Tikal 2: Un Maya con Hambre

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.


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