Monday, April 18, 2011

Palenque


The trip to Palenque took all day. We spent Wednesday morning getting ready to go, hitting an ATM, buying tickets and putting together a picnic lunch for the road. As it turned out, the road to Ocosingo (I described before) made both of us too queasy to have much of an appetite when it was time for lunch, so we were pretty hungry when the bus arrived in Palenque. On the air-conditioned bus, I was wearing my Mexican hoodie and wondering why I hadn’t put on socks before boarding. Stepping out of the bus in Palenque, the heart of the Lacondon jungle, was like an Eskimo suddenly walking into a steam bath. My cotton jeans stuck to me like glue and I could barely lift a leg to go up a step.

Our hotel was literally one block away and I had a general idea of the direction, but we took a taxi anyway. The driver, a lady in the bus station, and then the hotel operator told us to go to the same place for seafood. I was impressed until I realized that Palenque is so small there’s only one little area with hotels and tourist oriented restaurants, and the one they all recommended was probably also the only seafood place in town. It was named the Huachinango (Red Snapper in Spanish) and didn’t actually serve red snapper. All the fish was tilapia and who knows, it was probably farm raised. But it was tasty, good, not expensive and we sat outside in the shade of trees as the sun went down and the world cooled off ever so slightly.

Palm shadows at the hotel.
The hotel we stayed in was Hotel Chablis (pronounced Chah-blees). Brigitte had recommended it and it was listed in Lonely Planet as a one-star hotel. It deserved at least 2 stars. There were no phones in the room, the pool was a natural temperature, (actually quite cold), and it was a bit noisy since the floors were ceramic tile and the building concrete. But it was pleasantly painted, the air conditioner worked, clean as a whistle, clearly remodeled recently, and the staff was friendly. I would highly recommend it at $50 US per night.

At a large traffic circle, there’s a huge alabaster sculpture of a Mayan head. It’s a major landmark. On Thursday morning, we headed out to the ruins by going down the street toward the big head. We looked so much like tourists that a colectivo van stopped for us and whisked us out to Palenque. A fellow on the van claimed to be a mystical healer/shaman on his way to work. He has a booth at the park entrance, runs major tours, only $3,000 US dollars but worth it since he’s the real thing, through Mayan country, and is one of the few remaining Lacondon Mayans. Later in the day John asked after him and the kids around the entrance said, “Oh, you mean the drunk?”

We were, of course, accosted by tour guides who only charge $40 US for a two-hour tour. After the lack of signage and information at Tonina, I thought it might be a good idea to get a guide so I asked around if anyone else would be interested in splitting the fee. There was a man there that we both recognized. We’d seen him hanging around in San Cristobal, and both commented on how much he looked like he could be from Los Alamos…..white shorts, white socks going half way up his shins, sandals, two cameras, thick glasses, slightly curved posture, intent expression. A geek all right. We approached him saying we knew him from San Cristobal. Yes, he’d been there, but hadn’t noticed us. He barely spoke English, he was Israeli. But he wanted a guide too so we agreed to a deal. His wife was at their hotel, not feeling well. John wasn’t in the least interested in climbing pyramids, and as it turned out, neither was our chubby guide.

Pakal's tomb.
In some respects it was a good idea to have the guide, though after watching other guides and their groups, we could have found one with more enthusiasm. The signage was almost nonexistent, we didn’t get any kind of multilingual printout or map. Danny had copied the pages from Lonely Planet pertaining to Palenque. It was a good thing too, because we got fairly turned around and lost after the guide abandoned us, the map came in handy. Then Danny lost the plastic bag with the map in it. He fretted about it so much that I asked a small group of people behind us if they’d seen it, and they knew exactly where it was, at one of the water falls way up the hillside. Danny fetched it and we continued on our way.

Danny demonstrating the Royal Toilet.
The guide showed us a number of things I would never have noticed. The Royal Family’s toilet for instance. It is a rock slab next to a gap which opens onto a sluice of water coming down from the hills. Danny posed in the appropriate position so I could take his picture. The guide showed us Choc, the frog water/rain god. I only knew of Chocmol, a different god that appears as a lounging man at Chichenitza. There were Choc carvings all over the place. I guess they had droughts back in those days too, in spite of being in the middle of a jungle.  Or maybe they just needed to be sure the Royal toilet always worked.

Howler monkeys.
Danny and I climbed pyramid after pyramid. We went into the Red Queens tomb, up the temple of death, the temple of inscriptions, and our guide sat under the nearest tree and enjoyed racking up the dollars. After 2 hours, he pointed the way to the museum and said we were on our own. Danny protested a little but I was tired of the guy and said, don’t worry about it. We hiked around for at least two more hours, to different groups of buildings: some were lowly regular people’s homes, others were small pyramids with various functions, and there were lots of them down dark jungle trails haunted by the growling sounds of invisible howler monkeys. There were water falls and suspended bridges, and eventually, a family of monkeys appeared in the trees. It was just delightful to spend time watching them swing around in the treetops with their 5 limbs (tail included) and then watch the people watching them.

I had met a boy, about 13 years old who’d addressed me in English, but it turned out “Hello, do you speak English?” was about all he knew. We chatted a bit. He told me that Spanish is his second language as well, he’s also a Lacondan Mayan. I told him I didn’t really speak Spanish very much, I don’t have all the words to talk about politics and religion. He smiled and said “Me either.”

Later, when the monkey family was up in the trees, I saw that same kid go down the hillside and shake the one vine the smallest baby monkey was hanging onto. He shook it so hard the baby almost flew off. I shouted “NO” at the top of my lungs and he quit, never once looked to see who had shouted, he just hightailed it back up to the trail. His friends were laughing, and I’m sure that’s the kind of reaction he was hoping for. 

Observation tower.
Pyramid of the Sun.
 After the grueling sweltering day of climbing around on pyramids, taking pictures, and hiking in the jungle, Danny and I headed over to the museum. I fully expected John to be long gone back to the hotel, but he was there hanging around reading the signs, which were in Spanish, for the plethora of displays. Danny assumed John was my husband and raved about what a wonderful companion I had been. His wife doesn’t have a lot of patience for standing around composing shots and probing into every nook and cranny of a ruin. But it’s my cup of tea and so we were truly perfect companions for a day at Palenque.

Sculpture of a 'common' man. Features you
see everywhere in Mayan country. 
Incense burner sculpture, used by families for about 20
years, then ceremonially buried. The face
is probably the likeness of an ancestor. 
Plaster sculpture on the front of the Temple of Death,
of the God of the underworld. Still with some
original red paint.