Looking South

I Am Looking Forward to My Next Trip to Latin America

It has been not five months since my return from Guatemala, and already I am looking forward to Yucatán and Belize—which is still more than six months in the future.

(Incidentally, I would never refer to it as “the” Yucatán unless I were wearing a pith helmet and those stupid zip-off pants/shorts worn by travelers who fear to venture more than twenty yards from their hotel room without an escort.)

I have been to Yucatán four times in all, the last time with Martine in November 1992. During my visits between 1975 and 1992, I have visited about a dozen Maya archeological sights. Since then, scores more have been developed, including one of the largest at Calakmul in the State of Campeche. In addition, I hope to visit Cobá in Quintana Roo, Ek Balam and Kinich Kakmó in Yucatán, Edzna and several Rio Bec sites to be decided later in Campeche, and Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas. In addition, I plan to revisit some of the sites I have already seen such as Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Palenque.

There is something calming about seeing what remains of an ancient civilization—one that had the ability to adapt itself to changing circumstances and survive in the 21st Century.

Yucatec Maya Girls Today

The Maya population is scattered across five Latin American countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. A large number of Maya have found their way to the United States from Guatemala and Honduras, because of dire conditions in their countries of origin, though Maya from Mexico tend not to migrate to the United States. That is despite the long Caste War against the Ladino (Spanish speaking) population that ended only in the early 1900s and the Zapatista Revolt in Chiapas during the 1990s.

 

A Beneficiary of Global Warming

Habanero Chile Peppers

If you are looking for a hot time tonight, you could do worse than biting into a habanero chile, also known as a Scotch Bonnet or a Jamaican Chile. Although you can theoretically get hotter chiles from specialty food retailers and farm scattered farms, the hottest chiles I can normally find in Southern California are the habaneros. (For more information of the Scoville Heat Unit rating of the hotness of various chiles, click here.)

As I plan for my Yucatán/Belize vacation, I have taken to reading the website of The Yucatán Times. One interesting story I found related to a university study of which crops would benefit most from global warming and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. You’ll never guess which crop would benefit the most. Of course, it’s the habanero chile, which is so fierce that I would not use more than one-half of a small pepper to heat over a gallon and a half of soup.

Following is an excerpt from the article:

However, people who work with habanero pepper expect higher production, due to the conditions that will prevail in the State, as was observed with the study that was carried out by specialists of Technological Agricultural Institute (ITA) and the Scientific Research Center of Yucatán (CICY).

“The Capsicum chinense harvest will improve as the conditions of temperature and concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) increase,” Garruña Hernández said.

He explained that the favorable result was obtained in different theoretical models of climate change simulated under controlled conditions in growth chambers located inside the CICY greenhouse.

That is to say, “in the laboratory it was possible to regulate both the temperature and the concentration of CO2 in the air, and the results with this emblematic product of the Yucatan Peninsula were remarkable,” he said.

Garruña Hernández indicated that habanero crops were grown in different environments, with temperatures of 30, 35 and 40 degrees [Celsius], similar to those registered as a result of climate change. At the same time, different concentrations of CO2 were maintained, CO2 levels are increasing, also as a result of climate modifications.

Are you thinking of biting into a habanero chile any time soon? See this video for the grisly result.

Note that the Mayan name of the chile means “the crying tongue.” Unless you are a real chilehead, be warned.

Where There Are No Rivers

Cenote at Chichen Itza in Yucatán

Even Los Angeles has a river. Never mind that its banks are mostly of concrete and that it runs dry most of the year. There are some parts of the world in which rain sometimes falls in great profusion, but where there are no rivers to be seen. The operative phrase here is “to be seen.”

The Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, which I plan to visit next winter, is a solid block of limestone into which the rainfall seeps. There is quite a bit of water in Yucatán, but almost all of it is below sea level. Thanks to the giant meteor which caused the Cretaceous Extinction some 66 million years ago, numerous holes were punched through the surface of the limestone causing waterholes (usually referred to as cenotes). Many of these cenotes are interconnected through extensive subterranean caves.

Many of these cenotes make for excellent swimming holes in the subtropical climate of the peninsula, and they are a steady source of water for drinking and washing to the local population.

Where matters get more complicated is in the region known as the Puuc Hills, which rise several hundred feet above sea level, yet which sustained a large Maya population in ancient times. During rainy season, water is collected in stone cisterns called chultunes. During the dry season, these sources tend to dry up, and the local Maya must go hundreds of feet down to get at the subterranean rivers and wells. There is a famous illustration by Frederick Catherwood (around 1840) that shows the descent of hundreds of feet at the well in Bolonchen (see below). Shown here is only a portion of the descent to the wells, which continue for several hundred feet from the base of the stairs.

The Log Stairway at the Wells of Bolonchen (Representing Just Part of the Journey to Get Water)

Many place names in Yucatán contain the particle chen, which means well. In addition to Bolonchen, there is Chichen Itza, which, translated, means “The Mouth of the Well of the Itzaés.” A quick glance at a detailed map of this part of Mexico will turn up hundreds of other examples.

 

Serendipity: Daguerrotypes

A Daguerrotype Portrait

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood were not known as photographers, yet I was greatly interested by Stephens’s description of offering to create daguerrotype portraits of some of the female inhabitants of the City of Mérida in Yucatán on their second trip to Mexico around 1840. The following excerpt is from Volume I of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.

The ceremonies of the reception over, we made immediate preparations to begin. Much form and circumstance were necessary in settling preliminaries; and as we were in no hurry to get rid of our subjects, we had more formalities than usual to go through with.

Our first subject was the lady of the poetical name. It was necessary to hold a consultation upon her costume, whether the colours were pretty and such as would be brought out well or not; whether a scarf around the neck was advisable; whether the hair was well arranged, the rose becoming, and in the best position; then to change it, and consider the effect of the change, and to say and do many other things which may suggest themselves to the reader’s imagination, and all which gave rise to many profound remarks in regard to artistical effect, and occupied much time.

The lady being arrayed to the best advantage, it was necessary to seat her with reference to a right adjustment of light and shade; to examine carefully the falling of the light upon her face; then to consult whether it was better to take a front or a side view; to look at the face carefully in both positions; and, finally, it was necessary to secure the head in the right position; that it should be neither too high nor too low; too much on one side nor on the other; and as this required great nicety, it was sometimes actually indispensable to turn the beautiful little head with our own hands, which, however, was a very innocent way of turning a young lady’s head.

Next it was necessary to get the young lady into focus—that is, to get her into the box, which, in short; means, to get a reflection of her face on the glass in the camera obscura at that one particular point of view which presented it better than any other; and when this was obtained, the miniatured likeness of the object was so faithfully reflected, that, as artists carried away by enthusiasm, we were obliged to call in the papas and mammas, who pronounced it beautiful—to which dictum we were in courtesy obliged to respond.

The plate was now cleaned, put into the box, and the light shut off. Now came a trying time for the young lady. She must neither open her lips nor roll her eyes for one minute and thirty seconds by the watch. This eternity at length ended, and the plate was taken out.

So far our course had been before the wind. Every new formality had but increased our importance in the eyes of our fair visiters [sic] and their respectable companions. Mr. Catherwood retired to the adjoining room to put the plate in the mercury bath, while we, not knowing what the result might be, a little fearful, and neither wishing to rob another of the honour he might be justly entitled to, not to be dragged down by another’s failure, thought best to have it distinctly understood that Mr. Catherwood was the maestro, and that we were merely amateurs. At the same time, on Mr. Catherwood’s account, I took occasion to suggest that the process was so complicated, and its success depended upon such a variety of minute circumstances, it seemed really wonderful that it ever turned out well. The plate might not be good, or not well cleaned; or the chemicals might not be of the best; or the plate might be left too long in the iodine box, or taken out too soon; or left too long in the bromine box, or taken out too soon; or a ray of light might strike it on putting it into the camera or in taking it out; or it might be left too long in the camera or taken out too soon; or too long in the mercury bath or taken out too soon; and even though all these processes were right and regular, there might be some other fault of omission or commission which we were not aware of; besides which, climate and atmosphere had great influence, and might render all of no avail. These little suggestions we considered necessary to prevent too great a disappointment in case of failure; and perhaps our fair visiters were somewhat surprised at our audacity in undertaking at all such a doubtful experiment, and using them as instruments. The result, however, was enough to induce us never again to adopt prudential measures, for the young lady’s image was stamped upon the plate, and made a picture which enchanted her and satisfied the critical judgment of her friends and admirers.

Our experiments upon the other ladies were equally successful, and the morning glided away in this pleasant occupation.

Unfinished Business with the Maya

The Three States on the Yucatán Peninsula

I have not been to the Maya parts of Mexico since 1992, when I traveled to the Yucatán Peninsula with Martine and several co-workers at Urban Decision Systems. Now I am thinking of going again. My January trip to Guatemala only whet my appetite for more.

On past trips, I have seen the ruins at Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Dzibilchaltun, Acanceh, Mayapan, Palenque, Tulum, Kabah, Labna, Sayil, and Xlapak. I would not mind seeing Chichén, Uxmal, and Palenque again, and perhaps even spending a little time at Valladolid and Izamal, which I have not seen. New destinations would include several Maya ruins in the State of Campeche, most notably Calakmul and Edzná, and Bonampak and Yaxchilán in the State Of Chiapas. The latter two can be seen on a tour from Palenque.

The most problematical destination is Calakmul, which may possibly have been the largest Maya city at one time—perhaps even bigger than Tikal in Guatemala. The problem is that the southeastern edge of the State of Campeche has not yet been sufficiently developed for tourism by the Mexican government. I can possibly get a tour from either the city of Campeche or of Chetumal in Quintana Roo.

Maya Structures at Calakmul

There is also the possibility of Cobá in Quintana Roo. I might visit it if I have to go to Chetumal to set up a tour for Calakmul. Otherwise, I would be reluctant to run into the passenger ship mobs that dock at Cancun and the Maya Riviera.

Two cities I would love to re-visit are Mérida in Yucatán and Campeche in the state of the same name. Both are delightful places that positively reek of contemporary Maya culture, with hints of the Mexican mestizo culture and—oddly—an admixture of Lebanese and Syrian, due to the merchant classes that set up there in the 19th Century.

 

O Brave New World!

Maya Nose on Pre-Columbian Figure

The world opened up for me when I was thirty years old. It was the first time I even thought of breaking loose from my mother and father and exploring the world. For my first trip, I chose Yucatán in November 1975. And it was magical. First there was that cab ride to the Hotel Mérida past snack bars that were open to the street. It was my first experience of the tropics (other than Florida), and in the dark I saw men and women drinking beer and sodas. I was able to peer into houses and saw families watching television.

Once I checked in to my hotel, I stood at my sixth-floor window looking down onto Calle 60 and looking at passers-by walking on the sidewalk below. Suddenly one stopped and looked straight up at me. How did he know to do that? I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, staring at an optician’s office across the way called Optica Rejón.

I was entranced by the zócalo and the 16th-century structures surrounding it. I had my boots polished every day. There was endless people-watching, all those Maya with their distinctive noses.

How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!

 

Around mid-afternoon, I hung out at the main entrance of the University (also on Calle 60, just a couple blocks from my hotel). So many beautiful young women that looked so different from the ones back home! Young Maya women are astonishingly good looking.

Can you wonder that, feeling the way I did about travel, that it would become a major feature of my life. Even though, in the next two years, I would travel to Europe, there was something about Latin American that lured me—and still does.

The Great God Chac

Chac Masks at Uxmal

From my trips to Yucatán, I became impressed with the one dominant image of Yucatec Mayan art: The face of Chac (pronounced CHOCK), the rain god. You see, Yucatán is a land without surface rivers. Oh, there is plenty of flowing water underground, but none of it breaks the pitted limestone surface of the peninsula. In areas several hundred feet above sea level, such as in the Puuc Hills, the water that sustained the ancient Mayans came from chultunes, underground cisterns. In some years, the cisterns were full; in others, there was pitifully little to sustain the cornstalks that fed the people.

When one visits Yucatán, particularly in Puuc Hill sites such as Uxmal, Kabah, Labna, Sayil, and Xlapak, the dominant image is that of hundreds of Chac masks acting as façades of the Chenes-style buildings.

After the rainy winter Southern California had last year, I was hoping for a repeat, but so far this rainy season, we haven’t received anywhere near an inch, or even a centimeter, of the wet stuff. We have rain forecast for next week, but my fingers are crossed. So often the winds just blow the clouds inland where they go to water the desert.

I am thinking, perhaps, of going to Yucatán again this year. There are a number of Mayan sites I have yet to visit, such as Coba in the State of Quintana Roo and Edzna and Xpujil in the State of Campeche. Despite the heat and humidity of the great limestone block that is the peninsula, it is a fascinating tourist destination, well developed with reasonable accommodations and good food. In addition to Yucatec cuisine, which is quite distinctive with its reliance on achiote, bitter oranges, and Habanero chiles, there are Syrian restaurants (the merchant class of 150 years ago was heavily Middle Eastern), plus the standard Mexican antojitos.

If I go, it will be toward the end of the year, after the rainy season which is also super hot and sticky.