Bluish light fills the scene across from us. Virginia and I are three-quarters up the side of a twenty-story Mayan pyramid. Opposite us are the other twenty-story pyramids rising above the mist. We have left the 21st century. It is now decades past the year 900 A.D., when the population of Tikal, estimated at 90,000 souls, disappeared, almost overnight. The jungle returned, quickly, to claim what was once and always will be its own.
All quiet across the jungle…not. Click-ding-click. Ding-ding. Whisper-whisper-whisper. Twenty or so other time travelers sit with us on ledges and do what tourists do when gathered in a group: they make noise and don’t give a damn about anything around them. Would you people mind just shutting the…
Wait. The whispers and rustling suddenly die off. The blue light and swirling morning mist become more intense. Though I’ve detected French, German, Slovic and Spanish languages, all fade, are dumbfounded into silence before the majestic tableau in front of us.
Minutes pass in silence. Being here becomes a meditation. On the past. On the next breath. And on the future. We are viewing what is in store for all great cities. Their vibrant, living states, mute. This is what they will become after they’ve been hushed, fast asleep inside time’s long night. It is rather sad and beautiful at the same moment.
We would not see any of the hotel, or its resident guests until much later that day (that spider, docile but venomous, greeted us at the hotel entrance every day and was as large as my open hand, a hand I was not about to put close enough so you can see how big it was).
We had flown in the night before via puddle-jumper. It was late. We were taken by two non-English speaking men in a van 64 clicks (kilometers; 40 miles) through the black jungle. An hour and a half from the airport to Tikal National Park. The one road Trip Advisor strongly cautioned against driving at night. A popular time for bandits who know it is the only road in and out, used almost exclusively by tourists being driven in vans to the park.
I asked in my bad Spanish if they had ever had trouble with “banditos.” Both men looked at each other. They laughed. Nervously. And said nothing else.
We arrived, without incident but hyper-wary, and checked into the Tikal Inn, one of two hotels deep inside the National Park. Right before the electricity went out. Happens every night at ten p.m. We took our flashlights, found our room, went to bed, tried to sleep. At 3:30 a.m. Virginia’s alarm went off and we dragged ourselves to the lobby. After a cup of coffee with the twenty or so time travelers we would never come to know, we set out in the pitch black night with our guide, Eddie.
As the group followed, flashlights shining in every direction, there were so many trails heading off in every direction. This had been a major city with streets, avenues and boulevards; it would be so easy to get lost.
Hang on. What’s that through the trees? Is that real? A mirage?
As we trudged toward the vague outline, Eddie, a post-doc anthropology student, spun stories of the Mayan cosmology, astronomy, culture and engineering. You can read about all the fascinating bits here, and it is worth it. But if you take the leap and land among these ruins, be prepared to be astonished. All I can do is to try to give a sense of the experience while I help take you through it. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning it is one of most valuable links we have to our collective past.
We came off Temple IV and spent the next three days, when we weren’t eating, sleeping and resting, among the ruins. We walked with groups or with a single guide to explore all five temples as well the Lost World (Mundo Perdido, a huge ceremonial complex). Every time we came across another magnificent structure that had been completely covered in vegetation including 100 foot trees, it added to our list of questions. Why? How?? The answers from guides and materials only served to make Virginia and I more curious, obsessively so; it turned into an unquenchable thirst.
And then we came upon this.
A moving tide of insects, these army ants can consume a baby deer or a child. Fortunately, the small child in our group was only partially eaten before we were able to — I’m kidding!
When we arrived at the Great Central Plaza — we would come here again and again — I took Eddie aside during a break when everyone was off exploring.
“You’ve heard all the theories,” I said. “And you’ve been here how many years?”
“Many years,” he repeated, looking into the distance. You can hear him, briefly, on the videos. He’s comfortable repeating any number of facts. But there’s a distracted quality in his voice that makes you think there’s a searing image or experience haunting him. That, or as some in the group have conjectured, he’s seriously hungover. Personally, I could not tell which.
“What do you think? What’s the real reason they disappeared, gone in a flash?”
He continued to look out. Mosquitoes did not bother this thin, enigmatic man. While the rest of us were constantly drenched, I never saw him perspire.
“Many come here with ideas,” he shrugged. “Most are simply insane. Others have studied the Maya for years. A few even believe the Maya discovered something here.”
“Something?” I asked. “Like what?”
“Break’s over,” he stood up. “We need to head back.”
“Don’t leave me hanging, Eddie,” I said, smiling. “Come on. What did they find?”
“Some say there is a portal. A location or condition that was either created or found…that leads to another universe,” he finally looked at me. “Some say they all walked through it and never looked back.”
“Another universe? A multi-verse, is that what they call it?”
He called out to the group to gather and started walking the trail. As the group fell in behind, I stepped beside him as he walked.
“The Mayans were one of the first people to develop the concept of multiple universes. They…” he trailed off. “Nevermind. Not part of the tour. Forget it.”
“You’re still looking for it, aren’t you? The portal. You think it might exist.”
Now he just looked irritated. He shook his head. “I stopped looking for it. This year. I don’t know. Maybe that’s my problem.”
We continued to walk. Eddie began a riff on the fauna we had seen; the ocellated turkeys, that rare tapir, the giant bullfrogs, the army ants, the spider monkeys. He avoided me the rest of the way back. And though we signed up for every tour we could, we never saw him again.
On our last day, we were the only ones to sign up for a “Sunset” tour. We never made it to sunset; it rained and would not let up. Our guide, Lorenzo, was related to Eddie. In fact, most of the guides were related either by birth or marriage. Walking the ruins was a kind of family business.
Before the rain called off the day, Lorenzo brought us to what appeared to be an open-to-the-sky fortress. We walked through a wall that was ten feet thick and entered an ancient amphitheater.
“What was this place used for?” Virginia asked as the drizzle began to intensify on our ponchos.
“Study,” he pointed to open ground and levels around the structure.
“Was this a school?”
“Part of the system they developed to create knowledge. Most of the work was done at night. Imagine several hundred people laying on mats, looking up at the night sky. It was a sacred task. Plotting the course of the heavens. Creating maps of the stars. Imagine teachers next to students writing out what was seen; constellations, comets, asteroids. Compiling all that information.”
“Except when it rained,” I said, not so dryly.
“Didn’t they make that one calendar,” Virginia said. “The one that was supposed to be the end of the world in 2012?”
“They made over forty accurate calendars and none of them said anything about the end of the world.”
“What other kinds of investigations did they do here?” I wondered, innocently.
“They looked into every area of human interest,” Lorenzo said. “Some pretty arcane studies were done right here, I imagine.”
“Eddie told us about the portal.”
“I don’t know anything about it,” Lorenzo smiled. It was a smile that said he knew everything about it.
I was just about to grill him with questions I had for Eddie, when I slipped on the stone walkway and fell flat on my back. Not hurt, but the rain was coming down and it was time to get off the jungle trail and back to the Inn. I felt a sense of relief from Lorenzo as the rain drowned out any more foolish questions he would not have to avoid answering.
Lorenzo left us in the lobby and disappeared, not even waiting for his tip. Virginia headed back to our room to dry off and rest up for our last dinner in Tikal. We’d be taking off in the morning for a long day of travel; drive to Flores, flight to Guatemala City, early flight back to the States, and home.
I left the tip with the hotel clerk I had become friendly with during our comings and goings. A jovial fellow with Latin roots originally from the Bay Area, he met and married a Guatemalan girl and moved here. Being bilingual and able to handle computer reservations and customers questions in English got him the job. He was still amazed how a family could live relatively well for a few hundred dollars a month. If you had a job. And it paid in U.S. dollars. Otherwise it was, how did he put it? Brutal. He was the one who revealed that the guides were related. I asked about Eddie.
“Haven’t seen him and he’s not signed up for any tours.”
“Is that unusual?”
“Not really. This is the start of the slow season,” he said. “By next week it will drop off to where most of the staff will be sent home.”
“Pretty isolated out here. And when there’s no tourists around to complain…”
“It’s creepy. High season is crazy but better for us. You were lucky. Come November there’ll be a thousand people on the Central Plaza. You had the place all to yourselves.”
“It was incredible. We’ll always remember this.”
“Don’t worry about Eddie. Some slow seasons he just shows up, goes off into the ruins for days at a time by himself.”
“Yeah? Man loves his work, I guess.”
The phone rang and he went to pick up. “More like he’s looking for something and I don’t want to know what. You definitely won’t catch me out there after dark. Some people never come back, and they don’t find any remains.”
I left him and wondered if one day Eddie would be one of those people.
And so we left. But we had so much to take back with us.
Luckily, none of it had to be stuffed into our suitcases.
“I found it! The portal!” he said, then turned and started running back down the trail.
“Where is it!” I yelled at his back. He turned a final time, cupped his hands and called out.
“You just need to say three words! Just these three and you’ll find it, too! Are you ready?”
He said the words, and was gone. I repeated them over and over again until I woke up. Only to find they had disappeared, along with Eddie. Nothing I could do would bring back those forgotten words. I gave up and, as the weeks went by, we tried to get back to our lives. Eventually, we did.
And with our sparkling water bottles dressed in traditional Guatemalan cozies, Virginia and I bid you, and our epic adventure, a fond “Adios!” Thanks for stopping by and please stay tuned for our next travel extravaganza!
Oh, a last thought.
By accident I recently came across that old series I used to watch as a kid. Made history very exciting for the first time. It was hosted and narrated by Walter Cronkite. It took you on a time-warp journey to the past to experience historical events, made all the more dramatic by the Cronkite narration. It was called “You Are There.”
The series itself is dated, but something kept nagging at me about it.
You are there you are there you are there you are there you are there you are there you are there you are there.
Oh. Right. Now. I. Get. It…The Three Words:
I. Am. There.