Category Archives: Museums and History

My Journey to the Place of Red Corn

Late last year, I had the pleasure of visiting my first Mayan ruins at Chacchoben in the forests of Mexico’s coastal state of Quintana Roo. My tour group set out in the morning from Costa Maya on an hour-long trip by van inland to the ruin site itself. Our tour guide was a gentleman by the name of Gabriel, or Gabo for short.

Photos don’t do it justice. Trust me.

Gabo is an interesting guy for a number of reasons. First, he is the answer to the question he gets a lot from tourists: “Where did the Mayans go?” 

“We’re still here,” is his usual answer. Gabo is himself of Mayan descent. In fact, Gabo came from a place in Mexico where the Mayan language is spoken primarily. He learned Spanish as a second language as a kid in school. En route to the ruins, he gave us a bit of history on the Mayan culture, his heritage, and even the Mayan counting system, which used lines and dots with dividing lines to represent escalating multiples of 20, 400, and 8,000.

The leaf/football symbol represents zero.

We arrived at Chacchoben, which means “The Place of Red Corn.” It is located next to a brightly colored traditional Mexican cemetery. I’ll come back to that in a moment. The ruins were rediscovered in 1972 and subsequently excavated in 1994. The area still has places that have not yet been excavated. Occasionally you could see this with an otherwise ordinary hill revealing a fragment of a stone wall peeking through gaps in the dirt. 

This ficus tree is likely more than a thousand years old, possibly more.

Chacchoben is not nearly the largest set of Mayan ruins in Mexico, but they are in remarkable shape considering their age. They date back to the Classic Period of Mayan civilization from about 250 to 900 CE. I’ve heard different estimates of when these ruins were built, but it is likely around 500–700 CE. It can be hard to wrap your mind around just how long ago that was. I had to remind my young son that the buildings there were the oldest that he had ever seen, by quite a large margin.

The people give you a sense of scale.

We toured through plazas and temple complexes in a large loop that goes around the entire site, up and down stone staircases that are narrow enough that it’s easier (and safer) to traverse them sideways. Next to the main temple, there’s even an ancient cieba tree. The branches that grow straight out from the trunk were thought to represent the levels of the heavens, earth, and underworld.    

This is the Cieba tree near the temple in the picture above.

Oh, one other thing that Gabo mentioned, something he was very passionate about: Ancient aliens didn’t build Chacchoben, the Mayans did. None of us had asked him that particular question, but he said it early on in our conversation, almost as if to get it out of the way. I can definitely see why this might be a point of contention for him, especially since there are so many History channel specials out there that talk about ancient aliens.

One place I found of particular interest was one of its most mundane. There was a market square with rows of open stone bleachers that formed a perimeter around a large open space. Gabo explained that this would have been used for town meetings and ceremonies, as well as a farmers market. What struck me most about them was that they still could be used as a market today. Much like the Agora in many Greek cities, this was the beating heart of the community. Almost every citizen would have interacted with it at some point in their daily lives.

Just imagine what life was like here.

Gabo further explained that most of the stone would have been covered in a type of bright white paint. This would allow tradesmen to bring in goods at night when it was cool using only a tiny bit of moonlight.

Speaking of paint, the ruins would have been covered in plaster and painted all sorts of vibrant, almost neon colors. As magnificent as the ruins are as they stand today, we are just seeing the dull under layer. There was one place, at the back of one of the temples, where there is still a tiny bit of the original pigment and plaster. Here it is:

Amazing.

Even in that state, however, there is a definite sense of wonder that you get standing there. These buildings aren’t just for ceremony. No, this is where thousands of people made their home. The echo of their lives still resonates through that place.

Remember the cemetery I mentioned earlier? It’s possible that bright colors we see there are an echo of this tradition. Many of the paints used there are made from natural pigments, so it gives us a potentially tantalizing clue as to the amazing palate the Mayans might have used to paint their buildings.

Once again, photos don’t do it justice.

It certainly makes you wonder why the Mayans might have abandoned this place if they had taken such pains to build them in exacting alignment with the sun and stars. I asked Gabo that very question. He was of the belief that it might have been something as simple as an extended dry period. A crop failure of just one year could have been devastating enough, but if it had gone two or three years in a row, the Mayans might have been forced to find a new place to live just to survive.

This is the back of the of the temple next to the cieba tree. In fact, you can see it in the back ground, just to the right of center

Sooner than I would have liked, it was time for us to load up in the van and head back out to the port. I have to tell you that seeing these ruins has really reignited my interest in Mesoamerican cultures, something I’ve had since I was a kid. At some point in the future, I would dearly love to take a tour of the Mayan and Aztec ruins throughout Mexico and Central America.  

I don’t know if I will ever again have the chance to visit the Place of Red Corn, but I can tell you that I am incredibly grateful to have visited it this once, and walk in the footsteps of the ancients.


My (Most Recent) Trip to the National Museum of the Pacific War

Down in the South Texas hill country, situated between vast open green fields and numerous vineyards, sits the picturesque town of Fredricksburg. Many of the buildings are built of white stone flecked with streaks of orange. The people are friendly, and the whole place just has a good vibe to it, with rows of antique shops, restaurants, and boutiques along the main strip. If you’re ever in the area, I highly recommend stopping over there.

Fredricksburg also has the distinction of being the hometown of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet during World War II. In fact, there’s a large bronze statue of him right next to the old hotel where he grew up, which is now the Nimitz Museum. Just look for the distinctive ‘steamboat’ structure off the main street — you can’t miss it.

20160917_205541

The man himself.

100_0372

The Old Nimitz Hotel (Now the Admiral Nimitz Museum).

If you circle that block, you’ll also find that the town is home to the National Museum of the Pacific War. The place is enormous. It contains hundreds of displays and exhibits, models of ships, uniforms, presentations, and mini-featurettes. It starts with the roots of the conflict between China and Japan, and then takes you all the way through the Pacific War, from Pearl Harbor to the U.S.S. Missouri. Every major engagement and landing is covered here, and in pretty extensive depth. If you tried to read every panel and display, it would take you days to get through it all. Believe me, I’ve tried.

pacific-war-museum

Just around the corner.

Full disclosure: This latest outing to the museum is my fourth trip there. Each time I go, something new resonates with me. The last time I went was when my son was two. The thing that moved me the most then was the famous “Bloody Saturday” photo of a baby crying amid the ruins of a bombed out train station in Shanghai. It’s still a powerful photo, and indeed the entire museum is a moving experience. It’s hard to look at the dizzying scope of the conflict, along with the countless examples of courage and valor, and the loss of so many lives, and not feel something.

Case and point:  Just after the presentation about Pearl Harbor, there is a little alcove that contains a rusty metal hatch. There is a noticeable black stain across the middle of it. Above those black lines is an egg-shaped hole cut into the metal.

At first, it might seem an odd artifact – that is until you realize that it is a hatch from U.S.S. Arizona. The black line is where the oil floated at the waterline. The hole was cut by Navy divers to see if there were any survivors in the compartment. Powerful stuff. Just seeing it is enough to make me tear up.

20160916_164020

Every. Time.

We see it all in black-and-white photos and newsreels, but the time that has passed disconnects us from it. This one piece of rusted metal has a way of bringing me back to one of the darkest days in U.S. naval history.

I hasten to add that, though the museum does present the war from the USA’s point of view, it does not balk at showing the devastation and loss that Japan endured. There’s always the temptation to downplay that aspect of the war, but the museum does not. When a warship went down in the Pacific, several hundred people died, regardless of which flag it was flying, hundreds or thousands at a time.

Horrific.

In fact, on this trip the image that struck me the most was a photo of two dead Japanese soldiers washed up on the shore at Guadalcanal. Both were half-buried in the tide, and looked painfully young. I can’t imagine they were older than 18 or 19. I won’t display it here, but you can find it easily enough on Google.

Now I’m not trying to diminish the impact of those photos of dead American soldiers, such as those taken from the Bataan Death March, just simply reflecting that wars have a cost on both sides. Every one of those boys that didn’t go home left a hole in someone’s life. A mother, a father, wife, son, daughter – you name it. You don’t have to go much farther than the exhibit about the five Sullivan brothers aboard the U.S.S. Juneau to see what I mean.

But, as an anodyne to these feelings of loss and pain, there is one other feature of the grounds that is a ‘must see’ as far as I’m concerned. Just behind the Nimitz museum, there is a Japanese peace garden, a gift to from a group of retired Japanese admirals.

20160918_115539

May peace endure.

It is absolutely stunning. There’s a koi pond, with a flowing water course that winds around the periphery to a replica of Admiral Togo’s study. In the middle of the garden there is a Zen garden made of raked white stone. It’s…pretty sublime standing there, a place of tranquility and introspection.

20160918_120015

Profound.

If you’re ever at the museum and things get just a little too intense, stepping into the garden is a good way to reaffirm the beauty that people can create, even between those who were former enemies. I always like to end a tour of the museum with a stop here. Just my personal preference. It’s the cleansing breath that brings you back to center.

20160918_120135

Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.

Again, if you’re ever in the area, I can’t say enough good things about Fredericksburg and the Pacific War Museum.  I hope that you find it as illuminating, emotional, and powerful as I have.

But don’t take my word for it…


Some Thoughts While Aboard the U.S.S. Lexington

I recently made my way down to Corpus Christi, Texas to visit the “Blue Ghost” of World War II, the U.S.S. Lexington. She’s the oldest aircraft carrier in the world, and one of only three remaining Essex-class carriers. Lexington was decommissioned back in 1991, but despite being inactive for that long a time, she’s a beauty. There is a quiet strength and majesty to her that resonates in the ocean air. Trust me when I say that the pictures don’t do her justice.

IMG_0035

Wow…just wow.

When I visit a place like this ship, a place so weighty with history, I get all introspective. This isn’t so I can look brooding, or so that I can recite some sort of inner monologue, but simply because I can feel the echoes. I took the ‘hard hat’ tour, which allows you to go into spaces that are usually off limits to the public. I walked just a fraction of her labyrinthine interior, through rusted hatches, up stairwells, and past any number of compartments lost entirely in darkness. People lived and died here.

IMG_0039

Crew berthings.

I went up to the flight deck and stood at the rails overlooking the ocean. The waters are a deep forest green there. In the distance someone rode a jet ski. I scanned the beach to see people fishing off the wave breaks, swimming, and enjoying their time at the beach in the shadow of a colossus. My feelings were bittersweet as I stood there.

IMG_0048

Up on the flight deck.

On the one hand, I am glad that Lexington survived the war, and avoided the breakers that claimed Enterprise and so many others. She’s a part of history, and the historian in me is overjoyed that she’s still around. Even beyond WWII, any number of factors could have ended with her at the bottom of the ocean, or torn apart. But she bucked the odds at every turn to eventually find a permanent home in Corpus.

The Blue Ghost

Historical marker.

But on the other hand, she’s warship who will never see active duty again. Once she was one of the mightiest vessels on the ocean, and now bored teenagers scratch their initials into her paint. There is a movie theatre built into the forward part of her aircraft hangar and a cafeteria built into the aft. While she needs the touristy stuff (like the gift shop) to sustain herself, it strikes me as a little sad that she’ll never sail again.

Families came and went on the shoreline, many of whom did not spare the ship even a passing glance; Lexington sat like a giant metal grandmother, watching as grandchildren played at her feet.

The Blue Ghost

The view from the bridge.

That’s when I realized that this was exactly what U.S.S. Lexington had fought for, her enduring legacy—peace. So, to everyone who has served aboard her in the past, and to all the custodians of her presently, you all have my thanks. Every. Single. One.

And should you find yourself in Corpus Christi, I highly recommend paying the Blue Ghost a visit. Definitely go for the hard hat tour. Take it from this guy, it’s worth every penny.

Get the T-shirt.

My new writing shirt.

[Check out The Backwards Mask on Kindle.]