Mayan Numerals

I've been learning a little bit about the Mayan numeral system from Alfredo, a Math major who is slowly but surely becoming the ejido union's GIS guy. At first I figured it was like Roman Numerals (cumbersome and primitive), but when I learned that they had the concept of Zero, I really started paying attention. Our current number system owes its succes in large part to the fact that it contains a symbol for zero. The idea that "nothing" is a measurable quantity helped it spread from India through Arab traders to Europe, which then spread it across the globe.

The other reason for the success of the Indo-Arabic system is that its decimal, meaning you can combine the same ten symbols to form any number you want. Turns out the ancient Mayans had this concept down too, although their system has twenty digits rather than ten. My guess is the Indians only counted their fingers while the Mayans included their toes. Had history and geography played out a little differently, we could easily be using the Mayan's system rather than the Indian's.

The coolest thing about the Mayan system is that its really intuititve and easy to learn. All you need to know is four rules:

  • The little conch shell is a zero

  • The dot is a one

  • The line is a five

  • Mayans count in groups of 20, not 10!

Oh yeah, and Mayans write up the page, not down it.

The tricky part is that when you get to 20, you use the symbols for one and zero, not for two and zero. Then you start all over under the dot until you get to 40, which is two dots over a zero. And that's it! Three symbols, twenty digits, and you too can count like an ancient Mayan.

*Check out a web app that converts "normal" numbers to Maya numerals here:

**Image comes straight out of the good ol' wikimedia commons:

The House Hunt

I spent the second half of the day trying to find a place to stay and learning Mayan with Chalo, a sweet, extremely patient ejidatario who's become one of my first friends here in Carrillo. We decited the rent quotes might be a little lower if I stayed in the car while Chalo got a price. The first lady we talked to said whe was out of rooms, but she had a little palm-roofed house in the the back for 400 pesos a month. Ing. Victoria had given me a budget of 600 - 800 pesos, so at first I thought we could try and get something a little more upscale.

We drove around and looked at the other rooms in town. Most of them were concrete, and they looked like sweltering ovens to me. I realized that without an air conditioner, living in a sealde concrete box is a really bad idea.

That much should have been obvious. The Mayas have been living with this heat for thousands of years, why wouldn't their houses be naturally cooler?


The Job Site

John Curtis gave me a tour of what he calls "The Job Site," this morning. Turns out, The Job Site is a school John is building, where people will learn practical woodworking skills. Sometimes, the simplest things go a long way, and right now teaching the ejidatarios how to sharpen their tools more effectively is a big focus.

In addition to the sharpening room, the building will contain sleeping space for guest instructors, built in desks for office space, and a central, open, multipurpose space for most everything else. He's also trying out some new building techniques, like a shaded skylight that lets in light but not heat, extra rebar to withstand frequent hurricanes, and a whole lot of water tanks to keep the (normally intermittent) water running.

Cultural self-sufficiency is key here, so John's goal is to train a few locals and let them take over the teaching. He tells me the goal as a gringo should always be to make yourself unnecessary, and let the locals teach each other. As we walked to John's friend Ceasar's woodshop across the street, I got a little history lesson.

The Mayans of Quintana Roo are in a similar place today as American Blacks were in the 1960s. A century ago they were enslaved by the neighboring Yucatecos, who were mixed blood Mayan and Spanish. They worked on haciendas, huge land holdings with a large central house, cultivating an Agave like plant used to make textiles. Sound familiar?

They gained their freedom during the War of the Castes, a Mayan uprising which began in 1847 and went on until 1901, and there are still a few old ones who have childhood memories of those times.

According to John, many local Mayan don't even believe that their own ancestors built the pyramids that dot the landscape. Western conspiracy theories about aliens building them are especially harmful in this environment.

Cesar's outer wall is covered in beautiful murals* blending Mayan and Western themes. "The city government hired an artist to teach the local kids how to do better grafitti." He paused. "We noticed, it doesn't really matter what is painted on the walls, even if its a political ad or just any ad, as long as something is painted on it the grafitti kids won't touch it."

The murals were painted by the teacher and a couple of his students. On his own building, which John wants to bill around a "Modern Mayan" theme, he's thinking about a painting of ancient Mayan-style humans with modern logging equipment.

We walked into the shop and met Cesar, who was busy refurbising an old bar from a strip joint for use at a local church. "No, no, it won't be the altar," he told me when he saw my face. His woodshop makes and fixes up furniture, and Cesar also runs a little woodcrafts store in downtown Carrillo, but like most touristy ventures its currently not doing too well.

Cesar is also a parter in John's school, which they hope will become a sort of contractor for the ejido unions. John and Cesar are adamant that they will never become a non-profit. "We don't write grants, thats our rule. We only do the practical side." Sounds like my kind of people.


*I´m trying to get some pictures of said murals, so I'll add them to the post if I do.

La Hora Maya

I had my first run-in today with what John calls "Rebel time." You see, the local Mayan population refuses to go along with dayligt savings time, yet the government continues to use it. "They're still fighting the Spanish, at least in their minds," says John. Its an interesting place to draw the line, but thats what keeps the culture separate from mainstream Mexico. The net effect is that when someone tells you a time to meet, you have to ask, "Mayan time or summer time?"

There's other ways to say this too, depending on how controversial you feel like being that day. Local time/summer time is on the least controversial end, followed by Mayan time/summer time and natural time/summer time in the middle, and rebel time/submissive time on the more hardcore end.

This Morning, John told me to meet him at 8:30 AM check out "the job site." We did not discuss which 8:30 AM. I ended up showing up an hour early, at 7:30 AM, Mayan time. I'm desperately trying to catch up on writing, so I told him I could just write for an hour while he did what he needed to do. He would have none of that.


An Environmental Nightmare

I just woke up on my second night in Felipe Carrillo Puerto and I had an interesting dream. I was in some sort of commercial space, and these three young guys were talking to everyone in sight. They were salesmen from Home Depot or Lowes or something.

Anyway, they were going around making jokes about environmentalists and about hippies, etc, etc.

"The Hippies used to say tubular but now they´re all intubated hippies"

I woke up practicing my speech on Green Capitalism in the 21st century, wrote this down, and went back to sleep.

Good Night!!