Monday, April 30, 2012

A Philosophical Foray on Life, Teachng, and Attractions to the Past

Having just finished off  summaries of this year's travel to Cancun and the Yucatan,  I pause briefly to consider  the question of what attracts me to ancient civilizations and history.  I'm not sure I have an answer, but I can say that this affinity has lurked in my life for as long as I can remember.  

The books and movies I loved as a child were generally adventures taking place in far away places.  There was Peter Pan, Treasure IslandKim,  and King Solomon's Mines.  My all time favorite book between the age of eight and ten was Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels.  I still have a copy on my bookshelf and it has little check marks after the places he wrote about that I have now visited. There are still enough to keep me traveling for a few years, but I'm well over half way through his list. 

C.W. Ceram's Gods, Graves, and Scholars  was another favorite of mine in high school.  It focused my academic interest in archaeology and anthropology even as I was continuing to idolize that strange and mysterious uncle (John) who would periodically appear at our house and who would occasionally send me some stamps or a carved elephant from Siam.  I can see from where I am sitting right now, a wooden plaque holding little tin knives, titled "Weapons of Moroland" that he sent to me from the Phillipines some sixty years ago. 

Having been a teacher for over forty years, I guess I shouldn't be surprised at the impact of "mentors" on lives.  There is no doubt now that Uncle John was clearly one of mine.  Yet since he appeared so infrequently, I don't think he ever was truly conscious of that influence.  Even after I turned down an offer to go to Carroll College (where my mother and my pastor wanted me to go) to accept the scholarship from Beloit College (where Uncle John went), I don't think he really made the connection. 

So I went off to study Archaeology and Anthropology just like Uncle John,  until like a lot of other young folk, my initial career ideals toppled like bowling pins.  Anthropology soon gave way to Geology. I was going even further into the past. Then just as fast the Speech/Theatre bug knocked the Geology pin into the gutter as well.  

What is clear to me now is that I had always loved to read and had always wanted to travel to those far off places that I read about. In the theatre I found a path that nurtured both the literary and literal worlds.  I directed plays that spanned history from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Ibsen and Pinter.  For me at least,  getting inside those dramatic worlds required an actual committment to see the places in Greece and Rome and France, and Europe where those works were created.  I felt and still feel that putting your own feet on the stones of the past creates a new mortar--a glue that binds you to those who came before and to those who will come after.  

Alan Bennett puts this thought far better when at the end of his brilliant play, The History Boys, he has Hector say,

"Pass the parcel.
That's sometimes all you can do.
Take it, feel it, pass it on.
Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, some day.
Pass it on, boys.
That's the game I wanted you to learn.
Pass it on."

While you are thinking on this, I will start preparing to pass on a few items about our February trip to Arizona.  

Take care.  

Drama Jim

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Playa del Carmen or "Food, food, glorious food"

What do I think of when I say Playa del Carmen?  It's "food, food, glorious, food."  One of the delights of any vacation is the opportunity to search out restaurants in your port of call.  Cruises tend to work against local forays since your meals on board are included in the cost and they're excellent in quality and available literally around the clock.  But when you are doing the time share gig, you normally have a kitchen and can cook if you wish to.  The question is "Do you wish to?" and the answer is often "Not really."  The Royal Haciendas also have their own fine restaurants on site, but a convenient shuttle can take you the few miles into downtown Playa del Carmen and there you can walk down a lovely pedestrian mall that is chock full of colorful shops and marvelous eateries.

Our shuttle dropped us off at this rather foreboding fountain.

But soon we were trooping down the street with with lots of other strollers and potential diners.

All the stores were open and many were the colorful souvenir variety.

Some were clearly upscale.

But we were mainly hungry so we opted for some lovely spots on the second floor where we would enjoy both the food and the streetscape passing below.

The cuilinary rewards were always quite reasonably priced, attractively presented, and delicious.

There is no finer finish than Mayan coffee and it is done with a flair all its own.

 Happiness reigns!

Our re-entry to the chill of the American Midwest was mitigated by the knowledge that we would be heading for Arizona shortly and the next entries will highlight some of the new experiences on that trip.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Kicking back at the Royal Haciendas near Cancun

When we were not exploring the natural beauty of Sian Ka'an or the astounding architecture of the ancient Mayan cities of Tulum or Coba, we were kicking back in style at the Royal Haciendas just outside of Playa del Carmen. Checking  in gave some hint of pleasures to come, but

the view each morning from our balcony clinched the deal.

From there on it was just one tough decision after another.

Do you hit the pool?


The truly "wet" bar?

Or the beach?

We leaned toward the beach as there was a bit more shade

But you could always go for a walk down there.

 and you might even meet one of the locals.

Talk about local wildlife, how about letting your baby pet an Iguana?

Thanks but no thanks.

Of course there are real honest to goodness locals.  This one was our lifeguard and he took his job very seriously. 

Other activities can range from historic Mayan reconstructions in the sand to

out and out up and away para-sailing. 

If you get too exhausted  there is always a hammock or two or three or . . . . . . .
to escape to.

Finally at the end of the day there are quiet shadows and thoughts of taking the shuttle into Playa del Carmen for another delicious dinner.

 Bon Appetit and Sweet Dreams   The final installment will be food.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Tulum by the Sea--Another Mayan Gem in Mexico

Here we are once again and ready to take a walk through the ancient Mayan city of Tulum.  It was smaller than Coba or Chichen Itza in terms of population and building scale, but it  was one of the few walled Mayan cities and it clearly had a splendidly scenic seaside location.  Although there was some coastal settlement earlier, Tulum began its major growth in the 12th century and flourished right on into the arrival of the Spanish conquerers in the 16th century. Archaeologists place it chronologically as Late-Post Classic in the list of Meso-American city development. With its perch on a rocky cliff overlooking natural sandy beaches and its tidy walled ground plan, it takes little imagination to see Tulum evolving as a trade center that offered easy water access plus reasonable protection of all goods coming and going. If you wish a fuller historical overview, let me suggest a Wikipedia article.  It covers the basics without getting overly technical.   Most interesting is the discussion of how the Castillo (Great Castle)  functioned as a sophisticated  beacon for ancient mariners. 

So let's get started. Here we are at the NW entrance. The city walls are pretty casually constructed and only ten to fifteen feet high--not exactly unscaleable by a determined opponent. This has made for some scolarly debate about whether the walls were as much about social barriers or religious cloistering than defense.    

There are only five of these narrow tunnel entrances into the enclosure--two on the north, two on the south, and one on the west.  The eastern coastal cliffs make up the fourth side. You can see these along with the general layout of the buildings below.

If you think about this as you go in, it does seem clear if an invasion occurred that the attackers would have to go over the walls rather than through these narrow little doors.

Once inside the plan is open and orderly. To your right is the wall running down to a NW corner tower structure. 

To your left, toward the sea, is a view of the House of the Cenote, which stands over one of the city's main fresh water resources.  
The main street runs dead ahead of you (north to south) and on your right (west) there are a series of ruins of smaller platforms and modest dwellings.

Larger more regal buildings, like the House of Halach Uinic below,  run along on your left (the east or seaside). Estimates of population for Tulum run from 600 to over 1500--most of whom would have been royals and/or members of the priestly classes. 

Over fifty shrines, dwellings, ceremonial plazas, platforms, and temples have been excavated and restored.  I will cover  three of the more important ones.  First is the Temple of the Frescoes.

It aptly exhibits post-classic Mayan architecture and like many Mayan structures was built in stages. At first it was a small roofed room with a vault or shrine and decorated walls.  At a later date covered galleries of columns were built on three sides. Later still,  a new temple was erected on top of the old. Two of the three column galleries were filled in to help support the new upper level and voila' you have the current look.

The name, The Temple of the Frescoes, comes from its remarkable and colorful decorative murals.
The interior is now closed, but this grey and blue signature piece is illustrative of what was found inside. It shows a walking god holding images of the rain god Chac. Around the outside are pictures of various growing plants.

The exterior bands and cornices are highly decorated as well. 

Here a descending or diving god hangs on to some kind of key or twisted rope

Much like Greek statues, the stucco surfaces of the exteriors were brightly painted. You can still see evidence of that coloring in this closeup of a rosette like pattern on a moulding.  In their time these structures must have made quite a brilliant impact on visitors and inhabitants alike. 

The second major structure of note is the Temple of the Descending God.  It stands on the northern end of the Inner Precinct right along the coast.  It's the building on the left below.

Like the Tempe of the Frescoes, the Temple of the Descending God was built in stages and was colorfully decorated.  The name comes from the signature bas-relief figure, seeming to plunge down in space,  in the niche over the central door.

It represents a winged god with legs bent up and arms hanging down as if diving down from the sky. Similar figures can be seen on other buildings in Tulum and in other sites throughout Mexico and Central America. In Tulum it seems to be one of the primary city deities.  Most of the time the image of the descending god faces west so it is illuminated by the setting sun. This fits well with another major Tulum deity, Venus,  the morning and evening star.  Studies of the Temple's directional placement have shown that the winter solstice is recorded by light coming through a small east window and striking the westerm facade lintel just below the outstreched hands of the "descending god." 

The final gem of Tulum is the great Castillo (The Castle) itself.  There it is in the background as our faithful guide Oscar tells the story of its development.

The Castle was also constructed in various stages through time and the central niche of the upper temple cornice (facing west) contains once again a descending or diving god figure.

The two columns on the upper temple level pick up on another classic Mayan motif--the serpent. At the great Temple of the Eagles at Chichen Itza the stairway entablatures take the form of plumed serpents.   Here at Tulum the column bases of the great "Upper Temple" are carved as snake heads and the tops are in shape of rattles. It's a tad hard to see this even in th telephoto shot below as that level of the temple is not open and I was not able to get a profile view. However, with a bit of imagination you can see the serpent mouth on the right hand column and the rattle or tail bump at the top.

Let's move now to the ocean side (to the right) of El Castillo.  Note how easily it could look like a medieval castle from a distance. It apparently did to a Spanish conquisdador sailing along the coast in 1518.

Pulling back a bit illustrates the potential of The Castle as a guiding beacon for incoming shipping.  Oscar told us this was the highest point on the coast and it may also give us a good hint as to why the city was founded here.

Just to the north of the Castle is a gentle beach that would seem to make a perfect landing point for the flat bottom ocean going canoes used by ancient Mayan sailors. The building out on the point beyond the beach is called The Temple of the Wind.
And just out front of The Castle is a break in the barrier reef that allows easy access to the lagoon and the beach.

The article from Wikipedia that I recommended at the beginning of this entry contains the full story of how the tiny windows in the eastern side of the Upper Temple facade can help incoming mariners day or night (with a fire inside the temple)  to line up their vessels so as to skim through the gap in the reef and make their way safely to shore.

If that doesn't impress you with the intelligence and creativity of the ancient Mayan culture, I don't know what will. 
And that my friends is Tulum. I would not skip it if you are in the area. You will find it fascinating and beautiful especially if you can ignore those strange looking beasts called tourists who always seem to want to have their pictures taken in front of the really important stuff.  

Now all that remains to cover in our 2012 trip to Cancun is to fill in a bit more on the Royal Haciendas and Playa del Carmen.  That will hopefully come shortly.  Adios!