This week’s entries come to you from the village of Colnbrook, just outside of Heathrow Airport. I find myself in this unlikely place due to a last minute trip to kick off a new job that I started on Monday as a developer advocate for the newly launched Travelport Developer Network. Feeling trapped by the manicured comfort of my hotel, I needed to get out. Knowing that a trip to Central London wasn’t feasible, I settled for exploring the nearby town, stopping in at The Ostrich, which just happens to be England’s 3rd oldest pub.
As I savoured my Guinness, I read a pamphlet which detailed the history of the inn, dating back to the year 1106. Before there were trains, there were stage-coaches, which gave rise to an industry of coaching inns. The Ostrich was a popular stop for travelers from London on their way to see the king at Windsor Castle, where they might swap horses and change out of their riding clothes and into more formal wear.
Of particular notoriety was a 17th century proprietor named Jarman. He and his wife built an elaborate trap door in the room above the kitchen and would drop unsuspecting lone riders with large purses into a boiling cauldron in the middle of the night.
Business travel is rarely glamorous. When one isn’t working, it can be all too easy to relax into the comfort of expense-paid 4 star hotel luxury. However, one just has to walk out the door and be open to finding a little adventure.
The longest total solar eclipse of the 21st century has already happened, just two years ago on July 22, 2009. Totality could be seen from eastern India, through China, and across the Pacific – a swath of darkness 1000s of miles long and only 160 miles wide. We chose to watch this cosmic event at the feet of Guan Yin, on the island of Putuoshan, in the South China Sea, near Shanghai. The island is named for the mountain at its heart, one of the four sacred mountains of Buddhism, and which is the earthly home of Guan Yin, the bodhimanda of Avalokiteśvara.
This longest eclipse of the century had much anticipation for many eclipse chasers. This was our first, and we had no expectations, but we did hope to actually see the eclipse. As our luck would have it, the day was thick with cloud cover. Very few in our corner of China were able to actually see the event itself.
That said, it was no less magical or spiritual. For over six minutes, what had been daylight a few minutes ago was now darkness. The Goddess was suddenly glowing gold against a night sky.
A few hours north of the capital Vientiane, Luang Prabang is a unique fusion of French European and Laotian culture, with both Laap and the best croissants we’ve ever had. Resting at the point where the Khan meets the great Mekong, the confluence of the two rivers is a striking difference.
Where the Mekong meets the Khan — Luang Prabang, Laos
However, one of my favorite memories of Luang Prabang is sitting on a riverside patio, drinking Beerlao and watching the sun set behind the karst mountains to the west. Longboats that would ferry tourists up the river to the Pak Ou caves and back would return downstream and have to swing wide against a very fast and strong current in order to dock for the night.
As lavender clouds herald the rising sun, over 300 men and women ready themselves for a grueling journey, hoping that five months of hard training have prepared them for this day. Barefoot and dressed in simple linens, they walk across the white sand beach with oars in their hands to a line of dugout canoes strung out along the shore. Spurred on by the beating of drums, they paddle away through a haze of burning copal incense.
Canoeists digging in as a Shaman watches
This was the scene a few weeks ago at Xcaret, a cultural resort on the Mayan Riviera, halfway between Cancun and Tulum. These dedicated canoeists were the most important participants in the 5th annual Sacred Mayan Journey, bringing to life an ancient and sacred pilgrimage. Over the course of nearly seven centuries, millions of Mayan pilgrims would make the journey to the village of Polé, where Xcaret now stands. Often traveling in groups, they walked for hundreds of miles on white stone “sacbe” highways across the Yucatan Peninsula. Some would be ferried up the coast in canoes from Mayan port cities as far away as Honduras.
Turning the corner into rough seas
Once at Polé, these worshippers would brave 17 miles of rough seas to reach the island of Cutzamil (Cozumel), where they would bring offerings and pray to the goddess Ix Chel for prosperity, bountiful crops, and fertility. As a rite of passage, young women would travel with their families to receive her blessing and ask for strong sons. This important journey was put to an end with the Spanish Conquest when the crown prohibited the Mayans from crossing the water, but in 2007 a coalition of sponsors, including the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, got together to revive this tradition and promote Mayan culture.
A Mayan Market and a Shipwrecked Sailor
The 2011 Sacred Journey (Travesía Sagrada) officially began the night before with the recreation of a Mayan market, called a Kii´wik. Using cacao beans instead of pesos, we joined the other invited guests in bartering for such items as dried fish, fresh fruit, necklaces, and roasted tortillas. The vendors wore white linens and their language was Mayan, not Spanish. I tried to buy a beautiful pink seashell for my lovely wife back home, but the tanned woman simply held her hands out as if holding a basketball representing how many cacao beans I would need.
With the setting sun, we were ushered away from the ancient bazaar towards a small cove to witness the opening ceremony. A large man – tall and broad, wearing bells around his ankles and dressed in feathers and gold jaguar shoulder plates – strode across the sandy beach waving a censer of copal. After sanctifying the space, the King of Polé received the visiting pilgrims who presented their offerings. Among the corn, flowers, and jewelry was a man in chains. A stranded Spaniard, Gonzalo Guerrero begged for his life.
Gonzalo Guerrero begs for mercy
As his luck would have it, the princess took a liking to him. The king commanded Gonzalo to beg for Ix Chel’s mercy, so he joined the pilgrims as a slave and Zazil Há waited for his return.
30 hours after watching the canoes charge out into the ocean with the sunrise, the crowds gathered on the shores of Xamanhá (Playa del Carmen) to welcome them back.
Zazil Há waiting for Gonzalo
Under the heat of the mid-day sun, brown and white dots on the horizon slowly resolved into the returning worshippers. One canoe after another made landfall, and the beach came alive with the cheers of triumph. The mood was joyous as paddlers hugged each other and helped pull the boats onto land.
Victorious paddlers pull traditional dugout canoes to shore
With Ix Chel’s blessing, Gonzalo was welcomed as a villager and reunited with the princess. Guerrero forsake his allegiance to the crown, marrying Zazil Há and becoming the Chief of the town of Chetumal, helping to defend the Mayan people against his born countrymen. The first Spaniard to fall in love with a Mayan, he fathered three mestizo children, and is considered the father of Mexico.
“Every year has a different story,” pointed out Xcaret’s Chief Communications Officer, Iliana Rodríguez. “This year we’re honoring 500 years since Gonzalo Guerrero came to the Mayan people. Next year we will tell another story.”
My alarm went off at 7:15, in time for a quick breakfast before driving a few kilometers down the road to Chichen-Itza and being the 3rd person through the gate at 8am. I had the ruins largely to myself for the first hour. If you’re going to visit this Wonder of the World, early is the only way.
As is always the case in such places, I was approached by a knowledgeable guide, 30 years studying Mayan history. While I would have loved an in-depth tour, the $60 price tag was too rich for my blood, so I wandered happily on my own. The most famous of the Mayan ruins, it largely did not disappoint. Unfortunately, due to stupid people falling and killing themselves and “Johnny loves Jane” vandalism, all access to the ruins is blocked by ropes. That said, the sense of history was palpable. At one point I touched a column, and had that same feeling I remembered from being able to touch the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum before it was cordoned off a few years later.
Iguanas flitted across the grounds as workers swept and souvenir sellers set up their shops in growing numbers. By the time I left 3 hours later, the central plaza was filling up with tourists, and as I drove away, minivans and buses passed continuously in the other direction.
After a swim at the hotel and a cold beer, I started heading back towards the coast instead of to Merida as originally planned. A friend’s suggestion made my decision for me to spend the night in Valladolid, and I quickly found the best hostel in town, Candelaria, where $10 gets you a dorm bed and breakfast to share with other travelers in a lovely outdoor garden kitchen. I checked in, and drove back to Ek Balam where I had only seen the parking lot yesterday.
The same guide I’d given a ride to offered his services for the same $60 so once again I opted for my own exploration. It was an entirely different experience. Not only did I have the site to myself for a good hour before a small handful of other visitors showed up, but access to the ruins was largely unfettered. I clambered up and around the structures, peeking into corners and crevices. Even though the site is established, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a true explorer coming across something undiscovered in the middle of the jungle.
The highlight was the main and tallest building on the complex, saved for last. I climbed the hundred or more narrow stone steps to the top, where I was in awe of the commanding view over the Yucatan countryside, slash-and-burn farming throwing columns of smoke in the distance. The entrance building seemed far below me, dizzyingly down the steps I’d just climbed. After enjoying the view, I carefully side-stepped halfway down to a platform covered by a thatched roof. I saw what seemed like a reconstruction, perfect in every detail. The same guide was there with a couple, and as they made their ascension to the top, he remained and we chatted for a few minutes. Not a reconstruction at all, it was a tomb that had been discovered only 11 years ago, encased behind a wall, some 1300 years ago, perfectly preserved. This was what he comes to work every day for, to show and to study this section of the complex. With a serious tone, Casimiro said that tourist dollars alone paid for the upkeep of this discovery, including the thatched roof which requires regular maintenance. If there becomes a point that they can’t take proper care of it, they will seal it up again to protect it. Hopefully, this will be unnecessary and it will remain open to future generations, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of seeing something that may one day be hidden behind stone again.