Ulama Rama Ding Dong

Paco had thought summers were brutal back in Sinaloa. Ha. It got damn hot and soppy in Mazatlan and Culiacán, but nothing like over here on the Caribe. It was like being in a hot towel all day and most of the night. Shower off, the water’s lukewarm and you’re sweaty before you can dry off. He was getting really, really tired of always having his balls dripping with salt itch.

But sweltering here in Quintana Roo had two big advantages. He had a job. Which was not something to be lightly sought over on the Pacífico coast. Seasonal, undepaid, silly… but it was a job and occasionally attracted a few groupies.

And he could devote himself to The Game.

It’s funny but he had always thought of it as “The Game” even though everybody knew it was called ulama. But over here everybody just called it “the prehistoric ball game” or “the Mayan ballgame.” And even funnier, he hadn’t met a Mayan yet who actually played The Game. Or even knew how it was played. But that was the great part, really. In fact it was downright chidisimo because that meant when Xcaret–which he thought of as the Mayan-Gringo Disneylandia–wanted to stage games on their authentic phony ball court they had to import players from Sinaloa. So here he was. Digging it.

Another funny thing, Puch knew more about the history of the game than he did, and he was a star player in the top league in Sinaloa. They’d played at the carnival in Mazatlan, the second biggest in the world, for the Governor, for the U.S. and Canadian Ambassadors. And took home beer money. Or less. Here he was making a living and scoring with chicks from like Norway and Japan and Alaska and shit.

Puch said ulama de cadera, the style they played, was a direct descendant of the oldest ball game in history. How’s that for chingón? Centuries before anybody played baseball or futbol or basquet or, whatever, golf. And think about it, where else were they going to get a rubber ball? The only rubber in the world was here in the Yucatan. And playing The Game wasn’t just something to do on Sundays, have a few beers and go humiliate those nacos from the Guasave team: it had been like, a religion. Kings and warriors and priests. Sacrificing the losers. Or was it the winners? Anyway, it was a big deal.

And look where he was playing now. Well, during high season, anyway. A brand new court made to look like old stone, colored lights on the game, cute Mayan “cheerleaders” (actually those porristas were about as Mayan as he was… mostly kids who wanted to get on with foclorico troupes up in Guadalajara or the D.F.). Stars, they were. Fireworks and big applause and flashes going off. Get nice tips for posing with people. Sometimes some really nice tips from gringas and europeas. And everybody here was a major stud from back in old “Chinaloa”, too.

They hand-picked the best for this–after all, they paid the best. Xcaret didn’t assign teams, let them clump up on their own. So it was pretty much the top players from the Coast against the cream of the hillbillies. Mani had said it, and it was true: Xcaret was the SuperBowl of ulama. Right here in Mayalandia, where it all started, then died out.

Puch told him that wasn’t uncommon for this area. He said horses got started there, then went to Spain or somewhere and died out here. But the Spaniards brought them back. It was how things worked over here, is the way it looked. Like the Judios going back to Israel or something. And now Puch was building his own ballcourt, is how it looked.

It started out when Puch, who they knew because he led snorkle tours at Xel Ha and Xcaret and was a very solid guy, muy gente and buena onda, had invited a bunch of players over to this Crocun place to eat and suck up a few sixes of Superior. Tasted like dishwater compared to Sinaloa’s own Pacífico, but it was the local fave, La Rubia de Categoria. And they all came back. You would too, if you tasted Señora Pop’s chow. Riquisimo!

And they’d started playing down in this big pit behind the restaurant. It used to be a stone quarry, but had been scraped out and there was this pond at one end where some crocodiles and iguanas hung out, but the rest was this almost perfect box where they could run around, practice passing the ball from hip to hip, take shots at a basketball hoop Puch had mounted sideways on the wall of the quarry, instead of the traditional stone ring.

They taught Puch the game, and he wasn’t bad at it, either. And he taught them a lot more. He’d been off to la uni but mostly he just ran around learning stuff about his people and his country here. And they’d all tidied up the quarry a little. Puch conned some guy with AguaCan to bring a little mini-dozer in, but they did a lot of sort of moving rocks around, pounding the floor of the quarry flatter with big mauls. The way they’d cut the stone out, there were already tiers, and sometimes their wives and girlfriends and an occasional stray tourist chick would sit up there under this palapa Puch had set up, watch them play and toss them cold chevesnow and then.

There was something different about playing here. Not like Xcaret, which was more a spectacle than a sport, like those cape and mask bruisers in the Lucha Libre. And different from back home, where it was this community thing. Here is was straight-out deportiva, man on man, teamwork against teamwork. They loved playing down here and came over every Sunday, and a lot of times during the week, maybe just to help groom the court. It was actually starting to look like the real thing. And hey, wasn’t it the real thing? Weren’t they indigenous Mexicans, weren’t they true players?

Lately it had been more fun because a bunch of the dancers and musicians had started showing up as well. Not in the whole feathers and animal head drag like at Xcaret, just jeans and skirts and sometimes swimsuits. Nobody swam in the croc pond, though. Nice bunch of kids, mostly from like conservatories in Merida and Mexico, girls studying dance and playing Xcaret for the money, like us. Not a real Mayan in the crowd.

They’d been doing a little grooming of their own recently, making a sort of platform above the goal end of the ball court, trying out routines up there, dancing around a fire at night while the musicos jammed and we sat around and watched and clapped.

The weird thing was, you couldn’t have paid him to do stonework in this heat. Be a damn albañil getting the minimo for sweating like a negro. But they were doing it for fun. It just sort of felt like something they should do. And if they needed to get rid of a rock, there was always a place for it. And if we needed rocks, they could just pull them out of the slope of the hill. Puch sort of set aside areas to take rock and fill out of, one on each side of a sort of outcropping above the end of the cancha and dance platform. One day Mani was standing there bumping a ball up and down off his hip pads, but he pointed up the court, and said, “This place is starting to look like Palenque or something.”

And it did, like they were carving a Mayan site out of live rock. Paco mentioned this to Puch and he just smiled. Told him, “Stick around.”