In February 2005 the Eighth International Symposium on Laser Metrology was held in the city of Merida, Mexico, in the heart of the Yucatan, a Mexican state. From the first time I heard of this meeting through its organizers, Fernando Mendozo-Santoyo and Ramon Rodriguez-Vera, two years earlier, I had planned to attend, for two primary reasons: 1) I wanted to find out what the Mexican optical scientists were doing in the center at Lyon, and 2) (Probably the real reason) I wanted to return to the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, which lies halfway between Merida and Cancun. I had gotten a tempting taste of this magnificent ruin 15 years earlier.
There are so many conferences these days one must choose carefully to keep up with the world of science, yet not spend every waking hour sitting in meetings. Many science and engineering societies compete and rarely communicate with each other and they organize almost identical, overlapping conferences, even in the same country. The Internet has connected scientists from every part of the world in ways we could never have imagined. This enables relationships, both professional and personal, to develop that otherwise would never have been. It also greatly simplifies and enables meetings like this one not only to happen but also to achieve a really high quality when the organizers are as competent and hard working as they were in the Merida example.
Vladimir Markov, Natasha, his wife, and Pauline joined me for the trip. I discovered the first useful travel tip while making ticket searches. You can fly to Mexico on Mexicana airlines tickets for about half the cost of any of the U.S. airlines, and with better connections. Even with Mexicana airlines, the ticket pricing seemed somewhat random, even on the airline’s web site. Vladimir paid a hundred dollars less than I had paid on the same web site the day before. Another interesting transaction occurred in the LA airport. I had discovered before that LA currency changers give about the worst rate of exchange you can get anywhere. Nevertheless, I wanted to have a few Mexican pesos in my pocket upon arriving in Mexico, because we had a long layover in Mexico City, and I had no idea what the availability of money would be in the waiting area. (As it happens one can spend dollars about as easily as pesos in the airports.)
The exchange minimum was 100 dollars, which got me 950 pesos. I suggested to the others that we could share the pesos until we got to a bank in Mexico, when the exchange lady who had overheard, warned us. "You had better change money here. You will get a better rate, and they will rip you off in Mexico." So everyone, halfway believing the lady, and having heard a lot of scary tales about Mexico, changed 100 dollars. That transaction turned out to be a waste of over 50 dollars for the group. In Mexico we go as high as 1150 pesos for 100 dollars and never less than 1000, and the Mexicans never charged a commission, which had amounted to 6 dollars for each of us in LA. So beware the LA moneychangers; they will rip you off.
We arrived in Merida, a sprawling city of over a million people, late that night, around 10 PM, and it was a wonderful treat to be met by members of the meeting committee to ferry us to the hotel. You just can't beat the good feeling of seeing a friendly face upon arriving in a foreign airport. We stayed in the Hyatt Regency, which lies about two miles north of the town center, at the corner of 60th and Colon Streets. Since it was late we turned in with plans for an early Sunday morning start to explore the town. We had a great room on the 17th floor looking right down 60th Street South towards the town center.
After a great breakfast of fruits and breads we voted to take a local bus to the town center. Stepping out of the elevator I spotted Werner Juptner, a friend from Germany, who was attending the conference, and he agreed to join us. While standing in front of the hotel to get our bearings, we observed a lot of commotion along a street in the opposite direction of 60th street and spontaneously redirected our route to see what was happening. I could see that both Werner and Vladimir were going to pass the test as "worlds worst tourists". Our change of plan was a great fortuitous choice.
The widest street in Merida is the Paseo de Montejo, and it runs for about a mile from a major monument, Monumento a la Patria, on the north side of town almost to the town center. It is lined with very fine homes, many of which now have been converted into museums, banks, and restaurants. The commotion was a huge, peaceful protest by 5,000 plus teachers who were marching to protest wage reductions and rule changes. Bands, floats, banners and singing filled the air with excitement. We joined in and walked with them until the streets again narrowed. At that point we separated and chose a less noisy street to finish the walk. Along the way we stopped and visited churches, the performing arts center, and few shops.
I was impressed with the cleanliness of the city, where the streets are swept each night. There was no graffiti to be seen and remarkably few beggars. In the town center is a small park, the main cathedral, the mayor’s office, and several restaurants. Sunday is a market day and vendors selling food, crafts, and clothes surrounded the park. A service was underway in the cathedral so we could only take a glimpse at this point. We spotted the museum of modern art and wandered in to see a delightful display of art of every variety.
The walk and the excitement had made us all thirsty and ready for one of the sidewalk cafes. The West side of the square, opposite the cathedral was the best choice with a view of the park and the cathedral. As we walked along rows of occupied tables it seemed we would have to look further until a gentleman, who was sitting alone at a table invited us to take the empty seats. At first I hesitated but then sensed that he was truly reaching out with a friendly gesture and accepted. This led into a very interesting and useful exchange. We all introduced ourselves, ordered cerveza (beer) and began to practice our Spanish with this really gracious Meridian. His name was Ruben, and he had lived in Merida all of his life. He was waiting at the restaurant for his son, Pedro, who met him every Sunday after his wife had passed on a year ago. Although he spoke excellent English he was delighted to help us practice our Spanish.
The sidewalk cafe came complete with entertainment, including local vendors attempting to sell some of the damndest things, most of which we passed on with a courteous "No Gracias", musicians who strolled the streets and folk dancers who filled the streets. A magician approached out table and captured our attention with a few simple tricks, which included a box of matches that suddenly could become empty when you take a second look, a mysterious moving toothpick that seemed to move from one hole to another in an ice cream stick, and finally a disappearing scarf. After the old man had us laughing with his speechless show, he offered us these tricks for ten pesos each, about a dollar. Werner bought the disappearing matches and I bought the magical toothpick, and we got his value many times over during the next two days. I still spring the magical ice cream stick on anyone who will humor me.
Finally Ruben’s son arrived, and after introductions and more chatting we split to get a better view of the dancers in the street and also to look for a late lunch. Natasha had heard do many stories about food poisoning in Mexico that she was at first reluctant to eat outside of the hotel. With a little persuasion she reluctantly agreed to try one of the nicer restaurants on the square. Although we still avoided drinking water and eating raw food we ordered traditional Yucatenecan food. About all I can say about that first meal is that the beer was good and the food stayed down. It is an understatement to say that we had many better Yucatenecan meals in the days to follow.
For the next hour or so we wandered around the side streets, checked out the fish market and looked over the souvenirs. As evening approached, as tired as we were, we still chose to walk the two miles back north along Sixtieth Street to the hotel. Arriving back at the hotel in time for the conference reception, we met others who would be attending, and after downing a few glasses of local wine had dinner in the hotel restaurant. Each night Vladimir and I walked the Paseo de Montejo for exercise, noting that the restaurants were still filled with customers late into the night. Even at midnight people were on the streets and the horse carriages still carried passengers up and down the elegant street.
On the first official day of the conference, the ladies took advantage of the companion events that included various tours of villages around Merida, the coast, and ancient ruins. After the first morning session I realized that this was going to be a first rate conference, and I could see that my time for touristing would be limited. The conference fee included an amazing Yucatenecan buffet for lunches that offered some of the best food we ate during the entire trip. However, a few surprises lurked within the buffet.
On the first day one of the dishes included something that looked like sautéed green beans, and all meals included various salsas. Almost simultaneously, Vladimir, who sat immediately in front of Hans Tiziani, and me who sat next to him made the same mistake. After sampling the salsa and finding their mouths on fire attempted to quench the fire by shoveling in a fork full of "green beans". These turned out to be the hottest peppers, in disguise, either of them had ever sampled. For a moment we fully expected Hans' head to explode. The news spread fast and others avoided that mistake.
Monday evening featured a reception in the central courtyard of the University of the Yucatan, near the town square. During this reception very talented musicians, who were all students at the university, entertained us. The next few days included banquets, receptions, and an amazing collection of extremely high quality technical presentations from some of the worlds leading experts in laser metrology. It seems that experts from all over the world had looked upon this conference much as I had done. The conference was attended by a record six "Knights of Holography", an international brotherhood of scientists who have been selected for outstanding work in holography. The meeting was not only a place to see presentations of the state of the art, but also a place to sit casually over a beer and discuss dreams and wild ideas in optics with the best in the world. A
A Tuesday evening reception was provided in a local restaurant by Malgorzata Kujawinska, SPIE president. During this reception we sampled various Yucatanecian dishes and great Mexican wine along with casual conversations with some of the best minds in optics.
Despite all of this, I refused to miss an opportunity to paint pleine aire in Merida so I picked Wednesday morning as my time to play hooky and paint. Pauline assisted me in conquering the bus system by taking a local bus South on 58th Street to the town center at a whopping cost of 5 pesos, about 50 cents. After helping me pick out a Mexican shirt, she left me on my own to paint the rest of the afternoon as she headed off on her own.
Almost anywhere on this square deserves to be painted by an artist. I selected a spot in the shade overlooking the mayor's office, not knowing at this time that our banquet would be held in the same building on Thursday. After about an hour buried in my deepest right brain with beautiful stucco coloring and a clock tower, I realized that I was being carefully examined by a curious and concerned little boy of about five years of age. The clock face was white on black. Because I had not brought masking fluid that would allow me to do this easily in watercolor, I had painted the clock black on white. This troubled the little boy, who tried very hard to convince me that " El numeros no es negro.....es blanco." I did not know how to explain my problem to him, so I just smiled and took his picture with my digital camera. He seemed so delighted upon seeing himself that he gave me a break and ran laughing back to his father who seemed happy that I had paid him at least some attention. I could imagine him telling his father that this stupid American artist could not distinguish "negro from blanco".
Having finished my painting, I needed to get back to the hotel in time for our evening trip to Uxmal, an ancient Mayan city. I wandered along 60th street until I could determine where I could get on the bus, which is not really that obvious. I could only hope that Pauline had made it back to hotel, herself. Figuring out where to get on the bus is not a trivial problem and I could only watch others who seemed to know exactly what to do. Pauline had faced the same problem earlier. I was so proud of myself for getting back on the bus that, sitting totally relaxed, I closed my eyes and apparently dozed momentarily. My next horror was looking outside the window to an environment that suggested I had either gone to far or got on the wrong bus. I got off at the next stop. I found myself in a place where I would have to speak Spanish to figure out where the hell I was. My heart both sunk and rose when I heard a kind lady pointed down the road with the words "diez o diez e dos" . It sank with the thought of ten to twelve blocks, and it rose when I realized that at least I was not in Cancun. As tired as I was I walked rather that attempting to get back on a bus going the other way. After about 8 blocks I felt some relief upon seeing the hotel. Up until that point I was hoping she didn't mean ten miles.
The privilege of climbing and wandering around inside a two thousand year old Mayan archeological site is a special treat that you will rarely experience anywhere else in the world. Elsewhere, such structures have fences or even buildings around them to preserve them from tourist destruction. In the USA the restrictions are there to protect the owner from being sued by the tourists who break bones while falling. We had about an hour to climb the various pyramids at Uxmal, not nearly enough time. The Pyramid of the birds, which I had climbed once before, is one of steepest and scariest of all. Apparently, tourists are no longer allowed to climb it. I wandered if this was the gradual beginning of the isolation of these magnificent structures from the perils of tourism. This pyramid has the unique characteristic that one can stand before it and clap and the echo sounds like the chirp of a bird. From the top of one of the pyramids we began to observe the most amazing sunset I had ever seen. Unfortunately, our guide began herding us back to the central court where we were scheduled to see a traditional light show where music and lights play on the pyramids. I thought it ironic to abandon such a magnificent natural light show to see electrical lights come on and off to the chants of CHAAAC (the rain god).
We left in the dark as the next light show group was replacing us. Everyone mounted the buses for a trip to a nearby hacienda.
Thursday night featured the conference banquet, which was held on the balcony of the mayor’s office, the very balcony I had painted a few days earlier. We ate and drank Yucatenecan food and wine while listening to a Mariachi band and also watching the show in the streets on the square below. About half way into the banquet the Knights of Holography conducted a ceremony in which the next holoknight was knighted into the order.
The knights of holography, founded in 1980 by Hans Rottenkolber, a well known holographer from Germany, is an organization that chooses a new knight and welcomes him into the group during an optics conference. The chosen knight reigns over the next year and then selects a new knight who must be approved by the others. Each knighting service is conducted with a real sword selected by the reigning holoknight and a parchment naming the new holoknight, both of which are presented as gifts to the new holoknight. The name of each new holoknight is a closely held secret right up to the moment of knighting, and the new knight is always taken by surprise. The reigning holoknight, Anand of Singapore, had selected Armando of Santa Catarina (Brazil), who was totally surprised and delighted with his new sword. Holoknights are always quick to tell of the difficulties encountered when taking their swords back home across international borders. This is always a challenge since each new holoknight must select the next one from a country other than his own. The International Order of Holoknights is another organization that never could have grown without the Internet.
After the banquet Vladimir, Natasha, Pauline, and I elected to ride back to the hotel in one of the horse driven carriages, giving us a great view of the city at night. I have to admit I have loved doing this ever since I took my grand kids in a carriage around Nashville, Tennessee, even if it is a great tourist attraction. After all, I don't have to be the World's Worst Tourist all of the time.
By Friday my brain was so full of optics and technical discussions I was ready to escape to the planned weekend at Chichen Itza. In looking for ways to get from Merida to Chichen Itza, I had originally planned to hire a taxi or shuttle, which before had been an efficient and cost effective method. After some research Vladimir and I agreed that the best method was to rent a car, which we could drive and return directly to the Merida airport on Sunday. This worked out well with two (minor?) glitches. The first was just getting out of Merida. The president of Mexico, Viconte Fox and the governor of Yucatan were visiting Merida on Friday. Streets were blocked and restricted, security was tight, and snipers could be seen on every rooftop. The car rental people helped us around the first hurdle by somehow getting to car to us. The second problem, a Mexican car renter's nightmare, was to come later.
I had selected the Mayalands Hotel, because it lies immediately next to the ruins, and even has its own entrance to Chichen Itza. The hotel is a beautiful site with thatched roof bungalows and sprawling gardens filled with birds and iguanas. Peacocks stroll around everywhere and every view begs to be painted or photographed. We arrived too late to enter Chichen Itza so we elected to tour the immediate area viewing local scenery.
The town of Piste lies about a mile from Chichen Itza. Our objective was to purchase some wine, snacks, and maybe a souvenir in the town. Everything except the souvenir happened with little effort. Buying a souvenir is a bit more of a challenge because one has to figure out what to pay. I began looking for a Mayan calendar, which is not hard to find in the Yucatan. Upon picking up one, a nice old lady began pushing the sale. She began explaining the calendar and handed me a legend, which interpreted the symbols. At that moment Vladimir walked up and began his Spanish routine.
Vladimir, having lived in South America for a couple of years could more or less get by in Spanish. Although I can read Spanish, my vocal and hearing skills are sufficiently bad that it is very hard work for me to carry on a useful conversation in Spanish, so my brain often simply turns off, rendering me effectively helpless in such a conversation. I was quickly learning that in the airports as well as the Yucatan, almost anyone that a tourist really needs to speak with can speak better English than any of us, including Vladimir, could speak Spanish. And yet, whenever Vladimir began with Spanish they were more than happy to continue in Spanish. So whenever Vladimir took over in any kind of negotiation in restaurants, hotels, or taxis, I suddenly had little idea what was going on. Sometimes, to my dismay, I would later discover that neither did Vladimir.
I took that opportunity to exit the transaction and proceed along the street. After spotting a few more Mayan calendars the first having offered the legend with the calendar was my favorite so decided to head back to the first store. Alas, everyone was waiting at the car. I beckoned them to give me just a minute while I checked the price. The lady was asking 200 pesos, about twenty dollars for a stone calendar. I had no idea where to take the bid, so, wanting the calendar, I offered 150. She immediately responded, "It's a deal," and I knew I had offered too much. But, what the hell, the calendar is worth 15 bucks.
Taking my calendar and heading for the car, the lady next door shoved a calendar that I liked even better into my face. "How much?" I queried, hardly slowing my pace back to the car. "Sixty pesos", she replied. I took it. Heading back to the hotel, Vladimir spotted a roadside stand with hammocks like the ones on the porch of our bungalow and pulled over. After a few minutes looking we all returned to the car, with Vladimir carrying, not a hammock, but a stone calendar, more or less like the ones I had purchased for 200 then 60 pesos. He had paid fifty.
Near the Mayalands Hotel is the Hacienda Chichen, where I had stayed before. This hotel has its own personality, and it is possible to walk through the woods behind it directly into the Chichen Itza ruin, enabling one to sneak back into the ruins after closing hours. (You can also do this from the Mayaland Hotel, but there are more people who can catch you there.)
One of the important tricks to visiting Chichen Itza is to be at the gate when they first open in the morning. This allows you to enjoy it before the tour bus crowds arrive plus the hundreds of local merchants selling trinkets and crafts. The crafts are okay, but don't waste valuable pyramid exploring time on that. You can buy an embroidered handkerchief for 10 pesos from one of kids or little old ladies or an onyx snake for 100.
Being the first to enter the park, we headed straight for El Castillo, the tallest pyramid. Steep stone stairways rise on all sides, though not as steep as those up the Temple of the Birds. Climbing up it is less scary than coming down. If you slip, you would not stop until you reach the bottom. At the bottom of the stone railing of each stairway is a snake's head. During the equinox the shadow of the pyramid edge forms a zig zagging snake's back along the stone railing edge that appears to slide downward into the ground as the sun goes down. This represented fertilizing the soil and a time for planting each year. The Mayan's were experts at timing astronautical events and the movement of the sun. Their calendar is said to be the most accurate calendar ever produced, and the knowledge and ability of the Mayan priests to predict the seasons gave them great power over the ordinary people.
The first thing we saw upon arriving at the top was a sleepy hound dog lying in the sun. It is hard to imagine how or why he came up there or how he will get down. We saw a lot of these dogs strolling around the park. He paid no attention to us and was still sleeping when we left. The view from the top of El Castillo is magnificent, with a site of ruins poking up from the jungle in all directions. A narrow path surrounds a small room with carved walls and sculptures that one can touch and really be with. While realizing that tourists such as us are slowly damaging and destroying these treasures, the temptation to fully experience them is too great to pass up. I sat on the top of El Castillo for some time and meditated about a remarkable civilization that embraced human sacrifice, apparently where to be sacrificed was a cherished honor.
Viewing east I could see the temple of a thousand columns, a place that served as a market place, topped with the famous Chac Mul, a sculpture in which sacrificial hearts were place.
Looking westward we could look into the ball court where a ceremonial game was played and where the captain of the winning team was honored by beheading him right on the spot. The walls of the court are carved with the story. Blood gushes from the captain's severed neck as his head lies on the ground. There is something really mystical about the ballcourt. One can imagine the players challenging each other to put the ball through the hoop and receive the ultimate honor.
As with other structures the Mayans built in unique mathematical and physical features. One of these is the number seven, which was sacred to the Mayans. Each team had seven players, the rings were seven meters high, and seven serpents grew out of the beheaded captain’s decapitated neck. Clap your hands or shout in the court and you can hear seven echoes. Most mystical of all is the Mayan belief that on 22 December, 2012, Kukulkan will rise from the ground beneath the ball field and destroy the world.
Inside El Castillo is another smaller pyramid and it is possible to climb to its top, also, while being sandwiched, claustrophobically, between the inner and outer pyramids. At the top is a sculpture of a jaguar (pronounced "huawhar" in Spanish).
Near El Castillo is a path that leads to a cenote, a place where an underground river breaks through the surface to form a small lake, and a place where Mayans got their water and also sacrificed people. By this time the path was lined with vendors selling just about everything a person doesn't need, from stone huawars to wooden snakes. At the cenote a rope warns you to not veer too close to the edge since with a small slip of your footing you would plunge over the cliff a hundred feet down to the water to join the spirits of many others who were tossed them in sacrificially.
In the opposite direction lies various other pyramids and temples, each having its own personality and worth a careful look. One of the most famous is the Observatory, which was used to predict astronamical events. Beyond that is the sweat house, which was featured in the movie "Against All Odds and the temple of the Gods, where the sultry sex scene between Jeff and Rachel Ward took place, not to mention to death of his betraying assistant football coach, who later was dumped into the cenote. Nobody mentioned the mile and a half they would have had to carry him through tourists to the cenote.
Hoping to recognize where some of these scenes were shot, I began looking for passageways into the temple. Finally, I found a hole in one of the back walls large enough for me to enter. I continued down a hallway for about 20 feet where it made a sharp left turn into darkness. The tiny light on the end of my key ring was essentially useless, so I felt my way along the cold stone walls with my hands. In retrospect, I cannot imagine being stupid enough to continue groping my way into the darkness, maybe hoping to see some light at the proverbial "end of the tunnel". I cannot imagine why what happened next had not occurred to me. The floor disappeared, and I went crashing down into what seemed to be a new level about four feet lower. I was extremely lucky to be able to emerge from this place not on a stretcher. The cuts and bruises and stiff left arm from breaking the fall stayed with me for over a month reminding me never to be that stupid again. I don't like to think of how badly such a great day could have ended.
Next we headed back to the hotel for a late buffet lunch under a grass-roofed patio. As we ate, colorful dancers entertained us while dancing and balancing trays of beer on their heads. We then planned to drive to a nearby village and to return to the ruins later in the afternoon. However, upon arriving at the bungalow, we discovered that Werner, Wolfgang, Hans and Ricardo, their former student, who now lived in Merida, had been there earlier and had left a note with Werner's cell phone number. I was amazed to discover that my T-mobile phone actually was useable here in the jungle, since I don’t always get a signal even in my own home in Costa Mesa, CA. Within a few minutes I was talking to Werner with a call that was routed through Germany and back to Mexico. He was standing before the Observatory as we spoke and he agreed to return to our bungalow shortly to help celebrate Pauline's sixtieth birthday.
We had prepared a small cake, candle, and a bottle of champagne, which just happened to provide eight small servings in anything we could find that resembled a glass. The Germans showed up with a box of chocolates and bouquets of flowers that they had picked along the way. We all sang and celebrated the event and took turns posing in the three hammocks that were suspended on the bungalow porch.
They invited us to join them in a trip to some nearby caves in the village of Valladolid, and we accepted. In the hotel car park we encountered the second problem with renting a car, the rental car nightmare about which I had heard. Someone had yanked (or maybe knocked) the rear bumper right off the car. I had heard of various insurance scams in Mexico where such things happen to rental cars. Ricardo helped us negotiate the settlement and the replacement of the car, but this sequence of events had disallowed any car travel for a few hours. So we parted ways with our German friends who continued their tour to the caves while we waited on a new car to arrive. We never figured out if this was a scam or not. We had to cover one-third the cost of the estimate $900 repair. It is hard to imagine that this repair could have been done for less than $300. So if it was a scam, we could not imagine how it worked.
While waiting we made various attempts at getting the hotel to assume some responsibility for the car damage since it had occurred in their guarded lot. This was the fishy part. Within 100 feet of the car was a hotel receptionist in an open shelter in clear view of the car, which we determined had been damaged between 9 AM and 2 PM in broad daylight. The hotel management refused to bare any responsibility; however, as we sat down for a late lunch, the waiters kindly informed us that our dinner would be covered by the hotel. We don't know how the waiters knew us.
Pauline and I took this opportunity to return to Chichen Itza. This visit was much more relaxed the morning trek, giving me an opportunity to sit and paint El Castillo. We stayed in the park until a ranger on a bicycle ran us off at 5:30.
Later in the evening a striking sunset over the Observatory, enjoyed over a margarita on the porch of hotel bar mollified our earlier mood. An evening in such a delightful venue of flowers, birds, and animals would calm anyone’s nerves.
The only real challenge of the next day was to find the airport, which took about an hour and a half from Chichen Itza.