Ring Cairn

ring_cairn
Votadini ring cairn, circa 300, Caerketton Hill, Edinburgh, Scotland

“Votadini” was the name Roman occupiers used to refer to those Iron Age hill tribes, nearly lost to history, whose descendants were celebrated in the ancient Welsh war-poem Y Gododdin:.

Men went to Catraeth at dawn:
All their fears had been put to flight.

Happy solstice.

Whose Dawn?

What by way of inertia we here came to call the end of the world, the Mayan apocalypse, I spent in Guatemala, the center of the Mayan world.

Now that the grand tidal wave of misinformation has crashed and the world didn’t end, I’ve had trouble figuring out what name to give that strange night’s vigil. “The end of the world” doesn’t work anymore. “Winter solstice” doesn’t quite cover it. The Mayans, both ancient and modern, called it 13 Baktun, or Oxlajuj Baktun, meaning simply that it represented, depending on how you want to count, either the beginning or the end of the thirteenth unit of 144,000 days since they started keeping track in 3114 BC. The Guatemalan tourism department’s propaganda machine has been calling it “the new dawn of the Maya”, plastering the words all over posters and websites like they’re a catchphrase for the latest summer popcorn doomsday movie—meaning, depending who you ask, either that it’s the dawn of a new golden age for the Maya, their culture will regain and even surpass what it achieved at its peak, its people will be respected again etc…or else that it’s merely the dawn of a new age the Maya happen to have predicted, but which is really up for grabs in terms of whose new dawn it will actually turn out to be.


Temple 3, Iximche archaeological site, Tecpán, Guatemala, half an hour before sunset, December 20th, 2012.


Temple 3 again, with ghost, wind and Orion, sometime after midnight on the 21st.

I’m not sure if anybody actually believes in the former interpretation. Certainly a lot of people are hoping for it, many of whom I heard speak or sing or pray at the ruins of Iximche in the cold, windy hours from the afternoon of the 20th through the morning of the 21st, as the sun’s last rays slipped from the surface of the altar, the moon and the constellations of the Feathered Serpent and the Seven Hundred Boys rose and set. When it came my turn to throw my candle on the sacred fire and light up the ceremonial cigar graciously provided for me by the Ministry of Sports and Culture, I prayed for that too. But I’m not holding my breath.

Smart money, sadly, must lie with the latter interpretation, which has been taken to heart by every one of Guatemala’s 28 political parties and pretty much everybody with a soap box or a chunk of rubble to lift them half a head above the crowd. A few days earlier, I happened to show up at the ruins of Zaculeu at the same moment as “next president of Guatemala” Manuel Baldizón (I strongly advise you not click that link without first turning down your computer volume), mid promo tour, solidifying his position as prophesied leader of the new era acclaimed by several local beauty queens and a half dozen white guys dressed in rented monkey and jaguar costumes. Surrounded by late Classic temples half-assedly “restored” with concrete in 1947 by the United Fruit Company, he somehow managed to keep a straight face as he promised to represent all Guatemalans, not just robber baron industrialists in geek-rimmed glasses like himself, but Quiche, Mam, Cakchiquel, even Garifuna, and to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity blah blah blah blah facepalm.


Baldizón at Zaculeu (nerd glasses, center right) with beauty queens and monkey man. Click for full size.

In case the above hasn’t made it obvious, nobody I met in Guatemala thought the world was ending. Nobody even brought it up—with the notable exception of a Korean 24-hour news reporter who interviewed me on the morning after. He asked what I was planning to do if the world actually ended. I disappointed him; I had absolutely no plans for that contingency. Hadn’t even considered it. Funny: I know exactly, down to the letter, what I’m going to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse—but the Mayan apocalypse would have caught me unawares. Good thing it didn’t happen.

He asked what I was doing there.

“I’m here,” I told him, “to find out what the real Maya think.”

Because I didn’t know. For all my research, for all the ranting I’ve done for years on this very subject, all my information has come from outsiders—white people, mostly—the kind who’ve spent decades sitting in jungle mud puzzling out fanciful interpretations of crumbling reliefs left behind by a decadent, brilliant civilization disappeared these thousand years without once looking up at the quiet, calm-eyed guide who led them here and wondering how or even if the one could have engendered the other.

Guatemala, like the US, like every other nation in the Western Hemisphere, lives with the legacy of its colonial past: a disenfranchised indigenous population, descended from those who lived there before everybody else showed up, but lacking nearly any say in what’s done with land that was once theirs. Unlike the US or any other nation in the Western Hemisphere besides Bolivia and maybe Peru, Guatemala’s indigenous population, with dozens of unique cultural groups and even more distinct languages than there are political parties, is actually the majority, yet they have if possible even less of a voice in their government and the world, less recourse to combat the appropriation of their lands, resources, and yes, their culture. Guatemala has yet to issue its indigenous peoples any casinos, if you follow me.

Perhaps you heard how in advance of 13 Baktun, Mexico banned Maya peoples from performing ceremonies at their own ancestral temples. Perhaps you wondered, like I did, why the hell anyone would do that. It didn’t take long to figure out. What bigger soapbox could the modern Mayan people hope for than the summit of an ancient Mayan temple on the day the whole world is waiting for the not-apocalypse they never predicted? If you’ve spent decades, centuries marginalizing those people, you’re probably not going to be particularly interested in letting anybody hear what they have to say. Especially if you’ve made big plans to invite a bunch of foreigners and charge them a lot of money to see the same ancestral temples, especially if those foreigners have collectively deluded themselves into thinking the Mayans whose doomsday prophecy they’ve bought into have been dead for a thousand years and at the same time developed some not very complimentary opinions about the state of your democracy.

We’re talking about countries who put ancient, jewel-bedecked Maya kings on their money. Can you see how the sight of a bunch of poor, oppressed actual Mayans might be muddying the message?

Everywhere I went in Guatemala, I saw evidence of the (overwhelmingly non-indigenous, non-Maya) government appropriating Maya cultural icons to promote tourism, validate the regime and foster a sense of national identity. In Guatemala City there’s a giant chrome and glass mall designed to look like a Mayan temple. At Zaculeu there was Baldizón, riding the crest of a populist political campaign funded by the sale of mining rights to indigenous lands in El Petén. At Iximche, while the real Maya were quietly murmuring prayers around a fire, the government carted in truckload after truckload of armed police, a stage and sound system, a garishly-painted plywood ballcourt and a bunch of white guys dressed up in feathers and beaded loincloths to reenact the ballgame to the tinny sounds of recorded birdsongs and thumping synthesized bass. Granted, at least they let the Maya people be there and take part. But there were, very clearly delineated, the fake government-sponsored prayers and the real indigenous prayers. The fake ones (amplified, with backing vocals) talked about a bright future. The real ones talked about a harried, tortured present.

And given all the bullshit about apocalypse we’ve been telling ourselves for years out here in the rest of the world, it’s those real prayers we need to hear, to remind us what’s still at risk.


Protesters at Iximche. Translation: 13 Baktun is our time, the time of the people. No to the illegal development of electric power. No to the privatization of natural hot springs. No to the privatization of communal lands. Repeal of the General Mining Law.

So. I’ve got a soapbox here, a little one. And despite being well aware of the problems involved in my being the one to tell you this, I still think it’s better if I say it than nobody.

Here, as best I can remember and in paraphrase, from a seven-page manifesto I heard read aloud in Spanish and Mam at Iximche on the first morning of the new era by a pot-belied Mam gentleman in a straw hat and scraggly black beard, is what the real Maya think.

This isn’t your new dawn, it’s ours. Stop trying to take it from us. Stop trying to profit from our culture. Instead, listen to our ancestors for a change. If you don’t want there to be a real apocalypse, stop destroying the earth. Stop damming and poisoning our rivers. Stop dumping pollutants into Lake Atitlan. Stop bulldozing our forests. Stop mining for gold. Stop evicting us from our lands. Stop massacring our people. Stop pretending like it didn’t happen. Stop pretending like we don’t exist. Archaeologists: stop saying the Maya are extinct. Let us live and speak and teach our children and practice our culture and languages in peace, or else this new Baktun will be even worse than the last one.

Update 1/31/2013: I’ve been looking for the full, real version of the above massively abridged, painfully subjective recollection. El Nubo has a printed copy, which I hope she’ll eventually post over at Cultural Survival; in the meantime, here’s an earlier edition of the same manifesto: Second Declaration of Iximche (en Español).


Zaculeu Temple 1, with flowers and ashes.

Tales from Topographic Oceans

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.

Loving (A Setting) Too Much


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

The Olmec Toad


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.