Ducking through trees and stepping through ancient Mayan ruins along the tiny pathway crisscrossed by gigantic root systems, we came across a clearing.
“There it is,” our guide Sanchez said, spitting out a huge blob of crushed tobacco besides him, “That’s the high temple.”
The majestic structure sat sanguinely surrounded by a jungle as it has for the last 2000 years, having witnessed the Mayan civilization rise to its peak, saunter through its golden classic period, then stutter and falter.
Scrap, Scrap, Scrap. The man wearing the government garbs continued to rake leaves like his life depended on it. I was curious. I turned to him and asked, “Do you know what that is?” pointing to the gigantic stone structure behind him. Sanchez rapidly translated it into Kriol. He paused, leaned on his broom and looked in the direction I was pointing as if he had never bothered to look there. He turned back and shook his head.
“No” I did not need Sanchez to translate that to me.
“Have you even climbed it?” I persisted.
He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, his brows furrowing as if saying “Why in the God’s name would I do that?” Then he tuned around and went back to industriously clearing the ground.
Why in the God’s name would I do that? I did not have an answer for him, but if there is anything I wanted to do at this moment was to climb it.
We were in Lamanai in Belize. We had taken a 45 minute boat ride on the New river to reach the Lamanai jetty. The ride had been exhilarating. Sanchez was a show off. He threw the speedboat around on curves often banking 35-40 degrees at a high speed frequently spraying the passengers. We did not mind. A thunderstorm was brewing. The clouds had gathered in large black tufts. The heat was palpable as was the humidity.
The river twisted and turned through the verdant jungle. Chavez pointed out exotic wildlife – howler monkeys, coatimundis, agoutis, toucans, parrots and loads of other birds- and every now then pulling the boat along side the bank to allow us to look at them closer.
But my mind was racing. I wanted to reach Lamanai quickly.
Standing at the bottom of High Temple “El Castillo,” its reported height of 33m does not daunt you much, it’s the sheer slope. The ancient steps rise rapidly. A thick nylon rope dangles down from the top, tethered at both the ends. We attack the steps with gusto and arrive at the top of the first layer. The steps not only become steeper, they become taller. The rope is useless. It has a lot of slack and has way too much side-to-side play. Leaving the ego aside, soon I am climbing up like an ape, using both my hands and feet, keeping the body as close to the steps as possible. Top of level two. A few more steps to go.
By now the wind has been knocked out of me. My legs are rubbery. The last few steps are the easiest. And lo, we are on top of the pyramid.
Gingerly keeping away from the loose gravel on the edge, blood pounding in the head, I take in the breathtaking scene. Thick tropical jungles as far as the eyes can be cast, so thick that a human passageway seems improbably. The blue lagoon of the New River is visible south-east. On the west, not too far way, is Mexico and Guatemala.
The top of the pyramid is tiny. A couple of hundred square feet at the most. There is not much to see at the top.I lean against the staircase and take a big gulp of icy cold water. Lamanai has a special place in Mayan history. It has had the longest continuous habitation – close to 3000 years! The Mayans were here as recent as the eighteenth century. They say, the lagoon allowed them a much longer rope of survive longer compared to other sites that fell to environmental implosion. But what about that other reason for the sites being abandoned? Violent warfare?
I do not know. Yet. I added that question to my ever growing list of things I do not know about ancient civilizations.
The breeze was picking up. The clouds were looking thunderous by the moment. It was time to go.
If the ascent was an exercise for the body, the descent was a challenge for the psyche. Standing on top of the staircases, it was difficult to push aside the fear to tumble down all the way to the bottom. I climbed down sideways, the trailing hand firmly on the steps, more for reassurance than for support.
Once safely on terra firma, I looked up. I am not sure I could still answer “Why in the God’s name would I want to climb that.” But I knew I would climb again the next time I get a chance.