Friday, February 29, 2008

Mayans, baby!

OK, sorry for the pause in the vacation slides. I haven't been feeling well this week. I'm hoping for a tapeworm -- it'd save me a lot of money on Weight Watchers.

In our last episode, Sassmaster had just had lunch and a swim. We lounged around the dock for a while in the sun, and Chantal told me about settling in El Remate after backpacking around for a while in her youth. She was powerfully attracted to the pace of life in Guatemala and told me that even when she was quite young, she thought life in Holland was too complicated. She remembers thinking, "Just show me how to grow my own food." Such amazing self-knowledge! In El Remate, she worked on a sort-of economic development project -- a hotel and restaurant where the buildings were being made with a traditional limestone stucco spread over a wood and stone frame. The project also served as a training ground, teaching people the building method to be used elsewhere.

After our swim, Mario joined us, and Lou drove us to Tikal National Park. Lou is powerfully diverted by birds, and so it can be a little disconcerting driving with him. Case in point, he pulled up sharply so we could see some Montezuma Oropendola:

Click for a larger view. There a real photo here. You can see their sack-like nests on the right. They make this great noise while swinging like a pendulum from a branch. (Click here and scroll down for mp3 of the call.) This goes on pretty much all the time during the mating season (January to May).
We spent the night in the park in lovely cabins:
We walked around a little and saw some animals -- a small crocodile, pheasants (that look nothing like those in S.D.), more oropendola--and a tarantula. Just. Walking. AROUND. That ain't right. I was a little careful about where I put my feet after that.
We had dinner and breakfast at the terrific restaurant on the grounds:

This is one of the nicest national parks I've ever seen. Of course, they get thousands of visitors and here's why:

The Mayan ruins in the park cover 7 square miles -- one of the largest sites, I believe. We spent four hours on our tour, and saw just a small fraction of what was there. Of course, much of it has not been excavated:

They estimate that there are 14,000 structures belonging to the site. Makes you want to bust out a shovel. But some go unexcavated, not because they lack the resources (though that is an issue) but because they don't think new digs would add significantly to their scholarship; there are a lot of similarities between the way the different areas are built and laid out. Also, they figure the jungle has preserved the ruins quite well so far, so they may be best off where they are. I climbed a couple of them:

That second image is from the top of Temple IV. You can see other temples above the trees in the background. George Lucas filmed this view for a brief shot in Star Wars, and if you don't climb it pre-dawn to see the sunrise, you should be ashamed of yourself. But we had fog, so bagged it and slept in. The temple itself is not much to look at -- it is only partially uncovered and, as you can sort of see, clad in scaffolding due to restoration efforts. You actually climb a wooden staircase to get to the top.

But! As we sat at the top and took in the view, I heard this echoing roar. It sounded like a pride of lions. "What on earth...?!" "A howler monkey," Chantal says. A single monkey, mind you. It's the most unbelievable sound, and you hear it all the time in the jungle. (Go here and click on the multimedia link halfway down the page.) We walked quite close to one on our tour, and our guide Juan was egging it on with an approximation of its call. He definitely got a response. Awesome.

Juan was very good and not this blurry in real life:

He talked for hours about what could be surmised about the Mayan culture, citing the various archaeologists, writers, and academics, and offering theories of his own. You could tell he was struggling to choose what to share with us, from the vast range of his knowledge.

One thing I really liked about the people I met in Guatemala is that they all clearly feel very protective of the Mayan heritage -- they brook no bullshit theories about the Mayan people and are very aware of any first-world biases the researchers might bring to their studies. And considering how many Mayan artifacts have been carried off to the U.S. and Europe, they ought to be wary. Chantal told me about one very important piece that actually lives in her home town in Holland. But when she went to see it on a trip home, they told her it wasn't on display but holed up in the archives. If this object was in one of the Mayan museums in Central America or Mexico, it would be like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre -- one of the star attractions.

One more thing, before we leave the park:

For all you May Day fans, this tree is called a ceiba. It was sacred to the Mayans. See if this story sounds familiar: One creation myth has it that the tree was carried on the back of a turtle across water -- the tree of life. It is a "world tree"-- the axis of earth and sky. The roots lie in the underworld and the top reaches to the heavens. (For the non-May Day initiated, this story is at the heart of the ceremony that Heart of the Beast theater puts on in Powderhorn Park in May.)

We left Tikal in the afternoon and spent the night in cabins in El Remate. Pop culture reared its head on my bedspread:

Next: All this, and we haven't even started canoeing!


Boomer said...

Just when I was starting to worry when I would get the next installation. Thanks, mc.

Night Editor said...

Terrific travelogue. Damn, why didn't I sign up for this when the call went out? How gratifying to see Guatemala through the eyes of people you describe here. Post 3 soon?

cK said...

Jealousy sets in.