To make creative use of the involuntary waiting time, Isa starts doing push-ups on the crossing. The second car in half an hour has just roared past us, ignoring our hitchhiking signs. Jungle sounds fill the hot air, and in a short distance a group of about 20 coatis (dog-sized animals that look like a mixture between monkey and rodent) are traversing the road. We are far off all public transport on the turnoff to Xlapak, one of the sites on the Ruta Puuc sightseeing circuit, a handful of minor Mayan ruins in Yucatán.
Sightseeing on the Ruta Puuc
We have spent the day touring the archaeological sites, trying to discern the peculiarities of the Puuc style: It involves double-headed serpents, statues of seated rulers, and stone mosaics covering the façades of official building like tapestries. Most conspicuous are the stacks of deity heads with great snouts. Early explorers and travellers read them as elephant trunks and speculated that the Mayas must have had help from the Egyptians in building their pyramids, while scholars today usually refer to them as Chak, or “rain god” masks, for lack of a better explanation.
A drawn-out noise announces another car, but it is only a vegetable truck going in the wrong direction. Before we came to Mexico, ancient Mesoamerican culture consisted of Aztecs and Mayas. The Aztecs were famous because they had still been around when the Spanish conquerors arrived, who wrote detailed reports especially about grizzly human sacrifices. The Mayas were earlier, but had also developed a complex culture (we have once visited an exhibition about Mayan cocoa vessels). The finer distinctions between the two, we thought, we would learn during our travel. But it turned out that not much is left of Aztec architecture – their capital Tenochtitlan was thoroughly destroyed and is now Mexico City, again one of the largest cities in the world. Instead, Olmeks, Totonaks and Mixtecs appeared on our historical map, and several peoples and cultures only known by the names of their long-buried capitals: Teotihuacan, El Tajin, Monte Alban… The Mayas, in turn, consisted of numerous different groups with a wide range of artistic styles and cultural conventions spread out over hundreds of years and a wide area.
A pre-Hispanic ball game
The only thing all these cultures seem to have in common is the ball game. At all archaeological sites there is at least one identifiable ball court, in some of them even four or five (up to 19 in El Tajin). Size, outlay and decoration of the court as well as the position of the goal rings vary greatly, and it is assumed that the game was never played for leisure, but for ritual reasons. The defeated players were usually sacrificed to the gods, and the ruler quite often had to take part in the game. “A good ruler must also be a good ball player,” goes an old Mayan saying.
The Mexican middle class
More noise from the road. This time a white sedan stops. The young Mexican couple invites us to join the mother-in-law on the back bench. “Which of the ruins are more interesting,” they ask, “Sayil or Kabah?” We recommend Kabah for the impressive “House of Masks”, where hundreds of Chac masks carpet the whole façade, and Sayil for the romantic setting in dense jungle. They decide for Kabah, and the mother-in-law chuckles “No more romantico,” she mutters. All three of them understand English and are happy to show it off. Living in Guadalajara, one of the colonial towns in the north, it is the first time they visit tropical Yucatán. “A friend has lent us his house at the coast, plus his car,” the woman explains to us. “We couldn’t say no!” She is wearing a pink polo-shirt and a pink baseball-cap, both with anti-breast cancer emblems. The family belongs to the Americanized middle-class, who profits from the economic relations with the northern neighbour, while especially the indegenas, most of them peasants in the southern countryside, are depressingly poor.
Detecting differences elsewhere
The counter is smeared with blue ink. An old man in a clean chequered shirt is pressing his thumb on a receipt and then waits patiently to receive a few bank notes. He has already been waiting for over an hour, in the queue for “customers without a bank account”. Most of the clients in this queue are indegenas. They receive small amounts of money, presumably from family members who managed to get a job in the city or even to cross the border to the US. At 1.60 m, Isa (in the same line waiting to change money) is not used to seeing more than shoulders in a crowd, but in this densely-packed corner of the bank she can look over the heads of practically everyone around, whatever their age or sex. On the other hand, the “customers with a bank account” and “premium customers” queues as well as the ATM corner are full of people who are on average about 20 cm taller.
The queues in the bank are illustrative of the gap between the wealthy middle-classes from the city (or the super-rich whom we don’t even see) and the peasants from the villages. While we found supermarkets, malls and flashy consumer goods in most parts of Mexico, the villagers often have to rely on one or two small shops, where no fresh vegetables and fruits are available, and even the rotten apples and carrots are much overpriced. People eat maize, beans, eggs, and cabbage, and it is no wonder that they don’t grow tall and that most of them look much older than they presumably are.
We have crossed the Usumacinta River into Guatemala three days ago. Although the rainy season should be over by now, it has rained almost continuously for the last two days. At the first impression Guatemala is poorer than Mexico, but also more colourful. The people appear more outgoing and curious, and we hope for a further improvement of our Spanish.