Monday, August 11, 2014

one-track mind

Outside of Mérida, Yucatán, along the road leading through Acanceh, past numerous tiny villages, lies the town of Cuzamá. Cuzamá is known today for its three cenotes (sinkholes) and attracts thousands of Mexican visitors every year, especially in the summertime. If you don't get confused and turn around on the way to Cuzamá, you will come upon a parking lot and a whole lot of tourists. From there, it only took us about half an hour for our horse-drawn carriage to arrive. Because about seven kilometers down a 150-year-old railroad track sit three pretty incredible cenotes. If you haven't had the pleasure of swimming in a cenote before, I highly recommend it. These freshwater sinkholes form when the limestone earth is fractured, allowing rainwater to seep into the fractures. The water running through these fractures dissolves more and more limestone until eventually caves form. Swimming in cenotes is one my favorite things in life.

Cuzamá wasn't always known for its cenotes. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Yucatán was at the center of henequen production. Haciendas, aka plantations, were erected all over the state and railroads were set up all throughout the peninsula. A horse drawn cart that runs on railroad tracks, called a truc, was the means of transportation used in the old haciendas during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Our truc arrived and I took my seat. I let the horse lead us along the track down the road to the cenotes. However, I quickly noticed, there was only one railroad track. One. I thought long and hard about this at first. One track, I thought. That must mean we all go in one direction at once and then all return at the same time.

Except that is not what happens. Every time we get a little momentum and rhythm going, another cart and horse appear heading straight toward us. So we quickly get off our cart, lift the truc and move it off the rails, wait for the other cart to pass, put our cart back on the track, and get back to it. This process continues like this every 5 minutes for 45 minutes.

I captured the art of moving the truc on and off the track to let the other carts pass

Why isn't there a second railroad track? I had to ask. My driver told me, "the railroad is 150 years old." Well, okay, that's amazing. But why not build a brand new track next to the old one and then in another 150 years you'll have one 300-year-old track and one 150-year-old track? The driver didn't seem to appreciate my additional questions.

But I couldn't just let my curiosity go. In 150 years did no one ever take the initiative to make life easier?

The answer is no. But I still wanted to find out why. Not surprisingly, the internet doesn't have any information about this. So I started to ask the locals. Why only the one track?

The answers soon started pouring in. One day the henequen just ran out. Voila, it was gone. And the haciendas? Abandoned. And the railroads? First, the iron was sold in pieces. Then the roads were paved over so cars and buses could drive on them. Modernism took over the 

Henequen is a type of agave plant. The raw fibers from the henequen cactus are shredded, pulled, and wound together to make into rope for hammocks, twine for baling hay, and burlap bags.

Okay, this all makes sense, but if Cuzamá is still using the railroad track, why not invest the plentiful tourism profits into placing a second track? I thought this was a brilliant idea. But the locals had many logical explanations for me. First, the railroad track itself is over 150 years old. That means there is no more track of its kind. And furthermore, there are no local engineers. No one who would know how to place this type of track. I never thought of this before.

Also, there is some speculation that the people of Cuzamá are waiting for the Mexican government to give them the funds to improve the tourist route. There is no one in Cuzamá who will use his or her own profits or capital to add a railroad track when maybe some day the Mexican government will provide the support. Even if they have to wait another 150 years.

In the meantime, I'll head back to Cuzamá any chance I get. And its railroad track will retain its charm, as well as its place in history.

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