Wes Skiles, the photographer, wanted to examine the freshwater blowholes that spout out of the sea as well as the crystal-clear springs hidden in the mangrove forests just off the beach.
So some of our documentary team put on scuba gear and dove to the bottom of the springs to look for passageways to the sea. The rest of us waited until we noticed a rope swing kids used to plunge into the middle of the pond. To get to the swing, we had to climb along the roots of a giant mangrove to a narrow perch. Being adventurous Americans, this had great appeal.
Three of usSkiles, biologist Tom Morris, and Idecided to give it a try, although we are all comfortably middle age. It soon escalated into a glorious mangrove Olympics in which we tried to outdo each other with elaborate dismounts and flips from the end of the rope. The villagers soaking in the silky coolness of the springs just watched, completely bemused. It turned out that four of us on the documentary team had been competitive springboard divers in our youth. So this was heaven, and a chance to strut some old stuff.
On a slow day I went to see a bullfight in a neighboring village. Vendors sold fruit and beer and made tortillas on charcoal braziers. Families were cramped in the boxes in anticipation of when the vaqueros, the cowboys, rode into the ring in a show of bravado. But the scene quickly soured for me.
For the opening event, they tied a young bull in the middle of the ring and let off strings of firecrackers in front of it. The bull panicked and bellowed. Then men came out and dispatched the bull with a machete to the neck. The people cheered as the bull knelt and bled to death.
For the main show, six matadors entered the ring and hid behind wooden structures built into the walls. The bullfight consisted of the men sprinting out to jab at the bull, then running back behind the barricades.
I didn't want to be judgmental. The ancient Maya were also casually cruel, according to their own writings in the cultural bible called Popol Vuh as well as in the writings of the Spanish friar Diego de Larrga. That part of Maya life, spiced with Spanish machismo, hasn't changed.
The Yucatán peninsula is arid, tough country and short on comforts. The documentary team slept in hammocks inside an old colonial church, beside a coop of screeching chickens.
I had already spent two weeks scratching and fending off mosquitoes, and plugging my ears against loud music, the henhouse, and my colleagues' snoring. So one night I headed to the countryside and found a nice, quiet cove off the side of the road. The air was aromatic and the stars brilliant. A nice breeze blew out of the west. I opened the windows slightly and propped my feet on the driver's seat.
About 2 a.m. I heard a car's tires crushing gravel behind me. Then I heard footsteps, people running. I bolted upright! Beside my window, a man in green fatigues held a machine gun. Six more stood behind him. I was surrounded by the federales!
"It's OK," I said in my non-Spanish. "Gringo. Sleep." I held my hands beneath my cheeks to simulate sleeping. "OK?"
The policeman seemed disappointed. As he and his team left, I heard them laughing. That was a good sound. Let them laugh. Just leave the gringo's skin intact. The mosquitoes had already done enough damage.