Monday, June 25, 2012

Nature Takes Over

The remains of a hacienda are barely visible beneath trees and undergrowth
If you travel around Yucatán enough, you notice the ruins. They may be Mayan. They may be Spanish or even newer. What all the wreckage has in common is that nature is in the process of returning some project or enterprise, some structure that at one time served a purpose in human society, back to its basic elements. Nature takes everything back, of course, but here in the tropics the process can proceed with drama and speed.

It starts out with erosion, rain, sun and neglect. A tiny seed extends its root into a small crack or joint in masonry, or sprouts in an accumulation of dust and leafy debris that has built up in the corner of a neglected roof. Naturally adapted to survive on scant resources, the tiny plant sends roots in all directions in search of the food and water it needs to grow.

Nature supplies abundant rains that dissolve the minerals and organic remains to provide the nutrients that the plant needs to thrive. Often in just a matter of a few years the tiny plant has become a substantial tree. Smaller shrubs, plants, fungi, insects and animals also colonize the space.

Pre-Colombian Mayan ruins at Xcooch

As roots that penetrate crevices grow and thicken, they displace stones that were carefully worked and crafted to fit tightly together, and dissolve cement and mortar. Insects and animals burrow, further displacing or undermining carefully-constructed foundations. Eventually even the strongest roofs and walls crumble and fall. As thick layers of leaves and other residue accumulate, it can be hard to recognize that something was ever built there.

Alamo tree roots slowly disassemble walls of hacienda buildings in Uayalceh

At Kabah, the partial clearing of trees reveals rubble of an ancient Mayan building

This is not just a phenomenon that occurs in the countryside. Neglected buildings in the city suffer the same fate. It is not unusual, even in Mérida centro, to see structures that are rapidly being razed by plants and the weather. One of the more curious things I've seen was in a modern house downtown that had been abandoned for perhaps eight or ten years. An alamo tree had taken root on the roof and its roots penetrated through the walls and into the building. On a kitchen counter where some discarded phonebooks were stacked I discovered this interesting sight.

I am awed with the rapid rate of decay and destruction of human works caused by nature in the tropics. I am equally impressed by the enduring quality of many ancient Mayan structures in Yucatán. Against all odds, an amazing quantity of ancient ruins remain in good enough condition to allow us to admire their beauty and sophistication, and to provide glimpses of what life was like here long ago. It's a tribute to the architects and builders of long ago that we still can appreciate some of the riches of that civilization.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Wanderings: Floating in the Cenote

"Doing nothing feels like floating on warm water to me. Delightful. Perfect."

-- Ava Gardner

I've mentioned before how much I love the simple act of floating on water. I don't just roll onto my back for a moment or two and try to keep my nose above the surface. I cease to move. I do nothing and quiet my thoughts. I doze. I take my time.

I enjoy resting this way in a variety of places, but mostly in convenient locations like off of Gulf beaches north of Mérida or in my home pool. However I've got a new favorite place for this activity.

Here the water is fresh, warm and silky smooth against the skin. This cenote is large, around 200 meters (656 feet) across, so you can swim out to where there is nothing in your field of vision except water and sky.

The water is crystal clear, but that doesn't mean you can gaze at the bottom, because the cenote is 90 meters (nearly 300 feet) deep. And there is no sloping beach, nowhere to wade along its shores. An inch away from the edge you cannot touch bottom. You are in, or you are out. Period. One step off the rocky lip of this sinkhole and you are in the deep, blue-black abyss.

What's even more interesting is that in many places along the edge, once in the water you realize that the land's surface here is only the very thin roof of a limestone dome over large water-filled caverns which extend under the banks so dramatically that the cenote in places also has no apparent sides. If you wear goggles or a mask you can swim within an arm's-length of the edge and glance underneath the "shore" to view tree roots and stalactite-like formations of stone jutting into the watery blackness as far as you can see.

I spent the week in Bacalar, Quintana Roo, and visited Cenote Azul, which although easily accessible from the Chetumal highway is delightfully unspoiled. There is a gift shop and restaurant, through which you must walk to visit the cenote, but there is no entrance fee. It's very pleasant to drop off your stuff at a shaded table, go swimming, and then return to rest with food or a drink. The atmosphere is casual and a bit kitschsy. Prices are very reasonable.

There are no lifeguards at Cenote Azul. Given the cenote's size, when we decided to swim across, my friends and I trailed paddleboards for safety. The swim was a good workout. We stopped in the middle for a few minutes, lay on our boards, and talked.

After swimming I floated on my back for awhile, out far enough so that I felt alone and could see only the clouds above me. Later I found myself bobbing under the overhanging trees which dip their branches into the water along the edge, watching birds and enjoying the shade.

With goggles on, I rolled onto my stomach and dived down into the dark until my ears began to pop. Descending a bit more, I passed beneath the surface layer, and as the color deepened the water became suddenly cooler. I stayed at that depth for a moment and realized that I'd let out enough air to have neutral bouyancy. My body would not rise to the surface of its own accord. My head faced downward so I could see only the blackness, and my toes pointed toward the surface. This must be close to what it's like to float in outer space, I thought, with no sounds, little sensation of gravity and the void visible in all directions.

I blew more bubbles until I was sinking headfirst into the depths, the water getting cooler, and the surface getting farther away above me. Suddenly the notion occurred to me that I was a bit too deep. I realized at that moment how easy it would be for someone who suffered a cramp or gulped some water to sink out of sight into the black depths. I worked a bit to regain the surface.

Happy to take a few breaths and feel the sun on my face, I rested, once again floating on my back, until I felt ready to swim in. Friends, guacamole with chips and a cool beer awaited me at our table.

Delightful. Perfect.

A related post: The Pool At Night