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.

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.

The Talking Stones of Yaxuna

The Mayan Glyph Stairway at Copán

The Maya believe that certain inanimate objects, such as stone glyphs and statues had souls. The following excerpt, entitled “The Talking Stones,” comes from Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path by archeologists David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker:

When I read Paul Sullivan’s book [Unfinished Conversations: Mayas and Foreigners Between Two Wars] it helped me understand something I had witnessed among the village people of Yaxuna who worked with me on the nearby ancient city. When excavation first began, the villagers were deeply concerned that we might try to remove stones, especially carved stones, from the ruins. I had difficulty understanding their anxiety. I explained to them that sometimes artifacts had to be removed for analysis, but that they would be returned faithfully when safe storage could be built for them. The matter was of such importance to the villagers that finally Don Pablo, the local shaman, took it personally  upon himself to ensure that no carved stones be removed from the site. There were some strained moments when the archeologists of the Mexican government insisted that carved stones be taken to safekeeping and the Yaxuna people insisted that they stay; but the tensions were finally resolved. The stones of Yaxuna are still there, under the watchful eyes of the villagers, and now I know why the matter loomed so large: such stones are likely k’an che’, seats of supernaturals.

I had one other encounter with Don Pablo and talking stones. One day in the summer of 1989, after he had done some work on the camp kitchen, I found a clear glass marble in the area. Thinking it belonged to Don Pablo and was one of his saso’ob, the “lights” he used when focusing spiritual forces, I took it next door to him that evening. He took the marble and inspected it carefully.

“Yes,” he said finally, “this is a stone of light.”

Then he smiled, “However, it won’t speak until it has been soaked in maize gruel, sak-a’, and then it will speak only Maya.”

Revisiting the Cretaceous Extinction

This Yucatán Fishing Village Along the Gulf of Mexico Hides a Secret

A few miles from Progreso, Yucatán, is the fishing village of Chicxulub (CHEEK-shoe-lube) which was the site of one of the great catastrophes in the life of the earth. Some 65 million years ago, an asteroid that was nine miles (fifteen kilometers) across slammed into Chicxulub at the speed of 44,640 mph (or 20 km/second) and destroyed some three quarters of all the life on earth, including all the dinosaurs. The impact was equivalent to a million times larger than the largest hydrogen bomb explosion and created a crater that was sixty miles (100 km) across and eighteen miles (30 km) deep.

Of course, that was millions of years ago, and the geology of the area has changed significantly.

Where the Asteroid Impacted

 

Signs of the Impact Today: A Ring of Cenotes

Today, the Yucatán Peninsula is a large limestone chunk that has been raised up, but with numerous underground rivers and caves admitting access to the water beneath. What you will not find there a river. This did not make it easy for the ancient Maya to grow crops—except in their areas where cenotes prevail. The dark green aresa beneath the ring of cenotes is where the Puuc Hills are located, which rise to an elevation of several hundred feet. There, the Maya dug cisterns, called chultunes, which frequently run dry during periods of drought.

I hope to visit Chicxulub Puerto when I stay in Merida or Progreso.

 

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.