Four weeks ago I had the privilege of ending that drought along with three of my students by traveling to México City (part 1 appears in the March 15, 2006 issue of La Prensa) and the Yucatán Peninsula (which appears below).
Our flight departed from México City (D.F.) for Mérida, México early on the morning of Monday, February 20, 2006. While I wished I could have stayed longer in El D.F., I was excited to discover what adventures were ahead.
Mérida is the capital of the state of the Yucatán, in southern México. Our guide Delio Aguilar, sporting a guayabera and a smile, greeted us as we exited the terminal. As we made our way to the bus, the heat and humidity engulfed us.
The tropical climate was quite a contrast from the arid Valle de México. Upon leaving the airport we went directly to a small Mayan village.
As our tour bus entered the pueblito of about 1,000 people, the faces of children lining the road lit up with excitement. The children smiled and waved at us.
I was taken aback by their reaction, which seemed to be their way of saying welcome and thank you for coming.
Our first stop was an ancient church attached to a small museum. The museum housed an ancient Mayan tomb, various artifacts, and three mummified bodies of unknown origin.
After visiting the museum we entered the church—in contrast to those that toured in El D.F., this church was very simple. We were allowed to climb to the roof to get a good view of the area.
In order to get to the roof we had to scale a very narrow, spiral staircase, that was obviously not made for anyone over 5’5”.
Once on top the view was spectacular and the flat, green, and lush landscape stretched for miles. After we soaked up the stimulating beauty of our new environment we headed back down and began walking to our next point of interest.
There was a reason that we visited this particular village—Delio, our guide, had friends who resided there. The familia, who were of Mayan descent, allowed us into their home to see how they lived. This was probably the experience that had the greatest impact on the students and myself.
As we approached the gate of the domicile, an elderly man whose face was worn from the sun and years of labor greeted us. He was Don José, the patriarch of the family. He led us into the first of three small thatch-roof huts.
The first thing I noticed was there were no closing doors. There were two large poles that spanned the width of the hut that held the hammocks; traditional Mayans prefer to sleep in hammocks rather than beds. The next hut held a tiny woman seated making corn tortillas over a wood fire on the ground; she had silver hair twisted back into majestic braids.
This hut served the kitchen and dining area. The smell of the fresh tortillas was more than I could bear, and I jumped at her offer for us to taste them. They were delicious!
We continued out into the yard where there were various fruit trees, corn, pigs, and chickens. All that they needed to sustain themselves they had right there. I could sense that the students were as deeply impacted by the simplicity of this family’s lifestyle.
Waite senior Smantha York reflected back upon the experience by saying, “I know that there are people all over the world who live like that, but seeing it first-hand made it real to me.
“I realized that everything I have at home I took for granted and when I got back I looked at everything in a totally different way.”
Her sister Nicole York shared her thoughts about how despite not having a lot of material things the people we encountered in México seemed happy, “They bring out all of the positives that they want in life without stressing over every little thing or taking life itself for granted. They [seemed to have] learned how to love life for what it is.”
Lastly, Justin Spann shared that the thing that had the greatest impact on him during the trip was, “How much the people had to do just to survive and get through everyday life, things that we take for granted everyday.”
After visiting the la familia maya we boarded the bus and headed for Uxmal, a Mayan archeological site. The ruins were very different from those we encountered previously.
The pyramids were constructed from limestone rather than lava rock; the area surrounding the ruins were green with dense vegetation. While the pyramids were considerably smaller than those located at Teotihuacán, they were equally impressive.
The Yucatán lacks a natural fresh water source. There are no lakes, rivers, or springs to provide the most essential ingredient for the existence of living creatures. As a result, the Maya depended solely upon the heavens to grant them sustenance of life. It is no surprise then that the most important god in the Mayan religion was Chac, the rain god.
Almost every edifice in Uxmal bore the image of this vital deity. The entire compound of Uxmal was vastly incredible. It wasn’t until we climbed a pyramid, that we were able to appreciate the expanse of the once viable city. From ground level, the flat terrain and thick foliage concealed the true size of Uxmal.
After touring the area, we enjoyed a refreshing dip the pool and a great meal at a hotel near the ruins, before heading to the hotel near downtown Mérida.
The next day, we ate breakfast at the hotel and journeyed to Chichen Itza, one the most significant of the ancient Mayan cities. The sights were phenomenal—from the majestic ball court, which once was the realm for el juego de pelota.
It is still a mystery whether the captain of the winning or losing team was sacrificed. To the incredible central temple pyramid that dominates the landscape and echoes from its primary entrance down to the land below where the masses once gathered to hear their leaders speak.
Another point of interest at Chichen Itza is the observatory, the oldest of its kind in the Americas. The Mayans were masters of astronomy; they utilized the movements of the stars and celestial bodies to create the most precise calendar ever known.
The observatory was no doubt a crucial tool in the precise calculations of the solar systems that served as the pulse in many aspects of Maya life.
El Templo Guerrero was a tributary structure constructed to honor the warriors of this wondrous civilization. Adorned by images of Mayan warriors, it served as a gateway to the road of pillars that lead up to its base. It has been determined that some of the roads, or caminos, leaving Chichen Itza reach as far away as Guatemala.
The final stop is the mysterious cenote or sinkhole on the edge of the city. It served as a place of sacrifice to Chac. Those chosen few were bound and cast into el cenote to appease the gods, a tradition believed to be adopted from los Mexica (Aztecs).
In an ironic twist our next stop on the tour was another cenote; however, this one was used for recreational purposes rather than sacrificial. The water was cool and clean, and vines stretched from the massive entrance above down to the water.
After I jumped from the sixteen foot cliff into the water, I floated on my back staring upward at the sky, it was utopian feeling. We then finished swimming, ate dinner, and headed toward Playa del Carmen.
Playa del Carmen, known by the locals as Playa Car, is located in the Mexican State of Quintana Roo, the newest in México. The area also is the location of the very popular Cancún, which is located about forty-five miles north of Playa Car.
We stayed at a luxurious resort and the entire area can be described literally as a Caribbean paradise, given that is on the coast of the Caribbean Sea rather than the Gulf of México. The beaches were drenched with white sand and splashed with crystal blue water.
A particularly memorable moment was when the students and I went down to the beach at night. The moon and the stars shone so bright that the glare off of the ocean almost hurt your eyes to look at.
For Samantha this was her most memorable experience, “Standing on the beach at night looking at the beautiful sky with the moon reflecting on the water. It was the most beautiful thing I have seen and I know it meant a lot for us to be standing on the beach looking at the Caribbean Sea; because where we come from many people don’t travel often because they don’t have a lot of money.”
These type sentiments are the reason that I chose to embark on such an endeavor with my students. Hearing those words from them made all of the work to organize the trip worthwhile.
After a long trip, averaging five miles a day, we decided to spend our last day relaxing on the beach. Justin and Nicole were adventurous and went para-sailing, while Samantha and I watched from below. It was truly a remarkable ending to a glorious journey.
I plan on traveling every two years with students. Due to the high costs of travel, we are always looking for support from the community.
With the continued backing of the Waite High School and TPS administration and that of the community, I know that together we will make this dream a reality for more students in 2008.