Mayan Temples – Xunantunich and Cahal Pech

The island kids and their moms straggled into Belize City’s morning fog and I hustled through this cinder block Venice –crossing the bridge to catch the chicken bus up to San Ignatio-town. (Since this was once an English colony the Spanish names are often suffixed with “-town.” )

My seatmate was a tacit gringo from Canada with a long grey tangle of hair, a long face and feint eyes– At last, he began to chat and I allowed as I was on my way to the ruins.

“We have at least six hundred of those in Belize…
They are everywhere.
I built my chicken coop on one and our house on another..”
The World Heritage in me blanched a bit but the stranger-passant was already going on.

He had once been a rebel editor in Ontairo- He met his first wife there – she was from Belize and only wanted to live in Los Angeles with her sisters.

He and his second Belizian wife are cow farmers two hours in from the coast.

“Things are difficult for cow farmers because Belize does not support beef exports – There are not enough delivery trucks or roads or ports .. The only people who are making any money are the German Mennonites. They have made a deal with the Mexican truckers and ship thousands of head through the ports up there.”

As if on cue, a family of 9 Mennonites filed onto the bus – freckled and fair as if Norman Rockwell had painted a wagon train scene ..The females (baby on up) were hooded in funeral black bonnets with three inch brims that tied with a large bow under the chin and the males had sewn-in matching suspenders on their trousers and sported Henley shirts with meticulously pleated sleeves and yokes — all five of them in matching homespun sea-foam green.

My seatmate was contining about how he had to file some drawings in order to fence in his grazing land..

“Belize requires me to put in access roads if I want to fence. So, I have to come up here for 2 hours on and show them where the access roads will go. Of course, no one will inspect this and I will not be putting the roads in — I just have to show the drawing and pay the fees and taxes.”

Seatmate, Menonnites and most standees exited at Belmopan – the inland capital built after coastal Belize City was destroyed by hurricane Hattie.

By 11:30 I arrived in the Cayo region ready to check in to my hotel, find lunch and the way to Xunantunich before it got much hotter. At noon, I started haggleing with taxi drivers wanting $US20. Out of nowhere a skinny black man who introduced himself as “Star” offered to guide me on the fifty-cent local bus to the site. And, so, Star and I shared a sandwich on the way to the hand pulled ferry leading to Xunantunich’s park.

Star was an ideal guide we went straight up hill for 20 minutes. He told me he was a bicycle racer in his 20’s, that he had lived in Hong Kong where his mother had been a private tutor, that he made all kinds of ice cream, and had been a lawyer and an herbalist. He had written a book on the last subject and explained that one of the local trees had given the British soldiers rashes and burns. He pointed out the offending red tree and standing next to it was a tree with white bark that he could used to make the healing salve.

“Even though they always grow in pairs the British never figured the medicine out.”

Star lead me up the steps to look at the view. Up there that I saw the signature corbeled arch of the Peten region. These were once braced by timbers but many of which have snapped and hang suspended from their ancient anchorments.

There had been some discussions about the integrity of the restoration at this temple. But according to the exhibit, the University of Pennsylvania field team took a casting of the frieze and placed that replica over the originals to protect them until a restoration plan could be devised.

Star and I shared beers waiting for the bus and finished the day with a homemade lobster dinner at his house and after that he soothed my insect bites with a poultice of baking soda but failed to heal “bird arm” with his cannabis decoction.

Star and I are politically aligned and his form of expression is to dial into conservative radio shows in America’s south with his thick creole and give ‘e hell. He was very serious about this and showed me his alarm clocks all set to go off when his targets come on air. After this revelation, Star proposed marriage. I declined with thanks and he walked me back into town.

Unlike the mythological entrance to Xunantunich, Cahal Pech is tucked into a residential neighborhood. (And, could easily have become ranch houses– if the Canadian guy had his way.)

There was a small museum entrance and then a path opened up to this jewel covered with mist and moss. Cahal Pech is so demure it could have been a Roman villa. There are courts and a well preserved 200 person stadium with tiny rooms off to the side. I wondered at the height of the steps considering the height of Mayans. Perhaps, they would install temporary intermediate steps seasonally?

At Tikal there would be ample time to ponder this.

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Author: diane e. dreyfus

on the road until they put the lid down

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