No-News Booze Cruise

It’s That Time Again

I suspect that one of the reason so many Americans don’t vote is that politics as practiced in these United States is so divisive and utterly ugsome. With the many 24-hour news channels hammering into our brains and all the phone calls and TV ads, we all look forward wistfully to the day after the November elections—provided that we don’t have another 2016 debacle on our hands.

The above cartoon was in today’s Los Angeles Times in Wiley Miller’s underrated “Non Sequitur” comic strip. I laughed as I thought about the endless Democratic debates and the never-ending tweets of our orange-headed troll of a president. Treating our obsession with the news as an info-virus was a stroke of genius.

When I spent election day 2016 in Quito, Ecuador, I thought I was being smart. Instead, learning that Trump won, I seriously considered for a few minutes staying in South America, but I did return to the mess that greeted me when I returned to our borders.

In recent weeks, there are some of my friends with whom I refuse to discuss politics. I just mutter something about endlessly covering “Subject A” and hurriedly trying (not always successfully) to change the subject.

Kind Hearts and Blistered Toes

A Mexican Doctor’s Prescription for a Blistered Toe

Whenever I encounter a medical problem in my travels, I go to see one of the local doctors. This trip, I developed a nasty blood blister on my left big toe after just two days in Mérida. As I walked out of the Cathedral of San Ildefonso, I was approached by an English-speaking guide named Rafael. Although I was limping badly, I willingly took his guided tour. As it was winding down, I asked him if he could translate my English into Spanish for me to a Mexican physician. He was willing, and suggested the “Doc-in-a-Box” connected with the big Farmacia Yza on the main square.

So he and I saw Dr. Durán Chacón, a young locally trained physician, with Rafael translating. Using the bandaging, wound cleanser, antibiotic capsules, and antibiotic ointment he recommended from the Farmacia, the good doctor cleansed my wound and suggested that I bandage the toe twice a day, applying the cleanser and ointment. Three times a day, I took a 300mg Dalacin C Clindamicina capsule for about five days.

The Antibiotic I Was Prescribed

Fortunately, the good doctor’s recommendations worked; and my toe healed in record time. And it only cost me a few hundred pesos, a small fraction of what I would have had to pay Stateside.

Not surprisingly, Rafael invited me to a souvenir shop in which he was a partner. I knew I should express my gratitude for his kindness so I purchased a few nice items to take back to L.A.

Do I think he was being mercenary? Yes and no. He was a small businessman with a kind heart, and he saved my vacation from turning into a medical casualty. Again and again during my trip, I met with kindness; and I tried to express my appreciation in a meaningful way, even if it meant dispensing a few extra pesos.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Statue of Pirate on a Bench in Campeche

It was by no means one of the gold and silver ports used by the Spanish treasure fleets (those were in what is today Panama), but the city of Campeche, Mexico, was the main port of Yucatán from the 17th through the beginning of the 19th centuries. The city’s wealth came primarily from a plant used for dyeing textiles called palo de Campeche, salt from evaporation, and shipbuilding. The result was that the city was frequently attacked by pirates.

The most prominent of these were the Dutchman Laurens de Graaf, called Lorencillo, and Jean David Nau, called El Olonés. Of the latter, it was said:

He committed innumerable and famous stumbling against the Spanish viceroyalty of the mainland. In a terrible storm, he lost his ship on the coast of Campeche. All the men were saved, but, arriving on land, the Spanish persecuted them by killing most of them, and also hurting the Olonés. Not knowing this how to escape, he thought about saving his life through a ploy: he took several handfuls of sand and mixing it with the blood of his own wounds he smeared his face and other parts of his body. Then, hiding with great skill among the dead, he remained motionless until the Spaniards left the field of struggle. Since they were gone, he retired to the forest, sold his wounds and took care of them until heal and then headed to the City of Campeche perfectly disguised. In the city, he spoke with certain slaves to whom he promised freedom in case they obeyed him. They accepted their promises and stealing a canoe at night, threw themselves into the sea with the Olonés.

Surviving Fortifications in Campeche

Other pirates included Sir Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Cornelius Jol, Portuguese Bartholemew, Jacobo Jackson, Michel de Grandmont, Henry Morgan, and finally Jean Lafitte, who helped Andrew Jackson win the 1815 Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

What the Spanish and the people of Campeche did was to fortify their city, surrounding the center with walls on all sides and putting separate fortifications on the north and south.

The Fortress of San Miguel, South of the City

With independence from Spain, the pirate menace eventually abated. But many of the walls (baluartes) that surrounded the city still exist and are walkable. You can also visit the two large fortresses that protect Campeche on either side.

 

Boat People

Oh, Those Evil Mexicans!

For this post to make any sense, you’ll need to know the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Mexican peso around the time of my trip. When I was there, the peso ran around 17.5 to the dollar, or about 6¢ each.

There is not much love lost between cruise ship passengers and Mexicans. (In fact, there is not much love lost between cruise ship passengers and me, for that matter.) They tend to be retirees whose idea of paradise is to rot on some beach somewhere. They know next to nothing about the countries they visit. In fact, they don’t know the language; their wallets are stuffed with dollars; and they basically listen to what their handlers tell them.

I was in Izamal when for a brief moment, I was mistaken for a boat person. I hand just seen the Church of San Antonio de Padua and wanted to get back to my room. There was a taxi tout next to the Centro bus station who said a taxi would cost 100 pesos for the five-block ride. I glared at him, said that was demasiado caro (“too expensive”), and hoofed it back to my room, which I would have done in the first place if I weren’t recovering from a nasty blister on my right big toe. The tout looked surprised: These boat Gringos weren’t supposed to know any Spanish, and certainly wouldn’t know that the in-town taxi rate in Izamal was only 25 pesos.

Cut to Progreso, which has two or more cruise ships call each week. The malécon fills up with American cruise ship zombies, who quite naturally have to relieve themselves from time to time. There are bathrooms (sanitarios) in the alleys off the malécon, costing 5 or 10 pesos each. The equivalent price in dollars is 30-60¢, but U.S. coins cannot be exchanged for pesos in Mexico, so the bathroom is charging $1.00 to Gringos. (The sign on the right side of the above photo sets the price in Mexican currency for a bathroom visit to be 10 pesos.)

Finally, also in Progreso, I saw a scene that annoyed me to no end. I purchased a one-way ticket to Mérida for 21 pesos. At the same time, a tout was selling round trip tickets to Mérida for $10.00 each, about four times what I paid. The boat people were grabbing them up as if they were a bargain. Several, seeing that I spoke Spanish while looking like a Gringo, came up to ask me questions. I smiled and answered them … in Hungarian. I have no intention of being a cavaliere servente to a bunch of brain-dead Yanqui tourists.

The Yellow City

Statue of Diego de Landa Facing the Church of San Antonio de Padua

On my recent trip to Yucatán, I enjoyed staying in smaller towns such as Izamal, each of which seems to have some unique claim to fame. In the case of Izamal, it was the deep yellow color that characterized most of the structures in town. There are a number of reasons for this, but I like the story my guide to the Church of San Antonio de Padua told me: “It’s the color of corn—and we Maya believe that man was created from corn.”

Visible throughout the town are the ruins of ancient Maya structures, particularly the Pyramid of Kinich Kakmo, which is visible from the church:

The Pyramid of Kinich Kakmo Seen from the Church

The church at Izamal is notable for the large size of its footprint, supposedly the second biggest in all of Christendom after St. Peter’s in Rome—and also for two church figures associated with the town. The first is the Franciscan Diego de Landa who is both infamous and famous: the former because as Bishop of Yucatán, he ordered the burning of all the Maya codices as heretical, the latter for writing a book which attempted to atone for his crime by writing Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, which helped scholars of our times understand how to read Maya glyphs.

The other figure who stepped into Izamal’s history is Pope John Paul II, who, during his travels, visited Izamal in August 1993 and served Mass there to a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times:

About 3,000 representatives of indigenous groups of the Americas gathered here to meet with the Pope at a 16th-Century Franciscan sanctuary erected atop a Mayan temple to the sun god. By the Vatican’s count, there are 52 million native peoples in Latin America–26 million in Mexico alone.

“Unfortunately, it must be noted that the richness of your cultures has not been duly appreciated. Neither have their rights been respected as peoples and as communities,” John Paul said. “Sin has also cast its shadow on America in the destruction of not a few of your artistic and cultural creations, and in the violence of which you have so often been the object.”

In a 28-minute speech under a merciless tropical sun that wilted his retinue, John Paul singled out some of those communities by name: Guarani, Quechua, Aymara, Nahuatl, Mixtec. And some farther north as well: Apache, Inuit.

The Church of San Antonio de Padua

I spent only one night in Izamal, though I could have spent several days. At the local mercado, a certain Señor Gordo sold two venison tacos with a cold Coke for a grand total of 25 Pesos, about $1.25.

 

The Russian Connection

Maya Glyphs—Interpreted Thanks to Two Russian Scholars

When I started my travels in Yucatán in 1975, only a handful of Maya glyphs had been deciphered. In fact, one prominent archeologist—J. Eric S. Thompson—was of the opinion that such glyphs as existed were primarily calendrical. Earlier archeologists had deciphered the vigesimal (base 20) numbering system of the Maya as well as the day glyphs for the two calendar systems. But the notion that the glyphs provided names and descriptions of events was considered as far-fetched.  It was Sir J. Eric S. Thompson who felt that ancient Maya was anti-phonetic.

It took two Russians to show that, yes, the Maya did have a history, and that the history was described on commemorative stelae at the various ruins.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff

First came Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985), born in Tomsk, who spent much of her professional life with Harvard University and its Peabody Museum. It was she who made a key discovery. According to Wikipedia:

Her greatest contribution was considered the breakthrough for Maya hieroglyphic decipherment in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While researching the chronology of changing styles of Maya sculpture, she discovered that the dates shown on the monumental stelae were actually historical, the birth, accession, and death dates for Maya rulers. Analyzing the pattern of dates and hieroglyphs, she was able to demonstrate a sequence of seven rulers who ruled over a span of two hundred years. Knowing the context of the inscriptions, Maya epigraphers were then able to decipher the hieroglyphs.

The next key person was one of her countrymen who had never even seen a Maya ruin first hand:

Yuri Knorozov

It was only after Thompson died in 1975 that the work of Yuri Knorozov came to the fore. During the height of the Cold War, he wrote a paper entitled “The Writing of the Maya Indians” (1963), followed by his own translations of many of the glyphs. His work opened the floodgates. New scholarly works on the Maya archeological sites come with dates, names, and even history.

If you are interested in the subject, I recommend you read Michael D. Coe’s Breaking the Maya Code, Third Edition (2012). The book is dedicated to Knorozov and his work.

 

In Tents City

Things Have Changed in L.A.—And Not for the Better

When I first arrived in Los Angeles at the tail end of 1966, I saw a bright, clean city that looked bran spanking new compared to the dirty brick of Cleveland. That image has now changed: The streets of L.A. are crowded with tents, scruffy looking men (and women), and their garbage which spreads far and wide around the tents in which they sleep.

I guess it is inevitable when rents go sky high in an area which has a mild climate with only a few days of rain and real cold during the year. Some of the homeless are people like me who have been squeezed out of their homes and would like nothing so much as to return to them. But, alas, most of L.A.’s homeless are the mentally ill and druggies of various stripes, including the alcoholic.

Typical Downtown Street Scene

The homeless have taken over sidewalks and what we used to call tree lawns back east. On her walks in our relatively expensive neighborhood, Martine has come across used syringes from heroin addicts. Across the street from my apartment is a tent city consisting of between eight and twelve tents. During the hot weather, when our windows are open, we can hear profanity-laced arguments and occasionally even fisticuffs as the homeless settle scores.

Note that I have been calling all these people “the homeless.” Actually, most of them are more accurately termed bums, similar to the “sturdy beggars” of Elizabethan England. Politicians typically have not a clue as to how to return Los Angeles to its glory days. Building housing units and forcing bums to obey rules like not fighting or drinking or taking drugs won’t work. The bums regard it as an infringement of their liberties.

Lurking in the Shadows of a Great City…


Frankly, I don’t think that the bum problem will last forever. At some point, the residents of L.A. will rise up and demand real action. Only, God knows what that action eventually will be.