A Mask Story: Our Mayan-inspired Souvenir

Many years ago, when we moved into our current house, I contemplated how to decorate a problematic wall. After months of deliberation, I decided to start a mask collection to document our family trips. The kids were very little then, and we haven’t yet gone to many places. But both my husband and I loved traveling, and we had a long bucket list of places we wanted to visit. I thought that a wall of masks would be a nice memento from all those future trips.

Over the years, this proved out to be one of my best decor ideas. For one, it eliminates the need to buy other kinds of souvenirs while traveling (though we sometimes do anyway). Furthermore, finding the right mask became a fun family pursuit, one that requires family cooperation. We all have to agree on a mask before we purchase it, which often necessitates some negotiations.

We usually try to get the most “authentic” mask we can put our hands on (even though we know,deep down, that this is an illusion). Whenever possible, we prefer to buy a mask directly from its creator. We value those the most. When this isn’t an option, we try to get one from a local source, such as a store that sells locally-made handicrafts. Often, though, we have to settle for less. A few times we even settled for a lot less, and returned home with cheap Chinese-made mass-produced souvenirs.

Once home, our mask is a nice visual reminder of the common experiences we just had. Each mask has its own story, be it the story of the mask itself, or the story of how we found it. Slowly, these stories are woven together, integrating themselves into the bigger tapestry that is our family’s story. The increasingly more-crowded mask wall is a visual manifestation of our common adventures.

It was only natural, therefore, that we hunted for masks on our recent trip to Cancun as well. Although our resort hosted a mini Mexican craft fair, and although we visited a nearby tourist bazaar, we decided to get our mask in Chichen Itza. That was our way of trying to bring some of the magic of this Mayan wonder into our home.

I mentioned last week how disappointing many of the souvenir booths at the site were. After seeing a few of them, all with the exact same things, all with the faint air of a Chinese factory hanging over them, we began to despair. We asked our guide if there was any authentic booth anywhere around. He told us he knew just the one, and took us to a little booth in a not-so-central location. There, he introduced us to Efrain Cetz, a mask carver.

Efain’s booth was a bit smaller than some of the others, and it didn’t have rows of identical things:

Some of the pieces looked freshly made, and were still unpainted. A few were quite simple, while others were incredibly elaborate. Some were small, others very big. Efrain himself spoke very good English, and was happy to explain the different designs and the symbolism behind them.

Of course, we wondered whether our guide simply took us to a friend, or whether he got a cut of the profits. We also wondered how Efrain had time to carve so many masks when he needs to spends many hours every single day selling them at Chichen Itza. His English was so good, that he felt more like a salesman than a mask carver. However, these masks did look different than those presented at other booths, and they did look hand made. We really wanted to believe, and Efrain was really good at selling stories. We found our booth.

Choosing a mask took a while. The kids wanted one that was half-face half-skull, the Mayan way of expressing the fusion of life and death. I wasn’t so sure about the half-skull part. It wasn’t something I wanted to stare at every day. Finally, though, I gave in. The story of the Mayan mythology was too compelling. Besides, the mask had both the serpent and tiger gods carved into it. The city of Chichen itza was a monument to both of these gods, so it felt right.

Efrain agreed to carve his name onto the mask for us:

And also to take a picture with it. An artist and his work:

Once home, I discovered that Efrain has a Facebook page, and that other tourists found him as well. Some even documented his work on Youtube. We will certainly cherish his mask as one of our more authentic ones!

A Day in the Great Mayan City of Chichen Itza

One cannot (or rather, should not!) visit Cancun without going to at least one of the Mayan ruins scattered across the Yucatan Peninsula. Hence, on our recent trip to Mexico we forfeited a day at the resort to visit Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was also declared one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It was well worth it!

The kids were not happy with the early-morning wake up. I must admit that I, too, would have preferred to sleep a little longer on my one week off. Leaving without breakfast was no fun, either (none of the resturants was open at 6:30 am). And yet, when we arrived at the site around 9:00 am, we immediately regretted not getting up even earlier. Chichen Itza opens to the public at 8:00 am, and by nine there were already quite a lot of tourists. It got significantly more crowded as the day progressed, not to mention increasingly HOT. Going early, it turned out, is a must!

Once inside, the grand scale of the city was truly impressive. Before we had time to take it all in, however, our guide, Luis, immediately rushed us to El Castillo. This is the site’s most famous step pyramid, also known as the Temple of Kukulkan. We walked all around the temple, to see both its stripped back and restored front. Luis urged us to take as many pictures as possible before it got too crowded.

While we were busy posing for pictures, the tour group behind us started clapping. We assumed they were thanking their guide. But when we got close to the same spot, Luis, too, began clapping, and asked us to do the same.

Our clapping resulted in a strange-sounding echo, that is supposedly similar to the sound a snake makes. Kukulkan, you see, was the Serpent God. The ancient architects dedicated this temple to him. There are snake heads on both sides of the long stairs, and during the spring and autumn equinoxes the stairs cast shadows that look like a descending snake. If you squint while looking at the following picture, you might see a hint of this, too:

Luis started telling us about the site. He talked rapidly and excitedly, and everything he said was really interesting. Later, however, I realized I wasn’t exactly sure what he had actually just said. It had to do with serpent and jaguar gods, astronomy, equinoxes and lots of human sacrifices.

Next, we went to the ball court. The court at Chichen Itza is the largest in the Americas, and is very impressive indeed. Shaped as a rectangle surrounded by high walls, it featured special seats for dignitaries. Here, too, sound-enhancement seemed to have shaped the architecture: a clap at the end of the court creates an echo that resonates nine times in its middle.

The ball games played here required throwing a rubber ball into one of two stone-ring hoops hung high up on two opposite walls:

Getting a ball through that little hole must have required quite some skills! Players played for very high stakes: the members of one of the groups ended up paying with their lives. According to our guide, historians cannot agree on whether players on the losing group lost their heads, or those of the group that won.

The city has many other impressive structures. This, for example, is the Temple of the Jaguars. Apparently, all the carvings on the walls, as well as the jaguar sculpture in the middle, were once painted with vivid colors:

After walking among the main buildings of the site, our guide gave us the option of browsing the souvenir stands or going to a less-visited part of the city. He was somewhat reluctant about the second option, and was visibly unhappy when we chose it. To me, however, that part was the most exciting. It had a far more authentic and wild feel to it, and was a lot less crowded (!!). Walking there felt a little like being in a lost city in an Indiana Jones movie. The architecture, the art and the carvings were truly amazing:

The Mayans had sophisticated art and architecture, into which they incorporated their culture, religion, aesthetics and science (mostly astronomy). Yet, although I studies art history in both high school and college, I never learned anything about Mayan art. Once in Chichen itza, I regretted not knowing more about the culture that left all those incredible artifacts. It only enhanced how Euro-centric our Western culture is… Luckily, there are many resources on the internet, for those curious to know more.

Of course, we couldn’t leave the place without looking at the souvenir booths. Those were a combination of local crafts and a flood of cheap Chinese imports. Sadly, telling one from the other was nearly impossible. Once again I was saddend by the loss of local heritage resulting from globalization.


The Downsides of All-Inclusive Buffets

I am quite ambivalent about all-inclusive resorts. On the one hand, staying in one is a real treat, a rare luxury. Unlike active vacations that require a lot of planning, for an all-inclusive you just have to pack and show up. These kinds of vacations are the only ones that allow me to take a real break from the least-pleasant chores that come with motherhood: doing laundry, tidying up, buying groceries, cooking and washing all those dishes… And yet, at the infrequent times we go on one, I always end up feeling rather uncomfortable.

Part of my unease derives from my discomfort with the idea of having other people do basic chores for me. While it’s really nice to leave a room dirty and messy and return to find it clean and neat, I somehow feel guilty about the unseen hands that did the work. I know that my being there creates jobs for people, and that the money I spend helps them feed their families. But somehow I can’t shake off the feeling that I should be the one cleaning after myself (and my brood of pretty messy kids!). Having elves do my work just doesn’t feel right.

The part I find most disturbing is the all-inclusive buffet. Although I really enjoy walking into a well-stacked dining room, eating all I can, and then leaving without having to worry about dirty dishes, I still  find the entire setup concerning on many different levels.

For spring break this year my family and I traveled to Cancun, Mexico, and stayed at an all-inclusive resort. The place had multiple dining rooms, and they were all well stacked for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Each meal included multiple dishes of every imaginable kind. Food was plentiful, and it was presented in a beautiful, artistic manner:

Great, no? Well … not really. The food was so beautiful, that we wanted to try everything. Since it was self-served, we often ended up taking more than we could ever eat. That lead to problem number one: The breakdown of all our hard-worked self-restraint. At home, I try to teach the kids to eat until they are full, and no more. With an all-inclusive buffet that goes to tatters. Everyone ate way too much.

Problem number two: Sadly, despite looking amazing and making us droll, most of that food didn’t actually taste all that good. We took one bite and didn’t want to finish. We ended up throwing much of it. Now, if you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you probably know that I’m quite obsessed with waste-preventing. At home I try to use things up as much as possible. I don’t buy more than we can eat. I creatively use leftovers. And on the rare occasions when food does get spoiled, I religiously compost it. So seeing my family (me included!) throw all that food was quite painful.

Problem number three: EVERYONE in the dining room was taking too much and eating too little. The amounts of food going to waste were staggering. I started wondering: all the waste at the resort completely dwarfed my obsessive conservation efforts at home. A year of my meticulous, daily efforts probably spared the planet less waste than was produced in one meal at the resort. I began doubting whether my efforts were really worthwhile, or whether they actually made any difference…

Problem number four: Several years of sever California drought put us all in water-conserving mode. Yet, here we were, at a place where plates disappeared seemingly on their own the minute you put your fork down. Every second, third or fourth helping came in its own new, clean plate. How much water did they use to wash all those dishes??? In the big scheme of things, did it really matter if we cut our shower time by another minute??

Problem number five had to do with desserts. I often tell the kids that it’s OK to eat everything, as long as it’s in moderation. We always have something sweet at home, and the children are always welcome to it. But they know (I think) to ration the unhealthy stuff. Well, the dessert tables at the all-inclusive buffets were the prettiest of them all! When I had to choose pictures for this post, I realized that the great majority of our food-pictures were those of desserts. I wonder why…

The result? We all loaded up on the least-healthy items, even when they, too, looked much better than they tasted. That, despite reading all the research about sugar being poison. We simply couldn’t help ourselves!

Last but not least, problem number six: Amidst all that food and all that waste, it was hard not to remember my grandmother’s chastising: “finish your food, because there are children in Africa who have nothing to eat.” The abundance inside the resort juxtaposed with the poverty and scarcity around it. The unfairness of it all was blatant.

In the end, in a rather masochistic way, I was happy to go back home, to my own simple cooking. I can’t help but wonder, though … does this happen to you, too, or am I the only one not able to enjoy too much of a good thing?