Plague Diary 26: The Latin American Hot Spot

Covid-19 Still Rages in Latin America

I was disappointed to hear that Latin America is still considered a global hot spot for the Coronavirus, particularly Brazil, Peru, and Mexico. According to a bulletin issued yesterday by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City:

The number of confirmed and suspected cases is still increasing daily in several regions of Mexico. Mexico City, Tabasco, Sinaloa, Aguascalientes, and Yucatan currently report the highest incidence rates of active cases (incidence rate is the number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the last 14 days). Hospital occupancy rates are also increasing, with the highest levels in Mexico City, Mexico State, Guerrero, Morelos, and Chiapas. Mexican health authorities have reiterated calls for people to stay home during this time.

Since I would love to re-visit Yucatán and Chiapas, this comes as bad news if i wanted to leave the country for my vacation. More and more, I think I will have several short vacations this year in the Southwestern U.S.

 

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.”

 

 

Henequen and Chicle

Henequen Was the Major Source of Yucatán’s Wealth Around 1900

While I am here quarantined in my apartment, I look back with pleasure to my trip to Yucatán in January and February of this year, before the coronavirus outbreak reached America’s shores.

Before the days of mass tourism to the peninsula, the economy of Yucatán was based primarily on henequen, and less importantly on the sap of the sapodilla tree. In the first case, henequen fiber was used to make a rope usually referred to as sisal, or matting. Such was the demand for the fiber that the owners of haciendas that grew henequen became millionaires. Today, their mansions line the Paseo de Montejo, once one of the richest residential streets in the world.

A Pre-Wrigley Gum Wrapper

The other substance for which Yucatán was known was chicle, originally the substance that made chewing gum possible. Chicle was made from the mily latex of the sapodilla tree, which was tapped similarly to rubber trees in the Amazon. Men known as chicleros ranged far and wide in jungle areas tapping the sapodilla trees, and in the process discovering many of the Maya ruins which are now major tourist attractions. I remember a number of years ago a brand of candy-coated chewing gum called Chiclets. Even then, it was no longer made using real chicle.

Nowadays, both henequen and chicle are no longer major economic forces in Southeast Mexico. There are still a couple of active haciendas specializing in henequen for ropes or matting, but the day of the chicleros is forever gone since chicle has been replaced by a synthetic substance known as a polyol.

 

Mexican Folk Art: La Casa de los Venados

What It Feels Like to Stay at Home All the Time

I am about to take a break from my “Plague Diary” posts to remind myself that, somewhere, something like a normal life still exists. Toward the end of my vacation in Yucatán, I spent several days in Valladolid, home of one of the country’s best private collections of folk art at the Casa de los Venados. I loved the exhibits I saw throughout my trip of folk art. The combination of humor and brilliant color had me won over. Now that I am sitting out the plague in my apartment, sans restaurants, sans libraries, sans movie theaters, sans any humor or brilliant color. (Especially as it has rained all week.)

Dog Cart

Sometimes I feel as if North American culture is deficient, especially in the visual arts. It wasn’t always thus, but somehow I feel that abstract expressionism took all the fun out of painting. Seeing the collection at the Casa de los Venados, on the other hand, made me laugh out loud.

Mermaid


The amazing thing about Mexican folk art is that there is so much of it about and at such reasonable prices. Over several decades, you can have a great collection that might even rival the Casa de los Venados—and have loads of fun doing it.

Yucatán Yummies

La Chaya Maya in Mérida

One of the best parts of my recent trip to Mexico was the general high quality of the meals I ate. Following is a brief survey of some of the highlights:

Mérida. My favorite restaurant in Mérida was La Chaya Maya on Calle 55 near Parque Santa Lucia. In all, I ate there five times. The specialty there is Yucatec Maya food, such as papadzules, salbutes, panuchos, and the excellent sopa de lima. It was there that I discovered chaya, or tree spinach, which when mixed with fruit juice makes an incredibly refreshing drink.

Martine vividly remembers sopa de lima from her trip with me to Yucatán in 1992. La Chaya Maya’s sopa de lima was the best, with its shredded chicken and tart local limes.

Honorable mention goes to Marlin Azul on Calle 62, where I had a memorable ceviche de pescado for just a few dollars.

Santa Elena is a small town between the ruins of Uxmal and Kabah. The Pickled Onion is a B&B run by a British and Canadian expat by the name of Valerie Pickles. Although she no longer does the cooking, the breakfasts at her place were memorable, but the poc chuc (a Maya pork dish) I had one evening was superb. I treated my Maya guide to the Puuc Hill ruins to a meal there, and he was so enthusiastic that he wanted to bring his family there.

A Few Miles South of Champotón is a restaurant on the Gulf of Mexico shore where I had the best seafood lunch of my life: It was a filete de pescado a la Veracruzána (filet of fish with a sauce of tomatoes, onions, and olives) at a restaurant whose name had the word Tortuga in it. I only wish I remembered the exact name. I liked my lunch there so much that I kept ordering the same dish elsewhere, but it never was quite so good elsewhere.

Campeche. I ate twice at Marganzo near the Plaza Independencia in Campeche. The seafood was great, particularly a botana (freebie extra dish) of octopus ceviche, which was incredibly fresh and tender.

The only bad meal I had in Mexico was also in Campeche, at a Chinese steam table buffet called the Restaurante Shanghai where all the dishes were tepid.

 

 

House of the Turtle

The House of the Turtle at Uxmal

I have always had a special feeling about turtles. That comes from having lived at the edge of a desert for the last half century suffering from a chronic lack of rain. I strongly suspect that the Maya of the Puuc Hills (redundant: Hill Hills the way that Torpenhow Hill in England means Hillhillhill Hill) felt the same way. One of the simplest, most classical and beautiful structures at Uxmal if the House of the Turtle.

It is named after the row of carved turtles that appear along the top edge:

Detail of Carved Turtle

As I have mentioned previously, the hills of the Puuc are separated from the underground rivers of the Yucatán Peninsula by several hundred feet of impenetrable limestone. The Maya of the Puuc had to dig cisterns (called chultunes) which they hoped would fill with water during the rainy season. In good years, they did. But when a series of dry years came in the Ninth Century A.D., the Maya just walked away from Uxmal. Why obey the local god/king and get a hernia hauling stones to build new structures when they might easily die of hunger or thirst?

All the stones of Uxmal—and, for that matter, all the Maya sites—were hauled by human labor. There were no wheeled conveyances because there were no wheels, and what would be the point anyway when there were no draft animals to pull them over roads which they would have to build of other heavy rocks in the first place?

Looking Through the Two Doorways of the House of the Turtle at the Nunnery Quadrangle

When you think of it that way, you can understand why the Maya just walked away from their ceremonial centers and changed their way of government. It was a miracle that they allowed themselves to be used for so many hundreds of years hauling rocks and putting them into place—even creating such magnificent sites as Uxmal—for little reward in their hardscrabble lives.

The Maya who built Uxmal are still in the neighborhood: It’s just that they are not quite so much involved in major engineering projects. And their homes, if built of stone (or, more likely, cinder blocks) use trucks to do the heavy hauling.

 

Splashing Out at Uxmal

My Guide, Jorge Mex, at the Governor’s Palace

At the key Maya ruins I visited, I hired a guide all to myself. It only cost a few hundred pesos for an hour or two, and it was worth it for the quality of information conveyed.  At Uxmal, I sought out and hired Jorge Mex (pronounced Mesh), who had been recommended to me by Valerie Pickles, a hotelier at Santa Elena. I could have joined a group tour with a large crowd of ignoramuses who didn’t know the first thing about the Maya, but to have the time of someone who worked with the archeologists at digging and restoring the ruins is worth the extra cost.

As I said before, this was my fourth visit to Uxmal, but it has always ranked first with me; so it was worth the extra effort. At Chichen Itza, I was my own guide: Although Chichen is a spectacular site in many ways, I was less interested.

Double-Headed Jaguar Throne at the Governor’s Palace

Although there was a structure at Uxmal called the Governor’s Palace, there was no governor. There was, however, a king who ruled at the time the Palace was built: His name was Chan Chak K’ak’nal Ajaw. Curiously, none of the other god/kings of Uxmal are known by name, according to Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler’s authoritative The Ancient Maya (Sixth Edition). Unfortunately, the glyphs at Uxmal have been badly weathered.

Details of Carved Stones on the Governor’s Palace

Notice the square stones at the bottom of the above photo. They are characteristic of the Puuc (pronounced Pook) style of architecture. The word puuc in Maya means “hill.” The Puuc region included some five or six sites that were in the hill country in the south of the State of Yucatán, ranging up to six hundred feet (183 meters) above sea level. This made access to water for drinking and growing crops a bit of a problem, as the underground river system of the peninsula was too deep, and there were no nearby cenotes (sinkholes) allowing access to the water.

 

Maya Nuns?

Detail of the “Nunnery Quadrangle” by Frederick Catherwood

The names ascribed to Maya archeological structures has almost nothing to do with their real function, which is mostly unknown to us. The names were assigned by the Spanish or local Maya who were in many cases a thousand years from having inhabited the ruins. Most of the great Maya cities were abandoned around the Ninth Century A.D., and Uxmal was no exception.

By the time John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited in 1839, the various names were already in use, such as the Templo del Adivino or Pyramid of the Magician, the Nunnery Quadrangle, the Palace of the Governor, and so on.

One of the Buildings of the Quadrangle Today

So if you think there were a bunch of Maya nuns running around in the quadrangle of buildings that bears their name, you can forget about it. I am sure that some twelve hundred years ago, the local residents knew exactly what function every public building served. But we will likely never know.

The buildings have various themes carved in the area above the doors, including snakes, masks of the rain god Chaak, geometrical designs, and even a typical residential Maya hut of recent vintage. There are even a few very worn hieroglyphs which commemorate various dynastic events about which we know very little.

Chaak Masks at the Edge of the Structures (and Note the Maya Hut at the Upper Right)

As I wrote in my previous post entitled “The Crown Jewel,” I regard Uxmal as the greatest of the Yucatec Maya sites because of the excellence of the architecture and the care with which the structures have been restored using the mostly original stones. I remember on my earlier visits seeing piles of carved stones which the archeologists of that time had not yet decided how to use. Now there are fewer of those piles lying around.

Next: The Palace of the Governor

 

 

The Crown Jewel

Overview of Uxmal Ruins Today

When John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood traveled in Mexico and Central America to visit Maya ruins, the only place where they went twice was Uxmal in Yucatán. Their description of the site appears in both of their books: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán.

In fact, there is something about the place which calls one back. I have now visited it a total of four times, usually staying overnight at the Hacienda Uxmal Hotel and spending extra time with what I consider to be the crown jewel of Maya architecture.Over the next few days, I intend to share with you why I feel this way.

Pretty Much the Same View in 1839 as Drawn by Catherwood

On my first visit, I went on a group tour under the auspices of Turistica Yucateca in Mérida. As the tour van pulled up within sight of the Templo del Adivino, also known as the Pyramid of the Magician, I noted that he crossed himself twice. The Templo del Adivino is shown below in greater detail:

The Templo del Adivino, or Pyramid of the Magician

On previous visits, tourists were allowed to climb the pyramids, and a chain stretched from the base to the top of the Templo del Adivino to help with this. As you can see for yourself, the stairs are steep, with higher than usual risers and narrow treads. When some tourists fell to their deaths from the heights of the pyramid, INAH (the national Institute of Anthropology and History, which controls the archeological zones) began to forbid climbing the ruins. Because “boys will be boys,” some lesser and more easily scalable ruins still allow climbers—but only if the ruins are not as important as the Templo del Adivino or the Castillo at Chichen Itza.

Next: The so-called nunnery quadrangle.

 

Kind Hearts and Blistered Toes

A Mexican Doctor’s Prescription for a Blistered Toe

Whenever I encounter a medical problem in my travels, I go to see one of the local doctors. This trip, I developed a nasty blood blister on my left big toe after just two days in Mérida. As I walked out of the Cathedral of San Ildefonso, I was approached by an English-speaking guide named Rafael. Although I was limping badly, I willingly took his guided tour. As it was winding down, I asked him if he could translate my English into Spanish for me to a Mexican physician. He was willing, and suggested the “Doc-in-a-Box” connected with the big Farmacia Yza on the main square.

So he and I saw Dr. Durán Chacón, a young locally trained physician, with Rafael translating. Using the bandaging, wound cleanser, antibiotic capsules, and antibiotic ointment he recommended from the Farmacia, the good doctor cleansed my wound and suggested that I bandage the toe twice a day, applying the cleanser and ointment. Three times a day, I took a 300mg Dalacin C Clindamicina capsule for about five days.

The Antibiotic I Was Prescribed

Fortunately, the good doctor’s recommendations worked; and my toe healed in record time. And it only cost me a few hundred pesos, a small fraction of what I would have had to pay Stateside.

Not surprisingly, Rafael invited me to a souvenir shop in which he was a partner. I knew I should express my gratitude for his kindness so I purchased a few nice items to take back to L.A.

Do I think he was being mercenary? Yes and no. He was a small businessman with a kind heart, and he saved my vacation from turning into a medical casualty. Again and again during my trip, I met with kindness; and I tried to express my appreciation in a meaningful way, even if it meant dispensing a few extra pesos.