Thursday, September 13, 2012

Along the Mayan Trail

      Since I have been to Mexico and Central America a good number of times, I have had the opportunity to visit most of the areas where the Mayan civilization flourished and have been lucky enough to explore the major sites where the culture was most fully in evidence and the buildings were the best preserved remnants of their legacy. While my voyages in Mayan areas has failed to make me a fan of that very violent and war-like culture, one cannot help admiring the achievements of that long disappeared civilization. The fact that the major sites the Mayans left for us are not very far away and are relatively accessible to us gringos has made my explorations easy. I enjoy visiting Mexico and Meso-America generally so spending time viewing the amazing buildings and wonderful stellae and sculpures enhanced the travels I have made in those parts of the world.

     While origins of the Mayan culture can be traced back several thousand years, the population of these people increased significantly about 800 BCE as the earlier Olmec Indians began to disappear from the area and continued for some 1600 years more. The Mayans controlled some or all of the lands of the Olmecs, the Totenacs, the Mixtecs and other Indian cultures during that long span of history. Their civilization stretched from the Yucutan all the way down to what is now Honduras. They built large cities which became centers of their religion and their commerce and government
and then abandoned those places for occasionally unknown reasons. Lack of water, wars, disease, and other likely catastrophes caused the people to uproot themselves and move to other sites. We need to remember that the Yucutan itself is a riverless area. The cenotes or deep, watery wells supplied the water needs of the area as they do today.

      The discoveries of written language, astronomical observations and incredible architecture are what make visitation to the major sites so fascinating. One can start with Uxmal and Chichen Itza in the Yucutan as well as smaller sites to get an idea of the architectural beauty the Mayans achieved without the use of wheeled carriers for the great stones they built with and without the true arch and keystones which are almost universal in equivalent buildings in other parts of the world. Temples like El Castillo and the Palace of the Magicians are central to the cleared, cluster of impressive buildings in that area of the Mayan culture. Further south in Chiapas we come to Palenque where the jungle has encircled the great site with its many structures of palaces and temples and an impressive group of buildings nestled alongside the forest. A drive through the neighboring country of Belize takes the traveler to several small, yet still quite interesting sites, until that path terminates at Tikal in Guatemala, one of the most impressive locales of all. The encroaching forest that encircles this great center with its towering temples and central plaza reminded me of Ta Prohm in Cambodia where one can witness nature even today slowly enveloping some of man's most elaborate creations.  In both places the battle between the mighty roots of the jungle trees and great pillars that hold up the buildings created there hundreds of years ago is dramatic and adds to the fascination of the site.

     While there are a few more places the Mayans constructed for the ages, the last of the major treats is in Honduras to where the empire's border stretched. In the structures at Copan in Honduras one can get perhaps the most informative view of the classical period up to the beginning of the tenth century. This group of buildings was unearthed toward the end of the nineteenth century and it contains an acropolis with a monumental stairway and a host of sculptures and glyphs that provide perhaps more insight into the now extinct Mayan culture than any of the other great cities that sit along this amazing path. And all of this is but a couple of hours away. Don't rush to fly over the oceans until you have trodden the jungle trails to the south of us.

Temple of Eagles and Jaguars
Chichen Itza, Yucutan, Mexico

Monday, September 3, 2012

Where Will My Artifacts Go?

     As I have written earlier, my house- the walls, the shelves and the tables- are covered with artifacts from my many years of travel. Yet I don't expect to travel any more and, even if I do, I surely will not return laden with additions to my collection. All of our travel items were bought either because of their appeal to us or the memories they represent, or they became additions to the examples of art and culture I shared with the audiences I lectured to about the Third World. They all remind me of delicious past pleasures and experiences and/or contain palpable information to help folks understand what my travel in Laos or Belize or Ecuador was all about.

     But that is all over. My wife and I sometimes joke about the sale that will be held after we leave this house where everything will go for a dollar an item (an artifact dollar store with lots of bargains). That may not really be a joke. These artifacts will never be worth to others as much as they are to us. They will be regarded as bargains, picked up at a house sale in the neighborhood. How fortuitous! No story will accompany my gable mask from New Guinea and no future owner will ever imagine the countless evil spirits that were turned away because it stands at the head of our stairway.  If we had just picked up travel items for our own memories, there would not be such a plethora of them in our home, yet the additional small but worthy additions collected to enhance my lectures and covering about two dozen travel experiences are also articles of value, at least to us.

     Because, the stories that accompany them are at least as important to me as the objects themselves, I am working to have at least my roughly one hundred masks kept together as a collection after I can no longer enjoy them. Each one is already labeled with its tribal origin, locality and other pieces of information. Just the placement of such a collection in a site where one might peruse them and learn about mask making or tribal life in the world would be very satisfying to me. The group of rather unique examples of Indian tribal metalwork would also be significant enough to make an informative and attractive display. Getting these placed in the best sites for educating the viewer are current efforts on my part. Suggestions, anyone?

     It is interesting to contemplate the remaining power of the items on my walls and tables and in the travel bags assembled for lectures. When someone visits our house, they are very often fascinated by these and tend to peruse them with interest and inquiry. I walk along explaining the origins of each item and what it represents. That will not be the case forever. A collection, an interaction, and exchange of information and a lovely conversation will be lost. Where does all that go? I guess it disappears in the mist of the future but it has earned its worth quite fully in the present and the past.

Maskmaker, Rural Bulgaria