Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chichen Itza

When we were in Mexico, we trekked rode comfortably for two hours through the jaguar permeated jungle on an air conditioned bus with a guide who explained about the Maya ruins we were headed towards. We stopped first at a sinkhole in the limestone under the thin layer of soil, a cenote, where we were able to climb down a rickety wooden ladder and swim if we so chose. The kids and I so chose. Look:

I'm the one on the left and my two kids are to the right. They had on life vests and I winged it without. Did you know that cenotes add literally dozens of pounds? So, when you see me there in my swimsuit, you can know that it's just like TV--cenotes put on the pounds. Isn't the water beautiful? There is 150 feet of water below us, and it's clear and fresh.

There were other tourists getting in and out, jumping from higher platforms and climbing down the ladders, but the kids and I ventured off to the side away from everyone else. The white smudge in front of me on the water is the from a tiny waterfall squeezing itself out of the side of the cenote towards the top. The brown vine like things are roots reaching down to try to touch the surface of the water--many of them do. You mustn't touch them out of profound curiosity, as I maybe did, because a guy who is near the wooden ladder might softly whistle at you and shake his head at you as you look over. Maybe.

Then we got on the road again heading towards Chichen Itza. Look at the jungle:

Kind of looks like Busse Woods, but it's not. It's the jaguar permeated jungle in the Yucatan. That sounds much scarier than I think it would be. If our bus broke down, I'm sure a jaguar would be more scared of a bunch of noisy Americans than we could ever be of it. It's always about perspective, isn't it?

This jungle is not like I expected it to be. It does not have a towering tree canopy with vines hanging down. It's kind of scrubby with a really tall palm tree towering over the other trees every once in a while. It was an amazing experience to come back through the jungle at night with not a single light except the halo of our bus headlights. That was the darkest place I've ever been.

When the Spanish came to Mexico, so our guide explained, the Maya had already had civil wars and revolutions where the amazing, strict, elaborate, uniform, highly cultured and educated elite rulers were overthrown. The common Maya had lived in little huts on the outskirts of the built up cities like Chichen Itza, and so the jungle was allowed to take back the large central buildings. So when the Spanish arrived, they didn't have to destroy the buildings to get rid of the science, the culture, the religion--it was all but already gone. The language of the Maya still existed, and still does, so the Spanish only had to politely request force the Maya to adopt their religion. Most Maya now are Catholic, and a few are various denominations of Protestant. Almost none follow the religion of their forebears, the polytheistic religion similar to North American Nations of Native Americans, or even know about it. But, the Maya are still here and sell all sorts of crafts and art along the wide dirt pathways that lead to the big buildings that tourists come to see.

I tried to speak Spanish as much as possible when I was in Mexico, but since tourism is the main industry in the Yucatan peninsula (construction and honey production follow) everyone speaks English. There are tourists from other parts of the world--I heard french and german being spoken at our resort--but, by the far it is Americans who go there. My Spanish is no muy bien, pero, esta bien--asi asi. So I asked a Maya ( they say Maya, not Mayan) man who was carving a mask with a knife if I could take a picture of him. I showed my camera and said "Esta bien?" He said "Sure!"

He was very nice and it was interesting to see the work he was doing on the piece of wood.

Women and girls were selling little handkerchiefs with embroidery on them for $1. LOTS of things were priced at $1 and the Maya would call out to us tourists walking towards el Castillo, "It's almost free! Only $1!! Better than Walmart!!" Guess where they have a Walmart--that's right, Cancun...

There were chess sets carved out of jade and other stone, gaudy crystal pyramids, t-shirts, wind chimes, masks, marionettes, silver jewelry and other things depicting the ruins.

And then we saw one of the buildings, not the main one, but one of the smaller ones, looming out of the trees.

This one also had the snake god Kukulcan slithering down the railings of the stairs headed towards the ground where they will enter and be the power that they are as a God of the people.

Then we walked a little ways to The Observatory, and that's where my batteries died in my camera. Great. The observatory is oriented with a wall facing to the north, south, east, and west and then you see on top in a smaller platform that the four windows are off by about 17 degrees....that's because they line up to the sunrise (or sunset) of the two equinoxes. The observatory is extremely accurate in it's layout and helped the Maya determine important dates and measurements to help them create their very accurate calendar. Could you do that with modern tools much less the kinds of tools they had available? They were scientists, astronomers, spiritual leaders. NASA has come several times to view the observatory and try to understand what the Maya were doing.

Finally, we crossed a huge clearing and came to the Castillo--the large pyramid in the center of everything. Here are a bunch of shots of it and you'll see that it's not completely restored. They restore where they can and wait until they figure it out for the rest. They are not using new materials--only what was there.

No climbing, as you can see.

Our guide explained that when the archeologists were working on restoring el Castillo, they were wondering where the body went to the snake God Kukulcan. The heads were there at the bottom of the stair railings, but there really were no bodies. And then guards reported seeing a wierd glow on the stairs one day. People began to look for it at every sunset. It was gone until six months later (maybe at the other equinox, eh?) they saw it again. The Maya had built a subtle relief in the stair railings that would be lit up just so on the equinoxes. When they are lit up for 4 minutes (1 degree) the people would see the glimmering body of the God slither down into the ground where he would be strong in the earth. That's where the body was--in the effect of the sunlight on one day twice a year for 4 minutes...Those Maya had a sophisticated understanding of things and high level of ability to make it happen and an exactitude that doesn't really happen in my household...

Here is a photo of the event that our guide showed us--see the golden glimmer? It's on the left side where the building is in shadow, all except for illuminated Kukulcan. See the crowd that gathers--must be fun to see that on the equinox.

Our crowds weren't that big.

We crossed over the central opening to see the ball court. This is where the men would play Pok-Ta-Pok.

Look--even now the jungle is still trying to take over the ball court...

Here you can see el Castillo from the ball court grounds.

Back to modernity, mostly, to a bathroom with a thatched roof. There are lots of thatched roofs all through the Yucatan. The plants are a cheap, plentiful and effective building material.

Then we rode the two hours through the jungle and back to our resort. It was an amazing experience to see Chichen Itza and it is now listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World.


Mama bee said...

Beautiful! I've never been to Chichen Itza (despite doing numerous reports on the place in grade school). Looks gorgeous.

Laura said...

It was amazing to visit there. Before we went, I read some books to the kids so that they would have some sense of what we would be looking at. I want to read more about the Maya now.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...