Who are the Maya and Where Did they Come From, Anyway?

In spite of their challenging terrain and vastness of their reach, the varieties in their languages and the serial interventions of conquistadors and modern opportunists, the Mayans keep their spirit, arts of fabric and design enriched and undiluted.

Ladies still do this ..It keeps their hair out of thier work
Ladies still do this ..It keeps their hair out of thier work
“Maya” is the common name for the massive cultural complex that once spanned almost 8 degrees of latitude and that after 3,000 years, still distinguishes itself in Mesoamerica. The indigenous Mayans live in linguistic bands from the South Mexico to the Yucatan coast.

The volute or caracol was Mayan-ese for
The volute or caracol was Mayan-ese for “eternity”
There are more than 28 Mayan languages still spoken in the lands between Mexico and Honduras. Much of the linguistic pattern has been revealed since the 1960’s  Like archeologists and anthropologists with their image libraries, comparative linguists study data bases of current structures and ancient origins of living languages.

Displaying characteristic Talud and Tablero structure and an unsightly incroachment on the top dating from the 1900s
Queretero ruin displaying characteristic Talud and Tablero structure and an unsightly incroachment on the top dating from the 1850s
The late arriving Uto-Aztecan language, Nahuatl, is said to have migrated south from the deserts of North America around the 7th century. After a few generations, this arty lingua franca became popular with singers and poets in the cosmopolitan, warring and continuously dominating Teotithuacan.  This city grew to become the largest in the Americas (and impressed the European invaders, too) by around 1200. The official home to the Aztecs/Mixtecs, today it is mostly buried under Mexico City’s metroplex.

At the time of the conquest. Nahuatl was spoken by Toltecs as far away as Yucatan and by Maya in the present day Quiche District of Guatemalan highlands. The words must have eased trading and, eventually might have brought the loose alliances of MesoAmerica into a working unit–   But, Nahuatl was too “foreign” to be used for local affairs and since there was no common currency –except, maybe, the Cocoa bean, even if it were desired, overt unification would never have been possible .

This Zapotec site in Oxaca spun off smaller sites during it's 1000 years.
Monte Alban, a Zapotec site in Oaxaca spun off smaller sites during it’s 1000 years.
Still, since preclassical times, disparate cities shared a remarkably uniform sense of time and place.  People knew the names for stars, planets and some contellations  and that they had a pantheon of angry gods – some of whom could only be appeased by human sacrifices. This cast of deity-characters adorned temples and public spaces and reified the mysterious force behind the ritual cycles.

Two cosmic ball players or a couple of kings dressed to look like the Twins who played ball in Xihbalba - underworld
Two Popol Vuh ball players or a couple of kings dressed to look like the Twins who played ball in Xihbalba – underworld
By the Classical period, kings and nobles, were about identifying themselves as priests, ballplayers and warriors and are seen all over walls and pottery from The Valley of Mexico to as far south as Copan…. These depictions displayed fundamental  references to ancient mythological gods and creatures and sometimes referenced historical figures – like King Pakal of Palenque.  Pottery survives better than bark books and can be traced.  One Teotitucan style took about twenty years before it was seen in far flung grave sites. The remains of architecture and art are used to date times when a technology or cosmogony was accepted into an area. But, What special goods or stories tipped a group from a customer base into a temple buddies?  Was it the ballgame with rubber from the Olmecs, predictive astronomy, improved agriculture, fancy warrior symbols or hallucinagenic plants or something else that moved the people to practice trade expansion, war and human sacrifice??

At Atzompa and beyond, nobles sat in the short ends of the “I” shaped court   betting on the (sort of sacred) action..
One theory for the distribution of complete “memes” was that the proto Maya were seafaring.  After all, the Vera Cruz Olmecs had both rubber and cloth. — Could they not have made water resistant sails or caulked portable “canvas” canoes and just taken off? Maybe the Mayas at Izapa invented the early calendar because they could see the Zenith Passage from their about 15° Latitude. Somehow, that homegrown knowledge was useful enough for traders to talk about.  It is possible that farmer’s knowledge of this unique viewpoint allowed the Maya to calculate how to produce two harvests a year with 120 day corn?  Agricultural surplus ushered in social stratification, then Kingship and Priests.

In spite of their challenging terrain and vastness of their reach, the varieties in their languages and the serial interventions of conquistadors and modern opportunists, the Mayans keep their spirit, producing fiber arts and built design — rich and undiluted.

Shown with skeletal form.. precureor to day of the dead..
Shown with skeletal form..
precursor to day of the dead..

Mayans Rediscover Acupuncture at Centro de Paz Barbara Ford

Health Promoters work on incoming patientAcupuncture was independently invented by the Mayans.

When Mayans met Acupuncturists – April 2012
Acupuncturists Treat 1,000 Patients in Santa Cruz del Quiche, Zacualpa and San Filipe
Meetings with Remarkable Mayans

According to “Wind in the Blood,” the 1999 study done with Mayan healers in Chiapas Mexico, they call their needling technique “Jup.” Curanderos use wood, teeth, bones, and quills to stimulate specific locations on the body. Like the Chinese, Mayan’s body image includes “energy” channels with a flow that can be blocked or opened. They, also, share more than 50 identical needling points and beliefs that disease can originate from evil eyes, imbalances in cold/hot and that a lack of Ool, the Wind of Life (their equivalent of Chi) is a malefactor.

“Wind in the Blood’s” authors were careful to neither rank nor to force comparisons between the schemes. They were there to catalogue what they found. The scope of that work left little time to speculate about the commonalities. Both societies are agrarian and, of necessity, developed a cosmogony with sophisticated calendars (for planting, etc.) and created a disease classification based on the physical universe. The theory behind “1421 the Year the Chinese Discovered America,” might easily explain the congruencies. However, Gavin Menzies’ (2002) tempting history that there was actual contact with Admiral Zhang’s fleet has yet to be verified. And, absent a definitive Codex, we will have to continue to wonder even as medical anthropologists try to piece the indigenous forms back together by observation.

Mayan’s faith in needles is so profound that they routinely prefer injections over pills. Such trust in the needle’s authority makes Mayans ideal patients (and students) for the type of popular, rural medicine practiced by “Barefoot Doctors.” During Chairman Mao’s time, farmers would receive six months of training. The good news is that it takes much less time to teach more modern and limited applications.

Joan Boccino, MS, L.Ac. who organized the medical mission, sees the NADA protocol as good offering. ”We can’t train people in the complete diagnostic and treatment procedures in Chinese medicine because that normally takes years. But, we can teach some simple protocols that will allow for some local continuity of care between the larger clinical jornadas.” She went on to explain that NADA was originally developed to treat addictions but is also now commonly used to treat Post-traumatic stress disorders. It can also be helpful in the treatment of a wide variety of complaints where differential diagnosis is not possible.
NOTE: NADA is the acronym for the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association.

At the BFCP acupuncture Jornada Peter Pankin and Yefim Gamgoneishvili trained twelve health promoters to needle the five detoxifying ear points mapped from Chinese Medicine: Sympathetic, Shen Men (Heaven’s Gate), Kidney, Liver, and Lung.

Sister Ginny had immediately grasped that NADA and moxibustion could provide a cost effective remedies for Quiche’s indigenous people. They live in this rugged highland District where everyone regularly endures deadly floods, earthquakes and mudslides. Besides these threats, the Maya, like their Native Americans cousins to the North, are genetically prone to diabetes and alcoholism. The Sisters of Charity agreed that training midwives and curanderos in Traditional Chinese Medicine is safe, right and good.

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Colectivo hopping from San Cristobal de las Casas

There are many short adventures less than an hour away from San Cristobal de las Casas.

And, although there are tours, I caught a colectivo (cheap van) and got packed in with women in satin guipils and sheepskin skirts; the men wore hip length pullovers made of the same stuff. We all cruised, fur side out, through black sheep country into San Juan Chamula ahead of the rain and were deposited in an empty square. Clearly, it wasn’t market day. So, I stepped across the street into the (no kidding) Wal-Mart sized indoor market. There were a few local shoppers rattling around, idly circling produce and meat vendors and, towards the back and all along the outside, there were stalls full of local tipica (handcrafts.)

I halfheartedly looked at yet more Mexican guipels. What I kept seeing all over was garments made from gauzey cotton often constructed with too many puffs and pleats at the shoulders and bodice and almost never in my colors. Generally, the simple patterns and large scale embroidery does not compare to the Guatemalan creations but I found some gorgeous exceptions.

The Mexican designer we met in Palanque and some of her colleagues had arranged to do a fashion shoot up in Zinacantan. They met with the local families and with their cooperation produced an exhibit. She came in and invited us to the opening near Tierra Dentro. At the party, we would meet her other partners and see the family advisors all dressed in cassock shaped light blue and violet flowered quipils with pastel accents. The men had bullfighter red Jackets lavishly adorned at the shoulders, plackets and cuffs with delicate flowers. Most exciting, our friend had on a back laced bustier tailored in the village’s style.

With kind help, I found a colectivo to Zinacantan in the late morning. The town had only a handful of stores on a short shopping street but, there was one remarkable place with very precious goods. They were asking fair trade prices north of $350. They were beautiful and I would have bought one but blue-violet doesn’t mix with my colors. The collective turned out to be one way so I had a long wait until I could find transportation back.

The Sumidero boat rides you through a deep water canyon and turns back at a hydroelectric dam. Along the way there are some reptiles, lovely cranes and a plastic bag and bottle morass. A clean-up crew manned several boats, near the shore. My fellow travelers were very helpful pointing out the monkeys and tiny crock babies. We had lunch in Chiapa de Corzo – it is on the river and the first colonial city in the region. There is something very inviting about this place. It has a square as large as San Cristobal’s and, yes, it is very commercial. But, sipping a beer on the wide dockside and looking down river back towards the canyon, I was a relaxed and absorbed as if I were along the IJ, the Seine or the East River.

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Day trip to Palanque, Agua Azul and Misol-Ha

From the hostel it is only 20 minutes to Palanque. Once in the park, we pass a pricey looking hotel, cafeteria and a spectacular museum. Unlike Tikal or Yaxchilán the drop off is only a few blocks from the temple doors rather than a half an hour trudge the bushes. Everything about this magnificent park compares favorably to the more rugged, underfunded Tikal. The paths are even flat and freshly graveled.

There was still a fog when I entered the grand plaza. The short lived mist added a spiritual patina to the grandeur of the key structures. After a cursory look at a dim room on the south acropolis, I climbed into the more distant grand Palace. It has a tiered tower (perhaps used as an observatory) that is proportioned as if it were designed in 15th century Florence. This castle is pierced by “T” shaped windows looking into small rooms or hallways. From the top you can look back towards south acropolis and absorb the long spread of that high stepping confection –steeped in the style of Bonampak. From here, a long section of the working aqueduct can be seen containing a stream in reversed Mayan arches – 3’ deep; flat bottomed troughs; canted at 30 degrees. Water moves fast through the re-enforced but natural course and it will ultimately flow to falls near the lower groups. Down there spectacular Red Queen’s house cants over the luxurious cascade. (POSTED: No toe dipping allowed.)

Palanque’s ball court seems be the most perfectly located of any site; the space uniquely fulfills this mythological purpose: “Ball courts were conceived as entrances to the underworld, places of death and resurrection. They were ritual spaces where games necessary for life were performed… Celestial bodies were thought to descend at dusk to the underworld, the region of skeletal beings where they fought and vanquished forces of darkness.” Looking north across the courts from one of the stumpy older temples (400 AD) it is easy to imagine the site building up around this fulcrum between the Palace group and the mystic falls.

After three hours I raced through the museum and was glad to ride to Agua Azul. We would stop long enough to catch the spray before moving on to the swimming hole at Misol-Ha.
No one seemed invited by the rocky pool downstream from the gorgeous falls. But, I was. It was the perfect space to relax. Aside from the battalion of automatic totting soldiers in camo, it could have been any Sunday in the park. Families and lovers played in the water and ate at the picnic tables or in small, open restaurants. I was almost out of Pesos so I nursed a beer and dunked in and out. Upriver, the short falls were a delight – bubbling soda on the rocks since eternity began.

It was a short drive and a little wait to connect with the San Cristobal de las Casas fancy bus; two movies and a few stops later, we arrived at 10PM.

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Mexican Ruins – Chiapas – Yaxchilán and Bonampak

By the Rio Usumacinta, Mexican soldiers inspected trucks and waved us on. Five miles back, at the frontier passengers had been consolidated and redistributed from vans into liner buses and vice versa. The drivers gracefully coordinated cross border travelers and would continue to smooth (and seemingly “protect”) their way with cellphones and CBs – using common technology to create flexible exchanges at crossroads or strategic diners. I was bound for ruins twenty five miles up the river from here but was not clear about booking possibilities. So, I would triangulate through San Cristobal de las Casas and from there I could select -from among many options. I took a blissfully un-airconditioned bus ($80 vs $125 Pesos) and schlepped six hours farther North. Once in Palanque, tours were very available for the all day trip to Yaxchilán and Bonampak.

A 12 person group to la Selva Lacandona* starts out at around 6AM. (*the term Lacan Tun is derived from ACAN (stand or setup) TUN (precious stones or idols) – This is according to Danish explorer, Franz Blom still others prefer “piedra enmedio del agua” – Stone in Water

Life is lived along the road bordering the river
people have been out for a while by dawn
… preparing foods: feeding stoves with wood and charcoal; BB’queing lunch in the early cool
… already sitting astride horses or in lawn chairs watching the sky, cows and kids
… some meticulously sweep up or paint stairs desperately shoo-ing chickens
Few approach and fewer wave because this parade happens everyday

All along the white line dogs loll sleeping protected by speed-bumps
Brahmas’ chomp in the shade
Segments of smooth pipes wait to guide creeks and rivulets under bridges built in the grass

And, after a while, there’s a valley of mossy mounds
What? random 5-10 story lumps?

“No. they are not more ruins,” he says.
The ticket includes a quick breakfast buffet
– tortillas, coffee, eggs, orange juice
After a few more miles we come to the covered launches
It was a pleasant be motoring on muffled currents of murky Jade
we skimmed by forests and an occasional camp…
…remote thunderheads
… maybe crocodiles

Yaxchilán’s upland buildings are concealed by foliage and the larger group is “sunken” away from the dock. Flora billows wildly shadng everything into mystery – except the simply divinable signage. The map shows the lower site compact and dense like Cahal Pech and with the upper group this park covers almost three times as much area. The place was already hot so, we opted to do the more forbidding upper group – making the climb to the upper acropolis while it is still a bit cool. The vertical mountain path discordantly echoes the stairs featured in the architecture. Of course, the path’s irregular and double high “risers” make for tough going and become more so farther up. Treading rough stairs made of slippery rock and snag-ly root is the stuff of adrenaline On this incline, I seriously wondered (again) if the short-legged Mayans would install temporary half-steps with rope railings if only for holidays and special sacrifices.

Not much is visible until two thirds the way up but then the sight of neatly stone stairs lends motivation to claw on breathlessly. The higher building’s outer walls are strewn about but the stable stone floors support the less than 6′ doorways; so, the overhead carvings are so low that you stoop to see the auto-sacrificing courtesans displaying their loyalty. (That would be: dropping blood from their tongue piercing ritual onto paper – to be incensed, later.)

We descend from this extreme acropolis to follow hallways etched into a mossy hill. This skinny way is braced by stout Mayan vaults and the dead end chambered cloister is sheltering…. bats. I skibbled up the next, least slippery looking lump and came upon ruins stamped squarely into manicured fields – marching orthogonal for blocks. Alas, we had too little time left when we got to the main area.

After a quick but nice lunch we arrived at Bonampak where you must hire a Lacandon man to walk any group around the site. The “Hagh Winik” Mayas maybe be from Yucatan and Guatemala and are famous for resisting the conquistadors; they call themselves the “True people.” The male guides have pony tails, wear sandals, white calf-length gowns and carry thin mashed wood shoulder bags. This site is known for elaborate ceiling and wall panels but these are not really readable. Detailed paintings decorated a tight stone building a little bit longer than it is high -20’x15’x 8′. It is so tight that only 3 or 4 people at a time are permitted. We were prepared to see the 200 guests attending the wedding party. It is said that the illustrations had “depth and perspective” and some may guests may be displaying “hand signals.” But, the fuzzy representation that our guide unfurled from his bag did not help. He coached us on the “Alliance” of Chan Maun II and Lady Rabbit of Yaxchilán and how Bomampak’s warriors had defeated their distant neighbors. I can vividly imagine Lady Rabbit’s procession trudging inland to this location with the high palaces and the thin stellae. That trip would have covered the same distance that we had driven and boated in three modern hours. This mighty site has been active since the late 1940’s when United Fruit sent a film crew to document it.

The all day tour was really arduous. Next time I will eliminate the four hours of round trip travel by staying at one of the local cabins or camps between Yaxchilán and Bonampak. I know that tour vans pick up and deliver from there, too.

photos by Norma Valdez

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Chiapas – romping, stomping and chomping.

A buttery aura flits over a soprano with a banjo and Petite Madeleines fill the air. They swish past horns blaring a Latin beat and go winking by the eternal promise of a midnight alive with “Pura Vida — Mezcal and Dj’s.” This sweetened gold wafts along Calle Guadelupe Victoria and I inhale yummy, magical San Cristobal de las Casas. Such simple, pleasing sensations were absolutely welcome after 12 hours flopping about over the mud crusty, speed-bump ridden Pan Am highway from Panajacel. (The trip, including two breaks, about an hour of frontier crossing biz and a remarkably efficient tourist swap-fest at the boarder edged …unbearable.) Uncrumpling and deftly avoiding a swirl of local vendors, I took another deep sniff of aire du beurre… It was mixed with expresso.

Was I in Alsace?


But, no…a man sporting a black T-shirt emblazoned with white letters proclaiming “We will not be silent” in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Huh? New York? Delighted, I crossed the street to ask him about it. The “Philadelphia Granny Peace Brigade” logo on his left sleeve told me Rodrigo was either a tasteful used clothes shopper or very close to my political family. Sure enough, the Spanish activist was just back from the US.

This was my welcome. He pointed me to Tierra Dentro, the local Zapatista co-operativa cum bistro and, best, my new friend would present Gina, the politically astute daughter of my east coast “sister-Granny,” the one who had given him the shirt.

I sped towards my hostel to beat the rain stopping only to greet and admire two vendors in their black sheepskin skirts and satin Guipels. These ladies seemed to be doing a Tzotzil version of “Trading Places.”

"Looking good, Rosa... Feeling good, Maria!"

This hostel was not very comfortable and far from the center but breakfast gave me a teaching opportunity — I showed Alan how to chart using the method I had been taught by a friend’s father decades ago. My shoes were not yet dry when I went out for travel options and boots. I was most fervently scouting for lunch; and half trying to make a deal on replacing my scratched lenses in under ten days and without buying new frames. This was not going to be easy. Fortunately, lunch was brilliant; Carpaccio and a Cabernet from the Maipo Valley! After that walking got traitorous – not because the wine was so good – but because the lime-stoned city gets slimy when wet. With the Atlantic storm dogging me, I decided to go to Palanque early the next day.

In the sopping dreary morning, I would meet my dorm-mate as she was coming in from a night dancing and discover that she was in route to the ruins, too. Norma was even heading for the same jungle hostel, El Panchán. We caught an informal bus and arrived in time for an early dinner. The young geological engineer recuperated on the bus and danced until the next morning’s bus was ready to leave for Yaxchilán and Bonampak. That night, we would meet Noga an Israeli artist fresh out of the army, who -thanks to her Chilean grandmother – spoke perfect Spanish. The two would party on and I would head back to San Cristobal via Palanque, Agua Azul and Misol-Ha.

I moved to a more central place in San Cristobal where I could make small sorties to San Juan Chamula, Zinacantan, Sumidero Canyon and Chiapa de Corzo and comfortably pass the unknown number of days while my lenses came in from Mexico City. Rodrigo and Gina Joined me for pizza and wine and discussed their work in the communities. Although they are only in their mid twenties, they had both been activists for more than half a decade. Gina had come to Chiapas first and drifted to Spain discovering Rodrigo in an allied group over there.

The rain kicked the ceiling as Tierra Dentro crowded up. A small group approached the table and Gina recognized the Spanish students she had briefed about their Chiapas target area. They were preparing to document their social work in the territory. My meeting with these two was too brief and really quite fortunate: Rodrigo was headed back to Spain and Gina was bound for Arizona to run with the White Mountain Apaches and Asian youth from her neighborhood in Philadelphia. Gina is attending the twenty-second annual run up sacred Mt Graham…Jumping Federal fences to get to the summit.

These two sober and serious workers contrasted to the idler and professionally festive Hostel mates. Jose a Mexican born translator deftly employed the desiderative mood. This snappy self-styled Mayanist had anchored the Hostel for almost two months and, in his late forties, he was the only other “senior” at the place. He and Jilted Joe spent days fiddling with their I-Pads, checking facts and drinking Tecates on the patio.

My bottom bunk was away from the patio and, once again, I had a 6 person dorm rooms to myself. This being the off-season, I found only felicitous exceptions -like Norma and the two skinny Argentine musicians who were added the morning of the Full Moon. After stuffed Portabello and chicken Milanese chase with a non descript white,I was reviewing the last of FaceBook when one of my roomies came in for his guitar. He offered to pour me a glass from his half gone bottle of Mezcal and introduced me to his new French friend, Arnold. For an hour or so staff and guests were singing and drinking under the “Thunder Road Moon.“ But because of quite rules at midnight, about ten of us went out for Mezcal and dancing at the Pura Vida… It was glorious to dance, again… I would have stayed forever if the shot glasses were not shattering so near my thin flip-flops. Feeling all wise and exalting, I watched the early morning moon ascend over Chiapas – through new my lenses.

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