the Yucatan & Casa Hamaca
Oh my God, what did I just eat? 
Cochinita Pibil and Tepezcuintle Tacos

Yesterday we were invited to share a meal with a family in the small village of Honuku. A visiting curandera from Queretero was in residence at the Casa Hamaca and last week Sofi (our housekeeper and cook) brought her daughter-in-law (Miñela), granddaughter (Sarahi) and the baby’s other grandmother (Ofelia) to the Casa Hamaca because the baby was sick. Alma, the curandera, worked with the baby on two or three different occasions during the week. The baby seemed to be feeling better and did not exhibit the symptoms that she previously had exhibited. When the grandmother asked how much it cost for the visits, Alma responded that there was no charge. So grandmother Ofelia invited us to a Sunday meal. Sofi, who has Sundays off, offered to come to Casa Hamaca early on Sunday and guide us to the village of Hunuku.

As I have mentioned before in these notes, I am a slow learner. And I had forgotten that when Sofi is in the back seat giving driving directions, it becomes another slap-stick episode since Sofi (who will turn 40 years old this month) doesn’t know her left from her right and gives directions with hand movements only. That means that when we come to a fork in the road or a cross-road, I must remember to look in the rear-view mirror or actually turn around so that I can see better which way Sofi is gesturing …all the while looking out for speeding taxis (the only way into and out of these small villages for most of the people) unused to visiting gringos on a Sunday afternoon; stray turkeys with their little ones (also unused to visiting gringos on a Sunday afternoon…or any other time for that matter) looking for something to eat in the middle of the road; the topes (speed bumps) that can rattle your teeth if you fail to slow down for them; the normal bicycles, tricycles and foot-traffic of the Yucatan; a sow and her piglets trotting across the road at an unmarked “Hog Crossing”; little children running across the little-used road without looking; Sunday drunks weaving down and across the road on their way to the next beer; dogs sleeping in the middle of the sun-warmed road or just wandering around looking for the next best place to take a nap. The small roads between villages are one lane, winding ones, with no shoulders and limited visibility since the jungle grows right to the edge of the road, overhanging it and in some places almost making a tunnel of vegetation. In other words, a normal Sunday ride in the country.

Aside from the traffic problems, add in that Sofi always travels in a taxi, by bicycle or on foot…and so does not really pay attention to turn-offs and crossroads and forks and such. If she is in a taxi, the driver knows his way…if she is on a bicycle or on foot, things pass by slowly enough to draw her to the correct turn. What that really means, is that Sofi often cannot remember where a turn-off is or which fork to take at a decision point.

Now don’t get me wrong; Sofi is not dumb. She is uneducated in Western ways and almost illiterate in regard to books and book learning. She is suspicious and fearful of many "modern" things. If she must answer the cordless phone in the kitchen, she holds it as if it were a live, withering, poisonous snake. But she is very wise and knowledgeable in the things that are important to her and her family in normal village life. Plus she speaks two languages. It is only when she is removed from her normal village surroundings does it become apparent that her education was very different from mine. But when we are in her habitat, my ignorance becomes so frequently and so obviously apparent that good-humored laughter often greets my clumsy attempts to do or say the simplest things.

Ofelia' house

Sofi, Alma and Ofelia in the kitchen

With no mishaps, we arrived at the traditional thatched-roof house (or na, in Yucatec Mayan) of Ofelia and her family. The na was huge… 8 meters by 5 meters (about 26 feet by 16.5 feet)…a single room built in the ancient manner with lashed joints and palm leaf thatching. At one end was the kitchen…three stones on the floor defining where the fire was; a normal-height table mostly covered with dish rack and a five gallon bucket holding drinking water; a low, round table on which to make tortillas a mano (by hand); and another small, low rectangular table at which meals were eaten. A series of low stools (canché) were stacked along one wall of the na. Other than a couple of rickety folding chairs brought out for visitors, these canché and the hammocks were the only places to sit in the entire house.

A traditional stool or canché

The canché were “modern” ones, made from machine-sawed, wooded boards. These modern canché have replaced the older, traditional style carved from a single log. Some of the older types are very simple and basic; others have more style, artistry and comfort. Many of the rooms (both guest rooms and common areas) at Casa Hamaca are furnished with traditional canché stools.

As an aside, the word canché is interesting. The last part of the word, ché, means tree or wood or plant. No problems there. But to my ears, the Mayan words can and k’aan sound exactly the same. So canché translates as wooden snake or serpent or viper; while k’aanché translates as wooden hammock. I’m told that the word for the stool really is canché and not the other. I found that too bad since I like the idea of the word or concept for the wooden seat being that of a "wooden hammock". So, alas, the word actually translates as "wooden serpent". And the word Cancun aptly is frequently translated as "Viper’s Nest" (Can=Serpent or Viper plus K'u'=Nest)…a fitting description of the Sin City Cancun has become. Cancun, in my opinion, ranks right up there with Miami and Las Vegas (along with what was once called Macau in China) as world-class hedonistic magnets. But back to the small village of Hunuku.

The exposed-thatch ceiling above the fireplace was blackened with smoke. When I asked how old the house was, Don Martin, the husband, told me it was built a year before Hurricane Gilberto (1988) and survived that storm and all of the subsequent ones with no damage. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling beams. On a table at the opposite end of the na was a television, tuned to an afternoon futbol (soccer) game. A few simple shelves held all of the belongings of the family.

Making tortillas a mano

Cooking the tortillas on the comal

Sofi making the salsa

After we had been greeted, Ofelia stated making tortillas a mano on the small round table (many of the guestrooms at Casa Hamaca are furnished with these traditional tortilla tables) and then flipping the tortillas onto the comal to cook. Sofi ground chilies and lime juice in a molcajete (more or less a mortar and pestle) to make a rich and flavorful condiment for the meal to come. When Sofi was finished with the chilies, she sat at one of the small tables and separated meat from bones and placed the meat in a small bowl. No one had told us what the main course would be but I had seen a still-warm pib (in-ground fire pit) in the backyard. Cochinita pibil? Or maybe Relleno Negro?

While we were waiting for Sofi and Ofelia to finish preparations for the meal, Don Martin and I chatted. About his milpa (garden) and the eijido (community-owned land on which any of the villagers could farm). Don Martin said that since almost 75% of the local men now work outside of the village during the week, he really had his choice of where he wanted to farm. He only cultivates about 2 hectares (about 5 five acres) at a time. He does it the traditional way. He prepares the area by first cutting down all of the shrubs and trees, letting them dry and then burning them. This re-nourishes the soil as well as gets rid of any weeds so that he can grow corn for another two or three years before he must prepare another field in the same manner.

Don Martin showing some of his antler collection

We spoke of the alux (see previous notes for more on the alux) and of the hurricanes (Hurricane Felix had just been upgraded to a Category 2 on it’s way to becoming a Category 5 hurricane) and of building houses and of copal incense (pom) and of the deer in the forests and jungle. Don Martin proudly showed off his collection of deer antlers. I did not diminish his pride by telling him that the antlers he showed me would be humiliating to show in Montana or North Dakota or Minnesota or even New Jersey since they were so small, with so few points. We spoke of how cool his house was during the heat of the summer. I did my best to explain that even the coolest nights in his village were still very warm to someone from the north. That doors were not left wide open during the day, year around, in the north. That walls were thick and roofs were not thatch. That it was so cold that water turned to ice and snow. Now that was stretching things a little since that kind of experience is out of their realm of reality. I further compounded their incredulity with stories of ice fishing and driving cars and trucks out on to the ice. I believe they think that I was just telling tall tails to amuse them before dinner.

When all was ready, Alma (the curandera) and I were invited to eat first (after all, we were the guests of honor); when we almost finished the adults of the family (including the women) joined us to eat their meal followed by the younger members of the family when the adults were finished. There were no children other than the infant so we could not see how other children might fit into the eating hierarchy. Before we sat down, we were offered a bucket of water in which to wash our hands.

Alma and I were seated at the small round table. On the table were a stack of freshly made tortillas; two shallow bowls, each filled with a different shredded meat; and a small bowl of the chili sauce that Sofi had just made. One of the shallow bowls held cochinita pibil, a traditional Sunday meal in the Yucatan. Cochinita pibil is pork meat that has been rubbed with achiote paste, wrapped in banana leaves to keep the meat moist, and then buried in the fire pit to bake. It is, in my experience, always tender and delicious. Gringos like me are sometimes served “cochinita light”…just the meat without the flavorful grasa (or fat) or the baked liver. Cochinita is traditionally served with raw chopped onions and, of course, chilies.

Alma, Don Martin, Ofelia, Sofi and Carlos seated on modern canché.
The bowl in the center of the round table holds the mystery meat.

The other bowl held shredded meat that looked a little like chicken. The meat was mixed with chopped radish, cilantro and chili. When I asked what kind of meat this was, I was told it was tepezcuintle. Now that helped a lot! What was its Spanish name? Tepezcuintle is the only name it is called they responded. How big is a tepezcuintle? About this high, indicating with his hands, and about this long…??? Since Don Martin was making these hand gestures over the table, I was not sure if the height was from the table to his hands or from the floor to his hands. When I asked if it were the size of a dog, he laughed and said "No…smaller". “Bigger than a rabbit?” I asked. “Oh, yes, bigger than a rabbit. Maybe up to 10 kilos or so (about 22 pounds). It only comes out at night and lives in a cave in the ground”. “It eats vegetables and fruits and plants and roots,” Martin offered before I could ask. All I could picture was something like a muskrat. Yuck! Where did this one come from? “I got it yesterday evening on the road” Road kill??? “I shot it with my shotgun. What good luck it was to get it for company, verdad?” “And, no, you cannot buy this meat at a market. It is against the law.”

OK, I said to myself, I am here for the experience. If I didn’t eat it, I would never know what it tasted like. After all, I ate pressed and fried guinea pig in Peru and was not the worse from the experience…how much different could this be even if it were muskrat?

Oops! Another meal with no utensils. I waited for Alma to start, watching her out of the corner of my eye. Right! Now I remember. Tear a tortilla, like you would cut a pizza. Take about a quarter of the triangle-shaped tortilla and use it to grasp and hold some meat…and then pop it right in your mouth.

I first tried the cochinita since I knew I would like that. And I was delicious.
Then I took a piece of the tortilla and grabbed some of the “other white meat”. By this time Sofi, recognizing that I was not used to eating without utensils, brought a spoon for the salsa and spoons for the meat. So I was able to add a little chili to the meat before eating. It wasn’t quite like sabor de pollo (tastes like chicken) that even the locals use to describe some meats not usually on the dinner plate. It was, perhaps, a little like mutton (without the fat) or goat…without the gamey taste that some wild meats have. So I had another. Ofelia served orange soda in plastic cups. I drank mine quickly since I saw that the flies were as interested in the soda as I was. Later I noticed that the adults covered their cups with a tortilla to keep out the flies. Tortillas were also used as napkins to clean fingers, faces and mouths.

After the meal we were given a tour of the grounds and shown a small pen with two young pigs. We were invited to help eat one of them as part of a relleno negro in November for their Day of the Dead observance.

Sofi’s husband, Carlos, had joined us for the meal by riding his bicycle from his village of Yalcoba to Hunuku. Since I was driving a minivan, I asked him if he would like to put the bike in the back and ride with us when we took Sofi home. But, of course! It took us about 10 minutes to go from Hunuku through another nameless village to Yalcoba. Carlos told us it takes him about an hour to ride the same route and Sofi added that it took her over an hour and a half to walk the same distance.

Alma treating the new bride

We went to the house of Carlos’ parents. Five of seven kids of Carlos and Sofi were there as well as Carlos’ mother and the new bride of one of Sofi’s sons. Alma worked with/on the grandmother as well as a couple of the kids attempting to cure their ills. She tried to determine if the new bride is pregnant yet but could not make a definite determination as yet. The bride is late, but it is still to soon to tell. We were asked if we would like some atoleatole made with fresh green corn rather than the dried corn that is usually used. Atole, as drunk by the Maya, is a thick mixture of water and masa or ground corn. It can be comsumed warm, room-temperature or cold and it can be sweetened or spiced with cinnamon or chilies. It is a staple of the farmers while working their milpas. Why not? I had already put my delicate gringo stomach at risk, why not go the whole way. I always tell visitors to Mexico NOT to drink the water…that is, to always drink only bottled, purified water. I was sure that the atole had not been made with purified water, but I said OK. Yes, I would like to try the atole. The taste was different. A cleaner, greener, fresher taste with some natural sweetness to it. We took our leave and returned to Valladolid.

The paca, paka, agouti, haaleb, tepezcuintle or tapescuinlte
Cute, isn't he?

The first thing I did upon arrival was to try to identify the strange meat… tepezcuintle. Now I cannot pronounce that word let along spell it. After numerous failed attempts at Googling the word, an alternate spelling gave me the information that we ate a paca or an agouti, a rodent with a range from Mexico to the tip of South America that is commonly eaten. In Mexico, it called tepezcuintle, also spelled tapescuinlte while the Mayan name is haaleb.

When I finally lay down in my hammock, I tried to listen to my body to see if any of the food or liquid I had ingested was going to cause me a problem. My body told me everything was OK and not to worry so I dropped off to sleep for over 10 hours. Maybe haaleb could be marketed as a remedy for insomnia. Quien sabé?

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The Ups and Downs of Living in the Yucatan... 
What Pyramids and Cenotes Have In Common

I was born in North Dakota and raised in Montana, so I am used to being able to see a big sky…and flat land. When driving through eastern North Dakota, I used to joke as we crossed an overpass that “This is the highest point in North Dakota”. It certainly seemed that way; you could see all the way to the unbroken horizon. Almost like being on the ocean, the expanse was so vast it seemed to go on forever. The very- low rolling hills flattened out with distance so that North Dakota seemed flat as a pancake.

When I first visited the Yucatan, I felt the same…I even made the same jokes as we drove an overpass…”This must be the highest point in the Yucatan”.

View from the summit of the main pyramid at Cobá

The view from the top of a pyramid is even more impressive. Flat. Absolutely flat! Without a hill or even a ripple. So flat that when it rains there is no “down hill” for the water to run, so the water sits in large puddles until it slowly drains into the earth or evaporates from the blazing sun. When walking through pre-Hispanic ruins, almost every time the very same revelation strikes me (I’m a slow learner, after all). That mound over there covered with trees and shrubs and looks like a hill is NOT a hill. There are no hills here. Dah! That is an as-yet unexcavated Mayan ruin.

What go me to thinking about the flatness of the Yucatan was all of the climbing that I have recently been doing. Climbing up and then returning down; climbing down and then back up. I’ve had some recent visitors that I took sightseeing. And almost all of the sights involve climbing both up and down (pyramids) or down and up (cenotes or caves) steps or stairs or ladders or ramps or paths.

The main pyramid at Cobá

Doesn't look like such a big deal, does it?
Let's add some people in to give it some perspective.

The main pyramid at Cobá with people

Pyramids are obvious. They stick up out of the ground and you can make an estimate of how high they are, how steep they are, how many steps have to be climbed (both up and then back down). Most people can make a semi-informed guesstimate, based upon past experiences, if they make it up and back down without a helicopter being called in to extract them from the top of a pyramid. The main pyramids of both Uxmal and Chichen Itza are now off-limits to climbing (and probably will remain that way). So, if you have already climbed one of them, you will have bragging rights with your grandchildren someday. If you’ve climbed both, you can start your bragging immediately.

But the main pyramids at both Ek Balam and Cobá are still open to climbers. The largest Ek Balam pyramid is higher than the Castillo at Chichen Itza, has a narrower width of steps than the Castillo and has no safety rope. I’m not sure of the pitch of the steps, but it seems to me that Ek Balam is steeper than the Castillo as well. The lack of the safety rope (or guide rope) is not bad going up. After all, your eyes are looking directly at the steps that your feet will be on in just a few seconds.

Guide Rope at Cobá

Just before my first ascent of a pyramid, some kind soul told me to walk up (and down) in a zigzag pattern. Because the treads are generally narrower (less deep) than the code-approved steps that most of us are used to in the gringo north AND because the risers (the vertical distance between the steps) are so much higher than those to which we are accustomed, walking up or down using a zig-zag pattern allows us almost our normal gait or stride. Don’t believe me? Try it.

I have asked a couple of professional archaeologists why the Maya, who are generally shorter in stature, constructed their steps in this manner. The best answer I received was this method produced the tallest structure with the least amount of stone (read: work). That made sense to me. The reason to build the structures in the first place was to re-create a mountain top where you (or the priest) could be closer to God, Dios, Chac or whom/whatever other divinity you might be searching for. The height was the main objective…not the comfort level of the steps. So it made great economic sense for them to build as high as possible with the least amount of work possible. On the other hand, the steps leading to the viewing area at the main ball court at Cobá are built for people to actually use without any major strain. The risers are almost a standard height and the treads are spacious.

Coming back down from the top of a pyramid is another story. At least for me it is, and from my observations of other climbers over the years, a fair number of other people as well. At Chichen Itza’s Castillo, most people just walked up, sometimes using their hands to reach up a few steps to help pull themselves up as they got closer to the top. Some people needed the guide rope to get up. Watching people come down was almost like viewing an old slapstick silent-film. Some of the younger ones ran down the steps (without the zigzag pattern), others strode majestically down, hardly ever looking at their feet. Still others cautiously advanced the same foot forward and downward, sometimes with the use of one or both hands to steady themselves. Some slide down on their butts, bump by bump. Many used the guide rope bisecting the steps. Some walked down, lightly staying in contact with the rope. Others came down backward holding on to the rope for dear-life. Yesterday I was at the main pyramid of Cobá. I had just descended and was sitting on a bench at the bottom waiting for a friend when the skies opened up with a brief, but drenching, rain shower. The stone steps suddenly became slick with the moisture and very slippery. The people caught on the steps hurried down as fast as they were able without their feet sliding out from under them. Not a good place to be caught if lightning started.


It's a long way down!

Heights do strange things to people. At Ek Balam, I watched a man, on his way back down; freeze about ten feet from the top of the pyramid. He could not move. His wife could not help him in any way. There was no guide rope to aid him. He sat there for at least 15 minutes before working up his courage enough to make his way down a few steps using a technique somewhere between the butt-sliding method and a hands-behind-the-back crab-walking one. I had to leave before he made his next move, but I am sure that it took him a long, long time to make his descent.

I watched him because I knew how close I had been many times to the same paralyzing fear. The fear starts at the bottom of the ascent…because I realize then that I will have to come back down. The fear grows are I ascend. The higher I go, the greater the fear until I reach the top. Then I must go as far away as possible from any edge, preferably with my back against some solid structure. I check out the view but I cannot really enjoy it, as others seem to because all I can concentrate on is the descent. Because many of the pyramids are so steep, you cannot actually see the steps until you are very close to the edge. The lack of visual clues such as a banister or railing doesn’t help either. Looking down, my stomach lurches and sweat breaks out over my entire body. There is nothing I can do about it, the fear has been there my entire life and will remain with me to my dying day. That first step down, almost always a side step, seems endless. A lifetime until my toe touches the top of that first step. The already overly high riser seems even higher than it actually is. I must stretch to reach the next step. If I look straight out, all I see is jungle. And if I look down, all I see is myself falling, bouncing, and rolling down the steps only to end up dead and spread-eagled on the ground at the base of the pyramid. Somehow I get down, vowing never to subject myself to the same humiliation again. Vowing to never again climb another pyramid, never go on the roof of my house, never even climb another ladder.

But then, I go and do it again.

Cenote Zaci in Valladolid

Balankanche Caves

The sightseeing adventures over the past few days have included three cenotes and one cave. All underground. All with long (and sometimes steep and slippery) descents. All had some sort of guide rope or handrail. Two of the cenotes and the cave (obviously, otherwise they would call it something else) had artificial lights of some kind. The third cenote was partially open to the sky and had ample natural light. Here the descents were less difficult. I often could not actually see the bottom of the stairs since they faded into darkness as well as sometimes twisted and turned around a bend. If I looked straight ahead, I was looking into a solid rock faces, sometimes inches from my eyes. I had to be careful not to bump my head on the uneven rock surface of the ceiling during the descent. And I could use my hands, both to grip the rope as well as to guide me down by following the rock walls by touch. A very tactile experience. Because of the touch I felt connected with the earth and, even though the steps were as steep (sometimes steeper) than those of a pyramid and the vertical distances were almost exactly the same (plus or minus 30 meters above ground level and below ground level…I wonder if anyone has studied the relative heights of pyramids vs. cenotes as a basis for their thesis? After all, the ceiba tree has roots as deep as the branches are tall, verdad?), I did not experience the vertigo that I experience while descending a pyramid. I had the concern of slipping on moist stone steps, but not the fear of falling to the bottom.


Underground Ceremonial Site at the Balankanche Caves

In the cave where the only source of light was artificial, I experienced momentary claustrophobia, thinking of the tons of rock above my head…and seeing the broken fragments of rock that had already fallen from the ceiling of the cave. How would I ever find my way out if the lights went out? I cursed myself for not bringing a pocket flashlight. And I thought of the miners in Utah and in China who, at the time this was written, were trapped in mine cave-ins, perhaps struggling for their lives at that very moment. Perhaps already dead.


And again was able to put my life and my fears in perspective.

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The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone….. 

There’s more to dirt than meets the eye…CSI in the Yucatan

A few weeks ago I touched on the rumor that my property might have been inhabited before the Spanish colonials showed up. Because of it location on a high piece of ground, there might have been a dwelling or even a more permanent site of some sort. Perhaps a clue showed up yesterday.

If you’ve bothered to read my previous posts, you will have read that I have found shards in many, many places in north, south and central America. And I’m not the only one. I had a friend with whom I attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City. During the 1960s he and his family moved to the state of Puebla in Mexico. He lived and painted there for over 9 years before returning to the US. When he returned, he told me that virtually every time someone dug a well or excavated for a house foundation they came across clay shards and figurines. He showed me a cigar box full of clay figures, heads and small animals.

A friend of mine from Argentina, knowing that I have an interest in pre-Hispanic cultures gave me a painted clay object that had been found on her family’s ranch in NW Argentina. I’m not at all sure what it is…kind of looks like a bottle stopper to me. Perhaps that is what it was…a stopper for a ceramic jug or jar.

I was in Peru, just south of Lima and still on the coast. A friend was showing me an ancient adobe city that was almost completely eroded. An archaeological dig was going on right along-side the road, at a low area. My driver stopped the car and hunkered down in the shade of the car to wait for us at least 10 meters away from the dig. I wandered over to the dig and begin to question the man in charge. I’m not quite sure how I knew he was the man in charge, but he was. I was asking and he was answering in Spanish…not great Spanish on either side. He looked Asian and since there are many Asians in the Lima area I just assumed he was Japanese. When I finally asked him where he was from and he replied Southern Illinois University, we both laughed and switched to English as it was more comfortable for both of us. After a brief chat, I returned to the car and as we dove off, the driver showed me what he had found in the dirt near the car. Two kernels of corn…one almost black, the other yellow, both very dry. A shell. And a broken piece of bone about 4 inches long…it looked to me to be a human rib bone. All of this just lying there in the dirt.

When I was a boy in Montana, I often found Indian arrowheads and traces of early European settlers.. The point being that anywhere people have been before us, they might have left traces of themselves.

Yesterday as my workers and I were sitting down to lunch, one of the workers pointed out an object sitting on the window ledge and asked me what it was. I had never seen it before. Nor had anyone else, except Sofia, the housekeeper. She said that it had been in the same place since she had been working for us. There had been a lot of changeover in the workers around the property over the past three or four months so no one said “I found it and put it there”.

One of the workers identified it as a tooth, but when I looked at it, I thought not. It looked more like a bone to me. A finger bone! At lunch we joked about where the object came from. Everyone showed their spread fingers to demonstrate all their fingers were intact and it was not their bone. After lunch I referenced my copy of Frank Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy. I first looked up the finger bones and then the toe bones. And there on Plate 505 was a match. The Proximal Phalange of the right big toe or the biggest bone in the big toe. Now, I’m not an anatomist nor a pathologist nor a surgeon, but the match looked right to me. But I’m certainly open to correction if someone can identify it.

Then the questions arose, whose toe was it? Where did it come from? How old is it? Mayan or Spanish? Did an animal bring the bone here from a burial site? Or is this the burial site itself? Did someone chop off a toe with a machete while cutting wood? Is there a tomb on the property? A relic from the Caste War?

Obviously more questions than answers. Anyone with any thoughts about this?

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Apocalypto, Mel Gibson and the Yucatan 

Last night I read a number of reviews of the film Apocalypto, directed by Mel Gibson, on iTunes. There were over 250 reviews (some of which I skimmed and some of which I read every word) of the movie. The dialogue of the movie is entirely in Yucatec Maya…the language of the entire northern portion of the peninsula of Yucatan. And that is unique. The reviews ranged from “it ok movie but Mel Gibson is semistic (sic) so it ruins the movie” to many who said that it was the best movie of 2006. Many people commented on Mel Gibson rather than on the movie. Many took one side or the other on historical accuracy. So I felt I had to get my two cents in.

I live in Valladolid, Yucatan, less than 25 miles from the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. I eat Mayan food every day. And I hear Yucatec Mayan spoken every day. So that must make me an expert on all things Mayan, right? OK listen up!

First of all, I found a copy of the original shooting script for Apocalypto. Here it is.

“The top of the Sacrificatorio is broken and ruined, but there is no doubt that it once supported an altar for those sacrifices of human victims which struck even the Spanish with horror. It was barely large enough for the altar and officiating priests, and the idol to whom the sacrifice was offered. The whole was in full view of the people at the foot.

“The barbarous ministers carried up the victim entirely naked, pointed out the idol to which the sacrifice was made, that people might pay their adorations, and then extended him upon the altar. This had a convex surface, and the body of the victim lay arched, with the trunk elevated and the head and feet depressed. Four priests held the legs and arms, and another kept his head firm with a wooden instrument made in the form of a coiled serpent, so that he was prevented from making the least movement. The head priest then approached, and with a knife made of flint cut an aperture in the breast, and tore out the heart, which, yet palpitating, he offered to the sun, and then threw it at the feet of the idol.

… “If the victim was a prisoner of war, as soon as he was sacrificed they cut off his head to preserve the scull (sic), and threw the body down the steps, where it was taken up by the officer or soldier to whom the prisoner belonged, and carried to his house to be dressed and served up as entertainment for his friends”

This was written by John L. Stephens in his book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Vol. II, Dover Edition, Copyright 1969, about the ruins at Santa Cruz del Quiché in Guatemala, originally written in 1840 and first published in 1841.

Secondly, I thought it was great that the film was shot in Yucatec Maya (even though most of the actors, if not all of them, had to learn their lines in Mayan). I showed the film to Sofia, a Mayan friend who only speaks Spanish with gringos like me; at home, in the streets or at the market she speaks Yucatec Maya (as do approximately one and one half million other people on the Yucatan peninsula). She had trouble understanding the movie. I’m not sure if it was because the actors didn’t do such a great job, if they had bad accents or if Sofia just wasn’t used to hearing the Mayan language coming out of speakers.

Almost all of the people with whom I am in contact on any given day are Maya and speak Mayan. Many still live in houses like the ones shown in the village scenes. If you want to experience the Mayan culture, come on down. It still exists. The descendents of the people who built the pyramids are still alive and well.

Most of Mexico was quickly conquered by the Spanish and their Indian allies. But they never really conquered the Mayans. The last Mayan Rebellion (War of the Castes) was not officially over until 1913. And I have heard skirmishes still occurred into the 1930s. But now the Mayans are friendly and welcoming. Climbing one of their pyramids after seeing the film puts a whole new light on things. As does cutting through their jungle with a steel machete.

I can’t comment on the accuracy of any part of the film except for one thing: If the sighting of the Spanish ship was supposed to be the first interaction between the Spanish and the mainland Amerindians, there was a slight problem with geography. The first recorded meeting took place in the Yucatan (in what is now the state of Quintana Roo). The Yucatan peninsula is, for the most part, flat as a pancake. There are no hills, no mountains, no rivers and no waterfalls. One would have to go a long way south to Belize or southwest to Chiapas or Guatemala to find such terrain. Far enough away so that, even if you ran really, really hard, you couldn’t make it back in time to save you wife and children from drowning. Other than that, I thought everything was immensely interesting and detailed.

Bottom line: I liked the movie and I am sure that I will see it numerous times.
I gave it 5 Stars.

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What's Past is Present (Part III) 

In almost every place I have lived or traveled to, a rock was just a rock. In Montana the rock might have a bit of agate or quartz in it. In North Carolina, perhaps, a bit of mica. In Yellowstone Park there was obsidian. But basically they were just rocks. Something to skim across a pond. Or shoot with a slingshot. Or throw at a target. But, still just a rock. Without age or character or interest. A few times I accompanied my father on fieldwork in Montana where he was collecting various types of rock for a geology class. I never thought to look for fossils during these outings. Although some of the places we went later turned out to be full of interesting fossils.

I’ve been around gravel pits and sand pits and rock quarries in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York and never paid any attention to the rocks themselves. I’ve lived in New Hampshire and in Switzerland where rocks seem to be everywhere, but didn’t notice them except when they were in my way.

The only times that rocks had any age or dynamics seemed to be places where they were still growing. Did I really mean to say, “Rocks were growing?” Yes, I did. In Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, in Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana and in Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, you could see the stalactites and the stalagmites growing millimeter by millimeter as drops of mineral-laden water fell from them or unto them. You couldn’t actually see them grow, but you could feel them growing, you could sense the change and the growth. The other place I saw rocks growing was on the Big Island of Hawaii. We rented a small airplane to fly near the volcanoes and to see the red-hot lava falling into the ocean, instantly vaporizing water into steam and changing from liquid lava into solid stone. I had a similar experience/feeling when I explored Pompeii. I could picture the ash being compressed into stone over time.

But, for the most part, rocks were just rocks. Nothing more, nothing less.

But here in the Yucatan, things are different. Rocks are living. Rocks are growing. Rocks have spirits (I’ll write about that later). And at the same time, the rocks are very old...they seem ageless. About nine years ago, I was leaning against a stone fence, separating two properties in Sierra Papacal, a small village near Merida. I was on a volunteer mission project building concrete roofs on houses of people in need and working with Mano Amiga. I was whipped. The day was hot, I was out of shape and I had not been drinking enough water. So I was resting and getting ready to go back to work when I happened to actually look that the stone fence on which I was resting. The stones weren’t huge, but they were a good size…perhaps 10 to 15 kilos each (22 to 33lbs). As I looked at them closer and closer, I saw more and more seashells imbedded into the rock. Fossilized remains of long-dead sea creatures. As I looked closer, I saw that virtually every rock contained fossils of sea dwellers. I remembered enough of my high school earth science course to realize that these were probably sedimentary rocks, built up layer by layer beneath the sea, trapping the seashells and surrounding them. At some point either the sea level dropped or the land rose from the sea and the rock was exposed to air.

This exposed limestone sat patiently for thousands of years waiting for the Mayan builders to utilize the stone for their houses, their temples and their pyramids. The Mayan builders quarried, cut, dressed and carved all of their building blocks without metal tools. That blows me away. Every time I hit a limestone rock with a steel hammer and the hammer bounces off, I wonder how did the Mayans do it and how long did it take them to form all the blocks for even a small pyramid? In modern times, the rock is still quarried for foundations, for exposed-stone walls, for architectural and ornamental carvings and to make decorative tiles. Some of the bathrooms at Casa Hamaca are tiled with natural limestone tiles that expose various kinds and sizes of fossilized seashell. They are natural stone cut to the desired thickness and size and then lightly polished to remove most of the saw marks. Here’s a few photos of the tile at Casa Hamaca; Every one of the seashells is a fossil. That's still amazing to me.

The entire northern portion of the Yucatan peninsula is a limestone shelf that once was underwater. It seems solid enough, but it’s not. It’s dynamic and changing…almost living. The geology of the Yucatan is much like that of Florida. Flat. A flat limestone crust with channels, streams and rivers running under the crust. In Florida, when the alkaline limestone becomes eaten away by the acid in the rains and the crust weakens and eventually collapses, it is called a sinkhole. It seems every year or so there is a news story about a house or an automobile getting gobbled by a quickly forming sinkhole. The same type of thing happens in the Yucatan except here they are called cenotes (but I cannot remember any cenotes gobbling up a car or a house). With the exception of a very few small lakes, there is no surface water in the northern part of the Yucatan. The cenotes were and still are the only constant water supply. They were life giving and villages and cities grew up around the cenotes since they were the source of year-round water.

There are no real lakes, no rivers, no streams in the northern Yucatan. At least on the surface there are none. But beneath the surface of the Yucatan, underneath the limestone shelf, underground rivers flow into underground lakes. The entire Yucatan is honeycombed with them, interconnecting to form a vast underground world. And the surface is riddled with cenotes. There are probably dozens if not hundreds of new cenotes currently forming as the acidic rain leaches away the alkaline limestone. There’s some great graphics on this link: that show the stages of cenote formation. And some simple experiments with chalks that demonstrate how the rock is eaten away.

Some cenotes have a very small opening to the surface with an underground cavern considerably larger hidden underneath the surface, like the cenote at Dzitnup near Valladolid. Some of the cenotes are literally just holes in the ground. The main cenote at Chichen Itza, for instance, has vertical sides and maybe as much as 100 meters (110 yards) across, but is just hole in the ground. Still others are in the transition stage between the two previous examples…like Cenote Zaci in the center of Valladolid. It has partially collapsed, but the enormous slaps of rock that once formed the ceiling of the cenote now lie scattered and shattered many feet below the surface of the ground.

And that’s another place you can see the rock grow. Many of the cenotes, caves and caverns in the Yucatan have stalactites and stalagmites. They are growing drip by drip.

This morning my friend, Ponce, took me to the jungle near Valladolid to show me a cenote. He wants me to buy a piece of land on which the cenote is located. I told him that without water, land is worthless. He assured me the water was there, the cenote was there. In fact, he said there was even a second cenote much further into the jungle. We parked beside the road and grabbed our machetes. Ponce led the way into the jungle, following a distinct path that was almost hidden in places by the plant growth on either side of the path. We really needed the machetes. Ponce pointed out the plants not to touch and pointed out the ones that are good to eat. After about 1/2 hour of playing Indiana Jones, we came to an open field populated by some Brahma bulls and cows…and a dozen young boys from a nearby village on their way to the cenote to swim. We joined up with the boys and continued on a much more frequently used and open path to the cenote.

The cenote is very deep; Ponce says 20 meters or almost 66 feet to the water. It’s difficult for me to judge depth, but it was a long, long way down. This cenote has no name but is similar in some ways to the one at Dzitnup. There was a main opening, a hole, less than ten meters (about 33 feet) across. With the brilliance of the sun, it was hard to see into the opening, but with a little patience, waiting until the clouds covered the sun, you could see that the cenote opened up to a much larger space near the water level. It space was shaped somewhat like a mayonnaise jar with a hole the size of a quarter cut in the lid. That was the main opening to the cenote. When the sun was just right, I could see there was dry land down there at the bottom. As well as the larger opening, there was another one nearby of four or five meters (13 to 16 feet) across, but it was so overgrown with trees, shrubs and bushes, that it was impossible to determine even the shape of the opening. And then there were another five or so much smaller openings to the larger underground chamber. One of them had rocks mortared around it in a circle forming a well-like location from which to draw up water by the bucketful.

The leaning tree on the left of this photo is the one on which the boys are climbing down on the following photos. This image has been photoshoped to attempt to bring out some of the interior detail.

All of the openings allowed light to penetrate to the furthest depths and, depending on time of day, allow sunbeams to strike the surface of the water. That’s what made this cenote so beautiful and so similar to Dzitnup, the sunbeams on the water. Great flocks of a beautiful bird flew in and out of the main opening. Butterflies flittered about. Vine-like tendrils seemed suspended from the edge of the opening all the way to water level. Plants covered one side of a huge stalactite that hung down almost to the water below. Other stalactites formed bizarre shapes. The boys kept warning me not to step in one of the smaller holes or to go too close to the edge of the big one. Hey, don’t worry; I’m not going down there! But the boys did. There was a very large tree leaning against one edge of the largest opening. The boys scampered down it like monkeys to jump into the water. I could not see how far down the tree actually went. Perhaps it was growing from one of the dry areas at the bottom.

While we were standing there watching the boys swim, I tried to envision what I would do with this cenote if the land around it became mine. For access, I pictured a spiral staircase leading all the way to the bottom from the second largest opening. The flat terrain would allow a rough road to be cut leading to the cenote area. But that’s as far as I could picture it without seeing what was at the bottom of the cenote. Could it be developed as a tourist attraction? Did it have a natural, temperature-stable cave in which to age cheese? Or wine? Or was there a hidden temple? Or a buried treasure? I knew I could not get down the tree trunk and ever get back up…so maybe I will have to just send my camera and see the cenote through another’s eyes. But I think I want to know what’s at the bottom of the cenote.

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