Seven Dolls

Sign at Entrance to the Ruins

There are untold thousands of Meso-American archeological sites scattered through Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. Sometimes, it’s fun to visit some of the lesser-known sites. I have particularly fond memories of Dzibilchaltún, which is about 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of Mérida. It was the first Maya ruin I visited back in 1975 with my guide Manuel Quiñones Moreno. We set on the steps of a temple and played several games of chess, which I lost handily.

So it was fun to visit it again in 2020. Now there was an entrance hall, an admission fee, and a rather nice museum. Plus, the cenote was filled with children diving into the limestone-cooled waters.

The Temple of the Seven Dolls

Above is the most famous structure at Dzibilchaltún, the Temple of the Seven Dolls, named after a number of figurines that were found by archeologists buried under one of the altars.

The Seven Dolls Buried in the Temple

Dzibilchaltún is not a world class beauty like Uxmal, Chichén Itza, Copán, or Tikál, but it helps fill in vital parts of the Maya story. Although it doesn’t have a lot of first-class structures, the city was inhabited for over a thousand years. It was close to the coastal salt flats that led to the one item most frequently used in the coastal trade with other peoples, namely: salt.

And I have happy memories because this is one of the places where I began my travels as a young man.

How Did They Know That?

The Inca Ruins at Something Something Picchu

I was surprised to find out that, according to a professor of anthropology, Machu Picchu should be called Huayna Picchu instead. The reason I was surprised is that the Incas never had a written language like the Maya and the Aztecs. They were great engineers and stonemasons, but left no writings or even hieroglyphs. The only “communication” of any sorts we have from the Incas are in the form of quipu, knotted cords that were used to quantify taxes or inventories.

Quipu at the Museo Larco in Lima, Peru

You can read the story here at CNN Travel. It doesn’t much matter what the “official” name of the Inca ruins was. After all, most Meso-American ruins are probably misnamed. Either the Conquistadores or the archeologists just assigned a name for convenience. And, for good or ill, it stuck.

Rio Bec

The Ruins of Calakmul in the Rio Bec Region

What with all my visits to the Maya ruins in Yucatan, Chiapas, Guatemala, and Honduras, you would think I would be getting tired of the endless ruins. Well, not yet! One incredibly dense region of Maya ruins is in the southeast corner of the state of Campeche, known as the Rio Bec region. Included are such archeological sites as:

  • Calakmul, with Tikal in the Petén region of Guatemala, perhaps one of the largest Maya cities at its height 1,500 years ago
  • Xpuhil (pronounced shpoo-HEEL)
  • Balamku
  • Chicanna
  • El Hormiguero (“The Anthill”)
  • Rio Bec
  • Becán

And these are only the better known ones, and even some of these are difficult to get to because they are at the end of dirt tracks in the jungles of the region.

Maya Ruins at Chicanna

Unlike many of the better known ruins in the state of Yucatán, those of the Rio Bec region are in steaming monkey jungles. The only town of any size is Xpujil near the eponymous ruins, and it’s only a blip on the long road between Francisco Escarcéga and Chetumal. To visit any of these ruins requires reserving a chunk of time, from three days to a week. Public transportation is virtually nonexistent, and the only places to stay (and not a large selection at that) are clustered around Xpujil.

To do the Rio Bec area any justice, I would have to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Still, I would love to go. I would have to pack a lot of insect repellent (like 100% DEET) and be prepared for some really dicey shit. Hey, if it’s on my travel bucket list, you can bet it’s no cakewalk.

On the Bewitched Staircase

If you want to see a happy post, don’t catch me between Christmas and New Year. It is no accident that all my posts this week are unusually dark. My lone adherence to the Maya religion is my belief in the Uayeb, the unlucky five days that follow the 360 day Haab calendar to bring the total up to 365. According to an interesting website about the Uayeb:

Despite the fact that these days share the calendar with 18 other periods lasting 20 days each, the Uayeb had a bad reputation among the Maya people. According to writings found during the colonial period, these days were considered black periods in which the universe had released dark forces and therefore they didn’t share in the blessings of time.

In the Songs of Dzibalche, a codex found in 1942, a series of allusions to the Uayeb were discovered. These expressed the discomfort the days caused the Maya people:

The days of weeping, the days of evil/ The devil is loose, hell is open/ There is no goodness, only evil… the month of nameless days has come/ Days of pain, days of evil, the black days.

Several theories describe how the Maya passed through such dark times. Some specialists maintain that during these periods they stayed in their homes and washed their hair. Others claim they undertook great processions in thanks for what they’d experienced during the year. One thing that’s certain is that the word Uayeb could be translated as “bewitched staircase.”

So let’s just say I am having a bad Uayeb.

Return to Uayeb Yet Again

To date, I have written five posts about the Maya “month” of Uayeb or Wayeb, which consists of the last five days of the Haab Calendar of 365 days. The Haab calendar has twenty months of eighteen days each, which isn’t quite enough to make up the full complement, so the Maya added a short stub of a month containing the five “nameless days.”

There is also a Maya god named Uayeb, who is the god of misfortune. That sounds about right.

The Cartoonist Scott Stantis Has an Intuitive Understanding of Uayeb

Here is a link to my previous posts on the subject:

Below is the Maya glyph for the “month” of Uayeb, or Wayeb (kind of looks like a tiny-headed god flexing his muscles, doesn’t it?)

In his comments to last year’s post, my friend Mudpuddle noted that “the glyph looks like a surfer headed for muscle beach!”

I am amused by how well a Maya calendrical belief fits in so well with our civilization, in which the days between Christmas and New Year and almost universally considered as dead time.

So don’t make any big plans until the New Year. But you kind of knew that anyway, no?

Pre-Columbian

ancient The photo above is of a contemporary figurine of a Pre-Columbian idol on display in Quito’s Museo Mindalae. Although I doubt there was much trade between the ancient peoples of Ecuador and the Olmecs, Maya, and Aztecs of Mexico, there are clearly similarities in their religious iconography.

Before I began my travels to Latin America in 1975, I was puzzled by the images I saw of deities and demons from the more civilized portions of Meso-America. There were many similarities. But once one crossed the Rio Grande and visited where the Anasazi lived, the imagery is altogether different. And when I traveled in Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, I saw precious little suggesting an advanced ancient civilization (though, in all honesty, I never visited the Northwest of Argentina, which was part of the Inca empire).

Now look at the depiction of one of the Mayan Priest Kings of Yucatán from the Mérida Museum of Anthropology:

Note the elaborate headdress and the warlike demeanor. Do not expect mercy from either of these rigidly powerful figures. I remember a conversation that took place at a symposium at UCLA decades ago between two archeologists, Michael Coe and Nigel Davies, about whether they would prefer to be in captivity to the Mayans or the Aztecs. Both agreed that, although the Aztecs were an empire and the Mayans were a group of city states, they both feared being prisoners of the Maya.

Why? Take a look at this fresco from the ruins at Bonampak in Chiapas:

Here you see the victorious Maya of Bonampak with their prisoners captured in a war with another city state. The scene is described in the Sixth Edition of Robert J. Sharer’s The Ancient Maya:

The aftermath is presented on the north wall. Here the full-frontal figure holding his jaguar-pelted spear, again probably Chan Muwan, accompanied by his warrior allies and entourage, along with two women at the far right, stands on the summit of a platform to preside over the captives taken in the battle. The chief captive sits at Chan Muwan’s feet, while the rest of the unfortunate prisoners are displayed on the six steps of the platform, where they are tortured and bled from their fingernails, held and guarded by more victorious warriors. These are the captives that will be sacrificed; one sprawled figure may already be dead, and the severed head of another has already been placed on the steps.

What all these Meso-American peoples had in common was highly organized and ritualistic warfare. Reading the history of many of these city states based on commemorative stelae, paintings, and other media, one clearly gets the feeling that life for the common people was anything but fun.

Unfinished Business Abroad

The East Fjords of Iceland

I still have places to see. Even though I have been to Iceland, Argentina, and the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico several times each, I have missed a number of destinations. These are just some of them.

Iceland’s Far Northeast

I have been to Egilsstaðir where I had to change buses on my way to Höfn and Hornstrandir, but I have never seen Iceland’s wild northeast coast between Seydisfjorður and Borgarfjörður Eystri. As my brother once told me, I am drawn to wild and desolate places—probably because I have lived most of my life in the United States’s second largest city.

This is one trip for which I would have to rent a car, as public transit here is mostly potty. And I would have to be prepared for bad weather at any time of the year. But with a good four-wheel-drive vehicle, I think I can hack it.

Southeastern Campeche State

Look at All the Maya Ruins Along Route 186 in Campeche

Back in the heyday of the Maya from around AD 600-800, the southeast of the State of Campeche was where it was happening. Particularly important was Calakmul, which was a major competitor to Tikal in Guatemala’s Petén region. The only town of any size in the area is Xpuhil. Ruins include Balamkú, Chicanna, El Ramonal, La Muñeca, Hormiguero, Xpujil, and Rio Bec.

This is one trip where I would have to hire a guide with a car. The accommodations and dining are probably acceptable, but not great. And I would need to apply large amounts of DEET insect repellent, as this area is jungle and thinly inhabited now.

Argentina’s Patagonian Coast

The South South Atlantic

I am intrigued by this wild coast and would love to visit Rio Gallegos, Puerto San Julian, Puerto Deseado, and Comodoro Rivadavia, the port from which Argentina launched its attack on the Falkland Islands, or the Islas Malvinas, as they insist on calling it to this day.

The extreme South Atlantic coast of the provinces of Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego are very much unfinished business. In 2006 in broke my shoulder in Ushuaia, which forced me to cancel my ride via a TecniAustral bus to Rio Gallegos, from which I planned to work my way north back to Buenos Aires. But, as the pain was too much to bear, I had to fly back to the United States and get better.

In 2011, Martine and I flew from Ushuaia to El Calafate, and thereupon on to Trelew and Buenos Aires. I’d love to do it by bus, at least as far as Comodoro, from where I could fly the rest of the way.

Obviously, I still have places to go.

City of Bones

The Palace (Left) and the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque

One of the most beautiful Maya archeological sites is Palenque in the State of Chiapas. It sits at the edge of the jungle and just before the foothills of the Sierra Madre. My brother Dan and I spent several days there in December 1979. I would give anything to go again.

The name Palenque means “Palisade,” which was given by the Spanish, who saw the ruins as a fortress. By the time the Spanish conquered Mexico, the site had been uninhabited for over eight hundred years. It was around AD 800 that many of the major Maya ceremonial centers were abandoned due to various factors. These included drought, changes in religion and form of government, and other reasons.

Maya Glyphs from Palenque

According to Maya glyphs that have been recently interpreted by scholars, the Maya name for Palenque is actually translated as “City of Bones.” As the great Mexican archeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier discovered, the Temple of the Inscriptions was the tomb of a powerful ruler named Kʼinich Janaab Pakal. In 1979, Dan and I were able not only to climb the pyramid, but snake our way through the tunnel that contained the site of Pakal’s burial chamber.

The ruins could only be described as beautiful. Only Uxmal in Yucatán could be described as its equal for siting and architecture.

Ruins in the Mist at Palenque

I was surprised that my brother seemed to enjoy Palenque as much as I did. It turns out that the region where the ruins are located is a famous coffee-growing region. So Dan, who is a major coffeeholic, found himself drinking endless cups of the stuff.

We were in town around the Christmas season, where we had the opportunity of seeing the posadas whenever we had dinner in the nearby town of Palenque. At one point, we were having dinner when a shoeshine boy came in and began circulating among the diners. When he approached Dan, my brother quietly slipped off his sandals and proffered a large foot clothed in a fuzzy red wool sock. The whole restaurant erupted in laughter.

Returning to Yucatán—After 28 Years

The Plaza Grande in Mérida

The Year 2020 for me began with relief and some elation. The relief because, on the day before I left for Mexico, I had turned 75 and outlived my father, who died at age 74. The elation was because, after 28 years, I was returning to one of my favorite places on Earth. I started coming in 1975, when I was 30, annoying my parents who wanted me to spend all my vacations in Cleveland with them. Then I returned several more times, once during such a fierce heat wave that I had to fly to the mountains of Chiapas for relief. The last time was in 1992, when I came with Martine and three of my co-workers from Urban Decision Systems.

On January 14, I emplaned from LAX to Guadalajara, and after several hours from there to Mérida. No sooner did I step off the plane than I went through a kind of manic shock of recognition. I took a taxi to the Hotel La Piazzetta at Parque de la Mejorada, where I had a simple, clean, and comfortable room. (As with most of my accommodations, particularly at the beginning of a trip, I had reserved in advance.)

My Table and Chairs at the Hotel La Piazzetta

Although I arrived at the airport in Mérida around noon, I didn’t do anything special except walk around the city endlessly (developing a nasty blister) and having a spectacular lunch at the Chaya Restaurant on Calle 59 (whose dining room is shown below). I ordered a meal of Panuchos, fruit juice with chaya (also known as tree spinach), and flan, which is called queso napoletano in Yucatán.

The Dining Room at the Chaya Restaurant in Mérida

My vacation was to last three and a half weeks and take me all around the States of Yucatán and Campeche. I visited many of the great Maya ruins I had seen on previous trips, plus Edzna and Ek Balam. Would I go back? Yes, in a heartbeat.

However miserable this whole coronavirus quarantine is, my year started with a spectacular vacation that lifted my spirits so high that, more than six months later, I am still not back to ground level. That’s only one of the things travel can do for one.

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.”