December 2017

On the road to the Maya ruin of Tikal, my husband Tom and I sat in our guide George’s running van, waiting for him to complete the paperwork in the concrete immigration building at the Guatemalan border. As he jumped in and shifted gears, he warned us it would be a long bumpy ride with no facilities en route, suggesting we stop at the gas station just ahead. My heart raced a little when I saw Tom get the men’s room key from a uniformed soldier with a rifle. A few miles down the dusty dirt road, we passed an army barracks and saw armed men in camouflage fatigues looking out over the horizon.

While Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ended in 1996, the military is a presence in both that country and along its border in Belize. We were later told that over the course of that conflict, many Guatemalan Maya relocated to Belize to escape becoming victims of “ethnic cleansing.” George’s father, along with many others, emigrated from Guatemala to Belize in the early 1900s, at the end of the Caste War, in which the Maya rebelled against the economic and political domination of those of European descent.

As we bounced along, George braked at regular intervals to gently roll over the speed bumps signaling the beginning of each small town, all no more than a handful of colorful houses with palm or tin roofs, most with a horse munching on grass in the yard. Women in brightly-patterned clothing walked along the road with big urns on their heads, fat pigs took their sweet time moving out of the path of oncoming cars, men swiped at lush vegetation with machetes, and kids in uniforms played basketball and soccer at Roman Catholic schools.

As we neared the archeological park, we stopped at a roadside arts and crafts plaza and picked up Armando, who would be our guide to the monuments of Tikal. He was an energetic man with a mission and eager to show off to us as much of Tikal’s 222 square miles as possible in the short few hours we had—often people spend as many as three days taking in the history and wildlife habitat of this national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Despite that fact, we were struck by how few tourists were in evidence–while we were selfishly pleased to practically have the place to ourselves, it seemed sad that there weren’t more in attendance to appreciate such a massive milestone in mankind’s history. In saying so to Armando, we clearly struck a chord. His eyes lit up and he cried “Yes, yes, yes!” We understood his frustration that while the achievements of the Maya were comparable in numerous ways to those of the Egyptians–with breakthroughs of equal note in astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and written language–the time, money and resources of the archeological world have generally focused more outside the Americas.

We didn’t encounter a single human in our half-hour walk on shady trails from the park entrance to majestic Temple IV, one of Tikal’s major attractions. Like our other guides in Belize, Armando was highly attuned to the sounds and movement of the jungle, walking ahead of us with his head cocked at an angle, listening hard. His familiarity with the calls of indigenous birds, the hiding places of insects, and which species were likely rustling the branches enabled us to spot inhabitants of Tikal that we never would’ve known were there—and in some cases, wish we hadn’t. We saw crocodiles; a family of spider monkeys, two of which carried tiny babies, swinging from a tree by their tails; keel-billed toucans, whose main diet really is, in fact, fruit; a tarantula, the size of a man’s fist; a hard-shelled horned beetle, almost as big as the tarantula; and brown-speckled bats blending right into the tree bark from which they hung.

About halfway to Temple IV, we stopped at a “lesser” pyramid complex, that was, nonetheless, massive. Despite the steamy heat, I got chills at the sight of our first ruin up close and personal. Tom, Armando and George had been detoured chasing parakeets and I stood alone at the ceremonial altar in front of the ancient stone structure. An armchair archeologist who watches the History Channel with the loyalty of a sports fan tuning into ESPN, I felt very small, and moved and privileged to be in the presence of a monument that had been passed by generations of generations, and yet, at the same time, would be seen in person by so relatively few in our “global village.”

Once at Temple IV, the spell was broken—scaffolding was wrapped around the ruin, crowds milled about its base and we climbed plank stairs single-file amid exclamations in British, German, and Spanish accents. Nonetheless, at more than 20 stories tall, the temple is a highlight of Tikal with good reason. From its heights, the grey peaks of the park’s three other highest monuments peeked out of an immense expanse of green stretching to the horizon line on all sides. The eerie isolation at that elevation is captured by George Lucas in scenes of the first “Star Wars” movie.

The Great Plaza, the heart of Tikal, where the sacred rituals and ball games took place, was awe-inspiring even with a smattering of tourists sprinkled about its lawn, the sheer size of the four structures on each side commanding respect. Rising out of the green earth, the pyramid of the Giant Jaguar towers on the east, faced by the only slightly smaller Temple of the Masks. On the south side is the sprawling Central Acropolis, opposed by the North Acropolis. Tom and I explored each of the buildings, enjoying being able to actually climb around on history. Turning a corner on the Central Acropolis, we came face-to-face with a red fox, who seemed as startled as we were and quickly turned tail.

The number nine, a figure sacred to the Maya, recurred throughout our trip. Each building shared a consistent structure–nine levels, each containing nine steps, which all told, made for sore legs at the end of the day. Contributing to our aching muscles later was the fact that the steps of the monuments are incredibly steep, despite the Maya typically having short legs. Armando explained that ascension of the stairs was not an everyday occurrence but reserved for major ceremonial occasions and likely done by priests on their hands and knees.

Much of the archeology conducted here was done by the University of Pennsylvania. Their style of excavation, adopted by many others in the Americas, focused on preserving just one side of each structure, leaving the others much as they had been found, covered in vibrant green vegetation and mosses. It made for an effective reminder of how time had overtaken these remnants of a once-mighty civilization—and would continue to, without ongoing maintenance.

When asked what caused the decline of the Maya, Armando relayed that archeologists attribute it to many of the events occurring around the world today—over-population bringing a depletion of natural resources, resulting in drought, famine, disease, and wars. It seemed ironic to Tom and me that growing concern about the viability of current environmental resources is now fueling Belize’s eco-tourism industry, while the country continues to uncover the ruins of a society, once one-million strong, which struggled to survive in the face of similar challenges.

On the return trip to Chaa Creek, we paused along a desolate stretch of road at a hilltop cemetery, having seen from afar the pastel shades of its above-ground tombs against the emerald green grass. The crypts were painted in hues of sky blue, tangerine and pink, and well-cared for, highly decorated with candles and garlands of flowers. George told us that custom calls for the ninth night of mourning to conclude with a feast and procession to the cemetery, in the traditional belief that the spirit of the deceased is being led to his grave and only then will realize his passing and depart this world.

Later, we realized that interest in the Maya’s astronomical prowess may be more widespread than Armando realized. We were told that hotels across Belize are selling out for December 12, 2012–the last day of the Maya calendar, which began in 3114 B.C.

Meg Pier

February 5, 2010 by admin · 215 Comments 

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