Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Mexican Mayan Mayhem: the fantasy, the past and the now

Back down to sea level we arrived at the Mexican city of Cancun, the ultimate tourist city. We were joining a tour (Tucan Tours' Mayan Adventure) from here but arrived a few days early. Tours are good if you want to cover a lot of ground fast in an unfamiliar area. We spent a day at a theme park (Xcaret) that focused on water themes. You could snorkel with sharks, walk underwater with a helmet on your head, see many sea creatures, birds and animals. Most interesting was the included show in the evening, a huge extravaganza on the history of Mexico. It began with a weird version of soccer where the players could not use their arms or feet and the goals were hoops on the side. It took a while but finally somebody scored and everybody cheered. We did not understand most of what was going on but it became clearer later, on the tour...

The tour began with a visit to Chichen Itza (not chicken pizza), a large Mayan city that existed from around AD 600 to 1200. It was impressive; the Kukulkan Pyramid is one of the first things you see and it is hard to take your eyes off it. It was voted one of the seven ancient wonders in 2007. The complex itself is huge with many buildings of significance.

The hoop for the ball game
The reason for the ball game in the Xcaret show became clear as we rounded a corner to see the great ball court for the Mesoamerican Ball Game. The Mayans believed that the gods required human sacrifice for the rains to come (and lots of other things), so they would play this game to decide which team's captain would be sacrificed; first ball in wins (or in my opinion loses). Historians believe the winning captain was sacrificed by the loser captain chopping off his head. It was considered a great honour to die as you contributed to the prosperity of the city. Personally I would be a very bad player and hopefully retire in disgrace.


Ancient Astronomical Obseratory

Palenque was the next Mayan ruin on our list and is truly magical. We arrived early in the day in a private bus to beat the mid morning rush. Tucked away in lush green rainforest, in the morning light of a cloudy, misty day it reminded me of Macchu Picchu in Peru. The city dates back to 226 BC and flourished for around 1000 years. It was absorbed by the jungle and only a few sections have been excavated and restored. Archaeologists believe 95% of it is still owned by the jungle.

Tomb of the Red Queen
In the structure called the Temple of the Inscriptions they found a huge sarcophagus in the tomb of Pakal, now on display in the museum on site. In Temple XIII is the tomb of the red queen. Using mercury and a red powder made from cinnabar the queen's remains and the tomb were all painted red. I wonder if the painters knew why they were getting sick.

So where are the Mayans today? Well actually, they are scattered in villages everywhere. One such village is San Juan Chamula in the Chiapas region. This village of the Tzotzil Maya people is autonomous; they look after themselves and administer their own laws. Sometimes mob justice rules. Visiting San Juan church is an eye opening, sensory overloading experience. We were not allowed to take photographs so I will try to describe some of it.

On walking inside the dimly lit church the first thing that hits you is the smell of the burning incense followed by the overwhelming thick smoke. As my eyes adjusted I noticed that the floor is covered in green pine needles and lit candles of varying colours. The place is filled with people wandering around and sitting in groups on the floor chanting or in silent prayer; there are no pews. As I walked forward I came across two women, one with her eyes closed and the other holding a live chicken which was being waved around the first woman's body. I looked back a short while later and the chicken was in the second woman's lap, head lolling on the ground, clearly dead. Animal sacrifice is still practised here. Other men were going around with a bottle of liquor distilled from sugar cane giving each person a small glass to drink. (One was passed around earlier in a house of worship; it was quite nice.) On the sides were statues of saints with mirrors on their chests to reflect evil. Also in evidence were numerous coke bottles being drunk and on the ground; apparently coca cola has evil killing powers. At the front on the ceiling was a depiction of Jesus with the sun on his back, evidence of the mixing of the Spanish-brought Catholicism and Mayan religions. Funnily enough you did get a sense of joy and a feeling of family pervading the church. I left to rejoin the modern world with the feeling I had just time travelled from 500 years ago.

Making Tortillas
Every different area has their own type of religion, many without the sacrifice aspect and completely different attitudes and customs. I hope my description gave a small sense of the experience.

Included Margaritas
Outside of these villages a more conventional existence is enjoyed by this majority Catholic society. We visited the large towns of Merida and San Cristobal where we had a brilliant time, the people friendly, the towns full of character and the food delicious.

San Cristobal
Big band night on Tuesdays in Merida

Train travel in Mexico? (just kidding, explanation next post)

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