It happened on the First. You know the mantra: Day. Month. Year. Century. Millennium. It was early in the morning, still dark, and I was standing on the sea-sprayed cliffs at the far southern tip of Isla Mujeres, a tiny island in the Caribbean, about eight miles off the coast of Mexico.
The big flip of the calendar page was six hours in the past, having been cheered by a thousand voices in the cobblestone town square of the pre-Columbian fishing village on the island's northern edge. The countdown had been led by the island's harbor master, whose voice rose first in the Spanish, then English. The harbor master had stood on a stage decorated with Mayan symbols, across the square from a Catholic church which had overflown a week earlier during Christmas Eve Mass.
To one side of the square was a Nativity scene large and lit-up enough to rival any on the Mormon Temple grounds in Salt Lake City, though I have seen no such displays erected by the Church of the Latter-day Saints in which the wise men were accompanied by a sizable entourage of fishermen, cowboys and chickens.
To the square's other side, next to the church, was the town's basketball court, which had chain nets long rusted by the warm, salty breath of the Caribbean trade winds. A seasonal mural, freshly painted above a seven-tiered set of weathered stone bleachers, depicted falling stars above a log cabin and snow-laden pine trees, somewhere in the Arctic wilderness of the artist's imagination. It also featured a yearning, scripted in Spanish, that peace on Earth somehow become more than perennial rhetoric, sometime in the next 1,000 years.
Which brings me to the machine gun.
It was an M-16, presumably sold by our government to the Mexican government, who put it in the hands of Pablo, who is 19 and a new recruit in the Mexican navy. As such, Pablo had to work on New Year's Eve, providing security for a group of party promoters from Quebec who had paid the state government of Yucatn to rent the ruins of a Mayan temple built circa A.D. 400 to honor the fertility goddess Ixchel. This temple and its statues of women (mujeres) which gave the island its name had stood largely intact on the southern tip of Isla Mujeres until Hurricane Gilbert descended in 1987.
Though the monuments to the Goddess of Mothers have finally bowed down to Mother Nature, the fallen stones and fragmented temple structures retain their power, if only for the auspiciousness of their real estate. The temple to Ixchel was built on an elevated cliff, so worshipers would see the first rays of sun each day, rising above the confluence of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
The promoters from Quebec thought the temple ruins would make a bitchin' spot for a private party.
The locals of Isla Mujeres, who have made a New Year's Eve pilgrimage from the village square to the ruins for as long as they've followed the Christian calendar, had other ideas.
Per tradition, after the midnight countdown they had partied in the village square and surrounding streets, and partied hard. (The next morning, the waiter who took my order -- coffee, just coffee -- recognized me from the square, and we traded knowing, commiserating, sickly grins that transcended all language barriers.)
My recollection of the first few hours after midnight remain an appropriate blur of fireworks, funny hats, flower garlands and dancing in the streets. Islanders mingled with other Mexicans who'd come over on the ferry from Cancún, along with the usual smattering of tourists like me.
About three in the morning, a procession -- essentially a massive conga line -- began traveling the five miles from the village to the temple, arriving in waves to find their entrance ostensibly barred by the Quebecker promoters, who, to their credit, had hired bands and erected a massive multimedia screen showing satellite broadcasts of simultaneous parties around the world. However, the promoters were also demanding a 300-peso (about 32 bucks) charge to enter the temple grounds. This did not go over well with the incoming throngs, who began demanding free admittance, drunkenly sneaking around hastily erected barricades and generally creating a delightful havoc.
Perhaps foreseeing this sort of trouble, the promoters had contracted the Mexican navy to supply a squad armed with M-16s to control the crowd and ensure admission payments. Faced with an increasingly large and querulous procession of their countrymen, though, Pablo and his fellow hired guns quickly and wisely assumed a neutral role in the conflict. I watched as well-dressed French-Canadians with money on the line approached the white-uniformed soldiers, angrily gesticulating and demanding action, while the sailors just sort of looked away and shrugged, as if to say, "What do you want us to do, open fire?"
By five in the morning, roughly an hour before sunrise, the promoters had capitulated, and the paying customers were partying with the insurgents amid the ruins. The soldiers mostly just stood around, watchful to prevent the random fool from getting killed.
The random fool like me.
You see, somewhere en route from the village to the ruins I had acquired a purple, plastic mad-hatter's headpiece with Feliz Año Nuevo 2000 emblazoned across its band in gold, glittering letters. I was damn fond of this hat, and when a gust whisked it from my head and toward the ocean, I besottedly gave chase, coming perilously close to pulling a Wile E. Coyote and sprinting off the edge of a cliff, thereby seeing in the new millennium by feeding myself in small pieces to the barracudas 600 feet below.
Pablo saved my ass, stepping between me and the cliff in the darkness. My hat rattled between two rocks, threatening to blow out to sea. Pablo gestured for me to step back and chill out, then unshouldered his M-16 and used its barrel to rake the hat back within safe reach.
Overwhelmed with gratitude, I insisted upon buying him a drink. He said he couldn't accept my offer because then he might not be able to stop me from going off the rocks the next time. Well, I said, then I'd drink his drink for him if he'd come with me to one of the push-cart bars the islanders had hauled from the village (thereby further laying waste to the Quebeckers' profit margin by severely undercutting them on beverage prices -- 10 pesos per drink, versus 30).
I ordered a shot of tequila and drank it to Pablo's health. In the Christmas lights strung along the bar's Dos Equis-soaked wood surface, I could see that Pablo, like many of the people who live on Isla Mujeres, had the short stature and rounded features of the Mayans who populated the Yucat#aacute;n peninsula for at least 5,000 years before the Spanish came and put Isla Mujeres on a map in 1517. Pablo told me he grew up in Acapulco, and that his ancestors, Mayan warriors, hid their wives and children on Isla Mujeres during battles with the conquistadors.
I asked him if he was a warrior and he said no, just a guy with a job. But you have a gun, I said. Pablo pulled the magazine from his M-16 and showed me there were no bullets inside. We both laughed and I ordered another shot of tequila and drank it this time to the whole damn world, and Pablo told me to suck that lime quickly and come with him, because the sun was rising. Then together we stood on Ixchel's hallowed bones and howled at the sight of one more day's birth by fire. A day represented on the Mayan calendar as 220.127.116.11.0. -- 4,749 days before the world will end on December 23, 2012.
Contact David Holthouse at his online address: [email protected]