Uxmal

The Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal in Yucatán

I may have to delay my trip to Mexico until I know what’s happening with the pain in my knee. To refresh your memory, there is some sort of muscular pain in the crook of my left knee, initially diagnosed to be a Baker’s Cyst or some sort of tendonitis. With luck, I will be able to go at some point in January, unless the condition requires surgery.

In all, I have been to Uxmal twice, in 1975 and 1992. Both times, I have been impressed that it is the most beautiful of Maya ruins. It is built in the classical Puuc (named after the range of hills where it is located), with smooth rectangular limestone blocks interspersed with images of various Maya deities. It looks even better today, after archeologists have cleared away much of the foliage. Below is an image of the same structure around 1840 when Frederick Catherwood drew it:

Frederick Catherwood’s Illustration of the Pyramid

The city of Uxmal was occupied only up to some point in the 9th century AD, when it is speculated that drought made the ruins in the Puuc Hills uninhabitable. There are no above ground rivers in the limestone peninsula that is Yucatán, and the underground rivers would have required digging through hundreds of feet of rock. Instead, rain water was collected in chultunes, underground storage chambers that circled the ruins.

I was sold on Uxmal from the very start. The van that took me there stopped close by the Pyramid of the Magician. The driver bowed his head and did the sign of the cross upon setting eyes on the pyramid. It is still considered a sacred site by the Maya, even though they have not inhabited it for over a thousand years.

 

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.

Repeat Performances

I Frequently Re-Read Books That Have Impressed Me

This year I have re-read ten books since the start of 2019, such as Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. It has been eleven years since I have read any Conrad, back when I had finally finished Under Western Eyes, which I had started back in college. The main reason I ever re-read a book is to see whether I have somehow changed in the intervening years. Very occasionally, I forget that I have read a particular work in the past and go through it a second time, not realizing my mistake until I check my reading log. Below is a list of 2019 re-reads:

  • Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim
  • Laurence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
  • Sean O’Casey: Juno and the Paycock
  • Virginia Woolf: Monday or Tuesday, Eight Stories. I re-read this one by accident.
  • John Lloyd Stephens: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán. I will probably re-read a number of other books about Mexico in the next few months, most of which I have not touched for over 30 years.
  • William Shakespeare: Hamlet. Multiple re-reads.
  • G. K. Chesterton: Robert Louis Stevenson and The Poet and the Lunatics. I frequently re-read Chesterton for sheer enjoyment.
  • J. E. Neale: Queen Elizabeth I

A Joy to Read Any Number of Times

As my Yucatán vacation draws close, I will probably re-read Fanny Calderón de la Barca’s Life in Mexico; Charles Macomb Flandrau’s Viva Mexico!; and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and a few other books.

 

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.

Four Travel Classics About Mexico

Fanny Calderón de la Barca’s Life in Mexico (1843)

There are four books written by foreigners over a hundred year period about their encounters with Mexico. They are all beautifully written classics of the travel genre. I present them below by order of publication.

Life in Mexico (1843)

Frances Erskine Inglis was a Scotswoman, herself of noble birth, who married the first Spanish ambassador to Mexico and became the 1st Marquise of Calderón de la Barca. She traveled extensively throughout the Republic and became enamored of the people and their culture. Even now her book is a delight to read and a major influence on writers who followed.

Charles Macomb Flandrau’s Viva Mexico! (1908)

Viva Mexico! (1908)

Next is a book of essays by an American author and essayist named Charles Macomb Flandrau. After a visit to a Mexican coffee plantation run by his brother William, Flandrau wrote Viva Mexico! about Mexico under the rule of dictator Porfirio Díaz who ruled for most of the years between 1876 and 1911. (He is famous for the following quote: “Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!) Flandrau’s book is still quite readable today.

D. H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico (1927)

Mornings in Mexico (1927)

British novelist D. H. Lawrence has a mixed record when it comes to Mexico. His travel essays in Mornings in Mexico are among his best nonfiction, while his bloated novel The Plumed Serpent, written the previous year, is one of his worst works, showing no understanding of Mexican Indio culture.

Sybille Bedford’s A Visit to Don Otavio (1953)

A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey (1953)

Finally, there is German/British writer Sybille Bedford’s account of a year spent in Mexico, mostly around Lake Chapala, just south of Guadalajara. The Don Otavio of the title is a charming Criollo host who makes the stay of Sybille and her companion at their lakeside estate an idyl. Whenever Sybille attempts to travel to most other destinations (including Acapulco, Mazatlan, Puebla, Mexico City, and Oaxaca), she runs into difficulties. Don Otavio’s estate is like a refuge in a country where travel (at least in the 1940s) was problematical at best.

Interestingly, Bedford is aware of and discusses the other three books mentioned above.