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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

In Which I Travel Three Roads at Once

Pillars surrounded ancient market
Part I: Cancun, Valladolid, Ek Balam, Chichen Itzá

First, imagine traveling on foot, carrying everything needful on your head or your back or in your hands. You have no beast of burden — no horse or donkey or ox — and your road, whether a path through jungle or a constructed stone road, is traveled only by others on foot, though some carry on litters those of higher status. Your walk takes you through dense vegetation to various glorious and densely populated cities, each with a sophisticated culture, complicated rituals, and huge, impressive stone buildings, rich with ornamentation.

Next, see yourself moving through the same countryside on horseback, from one village to another. Ancient civilizations have been overtaken by jungle, descendants of the indigenous people conquered by invaders from across the sea, and now a new country struggles to find itself, free itself, and make its way in the world. Various leaders come forward in turn, with changing philosophies and shifting alliances and beliefs.

Modern urban street traffic
And the third road you should picture is that of the present day, mostly paved roads through populous but largely poor villages and through cities inhabited by residents of every economic status. These roads lead also to one after another of the ancient sites, cleared once again from encroaching jungle growth, stones cleaned and ancient buildings reconstructed, where necessary, to reveal the world that once existed in this place. 

Finally, imagine traveling these three roads simultaneously -- and now will have some idea of my five days in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. It is a wonder my brain did not short-circuit altogether as it tried to take in, all at once, unfamiliar history from various periods, archaeology from ancient times, a third language, birds and trees and towns and people all new to me.

View from balcony to ocean

My toes in Cancun
Arriving by air to Cancun, my friend Leonore and I were picked up at the airport and driven to a luxurious oceanfront hotel (not part of our tour), where we had dinner within the sound of the surf, slept off the effects of air travel, enjoyed breakfast and lunch overlooking the ocean again the next day, and lounged for a while by the pool, finally fleeing the sun to occupy ourselves indoors with our books before being picked up by Angelo, our guide for the week, who drove us via toll road from Cancun in Quintana Roo to Valladolid in Yucatan State, where we would spent our second night in Mexico. We were in modern Mexico all day.

Our hotel that night in Valladolid, I was very happy to learn from a group of faded photographs on the wall, had been visited years ago by Jimmy Carter and his family. Our room there was the smallest we had all week, but I think it was my favorite, because of the wooden shutters and doors that opened out to the soft, warm Yucatan air and the restaurant below. Our first night’s room (we would be back after a night in Merida and another in Uxmal) overlooked the excellent courtyard restaurant, and right outside our window bloomed a huge, stunning orchid tree.

El Meson del Marques

Jimmy Carter visited here!

Lovely courtyard restaurant
Blooming orchid tree from balcony
We enjoyed dinner in the courtyard restaurant and afterward strolled around and through the plaza opposite, which on Sunday evening was so lively it was almost as if a fair were in progress! Families with little children, young couples, old ladies, dogs, vendors of ice cream, sweet waffles, drinks, and souvenirs — all these filled and surrounded the plaza, and I couldn’t help thinking that back home in Michigan at that hour of the evening, the darkness and cold would have hurried everyone indoors, leaving village sidewalks empty. Here the air was balmy, everyone outdoors, and lights brought the front of the church to our eyes, despite the darkness.

Fortuitously, also, we found a bookstore still open and went in to look around. One of a chain called Dante, the small store carried varied and attractive stock. There were many classics, both Spanish and Mexican, and also English and French works in Spanish translation. Well, I could not visit Mexico without visiting a bookstore and could hardly visit a bookstore without making a purchase, could I? My choice was a book of poems by Antonio Machado, a Spanish writer. Most of my reading on the trip, however, mornings and evenings, was a dense nonfiction work on Mexico.

I am an early riser, una madrugadora, even on vacation, and also a nighttime reader in bed. My reading on this trip (I finished the last page on the homebound plane) was The Labyrinth of Solitude, by Octavio Paz, so during my quiet reading hours I was immersed in the history of Mexico from the Spanish conquistadores to the twentieth century, centuries of military and political struggle and the development of the arts. The influence of French philosophy (Henri Bergson was mentioned no less than three times in the book, to my surprise and delight) and French literature on Mexican culture was a revelation to me. French political ideas, too, were much more so than ideas from Spain or England. While reading I lived in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.

Seen along the way
After breakfast every morning, Leonore and I and Bill, a third member of the group (the remaining couple were with us only for the last day), would meet Angelo at 8:30 a.m. for that day’s sight-seeing, and in the van, on the way to each site, we would travel in and through the present. Conversation often touched on earlier years and even earlier centuries, of course, as we shared knowledge and memories, but basically we were in the now, taking highways and other paved roads through the present-day countryside and now and then (not often enough for me, because we were on a schedule, and Angelo kept to the faster toll road whenever he could) a town or village. 

Angelo spoke excellent English and also French and Yucatecan Mayan. Since Leonore and I are fairly fluent in French (better speakers in French than in our halting and rudimentary Spanish), and she is also fluent in Hebrew and has some Italian, as well, we were continually comparing languages, finding similarities and differences, as well as asking Angelo the meaning of Spanish words or how to say various things in Spanish. As the “foreign” compartment of my mind lights first on French phrases, Leonore’s is pulled sometimes to French and sometimes to Hebrew, but we made heroic efforts to think in at least bits of Spanish and to acquire more.

The third American of our party had little apparent interest in languages but great interest in history and comparative architecture, and he had read a great deal on the ancient civilizations and the various sites. He and Leonore had also been to many more countries than I have, so they had travel as a common topic. And Angelo, multilingual and well traveled, was very much a participant in all this talk, although sometimes he would fall silent, taking a break and concentrating on his driving, and other times I would be the quiet one, my eyes searching along the roadsides, hoping to sight an armadillo or iguana, and occasionally Leonore and/or Bill napped a bit, and then they were quiet, too. But I couldn’t close my eyes, even when there was nothing to see but green walls on either side of the road. I didn't want to miss anything! If nothing else presented itself, I would look for road signs to translate. 

Brave little climber
Leaving Valladolid, the first archaeological site we visited was Ek Balam, which means in Mayan black jaguar, and here we climbed (and descended, making our way up and down in my case, at least, with great trepidation) the ancient pyramid, and here we began our introduction into the life of the Mayan indigenous peoples. Ek Balam was the principal city in the eastern Yucatan during the Late Classic period, so now our road turned back in time as far as the year 900 of the common era, and we were introduced to the basic square the Mayans saw as the world, the nine levels of the underworld, thirteen levels of heaven, and (if I'm remembering this part accurately) seven levels of life on earth.

Our first of many Mayan arches
Below is the pyramid at Ek Balam, which I climbed as far up as the highest thatch-covered area on the left:

Thatching (not original) to protect carvings from erosion
Do you see the snake? The snake is everywhere!

In the ball court at Ek Balam

We were also introduced to the sacred Mayan tree, the ceiba. When young, it has thorns on its trunk. In maturity, the trunk is smooth, but the branches have thorns.

Returning to the twenty-first century once again, we traveled by highway to our next site, post-Classical era Chichen Itza (and both of those names should have accent marks over the vowels in their second syllables), and there we plunged back to the post-Classical period. Chichen Itza means mouth of the well of water sorcerers and was located to take advantage of the large cenote that furnished fresh water to the city from an underground river through the limestone bedrock. Everything about Chichen Itza is imposing — but then, every site we saw was imposing and monumental, characteristic of Mayan civilization.

Leonore y yo a Chichen Itza

Wall of carved death's heads, each individual

Chaa, or Chaac, the Mayan rain god

The rain god, like the snake, is everywhere, but Chaa is usually on the corners of buildings, with plenty of room for his long, curving nose to extend.

Very small sample of vendors in background
One modern note: Chichen Itza had, besides monumental stone structures and the important cenote, long paths through the jungle from one area to another lined with vendors of t-shirts, trinkets, embroidered dresses and blouses, rugs, hangings, etc. Some tourists find the intrusion of commercial life annoying, a kind of desecration of the site, but I could not see it that way. For one thing, the stalls are kept well distant from buildings and monuments. For another, what a hard life these vendors have! They must park their small cars or tiny trucks or load-bearing bicycles far from where they set up to sell and transport their merchandise on foot, every day, the long way between vehicles and selling areas. “Almost free!” was one favorite English come-on line that made me laugh. I’ll try that one to get the attention of browsers when I have my next bookstore sale! 

Our party did not buy anything from the stalls, but I was happy to see someone making a purchase once in a while and felt great sympathy for the vendors. Selling is not an easy life! "Do they come here every day?" Leonore asked. One of the vendors replied, in English, emphatically,"Every. Day." "God bless you!" my friend exclaimed. We walked a very long path lined with vendors to visit the cenote, source of freshwater for the ancient city --

-- but the most glorious building at Chichen Itza, for me, had to be the observatory. I confess a preference for rounded forms — the circular world of the Plains Indians in North America speaks to me more clearly than the square world of the Maya, though I love much about Mayan culture, especially the creation of man from corn — and the round observatory pleased my senses.

Observatory at Chichen Itza
So-called "nunnery"

The English explorers called the building above a "nunnery" because there were cells inside that reminded them of convent cells. The name, though inappropriate, stuck. This was, however, the best-preserved building found on the Chichen Itza site when the jungle was cleared away. (See Catherwood drawings here.)

Dramatic skies

My head was spinning, and my brain awhirl as departed Chichen Itza for Merida, where we would stay the night. The name Antonio Machado, author of the book I had bought in Vallodolid, was naggingly familiar (to mention only one of the hundreds of details bubbling in the stew of impressions that I constituted my mind that day), but that mystery, at least, was explained when I opened Octavio Paz once again that evening in Merida and found that his epigraph was from a novel by Machado:

The other does not exist: this is rational faith, the incurable belief of human reason. Identity = reality, as if, in the end, everything must necessarily and absolutely be one and the same. But the other refuses to disappear; it subsists, it persists; it is the hard bone on which reason breaks its teeth. Abel Martin, with a poetic faith as human as rational faith, believed in the other, in “the essential Heterogeneity of being,” in what might be called the incurable otherness from which oneness must always suffer. 

- Antonio Machado

As our own country, the United States of America, for a second year is plunging into obsessive fear of the Other, my immersion into another country and another language, other ways of life and other values, felt very healing. Open to Mexico, I found myself falling in love with the country and the people.

To be continued a la proxima vez.

[Apologies for lack of accent marks and for any "corrections" to spelling the program made over my head!)


Deborah said...

I loved reading this Pamela. I remember visiting Chichen Itza in 1996 and found it absolutely amazing. What a wonderful tour you had.

P. J. Grath said...

Deborah, I forgot you were there! And that Maiya has been, also! I'm late catching up with the rest of you. Maybe I'll even get to Ireland someday?

Dawn said...

We went to Cancun years ago...maybe in the 90s. We took a tour of Chichen Itza, got on a school bus and drove through the jungle, through many little villages, I think it took us 4 hours to get there, and 4 to get back. The drive back was fascinating because it was dark, so the houses in the villages were lit and you could see inside. It was on that bus trip that I realized you don't need a whole lot of money to be happy. The people there had a house, a refrigerator, a TV and a yard with chickens and pigs and fruit trees. That's all, apparently, a person needed to be happy.

I was also very impressed with Chichen Itza. Back then you could climb to the top of that big pyramid. I don't think they let you do that anymore. The observatory was fascinating too, as they were keeping track of when the sun and moonlight came through certain windows. How they figured so much out from that is beyond me, but they did.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, I envy your drive through jungle and villages. Because we were on a tour and had a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time -- and probably because he has to do SO much driving all the time -- our guide took toll road whenever possible, rather than back roads through villages. Another time I would like to see more along the way, even if it would take a lot longer to get to a destination. It was the only thing I wasn't crazy about on the trip. Toll road is like an endless tunnel of green.

No, you can't climb the pyramid at Chichen Itza any more. We did climb at Ek Balam but no others, and that was fine with me. Too scary! But yes, all so stunning, those ancient city sites!