Two tribes

Mexico City, Mexico


Today we reached Mexico City. Its a bit of a change from most of what we’re used to – going from the peace of small villages to the world’s biggest metropolis.

Mexico feels substantially different from Guatemala, or indeed from most of the last 6 months. Although there’s plenty of the usual signs and symbols of developing countries – the perennial litter, the potholed roads, the street people, there’s also a far greater level of ‘developed’ cues too. Shiny cars cruise the streets. We see frequent McDonalds. The population of Mexico are even developing a respectable first-world obesity problem.

As our bus pulled out of Oaxaca this morning, beside the dirty litter strewn river we were amused to see several joggers. You simply don’t find many joggers amongst the people of Bolivia or Guatemala (its hard to jog under all those hats).

The overriding impression is similar to Argentina – a heady, but inspiring, mix of 1st and 3rd worlds. In fact the people here remind us of Argentineans in a number of ways. There’s an unpredictable mixture of overt friendliness (‘It’s a pleasure to welcome you here’ says the security guard at the bus station) and rudeness. And the national culture seems to value, above all else, the concept of LOUD.

Yesterday we visited ‘Monte Alban’ (an amazing archaeological ruin from the 5th Century Zapotec culture, full of exceedingly graphic and gruesome sculptures demonstrating what they preferred to do to the captured rulers of neighbouring communities. Being in government then clearly carried the same risks then that being president of Liberia still does – a touch of the Samuel Doe about it. Not an outcome I’d even wish on Tony Blair or George Bush.) The tranquillity of the site was utterly annulled by the permanent cacophony of Mexican school children ‘Hola’ing each other across the site or testing it for echoes. Similar things happened to us amongst the glaciers of Argentine Patagonia. While it is in part intensely irritating (‘will you lot just shut up!’) its also rather attractive – Latin cultures are anything but repressed.

We’ve spent many days recently exploring archaeological ruins – there’s a plethora of them here. The tapestry of ancient Mesoamerica is as complex as that of the South – from the Olmecs, through Zapotecs, Teotithuacans, Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs. But while the Olmecs stone heads are sublimely wonderful, and huge, and ancient (1500BC), the Mayans were by far the most widespread, and most fascinating.

I can’t help comparing and contrasting the Maya world with that of the Inca (anthropological training just too ingrained I guess). Although the two tribes flourished at different times (Maya from 500-900AD, Inca from 1400-1500AD), their spread and impact are quite similar. Yet the details of their achievements are very different.

Inca architecture is a joy to behold – its engineering is frequently magnificent, carefully constructed and perfectly executed. By contrast the Mayans seem rather primitive, their concept of a ceiling is a very steep arch – so steep in fact that when one wall collapses the other half of the roof is left largely intact. There’s hardly any mechanics to it at all.

And the Inca seemed well versed in carefully terracing the hillsides, building planned, specific urban spaces. Yet Mayan ruins – for all their enormous size (some – such as Tikal – have pyramids over 40m tall) are much less organic to the environment, maybe reflecting the fact that their terrain was largely flat jungle, whereas the Inca worked in steep mountains and valleys.

But whatever the reason, if I wanted an engineer, I’d hire an Inca.

And yet the Mayans excelled in other aspects, most notably in mathematics, where they developed a counting system as versatile as our own. Importantly, they understood the concept of zero – which is more than the Romans did at the same point in history. They were able to construct beautiful and complex glyphs and began to write. They could record dates and so events in their history. They told their own stories, and predicted the future.

And with it they had a highly developed sense of art – their building are frequently beautifully decorated. At Uxmal the walls of the building crawl with carved serpents and snakes heads protrude from the corners of buildings (snakes were very important in Mesoamerican religion). At Chichen Itza there is a whole temple covered in depictions of skulls. Whereas I don’t think we ever saw a single example of Inca carvings on the walls – their preference was for clinical, simple, smooth.

So if I wanted an artist I’d hire a Mayan. (Isn’t it fascinating that maths seems to sit with the arts here, not the sciences).

It all serves to demonstrate beautifully that what a culture may lack in one respect it may more than compensate for elsewhere – there’s something unique and interesting in every culture.

Its a shame that when it comes to conflict the deciding factor is merely ‘who’s got the biggest stick’, but such is human history.

Here in Mexico city we will not be visiting much of the Aztec sites. Because the Spanish Conquistadors thoughtfully built a cathedral on the main temple, a governor’s palace on the Aztec palace, the Inquisitioner’s execution site on the Aztec market. But then, we Europeans had the biggest sticks.

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