In the winter months, our glorious Edmonds sunsets are often muted, with the Olympic Mountains hiding behind a watercolor wash of gray clouds and silver highlights. I prefer our moist but mild maritime climate to the harsh winters back east. Even so, last February we treated ourselves to a midwinter break, and a whole new palette of colors.
The highlight of our trip to Mexico was an all-day tour of local archaeological sites, including Chichen Itza, a huge complex of Mayan ruins. We couldn’t have had a better guide. Murux is Mayan, and grew up in a village near the ruins of Chichen Itza before it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. He earned his PhD in archaeology, and authored several books on local archaeological sites.
Between our early start, the extreme heat and intense sun, I was dragging. In between visits to Mayan ruins, we visited Cenote Sagrado Azul. A cenote is a sinkhole or cave providing access to the extensive system of underground and underwater caves beneath the Yucatan Peninsula. Of the estimated 30,000 cenotes on the peninsula, a few are open to the public for swimming. The Mayans regarded them as sacred entrances to the Underworld. I was skeptical when I saw this sign.
As refreshing as a swim sounded, I remained unenthusiastic. I don’t like being cold, nor do I enjoy public showers, public pools, or making public appearances in my swimsuit. My husband Thom gave me a gentle nudge with a sharp stick, and somehow I found myself suited up, reluctantly stepping into the open outdoor shower outside the entrance to Cenote Sagrado Azul. Dripping wet, I walked past the security guard through the archway, and looked down from the rim into the cenote. I was instantly transported from the oppressive heat of a dusty dry world into another world entirely. With the hanging vines, watery echoes, and tiny streams dripping down stone walls into a hidden pool, it was like stepping into a scene from an Indiana Jones movie.
I descended slippery stone stairs through a tunnel into the actual cave, along with a swarm of tourists who had just arrived by bus.
We stepped into an underground chamber, open to the sky, with sunlight filtering down through the vines. Stairs hugged the wall, leading up to a ledge where swimmers took turns making flying leaps into the water. No fear of hitting the bottom—this was the entrance to the Underworld, and it was bottomless.
Thom marched into line and bravely took the plunge. I embraced my familiar and comfortable role as photographer and journalist, and clung to it like a life raft. I touched my toe to the water, and it was cold. I didn’t want to leave my camera hanging unguarded on a post. And there were all those velvety black catfish-like creatures swimming around in there…
Like a mahout with a stubborn elephant, Thom backed me down the first couple rungs of a small wooden ladder. I was in up to my waist before I balked. A woman, already in the water, said something in Spanish, and she started to peel my fingers away from the ladder. I was shocked at this breach of personal space, and held on even tighter. The woman laughed, and slapped at my hands. It was clear that she wasn’t going to go away, and she wasn’t going to give up. Some part of me wanted to let go, and I knew I would probably regret it if I did not take that plunge. I released my grip, and splashed backwards into the cool clear water.
The word ‘magic,’ is overused. But the ‘M’ word is the only one I can think of to describe that moment, that magic, that Mexico, that me. When I surfaced, the woman smiled and melted into the crowd, like an angel who had come down to earth, completed her mission, and moved on. The tour bus must have recalled its passengers, because when I swam out to the center of the pool and looked back, I felt like the only person in a world where time did not exist. It was like learning to breathe again. It was a baptism. It was letting go of the heat, the shyness, the fear. It was a little like falling in love.
I am now a believer. I know it is possible to step through the entrance to the Underworld, and exist in that sacred place where kings and princesses bathe and are renewed.
And now, when I am out in the world or even just here in Edmonds, and I find myself two rungs down the ladder toward an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation, I remember the sagrado cenote…and force myself to let go and take the plunge. Afterwards, I am always glad I did.
— By Naomi Baltuck
Naomi Baltuck is a storyteller, author, and longtime resident of Edmonds. When she isn’t writing, she loves to travel, almost as much as she loves coming home again.