Saturday, June 17, 2006

Trip to Atlanta

End of the School Year Party for AIS, Christiane and her Buddies

After a whirlwind tour of Mexico, looking for a town to live in, finding an apartment, making new friends, visiting old ones, making the obligatory tour of Yucatan, and having our first visitor for Holy Week, we headed back to Atlanta for the month of May. As we approached the city after a three-day car trip, Mexico receded back into a dreamland, and our Atlanta life came back into focus. It was nice having an apartment to come home to in a great neighborhood, and it was nice having all that green that Atlanta is so famous for. México is a tad dry.

We had plenty to do, besides revisiting friends to say hello and then again to say goodbye before we left for Querétaro. We sold the Camry to get something with more clearance for the topes (speed bumps), and settled on a Honda CRV, small enough to navigate the historic district, high enough to miss the topes, and repairable in Mexico. We decided to sell the house in Atlanta since we had had virtually no nibbles from renters while we were gone, and even if we rented it 12 months a year we would still lose money on it with the high Atlanta taxes, insurance, upkeep, agent’s fees, etc. We had a garage sale to get rid of the stuff we had put into storage. We only brought in about $150 with maybe 12 people showing up over two days. What a waste of time! So we tried Craigslist, and sold the bedroom and other stuff within a few days mostly by e-mail. We applied for and got our FM3 visa which will allow us to bring in a household worth of goods and our car tax free, and which we can renew without leaving Mexico for up to five years. Problem is we can’t work. We got our international health insurance, which also covers us in both Mexico and the US for less than COBRA would have cost just for the US. We got out Lingo VOIP telephone, which allows us to make unlimited phone calls from Mexico and the US for only $20 a month. The number, (678) 608 1208, is an Atlanta area code and will cost people calling us the same as if we were in Atlanta. For folks in Atlanta the call is just like a local call. We got on each other’s nerves and were happy to be moving back to Querétaro again.

And of course, last, but not least, we attended Nathalie's graduation (MA in Library Science) at the University of North Carolina where her fiancé, Benn J., also graduated. We met Benn's family and generally had a great time and look forward to grandchildren(!) and the ultimate unification of our families.

Nat and Benn, Chapel Hill, May 2006

Nat and Family with Her Advisor in the Background

Benn's Mother, Patricia; Sister, Julie; Father, Donn; and Grandmother, Irene, in Chapel Hill; Plus Nat, Benn and Christiane

On our trip back we stopped to visit Mary P. in Slidell. She had been chased out of her home by Katrina and had moved to Texas. Water reached nearly to the bottoms of the windows on her house, and it just so happened she was back in town that weekend to work on the house, or rather to supervise her brothers who worked on the house. We finally met her daughter, a few of her brothers (big catholic family like Christiane’s), and sisters. They are truly a loving family, and Mary is lucky to have them to help her through the trauma. Oh, BTW, Mary was in the Peace Corps with me in Morocco for the non-RPCVers out there (RPCV = Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.)

I was worried that we would be caught at the border with our car full of stuff that did not agree precisely with the list the consulate had approved. There were a number of things we could not bring with us due to space problems. We had been told to expect a two-hour wait at the border, but we got everything done within 50 minutes, except the customs stuff. Every time I asked where to go for customs, I was told to go elsewhere. Finally, we were told to turn in our list and get inspected at a check point 50 km inland. So we left Reynosa and headed to Monterrey. At the check point, I tried to turn in the list, and they looked at it as if they had never seen one before. We were told that we had to do that back in Reynosa. After 15 minutes of discussion, a lady came out of customs and told us to go on since we did not have enough to worry about. Next time, I will go through the “Nothing to Declare” line.

México was green (sort of) since the rainy season had begun while we were in Atlanta. We got to Querétaro about 6 that evening, were welcomed back by the Canadian and US contingent in the neighborhood, unpacked and went to bed.

Now Atlanta is like this dreamland, and Querétaro is real life. I don’t know how often we can do this without developing split personalities.

Caroline’s Visit

Tom and Caroline in La Corregidora

Wow. It has been nearly two months since Caroline came to visit for Holy Week.

Since we had never taken the bus from the Mexico City airport to Querétaro, we decided to take the bus ourselves to pick her up, just to make sure it was as easy as everyone says. It was. After a three hour trip in a first class bus that has leg supports and seats that recline about twice what airplanes do, plenty of leg room (much better than American), a bag lunch consisting of a sandwich, cookies and a soft drink, and a movie, we arrived refreshed and ready to go. (We did not use the kitchen in the back of the bus!) It was a simple two minute walk up some stairs at the airport to get to the international arrivals concourse. Then we waited 45 minutes for Caroline to get through customs, etc.

The problem with the airport is that they have three gates for arrivals, and while your flight might be scheduled and show up on the computer screens for one gate, E1 for example, folks coming through from the planes can take any gate to exit the customs area, so you never know quite where to look for them. Caroline came out of E2 instead of E3 where her flight was listed and Christiane was waiting. I was waiting between E2 and E1 just in case, but did not catch Caroline. Oh well.

Fifteen minutes later we were in the bus on our way back home, another bagged lunch, another cookie, another movie, etc.

To speed this up and try to get us back on a more timely track, I will only hit some of the highlights of her visit. One of these was Caroline eating grasshopper tacos at Bernal. To see some photos of the experience just click on the NEW - Other Photos link on the right side of this page. We have introduced this link to Flickr so that I can load more pictures, faster, for your viewing pleasure. There are also additional photos of some of the things already discussed in the blog.

A Little Shopping in Bernal

A Courtyard/Shop/Restaurant in Bernal

Another highlight of Caroline’s visit was the Holy Week celebrations in San Miguel de Allende and Querétaro.

On Maundy Thursday, we did the “seven altars” in the evening. This is a Querétano tradition where families visit the flower decorated altars of seven churches in the historic district. We started at the chapel across the street from La Cruz church that had been built for the indigenous people back in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. People were mostly moving quickly through the chapel to admire the altar and say a brief prayer. This was the process in most churches, a brief walk-through or at least as brief as the crowds would allow. Others in this chapel were reading or making statements aloud as they had promised to do during the year in return for some dispensation or other.

Next, we moved on to La Cruz. Outside, ladies from the church were handing out petit pains (little loaves of bread in English, can’t remember in Spanish) and bouquets of chamomile (as in the tea) for a donation. The air was full of the smell of fresh chamomile as I put the bouquet in my bag, and handed the petit pain to a woman asking for limosna (alms). She took the bread but had a puzzled look on her face. I think she wanted real money. We ended up visiting eight or nine churches. At Santa Rosa, they had taken the full-sized statues of the twelve apostles from the convent room where they are normally found into the main sanctuary. They are very life like and look from a distance like a bunch of guys hanging out, talking and having a meal together. Most of the churches simply had special flower arrangements. It seemed like every family in town was out visiting altars.

On our way back home, we passed by Plaza Guerrero where there was a market selling Judas figures, explosive Judas figures. Some were a meter or more high, and some were small. I bought a small one with the intention of blowing it up on Saturday, but it looked so cool, we decided to keep it as a souvenir. We somehow missed the communal Judas burning festivities later that weekend. Maybe next year.

Our Explosive Paper Mache Judas Figure, Note the Wick

On Good Friday in San Miguel, we wandered into the inner courtyard of the main church where the procession (over an hour long) began and where Pontius Pilate held the trial of Barnabas and Jesus, all narrated by the parish priest. Part of the procession included little girls dressed as angels and little boys with real crowns of thorns and carrying skulls. One kid did not have a crown, and we figured it was because he had cried too much, and they let him go without. There was also a bow to anthropology with Adam and Eve dressed as cavemen. We had lunch on a roof top and got out of town before the procession reached the area where we had the car parked, otherwise we would have been stuck for a couple of hours.

Adam and Eve in San Miguel, Note the Leopard Skin and Fig Leaves

That afternoon, we headed to La Cruz church near our house where Querétaro’s procession of silence would start. This involves most of the lay organizations at the various churches in town in a procession around the historic district. It starts with little girls dressed as angels (notice the continuity here), and little boys dressed in penitent robes strangely reminiscent of KKK outfits, but really intended to prevent self pride by imposing anonymity. They carried little crosses. Next came adolescents with somewhat larger crosses, and then adults bearing even larger crosses. As the age increased so did the level of penance with most going barefoot and with chains tied to their ankles that they occasionally stepped on barefoot (ouch!) and which swung around with every step hitting their other leg. At the end, most had bloody sores where the chains had been tied to their ankles. All this was done in silence (except for the grating/clinking sound of the chains). Even the crowd was silent. The streets and sidewalks were jammed on either side and as the last penitent walked past, the crowd silently fell in behind. It took over an hour for the procession to leave the church. (Check the “Other Photos” link for more pix.)

Little Penitents in San Miguel with Crowns of Thorns

Little San Miguel Angels

Little Angels in Querétaro

Little Penitents in Querétaro

One unintended consequence of the procession was that people along the route had left their doors open while they sat on chairs on the sidewalk. As we walked past at the end of the procession and before they could close their doors, we got a glimpse of the inside courtyards of many houses we will never see otherwise. Some were truly extraordinary, and some were in sad need of repair. From the street you would never know the difference.

On Easter Sunday, we visited La Señora in Puebla as I noted in a previous post.

As Caroline’s five days wound down on the Monday after Easter, we went to the Terminal de Autobuses (bus station) to get her a ticket back to the airport. No go. They were all full with people traveling home after the holiday. So despite my better judgment and desire to never, ever, ever drive to the airport in the D.F., we piled into the car and headed for the airport. It took a little over an hour and a half (not the three hours of the bus, but I was flying low) to get there and another hour to find the airport entrance and get into the airport. The airport signs stop just as you enter the area of the airport, and we made at least one and a half tours of the airport before we finally went through a market and somehow found the airport entrance. I think the police have removed the signs on purpose.

As it turns out, this is the street where people get held-up by the police when they wander off the correct road. We were lucky since there were too many other things keeping the police busy on the day after Easter. This is the one area in México to avoid if you are driving. And if the police who try to stop you are on foot, keep driving, and don’t look back. Seriously.

We dropped Caroline off, and she got home in the wee hours of the morning after long layovers in the southwest. It might be worth it to pay extra for a direct flight to the D.F. or even Querétaro when you come.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Yucatan Trip, via Chichen Itzá, The Rest of the Story

(We are now back in Querétaro after returning from our trip to Yucatan in April and our trip back to Atlanta in May. I will try to quickly bring things up to date, just hitting some of the high points. We are presently looking for a house to buy so I may have less time for this than I did before, plus Blogger is very, very, very slow to upload photos. It has taken nearly two days to upload these photos with delays of an hour or more between uploads. Do not use Blogger for your blog.)

After leaving Tulum and Coba, we headed to Puerto Morelos to visit Lilia who owns a cultural resources consulting firm and her husband Bill. Lilia has her master’s in archaeology, and like many Mexicans in a similar situation, she has had trouble finding a job in her field. She therefore started her own cultural resources company (unheard of in Mexico), and although she cannot collect artifacts or dig, she can do background research and conduct field surveys for developers and municipal governments, despite an often negative reaction from some Mexican federal agencies.

Puerto Morelos is like Tulum, traditional commercial development along the main north-south highway inland from the Caribbean, and a more recent part of town on the ocean separated from the rest of town by mangrove swamps. All the swamps and jungle from here north were mowed down to about 10 feet above ground level by five days (not hours, days) of hurricane Wilma last fall. New Orleans got something like four to eight hours. The ocean-front part is inhabited by rich Americans who have permanent homes there. It is unlike most of the Maya Riviera (from Cancun to Chetumal) in that it is not made up of big resort hotels, and is very laid-back and low key.

Lilia took us around town and showed us the area where her company has been doing a project for the past year or two. She reminded us that Nellie L. had done the same thing for her when she came to DC last fall for the ACRA conference, and she wanted to do the same for others. She also showed us the house she and Bill are building on ejido land inland from town. They are building it “Mexican style”, doing things when they have the time and money. It is still loaded with Bill’s orchids, despite the storm damage. Lilia has just bought another home in town that she also uses for her work. This house she bought through a special low-interest, governmental mortgage program that promises to help many more people participate in the Mexican dream.

Lilia's house in what used to be jungle

Lilia's house in town

From Lilia's backyard looking toward where a temple used to be, now someone's back yard.

Unfortunately, the development where her new intown house is located probably wiped out a small temple and archaeological site. The federal agency tasked with protecting these sorts of sites does not have the resources to do so, and is also against using private sector companies to help them out. The result is untold loss of important archaeological sites. We also got the chance to see a few cenotes (lime sinks) that are becoming tourist attractions for the increasing number of eco-tourists. They are crystal clear and home to a wide assortment of plants and flowers and aquatic animals.

Christiane in cenote

On our last evening, we were invited to a party at Bush’s (no relation) house. Bush is an amateur archaeologist but an expert nonetheless; and Lilia introduced us to a number of archaeologists who happened to be in town, including Chris and Ed who are working at Palenque. Interesting conversations, and I look forward to meeting all of them again at the beginning of July in Palenque for an informal conference on the latest astronomical research.

The following morning, I came out of the shower into the hotel room and Christiane, with a very serious look on her face, suggested I look at something in the shelves where we had placed our clothes. There was the largest, blackest, scorpion I have ever seen. It had been in her clothes and jumped out when she started packing. If it had been me, I would have screamed bloody murder, but she had not said a thing. We assume it had gotten into our suitcases when we were at the cabaña in Tulum. We mentioned it to the hotel staff when we left, and hopefully they thought that that was why we left. I had been following my grandparent’s advice to check my shoes each morning, but did not think to check everything else. From that point on, we very careful.

Scorpion in hotel room, was my hand shaking??

We headed to Valladolid in the center of the Yucatan peninsula where Lilia was born and where she had worked at the site of Ek Balaam, a relatively newly opened site with very well-preserved and unusual carved plaster facades. We passed by Cancun without stopping. It makes Miami Beach look old-fashioned, but still looks like Miami Beach. If you like big resorts, Cancun is the place for you, but there little else to do.

One of the dozens of resort hotels in Cancun

The main pyramid at Ek Balaam, note roofed over plaster relief area and the unusual rooms around the base of the pyramid

Plaster bas-relief facade

After Valladolid and Ek Balaam, we headed on to Mérida, which we had last seen in 1972. It is bigger, busier and dustier than we remembered. But before we got there, we stopped at Chichen Itzá, where my old prof, Peter S., is now in charge of archaeological research. Peter had been the Belice national archaeologist before I met and worked with him in Cholula/Puebla. After his stint with the German Foundation in Puebla, he moved back to the Maya area and has been stationed in Mérida and Chichen Itzá ever since. We went to the research compound at the site and started asking around for him, and just as we were about to leave, Peter drove up. We had not seen each other in years, and it took a moment or two for it to dawn on him who we were. After abrazos (Mexican hugs) all around we went in and had coffee with some of the staff.
Temple of the Warriors, Chichen Itzá

El Castillo, Chichen Itzá

Peter then dropped his schedule and took us on a three hour tour of his most recent work at Chichen Viejo (or old Chichen, actually not that much older than the rest of the site). This area was not open to tourism yet, so it was very quiet with only Peter, his administrative assistant, Christiane and me, and a small crew moving building stones from one pile to another. Not only did we feel exceptionally privileged to be the only ones allowed access, but being guided by the head guy who is also a friend, made it especially fun, entertaining, and educational. I had forgotten how funny Peter can be, and how much fun we had had in Puebla all those years ago.
Peter and an atlante (humanoid column), Chichen El Viejo

Peter and Christiane in restored room of building in old Chichen
Tom and Peter looking from palace room to Classic Period dump

Peter noted that Chichen gets about 8,000 visitors a day from the resorts in Cancun, and if only one in a thousand rips off an artifact, defaces a monument, or goes postal etc., that is eight a day. It keeps the staff hopping. Things have gotten to the point that within the last year or so, they have restricted access to el Castillo and the Temple of the Warriors where I had carried Mamita when she was one and a half back in 1972. Back then there were only a handful of partially filled buses a day from Mérida, and the experience was more like ours with Peter had been. Tourism is seen as economic salvation in many areas of the world and in many parts of Mexico, but it comes at a price, which is why site protection and interpretation have become so important, not just in Mexico, but in Europe and most everywhere else.

We stayed the night in Mérida at Lilia’s family’s old house in the historic district (no AC), and met up with Israel, Lilia’s main employee. Israel is a lawyer and has a master’s in anthropology too. The combination will make him, and others like him, critical to the development of indigenous areas in Mexico. Unfortunately, there are not many others like him or like Lilia, for that manner.

Israel and Tom in Mérida

From Mérida we started back to Querétaro, a three day trip. The first day we stopped at Labna and Sayil, late classic sites in the Puuc region where Grandmother and Granddad had spent so many years. Reading their account of their arrival in the area, and being able to put it together with places that have not changed much since they were here was thought provoking, to say the least. Again we were surrounded by French tourists with the same guide book (Le Guide Routard), and very few Cancun (or American) tourists.

The 350 Room (more or less) Palace at Sayil

We spent the night in Ciudad del Carmen, near where Cortes’ crew was set upon and badly routed, and which is just a large disagreeable and dirty city these days. The next night we stopped in Puebla, after being delayed for several hours by a serious accident on the toll road climbing the mountains near Orizaba.

The following morning, we figured we had enough time for some sightseeing (site seeing?); and because I had not seen Cacaxtla since it was first discovered back in 1975 and because it had figured prominently in my thesis and in our recent conversations with Peter, we stopped and spent an hour or so there. The site is now covered by a large roof, unique to archaeological sites in Mexico and probably all of North America. It was discovered by some pot hunters who let the word out that they had found some painted murals. A couple of weeks later, Peter learned about it from the local archaeologists, and we visited it soon after. Among other unique attributes, Cacaxtla has a temple with a painted mural around its base showing the local population being subjugated and literally torn limb from limb by a conquering group of Maya. Since this is a thousand miles from the Maya area, what were they doing here? Subsequent work by Diana Lopez (who was a recent graduate in 1975) has answered some questions and produced a lot more questions.

The Roof Covering the Main Part of Cacaxtla
Mural at the Base of the Temple at Cacaxtla

Mural Close-up of Prisoner with Entrails and Assorted Body Parts

For me, the most interesting thing about the site is that it filled a gap in the prehistory of the Huejotzingo valley, where it is located. Until Cacaxtla, the common interpretation had been that the valley had been abandoned after the fall of Teotihuacan and only repopulated in the post-classic period by Nahuatl speakers which includes the Aztec, among others. As part of the work I did for Peter, I developed a ceramic typology for material collected from the upper slopes of the volcanoes (Popocatepetl and Iztacihuatl) to the middle of the valley floor. We collected everything, not just the pretty stuff and not just the stuff in the easy to find sites.

This typology included a series of ceramic types that did not compare to any of the established ceramic types in the region, and seemed to belong to the time period after the fall of Teotihuacan. We were at a loss as to what it meant at first, and we really had not had time to study where these types were found and what they were associated with.

To our surprise and delight, when we visited Cacaxtla, the ground was littered with this type of ceramic, almost exclusively. This fact coupled with the recently found murals, and the defensive location of the site (on an easily protected promontory on the edge of the valley, where previous investigators had not bothered to look since it did not follow their preconceived notions of where sites should be), helped fill in a major gap in the settlement history of the region with implications for the entire central highlands of Mexico in the period after Teotihuacan.

The people had not left the valley, they had simply moved to more easily protected areas in the foothills because of the invasion of Maya peoples who were filling the vacuum left by the fall of Teotihuacan. It was truly a eureka moment, and helped focus my thesis.

Over the intervening 30 years the murals and site have been protected as well as possible short of complete reburial. This includes the roof, drop down shades for the murals, and barriers for tourists, etc. But the paint colors have faded drastically, and in another 50-100 years they will only be available for study via photographs.

That afternoon we arrived back in Querétaro and had only a couple of days to get ready for Anne Caroline’s Easter break visit.