miércoles, 31 de diciembre de 2008

Mayan trail travel journal, November, 2008

In November a friend and I went along the "Mayan route" in southern Mexico, or at least the part of it you can do in that time. I kept a journal, and and here it is in English, together with some of the pictures I took. What motivated me to go there in the beginning was to participate in the 9th International Congress on the Social Psychology of liberation, on the 14th, 15th and 16th of November in San Cristobel de Las Casas, Chiapas. Mexico. From there we took off, with a small suitcase and knapsack each for our adventure through Chiapas, Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatan.

On the first day before the psychology conference we went to the "Watercourse" which was created by a dam constructed on the river "Nuevo Usumacinta" not far from San Cristobal, Chiapas. It is a lovely place as you can see from the pictures.

The congress ended today and there has been no time to write except for brief emails to my family. My grandson wrote to say that he will be going on a trip from where he studies for a special course, and that for the next several days he will be isolated. Well I will be isolated, too, for the next few weeks.

The congress was interesting but so many opportunities were lost. It was held at “The Earth University”, just outside San Cristobel de las Casas, a place to teach to farmers practical things of life like organic-agriculture techniques, carpentry and things to professional midwives. The normal course of study is three years. And the place is beautiful. But it is probably more useful for this kind of education than for an international gathering where city people had jump over puddles and withstand the cold of the open classrooms. There was no easy access to food and the bathrooms were almost latrines.

Classroom, Earth University

We spent hours in political discussions that should have been more fruitfully analyzed. Generally the participants were young, and of the Latin left, which seems not to have advanced toward the modern world. The great preoccupation was neoliberalism, a discourse that has not been modified in twenty years - or more. They talked about the “enemy” and sometimes fought to each other for ideological reasons.

Nevertheless they failed to go into detail about environmental problems, and the present causes for world poverty. Globalization and the present economic crisis were ignored, and they did not mention the enormous transference of resources toward the upper classes that has created so many new millionaires and billionaires in the same lapse. It was all romantically superficial. At one point I asked, “Who exactly are “we” and “they”? This provoked a fight of insults and recriminations in the group.

My own presentation went well, but as it was scheduled for early Sunday morning -on a rainy, cold day- there was not much public.

Soon we abandoned political analysis for the discreet enchantment of the bourgeoisie at a place that is called “Old House” to have lunch. We ate and drank very well; lots of picante and tequila in the style of “three generations” or “the flag”: a glass of tequila, another one of lemon juice and another one of tomato juice.

In San Cristobal I felt there was a certain pride of race, especially among the middle-class people we met. For example, this Christ has definetly Mayan features.

But Chiapas in general, and San Cristobal specifically, is full of terrible social contradictions; it broke my heart to see boys and girls who sell lovely woven materials, shawls, blankets and the like walking the streets at night to sell in the fierce cold of that city. They are caught in a tourism world that only gets them insufficient food. They approach the tourists who haggle with them to save a dollar when the prices are already low by U.S. or European standards. Tourists think that if they don’t bargain, they will be tricked.
The mothers themselves are loaded with their smaller children who sometimes cry because of the confinement, wrapped in a long shawl on their mothers’ backs while they sell their gorgeous ware.

My travel companion and I found a “fair trade” store where the children enter, use the bathroom, and eat cookies. It is only a small gesture, but at least it is recognition of the humanity of these children.

I bought blouses for my daughters, very simple but pretty. Also I bought a jaguar mask.

I am very clumsy these days and I have fallen twice - thump- on the floor, losing in the process all dignity, and I hurt my knee. Now I walk watching the floor and miss details of the streets.

San Cristobel “de las Casas” is pretty; I imagine a “consolidated” border town. It was named for Fray Bartholomew de las Casas, the priest that convinced the pope at that time to declare that the indigenous people of America were human beings, but that the Black slaves from Africa were not. Not surprisingly, given the ethnic composition of the area, the people of Chiapas are still grateful for the first declaration.

There was once moderate wealth here for a certain social class, perhaps associated with agricultural commerce, and there are still stately one and two story houses. Now the houses have been converted into hotels or restaurants, painted of multiple primary colors. They have inner patios where once the owners’ horses entered, and some still have the water troughs.

A street with its colorful houses

We had lunch today in a place where they exhibit a family dinner table with leather-backed chairs; it gives impression that Don Diego Losada (El Zorro) would arrive to eat there. And one morning we had breakfast in a pleasant courtyard accompanied by an elegant, combed cock.

It is so cold tonight that I am writing this in bed covered with blankets and a poncho. The temperature differences between when there is sunshine, and after nightfall are huge.

17th of November

I try not to talk to my traveling companion about the discomfort I feel about the terrible social conditions that I see. Today two children entered a restaurant called “Revolution” where we were about to eat a delicious lunch. It is a place with paintings and allusions to the Mexican Revolution and the modern Chiapas rebellious movement. The children were selling woven braids for bracelets that are seen everywhere, and when we just said, “No, thanks” without looking at them, one said: “I’m hungry”. I ordered something for her and the sister at the bar. This massive hunger cannot be satisfied by feeding two little girls, but when the contact is direct, face-to-face, it cannot be ignored.

Something I noticed about them: they know to count money and to give appropriate change, but when one of them wanted to use the bathroom she couldn’t read the indications “men” and “women” and had to ask which to use.

The second encounter was more pleasant, in a craft market. A beautiful little boy who banged on a drum and his brother – more or less three years old, let me take their picture. I promised their uncle to make a physical copy for them. Luckily I was able get back there just in time before the market closed. Their brothers, sisters, cousins and a grandmother almost broke it in their enthusiasm to see it. It all reminded me of the children that live in impoverished Caracas neighborhoods that never have pictures to document their lives.

All the economy of this zone depends on the indigenous work: they are the ones that grow the food attract the tourists with their colorful weavings. They don’t enjoy the benefits; but in fact they only would have to organize a combined strike. All the business that depends on them would collapse: the hotels, the taxis and the stores. Nevertheless they are divided and they compete with each other. What have the Zapatistas done about this?

A shop where revolutionary memorabilia is sold

The two revolutions, the Mexican revolution at the start of the twentieth century and the present one lead by Marcos are important to people. My friend and I had a picture of ourselves taken in front of a big painting of Zapata in dramatic red tones.

Santo Domingo

We also took tourist trolley around the city; I took pictures of churches from outside, especially the beautiful facade of Santo Domingo. We saw the Virgin of Guadalupe church, and they told us as the faithful climb the long stairs upward to the front door on their knees on December 12th.

Virgin of Guadalupe


Generally the churches are quite plain inside in San Cristobel. It was founded was quite early in the colonial era of the colony, in 1528. On one side the city is flanked by an active volcano; it has covered the city with water and ashes.

Last night I was able to download my photos in the public library. There I saw boys who played computerized games (the traditional ones of car-smashes and war games) but in their own Mayan dialect. They speak “tzotzl”.

We decided not to go to Guatemala because we would have spent all our time just getting there and back. It is another night of intense cold: it is difficult to think that tomorrow we will be in the heat of Palenque.

18th of November

I am in the bus on my way to Palenque; we’ve been on our way since 6:30 a.m. and without breakfast. I write to keep awake.

Leaving San Cristobel we saw pine forests, and then, a bit lower, banana trees and Queen Anne’s lace. We go by fields where the farmers have put up fruit stands. Men and women wear ponchos and wide-wing hats. Each town has a small church of two colorful towers. I have seen protestant churches that use the same style of two towers and central door. It seems that a great part of the population no longer is Catholic.

Government efforts to seed pines and construct houses are evident. As always the most polished and posh spot was a military installation. But everything along the way is swept and clean. The road now curves, has lots of holes and “vibrators” (the little cement elevations to make drivers slow down). It’s hard to write.

The small villages continue with their multi-colored hyacinth flowers, but now the houses are made of cinder blocks and have aluminum roofs. There are large and attractive schools for the uniformed children one sees.

Little by little the pines yield place to other types of plants. The forests are almost gone now, and one sees strings of small villages. It is rainy and foggy. Plots are marked with wood slabs, and filled with lots of dry, already-harvested corn plants. On the radio our driver is playing pop-Mexican music, luckily softly.

We continue toward lower altitudes. There is luxurious subtropical vegetation. We are in the highway “Mexico 186”. Just to the right there is a deep abyss that seems not to bother the driver.

We finally had a good breakfast in a small village, but we only had half an hour. They got annoyed with me for being the last person to get back onto the bus, and the driver said that whatever happens to us in the next stretch will be my fault. It seems that the Zapatistas tend to board the buses aggressively and they exact a “tax” from all the passengers. We follow another “truck” (bus) like two white birds looking for security. The picture shows a house that proclaims its political alliances.

Still it is cold but we already have descended quite a bit from the mountains; we have to look up to see them now. There are watering holes for the animals and the dirt has a good, dark color.

While we moved farther away from San Cristobel we see fewer references to the Zapatistas and more the elected authorities. People give the impression, nevertheless, that these signs do not signal less support for this movement. There is evidence government construction - agricultural installations and roadwork.

We have stopped to see some lovely waterfalls, "Aguas Azules" and "Misol-ha".

20th of November.

I have not written anything for two days; I only write in the bus. We are leaving Chiapas and entering Tabasco, following the Mayan route. Many pictures have flown through my camera.

While in Chiapas we went first to Palenque, that means “palisades”. There are twenty-four temples of which I visited, along with a guide, seventeen. I fell down again, trying to climb the pyramids. In fact the entire trip has been physically difficult for me.

The temples of death, life and the sun are impressive. The stairways are narrow and high, designed more to be seen from below and produce deference to the royalty. It gave me the impression of a closed, defensive hierarchy, with its blood sacrifices to justify the king’s right to reign. We were told, nevertheless, that only in the last two centuries of these regimes did they resort to offering the lives of prisoners of war and slaves to their gods, above all the rain god; in the previous centuries the kings, the queens and important people punctured themselves with a ray-fish thorn, in their tongues, their bellies and their genitals to collect the blood for offerings. For these occasions the king would use drugs to diminish the pain.

The relieves are beautiful, loaded of religious symbolism. Something that is missing in this public vision of Mayan art is tenderness: one sees blood, wars, executions and ceremonies of control. Even their depictions of their gods were intended to inspire terror. In contrast, the Egyptians sometimes depicted peaceful moments, but the Mayan rulers seem hard-edged, always quick to offer or demand blood.

The Mayan dialects here are “chiol” and Lacandon”.

The following day we took a tour along the Usumacinta River to Yaxchilan, a beautiful set of temples that emerge from the forest. The river deserves a special mention because in this particular stretch it marks the frontier between Mexico and Guatemala. We travelled in long wooden canoes powered with small motors and guided by boys with great skill in maneuvering the currents and avoiding the underwater rocks and sandbars. A large flood had just destroyed the conservation works that have protected the shores, and had destroyed the crops on both sides.

Guatemalan frontier post

There was no border monitoring and one could see canoes criss-crossing it with people and purchases: it is the same Mayan people who live on both sides, and the modern political divisions make no human sense. I photographed a signboard that signaled the Guatemalan control post; it was notable for it’s apparent lack of authority. And our boat, in its zigzag across the currents approached so close to the other side that we almost could touch the accumulated wood rubbish there. My first reaction was: How civilized! It seemed to signal the priority of ethnic interests over geopolitical sovereignty. But our guide described how two decades ago bombers could be seen from the Mexican side dropping explosives during the insurgency of the '70s and '80s, something especially horrible because it was violence directed against his relatives and neighbors. And then, when we came back after seeing Yaxchilan, the wharf had suddenly filled with police and Mexican border guards, all armed with very disagreeable automatic guns. But they did not search us or ask for our papers.

Monuments emerging from the jungle

Yaxchilan is a very special place. Over us on the tree branches ran howler and spider monkeys calling to each other and marking territories with their tones of greeting and threats. Thier presence added inter-species warmth to our adventure of looking into the past.

Great stone lizzard

The images of kings like “Bird-Shield II and III who appeared in whitened or moldy-looking stone stelae, spoke of past power. They reminded me of Percy B. Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

A stela

In some of these images one can see how the king’s mother hands him emblems of power. I suppose that this signals some sort of role for women, or perhaps just the recognition of their genealogical importance. I have seen a stela in which the queen-mother gives him his own son; perhaps this means that in a patriarch system the queen-mother outranks the queen-wife.

A Mayan arch

The settlements are city-states, some more important that others, that never got to form an empire. They shared dialects from a same linguistic trunk, a common religion and a cultural style that can be appreciated in their arches, hieroglyphics, monumental construction techniques, and so on. They shared a belief in the same cosmic world order symbolized by a large tree: the roots meant the underworld; the trunk indicated the visible world and the branches alluded to the sacred supra-world. This can be seen in all the places that we have visited. Another element that appears everywhere is the importance of the God of rain, Chaak, with his long nose.

According to a booklet (see reference below) that I’ve been reading on the Mayas, it was the need to organize the felling of tall trees that made the first consolidation of power necessary in the southern Mexican jungles, together with the need to organize agricultural tasks and commerce. The physical separation between the upper class and the others can be seen in these cities. This concentration of resources allowed for the development of a class that could be dedicated to the accumulation of knowledge on astronomy, irrigation, flood control and intensive agricultural techniques for feeding an increasing population with a rich variety on nutrients and flavors.

And what I am enjoying these days are these foods and drinks with their wonderful, complex flavors. The Mayans did not go away; they still live here just as they always have. Only the rulers went away. The Mayans are a proud, friendly people that still use their ancestors’ clothes styles and the techniques and still speak derivatives of the same languages.

The Sacred Tree

Finally, Bonampac, another ceremonial city hidden in the forests. There were archeologists there working on maintenance. Paintings are still visible on the walls. Although they are much damaged, one gets an idea of how they these buildings must have been with their colors, at least the figures allow us to feed our fantasies about these cities. It is necessary to imagine them with fabrics, incense, and people obeying ritual traditions. Generally I tend to forget the names of the kings and Gods – I’m left with a general notion of the Great Tree with its roots, trunk and foliage; the turtle with its three spots that symbolize Orion, Chaak’s grotesque face, the feathered serpent… It is a tradition that’s still alive for the Mayan descendants. Cesar, our guide in Yaxchilan, with his kindness helping me climb the high stairs, spoke of his ancestors as if they were present.

I have mixed pictures from Yaxchilan and Bonampac, similar cities we saw the same day.

Reference: Pérez, M. and Sotelo L. (2007). The Mayas. México DF: Monclem Editions

Horse buggies for tourists / Caballo turístico: Mérida

November 21, continued

We got to Merida the same night after the six, almost seven. A gentleman that gives tourist information in the bus-station recommended three hotels, but the first two were full. We took the third one: it was so dirty that a scrubbing with chorine that we requested only improved the place on a psychological level.

We went to have dinner and then got into a horse-carriage for a general tour of the city. It was pleasant, and my first impression of a dismal, uncertain, and thread-bare city has been modified. The “night people”, tourists and the theater-going population became apparent. It is vibrant place, with cafés and plazas. I tried to get some pictures from the carriage, but the horse’s movement made it impossible.

Little plaza nexto to a church; There
is a small café in the corner

It makes me think about a pre-war Parisian arrondissement: tenuous lights, coffee-houses, and theater life. I sense animated artistic activity here; of course one must admit the differences –you won’t find Picasso, Cocteau, Satie, Sartre, Simón de Beauvoir, Camus, Breton, Braque, Cézanne, or Gertrude Stein sitting at those cafés, but an undeniable aesthetic atmosphere does.

The walls need painting. English expatriates are clearly living here. Their members give the impression of being a bit “seedy”, like the city.

November 22

A beautiful day in Merida. It began with domestic tasks: the need to find another hotel, to change money, to reserve the next tours to Mayan archeological sites. Then we began a tourist-bus tour of the city. The previous night we had taken one behind a horse; we did it today in a two-tiered bus, and it was cold. The city has an old-elegance, a memory of good times, before it was conquered by the revolution in the first decade of twentieth century and later, industrialization. The early hemp fortunes disappeared with the arrival of synthetic fibers.

Nowadays paupers scour the city by day, mainly in the morning, but somehow the authorities get them out of sight for the night. Tonight in the main plaza the motor traffic was blocked; the restaurants put tables in the streets and there were stands for selling things. Whole families were arriving to buy there.

We ate an excellent lunch near the main plaza, finishing with a banana flambé dessert and a Mayan coffee; the recipe is:

a) Mayan liquor “xtabentum”
b) Kalúa (liquor)
c) Whipped cream
d) Coffee
Heat the xtabentum with two big spoons until it flames up. Pour on hot coffee. Then add the whipped cream and kalúa (also flambé). Finally powder with chocolate bits. Serve in a glass with burned sugar on the rim.

We went to the Anthropology Museum in the afternoon where we took pictures. My notes on the matter:

a) The Mayans practiced the deformation of the skulls of the babies and made them cross-eyed for aesthetic reasons. Also they mutilated their teeth for the same motive.
b) Human beings crossed the Behring Straits 50,000 years ago. They arrived at Yucatan 30.000 years ago. They settled there in the 12 a.C.
c) The ceñotes are natural wells that open up when the earth's surface caves in on underground caverns created by the water flow under the superficial limestone layer one finds in Yucatan. The Mayans used them both to obtain water and to sacrifice objects (and human lives).

d) The three astronomical dome-shaped observation towers in Yucatan are located in a similar latitude.

e) k'uk'ulkan is the Maya name for Quetzalcoatl, or the Aztec feathered serpent.
f) The Mayans used a base 20 numerical system.

We have gone down on our fanaticism scale. We have migrated from the restaurant “Revolution” in Chiapas to the Reformation Hotel. Nevertheless there is a large reproduction of Zapata behind the main counter.

November 23

The most beautiful friezes that I have seen have been In Uxmal: beautiful facades, carven images and decorations. I even saw something remarkably playful: sculptures of birds on a wall, as if they had lit there almost a thousand years ago and liked it enough to stay. Only their songs were lacking. Notice the detail where one of them preens its plumage.

I’ve noticed that I mix up the monuments we’ve seen. Yesterday I could only remember where some pictures had been taken because our guide appears in one of them, and most surprising thing is that they were photos of Yaxchilan, a place I really liked. I don’t have an eye for style changes, and also each new king covered his predecessor’s constructions with his own. That makes identifying chronograms difficult.

But in Uxmal styles were amazing. The symbolic figures of Chaac, the plumed serpent, the turtle and the other symbols were quite clear. In addition there were geometric designs of " square spirals" that were reminiscent of Greek designs. One small unadorned temple we saw could be moved to Greece without surprising anybody.


Kabal wasn’t as big but it had a huge arch outside the city, much bigger than any other I’ve seen. It’s especially remarkable because the builders achieved those dimensions in spite of not having access to the rounded Roman model. It basically uses a sort of lintel for a cornerstone.

In a popular market I bought two jars of chile habanero en powder, and the lady that sold them gave me one fresh chile to see what it was made of. It seems a lot like Venezuelan ají, maybe just a bit bigger, and, of course, it has a sharper bite.

The market was really nice with mariachis and many different things on sale: flowers, food, spices, clothes and other things too. Everything was well ordered and displayed in a large open space. The problem was that we had very little time to visit it, because we were on our way to Uxmal on a tour. These tours are frustrating because they are always in a hurry to get someplace else. But they are necessary. Taxis are too expensive.

Now we are in the bus on our way to Valladolid. These second class busses are just as comfortable as first class ones. We move from town to town. The houses have low stone walls put together without cement, and they are not easy to make. The last time I saw walls like these was in the north of New York state, and they were already considered valuable folk-art that few people knew how to construct.

I stopped writing for a while because the lady sitting next to me, an 87 year-old woman, and I began to talk. She is a widow who is going back to her home town to try to get a government pension. We started talking about her life with her daughter, but the conversation gave a startling turn when she began to talk about all the women she who knew had been murdered by their husbands. She described several incidents to me with a luxury of detail. Although her stories could be considered a window on a macho life style that I personally have not experienced, I didn’t want to listen any more and let the strong sun close my eyes. She became sleepy, too, and there we were, two middle-aged women, dreaming about our different lives.

Poverty is apparent in the towns we pass now, and the streets are not so clean. There are tins and bottles littering the ground.

Note: I ate lime soup for the second time. This time it was not just a broth but something thicker, but both versions were delicious. I like the food they make in these regions.

Nov 25th

Chichen Itza

It seems like ages ago, although it was only yesterday, that we visited Chichen Itza, a wonderful place. I was guided through it with a little booklet, and in what follows I’ll cite bits from it to accompany my memory. We saw it having taken a bus that left from Valladolid.

Of course, I arrived there with a very positive preconception. I thought of the Itzá as a Mayan version of King Arthur’s Round Table. Almost Camelot, because they tried to include different Mayan ethnic groups in their government. That’s why Chichen lasted two or three hundred years more.

The archeologists keep digging. But it’s a very commercial spot now with busses arriving and different languages being spoken everywhere. There are souvenir sellers everywhere, too, and some of what they offer is really pretty.

I imaged, again, how things would have been back then. The Itza would have adorned their gods, and people would have been selling things even then. And there would have been many dialects being spoken.

On the left, as one goes in, one sees a road that leads to the sacred cenote. It’s the same way the Itza would have gone to get there, with low stone walls that lead to a small construction where they threw in their sacrificial objects. These days the vendors occupy the spaces where the priests would have stood to watch the king pass by on his way to the ceremony.

In the classical period (250-900 a.C) the Itzas had developed a certain historical awareness, astronomical knowledge and a precise calendar. In the dry environment of Yucatan they collected rainwater in constructions called chultunes, or got access to water from the cenotes. They farmed corn, beans, yucca, avocado and other vegetable products like tobacco and rubber. They also ate game meat.

Chichen is a well preserved and has very large set of ruins.

It's not the first place I have seen ballgame fields. I haven’t described them before, but we have seen them often on this Maya route. The one in Chichen is the biggest. It was built in the post-classical Maya-Toltec period (900-1200).

The game had ceremonial significance for them, and it is said that some players were sacrificed afterwards. Some of our guides have said that it was the winners and others that it was the losers. But anyway, this kind of death was a privilege and an honor. Symbolically it portrayed opposing forces like day and night, rather like an American version of ying y el yang. The players used heavy, protective clothing to hit a big, heavy ball with their ribs, hips, and chests; the objective was to hit certain markers, or even better, to get the ball through rings placed high up on the walls built up on each side.

The ring in this picture is decorated with two snakes, represen-tations of K'uk'ulkan.

At the far end is the temple where the selected players were sacrificed.

Near the playing field one can see several platforms. This one is the Jaguar Platform.

The main building is called “the Castle”; it is located in the center of the central patio. It has four sides with distint levels that lead up to a temple. I wasn’t there for the summer solstice, March 21st, when, in a play of light and shadow the great serpent K'uk'ulkan seems to slide down at the corners.

Behind this building is a large complex that includes the Chac Mool temple; I wasn’t able to climb up there to get a good picture of this reclining figure that looks like a chair, but in this detail it can be appreciated.

Next to the temple are a large group of columns that they call a market place.

Just as spectacular is the “Observatory”; it has a dome, and it certainly evokes modern-day telescope structures. But they say that there is no archeological data to really support this claim. I have decided to believe it is true.

There are other structures that have beautiful decorations. In the following pictures are representations of Chaac, the rain god with his long nose.

Chichen has a large sacred cenote. From the picture its circumference (60 mts) and depth (12 mts.) can’t be seen. The walls are almost vertical. The Itzas would throw sacrifices into it (things, animals and people). Some valuable remains and pieces have been recuperated by divers.

Reference: Roberto García Moll, (2002). Chchén Itzá. México D.F.: México Desconocido

noviembre 27th

I left my booklet about Coba in the hotel room, so, feeling lazy, I’ll just stay here in a comfortable chair in this garden -of the hotel Zazil-Kim in Tolum. I’m near the sea, although just now it's hidden by dunes and palms. It is a beautiful place.

First I will mention briefly Valladolid where we were two days ago. It is a small town, but they were repairing the streets so we couldn’t really appreciate it. In a shop I saw this sculpture, a copy of another one in a museum. I changed the background color to be able to appreciate it. It's a weaver who holds a loop of thread with her big toe to extend the fabric the length of her legs while she continues to work on it. It is an image of domestic calm, and gives the impression of certain contentment.

One interesting thing about this town is that almost all the adult women use traditional embroidered dresses. Each tribal group has its own design.


I’ll describe Coba ruins here, at least my reflections about the place, with some added information from a written guide book I bought at the site (see reference below after the Spanish version of this posting). The different buildings are nested between trees, a series of structures crossed by “white roads”, or sacbeoobé (sacbé in the singular). It’s the first time that the guides have mentioned them, and I don’t know if they especially unique to this place, or if they’ve been better kept up here. Nevertheless, there is special reference to them in my booklet about how they were constructed: some have rather high sustaining walls at the side due to the irregularity of the land. One of these sacbeoob extends for 100 kilometers to Chichén Itzá. As the Mayans didn’t use wheels, I suppose that the people were transported in liters, the messengers ran along them, and the merchants (and/or their slaves) carried their wares from city to city.

There are rental bikes to get to the biggest pyramid and rickshaws pedaled by teenage boys. The place is quite big, and it is too far to get from one site to another on foot in the short time that we had. I chose this last kind of vehicle. The rickshaw boys speak to each other in Mayan, but when I asked what dialect they used, they didn’t know. Another thing that drew my attention is their “incuriosity” with respect to the ruins. In other places people who work in the ruins have been proud of them. The boy who took me knew how to arrive at each site, but he couldn’t tell me what each one was. I felt that he was bored by his work.

But not everyone was like that. People continue to worship at one of the Coban stelae, to leave flowers and candles there, and to pray for a good harvest. These days the practice is diminishing, though, due to the slow elimination of small farms. It is in the next photo at the bottom, left, under a small vegetable tent.

                                                                   I removed a figure in front of the entrance.

Especially interesting for me was another domed observatory. Again the book raises doubts about the real intention of this construction; but I was standing next to a guide who told a small group in French that at the top of the dome there is a hole and underneath there is a container for water to reflect the stars. In addition the round walls allowed the priests to listen to the subtleties of winds. They used this information to predict hurricanes and to be able to determine season changes. Was it just her imagination? I don’t care: it’s a good story.

In my book it says that the origins of the Mayan ball game go back for more than three thousand years, since still it is practiced in some regions of Mexico. The Coban playing field has the classic form of a narrow corridor between two inclined walls where the game was played. There is a ring placed high up on each wall where the players had to “basket” the ball.

In a relief on one of the sides of the ball court there is a figure, probably of a player. He holds something in his hands that looks like an inverted “y”. It could be an implement of his game, but my first reaction was to think that it represents a child with dangling legs. As the figure appears in my booklet I was looking for it. I asked several people where it was. This made several more people look for it, and finally we found it right there on the wall of the court. Talking to the man next to me I said, “He’s holding a little boy”, and he answered, “No, it’s a rabbit.” That was enough to switch my perceptions: from then on all I could see was a rabbit with its ears hanging downwards. It was funny, and evidently these figures are rather like Rorschach tests (the Freudian ink blots).

Here are more Coba pictures:

Referencia: María José Con (2007). Coba. México D.F.: Monclem Ediciones

November 28th


View of "The Castle"

Tulum is located on the coast of Quintana Roo, and has a spectacular view of sea. The name in Mayan means “Walled City”, although its real name meant “Dawning”. Anyway, the “walled” name is appropriate, because the whole place is surrounded by wide and tall defenses. There was a stela there that indicated an early date for the place: 564 a.C., but its main importance is post-classic (1200-1521). It was one of the last to lose its importance as a city, and there is some speculation that Columbus saw some of the long canoes they used for inter-city commerce. Archeologists have found many and varied objects that were traded all along the coast like jade, copper, feathers, different agricultural products and many other things.

It’s not very big. There are constructions around the periphery and others placed in an orderly way in the large central patio. From the East the sea is a wonderful blue-green, the color people dream about when they want to imagine a tropical paradise. The sand is very white, the product of pulverized coral reefs. These days, since it is a major tourist attraction, it has a green lawn, palm trees, and walkways constructed among the sun-whitened ruins. In other words, it is pretty, lovely, elegant, charmante…..

In what follows I’ve put several pictures I took there.

First, looking east, one sees the principle building along the seaside. It has a little hole that was used to identify astrological time; when the light goes through it at a certain time of the year, it shines directly on a stone on the other side of the city, fixed into the wall. Unfortunately I don’t know what that date is. But here they are: a) the building, b) a detail of the building that shows the little hole more clearly, and c) the stone where the ray of light hits once a year.

The building (The Castle)

The hole in the wall

The stone where the light hits

A view of the wall with guard tower

                                                                                      What’s left of a little

The lower part of a relief showing a face:
The jaw line is very realistic

A lizard in the wall

his will be my last journal posting about the Mayan route. I’m glad to move on because there are many other things I’d like to talk about, but, too, I hate to close such a lovely trip.

In these last days we have been accompanied by the vision of Venus y Jupiter that have come very close in the late-evening, early nighttime sky, brilliant and enigmatic planets that seem to block out all the nearby stars. Since I’m a bewitched stargazer (quite illiterate, though in astronomy and astrology) it’s been lovely to see.

There are two last places that need to be described in this journal: the Tulum beach and town and Playa el Carmen. Both depend on tourism.

From the town of Tulum I’ll just post some beach pictures, that is, the beautiful sunset colors.

And from Playa el Carmen I’ll show some street scenes and a view of the island Cozumel from the main shore.

View of the sea, and far off, Cozumel

The warf

On the way to Cozumel

And to end this journey, another image of the Mayan tree of life that shows the positions of their different gods among the branches and roots.
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