The bus was headed to the Stann Creek district of Belize, where a local shamana would offer a talk about jungle plants and Mayan ceremonies. Marlene had booked the excursion out of curiosity. She had worked, back in Cuba, with santeria practitioners and wondered how different shamans and santeros would be. She wasn't a believer, however, and her forays into the occult had only served to confirm her mistrust in their practitioners.
Sarita wasn't interested in going at first but changed her mind when she found out that Carloalberto, Helen and Emma were among the passengers.
Marlene hadn't seen these three after discovering Carloalberto and Helen's "shenanigans." Maybe he had acted fast enough, and his wife didn't suspect anything. Maybe she didn't care, or it didn't occur to her to consider the screenwriter a rival.
Helen kept checking her cell phone and complaining about poor Internet connection. Emma looked out the window, seemingly bored. Carloalberto, sitting in the middle, divided his attention between the two women.
The road led to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the only jaguar preserve in the world. A few tourists craned their necks outside, hoping to get a glimpse of a wandering jaguar although the guide, a short, muscular young man named Pedro, had already told them that it was extremely rare to see one in daylight.
To keep them entertained during the two-hour trip, Pedro told them about the Mayan civilization that had inhabited the area long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores: their use of obsidian tools, their ball games and elaborate calendar.
"So what happened to them?" a tourist asked. "Why did they disappear?"
"They didn't disappear," the guide replied. "Look at me! I am Mayan. My wife and I speak Maya at home. The shamana we are going to see and her family are all Mayan. Although many of the original inhabitants of this region up and left, possibly because of a drought, others stayed and mixed with Olmecs and Toltecs, and later with the Spaniards. We are still here, but hidden in plain sight."
Helen started taking pictures of the landscape, Pedro, other passengers, and a few selfies for good measure. Emma rolled her eyes but said nothing. Carloalberto was active in the selfie-taking maneuver. Except for Sarita, who looked enthralled, no one else on the bus seemed to recognize him.
"Are you sure that you and your friends aren't the only ones who watch this 'Terrific Two' program?" Marlene whispered to her niece.
"Of course not! It's very popular!" the girl replied, offended. "The problem is that this bus is full of people who live under a rock."
The shamana's domain was a compound built around a big palapa structure. A small house and several straw huts were scattered nearby. There were mango and orange trees, flowering shrubs and blooming orchids everywhere.
The group was led to the palapa, where they sat on red, blue and yellow cushions on the floor. The shamana, a short woman with jet black hair and intense obsidian eyes, brought them snacks: Mayan-style chocolate mixed with cornmeal, ripe mangoes and round pastries drizzled with honey.
Her talk revolved around green medicine and herbal remedies.
"The cocolmeca or male dioscorea has a Viagra-like effect," she said with a wink. "Boil it in water and take three cups per day. The results are miraculous!"
A few tourists took note, either using their Smartphones or on old-fashioned pieces of paper. Carloalberto asked the shamana if he could record her talk. She agreed.
Afterwards, when she got ready to take them for a walk of the botanical garden, Helen asked, "Aren't we going to do some kind of ceremony first?"
"I could do a tzite seeds reading," the shamana answered. "The tzite is one of our most sacred trees. But bear in mind that I tell it as I see it. Sometimes people get bad news and yell at me. This isn't 'for entertainment only,' as clairvoyants do in your country. Here, you have to be willing to hear the truth."
"And how much would that be?" another tourist asked.
"Only $20 per person," the shamana replied, "because readings weren't included in the original tour."
The botanical garden walk was forgotten as the tourists got in line for their readings.
"What a waste of time and money," Marlene complained.
But she got in line as well.
The readings were fast. A quick and dirty consultation, Marlene thought. Most people were beaming when they came out of the straw hut where the shamana had set up shop.
"She talked as if she had known me my whole life!"
"Everything that she said was true..."
Ah, Americans were so naive. Marlene shook her head, by now convinced that the shamana was an astute con artist. How come no one had received the promised bad news?
Still, she couldn't avoid a feeling of apprehension when her turn came, and she sat in front of the woman, who wore a red and white rug that smelled strongly of copal. The shamana opened a blue cloth bag ("my sacred bundle," she called it), took out a bunch of bright red seeds, blew on them, prayed quietly and spread them over the dirt floor.
"Your life is going to change," she said.
Marlene waited, unimpressed. Weren't most lives constantly changing?
"You used to make a living following blood trails, and you'll do it once more," the shamana went on. "You are a natural born bloodhound, and soon you'll be following a trail again."
The Spanish version of this story is on Page C4.