EXPLORING MAYAN RUINS IN YUCATAN, MEXICO MARCH 2004
Last summer I presented a paper at a psychology conference in Peru, and met a student from the Yucatan. He told me about the Mayan ruins there, and I thought it would be interesting to explore them. I had an opportunity to do that this past week during my spring break from the college where I teach! Here is my journal of my adventures.
(El verano pasado yo presenté un papel en una conferencia de psicología en Perú, y encontré a un estudiante del Yucatán. El me dijo de las ruinas mayas allí, y yo lo pensé estaría interesando explorarlos. ŃTuve una oportunidad de hacer que esta semana pasada durante mi vacacion de la primavera de la unversidad dónde yo enseĖo! Aquí está mi diario de mis aventuras.)
MARCH 20 -- DISCO NEAR THE PARK
I left Los Angeles in the afternoon and changed planes in Mexico City, where I had to go through immigration. But I didn't have to deal with customs there since my suitcase was checked all the way through. I arrived in Mérida about 11 PM and was met by my friend, whom I had met at a psychology conference in Peru last summer. He had borrowed a car so he could drive me to my hotel, which is next to Santa Lucia Park about 3 blocks north of the main plaza. Since my body said that it was only 9 PM in the Los Angeles time zone, I explored around the park which had an outdoor cafe in the street. I found a disco around the corner! So I danced there for 3 hours. In addition to meeting some locals, I met two guys from Germany, one from Berlin and one from Hamburg! I told them that my daughter was in Berlin this week for a conference, while doing research on folk music this year in Finland for her doctoral dissertation.
It was about 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside with about 90 percent humidity, so I had left the air conditioning on in my hotel while I was out, then I turned it off so I could sleep without the noise! I usually stay in youth hostels when I travel, but was able to find a hotel with air conditioning for only $30 a night which was listed in one of my guidebooks.
MARCH 21 - HISTORIC MÉRIDA
On Sundays the historic downtown area of Mérida becomes a family fair, with booths set up selling food, clothing, art, etc. There also were bands playing in three locations. In Santa Lucia Park across from my hotel, elderly couples were dancing to memories music. In Hildalgo plaza two blocks away, a marimba band was playing to a seated audience. In the main plaza another block away, school kids were dancing folklorico in traditional clothing! As my wife said when I called her on the phone, I'm in my element here!
I explored the booths and bought a traditional Yucatecan white shirt with four pockets, which is similar to the shirts I saw in Cuba while teaching on Semster at Sea two years ago. From the Yucatan peninsula there are excursions to Cuba, which is just a few miles to the east. Some Americans go from here or from the Bahamas to bypass the US government restrictions on travel to Cuba.
I met my friend at 4, and he took me on a walking tour of the historic buildings around the main plaza. Mérida is a colonial city, built by the Spanish conquistadors in 1542, out of the ruins of an abandoned Mayan town.
We explored the university administrative building, which had a photography exhibit showing faces of people of various ages in the city. (The other university buildings are scattered elsewhere in the city). We also looked inside the cathedral, which has a painting of the Spanish meeting the Mayans. In the government building, there is a large room full of powerful paintings by Don Fernando Castro Pacheco which depict the history of the Yucatan. I also read about the history in my guidebooks. When the Spanish came, the Catholic priests tried to destroy the indigenous culture. One of the bishops, Diego da Landa, burned most of the Mayan manuscripts which had the history of their civilization, feeling it was the work of the devil. However, he later defended the Mayans and wrote a book about them which is now one of the primary sources of information about them.
The Spanish took the land away from the Mayans and established large plantations and ranches. During the fight for independence from Spain 1810-1823, the descendents of the Mayans fought alongside the descendents of the conquistadors, but the land and power remained in the hands of the latter. The Mayans rebelled in a bloody uprising called the War of the Castes in 1847, but were defeated when the rains came and they stopped fighting to plant their crops. About that time the landowners started growing hennequen, from which sisal rope is made. They became extremely wealthy and built huge mansions in Mérida. The Mayans worked for them in slave-like conditions in which they could only buy goods from the company store and became further in debt. After a social revolution toppled Diaz' dictatorship in 1911, the new government cancelled all of the debts, and in 1936 the Agrarian Reform Bill expropriated land from the plantations and gave it to the natives. Meanwhile other countries started producing hennequen, and then artificial fibers were created which eliminated the demand for sisal rope. Now it is used primarily for handcrafts.
After exploring the rest of the main plaza, my friend took me by bus to a new mall several miles north of the downtown historic district. It looked just like a mall in Los Angeles, with many of the same stores and fast food outlets. Even the Spanish signs were not that different from LA!
After he brought me back to the main plaza and had to leave, I listened to some music being played by a band in front of city hall to which many older couples were dancing. I bought food from the street vendors, including corn on the cob which was rolled in mayonnaise then sprinkled with finely grated cheese and drizzled with hot sauce. I also ate a crepe made in a large round waffle iron then rolled up with cheese inside, and a deep-fried banana. I decided to skip the French fries and large potato chips!
I heard some music from the cathedral, and stepped in to hear the end of the Mass. There was beautiful organ music and singing. Then I listened to a band down the block that was playing at a café on the street where younger couples were dancing. I went to bed early since I was tired from being out late the night before and I knew I had a long day the next day.
MARCH 22 -- MAYAN RUINS AT CHICHEN ITZA
This morning I was picked up by a van at 9 AM for a tour of Chichen Itza. The tour group included couples from Kansas, New Mexico, and Virginia, and two single women from San Diego. The couples included a retired engineering professor, a geologist, and a physician. The single women were students at UC San Diego, one from Hong Kong majoring in accounting and one from Nagasaki, Japan majoring in sociology. So they were interesting people to chat with during the day.
During the 75 mile trip we stopped at a Mayan village to see a sisal rope factory. We saw the hennequen plant, which has fibrous long thick leaves extending up from the root. It is related to the plant from which tequila is made! In fact, they also make a kind of tequila from hennequen! It was ironic that the machine used to process the leaves now uses plastic ropes on its pulleys!
We also stopped at another Mayan village, where our guide was born, to see a sinkhole which is called a cenote in Spanish from the Mayan word dzenot. The northern part of the Yucatan peninsula is flat with a thin layer of topsoil on porous limestone rock. There are no surface rivers or lakes since the water drains below ground, but there are underground rivers going to the ocean. The dissolved carbon dioxide acts as an acid, and has carved caverns underground. In many places the rock on top collapses, creating a sinkhole or cenote. These cenotes were the only source of fresh water on the peninsula in the past.
In Chichen Itza, there is an even larger cenote which was used for sacrificing young humans to the Mayan rain god Chac so he would bring rain to water their crops. Human bones of both sexes have been found in that cenote along with carved jade. Chichen Itza was a religious and ceremonial center, and includes a tall pyramid, a large ball court, and many other buildings.
The ball game was a religious ceremony, and after the game one of the team captains beheaded the other. Most people assume it was the loser who was beheaded, but some have claimed it was the winner, since the ball players were raised to be honored by being sacrificed this way, as were those thrown into the cenote. This sacrifice is depicted in stone carvings along the side of the ball court. Only the priests and high officials witnessed the ball game, but afterward the severed head was placed on a pole and displayed at another building which has skulls carved on it. A number of human skulls were found at that site. The rest of the bodies were cremated. Another small pyramid contains the bones of high priests on six different levels.
These buildings are on the northern half of the grounds, and the architecture is influenced by Toltecs from central Mexico. Our guide, who was from a Mayan village, said that it was the Toltecs who introduced the human sacrifices. I should check that by learning more about Mayan practices in Guatemala and Honduras, which had older Mayan settlements.
The southern half of the grounds has architecture that is Mayan without the Toltec influence. Instead of pyramids, the buildings are more rectangular. Some have A-shaped roofs inside. There is an observatory building, with a dome with 8 windows for viewing the solstices and equinoxes. Instead of jaguars and snakes, there are many carvings of the rain god Chac who has square eye sockets and a long, hooked nose. The buildings were made of rocks that were not all cut as squarely as in the northern section, and many mounds have not been excavated.
When the site was discovered, all of the buildings were covered with trees and other plants, and only the major ones have been restored. It reminded me of the overgrown trees at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but those trees were much larger than the scrub trees here. You can see some of buildings of Angkor Wat in the movie Lora Croft Tomb Raider since it was filmed there!
Yesterday was March 21, the spring equinox, and seven to ten thousand people had been at Chichen Itza to see a special feature of the big pyramid in the northern section. At sunset on the spring equinox, the shadow of the stepped corner of the pyramid casts a shadow on the edge of one of the four stairways such that the shadow looks like a snake undulating. At the bottom edge of the stairway is the carved head of snake.
However, yesterday was overcast, and so they could not see the sun or its shadow! I am glad I went today, when the crowd was normal, about two to three thousand. Today it was partly overcast and partly sunny, but I was glad for the clouds because they kept the temperature in the 90s instead of 100.
The van was air conditioned, so it was a pleasant ride there and back. We had lunch before returning, but I ate in a different restaurant than the others because I had booked my tour through a different agency. The agencies work together to be more efficient in conducting the tours!
Back at my hotel I took a quick swim to cool off, then checked my email at an internet cafe half a block from my hotel. When I left the internet café I noticed that the huge wooden doors across the street were open revealing a library inside! It had a limited selection of books, but it did have a room full of computers hooked up to the internet. There also are many internet cafes around the downtown area.
I walked to the main plaza, and watched junior high kids dancing folklorico in front of the city hall. While watching them, I saw again a Japanese couple that I had chatted with briefly at Chichen Itza earlier in the day – they had come over by my tour group to see what we were looking at and I had explained that it was a bird with long tail feathers! This time we met they had already eaten dinner, but joined me for drinks while I ate dinner at a café across from the main plaza, and we talked for two hours! They had been to Cuba before coming to Mérida, and last winter they had been at Machu Picchu in Peru, so we had much to talk about. The guy is finishing up his MBA at Northwestern University and has been trying to see as much as possible before returning to Japan to work for a bank that is financing his MBA. His wife quit work when they were married last year, which is typical in Japan. For dinner, I had some sea bass steamed with onions and green peppers which was very good!
MARCH 23 -- MY LECTURE AT THE UNIVERSITY
My friend had made arrangements for me to give a talk at his university about my research on dating couples. So this morning he came to my hotel at 7:45 to take me by bus to the psychology buildings of his university, about an hour away. I met the psychology director, and the professor who was asked to translate for me. The latter was anxious since he had not seen a copy of what I was going to say, but I told him that I would rephrase something if he had trouble translating it! In fact, he had no problem. The auditorium was full of psychology undergraduates, at least 200 of them. I talked about the most interesting findings from the Boston Couples Study, and got a very positive response from the students. The director was pleased, and asked me if I would be willing to come back another time for a conference or workshop!
My friend borrowed a car and drove me back to my hotel, and then he had to return to campus for class. I took a shower to cool off, and change to less formal clothing. When I stepped out of the hotel, there was a City Tour bus parked in front, which offered a two-hour tour of the city for only $8.50! So I seized the opportunity and saw more of the city, including many huge mansions that had been built in the last century by the landowners who made so much money from the sisal rope plantations. Many of the mansions are now public buildings or businesses. We stopped for a few minutes at a park, where I had a chance to eat a torta (sandwich) made from chopped grilled pork with slices of carrots and cheese, which was very good!
After the tour, I walked to the market district, which was a couple of blocks southeast of the main plaza. There was a huge handicrafts market selling clothing, and a huge produce and meat market which extended for a block in each direction. The surrounding side streets had many shops selling just about everything. I found a couple of CDs with Yucatecan music for $2 each and a pair of slacks for $13! It was fun exploring and taking pictures. The hawkers here are not as aggressive as in many places! I like Mérida, and feel very much at home here. But then I feel at home almost anywhere in the world!
After checking my email, I had dinner at a cafe across from the main plaza and tried a Yucatecan specialty, pollo pibil, which is chicken cooked with onions, tomatoes, and green peppers. I discovered that there was a free concert at the opera house two blocks north of the main plaza, where I heard guitar players and an orchestra. There is some kind of free music event every night of the week in downtown Mérida.
MARCH 24 -- LIGHT AND SOUND SHOW AT UXMAL
This morning I went to the city museum, which had displays telling the history of Mérida, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, which had an exhibit of delightful cartoons as well as more paintings by the artist who did the historical paintings in the government building. I also walked several blocks to the Museum of Popular Art (handicrafts) but it was closed.
At 1 PM I was picked up by a van for the tour of Uxmal, another famous site of Mayan ruins. The tour group included a couple from Uruguay, two women from Toronto, a woman who was a clinical psychologist in Mexico City, two women from Veracruz, and four other women with whom I didn't get a chance to talk! On the way there, the tour guide gave background information about Yucatan in Spanish then English, and I was pleased that I could understand about 3/4 of his Spanish since he was speaking slowly and clearly!
He pointed out that while there were underground rivers in the northern part of Yucatan, there was no water near the surface in the southern part, and so the Mayans created cisterns by lining depressions with adobe to collect rain water.
Only the two women from Toronto and I spoke English, so when we got to Uxmal we recombined tour groups with another group, so our new group had the English speakers from our van plus a man from Germany and a young woman from Wales, while the other group had all of those who spoke only Spanish!
We spent two hours exploring Uxmal, which had a huge building with a rectangular base and sloped walls and steps with a temple to the sun god on top. There was a smaller similar building with a temple, and two other large buildings. Down below was a small ball court, and beyond it a square building with an inner courtyard that was aligned with the four directions. The eastern and western parts were raised above the southern part, and had steps, and the northern part was even higher. The building was designed so that on the equinox the sun would rise over the eastern part and cast shadows in the center of the western part.
While we were walking up and down and around the buildings, we were following a group of high school students. I chatted with the two teachers and learned that they were from Mérida and that the students were sophomores. We walked back to the entrance together, and the kids were teasing each other for my benefit!
After dinner at restaurants nearby, we returned to the grounds for the light and sound show. Chairs had been placed at the top of the steps of the northern part of the square building described above, from where we had a spectacular view of the other buildings. The buildings were even more impressive at night with the colored lights, which emphasized their size and highlighted the carvings in the stone. Many of the buildings had images of the rain god Chac, with a big hooked nose. I sat next to a couple from Alberta, Canada -- the man was a geologist working for an oil company, and his wife had been a geology major then became a teacher. I told them that my wife had gone back to graduate school again and was now finishing her masters in geology.
I am a very social person and usually do not feel the need to seek solitude. But there are some times when I like it to be quiet. I became more aware of this on the way back from Uxmal, when the woman from Uruguay did not stop talking to the woman next to her the entire hour and a half of the trip!
When we got back to Mérida I went to the opera house to see an adult folklorico group perform various dances from one of the regions of the Yucatan. I then stopped by the disco for a beer, but there were only 4 other customers there and no one was dancing, unlike last Saturday when it was crowded and fun!
MARCH 25, 2004 -- NEARBY ARCHEOLOGICAL SITE
This morning my friend drove me to Dzibilchaltun, a Mayan archeological site about 10 miles north of Mérida. It is not as famous as Chichen Itzen and Uxmal, because its buildings are not as big and impressive, but it was interesting nonetheless. It has a small temple on a stepped stone platform which is positioned so that the sun shines exactly through the north and south doorways on the spring equinox. I had seen a picture of this before, and now I have a postcard of it. When I get home I will have to read the book that I had previously bought about paleoastronomy, which describes examples of ancient buildings in various cultures that have been constructed to observe the sun and other celestial bodies.
It was about 100 degrees when we were exploring the grounds, but there was a cool breeze flowing through the temple so we sat there awhile and chatted. I learned from him that tuition at the University of Yucatan is about $130 a year, which is about the cost of a community college in California. But in the Yucatan, that amount is the equivalent of a month's wages for many people, so the university is difficult for many of them to afford. A typical salary there is about 65 pesos a day, which is about $6 a day, or 75 cents an hour and $1500 a year. Yucatan is one of the poorest states in Mexico. Although Mérida looks like it is economically successful, there are many people in the countryside who still live in traditional Mayan huts, which are made of thin poles tied together, with the cracks filled with mud and grass, and a thatched roof. I saw many of these huts on the trip to Chichen Itza.
There was a small museum on the grounds that was air conditioned so that provided a chance to cool off. But it was 100 degrees again when we drove back to Mérida, since the car air conditioning was not working. It didn’t bother my friend as much since he is used to it! He dropped me off at the anthropology museum since he had to go to class. The museum is in one of the largest and most beautiful old mansions. Its exhibits provided a broader context for understanding how Chichen Itza and Uxmal were related to other Mayan sites. Chichen Itza has the largest ball court in all of Mesoamerica and apparently was the most important religious center during its peak. It was active after Mayan sites in Guatemala and Honduras had been abandoned. But it too had been abandoned by the time the Spanish came, and the collapse of the Mayan empire made it easier for the Spanish to conquer the Mayans who were still living in scattered villages there.
The restaurants nearby were all closed (too late for lunch and too early for dinner I guess), but I found a tiny convenience store with a ham and cheese sandwich and an ice cream parlor selling guava milkshakes. It was still 90 degrees, so instead of walking a mile back to my hotel I took an air conditioned bus for 40 cents! I’ve been trying hard to avoid the heat exhaustion that I suffered in 100 degree heat in Cambodia two years ago. Back at the hotel I took a shower to cool off and relaxed for awhile with the air conditioner on.
When I walked to the main plaza to have dinner, I ran into two of the couples who were on the Chichen Itza tour. I had also run into them earlier in the day when I was leaving the anthropology museum! They had just eaten at a restaurant recommended by the engineer on the tour, so I decided to try it too.
As I was finishing dinner at an outdoor cafe on the Hidalgo plaza, the guy from Germany whom I had met on the Uxmal tour came by so he had a beer and we chatted awhile. During the time I was sitting there more than a dozen hawkers came by, more than had approached me all week! They were selling chewing gum, cigarettes, hammocks (famous here due to the sisal rope industry), and other things. They weren't pushy, but there were too many of them!
I then went to a free concert at the opera house. But unlike the previous ones of which were all music and folklorico, this one had only a little music and a lot of speeches and two monologues paying tribute to a famous Yucatecan actress. It was frustrating because they spoke fast and it was hard to understand their Spanish. When I walked back to my hotel, there was another concert in the Santa Lucia Park across the street, which was more like what I had expected!
MARCH 26 -- FLIGHT BACK TO LOS ANGELES
This morning I organized my luggage and managed to fit in the shirts, books, and postcards that I had bought. I always buy foreign shirts to wear in my Introductory Psychology class, and tell stories at the beginning of class about countries that I have visited, in order to increase students' awareness of other cultures. I have been to about 40 countries so I have many stories to tell!
My friend came with two of his friends who drove me to the airport. I already had seat reservations so I didn't have to rush to the airport this time. Since I am so tall, I usually go to the airport early so I can request seating either behind the bulkhead or in the exit aisle so I have enough legroom. The airlines usually will not reserve those seats before seeing the passengers, because they like to save the bulkhead seats for passengers with babies and young children, and they do not allow children or handicapped persons to sit in the exit aisles since they may need to help others exit in an emergency.
I had the whole row to myself on the flight from Mérida to Mexico City. As we flew over Mexico City, I noticed that the streets were not laid out in a rectangular grid. Instead various patches of streets were at different angles to each other, and within a patch the streets were not always straight. Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world, and has grown rapidly in a chaotic manner.
On the way from Mexico City to Los Angeles, I sat next to a student from UC Berkeley who had spent his spring break in Puerto Vallarta with seven of his friends. They had been parasailing, dancing in clubs, and having fun on the beach. He was exhausted! Another popular spring break destination is Cancun, which is on the Yucatan peninsula about 200 miles east of Mérida. Cancun was originally a small fishing village, but it had been selected by a government computer as a good location for building a resort! I would have liked to check out the dance clubs there, but I was more interested in exploring Mayan ruins than lounging on the beach. I can go to the beach in Los Angeles!
Carlitos (Chuck in Spanish)