Field School Update #3

Monday begins the fourth and final week of the Belize archeology field school. It has been three weeks of backbreaking manual labor. Hard work, much harder than I expected. On Monday my digging technically ended. I am now in the lab analyzing the hoard of ceramics we excavated.

As I know nothing of Mayan ceramics it’s been a crash course in black, red or orange slips, polychrome, rim diameters and paste and firing. I can now distinguish between Mt. Maloney Late Classic I, II, and Terminal. Add to that a lot of Belize Red Ash Ware, a boatload of Cayo Unslipped (huge elegantly curved jars) the occasional Alexander’s Unslipped, Meditation Black, Dolphin Head Red, Garbutt Creek and a few others and I’m actually learning.

On the last active day of digging our efforts were interrupted by a troupe of Howler Monkey’s who came in to inspect what we were doing. Eight monkeys just swinging from the trees right above our excavated units, tossing poop into them and peeing where ever they wanted to. One almost pissed on my dig partner. He’s a douchecanoe and would have deserved it. (I don’t make it a habit to slag on people and being that he is not here to defend himself I will leave my comments at that.)

Random thoughts: having spent the better part of three weeks digging around the innards of a Mayan pyramid I am not terribly impressed with their architectural prowess. (And aliens were most certainly never involved.) It’s very rudimentary and ad hoc architecture. We excavated part of the south side medial terrace. We were looking for and found what they call ‘construction pins,’ which serve as a kind of support pier to keep the downward thrust of the pyramid from imploding. There are two critical aspects to architecture: form and function. As to function: they do what they are supposed to do and have held up well, but as the form of architecture goes they’re ugly and asymmetrical.

Another weird thing about Mayan pyramids, or “city groups” in general: they are accretive and never symmetrical. Few were built in just one building spree like contemporaneous works, take the Samanid mausoleum for example. Elegant, symmetrical and nothing ad hoc about it.

One thing I am aware of every time I dig here in Belize is that the Mayan’s had no metal weapons, nor did they have beasts of burden like the horse. This had a lot to do with the construction techniques they employed. There are no large dressed stones like the pyramids in Egypt. Every stone in this pyramid could have been carried by one man. And the labor that went into their construction?

The heat is abominable. I am going to sleep in a refrigerator when I return home. The humidity is terrible too.

It’s been an interesting experience, alas, what little curiosity I had in the Maya has been fully satisfied. I’m a desert guy. Jungles are too hot, have too many bugs and are way too loud. There is never any silence in the jungle. Nothing like the silence you find in the desert for sure.

You can find the photos and videos of the Howler Monkey invasion here.


Belize Update Plus a Few New Photos

The digging continues, more so with a trowel than shovels now. Although when we work on the steps of the East slope we do some shoveling. Most of my work is on the South Slope of El Castillo, the main pyramid of the Xunantunich complex.

The heat is unrelenting, although at about 1130 every day a nice breeze whips around the pyramid and cools us. But the nights are brutal. My room is like a blast furnace. Top bunk sucks. Heat rises. No A/C and the fans are less than useful.

Alas, I am learning a great deal.

More soon. Enjoy some new photos! Only a few but we did discover some interesting pottery this week.

New Photos from Belize and Stuff

Here are the photos.  

It is hot.

The days are long. They start at 530. They end at 400.

It is 95*. I shovel and basically move about a couple dozen wheelbarrows full of dirt off the pyramid every day.

It is exhausting. That is all. 

Bus Stations

They stink, as in smell bad, the world over. Not horrible, but a combined human funk. So it goes . . .

The Road Beckons

Xunantunich's western friezeTomorrow morning I catch the southbound bus to Laredo at 900.

I’ll arrive in Laredo about 1145, walk across the border at International Bridge #1, take the city bus to the new primera classe bus station and catch the first available to Mexico City.

After that, who knows? I have to be in Belize on July 5th, which makes zipping across the Yucatan a tight schedule.

I’ll then be in Belize working on an archaeological dig for 25 days. I will leave August 1 for the Pacific Coast of Mexico.

And then, who knows?

I suspect you’ll be getting a boatload of posts on the ancient Mayans.

This is the best place to keep up with me while I am away.

True Detective

Y’all know I try to stick to the books, right? Of course, every now and then I get hooked on a television show. I have my personal favorites like Californication, Justified, Grimm (guilty pleasure) and The Wire, which I seem to watch over again at least every two years. On the flight home from Istanbul, about an hour and half before landing in Houston I tuned into HBO’s first episode of True Detective. I only got half of the first episode because we were beginning our initial descent, but I was hooked.

Yesterday afternoon at about 530 pm I completed the first season.

I needed close to 24 hours to process what I witnessed. I will not give anything away. You must watch this show. Period.


Although I won’t say anything about the plot, the character development of the show most reminds me of Dostoevskii’s greatest novel, “Crime and Punishment” in its ferocious darkness. Obsessively shining a light where none ever need be shone.

Преступление и наказание (Crime and Punishment) was simply relentless. The point wasn’t the plot, because in the the end we all know Raskolnikov killed the old lady. The point was Raskolnikov’s soul and its consummate exploration. This is what True Detective did. And with eight episodes it had the rare luxury to explore the souls of two male leads.

I have no doubt that the first season or series of True Detective will go down as the best television series ever made. It’s better than House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Mad Men, Justified, Game of Thrones, Rome, The Wire, The Sopranos, Californication, Homeland, and Dexter plus anything else you care to throw at the TV Guide, combined. The acting is impossible to describe and it’s impossible to say in the end who does a better job: Woody Harrelson or Matthew McConaughey. The psychic distance alone each actor has grown is testament in itself. Consider, Woody Harrelson began acting as the doofus barback in Cheers. Matthew McConaughey was the pretty boy for about twenty rom-coms in the 1990s-into the early aughts.

If they gave an Oscar for TV they would have to share it. Affecting and moving acting by both men.

And Michelle Monaghan is the emotional anchor of the entire series and for both men: talk about unsung acting jobs. Wow. Her’s was not a star’s role, but she made it one: complete and centered, the equal of both men.

The show is that good and that dark and that awful and that powerful and that mesmerizing and that uncontrollably shudder inducing. And more.

In fact, you are doing yourself a disservice if you do not watch it.

Central American Photos

I’ll probably never get to finish writing the story of my adventure with Dad in Central America last year during the holidays. Sigh. Too much academic work. But, what I can do is present you with the last remaining photos from Tikal and Antigua, Guatemala, as I promised to do months ago.

Here is the entire set of Central American photos, all of them, including Tikal and Antigua, which I simply never got around to uploading, until now. Enjoy!

Decadent Anticipation

I realize as I sit here typing this is going to sound trivial and carping, like trite complaining. In all reality it probably is. But here goes.

Bahia Navidad

I travel a lot.

I traveled a lot before I got married and traveled some while I was married but travel was always a huge matter of conflict and it was just easier to not travel and not fight about it than it was to travel and fight about it afterwards. Maybe someday I will figure out why I married a woman who wanted to marry a nomad but wouldn’t let me travel? How did I let that happen? What’s that say about me?

But I digress.

Then I got divorced and moved back to San Antonio and promptly went to Central America for two weeks with my Father. Then I went to Joshua Tree for a week with a friend. I just returned from three and a half magnificent weeks in Central Asia with my Father. We’re talking about Antarctica over the holidays to see penguins. Yes, I am trying to catch up for a handful of missed years.

So, like I said, that’s a lot of travel.

But here’s the catch: I haven’t traveled alone since July 2009 when I went to the Mexican state of Jalisco, wherein I stayed at a little beach village called San Patricio/Melaque on the Bahia Navidad to be precise. And nearby, between drunken nights and memories of blowing conch shell horns on the beach and ceviche to die for I took up surfing in the Boca de Iguanas in the mornings. It was a divine three weeks, as I recall. Only late in the trip a friend showed up and the entire tenor of the trip changed. I only traveled with him a few days and then went home.

This leads to my complaint, if you want to call it that, I see it more as a recommendation or an endorsement: nothing beats traveling alone.

Absolutely nothing.Pelicans

It is rare and decadent. There is no one to please. No one to worry about. No one to keep me from doing what I want to do when I want to do it. No one to compromise with about this food or that, this place or that, nothing or anything. My only job is to live in the moment and like a dandelion seed go where the wind blows me. (I stole the dandelion line from someone by the way.)

And for the first time in five years I am going to travel alone.

I’m actually more excited that in three weeks I am going to get on a bus at the San Antonio bus station and ride to Mexico City and see a friend than I was about going to Central Asia.

After Mexico City I will make my way to Belize where I will participate in an archeological dig at Buena Vista and Xunantunich for twenty five days: no air conditioning, cold showers every morning and washing clothes by hand in the Mopan River old school-like. Up at five asleep at eight. Devouring every last drop of knowledge I possible can from my professors on the Maya and the practice of archeology.

After that I will meander–slowly–back to San Antonio by bus, but not before spending at least three days on the Pacific Coast surfing.
Colonias Returning Home From Work

No computer.

No smart phone.

No jealous woman back home demanding I Skype or wondering what the hell I am doing and why she hasn’t gotten a call, or a text or why so and so said something to me on Facebook. (No, really, I’m not bitter.)

Hell, I’ll probably leave the camera in the hotel room most of the time as well.

Nothing will come between me and the waves, except tequila at night and my pen and notepad, because I’ve learned writing by hand is where I find that train bound for glory.

It has been too long.

And I cannot wait much longer.

Peoples Of The Silk Road

My father likes to take photos of people, whereas I usually take photos of landscapes and architecture. Both are excellent ways of penetrating the veil of foreign lands, so to speak.

Last night Dad emailed me a deluge of photos and asked if I would upload them to Flickr. “Hell yes,” I told him.

Here they are. There are 90 new photos, mostly in chronological order from Kyrgyzstan to Istanbul.

The full set is available here or at the photo above.

As always, enjoy!

Why Did The Aral Sea Die?

Why did the Aral Sea die, because it categorically did not have to?

Qara Qum Canal

Here’s the majority of the problem, the answer as it were: Turkmenistan chose to destroy it.

How? It’s the water shown in the photo above: it’s called the Qara Qum Canal.

It channels water from the Amu Darya (the classical Oxus) at Turkmenabat, along the border with Uzbekistan all the way across the Qara Qum Desert to Ashgabat, bleeding the Amu Darya dry, and still failing to slake the thirst of the most hideously gaudy cities planet earth. (Inferior only to Vegas on the vulgarity quotient.)

It carries 13 km³ of water away from the Amu Darya into the desert onwards to Ashgabat. Along its 1,375 kilometer route through the dry wastes of Turkmenistan it loses 50% of the water it siphons away from the Amu Darya due to evaporation. Staggeringly inefficient, as it is. Also preventable. 

The Turkmens chose a lifestyle and standard of living approaching the gauche opulence of a Persian Gulf despotism (not that American ecological choices are much better) and this is why the Aral Sea died.

Now, consider this: 50% of that whAral Sea: 1989-2008ich the Turkmen’s siphon from the Amu Darya evaporates, right?

Now, take Uzbekistan which gets the other 50% of the river.

Uzbekistan engages in another form of breathless stupidity: they grow cotton (a notorious water hog) and rice, yes rice, in the desert with Amu Darya water and their irrigation projects lose another 50% due to evaporation, which also is entirely preventable.

So, before the water even irrigates anything in Uzbekistan or reaches Ashgabat fully half the entire river is lost to piss-poor irrigation technology, technology that could have been upgraded in the 90s for a fraction of what it is now costing both countries in ecological damage due to the effects of the disappearance of the sea.

“What about Kazakhstan,” you ask?

Kazakhstan is the only nation that has done anything to save it’s portion of the Aral Sea. The Syr Darya (the classical Jaxartes) feeds the north of the Aral Sea. Several years ago the Kazakhs created realistic conservation policies and also built a dam to hold back the water from evaporating, thereby creating the Little Aral Sea. Yes, it’s something, but it’s still too little, too late.

This is the result of a human policy with global implications. The obvious question is what happens when the glaciers in the Pamirs, you know, those things up in the hills that feed the Amu Darya, disappear due to global warming?

I don’t know, exactly, but it will be bloody and brutal.