Friday, February 06, 2009

Ramble on! And pictures from Mexico

I've been overwhelmed with work. The downside of being an academic in the US, especially if you are in engineering or the sciences and at a research university, is the relentless emphasis on getting grant money -- from federal sources such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health (if you work in healthcare). And grants carry even more weight as universities struggle with budget cuts in the current economic situation.

There are positive things about the process: once you get a grant, students get funded, research happens, new discoveries are made. But boy, is the process sapping! And grant writing is strange also because the content is largely triumphant and runs roughshod over skepticism. No one will give money unless you sound completely sure. The best writing, though, comes from intense introspection: great literature is all about doubt and fallibility.

I have couple of deadlines coming in a week. Which is why this space has been idle so far this month. I expect this to be a slow month for blogging. But since this might be one of the few chances I may have to write in the coming days, let me keep typing - or rambling.

I've written only a couple of essays about my Mexico trip; I had been planning to do a whole lot more. It may still happen but here are some pictures meanwhile, with some narrative. Please make sure you click on the pictures - you'll get a much better view.

1. I took this picture during the southern approach to Mexico City. The Valley of Mexico is a high valley - Mexico City sits in it at 7000 feet. And all around are mountains, some of them volcanic. When Cortes met Montezuma in Mexico City (then called Tenochtitlan) on Nov 8th, 1519, one of them could be seen in eruption. Let's imagine, then, that the mountain you see below was the one Cortes saw.

2. This one I took before the final approach to Mexico City. The sprawl of Mexico City is partially captured here. The city and its immediate surroundings are home to about 20 million people, like Bombay.

Let's do a thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that the plane was approaching Mexico City on Nov 8, 1519, at the same moment that the Spanish conquistador Cortes had that historic meeting with the Mexica ruler, Montezuma. What would we have seen? First of all, the valley would have been filled with lakes, almost none of which exist today. Secondly, in the middle of one such lake, would be a city that would keep you spellbound. Pyramids, towers, markets, long arrow-straight causeways, neatly swept streets, stunning botanical gardens, canoes flitting in the lake like butterflies, and hundreds of thousands of people.

What a sight that would have been!

3. The Spanish destroyed the lake city, and built Mexico City on top of the Aztec capital. The lakes were drained. The debris from Aztec monuments and buildings was used in the construction of churches. Curiously enough in Mexico, the surviving great monuments are from a much older time. Like this one below, the Pyramid of the Sun (part of Teotihuacan), dated to around 500 CE (no connection to the Aztecs). It is the third largest pyramid in the world. The largest pyramid in the world is - are you ready? - also in Mexico, in Cholula, Puebla. It is not, as you might have thought, the Giza pyramid.

The little figures you see crawling atop the pyramid are people (like I said before, click for a better view). In Mexico, tourists fall upon ancient ruins as an army of ants upon tasty crumbs. Most tourists are Europeans. They are generally fascinated by the ancient cultures of Mexico. This is really an extension of the European reaction to the splendors of the Americas when they were "discovered". Most cultures place themselves at the center of the world (China, for example, is The Middle Kingdom);the Europeans were no different . They were bewildered upon encountering the civilizations of the Americas. How could it be that others had independently figured out the nuances of architecture, astronomy and mathematics? This disbelief mixes with a horrified fascination for the brutality of pre-Columbian cultures of Mexico: many of them practiced ritual sacrifices.

Yes, human sacrifice is a bad thing, and the Spanish were right in being shocked. But how many heretics did Spain burn at the stake during its inquisitions?

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