Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 2: Chichén Itzá

Chichén Itzá, roughly translated: City of the Water Witches.

I spent most of the two and a half hour ride from Playa del Carmen to Chichén Itzá reading the Popol Vuh—one of the few surviving written works describing the beliefs of the Maya ancients. The dense, oppressive heat of a Yucatan midday engulfed me as I stepped off the bus. Eduardo, the short, stocky Maya descendant who was leading my tour, grinned and asked if I was excited.

I was positively jittery.

I told him about my efforts to comprehend the customs and the idiom of a culture so removed from mine. He rolled his eyes with an wry expression that said “I’ve got one of those gringoes, have I?” But he sympathized. He told me he’d read it, as well as the Chilam Balam, the Book of the Jaguar Priest—but that they had been difficult to get through, and harder still to understand.

I was damn impressed with Eduardo. He told me later on that he was planning a five-day climbing excursion in the mountains of Tabasco, the habitat of the quetzal bird, which the Maya hold sacred. He was not only a scholar and an archaeologist, but an explorer. A giant insatiable sponge of obscure knowledge and profound experience after my own heart.

We were at Chichén Itzá for a total of three hours. I could have spent three days there–more. The ruins are immense. It took me a good 15 minutes, at the fastest pace I could muster in the heat, to make it from the Sacred Cenote, where they threw in the virgins to drown, past the Ballcourt, where they played the Game, and the Castillo, where the priests of Sovereign Feathered Serpent would greet the equinoctial dawn, to make it back to the tour bus before they left without me. All right, so the Court of the Thousand Columns doesn’t actually have a thousand columns. But there are 64 stone stelae arranged outside the Temple of the Warriors, each one inscribed with the life-sized reliefs of four feather-crowned, jaguar-hooded, spear-toting, snake-spitting warriors. I could have spent a day just working my way among them.

The acoustics of the place alone are mind-blowing. Stand before the steps of the Temple of Kukul Can. Look upon the hollow-eyed, decayed face of the bird-serpent god of the Maya, staring down upon you from above the temple door. Clap your hands three times, and from the stony heights, engineered by ancient human minds and hands, will ring back the call of a bird–a bird I can turn and walk a hundred yards to the edge of the jungle and meet in the flesh, and hear its living call.

Don’t believe me? I didn’t either, the first time someone told me. I didn’t believe it even when I read it in the books. But then I stood there, on the worn spot in the grass, in the ninety-degree heat and the ninety percent humidity, sweat rolling down my temples, and I tried it myself. And I realized I was staring at an amplifier, a PA system and a fucking vox distortion pedal made of nothing but limestone, mathematics, and the sweat off the backs of the faithful. A servant of the serpent god could stand atop the pyramid, speak without shouting, and a member of his congregation, listening from a quarter mile away, would hear the voice of Kukul Can as though the god were standing beside him.

In the Ballcourt, one could send the rubber sphere rocketing against a relief-covered wall and hear it echo back like a gunshot across a canyon–multiplied not once, but ten times.

Eduardo kept talking about the energy of the place–all the people who had lived and died, and the residue they left behind. He told us that once, he’d spent the night here–here, between the goal-rings of the Ballcourt, where the captains of the winning teams were ritually slain. He said it was something he would never attempt again.

Later on, when the tour was over, he told me there had once been a native woman on a tour he’d given, a shaman of a North American tribe, who at the foot of the Tomb of the High Priest had fallen on her knees and burst out sobbing. He started towards to ask what was wrong, to try to console her–but another woman caught his arm and stopped him. “Let her be,” the woman said. “This is a breakthrough for her. It’s something she needs to do.” He asked why. “She was sacrificed here, in a past life.”

Of course, from one perspective these are just the same kind of boogety-boogety stories you hear from the whacked-out credulous all the time. Anybody can spend the night in an abandoned house and work themselves up into a white-eyed terror if they really want. If that’s their idea of a good time. So why am I even bothering to record such things? Well, first, it has to do with the person telling them, and the way they’re told. Eduardo preambled this stuff with a few choice disparaging remarks about the demented conspiracy theorist conflations of the Maya with extraterrestrials. He also pointed out that the modern Maya are superstitious people—himself included. What he didn’t have to explain to me is that he is an educated guy, a person capable of being objective about these things—a guy who comes here every day with a crowd full of sweaty, glassy-eyed white people asking stupid questions. The fact that he manages to retain any kind of romanticism or sense of mystery about this place is more than enough for me.

The other side of it is that even though I am utterly un-superstitious and skeptical by nature, working myself up into a white-eyed, mystical-religious rapture over ancient things of wonder and beauty just happens to be exactly my idea of a good time. I consider it an act of knowing self-deception—an effort to entertain myself with a bit of magic realist fiction on a personal scale. Much as it would chagrin certain new-agey allies of mine to hear me admit it.

At one point Eduardo noticed me making note of a couple of books he’d mentioned. I explained I was a writer, researching the Maya for something I was working on. Which was true, more or less. At least it sounded more legit than, “I’m just another Maya geek who happens to have better research skills than the rest of these schmoes.”

“You know what you should really read, if you’re interested in this kind of thing,” Eduardo said. “Are you familiar with the writer Carlos Castaneda?”

Bwa ha.

There are pages and pages more I could say about my experience of those three hours at Chichén Itzá: my encounters with the native hagglers, human sacrifice, the sacred well, Chac Mool, the astronomers, the social order of the ancients, religion, and on and on. But this entry’s getting on in word count as it is. Hopefully I’ll cover some of that stuff with the pictures over in the Visions section, and the rest in the course of future posts.

Still to come: The modern Maya. Tulum. The red handprints. Probably some random anecdotes in between. And to wrap it all up, the bibliography.

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