For a brief second, Jen looked shocked. Tears formed at her eyes, which she wiped away. Struggling with her typical self control, she looked me in the eye, and gave me an opening: “Do you want to take it back?” she asked.
When I travel, I always carry far too many guidebooks with me (my all time favorite being this one). The idea that I might not see the best and most interesting things a place has to offer because a particular author decided to sleep in rather than go out researching in the heat and the sun is simply a risk that I hate to take. Whereas the risk to my back from the extra weight the books add to my luggage is more manageable – back surgery is improving all the time.
Thus, during my recent trip to the Yucatàn, I found it rather odd that every single one of my various guidebooks referred to the color of the buildings in Izamal, Mexico as “egg yolk yellow”. It's uncanny, really, that they all use the same term; perhaps the writers went out drinking together and copied their entry for Izamal from the same tourist brochure. To me, anyway, it’s a sunny yellow – not something you’d eat but something you’d recline under. It’s the shade of yellow that kids pick out of their 148 crayon set to color in the sun. It’s a warm yellow, a happy yellow.
Izamal is a small town of about 15,000 people located three hours away from the tourist zone of the Mayan Riviera. The city was once a religious center for the Mayan people and was home to 12 pyramids. The Catholic, as they were good at doing, knocked down the largest pyramid and built a huge yellow convent on top of it. The town continues to serve as a religious center today and in 1993, the Pope visited and gave a benediction at the convent.
The hour and a half bus ride from Valladolid to Izamal traveled though the heart of Yucatan. On secondary roads, the bus passed through small villages where people still live in Mayan style huts, single room oval cabins with thatched roofs and stick walls. Chickens and turkeys wandered behind crumbling stone walls.
When the bus arrived in Izamal, Jen and I stumbled out into the hot, sunny air. Our various guidebooks warned us that no taxis existed in town and that the place we were staying was a long hike from main zocolo and bus station. Thus, when a man approached us and asked if we wanted a ride on his bici-taxi, we decided to do it. His bici-taxi looked like it was homemade job - a bike in the back with a small metal-welded rickshaw in the front. Overall, it appeared like it could transport no more than a week’s worth of groceries, much less three people and two full backpacks.
“Are you sure?” I asked the man in Spanish. “Our stuff weighs a lot.”
He looked at us like we were crazy and indicated that we should get in. We loaded everything onto the bici-taxi and, with obvious effort, he won the battle against inertia. We began rolling down the quiet streets. We passed the sunny yellow convent, rolled past a row of parked real taxis, cruised along streets lined with sunny yellow buildings, and five minutes later we were at the guest house. All in all, it was about a five minute walk to the center of town, thus supporting my theory that the authors of our guidebooks had been "researching" the local tequilas the night before they came to Izamal.
The next day Jen and I explored many of the sights of Izamal. Like the shade of yellow most of its buildings are painted, Izamal is a warm, sunny town. Its colonial streets are quiet and free of the heavy traffic that clogs most cities in the Yucatan and its restaurants serve some of the best regional cuisine, such as pumpkin seed salsa or, my favorite, panuchos. The main sights in Izamal are the pyramids and the convent. The pyramids are interesting for their urban setting. They are tucked in and behind the regular buildings and houses of the city. It’s an odd feeling to be standing on an ancient pyramid and see that literally across the street is someone’s house.
The largest pyramid in town and the second largest in the whole Yucatan Peninsula is Kinich Kak Moo (sometimes spelled Kinick Kak’mo). One of our various guidebooks stated that Kinich Kak Moo translated to “Sun Eye of the Fire Parrot,” while another specified Macaw rather than parrot, while a third blandly explained that the pyramid was originally a temple to the Mayan sun god.
At any rate, the Fire Parrot definitely seemed to be spreading its wings that day. It was hot and the sun glared down with the type of fiery anger that makes most weak mortals – or at least pale vacationers from northern climes – crawl into an air conditioned room and grab a cold drink (preferably one made out of blended ice and tequila).
Jen and I, hot and sweaty as we were, decided to climb up the massive structure. Steep steps led up to what we thought was the top. However, upon reaching the summit, we discovered a massive flat area, which seemed larger than a football field, covered with grasses and trees. At the far end was another, steeper pyramid. Iguanas scampered out of our way as we crossed the field.
As we climbed the second narrow set of stairs, I couldn’t help think about how cool this whole place was. We were the only people on the entire pyramid which was the size of a small mountain. I thought about a guy I knew who got married at one of the Catholic cathedrals ruins in Antiqua, Guatemala and wondered if the locals ever got married at this place. “This would be a cool place to get married,” I said out loud.
“No, it’s too hot, but it would be a good place to get engaged,” replied Jen, which after 11 years of dating is the type of thing she sometimes says and that I usually ignore.
Now, I need to be clear here: when I made that comment I was in no way thinking about myself. I have put off thinking of getting married for so long that I didn’t even consider Jen and myself at all when I mind drifted to the topic of weddings at ruins. I had absolutely no plans, nor I thought, desires to get married. My main goal for the future of Jen and my relationship was to go see a movie in Valladolid that night (which, as it turns out, would take some convincing on my part as the theater was only showing horror movies).
Still, when Jen made that comment, something changed. There we were, standing on a huge pyramid in the middle of a city that had been occupied for thousands of years surrounded by a deep green jungle that stretched to every horizon around us. I looked up, and the Sun Eye of the Fire Parrot stared back.
Something felt right.
Thus, half way back down, I looked up at Jen (she was crouched, scrambling down the steep steps above me), and asked her to marry me. For a brief second, Jen looked shocked. Tears formed briefly at her eyes, which she wiped away.
I must have looked panicked. I felt panicked.
Struggling with her typical self control, she looked me in the eye, and gave me an opening: “Do you want to take it back?” she asked.
I did not.
So, by the time we reached the bottom again, Jen and I were soundly and permanently engaged to be married. It was a really, really hot that day and perhaps Jen acquiesced solely so she could get out of the sun and go get something cool to drink. Perhaps I asked because I was moved by the history and beauty of this foreign place. The Fire Parrot works in mysterious ways.
After 11 years of dating, I finally “know Jen well enough” to make the big leap. Since we’ve been together for so long, I really doubt much will change. Still, there is something different about just being together and declaring our intention to always be together. This is perhaps not the most romantic engagement story I’ve heard, but I truly feel like I am the luckiest guy around: Jen is my best friend, an amazing travel buddy, and my true partner in life.
And, as long as there are still pyramids in the Yucatàn, she always will be.