Sunday, October 30, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 6.

To settle into the life of a place, at least to the limited extent possible, I go to the barbershop.  There was one of these in Chicxulub Puerto and it was straight out of the 1880s.  Had you seen a Clint Eastwood character sitting in the old-fashioned oak barber’s chair with its horsehair-stuffed cushion and shiny nickel-plated fixtures you would have thought nothing amiss amid the worn, white marble counter tops; tall, cracked mirrors (no bullet holes, but if there had been you would have understood), strops and straight razors, fancy tonic bottles, shaving mugs and the whole tonsorial paraphernalia.  I would have paid admission just to sit there.
    As I had hoped, locals drifted in while I was there and we chatted, at least to the extent of our mutual language abilities.  One fellow, after the usual my-home-is-your-home business, asked me what my camera had cost.  I had bought it used for $450 but thought that might seem a bit much, as I had no doubt that what was unremarkable in Palo Alto might appear unseemly hereabouts, so I said $100 and immediately decided I had made a mistake as the poor fellow acted as if I had pole axed him and I, who had never had the slightest concern for my security as I walked around the village at any hour of the day or evening, suddenly worried it might come to the ear of the wrong sort of person that I was carrying around in my shoulder bag the most valuable piece of movable property in Chicxulub Puerto.
    What a bother.  For the next few days I didn’t carry my camera, but eventually decided it was safe to do so, as it turned out to be.
    It was a nice haircut.  The scented tonic was a bit much to my taste, but I considered it all part of the experience.  I was around town for a few more weeks and when I would go by the shop I would stick my head in and say ‘hello’ to the barber, who greeted me like I was one of his regular patrons, which was the point of the whole thing in the first place.  I let him know when I was leaving and he said come back any time.

[The eight posts of this series are collected in a more convenient form as a single document, which can be accessed by clicking on "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán" in the upper righthand corner of this page.]  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 5.

I had just taken what looked on the map to be a short walk in the bush and arrived suitably exhausted in a little town.  I bought a cold drink and was slumped on a bench in the shade on the dusty little square facing the massive, featureless side wall of a 18th Century church.  Some old Mexican men were sitting around on the other benches, lazing away the late afternoon.  The sun was setting behind the church and its shadow was reaching across the street to where we were sitting.
    A late model American stationwagon drove up to the square and stopped and an American lady got out, looked around, pointed a small camera at the church, apparently took a picture, then got back into the stationwagon and their party drove off.
    I thought it was silly because she was photographing directly into the sun and all she was going to get was the black mass of the church and a blinding glare of sunlight.  While I suspect the old Mexican gentlemen around me might not have picked up on these photographic nuances, they still thought it was the funniest thing they had seen all day.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the American tourist were a stock character in Mexican humor.

On my walk that day I had noticed carved stones, apparently from some ancient structure, built into an unmortared wall beside a cornfield.  I doubt that the stones would have been carried far from where they had been found, and likely had been removed from the field to make room to plant the corn.  They had come from something, probably a Mayan structure abandoned long before the Spaniards arrived, but looking around I saw only cornfields and forest.  There are still ancient buildings out there, overgrown by jungle or hiding under a cornfield, and no one know they are there.

[The eight posts of this series are collected in a more convenient form as a single document, which can be accessed by clicking on "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán" in the upper righthand corner of this page.]   

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 4.

Late one afternoon in Mérida I wandered into a large old church.  Inside, it had that beautiful and lived-in feel of old churches that every day for hundreds of years have been open to the life of the world around it.  There was no service going on and only a few people  --  a family, I think  --  up near the front, lost in prayer, and a flicker of candles at a side altar.  I heard a flutter of wings high up near the dark ceiling of the nave: birds, surrogate for angels, who had made their nests in the inaccessible rafters and interior cornices of the old structure.  I was tired and sat down in a worn pew and let my mind relax and wander among the familiar images and associations of the sanctuary and drifted off into peace as one does when you are in a comfortable, familiar place, even if, as here, it is one that you have never actually been before.  I pondered nothing earthly-minded and time became unimportant.

A bit later I became aware of motion at the rear of the church and glanced back to see that a small party of tourists, apparently Americans, had entered and were hesitantly looking around at the furnishings of the sanctuary.  Noticing others apparently in prayer or at some pious observation, they were speaking in whisper and trying not to disturb and it seemed to me being a bit awkward and uncomfortable to find themselves there.

This seemed strange to me.  Elaborated as its decoration might be, this wasn’t some obscure East Asian temple where hashish-crazed natives danced and sacrificed before a pagan idol with a jeweled eye and a taste for virgin’s blood: it was just a church.  A Roman Catholic church just like the ones I am sure these people had passed by most every day of their life.  However protestant one might have been  --  and scornful of the pomps and presumptions of the Pope in Rome  --  how odd that a visiting American would be uncomfortable in a Christian church.  I would have thought that in a foreign city the church should be the most familiar place, the most comfortable and reassuring and homelike.  But perhaps they were unaccustomed to being in a church even when at home and I suppose that when you travel you also learn about your own kind, though I still think it unfortunate.  A part of the country they have come to visit that is invisible to them.

For the birds fluttering around the ceiling, it was their home, too, though for them it was just another cave.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 3.

There was one other incident in Mérida that might be worth mentioning.

Early one evening I was sitting by myself at a table reading the menu in a little open-fronted restaurant facing the park in the center of town.  I was puzzling over the local Yucatecan dishes when I became aware that the fellow at the next table had started a conversation with me.
    Pointing to the restaurant’s name on the menu, Nicté-Há, he asked if I knew what it meant.  Something to do with a flower, I said knowingly, making use of the fact that there was a picture of a flower on the cover.
    Ah, you have some knowledge of the Mayan tongue, he said, introducing himself as a teacher of that language.

We talked of this and that.  Or rather, he talked and I nodded, mostly keeping up with what he was saying.  He quoted some Mayan poetry and in general made the point that any educated person ought to know this ancient and still widely-spoken the language, to all of which I smiled and nodded assent.
    He asked for my journal and said he would write down some common Mayan words that would be useful for me to know if I were to be spending time in the Yucatán.

He wrote in my journal for a few minutes and then handed it back.  On the left side of the page he had written a phrase in Mayan and across from it the same phrase in Spanish.  I was relieved to find that he had written the Mayan in Roman letters, as I might have had trouble with glyphs.

Bix a bel? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ¿Cómo está?
Tux ca bin? . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  .  ¿A dónde va?
Max a kabáh? . . .  .  . . . ¿Como es tu nombre?
Jaipé jab yantech? . . . . . . . ¿Que edad tienes?

He had written ten phrases and went through them, pronouncing them for me.  The “x” was pronounced “sh”, as it was in 16th-Century Spanish when Indian names and words were transliterated into the Roman alphabet.  He told me I could also find some language books at Libreria Burrel, the big bookstore near my hotel.
    Later, I looked over the list of phrases he had given me:  How are you?  What is your name?  How old are you?  Would you like to go for a walk?  Would you like to dance?  Would you like to go to bed? and of course, Thank you.
    My, my.  I suddenly saw a pattern.  How practical.  What a handy list of phrases to give a lone gentleman in an unfamiliar town where Mayan might be spoken.  How considerate of my teacher.

On the way back to Chicxulub Puerto on a slow local bus, an old Indian got on board and saw a friend.  Bix a bel?, he said.  Tux ca bin?  I was delighted, though of course that was all of their conversation that I was able to follow.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 2.

Some days I walk along the beach.  The sand is clean and white and the line of the surf runs straight and unbroken.   Save for the occasional fisherman coming ashore in a small, bright-painted wooden boat, the beach is empty.  To my left, ten or fifteen kilometers distant, is the long iron pier stretching out into the Gulf at the town of Progreso.  To my right, the line of white sand and the edge of the sea and the shoulder of palms all come to an indistinct point where the world stops.  Somehow, I always knew paradise would be boring.

I took a bus to the old colonial town of Mérida to spend a few days and found small, nice hotel with white walls and tile floors and large potted plants.  It was in an old building being worked on at the moment and there were unprotected holes in the floor where you could look down through into its nicely appointed lobby, but as I did not think I would be roaming about in the dark, I was sure this would be no problem.  At the hotel I learned that the following morning someone was driving out to the ruins at Uxmal, so I arranged to ride with him.

Plato & Aristotle in the Yucatán

He was a young, well-educated Mayan fellow who had been to the University and spoke good English.  As we drove across the flat scrub country toward Uxmal he mentioned that his home was in a nearby village.  I asked if it were true, as I had heard, that in the villages they still made sacrifices to Chac, the old rain god.

    “Yes,” he said, a bit shamefacedly.  “I suppose you would say that they were still pagans.”
    “Oh, well,” I said, “so were Plato and Aristotle.”

    He broke into a big smile.

When we say “Mayan” we can mean either the high civilization that flourished and passed away before the Spanish arrived, or we can mean their descendants who still live in that same area and speak their same language today.  The high civilization with its priestly and political superstructure is long gone, collapsed of its own weight.  The Mayan themselves are still here, speaking the same language that their ancestors a millennium ago carved into the glyphs of monuments that we have been for the last century extracting from the jungle. 
    The gods who demanded blood to maintain the cosmic order and whose ways and intentions could only be divined by priests have passed away, along with the haughty lords and puffed-up warriors who had been part and parcel of that old elaborate and expensive regime, and Chac, the old god whom the people knew before and who brings life-giving rain and may be approached directly, is, it would appear, still with his people.

I almost hate to mention this, but how often do you get the chance to tell a charming story about a Meso-American deity?
    When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were visiting Mexico in 1975, they were guests at a light and sound show at the ruins of Uxmal.  At the high point of the presentation  --  and I can only imagine that it must have been a spectacular show because they are spectacular ruins  -- the audio played an ancient prayer to Chac.  Whereupon, the skies opened and a furious rain poured down from heaven.
    This happened in late February, at the mid-point the dry season.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán, Part 1.

Why am I not there?

At Peet’s Coffee Shop in Menlo Park, California, a fellow describes how he rented a house every year in a little village in the Yucatán, where he and his family go barefoot all day and buy their fish fresh from the fishermen who pull their boats up onto the beach and drinks his beer with lime and salt at the cantina and no one speaks English and they are the only gringos in the village.  And outside the coffee shop it was late January, bleak and cold, and I ask myself why I am here and not in the Yucatán.  So I obtained a phone number and called the Señora in Mérida who owns the house they rented and between my proto-Spanish and her Hispano-English we decide that for some pittance I can have the house for the following month.  And so, with less deliberation than I might spend in choosing a movie, I was on an airplane bound for the Yucatán.

In a matter of minutes I went from the comfort of my plane seat, with its first world amenities and the quiet, reassuring hum of familiar machinery, into the preternatural brightness of a florescent-lit cement block building filled with a disorienting babble of foreign voices and strange sounds.  My companions of the last six hours all at once begin speaking a foreign language and disappear into the darkness with strangers, abandoning me in an empty baggage room where I am eyed suspiciously by men with guns.

Outside, it got worse. 

It was dark when I arrived at Mérida.  It is always dark when I arrive in the Third World.  It may only be the adverse selection of memory, but it seems that the more unfamiliar the place, the later in the evening is my arrival.  It is always morning or midday when I get off the plane in Europe, and it is always between eleven at night and two in the morning when I reach Belo Horizonte or Chichicastenango.

Outside, at the cab stand, I go mano-a-mano with the Third World.  One of my problems in travel is that I am suspicious of people in third world countries who speak English.  It is my theory that it is harder to defraud people if you don’t speak their language, and if a person speaks English he may have made a career of preying upon tourists.  Jet-lag-induced paranoia, perhaps, but it is a rule I live by.   This means, of course, that I wind up with drivers who don’t have a very clear idea of where I want to go, but such are the trade-offs.

And so it was when I arrived late that tropical night at Mérida, chief town of the Yucatán.  My driver, reassuringly unlearned of English, hurled his cab into the Mexican darkness in search of the Señora from whom I would be renting my house.  It was an exciting ride, falling in behind a police car going code-three.  For a while we dealt with the realization that neither of us knew where we were going, but in the fullness of time we found the Señora, who loaded me into the family Honda and we headed off for the village of Chicxulub Puerto, where I would be staying.

After a long, disorienting ride we reached the village where we stopped at a cantina to find Tiberio, the handyman who took care of the house.  I asked the Señora about sheets for the bed and she seemed to say that there were no beds, but it was late and I assumed my Spanish was not yet fully operational and I might as well see how things were when we got there, as I knew no one would rent a furnished house without beds.

But it turned out that I had understood her correctly.

There were no beds

The Señora expressed surprise that I had not brought my hammock, for everyone in the Yucatán sleeps in a hammock.  In each of the bedrooms  --  i.e., the rooms in which there were no beds  --  there were hooks in the walls to hang your hammock.  Did not everyone know this?

Tiberio said that he would be by at three the next afternoon to connect the hot water and attend to other needful things, and then he and the Señora departed and I was too tired to care whether I had a bed or not.  In a storeroom I found a mattress and tried to sleep on it.  But the mattress was uncomfortable and there were mosquitos in the room and it was cold and I had no cover but a very thin beach towel and outside the wind and the surf were churning and howling.

Some people find the surf restful.  I do not.  And that night it was even worse, a disorienting roar of unfamiliar noise, sounding like a radio playing loudly in the distance, but just below the threshold of intelligibility.  It was Mexican radio, with that distinctive rhythm of hoom-boom-boom, where every commercial sounds like the proclamation of a revolution and the tinny music blurs and dissolves into the undifferentiated roar of the wind and the surf.

We had traveled through darkness to reach the house, and from the windows I could see other houses, but there were no lights or any sign of human presence.  But as I lay on the mattress on the floor I could hear what seemed to be indistinct voices mixed with the churning jumble of noises of wind in the trees and surf rolling on the beach and wood and metal striking together in the wind, or perhaps kicked by the foot of an unseen figure who quietly in the darkness approaches the house, a long knife grasped in his hand while in his mind ferments the memory of some ancient wrong.

I did not sleep well that first night.

The next morning I awaken, unmurdered.

Morning, with sunlight and birds singing and a fresh wind in the palm trees outside the windows of my bedroom.  The house, seen in daylight, is large and airy.  A two-story, cement block affair, with tile floors and furnishings from the 1950s.  In the kitchen are dishes marked “Made in Occupied Japan”.

And outside the front door, a clean white sand beach running straight east and west, and the flat blue expanse of the Gulf of Mexico losing itself on the horizon under huge, towering white cumulus clouds that fill the sky and arch over me and lose themselves in the palm trees behind the house.

Wanting breakfast, I walk toward the town and see that the house I am staying in, and those nearby on the beach  --  now boarded up  --  are part of a line of comfortable and well-built homes that stretch along the beach, standing between the ocean and a disordered cluster of poorer homes with plank doors and unglazed windows that comprise the village of Chicxulub Puerto.

At a little store I bought beer and coffee, bananas, bread and cocoa, and walked back to my house for breakfast.  On the way I met Alberto, who is principal of the grade school and invites me to come visit his class.

I sat alone at the long dining room table over breakfast of coffee and bananas and sweet bread, and thought how strange it was to find myself, just one day from my blustery northern home, here in this large house, with a tropical paradise outside my front door and third world poverty at my back fence.

Exploring the house I found in the downstairs bath a spider the size of a Japanese automobile.  I decide the downstairs bath can be his.  In the kitchen I found a large and diffident cockroach who, when I discover him, pretends that he isn’t there.  I call him “Charlie” and we will have amusing, if one-sided, conversations in the days that follow when we run into each other in the kitchen.  Somehow it seems that sharing the house with an insect and an arachnid is better than being here all by myself.

As Tiberio said he would be by at three to connect the hot water, I wait around the house.

But Tiberio did not come at three, nor at four nor at all that day.  Nor the next day.  After all, this is Mexico.  In the days that follow I see him around town and he waves and speaks and is quite cheerful, but does not stop by the house to connect the hot water or attend to the other needful things.  I figure out the gas by myself.  The water heater is a peculiarly incomprehensible piece of equipment, but if I shower in the heat of the day I have no problem, and am probably more comfortable for doing so.  On the sixth day he appears, as cheerful as ever, and turns on the hot water.  I give him a beer to ease the strain of his labor.

Toward the end of my time there I would write what I remember as an hilarious letter describing my dealings with Charlie the Cockroach.  Despite his gringo name he was authentic Mexican and we had many humorous encounters, some positively Feydeauesque.  We exchanged a great deal of playful banter  --  I supplying both sides of the conversation  --  full of stage-Mexican dialogue and affectations  --  in those days we all understood that ethnic humor was meant affectionately.
    This was before I had met the love of my life and, as a consequence, cast my pearls heedlessly, and all this went into a letter to an acquaintance now long removed from my life and I kept no copy and my happy times with Charlie the Cockroach who lived in my kitchen in Chixulub Puerto are now probably lost forever.

I realize that if I actually had the text before me it might not be as hilarious as I recall, but this is how I choose to remember it.

(to be continued . . .)

[The eight posts of this series are collected in a more convenient form as a single document, which can be accessed by clicking on "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatán" in the upper righthand corner of this page.]   

Monday, October 10, 2011

Paul Theroux does not like travel blogs

Paul Theroux, probably the best-known travel writer working today, is a famous grouch and he does not like travel blogs.  He told an interviewer in last May’s Atlantic  --  who had suggested there might be a certain bloggish quality about his recent book  --  that he loathes travel blogs.  He finds them hasty, chatty and particular.  “Blogs look to me illiterate . . ., like someone babbling. To me, writing is a considered act . . . something which is a great labor of thought and consideration. A blog doesn't seem to have any literary merit at all.”  Not surprisingly, he does not write a blog.

In all fairness, one must admit the man has something there, plain-spoken as he may present it.  And I know it can be answered that a blog isn’t literature: it’s blogging.  But in which case one needs to have some reason that anyone else would want to read it.  If you have just found a lost city or been raised up as a god by an undiscovered tribe, then the raw data feed could be interesting, but for most of us we need some art to make our more quotidian adventures of interest to others.

It takes effort to make something worth reading.  It is not enough just to have taken the same train. 

And if you want to know what Theroux thinks good travel writing looks like, see his new book, The Tao of Travel, a commonplace book of the great travel writing.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

On first looking into Strabo’s Geography

At a Christmas party a few years ago in one of those large old homes in Cambridge I found myself seated next to a professor of Obscure Learning at Harvard and, as I knew he had an interest in that part of the world, I told him about a story I was working on.
    My story was set in the years immediately following the First War and involved a road that emerged from the mountains in southeastern Turkey, a road of obvious great age but no one knew where it led, and a few foot-loose young fellows with nothing better to do who thought it would be interesting to find out.  Today, of course, a few key strokes on Google Earth and you would know, but in those days there were still blank spaces on the map and finding out that sort of thing was rather more of a production.

The professor listened intently to my presentation and then said that I might want to take a look at Book XI of Strabo.  I cannot tell you how delighted I was in his reply, both for the helpfulness of his suggestion and because I have always yearned to lead the sort of life where people might give me that sort of advice.  People who actually knew what they were talking about, of course.

As an enthusiastic reader of footnotes, I had long known that there was an ancient work called Strabo’s Geography.  I had never seen a copy, but on this advice I went looking for it.  And found it: all eight volumes of the Loeb Harvard Classics, with facing Greek and English text, through our county interlibrary loan.  The librarian was delighted and said I could keep it as long as I wanted, as I was the first person to check it out since it had been acquired almost forty years earlier.   (What can I say?  I do not dwell amongst a bookish people.)
    Strabo summarizes the history, geography and best guesses about the known and almost-known world of an educated, First Century Greek.  Of all the wonders he lays before us, the ones that caught my attention were his references to ancient histories since lost, or in a number of cases to works lost even in his own time and surviving only as fragments or quotations in the works of other authors.  As the Loeb’s 9-point agate text gave me a headache when I read more than a few lines, I studied instead its wonderful 300+ page index, looking for lost authors and miscellaneous wonders and found, in addition to a talley of missing works, a parade of slayings, enslavements, conquests, subjugations, destruction and a good deal of what we now call gratuitous violence,  suggesting the ancient world, for all its sculpture and architecture and lax morals, was not a safe place to live.

But what a wonderful, lost world is laid out in Strabo, as in this little passage regarding the environs of Lake Stephanê: “On its shores lies a strong fortress, Icizari, now deserted; and nearby, a royal palace, now in ruins.”  Strabo wrote that 2000 years ago, and I am sure that even then it must have been utterly romantic.  The sort of place that T. E. Lawrence or Indiana jones or any of their adventurous ilk would want to go, and certainly that I would want to go, even if it’s not there anymore.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

this may appear to be a travel blog

I intended this to be primarily a blog about writing.  It may appear to be a travel blog, but only because I am writing primarily about travel, albeit travel broadly understood.

I have several cartons of travel journals accumulated from my trips and I am using this opportunity to see if there is anything of value buried away in their pages.   And since I suspect that some of it may be amusing without being publishable, I am using this blog to share these.  As Evelyn Waugh said, we do not value our friends because they amuse us, but because we are able to amuse them.  I think this a better reason than that given by Lytton Strachey for writing letters: that their fundamental purpose was to express the personality of the writer, though there is certainly some of that, too.

And the absence of illustration on this site does not reflect any stern doctrinal position on the superiority of word over image, but only that my scanner blinks and smiles foolishly at me, as if it had no idea what I was asking it to do.  I suppose I really ought get a new one if I intend to be amusing.

Monday, October 3, 2011

what we bring with us

I am writing these stories from old travel journals and do not attempt to be timely or even particularly helpful, as I think the trick of travel is not where you go or what you see or how thriftily you do these things, but the attitude you bring with you.  This is why one of my fondest-remembered trips could be a week spent in late February in southeastern Iowa, where I wandered through the villages of the Amana and visited the site of the Skunk River War and the Great Wapallo County Gold Rush and found wonders at every hand.

I do now and then look something up on line, to check a spelling or see if a place is still there, or how it may have changed.  This is why I give so few names: there’s no sense in having people go off looking for a wonderful little place that isn’t there anymore.  The point of my stories is what I did with what I found: your story will be what you do with what you find.  None of us will have been there and done that, as “there” and “that” are constantly changing, and each of us bring our own baggage and so for every one of us it will be different.