Sometimes you have to get up close and personal with what you put in your mouth. Suddenly, you appreciate the creatures who sustain your life every single day.
Sometimes you have to get up close and personal with what you put in your mouth. Suddenly, you appreciate the creatures who sustain your life every single day.
We know where we want to go. We just don’t know how to get there. Which is always half the fun.
We love our friends, George and Nirava; he the skillful driver; she the marvelous gourmet chef. They are spoiling us with great food, wine, and excellent company. The weather here in the fading weeks of September continues to be a succulent feast of its own: Warm, soft days and with the kind of sunlight that beckons painters, poets, and professional lollygaggers such as myself to come out and play.
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.
“Why is she trying to give me money?” Virginia said, as the old woman kept offering coins from a leather pouch.
“A little hard to understand, I’m afraid,” he apologized. “Her accent.”
The old woman kept eyeing me as she continued to push coins on Virginia .
“She wants to buy your husband,” said Pascual, finally, with a tortured look half-way between a smile and a grimace.
“I can’t be sure. The word she’s using is either for ‘boyfriend’ or ‘blood sacrifice.’ ”
“Whichever one’s the case,” Virginia held up the money, “she’s giving me way too many coins.” We had traveled three hours from our cozy cliff-side retreat on Lake Atitlan to Chichicastenango, the largest and longest running market in Central America. I approached Pascual as we got off the bus and secured him as our guide. Why? Because that’s what you do in a country where you don’t speak the language. Plus, he was wearing an official-looking guide vest with his name on it and he looked honest. Oh, you mean that’s not how you’re supposed to do it? I understand it’s possible, with technology and travel forums, to do a reference check. Even here. But sometimes you just have to go with your gut.
“Hungry?” he asked.
He walked us through the thrall of the market as peddlers called, cajoled, waved and whistled after us to buy their wares. Pascual led us up a set of stairs to a second-story restaurant overlooking the marketplace. I was sold on Pascual. The breakfast was great (fresh brewed Guatemalan coffee? Sí, I will have another cup, gracias!) and it was a wonderful first move. From our table on the long veranda above the busy market, we got our bearings; the two controversial cathedrals that faced each other in the square, and in the distance the sacred hill still used daily for Mayan ceremonies. The Medicine Man (squatting, and not a Mayan priest as I mistakenly blurt out in the video) working the crowd. He is making a pitch for the healing powers of the of the plants and herbs he has collected and laid out from the jungle. In the video you can see a venomous snake wrapped around his neck as proof of his power over nature. (Retraction: Okay,Virginia says I have to take it back. I admit it; the snake is probably not poisonous. But, really, wouldn’t that be the coolest?)
Yes, there is poverty. Yes, there is (some) malnutrition. Yes, they are sending children to our borders so they can find and be with their parents again and escape the crushing conditions the poor are exposed to – don’t get me started. This is not the forum. The situation is too complex to make simplistic judgments from media reports – of any flavor, be it mainstream or fair and balanced. If you think you know or have heard the ‘real’ story, you simply don’t. As is the case with every major event or condition, social or political, very few people on the planet actually know what is going on. And it is not me or you. That’s the only ‘fact’ you can count on and that’s all I’ll say about it. For now. In an indoor portion of the marketplace, fruit and vegetable sellers display the full bounty of Guatemala’s verdant land.
http://youtu.be/VnDtNtbz8Z8 http://youtu.be/OI64uProG14 After we barely escaped me being sold, Pascual wanted to know if we would like to see a Mayan ceremony. We were on our way, walking out of town and up the side of a mountain faster than you can say, “human sacrifice.”
See, yet another reason you need a skilled guide. To get you to the places many tourists haven’t bothered to tread, and to give you the inside scoop. For example, there hasn’t been a human sacrifice in about four hundred years. They switched to poultry in the late 15th century and, apparently, it works for them. Still, we were not disappointed, human sacrifice notwithstanding. We climbed Turcaj hill (the Sacred Place) through a corn field (the god of corn: very important). Everybody carries a machete in Guatemala. But this gentleman had two. I did not ask why. We reached the hilltop and looked down on the…Mayan cemetery. We looked around. We were in an open space. There was a cement gazebo with several fire pits within. But the focal point was the outdoor altar. The entire area around it was charred and blackened from hundreds of years of fires for ritual and prayer. The altar itself was a carved block of stone called the Cofradia of Pascual Abaj.
Pascual our guide (the most popular male name in the region) told us the story of how this altar came to be. You can read the official version here. And yes I know the stone looks rather, um, phallic. And yes, of course I have my own theory, thanks for asking! Because the Spanish, who had already dug in and ravaged the country by the mid-16th century, were such incredible dicks on every conceivable level, I see the Pascual Abaj as a kind of subversive salute from the Maya to those who would try to own them body and soul. We saw this kind of not-so-subtle message everywhere at this important Maya city. The Maya may have long ago submitted to their Spanish overlords, but they never surrendered who they are at heart. Mayan priest burning candles and the traditional incense, copal, while performing prayers.
As we were the only people at the site, obviously tourists, I kept noticing the priest casting agitated glances our way. So did Pascual. So did Virginia.
“You should stop filming,” Pascual said. I did, but the agitated priest picked up the pace and volume of his prayers to the fire, but with direct hand gestures toward us.
“That doesn’t seem like a good thing he’s doing,” said Virginia.
I suddenly felt a force take hold and hurl me to the ground. Gasping for breath, I could feel the power from the words of the priest as they –
“Stop it,” said Virginia, standing over me. “Get up. Stop fooling around and let’s go.”
We moved quickly but in an orderly fashion away from the ceremonial site and onto the trail leading back to the marketplace.
Apparently, Virginia informs me, it was not a spell or whatever from the priest. I had slipped on the waxy ground from all the burnt candles and simply tripped and fell. Though I would have preferred a more, shall we say, dramatic telling of the incident.
“No incident,” she would later say . “You fell down, period.”
On the way back down the hill I asked Pascual point blank if he was Maya or Catholic. I had a bit of a clue since he sported a small and tasteful tattoo on his hand of a Mayan deity, between his thumb and index finger. But his answer surprised me. Catholic (he pronounced it: cat-TALL-ick). Married with two daughters of his own, he said his mother and father and grandparents are all Maya, but that it is too tough a religion for many younger people to practice. Too strict in its tenets. For example, they make Catholics look like liberal atheists when it comes to birth control. Don’t even think about it. It was made for a people who could withstand anything thrown at it. And needed all the followers they could get to help them survive whatever came at them. The one mask we bought.
17th century replica of a mask featuring the corn god on the headdress.
We also bought two stone images that ‘looked’ ancient. Then we said good-bye to Pascual, tipped him generously, as that was his only pay, and got back on the bus to Lake Atitlan. When you’re traveling, despite all the precautions and research, in the end you need a guide and you have to trust your gut in picking one. We had a great time with Pascual. Can’t tell you all the other people on the bus with us who didn’t and fumbled and floundered with guide books and were constantly hassled by aggressive vendors. They were miserable and complained all the way back.
On the bus ride back to Lake Atitlan, I caught Virginia looking wistfully at the leather bag she’d purchased from the old woman who tried to purchase me. She held up the pouch, jingled the coins inside.
“You owe me one,” she smiled.
Back at Lake Atitlan we geared up for the third and final leg of our trip. One we were not going to do. I cut it out of our original plan. It was just too hard, too reckless, too dangerous and expensive. All of the criteria you use to determine whether something is worth your time and money and safety was laid against it. But we were told time and time again while we were in Guatemala, you must do this. It didn’t seem feasible, it was hundreds of miles out of the way. We decided we just couldn’t let this opportunity go by. What if we were never able to return? We would kick ourselves if we passed up this one chance.
So this chance we took. And I ask you to take this chance with me. Come with us. Come to one of the most important — forget important. One of the most amazing places we have ever visited. Come with us as we go back in time. Come with us to a civilization that rose, flourished as one of the most enlightened, intellectual and spiritual civilizations ever to exist…and then vanished, almost over night, more than a millennia ago. To this day no one knows why. Come with us to the ancient city of Tikal. Where written language, astronomy, and mathematics were developed to an astonishingly complex degree. Experts are still trying to work out their systems. It’s where the search for the ultimate meaning in the universe came within in striking distance…before simply disappearing off the face of the earth. Gone without a note as to why. Ah, but what they left behind for us…
Shall we, then?
Oh. Bring water. And insect repellent. You won’t survive without either one.
At the dock in Panajachel, the major town on Lake Atitlan, we hauled our luggage down the stony grade where the ferry boats were moored. And were met by a fellow intent on getting us quickly to our hotel. And the only way to get to any hotel, any village, anywhere on the lake, was by boat.
“Twenty-five U.S. dollars and you are at hotel in fifteen minutes.”
“No, thank you. We’ll take the public ferry. Gracias.”
“You will wait one hour, maybe more!”
“It’s a nice day. The public ferry is six dollars. We’ll wait.”
Ten minutes later we were on the public ferry with all the locals, mostly Mayans in traditional dress, hip to hip, sailing across the lake. Ten minutes after that we pulled onto the dock that serves as entrance to Casa Del Mundo. Here, this will give you a better idea of what it means to land a boat at your hotel:
Perched on the side of a very steep cliff, the hotel was a wonder in every way: architectural, engineering, design aesthetic, and hospitality. We fell in love the moment we arrived. But love is often cruel: We then had to walk 100+ steps up, up, and up. Just to get to the lobby. Luckily, our room was just above, only another twenty or so steps. Casa Del Mundo is a magical place. The grounds are lush, wild, as if you were making your way through a well-tended jungle. Which we later found out from the (American) owner that is exactly how he and his (Guatemalan) wife planned it.
We got to the top of the stairs, fumbled our way into our room, and were taken by surprise once again. There was just no way to prepare for the view from the balcony.
Yeah, I guess we’ll keep this room if we have to. Virginia loved the decor, very Guatemalan but not kitschy, filled with artwork, fabrics, masks, textiles and tile work with all the vivid native colors and textures. Outside our room was a courtyard with an amazing view of the lake front on east side of the hotel. That’s someone’s house in the distance. Inside had large windows and comfortable beds, chairs, tables…and all with views. Of course, this was the best view, morning, noon or night. Plus, we had a friend who helped keep the bathroom clean.
We made it! The Mayan village in Santa Cruz.
But then we had to hike back! We thought we had it rough until we saw these women and children resting along side the road. As you will see, others took the easy way back to the village. Tuk tuk!
Post-hike, much well-earned snoozing was involved. After we rested and explored the majestic, sacred lake for almost five days, we decided to take a day trip. That’s when things turned strange. So much so that I have to stop here. I need to break out another post, just for our experience in the town of Chichicastenango, home of the largest and oldest running outdoor market in Central America. Things went from odd to bizarre while we were in the bazaar. You’re not going to believe some of the things we heard about and saw there. Mayan priests, medicine men, blood sacrifices. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it! Kidding. It is coming in the next post. Stay tuned. Please?
A Central American gem in the rough, Guatemala has fascinated travelers and travel writers for centuries. The beauty. The history. The people.
Of course, none of them ever got it right.
And in a three week visit, I won’t either. I came away enchanted, but just as clueless as when I got there. Like sipping an amazing cocktail, its flavors awash in your mouth, but with no idea of the ingredients it took to make it. I’ll tell you what we saw, what we did, and how we felt. That’s about the best I can do in one snapshot of time.
My hope is that the commentary and photos will give you a glimpse into a world so foreign and tropical and exotic, yet is closer to my home here in Phoenix, Arizona than it is to where my daughter lives in New York City (by 150 miles, no less).
This is not the forum for political statements, however, I have strong feelings regarding the following. I will be brief.
Recently, several thousand children, in an attempt to find their parents, have made the long and dangerous trek from Guatemala to our borders. By bus, train, car, on foot. Many were exploited, violated, robbed, beaten and worse. But they got here. With fierce determination, self-discipline and the naive courage of children, they made it. And to those who would gnash their teeth about illegals I say: these are exactly the kind of citizens we want as Americans. They have the kind of ‘can do’ spirit that those whose only gesture of fortitude is to rail again their entry to this country don’t have. It took real guts for those children to make that journey. I support them.
But, I digress… First stop: Antigua
Yes, that’s a volcano. Go ahead, click on it. It will give you a better sense of proportion. There are three of these conical giants within view of the city. This one is Volcán de Agua or “Volcano of Water”. The other two come as a pair; Acatenango and Volcán de Fuego or “Volcano of Fire” can be seen with just a turn of your head to the north.
We arrived late. A driver brought us from Guatemala City to our hotel. It was a rough night. On our first morning, standing out on the veranda, I felt a surge of giddy adrenaline at the sight of three volcanoes as I panned across the skyline. It’s both thrilling and not a little off-putting to see the first thing when you wake up. Though Virginia and I did our research before hand, we were, needless to say, unprepared for almost everything we saw. Which, of course, makes the taste of every new sight, sound and touch that much sweeter.
There are marvelous iron door knockers throughout the ancient walled city of Antigua.
Virginia demonstrates the height of many door knockers. Why so high? From the 16th century until recently, they were reached on horseback.
After a few days of aimlessly wandering the city, we hired a guide to give us a different perspective of life for local Guatemalans. More on my general philosophy on hiring guides later. The first place Celestino, a native Mayan, took us was a tour of eight Mayan villages that ringed the ancient city.
At the same festival, making shaved ice treats old school.
This cathedral was in the first Mayan village we visited. It was built, as they all were, right over sacred Mayan temples. Don’t get me started. This one was built in 1546. The brutal Spanish colonization of South America had been in full swing since 1519, a mere 27 years after Christopher Columbus ran back to Spain and proclaimed, “Hey, everybody! There’s a New World over there and it’s free for the taking!” And, yes, that’s a direct quote (with a sprinkling of snark for flavor).
In the Parque Central, young Mayan girls huddle before setting out to sell their trinkets.
The central part of Antigua is like a box, with nine major streets (calles) that criss-cross north to south. It initially appears to be the easiest city in the world to navigate. You follow the box north, south, east and west, no meandering curves and winding roads to make you lose your sense of direction, right? No.
The problem (for me, anyway) is that you stand on one street corner and look down it, fine. Go to the next and do the same. They look eerily similar. But, hey, you’ll remember landmarks, cathedrals, the crumbling ancient walls, yes? You get to the next corner and…it’s the same thing! Again and again I found myself spun around, lost in a city that only has nine streets! They appeared to be the same, but were in fact completely different. For someone who prides themselves on becoming quickly oriented, getting a grasp on the local territory, it was often frustrating and occasionally maddening.
Then, just when we start to get our footing, the layout is finally starting to make a bizarre, colonial kind of sense, it’s time to leave for the next portion of our adventure. We were in for another shock. We are taken from a world where our First World sensibilities worked just fine, into a world where everything we knew was challenged. Onto Lake Atitlan; one of the deepest, and most astoundingly beautiful lakes on earth. It’s coming up next; follow me there, won’t you? I can guarantee your safe return, but will you remain unchanged? That I cannot.
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