Monday, 17 August 2015

Twisted Fate

One of the biggest dangers to business is an inability to adapt as the world changes. We are all familiar with once respected household names that have vanished, due to their failure to respond to a new environment: Blockbuster; Pan Am; Kodak; Wedgewood; Our Price; Woolworths; and Encyclopaedia Britannica to name but a few.  

Our Price, Brixton - no longer a name on the high street
Writers better and more knowledgeable than I have explained their demise – for example by highlighting Blockbuster’s refusal to acquire Netflix and Our Price’s and Kodak’s failure to appreciate the appeal and ease of digital access for consumers – it is notable that only 61 companies from the original 1955 Fortune 500 List remain today. You need to be alert to what is going on in the world and be proactive and innovative to ensure survival, especially now that the speed of change seems to be becoming ever faster. If you don't spot cracks in the foundation disaster will follow.

The impact of technological advancement on business really struck me when I was on holiday last week in Mexico. We had gone to Central America to explore the ancient Mayan sites and hence, whilst in Mexico, we spent some time in Mérida – an attractive town, with a colonial heart, built on the site of an ancient Mayan settlement close to some of the best locations and temples.
Mérida street
Mérida, which has been the cultural capital of Yucatán since the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, was, until the end of the First World War, the centre of the world’s rope trade. 
Fibres being prepared for rope
Our driver told us that by 1900 Yucatan was providing 85% of the twine for the huge North American wheat harvest (this commercial arrangement had been orchestrated by a giant, domineering U.S. corporation, International Harvest – in a not dissimilar approach to that of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala. When Cyrus McCormick invented a grain harvester to reap the U.S. grain crop, it was designed as a machine that could tie the bundles of corn stalks into sheaves – to do this it required a strong smooth twine and Yucatán was able to oblige);
Cyrus McCormick's grain harvester 

almost all the rope for the world’s navies and merchant ships; 

A fully rigged ship could use up to 4 miles of rope
and the majority of burlap bags for the transportation and storage of crops. Wealthy landowners ran plantations (or “haciendas” – the Spanish word for estates). These were based on slavery – not dissimilar to the plantations of the American South. The owner (the hacendado) lived in grand house in significant comfort;

Hacienda Yaxcopoil
smaller homes were also provided for significant employees such as foremen; the labourers slept in workers’ dormitories and during the daylight some toiled in the fields, whilst others were involved in processing plant fibres or in the factory where the ropes were made. Each hacienda had a chapel and most had a jail.

The advent of The First World War resulted in a huge surge in demand, as the military of all sides required cables, cord and twine - 95% of the rope used in the Great War came from the town of Mérida and its surrounding area.

Mule being unloaded off a ship, Alexandria Egypt 1915
Local landowners became even richer due to what locals referred to as “green gold”. The Haciendas that were built were opulent and grand. Then suddenly the boom ceased, a change happened and the hacendados did not see it coming. Nowadays once glorious haciendas sit crumbling and deserted. They are atmospheric and attractive but also a tangible warning to any business of the need to remain alert to the activities and inventions occurring around the world.

Sisal, as it is commonly called, is a plant that the Mexicans refer to as henequen – it gets the name sisal from the small port of that name, from which it was once shipped to buyers around the world.

I am familiar with sisal as a floor covering – we have it on the stairs outside our kitchen. Prior to processing, the plant looks like aloe vera crossed with a pineapple and it produces long and strong natural plant fibres; hence it was and still is ideal for making rope.

Henequen plantation

Mayan tribes had used the fibres for centuries to make sandals, mats and twine. From the 1800’s Spanish masters forced them to work on their estates, built on land that had belonged to the Maya, and, when demand outstripped labour supply, Chinese were imported (due to their supposed ability in pineapple cultivation – the two plants look very similar)

Pineapple plants
and then the remaining Chichimec nomads, the Yaquis, brought in from the Madre Occidental area of Chihuahua in northwest Mexico - a convenient subjugation to prevent future revolts in Chihuahua – over half of the Yaquis population were deported to work in slavery on the henequen haciendas in the early 1900’s. It is a disturbing and shameful history.
Mayan sisal worker labouring under the strain at a hacienda
Mural by Pacheco on the wall of the Palacio Gobierno, Mérida
A downside of natural fibre rope is that it is prone to dry rot and needs to be twisted into thick cables to be strong – which makes it cumbersome.

Wallace Carothers was born in Iowa in the late 1890’s. He was a student, majoring in Maths and Science, at the start of World War I and, as a result, due to the shortage of teachers, he found himself promoted to become the Head of the Chemistry Faculty at Missouri.

Wallace Caruthers
He enjoyed research and so moved to Harvard and then, to become a pure researcher and escape having to teach, he accepted a job with Du Pont. In 1935 he ran a small lab. He discovered that a combination of chemicals, when mixed with water, produced fibres. Initially it appeared that although the first threads produced were strong the subsequent strands were too weak to be useful. However, once he realised that the issue was caused by excess water leaching back into the mixture (and hence diluting the concoction), it was a simple matter of redesigning the equipment and then a viable new synthetic fibre was created – nylon.

Making a continuous strand of nylon using a paint roller
Although initially intended for the fashion industry (specifically stockings) it was soon used accepted for industrial and military purposes, especially for the forces in the Second World War. Caruthers never witnessed the success of his discovery as he committed suicide in 1937. Nylon is very strong, quite light, stretches well and has a high shock-absorption capacity – it is also immune to dry rot. It was not long before nylon was the preferred substance to sisal for the creation of rope, resulting in the demise of the Haciendas of Yucatán.

As we wandered through deserted haciendas, ate a good lunch at Hacienda Ochil (a converted plantation,

processing area with drying racks, 

remains of the rail transportation system

and steam chimney that once powered the factory, 

with a small museum,



amphitheatre built over a cénote (sinkhole)

Ochil's amphitheatre

and interesting examples of local artisan work, including sisal bowls and taco boxes) and admired the Chinese cemetery in Mérida (there is still a thriving Chinese community within the town), 

it was impossible not to think of the speed with which the world can change. Man has made rope for over 17,000 years – the earliest fossilized fragments date from that time (which makes it an older invention than the axe (circa 6,000 BC) or the wheel (circa 5000BC).  It is probable that rope in some form existed much earlier than even the first homo sapiens. Some modern apes show elementary skills at creating tools and the rudimentary use of ropes and early humanoid tools show wear marks and twisting that could indicate the use of rope (for example for fixing in place a spear point made of flint or for tying things together). For the past 75 years ropes made of synthetic fibres and metal have been in vogue – they are easier to make using automated machines and are not restricted by the need for the yarn to be spun in one long line (necessitating the use of rope walks).

Rope walk, Chatham Dockyear
longest rope walk in the UK, making long ropes for sailing ships
that could pass through pulleys with ease.

However, I wonder if opinions will change.

Traditionally rope has been used for the hangman’s noose and I wonder if we are unwittingly destroying our environment and thereby metaphorically hanging ourselves with a rope of our own making. Increasingly we hear of the harm that man-made substances are having on our environment – sea birds dying after consuming or becoming entangled in plastic,

Black-footed Albatross entangled in party balloons
a turtle maimed by a drinking straw ,

and lost fishing lines and nets entangling sea-life,

petitions by environmentalists seeking a change in our behaviour and even a whale supposedly asking for help in the removal of plastic from its mouth.  Some things need to change, but, as I commented at the start of this piece, change is a constant in our existence. We must build upon what has gone before to ensure a better future. This has been said before and so I will leave you with Friedrich Nietzsche’s observations from Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughing stock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughing stock or a painful embarrassment… (…) 
Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman – a rope over an abyss… What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under…”

Rope suspension bridge made by the Incas

Monday, 10 August 2015

Synchronicity, Spirituality, Suppression and Self-interest

Change is one of the constants in human existence. Often developments and innovation bring advantages and ease (witness the washing machine and how it has transformed housework, 

Thor Washing Machine advertisement 1909
(1st know ad for an electric washing machine)
or the creation of the battery and our resultant dependence on it within our increasingly mobile world). 

Voltaic Pile - 1st battery, invented by Volta in 1800
 (in response to Galvani's twitching frog leg)
However, for many the arrival of new approaches, often imposed upon them without consultation or choice, is uncomfortable and difficult.  Guatemala, and in particular the religions and beliefs of its people, is an interesting case study in coping with change.

Mayans in traditional and modern dress

From the earliest days of the Conquistadors, Guatemalan people have developed ways of combining their traditional beliefs with religions and attitudes introduced by others.

Mayans dressed as Conquistadors
Festival of Santo Tomas, Chichicastenango, Guatemala
When the Spaniards arrived, along with suppression, disease and destruction, they brought Roman Catholicism. It was perhaps reassuring to the Mayans to see the worship focused on a cross (admittedly one with a longer arm pointing to the south.) The Mayans have a symbolic cross, linked to their creation story and understanding of the universe. 

Mayan Cross as an altar
From Tomb of Lord Pacal, Mexico
They believe that, after a few false attempts (using animals, wet clay and wood), the first men were moulded out of maize flour mixed with blood. The Mayan mythology maintains that the Mayan people themselves were made out of all colours of corn – white for their bones, yellow for the flesh, black for their hair and eyes and red for blood. 

Different coloured maize
There are four colours of maize (or sweetcorn/corn as we refer to it in the UK) – red, black, white and yellow - these correspond to the colours of people. White is for the people of the north, yellow is for the communities of the south, black represents the inhabitants to the west and the Mayans themselves believe that they are red and that their direction is the east, with its close link to the sun.  

Ceramic lid of an incense censer, depicting
King Pakal falling into the jaws of the underworld,
below a Mayan Cross symbolising the Tree of Life, Mexico
The Mayan cross, in use long before the arrival of Christianity, illustrates these directional differences (as well as a green centre for growth and development) and it is considered to be a depiction of the tree of life drawn from Mayan cosmology. Mayan astronomers and shamen believed that the centre of the world was the centre of the universe (and for many Lake Atitlan is the world’s centre, where creation began, with mountains rising up from the primordial waters to create the lake – interesting to note that the lake is in fact the giant crater of a volcano erupted 85 million years ago that has filled with water of the millennia, before being surrounded by volcanoes itself).

Lake Atitlán just after dawn
Looking at the star-studded sky at night, especially in parts of Yucatán where there is little light pollution, you can see the Milky Way with ease – there is a large dark area near its centre. Drawing lines to the north, south, east and west, you create a cosmic cross with the earth at its heart and a link to significant objects in the night sky. The Mayan knowledge of astronomy and mathematics was lost on the Spanish invaders, but the power of worship for both communities was intense.

Mayan women selling flowers for worship on the steps
Chichicastenango, Guatemala
The Spanish catholic missionaries and representatives of the Church were careful to place their churches and cathedrals on traditional religious sites, where Mayans had worshiped for centuries. In return, when ordered to build churches, especially on established Mayan sacred sites, the Mayans would secretly include some of their own customs and practice, such as a flight of 18 steps leading up to the main church in Santiago Atitlán (18 is the number of months in a year according to the traditional Mayan religious calendar), followed by a second flight of 20 steps (that represent the number of days in each month). 

2nd flight of steps, built by Mayans, leading to Santiago Atitlán
In many locations Mayan practices have been allowed to continue or to blend with the in-coming Roman Catholic approach, to enable an acceptable co-existence. St John the Baptist is (for obvious reasons) associated with water – even now it is hard to tell when a Mayan prays in front of an alter to St. John the Baptist whether the prayers are to him or actually to the traditional god of water, the rain god Chac. Mayan prayers often involve offerings, such as rum to purify, or flower petals to sweeten the message. 

Mayan women selling flower petals to sweeten prayers
Chichicastenango, Guatemala
In addition to physical offerings, Mayans almost always use candles, which are equally common in Roman Catholic churches and an essential act to accompany prayers, especially for the souls of the dead. There are many such areas of overlap, or “synchronicity” as the locals call it. Although Roman Catholic candles are traditionally white, Mayan candles are symbolic and more vibrant than their Catholic counterparts – various colours are used to represent different requests (green candles, linked to the planet Mercury, are supposed to bring good business deals, influence over a loved one, hope, employment opportunities and lottery wins – they are also believed to overcome bad influences; black candles are associated with Jupiter and are used to incapacitate enemies and prevent unwelcome gossip but they need to be used with care as they can backfire on the user; red is the colour of the East and is used for energy, love and the reduction of sadness and bad energies;  

Mayan prayer candles in a chapel in Chichicastenegro
white candles are linked to purification and aid memory and calm anxiety as well as being used to protect children; yellow, the colour of the south is energy-giving and encourages good health; pale blue is often used to support students, as it is linked with mental capacity, but is also good for travellers and those in need of money; dark blue is the colour of fortune; and purple candles have traditionally been used to dispel bad thoughts and defeat illness). The Roman Catholic churches that we have visited in Guatemala have all allowed the use of multi-coloured candles as part of local prayer.
Candles and incense for sale near Church of Saint Thomas
Chichicastenango, Guatemala
Recently the Mayans have become more overt – when the Roman Catholic church in Santiago Atitlan was destroyed in the severe earthquake of 1960, fragments were stored and the then parish priest, an American named Father Rother (more of him in another post), commissioned local artisans to build a new altar and screen. 

Certain carvings have been added to the decorations, ones that one would not normally expect to see in a Roman Catholic cathedral. With a high degree of freedom the wood carvers and craftsmen (two brothers - Diego Chavez Petzey and his younger brother Nicholás Chavez Sojuel) included significant Mayan imagery: like a Christian triptych there are three parts to the altars at Santiago Atitlan – to the Mayans the triple altars within the church represent the three volcanoes that overlook the lake and the main altar is clearly shaped like a mountain. On the main screen, to the the right hand side there is an image of St John the Baptist walking up the exterior,

but on the left there is a Mayan Sharman replicating his pose.

There are local caves used for worship up in the hills surrounding lake Atitlán, particularly the hill that is thought to resemble the head of a sleeping Mayan, 

and it is probable that the image of the shamen reminds Mayan worshipers of trips into the hills to pay respects to ancestors, elders and ancient gods. An interesting piece written by Allen J. Christenson describes the Chavez brothers’ influences and inspiration and provides explanations for some of the carvings. Traditional Mayan images abound – the Quetzal (the symbol of Guatemala, the name for the local currency and a sacred but living bird) is shown on the pulpit, 

either giving or receiving the Holy Word. Perhaps most surprising of all is the inclusion of Maximón (pronounced Ma-shi-mon in the local dialect), a local folk saint, amongst the saints and biblical figures carved on the altar, he can clearly be seen in a panel which also depicts a traditional deer dance.

Maximón is an interesting character – in many ways he is the badass boy of sainthood. Stories vary as to his identity – by turns he is considered Satan, a saint (referred to as San Simon), Judas, or a relic of pre-colonial Mayan religion. An elderly man standing near the shrine we visited simply stated that he is a friend of the saints. We were fortunate in that we were taken to meet him in person. He sits between two guards in a smoke-filled, candlelit room that reeks of rum and Quetzalteca , the local hooch.  Dressed in slightly antiquated Western attire, wearing a stetson and a surprising number of ties, he looks a little as though he might be suffering from toothache - a handkerchief is tied round his face and under his chin. He sits silently, observing while he chomps on a cigar. 

He is a carved effigy and the simple wooden mask is reputed to conceal his actual face (we were told that it is carved of fine jade, but that Gringos are not allowed to see it, due to the first mask having been stolen by the Spanish and the replacement purloined by a priest in 1950’s, who donated the jade mask to a French museum – it was only returned in the late 1970’s). Maximón’s current visible mask is said to be the fourth carved since the original theft – it is made from Tsaj’tol tree wood (the wood which gave from to the wooden beings of the second creation in Mayan legend). 

Mayan Jade Mask, 600 AD
Maximón is viewed as a badly behaved but socially-concerned grandfather for the people; providing protection and granting wishes and at times playing tricks. He resides with a local clan for a year before relocating in Holy Week – the new host home being elected by the group of 12 brotherhoods or “cofradias” (which are family-based clans in distinct neighbourhoods, established by the Spanish to aid town governance). Due to the complexity of Maximón’s reputation – a mixture of benevolence with occasional mischievousness and even malevolence, people are loathe to relinquish worshiping him, just in case he takes the desertion personally and decides to be vindictive. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Roman Catholicism, combined with traditional Mayan beliefs has been the dominant religion in Guatemala until the late 21st century. However, evangelical churches started coming, to provide aid and to establish missions, after the 1978 earthquake. Currently 40% of the rural population have converted to evangelical churches. We flew in from Dallas with a group of 23 from a US church who were going to Guatemala for a week to build houses for the rural communities. 

Evangelical mission to Guatemala from St Luke's Church, 2013
In exchange for converting and agreeing to donate 10% of their annual income (a traditional tithe) a native Mayan can receive a new house and potentially a better standard of living. Superficially this seems a good deal, but how does it work when the majority of the rural communities and many of the urban-based indigenous people still follow the old beliefs? 

Mayan mask depicting a rising soul
emerging from the Jaguar's jaws
The answer is “synchronicity” – in effect hedging your bets by entwining beliefs or practicing obeisance to both (but perhaps being more open about one than the other, so as not to risk losing your new home). Corruption is rife in Guatemala (from the top downwards: the past vice president’s secretary was exposed for corrupt conduct by the UN and the deputy standing with the preferred candidate, Baldizón, in September’s elections has just been accused of money laundering, thereby potentially knocking them both out of the running). Hence people do not expect the government to make their lives easier – it is more probable that prayers will bring prosperity.

Wherever we went in Guatemala Baldizón hung over us
like and ever watching god -
an inescapable influence in rural pastures or in towns

In this complex, often immoral and demanding environment apparent duplicity is simple and an effective way of coping with change – utilising a subtle combination of the old with the new. Some activity is perhaps just deception for personal gain, but this is ingrained in the national psyche – after all, Maximón himself was/is tricky to deal with and encourages tricksters.

Small effigies of Maximón
for sale in Santiago Atitl
án shops
- mouths agape for cigarettes
In a traditional macho environment
old habits die hard