Netherlands: Dutch Masters

AS THE efficient NS Dutch train system carries me effortlessly across the country, I look out to the distant horizon. The flat landscape makes the blue sky seem even higher, causing my thoughts to soar, while the many waterways reflect and soften the light. This is the light that has inspired so many Dutch painters and I am on a journey to visit the homes of some of the most famous.

At Haarlem, former home to Frans Hals, the water penetrates to the very heart of the city. I cross the large Nieuwe Gracht on my walk from the wonderful Art Nouveau station to its center on the bank of the River Spaarne. Narrow streets end with a glimpse of the masts and funnels of small working boats. The roads and sidewalks are made from the same dark clay brick as the buildings, giving an impression of a town that has grown organically out of the earth. Bicycles lean crazily against walls in alleys – and huddle together on parking ranks on the main streets. Above the modern shop fronts, I glimpse an older city: here the sculpted head of a lion, there the bust of an angel. Down the side streets, many houses have no curtains and I can look into lives that proclaim their openness.

A cluster of small buildings clings to each side of the Grote Kerk (“Great Church”), medieval in their appearance. Those on the shady north side were built as a fish market but now house a gallery of modern art, while the southern ones serve as tiny shops. The church has a soaring whitewashed interior, an ornate organ played by Mozart when he was ten, and Frans Hals’ tomb.

In the nearby Frans Hals Museum, a detailed painting of the church and fish market by Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde dates to 1692 and brings the past vividly into the present. Apart from the odd clothes, and the absence of cars and bicycles, little seems to have changed in nearly four centuries. Berckheyde was born and died in Haarlem and may have been a pupil of Hals. Both lived during the Dutch Golden Age, when Haarlem was wealthy from textiles, shipyards and beer breweries that drew their water from the canals. Nowadays, it is better known as the heart of the Dutch tulip industry – and for giving its name to the former Dutch colony of Harlem in New Amsterdam, now New York.

“This wealth helped create an environment where at least 100,000 paintings were produced in Haarlem between 1605 and 1635 alone,” says art historian Marie Hoedemaker. “Frans Hals came to the city as a child and, in a career lasting more than half a century, rarely left it. He died in this building, an old peoples’ home before it became a museum.”

One room in the museum holds Hals’ portraits of the civic guard, a theme that is perhaps most famous from Rembrandt’s so-called Night Watch.The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Civic Guard was the work that launched Hals’ career in 1616, as well as setting a style to which Rembrandt was later indebted,” says Marie. “Unlike the Catholic Flemish and Italians, Protestant Dutch painters were freed in choice of subject by the Calvinist ban on the idolization of religious or biblical figures, so they focused on ordinary people, landscapes and still life.”

From a distance, the works look amazingly lifelike but as conventional as their subjects, pillars of the community. A detailed look shows a more spontaneous painting style. “Up close his strokes are almost abstract,” says Marie. “His brushwork is not perfect but it looks perfect and that may be the most remarkable thing about him. He was a strong influence on the Impressionists, such as Van Gogh who said Hals must have had 27 blacks. He did not flatter his subjects but he captured personality and character like no other painter.”

Perhaps the most poignant painting in the museum is the Regentesses of the Old Men’s Alms House, which dates to 1664 and is one of Hals’ last works. Painting with almost savage economy and unflattering truth, the 84-year-old master allows the character of each woman to live through the centuries.

A walk through the back streets of Delft is also a walk through history. If Disney were to recreate a picturesque 17th-century Dutch town, I doubt it could do better than the townscape of narrow canals, high-arched bridges and cobbled streets that I explore on my way from the train station to the Markt Square. One of the largest squares in Europe, made famous by the film of Girl with the Pearl Earring, it is dominated by the towering Nieuwe Kerk (New Church). Dating to 1496, the church’s 109 meter-high tower offers a great panorama of Delft – and as far afield as The Hague – to those who climb the 376 steep spiral steps.

The interior holds a magnificent monument for William I, who was killed in Delft in 1584, the first assassination by a handgun of a head of state. William (see mini feature) is remembered by the Dutch as the man who led the country to independence from Catholic Spain, and the ancestor of their present Royal Family, whose massive crypt lies under the church’s floor.

A few steps away from the Nieuwe Kerk is the former Saint Luke’s Guild, built in 1662 and now a center dedicated to Delft’s most famous artist: Johannes Vermeer. “His 1660 View of Delft was called ‘the most beautiful painting in the world’ by Marcel Proust,” says Marie. “It is also remarkable for being the only real landscape painting of his to survive. Almost all his other works are interiors, and most are thought to have been painted in his home studio.”

The Vermeer Centrum Delft has every one of Vermeer’s 35 known works shown in the order in which they were painted. None are original – you will have to go to Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Paris, New York or Washington D.C. for that – but in the reproductions I can notice how the same details, such as window or a yellow dress, appear in more than one.

“What makes a Vermeer is the special fall of light, the stillness of people – young women reading, sitting or standing, but always still – with the light coming from the left,” says Herman Weyers, director of the Vermeer Centrum. “They tell you what he wants us to be told.” Vermeer is called “The Master of Light’ and I ask why. Is the Dutch light special? “We like to think so, but there are clouds in England too,” he says. “No, Rembrandt was working at the same time and he always showed people in front of a black background. Vermeer set his people in a different kind of light, with a colorful backdrop.”

Professor Arthur Wheelock, curator of Northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art and author of Vermeer and the Art of Painting, explains why his light was so different. “There is a nuanced color quality that reflects the way light occurs in nature. Vermeer understands that natural light, daylight, has subtle colors to it. In the shadows it has a blue-ish cast.”

I ask him why Vermeer makes the sudden change from his first few paintings of historical scenes to his trademark interiors. “In the 1650s all sorts of things were happening,” he says. “After the Prince of Orange dies, there is a period when there was no court. Paintings of European history or biblical subjects were part of the collective world of people connected to the court. When the court disappears, that type of painting became less sought after and may underline why he made the shift.”

That Vermeer was painting for a market is easy to forget when one becomes wrapped up in his artistry but Professor Wheelock explains the high Golden Age demand for art. “There was not much land in the Netherlands, and almost all was swampy, so people did not invest in it,” he says. “They invested in trading ventures like the Dutch East India Company (VOC) but where else do you put your money? Art became one of the primary places to do that. The Dutch are still very matter of fact about the world about them, so artists who could portray that world were appreciated.

“The Dutch are very proud of the Netherlands, very proud of the fact that this swampy little place has somehow, with the grace of God, been transformed into this very prosperous land. You have a spiritual underpinning of the art, God looking down favorably on who we are and what we do, our hard work and the bounty that comes from that. It was a way to feel good about yourself and what your country stands for. All that added to the desire to own and hang paintings like that on your wall.”

Vermeer was working in Delft when it was a large city compared to Amsterdam and also a wealthy one. It was a headquarters of the VOC and, when the supply of fashionable porcelain from China dried up during its civil war, local potteries stepped in. The blue Delftware “china” they produced only added to the town’s fame and wealth, and still fills its shops today. The Delft University of Technology was founded in 1842, with its origins in the research behind that commercial piracy, and its student body supports a mix of youthful cafes, shops and bars to counterbalance the city’s historic treasures.

Among the latter is the Oude Kerk (Old Church), dominating the skyline with a lop-sided tower that started tilting not long after it was built in 1350. This is where Vermeer was buried in 1675, as well as his friend, physicist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, who invented the microscope and may have helped Vermeer with a camera obscura.

In Amsterdam, the recently refurbished Rijksmuseum has five works by Vermeer in its unrivalled collection of 17th-century art. But the star of the show is a 1642 painting by Rembrandt van Rijn called Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. “A coat of very dark varnish, removed in the 1940s, led to it being called The Night Watch,” says Marie. “But you can see by the shadows that the action is actually taking place in sunlight that highlights the three central figures. The varnish was applied later to hide Rembrandt’s brushwork which, like Hals’, is best appreciated from a distance.”

The arquebuses the militia carry gave them their Dutch name of the “Kloveniers”, and the Kloveniersburgwal is a defensive canal built at the end of the 15th century, where they had their headquarters in which The Night Watch first hung. Overtaken as the city expanded outward, this canal was the center of Rembrandt’s life when he moved to Amsterdam from his home in Leiden. His first home is now a café, just off the Kloveniersburgwal, while his later success led to him buying a large house in 1639 that is a few streets away. It is now a museum dedicated to his life and work, with a large display of the prints that were the actual basis for his wealth and much of his fame while he lived.

The Rembrandthuis is vast and, despite the busy modern traffic outside, still quiet inside. Rembrandt overreached himself financially acquiring this home, eventually going bankrupt in 1656, and its size helps me understand why. In contrast, his bed is tiny, a small cupboard that reflects the fashion of the time to sleep upright and in warmth. The bed is poignantly familiar from drawings he made of his beloved wife Saskia lying in it while ill. It is also the bed she died in during childbirth.

“Rembrandt resonates with us because, like Hals, we recognize his subjects as real people,” says Marie. “His fascination with portraits reflects the radical change going on in European philosophy, led by the Dutch, turning their back on the idea that all authority rested with a church or a monarch and laying the foundation of a belief in the individual. He was not just painting their faces; he was also painting their souls. That obsession may also explain his own many self-portraits.”

Off Rembrandt’s airy studio is a study room stuffed with objects similar to those listed in the catalogue that accompanied his bankruptcy. Exotic weapons and feathers, animal skulls and skeletons, busts and armor are among the items Rembrandt bought off the sailors who thronged the canal sides. Props for his paintings, they also reflect a fascination with other peoples, cultures and ideas brought home by the Dutch voyages of discovery.

Across the road, a small café sitting lopsided by the canal delivers a view towards the Kloveniersburgwal that spans the centuries. I wander away from the noisy main road, and instantly disappear into a maze of quiet side streets, tiny canal bridges with bikes locked to their railings and an area of Thai and Chinese restaurants. Never far from a canal, I pop out opposite the Centraal Station and Amsterdam’s busy port; it is still a small city.

Rembrandt came to Amsterdam in his 20s and another painter also made his way here at a similar age in the 1870s. He too wandered the canals and docks, soaking up the atmosphere. The Rijksmuseum was a decade away from completion but he would return. He wrote to his brother after a visit in 1885, soon after it opened: “What particularly struck me when I saw the old Dutch paintings again is that they were usually painted quickly. That these great masters like Hals, Rembrandt, Ruisdael – so many others – as far as possible just put it straight down and didn’t come back to it so very much. If it worked, they left it alone.”


Vincent van Gogh had spent the previous two years in Nuenen, a tiny village some 120km south of Amsterdam, where his father was a pastor. I reach the village by bus from Eindhoven, a 15-minute ride. The few other passengers huddle upfront near the driver and the only sound is the quiet diesel engine, the automatic stop announcement and the bleep of electronic payment chip cards as passengers get on and off.

Nuenen is equally quiet and almost smugly prosperous, with rows of modern apartment blocks on its outskirts giving way to prosperous detached villas. The streets are spotless and the cyclists who pedal quietly by outnumber the few cars. A man comes past on a bicycle, leading two thoroughbred horses at the trot. Shoe shops, opticians and bank machines line the main street, while a Van Gogh café and The Potato Eaters restaurant are empty. Next to them are a tapas bar and a Chinese restaurant.

The VinCentre in the village is dedicated to the artist’s time here, of which The Potato Eaters – his dark painting of peasants sharing a simple meal – was the highlight. “Its darkness and spiritual depth evoke Rembrandt, one of Van Gogh’s favorite artists,” says Marie.

Ton De Brouwer, chairman of the Nuenen Foundation that helped set up the center, is also a Van Gogh expert. “Van Gogh was training to be a Protestant pastor but Nuenen was where he really became a painter instead,” he says. “He still wanted to use his talent to say something to people. The Potato Eaters is the most important painting of that time. It was the finishing touch to his awakening as an artist and was behind his decision to move to a big city where he could find buyers for his work.”

Van Gogh’s ambition can be seen here in the recollections of his friend Anton Kerssemaker, who recalled Van Gogh’s reply when asked why he signed his work as “Vincent”: “Van Gogh is such a difficult name to pronounce for many foreigners. If later on my works go to England or France or anywhere else, the name will be just be a problem whereas the whole world can pronounce the name Vincent.”

From the VinCentre, a series of walks takes me past buildings and views that are recognizable from Vincent’s work, including water mills, windmills and cottages. The Reformed Church seems unchanged through the centuries and I can see why he was drawn to tall buildings and high poplar trees in this flat landscape.

At lunch in a local restaurant, I note how a small glass of white wine stands at every elbow and that almost every customer wears spectacles. Well dressed and good mannered, they engage in quiet conversation and eat hearty tuna salads. The faces, however, are instantly recognizable; they share the same features that Van Gogh captured so memorably in The Potato Eaters. Through the centuries, the accessories and clothes might change, but the land, the light and the people stay the same.

Lapland: Sámi Ways

“LET’S JOKE! You can joke your friends, joke a beautiful mountain or just joke being sad or happy.” Anna-Reetta Niemelä, a teacher of Sámi language and culture in the village of Karesuvanto, high in northern Lapland, has me baffled for a moment. Clad in her bright red and blue “gákti” tunic, her thick accent – different from the usual Finnish one – takes me some time to tune in to.

Joik” – once she shows me how – turns out to be a Sámi chant that reminds me of the better-known rituals of Native American tribes or Buddhist monks. It has the same spiritual overtones and was once banned as un-Christian by missionaries but its roots were too deep to die out completely. Its resurgence is a sign of the rebirth of Sámi culture.

Anna-Reetta explains that a joik is a way of conjuring up a feeling. It is not a song, in the sense of having words or a tune, or even being repeatable. I might project a joik to represent me, like some audible version of Princess Leia’s hologram in Star Wars, but it will change as I do, just as her hologram might change to reflect a change of clothes. It is raw emotion. The Sámi give each of their reindeer a joik and the animals will come when they hear it.

She sings a joik that belongs to her son, Matthias, who is now 21 and in the Finnish Army, after he fell in love with the outdoors – “the real life” – at the age of eight. Her voice becomes younger and more open, and I can feel the strength of young limbs skiing over mountain tops. Anna-Reetta’s enthusiasm is so contagious that she soon has me chanting along with her. “Do not be afraid of anything. Let it all come out,” she says. Then she ends by summing up her happiness at our meeting with another joik. Yes, the joik is on me.

The Sámi are Europe’s only remaining indigenous people, scattered across the north of Finland, Norway, Sweden and into Russia. Of the total population of some 70,000, just over 7,000 live in Finland, with 40,000 in Norway, 20,000 in Sweden and perhaps 2,000 in Russia. Their former lands – called Sápmi by them, Lapland by others, although the word “Lapp” once used to describe the people is now considered derogatory – have been broken up by national borders.

Those borders, not to mention the conflicts over them, helped put an end to the nomadic lifestyle that followed their reindeer herds. It is impossible to talk about the Sámi without talking about reindeer. They use the skin for clothing, the meat for food, the bones for medicine. Once wild, reindeer were domesticated by the Sámi thousands of years ago and allowed people to survive in a landscape so harsh that it also uniquely in Europe preserved their culture against outsiders.

Without the reindeer, there literally would be no Sámi. While they no longer follow the herds, and only one in ten Sámi still makes a living from them, the reindeer still roam wild. Asking a Sámi how many reindeer he has is as rude as asking anyone much they have in the bank but it is thought there are some 220,000 in Finnish Lapland alone. While predators such as bear and wolves are growing in number, the biggest threat is the loss of lichen, their sole winter diet, as the logging industry harvests too many of the older trees the moss thrives on.

Nils-Henrik Valkeapää, who I meet at a Sámi cultural center in Finnish Lapland, is possibly as Sámi as you can be. With his white hair and beard, and colorful Sámi costume, he could pass for more serious-minded Santa Claus. It turns out he was even born on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. His father acted as midwife when his mother went into labor in the wilderness while on their way to the doctor. Now a member of the Sámi parliament, he is a teacher who has spent his life trying to preserve Sámi culture and language and has seen some dark days. “In the 1950s and the 1960s, many Sámi thought speaking even bad Finnish to their children was better than undermining their linguistic development by speaking Sámi.” he says. “Thankfully, things are much better now.”

Things are so much better now, in fact, that some Finns pass themselves off as Sámi, by wearing the traditional clothes and using the culture just to entertain tourists, a fact that causes real concern. “To be Sámi, you must be born Sámi,” he says. “You have to speak the language and you must have ancestors who are Sámi. We interact with nature in its original state. Finnish people want to conquer nature.” He laments the changes – the “harmonization of lifestyle,” as he calls it – in the past decades as younger people become more integrated into modern Finnish society and move to the city.

It was the snowmobile – a machine designed to conquer nature if ever one was – that has made the biggest difference to the Sámi herding lifestyle. The first Bombardier Ski-Doo arrived in Finland from Canada in 1961 but within a few years there were hundreds. The Sámi quickly abandoned their skis as they found that the machine could haul large loads of fodder to the herds as well as allow the herders themselves to range over a larger area. There was no longer the need to live with and follow the herds.

Of course, having to buy gas and even the machines themselves saw the sale of meat and skin from the herds put on a much more commercial footing. Then the herds started to be concentrated in fewer, often younger hands as only those prepared to take the financial risk of borrowing money to buy snowmobiles prospered. In Finland, this issue was even more marked than in other countries where reindeer herding was reserved to Sámi only.

I get an idea of what a snowmobile means in this environment when I go on a photo safari with nature photographer Lassi Rautiainen. When he meets me at Kuusamo Airport, the so-called “Gateway to Lapland” and more than an hour’s flying time north of the capital Helsinki, he says: “It will be quite warm tomorrow: 20 or maybe even 18.” It is late January and, looking at the snow being swept from the runway, and shivering in a thick down jacket, I try to comprehend how the weather could change so quickly, before realizing he is just leaving the minus sign off. Why keep repeating the obvious?

In winter, temperatures in Lapland can drop to -30C and parts of the region see snow falling on some  225 days of the year. The next day dawns at (minus) 22ºC when we are up at 6am to drive on icy roads to a spot in the forest where we will take to the wilderness. Lassi has a snowmobile on a trailer which he unloads by the simple expedient of driving it in reverse into a snowbank. A sled is loaded with two pig carcasses, frozen solid by just being left outside overnight, that are to be laid out as bait for eagles. Then I hop up behind him and we take off through deep powder snow between the trees. The machine eats up the steep terrain with no sign of strain, bearing the weight of two men and its load – it took both of us to lift each of the three carcasses.

I spend the next few days in a blind, trying to catch a sight of eagles in the frozen landscape. Ice has to be scraped off the windows every morning, a paraffin heater struggles to get the inside temperature out of single digits and, despite our patience, we catch only the briefest glimpse of what might or might not have been an eagle in the distance.

However, once I understand I am not going to lose my nose to frostbite, it is not the cold that affects me. It is the beauty. The thick carpet of snow sugar-frosts the endless stands of spruce and pine trees to create an ethereal view. The sun barely rises above the horizon, casting light that lasts only a few hours. For a photographer, a Lapland winter is a dream Christmas-card landscape, with a short working day that is a continuous Golden Hour. “Morning and night say hello to each other,” as a local woman describes it to me.

Everything should be white, but the snow has endless shades, tinted by shadows and light, running through the rainbow from red to violet. Just as snow has its many different shades, so does the silence. There is the silence of a breeze that has moved the high branches, of a wind-blown stream of snow crystals, of a break in a bird’s song. Then there’s the quiet of walking through deep snow, bone dry from the sub-zero temperature and with a negative silence that sucks in any sound. It is a silence where starting an engine, or even firing a camera shutter, is an assault on nature itself.

I realize that, to understand Lapland, you have to spend time in such silence. You disappear into your own thoughts and greater significance is attached to anything you say, or don’t say. “Saat viisaan nimen, jos et virka mitten – You will be thought a wise man, if you keep your mouth shut,” says a Finnish proverb.

After our first day in the blind, I share an evening meal with Lassi where he explains that he has a government permit to feed wildlife, initially issued for his work photographing bears. The bait now also attracts wolves and wolverines as well as both golden and white-tailed eagles. Here, on the southern edge of Lapland, very close to the border with Russia, the land is free of both people and reindeer herds. “Golden eagles will attack the newborn of domestic reindeer,” he says. “In every area where there is a nesting pair, the government has to pay out thousands of euro in compensation to herd owners.” Of the 400 or so eagle pairs in Finland, most are in Lapland.

In hunting season, there is little chance of attracting any predators to his hides, however. “Between October and December, hunters kill up to 65,000 moose and, from October to January, they hunt deer,” he says. “When they gut their kill, and leave the entrails behind, it is like a picnic for bears and wolves as well as ravens and eagles.” It is a touchy subject. The Sámi blame blinds such as his set up for tourists as the reason for a rise in the number of predators that attack their herds. Lassi says that the Sámi will soon be starting up their own blinds for photographers as they rely more and more on tourism themselves.

After a few days sitting glued to a 500mm camera lens, I stretch my legs in what is a veritable winter playground. I find snowshoeing is a lot harder than it looks when floundering up to my waist in powder snow on a forested hillside. I enjoy cross-country skiing – much of the fun of downhill but with none of the leg-breaking worries. Then I learn that dog-sledding is incredibly exciting but a team of energetic huskies make no allowances for any low-hanging branches that might hit their human driver in the face. The same carefree attitude applies to their poop, thrown up by their galloping paws as they run in line. A reindeer is slightly more sedate, pulling me along on what looks very like a wooden cargo pallet while my Sámi minder keeps an eye out. Whether for me or his reindeer, I am not too sure but let’s be charitable and say both.

The reward for these long months of winter is a magnificent summer. Released from its heavy burden of winter snow, the earth literally springs to life, creating an idyllic view of land, water and sky – the light constantly changing as high clouds pass across the sun. Come July, it is hard recall that I am 300km above the Arctic Circle when I go fishing on Finland’s beautiful Lake Jerisjärvi. Jari Rossi’s great grandfather settled here in the 1860, a reminder that not all Sámi are reindeer herders. His Swedish Sámi ancestors had been coming for centuries to fish every summer on this lovely lake, an island of peat-dark, wind-peaked water amid a sea of swaying trees. A small settlement of picturesque log huts still stands on its shore, now used as summer cabins and for storage of tackle.

“We fish a little but drink a little – because now it’s a hobby, not work,” says Jari. In the modest style typical of Finland, he does not mention he is a Sámi shaman – I find out later – although he does casually say that his son Samuli, who is quietly helping in the background, likes taekwondo. He turns out to be representing Finland at the World Championships. Another man of few words.

I go out in a boat to help pay out a 100-metre crescent of net from the shore, then get on a winch to slowly haul it back in. After a lot of work, the catch is 15 medium-size Arctic carp. True to local form, Rossi pulls out his puukko – the razor-sharp knife every man here carries on his belt – to gut and scale them in seconds. He throws together a fire and puts some of the fish to smoke in a pan with alder chips, a handful of grass under them to stop them sticking.

As we wait for them to cook, along with some local new potatoes, he passes the time by telling the story of a local woodcutter called Pretty John who was famous for his strength. Attacked by a bear, who catches him in a fierce hug, he squeezes back until the bear says: “Not so hard! I give up!” When Pretty John later tells his friends about his escape, they point out that bears can’t talk. “It’s amazing how fast they can learn when they have to,” he says. That’s a real Sámi joke for you.

Yucatan: Maya Life

“THEIR buildings are beautiful. What a shame the Mayans have all gone – they could have told us so much.” Ikal, my guide and very much a living Maya, laughs as he tells me this story of what one client said to him here at Chichen Itza in the heart of the Yucatán Peninsula where the Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo meet.

It’s not surprising that we assume ancient peoples have vanished from the scene when we visit vast ruins, made empty by their “preservation” as archeological sites. But the Maya (Mayan refers to the language), best known perhaps for the calendar said to foretell the end of the world in 2012, are far from extinct themselves. In fact, there are at least seven million throughout Mexico and Guatemala, many still native speakers of Mayan rather than Spanish.

We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos,” Rigoberta Menchu told a Danish interviewer in 1992, the year she won a Nobel Peace Prize. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.” Menchu, a heroine of Guatemalan indigenous rights, spoke only Quiche, a Mayan language, until she was 17.

Chichen Itza is the sort of place that inspires myths. Years of research by Californian acoustic engineer David Lubman shows that a strange bird-like echo produced by a handclap in front of the steps of the Kukulkan temple at the heart of the complex exactly matches the sounds of the near-extinct Quetzal bird, sacred to the Maya. Where else in the history of the world have an ancient people preserved a sacred sound by coding it into stone so that a thousand years later people might hear and wonder?” asks Lubman.

The site’s Great Ball Court is also an echo chamber that would have allowed the ruler to address large crowds without shouting. Lubman also suggests other odd fluttering echo effects might have been deliberately designed to conjure up the voices of their ancestors. The 24-metre-high Kukulkan temple, often called El Castillo (The Castle), was dedicated to a serpent deity covered in the feathers of the Quetzal. At the spring and fall equinoxes, the shadows of the pyramid fall in such a way as to show the serpent wriggling down the staircase.

The Great Ball Court is the largest in the Maya world, at 175 metres long and 70 metres wide (much larger than a football field), with two eight-metre-high side walls. Used for a game involving two teams of 13 players, the object was to use hips, elbows and wrists (but not hands) to hit a rubber ball through stone hoops on the walls. So sacred was the circle to the Maya that it is suggested as a reason why they never introduced the wheel into everyday life. The walls of the court bear bloodthirsty carvings show players being decapitated. Many people say the winning captain was killed, as that was a great honor. It makes a great story but would have made for a dull game, as no-one would want to win,” says Ikal. It’s much more likely that the losing captain was killed. But, of course, we can never know for sure.”

At Xcaret, near the upmarket resort town of Playa del Carmen and 80km south of Cancun, the Miami of Mexico”, I watch this highly skilled game being played. Although no one is decapitated afterwards, it’s obviously hard work to keep the ball in the air, involving a lot of throwing yourself on the ground under it to key it up for a team member to score with.

The ball game by Maya-costumed players is part of the nightly entertainment at this Mexican eco-archeological theme park”. You can visit a butterfly park, explore Mexican art in a hacienda, see jaguars and pumas, swim with dolphins or sharks, and enjoy an evening of music and dance with a cast of hundreds. The whole is a sort of down-market Disneyland but I enjoy it all the more for its sometimes amateur air but obvious sincerity.

The park is also famous for its Flying Men, the Voladores de Papantla who jump from a 30-metre-high pole in bright costumes with a rope tied around their waists. Four men descend in slow circles while a fifth stays atop the pole playing a drum and flute. The ceremony is a pre-Hispanic religious ritual of the Totonac people that is thought to bring rain and good harvests. The 13 loops of the pole made during the descent represent the 13 months of the Maya calendar. Xcaret’s highlight for many is the evening show – the Mexicans in the audience cheering wildly for songs from their home regions – but one other unique experience is swimming with shoals of tiny fish for 500 metres along an underground river linking various sinkholes or cenotes.

Yucatán has almost no rivers but its soft limestone is characterized by these cenotes, the only source of fresh water and often used by the Maya for sacrificial offerings. A long period of drought is thought to have contributed to the end of the Maya Empire. The cenote at Chichen Itza, called Chen Ku or “The well of God”, was found to contain gold, jade and incense offerings as well as the remains of human sacrifices. Yucatan has an estimated 30,000 other sinkholes, many of which make great natural swimming holes to escape the daytime heat. The water is so pure that the management often insists I shower beforehand to remove suntan lotion. Other cenotes are so remote I have only bats for company and the spirit of ancient Mayas seems not far away at all.

Another 60km further south along the coast road are the remains of the Maya city of Tulum, which enjoys one of the best settings of any ancient ruin in the world. This walled city sits on a cliff overlooking the bright blue Caribbean, facing the sunrise, and is so picturesque with its white sand beach and green palms that it is a regular poster child for Mexican tourism. With a population of up to 1,500, it once sheltered an important port and prospered between 1200 and 1500, dying when Spanish invaders brought Old World diseases that killed off its people. Like Chichen Itza, its Temple of the Frescoes also features Maya motifs such as Kukulkan, but its “El Castillo” pyramid was also a lighthouse where two torches helped guide ships through the reef.

Beyond Tulum are seven kilometres of bright white sand, ending in the 650,000-hectare Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Sian Ka’an is Mayan for “where the sky is born”. It spans 120km from north to south, nearly one third of Mexico’s Caribbean coast, and preserves mangrove lagoons, 23 Mayan sites and natural habitats that include nesting areas for sea turtles and many wading birds. Jaguars and puma are among the five species of big cat found here. The reserve also extends out to sea to protect 110km of the world’s second largest barrier reef. About 2,000 people live here, mainly in the villages of Punta Allen and Punta Herrero, where a small fishing industry thrives. The Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an (CESiaK) offers eco-friendly cabins with wind and solar power and composting toilets-with-a-view. Cesiak also runs kayak, fly-fishing, canal and sunset tours where you can follow Maya trade routes dating back 1,200 years.

Pastor Caamal Uitzil is a trilingual Maya who works with the reserve’s Community Tours. As a child, he collected chicle (used to make chewing gum) in the forest with his family and is an authority on reading the signs of animals large and small, and on the birds of the jungle. Chicle will burn the skin badly if it drops on it and blind you if it gets into your eyes but Caamal shows off a natural antidote for such inflammation from the bark of another jungle tree, the chacá. “Some people call it the ’tourist tree’ because its bark is red and peeling, like sunburnt tourists,” he jokes. Other trees provide food, drink, flavoring or pain relief. As Caamal shows me how much of the jungle is a larder or medicine cabinet for the Maya, no fine words are needed to understand how important it is to preserve this great gift of nature.

The beaches near Sian Ka’an carry another message. Covered in countless piece of plastics of all shapes and sizes, from bottles and blocks of polystyrene to countless flip-flops and other footwear, they are a reminder that anything we throw into the ocean has to end up somewhere. A clean-up during August 2011 to celebrate 25 years of the reserve saw 1,135kg of trash being collected in a day, with plastic bottles from as far away as Russia and Finland. Much of this, of course, comes from passing ships but this part of the Caribbean seems to act as a giant rubbish trap. Caamal points out that, while Sian Ka’an might disappoint in this respect in comparison to the spotless beaches of Cancun, that is only because hotel staff have been out early in the morning cleaning up the sands of the all-inclusive tourist resorts before visitors take to the sun-loungers.

Heart-breaking pictures of turtles suffocating with plastic bags drive home the same message at Akumal, just north of Tulum, where I snorkel in the shallow clear waters among dozens of turtles. Mexico is home to six of the world’s seven species of sea turtles and the beaches here are nesting grounds for two, Loggerhead and Green Turtles, while Hawksbill can often be seen on the reef. Swimming with such lovely creatures is one of the most magical experiences you can imagine and leaves me more determined than ever to be responsible about the environment.

It is fashionable to think of ancient “Indian” peoples such as the Maya as environmentalists, living in harmony with nature, as Caamal does now. In reality, archaeologists says that pollen found in refuse dumps shows the Maya had over-exploited the ecosystem on which they depended for food and that there was almost no rain-forest left. Drought, over-population and constant warfare, caused by the growth of a large power-hungry elite, are other factors thought to have hastened the end of the Ancient Maya. The last factor was the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, bringing diseases such as smallpox to which the native peoples had no resistance but Chichen Itza, for example, had already been abandoned two centuries earlier.

Another tragedy in addition to the death of up to three-quarters of the population was the loss of knowledge about their culture. The Maya made significant discoveries in science, including the use of the zero in mathematics, but vast libraries of writings on bark were burnt by the Spanish priests, while as many as two million sacred images were destroyed as idolatrous. “We found a large number of books,” wrote Diego de Landa in 1562, “and as they contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.”

Deciphering the remaining Mayan stone hieroglyphics has taken decades of work. “We’ve had a lot of lucky breaks along the way. One of them is that we know the language in which it’s written; a lot of Maya people still live today speaking Mayan languages,” says noted Mayan scholar David Stuart.

One day in 1511, the sea off Yucatán disgorged shipwrecked Spanish sailor Gonzalo Guerrero and his companions, 14 men and two women, and I can imagine him gazing on Tulum when it was still a living city, linking him to us through the centuries. Although  15 of his crewmates died in captivity, he survived and was the first European to make Mexico his home, becoming a noted Maya warrior and father of the first three mixed race children in Mexico. Such mestizo identity was the basis of modern Mexican national self-image, mixing Spanish and indigenous cultures, although the word has now fallen out of use.

The term was used disparagingly in Yucatán of those Maya who refused to join the Caste War which lasted from 1847 to 1901, one of the few successful uprisings of native people in North America. Leading to a state that was recognized by the British Government, within the boundaries of present day Quintana Roo, its 50-year existence centered on the capital of Chan Santa Cruz, now Felipe Carrillo Puerto, 100km south of Tulum.

Ikal takes me through the history. “The Maya were virtual slaves of the people of Spanish descent. They were heavily taxed and their culture was threatened by the Catholic Church. In the war against Texas, they were conscripted and learned military skills before revolting in 1847. They killed any white people they could find and made Yucatán a no-go area for them.”

Things went badly at first as the different Maya factions bickered among themselves but, in 1850, a Talking Cross was found in a cenote near Chan Santa Cruz (Small Holy Cross). Veneration of the cross symbol pre-dated the arrival of Christianity with the Spanish and the cenotes were long thought of as portals to another world. The instructions of the Talking Cross – channeled through a shamanic ventriloquist – unite the Maya into the Cruzob (”People of the Cross”) and guided them in their military campaigns against the Mexican army for another 50 years.

After taking control of Chan Santa Cruz in 1901, the Mexican army declared the uprising over but sporadic fighting continued until 1935. While epidemics of measles and smallpox carried by the invading troops caused more deaths among the Maya, it was chewing gum that actually ended the war. Wrigleys of Chicago paid the remnants of the Cruzob, still holding out in the jungles, to become chicleros (see mini feature).

What happened to the Talking Cross? I notice that Ikal changes the subject, so it seems a sensitive one, but I find out later that several villages in the region claim to have the original or parts of it. One cross, in the village of X-Cacal, is under 24-hour guard by armed Maya and never shown in public. In these shrine villages, the veneration of the cross and Catholic saints might give the illusion that Christianity holds sway.

The Cruzob eye outsiders warily but, if you can look deeper, you will find that the ancient religion has merely co-opted these symbols and survives in plain view, such as in the shrines to the old gods you can find in farmers’ fields. In this Catholic country, the caution may come from the allegations of witchcraft aimed at adherents of this Church of The Talking Cross, which was only recognized as a legitimate religion by the Mexican Government as recently as 2002.

Writing about Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, where the actors all spoke Yucatan Mayan but the ancient religious rituals were exaggerated into sadistic and evil bloodbaths, Professor David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin says: “The surprising feature of the Maya is not the collapse of their Classic civilization but their astonishing tenacity after the Spanish conquest, through centuries of tumult and abuse.” The Maya may be down but you get the feeling that they definitely can’t be counted out. After all, they never say goodbye but only “Tu heel k’iin.” – “Another day”.

Botswana: Okavanga Delta

JUST AFTER dawn, I go for a walk. Low on the horizon, the sun is gathering strength for what will soon be another shimmering day. The ground underneath is sandy, with ankle-grabbing holes hidden by long, dry grass and broken up by tall termite mounds. Thorns of all shapes and sizes grab at my clothing from the shrubs and trees that dot the landscape. A giant baobab – the “upside-down tree” – thrusts its stumpy limbs into a cloudless sky. Used to the dull, grey skies of Europe, my spirit soars to see the heavens so open above me. Continue reading “Botswana: Okavanga Delta”

Hong Kong: Go Green

WIPING the sweat off my face with a cooling splash of water from a fern-covered waterfall, I peer through thick trees and foliage at the distant view of the tropical ocean. I am of, course, on Hong Kong Island. Wait a minute! Isn’t Hong Kong all skyscrapers and urban sprawl, among the most crowded places on earth with seven million people jammed into every available space? Am I enjoying some sort of heightened reality video game in one of its neon-bright arcades? Continue reading “Hong Kong: Go Green”

Malta: Knights’ Treasure

FROM my restaurant terrace, I can look out over Grand Harbour towards the fortifications of Valletta. Intimidating even now, in the age of aerial assault and cruise missiles, the massive walls must have seemed impregnable when they were first built. Made of the same honeyed sandstone as the island of Malta itself, they grow organically out of the rock. It is hard to believe they are the work of mere men and best not to think of the suffering endured by the slaves who built them here under the searing Mediterranean sun. Continue reading “Malta: Knights’ Treasure”

Alberta: Calgary Stampede

THE TRIO of steer and two horses explode out of the box at a hard gallop, throwing dust as they chase across the dirt arena. In an instant, the first cowboy has lassoed the steer’s head, then keeps tension on the rope so it is presented in proper position for his partner to lasso the back legs. Continue reading “Alberta: Calgary Stampede”