Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

March 25, 2002

Tachi & Margarita

Tachi and Margarita have three quite beautiful children for starters, who are very smart and a joy to play with. The entire family lives and sleeps in a na, and they have a kitchen out back (another na) that has one end of it partitioned off with a ragged sheet in attempt to conceal a bathing area. Often times a na is purposely built with one end a slight bit lower than the other solely for the runoff of bath water. And just outside of the na, the ground has been dug up and filled with rocks to prevent standing water. Their bathroom, is out in the corner of their yard behind a wall of guanos on dirt ground.

Margarita could be considered a master chef, that makes some of the best stuff I’ve ever tasted coming off of a fire. She’s also very skilled at making a variety of items that are cooked best in a pib. She often makes cha-cha-kwas in great numbers to sell throughout town, as well as pibi-wahs and buli-wahs, which are similar to cha-cha-kwas but made with beans in them and with or without meat. She’s also the undisputed champ at making makulam, which is the process of carefully spreading out soft masa onto a makulam leaf and then topping the masa with a ground pepita (pumpkin seed) sauce flavored with chopped cilantro and chili. Another difference between makulam and all the others, is that when makulams are taken out of the pib, the leaf is not unwrapped or peeled off, it is eaten. The makulam leaf has a natural sharp mint taste that most people either love or hate, and she sells well to those who enjoy it.

When she gets the chance, Margarita likes nothing better than watching her favorite soap operas on her TV that she has in her na from a cozy, sprawled out position in her hammock. I sometimes watch them with her just to watch her see things she’s never seen, like big ‘ol fancy homes with elaborate furniture and appliance-glutted kitchens, or exquisite wardrobe collections and absurdly large, gaudy, and shiny vehicles for transportation. She rarely seems to think much of it all, either because she doesn’t care for a pillow covered black leather sofa with gold trimmed glass end tables, or it’s just all fantasy to her like what we see in Star Wars is to us. Tachi on the other hand, has all kinds of reactions. Not to soap operas, which he never watches, but to cartoons. The guy sits straight up like a giant kid in his hammock, and becomes just a show himself of hysterical facial expressions. This isn’t to say that he is a hammock potato going brain dead watching the tube for hours everyday, but when he’s got a spare minute during his otherwise always busy schedule, you’re sure to find him in his other hammock in the kitchen. A torn up collection of soiled strings that looks like it can barely support his giant belly and is sure to unravel at any minute.

Tachi, like all campesinos (farmers) in Tinum, is an amazingly hard worker. He spends hours upon hours in his milpa (cornfield) doing what’s necessary to yield an abundant harvest, and it’s somewhere where I can always find him arriving on his triciclo (three wheeled bike) just as the morning sun has risen. I sometimes help him with easier tasks in the milpa like harvesting beans, because milpas are such quiet and peaceful places, and he’s such a trip to hang out with. It’s easy for me to forget sometimes, that Tachi and everyone else in Tinum, have a much different set of perspective dimensions than I. Once out there picking ibis beans with him, a white bean that must be harvested early in the day before its pod dries in the sun and exposes a thorn end, Tachi wanted to know certain things.

First of all, he sometimes forgets that he has to speak Spanish with me, but his questions would be as thought provoking in any language. He was curious to hopefully learn from a well-traveled, well-schooled “gringo” from the mighty United States, if it would be possible for him to go to another planet where people live in an airplane, … like the airplanes he’s never been on that sometimes pass high overhead and have a white tail. And he wanted to know that if God made amazing things like watermelons, pigs, and flowers for bees to make honey, was he also responsible for making other fascinating objects like triciclos, watches, and telephones. But Tachi was most curious to know, … why clouds don’t fall. And he was completely stunned to find out, that moonshine was a reflection, and that was by far the easiest thing to explain.

Tachi is also an accomplished hunter, and whereas about half of the campesinos in town own a rifle, he has a shotgun. It’s perfectly legal to walk or ride your bike right through the center of town if you want with a loaded weapon, although most guys only have them with them out in the milpa in a case a deer happens to walk by. But Tachi is very keen at spotting signs, tracking, and hunting animals that when killed and sold, pay for his shots, and put food on his table and in my belly. He talks about sitting perfectly still in trees sometimes during the middle of the night out in the jungle or in his milpa, awaiting what he lures with bait. Or, he says he knows how different animals “talk” to each other, their roaming habits, and how to tell where they’ve been and are going. But whatever he shoots, one thing’s for certain, … I’ll end up eating some of it.

Tachi and Margarita have a strange fascination with seeing me eat whatever odd thing Tachi shoots and brings home. Whether it be a cereque (large rodent thing), a tejon (small mammal with a long nose and long tail), a halib (small wild bore), a deer, a chacalaka (wild turkey), or a boa constrictor, Margarita can turn each into a feast for a king. Usually, anything Tachi brings home is first cooked by itself in a pib, and then Margarita sneaks up behind me holding its head in her hand. She then dices the meat and mixes it with red onions, chilis, tomatoes, and cilantro all sprinkled with naranja agria (sour orange juice), for delectable hot corn tortilla tacos with guacamole on the side. But she’s also made a number of scrumptious soups and pasta-type salads. And once, Tachi came home with a rabbit he said he’d just seen get hit by a car on his way home from the milpa. I just happened to be there, when he tore off its fur coat and promised me a great lunch for the following day. And sure enough, it ended up being one tasty bunch of “tacitos de road kill”.

Another one of Tachi’s talents is his ability to work with bees. The Mayans have long been expert beekeepers and of course make good use of the honey they produce. Their almost addicted desire for the sweet treat is understandable, if ever you were to taste the honey that their special bees make. The bees they’ve always traditionally worked with are native to the Yucatan and are coincidentally called Maya bees. Maya bees only make honey in short hollowed out log sections and are appreciably and thankfully sting less. The honey from their hives is smoother than silk and a pure liquid gold, and unmatched in every way by any other honey. Unfortunately, about 20 years ago, bees from Africa were mistakenly introduced to the Yucatan. Coincidentally called African bees, they are much more aggressive than the Maya bees and have been chasing away and killing them off at a steady pace ever since. So, most campesinos as a result now work with the African bees as well. The honey they produce in boxes is nowhere near the quality made by the Maya bees, and they sting like it’s going out of style. But there is a strong market for their yield, and the transition hasn’t taken the shirt off of Tachi’s back, not that it’s really ever fully on anyway.

Curious thing that I haven’t ever asked about, but in all the years that I’ve known Tachi, every single time that I’ve seen him, he’s been wearing a short sleeve button-up shirt that’s never been buttoned. Not the same short sleeve shirt, a variety of different ones that all seem to have perfectly functioning buttons on them, yet have never been used. Margarita takes the kids to church, and it is she who takes the kids to school. So, Tachi rarely ever has the actual need to button up his shirt. Don’t know what he did on his wedding day. Perhaps it’s a genetic idiosyncrasy, because I’ve never seen his brother named Rio with his shirt buttoned up either.

Margarita and Tachi decided to use our visit to Tinum as an excuse to throw a party. A party in Tinum is an all-day event, and this time we would be making cha-cha-kwa for the festivities. We went over early in the day to get things started as is always the case, and our first chore was dealing with the meat. Nobody’d just gone to the supermarket to buy it, because there is no supermarket in Tinum. It was more of a matter of running around the yard chasing chickens and turkeys, and taking a walk to the home of one of the butchers in town to obtain some freshly cut up pork who’d been up since midnight slaughtering a pig. Catching a turkey or chicken isn’t an easy thing, but with a little persistence and help from those who know how to, we finally got a few. Once caught, each bird is hung from a tree branch by its feet, and then Tachi handed me a knife and giggled. It was suppose to be my job to cut out their tongues or slit their throats, but I allowed Tachi the honors. Soon, all of the birds were flopping around and dripping blood, until their bodies were limp with death. It’s somewhat of a gruesome event to witness, but as common a task in the village, as waking up each day.

The birds are then dipped into a large cauldron of boiling water heated by a raging fire, to scald their skin and make it easier to pluck out their feathers. Once then absent of all plumage, Margarita and her friends skillfully butchered the birds on a rickety table, while throwing what could not be used to waiting dogs. The rest went into another pot to be cooked, just as work began to prepare the masa. The masa (ground corn dough) is first mixed with manteca (pig fat), and then a dye made from the dried seeds of acheote is introduced to give the masa taste and an orange-red color. Meanwhile, Tachi and his friends start digging a hole in the backyard that will become an underground oven known locally as a pib (pronounced peep). They also gather firewood, rocks, and banana tree leaves, and separate sections of banana tree trunks.

Back inside of the kitchen (hut), the cooked birds are allowed to cool a bit before Rob and the women start shredding all of the meat and skin into tiny little pieces. I am over next to the fire, where it was my task to singe the huge banana leaves collected by the men over the licking flames to give them suppleness, and then ripping them into square, paperback book-sized pieces. Eventually, I produce a hearty stack, and we are now ready to begin making the cha-cha-kwas.

First, a banana leaf piece is laid on the table. Then a ball of masa is flattened into a circle on top of it. On top of that, is added a tasty sauce with a manteca base called co'olito, strips of chicken, turkey, and pork meat, a slice of tomato, and if desired, a chili section. The flattened masa is then folded in a way to keep everything inside, and the leaf is wrapped around it to protect the ready to be cooked cha-cha-kwa inside.

Although the men and women don’t ever really partake or interfere with each other’s chores, they always have a good sense of where each other is in accomplishing them, and usually proceed accordingly without being told as to keep the entire process moving along as it should. So then as clockwork, the men suddenly and instinctually spring up from idle chitchat and decide out of the blue, that it was time to get the fire going in the underground oven. Choice firewood and rocks are carefully stacked in the pib and then lit with a burning ember carried to it from the women’s fire. It is the rocks that trap the heat from the eventual coals that make the oven work properly, and soon all is ablaze and settles to the bottom neatly.

The women meanwhile finish hours of cha-cha-kwa making, usually just as the oven is hot and ready to go. No time can be lost now, because the coals must be taken advantage of during the peek of their heat output. First, a thin layer of green leaves is scattered directly on the hot coals as a buffer from scorching. Then the cha-cha-kwas are placed throughout the pib, often on top of each other. This job is very dangerous because you have to be sure not to fall in the pib. Sticks are then laid across the top of the pib and the banana tree trunk sections piled thick on top of them. Finally, the dirt dug up to make the pib in the first place, is shoveled back on top of the trunk sections until not a single wisp of smoke can be seen rising from it. Normally by the time this stage of the day’s overall cooking challenge is complete, it’s late afternoon and the usual time everyone in the village begins to take their daily baths. So, we went home to do the same, and were instructed to return two hours later when the cha-cha-kwas would be ready and unearthed. And when we did return, everyone who’d gotten so dirty from the day’s tasks, were now all well scrubbed and in clean clothes. But then it was time to open the oven.

Usually by candlelight because night has fallen, or by flashlight if available, dust rises into the air, as the dirt covering the pib is scraped away with both a shovel and eager bare hands. The unmistakable, mouthwatering aromas of cha-cha-kwa then reach every nose far and wide, and the banana tree trunks are removed one by one. At last, the cha-cha-kwas themselves are exposed and seem to just be waiting to be munched upon. One thing though, ya gotta first get ‘em out of the pib. Putting the cha-cha-kwas in the pib is much easier, because although the coals are fiery hot, you can just sorta toss or softly place them all in. Getting them out though, requires getting down low and literally grabbing each one, and not only are the coals still smoldering with unbearable furry, the cha-cha-kwas themselves are more than a bit warm. Everyone is suddenly sweating again, and you hear the Maya word for “hot” over and over, “cho’ko, … cho’ko!”

It’s all well worth the trouble and torture though, because suddenly you have a giant, all-you-can-eat pile of cha-cha-kwas to choose from. And once carried back to the kitchen where tall glasses of cold Coke are being poured, the feasting will soon begin. Those cha-cha-kwas that were closest to the coals generally end up quite crispy if not partially burnt, while top layer cha-cha-kwas are soft and melt in your mouth. Everyone has a favorite type, and both Rob and I love the crunchy ones. Finally, everyone has a seat somewhere somehow, and begins unwrapping their banana leaf delicacies. And the taste, is nothing short of being absolutely heavenly.

March 24, 2002

Juan Hau

Each and every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday in his own backyard, at between midnight and two o’clock in the morning, Juan Batista Hau respectfully and gratefully knocks a pig off its feet by striking it hard in the head with a sledgehammer. With the surprised hog then quite dazed and screaming bloody murder at the top of its lungs, Juan’s focus becomes to securely pin one of its front legs to the ground by standing on it, while forcefully parting the other as to expose its panting chest. Then, with nothing more than his extensive experience and expertise of judging location and depth, Juan confidently thrusts and buries a long, thin knife deep into its heart.

It may all seem like something straight out of an ancient Mayan civilization sacrifice ceremony, but it’s as common in the village as eating habanero chili peppers with lunch, and seeing flighty flocks of colorful parrots each day at dawn and dusk. Everyday, all across the Yucatan Peninsula, in just about every town no matter how large or small, pigs are killed and butchered, along with many more chickens and turkeys, all for the sole purpose of human consumption. But unlike in western cultures, where meat magically appears neatly wrapped in stores, and how it got there is ever seen nor rarely even thought about, the people of the Yucatan deal daily with the vivid colors and textures of blood and guts as part of their unique lifestyle.

Without having any special saws or fancy machinery, Juan is a true artist of swine dissection, a skill and trade he learned at an early age from his grandfather. He’s usually finished with his precision cutting job by the first light of day, when he hangs huge chunks of pork from iron hooks over his weigh scale, which is located on a rickety table where he trims orders and displays leftover soup bones. At about that same time, his assistant Don Fonso is completing his own tasks of making blood sausage, and deep-frying strips of the pig’s skin in a giant cauldron filled with boiling pig’s fat and salt. Customers begin to arrive at about 6:30am, shortly after Juan rides his bike three blocks to the center of town. There, he pays $1 to have a public announcement read throughout the village through a large rooftop loudspeaker. In crackling Spanish, the announcement reports that Juan has fresh meat to sell at his home, and that the prized chicharron (pig’s skin) is hot, crispy, and ready to eat.

But Juan also has lots of other work and projects to do each day, besides driving around in his old rusted pick-up truck collecting mature pigs from his neighbors to butcher. He constantly needs to tend to chores in his cornfield, … whether it be planting, harvesting, clearing, or burning. He also routinely has to search for, cut, and bring home firewood from the jungle for cooking and for heating water. And he continually has truly “odd” jobs to accomplish around his home. Yet, at the age of 35, and with a charming wife and two beautiful daughters, Juan is a peacefully compassionate and unselfish gentleman (with a great smile), who is fully devout in his faith and just may spend most of his divided time organizing and participating in functions of the church.

But as is the case with everyone in town, Juan enjoys nothing more than finally getting the chance to simply get together with family and friends to just have fun and laugh, chat and eat, and do whatever he can to make any of them happy. With a population of 2,000, the town of Tinum has an extremely social and interactive environment. Generations of family members often live together, or at least very near to each other. And with very few people ever moving in or out of the village, neighbors are usually life-long acquaintances with whom special bonds also exist. In fact, daily reality for most everyone in town doesn’t extend much beyond their own city’s limits. And it’s within that simple and peaceful small town solitude, where little understanding or knowledge exists of what the rest of the world may be all about. And that just might have its distinct advantages.

March 23, 2002

Maya Lu'um


Pat - "The families went out of their way to explain customs and foods even though "mia español" is very very limited. I enjoyed my stay very much, and the family closeness and hospitality were things to make one sit back and review ones own culture."

Angela - "Everyone seems to have the simplicity of life figured out."

Mary - "Our stay here was so short, yet the impact immense and the memories sure to inspire me forever. It is so wonderful what you and the people have together here."

Laura - "Going back to the US will never be the same after the experiences here."

Darci - "I just cannot express in words right now what kind of experience this was. It is going to take me weeks or months to absorb all the things the people taught me."

Gabriele - "Thank you for these important days; we had the chance to know these friendly people, and how they live and understand something more about Mayan culture. Nevertheless, we made a big step more in the process of understanding this crazy world around us."

Rachel - "Roberto, ... WOW! Um, what can I say? Basically I agree with everything written in this book. Thanks to you and all the people of Tinum - this has truly been a mind-blowing, life-changing, damn groovy experience."

Sarah - "It has been such a pleasure, a privilege, a humbling experience to learn about life in this village. What a memorable experience!"

Inge - "Dear Roberto, ... Two days ago we met in the airplane. Two girls full with ideas for a wonderful trip to Mexico. And then you came with the suggestion of visiting Tinum. "OK, " we thought, "give this guy a chance." After being here for two days we can certainly tell ya that you were right about the added value of a visit to Tinum. It just has been a great experience. The hospitality of the people in Tinum and Loopxul is wonderful; what a difference with the Western World. We love the food, the kids, the fruits, but especially the way of living. Never seen a village with such a smiling, happy population as that of Tinum. Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to experince it all and for taking care of us."

Unna - "All the folks who have been writing in this book are full of all the experiences and most of all of the hospitality of all the people of Tinum. Well, I think that when it comes to that point your certainly one of them. Thanks a hundred times for opening your doors for us and running around like crazy to show us as much as possible in the past five days. It was really amazing!"

Patrick (Dos) - "It´s incredible to live in a community like this, with it´s own habits. It makes you see in a different perspective and think about your own as well."

Annelies - "Roberto, ... Overwhelmed by your ideas and enthusiasm since I only wanted two stamps. "Who is this guy?", anyway. Maybe that village is worth a try. After many thoughts, the final one was "go for it!", this might really be unique. Must be, for "that guy" is getting crazy only telling about it! Everything in the village, and everyone, seems to have a place, like it´s suppose to be. Everything feels right, and all are content. There are many ultimates, and for me this was sure one of them."

James - "Many thanx Roberto for this opportunity to meet hundreds of interesting folks ... in your bedroom no less. Here´s a wee poem I cribbed from somewhere: I went into a cenote, Inside it was silence, There the wind knows it is water and water knows it is rock. There, I am only a presence, composed of wish."

Richard - "So we arrived in Valladolid hoping to catch a bus right to Holbox to meet with the dolphins, however the universe was suggesting something else for the bank machine wasn´t working and the internet place was closed - which sent us walking where we arrived at another internet place and bank that Roberto was using at that moment, we got to talking - he showed us the flyer, and we said, "Take us home!" This is the one riot of our month in Mexico - my first time here - that was missing. To meet the people - the modern Maya first hand is a privilege and an honor. It is a pure joy to see them living so similarily to how they have always been. Much thanks to Tinum and the universe."

Darryl (Dale) - "On first meeting Rob, I thought - I my god, another crazy American. I was right. Although it is totally a stereotype I have sometimes found Americans (nice as they are) can be loud and even arrogant at times. Rob has changed my mind. If you´re reading this and you´ve only just arrived - you´re in safe hands. As we / I / no one says in England ... ´top geezer that bloke´"

Robin - I arrived in Mexico in the middle of the night, knowing only that I needed to find the village of Tinum and someone by the name of Roberto. After a long night convincing myself, "Yes, you´re in Mexico, " I found myself in Tinum at 6:30 in the morning. As I was reassured, I simply had to say "Roberto" and I was led to the doorstep here. I cannot express how wonderful it is to know a place like this exists, or how thankful I am for Roberto - ´the magical addaptor´- allowing me and my western friends to plug into the Maya life."

Saskia - "Being told in advance a lot about Tinum, it´s people, and what it has done to people from outside, I thought I kind of knew what to find. The opposite was true, this experience was nothing I´d expected. Beauty, sincerity, and contentness showed themselves to me in so many different forms. Sometimes I even felt that feeling of being part of the flow, provoked by that magical touch of the people of Tinum. Seeing them being happy at where they were in life, living every moment, treasuring nature, family, and the upperworld is something I wish many people can experience from the outside world. I´m sure I will always remember this stay in Tinum as one of those eye-opener periods in life, one which gives you energy and hope to go further on the exciting trip called life."

Dianna - "Thank you Roberto for sharing Tinum and showing me a world before I could only imagine in books and television like National Geographic. This place is mysterious and pulls you in with the biggest and happiest smiles I´ve ever seen. It is full of surprises like taking corn to be made into tortillas and innocent children running to you as if they´ve known you forever. I take with me the challenge of finding contentness in everything around me with the same simplicity and loviness of the people of Tinum. I feel I have been given a special gift that lasts a lifetime."

Cathy - "Robert, Your hospitality is wonderful along with your passion for the village. The culture that surrounds the village is ancient and unexplored. Yet, you explore the people and their daily habits. Fortunately enough, you invite the unknowledgable to your house with open arms. Last night, I experienced and saw things I could only imagine in my dreams."

Paula - "Robert, ... They told me Tinum was magic, and I thought, "Sure, probably it´s magic for big city folk who have never seen a Maya village, but I´ve been in Yucatan lots of times, and I think I know what to expect." But, surprise, this village charmed me and embraced me on every level, and yes, it´s magic! I brought here an intellectual curiosity and a desire to learn more about the Mayas. Those winning smiles of the dozens of kids who surrounded me that first day touched me right to the core. The most important lessons to be learned here have nothing to do with the intellect, and have everything to do with the heart. Here, we find a whole village of people who live day to day with an inner peace seldom achieved - if ever - in other cultures I have known. Thank you - mil gracias - for all your help and support. With your enthusiasm, your energy, your knowledge of this culture and your willingness to share it, you make the world a better place. I carry away with me many lessons of what the world can be when people live in the moment, share all that they have, and take time for friends and family, and savor the good pure air and the million stars in the sky."

Dave - " As we sit in the throes of the end of another day, we can reflect on the wondrous time spent with you and your enthusiasm for your very fortunate life and equally amazing and fortunate Mayan friends."

Lynn - "Who could have realized the scope of today´s magic with a day enveloped with wonder, enthusiasm, hospitality, and so much more. Robert, you truly are part of this Mayan community for sharing part of yourself and these peaceful families. Nothing short of paradise. This is so wild, it´s spiritual and beyond."

Genevieve - "One of our worst errors as members of the ´developed world´, is to think we know everything ... how wrong we are."

Una - "From the moment we showed up on your doorstep at 6:30 on a Sunday evening - completely unannounced - your hospitality, warmth, openess, and not to mention a touch of eccentricity(!) has overwhelmed me. I feel so grateful to you and the people of Tinum for this experience. And the pig-stabbing experience was something new for me too!"

Juanita (translation from Spanish) - "I want to tell you that it gives me much pleasure that there are people like you, that love the Maya culture and respect my culture. It´s logical then, that the community of Tinum loves and respects you too. If you give love and are caring, you also receive love and caring. The people of the Yucatan are kind and always are sincere in what they feel. Don´t change, continue being yourself."

Stine - "It´s been a rollercoaster ride - never knowing what to expect as you turned the next corner - for sure a smile and definately more - a lot of emotional experiences and thoughts have crossed my mind. I especially seemed to disappear in your stories. Keep up the pillow drumming."

Sara - "As we are now about to leave this paradise, I just wanted to say to you - that I tried to count the smiles I was given here - and you were right ... it simply was IMPOSSIBLE! All the warmth and happiness this little town gives you is AMAZING and I will never forget these incredible five days."

Chloe - "Dear Roberto, ... With you, we felt like childrens with the thirst of learning or, even better, in the best part of a good book; except that the whole story was not fictive ... it´s the reality of Tinum´s people. I will not forget this kindness and those smiles. After three months traveling around and seeing so many crazy things, the only desappointment was to realize that the North American influence is extended everywhere in Mexico, even in the Mayan World. But you gave us a chance to see this phenomenon in the best angle. I´m still sure that it´s possible to find the answer, "What makes people here so happy?"

Andrew - "The night playing with the kids was something out of a dream. It was like going back to childhood, ... laughing, running, not having a care about anything. Simply amazing!"

Dave - "An all-to-brief and entirely magical visit; woven strands of love and wonder, life an ornate and colorful hammock; open faces that blossom into smiles; laughter and laughter and laughter! Sweet, lovely children spring up around us like a field of wildflowers. Every breath was inbued with a new and more meaningful appreciation for life. There was a sense that the very Earth herself had reached, gently, to caress us. To hold us near."

Maya Lu úm, ....... means, ....... "Maya Land"

March 22, 2002

The Ancient Maya

At its peak, around 750 A.D., the late great Maya civilization reached a zenith, with a total population estimated at near 13 million. Then, between about 750 and 950 A.D., their society suffered a terminating implosion. The Maya abandoned what had been very sophisticated and densely populated urban centers and scattered into the jungles, leaving their impressive stone edifices behind to fall into ruin. The exact reason for this demise of the Maya civilization has since been one of the great anthropological mysteries of modern times. So, what could have happened?

With their magnificent architecture and sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, the Maya boasted one of the great cultures of the ancient world. Although they had not discovered the uses of a wheel and were without the aid of any metal tools, the Maya constructed massive pyramids, elaborate temples, and imposing monuments made of hewn limestone both in large cities and in smaller ceremonial centers throughout Honduras, Guatemala, and the lowlands of the Yucatán Peninsula. They also studied with great attentiveness, the night sky and movement of solar bodies, and were able to track stars and planets with nearly perfect precision. This led to the creation of a calendar that was based on a year being 365.2420 days long, and was used to determine solstices, equinoxes, synodical alignments, ecliptic nodes, and other celestial phenomena essential for anticipating seasons.

The Maya as well created their own intricate system of mathematics, being the first civilization ever to incorporate the uses of zero. They had complex perspectives of mythology, and a religion based on a nine layer underworld and 13 higher layers or "heavens", and included a pantheon of gods that continually needed to be pleased with ceremony, offerings, blood letting, and sacrifice. They in addition, were master artisans, developed a hieroglyphic scheme for writing made up of hundreds of elaborate signs, and built long, perfectly straight terraced causeways (roads) between sites of significancy.

Scholars have advanced a variety of theories over the years, pinning the fault of the demise of the Maya on everything from internal warfare to foreign intrusion, from widespread outbreaks of disease to a dangerous dependence on monocropping, and from environmental degradation to paralyzing climate change. Some combination of these, and probably even some other unknown cosmic factors as well, are likely reasons to explain it all. But in recent years, new scientific evidence strongly suggests, that unusual shifts in atmospheric patterns took place near the end of the Classic Maya period, lending credence to the notion that climate, and specifically drought, at least played a hand in the decline of this ancient civilization.

Nevertheless, although the social essence of that civilization seemingly just disintegrated into thin air, and the reasons why are now left to only studious conjecture, the people themselves live on, in small villages all over like Tinum. And you'd think, that if you asked them what they thought happened and went wrong way back then, you'd end up hearing some sort of tale, fable, or legend passed down through the ages that would explain it all. But, that's not the case. The Mayans of today's Yucatan "say" that they know of no difference between their past, and the way they live now in the 21st century. And indeed, many, if not most of their daily lifestyle techniques and activities, are likely similar to those of their ancestors. Where else could they have learned all their bizarre, yet fully functionable nature-based methods of survival without centuries of trial and error? Granted, their governing laws and rules of society are much different these days, where powerful bloodline kings and influential high priests have been replaced with democratically elected "crooked" politicians. And of course, there are no longer sacrifices, at least of humans. But, purebred Mayans still do not have any body hair, except for on their heads and their eyebrows. Their language is void of words that represent modern times like "car", "electricity", "compact disc", and "space shuttle". And most intuitively, you can just feel in the air, that there's much more going on, than simply meets the eye.

Whether learned, like we've been enlightened by anthropologists and academic researchers of the facts and theories of the vanished Mayan Empire, or that there are actually indeed basic inbred elements of understanding about their heritage that they are not confessing to, today's Mayans know with pride, that their indirect past was quite glorious, mysterious, and very intriguing. They all marvel at the same things we've come to be astounded by, and perhaps they even give it all more thought than anyone.

For instance, most major ancient Mayan cities had what is known as a "ball court". The great ball court at Chichén Itzá is I-shaped and is 545 feet long and 225 feet wide, the largest of its kind. It has two fairly high slightly sloping parallel walls on either side each inset with a single stone ring over half way up at right angles to the ground. The players scored by passing a ball made of rubber, which was 50 centimeters in diameter and weighed more than a kilo, through the rings. But the players could only touch the ball with their elbows, knees, or hips. Scoring was considered such a laborious feat, that teams of between five and eight players would often have to play for days to do so even once. The "ball game" itself was extremely violent and had major religious significance. The players wore protective quilted cotton armor, perhaps filled with unspun cotton, that was wrapped around waist yokes made of wood. Brightly painted deer hides adorned with feathers were worn around the hips and provided some additional protection, and the players also wore knee pads and had protective wrappings on their legs and lower arms. On certain occasions, the players also wore elaborate headdresses.

There were often serious injuries during the game, when bruises were so bad sometimes that they would have to be cut open, and the blood squeezed out. And broken bones were common also. But this was all nothing compared to the outcome of the game. At the base of each of the walls at Chichen itza, are a series of stone carvings depicting the outcome of each contest. Separated by a representation of the ball, are the two teams lined up in single file facing each other. The leader of one of the teams holds a knife in one hand, and in the other hand holds the decapitated head by its hair of the other team leader, who is kneeling on one knee with streams of blood spewing from his neck. So, it would probably seem to make sense, that it was the losing team's captain that was sacrificed. After all, how often does a loser come out ahead? (no pun intended). But in fact, it was the winning team's leader, who'd trained for years and years to be the best and strongest ball player he could, solely to try and achieve the privilege of being sacrificed to the gods. This actually seems to make more sense, because why would an advanced civilization like the Mayans just kill for sport like another famous so-called advanced civilization in history, ... the Romans?

Also at Chichen Itza, is the grand pyramid El Castillo, which served as a temple to the feathered serpent god Kulkulcan, who created earth and all of humanity. But the pyramid was also nothing more than a gigantic solar calendar of sorts. It is a step pyramid with a ground plan of square terraces with stairways up each of the four sides to the temple on top. Each of the structure's four stairways contain 91 steps. When counting the top platform as another step, in total, El Castillo has 365 steps, one step for each day of the calender year. The overall structure has nine levels, which may be a parallel to the Maya cosmological view of there being nine levels in the Mayan "underworld". There is also a staircase within the center of the pyramid that has 13 levels, the number of levels in the "higher world".

At the base of either side of the northern staircase, are massive stone carvings of the head of the feathered serpent god Kulkulcan ("can" meaning serpent or snake, as in Can-cun). Occuring each year during the spring and autumn equinoxes, a magical play of light and shadow during each day's late afternoon hours creates the appearance of a snake that gradually undulates down the side of the stairway of the pyramid. This diamond-backed snake is composed of seven triangular shadows, cast by the stepped terraces of the pyramid, and as the shadows move down the stairway, the body of the snake ultimately perfectly unites with one of Kulkulcan's stone heads. Thousands of tourists, visitors, hippies, cult groups, and worshippers gather twice each year to see this phenomenon, which may have been viewed by the ancient Maya as the manisfestation of Kulkulcan himself. And whereas it truly is an amazing spectacle to behold, it pretty much all just happens to tell time.

Ya see, the Mayan builders of El Castillo methodically and purposely built their pyramid aligned with an important astronomical axis. It was their plan right from the start, to construct a timepiece that would use the sun's many annual changing positions across the sky to create shadows that would indicate and signal particular times of the year. In this instance, the equinoxes. And with having a trustworthy way of discerning at what phase during a given year they were, the Mayans would know when to plant, when to harvest, and when to perform important ceremonies. It's not all that different than Stonehenge in England, that marks the summer solstice. But how many mushrooms do you have to eat, and how creative do you have to be, to build something that will ultimately produce a natural image such as the manisfestation of Kulkulcan?

A few years back, I met up with a young ty-dyed couple from London, England on March 20th. Dale was a face full of piercings, and Fiona was a tangled mop of dreadlocks with her own very special nose ring. They were quite excited about their luck that there would be an equinox celebration the next day at Chichen Itza, and early the next morning I arranged a ride to the celebration with a group of teenage dancers from Tinum expected to perform traditional Yucatecan dances there. So, a half hour later than the stated meeting time (Mexican tme), we all climbed into two beat-up vans for the ride over. But, because none of the dancers wanted to mess up their traditional clothing, they all appointed me in charge of their most important prop. It turned out, that one of their performances was to be the always interesting "dance of the pig's head", and of course they needed a pig's head for it to actually be authentic.

So, during the entire ride to Chichen Itza, I had a tina (metal bucket) with a pig's head in it between my legs. This was even a bit of a shock for Dale and Fiona, who thought they'd seen everything. But I explained, that you just never know what's going to happen day to day in Tinum, and anyway, the real fun didn't begin until we got to our destination an hour before noon. There were giant crowds of gringos wandering the premises and the parking lot was full with tour buses. And with all of that, I knew I had great opportunity to blow some minds. So very slowly, I walked through the front entrance and through the masses with my very unique and special attraction, being sure that every red-necked, camera swinging gringo I encountered , got a good look down the nostrils of my new best friend that I was carrying in front of me. This continued all the way out to a temporary stage location near the base of the pyramid, where I eventually stopped giggling.

March 21, 2002


Continuing five more kilometers through San Francisco on the road from Tinum, you come to a tiny hand scratched sign that says “Loopxul”, and an arrow on it pointing down a dirt road that disappears into the jungle. Well, should you be brave enough to go that way, two kilometers later you’ll actually reach Loopxul, the end of the line. Loopxul (pronounced lope-shool) is a very small town of 50 people, all of whom are part of an extended family, who live in a total of eight nas. Life in the village is perhaps as traditional as it gets across the Yucatan Peninsula, although there are many other hidden and isolated communities just like it all over.

I was just hanging out at home one day, when I suddenly heard a knock at my door. 17-year old Daniel introduced himself with a firm handshake and wondered if I’d be available to teach him some English. He’d heard that a “gringo” lived in Tinum, and that “Roberto” often gave English classes to anyone interested in learning. Daniel explained that he lived in Loopxul, and was willing to make the 18-kilometer ride each way each week each way to my house to attend classes. And before long, Daniel was a regular visitor.

Well, it was inevitable that Daniel ask me to visit his home sometime also, and I jumped on the chance when he invited me to a celebration his family was planning on having there. I expected to see a lot that I’d already seen in Tinum, as far as the process of preparing festive foods and the like. But there was something uniquely different about Loopxul that was a great fascination to discover. Loopxul had neither running water nor electricity. I mean, Tinum itself barely even has such services, although a very crude system of pipes and tubing does carry pumped water up from a cenote to almost everyone’s house for a short while twice a day. And precariously hung cables reach most homes with electricity. But Loopxul was void of those basic luxuries, and that makes things quite interesting there.

As was the case for the all Mayans throughout their history on the Yucatan Peninsula, it was necessary for them to live near a cenote, the only source of water around. It turns out that the porous limestone rock, of which the Yucatan is made, is incapable of holding any water, meaning that there are no streams, ponds, rivers, or lakes anywhere. All rainfall immediately seeps down to a water table 75 feet underground where an elaborate network of subterranean rivers if found. Every once in a while, the ground caves in and a sinkhole is formed, exposing the water. These sinkholes are called cenotes, and ultimately allowed the chance for the Mayans to have water. Unfortunately, the steep walls of a cenote are usually perfectly vertical, and that made it tough to get the water. But of course systems were developed to haul it up with rope and containers, and it was imperative that you didn’t fall in, because there was no way out.

The ancient and not so ancient Maya were lucky to have a plant native to the region called henequen, that contains a fibrous material that can be wound into rope. And of course for them making a container to carry the water itself wasn’t too difficult a challenge. An alternative to having a cenote at your disposal, was to dig a well and hope that you struck water. But that meant digging at least down 75 feet by hand, which is exactly what has been done many times in villages across the Yucatan. In Tinum, there are between 7 and 10 such wells that these days have lids on them, but can still be easily opened up if the town water system breaks down, and even I have spent many hours hauling buckets of water up the old fashioned way. But in Loopxul, it’s the only way.

There is one well in Loopxul, dug who knows when ago. They do have metal buckets these days with handles to tie sturdy rope to, but it still means hauling countless buckets of water up 75 feet everyday. Heck, you need water for cooking, washing, watering, bathing, and drinking. And the stuff goes fast no matter how prudent and conservative you are. I found out there, that the women were responsible for retrieving and keeping adequate water supply on hand. And after witnessing their flawless, practically poetic technique of controlling a rope with a moving weight on one end, … and without gloves, I definitely concluded they were most certainly adept at handling the important chore, … and quite strong as well.

Daylight hours of course allow for anything to be done, including having a great fiesta. But once the sun sets, there’s no light switch to flip on. You’d think everyone in Loopxul would just go to bed after dark, what with no TV to watch, no music to listen to, no bowl of ice cream to get from the freezer, and no telephone to talk on. But a day in Loopxul is usually longer than the mere time between dawn and dusk. The sheer volume of chores and tasks that must be completed daily just to produce sustenance from their fields to survive, as well as taking care of their animals, takes every sunlit minute of day. So it’s often after dark, when they do whatever’s left to do.

Daniel’s family lots of times uses their nighttime to create wares, … things to sell and to earn some always-useful money. Both the men and women stay up late hand stitching huipil designs and weaving hammocks somehow by flickering candlelight, whereas Daniel’s mother Doña Josefina is the expert basket weaver of the family. It’s an art form that requires collecting special, super pliable vines from the jungle that must be boiled for over an hour so that their skins can be removed. Then, Doña Josefina makes sense of the miles of entangled vines by size and color, and sits down for hours next to a candle.

Life in the village is as basic as it used to be everywhere around the world at one time or another, but in Loopxul, it’s still that way even today. It takes a long-term compounded confidence in yourself to withstand the rigor of a lifestyle like that, and a persona of great depth to be able to appreciate its profound union with all that it has made out of you. I could tell by simply just being around the folks who live in Loopxul, that they knew several things I’d never ever even thought of before. You can see it in their stern faces and in their telling eyes. Yet, I’ve also wondered if I would ever be able to even conceive those things, and if I was even entitled to.

March 20, 2002

Dona Cecilia

There are lots of chores that have to be done on a daily basis around each and every home in Tinum. But perhaps the most important of all, is removing dried corn kernels from their cobs. It’s a simple fact that without a consistent and daily supply of corn kernels (maiz) that can be ground into dough (masa) to make tortillas, there won’t be any tortillas. And that would cause for as nearly an unpleasant a scene, as a Frenchman deprived of his daily baguette.

It all begins by selecting a bunch of dried ears of corn from their casita or straight from a sack, then having a seat on a banquillo, log, rock, or simply on the ground. Placing the ears somewhere within reach helps, and then picking one and removing its husk is next. Called desgranando, or to desgranar, it’s a brainless chore that is usually done in the late afternoon when families have mostly gathered again from the day’s other tasks, and all use the time to chat, discuss things, and tell stories. This means men partake equally with women, and most kids as well, although you do have to be a certain age and have a certain amount of strength in your hands to be able to do it.

The trick then, is to remove the dried corn kernels from each cob and create a pile of kernels large enough, that when later ground, will yield an amount of masa sufficient for the next day’s need for tortillas. But usually that means desgranando much more than just a few cobs, and that’s when the art of being able to desgranar properly becomes a factor, so you don’t end up sitting there all night, get nasty blisters on your fingers, or zap all the strength out of your hands.

Dried kernels can for one option be removed from a corn cob by using only your fingers, during which each kernel feels sort of like pushing on a loose tooth to get it out of your mouth for the tooth ferry. They generally fall off quite easily, although sometimes you have to battle with spots, and that’s when blisters can form. But the best way to get kernels off of the cob, is not to use your fingers, but with the aid of a cob that you’ve already spent. This way, your pile of maiz will grow much quicker, and it’s only the strength in your hands to hold and continually grind both cobs together that you’ll need.

So anyway, I often times end up at the home of Doña Cecilia and her family, which is my favorite place to help desgranar. This is because it is an absolute utter rush to watch the speed with which Doña Cecilia can remove kernels from cobs. Her nickname is La Maquina, “The Machine”, and she can easily produce a pile of maiz more than twice the size of mine in the same amount of time. The atmosphere is always so mellow there also, where lazy breezes aid parrots in flight overhead, and the late afternoon colors are so soft yet so vivid. Kids though always seem to get a sudden burst of energy everyday as the sun drops slowly towards the horizon, and they always look to be trying and get as dirty as possible before their baths. But laundry’s had all day to dry on the lines. And all the husks are gathered and burned.

Then to add to the cosmic ambiance of hanging out with a whole bunch of very simple rustic types, who are calmly concentrated on producing a natural bounty that will ultimately sustain their next day’s breaths and passions, they all have long involved conversations (gossip) between themselves in Maya, and could care less that I don’t understand. Doña Cecilia’s husband Ely is usually on hand, along with their daughter Chari and son-in-law Luis. And a variety of extended family members are sure to stop by and take turns helping every few days as well. Doa Jacinta seems to enjoy getting in on the chitchat, and even Abuelita does her part, as she has daily for 70 years. But the best part of it all, is when everyone just forgets that I am even there, and I’m treated like I’ve been a part of their daily perceptions of reality forever. But little do they know, that in those moments when I’ve finally at last perfectly blended in and seem oblivious to all that they may be doing, I’m actually completely involved in massive contemplation about the fact that I even have the extreme fortune of even being in such a situation, and am a close study of their every move. And it’s all such an amazing rush!

March 19, 2002

Don Juan

It’s without doubt, that Don Juan has many special qualities and talents, and everyone in Tinum thinks he’s a daring, dashing, and debonair personality. They also know he’s sure to always bring home a healthy and beautiful harvest from his bountiful fields and gardens each season. His wizardry with an axe is also rarely matched, as each heaping stack of firewood that he cuts is always compact, of equal length, and chosen perfectly aged. Yet his most remarkable skill of all, is the unique method in which he delivers fresh-baked bread each afternoon to patrons throughout the village, who eagerly await his arrival for something delicious to eat for dinner.

Meanwhile, at the town bakery, as has happened every morning at 5 a.m. for the last 43 years, Don Pepe and his assistants begin kneading large quantities of dough by hand on several lengthy heavily floured tables. They next spend hours shaping and creating a large variety of breads and sweet breads, that are then systematically baked throughout the day in a huge wood-burning oven in Don Pepe’s home. Items best baked when the fire is first started and at its hottest are introduced first. Then, as the oven’s heat diminishes later in the day, those that need to bake for longer periods of time are eventually inserted and removed with the aid of a very long baker’s paddle. The resulting golden-browned goodies are then placed in a cracked glass display case to sell to the public at about 4pm. A few of them, though, are set aside for Don Juan, who will wander the streets of the village until dusk selling the rest.

Don Juan doesn’t drag a rusty red wagon around behind him filled with savory buns, rolls, cookies, and pastries to get the job done. Nor does he carry clumsy baskets or buckets from each hand, or push a squeaky-wheeled cart. Don Juan carefully and neatly fills a large, round metal container full with Don Pepe’s fresh baked wares, and then has the astonishing ability to somehow magically balance the weighty load on top of his head, for hours at a time. He never uses his hands to keep the heavy dented blue canister in place while walking his village route, only to lift and lower it to and from his flattened noggin whenever someone wants to see what’s inside. And he frequently announces his eventual arrival to everyone by blowing a high-pitched whistle, which has many villagers trained like dogs to drop whatever they’re doing and run to their front doors for a treat. A single sweet bread costs $0.12, and two-foot-long French breads cost $0.35 each.

But probably the most amazing thing about all that Don Juan does, is that he’s somewhere between 75 and 82 years old. And when asked about how old he actually is, he’s never really quite sure. And his uncertainty with numbers doesn’t just end with his age. Even after selling bread for Don Pepe from atop his head for 43 years, and dealing with absurd amounts of orders and price calculations for all that’s been sold, Don Juan can barely add!

Anyone who buys bread from Don Juan is fully aware that they’ll have to calculate for themselves, exactly what they owe him for the amount of bread that they want to buy. Either that, or wait ten minutes or more for Don Juan to take a wild guess at it. And if customers expect change from Don Juan for payments to him of more than they owe, they have to inform him again, just how much he should give them in return. At least, Don Juan does recognize the numbers on most coins and bills as if it matters, even though his vision is poor at best. Yet incredibly, no one in the village ever swindles, cheats, dupes, or steals from Don Juan during these daily “honor-system” transactions. Instead, they usually offer him a token tip, or whatever else they always feel like giving.