Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane


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Mayan mysteries

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The Jungle site of Palenque.

Every July the excellent University of the Third Age, which works to make sure we “third agers” don’t lose our marbles too quickly, puts on a Winter School series of lectures. One in the current series was particularly timely for me: the legacy of the Aztecs and Mayans. With my recent adventures in Mesoamerica still fresh a blog post on the marvellous Mayans was to be next cab off the rank so a refresher on their cultural achievements was welcome.

The Mayans have suffered a long-term image problem not helped by Mel Gibson’s 2006 film Apocalypto. Yes, they were fierce warriors and their practices included human sacrifices, but they were also sophisticated craftspeople, gifted mathematicians, brilliant astronomers, and wily merchants who enjoyed a well-developed cultural life. Our lecturer described them as the Greeks of the Americas. They had a written language and books. At its zenith, in the classic period from around 300 to 900 AD, Mayan civilisation consisted of about 50 city states with several million citizens across today’s Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize.

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Aspects of the Uxmal site, near Merida in the Yucatan Peninsula. 

The Mayans had a sophisticated lifestyle. They bathed frequently, up to four times a day, and were very into body decoration including paint and tattooing. Women played an important role in society. Flattened heads and foreheads, and cross eyes, were regarded as signs of beauty. Apparently to achieve the cross eyes a stone would be tied around a baby’s forehead so that it hung in front of the eyes, thus encouraging the infant to look cross-eyed at the bauble. Mmmm….

In their busy economic lives the Mayans used contracts and credit and extended loans to clients in trading deals. They had a currency system. They presided over a healthy trade in salt, quetal feathers, obsidian, cotton, textiles, vanilla and high quality clay. It’s from the Mayans that we have the words chocolate – from chocol’ha – and cacao – from ka’kau’. Jade was prized.  They used chewing gum.

Religion, based on their highly developed astronomy skills, played an all-encompassing role in Mayan culture and daily life. Their skills in mathematics enabled the development of astronomy. As early as the first century BC they had developed the concept of zero, and evidence exists of their working in sums to the hundreds of millions and producing accurate astronomical observations using no instruments other than sticks. They were able to measure the length of the solar year to a high level of accuracy.

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The amazing observatory at Chichen Itza.

Earlier this year a 15-year-old Canadian schoolboy used the Mayan astrological charts to pinpoint a hidden temple complex in the Yucatan jungle he named K’aak Chi, or Mouth of Fire.  William Gadoury from Quebec studied the astrological charts as well as satellite photos to locate the city after devising a theory that the Mayans built their cities so they lined up with star constellations.

All this Mayan collective cultural memory and invaluable knowledge went up in flames on when the Spanish Fransciscian priest Diego de Landa destroyed their books on the Night of the Fires in the late 1590s in the Yucatan Peninsula.  Only four original Maya books, or codices, survive. The full extent of Mayan knowledge is hard to determine because of this thorough destruction.

An interesting – and obvious – point made by our presenter was that the Mayans, an estimated six million, are still with us today, happily represented by the colourful folk busily selling their craft wares in markets across the region. Or just ordinary citizens living their everyday lives in these countries. The Mayan language is the basis of many of the more-than 40 dialects spoken as first languages across Mexico, one of the hurdles that has to be jumped to bring universal education across the country.

Our travels through Mexico took us to Mayan sites in Monte Alban, near Oaxaca, a Yucatan Peninsula sites in the jungle at Palenque, and the amazing Chichen Itza, thought to have been the centre of the Mayan empire.

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Views of Chichen Itza, thought to be have been the centre of the Mayan Empire, one of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico. 


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Louisiana blues

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The mighty Mississippi flows  through Baton Rouge. 

Tragedy takes on a different demeanour when the location is familiar. The anonymous gains structures, streets, parks and people. Such is the tragedy in Baton Rouge, the capital of Louisiana State, one of the stops on my Mojo Triangle odyssey through the American south late last year. My memory of Baton Rouge, the state’s capital and second largest city, whose name recalls the French heritage of this region, is of the mighty Mississippi gliding silently and authoritatively through, and an impressive State legislature building overlooking the city. It’s hard to imagine the turmoil now rocking this pleasant town in the wake of the shooting of African American Alton Stirling, or street riots, tear gas and over 100 arrests of protesters taking part in a Black Lives Matter march. These are true Louisiana blues. 

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The impressive State Legislature building. 

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Looking down on the gardens from the State Legislature building tower. 


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Let them eat cake

Strolling along the Centro Historico’s Avenue 16 de Septiembre, named for Mexico’s independence day, not far from the amazing Mercado de San Juan Pugibet where you can buy everything from gourmet imported cheeses and Asian greens to a weird selection of exotic meats including lion and skunk, we stumbled across what from the outside looked like a wedding cake shop. On entering we came face to face with one of the greatest arrays of cakes, pastries and biscuits we all agreed we had ever seen. Welcome to the Pasteleria Ideal, a place which, rather Hotel California-like, you can check out anytime you like but you can never (willingly) leave – or leave empty-handed.

The idea is that customers take one of their big trays, then wander around piling it up with whatever takes their fancy from the superabundance of sweet treats, then head to the cashier to pay the bill for an amount described by some impressed online reviewers as “miniscule”. From a quick check of the TripAdvisor site I selected the following impressions from three pages of rave reviews….”Is there anywhere in the world a more impressive bakery?”; “This bakery has everything you could ask for”; “You can smell this beautiful bakery before you see it!”; “A gourmand’s heaven”; “This huge place packed at almost every hour of the day.”

On seeing these pictures again I’m wondering at our restraint in walking out of Pasteleria Ideal with only one pastry apiece to eat with our coffee.

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Behind closed doors

Mexico City is not only vast population-wise, it’s just short of Melbourne in land area but with more traffic chaos. So visitors who love strolling around the sights rather than looking out a bus window either need to allocate a lengthy stay or choose their tourism targets carefully.  Our week in Mexico City hardly scratched the surface but those areas we did hot-foot it around yielded rich rewards. On the way from the studio shared by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to the famed Blue House, Frida’s family home and now a museum commemorating her life and work, we walked through the elegant San Angel neighbourhood and past rows of classy homes with impressive gates behind which the wealth reside. Here’s a selection.

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