When I went to Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala in 2001 I sent a number of emails home to friends and family. This article is just a lightly-edited version of these emails, sprinkled here and there with photos from the trip.
(Message sent Sunday 4 November 2001.)
!Hola de Ciudad de Mexico mi amigos!
I timed my arrived in Mexico City perfectly to catch the Day of the Dead festivities. It turns out that the "day" is actually a three-day-long affair, which kicked off the evening I arrived. After finding a place to stay I wandered into the Zocalo, the city's huge main square. It was crowded with various death displays. Many aspects of the displays were odd to kiwi eyes, containing as they did bright colours and lurid leering skeletons. The predominant feature were tons of saffron-coloured petals of some flower.
The most touching of these displays was a group of six freshly-dug, child-sized graves, arranged radially. The mounds themselves where just bare earth, but they were set in a bed of the saffron-coloured petals. The whole lot was surrounded on two sides by stands of tall, dead, corn stalks.
The most spectacular display was a rack of skulls. More than two hundred skulls, each around ten times the volume of a real skull had been made and painted garish colours. Then the skulls had been skewered through the temples like so many cocktail onions on a shish-kebab. Finally these skewers had been mounted horizontally in a rack like rotisserie chicken.
All throughout the city there are similar displays. Some are simple affairs - offerings of sweets, bread, meat, trinkets, flowers, set on a bed of petals. Others are more ornate - in one case someone had created a skull about three metres high, the offerings on shelves inside. You inspected the offerings by peering through the gaping eye sockets.
The have also been street parades. At one stage a group of dancers accompanied by a brass band went past - all dressed in black body stockings painted like skeletons.
Mexico city is huge, dirty and crowded like you'd expect. It is also the place, for some reason, where the world's v-dubs come to die. Despite the dire warnings in the guidebooks about the crime levels I feel perfectly safe here, and have had no problems.
But it is clear that some ugliness seethes just beneath the surface - the whole place is swarming with armed and armoured police. They stand, bored, on every street corner. Groups of them drive slowly past in trucks, each man with a helmet and riot shield. Any place not guarded by police is guarded by what I take to be private security firms. These firms seem to compete with each other in providing their people with the best uniforms. One lot wears black jumpsuits with black balaclavas with red rings around the eyes. Another has bright yellow uniforms with bright yellow backpacks - just like Red Dwarf's Canaries. People are frisked getting on buses and have their bags searched. Mexicans that is - it seems that gringos are above suspicion.
My hotel was slightly odd. It was based on the rooms-around-a-courtyard idea, and all the internal surfaces were painted a delightful dirty off-pink. The place had an internal car park - so internal that you had to drive right through the middle of the lobby to get to the street!
Yesterday I went out to see Teotihuacan, a huge city of temples and pyramids built in the first few centuries AD. The pyramids, while not as impressive as those at Giza, are still immense and great fun, since you are allowed to climb them. The stairs are amazingly steep, and this combined with the altitude (2.5kms) meant that the ascents were exhausting and the descents giddying. I spent a happy day there, clambering all over the platforms and pyramids and temples, trying to imagine what cool rituals the priests would perform on each one. (We don't know much about the beliefs of the original builders, since the city was abandoned quite early, and even the Aztecs who eventually reoccupied the site couldn't work out what it was all about.)
I had lunch at the most amazing place called La Gruta. It's a huge cave set in a wilderness area a few hundred metres from Teotihuacan which has been turned into a restaurant. The gloominess inside is offset by fairy lights attached to the rough ceiling, and by the tables themselves. Each table has high-backed chairs, each painted a bright colour and each clashing with its neighbours. The table cloths are similarly composed of strips of bright colours. Even the napkins are riots of colour, something you would expect to see as part of a clown's costume, not on a dinner table. The cave is maybe 50 metres long and 20 metres high at its highest, and contains maybe 50 tables on different levels.
I had the cactus salad. The taste of cactus is hard to describe, but it has an odd squeaky texture, almost as if they had used Sunlight dishwashing liquid as a vinaigrette. Actually I think they did - I had to hide most of the horrid stuff under the garnish. But it was worth every forced mouthful for the privilege of being in such a place.
Today I'm off to Puebla, a city around two hours drive away. There I plan to visit a pyramid claimed to be the biggest in the world - although it is now completely grassed over and surmounted by a conquistador church.
I've lots more to tell, but I think I'll leave it there.
Take care all, and I'll write again as soon as I can.
PS Spanish keyboards are quite different from what I´m used to - many more keys and the symbols in different places. My apologies if you get some funny characters.
(Message sent Sunday 11 November 2001.)
Hi all. Since leaving Mexico City I have travelled to Puebla, Cholula, Jalapa, Villahermosa, and now I am in Pelenque. Life in all the places I've seen so far is very much lived on the streets. The shops are tiny, and their wares spill out onto the pavements. Any patch of concrete not so used is taken up by someone with a small trestle table or piece of cloth on the ground selling anything and everything. The people eat on the streets too, clustered around hole-in-the-wall eateries and street venders with carts or gas burners set up in the gutters. It makes quite an event out of a evening's stroll!
I've seen quite odd things being sold by the hawkers. In two towns I have seen guys with big stacks of full-sized guitars moving from person to person. In Puebla fancy cakes were all the rage, hawkers carrying them high like waiters, trying to interest you in a slice of gateau or cheese cake. I saw three of these cake sellers talking together, discussing the events of the day, each with two half-eaten cakes held high. Perhaps you had to be there, but I got a chuckle out of it. I saw whole chickens - dozens of them - being boiled in oil in the street in vast wok-like things, two metres or more across. And yesterday I saw something trying to flog off a huge bookcase. The first time I saw him I thought that he was just carrying the monstrous thing from A to B, but I saw him off and on all day, going from person to person, this enormous bookcase on his shoulder, trying to find the one person who needed such a thing RIGHT NOW.
While up on the altiplano (Mexico City, Puebla, Cholula), the temperature was quite nice. Now that I'm in the Yucatan jungle, it's debilitatingly hot. I'm sweating so much that it's seeping through my neck pouch and turning my pesos into papier mache.
As for the sights, while in Cholula I checked out what some call the biggest pyramid in the world. (Whether it is or not depends entirely on definition.) Anyway, it's pretty neat. It looks like a great uneven grass-covered lump in the middle of the town with a great uneven lump of a church plopped on top. Around the edges some attendant courtyards and altars have been excavated, but for me the best bit was the original tunnels that criss-cross the interior. Walking the tunnels is not, humid, claustrophobic work, but great fun, with side chambers, dead ends, sudden changes in direction and stone stairs going up and down into the structure.
When exploitation of oil reserves threatened several Olmec sites (the Olmecs are the big-stone-head guys, considered the ancestor civilisation of central America) they moved a whole lot of stuff into a "park-museum" in Villahermosa. The whole thing is outside, and they've tried to recreate the feeling of stumbling across an ancient civilisation in the jungle. You wind your way through narrow paths, coming across big stone heads, altars, and statues, each hidden from the next by jungle foliage. Every now and then you come across a pit containing a crocodile or a cage containing a bored-looking black jaguar. Overall it's a pretty good effort (they even managed to convince hordes of huge mosquitos to move in) - certainly much better than putting the things in a conventional museum.
I've spent the last two days exploring the ruins here at Pelenque. The site is one of the poster children of ancient Mayan civilisation, and was a joy to visit. Some parts of the city have been completely cleared of the jungle that covered it for 1200 years, but other areas are still "pristine", and you can clamber around tumble-down moss-covered temples with huge trees growing out of them. You can also go inside some of them - water dripping down the back of your neck, slime on the walls, slippery stone steps going down into complete darkness. All good fun. To my intense disappointment Lord Pakal's tomb was closed. I've wanted to see it ever since von Daniken, bless his misguided heart, piqued my interest decades ago. (You know the one - the sarcophagus lid has a picture of Pakal flying his spaceship.)
I've also popped into the odd church here and there. (There are about three churches per person in Mexico.) The cathedrals do a good sideline in the gruesome. In one there was a big display of relics of the saints - skulls in glass jars, vials of dried-up blood and so on. In another there was a life-sized model of the big J just after the crucifixion - great gaping bloody wounds all over him, a look of utter misery on his face. It seemed that someone had also taken to the model with a blow-torch, adding some extra-Biblical suffering for good measure.
That's all for now. Tomorrow I'm off to two little-visited ruins in the jungle, then I'll be heading across the border into Guatemala.
(Message sent Thursday 15 November 2001.)
Originally I had planned to head north from Pelenque and do a clockwise sweep of the Yucatan peninsula, but at the last minute on a whim I decided to head east towards Guatemala instead. A soldier rode shotgun on the bus with us, but I don't know what he was protecting us from. He was a friendly guy, but had a big ugly scar on his cheek. It wasn't a long thin scar, but rather the size and shape of a postage stamp - a bullet wound I wondered?
On the way I stopped at two remote ruins - Bonampak and Yaxchitlan. Bonampak is a small site but very nice, with a series of temples and terraces working their way up a steep natural hill. The site contains a real rarity: the original murals are still visible on the interior walls, over 1300 years old. Used to seeing nothing but bare rock these murals, painted in bright, broad swathes of colour, utterly change the nature of the temples. The scenes are of King Jaguar Knotted-Eye (cool name huh?) taking prisoners, sacrificing prisoners, being dressed in finery and generally acting all kingly. A sign at the site made an interesting observation: in the murals all the figures are holding their hands in odd poses, each different from the others, perhaps indicating an undeciphered Mayan sign language.
Then on to Yaxchitlan, on the banks of the river Usumacinta, border between Mexico and Guatemala. This site is only accessible by boat, so I had a happy hour puttering downriver watching the crocodiles on the banks. On the walk up from the jetty to the site I came across something straight out of Discovery Channel - an ant trail. Millions of these huge red ants, each a centimetre long or more, each carrying a chunk of leaf about three centimetres long. The trail started high in a tree, went straight down the trunk and then along the forest floor for 50 metres or so to the nest, a foot wide the whole way. Because all these little chunks of leaf were being held at different angles and being rocked as they were carried the whole trail seemed to shimmer in the light. Those wacky ants even had a public transport system going. Many of the large ants carried chunks of leaf that had four or five much, much smaller ants riding on them.
The site itself is great - a huge, long, artificially flattened plaza with temples on all sides and long flights of stairs going up to two acropolises. One of these buildings has a complicated two-level labyrinth inside it, and as I had dumbly neglected to bring a torch I had to explore it by feeling my way around from entrance to entrance, trying to keep a mental map of the layout, and setting off my flash to get a glimpse of what was ahead every time I got too scared. Something flew past me at one stage, wings brushing my leg. I was in complete darkness at the time, so I don't know what it was - a bat I guess.
I spent that night in a tiny little village. The accommodations were, shall we say, basic, but it was worth it to spend time in a place with almost no cars, no street lights, where chickens, dogs and children all played together in the dust. The only shops were a string of five or six very small general stores, each and every one with a coke sign outside it.
I went for a walk that night, and came across a neat sight at the paddock that served as a village green cum soccer pitch. It was alight and twinkling with fireflies or something similar, the twinkling seeming to move in waves across the surface of the grass. It was mesmerising, like looking out over a fairy metropolis.
The next day it was a gentle putter upstream to a little village on the other side, and I was in Guatemala. From there I travelled in a crowded, crapped out bus over bad roads with a driver who knew no fear to Flores.
Now Flores is a nice little place, so much so that I've decided to take today off and just hang about. It is on a little island in a big lake, connected to the mainland by a short causeway. The town seems to exist to support the tourist trade through to Tikal (the big Mayan site near here), so most places are hotels or restaurants or travel agencies (and quite frequently all three at once), but still the town has nice narrow cobbled streets wind their way up from the lakeshore to the plaza at the top of the town, and the place has a friendly, laid back feel to it. All the buildings near the lake front on to it. This is good and bad. Good in that, for example, my hotel has a patio where you can sit and look out over the lake, bad in that you can't walk around the shore - if you are on a road, then you have buildings between you and the view.
While I was writing the above, sitting in the plaza at the top of the town, a tiny, wizened, sun-baked old man came up to me and engaged me in conversation. Eventually I worked out that he was offering me a ride round the lake on his boat. Since I had planned to do this anyway I went with him, and I've just spent the last two hours pootling about on the lake. It was wonderful. He took me to a peninsula which has a completely overgrown Mayan temple on it, on top of which they've built a neat treehouse thing from which you can take in the view. Up there this old man and I had an interesting, low-bandwidth conversation in my halting Spanish. He told me that he remembers working as a gum cutter/collector in Tikal 70 (yes 70 - I double checked that) years ago, when the trip from Flores was a three-day slog through muddy jungle filled with "bad black snakes". He praised my Spanish greatly, and insisted that with my size and strength I must be a footballer (?!). Then he took me to this fantastic tiny little island that had animals roaming free on it: curious-looking birds, warthog-like things and spider monkeys. As soon as I stepped ashore a monkey came up to me and held its arms up to be lifted, like a human toddler. Having a spider monkey clamber all over you is quite disconcerting as, while they are very light, they have a long reach and can hang on to you from five widely-separated places at once. I had a wonderful time wandering around the island, acting as a mobile tree for my monkey friends.
I still haven't told you about my trip yesterday to Tikal, the main reason I'm in Flores in the first place, but I feel a siesta coming on, so that will have to wait till next time.
(Message sent Saturday 17 November 2001.)
Well, I really didn't want to leave Flores, but I'm already half-way through the trip and there's still much to see. So another bone-crunching bus ride later and I'm in San Ignacio in Belize. Now Belize is a curious place, with a mix of Mayan and Caribbean influences. Many people you see on the street could easily be Mexican or Guatemalan, except that they speak English (Belize had British bastard overlords rather than Spanish ones). After finding a place to stay I went to visit some minor Mayan ruins on the edge of town, and then I was at a loss for something to do, so I was sitting on a dusty street corner reading my Lonely Planet when a full-on Rasta came up to me and said "Heyyyy marrrrn," (you'll have to do the accent yourself) "what are you reading dat book for? You in Belize now marn, understand? Rasta is from Belize and you are talking to Rasta now marn, understand? You want something, you ask the people understand?" In shame I put the book away. (BTW: I'm not caricaturizing him, that really was what he said and how he said it.) A little later on the same street corner another guy came up to me and said, "Thanks for coming to Belize, thanks for spending your money here. I be around, if you want anything, just ask me." All in all, a nice introduction to Belize.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you about Tikal near Flores - ancient Mayan ceremonial centre and full-on gob-smacking experience. Most of the site, as with the majority of them, is still covered in dense jungle. Some temples have been cleared but others, it seems, are so tall that the jungle never completely engulfed them - their upper sections are still clear. You can climb one of these half-covered temples (temple 4) over a series of steep, rickety wooden staircases. The view from the top is fantastic - jungle canopy as far as they eye can see, broken in half a dozen places by the tops of the tallest temples and pyramids.
The heart of the place is the Grand Plaza - two enormous, infeasibly steep temples facing each other across a grassy area, various attendant temples to each side. The view from the top of one of these opposing temples is exhilarating, although the climb is daunting. It's hard to describe just how steep these staircases are, except perhaps by using degrees :-). But of course the numbers don't tell the story. Each individual step is too high to climb comfortably, so you have to pump quite hard to get to the top. Once you've got to the top you look back down this seemingly-vertical staircase you've just climbed and your heart skips a beat. You wonder how on Earth you've going to get down again: there are no landings or banisters, if you stumble ain't nothing gonna stop you till you hit the grass. You're not actually allowed to climb temple 1 anymore, after too many people died on the descent. These insanely steep staircases are a dominant feature of the Mayan sites, so it's clear that they felt, for whatever reason, that climbing their temples should be a difficult and dangerous undertaking.
Apart from the Grand Plaza and the view from temple 4, my favourite part was the pyramid. It's a perfectly fine pyramid, with the usual number of sides, a staircase on each face (three of them largely overgrown), a great view from the top and a nice platform on the plaza below from which to gaze up fondly at it.
Still haven't caught you all up to date, but that will have to do for now.
(Message sent Wednesday 21 November 2001.)
I spent four days in San Ignacio, and on the last day I went on one of the best little adventures of my life. There's a huge cave that was sacred to the Maya, and which was used by them for ceremonies and rituals. The decision has been made not to excavate it, and only a small number of people are allowed to go in each day. The trip starts with a bumpy back-road trip in a rugged truck. Then you have to walk for about an hour through the jungle. (As we started the walk the guide told us not to worry about the 62 species of snake known to live in the area, and as we waded across the river for the first time he said, "Don't worry about the leeches - the piranha feed on them. And don't worry about the piranha - the crocodiles feed on them.") A stream runs out of the entrance to the cave, and you have to swim across a little pool to a ledge inside the cave. The swim isn't far, but you're wearing clothes and boots and a caving helmet and lights, so it's a little tricky. From then on you spend the next two hours or so slowly making your way deeper and deeper into the cave. For most of the time you're wading in the stream, sometimes knee-high, sometimes neck-high, sometimes the shorties like me have to doggy-paddle. Frequently you leave the water to clamber from boulder to boulder. Eventually you reach a seemingly ordinary boulder. Instead of carrying on deeper into the cave, you clamber up this boulder onto a ledge, and then it's a crawl through a low, tight, craggy tunnel before it opens up into a series of huge complicated caverns. Apparently the problem with other Maya caves is that they are small, so when the priests conducted a ceremony, they would first get rid of the detritus from the previous one. Not so in this cave. It's so vast that they just found a new place for each new ceremony, so the whole site is littered with little stashes of ritual paraphernalia. There are lots of pots which have been "killed" by smashing holes in them, and you can still see ash in fireplaces that have been cold for 1500 years. Some of the stashes have had water flow over them in the centuries since they were placed, and so now have coatings of calcium, but others, where the water has never reached, are just as the priests left them. Occasionally there are human sacrifices - mostly the bones of young men. It is believed that the victims walked in under their own steam, never to leave.
Then you leave the main part of the cave and venture up a rocky side passage for a few minutes, before climbing a ladder to a little cleft. And there she is, the Princess, a girl believed to be around 17 when her people sacrificed her to ameliorate some unknown catastrophe, to appease some unknown god. The gentle waters that have flowed around her from time-to-time have shifted her bones a little, but she is largely complete, lying on her back on the floor, her skeleton covered in a gentle blanket of brown calcification. It is one of the most extraordinary things that I have ever seen.
I spent the rest of my time in San Ignacio paddling canoes up rivers, bumping about in four-wheel drives to get to remote Mayan ruins, having surreal conversations with the Rastas, swimming beneath waterfalls, swinging in hammocks and generally having a jungly time. The Belize jungle experience is very similar to the New Zealand bush experience, with two important differences. Firstly, it's always hot here, so when you do come across a waterfall or nice swimming spot, you want to dive in and you know that the water will be warm. (Even being wet for six straight hours in the cave yesterday was no trial - in fact it was rather pleasant, like adventuring in a bath.) Secondly, every time you turn around there's a Mayan ruin for you to climb.
On the canoe trip the guide was very good at spotting and pointing out wildlife that I would have just sailed right by. My favourite such moment came as we glided past a large rocky outcrop. The guide tried to point out the bats to me. Bats? What bats? I was less than two metres away and I couldn't see any bats. Then something startled them, and it seemed like the whole rock face erupted into a flurry of tiny little bats, each little bigger than a butterfly. They whirled around us in annoyance for a few seconds and then shot off up the river.
Belize really is the most extraordinarily diverse place. You've got pure-blood Mayans, Mayans mixed with Spanish conquistadors, Mayans mixed with British settlers, descendants of African slaves, the Creoles (descendants of African slaves who mixed with British settlers), the Garifuna (descendants of a single ship-load of African slaves that was shipwrecked, the slaves interbreeding with the Mayans). Add to this mix lots of Rastafarians, a bunch of expats of all flavours, around 1000 rude Chinese shopkeepers, and a sizable Amish population and you have Belize. (I got quite a shock on my second day in Belize, seeing a textbook-classic Amish guy striding along earnestly, only to return moments later, the proud owner of a new pick.)
And all this diversity in a population substantially smaller than that of Christchurch! I really is wonderful.
Everyone speaks English, but each of the groups has its own language as well. The Creole language sounds very odd. It's a form of English. Some bits sound like English spoken in a funny voice, but most of it I just can't understand.
One of my guides in San Ignacio claimed that there are no racial tensions in Belize, and I can believe it. I suspect that, growing up amidst such diversity, it would be very difficult to develop an us-and-them worldview.
Now I am in Caye Caulker, an island off the coast of Belize. Well it's not really an island, more a big sandbar that someone plonked a village on. There are no vehicles, and hence no roads - just places they haven't put buildings. My room has a choice of two hammocks on its beach-front balcony, so I think I'll hang out here for a few days.
(Message sent Saturday 24 November 2001.)
A long coral reef lies some kilometres off the Belize coast, running a fair chunk of the length of the country. The sea between the reef and the shore is shallow, warm, atidal and dotted with mangrove-skirted sandy little islands called "cayes". It is on Caye Caulker, the "backpackers' caye" that I have spent the last three days. There is not much to report I'm afraid, as I spent most of the time swimming, walking along the beach, snoozing in my hammock, reading, eating ice cream, and trying to talk to the chicks without sounding like a doofus.
The most exciting time was on the second day when I took a snorkeling trip out to the reef. We had three dives, and the first and third were fun but not particularly interesting (tired-looking coral dotted here and there with an interestingly-coloured fish). The guide apologised, saying that the reef had been hit hard by hurricanes in four successive years. But the trip was worth it for the second dive, into Shark Ray Alley. You can probably guess why it's called Shark Ray Alley :-) When we jumped in, we were immediately surrounded by a dozen or more manta rays, each about a metre across. The cool thing is, it seemed to be as much fun for the mantas as for the tourists. They seemed to delight in goosing the divers - they would brush against you, slap the soles of your feet, nudge you in the small of the back and other disconcerting things. It was funny watching other groups from the boat - the humans would jump in, the mantas would close, and a chorus of startled yelps would echo up through the snorkels. Manta rays feel silky-smooth all over their backs, except for three rows of boney knobs along the spine.
After I had been playing with the mantas for half an hour or so I turned around and there was this big shark, right in front of me. Distances are hard to judge underwater, but I reckon it was about two metres long and about three metres away. It was the classic Jaws shape, but dark brown in colour. It turned and swam away from me, so I gave chase. It was neat seeing this shark from behind, as you get a good idea of the sleek, sinusoidal, snake-like way it travels through the water. I swam as hard as I could, my chubby but sturdy little legs kicking furiously, but with a couple of dismissive undulations of its body it was gone. I feel pretty good for having chased a shark though :-)
Now I am in Orange Walk, a scrappy and (so far) uninteresting inland town in the north of Belize. Tomorrow I'm off on another boat trip up another river to visit another Mayan ruin, then the day after that I'm heading north, back into Mexico again.
The money situation is interesting in Belize. For a start they've got the Queen on the banknotes (hands up all those who knew that Belize was part of the Commonwealth - I sure didn't), and it's the very same forever-young image of the Queen that we used to use on our banknotes what? 10 years ago? The exchange rate is fixed at US$1 = BZ$2, and one of the effects of this is that the two currencies are completely interchangeable. You can buy anything with either coinage, and on occasion you even get US dollars back as change.
That's all for now. Hope everyone is well and happy. I know I am :-)
(Message sent Thursday 29 November 2001.)
Hi all. While in Orange Walk I took a boat trip to see come ruins called "Lamani" (Mayan for "submerged crocodile"). The ruins were only ok, but the boat ride there was fantastic - the best river ride I've had I reckon. The river flows very slowly, and has broken up into little channels, each bendy and meandery, each set in thick jungle. (Some of the channels are so narrow that the jungle canopy closes overhead.) The difficulty of navigating this maze is evidenced by the comical "road signs" in the water - arrows pointing the way and signs saying things like "tight bend ahead - slow down." After a couple of hours thundering along through this maze, the driver slowing down only to point out crocodiles, the channels sorted themselves out and the river opened into a lake, and there on the right bank were the tops of the ruins peeking out over the jungle canopy - always a sight to make my heart sing :-).
Backtracking a bit here, I want to tell you about a small incident in Guatemala. It was on another river trip to a Mayan site, but neither the trip nor the site were anything to write home about, so I didn't write home about them. When I got off the boat the site custodian handed me something that was like a cross between a billy and a censer. It was a big metal tin with holes poked in it, a long loop of metal for a handle. Sticks of wood were smoldering away in it, and the whole thing was belching great clouds of thick, pungent smoke. Insect repellant, Guatemalan style!
After Orange Walk I headed back into Mexico, to Tulum. Ahh Tulum! Imagine waking in the morning in your own little thatched hut, the sound of palm trees swaying in the breeze above you, the sound of the surf a distant gentle thunder. You get up and pad barefoot through the sand through a quaint little cluster of thatched huts down to the white-sand beach, a gentle warm breeze blowing off the sea. You turn to your left and look along the gentle crescent of the bay, and there, less than a kilometre away, you see a modest but pleasing set of Mayan ruins perched precariously on the cliff tops. You're in Tulum. What a place.
The ruins themselves are only mildly interesting, but their location on the cliff tops overlooking a Caribbean beach makes the site an utterly stunning one. The site is fortified, a flatish area enclosed on three sides by a thick stone wall, the fourth wall of the fortress being the cliffs. This fourth wall is broken by a lovely little beach with easy access to the buildings, but it seems that the Maya just couldn't bring themselves to block it off! The site is just glorious - craggy cliffs, painfully blue sea, white-sand beaches, metre-long iguanas posing for photographs amidst the ruins.
South along the bay from the ruins are these little clusters of thatched huts called "cabanas". Why the support accommodation has evolved in this way rather than in the form of hotels I don't know, but I'm very glad that it has, 'cause it's lovely. The cabanas are very basic (it varies from place to place, but mine had no hot water, no electricity), and stupidly expensive for what they are, but who cares? It's a great place to be. By the end of my stay I had even come to enjoy showering by candlelight in a trickle of cold water :-)
Now I'm in Valladolid, a lovely little colonial town. It has a big leafy central square, a cacophony of birdsong at dusk, a fine lofty cathedral with arrow slits in the walls, and lots of buildings fronted by arched colonnades. I'm writing this in a food court - an open airy colonnaded space with a view across to the central square, and I've just watched Xena let Callisto get sucked into the quicksand in Spanish.
(Message sent Sunday 2 December 2001.)
While in Valladolid I spent a day at nearby Chichen Itza, one of the most famous Mayan sites. And it sure is fine. I arrived early to beat the crowds, only to have to fight my way through the millions of people who also arrived early to beat the crowds. By lunchtime it was worse, new truckloads of tourists being dumped on the site every few minutes. By the end of it I was quite cross, as it felt more like a Disney theme park than an ancient city. Still, on balance I had a great day.
The main feature of the site, the pyramid, is truly magnificent. (In my diary I wrote, "Is this the world's best pyramid?") While it's nowhere near as massive as the Great Pyramid, its bulk is still imposing as it rises steeply in a dozen tiers or so to a small temple on top. There are stairways on all four sides, two of which have been restored to climbable condition. They are not as steep as the stairs on the Tikal temples, but the descent is still terrifying. From the top you can see most of the rest of the site. You can also go inside the pyramid. A short tunnel leads to a steep set of stairs that in turn takes you up to an internal temple which contains a chac-mool (an altar in the shape of a reclining person on which sacrificial items (human hearts and the like) were placed). The steep stairs, the slimy walls, the close ceiling, the almost unbreathably hot and humid air all added to the experience. The dicks firing off their flashes despite the polite signs asking them not to detracted from it. The Maya had this big thing about entirely enclosing an older, smaller temple inside a newer, larger one. I suspect that this internal staircase to an internal temple is in fact the external staircase and top temple of an earlier pyramid. Cool eh?
The Mayans also had this big thing about a ball game that they played. No-one is sure what the rules were, but the prominent presence of ball courts in all the major sites has lead many people to believe that it was far more than just a game to them. During the blood-thirsty Toltec phase sacrifice of players under certain uncertain sets of circumstances seems to have taken place. At first people assumed that the losing team or its captain were sacrificed, but it seems that sacrifice was an honour, guaranteeing the participant's direct injection into heaven (normal shmoes have to go through the underworld first), leading to the intriguing suggestion that it was the *winning* captain that got beheaded. There's a big ball court at Chichen Itza, with lots of carvings. The carvings are worn, and many pieces are missing, so it took me a while to 'get' them, but once my brain had clicked I had no trouble seeing the goings-on. The ball players wore what looked like wooden Samurai armour and held a small bat in one hand and what looked like a jaguar-faced toolbox in the other. Sure enough, every now and then, there's a clear depiction of a ball player holding the severed head of another, goo dripping from the neck. Nearby there are carvings of eagles and jaguars eating human hearts and other good stuff.
The Yucatan is dotted with these things called "cenotes" - water-filled sink holes. There's a perfectly round one at Chichen Itza, around 60 metres across. The Maya believed that it went all the way down to the underworld, so they chucked all many of offerings (human and otherwise) into it. They built a causeway from the main plaza out to it, and you can see the clear remains of the "launch ramp" they used to chuck the offerings in. (You can just picture two Mayan priests swinging some poor sap between them going "One! ... Two! ... THREEEEEE!!!")
I spent the next day exploring three underground cenotes in the region. By far my favourite was Cenote Samula. It is quite small, a nearly round cenote set in a nearly spherical cave. The cool thing is there's a small hole in the ceiling, perched on the lip of which is a sizable tree, its roots dropping maybe 20 metres through thin air to a small island in the cenote. The effect is like a wooden waterfall. You can swim in the cenote, so I swam out to the island. Looking up was like something from Jack and the Beanstalk - a gnarled wooden column leading up through a hole in the sky to a different world above. It was quite startlingly cool.
From Valladolid I travelled to the beguiling and intriguing town of Izamal on the recommendation of a one-armed photographer. The town has an interesting history. It was once a large Mayan site with the normal plaza, at one end of which was a large temple, at the other end of which was a huge pyramid. The conquistadors came along and, with their usual cultural sensitivity, pulled down the temple and used the stones to build a big monastery. A town gradually grew up around the monastery, and then at some stage someone decided it would be a good idea to paint the whole town yellow. So now you can stand on the top of this huge pyramid and look across the old plaza (now filled in with housing) at this huge yellow monastery. To the sides of the old plaza you can see here a block of modern buildings, there an ancient pyramid.
The evening I arrived a festival started. I never found out what the festival was for, but the Mexicans don't need much excuse. The festival itself wasn't very interesting - food stalls, seedy side shows, small rickety Ferris wheels and so on - but a glorious farce took place in the middle of it all. They had set up a sound stage in the main square, and fenced off an arbitrary area for the audience (a square within the square). They were charging 80 pesos for entrance to the concert, the lead act for which had the disconcerting name of Rayito Colombino. Now it seems that the people felt that this was a bit steep for, as far as I could see no-one, and I mean no-one, had bought a ticket. So this poor band were playing their hearts out to a completely empty audience, while the whole population of the town, it seemed, crowded ten deep around the perimeter fence to listen.
Now I am in Merida. My main reason for coming here was to visit the art-and-craft markets to buy presents for you lot. So far I have purchased three impressive and expensive items, all for me :-)
Need food. Bye.
(Message sent Wednesday 5 December 2001.)
I didn't like Merida much at first. The bus dumped me in the middle of the market district - narrow filthy streets, narrow filthy footpaths, a non-stop stream of buses belching fumes and noise, and people, people, people swarming everywhere. However once I had found a place to stay and started exploring further afield I found lots of nice squares and other public spaces. My favourite such was an arcade off the main square. It was open to the sky but had tall buildings on either side, giving in the feel of a canyon. The surface underfoot was painted with road markings (centre lines, parking diagonals and the like) (perhaps it had been a road at some stage) but they'd dropped big, abstract, metallic, brightly-painted sculptures randomly about the place, so walking along the road you had to sort of slalom your way around them.
On my first night in Merida I went to an outdoor concert compered by a very little man in a very big sombrero. It mostly featured Mexican dancing, and by far my favourite dance was one I immediately dubbed the "castration tango." Picture a line of men in mariachi suits doing the can-can. With knives. Each man held a machete in each hand. They would clash them together above their heads, kick high with one leg, clash the blades together under that leg and then repeat for the other side. All very, very quickly.
There were lots of beggars in Merida for some reason, far more than I've seen elsewhere in Mexico. Most were elderly, some were in wheelchairs or on crutches. Some were sporting the most horrific injuries. One guy looked like he had been scalded over his entire body. A few tufts of hair sprouting from a blistered scalp, hands and feet twisted and scarred almost beyond recognition.
Now I'm in Campeche, an altogether more pleasant place. In the 1600s it was a prosperous sea port, and so was subject to frequent and vicious pirate attacks. To defend the town Spain built a wall and eight small forts around it. Most of the forts and a fair chunk of the wall still stand. Walking along the ramparts is an odd experience. You are so obviously walking on a defensive wall, but there is modern hustle and bustle to each side - there's no obvious enemy, no obvious inside and outside. The locked stairway leading up to one of these wall sections is a fair distance from the custodian's office, so to let him know that you want to come down you have to ring a bell presumably originally installed to warn the town of impending attack.
Inside the walls 1000 colonial-era buildings still line the narrow, cobbled streets. The buildings are quite large, but jam-packed together. Each is painted in a singe, muted tone, each different from its neighbours. They do a neat trick with the footpaths here. Most of them are more-or-less where you'd expect a footpath to be, but when the road dips down to follow the lie of the land the footpath stays level - so in some places you are walking along with your feet above the tops of the cars!
Campeche also has a nice seaside promenade with the occasional rusty old canon pointing out to sea. (I'm sitting leaning with my back against one as I write this, the sun just about to touch the ocean horizon behind me.)
I visited the local ruins this morning, but I'm sure you're all heartily sick of hearing about ruins and wishing that the sodding Mayans had never bothered to build anything at all, so I shan't describe them. They were magnificent though :-)
Sadly my little adventure is drawing to a close. Tomorrow I fly to Mexico City (the only other options being a 20-hour bus ride or asking Warren for, say, a year off), then two days later I'm heading home.
(Message sent Saturday 8 December 2001.)
Well I'm back in Mexico City now. When I was here last time I didn't notice the bad air (reputed to be the worst in the world) too much. But it seems to be much, much worse now. My eyes feel scratchy all the time, the air constantly smells like there's someone smoking nearby, and each morning I have a sneezing fit to clear out the black crud that I breathed in during the night. I really pity the poor people who have to spend whole lives in this muck.
Another hazard of daily life in Mexico City that I haven't mentioned before is the organ grinders. They are everywhere, and they're organised. There seems to be some sort of guild, since they all wear dun uniforms, peaked caps and all. When I first saw them I thought they were moonlighting policemen - perhaps they are. They work in pairs, one cranking the handle on the organ, the other asking for donations from the passers by. The problem is, the music is just awful. The tunes are approximate, the intonation off, and they don't bother cranking at a steady rate so that the music goes in fits and starts. I really pity these guys: not only do they have to breath the city's air, suffer the opprobrium of the people, get by on presumably tiny incomes, but they also have to listen to their horrid music all day long.
Yesterday I went out to visit the pyramids at Teotihuacan again, and I have spent the rest of the time here chasing down the various Diego Rivera murals around the city. I'm pleased I did this, because they are truly magnificent. I'm not much into art, but I like big things, and these murals are huge (some are around 20 metres long by five metres high). You know the kind of children's books that have very busy pictures which you can stare at for ages and still keep finding new things? Well Rivera's murals (especially the later ones) have the same effect, only in the large. They contain interwoven scenes of pre-Columbian America, the excesses of the conquistadors, the struggle of the working classes, the corruption of the politicians and the capitalists. They really are astounding.
Well, time to head for the airport. Looking forward to seeing some of you in a day or so.