Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tonina, Mayan City-State

Tonina (To-nee-NAH)

On the eastern side of a high mountain pass from San Cristobal sits a small city called Ocosingo. South of it, about 12 miles is the ancient city of Tonina, the Mayan city-state that brought down mighty Palenque.
Jungle encased ruins of Tonina.  The hill on the right is
more of the same complex, not excavated yet. 

Since I have no TV or radio here at my little bungalow, I was completely unaware that Mexico had gone on daylight savings time! On Monday morning, I packed up stuff to spend the day out, camera, rain jacket, Tilly hat, guidebook, bottle of water, money (lots of money!), and Mexican Spanish phrase book.  I planned to go to Ocosingo, only 88 kilometers away, and see Tonina.  Later in the month, I’ll take a few days and go to Palenque.

So, a lot didn’t go as planned. It wasn’t 9:15, its was 10:15, and the bus took about 2 and a half hours to go that relatively short distance, because it had to traverse a snaky road with steep drop-offs, the kind you read about buses flying off in Bolivia. Every little village along the way keeps traffic slow by putting in deadly speed bumps the size of telephone poles. I took a first class bus, those giant swaying smooth buses that cuddle you in comfort while it zooms along the super highway. Except this was a two lane road where the wheels seemed to be mere centimeters away from the edges of the cliffs as the bus flew along at highway speeds. Between the terrors of looking down, the bus’s radical to-and-fro swaying, and the speeding up and then almost stopping to get over the speed-logs, I felt like barfing. 

Temple partly uncovered, with tree trunks still attached.
I knew it would be warmer in Ocosingo, but I didn’t expect it to be like South Florida in May. I took a combi out to Tonina, the windows were down and the sweat finally blew off. But at the site, the museum was closed. Oh, yes, everyone knows all the museums in the country are closed on Mondays. Everyone but me, and now I know too! The site was open, and it was only a kilometer hike in 100 percent humidity in 90-degree heat. No problem. On the way, I could see the mountain I’d be climbing….to the top of the highest temple.  Then again, maybe not.

Decapitation altar.
Ball Court
The first delight was a ball court, home of a ritual game played to the death of one team or the other. Sitting next to the court, looking downright jaunty was the mini-pyramid-altar where the losing teams lost their heads. And off to the right was the base of a huge pyramid with many levels with various structures. Built into the base was a dark and blessedly cool labyrinth. There was no signage, and no pamphlet to read, so I had to depend on the Lonely Planet guidebook. I’m not
sure of the labyrinth’s purpose. There were smallfloor-mounted lights near stairs, but other than that one had to depend on the tiny bit of natural light that came through long tunnels, or openings in the rockwork. The ceilings were vaulted and tall. I had my little flashlight with me. It’s not a very elaborate labyrinth, and I came back to the beginning in a short while. 

Labyrinth entrance
Miraculously, the weather had changed in the short time I was inside. Thick clouds covered the sun and the wind picked up. The temperature dropped dramatically but it didn’t rain.  It was tough going, getting up the 400 feet of staircases on narrow steps. This pyramid has seven levels with different purposes and many carvings now protected from weathering by thatched roofs and from people by chicken wire!  It was difficult, if not impossible to get photos of the sculptures, so little is left of most of them and there’s not much contrast. A stele with a man in full headdress, with the slanted skull and broad face of the nobility reins over the staircase.  Other bas-relief sculptures show the four seasons, with a decapitated head in each one. What life must have been like back then, where people were beheaded on a regular basis! Kind of like now in Mexico when the drug lords decapitate people and roll their heads out onto a disco dance floor. That happened a couple of years ago in Uruapan……I found out after I had a marvelous (and safe) time there! Probably for the run of the mill person at the height of the Mayan civilization, life involved working hard, raising a family, getting enough food to eat, and complex religious activity that made it all worthwhile. Without knowing any more of their beliefs, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions. I can’t believe though, that watching someone beheaded didn’t have a lot of emotional impact.
Roof Comb

Tonina has one of the better preserved roof combs built around 713 AD. There are many different temples atop the pyramid, and they have names like Temple of the Earth Monster and Temple of the Smoking Mirror. Back in 688, a new dynasty took over, called the Snake Skull – Jaguar Claw. One of its later rulers was a woman named Smoking Mirror. She dressed in her late husband’s warrior clothing and it was under her leadership that Tonina fought Palenque and captured their leader K’an Joy Chitam II.  In San Cristobal a theater features a dramatic performance of this story: Palenque Roja. In the dramatic version, K’an Joy returns to Palenque after 10 years as a captive, but the archeologically derived version is that he was beheaded at Tonina. Either way, after his death he became a star and lives on forever. 

I am always fascinated by cultures and their predictions, like the end of the world, predicted (interpreted yet again) by the Mayan calendar, revelations in the Bible, and individuals. The people of Tonina believed they were in the fourth season, winter, the last one, and indeed it was true. Tonina was abandoned in the mid 800’s. Was it a prediction or a self-fulfilling prophecy? Of course the Mayans are still around, now with a different culture and evolving language, organized into much smaller groups and villages, but still very communal and integrated.  They rise up today in the form of the Zapatistas fighting for control of their land against the Mexican government.

I made it to the sixth platform where the stairs became much narrower. Hardly anyone was around, but sitting at the top, the entire time I was on the site, was a man in police uniform. He was quite friendly, and encouraged me to climb to the tip top for a view, but I was too hot and sweaty, and the site would be closing in a few minutes. He came down and escorted me to the bottom then stayed there to turn back a few late-arrivals. Across the stream was a little thatched roofed restaurant that served ice cream and popsicles. I’m sure they do an amazing business after people come off that pyramid.

Cicada kid.
As I waited for a combi, a little boy entertained us with his 'pet' cicada. The insect was attached to a fine fishing line with glue and it flew around him like a little helicopter. These kids don't need Nintendos to have a great time.

Ice Cream!!!! Popsicles!! Shade!!!

Detail of Stele

Trees still growing on the ruins, nice views.

On the way back to town, we passed a military complex, very new and pristine looking, lots of men standing around with assault rifles, and flying a Mexican flag the size of a football field! In every country I’ve been to, the military has money while schools have to hen-scratch to stay alive.  Passing us in the opposite direction were dozens of military green trucks, and between them, several trucks packed with people and luggage in the back. It looked to me like those people were being escorted by the military, and after having seen the movie “Sin Nombre”, I wondered if they were Guatemalans in the country illegally. 

The ride home was the same kind of bus. I decided to trust that the bus driver would not fling us over a cliff in the dark, so I buckled in and took a nap. Those buses really are like giant cradles, easy to sleep in. I awoke refreshed and ready to find my way home. It was an amazing day. I hope Palenque will be equally rewarding.