Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Chichen Itzá

A visit to Chichen Itzá recently was very interesting, since I hadn't been there in probably 10 or more years!

Turns out you can no longer climb the Castillo - with all those tourists visiting (some estimates put the annual figure at 30 million!) there would be just too much erosion. Back in the day, you not only could climb the Castillo and admire the wonderful view that probably was enjoyed only by the Mayan priests but also go inside the Castillo to see the jade eyes of the jaguar found in its interior. Anyone who had the chance to climb those claustrophobic, humid one-person-at-a-time steps will remember the experience fondly, although the wet smell of all that sweaty humanity was a bit of a turn-off.

Also, the sellers of kitschy souvenirs were outside the ruins, not on the actual grounds as they are now. This is a real distraction when trying to appreciate the grandeur of the ruins; having someone in your face waving a carved mask saying "my fren my fren, goo price for jew" or "here fren" as if you were some kind of dumb ass that was going to obey this canine-like command. Now they are all over the site, which might not be a bad thing if it was a lot more discreet, a little more authentic and they actually sold things made in the region by locals. But to see those mass-produced fleece blankets with the aztec warrior waving in the hot sun was a little jarring.

Think of the money that pours into this site with all those visitors! Walking around the ruins and the entrance lobby, stores and nearby "market" you can only think how awful it looks. Not the ruins, all the crap around it. The restaurants and little 'shops' look like they were designed by a ... I can't think of anyone suitably unqualified. They are not designed at all. Ugly, half-painted concrete, dirty, run down and staffed with indifferent sallow faced employees. No money has been invested in the infrastructure for decades, or so it seems.

I sat in the market area, where you leave the site, watching 2 out of 3 red-faced tourists stumble on the uneven paving stones while glancing over their shoulders at the depressing spectacle of 4 or 5 half-naked Mayan men and boys wearing plastic feathers and half-heartedly performing pieces of a ceremony. Under a tree, a guayabera-wearing young man with a microphone was announcing that the show was free, that people could take pictures at no cost, that the show was about to start, that the show was a real Mayan ceremony, it would start in a few minutes. He narrated what they were doing, which seemed to be the same thing over and over again, in preparation for the show that would start 'eena few meenits". It never really started and no one really took any photos. It was a joke, like the Indian shows at some tourist stop in the US or Canada, or the Aztec dancing at the traffic lights in Mexico City. Is this what the Mayan culture has evolved to? Doesn't anyone see how pathetic this all looks and feels?

While the ruins at Chichen Itzá are as imposing and majestic as ever, it is extremely difficult to reconcile the obvious culture and knowledge of the ancient builders of this impressive site with the mediocrity and complete lack of good taste or sensitivity aka culture of the modern chimpanzees charged with the administration of Chichen Itzá today.


Grant said...

Hi William, I was stunned at how tawdry things were at Chichen on our last visit, in 2006. It struck me as ironic that there was such a hue and cry at the time over a nice Wal-Mart opening near, but not on, the site of Teotihuacan, but no one had uttered a peep over the hawker invasion of the actual site at Chichen.

And who buys that stuff? Like the sleeping, sombrero-wearing guy. You might have found a few takers in the 1930's, but nobody wants crap like that in their house today. You'd think Mexicans would have more pride than to make stuff like that, anyway.

Larry said...

I couldn't agree more. I tell people planning a visit to forget Chichen Itza and go to Uxmal. Much prettier, no "junk" hawkers on the grounds. Or Kabah, or Sayil. So many others to visit.

William Lawson said...

Hi guys - well I guess someone must be buying this crap because they keep making more of it! Maybe the people that do buy are the ones that buy anything, anywhere and have no clue about Mexico whatsoever. And that is the hawkers market. Not anyone with a bit of culture, but rather the couple/group of teens from some backwoods town on their first trip out of the USA, delusionally thinking that a sparkling pink sombrero from a vendor in Chichen Itza is a)a real souvenir for their Mexico trip and b) supporting the locals.
But yes, Uxmal and the other ruins along the Puuc route are much more 'authentic' at least for the moment.