The First Racquet in the West

Letter From Mexico

Every man has his Holy Grail. Mine was a racquet held in the hand of a truculent priest some four centuries ago. I had heard about the ball player of Yagul in southern Mexico from colleagues in archaeology, but it was only after several trips south of the border that I decided to flush him out. No one else seems to have bothered to do so.

As a racquet-sport enthusiast, I had familiarized myself with what might be called Mayan pelota at sites like Chichen Itza and Mitia (with its fine Zapotec courts and unique Mixtec friezes). It made for some pretty fast serve-and-volley stuff in its day: This was a game apparently played with hand and hip off short steps which most tourists mistake for ancient bleachers (the legend that a human skull was used for a ball is apocryphal). While one ball court soon gets to look like another, even after a few hundred years, Yagul boasts the largest court yet unearthed. Plus it has a racquet. The racquet.

So, after renting the Burtons' rather tatty house back of Puerto Vallarta for a while, my wife and I slid off south down the achingly endless Pan-Am highway to Oaxaca, leaving the pretty hummingbird that took breakfast with us to its daily ration of Chivers marmalade. Even including jaw-cracking Tlacochahuaya, with its 16th-century Dominican church which the Indians painted over uninhibitedly with flowers and stars, suns and moons, Oaxaca is the ultimate in peasant baroque, hardly a centimeter...

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