Archive for December, 2012

B’ak’tun 13

December 31st, 2012 7:02 pm by Dave from here

We walked across the Belize-Guatemala border and were set upon by taxi touts. According to my notes, the initial bid for taxi service was $60 US per person; but I waited until the rate of descent in the asking price dropped below the salary I pay myself for the task of listening to touts, and accepted an offer of $10 US per person to Flores on the bus. This was acceptably lower than the initial taxi quote; the elapsed time between arriving at the Belize side of the border and getting on the bus to Flores was from 12:09 to 12:51. If the price had been declining in a straight line, we would have saved $50 in 42 minutes, per person, about $71 per hour; not as lucrative as flying economy, but still decent wages. In fact, the last ten minutes of that period only got us from $15 down to $10. This was all without making any counteroffers, about which I know nothing, just the taxi drivers talking among themselves and wondering what manner of man we were. I charge a lot more for talking.

The bus was delayed in getting started due to having to change a tire and wait for several people to get their passports stamped. The bus tire changing at borders could become a low-grade meme; I have a 1600 x 1200 Coolpix photo of a couple of guys changing a bus tire at the Bulgarian/Turkish border in 1999. (That’s not bad for 1999. I only lately upgraded past a 1600 x 1200 monitor.) We were on our way to Flores by 13:22.

A girl on the bus fanned herself with her Maltese passport. I wrote postcards about it to my friends in Malta.

Flores is an exceptionally cute little town in eastern Guatemala, on a small island in a lake. It looked distinctly European, with narrow cobblestone streets, and scads of hotels and restaurants. It and its not-so-cute counterpart Santa Elena across the bridge are the jumping-off points to Tikal, a massive set of Mayan ruins. We planned a four-day three-night tour to Tikal and two other sets of ruins, but it turned out that at some point in the planning they simply stopped answering e-mails, and that we forgot to notice. So we arrived in Flores having no idea what would actually happen next. See above about three guys telling you exactly what; we were able to walk into a travel agency near the hotel and to book the three nights in Tikal that we planned to stay, and to go on most of the tours we’d planned to go on.

It was a little unclear what all was included with the booking we made; it was said to include transportation there, and meals the first day, but it turned out to include breakfast and dinner, tours, and the trip back as well. We were a little worried the next morning at 9:45 AM when the transportation hadn’t shown up for 45 minutes, but finally it did and everything seemed legitimate again.

The Mayans were a pretty amazing civilization. They lived on the Yucatán Peninsula and what is now Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and western Honduras. They flourished from about 500 BC to 800 AD. They were definitely into astronomy, and built pyramids in many places from which three towers were visible showing you where the sun would rise on the solstices and equinoxes. They used Venus to determine when to go to war. So far we have visited three different Mayan sites, and will be visiting two more in the next week. We spent a couple days at Tikal, and a couple hours of each of the next two days at Yax Ha and Uaxactún on private guided tours. Tikal is immense, and has been 20% excavated. It did not suffer from the looting which has befallen many other Mayan sites, unless you count Harvard. It has many temples in the form of pyramids, which held the remains of royalty, who all became gods or goddesses when they died. Why don’t our guys do that? Outside of Steve Jobs, I can’t think of a fallen pillar of American society who is anything you would call venerated. All the crosses had their tops cut off…

Tikal has ruins of other smaller temples for burial of less-important elites, and ruins of areas where the elite class resided, all built of stone. Most interior spaces had a roof in the form of a “Mayan arch”, with diagonal sides and a short horizontal span at the top. This form could support a room about two meters wide. Mayan cities had immense populations, though: someone had to build all those pyramids and temples and platforms and causeways. Their houses were made of thatch, and have not survived. If you had stood on the top of one of the pyramids at the height of the Classic period, you would not have been able to see the forest in the distance. That ultimately proved to be a problem. It takes about 4 square kilometers of forest to build a temple — fire for lime for the plaster and the masa for the workers.

On the first day we took an “archeological tour” which introduced us to most of the areas in the central part of the city.

The second morning we took a “sunrise tour”. This is less a magical experience than a pagan pilgrimage. We left the hotel with all the other occupants at 4am, walked to Temple IV and up the wooden stairway, and sat there silently from about 5:30 to 6:45. We could see Temple III illuminated by the full moon; after a while the unforgettable sound of the howler monkeys began, as well as all kinds of bird foley. The flash units silently sparkled, catching glimpses of the hajji. There were lots of clouds near the horizon, so while Venus was clearly visible, we didn’t get to see Mercury rise. Finally the sun broke through the cloud layer, and we walked back through the city, stopping to see not only buildings but also plants (including an allspice tree and an edible palm plant, the pacaya) and birds (including a large toucan visible from a distance, and several small toucanets flying around a tree in the Gran Plaza, and colorful Ocellated Turkeys) and insects (including mating moths, army and leafcutter ants, and termite tubes attached to the bottom of branches). Why do termites put themselves in such untenable places and then build tunnels to get to where they want to be? We saw this in Western Australia as well: the termites will build on the top of some rock and then construct a twenty meter dirt passageway down to the ground. It’s as if a human were to work in the city and build a house miles away — say, where is Levittown?

We returned later in the day to explore on our own, visiting Group G (a small palace complex with a very interesting entry tunnel with a 90-degree angle, tall enough to walk through, which a lot of passages aren’t) and the acropolises around the Gran Plaza.

Our guide to Yax Ha and Uaxactún was again Juan Sandoval, a tourism lifer who was born in the area. His father is a chiclero, the woodsmen who collect chicle and for whom none of the lost cities were ever lost. Juan’s family pointed out to the archaeologists some Mayan areas. He speaks flawless English, and it was a great learning experience. He knows the name of every temple and stele, and what year it was built, what Mayan discovered it and what European archaeologist/vandal took credit for it, or looted it. He also knows the common names in English of all the birds in the area. Yax Ha is slightly larger than Tikal, but much less has been excavated. It is located next to a large lake. Uaxactún is a smaller site, not far from Tikal, and it was badly looted. Even some archaeologists there did a bad job: a few decades ago a team from Harvard decided to simply dynamite several temples in order to get to the stuff buried below. (Apparently, most looters knew how to tunnel in without causing so much destruction.) And they built an airstrip through the middle of the site. Later excavations were done more professionally and carefully. Today, Uaxactún is a small village with pigs and chickens and radios. The runway has become a soccer field and a marketplace.

The Mayans had a technique of adding to a pyramid every once in awhile (often every 52 years), making it somewhat like an onion: you peel off one layer of steps and find another one inside. This certainly complicates the presentation to tourists visiting the site. They, also, were vandals and looters. The Red Guards and Harvard and Ansar Dine have not invented anything.

Now we are back in Flores for New Year’s, in a nice hotel room with a lakeside view. Hopefully the fireworks won’t keep us up all night.

A Very Creole Christmas

December 31st, 2012 6:57 pm by Dave from here

This vacation started Sunday night in Miami: we had different family obligations. Ray had flown to Oregon for a Christmas dinner with his cousins, and I’d gone to Kansas for a funeral. We met in Fort Lauderdale, and left for Belize the next morning from Miami.

We stayed at a very cute place, Villa Boscardi, just north of downtown Belize City. Belize is actually kind of expensive: we were met at the airport by someone who took us to the hotel for $25 US. Belize dollars seem fixed at 2 to a US dollar, and seem invariably to be used for minor purchases, while major ones are always quoted in US dollars. After we checked in, we took a taxi downtown for a more reasonable $10 US, bought stamps at the post office, established that the Museum of Belize was closed on Mondays, and set out in search of TripAdvisor’s favorite Belize City restaurant, an Indian place. It turned out that while its open hours were all day, it was also closed on Monday. So we went to the next place that TripAdvisor said was authentically Belizean. At Nerie’s 1 the proprietor told us the food had run out, so we should go to Nerie’s 2, because it had the same food. So we went over there. It was humble and homelike and good. Ray had some chicken soup with cassava and vegetables, with coconut rice on the side, and I had a different chicken soup, chimole, which was black in color and seemed to have things in common with Mexican mole. It was also spicy — seemed like black peppers instead of chilis. The stock might have been based on a Maggi cube but this is an ex-British colony after all.

The next morning we checked out, had a taxi drop our bags off at the municipal airport, and drop us off at the museum. It had several cute exhibits, including information about the history of Belizean independence, an air-conditioned room full of Belizean stamps, a large area showing Mayan artifacts, and a small room with Belizean insects. There is a great incentive to hang out in the rooms that are air conditioned. We walked back to the airport, and got in a twin-engine Cessna which flew us and two other people to Dangriga. There we met the boat that took us to Pelican Beach Resort South Water Caye, where we spent the next several days.

The island we were on in South Water Caye had about five small properties, of which Pelican Beach Resort was by far the most popular. The number of guests ranged from five to twenty over the nights we were there. It is minimal. There were four things for sale in the souvenir case: aprons, stuffed cloth dolls, key rings, and Tampax. Dinner was made from whatever they caught that day. Lobsters the first two nights; conch for a couple of nights, fish always.

We were approached at dinner one night by a woman who recognized us. She had come up to look at the apartment in 1999. She now teaches at Deep Springs College.

There was easy snorkeling off the beach the first couple of days. The seabed looked like the Arizona desert underwater: soft corals like ocotillos waving in the water. There were many species of cute reef fish hanging around, many hiding amongst the soft coral, or in front of color-matched brain coral. The most spectacular water creature we saw was an eagle ray, swimming near the dock around sunset. There were dozens of frigate birds, and dozens of pelicans which continuously dove into the shallow water and scooped up little fish.

It was somewhat uncharacteristic of us to just go to one place and stay there for several days basically doing nothing. In my case, I spent quite a few hours of that nothing-time adding a feature to Pro Tools. On the third and fourth day the wind came up, making snorkeling not so much fun, but providing plenty of time to read as well as work and sleep.

We took a slightly bigger boat across a much bumpier sea back to Dangriga, and took a taxi which had been arranged for us up to our next destination, Manatee Lodge at Gales Point. We had seen Gales Point from the plane on the way down, a spit of land fifty meters wide and two miles long sticking into the southern end of the Southern Lagoon: the lodge was located out at the very tip. Once again, we were staying for a long time (four nights) with basically nothing to do. We took a little manatee boat trip and saw several emergences of manatee nostrils near a buoy which marked an undersea hot springs they enjoy warming up at. It was not really that different from watching a meteor shower. We never saw anything like an entire manatee, but we heard lots of descriptions of how big they were. The boat went back out with a 13-year-old trying fishing for the first time, and he came back with a jack that the cook expertly prepared, perfectly crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.

Manatee Lodge is owned by Nancy, a woman who left Michigan 12 years ago and her Belizean husband. After the first night we were the only tourists staying there, but all the other rooms were occupied by her in-laws who were there for Christmas. Her mother was staying there as well. On our first full day there, we walked the two miles through the village down to the police station, and met various members of the community, including a retiree from Las Vegas whose Social Security checks presumably go much further than they would back home, and an artist who offered to sell us some ganja. Belize, and especially this village, has a Creole culture like many Caribbean islands. The residents could understand us as well as anyone, but it was often difficult to understand their language, even peppered as it was with generally recognizable English words. It was always interesting hearing Nancy speak Creole with a Michigan accent with her husband and her staff. We went on a birdwatching tour that was really a boat ride, pointing out various large water birds as we went, egrets, herons, ibises, and some roseate spoonbills. It included zipping through a winding channel up to the Northern Lagoon and to Bird Caye, an island inhabited by hundreds of ibises, and zipping back in time to arrive around dark.

After the first day we were the only people in the dining room, except when Nancy decided to eat with her mother. I asked Nancy why she didn’t serve the whole family in there. She said that Creole family values do not include taking meals together. One of the most common things to decry in the failing American family is that people don’t eat together like the Cleavers. Nancy said, that she had tried to get everyone to take meals together here but they just don’t do it. The way in that culture is that a plate is prepared in the kitchen, and each person comes to take his plate, and goes off and eats it somewhere. And don’t try to ask for less food. Nancy also described an exchange between her cook and a guest who said there was just too much beans and rice. The cook said, “Send it back, then. I’m sorry, I just can’t give you any less.”

The next day was Christmas, and the day after that was Boxing Day. Gales Point is a ghost town; but Christmas is All Souls Day. People who have moved away come back for dancing and drumming. On each of those days, it is the tradition of the village and its alumni to go “brammin'”. Officially, the idea is that you “sing for your supper”: the entire village starts at one end, a bunch of drumming starts up at one of the host houses, a bunch of call-and-response singing happens atop the drumming, and the hosting houses serve bits of food and plenty of drinks to anyone who wants any. The entire procession goes down the road, ending up at the other end well after dark. The next day, the whole thing happens again in the opposite direction. We walked along with the group and took pictures. Everybody knew everybody. A lot of them were wearing their new Christmas clothes with the price tags still on. is this a style just now? It’s a logical progression from having Yves Saint Laurent’s monogram on your clothes if you’re not named Yves Saint Laurent. On Boxing Day, being part of the mob meant that we got some free wine from “Gentle’s Cool Spot” (the other remaining lodging in Gales Point) made out of island fruits, in our case pineapple, and berry.

The following morning, the price tags were part of the litter on the road. Why do poor neighborhoods have so much more litter than rich ones? There’s nothing special about money that keeps you from dropping your candy wrappers on the ground, is there?

The best quote for a taxi ride to the Guatemalan border came not from anyone in the village, but from the guy who took us from Dangriga a few days earlier. His son (and one of the son’s cousins) picked us up and we made the three-hour-or-so drive across Belize, on dirt and paved roads. Their taxi company is the most famous in Dangriga. He gets to carry the government officials. The cars come from the U.S. It’s a 24 hour drive from Belize to Texas. I have an unfortunate engram from arriving at the North Prague train station in 1999 and finding no taxis or buses or anything. We had to walk toward downtown until somebody picked us up, don’t remember who. Always I worry when we get to a transportation intersection, there will be nobody there who can tell us how to go to the next place. (That experience was an outlier. The almost universal experience is that before you have even alighted from your arriving conveyance, there will be three guys there telling you exactly how to do what you wanted to do next, before you even tell them your plans.)