Thursday, July 26, 2007

Another Day, Another Z.A.

I was sharing a taxi with another traveler. Our driver was on the short-wave with another driver: "I'm doing the Zeta Ah run today. I take the tourists to the Zeta Ah, then come back. I pick up another group, then it's back to the Zeta Ah again. All day, same thing."

Zeta Ah
? Z.A.?
Then I got it: Zona Arqueologica. Archeological Zone.

Why is Yucatan such a popular destination? Two features command enduring interest: the opulently warm, powdery beaches roundabouts Cancun, and certain famous rock piles. Now that Chichén Itzá is officially a New Wonder of the World (see the recent National Geographic poll) more people than ever will be waiting in long lines to view El Castillo. They'll drive up the price of hotel rooms and encourage the production of soap carved into chac mools (a sort of coffee table for blood offerings, a chac mool is shaped like a guy resting on his back, head turned contemplatively to the side). Good for the economy. Not so good if you want to spend a reflective, meaningful day exploring the wonders of ancient Mayan civilization.

Why fight the crowds? Settle into your comfy ergonomic desk chair and Miss Judy will take you on a free* whirlwind tour. You'll see some amazing Mayan Z.A.'s. Save your airfare for that trip to see grandma. You know you've been putting it off.
*Gratuities not included.

It costs $45.00 for a tour guide here. You figure: forget that, it's too expensive and anyway it's fun to explore on your own. But take a look at the wide range of architectural styles. Notice the richly detailed engravings around the courtyards. Eavesdrop on a guide explaining how the ball games were played and why Chichen was the most important Mayan city of its time. You'll realize you have many, many questions. Go back to the entrance gate and weasel your way into a group already in progress. Slip a few bucks to a friendly-looking guy with an official badge. There, you've got yourself a tour guide.

Some highlights:
El Castillo (a.k.a. The Castle, The Temple of Kukulcan)--Add up the stairs on the four sides of this beautifully stark pyramid and you get 364. Counting the stepped platform at the top that's 365, the number of days in a solar year. At the equinoxes, the sun striking the stairs forms a shadow-snake crawling down the north face. Wow! Basically a giant calendar built of stone, El Castillo served to mark the start and end of the planting season. It also impressed the heck out of the peons: "Behold, peons, I summon the mighty snake god! See how powerful I am?
Bow down! Lower! Ah, ha, ha, ha!"

Tzompantli (Platform of the Skulls)-- The sacrifices (yes, I said sacrifices) performed here were determined by the outcome of the ball games played in the nearby court. Who ultimately suffered the cold, sharp bite of glittering obsidian? The captain of the winning team. Should have taken up water polo instead, I guess.

El Caracol (The Snail) -- Light shining through a slit in the dome of this observatory was reflected in a pool of water below. Using this technique astronomers could not only see the stars, but also observe solar eclipses without damaging their eyes. Such smart guys!

Much, much, more -- There's a reason this place is so highly esteemed, okay? Just don't expect to climb any pyramids or explore any hidden chambers. Almost everything is off-limits.

Ek' Balam:
You might never see this lovely site as part of an organized tour. Ek' (spit that 'k' sound out!) Balam, Black Jaguar or Jaguar Star, is relatively small, but set in a dazzlingly lush swath of light green jungle. In contrast to the mathematical precision of Chichen, the structures here seem sensuous, with rounded edges and irregular outcroppings.
Climb the 105 steep steps of the so-called Acropolis. On a platform near the top find the temple entrance set in a monumental jaguar mouth. Angelic figures romp in the background.
Pause for the dramatic view at the top before (don't look down) descending.
Walk an extra couple of kilometers through patches of flickering butterflies. Cough up $3.00 to visit the cenote: a Mayan gentleman will show you where to change. He'll advise you to watch your step on the slippery wooden stairs, and ask if you need a life jacket. Slip into the placid, blue-green waters. You are the biggest fish in the pond. Chase the onyx catfish into the shifting shadows.
Tulum is on your itinerary and everyone else's. Tourists swarm down from Cancun by the bus-load to ogle this small coastal fortress. With patience and a few judicious elbow jabs, you'll enjoy postcard views of temples, fortifications and watchtowers set against the pale blue ocean.
Above several doorways you'll notice the Diving God (a.k.a. the Descending God). Head down, feet splayed above, this guy represented either a bee or the planet Venus. Maybe both. These engravings haven't aged well, but if you squint you can make out, at least, his legs in the air.

Last Thoughts:

There is a danger of over-saturation: after a long day of exploring, one pile of rocks can begin, sadly, to look like another. We'll close with this image from Labna, a Z.A. in the Puuc Hills near Uxmal:

The Mayans built many such arches. In some cases they mark the beginnings of sacbeob, the stuccoed pathways the Mayans built to connect one city to another. In other cases, the purpose is less clear. To me, they always look like Star-Trekian magic portals. As I bring this blog to a close (yes, folks, this is it!), it occurs to me that I have indeed been traveling through time as well as space. I studied the Mayans as they once were, and observed them as they are now. I began to see threads of continuity extending between past and present. Look at the arch above again. See the chozas (huts) in the upper right and left of the structure? Very much like the chozas I visited in Oxkutzcab.

What once was, still is.

There's still so much I want to learn. I'm halfway through Breaking the Mayan Code (Michael D. Coe), the story of how after more than a century of study, researchers finally decoded the Mayan glyphs. On deck is the Popol Vuh, the Quiche Mayan text Carlos Fuentes calls the "Mayan Bible". In some areas I barely scratched the surface: after all this time, I still can't say much more that "how are you" and "let's eat" in Mayan. But you can't accomplish everything in one summer, and sometimes even a little bit of progress can bring a degree of satisfaction.

Yesterday I visited Camelia, Rey and Jesus' mom. I gave her copies of my photos from Akil, and we talked about the special things I got to see and do with her family. When I told her about the mini-assembly I want to have in honor of Indigenous People's Day, she told me she'd like to help. We should organize a planning group, she added. We could hold a Yucatecan dinner. As I bit into one of her delicious empanadas, it seemed like the best idea I'd heard in a long time.

***Thanks, my friends, for reading Yucajudy! Enjoy the rest of the pictures, and let me know when you can join me for a hot plate of panuchos at SF's own Mi Lindo Yucatan!

--Judy Viertel
San Francisco, California
August 4, 2007

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Pibe Makers

When I arrived at Doña Juanita Nah's, the pibe makers were working outside:
Group A -- two elderly women stirring a hot, bubbling cauldron like a pair of Shakespearean crones. Except they were chatting amiably, not making dire prophesies.
Group B -- seven women cleaning banana leaves and removing the central vein.
Group C -- two men tending a firepit. It was as big as a queen-size bed and filled with firewood and hefty chunks of limestone. Limestone, limestone, limestone -- in the Yucatan it seems like the world is made of the stuff.
Group D -- eight rowdy children chasing two yelping puppies and one giggling baby. Okay, Group D members did not qualify as pibe makers but rather as future pibe eaters.

PHASE 1: Making the Pibes
I joined the banana leaf group. "The men brought these leaves from our parcela this morning," Doña Juanita said. I earned praise for holding the leaf steady with one hand while extracting the vein decisively with the other. They were being nice: my leaves kept tearing, theirs didn't. One elderly woman in a hand-embroidered hipil (long white dress with decorated collar /hem: see previous entries) deftly shredded the veins into strands.

Doña Juanita called out to one of the younger girls. "Bring out the masa!" To my surprise, the masa had little green and black beans mixed in.

"What are those?" I asked.

"Espelón," she said.

I made a pun: "Oh, it doesn't have any hair?" (Es pelón in Spanish means 'he's bald'.) (Before arriving that morning, I'd decided to make an effort to be entertaining rather than just sitting there with my mouth open, hypnotized. You know, like that Finnish exchange student back in high school who everyone thought was going to be cool. Somehow he turned out to be pitifully culture-shocked and, ultimately, boring.) Everyone laughed graciously.

We dug out grapefruit-sized chunks of masa and formed them into spheres. We worked them on a banana leaf square, sticking our thumbs into the middle to make pinch pots. Doña Juanita's came out perfect, with the walls angled in like the cone of a volcano. The ones made by the two adolescent girls and me were imperfect. They required intervention from more experienced hands.
"Where did you get the masa?" I asked Doña Juanita.

"We took the corn to the molino (mill) this morning."

Meanwhile, a few members of the banana-leaf team broke off into a focus group. They pulled chicken off two big carcasses, tomato-red from achiote. Into our pinch pots went the chicken along with a generous ladle of soupy stuff from the cauldron. "That's k'ol," Juanita told me.

"Mmm, k'ol!" said one of the younger girls. She left off playing tease-the puppy to breathe it in.

Doña Juanita asked if I wanted to try it. She told me K'ol (say the 'k' like you have a frog in your throat) is just masa boiled up in hot water with achiote added for color. Okay, so why is it so delicious? They served me up a bowl with a few pieces of chicken thrown in. Yum.

Meanwhile, the teenage girls started forming masa into flat disks. They called this torteando. A pinch here and there -- they did it skillfully with hands well-trained from years of tortilla-making. These disks went on top of each pibe.

Figured it out yet? Pibes are Mayan chicken pot pies.

After the pibes were prepped, a woman wrapped them in banana leaves. Crossing four strands of banana leaf vein at the midpoint, she placed the neatly packaged pibes in the center. Then she knotted the strands on top. Talk about your bundle of joy!

PHASE 2: Baking the Pibes
In the pit the wood burned down to glowing embers. Waves of heat swirled up from the rocks. The men bickered a little about whether they should wait for the rocks to cool off a little. A man came out of a choza to consult: his face was shiny and there were little bits of leaf stuck to it. I tried not to stare.

"My uncle fell off his bike yesterday," a girl told me. "Those leaves will take care of the wounds."
The men decided to go ahead with the baking. First they laid a board on the rocks, placing the pibes carefully on top. Then they balanced a wooden pole across the pit. They covered this with layers of macheted palm fronds they harvested on the spot.

"They take about an hour to cook," Doña Juanita told me. "Why don't you rest in the meantime?"

I went into the main choza with some of the children. We stretched out in the hammocks and one child (oh shattered illusions of rusticity!) turned on the television. That's right: no indoor bathroom, no stove, but there was enough electric current in the choza to power a color TV. As I dozed fitfully I was dimly aware of the children running in and out. Romping in the other hammock with the puppies and the baby, they paid very little attention to whatever schlocky cartoon was on.

"Están listos," someone called. The pibes were ready!

Right off the fire, no oven mitts required, the adults peeled the crisp banana leaves off the sizzling pibes. A few were charred but the one they handed me was golden crunchy on the bottom like a good pizza, savory-soupy inside. It had the clean, sweet taste of newly ground fresh corn. This taste is, to me, the essence of good Mexican cuisine.
That pibe was one huge mother of a meat pie but I ate it all out of politeness and culinary greed. The kids brought Cokes from the tiendita down the road. We took our time eating, the men hacking off the burnt bits with their machetes and trying to remember which ones they'd added the chile habanero to at the last instant.

When we finished eating I explored a little. Doña Juanita showed me the new choza the men are building. It's going to be the kitchen. Then she dressed me up and took pictures: yet another photo session of Miss Judy in an hipil. Meanwhile, I noticed the kids had started up a game of toro. One boy of maybe eight years old got a rope and fashioned it into a lariat. The other children ran. He chased after, throwing the rope and catching them over and over again. I was amazed: have you ever tried to lasso someone? It ain't easy, folks!

It was time to go. I had to catch a colectivo back to Oxkutzcab, so Manuel and his young mother Diana walked with me down to the main road. As we walked she pointed out all the fruit trees: banana, guanábana, saramullo, guayo, papaya, sapote, chico sapote, mamey and mango. We stopped at her sister's house (just how many Couoh, Nah and Góngora residences are there in Akil?) and she gave me a pitahaya (my second dragon fruit this week). "We grow all the fruit we need," Diana said. "Besides these, on the parcela we grow sweet orange, sour orange and limes. We buy vegetables sometimes, but not fruit. "

This made me think about Doña Juanita. Before I left, she thanked me for visiting. "Not many people in México take an interest in the way we live here," she said. "We're really poor."

"At the same time you really have a lot," I said. I thanked her for an unforgetable experience.

Just think: if you were a Yucatecan Mayan, you or someone in your family would know how to make a hammock, embroider an hipil, raise farm animals, rope a cow, make tortillas, cook over an open fire and plant and harvest the crops you need to survive. You could identify the wild plants in your environment and you'd know their medicinal uses. You could even build your own house.

Makes you feel kind of inadequate, doesn't it?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Common Ground

If I hadn't wanted to see the handprints made by the precursors of the Mayans 10-15,000 years B.C.E, I wouldn't have gone to the Lol Tun Caves.

If I hadn't gone to Lol Tun, I wouldn't have been standing by the highway at 2:00pm, waiting for a colectivo taxi.

And if I hadn't been out there in the sun for twenty minutes with no sign of a taxi, if there'd been at least a little bit of shade I would never, ever have accepted a ride from a stranger. But I was running out of water. Besides, I'd see people take unofficial taxis in Oxkutzcab. So when a middle-aged man pulled up in an old truck, his shirt half-unbuttoned in the heat, well, you know what I did. I ignored the admonitions of maternal figures everywhere. I hopped in.

He asked the inevitable question: "Where are you from?"

"San Francisco."

"Oh yeah? I worked there for six years," he said.

"They treat you okay?"

"They treated me great," he said, a broad smile on his face.

That was when I knew I wasn't going to have any problems with this guy.

A remarkable number of Oxkutzcabeños have found themselves in San Francisco at some point in their lives. Some transit back and forth regularly. I saw signs posted in front of ser: aceptamos encargos para San Francisco (we're accepting deliveries for San Francisco).

There's a grocery store just down the street called Super California. In front there's a big, bright mural of the Golden Gate Bridge. I showed the cashier my collection of San Francisco postcards. She smiled and showed me where inside the store, the same artist had painted the bridge from a different perspective.
Then there's the night clerk at my hotel (the staff here has taken a fancy to me: they help me make my phone calls and ask me how my project is going). He tells me he used to work at the Cliff House. "Funny thing is," he says. "I learned to speak Mayan there. All my life here I never spoke Mayan, but then I go to San Francisco that's what the kitchen guys are using so I finally learn it. Can you believe that?"

Back to my friend in the truck:

"What kind of work did you do?" I asked.

"I did apartment maintainance. A little wiring and plumbing. It was easy. I was working for these Arab guys. They were really nice."

"How was the pay?"

"It was excellent. And every six months? They gave me a bonus. Good money!"

"I'm glad to hear that," I said.

"Before that I worked in a restaurant. I can't remember the name, but it was near the Opera House. The owner was Tracy... Tracy something."

"Tracy, that sounds familiar," I said, scanning my memory banks, primed with S.F. Chronicle Food Section trivia.

"It was Jardin something. Jardiniere I think."

"Wait, you worked for Traci Des Jardins?" The wanna-be foodie in me was getting excited. "Jardiniere is one of the best restaurants in San Francisco. It's so fancy I can't afford to eat there. What was it like?"

"It was wonderful. Tracy was really nice. She used to come and talk to me. There I was, a humble dishwasher and she would come talk to me every day."

"Did you get to eat there?"

"Sure! They had something called Employee of the Month. So one time they came to me and said Ruben, it's you this time. I got to bring a friend and eat there one night. In Mexico there's no such thing as Employee of the Month."

By this time we were back in Oxkutzcab. I pulled out my wallet.

"No," he said. "Don't pay me."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. I really enjoyed talking to you about San Francisco."


He handed me a pitahaya (dragon fruit) from his parcela, the piece of land he's cultivating.
As I got down from the truck I thought. . . Ruben, they didn't give you the bonus because they're nice. And Ruben, they didn't make you Employee of the Month because they do that for everyone. They did it because YOU'RE nice, and also hard-working and responsible. No doubt about it.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Children's Tribe

It felt awkward. I was finally in Oxkutzcab and there were people I was supposed to meet. The problem was, I wasn´t sure what I´d say. "Hi. I taught your grandson Rey last year and I want to learn about Mayan culture and . . ."

And what?

Many families here live in the chozas, oval-shaped huts with palm-frond roofs. The walls are made up of sticks lined up vertically and stuck into concrete flooring. Indoor plumbing is a luxury; stoves are, too. Mayans have been living this way or similarly for thousands of years. It's normal for them. Meanwhile Miss Judy has been staying at the most expensive hotel in town (a whopping $22 a night) and complaining: it's nice that they keep it clean, but must they bathe the entire room in disinfectant? Why don't they keep the restaurant open during the hours posted on the sign? Spoiled, spoiled me. What could I possibly have in common with people who live on a few dollars a day?

I met Maya´s aunt, Dolores. On the phone she wasn't enthusiastic, but she perked up when I arrived with a photo of Maya. I took pictures of Dolores, her mother, two of her children and some cousins. Next thing I knew, she and her mother were talking animatedly in Mayan. They handed me a terno (it's a more elaborate version of an hipil, for special occasions only) and sent me into the house to put it on. They took pictures of me and offered to help me pick out a nice hipil at the market. I went away feeling like I'd made a connection. Even so, what I'd seen had depressed me. Dolores and her family live in a series of concrete block houses, the modern variation on the classic family plot of chozas. On their small dirt patch they have a few chickens, two fierce dogs and a lot of old bottles and bags. Not much else. Dolores told me that her children's father moved to Oregon. He told her she'd better learn to fend for herself. He won't even give her his cell phone number. Suddenly I wished I'd brought more for the children than pencils and stickers.

Rey and Jesus's paternal grandmother Juanita Nah had stopped by the hotel while I was out. I called: she said they'd come pick me up in the truck. "When, now?" I asked. "Sí, ahora." That was at 2:30pm. I settled in to the lobby. I had a nice chat with the desk clerk. We watched an interesting documentary on bees. I did a little writing and drank the gloriously chilled water from the cooler. By the time Doña Juanita showed up, I'd chilled out, too. A pick-up came up to the curb at 4:oopm and she jumped out, along with a bushel of Nah/Cuouh kids. I greeted them with my new come-what-may disposition. Then we were off to Akil, where Rey, Jesus, their mother, father and countless generations of Couohs, Góngoras and Nahs have been born.

Juanita's oldest son Juan drove -- he's a 21-year-old version of Rey. I squeezed between him and Juanita, with the kids bouncing behind us in the truck bed. Juanita talked a lot. She told me where we were going (several places) and who I'd meet (tons of people). I had trouble understanding her Mayan-tinged Spanish. I decided not to worry about learning all the names. There was no way I was going to keep track of how everyone was related. It made more sense to just experience whatever there was to experience.

We stopped by Rey's maternal grandmother's choza. It was clean and attractive, with colorful hammocks and family photo enlargements on the walls. A pleasant breeze came in, passing through the gaps between the sticks. The concrete floor was wonderfully cool. Maternal and paternal grandmother greeted each other affectionately as I passed around the photo album Rey's mother sent. We sat there for a long time looking at the pictures. The two older women, both in hipiles, talked over the pictures in Mayan, reminding each other who was who. The children listened quietly.We got back in the truck and zoomed off to the Couoh family land plot. In one choza, a woman was weaving a hammock on a wooden frame. In another, a different woman embroidered. In yet another choza a very old woman in a spotless hipil was resting in a hammock. She was tiny and beautiful, with high cheekbones and silver-gray hair. This was Rey's great-grandmother: she's ninety years old! Juanita explained who I was -- she spoke in Mayan but I heard her repeat the name 'Rey Antonio'. The woman looked confused. She sat up and directed a long stream of Mayan at me, Juanita translated some fragments. The gist was she wished all her family was with her in Akil. She didn't see why so many of her children and grandchildren found it necessary to move to the U.S. She didn't seem to be angry at me in particular, but her words gave me pause.In the yard I took pictures of their pigs, turkeys and chickens. Then we got in the truck again. "I thought you might want to see some real mestizas," Juanita said, "so we're going to Xohuayan." This sentence puzzled me: when Yucatecans say mestizos, they mean real, authentic Mayans (paradoxically: mestizo means mixed, usually indigenous/Spanish). Weren´t Juanita and her family true Mayans?In another twenty minutes we arrived in Xohuayan, a tiny town not listed on my Yucatan road map. We parked in front of another set of chozas and I met another set of women in hipiles. This time besides the usual chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs and dogs, there were also brahma cattle. Brahmas are huge, gentle white animals with massive humps behind the shoulders. I looked at them while Doña Juanita talked to her friend. She suggested I take the children for a walk.
Off we strolled, the children and I. We met a trio of pretty young women in hipiles. I wondered if that was what Juanita meant by mestizas: in Oxkutscab and Akil, the young women wear jeans. "Look," said our group's Manuel, a little black-eyed cutey of a seven-year-old. "They just slaughtered a pig!" A group of men surrounded the carcass, knives poised for butchering. They had a huge cauldron ready for rendering.When we got to the center of town, there was a church and a small plaza. There wasn't much else. At a rusty little playground, I climbed on the rickety see-saw. I convinced a couple of our smaller children to get on the other end and we bounced up and down a couple of times. "This playground isn't very good," Manuel said, so off we went into the steamy heat again, my tribe of children and I. We admired every pig and turkey. The older girls told us the names of the plants. When dogs barked at us, we closed ranks. When we were all feeling a little wilted, I bought sodas for everyone at a dingy little refresquería. We walked that whole little town without seeing more than a handful of people. Finally, we went back to find Doña Juanita.She and her friend were waiting for us in one of the chozas with tray of hot, fresh corn empanadas. "Do you feel like eating?" "Ui hen," I said -- I'm hungry. The empanadas were light and crisp, a little spicy meat inside an airy pocket. "She cooked these in here?" I asked. Juanita nodded. There was a small woodfire right there on the concrete floor. Even so, the air was fairly fresh and breathable: most of the smoke went right out through the openings in the walls. We ate quietly. The cattle moaned. The pigs snorted. The turkeys gibbered. The roosters crowed. A few brave (or clueless) chicks wandered into the choza while we were eating, only to be shooed out again. After eating we went back out into the yard. "Look," said Manuel, "there's the new calf!" She acted like an overgrown cat, nuzzling us and leaning her head down for a scratch between the ears.When were ready to leave, I decided to ride in the back with the children. The youngest girl did something that puzzled me: she grabbed a handful of gravel. It wasn't until we got to the first stop sign that I understood: ping ping ping! All the children, even the adolescent girls, let loose with the gravel. Every time we came to another sign they fired away, and mostly they scored, too. Standing in a moving truck and throwing rocks is not exactly teacher-approved behavior, but I couldn't help being impressed by their aim. I thought of something: I hadn't seen any toys at their houses other than the small, Styrofoam airplane I gave one of the boys. I hadn't even seen a ball.

As they dropped me off at my hotel, Juanita invited me to come back again in a couple of days to make pibes. "Sure!" I said. I had no idea what kind of food pibes were. I only knew that I would happily spend another day with these wonderful, interesting people.

I fell asleep happy with my hair still exuding the sweet, dark scent of wood smoke, but a thought woke up in the middle of the night: I'd met plenty of women and children, but very few men. Where were the men?

It was then I thought of Rey's ninety-year old great-grandmother in her hammock, lamenting the absence of so many of her relations. I thought of Dolores too, with her children's father far away and inaccessible. Then I thought of all the new but empty houses I'd seen around Oxkutscab and Akil, paid for by people who were working in the US. I've heard that most of those who move plan to come back 'some day', but then that day never comes. It's a long way from the Yucatan to the U.S., and the distance is more than geographical. It's a shame how many Yucatecans emigrate to the U.S. not because they want to, but because they feel they have no choice.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Those Legendary Cenotes

I said goodbye to the discount hammock emporiums. I´d had my fill of air-conditioned restaurants with in-house cumbia bands and two-for-one Montejo beers. It was time to leave Mérida. I was headed for parts less traveled: Oxkutzcab.

As I passed the market zone and approached the second class bus station, the city grew dirtier around me. Plastic soda bottles lay dead in the gutters. Political graffiti disfigured the walls. I entered the station and bought my ticket, my big new suitcase tagging along behind me. I was the only light-skinned person there. People were staring.

Thing was, I had to go to the bathroom. The bathroom door was narrow. My suitcase wasn't, and there was no baggage check. Looking around, I spotted a young woman sitting primly on the edge of her seat, cell phone perched in manicured hand. I took a chance. "Would you do me an enormous favor," I asked, "and watch my bag?" She nodded.

When I returned, my new friend asked me where I was going. As I told her (in Spanish) about my grant to study Mayan culture, the elderly woman next to her leaned in to listen. She was wearing an hipil (huipil in other regions), a white shift with colorful embroidery at neckline and hem. Her hair was pulled back in a circular bun (tulux) and she was in flipflops. This is how Mayan women traditionally dress for their daily activities.

Soon my young friend had recruited this woman to teach me a few Mayan phrases (she tried her best: it isn't easy). They asked me what I liked best about the Yucatan so far. "Maybe the cenotes," I said, thinking of the lovely swim I´d had in a limestone cave just the day before.
"There's a nice cenote in my town," the older woman said. "It's near the Huay Cot."

"Ooh, really," the younger woman exclaimed.

"Do you know the legend of the Huay Cot?" the older woman asked. "It's just a story, of course. But some people say it's true."

Know this: the Mayans have a long tradition of telling legends. Here´s one I like:

There´s this batab (village leader) who lives near the cemetary. After seeing a lot of funerals, he begins worrying about his own death. "I wish," he says, "I could make Death my compadre (best buddy). Then I wouldn´t have to worry about dying." As soon as he says this, Death Incarnate appears before him. "Did you call me, Compadre?" Death says. "Uh, yeah," the batab says, his eyes bugging out a little, "um, could you tell me how much longer I have to live?" "As a matter of fact," Death says, checking his PDA, "I'm coming for you tomorrow." "But I´m still young and full of juice! Cut me a break," the batab says. Death shrugs. "Sorry, Compay. Tomorrow's the day."
So the batab decides to shave his head k'olis (bald), thinking Death won´t recognize him that way. He goes to the vaquería festival in town and has a few cold ones. He dances the jarana and chats up all the pretty women. Meanwhile, Death shows up at the batab's house. When he doesn't see the batab, he feels sorry for him. Aw, he thinks, my poor compadre is scared. Death takes a walk into the village while he ponders his friend's fate. He sees a drunk, bald guy and thinks, maybe I can send this crazy guy down to the underworld instead of my compadre the batab. He grabs the bald guy and drops him into the underworld.

"Wait!" the batab says, "Have mercy, Compadre!" That's when Death realizes his error. He tries to pull the batab out, but his fingers slide on the batab's slippery, sweaty-from-partying bald head and down goes the batab, down, down, down into the underworld on the exact day destiny had already set aside for him.

"Huay Cot," the elderly woman told me, means the Sorcerer´s House. (Huay is an old Mayan word for people who could transform themselves into animals. The glyph for huay is one I managed to learn just because it´s so cool -- it´s a squished together version of the glyph for person and the glyph for jaguar.)

"In that house, there used to be a family of merchants," the woman told us. "Every day they´d sell lots of things. By night time the house, which was also their store, would be empty. But by the next morning it would be full of merchandise again. People said it was witchcraft."

"Wow!" said the young woman.

"It´s just a legend people like to tell. Really, there were probably caravans of merchandise that arrived at night. But whether that legend is true or not, they made a lot of money. People say they hid it in the cenote."

"Do lights appear over the cenote at night?" the younger woman asked.

"That´s another legend," the older woman told me. "It has to do with what happened during the War of the Castes (this was a Mayan uprising that began in 1847 and ended in 1848, or, depending on your definition of 'ended', in the late 1930's--Miss Judy). Many people had to leave their villages. Before they left they buried their money. But sometimes the village got burnt down and they couldn´t the spot again. Or maybe the person who knew where the money was got killed in the fighting. It´s said that if you see a candle burning in the air at night, that´s where a Mayan treasure is buried. But if you tell anyone what you saw, when you dig there you´ll find a lump of coal and nothing else. It´s just a story people like to tell."

"There are people who say it's true," the younger woman insisted. "I know people who say they've seen the flames."

"That's what people say. I don't know if anyone saw lights there, but the archeologists did find treasure in that cenote. It's almost time for my bus," the older woman said. "But have you heard the joke about what the Yucatan has in common with a beautiful woman?"

"No," I said.

"Well. The Yucatan has CENOTES, and a beautiful woman also has SENO-TES (big breasts)!"

We laughed.

Lifting herself up slowly and slipping her purse over her shoulder, the elderly woman said: "That´s just a joke people like to tell. Have a good time in Oxkutzcab, and I hope you learn a lot."

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Day at Uxmal

At Uxmal I bought my ticket and passed through the turnstile into a ghostly world of incised rock and creeping wildlife.

I strolled up the broad path towards the Sorcerer's Temple, a slapdash pyramid rebuilt four times (dang contractors). Okay, I thought, that´s kind of cool. Coming around the back of a squared-off structure I caught sight of a few Chaac masks plus the ubiquitous criss-cross pattern I call the Purina Cat Chow motif. Yeah, those are cool too, I thought. But it wasn't until I rounded the corner and stepped out into the Nun's Quadrangle that it hit me square in the eye: four massive buildings covered in patterns and figures. Rows of doorways leading into mysterious chambers. One facade crawling with giant, intertwined snakes. A monumental arch revealing more pyramids in the distance.

"Oh my God!" I said, momentarily forgetting the following:

1. People think it´s weird when you talk to yourself.
2. If you´re going to be weird in Mexico, at least be weird IN SPANISH!

I heard the German tourist behind me sniggering softly, his lens-bedecked camera temporarily sliding down from his eye. I didn´t care. This was extremely cool. I visited Uxmal once many years ago. I remember enjoying it, but I didn´t retain any mental images.

It´s different this time -- I understand more of the context. Besides I'm on a mission: I'm taking photos for my students. I want them to see what amazing builders the ancient Mayans were. I want some of the photos to include ME so they'll understand these ruins are real places they could visit themselves, some day.If (as I see it) the Yucatan is a kind of Disneyland for archeologists, then Uxmal is the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. As I walked through the giant arch, marvel after marvel unfolded before my eyes. I tramped through the Ball Court with its huge lifesaver-shaped hoop: I climbed the ornate Governor´s Palace:
Then I went higher still to the Great Pyramid where a broad expanse of stone edifices spread below me, islands in a sea of jungle green.
Everywhere I walked, giant ring-tailed iguanas basked in the sun. They matched the pink-gray masonry perfectly; I nearly stepped on a couple of them. This caused them to bob their heads up and down threateningly, and eventually, reluctantly, make a run for it. Chubby and wrinkled, I came to think of them as the fat old men of Uxmal.
Birds and insects filled the air with buzzes and squacks. Swallows haunted every vault of every structure, and came out shrieking when disturbed. A metalic blue-striped bird crowed and flitted nervously from tree to tree, switching its paintbrush-like tail back and forth.

I had gone early in the day. There were only a few other visitors there. I explored it all by myself, even wandering off on a narrow trail through the bushes to see the Estructura de los Falos (this I had to see). But I was never alone, no. The original inhabitants gone, Uxmal is now a beautiful backdrop for a diverse range of new tenants.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


“The cenotes, besides providing water, were considered sacred places where Chaac, god of the rain, used to live. That is why human beings and other precious objects were thrown* into the water.” Placard at the Museum of Anthropology, Merida, Mexico. (*Note: in Spanish the placard states, 'se realizaban sacrificios humanos y se depositaban ofrendas´.)

On Sunday we went to Dzibilchaltún. There were six of us Centro de Idiomas students, plus Carlos the Grumpy Tour Guide.Dzibilchaltún is just a hop, skip and a jump from Merida. Consequently it suffered comprehensive looting in the years before Mayan sites were honored among the top wonders of the world. There aren't any carvings on the few remaining structures. No frescoes or stelae, either. We wanted to see the Casa de las Siete Muñecas where at both equinoxes every year, the rising sun shines straight through one doorway to the other. There´s a small but respectable museum on site, and also a cenote. Cenotes are limestone pools that form naturally throughout the Yucatan; according to some accounts, they were a site for human sacrifices. We were not planning to sacrifice anyone. We did not so much as ask about alleged human sacrifices. We thought maybe we´d go for a swim, but it was all the same to Carlos the Grumpy Tour Guide.

If you ever wind up with Carlos, do not ask him how many people were thrown into whatever cenote you might be visiting. Do not mention sacrifice at all. Do not, for instance, say: “I really wanted to eat the last few nachos, but I didn´t. Let me tell you, it was really a sacrifice.” This would be a surefire way to set him off on the following spiel:

1. The story of virgins and children being thrown into the cenote at Chichén Itzá comes from the notoriously disreputable Diego de Landa. (Fray Diego De Landa was the author of one of the earliest European accounts of the Mayans. A Franciscan missionary, he was also a soulless scoundrel. He burned most of the pre-Columbian Mayan books in existence at an auto da fe. This was nothing less than cultural genocide – only three books now remain: the Dresden, the Berlin and the Madrid Codices.)
2. The only skeletons found when scientists dredged the cenote at Chichén Itzá were those of adults. They all featured the sharpened teeth and flattened skulls (ah, cranial deformation! Another delicious topic!) indicative of the noble class.
3. These skeletons probably ended up in the cenote as a form of honored burial (see Carlos the Grumpy Tour Guide, 2007). In other words, the nobles were probably dead before they were (with utmost respect) tossed into the soup.
4. Anthropologists have been writing about human sacrifice among the Mayans for so long that none of them dare refute the others (again, see C.t.G.T. Guide, 2007), for fear of provoking the 'wrath of the academy'.

Carlos told us he does not believe the Mayans practiced human sacrifice at all. Maybe they killed criminals, he said, or soldiers from opposing armies. You could call it execution instead. There is nothing, he said, nada, in the records suggesting the Mayans killed humans in order to appease their gods.

We were still sitting on the benchs outside the museum. It was around 11am. That's the time of day when sun god K’inich is really starting to cook, and we´d barely made it past the entry gate. The mosquitos were circling. 'Ko’osh', I was thinking -- Mayan for 'let´s go'.

“What about self sacrifice,” asked Sarah. Sarah worked as an anthropology TA at USC last year. She’s a UCSC grad and one sharp cookie. “Didn't they practice self-sacrifice?”

“Possibly,” grumbled Carlos, reluctantly. “Perforating their own tongues and penises, yes, blood-letting, yes. But I wouldn't call that human sacrifice. Ready to get started?”

Walking to the Casa de las Siete Muñecas, you pass through classic central Yucatan jungle. The rocky soil is fertile enough to support diverse species of low growing trees and grasses, but you’re never completely in the shade. A tree with powdery yellow flowers fills the air with a familiar scent: Cherry Coke, I think. The trees host many bright butterflies. Birds call to each other in outraged shrieks. When you reach the clearing, the Casa de las Siete Muñecas appears before you, low but elegant in its sparcity. Sweaty and squinting in the light, you climb. From the top you see the remains of a chalky white trail. This is a sacbé, one of the stucco roadway the Mayans built to make it easy to get from one city to another. Serious traders, those Mayans.

Descending, you follow the sacbé along the path to the cenote. You find yourself on a broad platform, the foundation of a great city that no longer exists: Dzibilchaltún. You see another small structure. It´s different – it doesn't quite fit in. Yet it feels familiar. When you pass through the doorway and get a glimpse of the rounded arches, you realize it's a church. They call it an open church, meaning it has only three walls. Taking a closer look, you notice the cross-hatch pattern on the masonry. It's the same pattern you might have seen at Uxmal and other archeological sites in the Puuc region. That's when you realize: the missionaries not only destroyed Dzibilchaltún, they used the remains to build a temple to their own god. Using Mayan labor, no doubt: the Mayans were always good stone masons.

Carlos the Grumpy Tour Guide has good reason to be grumpy. I may find his opinions a little reactionary. His statements may be somewhat extreme. But whether the Mayans participated in sadistic, ritualistic killings or not, we all know who was sacrificed in the end, and to which god. The evidence is there at Dzibilchaltún in a small, humble chapel, just about a hundred meters from the cleansing cool blue waters of the cenote.(This mural, painted in Oxkutzcab's main square, depicts Diego de Landa's destruction of Mayan artifacts in the nearby city of Mani.)

Friday, July 6, 2007

Code Breaking

Unlike what occurred with the Persians, Egyptians or Babylonians, the civilizations of America were not older than the European: they were different. Their differences were radical, a true ‘otherness’. --Octavio Paz, El arte de México, Materia y Sentido, 1977 (My translation)
Every day at the Centro de Idiomas de Sureste I ask many questions. The teachers must be tempted to throw me out of the air-conditioned room into the deadly mid-day Merida heat. I buy books: Mayan Cosmology for Idiots, An Explanation of the Mayan Calendar for Crazy Gringos Who Don’t Get It. Or something like that. And slowly, slowly, I begin to see through the fog.

The Mayans practiced a kind of zoolotry, my course reader states. They had snake gods, bee gods, deer gods, jaguar gods and bird gods. But there were also corn gods, death gods, a sun god and the king of gods, Itzamna. They dwelled above the earth, on earth and in the mysterious netherworld. As many as five different gods were associated with rain and wind. Some gods were benevolent, others not so much. They had split personalities: sometimes I like you humans, sometimes I don't. Better get moving on those blood sacrifices, people! A couple were female. One of these chick gods was the goddess of suicide -- not exactly whimpy girl-goddess stuff. My favorite? Maybe the four Bacab gods who hold up the sky at the four 'corners', or Balpahal Kin, the yin/yang god of the eclipse. It's hard to resist the goth charms of Ah Puch, the skeletal god of the netherworld.

The calendar is still kicking my butt. In what is called the Short Count, a different name (and god!) is associated with each of the twenty days in a month. Then there’s a series of 13 numbers that interact with those twenty days in rotation. When you get back to the beginning, number one name day plus number one of the 13 numbers, the 260 day year has passed. Or something like that. You have to coordinate that calendar with the 365 day Long Count calendar. Yeah, I still don’t get it. The written language is a series of glyphs. Acheologists have recently decided that these elipsoid shapes marked with curvy lines and splotches are more than idea-based pictographs, they´re also a phonetic alphabet. They look like Easter eggs to me.

But yesterday at the Museum of Anthropology I stared at the Mayan base-20 counting system display until it made sense. Ah, yes, the bars indicate five. Dots equal one. Place value goes from bottom to top, and the conch shell image is a place-holder. Long before the Indians dreamed up the number zero, the Mayans used an empty conch shell to indicate the same concept. Brilliance!
I have no idea how the presidential campaigns are going in the US, or whether there are any new ideas for how to end the war. I suppose I could look for a newspaper, or even check online, but all day long my brain is busy trying to decode the mysteries of a world mostly forgotten. It's a pretty good kind of busy.

Tomorrow, Uxmal!

Starting Out

Mouth like a dragon, feathery appendages protruding from the top of his head, the Mayan god K'awil sits on his jaguar throne with one leg delicately bent before him.

I found him in the public library in Merida. By the good graces of Fund For Teachers I'm here in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula studying Mayan culture. The library seemed like a good place to do some research and a little writing, but at this particular venerable institution there´s a protocol to be followed.

They made me check my bag. They wouldn't let me browse the stacks. Instead, the guy at the front desk told me which room to start in, and when I got there a different clerk took over. She looked me over through her standard-issue, Severe Librarian Glasses. What was I looking for? Oh, Mayan stuff. You know, images of the gods. Photos of reliefs, maybe. She brought me books and journals. Then she retreated to her corner desk to monitor me as I worked. I could be dangerous.

I found K'awil in Arqeuologia Mexicana, vol. VII no. 37. He was discovered at the ball court in Ek Balam, carved into a stone lid. He's surrounded by the strange blobs I now know are the written form of the ancient Mayan language. The larger blob he sits on is a jaguar throne: I can tell from the big black blotches. According to the article, there's a date inscribed: September 3, 841 CE. Was that when he was carved? Which part of the inscription is the date? Why he was there at the ball court? What kind of god was K'awil?

So much to learn. After two weeks in Merida I'm going to the Puuc hills: Oxkutzcab and Akil. I've got a photo album and a video to deliver to Rey and Jesus' grandmother, a slightly crumpled photo for Maya's aunt, and a box full of pencils and crayons to give to a school. Two days before my trip, I sat on the couch at Rey and Jesus' apartment in San Francisco. The kids watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory dubbed in Spanish, the Johnny Depp version. Their mother Camelia fed me tamales and taught me a few Mayan phrases. Before I get to Oxkutzcab, I'll need to learn a few more.

The library closes in fifteen minutes, the library clerk told me. Then she smiled. If you didn´t finish, she said, you can come back tomorrow.

Maybe I will.