River of dreams

Walking to work in Padova had the benefit of walking along and crossing the series of artificial canals, some dating to Roman times, that flow from the Brenta through the city. The bridges, likewise, date from the Roman Republic up to the 1800s, with the Ponte de Ferro built in 1881. Two of the Roman bridges carry vehicle traffic, and two are buries under a covered-over canal. One of the newer bridges faces the Specola observatory, which is built on the tower of the citadel which which built around the year 1000, and during good weather a localc painter sets up there and paints the Specola ad nauseum in the same leary impressionist oranges and reds and blues. The medieval bridges have coats of arms carved in their balastrades, and one such has a waterfall and an atmospheric pizzeria nearby, on a stretch of the riveria that cars rarely use.

One branch of the canals, the Naviglio, has a retaining wall on one side from the 1500s, dating from before other canals were cut to channel water to the Venetian lagoon without flooding Padova. It is still possible to tell from the height of the river when Venice will flood, and when the flood has passed and the water drops, how long before the flood-relief measures are turned off and the river rises again to its normal level. These measures, I was told, include natural caverns, expanded recently (though what recent means in a place with such a long memory is unknown), which are flooded and then pumped empty when need arises.

Tiger mosquitos, originally from Indonesia but introduced to parts of Europe, breed in the waters and make housing near the canals, like mine, unbearable in summer without netting. Their bites last for over a week.

In the winter, when the atmospheric conditions are right, fog eminates from the canals and bathes the city. Walking home under the street lights when the fog is so thick you can't see the other side of the canal, the setting is reminiscent of film noir.

On one such occasion, walking past the canal with the old retaining wall, now pierced with iron gates for river access, I saw an animal, larger than a cat and much heavier.

To be continued.

The lake opened wide

I've said it before and I'll say it again – one of the perks of academia is the exotic locations chosen for conferences. No-one ever says “Hey, yeah, woah, let's have the 34th International Symposium on Body Lice in Ringwood East”. In fact, organising committees collude to go to the most interesting places (for them) that they can. For example, the 2010 International Nuclear Physics conference was in Vancouver. Awesome. The 2013 edition was in Florence. Awesome. As the ethos is to go from continent to continent, the next was to be in Asia, and with three submissions from countries in the region, the committee decided on... Australia, because the committee saw it is more exotic than China or Japan. Even though there are 3 tenured professors of nuclear physics in Australia, as compared to the giant labs in Japan teaming with professors. They committee did, however, stuff up slightly – it will be in Adelaide, which may as well be Ringwood East.

But I digress. The point I was coming too was that the 13th International Conference on Nuclear Reaction Mechanisms (as with, I believe the 1st to 12th) was in a villa at the tiny lakeside town of Varenna, where that lake is Lake Como, from June 11 to 15 in 2012.

Luciano, my boss, his son, Matteo, and I drove there and were put up across the lake at a Bed and Breakfast in a slightly less tiny town called Vignola, which belonged to friends of Luciano's cousin, who lived in another of the little towns dotted along the shore. Each morning Luciano and I would drive from Vignola to Menaggio and then catch the ferry to work, while Matteo went out on the lake with the the B&B owners on their boat (indeed, Luciano skipped a day of the conference to join them).

In a free afternoon we marched up to the Castello de Vezio at the top of the hill overlooking the town, which housed medieval weapons and armour, plaster 'ghosts', various tethered birds of prey, physics professors with limited social skills (which, I've been rightly, is a problem that isn't 'going to go away') and fossils of a type of small dinosaur unique to the lake, whose progenitors were trapped when an avalanche originally turned the river into a lake. Good times. One of the professors with social skills, who happens to be the leader in the field, met us on the way down and we went through the usual routine of her trying to remember where I'm from – the first guess is that I'm a New Zealander, because that is where we first met. It's somewhat like the younger kids at school knowing the older kids, but not vice-versa.

The most interesting part of this trip, however, was not a location, however, but a person; a person I shall write about in the next instalment.


Beneath the valley of the underdog

Pavel Stransky, who was hired at the same time as I in Mexico City, started a 2-year fellowship in Trento, north west of Padova, at about the same time I started here. He only made it one year before being offered a permanent position in Mexico, but we managed to meet up a handful of times before he left. (The latest word is that he's been unpaid for almost a year in Mexico while someone stalls his visa, and when he does get paid it will be at less than half the rate we got as postdocs – he is, understandably, fixing to tell them that they will not be requiring his services.)

Taking a train from Padova via Bassano del Grappa, the origin of grappa, the train into Trento descends into the valley along a spectacular viaduct. Trento was the Roman city Tridentum, named for three hills that look like teeth from the highest mountain around they valley. The central square, therefore, has a fountain featuring Neptune. This is where the Council of Trent went on for 18 years, deciding how to retain Catholic power in the face of Protestantism. Being in the region of Trentino, with just Alto Adige between it and Austria, German is spoken frequently, some of the architecture is different, and there is a proper German pub (at which Pavel and I dined). There was even a market selling Austrian sausages and whatnot. The Renaissance (I would guess) era buildings near the centre are really quite nice and well preserved, with some excellent painted motifs and little reliefs.

Being in a valley, silt washed down from the mountains has layered itself over the ruins of Tridentum. These have been recently  excavated, and made open to the public. Whole street sections are quite well preserved, along with remains of the lower walls, mosaic floors and even heating systems of houses to either side, as well as plumbing and drainage, a well, a glassworks, and various persona items of bone, pottery and ceramic. There were also the foundations of medieval buildings, which of course Pavel wanted to pose with as though he were using them as a toilet. Recall, this is Pavel who tried to heal haemorrhoids with cosmic rays at a hippy religious event on top of a pyramid.

This is the end, beautiful friend

We have now reached the end of my time in Mexico, bar one small town of interest I didn't discuss. In planning my ingenious proposal of marriage to Naomi, I had done my research, including staking out several locations. One which proved impractically far, and which I doubted we would get to have to ourselves, was Malinalco. In fact, Pavel, some Czech friends of his and I travelled here on the same day as Teotenango, catching a coach to Malinalco before getting a combi to Teotenango.

The 'modern' town is a gem, though we didn't get to see much of it. It sits in a green valley and has narrow streets of stuccoed houses. We visited one church, which might or might not have been San Pedro. Either way, it's the one below the archaeological zone. Yes, this is another archaeological zone post, but the last for Mexico. Anyway, we arrived, it seemed, the day after the festival for the saint of this church, and they were taking down the decorations and dismantling the fair attractions out the front. Interesting for me was the conversation we had here with the Czechs – Pavel, as with myself, is quite earnestly non-religious, and indeed the Czech Republic is the most atheist nation on Earth. His friends, however, were born-again, and as a result, married quite young. I was told that the groom's father attended the wedding, but refused to enter the church for the ceremony. While I share his beliefs, not entering the church is somewhat against my beliefs regarding being (too) obnoxious. For me, making hissing noises each time I take a step, like the consecrated ground rejects my presence, is enough.

Out the front of the church was a weekend market, selling all manner of interesting things. I had tried my hand at bartering down a traditional Aztec drum made from a hollowed out section of tree branch, with an H cut in the top to make the characteristic sounds, but failed. Now that I know Mexican woodworks are not stopped by customs in Australia, I will try again in the future. (I returned once with a wooden dragonfly, and the customs girl said “I don't know... do you think it's safe?” Fearing it was a trick question, I squinted and replied “... Yeeeessss?” and she let me through).

However, the draw is the medium-sized archaeological zone. This was an Aztec barracks for Eagle Knights, the special forces of the empire. Some of the pyramids were standard, but some, uniquely, were carved into the living rock (I've always wanted to use that silly phrase), steps, layers, temple and all. It is perched on a ledge that looks out over the valley, which was of strategic importance. I know, after writing about uncountably many pre-Colombian ruins, the writing must blur together and become less than thrilling, but each has its own unique aspects and charm, each is worth visiting, and almost each is distinctly memorable two years on.

Now, barring any small items in Mexico City that I've missed, and many small cultural foibles that I never thought to write about, I'm finished with my account of Mexico. I won't belabour the closing remarks, except to say that when I first started travelling abroad I came across someone who told me her brother had travelled as a tourist extensively, but was ready to live somewhere permanently to really immerse themselves in a culture. This is what Mexico was for me, and it was a delight. Though I could never become Mexican, as to Mexicans being Mexican means more than just holding a passport, I felt accepted. My boss Peter enjoyed telling me, when I spoke of my weekends with my close friends, that he too had a second “Mexican family”, and really, that is the level of kinship you can reach with these subtle, generous, sophisticated, bureaucratic, humble, honest, chaotic, sometimes slightly suspicious, ungovernable, joyful people. I believe that Naomi and I will look back on our Mexican time as some of the best experiences of our lives.

Now, James, who had complained he wasn't reading this until I finished with Mexico, can start reading again. Or bite his own bum.

Just the softest little breathless word I ask of you

As I am far behind, I offer an account contemporary to momentus events:

My cunning plan was realised on Sunday 24th of July 2011. This was the first day the stars aligned for it, and the last day Naomi was to spend in Mexico during my contracted time. My plan, secret from Naomi, was to be collected in front of our condominium by our dear friend and
chauffeur-for-the-day Sebastian at the hour of 9.20am, allowing some margin for 'Hora Mexicana', the curse of all things running late. Thus, I hoped for arrival at our destination at 10am, beyond which time the situation would be outside of our control. To make Hora Mexicana laugh, one needs only make a plan, and circumstances delayed our departure until 9.50, and our arrival at our destination of the town of Tlalnepantla de Baz until 10.30, by which time hoards of lollygaggers infested the square, the situation I had aimed to avoid.

I need not have worried – being Mexican, the mob was there for the second draw of the location, the Catholic church, and not the adjacent primary draw, the Aztec pyramid of Santa Cecilia Acatitlan, whose gates open at 10. The only souls who remembered the old gods that day were a film crew, from the Discovery Channel as it turned out, who politely declined Sebastian's request to take a walk for five minutes, but whom left us undisturbed and stayed off of the pyramid.

Thus, we nimbly climbed the steep stairs of the structure, with now-photographer Sebastian close behind. At the top, in front of the temple, I produced the ceramic vessel I had been concealing in my bag, a replica of an Aztec artifact bearing the image of Tlaloc, god of rain, to whom the place was sacred. My good friend David had obtained this the day earlier at the anthropology museum's store, unbeknown to the then-present Naomi  - “I need to use the bathroom... I'll be back after a seemingly unnecessarily-long interval”. I placed the vessel on the Chuc Mool, the very stone that once received sacrificial offerings, went down on one knee, raised up the pot in both hands, and asked for Naomi Laura Dias' hand in marriage.

While the initial response was lost behind choking and tears, I was later assured that the answer was certainly yes, as she did not throw the pot at my head and run away down the stairs. Sound logic. It was also overjoyed to hear her describe my efforts as 'the perfect proposal'.

Well, maybe that spider knows something that I don't know

People, you, as I was, are living under the false assumption that the most awesome creature on this planet is the spider. You have been, as I was, living in ignorance of the amblypygi.

Voyage with me as I abandon eloquent prose in favour of enthusiasm. This is an arachnid that decided only weaklings need poison and to set traps, and real heroes beat things with their spiky arm things. So, they shunned web spinners, evolved their puny spider antennae things into nasty bommyknockers, and then, being without feelers, grew one pair of legs to be uber long and feelery. The kind I saw had a long span indeed, around half a metre.

Dave, Nae, Mother and I went into an underground restaurant made from part of the cave system under Playa del Carmen, which is, in itself, awesome sauce, and being that it is a cave system they don't really seal sections, they just occupy and light to a point, leaving tunnels diverging outwards. Coming in from these tunnels are amblypygi, and they just sit on the tunnel face and exude championess.

This discovery came after Dave and I had purchased straw sombreros and brightly coloured ponchos and headed out onto the end of a long and abandoned pier that jutted into the Carribean Sea, so our foolish Mexican stereotyping would not annoy the locals. We need not have worried, as our faux fist fighting dressed as banditos attracted cheers of appreciation from passing speedboats filled with locals.

These last experiences, along with finding the water to be extremely warm for swimming late into the night, salvaged the experience of Playa del Carmen, though I don't know that I'd return.

There's a city on my mind

I wrote a lovely entry about Tulum, but bloody NoScript and Livejournal conspired to eat it. I hate you NoScript, I hate you. I curse the day you were put on my computer, even if you have twice saved me from malware.

I hate you.

So, a précis:

- Tulum is a post-Classic Maya city.

- The post-Classic era was akin to the Dark Ages in Europe.

- The Classic era civilisation is believed to have collapsed due to, in part, over-exploitation of resources and withholding of education from all but the priestly upper class.

- People can put that in their cultural-guilt back-to-nature-myth pipe and smoke it.

-Tulum is on the edge of cliffs that shelter a cove containing a beautiful beach.

- Tulum has beautiful stucco which is preserved by roping-off all buildings owing to hoards of tourist from Cancun.

- These include the descending honey bee god, and building corners with faces, where one side of the face is either side of the corner.

- It was stupidly hot the day Nae, Mother, Dave and I were there. It was too hot to concentrate.

- Nae went into the water for a wade.

- It was awesome but don't go when the weather is too hot.

- Screw you, NoScript.

Water underground

In mid-February, 2011, Mother, Naomi and myself went to Playa del Carmen to collect Dave Curtin for a few days of adventure. If this town, just north of Cancun, is the run-off of tacky tourist resort evil then it is my firm desire that I never head south. A taxi from the airport to a hotel five kilometres away costs more than a taxi ride across two states would in the valley of Mexico. I did raise this point, but was given an already-known lecture in microeconomics by the driver. Still, to vent is cathartic.

The town itself is full of hotels, and we stayed in a cheap but nice one, and a million shops selling all manner of random junk. The oppressive heat and constant touts took their toll; Dave lost his cool and showed a level of aggressive bargaining over a cane hat that would make the previous champion Elaine blush. One peddler said something utterly vile about us in Spanish as we walked past, and I lost my cool and confronted him where normally I would brush it off. Jumping to the end of the trip, when we hailed a taxi back to the airport the price asked of us (and one should always check) was so egregious that we told the guy to get lost, walked back into the hotel and asked them to call us a taxi. The taxi that then arrived asked a fair price, and we departed, only for the former taxi to pull up and abuse our new, fair-minded driver. This was the feeling I came away with – that the tourist and the local in this town are mutually dependent on each other, but are mutually exploiting and mutually loathing each other. It was not a fun experience.

That said, there is much to do to entertain one's self there. We found a brochure for underground river tours by Río Secreto, a short way out of town, and caught the bus there. Here you wait in a holding area until a group of ten or eleven accumulate, and then are minibused to the entrance, suited up with wetsuit, helmet with LED light, and those little booty things. They insist that cameras must be left in your locker, and that you can buy a DVD of photos afterwards. This, after our experiences so far and my attachment to my waterproof camera and ego regarding photography, left a bad taste in my mouth, though I will return to this later.

The group, led by a guide and accompanied by a photographer, then head down to walk, climb and swim for around 1.6 kilometres of the river's cave system, though it goes on for many kilometres more. In addition to the helmets' lights, lighting has been installed in the caves, though the operators stress that they attempt to make as little impact as possible, and indeed bemoan how the town above is depleting the aquifer system for tap water. At the furthest point before turning back, all lights are turned off and the group sits in silence (or as near to silence as unfit folks can manage). Dave then suggested to the guide that expert cavers such as himself must surely praise the advent of LED torches, and the security they provide.

Exiting the cave, you are shown to computers which display the photos taken of the group and the stock photos of the site also provided on the DVD. I cannot recall exactly what it cost, but unlike much in Playa del Carmen, these DVDs were extremely good value and high quality.

I went down to the crossroads

The next of our tours with the MexiGo company was to Coba, yet another Mayan city, but one where shade was provided by the jungle trees which are not fully cleared. This site is of interest as it has one of the taller, more slender-style pyramids one sees at places like Tikal in Guatemala (which we never got to), and a watchtower at what was once a cross roads. This watchtower was in the up-ended bathtub style of the Sorcerer's Pyramid at Uxmal. Here we first saw the descending bee god we would later see at Tulum.

Of greater interest this day was the cenote of Multum Ha, which, aside from a spiral staircase down to it, and a hole in the ceiling for lighting, is an entirely-enclosed underground chamber. A pier has been constructed from the stairwell to the centre of the chamber, tyre tubes provided and a rope strung across the breadth of the space. The earthen walls are tan and white in colour, and the water a natural blue, due to minerals rather than reflected sky. It is incredibly clear, allowing a crisp view of the stones laying at the bottom and the tunnels heading out in various directions. One also sinks with alarming rapidity – I assumed the pin shape and dropped from my tyre tube a few times and found myself farther underwater than I had been expecting. There, under the water, with the submerged tunnels below, one who has watched as many creature feature films as I have did not find it hard to imagine some prehistoric reptile emerging to take the swimmers above.

Naomi, who is not a strong swimmer, was delighted to be kicking about with her tyre tube, and I believe that day was the most blissful I've ever seen her. Our time in this cenote is a special memory that we will fondly recall for many years. Sadly, the photos of this (which I will eventually, probably in another two years, put up) failed to capture the experience, though this will allow us to remember it as we want to.

Not much could have improved the day for Naomi, but the final item on the itinerary did just that: a trek through the jungle to find monkeys. The spider monkeys which were expected did not make an appearance, though a family of howler monkeys fronted up and made it known why they are named as they are; fighting possums or cats would be deeply ashamed in the presence of these creatures.

Thus, we left Valladolid and headed to the touristic hell of Playa del Carmen, collecting a recurring character in my many global adventures.

Itsy-bitsy, teeny weeny

Given the few days we had in Valladolid we found a tour guide at a little company called MexiGo Tours. We firstly did the Go Flamingo tour, and at risk of trading surprise down the road for exposition at this point of the yarn, we followed it up with Go Monkey, but didn't go Go Maya, Go Wonders or Go Snake, and we didn't go early enough for Go Hacienda. You're going to have gotten the theme; I don't need to go on.

Go Flamingo took us first to Rio Lagartos, or Alligator River, which has no alligators but does have crocodiles, and at one point Spaniards who did not know the difference. One gets on a boat and heads towards the Carribean Sea, and unlike many bullcrap nature viewing tours, one actually sees flamingos and crabs and crocodiles with fair regularity. At one point we went into the mangroves to look at their strange seeds, allegedly used as pens by the Maya, and after a short while found that we were within a metre or two of a well disguised croc.

The fact of the day was that flamingos would naturally be white, except that the colouring of krill they eat accumulates in their bodies and gradually makes their down go pink; all of which reminds me of another tangent – for a long time in Mexico I wouldn't buy chicken at the supermarket, as it was yellowish-orange rather than the pink I was accustomed to, and I was convinced that it was, like many foods in Mexico, rolled in chilli powder. It turns out their chooks are corn fed, not grain fed as in Australia, and this changes the colour of the flesh. Thus, we have two data points that indicate that feeding birds outlandishly will make them change colour.

Next, one forgets momentarily about the crocodiles (they are only little ones, unlike the salties seen in Australia and hanging upside down from the roof on every Australian-themed bar in the world) and hops out of the boat and into a small tributary that is salty enough to make sinking an impossibility. Not drowning though, I expect. You'd just float. And float you do. This is followed by getting out onto the clay bank, and smearing the stuff all over yourself. Allegedly the Maya did this for beauty purposes. This is followed by getting back on the boat, heading back to the idyllic upriver locale one departed from, and jumping in to clean the stuff off in the azure water next to the golden sand. The highlight of this trip for me was seeing Naomi in a bikini for the first time.

The bus then goes to Ek'Balam, one of the best preserved and most carefully reconstructed archaeological sites we visited, which is certainly worth the visit. Remnants of the incredibly straight white-gravel road that connected Mayan cities is still in evidence, along with hints of the outer fortifications, a well-reconstructed arched gate house, and some large-scale, intricate stucco work that was uncovered in reconstruction, having been sealed up in later stages of construction. The latter shows much detail of the religious beliefs of the Maya, including their worship of those born with birth defects and the pan-Mesoamerican Earth Monster. The site suggested to my mind a strong reminiscence of the level of technological mastery obtained by the Romans, but achieved without beasts of burden or iron.(Such a comparison would horrify the modern day archaeologist, but I don't give a rat's – technological innovation \textit{is} a good thing. There. I did it. I made a value judgement.)

Lastly, the tour goes to the former convent of Santo Domingo in the town of Uayma, dating from the 17th century, though recently restored. The stucco work on it is exquisite, in white, red ocher, and Mayan blue (that shade of blue has that name for a reason). Nearby is another, open-topped, manky cenote. Upon seeing it, Mother told the guide that in Australia we need to put pools around our fences. He was bemused.

That night, but at our faux hacienda, we stood around and stared at a dying tarantula. The girl at reception was bemused.