Spending the better part of the past year traveling, I can declare with guarded authority that the people met along the way make the journey memorable. Fellow travelers often share fascinating stories to capture my attention but it is decidedly the locals who make a place come alive.
In Tulum, Mexico, while I pull off the strenuous job of resort yoga instructor, I have met an engaging lady from Germany who may desire to seek adventure more than me. In her young life, she can easily name two dozen countries she has visited. Her day job as a flight attendant helps make this happen but it is rather an envious accomplishment. There have been Canadians, Brits, and two from Downunder and I am intrigued to learn how they found Tulum. Most come for the yoga and others for a quieter alternative to Cancun or Playa de Carmen.
But it is Benjamin who each morning serves me negro cafe and fills me with stories and descriptions of local ways and culture. It is definitely his bright smile and eagerness to fortify my Mexican education that leads me to Canopia Cafe each day.
The first morning, Benjamin introduced me to the mamey fruit. “What is that,” I asked, pointing to the word on the smoothie menu–with all these yoga folks around, smoothies are as plentiful as cerviche.
“Mamey. It is like tropical fruit.”
“No, more like….hard.”
Hmmm… That did not really clear things up.
“The skin is rough and brown. It is sweet, but not too sweet.” Benjamin goes on to add, “It is hard, so good for building. These are from mamey,” he says pointing to the cafe’s low wooden tables.
My educational acumen falters. “You make tables from the fruit?”
“No,” he laughs at me. “The tree trunk is hard and good for building.”
“Aha!” I get it. Yet, I still do not know what it tastes like, but somehow I feel more informed.
Later research describes the mamey as a fruit combining the flavors of pumpkin, sweet potato, and subtle flavors of almond, chocolate, honey, and vanilla. Are you kidding me? Why has this not made it on the front pages of haute cuisine?
Another day I ask about the jungle. I imagine all these resorts and yoga studios have replaced miles and miles of jungle. In my environmentally concerned consciousness, I twitch at the uncomfortable reality of destruction while I sip on Benjamin’s house special kombucha.
“So many trees gone, but not these,” he points to circular fanned fronds of a palm tree. It reminds me of the sun. “They cannot be cut. It’s what you say…” Benjamin looks upward to search for the word.
The kombucha has apparently gone to my head and it takes a few minutes to arrive on the word: endangered.
“Yes, endangered. It is special because it is provides protection from hurricanes. Very strong tree with deep roots.”
They are Chit Palms and Benjamin tells me chit is Mayan for hand.
“When two chits are close together their roots will come together.” He intertwines his fingers to show me. “That makes them even stronger, by coming together. It is beautiful, isn’t it?”
I agree. He conveys the poetry of two palm trees relying on one another for stability. I have come to understand that Benjamin is teaching me more than tidbits of Mexican plants and culture. He is teaching me ways to see the world.
As Halloween approaches, I see the American influence hanging in the supermarket where costumes are on display. It is the day after Halloween that I associate with Mexico. Dia de muertos heightens my curiosity but I readily admit, I know nothing about Mexican holidays. I have heard of this one and have been investigating since my arrival.
My bus driver, Gregory–which sounds a lot more exotic when pronounced with a Mexican accent, tells me he will spend the day with his family. His cousins will gather, his mother will cook and they will have a special meal. His favorite dish is a large tamale filled with beef and pork and special pepper sauce. His eyes twinkle as he describes the sweet corn cake his mother will make.
As Benjamin polishes glasses, freeing them of the dust and ocean salt, I ask him about dia de muertos. Benjamin has already told me about his nine and fifteen year old sons. He takes them bike riding on his day off and they go to the beach to play ball. I expect him to tell me of a big family gathering, how special the day is and how perhaps he will partake in a traditional family meal, visit the graves of loved ones, or attend church or a festival.
“Yes, many people will fix meals of the people who have died. They put out their favorite beers and maybe toast with tasty jam.”
Benjamin gives a short laugh and I do as well. I try to reconcile the idea of a favorite meal being beer and toast which sounds more like my Midwestern version of cookies and milk for Santa.
I probe Benjamin to find out if he will prepare anything for those who have past away.
“No, I do not do this. When I forget my mother, when I forget my father then they die. But they are not dead because everyday their spirit is with me. I hear their voices. I see the work they did. I feel them here,” Benjamin taps his chest with his open palm. “Their spirit lives here and I am not without.”
Benjamin’s sweet and sincere honesty captures a piece of my soul and it is a gift to be reminded that I too carry with me, in my heart, those who have passed away. In a small way, cultures intertwine likes roots of the chit palm and I feel an assurance that wherever I go, I am never alone.