Saturday, March 10, 2007

Cruising the Caribbean: Part Two

"Attention passengers, this is your captain speaking. We have reason to believe there may be a stowaway on board and..."

From a balcony on the ninth floor of a cruise ship, the cobalt waters of the Gulf of Mexico take on a very unique quality. Some evenings after dinner I'd return to my cabin, walk out onto the balcony and lean over the varnished teak balcony, dig my fingernails into the thin layer of encrusted salt and watch mesmerized as the ship cut through the swells. The waves would race toward the ship's hull, smack against it and then, as if repelled like two North poles of a magnet, would push away from it at speed. At the farthest point of their race away from the ship, the wavelets would crest, turn inside out and dissipate in sparkling showers of snow-white foam and spray.

We spent one and a half full days at sea on the outbound journey before arriving at Costa Maya in Mexico, our first port of call, where we took a rather prosaic tour of the Kohunlich Mayan ruins. I say prosaic because this was to be my first time to learn about the illustrious past and sophistication of the Maya and I expected to see and climb huge soaring temples and palaces such as those found at Copan, but instead all I saw were sad mounds and hillocks still covered by verdant jungle vegetation. It didn't help that our guide--a weasel-like Mayan chappie--didn't speak fluent English and kept saying "Guys this" and Guys that" at every turn (only words I and others could decipher) and then had the gall to ask for a tip at the end of the journey rather than trust us to give him one.

Not so our trip to the Quirigua Mayan ruins in Guatemala the next day. We docked in Santo Tomas's port in Guatemala at six that morning and after disembarkation met with the effervescent and charming Carolina, our guide, who took us on a spectacular two hour bus ride through to the ruins, entertaining us en route with tales of the ancient Maya and life in modern-day Guatemala

I must say it is a spectacularly beautiful country. It is called the 'land of eternal spring' because its climate is always the warm and sunny and the landscape is full of rolling hills and jungle awash in colorful flowering trees, shrubs and flowers including orchid and animals equally diverse and vibrant. At one point we passed rubber tree plantations--hailing instantly to life my schoolboy memories of geography class about the subject and the teacher saying "give me your jaw, boy!" as he grabbed and squeezed my cheek mercilessly if I was acting the smart-aleck or insubordinate--and huge banana tree (actually a member of the grass family) plantations whose fruit would soon be harvested and shipped off to Dole factories for export to America and Europe, etc. (Factoid--baby banana plants must be allowed to grow alongside their mother for six full months or they die. I have a banana plant in my house and it always has a baby growing alongside it in the pot and until now I never knew why.)

The Mayan ruins were of the Mayan Classic period (550-850AD) and contained intricately carved Stelae and Zoomorphs (the latter being huge carved boulders including one called "The Great Turtle" that were forms of monumentation unique to this Mayan city/state and the hieroglyphs on them could only be read from the sky), all evidencing the greatness and deeds of the Mayan dynasty that ruled there.

Views of the city and courtyard with Stellae-tallest is 30 meters high

Bringing the local history to life, Carolina whose English was perfect (she'd lived in Los Angeles for three years before returning home) described as we walked through the acropli, temples and ball courts that there had been two Mayan cities in the region--Quirigua and the wealthy city of Copan--and how one of the kings called Cauac Sky captured and sacrificed 18 Rabbit, the king of Copan, freeing Quirigua of its vassal city/state status and giving rise to the Sky dynasty. (Nothing like a bit of intrigue and kingly skulduggery to keep the tourists chomping at the bit and wanting more.)

One of the Zoomorphs, a type of ancient Mayan monument unique to this city state

Cauac Sky build a new palace for himself over the sacrificed king's body (his decapitated body was the only one ever found at the ruins to date during excavations that are ongoing; it astonishes researchers that they have not found the remains of any citizens).

Close up of stella depicting Couac Sky

As an aside, in ancient Mayan culture, only the best was offered the gods. Thus, it was the winning ball player who was sacrificed immediately after the game, not the loser as previously thought. The players wanted to win and be sacrificed (by decapitation in front of the spectators) and it was an immense honor for the player and his family.

All in all, I was transported and left the ruins pondering how a civilization so sophisticated (their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics was superior to ours and their calendar is more accurate than the one we use today) could disappear so rapidly--contrary to belief, it wasn't all to do with the arrival of the Spanish--and leave the modern-day Maya as simple and unsophisticated as the people they'd once been before the rise of their ancient ancestors. (As an aside, the Mayan calendar ends on August 12, 2012, where it is said a great event will unfold.)

On the way back on the bus, as I passed the wooden shacks where the Maya--who're a very friendly and proud people--now live, my thoughts returned momentarily to Ireland and the similarities the countries share, how throughout Ireland, for example, there are now copious ruins of former peasant homes where families were reared. The Maya today are socially and politically where the native Irish were over a hundred or more years ago. Where the Irish were powerless and lived in stone hovels with no running water or electricity then, the Maya today are similarly powerless and live in tiny wooden huts with zinc roofs, the woman spinning and creating magnificent blankets and clothing, their animals and fowl bleating and clucking in the nearby earth. And I hope, like the Irish have now achieved, that one day the Maya can rise and be allowed to become full and equal participants in the countries of their birth and that discrimination against them will end. They have a noble ancestry that we, for all our sophistication, cannot begin to touch.

Departing Santo Tomas was a heart-warming experience, one of those events that really makes one happy to be alive and healthy and believe in the good of human beings. The Norwegian Sun is the only large cruise ship to dock weekly at their port and, as a show of appreciation and sign of how valuable her presence is to the local economy, the local people arrived en masse to say farewell. As the ship sounded her thunderous horn four or five times to acknowledge the farewell reception (even the crew were watching from the decks and bridge) and began to sail, a group of Pula dancers began to dance, an entire school of Catholic schoolchildren (judging by the uniforms) began to wave and sing and scores of taxis and cars that had assembled for the event began to blare their horns. Seasoned cruise veterans had tears in their eyes and I overheard them saying they'd never encountered the like of this in all the years they'd been traveling. And, right there on the fringe of the dancers, dressed in her navy and yellow jacket, was a widely smiling and waving Carolina...just as she'd promised she would be doing when we bade her farewell dockside twenty minutes before.


Carol Gee said...

I am so glad you are enjoying your first cruise. No matter how often you take another in the future, I hope you'll remember your first with as much fondness as I do mine. That said, I can recommend Alaska as absolutely fabulous.

miltlong said...

You can't believe how happy I am to find your blog re Quirigua. My wife and I with 2 others plan to travel NCL from New Orleans in December. It's darn near impossible to get info re Santo Tomas de Castilla. I'd pictured it as similar to the ore docks in Jamaica with nothing nearby.
I've got you on my Favorites List and will update you when we get back. Thanks, Milt L

Damian McNicholl said...

Hello Milt, thanks for dropping by.
Yes, I'd love to know how you find Santo Tomas and NCL.