While in the Yucatan a couple weeks ago, we hired a guide to show us around Maya country for a day. The dive-shop/condo owner where we were staying recommended someone she said was “the most knowledgeable guide around.” He is an American who speaks fluent Mayan and Spanish, is married to a Mayan woman, and lives in the villages. “He can be a little strange,” she cautioned. “How strange?” I inquired, thinking he couldn’t be much stranger than the people I’ve already seen. “Sometimes, he talks too much and you have to shut him up,” she replied.

It didn’t sound like much of a problem, and he certainly knew his way around, so we hired him on the spot for a full day’s excursion. I’ll call him Ernesto, who turned out to be a 61-year-old bipolar, dyslexic, ADD, alcoholic, chronic smoker, cave-diver, explorer, linguist, storyteller and writer. I learned this about him in the first 15 minutes, without my asking a single question or his knowing what I did for living. Once he satisfied his need to get this stuff out, he settled down and it turned out to be one of those remarkable days.

Ernesto took us to the less trafficked caverns, where we snorkeled in astounding freshwater aquariums. He took us to traditional villages, where kids still speak Mayan as their mother tongue. Before we entered the village, Ernesto stopped at a fishing co-op in Tulum to bring them dinner. The thatched hut was a single 8’ x 16’ structure made of wood and covered with palm fronds. There was a small out-pouching at one end that served as the kitchen with an open fireplace on which the mother of eight was grilling jungle meat.

The main room featured many hammocks strung out between the hut’s supporting poles. Traditional Maya are born, sleep and die in these hammocks. Their worldly possessions hung in bags from the support poles; there’s no electricity or TV, and the kids were attentive, well behaved and played happily together. The mother handed us a native taro root she called “koo koot macal,” accompanied by a gourd filled with honey. She motioned for us to dip the root in the honey. Ernesto lay down in a hammock where he told us stories and entertained the kids by speaking Mayan. They found his accent hysterically funny as they laughed together.

On the way home, he told us that he loves these people. They see him as a friend, never just the dysfunctional soul he himself sees. “It took me a lifetime to learn to love myself the way I felt loved here. That’s why I stayed, it took me a little while to learn, but easy has never been my path.”

To be loved, with all our imperfections, is what allows us to love ourselves and lets us reach out to love others. Don’t wait a lifetime.

P.S. Speaking about Mexico’s indigenous people, here’s an update on our trip to Huichol country, where we were invited to treat a witchcraft epidemic among the children (see Schlagbytes on “The Huichol Experience,” May 17, 24 and 31, 2004).

In the month after our departure there were a few minor manifestations of the illness, but for the last 7 months there has not been a single case.