New Cover Reveal: What Do You Think?

My publisher, Diversion Books, just sent me new cover art for “The Obsidian Mirror.” They plan to re-launch it in companionship with the Debut of the sequel, “Fire in the Ocean,” due out in February.

I’m thrilled by the new look for “The Obsidian Mirror,” as it is a real departure from the other two covers it has had the honor to wear. Many elements from the book are woven into the graphics: Sierra and her long braid, the Aztec Calendar, coyotes, cacti, Native American themes and high-tech symbols. I love the bold colors.

Here are the three covers in order of their appearance in the world:

Cover #1. This was designed by me when “The Obsidian Mirror” was first published by AEC Stellar Publishing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover #2. This was done by Diversion Books when they re-published “The Obsidian Mirror” in 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover # 3. A real departure. I love it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Blog Post That Is Not about Politics

This is my favorite illustration so far. Paul, the little boy wearing bear pyjamas, has run away to the woods at night. Suddenly, he realizes…that he is in the woods. At night.

I know that as a writer, I’m supposed to be producing blog posts every few days about compelling topics such as … I don’t know. Compelling topics, anyway.

My problem is that the political turmoil gripping this country is so frightening, so horrific, that I can barely think about anything else. But I’m sure most of you would welcome reading something that has nothing to do with politics. I know I would, but I’m having difficulty tearing myself away. Long story short, I have fallen woefully short on blog post production, sparing you my agonized ruminations on The State of the Nation.

So I’m going to tell you what I’m working on now, in case anyone wants to know. I finished the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror” last fall. It’s called “Fire in the Ocean,” and it is set primarily on the Hawai‘ian island of Moloka‘i. Long-term followers may remember that I blogged my research trip there in the winter of 2016—and what a trip it was!

The blurb: What would you do if you found yourself marooned on a tropical island with a shape-shifting demi-god who has lost his powers—and another shape-shifting demi-god who has not?

Naturally, you make friends with the local monster and get the heck out. Sierra Carter, newbie magic worker, does just this but finds herself caught up in a web of greed, deception, good intentions and the deep magic of ancient Moloka‘i, the isle of sorcerers. A few meddlesome gods and goddesses complicate the situation even when they’re trying to help.

“Fire in the Ocean,” the sequel to “The Obsidian Mirror,” continues the tale of Sierra and her friends (including a mannegishi and a part-time coyote) as they battle with an energy developer to protect the precious natural environment of Hawai‘i.

Diversion Books has given “Fire in the Ocean” a February 2018 launch slot, so you’ll be hearing more from me about this book in the future.

I am also re-writing and re-illustrating a children’s book. When I was in my Master’s program at college, I took a course in children’s literature (I was getting a degree in teaching). I asked my professor if, instead of writing a mid-term and final essay talking about some aspect of children’s lit, I could just write a couple of children’s books. He was delighted with this idea, and I produced “I Am Not a Bear” for four- to six-year-old children. (I also wrote a novel for older children that I will not be revisiting.)

Growf, the little bear, sleeps in Paul’s bed.

The story is a simple one about a boy who wants to be a bear and a little bear who wants to be a human. They try trading places only to discover that they were happier in their own homes.

At the time I wrote the book, I was living in a house trailer on a farm that trained sulky racers—thoroughbred horses that race with a lightweight cart and driver behind them. I have a vivid memory of being curled up on the couch, painting the illustrations for the book and listening to the horses clopping by outside. I got an A in the course, by the way.

I read “I Am Not a Bear” to my children when they were little, and thought about redoing the book. By then, having grown as a writer and as an artist, I thought I could improve on them quite a bit. But I was raising kids and running a business, and time was what I didn’t have.

Now that I have grandchildren and time, I am actually doing it. I have no plans to try to get it published—publishers normally want to pick the illustrators for stories, and I’m sure they are usually right, but this is my story, and I want to do it my way. I intend to have it printed on demand, a couple of books for the grandkids, one for a new great-niece, and a few extra in case more come along.

Of course, Paul wouldn’t leave home without his teddy.

I am also helping a friend write his autobiography. It’s a rags-to-riches story, quite literally. We have worked on it for the better part of two years, trying to accommodate his busy schedule as a Distinguished Engineer at IBM Research and my fiction writing and travels. I think his story is fascinating, but it is a challenge to translate someone’s life experiences into coherent and gripping prose. It’s harder than I thought it would be, but I’m enjoying it.

I started a writer’s critique circle recently. I joined one that someone else started and enjoyed it enormously, but then she moved out of the area. I tried to revive the one she began without much success, but the new group is fully booked, and I hope it will be as useful and enjoyable as the one my friend started. All writers need editors and readers, and a critique circle can be incredibly helpful. I’m calling it Writers Square, partly because everyone calls these things circles, and partly because one of my favorite mystery series has a writers’ critique club called Writers Square. (I have always been a sucker for bad humor. Good humor, too.)

So that’s my blog for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief respite from politics. I know I did.

Farewell to the Isle of Women

The Caribbean shore of Isla Mujeres, with embellishment.

 

This morning, I was determined to do some beachcombing. Everyone says there is sea glass here. But first we had breakfast at Lola Valentina, where the staff now knows us and the food is good. They have a small army of cats in the restaurant, black and white, orange tabby, and cream. They aren’t feral, exactly, but they aren’t pets. I suspect they are there not to cage crumbs from the tourists, but to keep the rodent and cucaracha populations under control.

Then we took No. 8., our putt-putt cart, over to the north shore. It is rocky all along the Caribbean side. There are no beaches and the currents are too strong for swimming. The waves are small, just a constant slap-slap-slap against the rough rocks.

Sadly, what we mostly found was plastic garbage. We did find some sea glass, but nothing that a sea glass enthusiast would get excited about. Mostly of the broken beer bottle variety but there were a few nice pieces. And we found a sad, dead cow fish. But mostly plastic garbage, which you see everywhere on this island. Every day, I saw people finish food and just walk away, leaving their refuse on the street.

The bridge to Mia Reef

 

 

After that, we went to Mia Reef, which is a resort built, natch, on top of a reef. As a consequence, the reef is now dead. It is reached by a narrow wooden bridge across a beautiful turquoise inlet. For a fee, non-residents can get all the food and drink they want (including alcohol), and hang out on the beach or at the pool. There is still reef, accessible from the beach, and the water is quite shallow all the way out to it. We didn’t snorkel because it was windy, but one man who was snorkeling said there was a lot to see. We swam in the aqua water and lazed on a swinging mattress under a palapa, looking out on the Caribbean. Mia Reef would be an ideal place to take kids because the water is crystalline, shallow and calm. Once older kids are used to the water, the reef would be an excellent introduction to snorkeling. The resort is elegant and clean, there’s a kids’ club, and the staff is attentive even to day trippers such as ourselves. The food was acceptable, the drinks not overly alcoholic, if you know what I mean.

We walked out on a long pier. There were two people snorkeling, and they said they saw a lot of fish. I decided not to try because of the wind and because we were scheduled for a snorkeling tour the next day, but I later regretted my decision to give it a pass.

As the following day was our next-to-last day on the island, we checked the flight times and discovered that we weren’t going to make our flight if we stayed on the island for the last day we were booked. We would have to go back to the Marriott Courtyard at the airport, which meant we had to check out the afternoon prior to our flight instead of staying on Isla. This was the same day we had scheduled the snorkeling tour, which bothered me because once you’re on one of these tours, you don’t just decide it’s gone on too long; you’re there for the duration. We had to turn in No. 8 by 4 pm and make sure we caught the ferry to the mainland in time. So I cancelled the trip again.

* * * *

We’d already seen most of the things there are to see on this small island. There were only two things left, so we decided to do them.

Green sea turtle at the Tortugranja

We started at Garrifon Reef Park to do some snorkeling. It was more expensive than Mia Reef, but it is a kind of family playground with zip lines over the water, snorkeling, kayaking, a shallow, wandering pool with waterfalls and grottoes, beaches, restaurants and bars. Food, drinks and all activities were included in the price of admission.

Tom and I went snorkeling, but it was a disappointment to me. They make you wear a life jacket, which annoys me because it makes it hard to swim. The reef is dead, but they won’t let you snorkel over it anyway. We saw some fish and I saw a stingray. Tom saw a very large fish that he thought at first was a barracuda, but it was too chunky for that. He’d recognize a shark, so we never figured it out. My snorkel mask, which is one of the new kind that have a non-fogging bubble and built-in snorkel, was apparently too large, and I had to snorkel with my mouth hanging open to prevent water from entering. There was a line of people waiting at the steps to get into the water, and none of them would budge to let us out. A kindly man eventually took my equipment to allow me to climb out, which was nice of him.

We had the cafeteria food they were serving for lunch, accompanied by a non-stop stream of pretty-much-non-alcoholic margueritas that we didn’t ask for, which was fine. Sort of like lime slurpees, but better. Again, this would be a terrific place to bring kids. I’m just spoiled because I have snorkeled in places like Hawaii and Tahiti, where the reefs are alive and the ocean life abundant. I think I’m done trying to snorkel in the Caribbean. I’ve snorkeled in Antigua (actually OK at the time; early 70s), Jamaica and now Isla Mujeres, and most of the reefs I’ve seen are dead.

This was our last night on the island, so we made reservations for the fancy restaurant at Villa Rolandi. I had a filet mignon with bearnaise sauce that was as tender as chicken (I mean well-prepared chicken) and flavor to die for. It’s a great place, but at $400US a night it’s pretty pricey, even if all meals and drinks and activities are inclusive.

The following day we had breakfast at Mango Cafe–poblano pepper stuffed with bacon, eggs, onions and cheese, breaded and deep-fried. OK not healthy, but I’m on vacation dammit. We’ve pretty much done everything there is to do here, so we visited the Tortugranja, a rescue and breeding facility for sea turtles. They provide a safe place to lay and hatch the eggs, then release the babies. They have tanks with some older turtles being rehabbed, and there are some very large specimens in a pen in the ocean. You can walk along a pier to see them. They sell bags of turtle chow at the entrance.

There’s a large pen that extends into the ocean containing several large turtles. I think they are mature adults that for whatever reason will not survive in the wild. When you throw turtle chow in the large pen the turtles get some of it, but there is an army of assorted seagulls above and another one of little fish below that eagerly gobble up much of the food.

Albino sea turtles

 

They had several albino turtles–one tank had nothing but albinos–and had green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles there. Sea turtles are threatened for several reasons. One is because they are so darned delicious. People everywhere catch and eat them and their eggs despite the fact they are endangered. Another is because many of their hatching beaches have disappeared, taken over by development and humans who enjoy the beach environment. Another is because given their diminished numbers, the natural predation on the babies cuts seriously into their surviving numbers. Baby turtles must crawl from their nests in the sand to the ocean, all the while being attacked by birds. Once in the water, the babies are an easy snack for fish and more birds.

After the Tortugranja, we were pretty much done with Isla. We went into town, bought some gifts, had lunch and turned in No. 8. Then it was time to pack and catch the ferry to the mainland. On the taxi ride from Puerto Juarez, the ferry port on the mainland, the driver told me he had saved up to take his family to DisneyWorld in Florida, spending $750US for visas. The visas were cancelled by the P45 administration, no explanations offered. I apologized for my country, embarrassed. This was the first time anyone in Mexico raised the subject; of course they rely on tourism, but I also think they gave us, as individuals, the benefit of the doubt. Plus, the Mexican people are for the most part friendly, kind and polite. Many times, someone stopped unasked and helped me with something–a dropped item, a suitcase, or helped me over rough ground. On the ferry, which was crowded, a man gave me his seat with his family despite my protests. The Mexicans absolutely do not deserve the cold shoulder they are getting from my country.

I was pleased throughout our trip to note that there were as many Mexicans as other nationalities on vacation in the places we went, enjoying the sights and experiences of their country. (Calakmul was an exception. Most people there were American or European. It’s a kind of remote place, after all, and not someplace you’d take kids.) I have visited Mexico a few times before and didn’t see this previously. I am hopeful this means the middle class is growing in Mexico, and more people have the leisure and money that we have taken for granted here for many decades. I believe there were more Mexican tourists in Isla Mujeres than Americans.

At some point during the trip, Linda asked me if I had enough material for the next novel. I am beginning to work on a story line, but I would say no, I do not. I came back from Moloka‘i two years ago seething with ideas and enthusiasm to start writing. I’m not there yet with this one. I think it will be a slow burn. This one has to be the best one, because after that, I am saying farewell to Sierra and Chaco, Clancy, Fred, Rose, Kaylee and Mama Labadie. Three books are enough.

Next research trip: Iceland, but not for a while. I still have to launch “Fire in the Ocean” and write the third book in the series. But I’m thinking about it!

Here are some photos, included in no particular order, but I like them for one reason or another and they didn’t fit into my narrative:

A typical Mayan arch at Uxmal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clod and friend.

Church at Valladolid.

Beautiful bas-relief at Uxmal.

Our guide Roberto, standing in front of an arched tunnel at Becan. Air funneled through this tunnel and it was as good as air conditioning in the heat and humidity of southern Yucatan.

Another captain’s tomb at Isla Mujeres. You can see the ship’s wheels in cement in the surrounding fence What you can’t see as well is the model of a ship in the glass case at the front.

Red-capped manikin, a rare sighting! At Chicaana.

Just a nice green fungus at Calakmul

Strangler figs (isn’t that a wonderfully ominous name?) growing on an unexcavated building in Calakmul.

Hotel Calakmul. This is what the jungle looks like in southern Yucatan–more like the Adirondacks.

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The Most Cheerful Graveyard in the World

One of the more colorful tombs in the Isla Mujeres graveyard.

After a restless night (me, not Tom), we wished each other happy Valentine’s Day and got into the cart to drive to town. I was much less freaked out this time. Breakfast was the first order of business, then we needed to get the cart gassed up and the wheel fixed. The rental place was right in the middle of a shopping area filled with tiendas offering artisanal crafts and touristy tchachkis, and I wondered why Francisco had not brought us here. Who knows, but I spent a couple of hours going through the shops looking for gifts. I saw all kinds of cool stuff, and a whole lot of crap, but I had no desire to haul heavy woodcarvings or painted (and fragile) pottery home, so I was primarily looking for small, non-breakable, lightweight things.

I asked around for sea glass jewelry, as that is our daughter’s passionate hobby. I only found one shop that had it, and it consisted of monumentally ugly, poorly worn pieces set clumsily in huge, heavy silver collars. I finally did find a few pieces of delicate, beautifully designed jewelry in one store, but nothing with sea glass. I think based on what I got, that she will forgive me.

Great little jewelry store, but look at their “open” sign.

Tom, as always, followed me around while I shopped without the slightest impatience, bless the man. Once I concluded the hunt, we picked up the cart–but we got a new one with no wobbly wheel and much more get-up-and-go than the original. We called it No. 8, as that was the number painted on the side. No suspension, but a huge improvement nonetheless, as it no longer wobbled and had a bit more get-up-and-go. We went to a beach where someone had told us you can find sea glass and found a lovely little swimming area, but no sea glass. I suspect that the sea glass here is of the broken beer bottle variety, anyway, but I’ll keep looking.

We came back to the hotel. I was somewhat disturbed to find a squashed, three-inch cockroach lying by the bedside table, still waving its legs. I wasn’t disturbed by the cucaracha so much–it’s the tropics, after all–as the fact that we hadn’t squashed it and the maid hadn’t done the room yet. I sent it to Xibalba (the Mayan realm of the dead) down the toilet and mopped up the mess. Nothing was missing or amiss, so oh, well. It’s not as if I brought my diamond tiara with me. We returned to the Cubano restaurant for more excellent guacamole and a ceviche to die for, with octopus and conch in it.

And then we did nothing. Just nothing. Until about 8:30 pm, which is about a half an hour before most of the local restaurants close. We weren’t starving, so we went to Chedraui down the street, which is sort of a supermarket combined with Costco—you can get everything from mopeds and washing machines to fountain drinks, dried hibiscus flowers and fish. We got some cheese, crackers, wine and snacks and went back to the hotel for a modest repast, using our kitchen for the first time.

* * * *

We set our alarm for the next morning, as we were scheduled for a snorkeling tour at 10 am. However, the weather was projected to be quite windy, followed the next day by rain. Windy conditions are poor snorkeling conditions, so we rescheduled for after the rain.

As that was our big expedition today, we had to make new plans. We had breakfast at Lola Valentina, where we had eaten the day before, and the staff recognized us, which is always nice. I didn’t feel like a heavy breakfast and had fruit and yogurt. Then we visited the cemetery.

I adore cemeteries. The older, the better. This cemetery features the self-carved gravestone of Juan Menaca, although apparently he was buried in Merida. I wanted to find his stone, but the cemetery was sufficient on its own to delight me. The majority of the tombs are created by hand, each one different, and each one a very personal tribute to the departed, which is what I love about such places. Mexicans have a very personal relationship with their dead. Everyone knows about Dia del los Muertes, Halloween, where families picnic among the tombs and catch up their dead relatives on the doings of the past year. They share food and drink with their departed loved ones and have a lively family party.

Most of the tombs in the Isla Mujeres graveyard were designed like little two-story houses. The top story was often enclosed by glass and protected with miniature wrought-iron grills like most Mexican houses. These enclosures were often locked with padlocks, though in some cases the closure was a simple wooden latch. Inside were offerings of liquor, plastic and real flowers, little Madonna statues and angels, candles, and other things. One fancy tomb had an entire bottle of sparkling wine. Many of the structures are electrified–I’d like to see it at night. The monuments come in all sorts of designs. While most looked like little houses, one looked like a Roman temple, and there were many other variations. No two were alike, although there were several identical angel statues, each holding an index finger to her lips, the other index finger pointed heavenwards. It had the effect of a bunch of very bossy librarians.

“How many times do we have to tell you to BE QUIET???”

Some of the tombs were crudely fashioned, others were elaborate. One looked like a suburban house, complete with artificial turf lawn. Another was fashioned in the shape of a ship–several were dedicated to sea captains, which makes sense on an island. One of the captains’ tombs had a railing composed of concrete ship’s wheels and a model ship resting in a large glass case in front. I assume it was a model of the captain’s own ship, or perhaps something he created. One structure that was made to look like a cottage was painted white with twining roses painted around the door. Several were covered in ceramic or marble tiles. The larger and taller monuments had built-in steps along the side. At first I thought perhaps these were for the deceased’s spirit to reach the offerings, but I soon realized the steps were there to allow the living to reach the little offering houses and replace the contents.

This captain still sails his boat.

Sadly, hurricanes and time have damaged many of these momento morii. The sandy ground is littered with broken marble, glass tiles, shattered bottles and glasses, and so forth. But you can sense the care and love with which these tombs are created and­—as much as possible—maintained.

We did not find Juan Menaca’s gravestone. Disappointing, but even I finally gave up. We ran a few errands and had a nice lunch and did some shopping. We did finally discover the “fiesta artisanal,” and there were some very beautiful items, some different than in the surrounding sea of tiendas, but I didn’t buy anything.

Some tombs were modest, others elaborate, but each one was different.

 

 

This one had its own lawn and a fence around the yard.

The afternoons here tend to be sweltering, even though there is always a breeze. I thought it would’ve been a nice day to swim at Playa Norte, but we stayed in out of the heat instead. Toward sunset, I thought we should go to Punta Sur and watch the sun set. Traveling south in No. 8, I saw a dog enjoying the evening breeze. This would not have been unusual except that he was lying on top of the peaked roof of a portico that stretched out in front of a house. I still wish I had gotten a photo.

When we got to Punta Sur, the facilities were closed for a wedding, but we did sit out and watch the dramatic clouds as the sun set and the storm began to gather. Frigate birds, looking like a flock of pterodactyls, hung on the wind far above us, not fishing, not doing anything, as far as we could tell. Perhaps it is enough to be able to suspend oneself above the sea like a hang-glider, taking in the gold-edged clouds, the towers of Cancun, the little rocky island below, and the darkening waters.

Sunset from Punta Sur.

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Mrs. Toad’s Wild Ride

The view from the Cuban restaurant on Isla Mujeres.

The view from the Cuban restaurant on Isla Mujeres.

 

By the time we woke up in the Marriott Courtyard at the Cancun Airport, Clod and Linda were winging their way home. We ate a leisurely breakfast, turned in the car and caught a cab to the Isla Mujeres ferry. The ferry terminal was a zoo. Being a Sunday, people were taking day trips to the island and people were lined up with kids and bags.

The island is visible from the mainland, separated by brilliant, brilliant turquoise water interspersed with purple and indigo where the water is deeper. It was a brief journey and when we landed at Isla Mujeres, it was a bit overwhelming. The ferry slip is right downtown, and the place was full of people, dogs, motorcycles, taxis, and many, many golf carts. You aren’t allowed to bring your car, and people get around in rented carts, mopeds or taxis–or on foot.

Cancun in the distance, across the blue, blue water.

Cancun in the distance, across the blue, blue water.

Every golf cart in the place was rented, so we took a taxi to our hotel, which was thankfully a good distance from the noisy central area. Chac Chi Suites is a small hotel, two stories built around a central area with a little pool. We have a nice kitchen area with table, which is kind of too bad, as they provide no utensils with which to cook an actual meal–not even a coffee maker. It’s a bit basic other than that, but the room is clean and there is an outside patio area overlooking a small street. We are across from a walled elementary school, and the next day, we could hear the kids at play. (A nice sound!)

Once we got settled, we headed down that street, around the corner, to Sergio’s, a Cuban restaurant, and had beer and the most wonderful guacamole, followed by yummy broiled shrimp cooked with lime and garlic. To get to the restaurant, you walk into what looks like someone’s yard, then just persevere through some non-restaurant-appearing areas until you emerge into a rickety, palm-thatched structure over the water. Sergio’s turned out to be a popular stop for boats, which just moored to the side and let the passengers off. But it didn’t seem touristy at all, the people were friendly and the food was cheap and delicious. And, other than walking to dinner at GreenVerde, that was our day.

The next day we walked a little further to Mango Cafe for an enormous and delicious breakfast. Our rented golf cart wouldn’t be ready for hours, so we hired a taxi to take us around the island to get our bearings. Isla is a long, skinny island, oriented north-south. There are several large lagoons, some fresh, some not, and these are occupied by crocodiles, but crocodile incidents appear to be vanishingly rare. Of course, you are advised not to swim in the lagoons.

First, we went to Punta Sur (South Point). At the extreme tip of the island, there is a tiny temple to Ixchel, the most important goddess in the Mayan pantheon. Ixchel, often portrayed with a water jar or a snake headdress, is the goddess of childbirth, medicine, rainbows, fertility, and possibly the moon. As with many other cultures, she is associated with a triad of goddesses, maiden, mother and crone, Ixchel being the crone and represented in ancient times as a fierce old woman with jaguar ears.

The path to the temple winds through a sculpture garden, with the ocean to either side.

The path to the temple winds through a sculpture garden, with the ocean to either side.

“During Lent of 1517 Francisco Hernandez de Cordova sailed from Cuba with three ships to procure slaves for the mines… (others say he sailed to discover new lands). He landed on the Isla de las Mujeres, to which he gave this name because the idols he found there, of the goddesses of the country, “Ixchel” and her daughters and daughter-in-law’s “Ixchebeliax”, “Ixhunie”, “Ixhunieta”, only vestured from the girdle down, and having the breast uncovered after the manner of the Indians. The building was of stone, such as to astonished them, and they found certain objects of gold which they took.”

—Excerpt from “Yucatan, Before and After the Conquest” written in 1566 by Friar Diego de Landa.

The temple is sadly battered by time and hurricanes. A century ago, it was more or less intact, but today it is a broken tooth at the end of a white path that winds through a sculpture garden. Walking down this path, the rough waters of the Caribbean dash against the rocky western shore of the island as the gentle waters of the sound rock against the east. Cancun is clearly visible on the distant shore.

On the left, the temple of Ixchel on Isla Mujeres today. On the right, what it looked like 100 years ago. Hurricanes have taken their toll over the past century.

On the left, the temple of Ixchel on Isla Mujeres today. On the right, what it looked like 100 years ago. Hurricanes have taken their toll over the past century.

 

The structure was used as a lighthouse. Its second floor had openings, and a fire was burned inside, allowing the light to shine out to sea. It is possible it was just a lighthouse after all, and the temple itself is at a different site.

There are an abundance of iguanas sunning themselves around the rocks on the point. Several modern statues have been erected of Ixchel and an enormous green iguana near the restaurants close to the point. Ixchel is represented as a ripe young woman with a coiled snake on her head.

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A modern representation of Ixchel. In ancient time she was represented by a fierce old woman with jaguar ears. The odd hat is a snake, representing great power.

Next we drove to Hacienda Mundaca. Fermin Anonio Mundaca y Marecheaga was a slaver, and some say a pirate who made a fortune selling Mayan slaves to Cuba. He retired to Isla and built a—for the time—splendid two-story house surrounded by gardens. Much of this he did in hopes of winning the heart of a local maiden, Martiniana (Prisca) Gomez Pantoja, known as La Triguena (the brunette, which may not have distinguished her much, actually). She was a tall, green-eyed beauty, and Mundaca was hopelessly in love with her. He dedicated much of his house and grounds to her, hoping she would marry him, but she married a much younger man (Mundaca was about 35 years older than she). Heartbroken, he slid into madness and died. He carved his own gravestone, which can be seen in the graveyard at the north end, but as he died in Merida, he is not actually buried in the Isla Mujeres graveyard.

Stairs to the upper story of the Hacienda Mendaca. SO glad they don't make stairs like this today.

Stairs to the upper story of the Hacienda Mendaca. SO glad they don’t make stairs like this today.

The estate looks as though someone in the past tried to restore it a bit and add things like caged animals as attractions. The cages are now empty. The house is in ruins, but you can see the two downstairs rooms. Visiting the upstairs would be taking your life in your hands. The staircase from the ground floor to the second floor is more a ladder than a staircase, and I am sure the upper story is unsafe. There are a few photos with labels in Spanish in the downstairs area. Ruins of several outbuildings surround the house at a distance. If you follow a dirt path into the woods, you will come to an eerily deserted garden, surrounding a well at the center. The circular area around the well is delineated with stone and concrete low walls, creating four pie-wedges of masonry. Each pie-wedge has areas for plantings and a seat where one can contemplate the beauty of the vanished garden. Mendaca carved some of the stones, calling himself a ship’s captain and a pilot, not a slaver or a pirate. A few plants struggle on, notably a bougainvillea blooming its meager little heart out. It is a deserted, peaceful and very melancholy place, especially considering it’s creator’s sad story. The incurious would never find this garden, as it is well concealed by the woods.

The well at the center of the forgotten garden.

The well at the center of the forgotten garden.

The forgotten garden at Hacienda Mendaca.

The forgotten garden at Hacienda Mendaca.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Closer to the house, but a safe distance from it, is a large pond with rushes and water lilies growing in it. It also has a resident crocodile or two, but we didn’t see any. Unlike the rest of the estate, however, the stone wall around the pond looks in very good repair.

Then we embarked on a wild goose chase. A poster in the hotel office advertised an artisan craft fair on the esplanade. I wanted to see it and asked the driver, Francisco, to take us there. He obligingly took us to some shop at the north of the island, but that was obviously not the fair, so we drove back to the hotel, and I asked Francisco to go in and look at it. He then took us to the site in question, where there was no craft fair in sight. Well, no worries. On to Playa Norte, the top-rated beach on the island, for a cold beer and a gander. We weren’t going in the water, but it looked very inviting. It’s shallow, with a white sand bottom out quite far. The water is that heart-melting turquoise, and the sand is as soft and fine as sugar. By this time, we had driven all around the island, and felt well oriented.

We went back to the hotel and found that our golf cart was ready. Tom went to pick it up. Later that night we decided to go to a recommended restaurant called Villa Rolandi. We got into the golf cart, and thus commenced Mrs. Toad’s wild ride. I’ve never been in a golf cart before, and I felt like a turtle without its shell as we putt-putted down the busy main road in the dark, overtaken by taxis, mopeds, and other golf carts. Mexico has some of the most ferocious speed bumps I’ve ever seen, which is OK in a car, but the golf cart had absolutely no suspension, so each one was a bone-rattler. I heard my neck crack more than once as we jolted over these things, and I expected to be thrown out at any moment.

Mrs. Toad.

Mrs. Toad.

We finally arrived at Villa Rolandi, and I immediately felt grubby, underdressed and generally outclassed. We’ve been eating in pretty unpretentious places, with the exception of Hacienda Uxmal (but the quality of the food was the worst there of any place we ate). Villa Rolandi is a grand hotel with all the fixings. Nonetheless, we were ushered into the restaurant without a second glance and seated where we could hear the waves (though being night, we couldn’t see them), with an expansive view of the lights of Cancun shining across the dark sound.

The food was incredibly good. They brought us an interesting crispy flat bread with olives to start, then we had calamari and zucchini deep-fried to perfection. I ordered grilled octopus (pulpo), figuring I could not go wrong, and was not disappointed. Tom had a lovely filet mignon. I couldn’t finish the poor octopus, and followed insult to injury by having chocolate ice cream that I also couldn’t finish. We had a yummy Mexican Cabernet Sauvignon with our meal.

We got into a pleasant conversation with the couple next to us, as Tom recognized them from the hotel at Calakmul. They were from England, near Manchester. The man had at one time decided to visit every Mayan ruin in existence, and apparently had a good stab at it before giving up, but he still likes to visit the ones he missed earlier. I asked him why he wanted to do this, and the answer was because he wanted to, which is certainly a good enough reason. They were both retired educators. I explained what we were doing here, and they were kind enough to ask about “The Obsidian Mirror” and where to buy it.

On the way back, I rode in the back seat of our chariot–which also had a wobbly wheel. The speed bumps were just as vicious but somehow I felt marginally safer because there were support rails to cling to. I was awake for a long time after we finally went to bed at 11:45, and woke up many times during the night. I blame the chocolate ice cream and its theobromine. Sometimes, too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Because you can't have too many iguanas.

Because you can’t have too many iguanas.

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Day 7: Uxmal and the Chocolate Museum

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“House of the Nuns” at Uxmal, where no nuns ever lived.

 

After a peculiarly tasteless breakfast amid the imposing splendor of Hacienda Uxmal, we headed out to the ruins on foot. It really was a short walk, for once. There is a visitor’s center with shops featuring books, pottery, etc., very upscale. There was a short line for tickets, so I sat down to wait in the shade until they were purchased. While I was waiting, the gentleman sitting near me said he was a guide and could speak English. We hired him to show us the site, and I’m delighted we did. He was a Maya Indian named Dimitro.

This is the pyramid that answers with a quetzal's cry when you clap your hands in front of it.

This is the pyramid that answers with a quetzal’s cry when you clap your hands in front of it.

As we walked out to the site, I asked Dimitro what he knew of aluxes. He said they were mischievous, small beings. Some were good, some bad, but the bad ones just play tricks–they aren’t truly harmful. They will bother you at night, pulling on your ear or your clothing to prevent you from sleeping. You can stop them by putting a piece of chocolate and a glass of water on the table before you go to bed and announcing, “This is for everyone. Anyone can have it.” You will sleep in peace that night. In the morning, the chocolate and water will still be there, but they will be tasteless: the essence is what the aluxes take. (Maybe that was the problem at Hacienda Uxmal: an alux infestation.) It’s the same with the gods–they don’t consume the sacrifices physically, but partake of the essence, which is why they burned the sacrifices, whether of blood or food. I asked him if he had ever seen an alux, and he said only children and animals can see them (confirming what Roberto had told me), but they had sometimes bothered him at night or misled him in the forest.

Detail of the Temple of Chaak at Uxmal. Chaak's noses are all pointing down, which is a prayer for rain.

Detail of the Temple of Chaak at Uxmal. Chaak’s noses are all pointing down, which is a prayer for rain.

Dimitro said the Mayan view of the life and death cycle was this; when you are born, you carry with you the knowledge of your ancestors in your blood. You add to this store of wisdom in life, and in death you are consumed by the jaguar and pass through the tree of life back up to your ancestors to be reborn later with added wisdom. As you were in past lives, you will be forever. It’s a rather nice scheme for kings, priests, etc., but not so great for the slaves and peasants. I forgot to ask what if you were a great warrior, but were captured and enslaved. Do you come back as a slave or a warrior?

One of Chaak's noses, not yet restored to its proper place.

One of Chaak’s noses, not yet restored to its proper place.

The buildings at Uxmal are much larger than in the classical Mayan cities we saw in the south, and they are beautifully adorned with carvings. The Chaak mask is everywhere, including at the corners of the temples. Chaak has a long nose because he has the face of a caiman, a symbol of both water and the underworld. When Chaak’s nose points upward, it is a prayer for rain. When the nose points down, it is thanks for the rain.

Dimitro, standing near a fallen Chaak nose.

Dimitro, standing near a fallen Chaak nose.

As we approached the first pyramid, Dimitro clapped his hands sharply together. The noise echoed off the pyramid with a high-pitched cry that he said was the cry of the quetzal bird, highly prized in ancient times for its brilliant blue-green feathers, symbolizing the sky, and now endangered. I have no idea if this sound was intentionally engineered by the builders, but it could have been. People are very clever creatures, and have built other monuments that do strange things, like track the solstices or create “whispering stones.”

The so-called House of Nuns is an enormous complex of temples and long, low buildings built around a vast rectangular courtyard. Dimitro said this had been a school, but didn’t seem to know what they might have taught there. Not priests, he said, because priestly knowledge was inherited in the blood. There were, of course, no nuns, but the building reminded the Spanish of the walled convents back home. The acoustics within this enclosure are spectacular–a priest could have addressed a crowd of hundreds from the steps of the temple and been heard clearly by everyone.

The pillars at Uxmal resemble Doric columns, but without the fluting along the sides.

The pillars at Uxmal resemble Doric columns, but without the fluting along the sides.

The stone motifs on the buildings were lovely. There were many round columns, rather like unadorned Doric columns, which we had seen at Tulum but not in the south. There were lattice-like insets, and others that looked like many half-columns arranged in rows that Dimitro said were representative of bamboo. There were no carved stele on the site. There are no cenotes in the area, but instead of the open catchments used in Calakmul, they used chultuns; jar-shaped subterranean water storage pits. The areas around the pits are angled to direct rainwater into this underground storage. This was a big improvement over the earlier method, as evaporation would have been much less.

The buildings at Uxmal are decorated with gorgeous bas-relief sculptures. You can see a plumed snake here, with a head emerging from its open mouth. This is the "spirit snake" incarnation of Kulkulcan, enabling the spirit of an ancestor to communicate with the living.

The buildings at Uxmal are decorated with gorgeous bas-relief sculptures. You can see a plumed snake here, with a head emerging from its open mouth. This is the “spirit snake” incarnation of Kulkulcan, enabling the spirit of an ancestor to communicate with the living.

Uxmal is a pleasant place to walk around, with fewer trees than Calakmul, but still enough shade, and it was also a cooler day (not cool; cooler). We visited the ball court, slightly larger than the one at Becán, with one stone goal ring still protruding from a wall. (There never were stone rings at Becán). Then we came to the “governor’s palace,” which involved scaling a rather steep and long set of stairs. I decided to give my knee a break and sat in the shade, trying to take notes on my phone.

The "Governor's Palace" at Uxmal. Again, probably no governors, but it looked like a governor's palace to the Spanish.

The “Governor’s Palace” at Uxmal. Again, probably no governors, but it looked like a governor’s palace to the Spanish.

After perhaps 20 minutes, Dimitro came back alone and sat with me. He said the tour was over and the others would come find me, but he wanted to say goodbye. He asked for my hand and held it between his two hands. We both closed our eyes for a few beats. Then he touched my hand on the back and the palm. I thanked him and we talked another minute until I felt a sudden rush of coolness despite the heat. He said he had given me energy because I needed it, and said goodbye. Whether it was real or not isn’t the question; I was both touched by this and felt refreshed.

After doing a bit of obligatory shopping, I mentioned that although we had been doing well on two meals a day, this was the day I needed to eat lunch. I was getting that empty, urgent feeling that females of my family sometimes get, and it inevitably leads to HANGRY. But the suggestion was made to visit the Museo de Chocolate across the street before eating. I might have objected, wanted to avoid full-on HANGRY mode, but chocolate sounded promising.

Museo de Chocolate at Uxmal

Museo de Chocolate at Uxmal

The museum has a circular path that has several stations set up, each explaining a different aspect of chocolate. These cover in great detail the biological info about the plant, the use of chocolate by the Maya, a “Mayan chocolate ritual,” how the ordinary Maya lived, including their homes and everyday things, how they prepared chocolate (this involved a free taste), the discovery and adoption of chocolate by Europeans, the modern agriculture, modern chocolate processing, and more. There were also plants growing in the outdoor museum that were important to the ancients, such as sisal, and some spider monkeys, deer and jaguars in cages. These latter were not being kept as exhibitions so much as either being rescued and rehabilitated, or as in the case of the jaguars, sheltered because they could not survive in the wild. By the time we left, we probably knew way more about chocolate than any of us wanted to know.

There were two things worth noting. First, the “Mayan” chocolate ceremony. Several Mayans in plain cotton shifts guided us to a seating area. Waiting for us was someone who was clearly the priest, an elderly but sturdy-looking Maya who could have been the model for the human avatar of Quetzalcoatl in “The Obsidian Mirror.” I was staring at him in fascination as I sat down on the board being used as a bench for spectators Not having noticed the board was extremely narrow, I promptly fell backward onto the gravel. It wasn’t a long fall, but several well meaning Belgians and their guide rushed to my rescue, offering large, strong hands. I took their hands, but before I could get my feet under me, found myself being dragged through the gravel at a high rate of speed. I indicated I would rather do it myself, and eventually got to my feet, apologized to all and sundry for the interruption, and sat down again—very carefully. Someone handed me my phone, which will need a new case after serious gravel abrasion. But I was fine.

The "Mayan chocolate ceremony" at the Museo de Chocolate.

The “Mayan chocolate ceremony” at the Museo de Chocolate.

Tom described the ceremony as a cross between a Mayan ritual, the Catholic mass, and Monty Python. I suppose they studied the steles and murals to approximate it, and may even have some of the stages worked out, but in all likelihood, the actual doings are long forgotten. Still, it was a good way to show that the Maya regarded chocolate as sacred and special, hardly a casual treat.

Chocolate was prepared as a drink in those times, never eaten. The beans were fermented and ground into a paste that was mixed with coconut butter. It was combined with chilis and sometimes honey and mixed with hot water to drink. Often, the blood of sacrificial victims was added as well. (I’ll take mine straight, thanks.) Chocolate was reserved for the elite, of course, as all good things have been throughout history.

Chocolate contains a substance called theobromine, which is a stimulant and vasodilator. In high doses, it may have other effects. One of the Spanish conquistadores described an Indian consuming several cups of chocolate and then offering himself as a sacrifice. So I suppose it can amp you up a bit, especially if you believe, as this gentleman undoubtedly did, that you’re going directly to paradise.

We were given a demonstration of the preparation of the drink (sans blood) and given cups of the hot mixture to try. You could add sugar (Tsk!), chilis, achiote (a popular local spice from the annatto tree), and other flavorings if desired. I went with chili, and because I am a wimp, sugar. It was very rich and tasty. But not enough to avoid HANGRY.

As a last note on chocolate, it was the Europeans that added sugar and milk or cream to the drink (no chilis), and also discovered how to make chocolate candies. The Maya never consumed it as anything other than a drink.

I could have bought some chocolate there—there were chocolate bars and chocolate ice cream—but I didn’t want candy or ice cream, I wanted FOOD. By the time we finished up at the museo, I was ready to eat my own head. Fortunately we were near several restaurants. Unfortunately, there ensued a discussion about which restaurant to try. I turned to Tom and said, “JUST GO SOMEWHERE!” We chose the restaurant at the entrance to the ruins. This proved to be an excellent choice, as they had Yucateco cuisine like cochinita pibil (pulled pork flavored with achiote), and it was well prepared and delicious.

After lunch, we piled back in the car and took the road to Valledolid. We had originally planned to stay two days in Valledolid, then Linda and Clod would drive to Cancun to catch their flight home while we went on to Isla Mujeres for a few day. Note to unwary travelers in the Yucatán: the time zones change between states. Valledolid is in the State of Yucatán and Cancun is in the State of Quintana Roo, and they are not in the same time zone. If we had followed our original travel plan, Linda and Clod would have missed their plane by several hours. So we stayed only one night in Valledolid and then went on to the Marriott Courtyard Airport in Cancun so that Linda and Clod could get up at some horrible hour in the morning and catch their flight home.

Moon over Valladolid, as seen from our hotel roof.

Moon over Valladolid, as seen from our hotel roof.

The hotel in Valledolid was charming, It reminded me of the pensions my mother used to tell me about, built around an interior courtyard. The courtyard was probably once occupied by a fountain and potted plants, but now has a pool taking up most of it. Every surface was tiled, with wrought-iron railings and bars on the windows. They had a rooftop patio where you could look out over the city, and they served breakfast up there as well. The hotel was clean and comfortable, though our window was right on the street—literally. Cars passed within inches of the wall of our room. But that didn’t keep me awake. The price of $30 a night was also very comfortable.

Valladolid town plaza with the church in the background.

Valladolid town plaza with the church in the background.

After dinner, we went for a walk to the town plaza, which was delightful. Everyone was out strolling in the cool night air, and kids were running around with balloons or eating ice cream. The church at one end of the plaza was all lit up. We were all charmed with the domesticity of the scene, and at the same time, reminded of how different our own culture is.

Clod and Linda, testing the "courting benches" in Valladolid's town plaza.

Clod and Linda, testing the “courting benches” in Valladolid’s town plaza.

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Day 6: My First Crocodile and the Long, Long Road to Uxmal

This checkerboard pattern is a bit of detail from a palace at Becan.

This checkerboard pattern is a bit of detail from a palace at Becan.

We arose at the ungodly hour of 5:00 am to meet the wonderful Roberto for a nature tour in the biological reserve of Calakmul. He drove up on his motorcycle right on time. The restaurant wasn’t open until 7, and in-room coffee was not a feature, so we ventured forth, unfed and uncoffeed. It was dark and relatively cool. I have to admit after the past two days of walking, I was still tired.

We drove some 27 kilometers down the same road leading to the ruins before turning off into a wooded area. We saw spider monkeys immediately, a troop of them brachiating from branch to branch, chirping to each other. Right after that, we countered howler monkeys, a larger and slower monkey that makes up for it in volume, hooting and roaring in an unmistakable way.

Spider monkey in the Calakmul Biological Reserve. This is about the best picture we got.

Spider monkey in the Calakmul Biological Reserve. This is about the best picture we got.

Roberto moved quietly through the forest, and we imitated him. His sharp eyes would spot birds and other things we never would have seen on our own. Unfortunately I don’t remember most of what he pointed out, not being a birder, though I do remember a pair of large woodpeckers. And the crocodile.

I spotted a lovely waterfall of cream-colored orchids growing on a tree in a swampy area. I moved cautiously closer to take a picture and Roberto pointed out that one of the logs in the water was actually a crocodile. But just a little one, he said–perhaps nine feet.

These are the orchids that tempted me into the crocodile-infested swamp. Well, there was one crocodile. Our pictures of him look like a distant log, which is boring.

These are the orchids that tempted me into the crocodile-infested swamp. Well, there was one crocodile. Our pictures of him look like a distant log, which is boring.

We walked a little further, but as much as I hated to admit it, I was just tired. And hungry. And I wanted coffee. So we walked back to the car. When we got there, we heard howlers again, and everyone else went to see them. I stayed with the car, I am ashamed to say, but I could hear them just fine. Roberto is a good mimic, but they seemed incensed at whatever he was saying.

I was awfully glad to get coffee and breakfast when we got back. I had chilaquiles, and they were delicious.

The next stop was Uxmal, a post-classic Maya city located far to the north of Calakmul. It was a very long drive. Tom and Clod took turns driving and navigating in the front of the car, Linda and I in the back. I have long legs, and it was like sitting in a movie theater for six hours with an occasional bathroom break. We had had a big breakfast and did not stop for lunch.

Men may want to skip this paragraph. Okay, ­I warned you. At this point, I really need to share with you a travel product for women that has been a godsend to me, especially as I’ve gotten older and my knees have become garbage. I think we’ve all been in situations where there are 1) no toilet facilities; 2) toilets with seats you wouldn’t go near if your life depended on it; 3) toilets with no seats; 4) holes in the ground. SheWee is the answer to your prayers. It enables you to pee anywhere you want. Just like a guy. And it all goes back in a discreet case small enough to fit into a purse, backpack, and even a pocket. I always carry a small packet of Kleenex to use where there’s no paper. SheWee does have to be rinsed, so do it on the spot if possible and wash with soap later. I’m not shy about rinsing it out in public, but water isn’t always an option, either. I have had to use it almost every day on this trip and I can safely say I have never loved a few pieces of plastic more.

This sporty-looking iguana was one of the few interesting things we saw on the way to Uxmal.

This sporty-looking iguana was one of the few interesting things we saw on the way to Uxmal.

Nothing of particular interest happened on the way to Uxmal, so I will say only that as we traveled north, it became discernibly drier. The vegetation was not as tall or as thick. It was mostly rural or completely undeveloped except for the little villages and a few small towns we passed, with the exception of the coastal city of Campeche, where Clod spent summers as a child. At almost every speed bump along the way, there were people selling jicama with limes, little finger bananas, pineapples, coconuts, cold drinks­—you name it.

Finally–finally–we reached Uxmal. The hotel was the grandest by far of the entire trip, and only a five-minute walk from the ruins. Hacienda Uxmal is modeled after the historical haciendas of the region, with beautiful tiled floors and walls, a sweeping staircase, and pillared verandas. Many celebrities have stayed there, from Jackie Kennedy and kids to Queen Elizabeth I.

Somehow, we were assigned enormous, luxurious rooms with elegant soaker tubs and marble showers with glass roofs giving you a panorama of the sky and tree-tops. Our room had photos of John-John and Carolyn Kennedy visiting the ruins as children, while Linda and Clod got the Jackie-only suite. We weren’t paying enough money to get these posh quarters, so I guess we just got lucky. Sadly, we didn’t get any photographs of the hotel rooms. They really were splendid.

I threw myself in the shower and then joined the others for a curiously tasteless marguerita. Dinner was outdoors, a buffet. Though we had not had any lunch, by this time I had no appetite at all and could think only of sleeping  I made myself eat some dinner, figuring that if I didn’t, I’d wake up in the middle of the night with my stomach growling. The food was also curiously tasteless. All this luxury, and they couldn’t produce food any better than your average school cafeteria.

I excused myself early and fell into bed, falling asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.

Day 5: The Bat Tornado

Temple at Chicaana

Temple at Chicaana

We were actually scheduled to go to three Mayan ruins this day, but I wimped out after two, Chicaaná and Bécan. The third, Xpuhil (shpoo-heel), was the last and smallest, and by the middle of the afternoon, I was sweaty, tired, and not sure I’d be able to tell one from the other.

I mentioned the chaka tree yesterday. it's also called "la tourista" because of its red, peeling bark.

I mentioned the chaka tree yesterday. it’s also called “la tourista” because of its red, peeling bark.

Chicaaná, Xpuhil and Bécan were vassal cities of Calakmul, which was the big cheese in the region. As these cities are many miles apart and the jungle in those days must have been denser and more difficult to navigate back then, I asked Roberto how they traveled between cities. These cities were located many miles from Calakmul and from each other; if Calakmul didn’t have local representatives or surrogates at these cities, it would have been hard to maintain control. Roberto said they had paths between cities called sac-be—the white road. All paths and unpaved roads hereabouts are white due to the limestone that makes up the earth.

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This is one of the sleeping platforms for the elite that I mentioned in the past post. It is located in a small room in one of the palaces at Chicaana. There are two small carved faces on either side of the recess in the platform, which is speculated to be for personal possessions. The palace rooms were very small, as even the elite Maya lived mostly outdoors.

Bécan was unusual in that it had a moat surrounding the city, just like a medieval castle. There were seven entrances into the city across the moat (seven being a magical number). There were no drawbridges. Roberto said that the entrances were narrow enough that invading warriors could be picked off more or less one by one as they invaded the city but there is no evidence of invasion ever occurring at Bécan.

Temple at Becan.

Temple at Becan.

The temples here are larger than at Calakmul, and have two towers. There is a ball court at Bécan, unlike Calakmul. The ball game was central to Mayan spiritual life. It was played at least partly in tribute to Hunapu, one of the two sets of hero twins of the Popul Vuh, the Mayan origin story. Hunapu is decapitated by the lords of the underworld (Xebalba). His twin, Xbalanque (shball-ahn-kay), uses a squash as a substitute for his brother’s head, which is being used as a ball by the lords of the underworld. Xbalanque rescues the head and replaces it on his brother’s shoulders. (His brother is apparently none the worse for the wear.) Xbalanque substitutes a ball of chiclé sap for use in the ballgame. Ever after, the lords of the underworld do not receive human sacrifice, but instead must be satisfied with offerings of fragrant tree sap.

Not every Mayan city has a ball court, but the later ones do. They were not intended as a public entertainment but as a religious event, and were witnessed by priests. The captain of the winning team was decapitated as a sacrifice, and it was believed he went directly to the Mayan version of paradise. I would have been a lousy captain.

Both cities were impressive, showing increased sophistication in stone working techniques compared to Calakmul. They had attractive bas-relief carvings that are still quite crisp and clear. We went inside the palace (or one of the palaces). In the large space inside, a tiny bird was flying about from beam to beam of ironwood, a wood so hard it can last for many centuries. Roberto told us it was a red-capped manikin, and quite rare. I thought about the British birders back at the hotel, and considered walking by them, casually remarking, “…and I looked up, and there it was–a red-capped manikin!” But I didn’t.

On the other side of the palace was another long, low building. The front entrance was surrounded by elaborate carving which Roberto pointed out represented the face of a jaguar. It was so abstract that I might have thought it was just stylized patterns if he hadn’t pointed it out to me. So to enter the building was to walk into the mouth of the jaguar, and it was a statement of the king’s power. The first dynasty at Calakmul was the Bat Dynasty, but they were overtaken at some point by the Jaguars. Jaguars trump bats, I guess.

The entrance to the Jaguar Palace. The stones sticking up in front are its teetch, and you can see stylized eyes and ears to either side of the doorway.

The entrance to the Jaguar Palace. The stones sticking up in front are its teeth, and you can see the nose over the door, and eyes above that.

I have forgotten a lot of what I saw and heard of Bécan and Chicaaná because I didn’t journal every day. We were busy all the time and by the time I got some alone time, I fell into bed and slept the sleep of the dead. A lesson for future research trips not to move around so much and schedule so much. I need the writing time or it all flies away.

The night before, the hotel manager stopped by our table in the restaurant to chat and asked if we had seen the bat cave. We hadn’t heard about it and were interested, so we decided to visit it this evening, as it was our last night and the cave was an easy walk from the road. Roberto pointed out the exact location to us on the way back from the village of Xpuhil (not the ruined city), where we had stopped for sundries, so we were confident of not getting lost. Besides, there were signs with bats on them when you got close to the turnout for the cave.

A little while before sunset, we pulled into the tiny turnoff and hiked a short distance up a hill. There was an enormous hole in the earth, probably 100 yards across and 250 feet deep. The sides were sheer, and Tom, who is acrophobic, grabbed the back of my shirt every time I went near enough to the edge to actually see the cave, which was a vertical gash in the rock about 200 yards down. On the rocky overhang of the cave, I could see little brown shapes. Dead bats.

Several other people joined us, some with kids. A Canadian couple next to us set up some complicated-looking equipment. It turned out they were bat experts on vacation–a lucky turn of events for us, as they provided a lot of information. The equipment was intended to record the supersonic squeaks of the bats and identify the species. There were a number of raucous birds calling in the area, and the bat experts said they preyed on the bats. Mrs. Bat Expert perched jauntily on the edge of the chasm, making Tom nervous.

By the way, here as everywhere else we went, you are expected to take care of yourself. There are no railings separating you from the edge of the great pit in the earth–not so much as a sign. If you are careless enough to break your neck, it’s just too bad.

We all sat around chatting quietly. I flirted with someone’s baby, who was delighted with touching my hand and playing peekaboo. As twilight set in, a few bats emerged from the cave. Then more. And more. And more. Hundreds of thousands of little bats flew out, circling in a great clockwise spiral, forming a literal bat tornado. My video doesn’t do it justice, and still photos didn’t show it at all, really, but it was an awe-inspiring phenomenon. My hearing isn’t good enough to hear their calls, but the sound of those thousands upon thousands of tiny wings was like a spring breeze stirring the leaves, or the sound of a gentle rain shower.

The bats circled in their spiral for a long time, each individual rising imperceptibly higher until streams of them began to break away, veering off above our heads. Several of them flew through the trees and came quite close to us, but of course never collided. The bird noise stopped as the hunters got serious and began to go after them, but I couldn’t see them.

There was something hypnotic about that spiraling tornado of tiny bodies—enormous and overwhelming, yet delicate, gentle. We watched until the great spiraling cloud had dissipated, the bats flinging themselves on the night wind, seeking food and to avoid becoming food.

Our bat experts said there were too many species in the cave–maybe six different species or more–for the equipment to identify, but they had visually identified hoary bats and ghost bats. It was a memorable experience unlike any other, and I’m grateful for it.

Days 3 and 4: The Lost City in the Jungle

calakmul

 

We had a journey of about three hours from Laguna Bacalar to Calakmul, the Mayan city I had most wanted to see. But before we left the lake, I wanted to swim in Cenoté Azule. The Yucatán Peninsula has no running surface water–streams or rivers–but the subterranean water rises to the surface via cenotés, which are underground caves that form in the limestone that composes the peninsula. Back in the day, many of these cenotés were repositories of virgin sacrifices, weighted down with jade and probably high on something. Xebalba (sheh-bal-bah), the Mayan underworld or place of death, is under the water. It did not pay to be a virgin in those days–if it ever did.

Many cenotés are deep holes, filled with water, but hard to get to as the water is many yards below the ground’s surface, though open to the sky. Cenoté Azule is a “mature” cenoté, which means the water is now at the surface so it is easier to get into and out of. Cenoté Azul is inevitably described as having crystal clear, pure waters, and we were advised to bring snorkeling equipment to see the underwater sights.

Cenoté Azul has restrooms and a restaurant, and a few ricketty shade structures much enjoyed by termites. Linda and I got into the water, but crystal clear is not how we would describe it. It was quite murky from the mud being stirred up by people getting in and out. I swam out further than Linda, and the water did clear up, but beneath me, intensely black, deep water was all I could see. I swam back and got out. At least I had a chance to adjust my new snorkel mask in fresh water with no waves slapping me around. And I can say I swam in a cenoté, however briefly.

Cenote Azul in the foreground. The water beyond is Laguna Bacalar; the cenote and the lake are separated only by a thin strip of land.

Cenote Azul in the foreground. The water beyond is Laguna Bacalar; the cenote and the lake are separated only by a thin strip of land.

We drove to the next large city, Chetumal, needing to pick up sundries and cash as the next leg of the trip was cash-only. Then on to the Calakmul Biological Reserve, deep in the jungle near the Belize border. We had reservations at Hotel Puerta Calakmul, which is deep inside the reserve. It is the only hotel in the reserve, but it is still a LONG way from the actual ruins. The hotel reminds me of the Adirondacks, or something similar. Everything is rustic, with natural logs and branches forming the supports of the buildings. There’s lots of screening, and the buildings are all palm-thatched. There is a surprisingly good restaurant here, a pool, and not much else. Everyone here came for the ruins or for the nature reserve, or both. There’s one group of bird-watching Brits who can always be seen, all wearing khaki and carrying huge binoculars.

Home sweet home at Hotel Calakmul.

Home sweet home at Hotel Calakmul.

The jungle is not quite what I expected. There are some large trees, but not as many as I imagined. Mostly the trees are rather slender and of medium height. There is less dense undergrowth than I would have anticipated, and the place has more the feel of a young temperate forest—if it were not for the orchids and bromeliads clinging to the trees, plus the occasional monkey. I suppose this is because the Yucatán is a rather dry place–definitely not rainforest, with trees so tall that there is a complete ecosystem existing in the canopy. Mostly, there is no canopy in the jungle here.

The beds were comfy and although the mosquito netting didn’t seem necessary, we used it. I have been surprised at the lack of bugs. I knew this was the driest, coolest, least buggy time of year, but I still expected a LOT more bugs.

The next morning, we met our guide, Roberto. Roberto is a Mayan from Chiapas whose family moved here when they lost everything in a flood/mudslide. I immediately began to pick his brain.

I am particularly interested in a legendary people called aluxes (ah-LOOSH-es). They are similar to the Menehune of Hawaii and the leprechauns of Ireland in that they are small people, the size of children, and they are mischievous and curious. They are guardians of the forest. I saw them as being akin to Fred the Mannegishi, if you happen to have read “The Obsidian Mirror.” The aluxes go back at least to the time of the ancient Maya, and there are bas-relief sculptures of them from the ruins (but not the ones we were there to see.)

Aluxes from a bas-relief sculpture at Uxmal.

Aluxes from a bas-relief sculpture at Uxmal.

Roberto said he didn’t know much about aluxes, but it turned out he knew quite a lot.

He said he saw one when he was young, but he was with several other boys. No one else saw the alux, but he said it looked like a child running in the forest, wearing a shirt and shorts with a woven hat with a pointed crown and a brim all around. None of his companions saw it. When he and his brother got lost in the forest, they believed it was aluxes leading them astray because they hadn’t asked permission to hunt. He told me that if you are hunting for food and make an offering to them to ask permission, they will leave you alone. If you are hunting to sell the meat or fail to ask for permission, they will trick you and get you lost in the forest.

I asked Roberto whether he knew of other forest spirits, and he told me about Juan de Monte. “Monte” is a Spanish word for forest, and Juan de Monte is another protective forest spirit with the added characteristic of shielding wounded animals and nursing them back to health. He told us a story about a man from his village who was a very good hunter. He shot deer to sell the meat. He was hunting one day and shot a deer, but the wounded animal escaped. He followed it and came to a stone hut. Inside the hut, he saw many wounded animals. A spirit of the forest appeared to him, Juan de Monte, and told him these were all the animals he had wounded but not killed. Juan de Monte was nursing them. He told the hunter he was not allowed to hunt again. The hunter returned home but he couldn’t speak. His family took him to a curandero, who helped him to regain his power of speech. The hunter went hunting again because it was his livelihood. In the forest, an enormous deer appeared, the largest he had ever seem, and he shot it. But the deer was unwounded. He shot at it several more times with no effect. He threw down his rifle and ran home. Later, he and his brother went back to get the rifle, but the man never hunted again. I don’t know how far back Juan del Monte goes, but I plan on researching it. (I found a Mayan legend later about the “King of the Forest,” a spirit who plays the same role as Juan de Monte. I believe they are probably the same.)

Calakmul Temple of Venus (I think).

Calakmul Temple of Venus (I think).

Our first visit was to Calakmul, a city that was founded about 700 BC and abandoned around 1200 AD. From the hotel, it is reached by a 60-kilometer-long road with many potholes. In the Classical Maya period, Calakmul was the predominant force in southern Yucatán/northern Beliz and Guatamala. At its peak, it was home to 65,000 people. Archeologists have been excavating and restoring Calakmul for decades, but much is still unexplored. There are no cenotés in the area so they had a system of rainwater catchments and storage. Unsurprisingly, the primary god of this city (and all the Mayan cities of the Yucatán) was Chaak, the god of rain and lightening. The city was abandoned because of a severe drought and crop failures. They probably thought Chaak was trying to tell them something.

It was a very pleasant place to explore, with lots of shade. On the 1-kilometer walk to the ruins from the site entrance, we saw two spider monkeys– the first monkeys I have ever seen in the wild. We also saw oscillated turkeys, as gorgeous as peacocks, and pheasants.

Oscillated turkey.

Oscillated turkey.

Coming into the ruin feels almost as though you have discovered a lost city. There are very few other visitors there, and you can walk around alone hearing only the sounds of the leaves in the breeze or perhaps howler monkeys booming in the distance. The ruins are impressive, and you can see how the building and stone-carving techniques evolved from the older to newer buildings. There are many limestone stele, but they are so eroded that most of them resemble rotten teeth more than bas-relief sculptures. Two large stele still show the remains of a king on the right side and a queen on the left. You can just make out the faces and bodies. The queen faces right toward her husband, and the king faces left. Their feet are portrayed with left foot pointing left and right foot pointing right, knees bent, giving them the appearance of being bow-legged.

One of the least-eroded stele at Calakmul.

One of the least-eroded stele at Calakmul.

Most of the overgrowth has been removed from the excavated buildings, but strangler figs still grow on them in places, roots flowing over the stone steps like melted wax. Roberto was very informative about the animals and flora, happily pointing out the poisonous trees (chechem) and the trees (chaka) that cure the itchy rash caused by the chechem, as well as the orchids and bromiliads that have hitched a ride on many trees. The chaca tree is also called by some “la tourista” because it has a red, peeling skin–like so many Norte Americanos who come here and expose their pale skin to too much tropical sun.

Strangler fig surrounding a captive stele.

Strangler fig surrounding a captive stele.

There were many round stone altars associated with the stele. They were heavily eroded, but it was still easy to see they are nothing like the post-classic Mayan altar shaped like a human being, usually on its back (chak-mool). The Classical Maya of the Yucatán did not practice much human sacrifice. They did practice blood sacrifice, however. The royalty was expected to let their own blood, obtained by perforating lips, tongue, earlobes or genitals with a stingray spine, cactus thorns or thorny vines. I’m not talking about making a modest cut or incision, either–there is plenty of graphic evidence that they thrust the object all the way through their flesh to the other side. The blood was collected in a bowl and burned. This was the duty of royalty to assure the gods were properly worshiped. Animal sacrifice and the burning of food like maize was also practiced. Although some cities sacrificed the captain of the winning ball team, Calakmul doesn’t have a ball court­—at least none that has yet been found. More about the ball game later.

Maize was the principle crop, but they also grew beans and squash. The Maya cultivated cotton, at least in some places. The standard garb was a simple white cotton garment for men and women. Priests, warriors and elites added elaborate headdresses of feathers, jade jewelry, animal skins (the jaguar being especially significant and powerful) and other ornaments. Those heavy-looking headdresses you see in Maya murals and bas-relief sculptures? Those are highly stylized feathers.

Imagine this fresh and new, painted in bright colors.

Imagine this fresh and new, painted in bright colors.

The temples and palaces were originally covered with stucco and painted. These important buildings were oriented to the four cardinal directions. Little remains of the stucco or paint, but it is likely that each side was painted with the color associated with that direction. The only pigment remaining that I could see was red. Mayan cities, which were cleared of vegetation, must have been bright and gorgeous under the sun, richly colored and designed to impress, with their tiered temples and palaces, and spacious plazas. The red color of the paint was created with cochineal bugs.

Some temples had living quarters, maybe for priests or royals. They left little to inform us. The Maya lived outdoors for the most part, using rooms only for sleeping. The elite rooms feature a slab of stone, often quite large, as a bed—very much like the concrete slabs we slept on at Hotel Azul36. These slabs would be covered with matting or perhaps mattresses stuffed with the cottony insides of ceiba fruit. There were often niches cut in the wall or into the sides of the stone platform, perhaps for personal storage. The common people lived in wattle-and-daub round huts with palm-thatched roofs, so there is little left of them, if anything. Cooking was done outdoors, and there is no evidence here of kitchens.

There was a magnificent ceiba tree at Calakmul, one of the largest trees in the area. At this time of year it is leafless, but we could see the many small, oval fruits on its branches. With its height, symmetry and white bark, it reminded me of the White Tree of Gondor. The Maya thought the ceiba tree was the tree of life, holding up the sky.

Ceiba tree, the Mayan tree of life.

Ceiba tree, the Mayan tree of life.

The largest pyramid was dedicated to Chaak, of course. There was also a temple dedicated to Venus (the planet, not the Greek goddess). Venus was essential in the Mayan calendar, and was also associated with Kukulcan, a feathered serpent god precursor to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl—but Roberto said there was no evidence of Kukulcan worship at Calakmul.

As a matter of fact, there’s a lot we don’t know about the Maya. Time and the jungle obliterated much, and the Spanish took over from there. It’s only due to a few Spanish friars that any of the Mayan codices were copied and translated. Hundreds of these Maya documents were burned, and artifacts stolen or destroyed. And yet, there are still many people who speak one dialect or another of that ancient language and continue to pass down the ancient stories, one generation to the next.

The artifacts at Calakmul have either been removed to the archeological museum in Mexico City, or walled off from the public by archeologists. There were three royal tombs discovered there with jade masks. Roberto showed us photographs. They were widely separated in time. The earliest is composed of tiny pieces of jade, needed to be able to show the curvature of the face. The second uses larger pieces that have been worked to create curves, but the third, composed of large pieces, is a stunning work of art. The ability to work with jade at all is impressive, given that jade is harder than steel, and the Maya had no metal tools. They barely had any gold, as it was obtained only through trade, and they considered jade more beautiful.

The oldest jade mask found at Calakmul, using tiny jade pieces to create the contours of the face.

The oldest jade mask found at Calakmul, using tiny jade pieces to create the contours of the face.

Newest mask found at Calakmul, showing huge steps forward in jade working and artistic skill.

Newest mask found at Calakmul, showing huge steps forward in jade working and artistic skill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We could have gone on to the merchant quarters and marketplace, but we thought we’d seen the best of Calakmul–at least that part of it that has been excavated. We walked back to the entrance, seeing a family of white-lipped peccaries on the way. They are much smaller than wild boars, but they have pretty much the same attitude. We gave them a wide berth and went on, Roberto pointing out the flora and fauna as he went. Unfortunately, I had little time to write everything down. We were scheduled to do something every day, and I was always so tired from the heat, humidity and walking that I fell asleep every night without journaling.

 

 

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Day 2: Land of Sky-Blue Waters

Me and some friends at Tulum

Me and some friends at Tulum

 

 

 

 

 

Before leaving Tulum, we returned to the open-air market at the ruins because I wanted to get the little embroidered dresses for our granddaughters. I bought the dresses, paying too much for them, probably, and joined Tom, Clod and Linda at Starbucks. Los Volantes were at it again, and this time I got a good video.

Also present were some men dressed as Mayan warriors. Their costumes were as authentic as humanely possible, using genuine jaguar skins and quetzal feathers. The clothes were very detailed, carefully crafted and must have cost a fortune. They painted their faces and bodies exactly as you can see in the ancient murals. One of the men had an enormous albino python, which looks more yellow than white. I knew they were there for tourists to get their pictures taken posing with them, so I grabbed some cash and asked to pose with the snake. They kept telling me the snake wouldn’t bite, but I was perfectly certain that it wouldn’t bite because snake-bitten tourists don’t pay. I enjoyed the photo session and the heavy, muscular, dry and scaly presence of my cooperative co-model.

After a much-appreciated latte, we piled in the car and set out for Laguna Bacalar, heading south. We were traveling through jungle, but at first it was rather low, if extremely dense. As we made our way south, the vegetation gradually got taller. By the time we reached the lake, it was no rain forest, but definitely more along the lines of my mental image of jungle. We only stopped once, to buy some bananas at a roadside stand. We passed a village where there were probably 20 stands selling pineapple, but pineapple seemed too daunting and complicated for people without a knife or a kitchen. The bananas, each not much larger than a healthy banana slug, were consumed in about two bites. They were slightly tart, which gave them an apple-like flavor that was much more tasty than the huge, bland cultivar we get in grocery stores.

We noticed throughout our travels that when you hit speed bumps (topes), you will almost inevitably find someone selling something–usually snacks and drinks, but sometimes other things. Slowing down gives you a chance to realize you’re thirsty or hungry, I guess.

Laguna Bacalar is a freshwater lake more than 60 kilometers long, very narrow, with a white sand bottom. The water is known for its seven colors of blue. There’s not much to do here except swim and kayak, but we are staying only one night. There’s an island bird sanctuary, but you have to kayak out, and Tom has sworn off kayaking after overturning in Moss Landing harbor and losing his prescription glasses. In any case, you can’t land on the island because you will sink six feet into something that looks like sand–but isn’t. In other words—don’t try to get onto the island or you will die. On the plus side, there are no crocodiles in the lake, making it a safe swimming place. There just aren’t enough fish in the lake for crocodiles to bother with it.

Laguna Bacalar

Laguna Bacalar

We had an excellent lunch at a lakeside restaurant and lingered far too long, enjoying the cool breeze from the lake. The place was jumping, but no one tried to get us to move along. There was a dock in front of the restaurant, stretching out into the cool, blue  waters. Instead of running around the restaurant, kids were jumping into the lake. The best play area ever.

We walked back to the hotel, Azule36. I don’t know for sure, but it may be named for a nearby cenote called Cenote Azul, which is a popular swimming place. It’s a cute, tiny boutique hotel on a lot only slightly larger than a house. The neighborhood is a higgeldy-piggeldy mix of houses, a church, hotels and stores. There are only six rooms. Roosters crowed from the house next door, and as we sat under a palapa playing cards, dogs, cats and people wandered through the yard, entering from a back gate. I wondered if it was a family-run business, with the family living behind the hotel. The rooms are spare but clean and comfortable. Unlike the first place we stayed, there is soap! The beds were comfortable—actually mattresses laid on concrete platforms. I thought in a country where scorpions and snakes abound, not having a cavernous under-the-bed space is probably sensible.

Our hotel at Laguna Bacalar

Our hotel at Laguna Bacalar

We skipped dinner and went to bed at a reasonable hour. I had trouble falling asleep because I’m not used to a lot of noise at night. What with roosters crowing, doves cooing, people talking, multiple dogs barking, and traffic, it was a while before things calmed down and I slept. I’m writing this at some ungodly hour of the morning because the whole chorus started up again around 4:00 am.