. Some of my friends even claim to like church! Me, I like to thrash around in water with a fly-rod in my hand. But sacred? As a mortal, ever-changing, oft-swearing fly-fisherman, I feel my expertise lies more along the lines of declaring whether the fishing is any good.

WITH A SIMPLE LEFT TURN OFF THE CANCUN-TO-Tulum highway onto the Tulum-to-Bahia byway, the adventure begins. You don't realize this at first. You pass a cinder-block barrio called Tulum City, a couple of hotels, several quaint ranchos, and for a mile or two the road is so inviting that you merely smile when you run out of pavement. The Caribbean sparkles on your left. Quaint palapa villages hide in the palms on your right. Asian-looking cattle forage by the road. Mayan kids wave as you pass. You're charmed. You're sucked onward. And within another mile you've left all human habitation behind, your grin has become a skull's leer, your knuckles are bone-white, and you're bottoming-out your uninsured rental car on potholes, piles of palm fronds, countless coconuts, fallen logs.

The First Great Wonder of the Tulum-to-Bahia byway is the first 50-yard-long, road-wide mud puddle. Puddles that size, up till this one, meant "Road Closed" to me. This is the first puddle I've ever traversed that splashes over my hood in waves, the first that leaks through the bottoms of both doors and the first that throws my car into wallowing sideways spins. As my Bug slows to a hippo's pace, clouds of mosquitoes bred by the puddle swarm in the windows. I roll the windows up. The car grows insufferably hot. I roll them back down. More clouds. That 50-yarder turns out to be the first of scores of such puddles. After the first half-dozen, my brakes drown and stop working. When the VW starts making strange guttural noises, I fall into a reverie on language barriers. I think, specifically, about how difficult communication must have been in the Mexican factory where German auto experts first tried to teach Mexican workers how to manufacture cars like the one upon which my life now depends.

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