dispatches from the end of time

Mayan jade mask

December 17

Will the world end on December 21, 2012, as some people claim the ancient Mayans predicted? Or will we all just turn the calendar page (or stone calendar wheel) to reveal another day, another year, even another era ahead? These questions have variously plagued or amused the western world ever since anthropologists broke the code and figured out how Mayans organized time. Until very recent discoveries, most ancient Mayan references to time only went as far as the end of the Long Count, or 13 b’aktun. It is this 13 b’aktun that comes to an abrupt end at solstice, just after 5 am Mexico time on December 21.

When Deborah and I travelled south through Central America earlier this year, one of our favourite ancient sites was the Mayan ruins at Copan, just across the Honduras border from Guatemala. This is a huge site littered with ancient temples, some built over older structures as new kings took power, stelae that describe vividly battles, rulers, and gods, and a staircase with one of the most complete sets of Mayan hieroglyphic carvings ever recovered from the jungle. There is reference here to the start of the Long Count, which scientists converted to August 11, 3114 BC. Nearby there is a massive museum of Mayan sculpture that features as a centrepiece a full-size replica of the earliest temple found deep within the largest pyramid on site. Overall, an outstanding set of ruins and museum.

Our time at Copan got us to thinking about the end of our travels for the year, and where we would be in mid-December. Then we became aware that a number of tour companies were offering excursions to one or more Mayan ruins around the time of the end of the world, including a group called MayaSites, which was offering a five-day tour of several Mayan sites on the Yucatan Peninsula. We decided that if the world was going to end just as we were wrapping up our year-long wander through Central and South America, why not organize ourselves to be at the epicentre of the ancient (and contemporary) Mundo Maya. The tour we signed up for runs from December 18 to 22, beginning and ending in Cancun, and yes, we have booked our flight home on the 23rd, reasonably confident the world will not end (although we did book our flight with points, not cash!).

We landed in Cancun more than a week early to lay in the sun, but it just so happened that the brand spanking new Museo Maya de Cancun was located right outside our resort front doors, so we were able to get ourselves in the Mayan mood just ahead of the tour. If there was ever a sign that the Mexican government is sure life continues after December 21, this is it. The $15 million (US) facility is built on a solid platform some 10 metres above the ground, reportedly to safeguard the artifacts inside in the event of floods and storms, and features 4400 square feet of exhibition space, state of the art temperature and humidity control (although it was freezing inside the day we were there), classrooms, offices, and a gift shop (closed the day we were there).

The exhibition space is split into three large galleries, two permanent and one for temporary or visiting exhibitions. The first permanent gallery describes and displays evidence of Mayan and pre-Mayan human settlement in the local province of Quintana Roo – roughly the eastern third of the Yucatan Peninsula down to the border with Belize. The second permanent gallery focuses on Mayan history, and the temporary exhibition hall currently features artifacts from Mayan burials, including several fascinating Jade masks. There are apparently over 400 artifacts in all, many never before on public display. The exhibition area is spacious, items have room to stand out, but considering the main target is tourists, it is odd that the artifact descriptions are only in Spanish, and the only way a visitor can read the English portion of the larger display panels is by crouching down and squinting to read the dimly lit blue text set against a grey background.

Nevertheless, the artifacts – domestic pottery, ritual items, carved stone, burial masks, weapons, tools, and much more make this a must-see in Cancun. An added bonus is that the museum is built near some Mayan ruins that barely survived resort development and highway construction – a path from the museum takes visitors into a small forest to see the remaining platforms and a 3-story pyramid that make up the San Miguelito Archeological Site, inhabited 500 to 800 years ago.

December 18

Tulum is possibly the most picturesque of the ancient Mayan sites we’ve ever visited, perched high on a cliff overlooking the warm blue Caribbean Sea. It was a port city, one of a series of Mayan import/export operations that lined the East coast from the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula down through Belize, Guatemala, and even Honduras. This same coast also features an 800 km long barrier reef (second in length only to the Great Barrier Reef near Australia), and one of the fascinating aspects of the walled Mayan city of Tulum is that it featured a rare pre-Columbian lighthouse that showed Mayan sailors exactly where to sail through a gap in the reef and thus avoid crashing into it, a fate that greeted many early Spanish vessels attempting to attack Mayan fortifications in the region.

Tulum was the first stop today; there wasn’t exactly a “meet and greet” in an organized way as expected, but we got to meet our fellow explorers and truth seekers as we made our way from Cancun to Tulum, and then from there to the jungle-bound ruins of Coba. Most of us appear to be here because it seemed the right thing to do as our own 2012 calendar nears its end and the Mayan calendar marks the end of one cycle of time and the beginning of another. Some of our fellow travellers anticipate experiencing, or at the very least observing, a shift of some description – perhaps in global thinking, spirituality, or action.

Unsurprisingly, none of us expect the world to end, but some do hold out hope that crossing the threshold on December 21 will bring forth a kinder, gentler world – we all agree that’s what is needed if we are to fend off the end of humankind and the rest of the natural world.

At Coba, once a thriving Mayan city deep in the rainforest, most of us climbed the tallest Mayan pyramid in the Yucatan – Nohuch Mul, 42m tall and well above the treeline – and not such a tough climb with steps that were both deep and wide, although still a challenge for people with knee or back issues. It’s a spread-out site, and we were pressed for time but we passed many stelae, carved monolithic stones that honour rulers, one of which we understand makes a clear reference to the start of the Long Count we’re nearing the end of.

Tonight we’re staying in the city of Valladolid, a 500-year-old Spanish colonial town. As is typical throughout Central America, the main church in the centre of town was built, in part, with stone taken from Maya temples. Earlier this year we saw that this approach took place in Peru as well; many colonial churches and convents were built with blocks taken from Inca structures. Deborah and I continue to lament that the Spanish were so motivated by greed and a sense of their own intellectual and spiritual superiority that they saw no value in indigenous cultures or knowledge.

In fact everywhere we’ve been over the past 50 weeks the story of colonialization has been the same – take everything of value, enslave or kill everyone you meet, and replace local culture and religion with your own. We may never know what was lost in the process; perhaps that’s what some of us are hoping to catch a glimpse of this week.

December 19

One of the fascinating aspects of many ancient Mayan cities is that in most cases, only a very few structures have been recovered from 1000 to 1500 years of neglect and jungle growth. This part of the Yucatan is quite flat, so when you arrive at a site like Ek Balam and climb up to the top of the Acropolis, and look around, the tree-covered hills you see in the area are actually buried temples, palaces, and administration centres – and who knows what fascinating treasures, statues, carvings, murals, tombs, and knowledges are buried with them.

Ek Balam is a relatively recently opened site, just half a dozen buildings have been revealed and restored. And it was only in the year 2000 that workers facing a limestone wall at the top of the Acropolis broke through to discover the almost perfectly-preserved tomb of the one-time ruler, the River King. It features intricate stucco carvings and multiple layers of imagery on the outside, and an intact skeleton inside. The remains have been removed if course, but visitors are not allowed into any of the 200-rooms that comprise this massive structure.

Yesterday we had to rush through Tulum and Coba, but today we had all the time we wanted, and it was a real pleasure to sit at the very top of the Acropolis and take in the breathtaking view, watch tourists jockey for the best place to stand for a photo, and contemplate the world and our place in it. A group of German tourists also took time to be in the moment on the topmost platform with us; some meditated or performed personal rituals, one honoured the time and place with some lovely wooden flute music that stopped everyone in their tracks, even the tourists that were only rushing to the top to be able to say they had done it. Following our time at Ek Balam, we headed for Merida, which will be our base for the next three nights.

Our guide, Ricardo, has been wonderful. Mayan and in his early 60s, he has two dozen or so years of experience as a guide in the Yucatan, and not only knows the ancient sites and rituals inside and out, but has become our informant regarding contemporary life among the Mayan communities in the area. He and others remind us that Mayan culture is not dead, but alive and thriving, something to be celebrated, especially given the best efforts of the conquistadors, hacienda owners, and dictators to enslave or wipe them out. Given this, we’ve yet to met a Mayan who is concerned about 13 b’aktun; they’re survivors.

December 20

The ancient Mayan city I was most looking forward to seeing on this trip was Uxmal, pronounced “ooshmal”. Ricardo indicated this was a feminine city because they worshipped the goddesses of the earth, moon, and sea – and that people experience this site as the calmest of all the major Mayan sites in the Yucatan.  It is also much further away from Cancun than the other sites we visited, which explains why there were fewer tourists around when we stopped by this morning.

Past the ticket booth the first structure you encounter, looming large just past the trees, is the Pyramid of the Magician, so named because the story is that it was built by a Mayan dwarf who managed to become the ruler of Uxmal and build this pyramid for himself in just one day. Archaeologists tell a different story, perhaps not as imaginative, that the current temple is the result of a series of temples built over each other by a succession of rulers – often the case in Mundo Maya. Whichever version you believe, it is an impressive pyramid with a fascinating stone structure near the top and stone masks along the steps on the west side.

From here, the path leads through Mayan arches to reveal several massive complexes, walls covered with relief carvings, stone masks and figures. Two of the complexes are quadrangles, the third is a very large administrative building erroneously known as the Governor’s Palace (the Mayans had kings and queens, not governors). There is also a temple adorned with stone turtles, a two-headed jaguar throne made of stone, and a Mayan ball court where they played Pok Ta Pok, using hips and knees to move a large rubber ball back and forth along the court with the goal of bouncing it through a large ring attached to the side wall.

The afternoon visit was to a much smaller site 22 km away, Kabah, where not as much exploration or restoration has been done, but the big attraction here is a large building with 250 stone mask representations of Chaac, the rain god. Across the highway which cuts through the site is a massive mound covered with trees and shrubbery that is believed to be the main pyramid, and just beyond that is a reconstructed Mayan arch, once the entrance to the city from the Mayan road that once connected Kabah with Uxmal. Kabah was also not very busy so it was an excellent day for exploring these sites at our leisure.

When we got back to our hotel, we came across a program of events celebrating Mayan culture, and we got to the main plaza just in time to see a four-on-four game of Pok Ta Pok. The first round is played just with the hips and knees and when the ball comes to a halt on the ground, the side that picks it up tosses it to the other side to get the game going again – and we saw both sides manage to bounce it through the suspended ring. There was a break – by this time it was much darker – and then they returned with sticks that reminded us of field hockey sticks. Then the person in the high priest costume set the ball on fire and rolled it into the court (actually the road by the main plaza) for the teams to pass back and forth and try to lift with their sticks to score a goal.

This was definitely not something we would ever see in North America – imagine a street hockey game played with a fiery volleyball being bounced up and down the street, and occasionally into the crowd of families pressed up against a minimum amount of fencing – but there it was! What fun on this final night of 13 b’aktun!

December 21

At five am it is still dark in Merida and the night air is cool but not cold. High clouds are on the move but many stars are watching us as we gather on the roof patio of the Hotel Gran Real Yucatan. Some are meditating or praying, others are simply present to experience the exact moment the tilt of the earth is at its winter extreme – solstice – and the moment 13 b’aktun comes to a close and a new Long Count begins. In Merida, that exact moment came at 5:11 am – and at that moment we fell silent, all deep within our thoughts about what it meant to be here in Mundo Maya for an “event” that happens only once every 5,125 years.

We remained quiet for quite some time as the clouds continued moving, hiding some stars and revealing others. We wished each other well with a commitment to embracing the new era and being good to ourselves and others, then back to our rooms to prepare for an early breakfast and 90-minute drive to what we knew would be the busiest Mayan site in Mexico today: Chichen Itza.

Deborah and I visited Chichen Itza sometime in the late 1990s, when tourists were allowed to climb to the top of El Castillo, the main pyramid, and follow a narrow and slippery staircase inside to a pair of chambers that featured a famous red jaguar throne. Now there is a rope fence all around the iconic pyramid, no climbing on or into El Castillo anymore.

We knew it would be crowded, what we weren’t prepared for is how commercial the whole site has become. There are sellers of every tacky Mayan, Aztec, and colonial-era souvenir you can imagine, much of it made in China, all along the paths between the temples and platforms, and all trying to attract our attention with calls of “only one dollar” or making bird or jaguar growls with clay animals, and even stepping in front and trying to steer us toward their table.

Perhaps they were simply making their own modest contribution to the grand carnival, something resembling a folk music festival in an amusement park with a backdrop of massive stone temples. On the wide grassy area in front of the main pyramid in particular there were numerous groups of people, some dressed entirely in white (to better feel the energy, we were told), chanting, praying, engaged in various rituals, and tourists, on their own or moving across the field trailing a guide.

Just the same, we moved from one end of the site to the other, taking in the sacred cenote (water hole), the observatory (a round building with a partial dome), ball court, steam bath, ossuary, the platform of Venus, the nunnery (Deborah’s favourite) and Tte Tzompantli (my favourite) and more. It was cloudy and on the cool side, so a perfect day to be onsite for over three hours. We also noticed a large complement of TV crews roped off to one side and later learned the new president of Mexico had toured the site earlier, probably before the public was let in.

Leaving, we noticed that thousands of people were still arriving and having to line up down along the bus parking area because the entrance was completely jammed. We’re glad we left Merida early enough to beat the crowds from Cancun and further afield. After a morning on our feet, the afternoon treat was a swim in the cool waters of the Ik-Kil cenote, just a few kilometres down the road

December 22

Our last day on the Mayan trail started with a visit to the really brand new El Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Merida. In fact, after touring Chichen Itza the president came here to officially open this large and ultra-modern facility, located next to what looks like a fairly new convention centre. From the outside the museum looks like a big box, with an odd oval structure attached high at one end (not yet open). Inside the rooms are large and boxy too, but full of large and small artifacts, including a reproduction of the finely carved façade of the tomb we visited a few days ago at Ek Balam. There are also small theatres for short multimedia presentations, and many interactive screens for visitors to explore the human history and natural pre-history of the area. I particularly enjoyed learning to count and express numbers using the Mayan base 20 system. As our guide explained, the Mayan had a more sophisticated understanding of mathematics than the Spanish who conquered them. And, although in decline as a civilization, the Mayan had also possessed advanced knowledge of astronomy, engineering, and construction – all with the use of metal, the wheel, or beasts of burden.

Our final stop, a place we’ll never be able to pronounce properly, was Dziblichaltun (place of smooth writing on stone), just north of Merida. This site dates back to 300 BC and features mostly platforms and some reconstruction of square columns that once held up a roof, and a few small pyramids, but the main attraction is the Temple of Seven Dolls. It is a small building at the east end of town that is constructed so that the sun rise on the equinox shines through the back door through the front door toward the centre of the city. On other dates the moon, Venus and other planets can also be seen through the doors. Our guide noted that while other civilizations have worked out how to fly to the moon, the Mayans figured out 2000 years ago how to bring the sun and moon down to earth.

It’s interesting how buildings are named – archaeologists readily apply names that make sense to them but have no roots in the culture they are revealing – like the idea of a Governor’s Palace I mentioned earlier. The Temple of the Seven Dolls, actually an astronomical observatory, was named after scientists found seven small figures found buried as an offering. There is a small but easy to absorb museum near the ruins that includes artifacts from the colonial occupation – conquistador armour, religious objects, and a press for extracting sisal fibre from the leaves of green agave plants for export, a major industry in the area before synthetic materials replaced sisal in ropes and rugs in the late 1960s.

It has been a remarkable five days, and a very fitting way to end our year of travel. We bonded with our fellow travellers and our hard-working guide Ricardo, who when asked why he thought he was such a good guide had one word for it, enthusiasm. It was an enthusiasm for life and for sharing with visitors the history and life of the Mayan people of the Yucatan. He hoped to see us all again, and left us with the Mayan farewell, zama, roughly, “see you after the next sunrise”.

And as the label on Sol beer says: 2012 no es el fin, inicia la fiesta.

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