“We have a change in plan.” Our guide, Roxy declared. I have been welcomed by guides in other countries with a variety of opening gamut but never with the one I hate the most.
“Executive orders.” She explained, accompanied with a you-don’t-argue-with-Guatemalan-authority shrug “The President of Guatemala is holding a 13 b’ak’tun ceremony at Central Plaza in Tikal. As is usually case in this region, the park officials are behind schedule. Tikal is closed for public today. Instead let me take you to the oldest known Mayan observatory at Uaxactun.” She pronounced it as wah-shak-tun.
Roxy was piloting a Honda pickup with two-row cabin. It was just 10 o’clock in the morning but the heat was already palpable. Cool drafts of conditioned air escaped the lowered window of the pickup. Without an argument, my eleven year old dived into the backseat That cut down my options. I slid into the passenger seat. There was no point fussing. After all it was 20th December 2012. If the naysayers has their way, there would be no tomorrow.
Roxy pushed a button that rolled up the windows and engaged the gear. The tires spun on the gravel, then gained traction. Soon the Honda was cutting through the forest headed North.
Sunlight struggled to pierce the thick canopy. I lowered the windows to catch the tropical breeze on my face. Not only could I smell the moisture, I could feel it against my skin. Dense vegetation in every shade of green flew past us. The road snaked through the jungle. Roxy spoke in a clear voice as she expertly maneuvered the truck 30 kmph faster than I would dare. Roxy had hit it off with Rhea instantly. She introduced Rhea to the modern day categorization of the Mayan civilization into pre-classic, classic and columbine eras. She talked about the ancient Maya and their ways of life, their faith, their idiosyncrasies. She spoke about the Maya with a certain pain and compassion that comes from knowing them very closely. Or being one, for Roxy is one quarter Maya from her father’s side.
* * *
We were travelling on the very path Sylvanus Morley had taken a century ago. Morley is the first known Caucasian to have set foot in the ancient city of Uaxactun. It took Morley five hours on foot each time to reach Uaxactun from Tikal. It is not difficult to imagine his journey. After all what can change in a hundred years that has not in a thousand? The jungle would be as lush, sunlight as sparse. The moisture laden air would stick to the body. The howler monkeys would rustle in the branches -often heard, seldom seen. The macaws would glide on wings painted with resplendent colors.
I tipped my hat at Morley. The best scholars of yesteryears were also gutsy explorers. Plying textbooks in dim lit libraries was not enough. They had to be ready to wield a machete in search of civilizations long lost.
Wisdom and adventure, knowledge and bravery: We adore Indiana Jones because he possesses both in equal measures. Spielberg had to look no further than Morley to paint Indiana Jones
* * *
Within an hour, we had reached the modern village of Uaxactun. Uaxactun is the most isolated modern day village in Central America, a tiny collection of single story mud buildings situated less than a kilometer away from the Mayan ruins, A short walk through the trilling forest brought us to a truncated pyramid with stairways running all the way to the top on all four sides, half a dozen local children sitting in a neat row on the lowest level.
“This is the oldest known Mayan astronomical observation platform.” Roxy announced.
It did not look much like anything. A flat top dilapidated pyramid flanked by three other flat toped dilapidated pyramids. Is this the instrument the ancient Maya used to predict solar eclipses thousands of years in the future? To device an ingenious 20-base calendar? To accurately predict the orbit of Venus? I wondered in disbelief.
We gingerly climbed the stairway set between two Witz monster masks. The ancient steps were narrow and slippery. The Maya must have really tiny feet, I thought. A little local boy raced passed me, his heels peeping over the rim of his flip-flops even as I cautiously wound my way to the top, making it there only having skinning my shin once or twice. As the ground around us and the building structure came into into perspective it looked even less like any astronomical observatory that I have ever seen.
“This is why the pre-classic Maya build pyramids.” Roxy explained “ Not as a show of wealth and power, or for ceremonial rituals, but to see the sky through the jungles.” Sitting on top of the observational deck, the sun beating down on us, she unraveled the story for us. The Maya had lived on the Caribbean coast thousands of years ago. With a clear view of the skies from the beaches, they studied the celestial bodies for generations and deeply understood the cycles of the nature. Then one terrifying night a gigantic tsunami almost wiped them out and the survivors had to scramble inland to the jungles. The thick canopy of the tropical jungles restricted the view of the sky and hence, they started building the pyramids.
Astronomers, architects and famers were the three pillars of the ancient Mayan society. The farmers sowed their maze as per the astronomer’s predictions, who stood on top of the pyramid built by the architects, who were funded by the farmers. The ancient circle of barter utterly fascinated Rhea.
Patiently Roxy explained how the astronomical platforms were built.
First a east facing platform was constructed, tall enough to sight the horizon. Then a perfectly horizontal wall was built that lined up precisely with the horizon. Every morning, the chief astronomer would climb up the pyramid to stand facing east in a fastidiously marked spot waiting for the sun to rise behind the horizontal wall. The sunrise spot would be marked on the wall every day until the south and north most point the sun rose were established. These were respectively the winter and summer solstice, the exact midpoint – the equinox. Such points would be identified in the first year of the undertaking, but would be judiciously checked and cross-checked for four to five subsequent years. Finally temples would be built to permanently mark these points, the entire process sometimes taking over a dozen years!
The little boy in flip-flops silently followed me as I circumambulated the pyramid to observe the colossal masks on the sides. He was still following us when Roxy led us to another pyramid complex, except this time, he had my tripod tucked in his armpits. I had forgotten to pick it up when I started walking and he volunteered.
Roxy chuckled. “His name is Miguel.” Apparently, seven year old Miguel’s father worked with Roxy on her excavation dig. Miguel was the “Keeper of the tripod” for as a long as we were in Uaxactun. He enthusiastically climbed every ancient structure we climbed, never once letting the tripod bump onto a stone.
On a terrace of a Mayan pyramid, I saw him point the tripod at the sky, his mouth imitating the sound of a rapid firing assault rifle. Boys will always be boys.
On our way to the car, we encountered a group of local children. They had waited patiently for me to to complete my tour – either a wonderful local etiquette or Roxy discipline or probably both. It was time to pay them some attention. Neatly dressed, they proffered colorful handmade dolls made of dried Tuza leaves. The littlest of them had a pair of extremely expressive eyes set above two plump cheeks. I looked at my little girl. No words were needed to read the expression in those eyes either. For 20 Quetzals, just over $2, two pretty girls were instantly happy.
Roxy drove us to a second structure complex not too far away. We walked through the jungle between a myriad of mounds. Apparently each of the mound is an unexcavated pyramid-temple. Less than five percent of Uaxactun has been excavated. I felt like a hungry kid walking though a candy shop. What wonderful things lie buried here? We cleared the jungle and came to a massive Mayan pyramid. We rested a while on the steps munching protein bars and Roxy told Rhea the most amazing story of Lord Smoking Frog and the first Mayan star-war.
We dropped Miguel on the outskirts of Uaxactun. He sprinted home clutching a small denomination note, his flip-flops kicking off dirt. I watched him go. What a lovely kid.
Roxy looked at me, “Uaxactun only has a primary school. If he wants to continue his education, he has to take a bus to a town two hours away. That is if the bus comes at all.”
I silently wished Miguel the best of luck and bade Uaxactun goodbye.
In Dec 2012, Rhea and I spent two week in Guatemala and Honduras. The trip took us through evocative Mayan ruins surrounded by lush jungles, a quaint lazy colonial town and a tropical Caribbean beach.
Tikal Sunrise and Sunset Spots for Photographers | The Mayan oldest Astronomical Observatory at Uaxactun |Smoking Frog of Uaxactun and the first Mayan “Star-War” | Following Frederick Catherwood | The Mayan Ruins of Copán |The Modern Town of Copán |