Tuesday, February 27, 2018

90 years of a seat at the table

It was the birth year of women. As every year is.

But 1928 had an interesting list of luminaries. Estelle Harris. Shirley Temple. Jean Kennedy Smith and her college classmate Ethel Kennedy. Maya Angelou. Queen Fabiola.

But, most importantly, on this very day 90 years ago, Marilyn Munro was born at home in Powers, Oregon.

It was a year not so different in many ways from this year. The American economy was booming. Unemployment was down. Technology was in the air. Literally. The first transatlantic television had been broadcast nineteen days earlier, and the first regularly scheduled television programming began. In New York state. Of course. Transatlantic flight was proven possible east to west.

The Munros had recently arrived from Minnesota (both sides being descended from Canadians -- Quebec by way of Vermont and Massachusetts, and Prince Edward Island by way of Scotland). She was the last born of four children in one of the few Republican families in their little logging community.

Her youth was historically eventful. The Depression, that arrived late in The West and remained an unwelcome guest until the Japanese propelled America into the Second World War. Her high school emptied of young men -- and teachers. But the war did not leave her untouched. She trained as a plane spotter.

And then it was off to college -- Southern Oregon College of Education in Ashland. Prior to graduation, she was smitten by a handsome swain, Robert Harry Cotton, a son of Oregon pioneers, and married him in 1946. Three children followed: Craig Allen (dying in the year of his birth), Steven Ray, and James Darrel.

Her family is her pride. Being a mother was her ideal. But she also wanted more. Model. Business operator. Real estate agent.

But there were more hours in the day to be filled. She was active in her church as a Sunday school teacher and Bible discussion participant.

And there was Republican politics. Campaigner. Precinct committeewoman. Women's Clubs. Confidant to candidates and elected officials.

Because of her interest in genealogy, she joined the Daughters of the American Revolution -- you know, all of those colonial ancestors in Massachusetts and Vermont (some of whom must have had sentimental attachment to The German King because they ended up in Canada).

Some people with little subtlety in their lives will look at that list (Republican, Daughters of the American Revolution), and will create a cartoon figure that is not the woman currently sitting in my patio sending email to her friends. Let me give you an example.

My father was effectively raised by his aunt Madge and uncle Noble. Noble was one of the legends in our family. One of those men who is far larger than his own biography. Democrat. Patriarch. A man of strong opinions.

When my father first took Mom home to get Noble's approval, Mom
 came face to face with a rural tradition she had never encountered. She chatted with the women in the kitchen while they cooked. When the meal was ready, the women put the bowls on the table, and retreated to the kitchen, leaving the dining table for the men.

My mother had never heard of any such thing. She was raised in a family where everyone was expected to participate in conversation. Women were part of the family. Not something to be excluded.

She had no intention of being excluded.  She grabbed a chair, dragged it into the dining room where she was met with with shocked stares from almost all of the men -- including my father. But, not Uncle Noble. He knew a kindred spirit when he saw one.

He looked up, smiled, and said: "Marilyn, you come over here and sit by me." They then launched into a spirited discussion about politics and religion -- topics on which they had little agreement. She was one of his favorites from that day on.

She has never been a person to waste her time with political activism that she saw merely as pretense. It is one reason she has been a stranger to a certain type of feminism. She is far more interested in living her principles instead of talking about them.

That is why it is nice to have her in the house to celebrate this very special birthday. We are not going to do anything spectacular today other than having lunch by the sea at Papa Gallo's while we play a couple of rounds of Mexican train. Where she will probably easily win.

A bigger celebration will be held next week when her granddaughter Kaitlyn arrives. Prime rib sounds like the perfect way to honor those 90 years. And a full week of doing just that is somehow appropriate.

So, happy birthday, Mom. Thank you for continuing to drag chairs to the table.

Friday, February 23, 2018

this is maya tale

I started my day in Tikal in a shower of irony.

As lots of water rained down on me in the stall, I chuckled. The very substance that may have been responsible for depopulating the great Maya cities was now cleansing me for my visit to one of the greatest of those cities. Tikal.

It is more than just a Stars Wars set. For centuries it was the Big Dog amongst the southern Maya city-states. Then, around 900 AD, it all came to an end. The people evacuated the city. The elite moved on. Some of the common people stayed in the area and attempted to eke out a poor living from a very unforgiving environment.

At its height, Tikal had a very sophisticated culture. Built at the junction of what anthropologists believe were major land trading routes, the city had a strict social hierarchy where people carried out their specific roles in the class into which they had been born. Authoritarian. Wealthy. Successful.

There is no sign of a huge slaughter that would be expected if the city had been overthrown in a violent invasion. There are no mass graves. No piles of human bones.

Some of Tikal's temples have signs of having been burnt. But that could have easily been a deconsecration ceremony conducted by the elite before they beat cleats.
There was plenty of warfare between the city-states. But none that resulted in the destruction of cities. Those conquests resulted in a new dynasty on the throne with life going on as it had before.

If you ask an anthropologist why the southern Mayan culture crashed into a wall, there is only one answer: no one knows for certain. But there are clues.

And those clues lead to a plethora of theories. Overpopulation. Change in trading routes. A hierarchical society that was incapable of dealing with changes. Overuse of natural resources. Drought. Alien abduction.

All are plausible -- except for the last one. The only people who credit the alien alliance tale are the same people who meet at midnight in their anti-Illuminati cells of three people -- two of which will resign next week to work on their campaign to abolish the verb "to be" as a cisgender conspiracy.

Asking the question is a bit like asking why the cold war ended -- or whatever happened to the Yankees in 1960? The factors are legion.

But before we start the autopsy, let's talk a little bit about what Tikal was. A resident of the city would have been surprised at the name we now use. Tikal was the Mayan word applied to the place when it was "discovered" by a chicle-hunter in 1848. The Maya called it Yax Mutal. But, we won't here. It would be too confusing.

People had lived in the area as early as 1000 BC with some monumental buildings (mainly temples) being built around 300 BC. But something happened in the first century AD that caused Tikal to grow. 

The most prominent theory is that as Tikal's more powerful neighbor cities declined, Tikal took advantage of its trade route position. That economic advantage was ameliorated by the establishment of a talented and long-lasting dynasty.

Tikal had a rival right from the start -- Calakmul (located in modern Mexico). For the next 800 years, they would be matched rivals for control of the southern Maya city-states. Yin and yang in an eternal struggle.

Even though Tikal was well-suited to control land trade routes and the surrounding area had rich soil, it (just like the rest of the Maya city-states) lacked a reliable source of water.

Tikal sits on the southern edge of the giant limestone plate that makes up the Yucatan peninsula. The limestone presented ready access to quarries of building stone. But it is a lousy place for storing water.

The area around Tikal gets five to six feet of rain a year. But it all percolates hundreds of feet through the limestone leaving no standing water to be used during the dry season.

The Maya solved that problem with a brilliant bit of engineering. Someone had the great idea of plastering the bottom of depressions in the jungle to create a reservoir. The Maya then used that same technique to pave the bottom of quarries to create even grander reservoirs that were incorporated as water features into the city's impressive architecture.

The whole complex was then joined together by raised causeways combining each portion of the complex together as one unit. The effect was that Tikal was a series of civilized islands in an inhospitable jungle.

Then came a day that would turn out to be one of the city's great turning points.

Tikal had been a trading partner with the great city of Teotihuacan (we know it for its magnificent -- and badly reconstructed -- Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon) since around 200 AD. On 14 January 378 a Teotihuacan army marched into Tikal. The next day, the leader of Tikal was dead and the son of the ruler of Teotihuacan sat upon his throne. Founding a new dynasty.

At least, that is what we think happened. Unlike many of their neighboring civilizations, the Maya had a very sophisticated writing system consisting of what early archaeologists thought were hieroglyphs. And the guess was close enough to be accurate.

The problem is that no one living knew the written language. It took a Russian cryptographer to decode the symbols. In the decades since then, the Maya have revealed a lot of their history.

In the early years, anthropologists treated the Maya as people of the Elysian fields. Peaceful residents of Athens. While the Aztecs played the role of bellicose Sparta.

It turns out the Maya were every bit as blood-thirsty as the Aztecs -- perhaps, a bit less so when it came to religious sacrifices. But the Maya were a warring people. Peaceful means were used to attract alliances with other city-states and to pull in smaller satellites. But warfare was a regular part of Tikal's life.

When the Teotihuacan leader assumed the throne, Tikal began gathering allies. Feeling threatened (and with a large dose of xenophobia against the foreign intruders), Calakmul went to war with Tikal in a series of battles that would last for almost 600 years.

During that period, Tikal attained its glory. That is apparent from the large complex that we see today -- and what we see is only about 15% of the urban area. But it is the ceremonial area where the elite lived and worshiped. At its height, 450,000 people may have lived in the greater Tikal area.

What we see today in the acropolis area is built on 23 different layers of construction. That is a common technique in Mesoamerica. Every 20 years, the Maya would add another temple complex to the city -- always in the same pattern. A palace to the north, a temple to the east, another palace to the south, and another temple to the west. All forming a Maya cross.

But the acropolis is what amazes most people. In the center is a large plaza with round stones where honored humans would be sacrificed to please the gods. The deceased blood and heart were then mixed with copal and burned at the top of one of the pyramid temples. (It was an honor because the Maya believed a sacrificial death would speed them on the path to reincarnation.)

The prosaically named Temple Number One is a star of the acropolis. It was completed around 750 as the burial place of one of Tikal's greatest rulers: Jasaw Chan K'awil. 

It is immense. About 154 feet high topped by what must have been a stunning roof comb.

Unlike most Maya pyramids, this one was not only a temple, it was the resting place of the leader. Several treasures were discovered, including this jade mask that has made the cover of many magazines.

Facing Temple Number One is -- wait for it -- Temple Number Two. 
Jasaw Chan K'awil built this temple around 700 to commemorate the death of his wife. No body has been found in the temple leading archaeologist to believe it was meant only as a memorial.

We climbed Temple Number Two with the help of some very modern wooden stairs. The view was worth the 100 or so steps.

The largest temple (Temple Number 4), completed around 741, is currently the largest standing temple in pre-Colombian America at 230 feet. It commemorates the reign of Yik'in Chan K'awiil, the son of Jasaw Chan K'awil.
You might note how all of those dates are clustered together in the 700s. That is not an accident. That was when Tikal was at its height militarily and politically. During the reign of Yik'in Chan K'awiil, Tikal had its greatest economic and military expansion.

But, all of that came at a cost. Unlike the Inca and the Aztecs, Maya society did not have standing armies. They were a Second Amendment people. When military business needed to be done, the leader would call up the militia from their regular social tasks and would then march with them to do what needed doing.

The rivalry between Tikal and Calakmul began taking its toll on both city-states. The power ebbed and flowed depending on the military strength of each. But, within a century of Tikal's climb to the top, it was apparent it was all over. By 900, the great city had been abandoned to the jungle and the spider monkeys.

There are lots of theories. And most of them suffer from the anachronist heresy. Whatever is politically vogue in contemporary society tends to cloud our vision of the past.

The most prominent theory once was the weather. Between 800 and 900, the Maya world suffered a full century of drought. In an area with no standing water, that would be disastrous -- like living on the moon.

But that theory has been somewhat debunked because the city-states to the north that have even fewer water resources thrived during the same period. Some anthropologists claim that was because the social structure in the north was more egalitarian and far less hierarchical. The southern cities were truly Spartan in that respect. Authoritarian hierarchies honoring military accomplishment.

An auxiliary theory is that overpopulation caused the Maya to unwisely use their resources. Clearing more land to feed even more people changed the environment so much that the land could no longer support the population.

The problem with that theory is that it is entirely conjecture. Some try to tie the drought to the overpopulation theory, but that still does not explain why the northern cities were more successful at surviving.

There is also the possibility that the method of trade changed. The Maya eventually turned into great sailors. At least, along the Yucatan coast. Much in the same way that the railroad lessened the value of canals.

There was no longer a need for land routes. The elite packed up and moved to greener pastures.

Ironically, there are people (usually ready to make anti-NAFTA arguments) who blame the whole decline on the free market and trade that followed the Teotihuacan invasion. But that is an ideological argument not based on any data.

The chances are that all of these theories are far too simple to explain a complex result. They may all be correct, but only in part.

Remember those reservoirs the Maya developed to provide water? They were not designed for a 100 year drought. But there were 14 of them, and they would have carried the population through a long period.

The reservoirs and the canals that connected them required constant repair. But if the militia had been called up for protracted periods of war, there is no doubt the infrastructure would have suffered.

And, under the best of circumstances, Tikal might have even survived the leaky pipe syndrome. But in 800, Tikal did not have the best circumstances. It was weakened by constant warfare and then a protracted drought. If the natural resources had been overextended, that would have paid a negative part. Along with overpopulation.

Athens would have understood the lesson. As would have Sparta. War drains the very lifeblood of any society. For Tikal, it was water.

The result was that there was no sense in staying in a dying city. It was as if Scotty could not repair the life support system on the Enterprise. The only thing left to do was to leave. Having no escape pods, the Maya walked away. We just do not know where they all went.

That ironic showerthat started this piece? Thinking about Tikal, I decided it would be appropriate to memorialize them with a Navy shower.

Small measures for a great people.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

star wars with the maya

The truly literate amongst you will immediately identify that photograph.

It is the opening scene of the finale of the first Star Wars movie. The one later dubbed A New Hope.

Those temples poking out of the jungle of Yavin 4 are actually two temples we saw today in Tikal. You could almost hear John Williams blaring in the background.

This was the part of the Guatemala trip to which I had been looking forward. Tikal -- one of the greatest of the Mayan city-states.

As you may guess, I have a lot to say about the Maya as a historical people. And Tikal is a great place to talk about them.

But, it was a long day -- and the internet is very slow here and available only in the lobby of our hotel. The Jungle Lodge.

Tomorrow evening I will be in Barra de Navidad. So, Friday sounds like a good day to wrap up this trip to Guatemala.

See you then.

I just wanted you to know I have not been monkeying around.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

considering atitlan

Mexpatriate is broadcasting this morning from the shores of Lake Atitlan.

If you do not know the name, that is quite all right. Even though it is Guatemala's largest lake (and one of its primary tourist magnets), it is not as well-known as some of the world's great lakes. Titicaca. Como. Baikal.

But it is a pleasant enough place. And certainly popular with the international crowd. Backpackers and ex-hippies abound.

For the Guatemalans, it is a prime recreation area. In Mexico, Mexicans head to the beaches during Semana Santa. Guatemalans throng around the shores of Lake Atitlan.

We arrived here (in Panajachel) yesterday for a one-night stand right on the lake. But it was not a day of relaxation. We boarded a boat for a quick trip across the lake to San Pedro La Laguna for a lunch of muddy-tasting tilapia.

At least, mine was. I was the only person to have unwisely chosen to eat the fish grilled.

When we left the restaurant, I noticed this unusual site. A Jewish recreation center and meeting place -- in Guatemala. Apparently, the lake has a sizable Jewish community. Including an Orthodox community in San Juan La Laguna, where their presence is somewhat controversial.

That is where we went next. To San Juan La Laguna. In nine road racing tuk tuks.

Where we were treated to the obligatory lecture on Maya medicine -- complete with a staged herbal garden.

And then to the even more obligatory talk on the manufacture of hand-loomed cotton textiles.

Both presentations gave us the opportunity to leave more Quetzals in the local economy. I walked, instead. A lot.

I am not being churlish. I fully support anything that can transfer wealth from one person to another. It is the free market. And Guatemalans are expert at the art of convincing tourists to buy something they had no idea they so desperately needed in exchange for a wad of bills that the tourist will never miss. Adam Smith at his purist.

It truly is a movable feast of merchandise. Or a kidnapping gone bad.

The lake is surrounded by volcanoes. In fact, it is a volcano. The remnants of one, at least. The lake fills a caldera of a volcano that blew its top 84,00 years ago. Leaving a lake that is quite deep. 1120 feet.

But we have become accustomed to volcanoes on our journey through Guatemala. This volcano in Antigua greeted us each morning, from our breakfast terrace, with an eruption.

And that reminds me of food. Because I have little more to say about the lake, I want to share a few food photographs with you. And tortillas would be a great place to start.

The tortillas here are quite thick. In Mexico, we would probably call them gorditas. They are made of one of the four colored corns of Guatemala. You can see three here.

In the same market, I started negotiating for a taste of the armadillo or the caiman (just out of sight). I was going to pass on the iguana.

But the owner was interested in selling only a full armadillo or a large chuck of caiman. I have tasted both, and I was far more interested in the caiman.

Before I could indulge my itch, I was called away to join the tour group.

I am almost certain it would have tasted better than the pizza at this stand. The real thing looked even less appetizing than the photograph on the front of the booth.

Speaking of signs, let me share three with you. Guatemala is still a pre-literate society in many respects. But signs like this sell sandwiches. Even though I first thought he was eating a turtle.

And if you have too much to drink, there are signs to remind you what not to do.

But this is by far my favorite sign. I saqw it this morning a block from the lake. A perfect pun in Spanish.

I hear my group meeting in the lobby. So, I need to wrap up this episode, We are on our way to the airport in Guatemala City to fly to Tikal.

Tikal is why I came on this trip. Join me there.

Monday, February 19, 2018

barging in

"All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

It is one of my favorite scenes from The Life of Brian. It comes to mind whenever I hear anachronists bang on about how the Spanish ruined Mesoamerica. If you need ammunition to pour oil on that water, come to Antigua. The town feels as if it was frozen in crystal in 1776 when it lost its provincial capital status.

Yesterday we were treated to one of the traditions the Spanish brought to the New World -- a tradition that was ancient when it bobbed its way across the Atlantic. Being the agents of His Most Catholic Majesty, the conquistadors and their priests brought a rich Catholic heritage with them -- including religious processions.

To call what transpires in Antigua during the Easter season as a "religious procession" understates what a visitor will experience. A religious procession may have a few participants hauling a statute around town on a litter.

What happens in Antigua is something quite different. If you like your religion filtered through the camera of Cecil B. De
Mille, or think that a super bowl half-time show would spice up your church proceedings, you are going to love Easter time in Antigua. I certainly did.

To give some context to its importance, Guatemalans come from all over the country to not only see the procession, but to participate in it. Most of the Roman soldiers I talked with were from Guatemala City.

Since the Middle Ages, the Spanish had decorated the streets for their processions with colorful designs of flowers and dyed sawdust, called alfombras de aserrin. The tradition appears to have originated in the Canary Islands.

This was one western tradition the Maya had no problem adopting. They had been accustomed to idol processions where fruits and feathered decorations were strewn in the path of the procession.

In Antigua, the alfombras art form has been perfected. (Even though there are many experts who claim the designs in Tlaxcala, Mexico are superior. I don't know. I have not seen the Mexican version.)

The processions in Antigua are held every Sunday following Ash Wednesday until Palm Sunday. During Holy Week, processions are held every day until Easter.

Early on the morning of the day of each procession, families along the route start constructing their alfombras. The process can vary according to the desired outcome, but most start with a large rectangle of plain sawdust dampened to formed a sound foundation.

The family will then begin adding designs using stencils to create some of the most fantastic combinations imaginable. Because this is all Catholic-oriented, Catholic symbols predominate.

But the Maya were a wily folk and did not give up their own traditions that easily. They worked their own pagan symbols in with the church's designs. You can see similar examples of the same approach in carvings on Mexican and Guatemalan churches. The priests did not care as long as the passion was being portrayed.

And that was the point of all this. In a pre-literate society, the church could use these movable feasts of salvation through the streets to portray the gospel -- or a version of the gospel. Much in the same way that stained glass windows were used in Europe.

That is why most of the designs on the alfombras are allegorical. Either Catholic or Maya.

The alfombras are not solely made of sawdust. Some are decorated with palm flowers and berries.

Some are made of kale -- which only proves it does have some utilitarian purpose.

Some are almost entirely flowers. Tulips in this example.

And some are made entirely of flowers.

The procession passes through most of the neighborhoods of Antigua. From start to finish, it lasts approximately thirteen hours. And you will soon see why.

No Easter procession would be complete without imperial Roman soldiers, persuasively costumed to lead a procession dedicated to the Messiah's crucifixion. The first formation are pictured at the top of this essay.

More Roman soldiers followed carrying placards depicting the stations of the cross, in what has to be one of the best uses of irony I have seen in the service of Catholicism.

What made all of this worth watching was lugubriously wending its way down the street through clouds of incense. It was an andas. The true star of the procession.

An andas is a float the size of a barge. And it really floats -- on the shoulders of purple-robed retainers called curcurachas, devout men working out their salvation through self-mortification. It takes fifty to a hundred of them to shoulder the burden -- a burden that can weigh as much as 7000 pounds.

Watching the andas make their slow way down the street, it is easy to slip into the barge analogy. I said they float. They don't. They sway in an attempt to shift the burdens on the shoulders of the curcurachas. The andas bob up and down, and sway side to side.

Only when it is near can you make out the diorama on top. Jesus in the garden. Jesus flogged. Jesus on his way to his crucifixion. All more than life size.

The Messiah andas was followed by another bearing a stiffly-posed Mary. She was carried on the shoulders of women dressed in black.

I thought this might be another of the church's segregation policies. But when I saw the same procession in the center of Antigua, the women were shouldering Jesus and the men had taken over the Mary litter.

And the alfombras? They are consumed as the curcurachas and the women propel their respective andas down the street. After all, they were constructed as an offering to the procession.

I enjoyed the procession, but I certainly was not overwhelmed by it. In the daytime, that is.

Around 10 PM, the procession was heading toward its final destination when it passed in front of our hotel. What had been large in the daylight took on a dramatic air.

The stations of the cross carried by the Roman soldiers were lit as lanterns for the procession. And the Messiah andas was lit up like -- well, the second coming.

The whole thing is worth seeing once in your life. But if you are coming during Holy Week for next year, you had best book a room right now. To keep with our theme, there will be no room at the inn.

This is not an event where you can just barge in.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

everything's new again

I cannot believe my sense of curiosity failed me so drastically.

I knew our first stop in Guatemala was going to be Antigua. And I know that "antigua" means "old" in Spanish. But I never thought to ask what the adjective modifies.

It turns out that I only knew the city's first name. Its full name is Antigua Guatemala -- to distinguish it from the "new" capital, Nueva Guatemala. What we know as Guatemala City.

Our group arrived here late Friday night. Today was our first day to explore this old colonial city. In some ways, the city seems almost frozen in place when it lost its status as the capital of Guatemala.

We will discuss Guatemala's pre-Colombian history when we visit Tikal next week. But, as far as this area of Guatemala is concerned, its history began with the arrival of the Spanish. There is little archaeological history around Antigua itself to show any Maya settlement.

After invading Mexico, the Spanish spread south. The conquest of Guatemala was part of the move to bring the Maya under the sway of the Spanish crown.

Antigua was established as the capital of the province in 1543 after the site of two previous capitals proved unsuitable. There was no silver or gold here. The sole purpose of the choice of the city's site was that it was strategically located to control Spain's conquest.

Antigua served as the capital until 1775 when the capital was moved to Guatemala City. The authorities decided the city was no longer safe following a series of earthquakes, floods, mudslides, and volcanic eruptions. The remnants of great buildings still dot today's Antigua.

Antigua has to be one of the easiest cities I have ever navigated. And, viewed from the hills above the city, it is easy to see why. The place is laid out on a perfect grid radiating from several well-planned plazas.

Even though it is a UNESCO site, the place looks a good deal like other Latin American cities that appear to be frozen in amber in the late 18th century.  It is pleasant, but certainly not unique.

Because I am on a group tour, I did not get a very good feel for the city. Our day was made up of a trip to see a panoramic view of the city, a coffee plantation tour, a very brief stop at a colonial church, a whirl through a jade factory, and a long trek past fancy shops ending with a visit to a market where the same goods seem to be on offer at your local Import Plaza.

Instead of spending more time like that, I headed off on my own through the streets of Antigua. On the walk back to the hotel, I was propositioned three times. First, by two women who would have been better-suited to market their wares in the soft glow of street lights, rather than in full sunlight. And then by a young man who followed me with an interesting bit of patter and flattery in Spanish. My wallet enriched none of them.

Tomorrow is a special day here in Guatemala. We have entered Lent. There will be a special procession through the streets decorated with designs made of colored sawdust. I have seen photographs of this event. Now, I will see the real thing.

And maybe I can redeem my relationship with Antigua.