“We have a change in plan.” Our guide, Roxy said.
I have been welcomed by guides in other countries with a variety of opening gamuts but never with the one I hate the most. I DO NOT like changes in plan. Roxy must have read my emotions instantly; I will never be a good poker player.
“Executive orders.” She said. “The President of Guatemala is holding a 13 Bak’tun ceremony at Central Plaza in Tikal. As is always the case in this region, the park officials are behind schedule. Tikal is closed for public today.” I continued to protest vehemently.She shrugged the you-don’t-argue-with-Guatemalan-authority shrug.
“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 but the heat was already palpable. Cool drafts of conditioned air escaped from the lowered window of the pickup. My eleven year old dived into the backseat without arguing. That cut down my options. Was I fussing unnecessarily? After all it was 20th December 2012. If the media has their way, there would be no tomorrow. Should I be fixated on a plan? I slid into the passenger seat. We shook hands. She pushed a button and the windows rolled up. Roxy 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 probably 30 kilometers per hour faster than I would. Roxy had hit it off instantly with Rhea. 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.
* * *
I was in a parallel world. I was following the road. The road was familiar; not the familiarity that comes from having traversed it many times, but one that comes from a deeper sense of connection. For we were travelling on the very path Sylvanus Morley had taken a century ago. Morley is the first known Caucasian to have ever set foot in the ancient city of Uaxactun. It took Morley five hours to reach Uaxactun from Tikal on foot. It was not difficult to imagine his journey. What can change in a hundred years that has not in thousand? The jungle would be as lush. Sunlight would struggle to pierce the thick canopy. 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 scholars of yesteryears also had to be gutsy explorers. Not only did they need to to patiently ply textbooks under a candle in a dark library but they had to possess the guts to wield a gleaming machete in jungles of an unknown country in search of civilization long lost. They had to undertake dangerous journeys to reach a site, clean it up, measure it before documenting it. Only after that did the academic work start.
If we adore the romantic yet impossible amalgamation of those two diametrically opposite skills in Indiana Jones, then one only has to take one quick look at Morley’s photos to know how far Spielberg went with his inspiration.
* * *
We zipped through the modern village of Uaxactun, a tiny collection of single story mud buildings that lies less than a kilometer away from the ruins. A short walk through the trilling forest brought us to a truncated pyramid with stairways on all four sides. Half a dozen local children, their bare feet dangling from the lowest step. They sat there quietly observing us as much as we observed there.
We circled the pyramid and stopped at the stela at the bottom. “This is the oldest known Mayan astronomical observation platform.” Roxy announced.
We gingerly climbed the inset stairway flanked with the Witz monster masks. The ancient steps were narrow and covered with wet moss. Did the Mayan have tiny feet? I wondered. Even as I cautiously wound my way up to the top of the pyramid, a boy raced passed me, his heels peeping over the rim of the flip flops he wore. Having made to the top after skinning my shin just once, standing 30-40 feet off the ground, the buildings around us came into perspective.
“This is why the Maya of the pre-classic times build pyramids. Not to show their wealth and power, nor for ceremonial rituals, but to peep above the jungles so they could see the sky.” Roxy prompted. Sitting on top of the observational deck, the sun beating down on us, she gently unraveled the story. The Maya had lived on the Caribbean coast thousands of years ago. There they had studied the sky for generations and understood the cycles of the nature. One terrifying night, a gigantic tsunami almost wiped them out and they 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 Mayan society. The farmers sowed their maze, going by the astronomer’s predictions who stood on top of the pyramid built by the architects funded by the farmers. The ancient circle of barter fascinated Rhea.
The three temples in front of us marked the precise point the sun rose on the winter and spring solstice, and equinox. The process of plotting those three points accurately probably took twelve to fourteen years.
The little boy in flip flops followed silently followed me as I circumambulated the pyramid to observe the colossal masks on each of the sides. He was still following us when Roxy leas 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 chose help.
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 climbed we climbed, never one 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 the way to our car to drive to a different part of the ruins, we encountered groups of children of Uaxactun. They had waited patiently for me to to complete my sightseeing – either a wonderful local etiquette or a rule laid down by Roxy or both, and now it was time to pay them attention. Neatly dressed, they proffered handmade color full dolls made of dried Tuza leaves. The littlest of the lot had 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 historical ruin. 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 power bars and gulping down ice cold water while Roxy told Rhea the most amazing story of Lord Smoking Frog and the first star wars of Mayan times.
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.