No trip to see the Mayan ruins is really complete without a visit to the pre-classic/classic ruins in the Campeche province of Mexico. While the Yucatan ruins of Chichen Itza-Tulum-Coba-Ushmal are pretty well-trodden routes in the tourist map, Calakmul-Palanque-Bonampak of the western provinces not so much. For this reason, there is not much information online on touring these sites in a DIY manner or on public transport. The only one of these with at least a limited amount of information was Calakmul. There are no direct buses from Tulum to Xpujil (town nearest to the Calakmul ruins)! No ATMs in the town! No vegetarian restaurants! No budget hotels! said the Wise Ones at TripAdvisor. Undeterred, I downloaded the ADO bus mobil App to schedule layovers, took enough cash from Tulum ATMs, booked a cheap place with a well equipped kitchen and a host willing to help me book guides to the ruins on Airbnb, patted myself on the back and felt ready for the adventure.
My first inkling that I might have underestimated the nature of the roadblocks, was when the taxi driver waiting to pick me up at the bus stop, greeted me with a string of Spanish. I did my usual smile-and-say “no hablar espanol” trick and waited for the magic to happen. During my trip so far this trick has never failed to produce English and an easy resolution of the situation. Not this time however! The driver looked disappointed and then quickly produced his cell phone and showed me a text from my host in Spanish with my name prominently displayed. Clearly he was checking to see if he was picking up the right person, so I nodded enthusiastically at the phone and pointed to myself going “si, si”! He didn’t seem very convinced, but picked up my suitcase and gestured for me to get in the car and called my host. After speaking to my host (thankfully in English!) and assuring the driver that he did indeed have the right passenger we were on the way to the house. On reaching the place, my host graciously acted as a translator and arranged for the driver to take me to some local ruins the next day. He also very kindly gave me a spare cell phone with a local sim so I could get in touch with him any time during my stay in case I needed any further translation services. I accepted this politely, while secretly thinking, who needs a human when an App will be so much better! I spent the evening with Google Translate (GT) App boning up on some Spanish. Sentences and phrases were too ambitious, I decided, and just focused on words. After all, I only needed to tell him to take me to the grocery store and later to a bat cave after lunch. Easy peasy!
The next day dawned bright and beautiful to the chirping of birds. Fresh breakfast and tea was on the table in the dining room for me. Dogs were frolicking, the trees were a vibrant green after the late night shower. The mosquitos were not yet out and the car was at the end of the driveway promptly at the appointed hour. I walked down to the waiting driver, with a skip in my step and a smile on my face. “Buenos Dias” were exchanged. He said a few sentences in Spanish which didn’t faze me at all, because, let’s face it what does one say first thing on the morning of a trip? Something about the weather on the day or the previous night’s rest. So I replied “si, si, bueno” and he smiled and said “mucho gusto!” which I took to mean the question was about my nightly rest. Of course he could have realized I didn’t understand a word he said and decided to humor me, but why be negative first think in the morning?
After about 5 mins of driving I realized we were going the same way we came the previous night and were approaching the statue of a lady I noticed before. She had a very confidant, but neutral pose and so I wondered who she was. Before I knew it my mouth blurted out, “ita ki”? which is Bengali for “what is this?” Apparently, under acute pressure to produce words in a foreign language, my brain decided that Bengali would be appropriate! From the deluge of Spanish the driver unleashed on me, I picked up a few flotsam of recognizable words. “cinqo kilometro” he said and also “norte”. I deduced that he had heard “aqui” when I said “ita ki”, which is Spanish for “here” and so proceeded to let me know that the ruins were 5 kilometers to the north, not “aqui”. I wanted to correct him and explain what I meant, but having exhausted itself with dredging out some Bengali words, my brain was too exhausted to co-operate. Maybe this no-Spanish hurdle might not be so easy to vault over after all!
Nevertheless, after visiting the ruins at Xpujil*, I was too excited to let language troubles get in the way of my gushing. So with a little help from the friendly GT App, generously supplemented with gestures and facial expressions**, I managed to convey my exuberance. The driver was thrilled, and from a few words he let drop, I realized he was super thrilled that I was super thrilled. He then tried to get me to add another ruin to my list, but I was already stretched too thin for time, that I refused. Encouraged by navigating this conversation so successfully (albiet with help from GT), I decided it was time to lay out my plan for the day to him. “Por favor, despues tienda para comprar frutas y verduras”, I say confidently (Please, later shop for fruits and vegetables). He looks confused, and says”ahora”? which I knew means “now”. I say, “no, no, despues, despues”. A deluge of Spanish issues forth. GT couldn’t keep up. It didn’t help that spoken Spanish is much different from written one, so trying to type what he says phonetically was not getting me very far. Instead I try to explain myself with other word options that GT gives me.”Luego” and “supermercado” (for “later” and “shop”), I say. He looks even more confused and spouts Spanish at even greater speed. Apparently he thought the faster he spoke the sooner he would finish what he was saying and quicker we would get out of the sticky situation. About a minute or so of this Spanish monologue in break-neck speed, I try to stem the flow. With GT’s help, I say, “despacio, por favor, despacio!” (“slowly, please, slowly”), a little frantically. He responds by slamming on the breaks. My head hitting the seat back in front of me was not entirely involuntary. The rest of the trip I used the cell phone provided by my host to have him translate what I needed to say. Man:1 App:0.
*minor ones of early Classic period, remarkably well preserved.