Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mexican Maintenance

Today Nancy & I walked for an hour along the sea wall in Campeche and after a bowl of my homemade granola, set off on a great day of travel. The 200 miles from Campeche to Valladolid took only four hours on a 4-lane divided highway. The two military checkpoints mainly involved inspecting our cooler!

For the past week, we’ve been discovering water in the trunk and on the floor of the car. This morning we finally discovered the source—a small gap in the rear window seal. A gardener at the hotel happened to have a tube of silicone handy, so he squeezed a bead into the gap. Now we just need to pull out the back seat and dry all the carpeting and padding!

This afternoon, after checking into a quaint Valladolid hotel, we got an oil change and new filter. Not exactly Rapid Oil, but the service in the open air shop was fast and friendly. While Nancy was chatting with Martin, the 70-year old proprietor, she learned that his dentist daughter's office was next door. So Nancy went in and introduced herself to la doctora, who happened to have an opening right then. (In Mexico, as in Costa Rica, dentists clean patients’ teeth themselves. Our Costa Rican dentist once said she doesn’t understand why dentists in the United States delegate such an important procedure to people with less training.) Zip, zap car and teeth were taken care of! The father charged $32, his daughter $39.

We love being back in the Yucatan. Even the air feels welcoming. Tomorrow we drive to Cancun and ride the car ferry to Isla Mujeres. This will complete the first part of our 3-month Mexican adventure.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Palenque Plus

Our driving adventure from Minneapolis to Cancun/Isla Mujeres for the last eleven days has been challenging but fun. We’ve enjoyed the beautiful and diverse countryside along the Gulf of Mexico south of Brownsville, Texas, where we crossed the border. Two days ago, when we reached the gorgeous cloud forests of Chiapas, the state bordering on Guatemala, we thought we were back in Costa Rica. However, the Chiapas roads, while much better than Costa Rican highways, have more frequent speed bumps, road construction, and even blockades by indigenous people. Yesterday we spent 8 hours driving the 122 miles between San Cristobal and Palenque. At one blockade, we waited in line with hundreds of vehicles before paying $5 for the campesinos to let us through.

We have to drive especially carefully because our 1996 Buick is so low to the ground that going over speed bumps has scraped the exhaust system many a time. We are also wary of local police who will stop gringas on any pretence. Twice, despite not agreeing that we had exceeded the speed limit or gone through a red light, we took the officer of the law’s advice and paid “a reduced fine” on the spot.

This evening Nancy and I are in the modern town of Palenque, back from touring the awesome Mayan ruins of the same name. Ancient Palenque had its golden age from 600-800 C.E. when many of its main structures were built. It boasted a population of 8,000 or four people per square meter!

Palenque is the only place in the Americas where a sarcophagus has been discovered. The small burial chamber in the Queen’s pyramid and her plain stone box with a lid look amazingly like ones I have seen in Egypt. Like the Egyptians, the Mayans trace their history way back—the first date recorded on many inscriptions corresponds to 3114 B.C.E. in our calendar. That date starts a cycle that will end December 21, 2012. (BTW, the 32nd century B.C. E. was quite eventful. It marks the start of the first Egyptian dynasty and the building of Stonehenge in Great Britain and Newgrange in Ireland.)

The connections to Egypt seem to be beyond coincidence. In addition to pyramids of the same proportions and sarcophagi, the Mayan knowledge of astronomy was on par with the ancient Egyptians. Our guide told us that Palenque’s three main buildings, including the Queen’s pyramid and the pyramid of Pakal, Palenque’s greatest ruler, are aligned with Orion’s belt, just as the pyramids at Giza are. NASA measurements have proven that the coordinates correspond perfectly to the constellation. Every important building at Palenque was constructed with equinoxes, solstices, or some other astronomical function in mind.

Pakal (603-683 C.E.) oversaw the building of his own monumental pyramid tomb. His ornately carved sarcophagus, only discovered in 1952, rests in the nearby modern museum. It is impressive, larger than King Tut’s sarcophagus. The top alone would cover two side-by-side king-sized mattresses. It’s miraculous that such a huge ornately-carved slab of stone could survive almost 14 centuries without cracking.

Palenque is a technological marvel. A large stone-lined aqueduct runs through the city, providing the pressurized water piped into the palace for baths, saunas, and a sanitation system. (See Nancy sitting on a stone Mayan toilet, sewage pipe directly underneath.)

Despite Palenque’s many 7th century comforts, Nancy and I are grateful for the Best Western hotel, where we enjoyed guacamole and chips as the full moon rose behind the royal palms surrounding the swimming pool.

Tomorrow we round the hook of southern Mexico and head north to Campeche as our destination for the night. We are looking forward to being in the Yucatan, where the roads are straight and the seafood exquisite.

Hasta luego!