GLIMPSES OF MAYA WAYS OF LIFE IN TULUM 4: A Town of Contrasts

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This is part three of a series of glimpses from my ethnographic eye. I choose to give you small unanalyzed stories from my fieldwork that I find have something interesting about them. Remark that I write Maya Ways (plural). I want to underline that there are many ways to to be, feel or act Maya. Unlike what many believe, there is a flourishing culture of people who define themselves as Maya, and I find it important that we recognize their own explanations of Maya identity rather that putting them into a box of what we believe Mayas are supposed to be like. Feel free to comment below.

A day in August, I started out in the “role” as a tourist. Part of doing ethnography is roleplaying. During my fieldwork I has assigned different roles by my surroundings, and I purposely took on different roles as well. I biked for 30 minutes to go to a hotel on the beach, where I could take a yoga class.

I entered the hotel made of natural looking rocks and wood, where rooms costed 300 dollars a night. A blond girl smiled to me in the reception. I asked for the bathroom, she pointed towards it and answered in English. The sink was made of porcelain and adorned with a colorful mandala, which I at first sight had confused with Mayan art. The door was made of bamboo, and the often-seen sign “please put toilet paper in the bin instead of in the toilet” hung next to the paper. An Asian style Goddess was painted on one of the outer walls. The yoga class was taught in English by a tall blond woman. The room was open towards the sea. The other students were not Mexicans either.

After class, I walked through the hotel to the beach. A Mexican woman was cleaning one of the cabañas. The places where turtles had lain eggs were marked off in the sand by small fences with dated signs. The beach was pretty that day. The water was cleaner that I had seen it before. Sargasso has been the big embarrassment of the town this year. A few tourists were out swimming, three women were tanning while they were deeply occupied by the books they were reading, one or two tourists were rowing kayaks, and two Mexican men were removing Sargasso with shovels. The many empty tanning beds made the beach seem abandoned. The waiters in the restaurant greeted me, but otherwise they were glancing towards the ocean while they were leaning against the wall. Outside the hotel, taxis had surround my bike. The drivers hung out together, but as soon as they saw me, “a tourist”, coming out of the hotel door, they shouted, “taxi!”. They returned their talking when they realized that I had my bike.

As I biked back to el pueblo, I observed the few tourists on the way, workers and signs. I had not see much tourist-worker interaction. A man told me, “Hello, good bye” as I rode by. Some workers were pushing wheelbarrows with weeds, others were chilling in the empty restaurants, yet others were doing work on pieces of land covered by bushes. I suppose they were making it ready for new hotels. A truck with a speaker announced that it was collecting tin. A man with a wagon in front of his bike announced that he sold tacos. The hotel and restaurant signs were mainly in English. Many bore words such as “eco”, eco chick”, “organic”, “Maya”, “yoga”, “spa”, and “beachfront”. Most of the place names had somewhat connections to nature “Luna”, “Sol”, “Estrella”, “Mar” or had “Maya” as a prefix such as “Mayan sweat lodge”, “Mayalum” The objects that I passed formed a symphony of Hindu shrines, Mexican skeletons, and paintings of plants and animals. Several hotels had bike parking, and where the road ceased to follow the beach, a drawing on a sign directed people on bikes to the bike lane on the other side of the road. On the beach road, I saw several wooden boxes made to sort garbage, but the garbage was mixed anyways. Though people were on the road, it was quit. The palm trees and bushes that let the color green dominate the sides of the road, created a jungle like feeling.

I noticed how all adds for the new neighborhood Aldea Zama showed photos of light skinned people. It was branded as “luxurious”, “eco chick” and “the heart of Tulum”. The neighborhood was hidden away by a stone wall and a long entrance road. I wondered why the so-called heart of the town should be so hidden from the people of the town.

 

In the afternoon I switched roles. I had been invited home to a Mayan woman (she defines herself as “Mayera”). I had promised to bring chicken, so I found a polloría in the street next to mine. In contrast to the beach area, most of the signs in this neighborhood were written in Spanish. There was no menu card in the pollería, but some of the day’s offers were written on the wall. A woman approached me and asked if I spoke Spanish. Then she listed the options and prices. I did not really understand the options, since my meet related vocabulary is limited, but ordered chicken breast. A young man took care that the chickens did not burn on the grill. They made a seething sound. One of Shakira’s songs were playing, and a young woman behind the counter danced and sang as she prepared the food. All employees were Mexican. No one else were present. I paid 30 pesos (3 $, 15 kr.) for what I later discovered was chicken, tortillas, rice, beans and chili.

I parked my bike outside the empanada place where I had been twice before. Mainly men were eating there. The TV was very loud, but everybody but me was watching. I read a bit in a book I had borrowed from my neighbor while I observed. No tourists came during the 1½ hour I was there. I introduced myself to one of the young female workers, and she let me interview her. Thus, I revealed my role as an ethnographer. She was very positive about tourism, and repeatedly equaled it with work. She had only lived in Tulum for a while. She described tourists as friendly, and told me that she wanted to give them a good experience. “When they take photos, it means that they want to remember the good time they have,” she explained to me. I had expected the locals to find such situations annoying. In this restaurant, the signs were also only in Spanish. To get to the toilet, I had to pass the open kitchen where I noticed marinated meat in plastic bowls without lids. The toilet door could not stay closed, so I had to hold it with one hand. The sink was in the kitchen. After I had put soap on my hands, I discovered that there was no water in the tap. When I asked, I was given a plastic bowl with water to rinse my hands.

I later learned that water shortage and bad drainage were common problems in the part of town surrounding the Cancha Maya, the place where the first houses in Tulum were built; an area where many people who defines themselves and are defined as Mayas live; the place I would call “the heart of Tulum”.

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private home

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