My first husband, Leo, was rich. Actually he sold his saxophone after medical school to buy passage on a ship sailing to the States. He was handsome, worldly, and intelligent, but eventually success went to his head.
At one point we were traveling a lot, and of course, always first class. After a time in fashionable resorts I thought it might be a good idea to interject a bit of culture into our travels, and that is how we ended up at the great Mayan city of Palenque.
At that time Palenque was still surrounded by unspoiled jungle, and perhaps it still is. There was a small town a few miles from the site where the local people lived. We stayed at a hotel on a hill where the air circulated more freely than in the lowlands.
We arrived accompanied by our driver in the afternoon, and were profusely greeted by the kind staff who had prepared our room. By now, Leo was accustomed to staying in penthouses and presidential suites, and was having none of the ordinary room above the restaurant in the main house. And so the bellhop picked up our luggage, and led us to the annex far from any disruptive noises. I should mention that a low fence ran along the edge of the property, and just beyond that was the forest. Leo wanted to stay on the top floor which was closed due to lack of tourism, but eventually settled for two rooms at the farthest end of the building— one for each of us so that we would not have to share a bath.
When there is no moon or electricity to light the surroundings, night is profoundly dark, and can be disorienting to city people unused to wilderness. It is almost impossible to tell where sounds are coming from, and how far away they are.
After dinner, Leo invited me to his room to read aloud from a guidebook about the site. Shortly into my reading, the great silence outdoors, during day a din of animal noise, was interrupted by the lowing of a cow.
‘Funny, I thought the village was some distance away,’ I said, ‘ But it sounds as if the cow is right on the other side of the fence!’ The cow lowed again and again until it was bellowing. And then we heard it, the unmistakable roar of a jungle cat. You have probably heard this in zoo or in the movies, but when you experience it in real life, it can cause quite a shock.
The cow was clearly bait for the cat. The cat roared again and again. We then heard some excited talk, and a few rifle shots followed by utter silence. Naturally, we mourned the cat like true city folk.
By then I had finished reading, and was ready to return to my room. Leo in jest said he would make sure the coast was clear. Opening the door, he rapped on the metal frame and called, ‘Here kitty, kitty.’
When that animal roared out of the darkness, Leo leapt several feet backwards, and slammed the door. I had never known a human being could jump like that. We had no idea where the cat was, but it seemed as if it was staking out the grounds directly in front the annex. We spent the night cowering at the back end of the room since the large picture window had a mosquito screen over it but no pane.
The next morning when we went to breakfast, I asked the waiter what had happened to the cat. Suddenly the entire staff of the hotel materialized, and insisted that there had never been and never would be a jaguar anywhere in the vicinity. But that evening, lamps were lit around the entire perimeter of the property.