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Copan Maya Ruins, Honduras

Copan is a great Maya archaeological site in western Honduras. Today, the setting is just a small village, now in a jungle valley of hills and nearby mountains, quite different than it was in 1,400 BC, when it was a capital city of many thousand people. The Copan Maya site is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with only 25 % unearthed of the 47,000 structures of this ancient capital. It is an experience to walk through this setting, with its tall trees, spider monkeys, and macaws, and to imagine what life was like in this ancient empire.

It is best known for the excavated hieroglyphic temple staircase, a well preserved ball court, and beautiful stelae (free-standing statues or monuments carved in the image of a ruler, with information about his life). In 1895, a group from Harvard and the Peabody Museum began excavating the site. Since then, it has been taken over by other funded groups. Also on the site is the Copan sculpture Museum and inside is an exact replica of the original temple that existed on this spot. It is elaborately decorated with carved macaws, animals, and symbols, and painted in bright oca red with gold and green. Many of the artifacts, including beautifully carved stone benches, are in rooms of the museum.

Maya Ruins in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Maya Ruins in Copan, Honduras. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The Copan ruins are on the banks of the Copan River. The valley was divided into two zones, one rural and the other urban. The urban zone was very populated and the ceremonial center was connected by two raised causeways. There was the royal residential compound and another for noble families. The remains exist because they were made of stone and grand in stature. In the metropolis were masons, carpenters, weavers, jewelers, and tradesmen. There was plumbing and potable water in the acropolis and royal dwellings. There were mosaic and detailed carvings representing their world of sacred mountains and paths to the supernatural realms to communicate with ancestors and to influence forces of nature. There were funerary temples and temples where astronomers studied the moon, Venus, sun, and earth.

The ball court was part of the central plaza, well decorated with macaws, which were designed for the playing ball to go through to score. The game was called poktok and was partly a ritual that reenacted the Maya myth creation revolving around the maize crop and fertilitia. Poktok was played with two teams on a playing field. The players used a hard rubber ball, but they could not touch it with their hands; each side had to get the ball into rings on the stone macaw heads sculpted into a sloped wall on each side of the court. There were three of these goals on each side of the two walls for scoring. The ball player who caused the loss of the game would be offered as a sacrifice to the gods.

The macaw, with its bright plumage, was a messenger to the sun and a link to the vital maize crop and agricultural cycle. This ball court had four renovations over time, and each time, new macaw markers were carved and inserted into the wall. The old, broken markers were found in an ancient construction site.

The temples were grand, and the hieroglyphic staircase tells of warfare with carved shields, lances, ropes, and sacrificial implements. It took years to unscramble just the pieces of this one temple staircase and now it is all reproduced inside the Copan Sculpture Museum. Patricio (my travel guide), a local Copan guide, and I went though several tunnels built several thousand years ago. These connected temples and central royal buildings.

After walking all day along the paths of the ancient ruins, Patricio and I spent time walking around the small village of Copan. There were stelae in different places in the village, even amongst the stores, since the stelae must be preserved and not moved. The food is native dishes and fresh. The coffee is from the nearby mountains and the cacao is from the trees in the village.

(posted August 29, 2017)

Bluestripe seaperch, seen while snorkeling at Taha'a Island, in the South Pacific. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Coral Garden Drift Snorkel

The weather was perfect, warm, and sunny with a little breeze. I was on the island of Taha’a and ready to spend a day snorkeling in the South Pacific. Back home, I had prepared myself by swimming a mile five mornings a week for many years. I had snorkeled in different places in the world, yet I had never done a Coral Garden Drift. I signed up with a local outfitter for a partial day excursion. Our group of 10 adults, a French-born guide, and a Taha’a assistant went off in a motorized boat for a wet landing on an uninhabited islet on the west coast of Taha’a.

We were given a quick briefing of what to do on this drift. We walked along a rough shoreline path to a causeway separating the sea from the lagoon. There we took off our footwear and put on our fins. Our guide took a hibiscus leaf from a tree and wet it in the water, then rubbed it in her hands, making a soapy mixture. We each did the same thing: we washed our googles with this soapy leaf mixture and then rinsed them in the seawater. This was a local method used to keep goggles from fogging up.

Several times, our guide emphasized that we were to wait on the rocky shore and then proceed in single file to the area of the drift. One older woman was determined to do it her way and went out and both the guide and the assistant had to grab her and bring her back to shore!

One by one, we slowly walked out into the channel of this under water river while grabbing hold of the big rocks, so as not to lose our balance, and hung on as the current tried to pull us along the drift. The idea was to follow this current or drift between the coral into the lagoon, perhaps a mile in distance.

Acantaster, seen while snorkeling at Taha'a Island, in the South Pacific. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Acantaster, seen while snorkeling at Taha’a Island, in the South Pacific. Photo by Madelyn Given.

I prepared myself by watching a couple of people ahead of me. I aimed for where the guide pointed and tried as I might: no amount of swimming seemed to matter. The current there was that strong! I was thrust into this fast flowing path and all I saw was what was below the water. Coral and fish passed me as I moved quicker than I could manage. Some coral was so close I tried not to smash into it as I went by; finally, the flow was slower and I could swim enough to direct myself between the large beds of coral reaching almost to the surface. I swam to shore.

The guide pointed to the older woman who earlier had disregarded her directions and then needed assistance. She told her to wait here. The older woman wanted to go again, but that didn’t happen. A few others elected to stay and wait.

Our small group put on our footwear that had been carried back by the assistant, and off we went on the path back to the causeway by the sea. On the way, I wondered if I was making a mistake to go the second time. This time, I wanted to enjoy this beautiful underwater spectacle of fish and many types of coral, and now I knew what to expect. I put on my fins and goggles and carefully worked my way to the channel. I let go of the rocks and zoomed off again at the same speed as the first time, but I took in more of the underwater scenery which was breathtaking at every turn of the drift. One by one, our small group came to shore. I was more relaxed and a bit more confident the second time. I shared what I saw and learned to identify a bird wassaia fish with a long green snout and green stripe.

This adventure was not without its dangers. There was no way of avoiding the coral if you accidentally got too close, as the force of the current was strong at the very beginning. On days when the water is rough, people can not even attempt this type of snorkeling.

I had had good luck so far, so I decided to go again when the guide offered us another chance. I believed this time I would absorb more pleasure from the beauty, with less fear of the thrust of the current, which was by no means a gentle drift.

Our small group walked back on the same rough path, took off our shoes, and put on our gear. One by one, we entered the channel, as carefully and slowly as before. On my turn I faced towards the lagoon, dove into the fast flowing water, and off I went. Once snorkeling, I was oblivious to all sights and sounds except what was underwater. I was careful not to touch any coral—some was almost up to the surface level. Once the current flowed out into the lagoon, it slowed down and I took time to swim about the lagoon, looking to identify more types of beautiful tropical fish.

As I came to shore without mishap, I had a big smile on my face. Once we were on board the little motorboat, I thought of the experience as a wild ride at an amusement park—only in nature, more colorful, underwater, and each time different. The water was warm and clear and the lagoon was not terribly deep. We were the only people there, so it was a memorable experience. It was a different type of snorkeling adventure and one to remember.

(posted March 22, 2016)

From Journals to a Published Book: Part 1

Now that I have my book in hand, I look back to how this endeavor became possible. Hindsight is a great teacher. My detailed, time-labored daily journals were the key to my book. The first needed element was the adventure itself–something important enough to fill a journal of noteworthy purpose. Next came the tools and those were the journals, because without them there would be no book. When I began my adventures I did not ever dream that those journals would turn into 12 chapters of my first published book: Outstanding Feats by an Ordinary Woman.


I began writing and keeping a journal when I graduated from college, and I had what I considered the adventure of a lifetime. It was important enough to write down the facts and feelings of my day-to-day adventures. It was 1966, the day after I received my college diploma, and I had a one way bus ticket from northern Maine to Washington, DC to begin the longest, greatest adventure of my life. I felt really great and prepared for life. I had accepted my first teaching assignment in a college community in central Maine. I had worked hard and graduated, and this was my first vacation and my first trip outside of Maine. The trip was a graduation present of sorts. I was the first person in our family to graduate from college. Relatives had planned a trip to the west coast, and I was invited to join them.

They lived outside of DC and, John, the husband, had changed jobs in the Department of Education, which allowed time for a long vacation. When he returned, he would be employed in another administrative position. Ruth, his wife, was a stay at home mom, and they had three children and a dog. The day after I arrived by bus, we loaded their well used station wagon with a tent, camping gear, and a suitcase of city clothes, which we rarely wore. All of this went on top of the car. The rest was packed in between us, and we happily took to the roads, the state, and national parks in 38 states.

I was so naïve then. I didn’t even have a driver’s license.  I still have that treasured journal of details and fun filled days of that trip which lasted three months.

From that trip forward, I carried a journal on all my trips and high adventures throughout the world. My journals are carried in my backpack or with me. When I have a few minutes to spare, I fill in time, events, details, feelings, and descriptions as I see them unfold before my eyes. When I am on a mountain, I write in my tent inside my sleeping bag with only my headlight to assist me while the wind whips outside and the snow or rain and all the elements are very real and close at hand. Each of the journals used for my book is very different, as each adventure was so different and unusual. There are more journals, of course, too many for one project, but the facts, time, dates, people I met, nature encountered are all there for the future’s sake. Someday I may have time to sit down and really enjoy reading those journals again for old time sake.