Category Archives: Mexico

Science and Shoes

It was the fall after I graduated college, and I was feeling lost in a corporate dream job that, rather than inspiring me, made me question myself and what I wanted. I tried to wear the pencil skirts and the pretty shoes that all the stylish women wore around me. I tried to play the part of the working twenty-something in the sexy NYC publishing job because, for many reasons, I actually thought I belonged there, in that role, in that chair, in that office, in that skirt… But the shoes felt awkward and, while I did feel sexy in my carefully selected business-casual ensembles, sitting at my desk made me feel like an extra in a mediocre movie. As grateful as I was to be there (and as cool as it often felt, don’t get me wrong!) I usually felt more lost in that chair than found. And I wasn’t the sort of girl who could stay sitting through that feeling.

Bird over Beach. Cancun, Mexico.

Bird over Beach. Cancun, Mexico.

Without telling anyone, I decided to attend an information session for a career I knew almost nothing about. I didn’t even know what schools offered the degree, so I googled “Top Physical Therapy Programs NYC” and ended up at the NYU Steinhardt School, listening intently as the Doctor of Physical Therapy curriculum and the future of the evolving field were explained to me. After spending the previous few months heartbroken and confused, the two hours I spent in that information session brought clarity I hadn’t had in a long time. But when I walked out, things went back to fuzzy.

As reality would have it, I was as far away as anyone could be from “qualified” for the program I wanted to attend. I had 1 out of 12 of the pre-requisites required, I had not taken the GRE, and I had absolutely no experience in the field of physical therapy. My only explanation for how I had “suddenly” gotten interested in PT was receiving treatment for a crew-related back injury my senior spring. But I think I had always been interested in the field, I just didn’t know it existed.

Serpent head. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Serpent head. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

I walked out of that information session in 2005 excited, invigorated, hopeful and, yes, overwhelmed. Having to complete eleven pre-requisites, from Statistics to upper-level Biology courses, seemed like an impossible boulder I could not remove from my path (which was paved with Spanish, Art History, and Archaeology courses). I tried to talk myself out of the excitement I felt, and attempted to channel it into trips and adventures around the world. Science was like those fancy shoes I wore to work; it was uncomfortable, somewhat foreign, and even in my size I wasn’t sure it was the right fit.

Rainbow in the Yucatan. Mexico.

Rainbow in the Yucatan. Mexico.

Now, eight years later, I am about to walk back into that very same building where that information session took place. It is a crazy feeling to say that — eleven pre-requisites, 10 grad school applications, and many years later — I will be receiving my Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from that very school. Eight freakin’ years, a few broken hearts, a couple trips to the hospital, 14 different countries, an almost book deal, a lot of soul-searching, and some serious soul-finding later, I am now on the other side — of a decade, of a chapter, of a journey of some sort… And I am so ready to walk back in there! It’s going to be another challenge-and-a-half, but if I’ve learned anything in these last eight years, it’s that I can handle it.

The only remaining question is: what shoes will I wear?

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Filed under Healthcare, Life Stuff, Mexico, Photography, Ruins, School, Travel, Uncategorized, wanderlust

At the Mouth of the Well of the Itza

We approached the ancient city, with colorful dresses, hammocks and masks being sold all around us. The heat of the morning was beginning to gain power, but the approach felt easy and short compared to the 3.5 hr bus-ride from Cancun. My mouth felt suddenly dry, and I instantly regretted not taking a water with me. Nevertheless, we knew that just beyond the trees, pyramids from the Mayan city of Chichen Itza waited patiently, as they had been doing for over a thousand years.

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

It felt particularly relevant to visit Chichen Itza now, so soon after the world was predicted to end. The world, like the structures within this city, still stands strong — although perhaps both are less strong than when they were originally “created,” many footprints ago.

Chichen Itza (its name meaning “at the mouth of the well of the Itza [people]”) was a major religious center on the Yucatan Peninsula from about 600-900 AD. It is now considered one of the 7 Wonders of the World, along with Machu Picchu in Peru, Petra in Jordan, and the Taj Mahal in India, to name a few. The city itself covers about 2 square miles, and is comprised of several large structures, the most famous of which being El Castillo (the Temple of Kukulkan), and also: the Great Ball Court, the Temple of the Warriors, and the Court of a Thousand Columns.

Ball Court. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Ball Court. Chichen Itza, Mexico.

We emerged from a long dirt pathway shaded by large leafy trees to find ourselves in a giant clearing, with the largest and most impressive structures of the city glaring straight ahead of us. When you first see the giant pyramid, it doesn’t feel totally real. Initially, it just looks impressive and grand, like you’re on the set of an Indiana Jones movie (I hate myself a little for degrading an ancient ruin with an American movie reference — gah, so typical). And then it sinks in: this impressive structure was built hundreds of years ago, by the small hands of an ancient culture that was eventually conquered in the 1530s by the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco de Montejo. Many people lived and died on this turf. And along with them, many traditions.

Relief sculpture along the Ball Court walls. Chichen Itza.

Relief sculpture along the Ball Court walls. Chichen Itza.

El Castillo, or the Temple of Kukulkan, is named after the feathered serpent deity of the Mayan people. At 24 meters high, with 9 square terraces and 18 platforms, marking the 18 months in the Mayan calendar. There are a total of 365 steps, marking the 365 days of the year, and 52 panels, corresponding to the 52 years in the Mayan calendar cycle. (Unfortunately, access to the top of the pyramid was closed after a tourist fell to his death.) Chichen Itza is known for its many structural mysteries, some stemming from astrology and numbers. Among them is one that still draws thousands of people every year, when during the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow of a serpent slithering down the structure is formed to perfection. With the snake, Kukulkan, being a symbol of fertility pointed down at the earth, this effect is believed to suggest the fertilization and thus fruitfulness of the city. Like in Roman culture, the rulers of a city liked to boast. This was ancient advertising.

Serpent. Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

Serpent. Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

While the Temple of Kukulkan may be the first structure to draw one’s attention, it is the Great Ball Court that becomes the most relatable structure for tourists. Spanning 150 meters and flanked by the slanted relief sculptures of ball teams playing is a giant court where a ritual Mesoamerican game was played. Although the rules of the game are still not known for certain, it seems that players — wearing pads of some sort on their thighs and arms and possibly holding large sticks — fought to keep a 7 lb ball in play, hitting it around like racquetball or field hockey while trying to get the heavy ball through a relatively small hoop 8 meters above the ground. According to my tour guide, the game could last anywhere from hours to days, and ended with sacrificing the captain of the winning team (not very good incentive, if you ask me). There were two teams of 2 to 4 players. Headdresses, gloves, and even capes may have been worn during the games, which often ended in brutal injuries, both inflicted upon by the opposite team and by the solid, heavy ball itself.

King's throne over the ball court. Chichen Itza.

King’s throne over the ball court. Chichen Itza.

The king, sitting at a throne perched over one end of the ball court, would watch the honored players who had trained their whole lives to participate in this ceremonial sport. According to the Popol Vuh and sculptures lining the sides of the ball court, it is believed that the captain of the winning team would receive the honor of being decapitated by the king, thus allowing him a direct passage to heaven. There was even speculation that these heads would end up being used as the ball for future games. (Gotta love ancient cultures — so resourceful!)

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

Temple of Kukulkan. Chichen Itza.

Despite the excitement about all the gore, one of the most interesting things about this ball court (and the rest of the Mayan city) is the acoustics. Someone whispering at one end of the ball court can be heard loud and clear by a person at the other end of the ball court, more than a football field apart. These acoustics were studied and later used in theater construction by Europeans. In addition, the mysterious “chirping” echo created by clapping at the base of El Castillo was believed to mimic the call of the Quetzal bird… But it is hard to know whether or not these things are just archaeological coincidences designed to get tourists really excited.

Ball court "hoop." Chichen Itza.

Ball court “hoop.” Chichen Itza.

When standing anywhere near the Temple of Kukulkan, the Temple of the Warriors cannot be ignored. The structure, surrounded by the Court of a Thousand Columns, houses Chac Mool (“Red Tiger”), who lies in an uncomfortable position at the top of the steps looking out over the rest of the city. His position allowed for offerings (this wouldn’t be a post about the Mayans if I didn’t acknowledge that many of these sacrifices were indeed human, echem), which were made in the flat section across his midsection. Relief sculptures of Toltec warriors surround the perpetually reclined Chac Mool. Feathered serpent heads with open jaws, and even elephant tusks emerge from the walls of the temple, which housed tombs in addition to being used for religious ceremonies. The many columns spanning out from beneath this structure were extremely simple in their structure, but allowed for a tented area that was used as a giant marketplace in the city. Yes, folks: Chichen Itza was quite the happening place to be at the time. It still is.

Chac Mool. Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itza.

Chac Mool. Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itza.

There is plenty more to say about the details in the architecture of this city, and about the history of the Mayan people, but that is for the historians and the archaeologists to tell you (I shall refrain from pretending I know more than I do). What I can say is that visiting Chichen Itza as an ex-Spanish and archaeology major just taking the opportunity to make a quick trip to Mexico before returning to pre0med class was — unlike being the winning captain of the ball team — well, super worth it.

Columns. Chichen Itza.

Columns. Chichen Itza.

In college, I was a humanities girl. I spent years looking at art and architecture from the stance of someone trying to interpret and understand another culture through symbolism and relics. Now, I am a science student, looking at an ancient culture and trying to understand what they knew about the world long before we ever thought we could. Chichen Itza is one of those places where art, architecture, history, science (in particular, biology and physics) converge. It is a beautiful, fascinating thing when — despite our thorough understanding of the world at many different levels — so much is still unknown.

I’m glad the world didn’t end — there is still too much left to learn.

Kukulkan sculptures. Chichen Itza.

Kukulkan sculptures. Chichen Itza.

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Filed under Archaeology, Mexico, Ruins, Travel, Uncategorized

Revisiting Mexico, Yucatan-Style

The week before I left, three heads had been found on one of the beach where I was planning to stay. A few weeks earlier, a Canadian tourist had been shot in the lobby of her hotel by the crossfire of gang-related violence. That was the last time I was in Mexico, in 2006. I was 22 and headed to Acapulco, where I would embark on my first assignment as a travel writer. It was the first time I would have to travel alone and I was nervous, but more excited than anything. A dream-job was coming true for me. At the time, nothing could have been better than that.

Chichen Itza. Mexico.

Chichen Itza. Mexico.

With absolutely no training whatsoever and one month to get the job done, I was going to have to pretend (pretty well, considering it would be published) that I was an expert on four different beach resort towns  —  their hotels, bars, restaurants, music scenes, art scenes, ecotourism options, gay scenes, weekend excursions, piña coladas (this part was particularly difficult), and the exhausting list of transportation options (to name a few categories). I had been to Ixtapa as a kid, which was partially how I got the job, but upon my arrival it became very clear very quickly that one week at a Club Med in fourth grade was probably not going to help me with this assignment. I was on my own — really on my own, for the first time — and it was as terrifying as it was thrilling. But so was being 22.

That was seven years ago. When I think back, I realize I wasn’t really alone on that trip: Mexico was with me. When you travel alone in another country, you meet a lot of people (many of whom you don’t want to meet, particularly if you’re a female traveling alone), but you also spend a lot of time hanging out with yourself.  At times, the only other companion you have is the country you’re in.

During that solo trip to Mexico in the summer of 2006, I felt like I bonded with Mexico in a way I hadn’t bonded with another country before. It was my silent friend throughout a month-long journey. It shook during a brief earthquake, letting me know we were both there together, and it warmed my back during long days strolling through markets and side-streets while sampling different ice cream shops.

During that trip, I explored my own character as much as I explored Mexico’s. I had to push myself to do things on a daily basis that felt totally uncomfortable, and I had to convince myself that I was an authority on so many subjects when I couldn’t have felt more like a freshly hatched chick in a foreign world. I grew up a lot during that trip around the state of Guerrero (now a major hot spot for drug war activity). I also formed a special connection with Mexico, the friend I spent every day with for four and a half weeks. When I left, I swore that someday I’d be back.

Making a hammock. Yucatan, Mexico.

Making a hammock. Yucatan, Mexico.

That “someday” was last week. A lot has changed for both me and Mexico, but one thing hasn’t: it’s still one of my favorite countries. Maybe it’s all the bonding time we’ve had together, but I find it misunderstood. When people think of traveling to Mexico these days, they immediately think “dangerous” and “drug wars.” Yes, these two things are a large piece of Mexico’s current reality, and you do have to be careful where you go and how adventurous you get. But — and this was my third trip to Mexico — I can honestly say that I never, at any point, felt unsafe or threatened by anyone around me. The Mexican culture, history, food and landscapes are really complex and beautiful beyond the surface. Granted, I spent most of this trip at a luxurious resort, but it is still worth mentioning that there are so many layers to Mexico worth exploring.

I am guilty of misunderstanding Cancun. It was my first time in the Yucatan region, and I was hesitant to head this direction. Considering it has some of the best deals right now, I would have been silly to ignore it as an option. I am glad I didn’t.

This time around, I was one of the “other” people — the vacationers, not the guidebook writer. I had every right to sit around and do nothing on the beach of a beautiful hotel that someone else had written about, but I tried to squeeze in some culture and history too. And this time around, my career has totally changed. I am now a few months away from beginning grad school to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy. In some ways, I am unrecognizable. But what about Mexico? Who had Mexico become since we last explored each other?

Skulls. Chichen Itza burial site. Mexico.

Skulls. Chichen Itza burial site. Mexico.

Before I left, I imagined Cancun would be seedy, dirty, run-down, full of bars with names like Señor Frog’s and Coco-Bongo, and with drunk American tourists to match.  What I found was pristine, white sandy beaches with the most stunning gradient of blue water. Along with relatively responsibly-tipsy Americans, I encountered Brazilian, European and Mexican tourists lining the not-overly-crowded pool and beach areas, and gorgeous landscaping at every turn. It was clearly the off-season, and with much construction (brand new hotels and malls cropping up every 100 feet), I could see how crazy this island could get (did you know Cancun is an island?). But, thankfully, crazy wasn’t what I got during my trip. Words I’d use to describe Cancun based on my recent experience would be peaceful, beautiful, refreshing… and misunderstood, by me at least. Except for the unexpected cold rain during my first two days down there, I was happily surprised by most of it. Maybe Mexico was surprised with me this time around, too.

I’ll write more about my visit to Chichen Itza in a later post. For now, I just wanted to quickly tip my hat to the Mexico I revisited. On my trip home the other day, a song came on the radio. The song was one that played all the time when I was in Mexico seven years earlier, alone and uncertain but thrilled to be doing what I was doing. I was on an adventure, if nothing else. This time around, as I listened to the song, I couldn’t help but smile: There I was — the same me, on a completely different trip to Mexico, awash in another adventure, but so much has changed. So many lessons have been learned and so many trips have occurred in-between. I couldn’t help but think about everything that had happened between that song then and that song now, like two book ends neatly holding together a collection of very different stories.

Ocean blues. Cancun, Mexico.

Ocean blues. Cancun, Mexico.

When the song ended, a new one came on. It had no direct association to a memory of any kind, so I just listened. While the nostalgia from the previous song retreated into my mind like a giant, swirling wave, it left behind some fresh, untouched sand. I thought about switching stations, but instead I just let the new song play. As I listened, the first few footprints were made in the freshly cleared sand.

I smiled to myself as I sat alone, with a crisp new tan already beginning to fade, feeling anything but alone this time around.

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Filed under Mexico, Solo Travel, Travel, Uncategorized, wanderlust