Traveling, that is, striking camp and carrying it with you, searching for where you can set it down next, is the process of asking to be let in. I first thought this city was all wall and broken concrete. Exhaust and gutter. Peter and I spent days walking the outlines of long, overlapping rectangles through the streets, under the earnest Yucateco sun and rain, burning and soaking, soaking and burning. We peeked through iron grates, straining our eyes through the cracked timber rafts of doors. We caught shady gardens, pools, refugios. We knew there was a city on the other side of those walls, but we weren’t in that one yet.
Our plan was to strike our camp in California, and set it down here in Merida for a few months. We just came, no more details than that. As a traveler, you are certainly asking, even demanding something of the places in which you enter, (ie. Let me in.) and even more, you are asking something of their inhabitants. And so, I’ve realized, there are things asked of you in return. Of course there’s the money, but I’m thinking more about the other demands. In whiskey, it’s called the angel’s share, the bit that evaporates out of the no-matter-how-tightly-sealed cask. I’m not one for religion, but the belief in angels, the sense of them, came before the sense of God, so let’s let ’em be for now.
I’ve traveled over lots of this green, blue, brown, red and white earth, and I say that everywhere demands its angel’s share. In wildery places, out away from people, you might have to share your fancy schmancy electro-diode gps mahuey that takes a drink in the rushing river and never wakes up. Or you offer up all the peanut butter you have, all 10 lbs of it, to the ravens. And in fact, just like whiskey (preferably Scotch), the greater your ambitions, the longer you age it, the richer the product, the more substantial the angel’s share. If you, traveler, go out and attempt to cross the Bering Strait on foot, asking to be let in each day, each hour, then you might just have to give up all of yourself to the angels. (metaphorically speaking, of course. With less religiousity: you risk your life!)
Now here brings up a question I’ve been having about this angel’s share: how much is enough? When are you paying your fair share, and when are you just a plain ol’ fool who doesn’t know the rules? If the peanut butter is our guide, then I suppose there’s an inherent need not to want to give up your share. To actively protect your peanut butter from the ravens. But alas, inevitably you will underestimate the world for its inventive ways to give and take. And then you’ve got to cough it up.
These are the thoughts that sprung from a recent misadventure Pete and I had here in Merida. In retrospect, I’m not sure whether we conducted ourselves with grace, or whether we were baboons (metaphorically speaking, of course. Baboons, I’m sure you are intelligent and graceful in ways made clear from your own perspective.)
Peter and I bought two hats, sombreros, Jipi Japas.
The city streets stay busy late into the night, full of people just being outside, reveling in the special joy found in just being outside at night in a tropical climate (a joy which many of the locals probably don’t find special at all, but rather quite ubiquitous). As we walked down the street casually, with no particular destination in mind, a man engaged us.
Jose stood with purpose in front of the yawning door of a castle-like building in the city center, the University of Yucatan – Merida. He was looking for dupes like us. He wanted us to know about the Maya, his people. His enthusiasm was sincere, I do believe, though the details–which were suspect in the first place because Pete and I were interpreting them with our stutter-step command of the Spanish language–were murky, if not downright lies at times.
There was a festival going on, he said in Spanish. He told us that we should visit the festival tomorrow, but if we were to visit, out of respect, we should be wearing traditional Mayan garb. His enthusiasm was real, and so ours was too. Yes, we do want to be respectful travelers. He explained hammocks: Maya only slept (and made love (he said with a quick vulgar motion of his hands)) in hammocks. He explained guayabera: the traditional maya shirts had four pockets, which the men would fill with guayaba fruit (which could only be found in the native villages, he said. We had to go and taste them, he said) after climbing up the local trees. And he explained the Jipis, the hats: the best hats, the true Maya hats, were made out of Cayamo (best attempt at phonetic spelling), a fiber made from the henequin plant, a type of agave. He also told us that we needed to hurry to the artisan shop, not the governmental one, but the local cooperative one, that it was closing and would be closed for the next month because of Mayan festivals.
We arrived at the cooperative, which did not appear to be closing within the next few minutes. Immediately, a kind employee swept us in, explaining that five artisan families had come together to create the cooperative. All the items were the highest quality: hammocks and guayaberas, belts and tapestries, and Jipis. First we tried out the hammocks. The finest quality. We needed a bigger size, he told us, because I was so tall. Cuanto cuesta, I asked. Tres mil ochenta. Nearly four thousand pesos. Even with the strong dollar, that’s in the almost three hundred dollar range. We politely refused, and then we moved on to Los Jipis. He took us into a side room, for the air conditioning, he said. He showed us many Jipis, explained how they were made from Cayamo. The scent repelled mosquitoes, he said. They also hold their shape, he demonstrated as he folded up the hat into a ball, thanks to the process in which they are formed, after being woven–inside a warm, wet cave to cure. It was impossible to know what was true and what was false. On the street, I’d believed it all. But now, we were ducks waddling around through an impressionist’s garden. Our friend was the painter himself. What did he want from us? How much were we worth?
Tres mil sesenta, for the two. Three hundred dollars. I immediately balked, and expected Peter, the generally more-thrifty of us, to do the same. But Peter looked at me with those let’s-get-the-puppy eyes. Maybe he was having trouble with the conversion rate. That’s ALOT, I said smiling, glancing at our collective friend. I said, in halting Spanish, that we would have to wait for another day. But you will have to wait a month, he said. That’s okay I said. But we need money for the festival now, not in a month, he said. I’m sorry , I said. Tres mil pesos, he said. No, you don´t need to lower the price, I said. We just don’t want them. He was no longer our friend. Is it the quality? he asked. No, I said. The price? No, we just don´t want to buy them now, I said.
Dos mil cinquenta, he said. Peter, still with that let’s-get-the-puppy look. That´s like a hundred dollars a hat, I said. They will be with us for the rest of our lives, Pete said. Okay, I said.
After the momentary thrill, Pete and I both began wondering if we’d been duped. We went home and inspected our hats more closely in the privacy of our room. Mine had a weak point, a soon-to-be tear. We were embarrassed to show our friends we’d made at the hostal we’d been staying at, or to tell them how much we paid. Our guidebook said people could spend between 200 and 5000 pesos on a Jipi, which told us nothing. Days later, we went to the Sunday market, and found a display full of hats just like ours, for 200 pesos. Arghhhhh! We blew our budget on a broken hat. We walked home and grabbed our hats, put them back in the bags in which we had carried them home, and returned to the street vendor. Identical.
And so we went back to the collective, asking for our share back. Here was our dilemma: we were strangers, güeros, that really didn’t know anything about these hats, how they are made, or the people that make them. We’d already accepted that we were destined to always climb our way out of the hole that is the legacy of ugly US imperialism (and corresponding tourism). Had they given us a good deal? Had we paid our angel’s share? Or had we, like fools, paid too g-d much for our g-d Jipis.
We walked in and put on our best business faces. We were doomed. Good afternoon, we said in our best business Spanish. We would like to return our hats. This one has a hole, we said. Oh, sorry, you can only return them one day after, he said. We can still return them, Pete said. I don’t understand, he said. You understand, I said. Awkward silence. You can change the one with a hole, he said. We want to return them, we said. You can’t, he said.
We exchanged them, and took our sweet time finding the finest, best made hats in the place. The poor guy who had greeted us at the door this time had passed us back off to the original sales-guy, who wasn’t quite our friend, but wasn’t wasn’t either. After our neither friendly nor angry goood-byes, we took to the street.
As we walked past, a man pointed to our bags, which were apparently quite obviously Jipi bags, and said we needed Guayerabas with our hats. Yes, we know, I said, but not today.
This man began in again on the Maya. I accepted the fact that this was both a scam and an education. But then I decided to ask him: if we were to still need hats, how much should we spend. Oh, a good hat can be tres mil pesos, he said. We pulled ours out of our bags. Oh, yeah, those, those are the highest quality. How much did you spend on them? he asked.
And so we still don’t know the truth of it all. We’ve asked around some more about the hats. Did we get ripped off? Maybe. Did we give them a hard time, even after they gave us a good deal? Maybe. It doesn’t matter so much though, not only because they are just hats, but also because it has been a full exchange. We asked to be let in. And we thought we were being let in. But we weren’t. And so we asked again to be let in. And we thought we weren’t. But maybe we were. Or weren’t. And so we’ll ask again. And again.