Saturday, May 28, 2011

Childhood Dreams

Not long ago, a reader of this blog told me, “I want to be you when I grow up.” This was in response to a post I wrote about an interesting experience I had exploring ruins in a less-visited corner of Yucatán.

My thought after reading this and some other similar remarks was,  "All I really am doing is the kind of stuff I dreamed about doing when I was a kid." I've realized it's not about "growing up." In fact, just the opposite. It's about throwing off the weight of inhibitions and expectations society places upon us as we mature. It's about going back to the sense of fun, discovery and adventure in daily living that we had as kids.

Children live in the moment. Relationships are incredibly important. They don't search fruitlessly for fulfillment in the accumulation of status or possessions. They give little thought to others' opinions about what they are doing. And primarily for these reasons, kids live more intensely and have a lot more fun than adults.

These thoughts returned to me recently. I sat, half dozing, aboard the Alaska State Ferry Fairweather, sailing from Sitka to Juneau, when suddenly the vessel’s horn blew. The weather was calm and the trip uneventful. Thinking that there must be another vessel or an obstacle ahead made me curious, so I got up and walked to a forward window to see what was happening. Another passenger, who’d moved to the window at the same moment, stood briefly by my side. We gazed together into the distance. There was nothing visible. We looked at each other, both shrugged, and went back to our seats.

A few minutes later the other passenger came up to me, smiling. He’d talked to a crew member. “A little girl wanted to blow the ship’s horn, so the captain let her do it,” he explained.

Immediately I remembered an occasion some years back when I was in Skagway, Alaska, shooting footage for a video production aboard a working steam locomotive of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. After I had finished, impulsively I asked the engineer if I could toot the whistle. He laughed, gestured to the handle, and said, "be my guest." For a moment I again was a kid of five scooting along the floor in a cardboard-box locomotive, wearing a blue-and-white-pinstripe "engineer" hat and hollering "Woooo-oo-WOOOOOOO."

It was a childhood fantasy fulfilled, and probably the experience that first prompted me to think about the virtues of acting less like an adult and more like a kid.

Looking back at the most engaging activities I have been involved with in my life, it occurs to me that many of these are exactly the things I most wanted to do at the age of eight or ten. Unfortunately when we hit our teen years we often get distracted from these childhood passions as social pressure and then school, family responsibilities and having a job further distance us from the things that really toot our horn, so to speak.

I think that we can enjoy life more and find more meaning when we decide stop acting so grown up, and feel freer to live out our dreams. I guess I will never be an astronaut, but I have managed to incorporate several of my other childhood passions into my life. And equally important, I think that the process has helped me recover a little of the childish sense of wonder and adventure that makes even the mundane and everyday seem worthwhile.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

In Stephens' Footsteps: "The well" at Xcooch

The ancient mound at Xcooch
As I wrote in my last post, in the Yucatán there are places where little has changed over the centuries, and there are lost cities still to be rediscovered. On my own quest of rediscovery, I’ve been following in the footsteps of well-known Yucatán explorers John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, real-life Indiana Joneses, who visited the region in 1841.

Stephens wrote that they had heard stories of  " ancient poso, or well, of mysterious and marvellous reputation, the fame of which was in everybody's mouth. This well was said to be a vast subterreneous structure, adorned with sculptured figures, an immense table of polished stone and a plaza with columns supporting a vaulted roof, and it was said to have a subterranean road, which led to the village of Maní, twenty-seven miles distant."

"Not a white man in the place had ever entered it, though several had looked in at the mouth, who said that the wind had taken away their breath, and they had not ventured to go in."

After exploring the ruins of Xcooch, Yucatán, accompanied by Mayan guides, the duo turned their attention to the nearby cenote, or “well.” I intermingle my own observations and comments from 2011 with Stephens’ narrative of the trip from his book, Incidents of Travel in Yucatán.

1841: “…we entered a thick grove, in which we dismounted and tied our horses. It was the finest grove we had seen in the country, and within it was a great circular cavity or opening in the earth, twenty or thirty feet deep, with trees and bushes growing out of the bottom and sides, and rising above the level of the plain.”

2011: A beautiful grove of trees still exists here. As Stephens and Catherwood had done 170 years earlier, we employed a local Mayan guide. Abel Gutierrez, from the nearby pueblo of Santa Elena, known as Nohcacab in Stephens' day, led us down a footpath from a nearby dirt road.

1841: “We descended to the bottom. At one corner was a rude natural opening in a great mass of limestone rock, low and narrow, through which rushed constantly a powerful current of wind, agitating the branches and leaves in the area without. This was the mouth of the well, and on our first attempting to enter it the rush of wind was so strong that it made us fall back gasping for breath, confirming the accounts we had heard in Nohcacab.”

“…It was one of the marvels told us of this place, that it was impossible to enter after twelve o’clock.”

2011: We sat down on boulders near the entrance and Abel began to tell us about the wind, which exhales like mildewed, gusty breath from the lungs of the earth. Abel says it is calm in the mornings, but strengthens throughout the day. My assumption is that the effects of convection, temperature and pressure differences and other natural phenomena create the powerful cool air current that blows out of the cave every afternoon and calms at night. Abel could only say that the cave system is huge and has never been fully explored, and no one is sure why air blows so strongly out of the earth in this spot.

Stephens commented that although it was past noon and the wind from the cave mouth blew fiercely, equipped with ropes and torches, they decided to descend into the "well."

1841: "The entrance was about three feet high and four or five wide. It was so low that we were obliged to crawl on our hands and feet, and descended at an angle of about fifteen degrees in a northerly direction. The wind, collecting in the recesses of the cave, rushed through this passage with such force that we could scarcely breathe."

"In the floor of the passage was a single track, worn two or three inches deep by the long-continued treading of feet, and the roof was incrusted with a coat [of soot] from the flaring torches."

2011: At this point I admit that due to the reputation of this cave system for being dangerous, and the fact that the opening was barred with a metal grating, we did not descend into the well. Stephens' narrative is lengthy, so in the interest of brevity I summarize sections from this point.

They descended steeply for a long distance, discovering caves branching in various directions and, instead of a "plaza" with man-made columns and a hand-polished table, they found an equally-fascinating natural formation.

1841: "It was a great vaulted chamber of stone, with a high roof supported by enormous stalactite pillars, which were what the Indians had called the columns, and though entirely different from what we had expected, the effect under the torchlight, and heightened by the wild figures of the Indians, was grand, and almost repaid us for all our trouble."

2011: From here, Stephens' narrative sounds like a descent into hell. They again climbed, again descended, squeezed through dark, tight passages, and lowered themselves through narrow, perpendicular holes, all the while panting and dripping sweat in the stale atmosphere and choking for breath on the smoke of their own torches.

1841: "We decended with some difficulty, and...came out upon a ledge of rock, which ran up on the right to a great height, while on the left was a deep, yawning chasm. A few rude logs were laid along the edge of this chasm, which with a pole for a railing, served as a  bridge, and with the torchlight thrown into the abyss below, made a wild crossing place."

A typical hand-made ladder of the type
probably used by Stephens and Catherwood
2011: As the descent continued they were forced to crawl on hands and knees. The heat grew "insufferable." Stephens realized that if any member of the party had become ill or faint, it would have been impossible for the others to carry him to the surface. They passed through more caverns and dropped down more perpendicular holes. At long last, they came to a rude ladder, which led to a deep basin of cool, black water...but there was a catch.

1841: “…the sight of it was more welcome to us than gold or rubies. We were dripping with sweat, black with smoke, and perishing with thirst. It lay before us in its stony basin, clear and inviting, but it was completely out of reach; the basin was so deep that we could not reach the water with our hands, and we had no vessel of any kind to dip it out with."

2011: Tortured by thirst, the team only managed to dip a few droplets, barely enough water to moisten their lips, by using some ancient pottery shards they found in the cave. They were forced to return arduously to the surface before finding a stagnant puddle of water, with which they quenched their thirst.

Stephens also found that the purported underground tunnel to Maní was blocked by a rockfall in the cave. Interestingly, if you go today to Maní and talk to locals there about their cenote, which is located in the center of that pueblo and has a similar history of being both an important source of water and of fascinating legends, you'll hear a similar story of lengthy underground passages. Yucatán contains the longest documented cave systems in the world. These particular legends of underground highways have yet to be thoroughly investigated.

Despite his disappointment in finding neither an underground "plaza" nor a 27-mile, "subterreaean road" to Maní, Stephens concluded:

1841: “As a mere cave, this was extraordinary; but as a well or watering-place for an ancient city, it was past belief, except for the proofs under our own eyes. Around it were the ruins of a city without any other visible means of supply, and...with the Indians it was a matter of traditonary knowledge."

"And a strong circumstance to induce the belief that it was once used by the inhabitants of a populous city, is the deep track worn in the rock. … It could only have been made by the constant and long-continued tread of thousands. It must have been made by the population of a city."

2011: Our guide Abel confirmed that indeed, according to the oral history of this place, the entire population of Xcooch once obtained all of its water supply, at least during the long dry season, from this deep cenote. I doubt I will ever attempt to explore this place as thoroughly as Stephens did, but I will continue to dream about the marvels deep in the well at Xcooch.

Friday, May 6, 2011

In Stephens' Footsteps: Xcooch

The countryside of Yucatán has a timeless quality. There are people living on land and in houses where their families have lived for generations, even centuries. Although the rate of "progress" has quickened, some things still change slowly here.

As a teenager I obtained a copy of Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, a well-known account of explorations in the Yucatán Peninsula in 1841 by John L. Stephens and the artist Frederick Catherwood. When I first read them, the travels documented in this book seemed no more than colorful adventure tales out of the distant past or adventure films.

It wasn't until I moved to Yucatán much later that I realized people still do hack through the untracked jungle with machetes; there are still lost cities out there waiting to be rediscovered.

In my travels around Yucatán I also found that many of the places visited by Stephens and Catherwood have changed so little in the 170 years since they wove their real-life, archetypal Indiana Jones tales, that I can carry my well-thumbed copy of their original book as a guide. Recently I visited the ancient Mayan city of Xcooch (shk-oh-sch), near Santa Elena, Yucatán, which was explored by Stephens and Catherwood in 1841. Looking around the area one gets the distinct feeling that nothing much has happened during all the years since they walked here.

Here I share Stephen's words, as published in that 1843 edition of Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (which is fortunately in the public domain), interspersed with my own observations made in 2011.

The "narrow path" is now a road.
1841: " a narrow path just opened, we again found ourselves among ruins, and soon reached the foot of the high mound which towered above the plain..."

2011: Stephens and Catherwood rode for some time from the pueblo of Nohcacab (now Santa Elena) to reach this spot. A couple of weeks ago, we drove out on one of Santa Elena's main streets (probably the same route taken by Stephens) which quickly turned to dirt and passed through a series of fields and then into trees. We parked when the going got a little rough for my car, and continued walking on a dusty path. Suddenly we became aware of a looming white mass ahead.

2011: "The great cerro," or rocky hill, which once was the great pyramid of Xcooch.
1841 engraving of the pyramid from a drawing by Catherwood.

1841: "The great cerro stands alone, the only one that now rises above the plain. The sides are all fallen, though in some places the remains of steps are visible. On the south side, about half way up, there is a large tree, which facilitates the ascent to the top. The height is about eighty or ninety feet."

2011:  The ruins look much the same as they appear in the 1841 drawings by Catherwood, although not surprisingly the structure appears to be more eroded. This is especially noticeable at its peak. Only a few fragments of the steps mentioned by Stephens are visible, and the large tree is long gone, but a series of wooden posts and railings have been set into the east side of the structure to help climbers safely reach the top. We were told by our guide that parts of the area were recently cleared because archaeologists have been making a survey of the site. 

The view to the west from the top of the structure reaches to Uxmal. A fragment of wall, possibly the "corner of a building" mentioned by Stephens, still stands.
1841: "One corner of a building is all that is left; the rest of the top is level and overgrown with grass. The view commanded an immense wooded plain, and, rising above it, toward the southeast the great church of Nohcacab, and on the west the ruined buildings of Uxmal."

2011: A small section of wall that appears to be the corner of a structure still stands on the level top of the ruin. The view remains nearly identical to that which Stephens and Catherwood appreciated 170 years ago. The nearby church of Nohcacab (Santa Elena) and the buildings of distant Uxmal still predominate the wooded landscape. Nothing has been constructed in the intervening years to mar the vista.

1841: "The ground in this neighborhood was open, and there were the remains of several buildings, but all prostrate and in utter ruin."

2011:  Because the vicinity of the pyramid has recently been partially cleared of trees and brush, ruins of a number of structures are visible. Today we probably can see more than Stephens did, because in addition on one side local ejidatarios, (communal land holders) have been clearing the area for planting.

The ruins, such as the one pictured at left, look like nothing more than piles of rock. Close examination, however, reveals that many of the stones have been shaped or carved. The ruins will be harder to spot when regular seasonal rains begin in June, prompting the leafing of trees and growth of rampant summer vegetation.
Our guide, Santa Elena resident Abel Gutierrez, descends.
Stephens did not explore unaccompanied, but always found local Mayan guides to show the way. I don't often use guides, but since this is a remote site not often visited, I hired Abel Gutierrez, a Mayan man from nearby Santa Elena, to show us around. We wouldn't have been able to find the place, and would not have enjoyed the day or learned so much, without his assistance. I'll share more explorations with Abel, in a place where, in the words of Stephens, "not a white man...had ever entered," in my next post, In Stephens' Footsteps: The Well at Xcooch.