Waking the Beasts & Men of Tikal: Guatemala at the End of Mayan Days (Part 7)

October 27, 2012

Dale and I wake to the deep-chested roars of howler monkeys, males marking their territory in the darkest hour of the morning. It’s 3:00 a.m. By 4:30, our headlamps bob through blackness, as we follow our happy-go-lucky, sexagenarian guide, Antonio, through the jungle night of his territory: Tikal. We’re heading back to the place where we left off yesterday, to the top of Temple 4 to watch the sunrise wake the snoring forest.

We’re heading to the top of Temple 4 to watch the sunrise wake the snoring forest.

Along the way, Antonio suggests we pause to turn off our headlamps and look up at the bright constellations overhead, rare diamonds for two city dwellers. Antonio points out the seven sisters known as the Pleiades. He says that years ago he theorized that the ancient city of Tikal was laid out to echo the pattern of the Pleiades. His father agreed the idea had merit, since the writing and artwork of the Ancient Mayans indicated that they saw gods and powers in the stars. But Antonio says that when he shared his idea with archaeologists, they scoffed.

Some twenty years later, a new theory emerged in respected circles: archaeologists had determined, on their own, that the layout of Tikal fit the pattern of the Pleiades. Antonio was never credited. “But that’s okay. I’m just glad because my father knew.” His Fred Sanford chest struts ahead with pride.

This is the highest perch in Tikal, rising 65 meters above the forest floor.

When we arrive at Temple 4, Dale and I settle on the top step, our backs against the wall. This is the highest perch in Tikal, rising 65 meters above the forest floor. About a dozen people sit around us. For the next hour, we mostly listen in silence to the night sounds of the jungle: intermittent roars, cheeps, and buzzing. I hear the breathing of the people around me, and the occasional harsh whisper of one annoying woman who doesn’t realize that she’s interrupting the spell. Venus is the final holdout of night, keeping a fierce, unblinking watch over the departure of lesser gods and goddesses.

Clouds hide the sun as it peers over the horizon, but the raucous croaks of hidden parrots announce the daybreak we cannot see.

Beyond the black panorama of treetops below, the horizon shifts from hazy gray, to fog-blurred blue, to blood-suffused gold, to melting yellow. Thousands of unseen birds shift from fussy to cranky to celebratory. The stretches of silence between the roars of the howler monkeys grow longer. Clouds hide the sun as it peers over the horizon, but the raucous croaks of hidden parrots announce the daybreak we cannot see. “That’s always what that means,” Antonio says. Finally old sol’s red eye bursts into a white searchlight, returning the forest from black to fathomless green, renewing the ancient world below.

Old sol’s red eye bursts into a white searchlight, returning the forest from black to fathomless green, renewing the ancient world below.

Dale turns toward me, grinning. “I’m glad we didn’t blow this off.”

We’re about to leave, when two young Norwegian women approach us to say they’re TV journalists working on a story. They’re asking tourists if they believe that the end of the Mayan Calendar on December 21, 2012 will mark doomsday. I stand in front of their camera and answer: “My husband said to me,‘You know what the Mayans used to do when their calendar would end?’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘They make a new calendar.’”

Ba-dum-bum!

After that, we follow Antonio back downstairs to see more of the city. It turns out even two days isn’t enough time to take in everything, except maybe our guide’s take on the battle between the sexes.

“Don’t take this personally, Cara,” he says, “But you know what they say about a woman who doesn’t give you trouble?”

“What?”

“She must be a man.”

Ba-dum-bum-tssssch!

I swear I’ve done nothing to earn the Guatemalan Fred Sanford’s harassment, although I’ll admit I do take a long time to explore ruins, eager to leave no stone unturned.

Visitors are no longer permitted to climb to the top after a man slipped on its stairs and fell to his death.

Today we visit a site with a name that thrills the imagination: El Mundo Perdido (The Lost World). It received that name thanks to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who said its two pyramids reminded him of the tepuis, or high mesas, of Venezuela, which inspired his novel, The Lost World. The larger pyramid is 32 meters high and 80 meters wide at its base. It was built atop several other temples, the earliest dating back to about 700 BC, making it the oldest structure in Tikal. Visitors are no longer permitted to climb to the top after a man slipped on its stairs and fell to his death. However we do climb the shorter pyramid that sits cater-corner from it, and that one is intimidating enough. We return down its narrow, eroding stairs at sloth speed.

We do climb the shorter pyramid that sits cater-corner from it, and that one is intimidating enough.

My favorite spot of the day is the Plaza de Los Siete Templos, a stadium featuring three ball courts separated by raised mounds. Beyond the courts lies an open field, and beyond that the remains of spectator stands. Once upon a time, in a game similar to soccer but more brutal, Mayan athletes wore protective arm and leg bands and bounced a nine-pound rubber ball off each other’s bodies. Spanish explorers were amazed to see a ball that bounced, something Europeans did not yet have. Some archaeologists believe Ancient Mayans used the games to keep warriors fit for battle. Some have also speculated that the winners were sacrificed to the gods. Antonio laughs at that idea. “Then who’s going to play the next game? The playoffs would be between the loser and the loser.”

Closer inspection reveals the long necks to instead be the alert tails of some three-dozen coatimundi.

But the history is not what excites me about this stadium. Here is where we see what looks like a herd of tiny brontosaurs walking backwards. Closer inspection reveals the long necks to instead be the alert tails of some three-dozen coatimundi. A pack of females and babies have come to drink at a small stone trough provided by park rangers, and to eat the fruits and nuts of the trees. The pointy-snouted, endearing-eyed critters let me inch so close I can almost touch them. Antonio tells us not to be fooled by their stuffed animal cuteness. Although mild-mannered around humans, these relatives of the wolverine have been known to rip apart dogs twice their size.

Although mild-mannered around humans, these relatives of the wolverine have been known to rip apart dogs twice their size.

We then take a shortcut through one of Tikal’s nine ancient reservoirs – empty now of water and filled with a tangle of jungle plants. This takes us to Group G, an ancient housing complex. We hunch over to waddle through hidden passage into rooms with thick walls, tiny windows, and raised beds. These places are where Antonio played as a boy. These places are cool. In some rooms the original wooden beams still hold up the arched ceilings. In one place, we see a bit of red wall where the elements have not faded Tikal’s original paint.

These places are where Antonio played as a boy.

After five hours of walking, we’re the ones faded by the elements. So we turn back. “After all, you’re not here to get an archaeology degree,” Antonio says. My bug repellant is wearing off, and a mosquito starts sucking on my forehead until Antonio brushes it off.

On the way back, he tells us for the third or fourth time about his “young wife.” Some of the old superstitious women in his village have been telling her, “Antonio is stealing your youth. He keeps looking younger, but you’re looking older.” No doubt they mean she’s giving up the best years of her life, but he seems convinced they’re speaking of supernatural devilry.

“Now she keeps looking in the mirror, worried, ‘Do I look older?’” He mimes the face-prodding of a woman who fears she’s losing her looks. I suspect he likes the idea of having secret powers.

But he’s not the most powerful one in their house. Their four-year-old daughter is a heartbreaker who has extracted from him a promise to take her to the pool this afternoon.

“How many kisses do I get if I take you to the pool?” he asked her.

She thrust out five fingers. “Do you want them now, Papi?”

He says he loves watching her excitement as she approaches the edge of the water, grinning wide, fists balled at her sides, body quivering with the thrill. “That’s how we all should be, you know?” he says. “Whatever is going on, we should enjoy it and be glad to be here.”

But he keeps returning to the subject of his “young wife,” until I catch on that this sixty-year-old man is baiting me to ask the question. So I do.

“So, how old is your wife?”

“Twenty-three.”

Wow, maybe he does have special powers.

Although twenty-three seems young to me, I remind myself this is not my home. It’s his. And somehow I imagine the Ancient Mayan kings would approve.

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