The day is hot and dusty when the bus from Cancun drops us. We get off at the wrong stop and bicker about the mile or so walk we have to get to Tulum. In the midday heat our backpacks feel stone heavy and we quickly languish. I am the first to stick out my thumb.
“It’s just a few miles,” I say. “What could happen?”
We are traveling the Ruta Maya. We start in Cancun, late winter, some year in the early nineties. Wind down the Caribbean coast of Mexico into Belize and then Guatemala and back to Mexico through Chiapas, a popular travel route though I don’t really know that when I start out. Or parts are popular at the time. It’s all wild and exotic and new to me.
There’s a lot I don’t know or pay attention to. Like the civil war in Guatemala. I know it’s going on and hope it doesn’t interrupt my travel plans. When I tell people of my plans they say things like “isn’t there a civil war going on?” I shrug my shoulders. I ignore the warnings about bus travel in Guatemala and other things. I’m a budget traveler and stuff like attending to travelers alerts smacks of something tourists do. I like to think I am more an explorer, like Hemingway or maybe Isak Denison without the plane. But I shouldn’t pretend I’m traveling alone. I’m with my boyfriend at the time. We’ll call him Jay.
Almost immediately a little green Volkswagen bug skids to a stop. I open the passenger door and peer in.
“Hi,” says a distinctively American voice. And I am surprised. He is burly. Big, with wild brown hair and a bushy beard, the sort we see sported around our home in the Pacific Northwest, the kind loggers wear or commercial fishermen. He is in fact a fisherman, from the east coast, though we don’t know that yet.
“Where you going?” I ask. He shrugs his shoulders.
“We just want a ride to Tulum,” I say. He nods ok and Jay and I shove our packs in the backseat. I climb in front and Jay in back.
“I’m Jay,” he says from the backseat.
“Darla,” I say. The man looks at me startled and says nothing. We wait for him to introduce himself but instead he lurches the car forward, then hurtles into the midday traffic. I look back at Jay. It will be quick I think, already tasting the cola we’ll have in some shady restaurant before we walk the beach and visit the ruins of Tulum. But before we get there the man shouts above the wind pouring in through the open windows.
“Coba?” he shouts. “Do you want to go to Coba?”
We are hesitant. We know of it, have read about it and had written it off as one of the Maya ruins that was just a bit too hard to get to and not worth the bother when Tulum was right off the highway and Tikal on the agenda. This was different. We look at each other and nod our heads.
“Ok,” we say.
So he speeds right past Tulum and turns onto the road to Coba. He slows down a bit for the turn then accelerates. The road is narrow and rutted with potholes, the jungle close now on either side. The road shaded. We hit a pot hole and my head nearly bangs against the roof.
I ask him how far it is to Coba but he says nothing. He grips the steering wheel, with both hands. Drives even faster. I look back at Jay. I look at this man driving, who stares straight ahead, and says nothing. I ask him his name. He turns his head and looks at me. I begin to fear we’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake. Suddenly he slams on the brakes and I put my hands out to the front dash, readying myself for impact. He jerks over to the side of the road and turns the engine off. We sit in the shaded roadside. I wonder who’s idea it was to get off the bus when we did, I think about the cold soda I should be drinking now, I think about the fact that I may never get to drink another icy cold soda because we’re going to get murdered, right here, right now, in the jungle with this weird guy that won’t talk. I want to blame someone.
Then I notice his shoulders. They are shaking, or maybe it’s the sunlight fluttering about. He bows his head and leans his forehead against the steering wheel. I wonder what is in the glove compartment and I check to make sure I can open the door. There was the time when hitchhiking around home that the handle was gone. The fellow turned off the main highway, said he was taking a shortcut, as if I didn’t know the roads, as if I didn’t know he was heading north and away from my destination. That’s when I noticed the missing handle. “That’s not the way to where we’re going” I say, calmly as I can, trying to open the door that won’t open. But the man doesn’t answer. So I scream loud and high and bang on the window until he stops and pushes me out and I run and run and never look back. This is what I think about now. I vowed never to hitchhike again. And I don’t until today and all because it is hot and I want a cola. I look back and see panic rising in Jay’s eyes. He is prone to panic.
“My wife’s name is Darla,” the man says. “Was,” he corrects himself. “Her name was Darla.”
Where is she? Murdered? But then I notice his shoulders again, and then his whole big body spasms, his whole big wide frame that’s crammed into this tiny car. He struggles to draw in his breath, struggles to exhale an enormous sob.
“She died of cancer,” he says. We sit there for what feels like a very long time. We sit quiet and listen to him sob. Big loud rib cracking sobs. Sobs that fill the whole car up. Sobs that make me wish I could meet his wife. Sobs that makes me jealous. I can’t imagine Jay weeping like this at anyone’s departure, much less mine. It was just a few days ago that Jay and I had a big fight. He yelled something like, “What, do you think this is a honeymoon or something?” These are our first travels together, my first to Mexico or anywhere in Central America. I think its paradise. The stewardess on the plane mistakenly takes us for newlyweds, brings us extra drinks and winks and says what a lovely couple we make. That angers Jay. He is horrified. He clarifies repeatedly, for days after, that this is just another trip for him, nothing special.
“Don’t go getting any silly romantic notions about things,” he says.
I am full of notions, romantic and otherwise, though I admit nothing.
The man pulls his head up from the steering wheel and wipes the back of one enormous hand against his cheek. It is wet and his eyes puffy and red. I think I should touch him somehow, offer tenderness, but I don’t. I sit frozen with my hands clasped together. He looks at me.
“I would understand if you’d like to go back. I can bring you back to Tulum if you like,” he says.
I answer without looking at Jay.
“No, no, no,” I say. “We’d like to go.”
He sits quietly, looking out the window, talks to the road and trees, to the birds singing in the branches above, talks as if we weren’t there.
“I don’t really want to be alone,” he says.
We continue to Coba. We pass a tiny little store where children run out after us waving and shouting. We spend the whole afternoon at Coba walking among the ruins. The man takes pictures of Jay and me along the tiny narrow steps that lead to top of a pyramid, smiling. We climb to the top, like mountain climbers. At the top Jay puts his arm around my shoulders, grins and the man takes a picture. We are happy at our good fortune, below us the jungle spreads out like an ocean, beautiful and green and dazzling.
We spend the next days with the man. I lose count how many. He drives us everywhere. We have dinners together, breakfast. We tour Tulum. We hang at the beach. We visit Xel-Ha with its lagoons and colorful fish and limestone cliffs. We snorkel and swim and watch the local families make ceviche on the white rocks. The man has snorkel masks we use, fins. He buys us beer and soda and snacks of shrimp and fries and tequila. Jay loves all this free stuff, the easy touring. Little by little we hear the story, we learn his name, his occupation, the reason he is here. We learn just over a year ago, he and his wife came here, travelled all up and down the coast. Then she learned she had cancer. She died quickly after and with little warning.
It is at Xel-Ha that Jay suddenly says it’s time to go. The man and I are sitting side by side on the edge of the lagoon. I am leaning in to hear him. His voice is soft and lyrical and I like to listen though he doesn’t talk much. I reach forward and pull something from his beard. I touch the softness, hold for a brief moment the long hair in my hand. He smiles. It is a smallish smile but I am happy for it. I don’t know why. I smile back. We talk at length, small quiet talk. I lose track of time and Jay until I realize he is standing over us, dripping.
“I could have drowned and no one would have noticed,” he says.
Jay asks then for the man to take us to the next town down the coast. He wants to leave immediately. We gather up our things, pack our backpacks, and ride in near silence down the highway. The man drops us along the road to town, helps pull our things from the car, and waves a slow good bye as he drives away just as dusk is turning to night.
We walk into the town under a moonless sky as stars come one by one. We walk wordless, searching the lonely streets for a place to rest. We search for the rustle of palm fronds, the fall of waves, for a place where morning will find us alone together as we always will be, though we won’t know it then. We don’t know it is only loneliness we will find together. We will search the whole world thinking we’ll find something else entirely though we’re not exactly sure what. I am full of notions, full of hope, full of a desire that makes me think we might find this thing the man had and lost, this thing that seems a lot like love.