Sunday, December 10, 2006

Vacation: Learning on Monday

Our plan Monday morning was to get up early and visit the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza before the tour groups got there, around noon. When we got up, however, the rain had other plans for us. It had rained for a while when we woke up, and it didn't really show any signs of stopping anytime soon. So, we looked for an umbrella or a poncho or something, but there wasn't anything in the room. We went down to the front desk and asked there. After several back and forths where they assured us there was an umbrella in the room and we assured them there wasn't, we finally found that they didn't have any extras. So, we resigned ourselves to getting wet. And the underwater housing for the camera came in handy.

The Mayans were obviously geniuses of stone work and construction. I don't know how much, if any, the ruins at Chichen Itza have been rebuilt or restored, but the overall complement of structures is mind-boggingly stunning. We started at the hotel's entrance to the ruins, but we might have ignored certain directional signs and gone some ways not so well traveled. We came, first, upon a temple that wasn't anywhere on our map, but it was also not corded off, as the later structures we saw were. There was no plaque describing this structure, but it was definitely a temple of some sort. While the carved stone altar was impressive, the most compelling things in the temple were the 50 or so columns. Each column was about 2 meters tall, half a meter in diameter, built like a layer cake with alternating layers of smoothly cut stone about 8 centimeters tall and layers of 3 centimeters of jagged small stones mixed in with the mortar.

The rest of the ruins were named and described on plaques in the ground. We saw many more temples, more of the columns, several platforms, etc. Some of the carved reliefs were very detailed, showing obvious reverence for snakes, eagles and jaguars. We walked out to a cenote, sort of a sacrificial sinkhole where offerings of various kinds were made into the water about twenty meters below. We saw a ball court where a Mayan version of a cross between soccer and basketball (as best as archaelogists can guess, apparently) was played. It was very neat to see that the basketball stadium and hoops really did have their roots in American history. :)

The Kukulcan Temple is the centerpiece of this ancient city, and the pyramid-like structure is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The whole thing is probably four stories tall and approximately 50 meters on each of its four sides. Each of the sides has a stairway to the top, and the sides of stairs end in giant serpent heads. The Mayans also knew the way the sun worked, so as the sun sets on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the stairstep sides of the pyramid make a shadow with the serpent heads such that the shadow looks like a snake slithering on the ground. We didn't get to see this phenomenon, as we were a little late in the year (or very early, depending on how you want to look at it). But it certainly looked believable that that kind of shadow could occur.

The motivating reason for the trip into Chichen Itza was the observatory. The Mayans were enamoured with the sun and the moon and the stars, and had studied and catalogued many astronomical events from this location. The placement of the windows and markings inside the domed building indicate study of the equinoxes, the highest and lowest points of the moon, and the various solstices. It was great that this was one of the structures they really let us climb around and through and on. Very impressive that they understood so much about the yearly calendar.

As we finished up, the tour groups were showing up, and it was starting to get crowded. We returned to the hotel to get changed out of our wet clothes, and decided to trek into the little town of Piste for lunch. The food at the hotel was pretty bad, so this wasn't too difficult a decision. The hardest part was whether our Spanish was good enough to eat in a town where English probably wasn't spoken much. We ate at a place where a woman was grilling half-chickens at the storefront, with tables behind her. At the back of the 3-sided building was a man behind a counter. The couple's 7- or 8-year-old daughter was our waitress, and we ordered drinks and some chicken enchiladas. We then saw the little girl walk across the street to a market to buy tortillas and a few other things. I guess that's one way to make sure you don't have anything go to waste. The enchiladas were amazing, and when we requested the check, the woman told us they were 85 pesos. 85 pesos? Are you serious? That's like 8 bucks for two plates of enchiladas and a liter of bottled water. It was easily the cheapest and tastiest meal we had on our trip. Totally worth the couple of awkward conversational moments. Emboldened by our success, we went to a local grocery store and bought some cookies for dessert.

We rounded out our day with a nap, and packing to head home. That was Monday, and we slept well.

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