Uh-May God! Visits to a Traditional Maya Village and the Sijil Noh Ha Lagoon to Begin the Week

Good evening from Felipe Carrillo Puerto! After such a hectic weekend, I thought that the beginning of this week would be a good time to settle back down. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve been extremely busy the last few days, and here’s what I’ve been up to:

On Monday, I returned to my five hour-straight Maya class. On that day, I learned at least 200 new words spanning adjectives of size, quality, and shape, and terms for different family members (much more descriptive than in English). When I returned home for the first time since Saturday, it came as a large shock to find two white rabbits sitting in my hammock. Immediately, I sought Javier and Jnorman to inquire, and it turned out that ;they are our two new pets. We came up with names, Captain Morgan for the female, and Sr. Jeremy for the male (Jnorman wanted Pinky, but Javier and I won the naming battle). However, Captain Morgan escaped from her cage on Monday night so only Jeremy is left now…

Jnorman's new best friend Senor Jeremy
Jnorman’s new best friend Senor Jeremy
I'm not even going to touch these jabañero peppers (the spiciest in the world) after what happened last time I tried...
I’m not even going to touch these jabañero peppers (the spiciest in the world) after what happened last time I tried…
My favorite tacqueria in town-- Monday's dinner
My favorite tacqueria in town– Monday’s dinner

Sr. Jeremy is really the first pet I’ve ever had, to be honest. And I really enjoy it, no matter how sharp his paws are when it crawls on my skin. Especially when Jnorman puts him inside my hammock when I’m sleeping at night!

On Tuesday, instead of the usual Maya class at Na’atik, I ventured with my teacher, x-Linda, to her native village of Uh-May. Unlike Felipe Carrillo Puerto, which is a (relatively) large town of 30,000, Uh-May only contains 600 inhabitants, all native Maya. While there, I practiced with x-Linda’s family the Mayan phrases I have been learning in class, and helped prepare the lunch of chicken pibil. Chicken pibil is a traditional Maya dish of chicken prepared by burying the chicken with its seasonings in a large hole in the ground, which enhances the flavor (the chicken is wrapped in banana leaves so it doesn’t become dirty). After lunch, I toured around the village and learned about traditional Maya beliefs regarding death, reincarnation, and medicine. We then returned to Carrillo, picking up tropical juices along the way home. Thank you x-Linda for inviting me to your family’s home!

The village of Uh-May
The village of Uh-May
My teacher x-Linda's house
My teacher x-Linda’s house
A traditional Mayan super-food, chaay is very similar to kale.
A traditional Mayan super-food, chaay is very similar to kale.
What happens when I try to make a tortilla. At least I ended up with a good chip!
What happens when I try to make a tortilla. At least I ended up with a good chip!
Unearthing the chicken pibil.
Unearthing the chicken pibil.
The chicken pibil. I helped make the onion sauce!
The chicken pibil. I helped make the onion sauce!

Today, I deviated from the schedule a little bit, and had Mayan class in the evening, instead of the morning as usual. Instead, I visited the Sijil Noh Ha lagoon. While there, I kayaked, snorkled, swam, and climbed a tower to catch an incredible view of the Yucatan jungle and the still water below me. What I found really interesting was the presence of an immensely deep hole, or cenote, right in the middle of the 6 or 7 foot deep lagoon. No monsters down there, however, to my disappointment.

The Sijil Noh Ha lagoon.
The Sijil Noh Ha lagoon.

After visiting the lagoon I returned to Mayan class to learn more grammar, specifically rules regarding negation and adverbs of place and time, and also how tonal changes affect the meaning of a sentence. Fascinating stuff.

Thanks for reading! My next update will be on Friday night. It will be a bittersweet one, as that is when I will be leaving my host family for the final time. It’s been a great trip so far and I honestly cannot believe how fast these last few weeks have flown by. Until then!

Bliss

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Uh-May God! Visits to a Traditional Maya Village and the Sijil Noh Ha Lagoon to Begin the Week

The Yucatan Peninsula in 36 Hours

Hey guys! Last week, I mentioned how action-packed and exhausting my weekend was. However, this week makes that totally pale in comparison. Visiting two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, trekking to the top of steep Mayan pyramids, and driving over 8 hours through backcountry roads through the jungle really winds you down.

Yesterday morning, at around 9 AM, my parents picked me up to set off towards Merida, a metropolis of over 1.2 million which is commonly regarded as the economic and cultural center of the peninsula. Along the way we saw many different attractions. First was the colonial town of Tekax. We stopped there for lunch nearby the massive cathedral, which was assembled out of the same limestone once part of Mayan ruins. Here’s a picture:

The Cathedral in Tekax
The Cathedral in Tekax

After a brief lunch of traditional Mayan specials such as the sopa de limon (shredded chicken and tortilla strips served in a sour lime broth) and the chicken pibil (chicken rubbed with an achiote paste wrapped inside a banana leaf), we exited the main highway and entered the scenic, yet extremely difficult to drive on and navigate “Ruta de Puuc.” The Puuc region is the only region of the Yucatan with any sort of hills, and it hosts 4 or 5 lesser known and scarcely visited Maya sites within a few kilometers of each other. Here’s a photo of the view from the road:

I'm really in the jungle now
I’m really in the jungle now

The first site we encountered and visited was Labna. We were the only visitors at the ruins, not surprisingly given the lack of visible signage. The site is notable for its triumphal arch and intricate palace. Also, we were allowed to walk on a traditional sacbe, or ceremonial elevated road, from one side of the site to another. Here are some photos:

Close detail of the main palace at Labna.
Close detail of the main palace at Labna.
The triumphal arch and unrestored pyramid at Labna
The triumphal arch and unrestored pyramid at Labna
The sacbe at Labna
The sacbe at Labna

Next was the second most powerful city-state in the Puuc region, Kabah (no, not related to the Muslim pilgrimage at Mecca). Much bigger and more triumphant than Labna, the site had more visitors. I was able to climb up into the temples and navigate unrestricted through the different passageways and balconies. At this site were the first Maya sculptures and hieroglyphic inscriptions encountered on this trip. Here are some photos:

Labna
Kabah
View of the Temple of the Masks, named for the hundreds of Chaac masks which cover its facade
View of the Temple of the Masks, named for the hundreds of Chaac masks which cover its facade
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View from the balcony behind the Temple of the Masks

However, we were not able to see a large chunk of Kabah and two whole other sites because it was already approaching 4:00, the time when the gates to Uxmal close. Uxmal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was one of the most powerful cities of the Maya and is now one of the most significant archaeological finds in the peninsula. Less crowded than its glitzy counterpart Chichen Itza (which I will cover later in this post) but equally as impressive, the ruins seemed almost empty when we arrived an hour before closing. I really enjoyed these ruins because they allowed you to ascend the pyramids, walk through the original gates, and explore the settlement rather than keeping you on a single path weaving around the buildings. Here are my photos (it was very difficult to select these from the many excellent views offered at the site):

The Pyramid of the Magicians at Uxmal greets visitors as they enter the site
The Pyramid of the Magicians at Uxmal greets visitors as they enter the site
Detail of the top of the pyramid.
Detail of the top of the pyramid.
The Quadrangle of the Nuns (reminds me of Exeter's quads)
The Quadrangle of the Nuns (reminds me of Exeter’s quads)
The stairs of the other, Great Pyramid. A good workout for the legs.
The stairs of the other, Great Pyramid. A good workout for the legs.
The climb was well worth the wonderful view of the ruins and the surrounding jungle.
The climb was well worth the wonderful view of the ruins and the surrounding jungle.

After Uxmal, we drove to Merida to spend the night. However, we did not stay there for long, waking up at 8 AM in the morning today to set off for our next round of sight-seeing.

As we were leaving Merida this morning, we happened to make a wrong turn and ended up in front of a surprisingly modern and rather intriguing building. At first it seemed to be a stadium or some sort of fancy movie theatre. However, once we approached further, we discovered that it was the “Gran Museo del Mondo Maya,” which held many exhibits dedicated to Maya history, achievements, and culture. Their collection of artifacts, ranging from stelae made in the Yucatan thousands of years ago to contemporary Mayan handicrafts, was absolutely stunning and an unexpected surprise. While there, I tried to practice my Mayan skills by trying to decipher the Mayan descriptions of the exhibits (at very least I could pronounce them correctly!).

The sleek exterior of the museum.
The sleek exterior of the museum.
Can't read these... yet...
Can’t read these… yet…
A facsimile of the Dresden Codex, one of the three known remaining Maya books not burned by the Spanish during the conquest of the Yucatan
A facsimile of the Dresden Codex, one of the three known remaining Maya books not burned by the Spanish during the conquest of the Yucatan
My birthdate in the Mayan calendar.
My birthdate in the Mayan calendar.

After we left the museum, we set off towards Chichen Itza, one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World and another UNESCO World Heritage site. It is not enough to say there were many tourists. Once the most powerful Maya city state in the Yucatan during the Post-Classical Era, the city exhibits significant Toltec (a warlike people from Central Mexico) influence in its architecture, religious tradition, and ritual.The place was absolutely swamped with tourists, guides, and vendors trying to sell everything from Golden State Warriors themed Maya masks to toy whistles that made dinosaur sounds (a common sound throughout the park). Despite the crowds, however, the site was well worth a visit; it wasn’t named a Wonder for nothing. I will never forget the first view of El Castillo, the main pyramid in the complex.

No words necessary
No words necessary
The Observatory, used by the Maya to make remarkably accurate mappings more precise than those of the Europeans at time of first contact.
The Observatory, used by the Maya to make remarkably accurate mappings more precise than those of the Europeans at time of first contact.
This building was once a school for the sons of the prominent inhabitants of the city. Exeter's Academy Building should look like this.
This building was once a school for the sons of the prominent inhabitants of the city. Exeter’s Academy Building should look like this.
The Ball Court used to play the Mesoamerican Ball Game, in which teams of seven used their hips, knees, elbows, and chest to keep a 3-kilo rubber ball in the air and hit it through a hoop. It is unclear and still debated whether it was the winning or losing captain sacrificed to the gods.
The Ball Court used to play the Mesoamerican Ball Game, in which teams of seven used their hips, knees, elbows, and chest to keep a 3-kilo rubber ball in the air and hit it through a hoop. It is unclear and still debated whether it was the winning or losing captain sacrificed to the gods.

After Chichen Itza, it is fair to say that we had had our share of ruins for the weekend. We drove back to Tulum and took in a little more beach time. Tomorrow morning I will be taking a taxi back to Carrillo to start my last week of Maya class— I can’t believe how quickly these last two weeks have passed! Although I’ll reflect more in a future post, it’s really been a life-changing experience so far on so many levels, and I wish I could stay longer. Here’s to one more week!

My next update will be on Wednesday. Thanks for reading!

Bliss

The Yucatan Peninsula in 36 Hours

Taan In Xookiik Ma’aya T’aan Na’atik… Sansaamal!

Hey guys!

What an exhausting week! I’m proud to say that, at the halfway point of my stay here, my trip is currently in full stride and has been a huge success so far. Thank you all for keeping up with my page!

This week in Mayan class, I have mainly focused on learning more vocabulary, especially those words and concepts which relate to life in the Yucatan. And so, every day, I have been memorizing over 100 new words spanning such wonderful concepts from tropical fruit to different types of moths. I find it very interesting how many different words the language has for “lizard” and “bean” while having names for only a few colors such as “white, black, red, and  blue,” expressing all the other colors using compounds of those. I’ve also explored the Mayan number system, which differs from that of English significantly because it is vigesimal and not decimal (base 20 instead of base 10). However, this won’t be of much use around the house and in the markets, because most Maya only count to 5 in Mayan and then switch to Spanish, only using the Mayan numbers in certain ritual performances. In general, what I’ve found is that Spanish has exerted heavy influence on Mayan, to the point where words borrowed from Spanish are gradually replacing traditionally Mayan words. This seems to have occurred in several areas of the lexicon, ranging from numbers, as mentioned above, to fruit, and especially to concepts introduced to the Maya from outside cultures.

Other than vocabulary, I have learned more of Yucatec’s interesting grammatical features this week. Last week, I mentioned how Mayan articles and numbers change depending on whether the nouns they are modifying are living or non living. However, since then, I have learned that this is not the only distinction. Different “classifiers” (the element which changes within the article numeral), can be used to change the meaning of a noun. For example “jun p’eel ja’as” means “one banana,” “jun kuul ja’as” means “one banana tree,” “jun chuuy ja’as” means “a bunch of bananas,” and “jan kuuch ja’as” means “a large bunch of bananas.” There are over fifteen of these classifiers still in use, not to mention dozens more that are considered archaic, which count various things such as large branches of trees, periods of 20 years, and specific objects that are very wide and thin.

Outside of class, I have continued to bond with my host family. One activity spent together was my host brother Javier’s graduation from escuela secondaria (roughly the equivalent of an American middle school). The only American at the event, I found it very different from a typical graduation in the United States, and therefore quite fascinating. Besides the typical school principal reading out the names, there was also a mariachi band and five minutes of traditional Mexican dancing. Javier, in addition to receiving his diploma, happened to be one of the dancers! After the graduation, we ordered pizza from Domino’s. Here are some pictures. I have tons of video but WordPress isn’t letting me upload it now… I’ll try later.

Homemade tortillas!
Homemade tortillas!
Finally got this guy to sit still for once
Finally got this guy to sit still for once
My host family (minus Señor and Sandra)
My host family (minus Señor and Sandra)
Congrats Javier on the graduation!
Congrats Javier on the graduation!

My next update will be on Sunday night. For a sneak peek, I will be venturing this weekend to Merida, the largest city in the Yucatan peninsula and 12th largest in Mexico, and the nearby archaeological site of Uxmal, one of the most important Maya ruins still existing and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Until then! Sorry for the late update this week!

Bliss

Taan In Xookiik Ma’aya T’aan Na’atik… Sansaamal!

Hasta Mañana

Hey guys! I have my current update all ready but the signal here at home isn’t strong enough to attach the photos and videos (we just endured a huge storm which knocked out our wifi all afternoon until now). I’ll upload tomorrow when I’m at school with a stronger connection. Until then!

Sorry,
Bliss

Hasta Mañana

Weekend Excursion to Tulum

Hey guys!

What a weekend! Because I only have my Maya class on weekdays, this past weekend, my host brother Javier and I decided to venture to a beach town named Tulum, one hour away from Felipe Carrillo Puerto, with my parents, who were staying there for the weekend.

First, on the way to Tulum, we stopped at a small, lesser-known set of Mayan ruins known as Muyil. Barely a small dot on my road map, the site actually houses one of the best preserved Mayan pyramids, built in the Peten style, in Quintana Roo. Also there is another pyramid, a temple, and much more stone and rock hidden under layers of palm trees, waiting to be excavated. Here is a photo of the main pyramid:

The main pyramid at Muyil.
The main pyramid at Muyil.

Next, we stopped at the Cenote Dos Osos. A cenote, one of the geological formations of the Yucatan peninsula, is a sinkhole which exposes the groundwater underneath the limestone bedrock shelf. The Ancient Maya used cenotes as an important source of water, and regarded them as sacred. This particular cenote was developed into a pool-like facility, with diving platforms, tightropes, and slides. Here’s a photo of me diving (excuse my form, I guess I can cross Olympic diving of my bucket-list):

Guess I'm not a diver
Guess I’m not a diver

After a week of home-cooked Mexican food, it was a welcome relief to go to a local Italian restaurant for lunch and an Argentine steakhouse for dinner in Tulum. The food was absolutely amazing, so amazing to the point that I ate too much and became sick later in the night…

However, I have not yet mentioned Tulum’s two main attractions. This morning, Javier and I visited the Maya ruins of Tulum. Ancient Tulum, known as Zama (Dawn) by its Maya inhabitants, was a walled city on the Yucatan coast that served as an important trading center and port in the region. And, thus, it was one of the first Maya cities sighted by the Spanish explorers in the early 16th century. Today, the ruins are famous for their marvelous scenery— ancient temples upon jagged cliffs overhanging a white sand beach and the turquoise Caribbean Sea. Although there were many tourists, as typical for many sites on the Maya Riviera, we managed to take a few photos without too many people in the way:

A protected zone for archaeology AND turtles!
A protected zone for archaeology AND turtles!
The main building of the Tulum site
The main building of the Tulum site
Featuring random tourist guy
Featuring a random tourist person

After the ruins, we stopped at the beach to take a quick dip in the water. Even for me, a part-time Florida resident, the water was exceedingly clear and warm. We could only stay for about 20 minutes, however, before we had to catch our cab back to Carrillo.

Typical Caribbean bliss.
Typical Caribbean bliss.

Although Tulum was a lot of fun, I’m glad to be back in Carrillo, sitting in the little thatched hut behind my family’s store, watching TV with all my delightfully restless siblings. Off to another week of Maya class!

My next update will be on either Wednesday or Thursday. Until then!

Bliss

Weekend Excursion to Tulum

Ba’ax? Qué? What?

Greetings from Felipe Carrillo Puerto! Sorry for the lateness of this first post; I’ve been enjoying life in Mexico so much that I haven’t even taken my computer out until now!

First of all, my host family, the Pat Cocam family, has been extraordinarily welcoming, kind, and helpful. We live in a house on the outskirts of town, right next to the jungle. Just next to the house is a store which everyone from the family, even the small children, helps to operate. At night, we hang out, share some snacks, and watch television around a fire in a small shack behind the store. As an only child coming from a rather small family, sharing a home with so many people has been quite an exciting adjustment. My host father, Señor Pat Cocam, is a policeman, and my host mother, Señora Pat Cocam, helps out around the house and store. I also have four siblings: two brothers, Javier (15) and Jnorman (4), and two sisters, Yadira (17) and Sandra (9). We’ve already done so much together, whether it be going to the local pool, riding the moped to the grocery store across town, adventuring into the jungle just outside of our house, or watching Disney movies in Spanish. At this point, we are communicating mostly in Spanish, largely because I do not know enough Mayan to initiate a detailed conversation yet. Only Javier speaks English, but I’m trying to resort to that as little as possible. My family always makes an effort to help me out with both Spanish and Maya, no matter how many times I have to say “Que?” “Como se dice ___ en español?” or “Yo no comprendo.” It’s exciting as ever to have siblings and a large family, and, even though it is not easy to communicate, I feel as if I understand all of them very well already, after only three days.

Every day, I bike 15 minutes across town to the Na’atik Instituto de Lenguas y Culturas for my five-hour Mayan lesson. Mayan, although extremely difficult, is very fun to learn. Not to mention, my teacher, x-Linda, does not speak English, so I have to think in Spanish, of which my knowledge is at best mediocre, and Mayan at the same time. From a linguistic standpoint, Mayan is very different from anything I have ever encountered before and therefore highly interesting. For example, there are different ways to conjugate a verb in the present tense depending if the verb takes an object or not. “I’m studying” is translated “Teene’ taan in xook,” but “I’m studying Mayan” is translated “Teene’ taan in xookiik ma’aya t’aan.” Also, numbers differ depending on whether they are modifying humans or inanimate objects. “One dog” is “jun túul peek’,” but “one house” is “jun p’eel naj.” As you can see in the examples I’ve given, the pronunciation is very difficult for English speakers too. However, x-Linda always finds ways to spice up the tedious verb conjugations, complicated pronouns, and extremely foreign vocabulary of the Mayan language. Today, for example, we made a cube with different colors and question words on each side to learn (you guessed it!) colors and question words. When she rolled the cube, I would have to say the color or ask a question using the word on the face which showed. Nevertheless, the challenge is extremely satisfying, and I’m really looking forward to diving into further depth these next few weeks.

Lastly, the food has been excellent. Although not what is typically regarded as “Mexican food,” I have thoroughly enjoyed every last meal, whether it be “kaax yeetel arroz” (chicken with rice), or “baak’ yeetel buul beyxan waj” (beef with beans and tortilla). Tonight, I’m going to a taqueria with the staff from Na’atik. I hope to order in Maya!

Here are some photos from the last few days:

It took a ten minute trek through the jungle to see this field. It was worth all of the mosquito and ant bites!
It took a ten minute trek through the jungle to see this field. It was worth all of the mosquito and ant bites!
A little survey to fill out about myself.
A little survey to fill out about myself for homework tonight.
What I ride to school every day.
What I ride to school every day.
He's honestly one of the cutest kids I've ever seen.
Jnorman’s honestly one of the cutest kids I’ve ever seen.
I love how colorful the buildings are here!
I love how colorful the buildings are here in downtown Felipe Carrillo Puerto!
One of at least ten pages of conjugations I've learned. And it's only day 3 of Mayan class!
One of at least ten pages of conjugations I’ve learned. And it’s only day 3 of Mayan class!
My home for the next three weeks.
“Mi casa” for the next three weeks.
The store my family operates.
The store my family operates.
Quesadillas con Queso y Jamon
Quesadillas con Queso y Jamon
I'll take this over a Harkness table to be honest.
My classroom. I’ll take this over a Harkness table, to be honest.

My next update will be on Sunday night. Thanks for reading!

-Bliss

Ba’ax? Qué? What?

Xíiktech Uutsil! (Bon Voyage!)

Hello! ¡Hola! Ba’ax ka wa’alik!

Thank you for taking the time to check out my blog. I will be using this page to provide a day-to-day account of my trip to the Yucatán over the next month with posts, pictures, video, and more. Hope you enjoy it!

As many of you know, my main academic passion is the study of the Classical languages, history, literature, and culture. However, ever since I was a child, I have also been fascinated by the lesser-studied, yet still significant, Maya civilization. Now shrouded in dense tropical jungle, the Maya city-states such as Chichen-Itza, Tikal, Copan, Palenque, and Uxmal once controlled a region encompassing the entire Yucatan peninsula and Guatemalan highlands. Interacting with the other Mesoamerican societies, they accomplished spectacular feats, including but not limited to: advanced knowledge in mathematics and astronomy, the only documented writing system in Pre-Columbian America, and a complex religious, mythological, and cosmological tradition. When the Spaniards arrived in the Yucatan in 1517, they were indeed amazed by the splendor and sophistication of the culture they discovered.

However, these explorers from the East, originally prophesized by the Maya to be gods arriving from a distant land, were to spell certain doom for this civilization. Conquistadores from Spain arrived in many waves, forcing their Catholic religion on the locals, whom they perceived as non-Christian “infidels,” and toppling each of the Maya city-states with the support of thousands of resentful native allies. Even more crippling to the Maya was the arrival of Old World diseases such as smallpox and measles, to which they had no resistance; over 90% of the indigenous Maya population was eliminated through those means.  However, the Maya resisted fiercely and refused to capitulate to Spanish rule; only in 1697, after nearly two centuries of fighting, were the last remaining Maya strongholds in the Petén basin defeated.

Nevertheless, unbeknownst to much of the world, the Maya people still endure to this very day. Millions of Maya still live in the regions once controlled by their ancestors and speak their traditional languages. Preserving many of their cultural institutions, they form a very distinct element of Mexican and Central American culture.

Tomorrow morning, I will be setting off at 7:59 AM from New York’s LaGuardia Airport via Atlanta and Cancún to Felipe Carrillo Puerto, a small town in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula inhabited mostly by Maya. Carrying with me only a limited knowledge of Spanish and even less of Yucatec, the local Mayan language, I will be living with a Maya family who will not speak English, and I will be one of very few Americans in the town. My goals there are twofold: first, to learn and explore the linguistic structures of the Yucatec language (which, by the way, is wildly different from any traditionally studied language) through daily classes at the Na’atik Instituto de Lenguas y Culturas, and, second, to evaluate the current standing of the Mayan language in the region and determine if it is in danger. I plan to write a research paper after my return home to present my findings. Throughout the last few weeks, I have been preparing for this trip by learning as much Spanish as my brain could process and reading through many books about the Maya, their history, and their language. I know I’ll end up learning much more when I’m actually there.

I’m really looking forward to immersing myself in an indigenous culture extremely foreign to and, sadly, largely unappreciated in the United States. The opportunity to dive into a new community and forge new transnational relationships and cultural understandings is truly remarkable. I hope to represent Exeter, New York City, and America well through these new relationships, and, in addition to learning about Maya culture, to expand my new friends’ knowledge of American culture and tradition.

Deep stuff. Don’t worry, my next updates are sure to be more lighthearted and fun. I look forward to sharing my experiences with you. Thanks for reading!

Until later, hasta luego, and taak ulak k’iin!

Xíiktech Uutsil! (Bon Voyage!)