One reason I’ve endured the long distance challenges of a commuting lifestyle for so long is the flexibility academic life offers for travel, research and interpersonal ‘reconnecting’ during school breaks. This holiday I’ve managed to do a satisfying bit in all three of these areas:
--Long conversations with my sisters and my teenage daughter Katie, which included forgotten details about high school boyfriends and my misbegotten behavior.
--Editing and screening a ‘rough cut’ of my current film project with friends and colleagues.
--The first real vacation (i.e. not research connected) that my partner and I have taken in the last six or seven years to the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza, one of the (new) seven Wonders of the World .
Even though I grew up in Florida, for some reason I have never visited the Yucatan. I missed the press surrounding the New 7 Wonders campaign , which elected an updated list of 'wonders' in 2007 with the help of a panel of architects, UNESCO and a hundred million email voters. (UNESCO eventually withdrew its support from the non-profit foundation running the poll.) This new list includes the Taj Majal, the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Rome’s Colosseum, Jordan’s Petra, Brazil’s Christ Redeemer statue, and the pyramid of Chichen Itza. (The great pyramid of Giza--the only survivor of the original seven named by Herodotus in 5th century B.C.--got honorary inclusion.)
Chichen Itza is a short two-hour drive from Cancun or Tulum, where my partner and I found some reasonably priced hotels on the beach. Tulum, often described as a “hippie” paradise, seemed more like a college professor retirement spot. Several hotels along the beach are owned and managed by former profs, now cooking breakfast and teaching yoga. While staying in the B&B Las Nubes, managed by biologist-turned-poet Francisca Huppertz, Ted and I met a vacationing professor family from UW, Madison--Isabelle Druc, Francois Victor Tochon and their eleven-year old son.
Isabelle and Francois integrated their family/vacation time with their research. (They both brought their laptops with them.) Francois has an NSF grant due in mid-January for his global language work. Isabelle is an anthropologist/documentarian who specializes in the archaeological history and ongoing practices of traditional craft s  around the world. While in Tulum, Isabelle was researching embroidery practices, clay sculpture and the ancient Maya tradition of weaving hammocks from cotton.
Isabelle has completed several documentary projects with little money or assistance on these indigenous crafts that are quickly disappearing due to tourism pressures. Her work was fascinating and it did not take long before my partner Ted (also a filmmaker) and I were exchanging ideas and offering suggestions. We enjoy supporting fellow documentarians as they complete their projects, which are rarely about making money, but primarily about archiving knowledge.
Isabelle and I chatted about the challenges of parenting, researching and vacationing simultaneously. I recognized a bit of the ‘Mama PhD’ stamina, watching Isabelle run up and down three flights of stairs between the beach, her son and her laptop. The visit to Mexico took place after my kids had started back to school, but for much of the trip I was planning the itinerary for our return visit, particularly since my son Nick is studying Aztec and Maya culture in his world history class. (Nick requested a Mayan calendar as a souvenir. Katie requested jewelry.) The remarkable engineering, architecture and artwork of Chichen Itza as well as the mystery of its abandonment is a story that should not be missed.
While Ted and I genuinely enjoyed our time alone together, (driving through Mexico, listening to Spanish language tapes), we found it impossible to leave behind either our research or our family interests. Next time we visit a wonder of the world, I’ll bring along my kids and maybe even my laptop…