The rickety river lancha coughs and sighs a few times before reluctantly coming to life for us, its sole passengers. We surge away from the shore; the land disappears behind us and we lose sight of our trusty Subaru Forester that we’re abandoning for we don’t know how long. There’s a crossing of some imaginary line as we enter this realm apart: a watery world where the salty sea water mixes with the fresh water of these inland rivers. The rivers form a maze of interconnecting canals; this is a land of no maps, just fisherman who know their way. The wind is salty, the water brown and warm. The driver tells tales of crocodiles and tigers. Farther down the river now, we are moving steadily forward in space, backward in time. The world of cars, roads and traffic disappears behind us.
We come around a bend in the river and suddenly Mexcaltitan is before us rising from the river. An assortment of several hundred homes in a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors are gathered in a near perfect oval, a little island village in the midst of this waterway. We motor around the outskirts of the tiny village, coming to a dock on the opposite side of the island where we clamber back onto solid ground as the boat driver waves goodbye.
Night is falling fast, but there is music floating through the streets that beckon to us, inviting us in. It is in a lost, little corner where the water meets the island that Papi’s birthday party is in full swing under the moonlight. As we make our way shyly over, we are met with open arms and big smiles, crass jokes and delicious, live guitar music. Cold beers are pushed into our empty hands, followed by shrimp pâté, shrimp empanadas, dried shrimp, everything shrimp. The children are euphoric; they run free, wildly taking claim to this island that is their home, blissfully free of any threat of cars. En masse, they take off making ecstatic laps around the outer road of the island that must be a kilometer maximum. We stay up late, drinking Tecaté, talking with strangers and laughing. We never did find out how old Papi was turning amidst all of the dancing, drinking, and merry making.
The next day we take to the water again, invited by newfound friends that urge us on an expedition with them. The fishermen explain that they work all night, for about three nights a week. They have the time to show us around and it's the occasion for them to show off their little island, since visitors are relatively rare. Everyone wakes up late, so we spend the morning exploring the little dirt streets of Mexcaltitan by day. The village is organized around a center square, with a church, a museum about the village’s history and a little general store. There is even a bounce house set up for the kids; it’s charming in an out of place sort of way. Boats are bringing in the days’ deliveries. We see Coca Cola being delivered by the cartful in glass bottles that will be returned empty to the mainland to be refilled. I don't know when we stopped reusing bottles in the US, but I imagine it's been at least fifty years.
Meanwhile, we meet up with our friend Cal, who ushers us into his mother’s house. He is preparing yet another shrimp varietal- a spicy stirfry of sorts. With a picnic lunch ready and everyone gathered around, we embark, the little lancha wobbling as we climb aboard, one after the other- an impressive fifteen of us in all. Two babies, one teenage girl, a young mother and the rest are middle aged men, mostly fathers, although you wouldn’t guess it from their ceaseless joking and teasing, which reminds me more of teenagers than patriarchs. We spend the day laughing, touring the waterways around the little island until finally things deteriorate into a full on water fight. Before we know it, a playful shove and Goku is ousted from the boat, immediately pulling Oscar in after him. The boat is soon abandoned altogether, left in the reeds and the party is relocated to the shallow river water, right behind where the soccer field is normally located. At this time of year however, the field is entirely submerged. Water is encroaching on the village from every side, it seems. The villagers explain that its just the season; late September is when the water reaches the highest point, so no soccer for now.
We spend the day splashing and laughing in the water, forgetting for the moment all the crocodile tales. Mexcaltitan is a special place, frozen in time in many ways, where newcomers aren’t seen as a threat, so much as a guest. It is a place largely untouched from the distrust and fear that is so commonplace in western society. We came here as strangers, with no idea what to expect of the place and we were received, without question as friends. There are places that touch you and teach you in this world; in this case, it was traveling to the past that I realized I had much to learn about the present.