Thursday, April 13, 2006

To Puerto Morelos

After leaving Puebla we spent the night on the Veracruz coast, hot and sticky (just like Atlanta). The next morning we stopped in La Venta, the earliest large "pyramid" in mesoamerica, actually an earthen mound like we have in the US, that dates to the preclassic (i.e. pre-Teotihuacan) period, around 1000 BC. Some see its builders, the Olmecs, as the mother of mesoamerican civilizations. The museum was pretty poor, but I wanted to see the site since I had learned about it, but had never visited.

An Olmec head in the La Venta Museum.

Main mound at La Venta from the plaza.

At the top of the main mound, well above the trees with view to the horizon on all sides.

Active army ant trails in grass next to the main mound.

We headed for the road along the base of Yucatan hoping to find a place to spend the night near the sites of Becan and Rio Bec. When we finally got there, we found a brand new hotel with virtually no guests. Unfortunately, they wanted to charge $650 MX (which seems pretty steep to me), and we only had about that much on us, so we went to the modern town of Becan to find an ATM. Of course there was none, the closest being in Chetumal, a couple of hours away. We regretfully left Rio Bec behind and continued on to Chetumal. I would really like to visit it someday.

Chetumal is on the Caribbean, with a large bay. It too has grown in the years since we had our VW engine replaced. We spent the night and went on to Tulum the next morning.

From the municipal dock looking back at Chetumal.

On the way, we stopped at Bacalar where we had stayed while our VW was being fixed. We could not find the lab where we had stayed, but we did see the 1930s fort, built just after the end of the Caste War (which lasted from the late nineteenth century). The Maya turned out to be a bigger problem than the folks in Mexico City originally realized.

The fort at Bacalar

We got to Tulum in the evening. It became apparent that the area had been hit by hurricane Wilma, as the trees looked like they had been mowed off about 5 meters above the ground.

The town is a few kilometers from the beach. Christiane wanted to sleep to the sound of surf, so we stayed in a cabaña on the beach instead of a hotel in town. We had dinner in town before heading back for a beer at the bar at the cabañas. The electrical generator turns on at sundown, around 6:30, and lasts for two hours, then everyone just goes to bed. The bath was in a central building, cold water only; and I looked around carefully for scorpions when I got up to go to the john, just like my grandparents had told me to do.

The cabañas on the right and the restaurant/bar on the left, view from the beach.

View of the beach of next set of cabañas, note the missing sand on the beach thanks to Wilma.

Home sweet home. The wattle walls allow a lot of wind to come through.

Working on the blog just before lights out, battery power only.

The restaurant/bar.

The next morning, we packed up and headed to the site of Tulum before the buses from Cancun showed up. We just made it. The site is no longer as easy to reach as it was 30 years ago. Back then I body surfed up the beach and climbed the cliff to the site. Now you have to go in the main gate and stay on the paths, which is really a good thing with the numbers of tourists who come through everyday.

As the buses from Cancun showed up with their hoards of camera toting Americans, the rest of us left to visit other sites. We had read in our French guidebook to visit Tulum early in order to avoid the Cancun tourist buses, and curiously, nearly everyone else who showed up early was also French. They had to have used the same guidebook, Le Routard.

Tulum was a Maya "port" catering to the extensive coastal canoe trade at the time of the conquest, and continuing for a few years afterwards. Three sides were protected by stone walls, and the fourth side by these cliffs. All the buildings are somewhat poorly constructed and about half-sized. It was the main such "port" city on the coast. It was reinhabited and became the capital of the Maya rebellion after Puerto Carrillo fell to Mexican forces in the early twentieth century during the Caste War.

One of the better preserved temples with a plaster bas-relief of the upside-down god in the center tablero and found on several buildings in Tulum and in other sites such as Labna.

We headed to Coba, which had only just opened 30 years ago when we first visited. It was a lot further than I remembered, and the jungle had grown back over most of the site that had been quite open and exposed 30 years ago. Rather than renting a bicycle to get around like the other folks, (they must have had a different guidebook), we decided to walk around the site. Bad idea. It is BIG. I declined climbing the main pyramid, which is possible now, but which had been closed then. My vertigo took one look at it and decided it was too steep and the steps to uncertain, and there was no rope or chain. So I guess I will never get to the top. Coba is known for its elevated roads, or sacbes; but we did not see any.

Coba's main pyramid with rounded ends like Uxmal.

A ball court at Coba with temples on the tops of both sides facing away from the court.

A minor pyramid at Coba with rounded ends, and steps making it nearly impossible to have been climbable. There are no stairs on the other sides.

We continued on to Puerto Morelos where Lilia has her cultural resources company, Empresa del Manejo Cultural, S.A., and checked in a the Hotel Inglaterra (probably not the best choice).

Monday, April 10, 2006

La Señora

La Señora is back at home! Christiane just talked to Lupe. We really thought she would not make it until Caroline comes this week, and she did not look at all like she would ever come home again. She is still in bad shape and will have in-home nursing care. We will take Caroline to visit her in the next few days. More lagrimas and abrazos. But hey, that's what I like about Mexico, especially the abrazos.

First Some Memories

Since my last blog entry, we have traveled to Yucatan and back, a ten day trip, much of it behind the wheel. I have not written anything yet since it was hard to get an internet connection and because the longer I waited the more overwhelming the task of writing about the trip became. I will try to summarize because so much happened it would take nearly 10 days to write it all down. I will not go into much detail about archaeological site descriptions since better ones are available in the guidebooks, and I will just show a few pictures. I will try to concentrate on the people and the memories this trip brought back of our trips to Yucatan 30 and 35 years ago. Nearly every site or town had a memory attached, and it was like a trip down memory lane.


Our first visit to Yucatan was in late winter 1972. We flew from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Mérida with the idea of my studying archaeology at the University of Mexico in the DF. (Because they were always on strike, I ended up studying at the University of the Americas (UDLA) two years later, but that’s another story.) During our brief stay in Mérida we visited the archaeological sites of Chichen Itzá, Uxmal, and Kabah by bus with our oldest daughter, Mamita, who was about one and a half at the time.

We also visited a town called Ticul, where my paternal grandparents had tried to convert the Maya to the Mormon religion in the 1950s. We visited a doctor and his family whom my grandparents had especially liked. Around this time I asked my grandfather to write up his autobiography, which he later did, but he only got to the story about his trip to find a lost white tribe in Chiapas in 1950 or 1951. The part about the local priest egging on the local citizens to shoot up his panel truck while he and my grandmother were in it was later, unfortunately. Also the stories about army ants, and scorpions in the boots, never quite got told. It is really amazing that they did all of this before air conditioning, an all-weather road to Mérida, and without knowing a word of Spanish to begin with.

We also ran into two Peace Corps volunteers from Morocco. Dan was in the same town I was in, Beni Mellal; and he just walked into a restaurant in Mérida where we were having dinner. He later invited us to a party of anthropologists at a local archaeological artist’s house. Four years later, the hostess showed up in Puebla as the artist for the German Foundation project, the one my thesis is based on. We also met Salwa, who had been in my Peaced Corps English teaching group in Morocco. She kept pecking me on the shoulder on the bus back from Chichen, until I finally turned around to confront this persistent pest. Boy was I surprised. She remembers it as us meeting on El Castillo at Chichen Itzá; and if my memory is wrong on this point, it is clearly not the first time, as the current trip showed.

Our second trip to Yucatan (more precisely the peninsula of Yucatan) was in 1976, when we drove our VW bus to visit the University of the Americas’ (UDLA) field school being held at Becan and Rio Bec. These sites are midway along the all-season road across the base of Yucatan. Our best friend, Steve, was sleeping in the jungle at the site of Rio Bec at night and hacking paths through the jungle during the day looking for more temples and buildings to map. His wife, Sue, was working in the lab at Bacalar, on the Caribbean coast north of Chetumal with their baby. Among the more memorable events of that trip were meeting my boss, Peter, of the German Foundation, who is now in charge of archaeology at Chichen Itzá; and our visit with Steve and Sue of Tulum and Coba.

Bacalar, near the fort built in the 1930s after the Caste War. I could not find the place where the lab was.

After leaving Coba, we had turned south onto the main road back to Bacalar (a several hour trip), and shortly thereafter threw a rod. We spent the night with our families in the bus alongside the main north-south coastal road. There was no shoulder, just the pavement, a ditch and the jungle. I had to keep awake and turn on the blinkers every time I heard a vehicle approach. The battery slowly wound down, and I got sleepier. Fortunately, the next day, we were able to get a tow to the VW place in Chetumal, and then had to wait several days to get a new engine put in, using up all the money in our bank account. We had to pick up hitchhikers to pay the tolls and food back to Cholula, and could not pay for a motel.

We broke down on the left side of the road about halfway to the curve. This really is the place within a few dozen meters. This part of the road has not changed in 30 years.

To work at Rio Bec, the crew had to drive over an hour south of Becan on dirt roads to a non-descript spot on the road. From there they had cut a road north through the jungle about one-half kilometer, and then a walking trail another half kilometer to the site. The maya guys they had working for them built palm thatched huts for them, and also made lime on the site to help consolidate some of the buildings (an interesting thing to see in itself). The site had only recently been rediscovered after having been lost since the early 20th century. It seems the discoverers had made a 180 degree error with their Brunton at one point. I believe that Jack Eaton, one of the people we had met at the party in Mérida rediscovered it. Water and food had to be brought in, and occasionally the folks left in Becan would forget to do so. The jungle was so thick they dug their shower at the corner of a house mound and did not realize it for a few days. You could see maybe a meter or two into the jungle.

When we arrived, there was a forest fire going on, which can be really scary when you are in the middle of the jungle in the dry season with only a trail and a recently hacked-out road for escape. The reason for the fire was the assistant field director’s VW “Thing”. As was the case with many VWs in those days, the gas pump was leaking and when this guy drove up to the point where he needed to get out and walk, the Thing started on fire. He was lucky to grab his passport before it was engulfed. He ran the half kilometer for help, and the crew put out the fire after much work, but it kept erupting here and there for weeks.

In those days, you had to leave the country with the car you came in with. I never did find out what happened with the assistant director.

Together with our own memories, we also had my grandparents’ and the stories they had told us when we were kids. They are the reason I became an archaeologist. For the longest time I thought that a missionary and an archaeologist were the same thing, and was fascinated by their slides of Yucatan and Chichen Itzá, and some of the things they brought back, with permission, of course. Nowadays, they could never have brought back the things they did or done some of the things they did.

The Trip, Part 1

On April 30, we left Querétaro and drove straight to Cholula to visit Ricardo and Lupe and UDLA where I got an “ex-alumno” ID card. You never know when something like that might come in handy. So far it hasn’t.

In front of the old Hacienda building where anthropology still has its class rooms and offices.

Entrance to hacienda where I went every day. Or rather, 4 days a week. The weekends were great.

The courtyard of the hacienda. I had many classes in the two rooms to the left and the one at the far right corner. The archaeology lab where I learned obsidian hydration dating is on the right. Not much change here.

We skirted the DF and “only” had to pay $20 US for the tolls. We ended up paying over $160 US in tolls for the entire trip. UDLA is beautiful with flowers and trees where there used to be grass, with its view of Popocatepetl (Smoking Mountain) which has recently started erupting again, and with all the new buildings.

The monastery at Huejotzingo, ca. 1524, where I did the study with the German foundation. I remember the chapels in the corners, but not the wall around the monastery. Go figure.

We stayed in a hotel on the square with a view of the pyramid of Cholula, reputedly the largest in the world (if you count all the additions and appendages). The square is about three times larger than I remember, so much for my memory.

Square at Cholula with the pyramide in background.

We then dropped in on Ricardo and Lupe in Manantiales (Springs), a little town between Cholula and Puebla where we lived for 3 years. We had sent a letter the week before, but of course it had not yet arrived. Lupe answered the doorbell at the gate. She could not see us, but we could see her through the side of the gate. She clearly looked confused when we called out who we were. Then it was abrazos (hugs) and lagrimas (tears) all around. We had not seen each other in 20 years. We are all a little greyer. We found out that Ricardo had died suddenly of a heart attack three years ago.

We visited the house that Ricardo and Lupe had started 31 years ago with a hand-dug well, adding things as they could afford them. The house was complete with two stories, a wall around it, a large garden, and an unfinished outdoor kitchen in the garden with the beginnings of a swimming pool dug around it. Somehow it seemed right that it was still not quite finished.

Lupe called Lety and Jaime, her daughter and son, and they dropped everything to come and meet us. Lety is a year older than Mamita, has a Masters in IT and a PhD in electronics, but still has trouble finding a good paying job. The Mexican economy really has some problems to straighten out. Jaime has worked his way up to being one of five sector chiefs of the traffic police, in charge of the historic center of Puebla, handling everything from speeding and parking to stolen cars. Not bad for a 37 year old. He is married, lives in Cholula, and we met his wife and kids, including little Ricardo.

From left: Christiane, Lupe, Teresa, Lety (Leticia), Jaime, Little Ricardo, Carmen, Jaime's daughter.

We asked about la Señora who had been like our kids’ grandmother and who never let Caroline’s (the one born in Mexico) feet touch the ground. We found out that she had not moved to Guadalajara to be with her son as we had supposed, but had stayed in Manantiales after el Capitán, her husband, died 10 or so years ago, still in the same house where we lived. El Capitán was like my surrogate father, and had taught me how to play chess, as I may have mentioned.

The bad news was that la Señora had had a stroke and was in the hospital. We decided to stay an extra day and visit her. Christiane went in to see her first and when I arrived, la Señora was crying as Christiane had just told her that Caroline might come to visit. Pretty soon, I was crying too. She was aware of who we were, but had trouble talking, and clearly is in bad shape. It was like having my mother in the hospital all over again.

We dropped Lupe off, after hitting topes with the car’s undercarriage again, and not for the last time; and we continued on our trip, much sobered, with memories swirling around us. We headed past Orizaba, the biggest volcano in Mexico, and one that Cortes saw from his ship before reaching Veracruz. We drove on into the hot humid coastal plain and stayed the night in Minatitlan where I sent off the last blog entry that I had written before we left.

Orizaba from the highway

I know! I know! This was supposed to be a summary. Believe me, I left a lot out.