Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What Will Become of the Mayans?

Cruisers stepping off the Carnival Pride in Costa Maya are greeted by "authentic" Mayan dancers like these folks.  Unfortunately about the only authentic thing is the Ocellated Turkey feathers they dress themselves in.



Arrival at a cruise port, no matter if it’s the first time you have been there or the fifteenth, is always met with anticipation and excitement.  Usually those of us in balcony rooms are seated in our deck chairs with a cup of coffee as we watch the destination slowly become larger on the horizon.  Those not fortunate enough to have chosen a balcony are usually down on the Promenade Deck hanging over the rail, watching wherever it is grow larger in their eyes.  Travelers who have been there before pontificate on what to see and what to avoid, while first timers nod in agreement, say “uh huh” a lot, and act like there are the seasoned traveler with whom they are agreeing.

As the destination gets closer the decks come alive with activity as ship’s crew prepares to secure the ship to the port.  Hatches are opened, flags are dropped, and lines are shot ashore as the Captain or one of his minions slowly eases the gigantic ship sideways barely touching the pier as it arrives.  As many times as I have watched an arrival I remain awestruck by how those people in charge of the ship are able to take something weighing 18 million pounds before people entered it, and ease it to the edge of a pier as if it weighed only ounces.

Safely secured to the pier the “Local Officials” we always hear about in pre-arrival announcements come onboard and do whatever local officials do on a ship.  Once their formalities are complete, an announcement is made that it’s safe to go ashore and everyone who has been sitting in a balcony chair or hanging over the rail of the Promenade Deck, races for the gangway and their first step on the pier.


A gigantic Mexican flag and lines of cruisers bound for shore excursions are two of the most prominent sights when you first step onto the cruise terminal at Costa Maya, Mexico

After making their way past the flocks of cruise staffers assigned to photograph everyone who even considers walking off the ship, and perhaps after standing behind a few people who want to pose next to an “authentic” pirate from Newark, cruisers move like cattle over the pier and into the cruise terminal. There the throngs of cruisers seem to break into three distinct groups.  One group immediately queue’s up in front of signs announcing that this is the spot to be to partake in any of a dozen or more shore excursions sold to them by the cruise line.  Onshore opportunities range from swimming with sting rays to visiting ruins to “pirate” encounters to a party boat with a party lunch on a nearby party island.

The second group of cruisers can feel the plastic of their credit cards burning a hole in the side of their wallet and they take off in search of a place to cool down their overheated cards.  Throughout the cruise terminal their senses are overloaded with almost every conceivable way to spend your money.  I sometimes wonder if Diamonds International and the company that sells Tanzanite ever makes any money because there one of their stores is in every port you visit.  You’d think that only one store for these companies would be needed on any cruise itinerary but most definitely they are there, with their credit card scanners ready to go to work, in every port along the way.  Some time I would be interesting to find out how much money is spent in the first Diamonds International store on an itinerary and how much is sold in the last port if any.

Loud bars with names like “The Thirsty Pirate” and “Fat Tuesday” and “The Bearded Clam” vie for customers with the likes of mega chain restaurants like Senor Frog’s, Carlos ‘n Charlie’s and my favorite, Margaritaville.  All of these restaurants in cruise ports are another enigma to me.  After several days at sea eating almost nonstop for 24 hours each day, you would think the last thing on a traveler’s mind would be sitting down somewhere to have another meal.  This is especially true early in the day when the main breakfast buffet’s open early to accommodate those anticipating an early departure from the ship. However it makes no difference because even before cruisers dive into the orgasm of more shopping that awaits them onshore invariably they find an excuse to sit in a local pub and eat even more.

T-shirt shops abound in cruise terminals and so do tacky tourist shops where tacky cruisers can purchase tacky unnecessary pieces of tacky nonsense they will throw away a few days after they return home. I have been traveling to and in Mexico since 1978 and in nearly 40 years there I have yet to see a single Mexican wearing the stereotypical broad brimmed black sombrero.  In fact the only people I ever see wearing one are lily white American’s on their return flight to the States from Cancun or Puerto Vallarta.  Yet no matter which Mexican (and sometimes merely Spanish speaking) cruise port you find yourself in, there will be at least two different shops selling “authentic” Mexican sombreros. 

A third and much smaller group of cruisers isn’t really a group so much as an aggregation.  They (including me) are the independent travelers who aren’t awed by the pre-packaged packages sold by the cruise line and could care less about international diamonds or Mexican sombreros.  We are the small, almost miniscule, minority who take off on our own to explore.  We are the people who aren’t subdued by the politically correct warnings about imminent danger certain to befall anyone who passes beyond the cruise terminal gates without being on an approved cruise.  We are the ones who stop at the office of “Last Minute Tours” and take off with a taxi driver for a four hour hidden exploration of what everyone else just paid twice as much to see from the comfort of an ice-cold air conditioned bus.  Those of us in the third group are also the ones who do not conform but instead come away from the day’s adventures actually learning something about where we just visited.

A huge swath of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and a smidgen of Honduras was once the domain of the Mayans. Today, not so much.

One of the cruises offered for our stop in Costa Maya was one that cost $77.00 per person called “Taste of Costa Maya and Beach Combo.”  For $77.000 some contractor would take the willing sheep on a four hour tour of an “authentic” Mayan village and then cap off the adventure with time on the beach.  Specifically the tour description, as downloaded from the Carnival website, reads like this:

In the last frontier of the Mayan civilization lie the colorful fishing village of Costa Maya and an endless stretch of virgin beach awaiting your discovery. Climb aboard our comfortable A/C Motor Coach and take an adventure through time amid the beautiful and exotic terrain of Costa Maya. 
          You’ll journey through the jungle on off-road trails and along the Caribbean shore.  Keep your eyes open for tropical birds and resident iguanas as we travel to our out-of-the-way beach.  Take a step back and admire the white-sand beach and beautiful blue-green waters. Relax! You can lie in the sun, go for a swim, enjoy a volleyball game, or drift further from realty in one of our complimentary ocean kayaks. After an hour, hop into the bus and start your way back to civilization along local roads and an abandoned highway.
             Stop in downtown Costa Maya for an hour of free time and shopping. You’ll find plenty of stores with traditional Mexican arts & crafts items, jewelry, clothing, house wares, leather goods and more.  Discover the colorful culture of an ancient people in this old Mayan fishing village and witness how it meets with the realities of a modern world. Just meet back up at the bus at the designated time and we’ll return you to the pier or you may choose to continue your day downtown and return to the ship by taxi at your own expense.

All of this for a mere $77.00. Who in their right mind could pass up such a deal? 

I could.

During my seven hours in Costa Maya I immediately broke away from the thundering crowds of excursion goers and took off to explore this supposed “last frontier of the Mayan civilization” on my own.  I saw plenty and it didn’t cost me $77.00 to ultimately get a better sun tan than those in the air conditioned bus.

Not far from the security gate of the terminal I found a restaurant with no name that was plunked down on the side of the road.  Its exterior was an abandoned school bus and its three tables were plastic with sun umbrella’s that said “Coca-Cola” on them.  Any strong wind gust that came along instantly wiped out the umbrella’s.  Only one of the three tables (they each were surrounded by four chairs) had any guests when I arrived.  The waitress, Isabella, was nonetheless breathless when she finally found time to take my order.

Whether you are on Big Coppitt Key or Costa Maya, Mexico, roadside dives with little ambiance and no health standards but tons of character invariably produce the best food.  This one near the Costa Maya cruise terminal was no different

“No mi gusta esta parte del dia,” Isabella said as she finally wound her way to my table.  There being only three other guests sitting out in the blazing sun I couldn’t understand why she didn’t like this part of the day.

“Estamos muy ocupados,” she said, telling me that they were extremely busy.  Three people makes it extremely busy? “Necesito un Descanso, pronto!”  If three customers made her so busy she needed to immediately take a rest, I started to worry about what my presence, as the fourth guest, would do to her.  Ten years earlier on the Lesser Antillean island of Barbuda, Mark Oberle and I stopped in the only restaurant in town seeking lunch.  This restaurant was inside a building and it had four tables.  The waitress looked haggard as she served the two customers who were already seated for lunch.  Just as Isabella was out of breath in Costa Maya, that waitress in Barbuda said to me “I hate it when we get so busy like this.”  It must be a function of latitude.

I ordered fish tacos and a bottle of beer.  This seemingly easy order took nearly an hour to fill.  It wasn’t because of a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the cook or the owner or on Isabella.  It was the simple fact that once the fish and the veggies were cooked, the cook discovered that they had run out of tacos.  I concluded that there must have been a huge rush on fish tacos before I arrived and they simply forgot to replenish the stores.  Undaunted and determined to make sure that their fourth customer was as satisfied as the other three, the cook dropped everything he was doing (which wasn’t much) and jumped on his motorcycle.  Soon in a billowing cloud of dust, the cook was racing across the yard of my roadside dive and onto the Caraterra Principal bound for the one grocery store in the village of Mahahual where he would secure the much needed tacos. 

His triumphant return was greeted with excitement from his co-workers as the cook dismounted his motorcycle and proudly carried a package of tacos into the restaurant.  During his 20 minute absence, a pair of Americans, also on my ship, but off exploring in a dune buggy, arrived at the side of the road looking for lunch.  Isabella took their order of chicken tacos, chips and salsa, and told this pair that it would take “just a few minutes” for their order to be filled.  Normally I guess it would have taken just a few minutes however today, on his return with my tacos, the cook discovered that they were also out of chips. Turning the cooking responsibilities over to his boss the cook leaped on his motorcycle and in a similar billowing cloud of dust roared back to the grocery to get the now-crucial chips.  As he started his motorcycle I heard Isabella yell at him in Spanish “Don’t forget the chips!!! We need chips also!!”

Wrapped in authentic Mexican-made corn tacos, my fish tacos were among the best I have ever tasted anywhere and especially from any number of “authentic” Mexican restaurants in the United States. Three giant fish tacos and two bottles of authentic Mexican beer served under an authentic and blazing Mexican sun cost me $5.00 US.  Finishing this gargantuan meal I paid my bill and left a $5.00 tip for Isabella and continued my exploration.

The hot and dry vegetation here was absolutely dripping with birds, most of them species that nest in North America and then migrate several thousand miles to hang out on the Mexican Caribbean. Who could blame them?  As I stumbled around on trails and side roads I couldn’t help noticing that although the population of this area was miniscule in comparison to many other parts of Mexico, the number and frequency of roads and plots for houses and pipes being laid for water and sewer spoke volumes about how this area of “authentic” Mayan people would look in a few more years.

Walking along the main road I was constantly hounded by more “authentic” Mayan people hawking their own tours to nearby areas.  A common refrain was “I’ll take you to authentic Mayan ruins, amigo!” Clearly it seemed that the parts of Costa Maya that had already been developed were much the same as the areas inside the cruise terminal. At least out here there were no Diamonds International stores however in the tropics that could change in an instant.

The website www.history.com provides a treasure trove of information about early Mayan culture and some sad facts about its inevitable decline:

Excavations of Maya sites have unearthed plazas, palaces, temples and pyramids, as well as courts for playing the ball games that were ritually and politically significant to Maya culture. Maya cities were surrounded and supported by a large population of farmers. Though the Maya practiced a primitive type of “slash-and-burn” agriculture, they also displayed evidence of more advanced farming methods, such as irrigation and terracing.

Incredibly accurate even by modern standards, the Mayan calendar wasn't quite accurate enough to predict the end of the world in December 2012, but that wasn't because of a lack of hyping the possibility that it could.

The Classic Maya built many of their temples and palaces in a stepped pyramid shape, decorating them with elaborate reliefs and inscriptions. These structures have earned the Maya their reputation as the great artists of Mesoamerica. Guided by their religious ritual, the Maya also made significant advances in mathematics and astronomy, including the use of the zero and the development of a complex calendar system based on 365 days. Though early researchers concluded that the Maya were a peaceful society of priests and scribes, later evidence–including a thorough examination of the artwork and inscriptions on their temple walls–showed the less peaceful side of Maya culture, including the war between rival Mayan city-states and the importance of torture and human sacrifice to their religious ritual.

One of the many intriguing things about the Maya was their ability to build a great civilization in a tropical rainforest climate. Traditionally, ancient peoples had flourished in drier climates, where the centralized management of water resources (through irrigation and other techniques) formed the basis of society. (This was the case for the Teotihuacan of highland Mexico, contemporaries of the Classic Maya.) In the southern Maya lowlands, however, there were few navigable rivers for trade and transport, as well as no obvious need for an irrigation system.

From the late eighth through the end of the ninth century, something unknown happened to shake the Maya civilization to its foundations. One by one, the Classic cities in the southern lowlands were abandoned, and by A.D. 900, Maya civilization in that region had collapsed. The reason for this mysterious decline is unknown, though scholars have developed several competing theories.

Some believe that by the ninth century the Maya had exhausted the environment around them to the point that it could no longer sustain a very large population. Other Maya scholars argue that constant warfare among competing city-states led the complicated military, family (by marriage) and trade alliances between them to break down, along with the traditional system of dynastic power. As the stature of the holy lords diminished, their complex traditions of rituals and ceremonies dissolved into chaos. Finally, some catastrophic environmental change–like an extremely long, intense period of drought–may have wiped out the Classic Maya civilization. Drought would have hit cities like Tikal–where rainwater was necessary for drinking as well as for crop irrigation–especially hard.

All three of these factors–overpopulation and overuse of the land, endemic warfare and drought–may have played a part in the downfall of the Maya in the southern lowlands. In the highlands of the Yucatan, a few Maya cities–such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Mayapán–continued to flourish in the Post-Classic Period (A.D. 900-1500). By the time the Spanish invaders arrived, however, most Maya were living in agricultural villages, their great cities buried under a layer of rainforest green.

The Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, is one of the most spectacular Mayan temples ever found.  Just remember if you visit here that fer-de-lance like to chill out in pastures near the ruins and they generally aren't too understanding when you disturb them.

Anyone who has visited the ruins at Palenque, Bonampak, Tikal, Uxmal and Chichen Itza, knows that the Maya were masters at ancient architecture and like the Egyptians before them they were master builders using little more than brute force.  The early Maya were great mathematicians who devised their own calendar, a calendar that just a few years ago had many convinced that the world was going to end in December 2012.  The ancient Maya were also farmers who lived in harmony with the landscape and were able to live a full life in the rainforests of Central America.  Now their descendants stand on street corners calling people “amigo” and offering to take them to temples made generations ago simply so they can make a few dollars to keep the motorcycle running.  Modern day Mayans are trying to stay afloat by exploiting the environment they live in and ecotourism seems to be an avenue they are using to make that happen.  I only hope they don’t kill the goose that is laying the small golden eggs for them.

Seven cruise lines now make regular (if not seasonal) stops at Costa Maya and each of those ships disgorges more than 2,000 passengers.  Some went on the canned shore excursions, and some sat in Carlos ‘n Charlie’s getting drunk and some like me and the people who ordered chips and salsa at the roadside dive, took off to explore on our own. 

If we assume that each person from the two ships spent a minimum of $50 in the area whether on excursions, in a shop or even in taxi rides, then cruising exerts a huge influence on the local economy.  Assuming further that one ship a day comes to this port throughout the year (a conservative estimate) that means at least $100,000 each and every day is being pumped into the economy.  Further assuming one ship a day each day of the year, $36,500,000 is being funneled into the hands and pockets of these Mayan descendants.  It seems to me that there is considerable money to be made by the Mayans on the coast of Maya by exploiting their ancestral past whether it’s selling “authentic” sombreros made in Indonesia, or hawking tours of authentic Mayan ruins to ever “amigo” who walks down the street, than there is in selling off vast expanses of untrammeled Mexican rain forest and turning it into winter homes for fat old ladies from Poughkeepsie. 

The Costa Maya coast looks like this today just north of the cruise terminal.  With luck it will look like this 50 years from now when my grandson Garrett is cruising these waters with his grandson.  Ecotourism and sustainable development are the keys to making that happen - raping the land and turning everything into another Cancun or Playa del Carmen is not.

Mayan’s have been around for thousands of years and even though they no longer build huge temples and play basketball on courts in front of their leaders each of whom is dressed in an outfit made of quetzal feathers, the Maya will probably be around for several thousand more years. They will survive because they have been able to adapt to rapid changes in their environment through all of those thousands of years.  In fact I give Mayan’s a better chance of survival than I do all of those fat old ladies from Poughkeepsie who waddle off cruise ships to take an authentic tour to learn about authentic Mayan culture.  I make that prediction because unlike American’s the Mayan’s on the Costa Maya are not enamored with the latest nonsense about the Kardashians and they could care less if Lindsay Lohan is again in lockup and the last thing on their minds is if an android takes clearer pictures than does the iPhone. 


Mayan’s are and always have been survivors and perhaps ecotourism and especially cruising can be the key to that survival.  I hope they have enough will power to withstand attempts by arrogant Americans hell bent on developing their coast into block after block of deed restricted retirement homes like Sarasota Florida.   As an alternative the Mayan’s need the keep the forests standing upright, the Caribbean waters need to remain a lovely shade of margarita green, and the ghosts of Mayan’s past need to continue guiding tourists to those authentic Mayan ruins.  I have a feeling it will turn out that way.

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