Interview with Oliver Chase, Author of “Camelot Games”

I occasionally review books and interview other authors on this blog. Here, I interview Oliver Chase, who recently published a political thriller, “Camelot Games.” Given the current political situation, I thought “Camelot Games” was incredibly insightful, as well as a great, fast-paced read.

In the interest of full disclosure, Oliver Chase belongs to a very exclusive group of which I am also a member—authors who were formerly published by AEC Stellar Publishing. AEC Stellar, once presided over by publisher Ray Vogel, featured a number of new authors that Ray took under his wing. The pressures of his “day job” and the need to give more time to his family forced Ray to give up his dream, and our little group of diverse authors was scattered to the wind. I think we all still have a collegial feeling for one another—I know I do. I’ll always be grateful to Ray for publishing my first novel and launching me into my lifelong dream of being a published novelist.

KD:                  In “Camelot Games,” you’ve written a fast-paced political thriller, complete with back-room skullduggery, betrayal, misdirection, an attack on the nation’s infrastructure, and an attempt at secession. When you wrote this book, was there something in the political atmosphere of the time that inspired you? Or was it something else?

Oliver:                   What a fun question. Several years ago as I waited for the editor to return one of my novels, I read about the 2003 Northeast blackout. As catastrophes go, only a small part of America and Canada were affected. If you were there, it was awful. If not, the whole affair was someone else’s problem.

The financial losses impacted millions of people. Elevators stuck between floors. The NE corridor’s trains stopped on their tracks. Fire departments and first responders worked for days to help people only to find many could not hold on.

I read about the computer glitch, a bug that kept an alarm and a notification at bay until it was too late. The bug was not intentional, but what would happen if it was?

What would happen if a kingmaker decided his little pond was not big enough, or that he wanted to be more than just a footnote in the history books. Why not use a handsome front man and a lovely ambitious wife at a time when an unhappy nation had grown distrustful of its leadership and clamored for a savior.

Scott and Angie McHale waited in the wings, poised to save a nation, a gentle guiding hand for the ages, and born from the ashes.

K.D.:                Are you surprised by how many elements of your novel came to the fore in recent politics, such as the Calexit movement?

Oliver:                   “Camelot Games” came about in two starts. When a jury convicted a wife killer in San Francisco, I was amazed at the man’s steadfast denial in the face of overwhelming, though circumstantial evidence. I read his testimony and wondered if he could hear himself. Where was his attorney? I haven’t an opinion if the killer sitting on death row today is justified. Or, if the real killer still runs among us. But, I note the man’s refusal to concede or ask forgiveness is pretty unique.

The second story that brought both halves of the novel together involved an early agent provocateur railing against the haughtiness of industrialists who believe their own press. He pointed out they paraded naked, and refuse to listen. Such egotistical ham-handedness of the less powerful might cause temporary pain for citizens, but to do such a thing on a national scale, could prove disastrous.

Hence, “Camelot Games.”

K.D.:                This story required a thorough knowledge not just of politics, but of military protocol and procedure and law enforcement. Do you have a background in these fields?

Oliver:            I’m hardly apolitical, either in my personal beliefs or my actions. The story however does not identify one party or the other. I’ve scrubbed my convictions clean of the characters and let each either damn or exonerate themselves without regard to a modern political party, organized religious principle, or ethnic background. The book does take place in America, takes a swipe or two at other countries, but pits people and not organizations against one another.

BTW, people suggesting the secession of states, cities and communities has been around since the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791. No one is ever completely happy, even in America. We’re just not wired that way.

K.D.:                Your protagonist, Scott McHale, is a strong character, though flawed. Unusually for your genre, his wife Angie is also a strong character and she plays a significant role in your story. Did you start out intending to have a strong husband-and-wife team, or did it just work out that way?

Oliver:            I’m a staunch proponent of partnerships. I’d like to think stalwart individuals forged civilization from the Stone Age, but that didn’t happen. Partners happened. Sometimes a community forms an enterprise, sometimes its two people. Like in a marriage. My personal experience finds love a terrific motivator and the glue when the going gets tough. Respect, belief, vision, dedication are important and have their place in partnerships, too.

Does anyone ever wonder why a love-interest in a book appeals to readers? Rocky or rock-solid, I think we innately recognize we humans do better when burdens and happiness are shared.

K.D.:                Did you have any trouble writing the female characters? Is Angie based on any real person or persons? Is Big Jim based on a real person, or is he an amalgam of shadowy kingmaker-types?

Oliver:                  Trouble writing female characters? Hmm. I suppose the reader will have to tell me if I missed the mark with the females in Camelot Games. Obviously, the book centers around strong women. Several are not just important, but are vital to move the story along. Each possesses a unique voice, philosophy, and view of the story. Each will reveal themselves by their actions and their words. I’d have to admit one or two were easier than others. All the females are fictional. Some I’ve known in my imagination, some I wanted to know. Some I hope, I’ll never to have to meet.

K.D.:                What were the aspects of the plot that gave you the most trouble? How did you work past it?

Oliver:            Since we first started telling tales around campfires in caves of animal drawings, we the storytellers tried to capture the imaginations of our audiences. A plot must be in mind when we begin the story, the stronger and more solid, the better. Otherwise, we’ll lose the reader, shaggy dog stories notwithstanding.

The plot of “Camelot Games” makes clear the book is not a techno thriller. The general pleasure reader likely has little desire to be wowed by my grasp of technology, aerodynamics, or frankly, the inner workings of senatorial subcommittees. What I hope the reader will see is that unbridled ambition by any name changes the dynamics of our most important relationships. Whether it’s marital love, dedication to country, or a lawmaker’s connection to those who elect him, aspirations left unchecked have a way of eating us from within.

K.D.:                Did you have to do a lot of research for this, or were you already very familiar with what you were writing?

Oliver:            Research is always a tricky, little devil. As I spent time piecing together the elements of the book, I read and researched quite a bit that never made its way into my pages. For instance, Scott McHale sat on several subcommittees, at least two of which had a direct bearing on nuclear energy. In order to make sense of the mysterious buildings that suddenly began populating western United States, someone had to clear the way. Be he willing or unwilling, the task needed to be completed. Not much of my self-education on legislative process appeared in the book. If however, a teacher or even a congressman in the know happens to read “Camelot Games,” I needed to make the process of approvals and financing believable.

As a side note, one of my tools was to have been the now illegal “ear marking.” When that went by the boards, I need to go back to my studies and find another way to fulfill Scott’s mandate. When we use a story-vehicle, authors must insure there’s air in the tires. Otherwise, the story will go flat, too.

K.D.:                Which writers have been your primary influences?

Oliver:            Herman Wouk, James Michener, and Leon Uris caught my attention and imagination early in my life. They encouraged me to seek out the more difficult writers like Faulkner and Steinbeck. I’m pretty conventional, I know, and I’ve never grown too far from that apple tree. Today, I like Craig Johnson, Helen Wecker, John Sanford, Stephanie Meyer, and Karen White. I find myself listening to as many books as I read, but still look forward to that twenty-minute sweet spot, under the bedroom lamp, just before I fade to sleep.

K.D.:                Will you be using the Scott and Angie McHale characters in a sequel? If so, when will the book be available?

Oliver:            I had not thought about Scott and Angie in a sequel. To tell the truth, I’m so busy with my noir crime series, I hadn’t considered it. But thanks for the question. I’ll have fun toying with the idea.

K.D.:                You made it clear in “Camelot Games” that America’s electrical grid is vulnerable to attack from within. Do you also see it as vulnerable to attack from abroad? What should be done about that? 

Oliver:            America’s vulnerability to an attack on the electrical grid is a scary reality. In the last few years, more and more is written about how we should be protecting ourselves. Like anything else in government, unless the priority rises to a level where one’s votes are in jeopardy, I doubt any legislator will lean too far forward. The loss of power for even a short time will be catastrophic.

A year after “Camelot Games” went to the publisher’s dark hole, I happened across “One Second After” by John Matherson. Newt Gingrich didn’t write my preface, but he did Matherson’s, and what he said, and believes, is downright scary. Perhaps different stories, but the same frightening result.

Before I say adieu, please allow me to make a shameless, self-serving pitch. Oliver Chase’s Take on Life contains a couple short stories, tiny vignettes about people I once knew and serves as a testing ground for my 2018 anthology. Interestingauthors.com is a place I go weekly to let off a little steam. A couple other authors do the same. I enjoy reading their stuff as much as writing my little bit.

By the way, Olivechase.net is a place to buy my books. If you’d like signed, paperback copies, and we can’t catch up with one another in a Barnes and Noble or Indie bookstore, drop me a note. We can try to work something out. I’d rather go in the red and have you read the book, than try to hold anyone up for a couple of bucks. Besides, I really enjoy readers and writers so please don’t be shy. I’m not that hard to find.

Oliver Chase Biography

Oliver Chase, author of “Camelot Games”

Oliver grew up on military bases throughout the country and like all boys, played good guys and bad. Coaxing him into an afternoon of baseball along Lake Erie, hiking the Southern California’s hills or paddling a canoe in the North Carolina backwater didn’t take much unless a book found him first.

His best friend and he joined the Marines and took a deferment to attend college. Herb left school finding stumbling blocks that seemed insurmountable at the time. A year after graduating, Oliver stepped onto a sweaty tarmac with a manual Smith Corona typewriter not far from where Herb had died. Fate usually finds a way of putting day-to-day frustrations into a cruel perspective, especially when lost in the haze of an ugly war.

Thirty-one young men flew days and nights in the mountains trying to keep the world safe for … well, says Oliver, that’s not really true, is it? The only reason we ever went into those dark, frightening places was to save our friends, most of whom we’d never met, and never would. That they lived however, meant others died and that still haunts to this day.

He spent time wandering after he got home. Lots of young veterans did, some on foot, some on the rails. Many like Oliver make stops along the road life gave him. He never slept in the park or a bus station, although many did. Most eventually found a way out of the maze from that crazy period of time, yet too many others did not. Oliver promised he was never truly at risk, but still believes pulling the right ticket is mostly a matter of circumstance and luck.

He did a bit of teaching on the Navajo reservation, spent a few years with the cops and a couple alphabet agencies and never quit writing. The old manual typewriter became a memory when his first computer came along. A Lenovo notebook travels with him now, the wanderlust never completely leaving him be. Today, he spends days on the family farm and occasionally still follows the season around when a bookstore bids welcome. Sometimes he wonders if the old Smith Corona found a home, too. He hopes so, wishing his old friend happier days.

Oliver Chase Links

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Save

Save

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.

Save

Save

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.

img_2755

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.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Day 7: Uxmal and the Chocolate Museum

img_2713

“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.

Save

Save

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.

img_2308

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.

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.

Yucatan: Day of the Iguanas

Mr. and Mrs. Iguana

Mr. and Mrs. Iguana

In the remote eventuality that anyone was disappointed that I haven’t been blogging about my research trip to the Yucatán Peninsula, I apologize. We were often in areas where the Internet service couldn’t handle large files, and I wanted to be able to post photos and videos, so I decided to wait.

Why Yucatán, you may ask? Well, for reasons I can’t reveal, the third book in the series that began with “The Obsidian Mirror” has to take place in Yucatán. The second book, “Fire in the Ocean,” will be out later this year from Diversion Books, and all will be explained. Well, some of it, anyway.

Day 1: Tulum

We made our way to Tulum on the Mayan Riviera without much problem. Our rental condo is located in a large tract of land not too far from the beach, called Aldea Zama. Aledea means village in Spanish and Zama is the Quiché (Mayan) word for dawn. It is also the original name for the Mayan city in the area, which is why we are here.

We ate dinner in a very good Argentinian restaurant, came back to the condo and fell into bed.

The next morning, we woke late, as it is East Coast time here, we’re from the West Coast, and we were tired. Breakfast, continuing the international theme, was crepes. We asked the waiter how far it was to walk to the ruins. He told us to walk straight down the road we were on for about four kilometers. So off we went. And continued for a long way, walking in the late morning heat and sunshine. We didn’t have a lot of water with us, and I didn’t realize it, but I was becoming dehydrated.

About three miles or so down the road there was an entrance to the beach and my husband Tom headed off across the sand, intending to walk the rest of the way on the beach. By this time, my enthusiasm had flagged, although I did appreciate the white sand, fine as sugar, and the brilliant turquoise and indigo of the ocean. Linda asked a woman how far it was, and we learned to our surprise that not only had we been directed down the wrong road, we were many miles from our destination because there was no access to the ruins from the road we were on or the beach.

We flagged down one of the passing taxis which took us to the ruins, all of us thankful we hadn’t tried to walk it. The entrance to the ruins is reached on foot or by a little tram pulled by an old tractor, and to my relief we took the tram. Before we embarked for the ruins, we saw a performance by a team of voladores. Four men climbed to the top of a 40-foot pole, playing instruments and dressed in colorful costumes. Once they reached the platform at the top of the pole, they wound ropes around the pole. Then a fifth man climbed the pole and seated himself, playing the flute as the other four men looped ropes around their legs, turned upside down, and spiraled down the pole as the ropes unwound from the pole. Wikipedia says this is a very old tradition, starting with the ancient Maya. It has deep cultural significance, and to prevent the tradition from dying out, Mexico started a school to teach children how to become voladores (females need not apply).

There is a large outdoor market around the ruins, but we went straight on without looking at the amazing array of goods, ranging from Los Luchos masks to delicately woven hammocks that looked like lace.

When we got to the ticket line, I wasn’t feeling too well, so I sat down on a bench near the front of the line. Along came a coatimundi–a relative of the raccoon that looks sort of lemur-like. She plopped herself down right among the tourists’ feet, rolled over and proceeded to give herself a bath, licking delicately at armpits and tummy. A man standing right next to her leaned down and tried to pet her. Tourists feed coatis all the time at Tulum, so assuming the man had food, the coati lunged at his fingers. Startled, the man jerked back and dropped his bottle of beer, which smashed on the stone flooring. The coati promptly began licking up the beer as the man cleaned up the glass. When last seen, the coati was cuddling in a woman’s skirt and continuing her bath, drunk and happy.

By this time, I was beginning to wonder what was wrong with me. I felt utterly drained and frankly not very interested in touring the ruins. This is completely out of character for me, as I am interested in ancient Mayan culture and had come all the way from California just to see them. But I had no energy and was beginning to feel odd; I was getting chills despite the heat and felt slightly nauseous. I rested for a while in the shade, but the water was gone. There was no place to buy water inside the ruins. I dragged myself around the ruins anyway. I probably took more photos of the iguanas at the park than the ruins. Often, they lay sunning themselves in pairs like tiny prehistoric monsters; Mr.and Mrs. Iguana taking a sunbath. There were black iguanas, green iguanas, gray iguanas, and youngsters with stripes streaking around while the adults sunned. I finally found a place to sit and look at the ocean–narrowly missing stepping on an iguana–and stayed there until the rest of the party found me. Then all I wanted to do was leave. On the walk back to the tram I developed an aura, like the kind you get when a migraine is starting. My hips hurt in a way I have never experienced before, and I felt generally horrible.

There has to be an iguana in this photo somewhere.

There has to be an iguana in this photo somewhere.

Tom got me a huge bottle of water, and after drinking a good bit of it, the aura went away. When we got to the open-air market, Linda saw a Starbucks and wanted iced tea. I noticed a vendor with adorably embroidered children’s dresses. He wanted $25 each. I wanted to get out of there and was not interested in bargaining, so I said no thanks and walked away. By the time I got out of earshot, he was down to $5 each, but I just didn’t care. This is also totally weird for me, because I adore haggling.

We took a taxi back to the condo. By the time we got back, I felt a great deal better, had a cold shower and took a nap. Lesson learned: take lots of water!

Despite getting dehydrated, I enjoyed the day. I’m looking forward to the rest of the trip, and will be much more cautious about staying hydrated.

 

 

.

Save

Save