It was a brief affair with Mexico and I did not do or see all that I wanted, but I had some strange and wonderful experiences there.
In Mexico City I went to two extraordinary museums. The first is the museum of folk art, which is full-on from the moment you walk in. Kites and enormous creatures,(Alebrijes), are strewn all over the central atrium.
They have fun with Devils
And the ubiquitous skeletons
There are videos of extremely colourful festivals with mad masks and crazy dances.
Display cards explain about the local beliefs in Nahuales, totems which help you change into an animal, and the Tona or totem animals. There are tales of mermaids, (interestingly also true in South Africa), and beautiful works of art.
I was quite dazzled.
The Museum of Anthropology is the premier cultural attraction and is like entering another world. I thought I knew a little about South American history, but it is vastly complicated. I only visited the ground floor and not the first floor which deals with present day culture, but it took me hours.
I particularly liked the fact that the earliest cultures produced many simple pottery figures of women with children.
Things soon changed with the arrival of the Toltecs and the Aztecs and the rise of the priesthood. Later masks and sculpture are incredibly elaborate.
It was my first encounter with this character.
Chac-mool, an intermediary between the physical world and the gods, used as a sacrificial altar. He was associated with Tlaloc, the rain or Thunder God and he more usually looks like this –
I also found out a bit more about “the ball game”, of which more later.
On to Oaxaca, where I passed a thoroughly enjoyable day thanks to a chance meeting with a young Mexican woman, Elena, in the hostel bathroom. I told her I was planning a trip to Monte Alban, a pre-Columbian pyramid site nearby, sacred to the Zapotec. She invited me to join her and her boyfriend, Alessandro, as they were driving out there that same day. I readily agreed.
We spent an hour or two wandering around the wide open site among the mountains.
We then moved on to Matatlan for some serious Mezcal tasting. Thanks to Alessandro we found some very rustic and authentic Mezcal distillers.
We finished the day at an excellent restaurant where I tried three different types of “mole”, each of which contains over twenty ingredients.
I confess my preference for the “mole negra” with chocolate.
The next day I spent wandering the streets of Oaxaca.
I bought some chocolate and visited the museum at Santo Domingo, an old monastery.
Though I had hoped to visit San Cristobal de Las Casas, everyone’s favourite town it seems, and Palenque, Mayan ruins in the jungle, time was running out for me, so I headed for Merida and Chichen Itza.
I managed to get to Chichen Itza before the hordes of tourists, but not before the lines of hawkers. Unlike Palenque, it now sits on arid land.
This great pyramid is aligned with magnetic north and at sunrise at the equinox a snake-like shadow runs up the side.
There is a ball court, with stone circles set high up on either side.
There were two teams of seven a side and the object was to get a solid rubber ball through one of the circles, probably using only the hips to direct the ball, (I saw a video of people playing like this in the folk art museum in Mexico). There was great spiritual significance to this game, which dates from around 1,400 BC.
This stone sculpture at the base of the wall appears to show “the man of the match” being beheaded, with blood spurting from the neck.
Facing him is the leader of the opposing team, who is holding his severed head, which you can see at the bottom to the left of the large circle. There is still some debate as to whether it was the winner or the loser who was decapitated, though knowing the Maya’s I would think it would have been considered an honour. Either way, they were playing for very different stakes than today’s football “heroes”.
I had a plane to catch on 16th March, so on to Cancun. I don’t have anything good to say about it. It was “spring break” and thousands of students from the USA descend on the hotels and beaches to “party”. I met a writer for Trip Advisor who took me and a couple of friends of his to experience the clubbing phenomenon for free. Anthropologically speaking, it was something to see, but in the end I was glad to leave. I still have good memories of Mexico, but my next post will be about my adventures in Peru.