On the corner of Jaurez and Independencia the Chan Kah Centro hotel is Palenque’s tallest building. With a white stone exterior, a restaurant and seventeen rooms with balconies it sits catty-corner from the zocalo. On my first trip to Palenque in 1994 its Asian-inspired name seemed a failed contrivance in the jungle of southern Mexico. It wasn’t until I got back to New York that I found out many Chinese had moved to that area in the 1940’s to flee the repression of the Kuomintang. But that bit of history has nothing to do with what follows.
On my most recent trip to Palenque I was traveling with my wife Geraldine and a friend Eve we shared hotel rooms with. The Chan Kah Centro had air conditioning, a comfort few hotels in Palenque were equipped with. For ten extra dollars a day it promised to keep us sweat-free in the ninety degree heat and seventy-five percent humidity. The unit was set high on the wall, above a calendar with an image of the Palacio Municipal, the Mayan temple we would walk around and on the following day. Back from dinner our first night, the air conditioner cooled us off until it was time to turn off the lights. Eyes closed, we slept through the ting-ting-tinging rattle it made without pause. How much later I became aware of Eve’s voice, I wasn’t sure. It might have been minutes. It might have been hours. From the next bed she blurted: “What is that? What is it?”
A sound definitely not mechanical came from close range. A crisp, nut cracking sound: NUCK, NUCK, NUCK. A noise that if heard on an episode of “Animal Planet” would induce a smile as another of nature’s wonders was being revealed. But in a strange hotel room in a foreign country it was ominous.
Eve’s voice was high. “It’s right near my head. I’m afraid to move.”
Geraldine and I agreed. We’d never heard its likes before.
The noise stopped, then started up again: NUCK, NUCK, NUCK…
In the next few seconds I was at the light switch, my bare feet cool on the tile floor. The overhead fixture flashed on to expose the intruder, its feet suctioned to the wall above the headboard of Eve’s bed, a slim, pale-brown reptile with a gray underbelly.
Soon Geraldine and Eve were next to me. In underwear and t-shirts the three of us studied the creature that had interrupted our sleep. Its eyes swiveled side to side in wrinkled sockets.
Geraldine said, “It’s a small lizard.”
Eve had lived in New Mexico ten years and knew more about it than we did. “No, it’s a big gecko. What the fuck’s a gecko doing in our room?”
The noise continued. Its mouth opening. The smooth flesh under its jaw expanding and collapsing. I marveled that so loud a sound could come out of such a tiny creature. But further admiration wasn’t what I had in mind. I was deciding if I should take a swipe at it with the flip-flop I’d instinctively picked up off the floor. Fortunately, it would turn out, for it and me, the fear expanding in the three of us was enough of a threat to turn it away. It was already slithering up and across the wall, around the doorway and into the bathroom.
Drawing a deep breath, the flip-flop fell out of my hand. I was relieved I wouldn’t have to harm it.
“What do we do now?” I asked for all of us. “It’ll just come back when the light’s off.”
Geraldine said, “That’s why it’s staying on until we leave this place.”
Eve said, “Maybe he likes the air conditioning.”
I couldn’t help note her use of gender. Disturbing creatures appearing in the middle of the night were always male.
Geraldine said, “What if we have to pee? Go see if it’s in there.”
I did as requested and in the bathroom I didn’t see the gecko. But a third eye of alertness in me noticed the thin, horizontal slit in the ceiling above the sink. That was where I assumed it was, its little eyes watching me, waiting until I left before coming back out. Or maybe the hole went through to the next room and the gecko had decided to make a visit over there to frighten some more unsuspecting tourists from northern climates?
In the morning an inquiry at the reception desk brought an explanation that was more understood than interpreted. Every room at the Chan Kah had its own gecko. They lived in the bathrooms, controlled the bugs and didn’t pose any threat. There was nothing for us to fear. We didn’t have to leave the light on all night.
We stayed at the Chan Kah Centro two more days and never saw or heard our gecko friend again. We also didn’t see any bugs and never had a chance to thank it for a job well done.