I’ve described what I saw inside a Cenote (Seh-NOH’tay,) in Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Mexico. You can read that story here. Before I write about what I felt, let me give a paragraph of background.
My sister S. arranged for me to spend a week at a resort in Puerto Aventuras, near Tulum, an ancient city of the Mayans. I signed up for a day of cenote diving, and left the resort one morning with snorkeling gear in hand. We visited 4 cenotes (a couple in caves,) and I don’t remember the names of any, but these were sacred places for the Maya, and the only source of standing fresh, drinkable water. I am trying to find the exact ones on Google.
First, the feeling of being in a cenote: in caves, my entire perspective changed, as I think anyone’s would. Suddenly, the world is full of mystery and wonder, and limestone walls become the borders of a perfectly magical place. The water was cold and clear, and tasted wonderful — it comes from rain, filtering through the limestone above. I have never seen water so clean.
While snorkeling along the surface, I could look down 60 feet and see the scuba divers at the bottom; they seemed to find different items to examine every minute or so. I have heard, that deep in the cave, through nearly impassable limestone blocks, explorers have found ritual paraphernalia, and human bones. Yes, the Maya practiced human sacrifice. If I’d been one of them, and the rest of the tribe practiced this activity, I certainly wouldn’t object, because I would have been raised with that as part of my heritage. Swimming in the cave imparts a sense of spirituality, of holy things happening here, a thousand years ago.
Why is water holy to so many different peoples of the world, now and in the past. For one, we are 70% water ourselves, and I believe we are pulled toward that which we are, and understand. If I may veer off the subject for a brief moment, consider salt and fresh water swimming. I know people who can’t stand to swim in salt water, but who love lakes. Something about that lake water calls to these people; likely, most of their swimming lives have been spent in lakes?
Others, like me, have done most of our swimming in salt water; I really dislike swimming in fresh. I know what is below me in salt water — I don’t know lakes at all, and cannot get comfortable in them. Only one lake, in my experience, has been clean enough and clear enough to see the bottom, and that was Lake George, in Maine. I liked swimming there, but swimming in the ocean is what I think of as swimming. I wonder if the world is divided evenly in this choice.
For thousands of years, water has been holy, and is still considered to be so in many cultures, including the Maya. You’ll find no lakes in the Yucatan, and any rivers have been cut by humans. Water does not last there, unless it is being fed by a spring. These cenotes are. So can you imagine yourself, in a Mayan tribe, living in a land where cenotes were the only place to retrieve fresh water for all of your daily and ritual needs? No flipping on the faucet to get a drink — in fact we couldn’t brush our teeth with the resort’s water; it was brackish and awful. The cenotes had to be very familiar places to these people.
In the cenote I described above, we found a small sand beach, not too far from the entrance. The beach sloped into the water, but it eventually broke for the bottom. We could get close enough to stand and walk up the slope onto the beach. I stayed there, after the others moved on, and in my mind I was not just imagining being a Mayan woman. I felt like one, come to the cenote to bathe the kids, and get water for kitchen needs. Later in the day, I’d visit another cenote for drinking water, and joyfully lug it back in buckets perched across my shoulders — my family would not be thirsty tonight.
I washed my husbands clothes, and made sure the children’s were clean as well. And I would be drawn once again to give thanks for this lovely water, hidden where the sun wouldn’t dry it, and hard enough to get to that enemies couldn’t tamper with it. I would use the sand from the beach to scrub my skin and release every bit of the world above that I was wearing — the dirt and dried mud, salt from the ocean, sweat and grime and all of the earthy residue of the world.
Before I left, I would call the children together, and they would listen to me saying a prayer of thanks to the great, ever-full cenote, which allowed us to live in this beautiful place. We’d gather our things, and swim for the surface, to return to the dusty world above, refreshed and renewed for another day.
I finished that day in a spirit of charge, of aliveness I can’t remember ever experiencing in my life, other than there. And from that point to this, I have resonated with the stories I hear of the Mayans and how they lived in that dusty, jungle-y place. I became one with the Maya, and I still feel that way today. What a dream, and what a blessing.