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