Who Owns the Maya? (Part 3)

March 29, 2010: The state of Yucatan buys Chichen Itza for 17.6 million U.S. dollars.


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Tit-for-Tat at the Hacienda Spa (or: You put cucumbers on my back, I’ll smear honey on yours…by J. Heath Anderson)

One of the first things all students of anthropology learn is that the personal characteristics of a person doing ethnography will necessarily bias and distort the information gleaned from informants. It’s a kind of cultural Heisenberg principle in which the gender, ethnicity, and age of the researcher restricts the range of cultural experience to which she/he is privy in a given society. For example, the gentleman scholars of the early 20th century, for all their assiduous attention to detail, nevertheless were not able (and in many cases were not inclined) to access the life experiences and worldview of women and record them in their androcentric trait lists. This idea is is a regular feature when teaching undergraduates about the maze-y ways of fieldwork, but it is less common that we mention counter-intuitive cases like the one Matt and I experienced yesterday.

When we arrived at the spa, we found our female colleagues sitting in the afterglow of what had evidently been a thoroughly relaxing treatment. After exchanging a few languid words (actually, Matt and I spoke in words, answered primarily with sighs and syllables of satisfied relaxation from our colleagues), we were ushered into the room by a friendly lady about 65 years of age who greeted us in English. When we responded in Spanish, she quickly switched, too, and introduced us to Marcela and Manuela, who would administer the treatment.

After our treatment (neither of us quite know how they got the honey and clay out of our chest hair), in contrast to our colleagues’ experience, we found these young ladies more than happy to tell us about themselves in Spanish. They both grew up in small nearby communities and explained that they had learned the healing spa treatment from their grandmothers, adding that this knowledge had become mixed with the techniques and practices of their current employer, for whom both had worked for about three or four years. They had known each other for about the same amount of time.

We were interested to know what proportion of their clientele was Mexican and what proportion were extranjeros. The young ladies replied that most of their customers, like most of the hacienda’s guests, came from countries other than Mexico. Of the Mexicans, they said most came from Mexico City or further north, notably Monterrey, near the Texas border. Both places have a sizable well-heeled middle and upper class population. Apparently, none come from Mérida or the smaller nearby communities like the ones of their childhood.

Finally, we were interested to know how often they were able to enjoy the same spa experiences they provided, half-expecting to hear that this kind of thing was wholly beyond their means. They cheerfully intimated that they get these treatments often, trading off between each other during lull periods when they had no other customers. It was this last detail that gratified us the most, since it is doubtful that they would have the disposable income to make such a thing a regular practice if they had to purchase it with wages. Instead, they access these luxuries through means much more ancient than monetary currency: through reciprocity, the fundamental basis of all human social interaction.

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Pakal Ritual of Healing: Syncretism in Contemporary Maya “Healing”

“They had the same superstitious feelings as the Indians of Uxmal; they believed that the ancient buildings were haunted (p. 14). . . .in regard to this building [the Eglesia (sic) at Chichén Itzá] that on Good Friday of every year music is heard sounding” (p 118).

There are few references to religion or beliefs in spirits or ancestors in Stephen’s book.  Scholars are already well aware of the syncretism at work between Mayan and Spanish Catholicism.  Our trip to the Yaxkin Spa at Hacienda Chichen Itza illustrated how syncretism is a continual process that is part of the reinvention of cultural traditions in all societies (www.yaxkinspa.com/).  It also taught me about how tourists learn about today’s Maya.  Quetzil had told us that this Spa was created entirely for tourists, that there were no Maya “elders” to legimitate the Spa’s claims of roots in ancient healing traditions and that the entire ritual was an invention.  I also knew that in all the ethnographies I have read for Maya societies, traditional healers are almost always male.  I carried this information with me as we arrived at the ritual site.

We arrived at Hacienda Chichén Itzá and entered the 16th century hotel.  Yes, this was the same hotel in which Stephens had his base while he was clearing the tangle of natural growth away from the archaeological site of Chichén Itzá.  According to a tourist website, today’s owners of the Hacienda and the Spa

approach the environment with an equal sense of reverence. Processed waste becomes fertilizer, and used kitchen water nourishes plants in the jungle. The recycling extends to the building itself: Conquistadors built the hacienda in the 16th century using old stones from a Mayan temple. More modern eco-advances include biodegradable cleaning and laundry products—safe for the underground well—and décor that mixes in reclaimed furniture. Even the souvenirs are environmentally friendly: popular wood carvings are made from a special grove of gumbo-limbo trees that the hotel then replants. Recycle, renew, and check the bird refuge. (www.concierge.com/ideas/greenecotravel/tours/2797?page=10)

After checking with the desk in the porticoed entrance way to the hotel’s patio, we were escorted down a path to the single room building set off from the main house and surrounded by flowers, ferns, and a variety of palms.  We were introduced first to Ix’men Beatriz Correa who told us to call her “Bea”.  She is a teacher of Maya holistic healing and shamanic Mayan traditions.  Bea was dressed in a traditional Maya dress, but from her manner and language she was most likely from the Spanish elite of Merida.  She shared with us a bit of her background as she explained her connection to ancient Maya practices.

Beatriz explained that her Mestizo nanny first introduced her to ancient Maya herbs.  When she moved to this area to be closer to her grandchildren, and her friend ….. who owns the Hacienda Chichén Itzá, she met with Maya elders to told her she had been called to this area and that she was empowered to practice the holistic healing she had been trained for (there is a framed certificate to that effect hung inside the healing room).  Beatriz owns the building and shares profits with her friend, the owner of the Hacienda.

We also met Manuela de Jesus Moo Cocoom and Marcela Noh Hau who were, as Beatriz explained, the grand daughters of Maya healers.  According to the website for the Fundacion Maya in Laakeech A.C. (www.yucatanadventurecom.mx/inlaakeech.htm) these women are single mothers who were born and raised in rural Maya communities.  On this website, Manuela is quoted:  “medicine is a gift of Mother Nature and the Spiritual Realm. . . .My work is filled with positive healing energy, I am honored to be a Mayan [sic] healer and a loving mother. . .I do volunteer at MFIL Toh Boutique [in the Hacienda] its profits help many Mayan [sic] rural children nutrition and education as well as support rural families”.    Marcela states on the site that:  “At Yaxkin Spa, I have found many opportunities to grow professionally and to achieve economical independence; for a rural woman like me these were dreams I was not sure I could reach”.   I hadn’t found this site before we had our healing treatments or I would have asked many more questions.  Unfortunately we were told by Beatriz that these two Maya women did not speak Spanish, only “beautiful Mayan”, which none of us spoke.  Both Hacienda and Spa “support the Maya communities nearby . . . .to bring opportunities to support rural education, community health care, and preserve Maya traditions” (www.yucatanadventurecom.mx/inlaakeech.htm).  We were informed about this dimension of the Spa as we began our ritual.

Beatriz explained that the ritual we were participating in was “solamente for healing”; healing the spirit and the body.  The room was lit by candles with soft New Age music playing in the background (a mixture of bird song, running water, Native American flute and drums).  Three massage tables were prepared and Jo, Jenna and I changed into surongs and reclined face down on our tables.  Beatriz paired with Jenna, Marcela took her place at the head of my table, and Manuela joined Jo.

The ritual began with Bea inviting the power of the gods and the cosmos to be present and to bring peace and healing to this endeavor.  She burned some copal (sacred resin) and all three women began applying oils and honey to our backs.  Eventually we were covered with large green leaves that Jenna recognized as an ingredient to many of her Mexican cooking recipes.  Marcela also used a large river stone during part of my healing.  When we turned over, I glanced at Jenna and Jo as crosses were made on our faces and neck using papaya strips and cucumbers were placed over our eyes.  Beatriz placed a flower on Jenna’s forehead, where one might find the ‘third eye’ in many traditions.  This yellow blossom grew in abundance on trees in the area.  When the ritual was finished and we had changed back to our clothes, it was the men’s turn and Jenna, Jo and I returned to the Hacienda to wait.

Tea after Our Ritual at Yaxkin Spa

As we sipped tea and waters, I reflected on what we had just experienced.  I knew that it was unlikely that we had just participated in any ritual that could be found in the rural Maya areas, even though Bea claimed that this experience was deeply rooted in ancient Mayan cultures.  What we had really found was a syncretism of New Age religious practices found in many parts of the world, especially in the United States.  This particular variety borrowed heavily from the local environment; the natural and cultural Mayan worlds.  Tourists unfamiliar with anthropological work in the area, or who had not met Quetzil before their visit, would be provided with a glimpse of ‘authentic’ Maya traditions.  But these are filtered through the Mestizo layer of society as defined by an educated upper class woman from Merida and her wealthy Hacienda owning friend.

I glanced at the stones and sculptures at the foot of the portico’s stairs into the garden.

Portico at the Hacienda Chichén Itzá

Sculpted stones from Chichén Itzá in the hacienda courtyard

Here too was evidence of syncretism, since these stones most likely were taken from Chichen Itza when the Hacienda owned the land, anytime from the 16th century to last year when the Mexican State took ownership.  The same website I found after we left explains this Hacienda in the following way:

Long before the “sustainable tourism” term began to catch momentum or even Geo-tourism as National Geographic’s editor tag the trend, the Hacienda Chichen has been practicing such ideal way of blending ecological care with social support and respect for the Maya cultural legacy in their region.  One of the first social programs sponsored by the hotel owner was gear to certified interested staff members as Bird-watching Local Guides, Mrs. Barbara McKinnon conducted a series of workshops to that end; since then, Bibiano and Jose Santos are successfully guiding various Nature Tours and Bird-watching groups at the Hacienda Chichen Bird Refuge and Maya Jungle Reserve.  Many individual programs, all gear to help the Maya people find jobs and new economic opportunities, have been sponsored in an informal manner to help avoid local activities involving deforestation and ecological damage such as is the case of “craft souvenirs for tourists” sold at side street vending stands (www.yucatanadventurecom.mx/inlaakeech.htm)

This was my first glimpse of how New Age religious traditions were permeating tourist visions of contemporary Mayan culture.  But it wasn’t the last.







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On Local Development and Mexican Food (Part I)

Driving across the peninsula from west to east, from the Mayan ruins of Uxmal to the small resort town / Mayan ruin of Tulum, we decided to take the secondary roads rather than the main highway, which I particularly loved because it was my first glimpse of what I have always imagined “small-town Mexico” to look like – very modest little homes, most of them made of cement with tin roofs but a surprising number in this part of the country still made of stick walls with a thatch roof; lots of small stores selling groceries or fruit juices or shoes or cell phone accessories; lots of people, young and old, most of them of Mayan descent, wandering around in t shirts and shorts and flip flops, chatting with each other or casually eyeing our big white mini van.

In the dusty, seemingly forgettable little town of Jose Maria Morelos we stopped at random at a roadside café with a large outdoor terrace just to stretch our legs and get a break from the driving.  We have been having incredible luck with food so far, with great meal after great meal seemingly by accident, but this seemed like a pretty run-of-the-mill place so we were just thinking we’d get drinks and be on our way.  We left about 2 hours later, having filled ourselves on two regional dishes we hadn’t even heard of – an entire ball of locally made Edam cheese stuffed with ground beef and tomato sauce, and a plate of shredded deer meat mixed with a basic salsa and served with corn tortillas – plus pineapple smoothies blended with a local herb (chaya).

Why did we stay so long? Well one reason was that the food was so interesting and tasty and led us to linger, but the other is that Jessica Lopez, the woman who ran the café, was extremely eager to chat with us about her establishment and how it played into the larger question of regional economic development.  Towns like Cancun and Tulum have no trouble spurring economic growth – in fact their problem is trying to contain it – but not so the little backwaters like Jose Maria Morelos.  As the extremely friendly Jessica explained, her town receives few tourists – mostly Mexicans transporting goods between several major towns – and as a result the economy languishes.  It has no beach and seemingly no major industry, and so a little restaurant like her “Kilometer 50” languishes too.  She mentioned a few ideas that seemed fitting and a few that surprised us – trying to turn the town into more of a “green” or eco site; increasing ties between a small university nearby and an American university that would bring students and American professors to the town; building a “Mexican Disneyland” possibly with a fake beach; and trying to attract small factories producing textiles or electronids for foreign companies (these maquiladores are very common in Mexico, especially along the US border).  I’ll let you guess which seemed fitting and which were surprising to us.

It’s an interesting dilemma that took similar forms at other points in our trip.  How do you spur economic growth so that it ripples out through an entire town, benefitting many local families, while staying true to ecological or ethical or cultural-authenticity principles?  How should Jessica market her restaurant so that it stays afloat?  Should she cater to the few tourists that pass through or to the many more Mexican travelers?  And if she tries to lure tourists, what is the best route?  As an eco-café?  A purveyor of local or organic food?  Regional cuisine?  Mexican cuisine?  Mayan specialties?

The fun thing for us was that she actually asked our advice as to what should go on an English-language sign out by the road to attract tourists.  Here are some variations we came up with:

  • “Authentic Mayan Cuisine”
  • “Traditional Mayan Cuisine”
  • “Specializing in Regional Dishes”
  • “Local Specialities”

and the more prosaic:

  • “Fresh Fruit Juices”
  • “Mineral Water”

Her reaction to some of our suggestions was very indicative of the differences in the perceptions of travel by outside tourists and locals.  She was puzzled by our emphasis on local or regional cuisine – she said she was more inclined to emphasize that she featured “Mexican” cuisine, whereas we were trying to convince her that what well-to-do Americans seek out these days is something more localized, more “authentic.”  She was also puzzled by our emphasis on mineral water, because in her mind it was merely some product made by Coca Cola, but in our minds when you are traveling in a foreign country mineral water takes on this aura of refreshment and purity (read: clean and sanitary) that ordinary bottled water may not.

For this brief moment we were thrust into the role of tourism consultants, and it embodied many of the tensions we have been grappling with since we arrived.  Who is tourism for, the tourist or the toured?  Whose values should be emphasized?  Whose tastes should be on display?  And what kind of a balance should a little town like Jose Maria Morelos try to strike between tourism and a more indigenous and resilient form of development?

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Who Owns The Maya? (Part 2)

Everywhere you go at the major tourist sites on the peninsula, you see vendors of all kinds of handicrafts — some complete kitsch, some mass-produced but authentic-seeming items, and some undoubtedly authentic artisanal products.  But what is striking is how many of these vendors you see around.  Not much seems to be made of them — they are just there, and there seems to be neither enthusiasm for nor rejection of them by those in charge.

Or so it seems.  What happens if these vendors threaten someone’s commercial interests, particularly someone in the elite stratum of society?  The highest density of these vendors by far was at the site of Chichen Itza.  Who might care about this?  The more commercial interests whose profits might be threatened by all that competition (e.g., (the large hotel where we stayed; the large gift store at the official entrance to the site).

We picked up a free copy of a locally produced bilingual tourist guide, and upon turning to the section on Chichen Itza were shocked to see the following in English:

“Inside the zone you will see many vendors.  We specifically recommend you do not purchase anything from them.  They are pirates saying they are Mayas.  The outdoor market was built specifically for them with bathrooms and electricity and they don’t use it.”

But that’s not all.  The Spanish version of this text, on the same page, says all of the above but also inserts the following:

“. . . Dicen que son Mayas y que tienen derecho de vender alli aunque en realidad la mayoria no son gente Maya.”

“. . . They say they are Mayas and that they have the right to sell things on the site, but in reality they are not Maya.”

None of us are experts on Mayan ethnicity, but the vast majority of these vendors appear to be entirely of Mayan descent.  Who owns the Maya?  It depends to whom they are providing a benefit.  When their image and their mythology helps sell a product or a service, they are put on a pedestal (sometimes literally).  When they are competition for tourist dollars, they are called pirates, or worse, un-Mayan.

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Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.
— Jose Ortega y Gasset

Word of the day:  Mayaland.

Now that I’ve read Matt’s post I realize that I’m echoing him in deciding that the name of our hotel in Chichen Itza captures the paradoxical mix of nostalgia and casual commodification I see all around me. It’s the Maya’s  land as Disneyland.  As tourists we gaze, enthralled, at the monumental scale and beauty of Chichen Itza and wonder at the nobility and ancient wisdom of the Maya (we wonder also, a little less romantically, how they could stand to drag huge blocks of limestone around in this heat).

Mere hours later, their descendants serve us drinks and massage our feet.  One of the “Mayan rituals” on offer at this ecotourist spa is the hot stone massage, which involves–so the spa’s soothing website informs us–the sacred river stones of the Yucatan.  Since the Yucatan has neither rivers nor native stone anything like the igneous rocks used in the spa, this last bit seems unlikely at best, but we don’t say anything to break the spell.

Faced with paradox, I think about epistemology (well, yeah, we’re academics–what are you going to do?). It’s fascinating to see how each of us makes sense of the world through the lens of our disciplinary frameworks.

For example, there’s the (to me) vexing question of the human heart.  Again and again–in the site’s plaques, which are given in three languages; in the stories told by our mestizo-Maya tour guide; in the site’s evening lightshow–we are told that the Maya tore the heart, still beating, from each sacrificial victim as an offering to the gods (our guide also made much of the tales of virgins sacrificed in the sacred cenotes at Chichen Itza, but that’s another post).  What I can’t help but see here is the lure of a good story.  Skeptical as to its truth, I wonder if it actually originated with the Spanish, who obviously had a  stake in making the Maya seem as uncivilized as possible.

The typical tourist sources don’t seem interested in telling me where this version of events originated.  At the Temple of the Warriors, our guide shows us the frieze on the central temple’s face, where warriors as well as jaguars and eagles appear to devour large oval objects.  Human hearts, our guide announces, with relish.  But how do we know these are hearts, rather than–for instance–nice juicy mangoes?

Detail, frieze from the Temple of the Warriors (courtesy of http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/chilam_balam/cbc03.htm, May 2011)

Our guide assures us that the proof exists in the site’s iconography, which he supports by showing us photos of the sacrificial rituals as depicted in the murals at another site, Cacaxtla; both sites, he explains, show sacrificial rituals using an object “the exact shape of a human heart.”   But poets have pondered for millennia the exact shape of the human heart.  And images can be interpreted in so many ways.  .  .

I find myself wondering whether the scene before us depicts a sacrifice at all.

Luckily, we have an expert in the archeology of these sites with us, and Heath is able to provide enough corroborating evidence, from a range of sources, so that I finally believe that the human heart really is what the Maya were after.

But as Wittgenstein taught us, to believe is not the same as to know.  On this trip, we’re all constructing knowledge, each from our own disciplinary perspectives.  Because we’re traveling together, we can exchange glimpses of our individual ways of understanding what we see–and I’m finding that exchange fascinating.

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Two Tours of Chichen Itza

Today we took two tours of Chichen Itza, the first guided by Heath, a Mesoamerican archaeologist, the second by Carlos, a local guide who had 30 years of experience.  Our idea was to compare and contrast the tours and see how each guide took us through the site and its story. Both tours were excellent, but each presented a different Chichen Itza and offered a different perspective on the ruins, their meaning, and their wider context.

Heath’s tour was one of a professional archaeologist, framed in terms of current research in the field of Mesoamerican archaeology.  He began by taking us out of the tourist zone to the Temple of the Initial Series.  This monument was inscribed with the only complete Maya date known in Chichen Itza (corresponding to July 13, 878 AD).  We learned that its iconography speaks to connections between Chichen Itza and the sites in Central Mexico, especially Tula.  Its importance, we learned, is that it demonstrates a link between the earlier Classic Period Maya centers to the south and the iconography found in the north of the site, which shares strong similarities with Tula.

From the Temple of the Initial Series, we worked our way back to the site that was open to the public.  Here Heath told us of the warriors/divine kings who led the ancient inhabitants of Chichen Itza and held onto power through elaborate rituals and long-term rivalries with their neighbors.  As we looked at the remains, we heard a rich, expert narrative about cultural syncretism, the iconography of kingship, its role in the creation of power, and the changing geopolitical panorama of the Mayan past.

Then it was Carlos’ turn.  We told Carlos the parts of the site that Heath had not covered, which, by chance, included some of its more sinister and sensational remains: the Temple of the Warriors (with a relief carving of eagles and jaguars devouring human hearts), the huge ball court where the Maya played a ritual game that ended in human sacrifice, the sacred cenote, or sinkhole, where the Maya sacrificed human beings and precious objects to the rain god Chaac.

Carlos moved at a slower pace, painting a graphic picture of a culture that practiced human sacrifice in order to appease the gods and control the elements.  He was much more of a storyteller than Heath.  And there was much more blood.  But what interested me most was that way that he interwove his story of the Maya with stories of his own life.  The ancient Maya, he said, were his ancestors (his mother was fully Mayan and his father partially so) and, as he told us about the ruins, he also spoke of his own family and their past and present ways of doing things.

It was also clear that Carlos knew the site in a different way than Heath did and had a very different relationship to it.  He knew the history of the remains, but he also knew the guides, the people who sold tourist souvenirs, and their children.  This was the place that he had worked for many years.  He knew the state of the site today and how it had changed over time — how the numbers of visitors had increased dramatically since the 90s and would do so again in 2012 when the ancient Maya predicted the end of the fourth age.

What should we take from this? The many different types of knowledge about the Maya that we have encountered during our travels fascinate me. Our two tours offer an example.  Heath, a professional archaeologist trained in an American university and Carlos, a professional tour guide at Chichen Itza, both have stories to tell about the ancient stones and a stake in their interpretation; both play a role in the making of the Maya.


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Who Owns The Maya? (Part 1)

This is a sign outside the artisan gift store at the major archaeological site of Uxmal.  Notice how the state appropriates and then regulates the whole idea of “artisan” or authentic crafts.  The sign reads “House of Artisan Handicrafts of the Government of the State of Yucatan.”

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Maya Inc.

The commodification of a culture is not a big surprise wherever a local population forms the service sector for a steady stream of foreign tourists.  Think of the identical tchotchske ceramic figurines of temples awaiting you outside any famous Buddhist temple in Thailand, or the authentically dressed gondoliers waiting to row you anywhere you like in Venice, or the Masai herdsmen trotting out to perform their famous lion dance to eager tourists in east Africa.  But this takes on a particular (and, at first exposure, particularly jarring) air when the local population is actually an indigenous population whose culture or history is the very thing the tourists are there to see.  How do you turn the authenticity of a highly localized and unique culture into a set of consumable products or services for a mass audience without destroying that very authenticity and uniqueness?

The hacienda-cum-resort-hotel we are staying at embodies this tension well.  It seems to always be walking a fine line between authenticity and amenity.  Its name alone says volumes — “Mayaland,” which as we were soon to find out, is not only this one resort but has grown into a regional chain, all of them tied to historic ruin sites.   All of the staff here are clearly of Mayan descent, but they are dressed in starched white service uniforms and stand ready to greet you in English.  In our rooms there is a basket containing various soaps and lotions that are all made locally from natural ingredients, and in the mini fridge there is Powerade and Coke and a Snickers bar.  The roofs are made of thatch, but each room is equipped with an air conditioner even though this semi-openness to the outside air makes it highly inefficient.

Mayan woman dancing for lunchtime guests (sorry for poor picture quality)

Probably the standout example was when we ate lunch in an open-air dining hall, during which two women and one man clothed head to toe in traditional Mayan dress entered and performed a short dance routine — except that the music seemed to be highly generic, mariachi-esque Mexican music, and the dance did not seem particularly Mayan.  Their finale consisted of doing another dance with lots of lower-body movements while their upper bodies remained stiff and they balanced half-full beer bottles on their heads!  Was any part of this educational, or was it purely entertainment for the fully Anglo and European audience?


But hold on a moment.  Before we rail against the mindless commodification of Mayan culture on display here, from the endless ceramic figurines of the ruins on sale throughout the site to the advertisements for “Mayan massages,” we should consider a few additional items.  First of all, is it fair to put the Mayans up on some kind of culturally pure pedestal, especially when it has been centuries since they first came into contact with outsiders?  Can we assume that they themselves want to remain set apart and “pure” and entirely unique?  Second of all, even though it seems that the Mayans are thrust into this subordinate position as mere market vendors whose days revolve around selling stuff to tourists in the unrelenting sun, do they not return to their homes at the end of the day, together again, speaking their dialect of Mayan?  Third of all, isn’t it also true that this commodification — the waiters in the hotel, the vendors at the historical site — allows them to make a decent living, and that without it they would likely find it much harder to make ends meet?  In other words, doesn’t the commodification of their culture actually allow them to remain out here in the countryside rather than migrating to the larger cities on the peninsula, where they would really be in danger of blending into a homogenous mix?  As an expert on the Maya told us just this morning, they rarely grow their own crops anymore in this part of the peninsula because the soils and the climate are so unforgiving.  Who am I to begrudge them a little bit of commerce?

I am not satisfied with either of these two poles.  It is entirely presumptuous of us to become outraged at what we see as a subservient or degraded societal position without knowing more background context, but it is equally arrogant to merely shrug it off under the guise of economic utilitarianism.  All I can really say after such a short period of exposure is that the situation is far more complicated on the ground than simple presumptions would have it.

A pub in Merida, a bustling city of 800,000 in the northwest section of the Yucatan Peninsula.

There is an interesting coda to this blog entry.  This morning we had breakfast with an American anthropologist who specializes in Mayan identity (more on that breakfast in a bit).  We were telling him about the beer-bottles-on-the-head dance that we had witnessed, sure in our dismissal of this as a kitschy song-and-dance routine for the tourists, when he informed us that this is in fact a traditional dance performed by the Maya in their villages and towns during local festivals.  The point is to hold their upper bodies as still as the sacred Kapok, or Ceiba tree while they dance with their lower bodies — a feat which they demonstrate by keeping a bottle of beer standing still on their heads the whole time.  So was that dance educational or entertainment after all?  The bottom line is, we can’t know, or presume to know, until we are more informed.

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Chichen Itza!


“The patient industry of such a people may well be supposed to have reared the immense mounds and the great stone structures scattered all over the country (p. 18). . . .For a brief space only we broke the stillness of the desolate city, and left it again to solitude and silence (p. 50). . . .a strong picture rose up before me of the terrific scenes which must have been enacted in this region; the cries of wo[e] that must have ascended to Heaven when these sculptured and painted edifices were abandoned (p. 61). . . .the ruins of Chichen. . .[r]uined mounds exist, curious devices, which often arrested us in wandering among them. . .the ruins which we had had longest in prospect, of which we had formed the largest expectations, and these expectations were not disappointed” (p. 220) (excerpts from Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Yucantan 1843)


May 19th:  Chichen Itza

We joined the first few tourists to enter Chichen Itza when it opened at 8am.  The site was almost deserted when we arrived; vendors were only just beginning to set up their goods.  All around us were the monuments Stephens featured in the drawings in his book. While some of these buildings are restored in part, there is still a mystery around their original purpose that even our resident archaeologist cannot penetrate.  We can only gaze at these monuments to a Maya past, since tourists are no longer allowed to climb the steps to the top of the pyramids; nor can we build fires and camp inside the structures as Stephens’ party did.  But Stephens’ original images can be re-imagined in what we see.

After listening to Heath Anderson’s interpretation of the feathered serpent motif that appears almost everywhere we looked, these people were not peaceful, but relying on the movements of Venus to plan warfare on a large scale.  Of course, this more recent interpretation is based upon archaeological evidence collected after Stephens’ visits.  By the time we returned to the Hotel after our first tour of the site, today’s Maya vendors had arrived in force; many offering the identical “authentic” objects for sale.

While I write this, my compadres are taking another tour of Chichen, this time with a “real” tour guide recommended by our waiter at breakfast this morning.  The second tour promises to compliment the one Heath offered us and promises to provide yet another interpretation of this tourist site.

We are staying at a wonderous hotel called Mayaland, located within twenty feet of the archaeology site.  We are spending our nights in Maya bungalows, with genuine thatched roofs (and birds and bugs).  The other place for visitors to this tourist site is Hacienda Chichen Itza, where we will visit later this afternoon.  We understand that the owners of the Hacienda only sold the archaeology site to the government of Mexico last year.

I have remained behind to write this blog and to schedule our trip to the Yaxkin Spa that is part of this Hacienda where we will all experience the Pakal Ritual later today.  As the web site promises, tourists that visit the Spa will “experience the beauty ritual created for Maya kings to purify and prepare mind, body, and spirit to meet the gods in mystical visions.. . .rooted in sacred Maya healing practices. . .this relaxing and purifying spa care will regenerate your peaceful energy and beauty”.   After spending today in the sun and humid heat of Chichen Itza, we will all need it.  More importantly, our visit to this spa created entirely for tourists, promises to offer more insight into the tourist experience here at Chichen.

2:12 pm. from the patio of the Hotel, next to the coffee bar.

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