A selection of my writing From living, traveling, and working in Guatemala in 2014
Last Friday I left work early and got on a bus headed northeast. 16 hours later, I was in New York City—the New York City of the ancient Mayan empire. In present day Guatemala, Tikal is a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site in the upper reaches of the country. However, between 6th century BC and 10th century AD, the limestone-rich tropical rainforest was a cultural hub and trade center in the land of the Maya.
Far away from the thin air and breezy hills of Xela with its strong sun rays during the day and coolness at night, walking into the sticky 94-degree heat of a lush jungle was like stepping from a pool into a sauna. But beneath the layers of trees - from leafy palms to giant, elegant mahogany and national Ceiba trees (thought to connect Earth to the spirit world)—the shade is refreshing.
It always surprises me how loud it is within the folds of the forest. The sounds of civilization are honks and hums; thrumming electricity, rumbling trucks, and squawks of cellphones. But they are often muffled by walls and windows, or white earbuds. In the jungle, the cicadas’ chorus fills the air, a twanging note held forever, with no one to turn the volume down. Civilization is silent in comparison. I followed my guide, José, through the forest, who veered through the trees to follow the beastly screeches of howler monkeys. We found them, a family, high up among the leaves. Echoing through the trees, their howls sound villainous, but peering at them from below, they are furry black creatures, lazily blundering from branch to branch.
Tikal reserve is huge (142,100 acres). The tour group and I, led by José, spent several hours traversing through the ancient city, nestled in dense forest. Within what is now Guatemala, there are many beautiful places to live; close to water routes, and cool. But the Mayans chose Tikal for one key reason: it’s stable. Using the thick slab of limestone entrenched in the earth, the Mayan temples and city walls are still standing over a thousand years after they were built, while hours away, volcanoes and earthquakes crumble modern buildings. The most modern building in Tikal reserve is from 811 AD.
In it’s heyday (700-800 AD), it was home to over 90,000 Mayans. They worked together, building over 3,000 monuments and homes. The limestone temples were built on the backs of dedicated civilians, not slaves. Trade flourished – remote from any rivers and 250 meters above sea level, archeologists have found seashells and tools carved from obsidian. Centuries later, the city was abandoned for reasons that are very relevant today. Overpopulation created resource-based conflicts and deforestation led to drought. As people left in droves, the jungle took the city back. I walked alongside the overgrown ridge of what was once a border wall, now a narrow green mound on otherwise flat ground.
Creatures inhabit the city now. Perpendicular to trails flattened by humans are one-lane leaf-cutter ant highways. I stepped over the highway, the width of a straw, and watched the steady stream of ants, each hefting a bright green triangle of leaf twice its size. José smiled down at them and then at us, and said, “They work together, like Mayans.”
We came across a mob of coatis – red raccoon-like creatures with tails curving into question marks. Maybe 20 of them, snouts down, scouring the earth for insects, not bothered at all when we stopped and watched.
We spotted ash-colored spider monkeys leaping quickly across treetops, pairs of butterflies and brown jays chasing each other, and trailed a Keel-billed toucan by its hoot and an Oropendola by its noisy squawk. The birds’ neon colors on beak and tail sparkled in between the leaves – we could only bear to look away when they took flight. Then unexpectedly, around a bend, there was a structure older and taller than all of the trees.
The temples were the tallest buildings and therefore were the easiest to find and excavate from century upon century of roots taken hold. Pyramid-shaped, but flat on top, only the rulers (there were 33 over Tikal’s history, mostly men) and his advisors were allowed to the top. As civilians waited below, the leaders would look out over the trees, closer to the sun, to predict weather and more. At the top of the highest temple, out of the shelter of the trees, fully exposed to the hot sun, I wasn’t surprised that leaders had visions. Intense heat will do that to you!
The view was inspiring. I’m not a ruler, but I felt empowered—endless acres of trees before me, topped with vines of red blossoms, like trees decorated in holiday lights, and beyond, one watercolor strip after another; indigo hills, pale clouds, and blue sky. Rising from the trees to the left and right, were 3 of the other high temples. Thousand-year old limestone pyramids, carved from the quarry by willing hands, carried, and built block by block.
On the ground again, José showed us remnants of palaces that would have been colored in rusty red and pastel minerals, underground tombs, an astronomical center engraved with hieroglyphs, and a home’s stone bed, once made comfortable by cotton bedding. Passing a tree with branches laden with pairs of round fruit (aptly called cojones), he split the tan skin with a thumbnail, poked a finger, and showed us the sticky substance inside. Pulling his fingers apart and drawing out the white strands, he explained, “This was Mayan glue.” Pointing out wasps and termites nests along the way, we came into a clearing. As a teal and coral-bellied Slaty-tailed Trogon bird (cousin to the national Quetzal) watched from a tree, occasionally letting out a soft cry, we were shown a row of 7 temples on a ridge – one for each solstice and equinox in a year. José pointed to the one representing the spring equinox that just passed.
We ended the tour between the acropolis and grand plaza. I climbed to another pyramid top for one last view of the ancient city shrouded in rainforest. Much of Tikal is still being excavated and restored. “A mystery still being solved.” The Mayans may have left Tikal in 900 AD, but in 2014, the country is still very much the land of the Maya. 60% of the Guatemalan population is descendant, and whether crossing through the parque centrals in the highlands of Quetzaltenango, around Lake Atitlan, or in the tourist-centric Antigua, I often witness indigenous ceremonies and hear the stucco sounds of the 22 Mayan dialects.
I’m heading to present day New York City soon, flying over the ancient Mayan one and its present day inhabitants. I’ll try to spot some differences.