Oxman Cenote

After a year of lockdown, after getting our jabs, my husband and I pack our carry-on bags and fly
to Cancun. To swim in some of the Yucatan peninsula’s cenotes is more tempting to us than
strolling through museums, so we buy snorkels and seek out sinkholes which were sacred to the
Mayan people: one, a freshwater pool on the edge of the ocean; another, a cave where bats dart
barely above our heads; and an ancient river supported by mangroves, home to an elusive
alligator named Panchito. The deepest of all at nearly 150 feet is the Oxman cenote outside of the
pueblo magico of Valladolid. We descend 73 steps to the water of a collapsed cave, its walls lined with the impossibly long roots of trees that guard the upper edge of the cenote. At the water
level, chattering crowds of life-vested swimmers line up on a dock to grab the rope swing and
propel themselves in. Some are adept at holding on, others drop quickly as their grips slip.
Around the perimeter, lifelines of the trees dangle and dip into the cool blue water.

What are they reaching for?

The word is grounded—
one tree offers
one hundred roots

Mayans valued cenotes for rituals of sacrifice, where the otherworld was accessed as easily as
diving in and opening the eyes. Before arriving in Valladolid, before our first snorkel trip, we
spend ten days in Akumal where I paint on the beach. Each morning, while crews shovel
sargassum, the smelly seaweed piling up on the shore, I open my travel watercolor set and
unscrew the brush from the reservoir tube. I dip the tube into the sea rushing at my ankles, fill it
with salt water to convert the brackish pyramids of seaweed into wreaths. I don’t care for
elevating sargassum; I want to point out how we construct barriers to our sense of peace. I want
to capture the transient beauty of these blooms we earthbound tourists call a “natural disaster.”

Walking towards water—
my memory stops
at the first wave

I’m six and planted in the surf of a beach in the Florida Keys. My family is who-knows-where,
all there is before me is the gently rushing water, the warm sandbed, and a horizon that hints at
all possibilities.

Roots traverse soil
waves erode the sands—
we are nourished

This 58 year old body lines up behind giggling kids who push off from the rope-swing dock with
ease. Toes gripping the platform, I eye the rope guided by a middle-aged guy working for tips
from anyone with a pocket of spare centavos. I build up my nerve and notice that as I grab the
rope, the chattering din around me quiets down...oh, great. Let’s watch the old lady crash and
burn! I take a breath and swing as far as the rope lets me, turn slightly, and drop into the surface.
This win is marred by water rushing up my nose. I surface, snort, and hear the voices resume
their excited pace. This feat closes the afternoon. Next morning, my husband and I wake up early
enough to have Oxman cenote to ourselves. We dive in, float on our backs as a family of
swallows call to each other, making connections between their perches in the dangling roots.
Above our heads, nothing more miraculous than a day begins.

Nature is a moment
of endless beauty—
birdsong etches the clouds

—Melanie Alberts

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