Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Day 7 – San Ignacio

Mayan site: Cahal Pech

Up at 5,30am to visit Cahal pech; on my own. It’s not often you get an entire Mayan site to yourself swathed in an early morning mist. Entering rooms, lying on ancient Mayan beds and just sitting on the steps of an empty plaza surrounded by great architecture, then walking trough an empty ballcourt, where who knows what games were played, with what consequences, is what I came here for. Sometimes, being alone gives you more time to look carefully and reflect on what you’re seeing. In tis case it was some of the detail of Mayan architecture; the intimacy of the plaza enclosed entirely by buildings or the simplicity of the small ballcourts, that suggest something other than the drama of a murderous game. You enter the place through the woods then enter a packed set of buildings full of corbelled rooms and passages that lead from one complex to another. There’s even a stepped corbelled staircase and stucco drainage pipes from the high temple into the plaza. The site guardian arrived just as I was leaving which gave me the opportunity to pay and walk round the small museum.

Mayan site: Xuantunich

We crossed on an old wooden ferry that was hand cranked using fixed cables across the Mopan River then up a steep road past a three doored residential building with beds, one with a stone pillow, a room with a view, to an artificial platform and the Xuantunich site dominated by El Castillo. We climbed the 40 metres up the huge temple and had a great view across the entire site and the jungle beyond. Parts of a complex frieze were visible. These are vertiginous places, with acutely steep steps and narrow unprotected tops. One mistaken step backwards for a photo and you’re off and dead. This was happening with disturbing regularity at Chichen Itza, so most of the high temples are closed off, but half the fun of these more remote sites is the dangerous climb. Other side and across to an unexcavated mound, stopping to chat with the two soldiers on duty to protect tourists. They were bored and left their guns lazily on the bench. We then passed through the ball court and climbed the palace temple. I took a route across the three buildings on the right hand side of El Castillo. This was a quiet and beautiful place.

Mayan Wheel debate

Bruce, our knowledgeable guide at Xuantunich, started by showing us some pottery that he claimed was wheel turned, his opening gambit in an attempt to prove that the Mayans had the wheel. His arguments were as follows; the evidence for pottery wheels, toys found with wheels and circular nature of Mayan calendar. However, against this is; the lack of images on pots and paintings, no wheel ruts or compaction on roads, o pack animals therefore less need, no actual examples of wheels in graves or elsewhere. On balance it seems unlikely.

Mayan Ballcourt debate

Why are the ballcourts so small? Why is there no room for spectators? Why do they often come in pairs? Why are the markers of such religious significance? I concur with Bruce who sees these sites as ritual rehearsal areas for symbolic ballgames, mimicking the trial of the hero Twins , who defeated the gods of the underworld in a ballgame. It’s a sort of moral trial, like the Egyptian weighing of the heart. The ritual use is confirmed by the discovery of a pot of mercury under the central marker at Lamina. You can see how archaeologists are tempted into sensational hypotheses such as fights to the death, with the winners being sacrificed through decapitation or the games being used to settle inter-territorial disputes, but it’s all a bit fanciful.


After lunch we travelled through a rough road valley occupied by Mennonites. Their plain wooden farms were like Little House on the Prairie structures and we passed , first an ox-pulled cart driven by a typical bearded man with rolled up shirt sleeves and the usual black trousers held up by braces (or ‘suspenders’ as our US cousins would say). Later, in Miami, I’d be caught cold by a description of Larry King in his ‘suspenders’ (which in England attack black nylons to panties). Another from of transport is a single horse buggy, like a car, that takes a family of four and some goods in the back. We passed a couple of these, with the Walton-like kids smiling and waving and mother looking severe. Finally, there’s a smaller buggy for tow or three people on a single seat. It was like coming across a lost valley or huge film set.

These pacifists, hounded from country to country, were invited into Belize in 1958 to provide agricultural expertise. They now supply 70% of Belize’s food on land leased from the government. Founded by a Dutch Priest in the 16th century it moved to Switzerland, Prussia the US then south to Mexico and Belize. They’ve now moved further into S America into Bolivia. They’ve split into modernists and old timers, depending on their attitude towards technology such as tractors and cars. It’s a strange, anachronistic sight to see these men dressed like cowboys and women right out of a 19 century costume drama, ride around in little horse drawn carriages. I saw them everywhere, in supermarkets, on the water taxi to Caye Caulker, in restaurants, on the rivers, climbing temples, on the roads and on their farms, and it was always odd seeing them juxtaposed with the multitude of black and brown Belizeans.

Mayan cave: Barton Creek Cave

We climbed into canoes and entered the darkness of Barton Cave across a pool of deep, jade-greenwater. Within seconds we were the darkness of the cave, finding bats in roof cavities – their urine dissolves the limestone and creates holes in which they roost. But ut was the stalagmite and stalactite formations that rose, dropped and billowed from the caves sides, roof and floor. At one point we had to lie back flat in the canoe and paddle under a curtain of stalactite to make progress. Carl actually got his canoe stuck on a stalactite which was inside of back of the boat anchoring him to the spot. At the back of the cave, 1600m in, we switched our headlamps off and couldn’t see a centimetre in front of our faces. A skull and pots were visible on the ledges as this was a ‘place of fright’ for the Mayans, where they came to sacrifice and perform ceremonies for rain. These were the entrances to the underworld for the Maya, and not places of fun. The journey back was just as interesting our headlamps showing the bottom in crystal clear blue water, then the tiny glimpse of daylight that gradually turns into a greenish then bluish light at the entrance. On the way back we could see the Mennonites hard at work, as the good book decrees.


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