Pining for the Pyramids

Maya King at Mérida Anthropology and History Museum

With the continuing bad news of the continuing ravages of the coronavirus, I begin to wonder whether I will ever again be able to travel. Of the countries that have encountered the virus, the United States has perhaps been the one nation whose people have been most incompetent at surviving. It doesn’t help that our national leadership seems to be intent on running up the totals of people infected and killed by the virus. I become increasingly furious at people who act as if Covid-19 didn’t exist.

My friend Peter tells me of seeing a wedding rehearsal at a park in San Pedro consisting of some two hundred people, none of whom were wearing face masks. Using the plague’s mortality statistics, it is likely that two of the people present will lose their lives, and possibly more will come down with the virus who are friends and family of the attendees.

There appears to be a large population that couldn’t be bothered with protecting themselves from the coronavirus. Either they see themselves as invincible, or they are resentful of politicians who are trying to enforce the quarantine, or they are f—ing stupid.

Admittedly, I don’t like wearing a face mask. When I am driving or walking outside in such a way that I could swing around people I encounter, I don’t wear a mask. Indoors, however, there is a danger that someone could cough or sneeze or even talk in my direction; so I don my mask and grit my teeth.

On my kitchen table is an old Lonely Planet guide to Mexico that I page through every day. I have found dozens of places that look interesting to me, from Baja California to Sonora to the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad … and the list goes on and on. My fingers are crossed that the stupidity of my fellow Americans does not turn me into an involuntary shut-in.

 

 

 

 

 

Plague Diary 26: The Latin American Hot Spot

Covid-19 Still Rages in Latin America

I was disappointed to hear that Latin America is still considered a global hot spot for the Coronavirus, particularly Brazil, Peru, and Mexico. According to a bulletin issued yesterday by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City:

The number of confirmed and suspected cases is still increasing daily in several regions of Mexico. Mexico City, Tabasco, Sinaloa, Aguascalientes, and Yucatan currently report the highest incidence rates of active cases (incidence rate is the number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the last 14 days). Hospital occupancy rates are also increasing, with the highest levels in Mexico City, Mexico State, Guerrero, Morelos, and Chiapas. Mexican health authorities have reiterated calls for people to stay home during this time.

Since I would love to re-visit Yucatán and Chiapas, this comes as bad news if i wanted to leave the country for my vacation. More and more, I think I will have several short vacations this year in the Southwestern U.S.

 

Plague Diary #22: The Shrunken Universe

In My Life, the Maya Stand for the Universe at Large

The first time I traveled outside the United States, it was to Yucatán in 1975, when I was thirty years old. The last time I traveled outside the United States, it was the same—just as I reached the age of seventy-five. Almost immediately after my return to California, the Universe shrank suddenly. There was my apartment with its books and DVDs (and, yes, VHS tapes); there were the grocery stores and pharmacies and doctors’ offices. and precious little else.

Now, as the coronavirus is pulling out with the tide, the Universe is slowly growing larger. There are changes: people are wearing face masks (or not), and the rate of growth is incremental, with promise of sudden expansion after Independence Day. I have this sudden urge to travel, even if it is to the nearby desert, which is starting to heat up as summer nears. I would be content to travel somewhere in the United States with Martine. Currently, she is uninterested in visiting any foreign country except perhaps Canada.

On my kitchen table is a small pile of Lonely Planet guidebooks which I look into from time to time to remind myself that my present reality is just a small subset of what exists. I would not mind returning to Yucatán to visit the Maya sites that have so far eluded me: Cobá, Chacchoben, Dzibanche, Kinichna, Oxtankah, Calakmul and the Rio Bec sites, Yaxchilan, and Bonampak. Then, too, there are the Maya ruins in adjacent Belize—a new border to cross.

In fact, every time I look, there are more Maya sites to see. Most of them are in jungle terrain, which would mean protecting myself from mosquitoes, garrapatas, and other baddies referred to in Mexico as bichos. I rather like the fact that there is always more to see, to know, to absorb. To quote the Tao Teh Ching, “From wonder into wonder existence opens.”

 

 

Perpetuum Mobile

Author and World Traveler Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989)

I have several things in common with the late British writer Bruce Chatwin. He was not in love with the land of his birth: In one letter, he writes, “England is gradually closing in on me again, and the moments of euphoria become rarer and rarer as one gets paler and paler and fatter and fatter and the backbiting conversations grow bitchier and bitchier, and everyone thinks and talks of selling something to somebody else.” To his friend Ivry Freyberg, he writes,“My life at present is the way I like it. Perpetuum mobile.”

In like manner, although I had a happy childhood in Cleveland, I desperately wanted to get away from the place and see the world—this at a time when the family’s finances were unencouraging. I got my four-year scholarship to Dartmouth College and went off to graduate school in California, but it was to be another nine years after graduation in 1966 that I went beyond the borders of the U.S.

Reading the letters of Chatwin (published as Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin), I feel some of the same excitement as when I read his two masterpieces, In Patagonia and The Songlines. I loved reading about Bruce’s travels when he was at his best. At the same time, I am well aware of the flip side of his way of life. As his friend John Kasmin wrote, “Bruce’s biggest problem was where to be. He never knew where to be. It was always somewhere else.”

Even more damning was his wife Elizabeth’s judgment on his travels:

He would wear out people in certain places and then have to move on. Everything was absolute paradise etc for about a month and then things were not quite what he wanted them to be. I discovered after years of this nonsense that the sure-fire way of making Bruce not buy a house was for me to agree.

Part of Chatwin’s wanderlust was his own dual life as a bisexual. The letters show him to be seemingly happily married, yet spending most of his time on the road, enthusing about various places and people.

I, too, would like to be a traveler; but I am content to use Southern California as my base. And I hope not to be tempted by a double life.

 

 

Henequen and Chicle

Henequen Was the Major Source of Yucatán’s Wealth Around 1900

While I am here quarantined in my apartment, I look back with pleasure to my trip to Yucatán in January and February of this year, before the coronavirus outbreak reached America’s shores.

Before the days of mass tourism to the peninsula, the economy of Yucatán was based primarily on henequen, and less importantly on the sap of the sapodilla tree. In the first case, henequen fiber was used to make a rope usually referred to as sisal, or matting. Such was the demand for the fiber that the owners of haciendas that grew henequen became millionaires. Today, their mansions line the Paseo de Montejo, once one of the richest residential streets in the world.

A Pre-Wrigley Gum Wrapper

The other substance for which Yucatán was known was chicle, originally the substance that made chewing gum possible. Chicle was made from the mily latex of the sapodilla tree, which was tapped similarly to rubber trees in the Amazon. Men known as chicleros ranged far and wide in jungle areas tapping the sapodilla trees, and in the process discovering many of the Maya ruins which are now major tourist attractions. I remember a number of years ago a brand of candy-coated chewing gum called Chiclets. Even then, it was no longer made using real chicle.

Nowadays, both henequen and chicle are no longer major economic forces in Southeast Mexico. There are still a couple of active haciendas specializing in henequen for ropes or matting, but the day of the chicleros is forever gone since chicle has been replaced by a synthetic substance known as a polyol.

 

Plague Diary 12: Ways of Escape

I Keep Looking for a Way Out

For the first thirty years of my life, I was stuck either in Cleveland or in school. I loved my parents, but they wanted to control my life—and my whereabouts—for much longer than I thought was right. So one day in 1975, instead of taking a flight to Cleveland and remaining stuck in childhood, I flew to Mérida in Yucatán. Ever since then, I saw Cleveland as part of a past that I just happened to sidestep.

Now, during the awful coronavirus plague of 2020, I feel once again that my hands are being tied tightly behind my back. The only difference is that there is a matter of survival involved. For a few weeks, I could stay at home and remain more than six feet away from everyone but Martine. But my mind is traveling. While I eat, I page restlessly through an old Lonely Planet Mexico guide (cover illustrated above) picking places that look promising. Places like Bahía Kino and Alamos in Sonora, Morelia in Michoacán, or San Blas in Nayarit.

It seems that travel has become necessary to my feeling of well-being. I would even pick an American destination so that I can travel with Martine. Of late, she has shied away from going to foreign countries. She has even neglected to renew her passport. I would prefer to travel with Martine, but above all I need to travel.

Have I developed a thousand-mile stare? Perhaps I have. I guess spending a childhood in Cleveland will do that to one.

 

 

Fish Frenzy

The Perfect  Place for Filete de Pescado a la Veracruzana in Champotón

As I get older, I begin increasingly to tend toward being a vegetarian. Except where fish is concerned.

In my recent trip to Mexico, I visited three fishing ports: Campeche, Champotón, and Progreso. In each of them, at least one meal a day was dedicated to seafood, mostly filete de pescado a la Veracruzana, which consists of a filet of fish with a sauce of tomatoes, onions, and green olives. The best were at a place called something Tortuga something at Champotón, the Marganzo in Campeche, and Shark in Progreso.

I do not usually eat a lot of shellfish, though I had some excellent ceviche de pulpo (octopus) in Campeche and Progreso. Typically, I do not eat shrimp because of some bad experiences with symptoms resembling a sudden onslaught of strep throat. I usually tell everybody that is because of the mercury levels in coastal waters by large cities. In fact, I don’t know the real reason; but I do know I can eat shrimp caught in northern waters or in the Caribbean—though I usually just don’t. I have had similar experiences with lobster.

Ceviche de Pescado at Mérida’s Marlin Azul

Ceviche is one of my favorite dishes. It consists of raw fish or other seafood “cooked” by marinating in lime juice and served with chopped onions, tomatoes, chiles, and cilantro, as in the photo above. The fish actually tastes cooked, though it is always served cold. I grew to love the dish when I visited Lima, Peru, where it is the lunch dish of choice, but is rarely served at dinner time.

The only other place in the world when I went crazy over the fish was Iceland. Rarely did I eat at restaurants there which were not practically in view of the local fishing fleet. And the types of fish were radically different from what I was used to.

 

 

Autobuses de Oriente (ADO)

The Service Area of ADO First Class Buses

There have been many changes since I last visited Southeast Mexico. Among other things, Autobuses de Oriente (ADO) has merged with Ómnibus Cristóbal Colón (OCC) to pretty much monopolize first class bus service in Yucatán. I remember the days when I had to ride the rackety old Unión de Camionéros de Yucatán (UCY) second class buses with their broken seats and cracked windows. There are still a number of second class carriers, but UCY is no more.

Before going any further, allow me to clarify what first class and second class mean. First class buses directly connect larger cities and do not allow passengers to board or alight from a bus between its origin and its destination, unless the city is of a certain size. A bus from Mérida to Mexico City would typically be first class, stopping only in larger cities en route such as Campeche, Ciudad del Carmen, or Coatzacoalcos.

Second class buses connect small towns with larger cities, or with other small towns. When I go from Mérida to Izamal or Uxmal to Campeche, I will have to take a second class bus. The fare will be less per mile, the passengers poorer, and the bus less deluxe. Most importantly, the trip will take longer because passangers can board or exit anywhere they want.

There is also another class of bus usually referred to as combis. These are multi-row vans connecting even smaller cities. Typically, they do not leave until they are full.

ADO Bus at Station Platform

Instead of renting a car, I will travel around Yucatán and Campeche states almost entirely by bus. In some cases, I may join a tour organized by a local travel agency, but only to visit some ruins that are harder to get to via public transportation. When I return from Mexico, I will hopefully have some stories about bus travel in the Sureste region, as well as scads of my own photos.

 

 

Haibun: At the Ruins of Dzibilchaltún

The Temple of the Seven Dolls at Dzibilchaltún

A Haibun is a uniquely Japanese medium in which prose and haiku poetry are interspersed. I will attempt to memorialize some of my travel experiences using the Haibun genre from time to time. My intent is to follow the style of Matsuo Bashō:

First look at the ruins
My eyes glued to the chess board
Losing to my guide.

On my first trip to Yucatán in November 1975, I ordered guide services from a company called Turistica Yucateca. The lady who ran the company couldn’t speak a word of English, but we managed to communicate by nouns more or less common to English and Spanish. As my first destination, I chose Dzibilchaltún, about 20  miles north of Mérida. My guide, who had his own vehicle, was Manuel Quiñones Moreno who spoke good English and was well educated. I spent a few minutes looking at the ruins, which were mostly fairly ramshackle; but then he brought out a chess set, and we played several games. I lost all of them.

I have always loved chess, but not with any degree of proficiency.

In any case, I didn’t hold it against Manuel. I hired him the next day to show me the ruins of Acanceh and Mayapán. I kind of wish that Turistica Yucateca were still around, but that was almost half a century ago.

Things change.

 

 

Haibun: The Norte

A Norte Storm Lashes the Gulf Coast of Yucatán

A Haibun is a uniquely Japanese medium in which prose and haiku poetry are interspersed. I will attempt to memorialize some of my travel experiences using the Haibun genre from time to time. My intent is to follow the style of Matsuo Bashō:

November norte
White-clad Maya point and laugh
Paper boats bobbing in the street.

It was November 1992. I was in Yucatán with Martine and three friends from work: George Hoole and Jin and Christine Han. On the last day but one of our trip, the peninsula suffered a storm called a norte, because it originated in the United States and gathered strength as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico. The streets of Mérida were flooded: There was no walking without wet stains halfway up the leg. We were staying at the Posada Toledo, an old mansion turned hotel, near the center, worried whether our return flight the next day would be able to take off. Jin Han lightened the mood by carefully folding paper boats and setting them adrift in the street. They aroused considerable hilarity among the passersby.