Thursday, January 26, 2012
Central America Overview
At Cafe Ruiz, workers sort through the raw coffee beans, weeding out inferior beans. At this point in our three-hour tour, we met the 80-year-old owner of Cafe Ruiz, who was working the assembly line on a Saturday.
Here is Costa Rica´s most active volcano, Volcan Arenal. Arenal has been producing ash columns, explosions and red streamers of molten rock almost daily since 1968. Because hikers have been killed by explosions, no one is allowed any closer than the spot where I am standing. (The rocks around me are long-dried chunks of volcanic rock.) Unfortunately for my ability to take photos, it starting raining just after this photo was taken and I had to put the camera in a plastic bag. But fortunately for those of us standing there, the rain cleared away the smoke around the top of the volcano, and, once the sun went down, allowed us to clearly see the lava and molten rock shooting from the volcano. It was amazing. Almost as amazing was the thunderous sound the rocks made as they shot from the volcano and crashed to the ground. On another topic, if you look closely at my convertible pants (meaning they unzip to form shorts), you can see that they are stuffed with all sorts of items, including passports for Beth and me, credit cards, maps, and an iPod. I have worn these trusty pants while traveling since 2003, and after five years and three dozen countries, I have finally decided to retire them. (I made this decision while sewing up a rip in the pants for the fourth time on this trip.) Moment of silence, please.
We walked through a couple of misty cloud forests and wildlife reserves in Santa Elena and Monteverde, which featured some amazing flowers, trees and critters. To a large extent, these preserves owe their existence to a 1949 decision in Alabama to jail four Quakers for refusing to be drafted into the Korean War. This decision led to an exodus of Quakers from America to Costa Rica (a country which did not, and still does not, have a standing army), where the Quakers pushed for the creation of these preserves.
This is the centerpiece of the Tikal ruins, the Temple of Great Jaguar, which was built in 700 A.D. and housed the tomb of a Mayan ruler. Across the courtyard (to the right of the camera) is a mirror image of this temple (though less well-preserved), where the ruler´s wife was buried. This temple is 144 feet tall. Tikal features four ruins which are taller, including the tallest Mayan ruin in the world, at 208 feet. To the right of the temple is a Mayan innovation, a ball court. The Mayans used these courts to play sports with rubber balls, and these games had strong religious significance. The lucky winners of the games were tied up and sacrificed on the round altars shown in in front of the large temple in the photo. The Mayans considered this lucky because anyone who was sacrificed was believed to get a better afterlife. I suspect that for the average Mayan any sort of afterlife would be better than the life of hard work, heavy construction and warfare which they endured. By the way, the city of Tikal (which, during its height in 700 A.D., had a population of 100,000) was the basis for the Mayan city in Mel Gibson´s movie, Apocalypto. Also, Tikal's temples were featured near the end of the original Star Wars movie, as a rebel base. Speaking of movies, I explored the Tikal ruins on the same day the new Indiana Jones movie was released, which seemed fitting. (Thankfully, I encountered no rolling boulders or pits full of snakes.) Perhaps all of the tourists were at the movie theater on the day I visited, because despite these being arguably the grandest Mayan ruins, I sat on one temple for almost two hours, eating lunch and reading a book, and I didn´t see another person.