What am I doing?

The question played on a loop inside my head as the man I’d met a few hours earlier wrapped his arms around me, holding me firmly on his lap. My current situation failed the “mom test,” a standard I use to judge the audaciousness of my antics as a solo female traveler. What would my mom think if she could see me right now? She’d say, “what the hell is going on?!” or she’d say, “run.”

14656653372_01818ac821_kOn Friday nights in Merida, the Yucatan’s largest city, street music fills the air. I walked to the main square, where the excited crowd generated more heat in air already thick with humidity. I sat on a bench in the plaza and listened to the music as I people-watched and absorbed the colonial city’s beauty. Safe in the anonymity of being a tourist, I indulged in one of the great pleasures of traveling alone: reading.  A few minutes later, a guy wearing jeans, a backpack, and whose hair was tied back with a cord stopped in front of me.  He offered his hand and introduced himself as Kan.

Kan said his grandfather had trained him to be a Mayan spiritual healer and that he’d spent eleven years traveling and learning techniques and rituals. He’d learned English during the two years he spent working with First Nations people in Vancouver (where I happened to have gone for graduate school). He was on the way to work a shift at the supermarket when he was “drawn by my energy” and had to stop.

He almost lost me right there. The line smacked of a pick-up thinly veiled in new-age bullshit. “It’s your aura,” he clarified, which didn’t help.

“What color is it?” I asked in spite of myself.

“It’s blue,” he said. “Your energy is so strong. I couldn’t just walk by.”

What harm was there in seeing what he had to say? He showed me the Mayan tattoos on his wrists, three black dots above parallel black lines, the symbol for the number 13, the number of months in a Mayan year, the number of Mayan gods, the number of celestial planes.

I let him perform a quick cleansing of me before he went to work. He started by rubbing my forearms, working down toward the tip of each finger. After each one he shook his hands vigorously, as though casting aside any negative energy he had encountered. I didn’t know what it was supposed to mean, but it felt good to have my knuckles stretched. Kan started in on my back, commenting on the stiffness and tension. He delivered light karate chop blows to the vertebrae at the base of my neck. A curious sensation, but not unpleasant. “Tomorrow I’ll do a proper ceremony with stones,” he said.

He touched me more than I’d normally permit a stranger to touch me, and I could sense his interest, part curiosity and part attraction, but I didn’t recoil under his hands. We were in a park surrounded by dozens of people—I wasn’t worried. Before he left I gave him my number, not bothering to tell him that I hadn’t switched on my phone in a week.

As a frequent solo female traveler, this type of interaction isn’t unusual. As long as I don’t catch a whiff of danger, it’s easy for me to watch these encounters with casual curiosity. While I never want to discount the possibility of learning something genuine or valuable, it’s easy to dismiss someone who offers a hokey pick-up line. Sometimes these interactions seem not quite real, as though they’re theme park offerings. Suffice it to say I wasn’t all that interested in Kan or his healing ceremony and after he left, I returned to my book without another thought.

A few minutes later, another man stopped in front of me. “Don’t you know that reading in the dark is bad for your eyes?” he said. I put my book down, trying to not seem annoyed. He was much older than Kan, wore chinos and a button-down shirt, and carried a folder of documents. He asked how long I’d been in the city. I told him I’d arrived only a few hours earlier, but could already see how beautiful it was.

“There is so much culture here that most tourists never see, mostly because they stay at these cultural islands known as hostels,” he said. I’m not sure what I’d expected this stranger to say to me, but that definitely wasn’t it. He’d hit a nerve, both because I stay in hostels and because he’s right—they are islands.

“Hostels offer salsa classes, cooking classes, yoga. You don’t ever have to leave. Why explore or learn what locals have to teach if you can get a free touristic version at your hostel?” he continued. He was specifically referring to the hostel where I was staying—I’d seen the signs for those classes when I checked in. The hostel also had a pool, and some guests stayed there all day, venturing out only to buy beer.

The sheer force of tourism changes culture because locations and locals cater to what tourists want, and I told the man that I constantly fear inadvertently contributing to cultural exploitation. I didn’t know Merida well enough to gauge such effects, but I had noticed that in addition to 7-11s and Burger Kings, the city also had a Walmart. The man said he was working with a group that had conducted extensive interviews in the U.S., Canada, and Europe regarding people’s perception of immigrants. Their data indicated that most people found immigrants tolerable as long as they were willing to assimilate into the established culture. “Yet that’s also what most tourists expect when they go somewhere,” he said. “They think their destination should adapt to them and their culture.”

The man had immediately identified me as American, but I didn’t know whether he pinned me as one of these tourists, an exception to the rule, or something in between. Regardless, my curiosity was piqued, much more than it had been earlier with Kan.

He told me his main goal was to promote knowledge and understanding of the Mayan culture by teaching and writing. He gestured to the papers in his hands and said he had just come from the last class of the semester at the Centro Estatal de Bellas Artes where he taught sociology and anthropology. I mentioned that I was a teacher too, and that I’d taught World Literature at a high school for five years.

By then it was dark. He suggested we get coffee at a café across the square. I’ve met a lot of people during my travels, but not so many locals who write and teach and enjoy such conversations. Nothing about him set off red flags—unlike Kan, he hadn’t so much as shaken my hand or stared at my bare shoulders.

14470618557_6ab2ac6084_kAt the coffee house he talked excitedly about Mayan history, beliefs, and medicine, describing the time he’d spent living in traditional communities. He talked about spiritual practices, rituals, and shamans. Our conversation was like going to a museum with a guide whose knowledge eclipsed the exhibits.

“I want to give you a book,” he said as the coffee shop started closing down. We walked down the street, still teeming with people listening to the buskers who had picked up where the city’s weekly music had ended. A few minutes later he stopped at a nondescript brown door.

“Is this your house?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, unlocking the door. “Come in.”

I stood there for a minute checking my instincts for warnings. Nothing.  As I peered around him I saw stacks of books, which I figured was a good sign. I didn’t want to pass up a chance to see how a local—and an intelligent and artistic one at that—lived. I stepped inside. Off to the right was a small meditation room with an altar, candles, tapestries, and a yoga mat. I could see a bedroom and a small open-air courtyard just past the living room. There were no windows. Books cascaded from an overstuffed bookshelf onto a large table. On the far side of the living room was a computer and a desk piled with papers, not so different from my own.

“See? It’s not a dungeon or a chamber of horrors,” he said with a chuckle.

He turned on the ceiling fan and gestured for me to sit next to him at the computer. He Googled himself (I won’t disclose his full name, but I will refer to him as Pedro, which is one of his first names) to prove he was who he said he was. The search results listed article after article about his prize-winning Mayan poetry, nonfiction publications, and conference engagements.

“Wow,” I said. “This is really impressive.”

“I’ve been working for a long time,” he said. “I think I’m on the verge of being where I want to be.”

He opened up a folder on his hard drive and showed me photos of him dressed as a Mayan warrior. “This was for the movie Apocalypto,” he said, explaining that he consulted on both the costuming and the use of the Mayan language in the film.

I had some sense of how hard he must have worked—in multiple languages, no less—to establish himself as an expert and to get his work into the world. I still wasn’t sure why he had stopped to talk to me in the plaza earlier, but I didn’t much care. The best moments in traveling are the ones you can’t plan or predict, when the stars or bus routes or rain showers align and something or someone crosses your path at the precise right moment. To say no is to violate the traveler’s creed, which favors open-mindedness above all else. I didn’t know what was going to happen in Pedro’s house, but I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself for not letting it play out.

He showed me the book he’d mentioned earlier, which explains Mayan medicine via parallels to Chinese healing techniques. I thumbed through it for a few minutes, but I could buy a copy later. What I really wanted was to know why I was there.

Pedro asked to see my hands. I held them out, palms up. He studied the lines and patterns. “You’re dehydrated,” he said.

“I’m sure I am.” It had been in the high 90s and humid since I’d arrived in the Yucatan. I had sweated more than I could drink.

“You have poor circulation,” he said.

I nodded. Especially during winter, my fingers and toes often turn white, even when I’m indoors.

“You struggle with anxiety and depression,” he said.

I nodded again. You have no idea.

All three of his pronouncements were accurate, each more important than the last, as though he was honing in on truths about me as he studied my hands. Yet at the same time, I recognized the obviousness in those suppositions. Most travelers dry up in the Yucatan. Most Americans struggle with anxiety and depression. Like a horoscope, such generalizations apply easily. I didn’t doubt Pedro’s intelligence or academic, linguistic, or artistic meddle, but after my experience with Kan, I wondered how common it was for locals to call themselves healers, to invoke their Mayan lineage to gain spiritual or psychic credibility, especially to travelers.

“Is your mother or grandmother a healer?” he asked

I shook my head.

“There’s power in your hands,” he said. “You should learn how to use it.”

I half expected him to offer to unlock that power for a discounted price, or to suggest that touching him would allow him to determine what kind of potential I had. But he didn’t say anything else about it.

Instead, Pedro did a ritual much like Kan had done earlier. He had me turn in my chair so we faced each other and he gripped first my right, then later my left forearm with both hands, thumbs on either side of my veins. He worked down toward my hand, then down to the tips of my fingers where he seemed to shake something off. After he did this with both hands, he sprayed eucalyptus oil into my palms. “It’s good for clearing the mind,” he said. “Now hold your hands up to your face, close your eyes, and breathe deeply three times.”

“Slower!”  he said. “Breathe from your belly. Shallow breathing contributes to anxiety.”

It felt good, drawing in the fragrant oil and being mindful of my breath.

“Now put your feet on my knees,” he said.

I thought about how much I’d walked that day and how long it had been since I’d washed my Keens.

“I don’t care,” he said, seeming to read my mind.

I put my feet on his knees. He touched my feet much as he had touched my hands, pushing his thumbs into my arches.

“Your walk is uneven,” he said, weighing my feet as though trying to decide between two pieces of fruit. “If you look at the indentations in your shoes you can see that you step harder with one foot than the other.”

“It’s probably because one of my legs is longer than the other.” My chiropractor had been working on this for a while.

“You need to be careful about that. It will cause hip and back problems,” he said, nailing another diagnosis. He sprayed my palms with eucalyptus again and told me to hold them to my face, close my eyes, and breathe deeply five times.

After I finished, he stood up and put his hands on my head. “Liberate this,” he said, tugging on my ponytail. An interesting choice of words, an apt metaphor. I pulled it from the hairband.

He moved his hands around my head like one might test the ripeness of a cantaloupe, finally letting his fingertips rest on my forehead. “You think too much,” he said.

“Tell me about it.”

“You need to give your head a rest. Let your body and emotions respond. You are getting in the way of yourself,” he said, rubbing my temples with his thumbs.

I’ve had longer versions of this conversation with at least three therapists. I tend to push everything into my brain—it’s easier for me to analyze and intellectualize than to feel.

“Do you ever meditate?” he asked.

“I’ve tried,” I said. “I find it really difficult.”

He nodded. “You should try again.”

He then moved down to my neck and back, poking here and there, asking what hurt. Like my chiropractor, he landed immediately on the tight muscles around my shoulder blades and then on the chronic sore spot on my lower back. He seemed to sense inflammation in all the right spots. After a few minutes he straightened up. “It’s a good thing you’re here,” he said.

“We need to do more work on your feet. First, you should wash them in the bathroom.” He led me through the courtyard into a small bathroom. “It’s not a sophisticated bathroom like you’re used to,” he said, handing me a bottle of Dial body soap and a hand towel. It was strange to see products in his bathroom—I couldn’t picture him walking down the aisle at the grocery store buying the same stuff as the rest of us. Of course he bathed and washed his hair and brushed his teeth—I just somehow expected that he did it with oils or crystals or something he brewed up himself.

The shower was a shoulder-high spigot above a drain with a crowd of bugs nesting in the corner. A little voice in my head noted how strange it was to be washing my feet in the bathroom of a man I’d met randomly a few hours earlier. How exactly did I end up here? I wondered, as though my brain had split into two and part of it had missed the last two hours. My brain had indeed bifurcated—on the one hand, I was thinking very much about what was happening, about whether Pedro was having me on, about what he ultimately wanted. On the other hand, I was trying to be fully engaged in what could be an organic experience arising from a stranger’s genuine feeling of connection. Perhaps I did need to quiet down my brain and trust my visceral responses. Or perhaps Pedro was smart enough to know that such an argument would help keep me there.

When I came back from the bathroom, Pedro worked on my feet, ankles, and calves in ways similar to massage or acupressure, moving downward as though casting something out through my toes. Then he moved up to my thighs. My skirt pushed up as he worked. “I’m not going to do anything inappropriate,” he said, sensing my discomfort. “This is only about healing.” His hands traveled along my quads, pushing, prodding, registering information. No touch lingered suggestively and he didn’t graze my underwear or beyond.

Then he led me into his bedroom. I noticed a TV and DVD player, which I found comforting. I wondered what he watched, if he ever laid in bed eating junk food and binging on bad movies. These details that suggested Pedro was a normal person felt curiously revelatory, and easier to engage than the bigger question of why we were in his bedroom.

Pedro sat me down on a bench near the foot of the bed and sat behind me, both of us facing his bed, his legs on the outsides of mine. He wrapped his arms around me from behind, hands clasped at my chest. Then he started swaying back and forth, moving me with him. “We’re loosening up your back,” he said.

As much as I love my chiropractor, he hasn’t been able to alleviate my constant soreness. Usually, the ache fades into the background, a bodily white noise since my teenage years. I let Pedro have at it, curious about whatever mojo he was working on my back.

He rocked and swirled us both around in great circles, bending so far forward that my forehead grazed his covers. We were both sweating. I wondered if that was part of the process, purging toxins or whatever else my body wanted to let go of. The swaying got more vigorous. I felt myself go limp and I lost all sense of time. It seemed as though we’d been moving in circles forever.

He pushed me forward so my face and hands were pressed down on his bed. I fought a rising sense of panic. If something terrible was going to happen, it would probably happen now.

He ran his hands along my spine as though it were a piano, completing a set of scales and then stopping to dig in between certain vertebrae, delivering the same kind of chopping blows that Kan had administered earlier. “It’s working,” he said some time later. He had me breathe into my hands with the eucalyptus again, 13 times.

“Now turn around,” he said, sitting on the bench. I spun to face him and he pulled my legs over his, like my best friend and I used to do on the playground swings back in kindergarten. He put his arms around me again, this time clasping them behind my back. He began the rocking and swaying again. My chin knocked against his collarbone, eventually settling in over his shoulder. The movements were the same as before, but this position seemed distinctly sexual, tantric. I kept wondering what I was feeling under me, whether he was hard or whether my mind was playing tricks on me.  I listened to his breathing, trying to figure out if it was quickening, if anything was happening as my sit bones dug into his lap.

The panic returned. I struggled to draw ragged breaths. It was impossible to ignore the rubbing and grinding as we traveled in sweaty circles. I pulled back as much as I could without breaking his grip, tense. He noticed and stopped. “You’re getting defensive,” he said. “In your culture, people don’t touch each other like this. Don’t project onto me the fears and conclusions you’d draw if we were in your culture right now. We’re not. And I can’t heal you if I don’t touch you.”

He was right. People in Mexico don’t exist in bubbles like Americans do. They touch all the time, whether it’s on a crowded bus or in “line”—often a jumbled mass, as people don’t insist on having the space a single-file line affords. The pages of the book I’d thumbed through earlier showed pictures of Mayan healers touching patients, and while I didn’t see photos of anyone swaying like we were doing, it was all hands-on work. At the same time, he could easily intuit that I’d be receptive to such an argument after our earlier conversation about adapting to other cultures. He might be saying the exact right thing to manipulate me.

We rocked and swayed interminably. I felt wilted, even though he was the one doing the work. “I’m getting tired,” I said to him, wondering what time it was.

“I bet you are,” he said. “Your body has a lot to let go of.”

He had me lay down on his bed, face up. He put his hands on my stomach. I tensed immediately. “I can feel the judgment in your body,” he said. “I’m not going to do anything inappropriate.” He paused for a minute and then said, “I’m gay.”

Yet again, he could be telling the truth or telling me what he thought would keep me there. The vibe I picked up from Pedro was very different from the one I picked up from Kan—there was no discernible attraction or sexual interest. My brain assembled comments from throughout the night: Pedro’s declarations that he wasn’t interested in touching me sexually, his comment about how, unlike his seven sisters, he didn’t have any kids and never would.  Latin American cultures can be conservative when it comes to homosexuality, and true or not, he took a risk telling me he was gay. I decided I believed him. Even though I’d already made a series of decisions around the question of Pedro’s intentions, this was the first moment I was aware of an actual belief. And somehow, it was easier to believe something so personal about Pedro than it was to believe in his healing abilities. Still, just because I believed Pedro to be gay didn’t preclude him from being some sort of charlatan. But as the night wore on, my brain churned less on suspicion and more on what it meant that it was so difficult for me to accept that Pedro’s healing rituals were real and that he simply wanted to help me.

He rubbed his hands together Mr. Miyagi style and laid them on my bare stomach, their heat almost searing. “You have to do something about your digestion.”

I nodded. Eating vegetarian and organic hadn’t solved the problem. I’d been wondering about dairy or whether it was connected to anxiety and stress.

He moved his hands lower, over my womb, and pressed down hard until I gasped. He recited a chant in Mayan. “There’s a ghost here,” he said.

A chill ran through my body despite the heat. For weeks before my trip I’d been in the throes of anguished ambivalence about having a child. As my friends, many of whom had been adamant about not reproducing, became pregnant, and as I began to envision my life without them once they made the inevitable move to the suburbs, I had descended into a deep existential depression.  My trip to Mexico had been a saving grace because it gave me something to look forward to and because it was better suited to someone without kids, confirming one of the main reasons I’m unconvinced about having kids. The trip also meant that, hopefully, I would be too busy and enthralled for my daily ruminations about what was wrong with me that at age 36 I remained devoid of maternal inclination. I was carrying a ghost, indeed.

Later it occurred to me that the ghost could have referred to other things: the baby my still fertile body wasn’t having or the IUD preventing it. Or, I thought darkly, the beginnings of colon cancer, which killed my dad at age 63. But as he pressed his fingertips into the space below my stomach, I knew he was referring to the emotional ringer I’d been through during the past few weeks. He looked me in the eye. “You know what you have to do,” he said.

“I do,” I said. It didn’t occur to me to ask what he meant, which seems strange in retrospect. I’ve unsuccessfully tried to re-inhabit that moment, to figure out what I thought I knew and why it all made sense in that instant.

He had me sit up and breathe into my hands with the eucalyptus oil one last time. “How are you feeling?” he asked.

“Very tired,” I said.

“You should be. You’ve been through a lot,” Pedro said. “When I first met you, your aura was yellow. Now it’s red.”

I thought back to earlier in the night, to the blue aura that had attracted Kan. I had another moment of wondering if it was all bullshit.

“You’ll sleep like a baby tonight,” he said.

He walked me back to my hostel, the one he had mentioned earlier in the evening, but didn’t comment on it. He said he wanted to see me again the next day to see how I was feeling. I nodded, but avoided setting up anything definitive. I wondered if I should offer him payment. Again, I questioned why he had willingly given up hours of his night to work on me. To make me a believer? Because it seemed as though I needed it? Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that someone would be willing to do that. Maybe I was projecting again, from within my culture. I don’t know many people in America who would do what he did without expecting something in return.

In the end, I gave him a handshake and slipped inside the hostel gate, noting that it was after 3 am. I wanted to take a shower, write down everything I could in my notebook, and sleep for days.DSCN3870

Despite my exhaustion, I woke up every few hours sweating and tangled in the sheets, breathing heavily from strange and intense dreams. I dragged myself out of bed a little after eight—it was already too hot to sleep in the dorm room. I felt somber and subdued, perhaps from fatigue, perhaps from something else. Details from the night emerged and had me grabbing for my pen at least a half-dozen times as I walked through the Contemporary Art Museum. Later, I got a coffee and sat down on a bench in a shady square. Within a few minutes Pedro sat down next to me.

The square was near my hostel and he knew my penchant for reading in public places, but I’m not entirely sure how or why he knew I’d be there. At the time, I didn’t think to ask—him showing up next to me wasn’t a surprise.

“How did you sleep?” he asked.

“Not well,” I said. I told him about the dreams.

“I figured as much,” he said.

“You told me I’d sleep like a baby,” I said.

“I did,” he admitted. “But what was I supposed to say? ‘Good night, I’m sure you’ll have a terrible sleep’?”

He had a point.

“You are still processing what happened last night. Your mind is trying to make sense of it all and it can’t do it the usual intellectual or analytical way. It needs you to not control it. It needs to sort through things its own way. The trick is not to stop thinking, but to balance thinking with feeling,” he said.

He sounded like my therapist after my dad died. “Stop moving the grief into your head,” she had said.  She assigned me homework between our sessions, to sit for five minutes with the life-sucking grief, to live and breathe through it. Pedro seemed to be making the same point.

It was strange to seem him in the daylight, as though he only existed among fever dreams and strange coincidences that happened only in the dark. It was hard to imagine that I’d spent hours on the lap of the well-dressed professional sitting next to me.

“I was thinking we should do some music therapy on you,” he said. “And then we’ll see about your hands and train you to use them.”

I hesitated. I hadn’t planned to spend the day with him. I had only begun to see the city and I’d made plans to watch a World Cup game later that afternoon with a few people I’d met at the hostel. But I didn’t want to offend him or suggest that I didn’t appreciate what he had done for me. “I have plans with some friends,” I said, knowing how lame it sounded. “I didn’t realize there was more to do.”

“If you have things to do, we can abort the treatment,” he said.

“I have only three days here,” I said. “There’s so much I want to see.”

“Yes, you’re a tourist. You have important things to do,” he said. “I have things to do too.”

It was hard to tell if he was trying to make me feel bad, trying to absolve me of guilt, or neither. While I didn’t feel like I had it in me to undergo another ritual or ceremony, I also wondered what I’d be missing by not going with him. It was a Saturday, and apparently his first day of summer vacation. Why did he want to spend it with me? “I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t expect or plan for any of this. But it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it.”

He nodded. “Let me give you some final recommendations.” He handed me his quartz watch and told me to put it on. It was the kind of watch my dad used to wear. “Quartz is something you’ll want to look into,” he said. “It’s cleansing. It’s powerful. You should keep it on you—I think it will help.” He stood up and held my arm parallel to the ground. “Try to hold your arm up as I press down on it,” he said. Pedro pushed down and my arm gave easily. “Now try it without the watch on,” he said, slipping it from my wrist. He pressed down again. This time, my arm barely moved. “You see?” he said. “The quartz will help keep you grounded.”

My mind immediately searched for explanations. Did he apply far more pressure the first time? Was it the placebo effect? I wanted to be open to Pedro’s suggestions, but it was hard to reconcile them with what I think of as new age bullshit mysticism. A stone won’t protect me. Quartz can’t change my energy. But if I was so sure, then why did I have crystals at home, some tucked into various places in accordance with Feng Shui? And what was the harm in believing? Was I so threatened by a little cognitive dissonance?

“The other thing you want is jade,” he said. “Real Mayan jade. Come with me and I’ll show you.” We walked a few blocks toward the main square and he led me into a small shop hidden behind touristy storefronts. The shop had carvings and statues of Mayan symbols, as well as pendants and jewelry. Aha, I thought. This is where I pay for everything and Pedro doles out a commission to whoever works here.

Pedro introduced me to the shopkeeper, who pulled out a big book that correlated birthdays with Mayan symbols. I told him my birthday, which he looked up in a chart in the back of the book. “Nawal Q’anil,” he said, and flipped open the book to look for it—and landed precisely on the page he was looking for. He looked us conspiratorially as though to say, “see? This is all meant to be.”

The description of my birth sign revolved around the idea of the seed and had an uncanny focus on fertility and pregnancy. After we finished, Pedro said, “I work every day in the coffee shop where we were last night, if you want to find me.” And then he was gone. I spent a little longer in the blissful air conditioning of the shop. The shopkeeper halfheartedly tried to sell me a jade totem, but seemed more invested in reinforcing my understanding of the symbol. I thanked him and went to watch the soccer match as though nothing unusual had happened.

That night I took in a street fair and another concert, exploring new parts of town and appreciating my solitude. I stopped near a fountain to listen to a guitar player when suddenly I heard my name and someone popped up in front of me with a dazzling smile. It was Kan. “I tried to call you, but you didn’t answer,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. We’re here now.”

What were the chances? How was it possible that he ran into me again in another part of town on a crowded Saturday night? Given the past 24 hours, I wasn’t all that surprised. I decided to go with it—I was too curious not to.DSCN3865

We walked to the city’s cathedral, the oldest in Mexico. He showed me Mayan symbols in the stones. We sat on the cathedral steps and he examined my hands again. “I have something for you,” he said, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a bracelet. “It’s jade and quartz. I think these are important stones for you. I made this bracelet a couple weeks ago, but this morning I realized I made it for you.” He put the bracelet on me.DSCN3868

He sat behind me on the steps and pressed his thumbs into my back. I wondered if he could tell someone else had been working on it. He bent me to the right, then to the left, then forward, muttering incantations in Mayan. It wasn’t anywhere near as intense or lengthy as what Pedro had done the night before, but the similarities were unmistakable.

“The moon is beautiful,” he said. It was, full like a giant pearl risen in the sky. “You are a goddess. Hija de la luna.” On any other day, I’d have rolled my eyes, but I only nodded and leaned back against his knees. “You are ripe like the moon,” he said, reaching forward to touch just below my stomach. “Fuerte.” Maybe he was having me on. Or maybe the ghost was gone. What was the harm in believing?

We talked and walked a while longer. He held my hand as he pointed out Mayan relics and symbols hidden in the city. The stones of the bracelet felt cool against my warm skin. My mind was quiet, too exhausted to think. He walked me back to my hostel where he gave me a long hug. He started down the street and turned back. “Don’t have bad dreams,” he said.

I slept like a baby.

Guest Contributor

Joelle Renstrom‘s collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, was published in 2015. She maintains an award-winning blog, Could This Happen, about the relationship between science and science fiction; her other work has appeared in Slate, the Daily Beast, Aeon, the Guardian, Guernica, and others. She teaches writing and research at Boston University.