Thursday, January 22, 2009

Gaza, MLK and Obama

Last Saturday hundreds of people turned out to protest the massacre in Gaza. It was really a heavy and sad demonstration, but it was important to be there. We walked around a big double block in downtown Seattle, chanting.
The desperate situation of the Palestinians in general is what made it so sad. If you look below the completely biased US news coverage, the actual situation is that every major city is an outdoor prison, the wall is strangling the Palestinians movement and psyches, the military occupation is pervasive, and probably the other cities like Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Nazareth are thinking, we are next. The brief hiatus in the killing is just that.

Then the next day we had the MLK march, the best march of the entire year because it brings together everybody in a spirit of unity.Here I am with my grandson. We were also singing with the raging grannies. This is Max's second MLK march. Last year he was only two months old. This year he went the whole way in his stroller, walking, and in my arms. It is the march above all others that I feel gives us hope.

Of course this year it was overlapped with the inauguration of Barack Obama the very next day, a supremely exhilarating day. It is hard to believe that we are actually rid of those crooks. Let us hope for the best. So far so good. But if Obama doesn't really redefine the discourse in Israel/Palestine, which is almost impossible to do given the bias and ignorance in the US, the situation will be that we continue to fund Israel's obliteration of Palestine. But many groups are working to try to help Obama to understand that a "better world is possible." He has told us we all need to be activists. He cannot change the world alone. WOW, what a relief!! I want to feel this way for awhile.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

clowns and laughter

The all day celebration of the Feast of the Kings meant there were non stop clowns performing in the town square. These are just two groups. Here the man with the red hat.asked people to volunteer to get up on stage and do as he asked them to do. They volunteered to be various animals, monkey, giraffe, lion.
Everyone had a good laugh. It was really great. If only the US sponsored culture that allowed people to laugh instead of so much military hardware, the whole world would be a better place. It was a big weight lifted off to be outside the US and its pressure to have arms, security, and war.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Mexico Part III The Yucatan

I thought it would be a let down to go to the Yucatan after being in the jungle in Chiapas at Palenque and Yaxchilan, but it was also thrilling. Merida, the Spanish capitol, was full of art. It had multiple celebrations going - its 466th birthday, the Feast of the Kings, and its weekly celebration of the heart of Merida. I went crazy in the zocolo buying gifts of embroidered clothes for everyone I could think of. There were so many kinds of music performed in the streets that we couldn't keep track, groups of beautiful male singers in harmony performing with only a few instruments, female singers, popular Yucatan singers- Sergio Esquivel and Maria Medina, and of course Mayans with a horn and a drum trying to pick up a few pennies. The heritage of the city as a segregated place under the Spaniards was evident in the impoverished wandering Maya women selling textiles. I watched one eleven year old girl packing up her goods for twenty minutes, then she reappeared in front of our hotel. I had to buy a scarf from her. In this picture is Gabriela who had one of the stands that appeared overnight and disappeared the next morning.
Here is one of four groups who were playing in a small stage set up in the street on a single night, each one distinctive.
We also saw an amazing dance performance by a group called the Compania Kaambal that goes all over Mexico learning contemporary indigenous/folk performances. These performances combine rapid dance steps with extraordinary costumes and often spectacular headdresses.

They were also celebrating the feast of the Kings, when the children get presents in Mexico. It is my favorite holiday in Mexico. Lots of young people dress up as Kings and everyone eats a special cake that has prizes in it. You can see the big cake on the table here.

We visited late classic Uxmal with its huge structures, and Chichen Itza with its huge crowds and overwhelming tourist souvenirs that almost eclipse the structures. But the pyramids and the other buildings are still impressive. These are late examples of Maya culture, as is Tulum. Tulum has the added advantage of the story of Guerrero, a Spaniard who went native when he was shipwrecked on the coast of the Yucatan and then taught the Maya how to defeat the Spaniards, apparently this is the source of the word "guerrilla" We also learned in Tulum that this coast of Mexico was very close to Cuba, so the lolling masses in their bathing suits are right across a short stretch of Caribbean from Guantanamo. It reminded us again of the mindlessness of the masses as untold suffering occurs outside their consciousness. Of course we were also briefly sitting on the same beach, but we are not beach culture people. It only lasted an hour.

In the Government Palace in Merida is a series of over twenty large scale murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco that show the history of the Maya in the Yucatan pre and post Conquest. The Maya resisted colonization for decades, and then in the 19th century there was a Caste War that again fought the Spanish. They were tough fighters. It includes Guerrero as one of the subjects.This image is the Eagle and the Serpent.

Finally we went to Sian Ka'an, a biosphere and stayed at CESiak (centro ecological Sian Ka'an) with only wind and solar power. We went on an amazing bird watching trip, although we went in a motor boat when we should have been in a kayak. The staff was brilliant ( here you see Antonio explaining roseated spoonbills, mongrove plants, and other amazing facts) and we saw dozens of different birds and learned about the trees, termites, and other ecological facts. We also saw a crocadile. The reserve is still a work in progress, with plastic bottles and bags polluting the waterways. But the birds are lucky to have it. At least it exists, thanks mainly to the efforts of Dr. Alfredo Alejandro Carrega, who happened to be staying at the hotel, and told us the whole story. He is an ecologist who was friends with the minister in the government who developed Cancun starting in the late 1970s. They are not friends anymore.

While we travelled we read D.H. Lawrence's Plumed Serpent, a wonderful fantasy of the return of Quetzacoatl as a modern cult to liberate the people from the oppressions of both the Catholic Church and socialist ideas. He wrote it in 1923, just after the Mexican Revolution, and before the effort to end the influence of the Catholic Church in Mexico in 1928. It is beautifully written ( if a little windy), perfect for a trip. I can't resist including one last image of me in a hammock in our bio reserve "tent" cabin. Boy do I look happy!

Mexico Part II Jungle Walks and Yaxchilan

Near Palenque in the jungle is the forgotten temple. We went there with our guide Edgar (here is in the green shirt). It was covered with lichen and crumbling into the jungle. As we sat on the front steps we saw a family of howler monkeys. But what is really evident is that the jungle is heavily impacted by humans. It was nothing like what I expected. Jungle means to me inpenetrable forest, so lushly overgrown that you can't pass through. This jungle had small trees and lots of light. That suggests that it isn't that old.

We went through the jungle easily, but it was still beautiful. Edgar said that the area around Palenque has lost its designation as a bioreserve because a very high percentage of the jungle is lost to development, particularly cattle. That means all of us eating meat, all the Mexicans eating meat are affecting the jungle. We have always heard about Burger King and Brazil, this jungle is closer to home. We saw an exhibit about the jaguar hiding deep in the forest, but its shrinking habitat is threatening it with near extinction. But the connection wasn't made to eating meat.

When we went to Yaxchilan we went on a motor boat on the Usumacinta River, the border with Guatemala. It was quite easy and accessible, but Yaxchilan is deeper into the jungle, the setting is even more lush and beautiful than Palenque. We went through a dark dark labyrinth when we arrived: that was a place for the king to get in touch with the cosmic gods. He stayed in the ninth level down for nine days, then re emerged with new powers.

Yaxchilan (it means green place) was a commercial trading center, but it had rituals and ceremony also. Carolyn Tate has analyzed it as a ceremonial city. It traded jade from Guatemala to Palenque. It has many steles and lintels showing such subjects as penis piercing, and the blood dropping into a bowl. This was another way of gaining power and of nourishing both the king and the earth. It had a feminist site, representation of a queen doing tongue piercings (stingray needle and rope passed through her tongue leading to hallucination, the best stele of this is in the British Museum, stolen by an early explorer) that also represent gaining power. The ball court was also prominent, and reliefs of ball players. This game was real, symbolic, political, impossible to play, and metaphorical of life and death. The ball game figures prominently in the Popol Vuh the early post colonial record of the Mayan creation story. Once there were 12,000 people living here. The main leaders are Bird Jaguar and Shield Jaguar.

After Yaxchilan we stayed in a Lacandan village. The Lacandan are the smallest Mayan ethnic group ( there are 13 different ethnicities today).When the Spaniards came there were 68 different cultures and 24 million people. After the Conquest they were reduced to 4 million. The Lacandan were traditionally living deep in the jungle until roads invaded it in rather recent years, the mid 1990s. Now their life style is also threatened. But they have a village where they put up tourists and take them on a walk through the jungle. We walked for five hours across rivers on logs and rocks, helped by our Lacandan guide who reached out for us, told us about medicinal plants and was generally charming. When I asked him about Bush and Obama, he said the Mexicans booed Bush when he came to Mexico and he likes Obama. There deep in the jungle we had this conversation. He also led us to a Mayan temple in the jungle, a small structure crumbling in the woods. There are hundreds of unexcavated temples.
Bonampak is in the Lacandan area of the jungle. It is a site with murals that are disappearing as people stand in line to look at them and breath on them.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mexico Part I Palenque, Chiapas

Here we are in Palenque in front of the Xibalba Hotel with the owner Marco. Xibalba means underworld in Maya. But this hotel is perfect for the traveler who doesn't want fancy accomodations, but warm people, good food, and joy. There is nothing underworld about it.

My friend Carolyn Tate who is an expert on the site of Yaxchilan told us about it. See the next post to learn about her book.

The Maya sites of Palenque, Yaxhilan, and Bonampak, are amazing. No one I have talked to has ever heard of them! In comparison Chichen Itza is only about architecture with much less surviving art. The reason is that in Palenque as well as Guatamala and Hondurus are the sites of early Maya culture.
Chichen Itza and Uzmal are much later. They are more familiar to people because they are near Cancun, the beach culture and therefore more accessible.

Palenque (Las Ruinas) has impressive temples, palaces, and other buildings that rise in the midst of the jungle.There are a total of 1453 structures, 24 have been restored between 1940 - 1979, we see the seven biggest. It was first discovered in 1786 by the Spanish. The site was built in the 600s ( according to our calendar, the Mayas used three different calendars for dating- they were obsessed with time among other things).
The Maya King Pakal was an amazing person, he lived twice as long as usual ( to 80 years old) and built himself a secret underground tomb that wasn't discovered until 1952.

On the lid of his sarcophagus is one of the amazing works of classical Mayan art.
This is a photo of the replica of the lid at the Xibalba Hotel, made by Marco's family. It rises three stories through the courtyard of the hotel. It shows King Pakal dying and descending into the underworld (shown as big jaws of a snake with a n incense burner in his open mouth at the bottom) , but the great part of the story is that when King Pakal goes into the underworld he nourishes the tree of life, which is in the center of the lid with a huge magic bird on top, so it is showing death and regeneration based on the Maya creation myth. In the middle of the tree is a two headed snake, an umbilical cord connecting different worlds ( it appears on a staircase at Chichen Itza).
None of these many details are visible in this image, but take my word for it, that is just the beginning of what the lid tells us and what the Maya believed.The lid was never seen for hundreds of years until it was discovered. But the original still sits deep under ground ( nine levels to be exact, the nine levels of the underworld).

The complexity of the belief systems of the Maya is staggering, cosmology, astrology, measurement of time in millions of years, the idea of zero, mythology, agriculture. Then there are the inventions, we saw a toilet, a steam bath, and a septic tank, in the palace.
The caricatures of the Maya that tourists are fed at Chichen Itza are entirely made up according to Linda Schele in her book the Code of Kings.

The Ball Game, seen here at Yaxchilan, seems to have been a metaphor of life and resurrection, the main theme of Maya culture. The Ball Park was a crack in the earth that connected to the underworld. The ball players could only hit the ball with their hips and elbows, they wore stone yokes and huge padded outfits. Kings had to take authority by playing the cosmic game. On the right are two dwarfs. The squares around the ball game are all glyphs telling exactly when this is taking place, dating back symbolic eons. The Kings took their power by connecting to the earliest cosmic dieties, as well as through their knowledge of astronomy. Of course if we compare that to rulers today of supposedly democratic countries, a divine connection is still being invoked, and power is from secret knowledge and languages not shared with the rest of us.

Palenque also has the group of the cross, three temples that face each other and create together another reference to death and resurrection through the underworld and return to the earth. This photo shows us after we have completed the cycle and are standing on the temple of the Foliated Cross. All of these temples have stunningly complicated low relief sculptures showing various stages of the King's transformations ( this is the son of Pacal, Chan Bahlum II). Please forgive me this cliche touristic indulgence (we were there). But we had such a great time climbing up and down these three temples, I couldn't resist.
The next installment if I don't get distracted with other work will be on Yaxchilan, Bonampak, and Merida. We also went to an eco hotel in a biosphere. Too much to write.

Overshadowing our trip were the horrors of Israel's slaughter in Gaza, which I followed with so much sadness and horror. US tactics, US weapons, obviously taking advantage of the transition in this country. All I could think of was, how we look down on the Maya as primitive for practicing human sacrifice, but we slaughter our own race with no control. The newspapers and tv in Mexico covered the Palestinian side thoroughly showing interviews with Palestinians, the protests of the orthodox Jews in Israel against their government, and page after page of the invasion and destruction. This is a poster asked us to write our opinion about whether the bombardment of Palestinians by Israel was serving Yankee interests.