North American travels

Seattle Travel Blog

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Lydia and I started out North American travels with a weekend in Victoria. The city was magical, all dressed up for Canada Day. We walked along the streets past cute old buildings, each one with character, with painted bears being auctioned for charity.

In a second hand bookshop Lydia bought Dr Doolittle for us to share. We went hat shopping, visited Bastion Square and searched for the Bug Museum, before lying down on the grass in front of Parliament House where I read to Lydia. We went to the underwater observatory and watched giant octopus.

We have a beautiful dinner at an Italian restaurant, then we watched the Canada Day fireworks, surrounded by people wearing Red and White, and drunk girls having great faith in safety pins. The Parliament House looked like a Disney caricature of itself, with all the fairy light.

We spent our next day whale-watching, flitting out into the San Juans to watch orcas together, another perfect moment to share. We had lunch back in Victoria, in Willie's bakery, the new one with the extra "i". A sparrow delighted us by bathing in the fountain while we watched. We became distracted with the excellent Royal British Columbia Museum, where a sheep taught us all about global warming, I laughed so hard I cried.

Back in Seattle we shared the fourth of July by walking around Fremont, visiting the Fremont Troll, Lenin, the centre of the universe, and Waiting for the Inter-urban. Soon after we left for Mexico. We got to spend a morning in pretty Merida, where the colonial Spanish streets used to have animal pictures instead of names. We wandered around the little squares and saw the Catedral de San Ildefonso, the Catholic Church made from cannibalising an old Mayan temple built on the site nearly 500 years ago, when the Spanish colonized the area.

From our old colonial hotel, the Santa Lucia, we caught the bus to Celestún and ate dinner on the beach, with Gray Pelicans and Magnificent Frigate birds flying around. Eco Paraiso was a beautiful resort. Just a few thatched houses along the beach, surrounded with plants and birds, little geckos making chirping noises and black iguanas of different colours (we thought there were Black Iguanas, Green-bottom Iguanas and Lydia's Imaginary Iguanas, but it turned out no). Our holiday house had a hammock we rarely used, for the mosquitoes. We swam in the Caribbean Sea, floating in the warm water, and went on a magical boat trip to Celestún Inlet and saw Turkey Vultures in the petrified forest, hummock forest, sand banks full of pelicans, Silver Terns, Gray Herons, Snow Egrets, Sand Pipers, Great Egrets and Double Crested Cormorants. We saw a Russett Spoonbill and flocks of hundreds of Greater American flamingos, beautiful and pink, gracefully and synchronously strutting around, lanky and amusing when taking off or landing. We swam in a fresh water spring in the mangroves, fed by the same underground rivers that cover the Yucatan and pock it with cenotes. In the water, so much colder than the warm ocean, swam fubu pufferfish, needlefish and Mayan cichlid. Above us rested a Turkey Vulture, and near us an American Pygmy Kingfisher. Around our resort were Mexican Pigeons and Hooded Orioles (Lydia's banana bird), after going for an ocean kayak and swim a Yucatan Deer Mouse was waiting on our towel. On a night cruise we went crocodile hunting, we saw Morelett's crocodile and American crocodiles, but our guide failed in his somewhat amusing attempts to catch them by climbing into trees or jumping out the boat. We also saw the cutest crab-eating raccoon, a gray fox, a four-eyed opossum and fishing vampire bats. We went for a hike along the nature trail, requiring full body netting and massive amounts of insect repellent, as the mosquitoes declared war after our long truce. While the trail was overgrown, we got to see the plant tequila is made from, we saw baby egrets and hundreds of fiddler crabs.

After our magical stay at Eco Paraiso we visited the ruins of Chichén Itzá. The city of Chichén Itzá is about 25 square km. It was founded by the seafaring Itza people around 800 CE, who ventured inland and made Chichén Itzá their capital. Most of the early buildings are Puuc style, and the city grew rapidly as their empire expanded, since the Itza had a different style of rulership (multepal, joint or confederate government), making alliances rather than feuds. Later on cultural influences from the west changed the culture, and the Toltec culture influenced the style of buildings and rulership, making the empire more warlike. The city lasted until 1250 CE, when it collapsed and shrank from the 50,000 - 300,000 population to a minor site.

On walking into the grounds of Chichén Itzá, El Castillo stood out, an enormous blocky pyramid in the field of grass (which used to be stone pavings died red with insect extract). The sacred site is 30m tall, with 91 steps on each of the four sides, giving 364 steps (with the platform on top making 365). Numerology and astronomy were very important to the Mayans, with the five adornments on each of the four sides of the platform temple giving the twenty days in the Mayan month. The pyramid is aligned so that the corners of the pyramid point towards the cardinal directions (unlike Egypt, where the faces were cardinal). On the equinox the shadows of the steps form a snake shadow on each corner of the pyramid, a tribute to Kukulkan (the "Feathered Serpent", a key Toltec god). The cultural fusion in the architecture is seen with the important Puuc rain god Chaac at the top, with his hooked nose.

The first place we visited was the Great Ballcourt and the Temple of the Jaguar, built 864 CE. This is where the Mayans played their deadly ball game, a game where the two sides competed to get a small rubber ball through a stone hoop 5m in the air, using rubber bats, legs or arms, but no hands. The carvings on the walls showed the executions that accompanied these games, and remains were found nearby in the Temple of the Jaguar. The Spanish recorded that the captain of the winning team was sacrificed as a great honour, although it may be that the captain of the losing side was the one sacrificed instead, and the small number of sacrificial remains found on site indicate that it may have been a rare event. The ball game was not just a sport, it also played an important spiritual role, connecting the players back to the gods, such that the players underwent sacred cleansing before playing. Lydia told me the story of Ixbalanque and Hun-Apu. Hun Hunahpu was a master of the ballgame, and played it day and night, but disturbed the gods of the underworld with his noise. They brought him down into the underworld, and the lords of Xibalba set him three tasks to succeed or die, after he was killed his skull was hung in a tree as a warning. One day, Xquic, the daughter of one of the lords of Xibalba, approached the tree and the skull spat on her hand, making her pregnant with the twin boys Ixbalanque and Hun-Apu. These twin boys grew up and became very skilled ballplayers, and once again the lords of Xibalba were disturbed with noise. They were brought down into the underworld, where they were given three tasks to do. The hero twins succeeded by trickery, and tricked the lords of Xibalba into allowing their heads to be cut-off, ending their reign and elevating the Hero Twins to godhood.

We visited the Temple of the Warriors, a complex which includes the Temple of Chac Mool (buried underneath), the Court of the Thousand Columns (columns were typical of Toltec era buildings), and the Northwest Colonnade, a beam-and-mortar roofed temple. The carvings, over 220 of them, are a tribute to the warriors important in the Toltec era, mostly spear-throwers wearing cotton armour, but also warriors with spears or clubs studded with stone axes.

The first cenote we saw was the Cenote of Sacrifice, with a stone platform where sacrifices were thrown in. The cenote was beautiful, a sharp cut down into the limestone, with small birds flitting over the water below and carrying food to their nests on the steep walls. The entire Yucatan peninsular is jungle grown over limestone, and the constant rains sink straight into the ground, rather than forming rivers. The limestone has dissolved under the ground to form rivers heading out to the Caribbean, and in places all over the peninsular the limestone above the rivers has dissolved to form a circular pit down into the water below. There is a saying that in the Yucatan there is one cenote for every speedbump. We walked past several more temples and the astronomical observatory that was used to make the calculations required to build the sacred pyramid, before exploring to cenote xtoloc, which was reserved for drinking.

After our spellbinding time at Chichen Itza, we went to a swimming cenote. The swimming cenote was about 20m in diameter, ringed with jungle foliage with trees hanging their long roots down into the water and a pair of Turkoise-Browed Mut-Muts catching flies. We walked down the carved corridor in the stone to reach the waterlevel, about 50m below the surface, and swam in the perfect water of the cenote, with endemic fish species of the Yucatan and with a waterfall splashing down on our heads.

Coming back to America, we caught the Disneyland Shuttle to our hotel, and completely changed our Disneyland Plan. We had lunch at IHOP, where Lydia was defeated by her choc-chip pancakes, then went first to California Adventure. We went to the Bug's Life cinema, where I was stung by a wasp and we had acid sprayed at our faces, we rode on California Screaming, where Lydia gratified the builders with delightful terror. We slowed down with a Bumble Bee flight and Aladdin the musical, which was beautiful. We hopped over to Disneyland for Fantasmic, then got to see many mechanical Jonny Depp's in Pirates of the Caribbean, and visited the Haunted Mansion.

We started out the next morning by zipping through the lines to Space Mountain, which was so much fun, a roller-coaster in the dark with flashing lights, we had to go on it twice. We also tried out the Matterhorn, Peter Pan and It's a Small World After All. For lunch we took a break at Downtown Disney and watched Dead Man's Chest, which was fantastic. To finish off our delightful Disney experience we were dropped in the Tower of Terror at California Adventure. I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed Disneyland. We have to go back now, I want to go on the Jungle Safari, which used to be the most popular ride in the park, but is now considered so lame that it is the only ride that Disney employees have permission to make fun of.

We spent an afternoon catching multiple buses to Caltech for Lydia’s job interview, then we had sangria and tapas at a Spanish place in Old Pasadena. To Stanford the next day, we were both delighted at the ground squirrels, and I got to see woodpeckers.

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photo by: diisha392