Book Reviews: Three Mysteries and the Future of Sex

Mark Twain
Always do right—this will gratify some and astonish the rest.

Truth or Die
With this being the fifth I’ve read in the series, it feels comfortable, like an old hoodie on a sprinkly day. This one takes place in Central California, at an art/music fair in Carmel. An ex-military psychologist—who obviously knows a lot of secrets—a Navy tragedy, people looking for revenge and extortion, all figure in this mystery where the detective, as always in this series, is surrounded by women who want him even when he’s with his girlfriend.
In this case he helps out because he knows the widow, who is of course the main suspect; his girlfriend, for once, doesn’t seem to mind. This edition of the series had more characters, and therefore more suspects, than most, which didn’t help, but overall it was just as good as the others, and much better than the first in the series, which is the last one I read. The sinking of the navy ship was real, but the rest of the story isn’t, unless it was some long-buried secret, which is doubtful.
So basically if you’ve liked others in the series, you won’t complain about this one. And if it’s your first time with this author, this is a pretty good intro.

In Gallup, Greed
This is not the first book in the series, which may explain why there were so many characters; since I didn’t read the previous story, it felt like there were too many to keep track of, to the point where I had to go back to check who the heck they were, which annoyed me no end. Most times I would have given up on a book like this; this one I didn’t and it got better, though by the end I was still having trouble with some of the main characters whose names were similar.
Another tough thing to deal with was the changes in narration: I could have taken first person and one third person, but with so many alternating characters being followed—plus first person—things got confusing in a hurry.
Something else that I felt didn’t work: since I could only think of one reason the bad guys would be running such a scam at an art gallery, there wasn’t much of a mystery to it. About halfway through it’s said outright, which means there wasn’t all the much plot here.
But the worst part was that at the end, when the killer is unmasked, I couldn’t remember any clues that would have allowed me to figure out who the killer was, which violates the primary commandment of giving the audience a chance to outwit the author.
On the plus side the writing was pretty good, as well as the characterization of the main character, Cinnamon. Weird fact of the day: since reading this book I’ve smelled cinnamon everywhere. . .

The Future of Sex
This novella made my mind shout “Boom!” numerous times; thankfully it didn’t get as annoying as it sounds.
At its most basic this is a story about a young woman who wants to be the ultimate sex provider in a world where such people are cherished. Her youth and lack of training are held against her, but she’s given a chance to prove herself, allowing the author to express some particular theories, specifically about the nature of intuition when it comes to sex, and more general the ability to “Sherlock scan” an individual, read the small nuances in their manner and speech and so on.
I was loving this right away, as it brought a new perspective to such a story, one I wholeheartedly agree with. The level of intuitiveness goes right to the theory of “naturalness,” which I have discoursed on often myself. It’s like the author is reading my mind the same way the main character reads her marks. . . which also means I love Chloe; she can screw with my mind any day. Thankfully I knew this was a novella coming in, and intuited—inside joke—this would be a set-up and not the whole story itself.
Though I’ve read this author before, I was far more impressed here. As stated, some of this author’s philosophies mesh with mine so closely that I can’t be at all sure if this is what’s behind my high opinion, and therefore grade. It’s still a well-written introduction to a long story that promises to be a fun ride.

Aztec Midnight
This is a novella about an archaeologist hunting for an Aztec artifact, in a race to find it before bad guys do. It’s so short I actually told myself, “Let’s see if I can read this whole thing at the doctor’s office. . .”
Though it’s set in the lovely city of Cuernavaca, the setting isn’t used to full advantage; it isn’t till we get to the ancient Aztec site that things take off, though the archaeological detective work is delicious to read through.
Sadly, the only one surprised that his wife was kidnapped was him; that doesn’t say much about him, especially since he didn’t seem like the kind of acadamian who can’t survive outside of the classroom. That could be blamed on this being such a short story, though the next twist was surprising when I knew there wasn’t much left to go.
Not sure how I feel about it; the archaeology part was fun, the thriller part not as much. I particularly disliked the introduction of a crow as his personal GPS; I don’t think a fantasy element was needed here.


Book Reviews: Murder, Martians, and Actresses

Overheard outside UCLA hospital: “She’d be good for transplants; she hasn’t rejected an organ since high school.”

Yucatán Is Murder
There’s an intriguing murder mystery inside this book, but it’s gonna take a huge amount of editing to carve it out.
As implied in the title, this takes place in southeastern Mexico, from Merida to the coast. A freelance scientist is helping his significant other with a sociological/medical project among the native Maya. The first murder takes place and the scientist finds the body because he likes birds, in this case vultures. The police don’t care, so he takes it upon himself to solve the crime, as he’s done in previous novels, I’m sure. As expected from this kind of story, he gets himself into trouble with the killers and not only becomes a target, but gets others killed too.
I am a very fast reader, but this took forever: far too long and plodding, with overly stretched philosophical rambles and discussions as well as tons of description and scientific explanations. The most clever moment was using Mayan glyphs for a hidden message, and there’s a lot to learn from the various scientific disciplines he knows, but it’s overdone and told in a style too matter-of-fact to enjoy.

A couple is tricked into the desert to be fodder for a sniper who’s done this before, a lot. Along with another group of three they have to survive the bad guy and his assistants.
It’s hard to believe such a story, which takes place in one day and half a night, could take up so many pages. This was far more interesting and enjoyable than I would have expected, in a way reminding me of a running battle between a destroyer and a sub. There’s also plenty of psychological fun, particularly between the sniper and the protagonist but among others as well. I think it’s silly of them to push this as “The Most Gripping Suspense Thriller You Will Ever Read!” and will ultimately work against them, but it is a damned good story despite those impossible expectations.

Joi Lansing—A Body to Die For
There are plenty of actresses famous for their looks who, despite having decent careers, are quickly forgotten. This is the partial biography of one of them, as told by her last lover and self-proclaimed love of her life.
As someone who’s read a lot on TV shows of the 60s and 70s, I can name plenty of actresses who had moderate success while trying to be the next Marilyn, but Joi Lansing was never one of those names. Looking her up on the internet, one can see why this book is given that subtitle. Though wary because this was written by someone who wants to make her look good, it seems she was one of those genuinely nice people in Hollywood who, while making some friends and contacts, was swallowed up by the movie-making machine that could turn saints into assholes. If this book is to be believed, she was not one of them, keeping her upbeat demeanor and vivacity to the end. And it’s that very end that is the center of this book, making it a tough read at times. By the last chapter I was glad it was over, both her suffering and the reading.
Even though it’s a biography, this can also serve as a cautionary tale of the kind of shit rich powerful men pull on gorgeous young ladies trying to get by in the business of making movies. One can only hope the situation has gotten better, though from some of the stuff described here it’s hard to believe it can get worse.

Aoleon, The Martian Girl
An action-packed science-fiction short likely made for pre-teens, it involves a young Martian girl who is the reason for those crop circles seen on farms all the time. When she’s not very careful about being discreet she runs into a farmboy, and together they get chased by a three-legged dog and a sleepy farmer that necessitates them escaping together in her flying saucer.
There’s a wry humor here that sneaks up on you; if you’re not paying attention you might miss it. Her telepathic abilities allow them to communicate easily, so of course he has to be careful what he thinks, leading to more comedy.
The second part of the story involves various military aircraft trying to shoot them down. While the action is well written and would have fit right in with an adult genre, this is ridiculous in a book meant for kids. From all the broken glass as they sonic-boom all over the country, to the panicky fishermen that jump into the frigid water to escape a crash, to a whole Ferris wheel rolling down the street in Paris. . . can you imagine how many people must have been killed in what is portrayed as a fun romp without any consequences?
I will say the artwork is well done. It doesn’t have a real ending, just a hook for the next part, allowing this to be a quick and easy read.


Travel Thursday: More Training in Mexico City, part 1

Sitting on a bench across the way from an attractive lady who was watching me just as intently when she wasn’t distracted by potential buyers was not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon in what many people considered the world’s largest city. Today the sky looked only moderately black, perhaps because there were less vehicles out on the streets. Insurgentes seemed equally crowded, but the ride on the Metro convinced me most people where elsewhere than in cars.

They’d told me to take things seriously, for training was supposed to simulate real-life situations, but I found it hard to do so after a huge Italian meal at a restaurant on the other side of Sullivan Park. Still, I had to give those tasked with finding and following me a few hints. It wouldn’t be any fun just staying away from them; I had to let them see me and then get away, otherwise I was due for a boring day.

It was still early, so I walked around Sullivan Park, gawking at the paintings but hoping I wouldn’t spot anything I liked, because I didn’t have either the time or the inclination to stick around here too long. And with that I realized I was pumped for the game too; for one brief second earlier I’d thought of letting them capture me so I could be released from this silly competition and allowed to go my own way, but again, what fun would that be?

Being in a giant city gave me an advantage, and right now I was close to downtown; a slight smile permeated my face as I remembered the first time I’d tried to find this park; when I told the taximan it was “just off Insurgentes,” the driver had thrown me an irritated look while shouting, “Every part of town is just off Insurgentes! The street is thirty-five miles long!”

Sullivan Park was just like every other park in the city, or in the world, for that matter, except on Sundays. Every week the most renowned painters and sculptors of the city and beyond came to exhibit. Competition to show off the wares here was fierce; most artists had exhibited all over the world, and all it took was the right word to have them gleefully pull out the scrapbook of posters or exhibition cards. Oddly enough, more than a few of them had shown at the Playboy Mansion; I wasn’t sure what to think of that, and finally decided not to, at least not right now.

Near the Monument to the Mother something caught my eye, a young man–by far the youngest I’d ever seen here–whose specialty seemed to be alien landscapes. For such a young artist to be allowed here, he had to be good, and sci-fi stuff wasn’t exactly the main topic in these here parts. . .

Yeah, it was too good to pass up. Selecting two of the paintings, I paid the price without haggling. The young man was so overjoyed he offered to deliver them to my hotel free of charge. My only condition was that he re-sign them, larger than the first time; When he was a world-renown artist, I wanted the world to know I’d been one of the first to recognize such talent. . .

Time to walk on. I saw my old friend the miniature artist still in his usual place; some of his art was so small a magnifying glass was needed, but those rarely were on show. A few years before I’d commissioned a painting of a redhead figure skater from my past, and had given him permission to duplicate it for sale; now I saw those little things in the damnedest places all over the world! Still, I was secure in the knowledge that the original was in a special place in my apartment back in El Lay.

The park always seemed bigger on Sundays, but finally I was back where I started, with the attractive lady in her 30s who seemed to remember me from previous visits. Her paintings were also in the fantasy genre, but more of the unicorn variety. One was lying on a lily pad, surrounded by all types of strange flowers, while in another the animal was inside a sphere, trying to break out. At least there weren’t any velvet ones of a unicorn on an alien cliff looking at two moons like I’d seen in Tijuana, but on the other hand if she got together with the youngster I’d bought from earlier that might be exactly what they’d do.

Knowing she knew I’d be back, I walked on. On the sidewalk of one of the side streets I came across another young man; perhaps in the time I’d been away several of the oldsters had died. None of these paintings impressed me much, either uninteresting artistically or mundane in subject. But I admit to releasing an involuntary gasp at the last one. Even I couldn’t tell ya why, it was just a statue in a fountain, but I stared at it for a good five minutes, not able to pull my eyes away. It didn’t take the artist long to become uneasy; no one had ever had such a reaction to his works before.

I finally uttered a few magical words–“Five hundred dollars”–and sent the artist into orbit; later he told he’d been expecting a fight for one hundred. Since he was friends with the previous guy, they agreed to join the deliveries, and that was that, deal done.

Now I walking in the middle of the park, where the abstracts tended to congregate, when I came across a chess match. An older gentleman was taking full advantage of a much younger opponent; the youth saw no escape from the trap on his home turf, and was about to tip over his king when I asked if I could take over. Having been given permission, I showed him the only escape, much to the chagrin of the old man.

I was still well behind, and knew there was no possible way to win, but I figured on taking out a number of the opponent’s pieces before going down in flames. And indeed, people leaned in to get a closer look as I slowly but surely made up some of the enormous disadvantage. My favorite ploy–probably because I found myself in that situation way too often–had always been the desperate counterattack, and once my defenses were reasonable secure, I sent my rooks on kamikaze runs. The first put his king in check, and with no possibility of a block he was forced to move forward out of the way, allowing my rook to make its way along the endline to gobble the opposing rook, still in its original position. The pawns in front had also not moved, so I managed to take out two of them and a knight before finally being subdued.

The other rook was even more successful. Not giving the opponent time to rest, it maneuvered its way to the point where it was online with the king and queen. Again finding itself in check, the king moved out of the way, leaving the queen unprotected, and the rook proceeded to ravish her. . . in a chess-like way of course.

There were oohs and aabs from the crowd, and my opponent was sweating. I wanted to tell him not to worry, that it was way past the time he could possibly lose, but there was no point to that, and he wouldn’t believe it anyway; in this regard, chess was a lot like poker.

Once my two remaining pieces were gone, I led the opponent’s remaining bishop on a merry chase, inching slowly but surely toward the king, but the old man wouldn’t fall for that, so finally I gave way, standing to shake the man’s hand while giving the youth a slap on the back. To my surprise, I found myself not only tired but, incredibly, hungry; I’d heard that Italian food kept hunger at bay for a good three or four days, but maybe I’d gotten the light version. More importantly, figuring the make-believe enemy was now in place somewhere around me, I wanted to get the game underway. . .


Travel Thursday: Small Towns Are No Fun

(Continuation of Copper Canyon)

Eleven o’clock at night, and all was NOT right with the world.
I stepped out of the stuffy bus station to catch some of the gentle sea breeze. Los Mochis, on the northwestern coast of Mexico, was a humid place, but not nearly as bad as inside the bus station, where I had been camped out for two hours now, waiting for a bus that was already an hour late.
Out of habit I stared back, to see if anyone was watching, or in case I had forgotten something, then stepped out the doorway of the bus station to look past the palm trees and into the street, watchful for anything that might seem out of the ordinary.
I had a right to feel jittery, I told myself. In the past few years the state of Sinaloa had become the drug capital of the country, not so much here in the northern end, but close enough so that I didn’t want to be mistaken as either a druggie to the incredibly corrupt cops or a narc to the incredibly violent druggies.
The train station had looked so nice, I lamented as I looked around this area. Instead of taking some rest, I came right off the Copper Canyon train to the bus station, and was now waiting for the twenty hour bus ride to the American border. . . if the goddamn bus ever showed up.
I chuckled nastily as I glanced down the street again, startling the row of prostitutes hanging out against the walls of the bus station. I was regretting not going to the airport instead, figuring I’d have an easier time there. I had the money, so what was I doing hanging around here, waiting for a bus that would never show up? Why, I could just charter a plane to get me out of the area quickly, at least to some other city, where I would be away from the drug area and require a much shorter bus ride to the border. Of course, any pilot in this area might be a drug runner, but that had to be worth the risk, right?
I’m not good at handling these types of delays, which were mostly caused by inefficiency or downright laziness from the locals. Not that the United States was all that much more efficient, but at least there, if you complained, you could expect action. . . eventually. Here they would look sympathetic and obsequious, then forget about you as soon as you turned around. I know I have infinite patience with those who try their best, but I often got murderous–or at least looked it, which often had the same effect–when those who didn’t care also lied about it.
I’d been through this plenty of times in this country and further south, as well as Africa and Eastern Europe, but it never got any easier. . .
Turning, I headed back into the hot bus station. As I walked to the door, the prostitutes gave me a welcoming smile, then quickly looked away after a glance at my face. I’m sure I didn’t seem like the type who would patronize them anyway–I hoped–but more importantly they were well enough versed in their trade to know it would be a dumb idea to approach me right now.
Another quick look around the building: in front of me, the ticket agent was taking a nap; going clockwise, the guy at the counter of the snack bar was going through the inventory for the thousandth time, reminding me of one of my favorite science-fiction writers, just as short and acerbic; all he needed was the dark glasses. Against the far wall, underneath the public telephones, two street kids were laid out, sleeping on carton. The only other person in the station was just to the left of the ticket agent, a young guy listening to headphones and reading a comic book. Even from this distance I could hear the dreaded Norteño music–more like feedback, to my delicate ears–blaring into the guy’s head.
Looking to the left, I was disappointed that the little store was closed for the night. Through the mesh I spotted a few passable Spanish novels I could use to whittle away the time. I still hadn’t gotten halfway through Walden, but if I tried to read that right now, I’m sure I would fall asleep in a place I couldn’t afford to fall asleep in.
Now I looked at the ads on the wall of the store, again focused on one. The gal on the right, of the two in the tight red dresses, looked damned familiar, but I just couldn’t figure out who it was. This time I was determined to study on the problem until I solved it.
I had it down to three–no, make that two–possibilities. For a second I entertained the notion that it might be Talia, whom I had met in Mexico City, but she wasn’t a model. It did look a lot like Laura, who was a relatively famous model down here. It was still a strong chance, but the gal pitching the tobacco wasn’t as beautiful as her, though she had a touch better body, something I would never admit to an obviously indignant Laura.
So it had to be Patricia, whom I’d shot in Puerto Rico. Most likely the brand of cigs was also sold there, so it was certainly possible. Yes, it had to be her, I smiled triumphantly.
Suddenly I shook my head quickly; for some completely unknown reason, I had started to hum “Little Drummer Boy.” I hated these events, things that I had no conscious awareness of doing. I was steadfast about staying in control of both my mind and body, which was one of the primary reasons I don’t drink or do drugs–there are more important ones, though–so I was understandably upset when lapses like this occurred. I must be pretty damned bored. . .
Well, enough of that, I told myself as I cut out the Drummer Boy and reached for my headphones. I flicked on the play button, where as usual the volume was too loud–having last been played during the noisy day–so I had to rapidly search for the volume control before I figured out it was Ottmar Leibert in my ears.
My foot immediately started tapping to the beat of the flamenco guitar, but that didn’t last long; the last thing I wanted to do was expend more energy now. I would get tired too quickly, and I certainly didn’t want to have to fight the urge to get up and dance, so with a sigh I reached down to the controls and chose a soft songs mix.
Yes, that was much better now. . . at least for a while. I’d listened to an excerpt from Swan Lake and something from Mannheim’s second Christmas album–luckily not “Little Drummer Boy”–when I realized I wasn’t in the mood for this either. Every moment that damned bus didn’t show, I was getting angrier, and to hell with patience. I would steal a plane if I had to. . .
And with that thought, I got up and strapped my large backpack into carrying position, the anger giving my tired muscles power. Immediately I was besieged by one of the prostitutes, a lady who was probably the best looking one there, though still overweight–just not as much as the others. She also knew a little English, and used it to the best of her abilities as she ran both her body and her hands against me.
“No thank you,” I told her in Spanish. “I’m trying to cut down.” And yes, I was glad no one who knew me was there to hear that. . .
I was almost to the only cab in sight–of course the driver was sleeping–when I caught sight of the flashing lights. At the corner of the street where the station was located, there was just enough light for me to see the restaurant. My till-now dormant stomach suddenly remembered I hadn’t had dinner yet, so with an inward moan the rest of my body started moving in that direction, with seemingly no prodding from my brain.
Since it was well past dinnertime, in fact almost midnight, the restaurant wasn’t very crowded. Still, those in attendance glanced curiously at the foreigner. I can usually pass as a light-skinned Mexican, but the backpack gave me away. Still, they had to be used to tourists at the end of the Copper Canyon railroad, although they might not come to this part of town very often.
Except for some local toughs who sneered at me but made no move, no one bothered me as I sat facing the door. The far wall was completely occupied, and the other walls were glass, so this was the best I could do as far as safety precautions went. The plank table was painted the usual shade of indigo blue, reminding me of the local notion that flies hated the color. It might be true; I’ve never taken the time to count flies on any tables in this country, of any color. Or any country, for that matter.
Instead of checking the menu, I figured I’d ask the waitress if they had what I was in the mood for. . . and as soon as the waitress came over, I saw SHE was exactly what I was in the mood for.
The girl who came to my table was wearing olive-green pants and blouse, covered by an unusually clean white apron. I could tell she was both slim and somewhat curvy at the same time, and also short, a fact that made her look a little voluptuous and completely desirable, especially after the run-in with the prostitutes outside.
“What would you like?” she asked in a clear and very regal Spanish voice. Her soft-spoken tone told me she would be a bit shy at first, yet at the same time confident in her dealings. She had long dark hair in a sleek ponytail that reminded me of Dax from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
With a start, I realized that was it; she was probably more than a foot shorter, and maybe as much as fifteen years younger, but she reminded him of Terry Farrell, one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. No wonder she’d gripped me so hard; things were beginning to click into place.
Then I looked down at her hand, patiently waiting to write something on her little pad. She’s left-handed! When I reached for the menu with my left hand, she noticed and gave me a private smile, making me idly wonder about the Spanish word for “perky.”
She ran a hand through her hair as she graced me with a broader smile that made my heart leap.
“Do you have milanesa?” I asked carefully, knowing it was a long shot that a place like this, in a town like this, would have chicken-fried steak, or schnitzel, or whatever it was called in other parts of the world. To my surprise, the girl looked as if she wanted to cry, her face contorting into a picture of sadness as she softly informed me they didn’t have it.
I tried not to grin as I told her to make it quesadillas instead. I’d found out all I needed to know about her.
I couldn’t help following her movements behind the counter. She walked gracefully, like a ballet dancer, with a manner that made me wonder if she might be part-Japanese: very precise, almost like a geisha. As she waited for the order to be filled, she took up a broom and swept the floor behind the counter; she even did that gracefully, I couldn’t help but think. I hoped I was being sincere in my thoughts, because the alternative–that I was so smitten by her that I was beginning to lose control of his mind, like the little drummer boy thing–did not beat contemplation.
The chef called out for Clarissa, and the girl turned to get the order. Clarissa! Luckily I didn’t comment aloud about it being a lovely name, thus sparing myself some embarrassment. Still, I smiled like a schoolboy at her as I gave her thanks for bringing my food. She smiled back and went to her place behind the counter, where she placed an elbow down and crooked her chin into her hand to stare out the window. . .
Not wanting to be too obvious and caught staring at her, I set my gaze above and to her side, where I noticed a parrot perched on a rack of empty soda bottles. . . yet all I could think about was its plumage matching the color of Clarissa’s clothes. Yup, I was officially smitten. . .
When I was finally done–yes, I’d drawn it out as long possible–Clarissa came over to pick up the dishes, bumping into my arm as I was draining the last of the soda. Thanks to the fact that I’d been watching her every move, I managed to change the angle of the bottle enough to avoid the spill.
“Sorry,” she blushed. “Luckily you have quick reflexes.” I grinned, not about to correct her. “Would you like another one?”
“I’d prefer tea, if you have it.”
Again with that sad look. “I ‘m sorry, we don’t.”
On an impulse, I reached for her hand, the one not busy with the dirty dishes. “You don’t like to say no, do you?”
This time she blushed fiercely, but made no move to free her hand. I stroked it gently a few times before letting go, but did not stop staring at her as she walked away. She turned her head to look back at me, bumping against the corner of the counter and almost spilling the dishes, much to my delight.
A few minutes later, obviously trying to prove something to herself, she came back over and sat across from me, without asking; it made me grin. I let her go ahead and babble, since I’d already decided to get a hotel room and try for the morning bus. . . after breakfast here, but only if she told me she worked that shift too.
When she started talking about poetry, involuntarily–as involuntarily as “Little Drummer Boy” had been–I began reciting my favorite Spanish poem.

“Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
When you surrender, you stretch out like the world.
My body, savage and peasant, undermines you and makes a son leap in the bottom of the earth.
I was lonely as a tunnel. Birds flew from me.
And night invaded me with her powerful army.
To survive I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow for my bow, or a stone for my sling.
But now the hour of revenge falls, and I love you.
Body of skin, of moss, of firm and thirsty milk!
And the cups of your breasts! And your eyes full of absence!
And the roses of your mound! And your voice slow and sad!
Body of my woman, I will live on through your marvelousness.
My thirst, my desire without end, my wavering road!
Dark river beds down which the eternal thirst is flowing,
and the fatigue is flowing, and the grief without shore.”

{Neruda always works. . .}

“That’s beautiful,” she sniffed. “It is almost too much to hope those are your own words.”
“Pablo Neruda, I’m afraid. But I should get some credit for memorizing it, don’t you think?”
Clarissa murmured happily, “You have the heart of a poet.”
“And the rest of me?”
Her smile was neither shy nor demure, but she let it be her only answer to my question. Instead she wistfully sighed, “Soñar no cuesta nada,” which is Spanish for “Dreams cost nothing.”
I didn’t know which dream the gal was talking about, but whatever dream it was, it sure sounded sad. . .


Travel Thursday: Copper Canyon

As always, I got to the train station, this time in Chihuahua, way early, well before the dawn in fact. Of course I had no idea how long it would take to get from the hotel to the train station, so there I sit on the hard concrete, trying not to sleep, and of course having people trying to cut in line as the time comes.
Once on board I found the train itself wasn’t so bad. As the sun began to show its wares over the horizon, the air conditioning took out the humidity completely. . . though of course because it was dawn, it quickly became too cold. But at least the seats were big and comfortable, something that surprised me when I considered all the stuff I’d heard about Mexican trains. Still, this was the tourist train; the regular train, carrying all the locals, left an hour later, and was sure to be much different than this one. Right now I appeared to be the only North American on a trainful of Europeans, mostly Germans; later I found out this wasn’t true, but it didn’t do me any good on the ride.
The steward was blasting norteño, overpowering my headphones, and the train was too shaky to read coherently, let alone write. Worse, the landscape of flatlands with distant bluffs was the most boring I’d seen since Eastern Hungary, even if that promised to change soon, so I just sat there with my head against the window, sometimes sleeping but mostly just staring out at the landscape.
Even when we did get to the beginnings of the canyon, it was nothing compared to the photos I’ve seen, but then those were rumored to be on the other half of the journey. For once I was able to sleep some on transportation, no doubt because of the early start time, but even that was screwed by the presence of first a really loud group of Germans and then an even worse band of Alabamian senior citizens, in all their famous glory. . .
Anyway, not in a good mood by the time we arrived in Divisadero.
If there’s one place in the world that could change that, it should be here. . . right?


copper canyon

Here I sit on the balcony of my hotel room, with the entire canyon seemingly before me. I firmly believe I could never get tired of this view.
I stayed like that for what seemed like hours, the only downside the wind whipping in my eyes, occasionally gasping, until finally I whispered, “Too much” and tried to engage my brain again.
A couple of pinnacles that give the impression of being towers were probably only 2km away as the crow flies, but it feels like I could lean over the balcony and touch them. The first bluff to the right is probably half that. The plateau a little left of center is about 5km.
Far across the canyon to the left, I’m sure I can see for a good 100km, and at least 1km straight down, leaning over the railing. Despite there being more land across the way, this felt like the end of the world.
Looking closer now, between those two pinnacles, possibly a shadow but what fun would that be, looked to be a cave entrance. Wanna bet I wanted to go exploring? As luck would have it, a walking tour was about to begin, taking us first all the way to the top on the other side of the tracks, till the promontory containing the hotel itself looked tiny. Can’t believe my legs weren’t hurting yet, but hopefully that was a good omen and I’d have plenty of things to see before they inevitably let me down.
As always, looking straight down didn’t help my sense of balance, or any other sense. At this height, it got cold in a hurry, and I was in t-shirt and shorts. The guide said that at the bottom of the canyon it was tropical enough to grow bananas and there was a tour that went down there, but since that was six hours down, sleep over, then twelve hours back up the next day. . . nah, don’t think so. . .
The wind at the top was barely there, but once we started dropping it rushed loudly by us. Luckily we were never on any path where it could toss us off the side, but it was still a bit of a struggle. At one point we reached a spot where it seemed like the canyon was 360 degrees around us, possibly the only time I’ve ever wished I had a fisheye lens.
For a few minutes we walked through a meadow with no view of canyon, and with a couple of buildings, one of them being the schoolhouse, but there was no one home or no reason to stop by, and soon enough we were back in the pretty land. From way up there I’d spotted a dot of red far below with my telephoto, and I was amazed to find, first of all, that we climbed down that far, but also because that red dot turned out to be a local woman weaving, and consequently selling, baskets, which I love. First I turned to take in the steep rocky path we’d descended, still amazed by how easily it had seemed. Then I noticed the hotel and saw there were caves below it too, which would satisfy my spelunking curiosity if we got to see them. . . whch we did eventually, but other than a few petroglyphs that looked rather modern compared to most I’ve seen, no big deal.
Then I turned to see what I could buy. The kid with her, about two years old, didn’t make it easy, clad in a dress that for some reason reminded me of Hungary. Of course she posed for a picture–for a price–and smiled shyly.
The guide, who was one of those guys who ran marathons through the canyon to bring messages to all the distant towns, told us about the Tarahumara gods, particularly Raienari, the sun god, protector of men, and Mecha, the moon goddess, protector of women. Kinda disappointing to find a mythology so. . . typical, but on the other hand it’s really interesting how so many cultures went the same way with that, back to the Ancient Greeks and many others.
Finally back from the incredible hike, I took stock and found myself tired but not as bad as I’d feared. It certainly could have been worse, but the scenery couldn’t have been better. Unfortunately those Suthin’ oldies were staying here too, and being incredibly obnoxious. Seems like they were the only ones here, though I did find a pair of calm Canadian couples to have dinner with and talk to in the lounge, when the Alabamians didn’t butt in with their incredibly lame jokes. One of the Canadians was an emergency room doctor, his wife a nurse–they often took cruises for free, with him being the ship doctor—and I actually visited them in Vancouver a few years later. The other couple was from Edmonton, and I got to talk to the gruff-looking but genial bearded gent about Rush for a while, especially their ballads; he’s one of the few people I’ve met who even knew they existed.
Back on the balcony of my room, the last rays of sun shining on my face, I sat there looking out while listening to Mannheim Steamroller’s Red Wine. For a change I had quiet neighbors, not the loud Alabamians, so nothing kept me from enjoying the soaring of the hawks, the blowing of the wind–now that it couldn’t push me over–and to make the cliché complete, I’m reading Walden. . .
But finally I put the book down, and reached for my notebook instead of my camera. My powers of observation are strong, but this would likely tax my writing skill. Definitely out of this world to be looking out at all these green ridges, like waves, or a labyrinth, verdant splendor bathed in the warm sun, and have Mannheim’s version of Stille Nacht come into the headphones, followed by Enya’s Sun in the Stream–though I doubt there’s any place remotely like this in Ireland. My music player seems to be in tune with the setting, choosing just the right songs: a piece of Vivaldi’s Spring is encored by Mannheim’s Interlude I, with the sounds of nature in the background echoing the ones in real life.
I almost missed it when it got dark, but suddenly there were SO MANY STARS. I’ve been out in the countryside plenty of times, away from the big city lights, so I’m well aware that you can see a lot more of the night sky out there than in the city, but this was as far beyond that as the countryside is to the city. For the first time in my life I can make out the nebulous cloud that is the Andromeda galaxy. The Big Dipper has never been more defined; Venus is amazingly bright. The Southern Cross, Orion–the sky seems crowded.
Until I look down, to the front, and see nothing before me but an ominous pitch-black void, with only one single small light that’s probably a campfire. So eerie. . .
Looking back up to recapture the joy, not only do I see stars, but also what appear to be lines connecting stars, as if there was a lattice of spider webs in the background. I would get lost counting them before getting to 100, wondering if I’d already ticked that one off. The sky seemed as crowded as a subway.
The air feels so clean. . . and cold. But it’s an honest cold. The night was so clear that, even with the screen door closed on the balcony, I could see the tiny points of light that signified weak stars, and the big ones shone enough to allow me to read a newspaper someone had left. It was so bright, in fact, that when I got up in the middle of the night to hit the head, I didn’t have to turn on the light in this unfamiliar place.
I slept very well.
Yet as incredible as the first sight was, it was that much more amazing at dawn, and we all know I’m not a dawn kinda guy. At 6:58 the light meter on the camera–on tripod–told me there wasn’t enough light; at 7:00 there was. An amazing low-level fog–or probably dust particles–lifted up from the canyon floor, illuminated by the beginning rays. I’ve never seen the sun so small, so distant. It’s almost like the hotel staff arranged it that way, to give the impression—again–you were at the edge of the world.
While at night it had been, for lack of a tighter definition, cosmic, during the day it was all about being in tune with nature. I didn’t have a thesaurus, so I had to do my best: breathtaking, majestic, mystical, spiritual, glorious, primeval, unspoiled, tranquil, haunting, soul-stirring. . . grandeur. In this place, all the clichés meet and, instead of clashing, mesh into harmony.
And most of all, the power of silence. . .
It was damned chilly this early; not only could I see my breath, but it formed around my head until it coalesced into a cloud. But I barely felt it; as many had observed, when I’m playing with my camera I’m as giddy as a schoolboy. {Time out while we remember the person who said that, Ilsa the gorgeous bad-girl blonde in Indiana Jones 3. . . and we’re back.}
Was invited to do a morning hike with the bearded Canadian, but as I checked my body I regretfully realized I was too sore for another jaunt. In fact, I spent most of the morning after breakfast just sitting there and taking in the view some more, though occasionally I wandered around to take shots from different angles. But soon enough it was time to walk the ten paces back to the railway platform. Part of me felt sad to be leaving so soon, but on the other hand I was feeling so overwhelmed that I knew it had to be done. Copper Canyon is too big to take it all in, plus it doesn’t have as many handy viewpoints and lookouts as the Grand one further north. . . plus it’s green, not orange. If I ever come back, I should be able to better handle it, but for now I could take in no more.
As I waited for the train, locals began setting up their wares, as there are some people who take the train straight through without getting off to enjoy the scenery for more than ten minutes. I spent some time haggling with a little Indian girl, about four years old, selling some craft works. I thought some of those carved keychains would be fun to give as gifts, and I was particularly amused that one was shaped like a dolphin, all the way up here in the remote mountains; never saw a TV out here, but maybe they took a trip to Mazatlan. She wanted me to buy 2 for 10, but when I told her I’d take 3 for 12 she went to ask her mom, who okay’ed the deal, and I kept the dolphin for myself.
And of course, as I took a last view from the balcony as the train is coming to take me away, all my earlier feelings left and I was sad to have to leave. I would hate to think that I will never in my life see another sight like this. . . but if I don’t, I’ll come back here.
The train to Los Mochis was so much better, much more beautiful landscapes, though I’m surprised I could consider any of it beautiful after the canyon. Slowly the train dropped out of the Western Sierra Madre, through the only pass across the country between the desert to the north and the Mazatlan-Durango road that I had described understatedly as beautiful but gut-wrenching. Some of these vistas, so different from either the flatlands or the snow-capped majesty of the Rockies, made my jaw gape. There were times when the canyons fell off to both sides of the train, and others where the rock walls rose around us as high as you could see. Some of the rock formations reminded me of the area of the Elbe river south of Dresden, but they seemed a lot scarier on a train.
Finally tired of the observation bubble, I went out to the space between cars, where the top part of the loading door was open so people could look out; safety standards had never been a priority in Mexico. Plenty of waterfalls, but I particularly remember looking out the side of the train to see what appeared to be a toy town at the bottom of a ravine, and just behind it a trellis over a rushing river. . . and then I realized we were going to be traveling down there and got my cameras ready, one fast for the river and the other wide for the town.
Which turned out to not be homes–not in the traditional sense, anyway–but discarded boxcars. Ha! Shoulda taken more shots from up top.

It was quite an odyssey getting back to El Lay, especially being in the middle of drug country, but that’s a story for another time. No need to mood-whiplash you after such a beautiful journey. . .


Travel Thursday: Can’t find a pun for Palenque

After a month of travel, illness, and other misadventures, the blog is back with very little to no vengeance whatsoever.

The woman walked slowly toward me, silhouetted in the moonlight, mysterious in the fog. The clink of her stilettos on hard concrete sounded ominous in the quiet city night, like something invented by some feverish Foley artist stuck in the sound studio, needing to win an Oscar to avoid being killed. And his buddy in the recording studio next door was in the same boat, clichéing the soundtrack even more with a mournful yet soulful sax.
Walking into the streetlight, her details came into focus. The tight trench coat indicated a slim body underneath, but that had been obvious from the silhouette. Startlingly blonde hair pinned behind the left ear allowed viewing of a beautiful face highlighted by a bright green eye, but on the right side the hair had been curled into one big wave, with the curve coming to a stop exactly over the orb. Shame to not see that second delicious green marble, but. . .
Classic. Bogie would be so jealous.
And panting.
I knew she was dangerous, but not so much in a physical way, so I let her continue closer. Her skin might have been highlighted by the artificial lighting, but I somehow sensed she was untanned. But then, most femme fatales didn’t spend much time outdoors . . . thankfully.
When I wondered how she managed to walk without the ability to see anything right of center, especially in those high thin heels, the vision dissolved.

If only my camera could have captured it, I mused, wondering if my memory–the biological kind in my brain, not the silicon-type chip thing–would be able to remember the image and recreate it in the studio later.
I took the photo anyway, because even in dirty work clothes, the blonde was still beautiful. Wondering how she got so dusty when she wasn’t involved in the digging, I noticed the workers showing her every little rock they came up with, then realized they were doing it because every time she bent over, her cleavage was in view.
Grinning, I telephoto’ed in to get that shot, then brought the camera down. Perhaps the sun glanced off the black metal, or she saw the movement on her periphery–her hair being tied back in a ponytail instead of dreamy-wavy. Either way, she turned to glance in my direction, saw me resting in the shade of one of the smaller pyramids, and grinned, blowing me a kiss.
Life was good. . .
Or would have been, if it weren’t for the insects. In addition to the fantasy of the beautiful woman, my reverie had also involved a cooler and less humid clime, not conducive to most types of bloodsuckers.
Still staring at her, I realized she was walking in my direction, though not directly. Curiosity perked, I turned my gaze to the left and saw a coterie of suits heading in our direction. Sighing, groaning my way to standing, I tried to not lean against the pyramid, for I still had a vivid memory of doing such a thing at Chichen-Itza and ending up covered with huge jungle ants. The local workers had laughed and picked them off me one by one, then put them in their mouths, crunching hard, which just added to the nightmare and made me shudder as she approached me.
“You okay, stud?”
The vision of her trenchcoated beauty soothed me, and again I wondered at her accent. Sometimes it sounded British, but there was too much Boston in it too be sure. Though as usual when I’d first heard it I’d wondered what she sounded like in the throes of passion. . .
Too hot and humid to think of that right now, I smiled and did my most insincere “Better, now that you’re here” possible. She rolled her eyes, then poked me in the stomach, which only served as an excuse for me to poke her back. Though I woulda spanked her had the guys in the suits not been so close to us by now. Especially now that I could see the head suit was the guy in charge of the regional archaeology office, which made him a government flunky no matter how good he was with a trowel.
Nah, he looked like a fat cat who only gave orders, which meant the poor archaeologists had to play nice. One of my best friends from college now held the similar posting in Yucatan, speaking of Chichen-Itza, and no doubt they talked amongst each other. . .
Actually, only Alison had to play nice; that was the good thing about not being in charge. But I did tell myself not to make a joke about the guy wearing a suit in this kind of weather as the government posse finally made it over the slight rise.
“How do you manage to stay so slim, my dear?” he sighed, gawking at her as he mopped the sweat from his brow with a monogrammed hankie.
Before she could demurely reply, I said, “By not eating, what else?”
“Yes, of course.” The man tried to glare at me, but I merely smiled brightly, which made Alison cover a chuckle with a pretend cough. She knew damn well that had been as good as me putting my arm around her, without the macho crap, and she only hoped the fat cat got the message.
She didn’t need to be told that she was considered–actually presented with a joke certificate testifying to it–the most beautiful woman in archaeology, despite all the votes for Lara Croft, so she’d had to put up with plenty of such stuff. She’d managed to get a non-professor job when she’d finally achieved her doctorate, so she no longer had to deal with egotistical jocks, history nerds attempting to be charming, predatory department heads, and the rest of the hormonal crap you find in college. Of course that had earned her an ice queen reputation, but she was so happy with being left alone that from then on she actually cultivated it.
Realizing she hadn’t yet paid the man a formal visit, which was probably the reason he was here–besides hitting on her, of course–she quickly thanked him for allowing her to dig at the hallowed site of Palenque, adding, “I’m surprised that you’re so welcoming. I had written to you several times, and you seemed unenthusiastic about my coming here.”
e chuckled. “We wanted to make sure we had all our relics accounted for first.”
Luckily I was facing away now, so no one could see my reaction to that one. . . facially, anyway, though I thought I’d stifled my throat in time, too. I didn’t know if I was more amused or cringing as I waited for her reaction, but I supposed time would tell. . .
“WHAT? Those rumors are groundless, I assure you!”
Groundless? I chuckled inwardly, looking at the dig. I’d have to ask her later if she’d punned that on purpose. Not likely, though.
“The only relics I’ve ever taken are from sites I’ve uncovered myself, to prove they’re worth excavating, and–”
“Simply a joke, my dear.” Suit Man held up his hands in a placating gesture, or possibly to ward off any upcoming blows. “You certainly have a sore spot about it.”
“It’s not a joke to the archaeological community,” she muttered, glancing over at me while I was busy taking photos and pretending not to be listening. Coward!
“I apologize for bringing it up. I merely came to welcome you and invite you to dinner, a Welcome to Palenque dinner, as it were.” Suit Man beamed as he hoped she was impressed by his command of English colloquialisms.
Suppressing an involuntary sigh, she instead smiled and pointed down to her clothes, and exposed skin. “I would need at least a week’s notice to make myself presentable in the company of such an important man as yourself. Perhaps some time next week. . .?”
Stifling his own instinctive reaction, Suit Man smiled and bent to kiss her hand, then thought twice about it when he saw the dirty nails. “I will call you to let you know the best day.”
Unable to help myself now, I tried, “I’m looking forward to it. I hear your wife makes a mean steak.”
Alison’s face went through a series of contortions the envy of any gymnast in her attempt to keep a straight face. Inviting myself and letting everyone know that we knew the guy was married; what a stroke of genius!
She’d reward me for that. . .
For his part, Suit Man obviously had a lot of experience freezing his face, being a bureaucrat. “I’ll pass along the message, I’m sure my wife will be delighted.” He added a word in Spanish, under his breath and hardly audible, that seemed to start with C; I doubted it was compadre. No doubt he meant the old word for goat, not chiva–or even chupacabra–but rather the horned variety that was supposed to mean your wife was cheating on you, but nowadays was basically analogous to mutha-fucka.
Proving my Spanish slang was up to the task, I told Suit Guy how sorry everyone was that he was going away so soon in his butterfly suit. Alison, while knowing what a mariposa was in zoological terms, had no idea why there was fury in Suit Guy’s eyes, as well as muffled guffaws from the flunkies, but she wasn’t about to ask, merely reiterated how glad she was to be working here and then turning to lead me off before we got in deeper.
“That was fun,” I said brightly as we walked, forcing her to shove me in the back. “By the way, he never went to Penn or Vandy.” Chuckling, I showed her the long version of the permit Suit Guy had given her. “Look how he spelled ‘equipment.’”
She did as told, read “ekwiptment,” and let the laughter out this time, enjoying the slight shade she found herself in, though it didn’t cut the humidity. “Maybe he went to Harvard.”
I grinned, mostly because I agreed with the sentiment. “Considering you went to Harvard–”
“Just undergrad. I got out of there as soon as I could!”
“Not far enough. If you hadn’t just gone across town to Boston U., you might not have that accent.”
She’d been wondering if I was hip to her little game, but wouldn’t give in just yet. “You West Coasters are all alike.”
“Hmm, if you’re gonna get nasty and regionally territorial about it. . .”
“You do offended/shocked very good, darling.”
Before I could reply in an even more offended, or territorial, manner, a group of workers passed by, one of them swinging his shovel like a baseball bat.
“Strikes out on the curve ball!” I laughed, recognizing the guy.
“I could hit your fastball!” the guy sneered back, but because he was grinning, I didn’t take any more offense than he did.
“Of course you could. That’s why I played first base.”
“With a glove the size of a pyramid, maybe.”
“Hey, I was a great first baseman! The best never seen in the bigs. Hell, the best never to have played in the minors!”
“Ha ha. So why didn’t you play?”
“Because I was a better goalie.”
Alison had been following the conversation just fine until the last word, portero, but by the hoots that came back she figured I’d made my point and we could walk away now. Still a bit anxious about the encounter, and hopeful that the guy couldn’t cancel her dig permit for no reason, she automatically reached into her bag for her “mood enhancers.”
“I’ve never seen a cigarette-smoking vegetarian before,” he cooed.
Suddenly remembering my dislike for kissing “walking ashtrays,” as well as the smell of smoke on her body, she quickly put the pack of cigarettes away, then got all cheerleader cheery and asked, “Wanna get some early dinner?”
“I am hungriness personified!”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she drawled, this time in an almost Suthin’ accent. If she broke out an Aussie twang next time, I’d know she was teasing me.

She said she was going to close things down for the day, but stuck around long enough to see what I was pulling out of my backpack, to check on something I’d remembered earlier. It was a modern edition of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, by John Lloyd Stephens, who’s one of my heroes. She sniffed at the slick new version, and didn’t believe me when I told her I have a genuine 1830s first edition back home, and would never see it if she kept up that attitude; no doubt she didn’t think me rich enough to have such an antiquity. So anyway, I’d go over the Palenque chapter as I’d promised to do that morning, but as usual got sidetracked. . . at first staring at her, ahem, walk as she left, but mostly because, also as usual, loose pages fell out of the book and I had to check them out.
Immediately I again marveled at the Mayan calendar and how precise it had been, even better than the modern one in use all over the world, some said–and not the same guys who said the Mayans were really Martians. I still found it amazing, for example, that it was so easy to decipher the exact date Pakal became ruler: July 29th, 615A.D. Hmmm, perhaps to pass the time I’d translate my birthdate in Mayan, so that the next time someone asked I could give them the exact bars and circles, or even better, the actual Mayan words.
The next page held notes on another of my heroes who’d been through the area, Juan Galindo, supposedly around the same time as Stephens, working for the then county of the “United Provinces of Central America,” and even though Stephens quoted him in the book, I was researching whether they actually knew each other. Galindo was the first guy to say the figures on the ancient art carved into the Palenque pyramids, as well as others, looked just like the locals, where back then the popular sneering Caucasian theory was that the Ancient Egyptians, Polynesians, or even the Lost Tribes of Israel had been the builders of American pyramids; what, no Martians? I smirked. It was this same kind of patronizing superior-race bullshit that led to the rumor that Mr. Galindo was actually John Gallagher from Ireland, which was laughable now but musta pissed off poor proud Juanito no end back then.

I took a few more photos as she gathered her stuff back at the dig site, including one of her bent over and showing cleavage again, and the follow-up, with her middle finger pointed in my direction; she was much quicker to anger than her ice queen image would dictate.
Thinking back to my vision, I realized she was indeed tanned, and not just the face and other exposed parts. Come to think of it, I made a note to check her out all over next time I had a chance, and if she was indeed bronzed from head to toe, pay a visit to her rented house when she wasn’t expecting me.
It always surprised me to see her green eyes, for pale blue would have been a better color for her mock ice-princess routine. The fact that was her favorite color motif, as evidenced by the stripes on her white blouse, made most people think she did it to match her eyes, but then when a woman looked as good as she, most people didn’t bother checking eye color. And it really didn’t make much a difference, especially photographically; she’d still be all kinds of beautiful if her eyes were black.

Heading out through the main path, we came to the most famous part of the site. “So you claim to be afraid of heights, yet you still climbed the Temple, huh?”
That’s what I get for admitting my weaknesses. “It doesn’t look so high going up, and of course there’s no way to notice just how steep it is until you look down and realize there’s no other way to get off.”
Having climbed enough pyramids, she had to agree with that. “So you’ve only climbed it once?”
“I’ll climb it again if they let me go down to Pakal’s tomb.”
Despite Palenque having been scouted by a lot of travelers who wrote about it since the 1830s, it wasn’t till 1952 that a local archaeologist found the trap door–I always imagine the scene with the guy wearing an Indiana Jones hat–that led to the tomb. Before that no one had figured out why the Temple of the Inscriptions had been so much bigger than all the other pyramids at the site, but once they found the king’s sarcophagus and all the goodies surrounding it, the pieces fell into place.
Though of course that was never good enough for some people. The sarcophagus had a now-famous carving of Pakal ascending to the Mayan heavens while curled up in a fetal position, so of course some wise guy mentioned it was exactly the same pose astronauts took when being shot into space, and claimed this was evidence that extraterrestrials had visited the site. Some went as far as to say the Mayas disappeared as a race because they’d left this planet for something better, and there were other theories just as silly that made Alison’s teeth hurt, and did no good for her temper.
Unlike the archies, I didn’t sneer at the claims, but I did laugh. I love the far-out stuff without the burden of believing them.

The archaeologist in me couldn't resist. . .

The archaeologist in me couldn’t resist. . .




Passing the big pyramid that caused all the ruckus, I stopped and turned, having evolved this into an everyday ritual: a last look at my favorite building, the palace, and trying to imagine how it looked with thousands of Mayas swarming it fifteen hundred years ago. And also to relive the award-winning shot taken from the top of the pyramid {right here above} but I’d never admit that to anyone.
“Leave the tourist babes alone,” she grumbled, even though she knew what I was doing.
Not that many tourists made it out here, certainly not in the swarms that inundated the oft-mentioned Chichen-Itza and others in the Yucatan, especially those not far from Cancun. Palenque was a more beautiful site, despite it being much smaller than those archaeological Disneylands, like Tikal and Copan. Its crown jewel, not counting the aforementioned pyramid, was the Palace, which was actually a complex of several connected and adjacent buildings and courtyards, capped by the distinctive four-story tower that haunted me; my only archaeological reason for being here was to find out exactly why and how it had been designed a millennia and a half ago, though I was careful not to tell Alison that, lest she think it wasn’t all about her.
What was truly amazing was how little of the site had been excavated, though of course all the above-ground stuff had been cleaned up and made ready for tourist viewing, and tourist spending. But, to quote Alison, much of the history of the site awaited her trowel.
Diego de Landa’s travels lay forgotten in the Franciscan archives in Merida until 1864, by which time the ancient Maya had vanished into oblivion, their great ceremonial centers and temples covered by dense forests. Only the occasional priest or government official stumbled across “Curious stone houses” near remote colonial settlements. It was not until 1773 that an artillery officer, Captain Antonio del Rio traveled deep into the rain forest from what is now Guatemala City. He hacked his way through dense brush and trees to the Mayan city of Palenque, where the undergrowth was so thick people were invisible two meters away. Rio rounded up some local Maya and set them to work clearing brush from the ruins. Two weeks later, he stood in the midst of a complicated maze or rooms and courtyards. Nearby was what he called a palace, its walls covered with “uncouth” stucco decoration. He returned to base with a handful of artifacts and some drawings, and wrote a report that was forwarded to the royal archives in Spain. The document languished, until by chance a copy traveled to England and was published in 1822. . . to a deafening critical silence.

It didn’t take long to get to her car in its privileged parking space. Since she was an early riser and I wasn’t, I usually came in on the minibus whose route passed by the site, although occasionally I felt lazy and took a cab. Since I usually left the site earlier than her as well, I pretty much knew the minibus schedule by heart, so it was gonna feel bit strange to arrive back in town so quickly.
The town, as one might expect, was also called Palenque, though it had a typical “Santo Domingo del” in front of it. Of course my unstoppable curiosity wanted to know if the chicken town or the egg site had come first, but since it had taken me all of five minutes to find the town had sprung up after the site was developed, it was kind of a letdown.

She made a sound of disgust as she realized how dusty she was, and realizing it after she got into the car.
“You should have taken a dip in the Queen’s Bath.”
Her hoot preceded, “Not with your camera around, you swine! Though I should remember to bring my bikini next time. Will you play bodyguard?”
My frown was barely visible to her, but she certainly heard, “You mean I wouldn’t be in the pool with you?”
Still laughing, she watched as I closed my eyes and imagined us there–out loud–waist deep in the warm liquid, the waterfall doing more tinkling than churning behind them. The people excavating the ball court would probably see us, but knowing her, she wouldn’t care. No, that wasn’t right; she would care, because she’d get excited by the thought of being watched. . .
I sighed happily as she turned the ignition, a little harder than she’d wanted. . .

Possibly to be continued. . .