To Chichen Itza and Back – Part Two

After walking around the sun-drenched ruins at Chichen Itza, our tour group ate lunch at a restaurant outside the park. Lunch was a buffet of fresh fruit, tamales, rice, beans, chicken, and one of my favorite Mexican dishes, cochinita pibil. The latter is the Yucatecan version of slow-cooked, shredded pork. It is delicious even when it is not the best version of itself.

Once our stomachs were full, we shopped for souvenirs at a bazaar of Mexican-made items. The line at the register was long and because of that Stephanie and I were the last ones on the bus; a few minutes after our scheduled three o’clock departure time. Yes, we got razzed by Carlos for being late.

Then it was a short bus ride to the Ik-Kil Cenote. What’s a “cenote?” A sinkhole filled with groundwater. There are hundreds of them throughout the Yucatan peninsula. These natural wonders provided fresh water for the Maya.

The Ik-Kil Cenote is round, a seemingly perfect circle, located over 80 feet below the ground. The top is surrounded by thick vegetation, the hung over the hole.



After waiting in line to rent a storage locker, you change into your bathing suit, put your clothes and personal belongings in the locker, shower, then walk down the slippery stone steps to the water. There is no elevator, so climbing down (and back up) is only for the most able-bodied.

We were warned that the water was very cold. There is a set of ladders for climbing into the water and a set of ladders for climbing out of the water, I opted to not climb in. I thought, if it’s cold, then I might as well jump in. I chose the second highest point and jumped in.

Here I am leaping off the platform into the water.


It was cold but not freezing cold. After several hours in the Yucatan heat, it felt refreshing and invigorating to swim and tread in the clear water.

You could see all the fish swimming below you. You could try to reach out and touch them, but they would swim away just as you moved your hand.


The view from the water up at the sky is stunning.



Stephanie and I swam a bit. Then we got out and went up to the platforms and leaped off at the same time. We were so excited to be jumping into and swimming in that crisp, cool water, underground. We swam away from where most of the other people were congregating near the ladders, and towards the center of the sinkhole. We kissed in the water, relishing the long moment of exhilaration.

I really didn’t want to leave the water. Can you tell?


This not-wanting-to-leave also made us, once again, the last people on the bus. I changed in the men’s locker room and waited outside the women’s locker room for my wife. I waited. And waited some more. Looking at my phone, seeing that it was getting closer to 4pm (the time Carlos told us all that the bus was leaving to return to Cancun) and then 4pm, wondering what was taking my wife so long.

Turns out my wife and had changed into her clothes and gone straight to the bus. She came back to get me after realizing I was probably waiting for her.

We arrived at the bus a few minutes after four. With a smile, Carlos said, “You guys are always last!”

To float in that water for just one more minute….


To Chichen Itza and Back – Part One

Two of the things my wife Stephanie and I wanted to do on our recent trip to Cancun, Mexico was to see the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and swim in a cenote. We managed to accomplish both in one day.

Carlos the tour guide insisted that our day-long bus trip from Cancun to Chichen Itza, to a Cenote, through Valladolid, and back to Cancun was not going to be run on “Mexican Time.” This was the Tour of Definite Stops at a Definite Time, unlike a previous day-long tour in another country….He stated that if he told us a time to be back on the bus, we had to be back on the bus by that time because taxis from Chichen Itza to Cancun were very expensive.

My wife and I were picked up from our hotel at 7:30 on Sunday morning in a small shuttle bus and dropped off at a collection point where we boarded a full-sized tourist bus.

While the bus was driven on a highway cut through flat savannah of low trees on white and light gray, rocky soil, another of the guides, Tony, gave us all a lecture on Mayan history. He told us, in both English and Spanish, about the rise and fall of the Mayan civilization, the locations of their settlements (in what is now El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico), their numbering system, their pictographic alphabet, the accuracy of their calendar, and their amazing feats of engineering, and how they merged with the Toltecs around 1000 AD.

Tony also told us how 300 years ago a zealous Spanish missionary burned nearly every Mayan book/codex that the Conquistadors could find. “Burn first, ask questions centuries later” is a fantastic way to set a monumental standard for ignorance and fear. Four of these Mayan books remain. Three reside in Europe. Only one resides in Mexico.

A dozen or so people sitting in the back of the bus slept through the entire ride and all of the lecture. Clearly, they were catching up on the sleep they lost the night before, maybe because they were out at a club or seeing a “show and disco” like Coco Bongo. Tony called them the “Sleeping Beauties.” For the record, most of the sleeping tourists were female and younger than 35.

At the end of his’s lecture, when we were approaching the entrance to Chichen Itza, Tony told a story. It went like this:

“When my daughter was little and had trouble sleeping, I would go into her room and ask her what was wrong. She would say that she couldn’t sleep. I would ask her what I could do to help her sleep, and she would say, ‘Daddy, tell me about Mayans.’”

Inside the park, Tony led us English speakers on a tour through the grounds. It was hot and the sun stung hard, so we made sure we drank water and wore sunscreen, and stood in the shade of the trees whenever possible.

One thing to keep in mind while looking at these pictures is that the Mayans built all of these structures without metal tools of any kind or the use of wheels of any kind.

Here’s the Kukulkan Pyramid, aka “El Castillo.”



During both the Spring and Fall equinoxes a shadow falls on the side of the steps of the pyramid in the shape of a snake. This is not an accident. “Kukulkan” means “feathered serpent.” There are 365 steps on the pyramid: 91 on each of the four sides with one at the top for the temple. The Mayans devised a 365 day yearly calendar and were able to predict eclipses.

While we were getting a closer look at the pyramid, I took a picture of the Thousand Columns nearby.


Notice the guy in the foreground. He was doing yoga, pulling off all kinds of intense, pretzel-like poses with smooth precision. My wife, who also does yoga, was amazed at his ability. She said that there are many yoga practitioners who like to do yoga on sacred grounds like those at Chichen Itza. Here’s Stephanie doing tree pose in front of the pyramid.


Note: People are no longer allowed to climb on the structures. The thousands who came to see the structures and walked on them were damaging the structures over time. Tony also told us that he had seen four people fall from the pyramid while climbing up the steps and that three of them had died.

We also saw the Ball Court. Teams of seven would play against each other using every part of their bodies (with the exception of hands) to hit a rubber ball through a stone hole.


The hole is pretty high up the side of the court.


Contrary to popular belief, the losers were not killed. The captain of the winning team was sacrificed to their gods. Why? Because if you’re going to sacrifice someone to your gods, you don’t sacrifice your worst players. You offer someone worthy of the gods’ respect. At least, that was the logic.

When I saw this, I turned to my wife and whispered, “I see dead people.”


The Wall of Skulls was where the heads of sacrificial victims were put. Apparently, in the 1800s the French blew up one of these skull platforms with dynamite, looking for gold. They didn’t find any gold. But they made a lot of rubble.

In between many areas of the site were places selling T-shirts, skirts, and all kinds of artisanal “Mexican” and “Mayan” objects. What caught my eye was this:


Mayan chess sets. I didn’t see anyone buy one.

The Astronomical Observatory was built for observing the movements of the stars. Inside is a spiral staircase leading to the top.



After this walking history lesson, I was hungry. Conveniently, there was a small snack shop set in the shade, away from the observatory.


They didn’t have the Dove-bar type ice cream I am pointing to in the picture above, so I ate a four-dollar ice cream sandwich instead. (I could have bought a whole box of them for that price at the local Kroger here in Michigan, but there, under the Yucatan sun, I paid the Archeological Site Premium Price.) I ate it quickly and then we all walked back to the bus to head to the restaurant for lunch.

Our Next Big Adventure (Plus an Indulgence)

This is the Sulemaniye Mosque as seen from Istanbul University.


Three years ago my wife and son visited Istanbul, staying with friends we met when we were living in L.A. It was part fun, part work. My wife even set up a blog to document the fun of their trip: Henry in Turkey.

The work part has finally paid off: she has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. She will be teaching at Istanbul University and doing research on sex-trafficking. It’s a phenomenal opportunity for her and for us as a family.

This means we are moving to Istanbul at the end of the summer. We will be there until May or June of 2014. The kids took it well. They felt better once we assured them that: 1) we would be living in an apartment and not a hotel (like in China last summer) and 2) that they would be attending a school with other kids who spoke English.

What am I going to do? Write and blog, of course. There is also the possibility of me working. I’ll be allowed to apply for a work permit.

Before we go, we have to fix a few things in the house in order to rent it out, get our visas, find a school for the kids, find a place to live, buy our plane tickets, pack, etc., etc., etc…thousands of things big and small. Oh, and learn to speak and read Turkish!

But before we get down to business with all of that, my wife and I are indulging ourselves and taking a vacation to Cancun, Mexico. Just us. My in-laws have agreed to watch the kids while we are away. It will be the first vacation we’ve taken without the kids since before the birth of our son.

We’re going to spend several days luxuriating in being languid under the sun, eating good food, seeing Chichen Itza, and snorkeling off La Isla Mujeres. Ahhhh.