California Coast Redux

I was driving around the West Coast aimlessly in February of 2011. It was chillier than I hoped it would be, but I bundled up. I’d been thinking about California’s Highway 1 longingly ever since I drove down it in 2007 and I’d been hoping to replay the visuals I’d stored with such care in my quick-draw, long-term memory. I didn’t get far along Highway 1 before I was asked to turn back – the roads were flooding from the pooling of the incessant rain. When I was driving around the coastal roads of Oregon and California in 2007, I was driving south toward the launching city for my summer tour and sleeping in my van. In retrospect, I think I was trying to recreate that experience in 2011.

%Gallery-187004%I hadn’t booked any hotel rooms and wasn’t planning on it. I told my husband we could just sleep in the Chevy HHR we’d rented. So I bought some $15 throws at a Walgreens in San Francisco and we drove without destination. When we got too tired of our wandering, we pulled over and put the seats down in the back. Sleeping was difficult. It was much colder in February than it had been in June of 2007. I had a mattress on a lofted bed in the van back then. I had sheets, comforters, and pillows. And yet here I was, four years older with none of those things. My husband and I shivered through the night a few times before deciding that we should find alternative accommodations for my birthday, which was one day away.

We booked two nights at a place called Vichy Springs Resort that boasted naturally carbonated warm springs. Vichy springs is located in Ukiah, California, which now seems like a sleepy dream of a town. The naturally carbonated and warm springs are relatively rare. Vichy Springs is purportedly one of only two locations that offers both in North America. The place is 157 years old and calls 700 acres of land home. The springs were used by the Native American Pomo tribes for thousands of years. Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant all once spent time in the Vichy waters.

We drove the winding roads from the Pacific inland toward Ukiah, stopping every so often to photograph the mountains in the distance. It was night by the time we arrived and far too cold to even consider being outdoors with a swimsuit on, no matter how warm the springs. I was a year older by morning and sitting in warm spring water for the first time in my life. I volleyed between the pool and the baths, where the carbonated water from the faucets came straight from underground. My husband gifted me a massage and I dozed off in peace as the knots from sleeping on folded car seats for days were kneaded away. We left refreshed and early the next morning for Sacramento, from where we would return the car and find our flight back to Austin. As I was looking out of the window of the plane as it ascended over the lush hills of California, I wondered why I would have expected an old plot to unfold before old scenery when in fact, the scene had changed and so had I.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward and Ben Britz]

Photo Of The Day: Festival Of Colors NYC

The Festival of Colors celebration in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn last week was a vibrant Holi celebration. In Hindu tradition, all of the festivalgoers were asked to toss their multicolored powder into the air before the sun completely set and in doing so, the little daylight left alongside the stage lights set the blending colors of powder aglow. I had been looking forward to the festival for weeks after reading about it online. The location, which was simply a fenced parking lot in the middle of East Flatbush, one mile from the nearest train, wasn’t announced until a few days before the festival. Once I knew where to go, I took photographer Ben Britz with me and he snapped this photo. The night was filled with dancing, drinking and conversations with strangers – the kinds of conversations that are bound to occur when you’re all united in an effort to (harmlessly) ruin each other’s clothing and spread cheer.

#OnTheRoad On Instagram: New York City

Having recently splurged on a cross-country move, my travel budget isn’t bursting at the seams, but my fascination for new sights and experiences remains in tact. With a traveler’s spirit in tow, I’ll be exploring my own city this week, taking the train or driving to some of my favorite NYC destinations and some I’ve yet to visit. I aim to focus on showing you some of the green beauty of spring showcased in a city not known for greenery as well as street art, architecture, food and drink and the general vibrancy of this dense city. Come along for the ride with me as I explore and publish photos from both the nostalgic and the new for me in New York City. Follow along on Instagram here.[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]

The Dzilbilchaltun Ruins: We Come In Peace

It’s nearly impossible to avoid Maya culture in the Yucatan, particularly during the month of December in 2012, when conspiracy theories detailing the “predicted” Maya doomsday were running wild like a pack of wolves through the Internet, dirtying websites with their footprints. When you can’t beat them, you’re instructed to join them. And so I went to Mexico in December alongside the wolves and I followed their trails, which of course led, in some divergences, to Maya ruins. The Dzibilchaltun Ruins, small and unassuming, were the ruins I liked best from the trip.

Located just 10 miles north of Merida, where I stayed for a few days, the Dzibilchaltun Ruins aren’t as popular as other ruins in the Yucatan, but they were popular enough for me to have heard a Texan woman tell her guide, “We Texans are very familiar with rattlesnakes.” I lived in Texas for two years. I’m happy to report that I am still not, nor do I hope to ever be, familiar with rattlesnakes.

%Gallery-179972%Modern researchers speculate that this relatively small group of Maya ruins sits on a site that was probably chosen for its close proximity to the salt-producing region on the cost, which is around 30 minutes by car from the ruins. That coast, which welcomes the lapping waves of the Gulf of Mexico, hosts the beach town of Progreso. That coast is also the spot where the meteorite that possibly killed off the dinosaurs first made impact. You can’t see a crater at the modern day coast, but the effects are seen in the soil and rock beneath the surface – effects that just might have been apparent to the Maya community that once thrived within the walls of Dzibilchaltun.

Dzibilchaltun was occupied for thousands of years. The city expanded and became a mid-sized city as well as contracted down to a small town on more than one occasion throughout its extensive history. The Temple of the Seven Dolls, which was filled with stones and covered by another building around 800 A.D., is the most famous structure at the ruins. I climbed the wall leading up to the elevated structure that once encased seven small effigies, unearthed only when the site was discovered in the 1950s. The Maya stones at this site are sometimes sharper than you might expect; I sliced a part of my finger open while approaching the temple through what I assumed to be a shortcut. As I stood at the temple’s entrance and studied its interior, I couldn’t help but wish to have scheduled my visit during the spring equinox, when the sunrise shines directly through one window and out the other of the small building.

I descended the stairs and continued exploring the remaining ruins spread out across the open field. It was my husband’s birthday. I spotted him in the distance atop a tall and wide staircase formation, crouching down to snap a photo. As I made my way toward him, sparkling turquoise waters glistened through shading tree branches and the voices of fellow travelers became clearer as I approached the spot. A small path through the trees yielded a wonderland of a clearing; a lily-ornamented cenote holding crystal-clear, blue-green water. A couple donned their snorkeling gear and submerged themselves beneath the surface, emanating tranquility with each smooth stride. They call it Cenote Xlakah and, like many of the other cenotes in the Yucatan, it’s a vision to behold.

A 16th-century Spanish church was built in Dzibilchaltun after the conquest. I approached it in awe, stunned by its perfectly rounded ceiling and entranceways, wondering if, even with the tangential engineering and architecture knowledge I have solely from living in our modernity, I could ever carry what I know from this age back in time and apply it with any success. I doubt it.

The steep inclines and small windows of the structures at Dzibilchaltun mesmerized me. The open field, resembling that of the National Mall, allowed the sun to beat down on my bare shoulders as I made the trek from one end to another. There may have been as many as 40,000 inhabitants in this city at one time – an estimate that would have made Dzibilchaltun one of the largest cities of Mesoamerica. With each stone sculpture and engraved rock, I became entranced by the legacy of this site. Curious and sweating, I made my way into the Museum of the Mayan People, which is on the grounds and included in the entrance fee. Unearthed works of art stand erect in the museum’s garden and behind protective glass. In contrast to the quiet of the grounds that day, these collective images of a once-bustling Dzibilchaltun seemed out of place.

As I made my way out of the museum and toward my car, I remembered the three young Korean men I had briefly met while standing in line to purchase my ticket. One of them had asked if he could take a photo with my husband and me. His fingers formed a peace sign as the picture was taken and, unable to say much else in English, he said, “thank you.” He was studying us and we were all on our way to study them – the ghosts of the Maya who once inhabited Dzibilchaltun. It’s circular, it seems, our fascination with those from whom we differ. We take notes and learn from them, no matter where or when they are from and, if we do it well, we come in peace.

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

Cenotes And The Maya: When Sinkholes Become Sacred

The Yucatan peninsula lies on limestone bedrock. Water erodes passageways through limestone in a sporadic sort of way in this area. Andrew Kinkella, a Maya archaeologist, describes what happens as a “Swiss-cheese effect underground.” Some of these eroded passageways have ceilings that eventually collapse after enough of the limestone beneath has been etched away. From land-view, they’re sinkholes. If the hole reaches below the water table, a cenote is created.

The sun was beginning its afternoon descent just ahead of me where the horizon meets the long stretch of road. Since I’d decided to take the free roads from Cancun to Merida instead of the more time efficient toll highway, I still had a few hours to go before I’d get to my hotel in Merida at the pace I was going. And still, I wanted to stop at a cenote somewhere along the way. I’d read about three cenotes in the town of Valladolid, which I would be passing through soon. Although I’d intended to go to the most famous of the three, Dzitnup, the signs for Suytun caught my eye as I passed them and I turned the car around a half-mile or so down the road to explore.

A long dirt road guided me into an empty dirt parking lot; it was empty if you don’t count the scores of peacocks that were grazing the premises. The glow of the late-day sun bounced off of their slick turquoise and purple feathers. When I exited the car, they followed me around. I took photos of the birds and, accustomed to the act, they seemed to pose for me each time my camera focused in to capture them. Finally, I walked up to the counter, which was a mix of a Guadalupe shrine and concession stand, and inquired about the entry fee. Less than $5 USD later, my husband and I were walking yet another dirt path toward the cenote.

%Gallery-174276%We came upon a structure that looked like a large well. The blackness within the rock’s hole was impermeable, but I knew from my research that crisp, teal water was below. Just beyond the stone encasement was a staircase. It was a steep and long staircase and at its end, there was only darkness. I stepped carefully down the stairs and with each step, the light left. When the stairs ended and I turned the corner, I was overcome with that feeling that so often overcomes me when I am underground: humility. Humbled by nature’s intricate and secret architecture, I stood still at the mouth of the cenote. A cavernous room stood before me, alight only with the few sunbeams that made it through a small hole in the cave’s ceiling and a handful of man-made lights. Sea-greens and golden yellow hues colored the cave walls and a stone pier protruded out into a body of perfectly clear, blue water. We were alone and so I began to sing, humbled by nature’s unmatchable reverb. I entered the chilly water feeling more peaceful than I remember ever feeling in recent history, perplexed by the groups of black fish that scurried away at each movement or sound. I stood there in that beautiful water and took it all in. I understood in an instant why these places, cenotes, were such an important part of ancient Maya culture.

As one of the only sources of fresh water in this region, the Maya saw the region’s cenotes as sacred. Revered as one of the three entryways to the underworld, the ancient Maya would visit cenotes to communicate with the gods and ancestors. Offerings were thrown into these waters and sometimes the sacrifices given to these waters were human – several human skulls have been uncovered at the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza. Chac, Chac Chel and The Water Lily Serpent were the three main Maya gods associated with cenotes and water. Clean water is necessary for life and for the ancient Maya, its scarcity and necessity deemed cenotes holy.

Cenotes are still an important part of life for the modern Maya and all other residents of the Yucatan. Rivers in the Yucatan run underground and they cut through these caverns and fill cenotes with one of life’s most precious commodities. I’ve heard there are somewhere around 30,000 or so estimated cenotes in the Yucatan and only around half of them have been explored. Although I wasn’t the first to explore Cenote Suytun that afternoon, the quiet of the empty cavern gave me a glimpse into the standstill awe that the ancient Maya must have felt when they first discovered these otherworldly places.

Read more about the Yucatan and the Maya in my series, “Life At The End Of The World: Destination Yucatan.”