I can’t seem to stay out of this area. A couple of days ago, Mary E. and I picked up Guillermina and her grand-daughter in San Antonio Tehuitz and proceeded to her parents’ place in Teabo (see earlier article). They had fixed three of my old cotton hammocks that I never thought I’d be able to use again. Huge, comfortable, tightly-woven things. I don’t like nylon hammocks and it’s getting harder to find cotton.
Not only did they repair the holes, they also washed the hammocks. Now they are a bit faded, but they have character. One of them is about twenty years old.
We played with puppies and chickens and left Guillermina there to visit while Mary and I went into Mani for lunch at Restaurante Tutul Xiu, always a good experience. l had the escabeche and Mary had queso relleno with a lot of melted cheese. And they had sour orange juice, the perfect accompaniment to Maya food.
As I have done whenever I’ve gone to that area for the last three and half years, I launched my usual search for my old friend, Padre Luis, who I first met when he was the priest at the huge monastery of Mani, maybe fifteen years ago. He is a man I have admired for a long time, and to me, a non-Catholic, the embodiment of Christianity.
Padre Luis Quintal is a Maya from Hunucma, and one of the few Maya Catholic priests. When he was at Mani, he had a big hunk of a Ceiba tree (the sacred tree of the Mayas) on his altar, and encouraged the mixing of Maya ritual with the Catholic ones, to the displeasure of the archdiocese. His 100% Maya congregation adored him and the church came alive with classes, children’s voices, music and good smells from the kitchen.
About ten years ago, he wrote a successful grant application to a foundation in Germany to build and establish a school for campesinos, to teach them about ecology, crop rotation, composting, dry toilets, and much more. He ran the school for years, alternating groups of farmers who would sleep in the dorms and go home to their milpas a few days a week to take care of them. His cook, Bernadette, from the church, prepared fabulous meals.
The school was operated under the auspices of the archdiocese.
The padre also cultivated bees and produced honey. They raised ordinary crops like tomatoes and beans and tried with some success with broccoli, various root vegetables, and northern hemisphere bean varieties. He had a lot of volunteer help from people from the University of Yucatan and other places – in fact, the school attracted attention from all over the world.
Padre Luis experimented with man-made ponds, as ground level fresh water is non-existent in this area. His academic guests contributed new ideas and they tried various alternative crops, like mushrooms, which they raised in a limestone cave.
Merida artist Alberto Castillo painted a large, richly-featured religious painting on the altar in the school’s chapel.
I was gone from the area for a while, and next thing I knew the padre had been relieved of his duties at the school (by the archdiocese) and replaced by a new director. He was also transferred from Mani to a lesser church, in nearby Teabo. Here he used the church acreage, as he had in Mani, to cultivate citrus and other crops and teach the villagers to do the same in their compounds. And here, as in Mani, the local people fell in love with him.
On his own nickel, Padre Luis bought a large plot of land, about 50 hectares, outside Teabo where he raised habaneros and cultivated melipona bees. This time, he did not put his efforts under the archdiocese. When I visited him there a few times, he was out in the sun working on the crops, and showing his methods to groups of young village farmers. They harvested and sold the habaneros.
Then I lost track of him. He was never in the church in Teabo and when I visited his land, he was never there. Mary, with whom I often travel, was beginning to think the padre was a figment of my imagination.
Eventually, someone told me he was ill.
So last week, when I went from one place to another asking about him, I didn’t really expect to find him.
Mary and I wound up at the agricultural school where a young man offered to escort us to the padre’s new property. To make sure he would be there, young Emmanuel called the padre on his cell phone!!
It’s a new world. Padre Luis has a cell phone.
We went out there through some rough dirt roads, and came to a four-hectare paradise, with well tended trees and flowering plants. And there he was! Working as always, with his beloved plants.
Padre Luis is a slight man, with humor and kindness in his eyes. Everything he touches turns to green. His air is open, friendly and non-judgemental and his quick intelligence is obvious under his gentle demeanor.
He is older, of course, his hair is greying, and he shows signs of his recent illnesses and surgeries. He is on medical leave from the church and will retire in May when his leave is up. He has built a little paradise on his new land, which is near Mani.
There are twelve lovely Maya-style dwellings, pole and thatch buildings, each built on a separate hill. They have dry toilets and use minimal electricity. They all have kitchens, bathrooms, and large, pleasant areas for hammocks. Most have covered outdoor areas with big, rough-hewn chairs for relaxing or reading. Each house has a small pool, which the padre is stocking with small fish and plants. The fish will eat the mosquito larvae. (We hope.)
The melipona bees (stingless Yucatan bees) are housed in locations all over the property in stacks of logs. There’s a lot of traffic in and out of the logs. The padre says they’ll have honey in April. Honey from these bees is light in color and reputed to have medicinal qualities. It’s quite expensive and quite delicious.
The property is contoured. Some of the contour has been added by the padre and his workers. They’ve built a massive altar area for Maya rituals. Close to the road, he’s planning a restaurant with regional dishes. There’s also a big stone foundation for a gathering place. Everything is made of natural material, and since Padre Luis is a man who cultivates good will wherever he goes, the construction is of artisan quality.
He’s planning to open an “ecological guest house” early in 2010. It’s very quiet in this yet-unnamed place, with only the sounds of the breeze and wildlife. It’s far enough from any paved road that there are no traffic sounds and there are no visible neighbors. It’s a perfect place to retreat and contemplate, a good place for people who don’t need externally-generated entertainment. No TVs, no phones, no cars. nothing but tranquility and the feeling of natural forces working together.
This place is a reflection of all of Padre Luis’ values. It embodies him. He generates an aura of peace and serenity, just like his guest house. I’ll be his first customer.