Tuesday, December 23, 1986

Winter solstice, Chichén Itzá

Winter Solstice, Chichén Itzá

I'm inside El Caracol, Chichén Itzá, at sunset. During the solstice, light neatly passes through one opening unscathed, with little shadow on the side walls. magic.

Sunlight wraps itself around the walls, illuminating them. I go camera crazy. In the top chamber, I take photos of John with refracted light. He is a sun god.
You have to rock climb in order to get up inside El Caracol. The circular stairway ends 12 feet above the outside hall. A tree trunk beam with carved steps near the opening to the roof offers a way up. John enters the circular stairwell. I climb an outside wall. The distance from the beam to the opening is too far for me to span. I need to try another approach.

From the top of El Caracol, on the observatory, you can enter the stairwell but then you must crawl on hands and knees because the stairs were not meant to be used in the upright position. It's about reverence. I scoot up the steps on my fanny, thus startling some Mexican boys on their way down, not many women come here. It's not an easy journey.

On the top of what's left of El Caracol, there are three slots on the roof, sight-lines for star constellations, the moon and Venus. One wonders what other astronomical observations were made here. The guidebooks place an unusual emphasis on Venus. It seems that Venus is well represented, or the guidebooks are all rather simple.

On top of the outer wall, sections of the roof had caved in, one looks down into the dark heart of El Caracol. And dreams. Time stands still. We will never know what astronomical alignments they marked.

The Yucatán is basically a flat limestone terrace raised a few feet above sea level. To the south, a long line of hills breaks the view. these hills or pu'uc rise less than 360 feet above sea level along the rift that shoved them up. A string of cenotes, or sinkholes, are visible from the air. Round wells in various stages of collapse. Jade green water necklaces strung across the Yucatán.

There are tropical fish in the sacred cenotes of Chichén Itzá, at least 100 miles inland from the sea, and there are no natural rivers here. How did the fish get here? By hurricane? By land, or sea? Where they planted here by Toltecs, or by the Mayans? Or were they trapped here during a hurricane and evolved into freshwater fish?

We hiked to the profane cenote, secular is a more apt word, and the soil gives way. We careen down a steep slope and grab at some trees to stop us. The descent into the cenote is like falling into the jaws of an ant lion's sand trap.

Inside the cenote, we discover an overgrown water temple. The land is riddled with limestone arches and partial caves. Some looked painted. So little has been done here, there is still so much to discover—even at Chichén Itzá.

At Kabáh, we find the keystone arch, the gate to the city, 11 straight miles from Uxmal on a straight, raised Mayan road. Sacabe, or sacabeob, the sacred white roads. There are no cenotes here, the Mayans are entirely dependent upon the vagaries of rain, and the capriciousness of Cha'ac, or Tlaloc in Toltec. Near the temple of the long nosed god, there is an altar to Chacmul with his head turned toward the sun. We eat bitter Mayan oranges from a wild orange tree growing in the rubble of a fallen edifice. Bitter orange, naranja agria, or Su'uts' pak'áal, is a medley of all the citrus flavors of the world. It's also the main ingredient in the chicken, and the cochinita, or puerco pibil dishes indigenous to the region.

Each pueblo strung along the main highway that travels the length of the Yucatán peninsula is like a tiny jewel encapsulating several eras of history. The Na, or traditional Mayan thatched huts stand alongside colonial buildings with their imposing tall double doors, replete with windows that open out into the world.

Topos, speed bumps, steep enough to launch your car like Steve McQueen's famous car chase scene in Bullitt, keep most of the cars at a reasonable pace. Iridescent wild turkeys (Meleagris ocellata) and pigs continually cross the road, along with the ubiquitous chickens.

A small Mayan dog, the tz'i', a delicate hound with soft ears, is seen slinking around nearly everywhere. The Mayans have nine words for dog, whether it was eaten, sacrificed, or raised to the status of a deity. In the Mesoamerican calendar, Itzcuintli, the tenth day is the day of the dog.

The diminutive, well-proportioned Mayans readily smile at you. Women carry buckets of corn to the granary, and  bring buckets of cornmeal back home on their heads. More women weave white huipil shifts, long lace petticoats, and the skinny Mayan shawl that doubles as a head cushion for a heavy-headed load.

Men everywhere on bicycles carry large bundles of wood from the jungle. An older man carries wood on his back, anchored with a forehead strap, the bundle of wood nearly as big as he is. Coatimundis and long-tailed blackbirds hide in the jungle, painted with the brilliant plumage of unnamed birds. Chuckwallas, temple guardians, enjoy their small spot in the sun.

I dreamed of iridescent feathers
falling from the sky
and we raced after them,
collecting their bounty in our arms.
A bouquet of such promise.

12/23/1986
Chichén Itzá
added 9/17
minor revision

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