Age 14, Birding/Camping Trip, With Aunt and Uncle, Summer, 1974 

Around Merida, Mexico
There are a great many henequens, or sisal plant fields, around Merida. The industry has been collectivized by the government, and the sisal fibers are made into rope, etc. and exported all over the world. The industry has lessened, however, since synthetics, but there are still vast fields of the plant. The plants are green and spiny. The older plants have a sort of trunk before the leaves, making them resemble huge pineapple plants.  Where we were on the airplane flying in, I could see the large fields from the air. Other than some corn and pastureland, these were about the only agricultural fields you could see around Merida.

We noticed when we first came how clear the air was. Without the smoggy haze which we have in Ohio to some extent, things in the distance seem more distinct, colors seem a little brighter, and everything seems sharper and clearer. It is not until you come to as unpolluted a spot as Mexico, that you realize how bad everything is in Ohio.

In this country, there are vultures. Vultures everywhere. Vultures flying, but mostly vultures sitting.  Vultures on power lines, telephone poles, fences, houses, churches, trees —vultures everywhere! Both kinds (turkey and black) are here. … They are everywhere.

The royal poinciana trees are very striking around Merida. I noticed these trees from the airplane, and there are quite a few of them around. They seem solid red from a distance, but really they are a kind of acacia, with the usual long seed pods. Their outstanding feature is the beautiful red flowers, which entirely cover the trees, making them very beautiful. They were in full bloom when we were in Merida, and we kept hoping to see hummingbirds in them. …

In the more affluent part of Merida, the houses were solid and graceful, with extensive gardens and patios around them; Spanish and/or French in design, I believe. The common people’s houses are quite different. They were generally small, one or two rooms, with open rectangular windows (no glass or screens). They were of a solid texture, stone or adobe, perhaps, usually brightly painted, and with the characteristic thatched roof.  I find it hard to believe that a thatched roof really works, but it must.  When you drive by the huts, invariably the doors are open, and you can see the dark, cool (I guess it’s cool) interior, and usually, a hammock concealing a Yucatanian or two.

The people around Merida have a very varied wardrobe. The younger ones, including teenagers, wear more or less modern, American clothes—the miniskirt has arrived, for instance. But the middle-aged and older peoples, plus also younger ones in the lower classes, wear distinctive traditional costumes. The men wear a light-colored kind of trousers and loose shirts, which are tied at the ankles and the wrists. The women have a most unusual dress, called a huipile (pronounced “e-peel”), that is all white and comes down about to the knees, and has a richly embroidered, colorful border around the collar and lower hem. They are quite pretty, and very varied—and worn most often by the older, more traditional women. Also, a long, reddish, narrow, loose sash is worn hanging around the neck and down the back. It is apparently used for such practical purposes as carrying babies, food, etc. Sometimes one sees the women or even little kids carrying big trays of fruit or similar goods on their heads, balanced effortlessly.

There are a great many orioles here. We have seen three kinds around Merida: Altamira, Hooded and Orange. Where there are a lot of orioles, there are a lot of oriole nests. One sees them everywhere. Besides the normal place —a tree—one sees them hanging from telephone wires, power lines, and even fences and similar wooden structures. One cannot drive two miles without seeing at least a dozen nests swaying in the wind.

Puerto Morelos, Mexico
The beach was pure white, with tiny palm trees, and the water simply took my breath away. It was crystal clear, showing the cream-colored sand underneath, and had a greenish tint to it on the part nearest the shore. Then I could see grasses and plants growing farther out, making the water blue; and still farther out, all the water was a deep lovely turquoise. Beyond this turquoise water, I could see, far off-shore, huge waves and surf breaking over the coral reef that protected the beach. This reef is the second largest coral reef in the world, next to the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. … The (snorkeling) mask revealed with beautiful clarity the underwater world. From the shore, the patches that had appeared green, I now found had little or no vegetation growing on them, just rippled white sand.  Sometimes these sands would have flat, scalloped things that looked like fungi, and always the sand was shaped into dunes by the waves. The darker patches of water meant that an abundance of plant life grew on the bottom.  Long, waving grasses and many short green or brown plants grew here. Farther out, there were many clumps of orange or brown seaweed, and still farther out the water turned to a deep, deep, beautiful shade of turquoise. About a mile offshore, the waves broke over the long coral reef. While snorkeling and cruising around on the surface, I found an old tire underwater.  Schools of fish, ranging from about one-half to five or six inches long darted out of the tire and swam about nervously at my approach. By lying flat and motionless on the surface, I was able to observe this pretty little school of fish without disturbing them too much. Exploring further, twice I saw huge conch shells lying on the sea bottom; but both times they still housed a live conch, so I left them alone.  I was utterly fascinated by this underwater world, so different and strange. At last, I tore myself out of the water. …

After lunch, I found a big inner tube, which I took down to the beach with me. After cruising ‘round the shallower waters some. … I flippered my way out quite far…I got out of the inner tube to examine with the mask these deep turquoise waters, which like the more shallow areas, contained patches of seagrass besides being dotted with small plants. But this was hardly necessary, as the water was so clear that by merely floating inside the inner tube and peering over the side, I could see the bottom just as clearly as though I was looking through the mask underwater. So I just lay back effortlessly and relaxed, and let the sea wash me gently to the shore.

The houses here are quite different from those in Merida. They are wooden, not stone, and have metal or wooden roofs, not thatched. Most of them are perched on stilts: a) to get as much breeze as possible; b) to protect against hurricanes, storms, flood, etc.; and c) to provide a convenient place for the livestock to shelter without having to build a barn.  There also are some of the richer people’s houses, which are in an open, American style, only on stilts.  Most of them are brightly colored. (One house had shocking blue shutters.)  A few of the poorer houses were made of poles stuck in the ground close together and a thatched roof. Sometimes the poles were covered with plaster, but most of the time they were not, making very airy homes. As in Mexico, the front door and back door are opposite each other and both are always wide open to let the breeze blow through.

The people here are of many races. They are mostly a mixed mestizo-Negro-Indian kind, with few people of pure blood of any race. The Indian influence is mostly Mayan, with the Mayan nose, and they have their own Mayan language, besides speaking Spanish or English. English is the official language of the territory, but most of the common people speak only Spanish. Those of more or less Negro blood also speak Creole, a kind of pidgin English/French. In general, the people here seem poor, but well-off, though that sounds crazy. They seem happy enough, but rather poor in material things. However, the poultry and livestock all seemed to be of good quality and breeding, and we saw several cars parked beside some of the poorest-looking houses. Belize is known as a melting pot. All races seem to live together with no problems.

What people wear here is quite varied. The women go for short-length, short-sleeved, brightly-colored dresses (very few huipiles). The men wear a nondescript outfit of cut-off pants or trousers, with a loose shirt. Many of the baby boys wear only a shirt!

The machete here is a priceless tool. Everyone has one and everyone uses one. And I mean the big two- or three-foot-long real machetes. When I say everyone, I mean everyone—from the cradle up. I saw a four-year-old boy handle a machete bigger than he was, with expertise, to cut open a coconut. The men use their machetes to mow the lawn. The women use them to prepare food for cooking—some butcher knife!

Though there are a few streams here, they mostly contain swamp water unfit for drinking. So for their drinking water, they use vats. Big wooden, round vats, into which the water from rain runs off the roof into the gutter, into a pipe, into the vats. Most are wooden, but a few are metal. This rainwater is the only water they have—when a drought occurs I should think the results would be disastrous.

The main, and in fact about the only industry in northern Belize is sugar cane. A huge amount of land has been cleared and used for sugar cane fields, of which there are virtually hundreds of acres. The amount of sugar processed through the two big refineries, Libertad and Orange Walk must be enormous, and yet the government still does not seem to be able to build one decent road, the Belize highway.

There are a great many birds here. Not much variety, but vast numbers. The most numerous are gray-throated groundchats, groove-billed anis, boat-tailed grackles, great cowbirds, social flycatchers, mockingbirds, grassquits and seedeaters. Of these, the blue-black grassquits and the white-collared seedeaters deserve special attention. The blue-black grassquits are the cutest little bitty birds. They sit on fences, on top of sugar cane, close to the ground. It is truly a sight to see one of those tenacious little birds clinging to the top of a blade of sugar cane waving about in the wind. They are entirely a glossy blue-black, with a light blue bill. Their song is funny: Aunt says it sounds like a cat-sneeze, but I say it goes “FITZ-shew.” Whenever the males sing their sneeze, they hop straight up a foot in the air, waving their wings about wildly, and then plummet back to their original perch. The seedeaters are so numerous they are almost a nuisance, but they are cute enough for us to forgive. Most of them are pretty tame and will sit right there on the fence next to the road while you drive by. They’re confusing because no two look alike…

Palenque Ruins, MexicoPalenque Ruins: Planque, Mexico

I began climbing the huge Pyramids of the Inscriptions, where the mighty ruler Pacal lies buried. The Mayans had to have some reason for making their steps so darn difficult to climb! The building’s front had been beautifully restored, and it was by far the most spectacular of the buildings. It was four-sided, completely symmetrical, but instead of the big wide steps leading up El Castillo at Chichen Itza, there was a narrow band of steps hardly 10 yards wide going up the center, with the many large terraces otherwise circling it. I climbed the nearly deserted pyramid to its uppermost chambers; inside the kind of temple here was a series of steps leading down into Pacal’s funerary chamber.  Unfortunately, it was closed while I was there. I walked around the pyramid’s top ledge a few times, viewing the thick rainforest on the other side. I also saw a trail plunging right into that forest, which I resolved to clamber on next. Down the steep steps, I went and circled back to climb the rocky trail into the jungle. Although it had not been too bright outside, the sky slightly overcast, about 10 feet into the jungle it was downright dark. The jungle was jungle in every sense of the word: tall, twisted trees, soaring upward for every bit of sunlight, all covered with long vines and creepers, the whole thing absolutely crammed with bushes, shrubs, bromeliads, flowers, plants, trees—all green and all massed together so that it was impossible to separate them. I heard water rushing, and, taking one of the slippery side-paths, I found a tiny little clear, rocky stream, meandering its way down toward the ruins. … Then I walked back out to open ground again on a slippery path, and continued my way on to a group of four smallish temples, situated apart from each other, each on its own hill. I crossed the stream on stepping stones and walked to the farthest temple, the Temple of the Foliated Cross. Up a steep, rocky path I climbed to reach the temple, which had a decorative stone comb on the top of it and a big arch in the center face. In the little open interior room, there was a large beautiful wall carving, showing in the center the god which the temple honored. On each side of the carving of the god was an attendant facing the god offering it something. The entire carving was surrounded by rows of hieroglyphics, probably telling the story depicted in the carving. … I continued down this temple’s path (carefully) and up the next one, which happened to be the Temple of the Cross. This was bigger than the previous one, and the view from it was stupendous. I could see all the rest of the ruins; The Palace (El Palacio), the Pyramid of the Inscriptions, the Temple of the Sun, Foliated Cross, XIV, Conde, and the North group – plus the entire flatlands of Palenque stretched blue-green-yellow before me. The Temple of the Cross had two columns covered with carvings of finely ornamented figures. The detail in all the carvings at Palenque was wonderful.  After descending from this temple, I went over to still another gray stone temple, similar to the others, called the Temple of the Sun. Up this one’s steps and into its chamber there was an entire wall filled with carvings depicting a sun god attended by two servants. On each side of the carving was a panel full of large hieroglyphics. The glyphs are still mysterious, as no one yet can read them. Right next to the Temple of the Sun was Temple XIV.  Here, behind a barred-off partition was another wall depicting a scene concerning a god.  This was the best of the carvings, and some blue and red pigments still remained on the carvings…I again crossed the stream, stopping to splash some of its cool water on my face. I climbed the few steps up to a large, trapezoidal platform and into the palace— a huge maze of walls and rooms, passages and corridors, patios and courtyards. In the center of it rose a two-story building called the Tower. Though there were people in the top of it, I never could find how they got up there. I made it to the lowest level, where I sat to survey my surroundings. Then I explored a few more courtyards and corridors.  One courtyard had two intense bas-relief slabs of stone carvings propped against its wall. The long corridors here had several large three-dimensional round carvings on its walls.  At last, I found my way out to the front steps of the palace, which were wide and beautiful. When I was down on the ground again I noticed the large carvings decorating the columns of The Palace that I hadn’t noticed when I was right up next to them.  I resolved to later re-climb the steps of The Palace and investigate those carvings, but right now I was on my way to El Conde, a large temple to the north of the palace. As usual, I had to practically crawl up those steps on all fours, almost. Though the interior wall had no inscriptions like the others, it was fairly large. I climbed a ladder placed in here, thinking that it must go to something, but there was nothing but the stone ceiling at the top,  so I descended the shaky thing. This temple was shaped much like the others: square, two-roomed, perched on a platform with steps leading up to it. The comb on its roof, however, was quite deteriorated. Down these gray steps, I went and up to a group of low-lying buildings called the North Group. After wandering through the passages and walls here, all in pretty sad shape, I descended to the wide land again and returned to The Palace, whereupon the steps I selected a large column bearing the carving of a warrior in a headdress to photograph. After this, when I saw a mob of about 100 tourists climbing the Pyramid of the Inscriptions, I decided it was time to leave.

Home Again, Day 36
I suppose this brings my adventure to a close.  I enjoyed Mexico, though the saying applies, “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there!”  I hope someday, in different circumstances, I can return.

So, adios!