Monday, March 19, 2007
Teotihuacan: marketing the pyramids
They say that Teotihuacan, like Egypt, is plagued by terrier-like hawkers who will practically take the pesos out of your purse for you as they shove their wares into your arms. And ‘they’, in this instance, are absolutely right.
One hour after boarding, we disembark from the bus at a nondescript patch of dirt beside a tollbooth. The plain is populated mainly by cacti, with verdant scrub-covered mountains in the near distance. We pay at the booth and pass through a two-storey cafeteria/restaurant that opens up onto another stretch of dust – and the start of the pre-Hispanic ruins we have come to see. We quickly ascertain that the food and drink at the upstairs bar is priced for maximum profit (of course) and minimum value, so we content ourselves with a bottle of water and join the swarm of fellow tourists outside, hung with cameras and backpacks and armed with sunglasses and spreading straw hats. But first, we must run the gauntlet – a corridor of souvenir shops selling hats, Aztec icons, jewellery and emblazoned mugs and t-shirts. We only have to glance at a stand or an item for its vendor to overwhelm us with a list of goods boasting a litany of attributes: ‘pure obsidian’, ‘only 100 pesos’, ‘you want a hat? I have lots of hats’, or simply ‘please – come in’. The Husband genuinely wants a hat, but faced with the desperate flood of cajoling attracted by his interest, he soon gives up on the idea and flees, hatless, to where the ruins begin.
A trio of twenty-something French boys stand delicately amidst the dust, reading the first sign telling the history of the site. One of them brandishes a green umbrella over his head, parasol-like. A mocking macho voice issues from a clump of tourists in the far distance: ‘what’s with the umbrella?’
Our first stop is the remains of a square complex, La Cuidadela, believed to have been the residence of the city’s supreme ruler. We stand amidst the dirt, the sun harsh overhead, and gaze around us, taking it all in. If not for the roving vendors and ant-like swarms of visitors, we could imagine we were in the middle of nowhere instead of at the outer edges of one of the world’s largest metropolises.
Our first pyramid is here, in the middle of the square – the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (listed in the Lonely Planet as Templo de Quetzelcoatl). This temple was once thought to be dedicated to Queztelcoatl, the most important deity in pre-Hispanic culture, because of its many plumed serpents (associated with the god). According to the sign here, recent investigations have proved otherwise – that the building is instead dedicated to the computation of time and the calendar. The serpents carry a mythological alligator called the ‘Cipactli’, a symbol of time. There are 364 sculptures around the building.
We climb the platform adjacent to the remains of the four surviving steps of the structure’s earliest façade (as with many Mesoamerican relics, there were various stages of construction) and look out over the sculptures. A sign explains that unfortunately visitors can no longer approach the sculptures, as work is currently being done to preserve them. I quickly brush off my disappointment – it feels churlish to be annoyed that I can’t see something right now because it is being preserved for future generations. We peer over the surrounding wire fence.
As we make our way to the steep stone steps leading back downwards, another French trio approaches – a couple and a young child. We pass them to begin our tentative journey down, as they look away from something at the bottom of the steps and move on. To my horror, a stroller containing a curly-haired toddler is parked there. The child sits passively, but my mother’s brain can’t help but play a reel of the scenarios that could happen. The Husband and I exchange looks as we pick our path down. And then it happens. The toddler starts to wail and lurches out of the stroller, throwing himself at the steps. Howling, he begins to climb. I dredge up my high school French.
‘Arrete!’ ('Stop!') I call. ‘No!’
He keeps going, of course. I drop my satchel on the nearest step and haul my camera from my neck in order to move faster, leaving it beside the satchel. The toddler looks at me in alarm and pitches his wail even higher, louder, running still more frantically up the steps.
‘C’est d’accord! (It's okay)’ I shout, helplessly, wishing I knew more exactly what to say. I reach for the child, but he dodges me and runs upward, tottering precariously. A woman below yells at me. Hotly embarrassed, even in my panic, I shout back: ‘he’s not mine!’ (I think she’s telling me to get the child down.) The French couple appear above us, the father running towards his son. He catches him as I run behind, trying to line myself up to catch the kid if he falls.
‘Thank you’ he says, in English, visibly shaken as he scoops up the child to carry him to the top.
I mumble something along the lines of ‘it’s nothing’ as I turn to join The Husband at the base of the pyramid. It takes a few moments before I am breathing easily again. Apparently the woman who yelled was calling for someone at the top to get the parents.
The Avenue of the Dead from above
We walk down the Calzada de los Muertes (Avenue of the Dead), the ‘main drag’ of Teotihuacan, past the dribbling Rio San Juan – barely a creek, let alone a river (rio), to explore the arteries of a ruined building that has been opened to the public. Surrounded by flourishing cacti, protected from the elements by an incongruous aluminium roof, the structure is artificially bolstered within by steel shafts and modern-looking columns. It interferes somewhat with the atmosphere, but it is mildly reassuring to know that the ceiling won’t come crashing down on your head. Obviously raised on a diet of too many pop culture plots revolving around ‘the mummy’s curse’, I pause before venturing underground. As it turns out, there’s nothing much to see.
The main attractions here are the two big pyramids – the Piramide del Sol and Piramide de la Luna. The larger Pyramid of the Sun, the third biggest in the world, is visible from most of the current archaeological zone. Though it looms large from any angle, it is the main feature of the east side of the Avenue of the Dead, and the point at which a path crosses the great avenue, leading to exits and souvenir stalls in either direction. It is in the approach to this pyramid (and the stretch between here and the smaller Pyramid of the Moon, at the dead end of the avenue) that the vendors are most numerous and most persistent.
‘It’s practically free today!’
‘Just one dollar!’
I am finally won over by the offer of an ornate obsidian turtle for a dollar (the turtle a silly private joke between me and my mother).
‘Okay’ I relent, pausing as the eager vendor withdraws the object from where he has thrust it, inches from my face. I withdraw the embroidered moneybag I’ve stuffed beneath my t-shirt to take out ten pesos (equivalent of a dollar). As I hand it over, he amends his offer.
‘Yes, that’s twenty-one dollars.’
‘Okay, I take one dollar off. Twenty dollars.’
‘But you said one dollar’ objects The Husband.
‘I meant twenty-one dollars.’
‘No, sorry.’ I put my money away.
‘All right, 150 pesos!’ he calls after us. We don’t look back.
The stairs leading down to the plaza before the Pyramid of the Sun are carpeted with resting tourists and displayed goods. An assortment of rugs is spread to one side. As we walk past the first-aid van bearing the universal red cross parked alarmingly at the base of the pyramid, a woman steps in front of us and, with a practised flourish, unfolds a lace tablecloth patterned with the Aztec wheel.
A sign at the base of the pyramid warns against children, pregnant women and people with heart problems climbing it.
‘I hope those French people don’t leave their baby at the bottom of this pyramid’ I huff, looking seventy metres into the sky to its summit.
View from first platform: Pyramid of the Sun
The Husband has been apprehensive about this climb. Stinging from my very uncool sobbing reaction to Mexico City last night, and well aware that he is unimpressed with my hedging fear of danger here, I am secretly (shamefully) delighted. This is my chance to be the intrepid adventurer I know I am in my heart of hearts.
‘You’ll be fiiiiiine’ I say, deliberately breezy. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
Impressively, after much thought between the first pyramid and here, he decides to feel the fear and do it anyway.
‘I’ll be so angry with myself later if I don’t do it.’
And he is fine. I quickly discover that while The Husband has a psychological hurdle to overcome here, I have a physical one. It’s a tough and breathless climb. There are four platforms, and the stubbly ruins of a former temple (now a heap of rubble) at the top. At the first platform, I sit at the edge and try not to wheeze. The high altitude and bad air quality don’t help matters, I’m sure. The view is already breathtaking. Looking down on the plaza below, surrounded by stone walls and marked at its centre with an immense stone platform, I begin to get a sense of the layout of the site. The Husband is safely edged up against the wall of the next level.
View from the top: Pyramid of the Sun
As I haul myself up (behind The Husband), I note the retirees so plentiful here having obvious difficulty with the task, and realise why the first aid van might be stationed here. At the top, we join the triumphant crowd stumbling over the uneven rubble, or sitting and enjoying the view. The Husband sits, while I stalk around the perimeter taking photographs. It’s not long before he joins me and we take turns posing in front of the Pyramid of the Moon. Smoke curls into the sky in the far distance – probably a cornfield burning off the remains of the last crops. The ground below is like a model city; the trees and people vaguely plastic and unreal from this height. Smog haze strokes the far mountaintops and smudges the colour of the populated plains in the foreground, as if slowly erasing them from a vast blackboard.
A couple huddle together, mugging for the camera, in the prime front-of-pyramid position we have just vacated as we prepare to begin our descent. They wriggle to position themselves so their lens will properly capture them, each stretching an arm out to hold the camera in position.
‘Would you like me to take your photo?’
My spontaneous burst of generosity is prompted by my memory of kind strangers taking my photo in front of tourist spots on my solo trip over, but I also plan to ask them to reciprocate for us. They are so pleased, though, that I don’t, deciding not to shatter the illusion of me as a wonderfully thoughtful person. As we climb the stairs downward, my eyes firmly on the rope railing and on my feet, I overhear two separate people telling their companions how they were too scared to climb this in the past, but are glad they did it now. When we reach the bottom, I relay this to The Husband.
We encounter a strange gathering as we rejoin the Avenue of the Dead: a crowd of white-clad pilgrims. Apparently, they come here every year around this time – thousands will be here in just over a week (March 19-21) to celebrate the vernal equinox. The white clothing is meant to absorb the mystical energies believed to converge here. Or something like that. Later, we trail behind the pilgrims at the on-site museum and I notice how incredibly upper middle-class they seem, their white clothing discretely expensive, gold and silver jewellery at the wrists and necks of the women.
‘They don’t look like cult members’ I whisper to The Husband.
‘They’re not’ he says. ‘It’s a pretty common Mexican thing.’
A pair of pilgrims, outside the on-site museum
In front of the Pyramid of the Moon are twelve temple platforms. Some experts think that the number thirteen (the platforms plus the pyramid) is symbolic – thirteen is a key number in the day-counting system of the Mesoamerican calendar. The largest platform, directly opposite and below the pyramid’s front flank, has already attracted a small crowd.
View of temple complex from Pyramid of the Moon
A grey-haired North American hippy in flowing clothes that partially disguise her ample figure stands dramatically at the centre of the platform. Her arms are thrown open and upwards to the sky, her head tossed backward in submission. Behind her, the great stone pyramid rises in sharp relief to her pale figure, gathering stormclouds still darker behind it. The sky is navy grey with streaks of white. A friend jumps up to join her, both of them seemingly howling at the sky. By the time we reach the top of the temple, the friend has trailed off and the original sky worshipper lies prone and silent on the ground, her eyes reverently shut.
In the place where she stood is a gaggle of Japanese tourists, young men on the border between adolescence and adulthood, excitedly waving digital slick cameras. The Husband and I each find one in our hands, a stream of chattering Spanish and English asking us to take their group photo. To our great surprise and amusement, they strike the same worshipping, Christ-like pose as the hippy, but with a rock star edge – more Jim Morrison than someone’s idea of an ancient Mesoamercian. This time, we ask them to reciprocate and get the typical tourist shot to frame in our lounge room at home.