To Mahahual and back

map road trip

Villahermosa, Tabasco

The road trip began with the end of the Annual Mexican conference on Ecology, which was held in Villahermosa in the state of Tabasco. Yes, I know, Tabasco. Nothing to do with the sauce, except that the sauces here are infinitely more delicious. Having been warned by a colleague who was accompanying us that it was a city that lied twice in its name — it was neither a villa nor was it hermosa (beautiful)— I was not expecting much, but I found myself being charmed by it in unexpected ways. A huge sprawling park that was bookended by a series of children’s playgrounds and the other end a bonafide archeological/zoological park with jaguars and macaws, and everything in between, even coatis running about like feral monkeys. A huge crocodile in a pool, though the locals claimed that one has only to wait for the rains for the crocodiles to emerge from the lagoons. D only had  memories of visiting Tabasco as a child and these memories invariably featured mosquitos in a starring role; and she found it was easier to bear this time, even though the heat was especially oppressive after Xalapa. I find that as time goes by, I need to get used to the heat again it’s not an automatic return to comfort. One must earn the comfort by bearing the heat; a non-trivial achievement especially when one has been complaining about the lack of tropical climate in xalapa for the rest of the year. The other unexpectedness of Villahermosa was going to an African Safari style zoo at the outskirts of the city. Called Yumka, the owners had clearly taken a Noah’s Ark approach to zoos, and geographical constraints be damned. And so we found emus living with antelopes; gaur with giraffes, and spider monkeys for some reason on a little island of their own. There were nilgai, wildebeest, antelope, pumas, jaguars, monkeys of all sorts, all hurtling past us as we wended our way around on a ‘train’ pulled by a tractor. At the rest stop, there were peacocks wandering around.


After Villahermosa, we stopped at Calakmul. I have been to archeological sites in Mexico before, but none as dramatic and as interesting to get to as Calakmul. We were camping in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, and I assumed that the site was a mere km or so away, as is common in other places; they try to ease the way of the tourist in every way possible. But no, the road into the forest deepened and deepened, till finally I had the sense of being inside a vast and wide sanctuary. We scanned the sidelines for animals, but we were traveling in a caravan of sorts at late morning and only managed brief glimpses of the white tailed deer and the turkey pheasant. We finally arrived at the site, got ready and trudged inwards. It was hot. I always end up at pyramid sites when it’s midday, the most inconvenient time to go. And we turned a corner in the trail, and quite suddenly we were among the ruins. There was some shade in front of the big pyramid, so we rested a bit, and then I went up the pyramid. It was steep, and now I’ve climbed enough to know that one must go diagonal and straight up the large steps. I reached a sort of resting spot and though I was paying attention to the climbing, I could see the horizon opening up through my peripheral vision. I continued till I reached the top, and the entire forest of Calakmul spread out in front of me. But the climb was not over; in a remarkable change from other pyramids there was another structure behind, and so I made my way there and form the top of the second peak, the view was unchecked. You could see mounds popping up through the trees, you could sense that on a clear day one could see, perhaps, as far as Tikal in Guatemala. But the real surprise was behind the pyramid. I had gone to Calakmul completely unprepared: I hadn’t read a shred of information about the site, and so I was taken aback to see another pyramid, still covered with plants right behind this one. It was a stunning sight; almost mythical, a view of the pyramid from above, with trees threatening to envelop it and return the site to anonymity.

El volcan de los Murcielagos

We were told that there was a cave just off the highway near Calakmul where every evening bats leave to forage, and that this cave is called the Volcano of Bats, and that it’s a deeply impressive sight. As chance would have it, we were near the highway at dusk, and drove slowly past a  couple of Bats traffic signs and found a tiny spot to park the cars and follow a trail into the brush. There was another group there, and they had a guide. The guide told us that the bats were a bit late today.

The cave was huge: picture a sinkhole or a cenote without water, or small crater. At the base of the crater, there was a small opening intot he rock. I could hear the chirping of the bats. At around 5:30, as twilight spread its way across, a few bats emerged, and then a few more and then finally the exodus of the bats was in full flow. They emerged from the small opening and spiralled up all the way up clear of the crater and then went their separate ways. Some bats emerged very close to the ground, dodging people and plants as they fled hugging the ground. I’ve never seen bats fly so low. The guide told us that it had been estimated that there were 3 million bats in this cave, with 7 species. It was exhilarating watching the swarm of bats.

El volcan de los murcielagos a video by dinrao on Flickr.


On the way to Mahahual, we stopped at a Pueblo Magico (a tourist friendly designation: magic town) called Bacalar. This town is on the shore of an immense freshwater lagoon. The lagoon is spectacular, the colours of the water a delicate blue green that heralded the beginning of the mexican caribbean. We were at a restaurant that overlooked the lagoon, and the restaurant had kayaks for rent, so I went for a spin in the lagoon, and went up to see some stromatolites. The water was only waist deep, and the sand was never far from the kayak. We rowed around a small island and headed back.

In Mahahual, a small strip of beach, we spent the days next to the sea, with occasional trips to town to eat or just hang about. The coral reefs were just about visible, the breaking of the waves gave them away. It’s the second largest coral reef in the world. But the seascape was wonderful: blue green water, white sand, spectacular moonrises and the warm sun, all combined to create a sense of peace.

On the way back, we drove through the city Ciudad Del Carmen, mostly because the road went along the sea, and there were impressive bridges over lagoons and rivers. We stayed there for a night and returned to Xalapa the next day. All in all, a very successful road trip.



Should you by chance find yourself in Melbourne, a fair city that rests along the southern side of the southern continent, you will be at once taken by the feeling that you have entered a foreign country. You have barely stepped off the train at the Station and even before your gait sheds the rolling movement of the train, you step onto the surreal heart of this city. And the heart is not one you expect after all your wanderings in Australia, it is a space totally devoted to a stance away from the normal. The square is not a square, it is a jagged irregularly lit space lined by equally angular buildings, all glowing this way and that in the cold wintry night. The rain that falls intermittently is cold as well, but you will scarcely feel it, dear traveler, as you wander around the square with a jaw threatening to drop in anticipation of further wonders. Here, for example, is the debris of a celebration, with only a giant and serene Buddha bathed in the light of an enormous screen relaying a popular entertainment. Here, for example, is the nerve centre of that most excellent of broadcasting services, and seeing the familiar blue and white logo makes you nostalgic for a time that is yet to come, a time when you realize that you are no longer in Australia. Words sidle across buildings, lights dangle between buildings, and there in the distance you can make out a spire reaching for the sky.
As you wander among the alleyways and the bylanes and the little connections between the streets, you notice throngs of people gathered together, huddling in barely lit cafes on chairs thrust onto the streets. You get the feeling, as you walk past the people, and as you peer into the various shops selling exquisite paper, or clothes or coffee or even books, that there is at least one city in this land that knows how to be a city. And the walls themselves bustle with the efforts of hundreds of artists who seek to claim a tiny bit of the wall, knowing full well that this claim shall soon fade to another’s hand. Some find a little more permanence than others, their work protected by a perspex sheet, but even this is mocked in this impermanent world.
A multitude of languages beguile your ear here, dear traveler, and even though you might be schooled in many, there are still several here that elude your grasp. And as you walk along the road, you will soon encounter the trams trundling along anachronistically, electricity arcing from the wires. And if you forego the road for the trams, you will soon realize that an entire series of lessons in etiquette await you. There are wonders here, in buildings that house ancient manuscripts that gleam in the light, in secret museums devoted to the capturing of light or to stones that capture the light, and in eccentric shops that are crammed with scientific curiosities -from miniature engines that work with the heat from light to insects and spiders fossilized in resin blocks.
And then, dear traveler, as your feet weary and you yearn for respite, you may well be surprised to stumble upon a restaurant that serves you food from your homeland, and in the manner that you only have memories of, and then, as you watch the city unfurl before you as you drink a fine coffee, you realize that you have always known Melbourne. You only had to see it to be sure it existed.

Six Trees

Somewhere along the Victoria Highway, somewhere past the border of Western Australia, you can see the first of the many baobab trees popping up among the army of twisted and fire blackened eucalyptus trees. They are unusual trees, and at the time I was there, they were not in leaf, and all I could see of them was their squat grey trunks and their thin branches stretching into the sky. Later I got my first good look at a baobab, and I marveled at its rotundity. I had always thought that the boabs (as the Aussies call them) were native to Africa, but it turns out that the only other places on earth where you can see them in the wild are Madagascar and Northwestern Australia. But I don’t want to talk abut boabs in general, I want to tell you about two individual boabs.
The Victoria Highway takes you along the Gregory National Park, and in the tedium of long distance driving, you notice that there are several things in this area that are prefixed with Gregory. The ‘Gregory’ in question was Augustus Gregory, one of the pioneers of early exploration in Australia. Like many of his peers (Lachlan Macquarie springs to mind), he littered his name along the countryside, from Gregory’s Remarkable Pillar, for what I imagine to be a pillar like rock formation, to even a Gregory tree. One of the people who was making this trip with me was indeed called Gregory, and hence a visit to the Gregory Tree was inescapable. We turned off the highway onto a dusty road that took us along to the specially marked area with the Gregory Tree. We didn’t expect much, after all after you’ve seen one massive boab, only a hard core boab enthusiast would be thrilled by more of the same. But it was an impressive tree, ringed by protective fences and overlooking a small river. The tree leaned at a small angle and its trunk was adorned with giant hewn letters – the date July 2nd 1856 stood out. This was the date that Augustus Gregory had camped here on his way to the west coast. A moment in time, carved on a tree. We cheerfully forgave his graffiti, noted the irony of various signs prohibiting us from doing the same, not that we wanted to.


The boabs are so full of water that you could scratch them with a fingernail, and moisture seeps out. I had no idea, however, that they were hollow, till we encountered the Prison Tree. The very concept of a tree being a prison was straight out of the surrealist’s guidebook, and despite the inconvenience of its location, we travelled the 22 km off the road along a small stream and on a smaller road, till with an unheralded and abrupt turnoff, we were at the Prison Tree. That was the sole signage: Prison Tree. Lots of mysteries. Who used it as a prison, who was kept there, and why was it used as a prison. But what was apparent was that there was a small ‘window’ cut into the trunk, and we could clamber inside. The walls inside were covered with cobwebs, and small chinks let in light from the top, and it was surprisingly cool and inviting to stay there, shaded from the relentless sun by the insides of a tree. Later I found out that boabs were once used as impromptu prisons by policemen transporting prisoners to the nearest ‘real’ jail, but it still struck me as a grotesque idea. The tree itself was another massive boab, and it was covered with etched graffiti from all later day visitors. I blame Gregory for this one; he started the whole graffiti-on-boabs trend.



Back in Queensland, the vegetation is much more lush and green, and especially in the tablelands near Atherton, it is not uncommon to see enormous Araucaria pines lining farmlands. It’s a hilly terrain, with patches of rainforests nestled amidst cow filled meadows. Large trees are quite common, but the Lake Barrine area is especially good for trees. The lake itself is a crater lake – it’s satisfyingly circular – and if you walk on the path that surrounds the lake, you’ll soon come across the Kauri Twins. Well, I call them twins only because they are two massive Kauri trees that leap into the sky in unison. These trees are more common in New Zealand, and their rarity here combined with their girth makes them special. They branch out only at the canopy, and if you look up, their heights does make you dizzy. The orange-brown bark peels off in stubs like scales, and suggest to you that this is not merely a tree, but some sort of super-organism, mocking you for your short stature.


It’s hard to think of a tree that could top the above, but Queensland had more surprises. One of my favourite trees is the strangler fig. I’ve encountered stranger figs before in India, and their endearing ways of wrapping themselves around any host tree or even stone structures and growing till the tree emerges out of the most incongruous places (Angkor Wat is therefore a dream destination for me). But it’s more common for these figs to take over a host tree, and ‘strangle’ it till the host tree is a mere tree shaped hollow. I saw such a tree in Lamington National Park last year, and though I’ve seen quite a few of these figs, nothing prepared me for the Cathedral Fig. We walked up to it, and before I was ready, I saw it. The tree leaps upon your eye and refuses to let go. It had its own mini canopy, with small tree-sized branches leaping out from the top. It was like seeing a tall pillar made of writhing roots topped by a veritable crown of branches. I marveled at it from a distance and finally I started walking around it on the small boardwalk, unable to keep my eyes off the roots that had fused to each other in their eagerness to reach the earth.


The Curtain Tree fig, by contrast, was not as impressive for its size, but rather for its structure. This fig had settled on a host tree that was leaning at an angle (or had forced the host tree into a gentle incline) and the fig’s roots were draped around the trunk on their way to the ground. In effect, the roots made a sort of curtain that obscured the main shape of the tree. It was like covering a tree with a tarpaulin of roots, such that it looked nothing like a tree is supposed to. We circled the tree slowly and it was a bit eerie to see the tree change shape from each viewing angle. After a few futile attempts to get a representative photograph of the tree, we headed out.


There used to be a Red Cedar tree standing firm in the forests of Queensland, stretching its trunk above the canopy. Even today, a year after Hurricane Larry brought the mighty giant down, the tree’s corpse still rests majestically, clearing a pathway into the forest. Its immense buttress roots still stand a few meters off the ground, and merely seeing the base of the tree makes you realize how big this tree really was. You can see the twisted broken trunk and imagine the day when the winds proved to be too tough for this old battler, and it is with a sense of deep regret that you walk away, knowing that the days when giant trees dotted these forests are fading away into legend. One by one.


Pre-columbian pottery

I went to two museums dealing with pre-hispanic art on my recent trip. The first was in Madrid, called the Museo de América, and it was an odd little museum, filled with artifacts dealing with Central and South America. I was expecting to see a lot more maps and such, for some reason, but rather than maps what really struck my eye was the pottery. The museum was divided into various thematic sections, and these pots made their way into most of the themes, which ranged from social life to culture and religion. Let me describe a typical pre-columbian pot. They’re usually two chambered, with the spout on one chamber, the handle affixing the other and a small tube like structure connecting the two chambers. The pot was covered with various geometric patterns, that I later learned was usually linked to shamanic hallucination sessions. These were the simplest types.

This image is from Peru, called the Viru or Gallinazo House-model Vessel.

In the pre-columbian art museum in Santiago, Chile (which is said to be one of the best in South America), I saw a huge array of these pots. These pots were truly amazing. The shapes of the pots were either anthropomorphic, or of animals. The double chambers were infrequent and the shapes of the pots were bizarre. There were spouts emerging from human chests, or from parrot beaks. The bird shaped ones were spectacular, -the judicious placement of holes meant that the pots made bird like whistling sounds when the liquid was poured from the pot. Again the pots were also covered with typical geometric patterns. I wish I could recall more accurately the shapes, but there were so many and each was as whimsical as the next, and I foolishly didn’t make notes.
So when I got out of the museum in Chile, naturally I looked for souvenirs, and I especially was looking for some modern ‘pre-columbian’ pottery. My mind was full of the wonderful weirdness of the pots I’d seen in the museums, and I thought it wouldn’t be all that hard to find similar artifacts that I could take home. But even the museum shop carried really poor examples. I found boring pots that were so obviously devoid of imagination that it was startling. The ones in the museum were much more technologically advanced than the ones outside, which was surprising, because surely it would have been quite easy to recreate the pots of those days. I prowled around the ‘artesan’ shops at the base of the Cerro San Cristobal, and even the nicest ones were quite stolid.

This image is an animal effigy vessel

Then I remembered the art work of Nadin Ospina, which I’d seen a couple of months ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. They were holding an exhibition called The Hours, the largest exhibition of Latin American contemporary art in Australia. The story of Ospina’s work goes like this. He was once duped into buying fake pre-columbian pottery, and he apparently tracked down the guys behind the fakes and was struck by their apparent authenticity. The fakes were made in a way that mimicked the real process as faithfully as possible and then artificially aged to ensure that they fooled the casual buyer. Ospina then took this idea one step forward and made a series of art works in the pre-columbian style, but these depicted characters from popular culture such as Donald Duck and the Simpsons instead.


I saw this exhibition before I saw the original pieces, and at that time, I thought it was a very clever way of subverting the old artifacts into some sort of social commentary. But now, after spending so much time looking at the original pieces, my view of Ospina’s work has changed. I now think that the pottery produced by Ospina is in someway faithful to the spirit of the original potters and their fantastic imagination.

Impressions of Santiago, Chile

I like how when you´re walking along the streets in the centre of the city and suddenly you look in the distance and you get a quick glimpse of the immense Andes looming over the city. The streets in the centre of town are so European, and the area I´m staying in comes complete with cobblestones et al, but it´s an artifact, it only lasts two streets. The view from the Big Mary statue atop the San Cristobal hill is odd, the view of the sprawling megapolis of Santiago almost distracts you from focussing on the Andes. There is a poor little garden dedicated to Darwin, with a plaque embedded in a rock and almost worn out by the wind. The museums are full of pre-columbian weirdness, and even the most faithful imitator of ancient artifacts in the various artisan shops cannot come close. And the churches are filled with grim statues and paintings of Christ and assorted saints, but the one that caught my eye was a crucifixion scene done with a local model, ie the Christ has the facial features of a (no I wont say Indian) indigenous tribesman. An indophile selling incense and cds of meditation music accosted me with a Namaste, and more bizarrely, Do you eat meat? Chile is cold, at night the cold wind tries to take away your soul, but failing that, it is vaguely satisfied with all the moisture in your body.

I’m off today, leaving to Sydney, shall skip a day and arrive the day after.

Odds and ends in Brazil

1. The Rio in Rio de Janeiro is not a river!
2. Views from the Christ the Redeemer statue beat that of the Sugar Loaf mountain, but it´s harder to compare the rides themselves. The cable car was as fascinating as the insanely steep train.
3. I apologize to non-arachnologists, but don´t you think that the Sugar loaf mountain looks exactly like a giant fossilized archeid???!
4. The first time in ages that I tasted something that was completely alien to me- Açai fruit juice
5. Being mistaken as a brasiliero has its advantages, the number of people selling me things reduced dramatically when I was unaccompanied.
6. The beaches…are typical. Heh.
7. They sell prayers written on rice papers for the faithful to swallow at the chapel adjoining the Museum of Sacred Art in Sao Paulo.

I´m off to Santiago now, and no doubt will try to speak portuguese to the locals and confuse everybody. I´m not looking forward to the cold, though.