Oscar could relate to our experiences though he’s too busy trying to resolve his. Until Hurricane Wilma flattened Cancun in October 2005, Oscar worked at a hotel there. The hurricane destroyed the Mexican resort town’s only industry – tourism – so Oscar was one of many young Mexicans out of a job.
He headed south down the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula to a spot not far from the Belize border. There the cruise ship companies, along with American investors and the Mexican government, had created a new cruise destination called Costa Maya. When the cruise ships arrive, Oscar is one of the guides standing in the plaza of the newly built shopping area waiting to guide passengers who signed up for whatever tour he’s working that day.
On some afternoons he directs his group past the plush, modern, air-conditioned buses waiting to carry tourists to various Mayan ruins towards a rickety yellow open-air truck topped with a canvas roof. After his passengers sign waivers for possible back injuries, the tour begins with Oscar standing up front at the microphone. He is handsome with a kind smile and a quick wit. Passing a military installation, he points out that the building is a headquarters for the Mexican navy. “We don’t have a boat, but we have a Navy,” he says with a grin. Oscar pokes gentle fun at the machine gun toting soldiers standing lazily at a check point, their war on terrorism inactive for yet another day.
Then the bus makes a turn down a long road paralleled by thicket, which in this part of the world passes for jungle. At one point the truck stops and Oscar jumps out and hacks at a tree with a machete. He returns to display some freshly cut chicle, the rubbery substance from which chewing gum was originally made. To the daring he offers a sample, which tastes like rubberized nothing.
Another stop and Oscar points to what looks like a disturbingly gargantuan-sized zit on a tree. It is a termite nest. Termites, Oscar says, were once eaten by the Indians as a source of protein. Here again he offers a sample. This time I pass but am told by a fellow passenger that it tastes like minuscule nothing. My termite, having been spared, crawls along the seat in front of me and is flicked back into the thicket. He is now homeless but alive to tell about it, A beach stop that seems like a setting for those Corona commercials with a chilled bottle in the foreground backed by rolling waves was next. Oscar’s ice chest contains no Coronas but rather Modelo Especial or “Light.” The beer is fine but the can is less photogenic than a Corona bottle and doesn’t hold a wedge of lime as well.
Back on the bus, Oscar gives another display by whacking at a fan palm and explaining how the Mayans wove the plant into roofs for their huts.
His greatest moment comes as the bus turns onto another road that rumbles trough the thick of the thicket. At one point the bus stops and Oscar begins making a piercing “hoo-hah,” “hoo-hah” sound. He starts the noise while in the bus and then jumps to the ground continuing the yell as he moves into the thicket. He continues the call as though some ancient Mayan spirit had gripped his soul and was carrying him into the jungle. As the yells get louder man and nature interact. Suddenly Oscar pointed toward the top of a tree where there’s a rustling and then, through the green curtain, a large spider monkey appears. His long arms reach from branch to branch, moving his body quickly for a brief appearance and then back to seclusion. The scene seems magical – or maybe “hoo-hah, hoo-hah” is Mayan for “cue the monkey.”
Later, while others shop at a beach village, Oscar talks about his uncertain future. Tourism in Cancun, he had heard, is now up to about 90 percent of where it was before Wilma. As for Costa Maya, he will just have to see what the cruise ships bring. Here, too, he’s effected by a hurricane from the tumultuous 2005 season. Because of Hurricane Katrina, the cruise ship business from New Orleans and the gulf coast is not as busy as it once was. In a world grown more complex, the levee breaks in New Orleans affect the daily routines of a monkey in the Yucatan.
“Remember if you liked the tour my name is Oscar,” our guide says as the bus arrives back at Costa Maya, “And if you didn’t like the tour my name is José.” I liked the tour very much because I experienced chicle, termites, Modelo beer and spider monkeys. Most of all I learned how all of us who live within the rim of the tropics cast our fate to nature.