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Willa Cather in Acoma

April 5th, 2014

Abroad in the plain the scattered mesa tops, red with the afterglow, one by one lost their light, like candles going out. He was on a naked rock in the desert, in the stone age, a prey to homesickness for his own kind, his own epoch, for European man an his glorious history of desire and dreams. Through all the centuries that his own part of the world had been changing like the sky at daybreak, this people had been fixed, increasing neither in numbers nor desires, rock-turtles on their rock. Something reptilian he felt here, something that had endured by immobility, a kind of life out of reach, like the crustaceans in their armour.

—Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

I have a never-to-be-published centaur story that expresses this sentiment pretty much exactly, even from the same setting, in grosser, less polished, but no less problematic terms. So many layers of interpretation to get through before we come across anything remotely like objective truth, yet the core meaning remains as plain as a scalpeled-open vein. I’ve felt this feeling and its accompanying shame.

This is Willa Cather, frontier-raised, classically educated white woman of the 1920s, writing from the limited experience of travel about a time and place eighty years and two thousand miles removed, the mesa-top, precolombian settlement of Acoma pueblo, New Mexico, as visited by a French missionary bishop in 1848.

Her comparisons to turtles and crustaceans signify nothing so much as alienness. No female character has yet had a line of dialogue. The bishop’s Indian guide speaks broken English, she tells us, deliberately, because he prefers its simplicity and sound. The bishop himself thinks in French and laments this desert’s dearth of olive oil and good wine.

This is just the kind of experience I was looking for when I opened this book, honestly. It confirms and stratifies what I already know, that there’s no expressing anything without wading across disconnect and alienation. The struggle to communicate is the study of otherness and loss.

   Monumental Metaphor, Precolombians, Reading | 2 Comments »

Me and the Thunderbird

June 14th, 2012


Thunderbird, on a 19th-century Cheyenne drumhead, Detroit Institute of Arts.

The co-opting of Native American culture makes me sad. For years I thought a thunderbird was a car driven by greasers and meatheads and Pontiac not a doomed, desperate tragic hero of the Ottawa but a disreputable manufacturer of cars. If it weren’t for the automotive industry, though, would I ever have even heard these names? I guess we owe them for keeping the memory alive, in however twisted a form.

And there are instances of co-opting that make me unashamedly happy. There’s a really nice Mexican lager called Bohemia brewed by cervezeria Motecuzoma Cuauhtemoc in Monterrey which I would never have tried if it weren’t for the portrait of Motecuzoma they use for their logo. I could do without Mel Gibson, but he put native Yucatec Maya speakers in a big-budget film. When I heard Johnny Depp was playing Tonto in an inexplicable remake of The Lone Ranger, I was as annoyed as everybody else until I remembered Dead Man… that long, wordless opening scene, a bespectacled, comically pale-faced young Depp staring out the window of the train at the landscape of the West as the grim faces of passengers shift and fade around him, visions of his own death in the wilderness pass before his eyes, and that brutal Neil Young noise riff gnashes over all. Just thinking about it makes me want to go watch that movie right now….ahh, but I have shit to do. Anyhow–however trumped up Depp’s one-sixteenth Cherokee blood, I give him credit for caring about Native American culture, to the point that I’ll probably see The Lone Ranger.

And so on and so forth, with mixed feelings of reverence and liberal guilt. I am not really supposed to talk about it, being as how I am a white male.

Which brings me to the point of this. I have co-opted Native American culture. Part one of my novella “Death and the Thunderbird”, featuring those lovable, culture-raping centaurs; a locomotive powered by sorcery; and yes, a thunderbird, is live today in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #97, opposite the excellent Tina Connolly. I labored long and hard over it and am proud. If you’re a fan of the centaurs, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But I doubt it will win any awards for cultural sensitivity despite my best intentions. By way of beginning to atone for this, I share below a brief bibliography of American culture-rape. As usual, I would almost rather you read the source material than my story. But read the story too, if you have time.

Ok. Must stop myself. Enjoy! Be edified.

   Art, Beer, Centaurs, Film, HM, Precolombians, Writings | No Comments »

Tales from Topographic Oceans

May 21st, 2012

Only tenuously related to the Yes album of the same name, widely considered the most navel-gazingly pretentious prog rock album ever recorded. (No, I will not attempt to relate the Shastric scriptures to Mayan prophecy. Maybe another time.) The Roger Dean cover, however, is awesome:

See the Castillo over there on the horizon above the Nazca monkey?

The other week I was back in Yucatan. It’s been six years. Not much has changed. A lone wind turbine has sprouted over Quintana Roo Highway 308 south of Cancún, and a dozen new all-inclusive resorts have elbowed out another few hundred thousand acres of coastal swamp, though you’d hardly know it from the road except for the twenty-foot white concrete faux-Mayan monoliths marking the entrances surrounded by landscaped agave and coconut palm. The real ruins are all still there, the big ones a little more harried maybe what with the approaching end of the world, the less impressive sharing the sun-baked empty stretches between hotels with more recent ruins, failed tourist traps abandoned a year or a decade ago, their pale dirt parking lots filling with trash like alluvial silt from the underground rivers.

The coastal reef, second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef, hasn’t recovered–it’s still all bleached and apocalyptic, like the ash-caked girders of a collapsed skyscraper a hundred miles long, an aqua-tinted desert broken only by occasional tiny, mind-blowingly colorful fish flitting in and out of gray-blue darknesses. If anything, it’s getting worse.

Still, the apocalypse feels just as far away (and just as close) as anywhere else I’ve been. Even Detroit. Even though the entire Yucatan Peninsula is so low-lying and flat it will likely be underwater as soon as Micronesia and Manhattan, and it’ll look even more like the Yes cover than it already does.

By the way, for those of you who haven’t seen it, a recently discovered Mayan mural at the Xultún site in northern Guatemala includes explicit references to dates after December 21, 2012. So the world isn’t ending. Which means we’re going to have to live with what we do to it.

But I’m not here to preach about the end. I’ve done that enough. I’m here to share a bit of the beauty before it’s gone.

These are not the pictures I would have taken of Tulum in 2006. Maybe the difference says something about the person I’ve become in the years between. Because the place hasn’t changed. Salt wind and time have done what they can, at least for now. And all of Antarctica would have to melt before the Gulf will make it up those cliffs. Who knows, maybe that’s part of why they built it here.

One of three offeratory altars on the cliff below the Templo del Viento–not unlike another shrine I found years ago, ten miles to the north. The coastal Maya had a lot to thank the sea god for, not least the reef, which made a natural breakwater for hundreds of miles along the shore, allowing easy trade between cities.

Masked face, Templo de las Pinturas, southwest corner. One of the last Mayan structures built before the conquest and the best preserved at Tulum. This is the building with the seven-fingered red handprints I so lamented not having photographed last time. But you’ve seen those.

I’d love to know who this mask depicts—Itzamna? Don’t have the research at hand, unfortunately.

East face of the Castillo, the large central pyramid, the side that faces the cliffs. The architectural style at Tulum is unique…of course that’s true of every Maya site, and Tulum benefited from trade with both the Mexica (the Aztecs) and the Toltec-influenced Maya of Chíchen Itzá…but the skewed lines of the temples here are different from either. There are no right angles anywhere, hardly even any straight lines. It’s like something out of…Dr. Seuss, crossed with Lovecraft. It’s awesome. The first time I was here I didn’t appreciate it—after the mathematical, acoustical perfection of the Castillo at Chíchen Itzá, it seemed sloppy, a sign of a civilization in decline. This time, after gawking at those beautiful masks for awhile, then at the Templo del Dios Descendente,
I realized it could be something else: a sign of a civilization passing its peak, developing into decadence, developing a higher (wierder) aesthetics. This curve…it echoes the sea, obviously. All of Tulum is about the sea, really: the location atop the cliffs like a lighthouse, the protected beach below, the temples to the morning star. The sea was their livelihood, their garden, their connection to the outside world.

The curve of the Castillo wall distills that to one calligraphic gesture, a sweep of a brush.

   Altars, Art, Environmentalism, Precolombians, Visions, Yucatan | No Comments »

God I Hope the End Is Near

January 9th, 2012

How many jokes/invocations/questionably ironic references/panicked remonstrances will I hear this year about the coming end of the world? When they’re talking about it on The View and the Nightly News with Brian Williams, it’s time to give up counting. How much more mainstream can a nutso newage conspiracy theory get? Consider Y2K. That apocalypse was about Jesus and Revelations; its poor conclusions and minimal research were drawn from the mythology of (one of) the world’s most popular religion(s). This apocalypse is about obscure blood-drinking deities last best personified by Hernán Cortés and a religion legitimately practiced by far less than 0.01% of humanity. Yet already the 2012 hype seems to have far outstripped the 2000 hype. Blame the internet, I guess. It was a far tamer place 12 years ago than it is now, that’s for sure. For the title of last bastion for shamanistic folkloric mythmaking on earth, the competition is hot between the internet and one tiny uncontacted village in the Amazon.

I’ve already done all the debunking of the Mayan apocalypse I’m going to do on this blog, at great length and with much windbaggery, in posts such as Circular Time and No Apocalypse. I also have a little sidebar essay about it (as applied fancifully to the plight of the working writer) in A Working Writer’s Daily Planner 2012, available from Small Beer Press in print-on-demand and ebook form.

Instead I want to talk about how great it would be if there actually was an apocalypse.

Read the rest of this entry »

   Art, Environmentalism, Guatemala, Precolombians, Stones | No Comments »

Loving (A Setting) Too Much

March 14th, 2011


Dancing rain god figure, Altar O, Quiriguá, Izabal, Guatemala

The first days of my second trip to Guatemala, everything felt weirdly comfortable, familiar. The sight of the one-legged guy nimbly navigating the steep steps of a chicken bus to ply his scarred palm and sad story no longer blows my mind. Likewise the spiderweb cracks cris-crossing the impenetrable blackness of every car windshield in the city. I have learned the appropriate words to apologize politely for being two feet taller than everybody else on the bus and my backpack clumsily wonking them all in the face. The dudes with tin shotguns on street corners and in tienda doorways no longer fill me with fear. In fact they almost make me feel safer—which may even be their actual purpose.

All of which was satisfying in a way. I felt less helpless, better able to actively participate in my surroundings. But I started to worry I was just on vacation here—that if I wanted the intensity and awe and revelation of my previous experience, I should have traveled someplace else.

I’m always looking for new setting details—unique tidbits of color or scent, idiosyncracies of human interaction that will make an otherwise mundane story leap off the page. I’m also looking for entirely new settings into which I can expand my spotty experience, the range of subjects and places about which I can “write what I know”. This isn’t the only reason I travel, but when I do travel, there’s a strong chance it’s what I’m doing at any given moment: soaking it all up like a sponge. I talked about this once before, including some caveats, in Expatriates and Homebodies.

There’s a danger, though, that I’ve run into repeatedly: falling too hard for a particular setting, loving it so much that it starts to feel wrong, disrespectful, to try to assimilate it into my fiction. I’m afraid to take liberties for fear of screwing up the truth that made me love it so much in the first place. This has happened to me most often and most painfully with respect to precolombian cultures. The Anasazi (more accurately the ancestral Hopi) have had a strong influence on my wild west centaurs setting, but all the stuff that actually includes them is in a trunk never to see the light of day. The Aztecs (more accurately the Mixtecs) I am afraid to even touch. With the Maya, it’s even worse. In the past I have been unable to stop myself writing slavish, Castaneda-influenced historical fiction about how the Mayans possess the spiritual Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything and we white people with all our rationalism don’t have the ghost of a hope. Which I loved, and even managed to sell, but which now fills me with uncomfortable embarrassment. I have endlessly blogged about them. And very recently, tenatively, I’ve been thinking about how I might dip my toe back into writing about them—though in a very different way than before.

I owe this new approach to this second visit to Guatemala.

That initial, superficial sense of familiarity never went away. But it was very quickly superseded by a whole new set of questions. I saw gradations, depth, in what had seemed uniform, and when I looked a little closer, I saw even more. I found myself thinking more and more about individuals—about character. What’s the difference, in terms of circumstance, upbringing, past experience, between the tuktuk operator who drives the white folks in circles to confuse them then tries to charge triple, the tuktuk operator who drives the white folks past his mom’s house to show them off to his nieces and nephews, asks the minimum fare without even haggling, and comes back to get them at a scheduled time at no extra charge, and the tuktuk driver who butters them up with disingenuous chatter, then veers into a blind alley and pulls a gun? (A tuktuk is a three-wheeled golf cart shaped like a giant red egg, powered by a lawnmower engine and blazoned with Jesus slogans, used as a car-for-hire for local transportation.) How do the Catholics and the Protestants get along with the Mayan traditionalists? How do the Mayan traditionalists get along with a more secular, idealistic younger generation? How does Guatemala look to somebody who moves to South Dakota to start a family, then has to come back and spend years away from them trying to secure a visa? And how does any of it develop into an integrated, educated, well-informed indigenous population, still in possession of its cultural identity, yet capable of joining forces to foster positive change, say, to effect a representative government under an indigenous president, like in Bolivia, or take advantage of digital media to foster political change, like in Egypt and Morocco?

The picture I have isn’t full enough, not nearly. I need to go back again, and again after that.

And the answer I have come upon for how to write fiction about a place and a culture I love too much to disrespect? Complexity.

Writing fiction about anything is an exercise in simplification. Words are never enough to encompass anything, the confines of narrative, of storytelling, even less so. The only way to honest about it, with yourself and with your readers, is to admit you don’t have the answers, and to try, to the best of your ability, to demonstrate why. I think the fiction that best succeeds at this (no coincidence, the kind of fiction I love most), is the kind that leaves things open. Borges, Asturias.


A king in the jaws of a jaguar-crocodile, North face of Zoomorph P, Quiriguá, Izabal, Guatemala

   Altars, Art, Guatemala, HM, Precolombians, Religion, Writings | No Comments »

The Olmec Toad

March 7th, 2011


Monument 68 at Tak’alik Ab’aj, Retalhuleu, Guatemala, Middle Preclassic

Starting things off slowly here for Guatemala Travelogue Part II… The Olmec Toad, yet another alternate title for this blog. Who knows but someday the Skull will go away and the Toad will take its place.

The Olmec were the original advanced civilization of the Americas, formerly considered semi-mythic, identified with Atlantis, the Easter Island civilization and the like. Many wonderful art works and sacred offerings survive, but no written language, so the question of how this particular toad figures in their mythology is up for debate.

Tak’alik Ab’aj is K’iche for “standing stones”; it’s a sprawling archaeological site occupied continuously from 1000 BCE or so through 1000 AD, first by Olmecs, then Maya, situated on a set of ridges between two rivers on Guatemala’s Pacific slope. It’s only partly excavated; half the ruins have coffee and rubber trees planted on top of them. The site is relatively little-known and hard to get to, the monuments much-worn and less epic in stature than places like Tikal and Palenque, so I guess the land turns more profit more used for farming than trying to lure money from archaeologists and archaeo-nerd-tourists (me). Nobody on staff spoke English, and the day I visited I was the only white guy there.

The cicadas were deafening.

   Altars, Guatemala, Precolombians, Stones | 3 Comments »

Tzompantli

November 8th, 2010

A tzompantli is a rack of sacrificial or ancestor skulls which often appears as a decorative motif in mesoamerican architecture and art. I think it originates with the Zapotecs of southwestern Mexico, and spread to other cultures of the region during the period of Zapotec colonialism in the ninth century. The mossy skull that is the namesake of this blog is part of a tzompantli. A lot of people over the years have misconstrued the tzompantli as evidence of the bloodthirstiness and barbarism of these cultures, and used it as an excuse to blow out of proportion their practice of human sacrifice. For modern celebrants of the Day of the Dead, it signifies the cycle of life.

I went to this the other day: Day of the Dead Tzompantli at Forest Hills Cemetery. It’s a celebration in Central and South American style, Christian and prechristian, cross-cultural, nondenominational, in memory of loved ones long and recently lost. I like the Phoenix site’s wording: “This event occurs in the past.” I didn’t take any pictures because they asked me not to, though it was vivid and gorgeous and has left an intense impression on me. But nobody told me I couldn’t write about it, so.

Across the street from my house, one of the iron fence rails of Forest Hills Cemetery has been bent to one side next to a scraggly bittersweet nightshade vine. If I duck down low and wriggle a bit I can get through easy.

The earliest graves here date from 1840, and the occupiers lean heavily to the upper class Victorian. The monumental symbolism features a lot of serene robed women with anchors at their feet, inverted torches wrapped in vines, headstones carved to look like tree stumps, lambs with heads eroded away, stone veils caught by the sculptor in the act of being pulled on or off. There are many old trees of great variety, imported by Harvard in the 1880s for the nearby Arboretum. They held the tzompantli ceremony in front of a cultivar of European beech whose boughs bend all the way to the ground and lie heavy across it like snakes, and whose yellow-brown leaves made a curtain like a reef of feathers. Before it, a broad ring of candles burned in colored cylinders surrounding a fire made from hundreds of white candles in a heap. There were four wooden altars at the cardinal points surrounded by pyramids of apples, trays of pastries, bread, tortillas, candy, flowers. On each altar sat a tall, long-haired white girl in a period smock and porcelain face paint that prevented her from making any expression but the familiar serene one of the statues. These girls, I believe, represented the Victorian ghosts. People in embroidered robes strolled about blowing on smoking copal and sage incense in heavy wooden censers carved in the shapes of animal heads. It wasn’t dark yet. The sun was in maples on the hill.

I knew an offering of food was required, but I didn’t have much in the house, so I brought a handful of red chiles dried from a couple summers ago in the pocket of my hoodie. Later it occurred to me that in the traditions of Peru, due to their potency, chiles were prohibited from certain ceremonies honoring the ancestors. And I’ve known some practitioners of this sort of religion who can get touchy on behalf of their dead. So the chiles stayed in my pocket, and I kept back from the circle a bit. They were my garlic, my piece of cold iron, holding me in this world.

It was the kind of slightly damp cold that creeps in and makes you have to force yourself not to shiver. Preceded by a slowly building whoosh like wind in leaves, fifty children with rattles tied to their ankles filed out from behind the tree, circled the fire and began to dance to drums and the trumpet of conch horns. A lady with a microphone recited verse in English, Spanish and some Aztec-descended tongue, honoring Xocomil, Pachamama and the dead.

I couldn’t get the tenor of the crowd at first. Some of the dancing kids were great showmen, doing pantomime bits about death and the spirit arising, the old resisting, the ancestors stepping in to drag them along when the time is right. They were having fun. They donned skull masks and shook canes at each other. During lulls in the choreography they busted out breakdancing moves. I laughed a lot, and the people around me did too–but there was something in their faces that quietly sobered me over the course of an hour, as the sun went down and the cold got stronger.

After the dances, the songs and the dumb-shows, everybody retreated behind the row of percussion instruments, leaving the circle open. The lady with the microphone invited the crowd to come in, stop at the central fire, and hand to the old woman who sat tending it prayers or poems or the names of loved ones written on slips of colored paper, which she would burn. Once you’d made an offering, you got a lighted candle. I stayed back. In the spirit of camaraderie–and of getting a little warmth into my bones–I climbed up over the wooded hill east of the fire ring. I watched the proceedings for awhile from up there among the pines, then circled back around to join in the parade that followed.

Out among the gravestones was a satellite altar, this one with photos of people, jewelry and candy propped against candles and unopened bottles of soda. This I guess was where the mirth backed off to let in grief. Everybody filed silently past it and on into the graveyard through the dusk. The ancestors and the pale-faced girls came with us. People around me talked about what their kids had been for halloween. Kids passed off candles to adults and then came demanding them back again before they burned down. It felt familiar, sad but comforting, like a wake among family, though I didn’t know anybody there.

We walked back to the circle. The kids danced some more with the windstorms on their ankles and sang and blew the conch trumpets, this time, I gathered, to guide the ancestors safely back from their jaunt in this world to the next. When everything was over, the lady with the microphone invited us to step into the circle and take some of the offerings to eat. I had a crunchy suncrisp apple and a piece of pan del muerto, a sweet bread made with anise seed.

She asked us to fill out recommendations saying why we valued the ceremony we’d just partaken in and why we thought it needed to keep happening. Apparently, it’s at risk. That’s why I’m writing this. Even if I’m somewhere else at this time next year, I want it to happen again, and keep happening.

By this time I couldn’t keep from shivering. I walked home alone across the graveyard in the dark, navigating by the light of Jupiter and the reflected glow of the city from the clouds.

   HM, Precolombians, Religion, Writings | 2 Comments »

The Caiman Waits to Eat the World

March 15th, 2010


Caiman crocodilus

This caiman lives in one of the network of ancient, man-made reservoirs that once supplied drinking water to the Mayan city of Tikal–number three, I think, on this map. He’s little, only three or four feet long, and he spends his days pretending to be a log (pictured), in hopes of preying on the egrets, rails, ducks and other marsh birds that venture too close–and when he can get them, probably on those chihuahua-sized, tailless rodents I kept seeing scurrying about in the underbrush.

For this, my last piece of Guatemala ranting at least for now, it seems appropriate to bring back my favorite Mayanist quote about the end of the world:

“The word for eclipse in Maya is chi-bal-kin, literally “bitten sun’, and it was the ancient belief, which persisted until fairly recent times, that at the time of an eclipse the sun was bitten by a serpent.”

The City of the Sacred Well: Being a Narrative of the Discoveries and Excavations of Edward Herbert Thompson in the Ancient City of Chichenitza T.A. Willard, 1910

An awesome book, by the way, which can be had for free on los eeenternets, here.

Next week, it’s back to chilly, wind-blown New England.

   Banner, Guatemala, Precolombians | 2 Comments »

Tikal 2: Un Maya con Hambre

February 15th, 2010


A tunnel at Tikal Grupo G. It burrows about 6 meters into the side of a late-Classic palace, turns right 90 degrees and emerges in the courtyard. According to Michael Coe, this wall once wore a stucco relief depicting a giant monster mask, of which the tunnel was its mouth, but I haven’t found any pictures of it. The remains of a stucco serpent’s head are still visible on the lower right, but that’s it.

It was getting near dark. Mist all day had turned to a plopping, chilly rain. We hiked for half an hour in squelching shoes along the treacherously slippery moss and crumbled limestone of the Mendez Causeway, leading out from the central plaza to the Temple of the Inscriptions. The park closes at sunset. The forest was noisy, deep and enormous. There was no one else around.

We discussed half-jokingly the hunting habits of jaguars. A spooked deer crashed off into the forest; the noise made El Nubo nearly jump out of her skin. Then the howler monkeys started up, hooting like straightjacketed nutcases all around, and we started to get downright edgy.

We were chattering nervously about cutting down one of the enormous palm leaves that hang over the causeway to use as an umbrella, lamenting our lack of a machete, when three locals materialized out of the rain ahead. They carried rifles under their arms and didn’t wear any of the usual park rangers’ insignia. This, it seemed to me, was bad. Still nobody else in sight. The rangers and the guidebooks had warned not to enter the park at night without a guide. It used to be you could bribe a ranger to let you sleep overnight on the platform at the top of Temple IV, but those days are long gone.

Nubo has said that walking around Guatemala with me in tow made her noticeably less prone to catcalls and generally more comfortable venturing into areas less well-trodden by turistas. I am a big tall scary white guy, I guess, though in all other ways but appearance I am a mushy pushover. I had, however, formed the habit of carrying my large, L-shaped camera slung conspicuously underneath my shirt. It only occurred to me much later that to ye passerby, it sort of looks like I’m packing a handcannon.

Whether or not that illusory deterrent had anything to do with it, I don’t know. But to our immense relief, the three armed men smiled, said “Good afternoon,” and walked on by.

I figure they might have been poachers.

On the way back, we found Grupo G: a warren of moss-choked rooms, two-storied, forming a three-walled courtyard around the side of a wooded hill, covered with sapodilla and mahogany trees, which, chances are, probably has yet another ruin underneath it. We passed through the tunnel and poked about inside, studying a giant, many-chambered leafcutter anthill we found at the foot of the hill, feeling oddly comforted by the huge, crumbling walls that shielded us from the howls of the forest and the eyes of those dudes with guns.

As we were walking out, knowing we had a long way to go still to reach the entrance before nightfall, we met an indigeno guy pushing a baby in a stroller, with six kids scampering around behind him, teasing each other and laughing. These kids clearly had no fear, and their mood was contagious. One of them, a boy of ten or twelve, ran into the blackness of the dank tunnel behind us until he disappeared from sight. A moment later, his voice emerged from within, raised to a roar:

“Soy un maya con hambre!”

Which means in English: “I am a hungry maya!”

I repeated this over and over, at an interval of every one or two minutes, all the way back to the gate, laughing myself to tears.

   Guatemala, HM, Precolombians, Visions | 3 Comments »

Tikal

February 8th, 2010


The money shot, looking east from the top of Temple IV. The scenes for the rebel base on the forest planet in the first Star Wars movie were shot here. Just imagine a couple of x-wings taking off out of the jungle.

Tikal is the second major Maya site I’ve visited, after Chichén Itzá. It was founded before 300 BC, reached its peak around 600 – 800 AD, and was abandoned by 1100. In between, it was conquered, razed and rebuilt at least three different times. You can tell. The faces of the kings on all these altars and stelae and statues have been chiseled off by the conquerors–like this dude, my Facebook dopplegaanger:

Tikal went down around the same time as the rest of the great lowland Maya city-states, and presumably for the same reasons: conspiracy theories and over-sanguine academic speculations aside, because they overpopulated, overtaxed their resources and consequently starved themselves out of power. In the 900 years since the Maya collapse, Tikal, El Mirador, Uaxactun and the dozens of other Maya sites that occupy the misty lowland region of Northern Guatemala known as El Peten have all been completely covered over with full-on, mature rainforest. As a result, I never really experienced that eerie sense of connectedness and presence I met with among the ruins of Yucatan. Instead, Tikal filled me with an awareness of time. 900 years. The trees–like the colossal ceiba just outside the gate–are as awe-inspiring as the temples: trunks seven feet across with root systems big enough to get lost in, canopies dotted with epiphytes, toucans and spider monkeys hundreds of feet overhead. The mist comes down in constant curtains. The stone steps of the temples are treacherous, slick with rain. Howler monkeys shriek past unseen in the distance at dusk, with all the deliberate, unstoppable pacing, the intensity and elemental inexorability of a thunderstorm. Moss covers everything–skulls included–and it doesn’t restrain itself to making them look all epic and cool. It devours them. Nature, in El Peten, gave humanity its chance. Then it came and took everything back.

The temples are still there, huge and steep and imposing, as are the stelae and the altars, the aqueducts, the limestone causeways running miles through the woods. But the artwork, the stucco reliefs and stone carvings that were so gloriously and spine-tinglingly evident at Chichén Itzá and Tulum–the ones that hadn’t already been defaced by the vicissitudes of war, anyway–have almost all been wiped away by rain, time, and the gods.


Temple V. Back in AD 700, at its construction, all that gray mush of rubble above the doorway was a super-complicated monolithic frieze depicting masks of kings, the gods of sun and rain.

If you zoom in on this photo (click on it), you can see on the far left the top of the rickety-ass, near-vertical, 180-foot wooden scaffolding you have to climb to get to the top (here–the wikipedia photo shows it better). This was fricking terrifying. The steps were all covered with rain and mud, slippery as hell. This dude who was there on his honeymoon climbed up maybe 20 steps before his wife made him give up and come down. Wisely, I left my wife at home. At the top, there’s maybe three feet of crumbling stone to stand on. While I was up there, this one lady made it up, took one step away from the ladder and collapsed into a ball of whimper until her people had to physically help her back down. I, on the other hand, was totally unfazed, and walked all the way around to the right side of the platform, where there was only a foot and a half of space between myself and death by rainforest canopy laceration, to take this:

Yes, I am indeed wicked tough. Thank you for noticing.

As you might guess, I have way more pictures. Maybe I’ll share some more of them a little later on.

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