My Trip to The Yucatan: Merida, Chichen Itza, and Isla Mujeres
Pressed Rat and Warthog have closed down their shop.
They didn`t want to; twas all they got.
Selling atonal apples, amplified heat,
And Pressed Rat’s collection of dog legs and feet.
Sadly they left, telling no one goodbye.
Pressed Rat wore red jodhpurs, Warthog a striped tie.
Between them, they carried a three-legged sack,
Went straight round the corner and never came back.
*(Ginger Baker-Cream-Wheels of Fire)
There is more forgotten than remembered when you confabulate the record of my fabulous vacation to the Yucatan. I do know that it was in 1975, but exactly which month or day I can not be too certain. Let the commencements begin, the tracings of that journey, the jotting down of memories in a marble memopad. Some of the proceedings were recollected, but some have been forfeited at the blood-soaked altar of Quetzalcoatl. It`s through these feeble Don Quixote eyes that I now bring back those days of this godsend of a holiday. Herein is the testimony of a reconstituted conquistador who heard and saw unspeakable marvels of the New World, and will spin you a tale that will make your eyeballs pop out! Let`s see here…where`s my marble memopad?
We flew into Merida that clear day, so many years ago, found the historic El Gran Hotel, and ventured out to a local mercado for ropas of a casual nature. I was traveling with Bill and Dennis, two cosmic cronies game for an adventure or two, and knew how to enjoy life. We picked up straw sombreros, huarache sandals, tiki shirts, and postcards to send to friends. Don`t forget the Foster Grants de rigueur to shade our dainty gringo eyes. I am sorry I can`t retrieve a leftover Polaroid of us, but you can picture The Trio if you put your mind to it. In the evening we took in a cantina or two with zesty Mexican jukeboxes and dancing dervishes; don`t leave out the sizzling peanuts or the shots of tequila. We planned our trip meticulously. It looked like a fun one was in store for us.
In the morning we sipped coffee and read the Spanish newspapers. The pace was slow. We ate pasteleria. My friends smoked cigarillos, curling smoke drifts to the ceiling. We were doing nothin`, just as planned. We seemed to swat a lot of flies. Then the three of us took in a Mexican cine, then more cafes, picked up some tasty snacks, and yet more drifting on calles, soakin` in the indigents. We kept gliding by the Cathedral on the Plaza Mayor; it was a magnet for all, peasants were couched against the walls hoping for a miracle. It never came.
A few words about what we ate. We ate lots of hand foods from cheerful street vendors. Simple hand foods are hot and tasty, muy barato tambien. A good many tacos pescados and maybe some papadzules. We devoured scads of grilled fish and shellfish on the island. The Trio was always on the fly. Found friendly lancherias. Loafed in the open-aired patios and walkways. Washed the cottonmouth down with aguas frescas. Napped on hammocks. Heard the ocean breath. Gulped Mexican cerveza (Montejo). Lots of it. The pain went away. Yes, simple hand foods got us by, doused with ample chile sauce. Yea, buckets of El Yucateco.
The very next day, bright and early, we departed by bus for the ruins of Chichen Itza. The seventy-five mile ride was rickety but interesting. I saw Mayan people tending corn or grilling meats on sticks in open pits. They wore beautiful clothing. When we finally arrived my stomach was queasy, hair disheveled, and my frame rearranged. You might infer, we exited the bus a little unsteady. As we entered the ruins a vibe glowed both inside and outside of us. Looking out, cactus plants and jungle growth painted a desert scene. Clean green iguanas dashed out of nowhere and grazed our feet. I thought I heard the lament of Mayan ancestors. A sadness came over me. I stepped out for more. There was no turning back.
El Castillo is an awesome sight to behold as the trio took the 79 foot trek up to the top; it is 91 excruciating steps up to the platform apex. It was the cruel Bishop Landa that named it; he is the Spanish priest who tortured the Mayans as heretics and burned a good many of their coveted codices. The pyramid is dedicated to Kukulcan, a feather serpent. This is the same god worshipped by Moctezuma, but the Aztecs called him Quetzalcoatl. I was tuckered out after I climbed up all those steps. Scary serpent heads are on cornices and on the sides of the inner temple. A cool red jaguar was up there too, but I have no lucidity in that regard. The Chac Mool image near these words came from this inner room atop El Castillo, but currently resides in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
It is said that at the spring and fall equinoxes a shadow of the snake god crawls down the side the pyramid sanctifying the earth. Chichen Itza was populated with spiritual adventurers during the “Harmonic Convergence” of August 1987. I attended a party/ceremony myself in Dallas during these ‘final days’, and felt the coming together, the big breath of humanity exhaling. Dr. Arguelles, a New Age visionary, designed this scheme to counter catastrophic apocalyptic outcomes inherent in the Mayan calendar. In his own words, the goal was: “to bless and heal Planet Earth, to unite with all of life, and to raise the human spirit through a single collective human experience.” Okay, I felt something!
Yes, you do feel a presence, a vibe, as you stagger about these ruins of mystery. Did a UFO come from outer space and take the Mayans away? ‘A UFO went whirling through my mind.’ Or have I read too many Weekly World News articles? That`s a possibility! But I love the Chac Mool, even if the Mayan high priests did place the yet still beating human hearts of sacrificial victims on his limestone pot-belly. And it poner los pelos del punta when I stared at the skulls engraved on the walls of Tzompantli. The heads of sacrificed captors were actually displayed on these walls. Okay, maybe Mel Gibson did get it right in the heart extraction and head chopping scenes of Apocalypto!
I pondered the “Cenote Sagrado” for many moments. A sinkhole that honored the Maya rain god Chaac, it was a vital conduit to the gods. Mayans had flocked to it as a shrine. Water was a rarity for the Mayans. This water was emerald green. I trembled as I imagined what had transpired there. The bottom held gold, jade, and even human skeletons. I wondered where the exact spot was from hence the sacrifice suppliants had leapt? The Caracol is an astrological observatory; The Trinity strolls around, and Bill said: “Weren`t there a few Star Trek episodes shot here?” “Sure,” Dennis retorted, “And George and Jane Jetson (Astro too) came here with Fred and Wilma Flintstone for a menage a trois (quartet rather) weekend fling.” It wasn`t all business as usual.
The excursion continued. “Hey look,” I said, “there`s the incredible Las Monjas (The Nunnery),” named as such by the Spanish, with ornate lattice work and scary masks, very baroque, yet purely pagan. Let me take a moment to link you to this perfect site for photos of Chichen Itza (hit tour). It is done by Jorge Perez de Lara and will place you directly on this enchanting archaeological site. Don`t forget to take a stroll down Juego de Pelota, the largest ball court in Mesoamerica, and check out the acoustics. “I`m pooped out,” whined Bill, “let`s high tale it back to the El Gran Hotel!” Thus spoke Zarathustra.
When we arose in the morning light we took a bus north to Progreso in order to catch a boat to Isla Mujeres or “island of women.” We traveled east on the Golfo de Mexico to the northeastern most tip of the Yucatan peninsula. Isla is just north of the Riviera Maya (Cozumel) in the Caribbean Sea. Isla Mujeres is extremely laid back and we had some gentle idle hours in her care. A mermaid spirit still haunts the coves and beaches. ‘Catacombs, nursery bones, winter women throwing stones, carrying babies to the river.’ *(Soft Parade-Jim Morrison)
What did we do there? Next to nothing. WE did manage to rent some mopads for an entire day, then rode across the island several times over. Oh I just remembered! We met a couple from California; we hung out with them and marveled at this simple set up. Obviously, this stood out in stark relief to our tethered lives in the states. Lots of naps were had. Hit the hammocks, watched the waves, ate pescado delicioso, and counted the grains of sand in the hourglass that marked our passing. Then the trio had to go.
There is a devotion present on the isle towards Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of rainbows, the moon, and the sea. ‘On a lyre gentle tones she plays.’ Furthermore, it is known that pirates, such as Sir Henry Morgan and Jean Lafitte used it as a launching pad for their campaigns of robbery on the neighboring high seas. Thus, they would leave their ladies behind to secure and nurture their sandy makeshift homes. These lady legends are a canopy of zippity-do-da for this peaceful paradise.
Our trip was nearing its end. A numbness came over us and we splashed agua frio in our faces, then crawled on the boat back to Progreso. Then the bumpy bus ride back to Merida, our faces green and stomachs turned upside down from the gyrations, the bobbing and weaving, or the hairpin turns around molehills and bends. Hey, people were throwing up. That`s not pretty, but the bus was old and decrepit, so I remember it being like Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. It`s not going to matter all that much if it wasn`t really like that.
Okay, then the plane flight back to Houston. I was exhausted, but now another bus trip back to Austin. I was broke so I bummed a little dough from Bill, who always seemed to have lots of it. Bill was somewhat peeved with me over this. “Stage Door Johnny, you`re going to pay me back, aren`t ya?”, Bill sternly clamored. After this famous trip dudes would go to Bill to borrow money, since he was a good business man, and always had wheel barrels of cash that he carted around. Okay, I bid farewell to my buddies and ambled back to my crash pad for some R & R.
The next day I reluctantly had to beg for my old job back at the Garden Cafe, the one and only organic restaurant in Austin at that time (1975). “Rick, no one chops carrots or pilots the Autochlor Automatic Dishwasher as good as me,” I blurted. I was a kitchen worker and yes, Rick let me have my old job back. I dreamed of sunny beaches and Mayan festivals as I scrubbed one more mammoth cooking pot.
I bet you are puzzled by the inclusion of the lyrics by Cream at the beginning of my piece and at the end. The book ending of two verses sung by the drummer Ginger Baker are provided as architectonic seals. You may be asking what`s their connection to the Mayans and how does this tie in with my antique vacation? Needless to say, every time I hear this song I experience different glimmers of meaning, shifting prisms of self-realization. Pressed Rat and Warthog could be spitting images of my two old friends. This is not a put down. Obviously, I`m the bad Captain Madman, because I used that moniker freely back in the day when I was a working musician.
“Went straight round the corner and never came back.” What this says to me is that it has been many years since I have seen these departed compadres. They vanished into thin air. Disappeared into the night. Don`t know if they`re wearing concrete army boots at the bottom of some lake? Could be…hum…No, halos `round their heads, I`m certain of it. On the other hand, this simple rhyme could just as easily be a vision for the distant Mayans. They evaporated more than a thousand years ago. Where did they go? Were the Mayans aliens who returned to their planet in a distant galaxy? So what that I used an easy hand in my interpretations!
What can be gleaned from this morass? A lifelong love of Mayan studies? Yes (see Yes Man for how to do this). Theories of the Mayan collapse? Yes. Read David Webster. Internecine warfare, drought, corn crops gone? Yes. Ecological imbalances? Yes. A peasant rebellion against the Royal elites? Yes. Excessive sacrifices at the altar of Chaac? Yes. Parallels with Al Gore`s global warming? Yes. Interplanetary travel in UFOs? Likely. Finally, yes to Frederick Catherwood for the essential lithographs that are oh so romantic and real! Yes, for keeping me in the driver`s seat of Mayan studies. Yes, cornball head, and I`m out to lunch!
A real lesson learned: All I was doing on this trip was just being happy. Communing with nature. Just existing. Having friends too. Channeling Mayan rubble. Getting nowhere. Creo que debere refrescar la memoria a Juan. Yea, there is much that I no longer remember about that Yucatan vacation. But I came away believing that one should just live their life, not think about it. No interpretation really matters. I`m SKULL-FUCKED, my fair weathered friends! HAPPY NEW YEARS! Beware of MAYA (George Harrison).
*I must give credits to Wikipedia, Fodor`s 2009 guide to the Yucatan, scads of web sites, a Spanish idiom book, countless other books on the Mayans, The New York Times archives, my vacant parking lot of a memory, and The Dynamic Duo, wherever they might be? “You can not petition The Lord with prayer!” Jim M. Let it wail, Doors! And now two more verses of Cream:
Pressed Rat and Warthog have closed down their shop.
The bad Captain Madman had told them to stop
Selling atonal apples, amplified heat,
And Pressed Rat`s collection of dog legs and feet.
The bad Captain Madman had ordered their fate.
He laughed and stomped off with a nautical gate.
The gate turned into a deroga tree
And his pegleg got woodworm and broke into three.