Strokkur

The Geyser Strokkur (“Churn”) Erupts

Everyone knows what a geyser is, but do you know that it is named after a particular geyser named Geysir in the Haukadalur Valley east of Reykjavík, Iceland? Its situation is similar to that of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. In their hurry to precipitate an eruption hordes of tourists over the years have poured detergents and other foreign substances into the holes and succeeded only in making the eruptions more sporadic and unpredictable.

Tourists still visit the area in great numbers in the various Golden Circle or Great Circle tours offered by coach lines. (These tours usually include Þingvellir National Park and the waterfall at Gullfoss, among others.) Instead of waiting for Geysir, they have the nearby frequent eruptions of Strokkur, “The Churn,” which sends a column of steam 15-40 meters high every 6-10 minutes.

Tourists Waiting for the Next Eruption of Strokkur


Iceland has a number of these geothermal areas. Visiting them calls for a certain amount of care as a slight misstep can result in boiling your foot as the soil around your footprints starts to sink. Not all of these areas are carefully fenced; and tourists, being their usual irrepressible selves, have a tendency to risk a serious hotfoot.

Different

Columbus Discovered a Whole New World

As we approach Columbus Day (October 12), it is useful to note that there few monuments to him in most of the New World. Just as there are few monuments to Hernan Cortés or Francisco Pizarro. It would be sort of like Jews creating monuments to Heinrich Himmler or Adolph Eichmann. Since most Gringos are of European ancestry, we have a hard time seeing the world from the eyes of the Caribs who first saw Columbus on San Salvador on October 12, 1492. Oh, by the way, there are no more Caribs. They all died off from the diseases the conquerors brought with them or the subsequent enslavement by their new masters.

The above image from Quito’s Mindalae Museum has a distinctively non European air about it. Pre-Columbian art, in general, looks odd to Gringos, unless they have developed the fine art of seeing the world through the eyes of other peoples. This is something even our President hasn’t done, inasmuch as he sees Mexican and Central American refugees as rapists. (Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!)

Nowhere is the difference between our culture and theirs more prominent than on the subject of religion. Below, for instance, is an image of the Maya maize god, Hun Hunahpu:

The Maya Maize God

The gods of the Maya pantheon at times appear to partake of the characteristics of lizards, alligators, monkeys, and other creatures—quite different from the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic Deity.

Different as they were from us, the Maya developed a calendar that, even after over a thousand years, is more accurate than our own. They had writing, which, though resembling monsters more than characters in the Greek and Roman alphabets, still enabled them to write their history.

Mayan Glyphs

Even though the cultures of the Old World have proven so dominant, we are only now discovering that the Maya had their own strengths. Although the Aztecs and Inca are no longer active cultures, there are still six million Maya speaking some thirty dialects of the Mayan tongue. The old Mayan glyphs may no longer be in use, but there is still an active Maya culture—actually, a number of them.

 

The White City

Mérida at Night

There are a handful of cities with which I have fallen in love over the years. They include Edinburgh, Scotland; Paris, France; Budapest, Hungary; Lima, Peru; and Mérida, Yucatán in Mexico. Mérida is widely known as the White City for the whitewashed look of its buildings. I don’t know if they have any “glass box” high-rises that have been built since 1992 (when I was there last), but I am willing to bet there are none.

I vividly remember arriving there for the first time in November 1975. The taxi ride from Manuel Crescencio Rejón Airport to the Hotel Mérida on Calle 60 was an entirely new experience for me. We passed a huge Coca Cola bottling plant on the road to the airport and a large number of single-story homes that seemed to be open to the street. I saw families sitting at their dinner table as if there were no fourth wall.

It was warm and humid: We were in the tropics. Everything looked so different. Then as we passed the Zócalo, I saw the scruffy looking old cathedral of San Ildefonso, and the large central square with its confidenciales (S-shaped love seat benches).

Confidenciales: Love Seat Benches in Mérida’s Parks

The next few days were an education for me. I decided to take a few tours, but I was up to the challenge of trying my Spanish. I went through a Spanish-only travel agency called Turistica Yucateca and spent two days traveling to such obscure Maya sites as Acanceh, Dzibilchaltún, and Mayapan with an English speaking guide named Manuel Quinones Moreno, who had his own automobile. I played chess with him at the ruins of Dzibilchaltún, losing all my games. We even visited an old henequén hacienda where rope was manufactured. You may recall that there used to be a kind of rope called sisal, named after the Port of Sisal in Yucatán from where the rope was shipped across the world.

I have nothing but happy memories of Mérida, and I look forward to renewing my acquaintance with the White City.

Mexican Bus Travel Anecdotes

Toltec Ruins at Tula

After yesterday’s post on intercity buses in Mexico, I thought I’d present a few anecdotes about my experience riding the roads of la Republica over the years. For the most part, my experiences were good—though not all. But they were always interesting.

The worst was in the 1980s when I decided to take a bus trip to Tula to view the Toltec ruins there. I had no trouble getting there, but the return trip started on a bad note. While still on the streets of Tula, the Second Class Autotransportes Valle de Mezquital bus I was taking rear-ended a truck. Fortunately, no one was injured, and eventually the driver, ayudante, and passengers were all able to exit onto the roadway. The company was informed and sent another bus to complete the journey to the giant North Bus Terminal in Mexico City.

In 1979, my brother and I took a Transportes Lacandonia bus from Palenque, where we were visiting the Mayan ruins, to San Cristóbal de las Casas. Again, it was a Second Class bus, and the road was nowhere as nice as it is now. On the way, we saw another bus from the same company coming from the other direction off the road ensconced in a ditch. The driver and passengers were standing around waiting to be picked up and complete their journey. We stopped for a few minutes while the drivers compared notes.

On the same trip, near Ocosingo, our bus was stopped by a Mexican army checkpoint. We were near the Guatemalan border, and the army were checking for arms smuggling connected with the insurgency across the border, which was to go on until a truce was signed almost twenty years later.

That same trip, Dan and I took an all-night bus from San Cristóbal to Oaxaca on a first class bus. (I think it was the Cristóbal Colon line.) As we tried to drop off to sleep, we noticed a parade of cockroaches traveling along the base of the sliding windows. We shrugged and nodded off.

 

Taking Intercity Buses in Mexico

A Bus Ticket from Campeche to Merida in 1984

Americans do not like to take buses. That includes my brother, almost all of my friends and former co-workers. In Los Angeles, the private automobile is king—to the extent that public transportation is seen solely as for bums, crazies, and immigrants. In fact, intercity buses in the United States are mostly run by Greyhound Lines, a British company under the control of FirstGroup; and they do appear to be patronized mostly by bums, crazies, and immigrants.

In Latin America, it’s a different story altogether. If you have ever read Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas, you might think that it is possible to travel by rail through Latin America. Although there are a few exceptions—mostly tourist only trains in a few countries—most people in Latin America travel by bus. In many cases, these buses are far better than anything found in our country. In Argentina, I was able to get a good night’s sleep lying horizontally on seats that stretched out. These buses contained clean restrooms, stewards who served free meals, and (negligible) movies in Spanish.

I have traveled some 1,500 miles by bus in Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s. Almost all these buses were manufactured in Mexico and were every bit as good or better than Greyhound buses. This was especially true of First Class buses, which are theoretically direct to destination with few or no intermediate stops. Second Class buses can be hailed anywhere and can be rumbling rat-traps. I can think of the Unión de Camioneros de Yucatán (UCY) buses that I boarded in Uxmal enroute to Campeche in 1984 and 1992.  The windows were broken and the shocks were almost nonexistent, but they did get us to our destination. Some Second Class buses in Central Mexico, such as those of Flecha Amarilla were almost as good as First Class.

Model of an ADO Bus With 1980s Logo

The main First Class bus companies in Mexico include Autobuses de Oriente (ADO), Enlaces Terrestres Nacionales (ETN), Estrella de Oro, and Omnibuses de Mexico, as well as a few other carriers. Note that my ticket above assigns me to a particular seat (#16), and that for First Class buses, I usually reserved in advance by visiting the bus station the day before. With Second Class buses, you just hail them wherever, pay the ayudante (conductor), usually a young man, and take your seat, if you can find one.

 

 

The Day Life on Earth Almost Died

A Piece of the KT Boundary

Around the end of July, I wrote a post entitled Revisiting the Cretaceous Extinction. This week, I read a fascinating story entitled “The Day the Earth Died” in the April 8, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. The asteroid that collided with Earth around 65 million years ago was at least six miles wide and gouged a crater about eighteen miles deep and launched 25 trillion metric tons of debris into the atmosphere. The article goes on:

The damage had only begun. Scientists still debate many of the details, which are derived from the computer models, and from field studies of the debris layer, knowledge of extinction rates, fossils and microfossils, and many other clues. But the over-all view is consistently grim. The dust and soot from the impact and the conflagrations prevented all sunlight from reaching the planet’s surface for months. Photosynthesis all but stopped, killing most of the plant life, extinguishing the phyto-plankton in the oceans, and causing the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere to plummet. After the fires died down, Earth plunged into a period of cold, perhaps even a deep freeze. Earth’s two essential food chains, in the sea and on land, collapsed. About seventy-five per cent of all species went extinct. More than 99.9999% of all living organisms on Earth died, and the carbon cycle came to a halt.

This massive disaster left a signature layer across the entire surface of the planet referred to as the KT boundary, short for Cretaceous-Tertiary. (It is also referred to as the KPg boundary after the Tertiary was renamed the Paleogene by geologists.) This boundary layer is high in the rare element Iridium, which is most often found in meteorites and asteroids.

It is a sobering thought that an object from space only six miles across (10 km) could strike the Earth, which is eight thousand miles across (12,900 km) and end up killing virtually all life, and certainly annihilating the human race.

The asteroid collided with the Earth around Chicxulub on the Yucatán peninsula, which I plan to visit, hopefully with a geologist, early next year.