No Regrets

Forgive me bloggers, it has been two weeks since my last post.

I’ve been traveling out of the country and back in time.  All the stars and planets aligned to make it so.

The journey began, as they often do, with use ‘em or lose ‘em nights at a nice hotel, this time in Cancun.

It was only five days and four nights at stake, and I’d be saving less than the airfare would cost to get there.  But my son Eli was home in between teaching jobs abroad, and he had never been to Mexico.

My Cousin Nancy is always up for an adventure!

If that wasn’t incentive enough, we arranged to stop over in Houston on the way home to visit our cousins, June and Haskell.  We celebrated her 90th birthday with her in San Antonio last summer, and wanted to help Haskell celebrate his 90th.

Of course, they’d been celebrating all month, but what’s not to love about that?

Our first stop:  Chichen Itza.  I’d been there before, but hardly scratched the surface.  Chichen Itza was a large culturally diverse pre-Columbian Meso-American city.  The 1500 year old pyramid at its heart was the Temple of Kukulkan, the feathered serpent god, also related to Quetzalcoatl.

Our guide, Murux, was Mayan. He guided my husband Thom and me on our last trip down.

Murux grew up in the village of Chichen Itza, running in and out of the ancient ruins, playing inside the pyramid, and tagging after the archaeologists excavating the site.  In the 70s, when Chichen Itza became a National Park, locals living within park limits were forced to abandon their homes.

Some still return each morning to sell souvenirs to tourists.  There was something I wished I’d bought last time, only I just couldn’t remember what. Then we heard the snarl of a jaguar in the jungle, an eerie cry.  Then another.  And another.  Oh, yeah!  It was vendors demonstrating ceramic whistles mimicking the big cats worshiped by the Mayans.  I’m not much of a shopper, except when I accidentally purchase rugs, and that usually just happens in Turkey or Morocco.

On this trip I bought only a sun hat, for protection, and two jaguar whistles, for fun.  No more regrets!

If Murux had not been so fascinated by the excavations, today he might be selling whistles or rugs among the ruins.  But he pursued his passions, and became a college professor with a PHD in archaeology.  He also became a lithographer who illustrates his own books about Mayan history and culture.  When not teaching or guiding tours, he explores the jungle in search of ancient villages, or works on digs, excavating ruins.  No regrets.

I asked Murux why they needed all the little pyramids if they had the big one for worship and sacrifices.  He said they were models on which the builders experimented with scale and proportions.  That was how they perfected an amazing acoustic effect.  When standing in front of the temple stairs, one clap of your hands creates an echo identical to the cry of the Quetzal bird, believed to be a messenger of the gods.

Visitors were allowed into the temple until 2006, when a tourist fell to her death.   It’s difficult to grasp how steep and high these stairs are until you are actually climbing up them, or worse, going down.

A forty-five minute drive from there is the smaller, more isolated Mayan village of Ek Balam.

Built 4000 years ago, it’s older than Chichen Itza, less touristy, and more accessible.

We were allowed to climb the ruins, including a very steep stairway like the one at Chichen Itza.

No one knows why the village was abandoned, but the inhabitants filled buildings with rocks to prevent others from moving in.

After further adventures in Mexico, which I’ll tell you about another time, we flew to Houston…

…and rented a car from a good natured cowpoke named Trace.   It’s true what they say; everything IS bigger in Texas.

When we arrived, Happy Hour was already under way.  My cousin Leslie had baked Haskell his sixth 90th birthday cake, a scrumptious carrot cake with cream cheese, raisin, coconut, and walnut frosting.

Haskell mixed our rum and Cokes using an antique gill cup…

 …which was used 150 years ago to measure out the sailors’ daily ration of rum in the Royal British Navy.  Rum from that gill cup was served with a side of whimsey, imagination, and ceremony.  And it tasted so much better that way.

Some folks might call Haskell ancient, now that he has officially joined the ranks of the world’s nonagenarians.  But I say he’s ninety years young.   Unlike many people I know, who are young in years and old in carriage, Haskell is still learning new tricks.

He is still widening his circle of friends and family.

He’s still good with the ladies…and one in particular.

What do you give a guy who has everything, and knows it?  I could think of only one thing.  It was something not everyone could appreciate.  It would involve mastering a questionable new skill.  But I had a feeling Haskell would be up to the challenge.  And of course he was.  He always is.

No regrets!

All images and words copyright Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Abandoned.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Ancient.

Grand is in the Details

This magnificent mountain in the Peruvian Andes is Huanya Picchu.

 To me it looks like a great green ghost, its strong stone arms wrapped protectively around the ancient Incan city of  Machu Picchu .

Machu Picchu, meaning “Ancient Mountain,” was built in the 15th century, at the peak of Incan culture.  One of the greatest artistic, architectural, and land use achievements of the world, it was chosen as a World Heritage Site in 1983.

No one can say for certain, as the Incas had no written language, but it is thought to have been a royal estate, perhaps a summer retreat, or maybe a religious center.

It was so remote that the Spanish conquerors never found it, but it was by no means isolated.

It was connected to the vast Incan Empire by a royal highway called The Inca Trail, linking Machu Picchu to 25, 000 miles of roadway, the Incan version of the Internet.  Special runners called “Chasquis” traveled as far as 240K in a day to keep the king connected, or to deliver delicacies to his dinner table.  Runners could rest at stations along the way, or relay messages by tag-team.

Much of The Inca Trail survives to this day. This section leads to the Sun Gate. 

Another steep trail leading in the other direction hugged the cliffside.  This Incan drawbridge made it impossible for outsiders to invade the city…

…unless you count tourists.

The grand view was worth the walk.

Machu Picchu is surrounded on the other three sides by steep cliffs and a raging river, making it practically impregnable.

Magnificent.  Dramatic.  Ingenious. Grand.

Machu Picchu’s grandeur can be found in the details. Like the integration of natural elements into its design, shaping the city to fit into its surroundings.  Terraces not only took on the curve of the mountain, but prevented landslides and provided a hanging garden for growing crops.

Its location was a matter of sacred geography.  It was situated among mountains with religious significance to the Incas…

…and is perfectly aligned for key astronomical events.

This instrument cut into the bedrock was used for astronomical observations.

The Incans worshipped the mountains as gods, and this was reflected in their building.

Everywhere we turned, we saw natural features incorporated into the design.

Architecture mirrored nature’s design.

Walls were built around huge boulders, which remained cradled in the earth where they had slept since the mountains were born.

This did not prevent Incan engineers from using natural features to provide creature comforts, such as running water.

 

On our second visit, the clouds lifted.  We arrived in time to see the morning sun turn gray stones gold.


We tried to imagine what it might have been like to have lived there half a millennium ago…

The dry stone walls were constructed without mortar, with some stones fitted so tight a blade of grass couldn’t squeeze between them.  Even so, the ancients must’ve worked hard to keep the jungle at bay…

 …just as they do today.  There were redshirts perched on ladders, whose full time job was to keep the weeds from taking over.  

The backstairs whispered ancient secrets, but we couldn’t quite make them out.

We could only wonder at the world around us.

The flora…


And fauna.

Each one…

…a tiny miracle.

Great civilizations come and go….

…and life goes on.

As hard as we try to unlock them…

…Machu Picchu’s walls hold onto their secrets.

In the grand scheme of things, what does it matter if we don’t know all the answers?

It is a privilege to be there…

…following in the footsteps….

…of the ancient ones.

All images and words copyright 2013 Naomi Baltuck

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Travel Theme: Cities.
Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Grand

While we are on the subject of GRAND, I’d like to introduce you to a not-so-ancient wonder of the world.  My cousin Haskell is a little like Forest Gump, in that, after serving in World War II, followed by a lifetime of service in the Merchant Marines, I’m not kidding–he has been there and done that, and can tell you all about it in grand style.  Except for one thing.  Somehow, through all his amazing adventures, he never got around to learning to play the autoharp.  Until last June.

I love you, Haskell, and I’m so lucky to have you in my family!   Here’s to Rum and Coke, and jamming next year in Seattle, and feeling better soon!