Saturday, February 14, 2015

Yucatan Mexico February 2015

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The Maya in Mexico   
This winter a group of 11 women 70 and older explored some of the Mayan Ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico with archeologist Julia Miller of Catherwood Travel.  Many of us were from the Charlottesville, Va. area but our group also included  friends and relatives from California,Wisconsin and Florida.  For a week, we became an unit, living, eating and exploring the past together.  Here’s a bit of what we saw, heard and tasted.
Arriving in Cancun, despite the crowds at the airport and the din of customs, baggage and finding our leader, I  feel the softness of the Mexican air.  More than half the group arrived on flights around midday and in our small bus, we drive 2-1/2hours on a long straight road to our first hotel, Mayaland, adjacent to Chichen Itza, the first and perhaps most renowned of the ruins we would visit. 
Off the bus at Mayaland, we encounter our first ruins, an astronomical observatory  built so that the sight line from its two doors lined up with Venus.  Every five years the planet was visible along that line, and as we learned at other sites, provided accurate time gauges. The observatory was built with a rectangular platform with another rectangle set somewhat askew and topped by a round building.  I can only imagine the mathematical skills to plan the Mayan observatories  so that the sight lines align with heavenly bodies.
Dinner at the hotel  included serenading by a trio of troubadours and dancing by several of our number with the musicans and waiters, which made quite a splash with  hotel staff.
Judy with the Serpent head at base of Pyramid
The next day, as we walked from the hotel to Chichen Itza, Julia pointed out that the marketplace atmosphere with vendors of masks, dresses, cloth, and drums was probably similar to that in ancient times where the populace would gather near entrances to holy places in order to trade and exchange news.

The main “pyramid” demonstrates  sides that were restored to flat surface while other sections are the underlying rock rubble without  façade.  The four sides hold 91 steps each side (364 total, or close to number of days in year).  During the Spring Equinox, the shape of a snake appears on the North side and seemingly writhes down the steps as the sun moves across it.  We observed other icons of this site such as the Chacmool statue, which may have held sacrifices, and the Jaguar throne.
 Also at Chichen Itza, is a ball field, but we know little of the game that was played except that the ball was made of rubber.  There are carvings of Jaguar with knife, blood squirting from a man, a heart trampled beneath the jaguar’s paw.  And in the holy book of the Maya, the Popul Vuh, the twins are described as playing a game in order to survive.  But the purpose, rules and consequences of the game – despite much speculation – remain shrouded in mystery.
Somewhere in the last 30 years of the classic period (around 950 AD), the Mayan cities began to collapse which may have resulted from a severe drought and lack of drinking water.  However, no one really knows why the collapse happened.
From this very special place, we drove to our lunch at a Cenote Xocempich,  a rural area with a small cottage equipped with bathrooms, owned by the people who  also own the hacienda where we will stay and are investors in Catherwood.  It was an incredible spot.  While several staff prepared lunch, four of us descended the steps of a cavernous hole to float in the "cenote," a large pool fed by underground springs.  The cenote was reached by a series of steps down into a conical ravine.  The water was very cold and the whole place surrounded by the deep green moss and lichens.  Cenotes provided the drinking water for the ancient cities of the Maya.
After we climbed back up  from the cenote, we enjoyed a picnic feast set at a picnic table --   pit - cooked pork  – Cochinita Pibil, a cauliflower ceviche, guacamole, beets, pork rinds cooked with vegetables and tortillas.  We had hibiscus tea and lemonade and white or red Mexican wine or beer.  We finished this sumptuous repast with coconut ice cream – all  Mayan delicacies. 
At the Cenote Picnic
 By late afternoon we departed and headed to our new home for the next four nights – Hacienda Itzincab  Camara, nearer to Merida. The house was built in the 17th Century by Catarina Perez and then in the 18th Century became Hacienda hennequenero. In the 19th century this hacienda along with many others were the producers of  hennequen, a  form of agave that produces sisal used in rope and twine.  In 1898, it was purchased by the Camara family.  By the early 1900s, the hacienda operations collapsed in the midst of a Mexican revolution and subsequently the production of synthetic fibers.  In the 1990s, many owners reasserted their claims and began restoring the haciendas and focusing on tourism.

Driveway to Hacienda Itzincab
Hacienda Itzincab Entrance

Sunbeam on garden at Itzincab

The Mayan Downton Abbey
This hacienda was like a Mayan Downton Abbey in as much as we were in a beautiful place, with wonderful meals served in a most gracious manner and with beautiful table settingsEach time we returned from our daily journeys, staff met us with cold wet mint towels to freshen ourselves and cold drinks of hibiscus tea and other flavors.

Our hacienda had a large main house with a loggia/veranda where we enjoyed drinks and then dinner.  The house had guest rooms on the second floor, a reception area, and a spa.  In an L-shape from the house and adjacent to the garden running from the loggia is a path along which  are a series of houses and connected rooms.  Behind each room was a smaller patio garden and a large outdoor tub. The grounds had several swimming pools.  The entire central area is adjacent to a Mayan temple that has only been partially excavated.
Our “light” dinner included grilled chicken with a cilantro sauce, eggplant carpeggio with mustard vinaigrette, rice with plantains and black beams.  Dessert was a pastry-like “French toast.”  Of course, this night as every other,  we drank margueritas before dinner.
Saturday Morning;  I awoke to bird song and then spotted a beautiful blue mot mot outside my room along with clay colored robins.
For breakfast we had motulenos huevos, fried eggs with chopped ham, cheese and peas, plus plantains. 

On our way to the ruins at Dzbilchatun, Julia invited us to observe the variety of transportation modes and what they indicated:   basic tricycles used by one person, who then adds a board to transport goods or persons, or awnings to give shade.  The next step is to  use  an engine or to get a motorcycle that will pull the trike.  Eventually this evolves into a small three-wheeled vehicle and finally when the person is prosperous, cars or trucks.  Meanwhile we also saw a burro pulling a cart in many towns.  Of course on the highway, we encounter very large trucks and vehicles of various kinds.
We took a northern ring road around Merida to visit Dzibilchatun, where we had first, a Mayan guide and then Julia to correct some of his stories embellished with more modern day and Christian interpretations.  We saw again an observatory, this time a square building atop a pyramid but proportionally designed so that the spring and fall equinox sunsets would appear in its opening as well as some full moons.  The house was an astronomical observatory.  There was also a stele acting as a sundial and a larger building that was probably  administrative, according to Julia, but that looked much like modern day stadium bleachers.  We also observed a church built by Franciscans who slowly worked toward accustoming people to indoor worship where originally only the altar was covered.
The palace or arena area was where competitions, dances and music would have occurred.  Nearby was another cenote, less deep than the one we visited yesterday and with many lovely lily pads.  Swimmers of all ages were enjoying it.
Somo for lunch
We returned to Merida for lunch at Somo, a restaurant run by a Virginia Beach woman and her husband.  Judy and I shared a beet salad with cilantro, goat cheese, oranges and gnocchi with leeks, oyster mushrooms and tomatoes as well as ice cream and blondie for dessert.  Very delicious!
In the afternoon we visited the Gran Museo de Mundo Maya (the National Museum of Mayan Culture), which helped reinforce what we had seen at the sites.  Really a lovely museum with many interesting features, including a show – in Spanish – that tells about the Mayan culture. 
Back at the hacienda I had a great massage in the spa (we could not communicate in language but she sensed what my body needed).  Then I enjoyed margueritas and a dinner that included  Pork Valladolid, rice, beans wine and papaya with shredded edam cheese.
Sunday:  We began with a bird walk around the property with Davide, a Catherwood guide and excellent birder who led us for an hour, broke for breakfast and then spent an hour more with those who wanted it.
We saw
Mary, Davide and Kay
  • Black-headed Trogan
  • Blue Crowned Mot Mot
  • White winged dove and ruddy ground dove
  • Pygmy ferruginous Owl
  • Kiskadee
  • Social flycatcher and broad billed flycatcher
  • Altamira oriole and orange Oriole
  • Masked Titara
  • Rose throated Becard
  • White eyed vireo and golden vireo
  • Rufous- Browed Pepper Shrike
  • Golden Fronted Woodpecker and Yucatan woodpecker.
  • Melodious Blackbird and Long tailed Grackle
  • Blacked headed or grayish Saltator
Davide was so enthusiastic.  He had been a tour guide but got interested in birds and has led groups for the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society.
Our breakfast included tostados, avocado, onions, chicken and sour cream and fruit – mango papaya, melon and coffee.  After more birding, we travelled to Sotuto Peon, a Hennequen plantation  owned and preserved by the Camara family.
Mule Train!
We heard our guide Jose speak in Spanish and then English about the development and downfall of henequen plantations.  (good way to test my understanding of Spanish.)  First, there were the “encomiendas,” lands that Spanish claimed and that were predecessors to the haciendas.  When hennequen production was pushed out of Campeche area, owners moved to Yucatan where there was poor soil and no impediment to growing hennequen  (which was renamed  when shipped from  the port of Sisal, it was stamped with that word). 
An elder tells of the hacienda's heyday
We viewed the entire process of growing, gathering, separating the fiber by machine and then drying, combing and twisting it into twine or rope.  Today electricity is generated by  coal rather than water.  We drove on a mule train (cart on tracks) through the property to listen to an elderly 87 year old Mayan explain about his childhood at this site.  Then we went into another cenote – this one a small cave – to swim.
Lunch was buffet – fish, pork, chicken, salsa, beets, salad and flan – with beer.
In the afternoon we visited Mayaland, a much smaller excavated ruins of a city that supposedly conquered Chichen Itza.  Julia says it’s hard to see how that happened unless Chichen Itza had some sorts of diseases.
We climbed partway up one pyramid and at another smaller one to view a painted scene of water. 
Sylvia and Kay
There was also a planetarium building here and another exterior carved wall worth photographing.
On the way home, people in a nearby village were preparing for a fair honoring their patron saint.  Temporary scaffolding for “bull fight”, Julia told us, is exactly like scaffolding of limbs and other organic matter found in other primitive sites.  Many of the homes we see are primitive and based on a basic Mayan design (front and back door aligned for air circulation, a roof of reeds, stone building.
Back at Itzincab, Judy, Helen and I swam in a large cold pool.  After cocktail hour we ate hog fish, eggplants, carrots and squash and rice and beans.  We finished with a kind of cheesecake.  Mary, Judy and I rendezvoused in Mary’s tub for an outdoor soak under the full moon.
Monday:  This morning I heard a strange sound from a pile of rocks at the other end of the property (near the industrial ruins) but I could only see a fluttering of dark feathers every now and then.  An injured bird about which I wrote a poem.
Today we drive to Celestune  on the Gulf of Mexico.  But first a breakfast of mango, papaya, grapefruit and melon and quesadillas of gouda cheese with pico de gallo, black beans and huevos con chia.
When we arrive, we are divided into two boats to see the birds and mangroves.  We saw yellowed crowned night heron, great white heron, little blue heron, great blue heron, American black coot, neotropic cormorant, frigate bird (many); flamingos (hordes), storks, white ibises; osprey, brown pelicans, white pelicans; kingfisher; common black hawk AND a small alligator.
 We made several stops for photos and to visit a swampy cenote, then  returned to shore and drove into town for lunch on the Gulf and an opportunity to wade and beachcomb for a bit.  The conch carpeggio and shrimp ceviche and octopus ceviche were delicious although mullet caviar quite dry and disappointing.
Returning to the Hacienda we had drinks by the pool and dinner on the other veranda where the staff had decorated the floor and table with petals of red bougainvillea.  Very beautiful.
We toasted Julia: Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens would have applauded her leadership and sense of discovery.
Tuesday:  Final Day.  After  tortillas and fruit, we depart Itzincab for Uxmal, perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most complex of the excavated cities we have visited – buildings include temples, ball court and storage and living areas.
At a higher elevation than the other ruins, rather than cenotes, Uxmal had a series of chalcunes or storage areas for its water supply and thus created a underground “cenote”.
Uxmal buildings sometimes have oval rather than rectangular form.  The city was built and rebuilt three times from late to post classic periods.  Many of the buildings had doorways with inverted Vs with only one stone across the top.
In response to a question about women’s role, Julia said there is evidence that women’s lineage was as important as the males:  Persons were identified by both parents; images of women performing bloodletting rituals; in Palenque, a woman (daughter of a previous ruler) ruled for six years before passing power to her son; father and mother figures portrayed in relative equality.  Other evidence shows women performing self-immolation such as the  "Red Queen" -- skeletons of a woman and another woman and child died together, seemingly choosing self-sacrifice.
The square area of Uxmal shows the different functions:  building with snakes and owls was probably a conjuration site; the corn house for storage of food stuffs; the house of turtle shells and feathered snakes demonstrate the human side asking the rain gods to benefit them; and finally the building with the snake and letters CAN and sky CAN – an intermittent building communicating to the upper world of the Gods.   The building  is lined up with Venus cycle. 


Later, we visited a nearby Chocolate Museum which was beautifully laid out to explain the history and culture of chocolate.  We also participated in a Mayan ritual wherein we were called by a man painted blue to a ritual area.  Other men emerged from the woods and made many sounds of the animals and called on their conch shells; they also drummed.  A presiding person or priest drank a potion (chocolate) from a common cup and shared it.  Then he took a bunch of herbs and brushed them over some burning incense and used the herbs to bless each of the men.  Eventually he came to us and blessed us with the herbs as well. 
We left for Merida arriving in late afternoon at Rosas e Xocolate Hotel where I had a fabulous dinner of small dishes:    1) arugula salad with cocoa bits and figs; 2) sherbet with octopus; 3) scallop with a crunchy corn base and avocado; 4) Ahi tuna, rare in small steaks with corn base and spinach; 5) duck with a raisin sauce; 6) coconut bread with chocolate and dense almond cream.  All this with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc was a wonderful ending to our Mayan visit before we returned to Cancun and home the next day.

Morning Reverie
I hear a plaintive cry from the walls beyond the path
A bird?  Injured or dying?  I am unsure
In the stone rubble of a hacienda, I see it move in its cave, hear again its mournful wail.
Captured?  Or else at home among the pile of rocks.
A vestige of an earlier time.
A sacrifice to those gods who live within
The ancient inner pyramid.
The cries a memento of a memory I cannot undo. 

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