Today we visited the city of Dzibilchaltún, located 16km north of Mérida. The most remarkable aspect of the city was its organization; situated at the very center of the archeological site was the chapel built by the Spaniards after the conquest. I predict that the central positioning of the chapel demonstrates the desire of the Spanish to impose their catholic faith over the indigenous people.
The environment surrounding Dzibilchaltún was remarkable as well. The open cenote, Xlacah, differed greatly from the partially enclosed Cenote X’Canché that we visited in Ek’ Balam. The plant life at this site was spectacular as well. There were a wide variety of trees and cacti, one of which was believed to be sisal.
Questions for further investigation:
Seeing the city of Dzibilchaltún and engaging in class discussion while at the ruins raised a lot of questions for me, and made me want to conduct more research. Our class discussion began with a comparison of the rituals in various Spanish speaking countries. For example, we have seen numerous juego de pelota courts and we began to ask questions about how rituals such as this compare to others like bull fighting in Spain.
Over the next few days here in México, and upon my return home, I intend to dig deeper into topics covered in the course. I hope to explore the following questions and to continue to ask more questions as well.
How has Mayan culture been presented to me throughout the various sites we have visited?
What is my take on Mayan culture? How has it changed over the course of this trip?
What are the factors that have influenced the spatial arrangement of Mayan cities?
What role did the sea play in sustaining the lives of the Mayan people?
How does the concept of equilibrium manifest itself in Mayan culture?
How was jade used in Mayan communities? What was its significance?
Today we set out to travel from the city of Valladolid to the city of Mérida. On the way we stopped at Izamal, the city of three cultures: Mayan, Spanish, and modern. This was a prominent Mayan city that was conquered by the Spanish; the Spaniards chose to establish their city upon the existing Mayan structures in an attempt to replace the Mayan culture and religion with that of Spain. The city is also referred to as the yellow city as many of its structures are a similar yellow color.
We visited a shop in the city that sells handmade products from the sisal cactus, grown in the Yucatan. The fiber derived from this cactus is known as sisal or henequen. We visited the workshop, located just a few blocks from the shop, where a group of 15 employees receive the henequen fiber and assemble various products. The combed fibers are used to make rugs, lamps, headboards, hanging light fixture, hammocks, various containers to hold tortillas, and more.
The products made from the henequen fiber are extremely durable and long lasting. The coloring used to die the fiber is completely derived from natural materials such as minerals and tree barks. This company creates products to sell in their local store, and they also receive orders from individuals and companies such as hotels for which they custom make products. The price of the products has little to do with the cost of the fiber, but rather the labor that is required to assemble the products.
For lunch we visited a local restuarant: Restaurante Kinish El Sabor de Izamal. I enjoyed a classic Yucatecan dish: sopa de lima, or lime soup. I also had rice accompanied by fried plantains.
I found it very interesting that the corn tortillas were placed on the table in the shell of a jícara, a local fruit, to keep them warm.
The Archeological Site of Kinish Kakmó located in Izamal was very different from the sites we have visited previously. This temple was constructed between 400 and 600 A.D. It was dedicated to a solar god to whom offerings would be presented and then picked up by macaw each day.
The most remarkable aspect of this archeological site is that it resides in the heart of the city amongst homes and shops. There was a gate for entry but there was not an entry fee. I love that this site is completely open to the public and that it is well maintained in order to preserve the Mayan culture.
From the top of the Mayan ruins we could see the Convento de San Antonio de Padua. This convent was originally built by the Spaniards in the late 16th century as a way to cover up the Mayan pyramid that previously occupied this site. The convent has been remodeled over the years and there is now a small museum located at the rear of the building.
The museum located at the convent has been created to recognize Nuestra Señora de Izamal, our lady of Izamal. She became an integral part of the catholic faith in Izamal. Catholicism was a central part of the Spanish culture and they would build their churches to establish their religion and to destroy the “cults” or “satanic worship” of the indigenous people.
This morning we set out from Valladolid to head to Mérida, the capital of Yucatan. On our way to Mérida, after spending time in the city of Izamal, we stopped at a small ice cream stand in a town named Hoctun, and enjoyed handmade coconut ice cream.
Once arriving in Mérida we checked into Hotel Caribe where we will be staying for the next few days. This hotel differs greatly from the small hotel boutique that we stayed in during our time in Valladolid.
We decided to see some of the city shortly after settling into our hotel. At around 7pm the streets bustled with travelers: bikes, horse carriages, mopeds, cars, buses, and more. The fast pace of this city came as a surprise after spending a week in the quaint city of Valladolid.
For dinner, we went to Restaurante el Trapiche a few blocks from where we are staying. The chicken tacos were prepared on typical corn tortillas as we have experienced throughout our time in Yucatan and Quintana Roo.
We ventured for a short while through the city seeing numerous plazas, restaurants, and shops many of which appear to be highly attractive to tourists. I am excited to continue to continue to explore Mérida and to discover how it differs from other cities we have visited within the Peninsula.
We began the day by visiting the archeological site located in Tulum, a city only the eastern coast of the Peninsula. We navigated through the various Mayan ruins that remain in what was once a major port city utilized for trade in the Postclassic Period.
From the ruins we were able to identify the importance of the of trade routes that connected the peninsula with Central Mexico and the rest of Central America. Among the many products traded to and from Tulum were obsidian, jade, corn, cotton, fish, birds, animal skins, feathers, ceramics, and textiles made from sisal, agave, henequen. Feathers were a particularly important export of Tulum as they were used during this time to distinguish generals and emperors much like we do today with pins and medals.
After exploring the ruins located along the shore, we spent a few hours enjoying the beauty of the Caribbean sand and sea were the Mayans once exchanged their goods.
We arrived at the La Universidad Oriente (ONU) and were warmly welcomed by the faculty and students. Our day began with tours of the university conducted by students. My group was led by two students, Joel and Alejandro, who are majoring in touristic development. We learned about the careers offered at ONU as well as the importance that the university places upon preserving the environment and Mayan culture.
Las carreras diferentes
ONU is the only university in the Yucatan that offers a gastronomy major. The school also offers carreras, or careers, in marketing, touristic development, public administration, librarian studies, linguistic studies and Mayan culture.
ONU proudly offers Mayan language courses to students as a way to educate students and to preserve Mayan culture. It was admirable that the signs throughout the campus were written in both Spanish and Mayan.
We had the opportunity to enter the language lab which is a computer lab where students come to study English, French, and Italian. The pictures below show examples of the program that we interacted with, which students at ONU use to learn other languags.
Learning English is of particular importance for students like Joel and Alejandro who have aspirations to work in hotels or with tour companies where knowing other languages will be of great use.
Sendero del jardín botánico
The emphasis that the Mayans place upon the environment was clearly seen in the botanical garden located on the university’s campus. Not only were native plants being preserved and maintained, but there was clearly an effort made by students to educate others on the importance of the hundreds of species located in their garden. Each plant was labeled with its name in Spanish and Many as the family that it comes from, where it can be found, and what its uses are.
As previously mentioned, gastronomy is one of the major careers offered at ONU. We were welcomed into the kitchen during one of the gastronomy courses and saw how the students prepared the kibis, which consisted of ground beef, grain, various herbs and fruit extracts. The kibis resembled meatballs and after they were formed they were fried in oil and topped with onions and habanero salsa.
My favorite part of our time spent at ONU was the interactions we had with the students. It was such a privilege to get to hear about their studies and to compare our college experiences. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the students and to hear about their goals and aspirations after they complete their three years at the university.
The students who were studying touristic development opened my eyes to the importance of tourism in Yucatan, Mexico. Joel for example, intends to move to Playa del Carmen after completing his final semester at ONU and after working as a waiter or receptionist at a hotel, he one day aspires to open a small hotel boutique and to expand it over time. Students are being educated and equipped to go into the tourism industry which reaffirms my prediction that the tourism industry in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo is quickly growing and appears to be an essential part of the lives of the local people.
The hospitality shown to us by the student and staff was truly remarkable. The principal of the university sat down with all of us at the end of the day and thanked us for visiting ONU. He continually emphasized that ONU welcomes us with open arms if we desire to return to the university in the future. It was evident that they valued the opportunity that we had to learn from their students and vice versa.
I fully intend to study abroad during my time at Virginia Wesleyan and I hope that ONU will be a potential option for me to come and study and to continue to learn about the Spanish language and Mayan culture.
Today we had the opportunity to explore the beautiful Mayan archeological cite located on the Caribbean coast of Yucatan, near Playa del Carmen. This site differed greatly from the other sites we have visited in the way that Mayan culture was presented.
XCaret park is a massive cite filled replicas of Mayan communities in addition to many elements catered to tourists such as underground river , opportunities to swim with dolphins, animal exhibits of manatees, jaguars, and more. The intent to preserve Mayan culture was achieved in a much different way at this cite as it aimed to create a fun-filled experience for visitors through a commercialized park rather than presenting the rituals or ruins of the Mayans in a very natural way as we witnessed at Yaxunah.
I thoroughly enjoyed this experience although it was practically the complete composite of the experience that we had in the Selva Maya de Pino Suárez in Quintana Roo. I had the chance to see that tourism is an ever growing industry in Mexico as many are stacking hands to ensure that Mayan culture does not disappear.
I enjoyed this that park was situated along the Caribbean because it differed from the various other sites that we have visited in the forests of Yucatan and Quintana Roo.
I also enjoyed the spectacular, or show, that we watched at the end of our day at XCaret Park. The show not only depicted the history of the Mayan and the Spanish colonization, but also displayed how Mexican culture has developed into a mixture of indigenous and Spanish elements. I thoroughly enjoyed how the very distinct states of Mexico such as Oaxaca, Tobasco, and Veracruz, were unified in a visual display through music and dance.
We visited La Selva Maya de Pino Suárez en Quintana Roo, a forest located approximately 90 minutes from Valladolid. We met with a family of chicleros, or gum harvesters who live in a Mayan community located a short walking distance from the forest. The family of harvesters kindly welcomed us to their home and showed us their family tradition of harvesting resin from the local trees in order to make gum.
Alejandro was a 60 year old man who was showing us how to harvest the resin, and his father who we also met, is 94 years old was one of the original chicleros in the community. Alejandro’s son, Norberto, spoke Spanish; however, Alejandro and his father spoke only Mayan.
We began the extraction process by entering the forest and conducting the Mayan ritual of giving thanks to the Gods of the earth. We did this by placing cigarettes into the trunk of a tree at the entrance of the woods. The Mayans believe that the earth and everything in it belongs to the gods and nothing is their own. For this reason, the forest is shared community for anyone in the area to hunt and harvest from.
Alejandro and Norberto led us through the forest to see how the resin is extracted from the Chico Zapote, a type of tree that is native to Quintana Roo.
The chiclero uses a machete to make a few incisions in one tree to determine if there is enough resin in the bark to harvest it.
If the tree is ready, he will continue to make large incisions in the bark from the bottom of the tree up to nearly the top so that the resin can flow from the top, down into a receptacle at the bottom. (This process does not harm the wood of the tree, but merely the bark)
The receptacle that is placed at the bottom of the trunk is a small bag made from the stomach of a goat; it is attached to the tree and left there overnight to collect the resin that can be retrieved the next day.
The chiclero would attach spikes to his boots and use rope to climb the tree in order to retrieve resin from the entire tree.
La cocina del chicle
We returned from the forest and saw how the chicleros cook the resin to make it into chicle, or gum. Three days worth of resin are strained and poured into a large pot and then placed upon a wood fire to heat the resin and slowly form a more solid consistency. This solidification process requires approximately 2.5 hours of stirring before the chicle can be poured into molds and then sold as gum.
The gum is often transported to the city of Valladolid where a small block of chicle is sold for 50 pesos, or a little over $2 USD. It is mind blowing that the Mayans endure such a demanding process in order to make the chicle and ultimately sell it for very little.
I enjoyed seeing how this family embraces their Mayan heritage and chooses to show others the way that they live in order to preserve the culture.
After our tour of La Selva Maya de Pino Suárez, and seeing how they cook the resin, Norberto kindly opened his home to us and his family generously prepared and served a meal to us.
This was one of my favorite experiences thus far. In my Spanish classes, I have learned a lot about Hispanic culture and the importance that is placed upon family and the value that is given to sharing a meal together; therefore, I truly enjoyed being able to experience this first hand.
For lunch we ate tepezcuintle, a small animal that is found in the forests of Quintana Roo. It was delicious as we combined it with chaya and a very rich salsa inside of handmade corn tortilla. We also had the chance to drink fresh coconut water from the coconut tree in their yard. For dessert we partook of dulce de calabaza, or sweet pumpkin.
As I mentioned in previous entries, it is common for families to stay at the table for long periods of time after the meal and enjoy the company of one another. This is exactly how we spent our afternoon. It was great to converse with Norberto and his family and to meet his daughter, Rubi.
This was a once in a life time experience to not only witness the traditions that are practiced in a Mayan community, but to share in the experience alongside a Mayan family.
Today Dr. Margolies was discussing the notion that we commonly believe in concerning how indigenous groups treat the environment. It is typical for us to assume that indigenous people have great respect for their natural surroundings and are thus very respectful of them. This is true in many cases; however, after considering the concept of the tragedy of the commons, this notion is not as widespread as I once believed. I realized today that the tragedy of the commons can be explored across a variety of disciplines.
The tragedy of the commons is a concept that I first explored during my honors course this fall. The course was titled “Complex Global Challenges” and we explored how water is a global issue. Tragedy of the commons is when individuals within a system of shared resources act according to their own self-interests despite the fact that they may deplete a particular source or be contrary to the public good.
In our honors course, we discussed how water, containing nutrients and fertilizers, is deposited from various farms into the Mississippi River. These materials eventually end up in the Gulf of Mexico and can lead to eutrophication which results in hypoxic conditions, or dead zones. Individuals on farms along the Mississippi River share the waterway and fail to consider, or often ignore, how the contribution of each nutrient and chemical pollutant results in detrimental effects to others.
In relation to the Selva Maya de Pino Suárez, that we visited in Quintana Roo, the tragedy of the commons can be applied to how the members of the Mayan community treat their communal land. The “selva,” or forest in their community is shared and open to anyone because it belongs to the gods rather than to man.
I previously assumed that this group of Mayan people would show great respect to their land and not mistreat or misuse it. As I stated earlier, this is commonly believed about indigenous groups. On the contrary, we witnessed how their is a lack of regard for how the actions of one individual will affect the others who seek to harvest fruits, resin, animals, etc. in the Selva Maya de Pino Suárez.
There are certainly points in which the Mayans care for and respect the forest as seen through their rituals. However, I also saw large amounts of litter throughout the wooded areas which leads me to believe that the motive for caring for the environment stems less from keeping it clean or helping preserve its natural state, and more to do with taking care of the plants that will benefit them in the end.
Witnessing the strong relationship between the natural and the supernatural in Mayan culture has been one of the most notable aspects of my experience in México thus far. The way the land is shared, taken care of, and used to improve quality of life is remarkable. It is amazing how the natural environment shaped the lifestyle of the Ancient Mayans and how it continues to play a key role in the lives of Mayan communities today.
Pidiendo permiso al dioses
What I find most interesting is that the Mayans would ask their gods for permission to use various natural elements. They believe that men are not entitled to anything. Everything belongs to the Mayan gods and thus the Mayans pay respects to them; for example, they ask for permission before partaking of the water of cenotes. Similarly it was believed that when someone would ask the Chaya plant for permission to cut its leaves, the resin of the Chaya would not make their skin itch as it was typically known to do. At the Selva Maya de Pino Suárez in Quintana Roo, where we witnessed the gum-making process, there was also a ritual in which we each placed a cigarette into the hole of a tree to pay respect to the gods as we entered the forest.
La lluvia primera
The Mayans also believed that the first rainfall of the rainy season contained medicinal properties. They would gather the fallen rain and use it to bathe their children as it was believed to ensure good health and prevent infirmities such as asthma. It is fascinating to consider how the Mayans put such great faith into the healing abilities of natural elements such as rain.
Ceiba is a native tree of Mexico which plays an important role in the Mayan philosophy of the universe. Ceiba trees can live more than 500 years in the Yucatan; the tree featured in the images below is only eight years old. Its bark contains a pale green color and young trees contain spikes at the base of the tree that disappear over time. This particular ceiba tree has the ability to grow rapidly as its roots can easily access the water of the cenote buried underground.
Los Niveles de la Ceiba
The roots of the ceiba are representative of the underworld. The trunk symbolizes the earth, and the branches signify the levels of the Mayan heavens. It is believed that people can cross from underworld, into the earth, and can travel into Mayan heaven through the hollow ceiba tree.
The Mayan universe is depicted as having 9 levels in the underworld, and 13 levels in the heavens which are represented by each branch of the tree. Each level contains a distinct Mayan god.
This depiction of the universe is like nothing I have seen before. I am intrigued by how the Mayans incorporate natural elements into their supernatural beliefs.
The beauty of the environment in the Yucatan amazes me. The way that the local people care for and interact with the environment is incomparable to anything I have ever seen before. The locals use the natural resources around them for their own benefit; however, their view of nature is not intrinsic. The environment has value far beyond what it can do for people.
Today we visited Xkopek, “un parque apícola,” a beekeeping park. At the park they seek to preserve the mayan culture and the natural environment, and to educate visitors on the variety of bees that are present in Yucatan. I was able to see how the native plants impact the honey produced by the local mayan bees and I gained insight into how the Mayans views the natural world.
La cenote seca
The name Xkopek derives from two mayan words: “xkop,” meaning dry place and “ek,” signifying a type of wasp. This name was given to this beekeeping site by the founding Mayan family because of the “cenote seca,” or dry sinkhole that spans much of the land where the native fruits and medicinal plants grow.
The cenote at the park is not actually dry, the water that once resembled a pool is simply covered by the land. Over time the cenote went from being completely covered in a cave, to partially exposed, to being fully open, and then ultimately being overgrown and covered up.
The water underground is essential to the bountiful plant life in this area. The roots of the various native plants are able to access water with ease and thus grow rapidly and effectively.
Xcopek is home to a variety of native fruits including pineapples, limes, oranges, mangos, achiote, and chico zapote. We had the opportunity to pick limes from the trees and to make lime juice combined with honey which we drank out of the shell of jícara.
Miel y Propolis
In addition to the variety of fruit, there was also an array of honey and other products harvested on the bee farm that we were able to taste: pollen, propolis, honey from European bees, and honey from mayan bees. I was fascinated by the propolis, a mixture of wax and resin from trees neighboring the bee hives, forming a sticky black mixture coating the inside of the hives. It can be used as an antiseptic and is also essential in the production of the sacred mayan drink, balché.
As previously mentioned, it is common for those living in the Yucatan to incorporate natural elements into their daily lives. This was evident in the tamale-making process that we were exposed to at Xkopek. We made tamales de Chaya, a plant that is similar to spinach, which was grown at the bee farm. We combined the Chaya with the “masa” or corn dough, and steamed the dough after wrapping small portions in banana leaves. I admire how this staple of Mexican cuisine involves such a tedious process from picking the Chaya, preparing the masa, cutting and washing the banana leaves, etc. Ancient Mayans had great respect and admiration for their environment as seen through the natural ingredients that come together to form such a rich dish.