The bus to Dzibichaltun, the Mayan site fifteen kilometers north of Merida that literally translates as “the place with writing on flat stones,” leaves from the second class station on Calle 69. Getting to it is twenty minutes from my hotel, an easy walk even in the steam-bath heat. Easy, that is, until I get there to find out there’s no longer a bus, and there hasn’t been for two years.
“No mas,” says the man in the ticket booth, a man with dark hair and eyes and the patience to make sure I understand what he tells me next: I need to get to San Juan Park, five blocks away. “Usted tiene que tomar un collectivo.” And this bit of information is another revision that will have to be made to my guidebook.
“La única manera de conseguir allí,” are his final words even though I’ve already shown him I understand.
Ten minutes later I turn a corner into the view of a row of minibuses caught in Merida’s white-hot glare. With the intention of finding out which one is mine, I’m drawn to a man standing on a corner. He’s short, broad shouldered, a welcoming smile on his unshaven face. He’s a popular figure in the park, I see. All at once he’s talking to a stylishly dressed woman, waving an open hand at a young man, saying good morning to an elderly lady with a tip of his head.
I pause near him and his friend, intent on waiting until he’s free before asking my question. And he seems like a man you ask questions of when you’re in an unfamiliar place. In fact, he intuits my need before I get a chance to utter a word. Still talking with the woman, he side-steps next to me and sets a hand on my shoulder.
It’s a cue, perhaps, for he and the woman to say good day, and when she turns away I ask: “Donde esta le collectivo por Dzibichaltun?”
The smile hasn’t left his whiskered face. “Aqui, aqui, senor,” he answers in a big voice, already aware of my struggle with his language, and at the same time not shy about making sure my pronunciation of the site is correct. “Tsi-bill-chaal-tun.”
“Collectivo? Donde?” I ask again in a reflex. The hand on my shoulder adds some pressure and turns me around.
“Here. You are in right place.” He continues in English. “It is over there. Sit down. I am your driver. We leave soon to Dzibichaltun.”
The collectivo is a white VW minibus parked ten yards away. The sliding door’s open, the name of its owner stenciled in big letters across the windshield: JUAN ANDRES. The start and end of the route is painted in yellow letters below that: G. PLAZA, LIVERPOOL.
Liverpool? I have a private laugh. The terminus past Dzibichaltun seems an odd name to happen upon in the Yucatan. An Internet search later on will inform me it’s fact a British department store that markets itself as a “newer version of Sears.”
The minibus is almost full and I sit in the third and last row of seats. I’m next to a young man with his eyes closed and a shoulder bag on his lap with the shapes of two fat textbooks in it. It’s hot as a furnace. Beads of sweat form under my jersey. After three days in Merida I’ve learned there’s nothing to do about the heat except give in to it.
By the time we’re ready to go Juan Andres’ ten seater has eleven people squeezed in it. I’m crushed between the sleepy student and a lady reading a few stapled pages printed on goldenrod paper that have something to do with a church.
Soon we’re rolling. But not for long. Three blocks on Juan Andres stops at a busy corner and two more passengers hop aboard. Room’s made for one to sit, but the other has to stand bent in the stairwell next to the sliding door. Space gets tighter. The air thicker. The temperature warmer. This is the way of the collectivo; there’s no paying extra to be bumped up to business class. If you get to the van early enough you get one of the favored seats, up front, where, with the windows open, the air circulates and Juan Andres engages you with conversation. Though it’s not all comfort and entertainment up there. It becomes the job of the person next to Juan Andres to collect the money riders pass forward. My ten peso coin changes hands three times before Juan Andres drops it into the copper collection pot hooked on the dashboard. If change is needed, it returns the same way.
The route to Dzibichaltun runs along the Merida-Progreso highway, then through an industrial zone and past a technical college that my sleepy riding companion awakes in time to get off at. I’m the only person to step out at the entrance to “Tsi-bill-chaal-tun,” I make sure to pronounce it correctly. As I do Juan Andres lets me know that on my return I can expect a collectivo every twenty minutes, or thereabouts; his wavering hand indicates the schedule’s not an exact one.
It’s a short walk down a paved road to the Mayan site with the famous cenote and the Temple of the Seven Dolls, where on the spring equinox the sun shines directly through one of the temple’s windows and out the other.
Two hours later I walk back to the highway. There’s no shelter to protect me from the sun. No trees to sit under. Not even a sign to designate it’s an official public transportation stop. The land’s undeveloped. No houses or buildings cast protective shadows across the road. I’m the only living creature exposed to the flaming sun.
I sit on a boulder and wait. I wish for a bottle of water. Juan Andres told me to expect a collectivo every twenty minutes or so and I have faith one will be by soon. If not, I’ll be barbeque for the animal life I’m sure is plentiful in the area and that comes out at sunset in search of food.
In ninety-five degree heat twenty minutes is a long time, but twice that passes before a minibus swerves around a corner, approaches and stops next to me.
The driver, who looks enough like Juan Andres to make me think he’s a relation, smiles and says before I have a chance to, “Merida.”
“Si,” I say.
Juan Andres hadn’t dropped me off and forgot about me.
“I was told to look for you,” he adds as I climb into the front seat, glad that I’ll be in a drying breeze on the way back.