Cholula

It’s Not a Hill: It’s the World’s Largest Pyramid

Where is the world’s largest pyramid located? You’re looking at it, in this photograph of the pyramid at Cholula near Puebla, Mexico. You can walk up to the pyramid, and it just looks like a hill, on top of which the Spanish built the church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. The base is four times the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.

Cholula is just a few minutes west of Puebla and is famous for the number of churches in a city of its size. The legend is that there are 365 churches in the city of approximately 100,000, one for each day of the year. Actually, there are about 37, which is quite enough.

As I recall, there are some very claustrophobia-inducing tunnels that cut through the pyramid, which I decided to skip. They were used by archeologists to determine how many layers of pyramid there were on the inside.

Two Englishmen in 1930s Mexico

Mexican Family ca 1930

Two writers who influenced my travels in Mexico are Aldous Huxley, who wrote Beyond the Mexique Bay in 1934, and Graham Greene, who wrote The Lawless Roads in 1939. Both writers were there during a rough time. The Mexican Revolution was theoretically over in 1920, but there were not only widespread disturbances, but there were not, as there are today, a safe system of intercity roads. Plus Huxley spent most of his book on his travels in Guatemala and Honduras.

Greene’s book was my guide to a trip my brother and I took to Mexico in 1979. We flew to Mexico City and transferred to a flight to Villahermosa, which at the time impressed me as the armpit of the republic. Greene then then made his way to the Maya ruins at Palenque. From there to San Cristóbal de las Casas was lengthy journey over the Sierra Madre on muleback. For Dan and me, it was an all-day journey by second class bus during which we passed a bus from the same company (Lacandonia) that had run off the road and encountered an army inspection just outside of Ocosingo. From there we visited Oaxaca and rode an all-night bus back to the Mexico City airport.

Old Penguin Cover for The Lawless Roads

Greene had considerably worse experiences during his trip over forty years earlier. In the middle of his journey, he broke his glasses:

Just short of our destination a sudden blast of wind caught my helmet and the noise of cracking cardboard as I saved it scared the mule. It took fright and in the short furious gallop which followed I lost my only glasses. I mention this because strained eyes may have been one cause for my growing depression, the almost pathological hatred I began to feel for Mexico. Indeed, when I try to think back to those days, they lie under the entrancing light of chance encounters, small endurances, unfamiliarity, and I cannot remember why at the time they seemed so grim and hopeless.

Why the author went to Mexico with a single pair of glasses is a mystery to me. Fortunately, I never felt any pathological hatred for Mexico, based on the many subsequent journeys I took there.

The Edition of Huxley’s Book That I Own

I have also been to most of the places that Aldous Huxley described in Beyond the Mexique Bay during my trip to Guatemala and Honduras in 2019. Unlike Greene who saw only the Maya ruins at Palenque, Huxley traveled to Copán in Honduras and Quirigua in Guatemala.

Like Greene, Huxley also had a problem with the people of Central America. At one point, he lets it all hang out: “Frankly, try how I may, I cannot very much like primitive people. They make me feel uncomfortable. ‘La bêtise n’est pas mon fort.’” The French expression could be translated thus: Stupidity isn’t my strong point.

These two civilized and (perhaps) sticky Englishmen did manage to write interesting books which engaged my interest through multiple readings over a period of more than four decades.

Now why would you want to read books written almost a century ago when there are more current books on the subject? My answer is a simple one: The best recent books were written with a knowledge of what went before. And when it comes to Mexico, one could easily go back to the books of John Lloyd Stephens written in the 1840s. (In fact, I will do just that in a follow-up post.)

Chicken Enchiladas in Mitla

Mixtec Ruins at Mitla, State of Oaxaca, Mexico

It was January 1980. My brother and I were traveling in an arc across southern Mexico along a route taken by Graham Greene in the 1930s, when he was doing his research for The Power and the Glory, which he described in his travel book The Lawless Roads.

Dan and I flew to Mexico City, transferring there to a flight to Villahermosa, which was the least hermosa (beautiful) city either of us had seen in all of Mexico. From there, we went to Palenque, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Oaxaca, and back to Mexico City via all-night bus.

While we were in Oaxaca, we took a side trip to see the Mixtec ruins at Mitla, which consisted of numerous geometric motifs such as are shown in the above photo. Seeing ruins in the desert makes one hungry and thirsty, so we repaired to a little restaurant within shouting distance of the ruins.

We were the only customers in the place. After a few minutes, a little girl raced out of the kitchen and stopped dead in her tracks, seeing two large and hairy gringos seated at a table. She did a quick U-turn and ran back to the kitchen shouting ¡Mamacíta! Within a couple of minutes, her mother appeared at our table with a notepad asking in Spanish what we wanted. Dan and I both ordered chicken enchiladas, rice, and beans.

There followed a long delay of several minutes which was punctuated with what Dan and I recognized as the death squawk of a chicken whose neck was being wrung. (Our great grandmother, old Hungarian farm woman that she was, liked to buy live poultry and butcher them and pluck their feathers herself.)

In time, about thirty minutes in all, our lunches were served. The chicken which had given its all for us turned out to be old and tough, with a decidedly stringy texture. It had been old, but by God it was fresh! We did our level best to eat as much as we could before thanking the proprietor and her daughter and making our way to the bus terminal.

That was a fun trip which gave us dozens of funny stories to remember for the long years to come.

Emeric Toth’s Recurring Nightmare (Repost)

Chamula Girl with Plastic Bucket

This is a repost from my Blog.Com site on January 26, 2009:

It was a recurring dream that I would have at least once a week. In November 1980, I spent a week at San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the State of Chiapas, Mexico. The town was known as a market town for the Highland Mayan peoples from San Juan Chamula, Zinacantán, Tenejapa, and other villages. In the city market, tourists are besieged by little Chamula girls selling crude handmade dolls. They come up to you, caress the doll, and coo to it softly. It was hard for anyone to resist. My Chamula doll is still propped up in my library in the Latin American literature section.

My revised edition of Michael Shawcross’s San Cristóbal de Las Casas City and Area Guide (San Cristóbal: Guadalupe de la Peña, June 1979) made reference to a local restaurant called Normita’s. In it, Shawcross wrote: “1E and 1S on Av. Benito Juárez. Pleasant, candle-lit atmosphere. Friendly owner (fine classical guitar-player). Try the Jalisco-style Pozole. The Huevos Motuleños are particularly fine. Beer/wine. Open afternoons and evenings only.” The 1E and 1S placed the restaurant one block southeast of the Zócalo.

Except, it wasn’t there. I had crawled all around the southeastern part of the city until I finally stumbled upon it. I spent all my small bills on the Jalisco-style Pozole, which was quite good and very filling. (If you’ve never had pozole, I suggest you try it on a cold day—and make sure it has a lot of hot chiles in it.)

When I emerged from a restaurant, I was accosted by a little Indian girl in tears carrying an empty plastic bucket. I could not give her anything because the smallest bill I had at the time was a 100-peso note, at the time worth about $12.00. Even if I were so warm-hearted as to have given it to her, her parents would probably have thought she stole it or did something nasty with one of the tourists, and then beaten her for her pains. I shook my head sadly and walked down the street, followed by the little girl, crying as if her world had tumbled down about her head. Had she lost something? Had she lost the money her parents had given her? I never knew.

That is my dream, being followed down a dark Mexican street by a poor little Indian girl with an empty plastic bucket, beseeching me for a few pesos which I didn’t have while drenched in tears.

“A World Construed Out of Blood”

The Best American Novel I Have Read in Years

I have seldom been so impressed by an American novel—especially a recent one—as I was by Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing. The young hero, Billy Parham, crosses back and forth three times between New Mexico and Old Mexico. Finding his parents killed and robbed of their livestock, he is not at home either in the United States or the mountains of Mexico.

McCarthy writes with an Old Testament intensity of the kindness and evil that Billy finds across the Rio Grande. At one point, he writes:

When the flames came up her eyes burned out there like gatelamps to another world. A world burning on the shore of an unknowable void. A world construed out of blood and blood’s alcahest and blood in its core and in its integument because it was that nothing save blood had power to resonate against that void which threatened hourly to destroy it.

After finding his family slain and dispersed, Billy manages to locate his younger brother, Boyd, and returns with him to Mexico looking for the horses stolen from his father. Boyd manages to impress the campesinos they meet, wins the nickname El Guërito, and is described by the author:

He looked fourteen going on some age that never was. He looked as if he’d been sitting there and God made the trees and rocks around him. He looked like his own reincarnation and then his own again. Above all else he looked to be filled with a terrible sadness. As if he harbored news of some horrendous loss that no one else had heard of yet. Some vast tragedy of the way the world was.

Author Cormac McCarthy

I have been impressed by McCarthy’s work before, when I read Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985) and All the Pretty Horses (1992). So far, I have read the first two novels of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, which consists of All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). After reading the next novel in the trilogy, I will backtrack and read his first four novels, which are set in the South. Then I will move on to No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006).

One little note: I would not recommend that you read The Crossing unless you know some Spanish. Much of the dialog set in Mexico is in untranslated Spanish. I was able to get by pretty well, though I had my Cassell’s Spanish Dictionary at my side. But if you can tolerate the language factor, I think you will be mightily impressed by McCarthy’s work.

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.

Confidenciales

Love Seats (Known as Confidenciales) on Mérida’s Plaza de la independencia

Mérida is a city full of little surprises. At first, one is conscious of the heat and humidity, followed by all that goes into making up a tropical city. Then, after a little while, one notices surprising little things that give the city its own charming uniqueness. Ever since the 17th century, the city’s parks have been dotted with concrete love seats called confidenciales. Rarely does one not encounter (during daylight hours anyhow) young Maya couples seated on them and whispering into each other’s ears.

The Courtyard of the Macay Museum of Contemporary Art

In a tropical climate, nothing is more welcome than cool shade. And it’s not too difficult to find it. When I visited the Macay Museum of Contemporary Art, I was so enthralled by the courtyard, that I sat down on a bench and meditated for upwards of an hour. The building that houses the museum used to be the Archbishop’s Palace.

If I owned a house, I would like one that presents nothing but a wall and a door to the street—with no front lawn requiring frequent maintenance. I’d much rather have a courtyard, invisible from the street with cozy benches and a fountain.

Colonnade by the Plaza de la Independencia, Built in 1821

Finally, I loved all the colonnades. like the one above which is two centuries old. It’s good to get out of the sun when it is hot, and there were always shops in the colonnade where you can get a cold beer or some tropical-fruit-flavored ice cream.

Perhaps all these things speak to me of comfort and relaxation, which is always a good thing when one is on vacation. Wherever I went, I found time to relax in the main plaza or a lovely courtyard or a welcoming colonnade. I always made sure that there was some relaxation time wherever I went. I saw a lot of wonderful places, and I had a good rest.

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.

The Perfect House

Courtyard of the Casa Montejo in Mérida, Yucatán

When most Americans think of the ideal house, they always see it as set back from an immaculately manicured front lawn. Perhaps owing to my hatred of mowing lawns, I much prefer the Mexican house, which presents a blank face to the street—no windows, one regular-sized door—and with a delightful courtyard which can’t be seen from the street.

I cannot for the life of me see myself doing anything on a front lawn other than working my butt off. But a courtyard, that is a different matter altogether. I could set out a chair and read there, or talk to my friends, or even have breakfast.

Courtyard of the Former Archbishop’s Palace in Mérida

In Latin America, you can live in a beautiful house—as seen from the inside—and not have to worry about what the neighbors think. When I think of sliding glass doors opening onto decks, I wonder if most American houses are secure from theft and home invasions.

Street in Campeche: No Front Lawns Here

Above is a typical street in the center of Campeche. Some of the buildings are businesses; other, homes of the well-to-do. There isn’t much zoning in effect.

Truth to tell, unless I win the lottery, I cannot see myself as owning a house. And if I could somehow afford one, my idea of the perfect house would come into conflict with zoning regulations and local customs. I will probably continue to live in an apartment, where I don’t bother my head about perfection in any sense of the word.

A One-Man Renaissance

Francisco Toledo (1940-2019)

In his book On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, Paul Theroux met with Francisco Toledo in Oaxaca shortly before the artist died. I was curious to see images of some of his works because his meeting with Theroux raised my interest.

A Zapotec Indian from Juchitán in the southeast corner of the State of Oaxaca (near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec), Francisco Benjamin López Toledo was a noted painter, sculptor, illustrator, and protestor. When McDonald’s wanted to plant the Golden Arches in the zócalo of Oaxaca, Toledo set up a table offering free tamalitos to passers-by explaining to them the damage that would be done to their culture.

Animal-Headed Woman

When Theroux asked him what he thought of Frida Kahlo, Toledo replied:

I started out hating her. Then later I began to see that she represented something. And outsiders were interested in her. Her life was so complex and painful. So she is something. But there are so many others.

Kahlo is well known to art critics outside of Mexico, along with a handful of other artists such as Orozco, Rivera, Tamayo, and Siqueiro; but Toledo is right that Mexico is fairly crawling with great art. This was brought home to me during my recent trip to Yucatán, when I made a point of visiting art and folk museums.

Illustration: Mythical Creature

To another American visitor, Toledo describes his work:

What I do is a mixture of things, but the pre-Hispanic world has been a source of inspiration. There are certain solutions that are decorative that come from pre-Hispanic art and at the same time there is much primitive art that is refined or simple but also very modern.

They described his work as employing innovative materials, such as sand and amate paper, which was used by pre-Columbian Indians, made with the crushed bark of the amate tree (Ficus insipida, a species of fig).

A Ceramic Sculpture Honoring the Disappeared of Mexico

I hope to present the work of other Mexican artists in posts to come.