My husband Tom and I sat in the running van, straddling the border between Belize and Guatemala, waiting for our guide George to complete the paperwork in the concrete immigration building. As he jumped in and shifted gears,George warned us it would be a long bumpy ride with no facilities en route, suggesting we stop at the gas station just ahead. My heart raced a little when I saw Tom get the men’s room key from a uniformed soldier with a rifle. A few miles down the dusty dirt road, we passed an army barracks and saw armed men in camouflage fatigues looking out over the horizon.
While Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ended in 1996, the military is a presence in both that country and along its border in Belize. We were later told that over the course of that conflict, many Guatemalan Maya relocated to Belize to escape becoming victims of “ethnic cleansing.” George’s father, along with many others, emigrated from Guatemala to Belize in the early 1900s, at the end of the Caste War, in which the Maya rebelled against the economic and political domination of those of European descent.
As we bounced along, George braked at regular intervals to gently roll over the speed bumps signaling the beginning of each small town, all no more than a handful of colorful houses with palm or tin roofs, most with a horse munching on grass in the yard. Women in brightly-patterned clothing walked along the road with big urns on their heads, fat pigs took their sweet time moving out of the path of oncoming cars, men swiped at lush vegetation with machetes, and kids in uniforms played basketball and soccer at Roman Catholic schools.
As we neared the archaeological park, we stopped at a roadside arts and crafts plaza and picked up Armando Bishop, who would be our guide to the monuments of Tikal. He was an energetic man with a mission and eager to show off to us as much of Tikal’s 222 square miles as possible in the short few hours we had at this UNESCO World Heritage site.
We were struck by how few tourists were in evidence–while we were selfishly pleased to practically have the place to ourselves, it seemed sad that there weren’t more in attendance to appreciate such a massive milestone in mankind’s history. In saying so to Armando, we clearly struck a chord. His eyes lit up and he cried “Yes, yes, yes!” We understood his frustration that while the achievements of the Maya were comparable in numerous ways to those of the Egyptians–with breakthroughs of equal note in astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and written language–the time, money and resources of the archeological world have generally focused more outside the Americas.
We didn’t encounter a single human in our half-hour walk on shady trails from the park entrance to majestic Temple IV, one of Tikal’s major attractions. Armando was highly attuned to the sounds and movement of the jungle, walking ahead of us with his head cocked at an angle, listening hard. His familiarity with the calls of indigenous birds, the hiding places of insects, and which species were likely rustling the branches enabled us to spot inhabitants of Tikal that we never would’ve known were there—and in some cases, wish we hadn’t.
We saw crocodiles; a family of spider monkeys swinging from a tree by their tails; keel-billed toucans; a tarantula, the size of a man’s fist; a hard-shelled horned beetle, almost as big as the tarantula; and brown-speckled bats blending right into the tree bark from which they hung.
About halfway to Temple IV, we stopped at what archaeologists call a “lesser” pyramid complex, that was, nonetheless, massive. Despite the steamy heat, I got chills at the sight of our first ruin up close and personal. Tom, Armando and George had been detoured chasing parakeets and I stood alone at the ceremonial altar in front of the ancient stone structure. An armchair archeologist who watches the History Channel with the loyalty of a sports fan tuning into ESPN, I felt very small, and moved and privileged to be in the presence of a monument that had been passed by generations of generations, and yet, at the same time, would be seen in person by so relatively few in our “global village.”
Once at Temple IV, the spell was broken—scaffolding was wrapped around the ruin, crowds milled about its base and we climbed plank stairs single-file amid exclamations in British, German, and Spanish accents. Nonetheless, at more than 20 stories tall, the temple is a highlight of Tikal with good reason. From its heights, the grey peaks of the park’s three other highest monuments peeked out of an immense expanse of green stretching to the horizon line on all sides. The eerie isolation at that elevation is captured by George Lucas, who filmed the initial scenes of the first “Star Wars” movie here.
The Great Plaza, the heart of Tikal, where the sacred rituals and ball games took place, was awe-inspiring, the sheer size of the four structures on each side commanding respect. Rising out of the green earth, the pyramid of the Giant Jaguar towers on the east, faced by the only slightly smaller Temple of the Masks. On the south side is the sprawling Central Acropolis, opposed by the North Acropolis. Tom and I explored each of the buildings; turning a corner of the Central Acropolis, we came face-to-face with a red fox, who seemed as startled as we were and quickly turned tail.
The number nine, a figure sacred to the Maya, recurred throughout our trip. Each building shared a consistent structure–nine levels, each containing nine steps, which all told, made for sore legs at the end of the day. Contributing to our aching muscles later was the fact that the steps of the monuments are incredibly steep. Armando explained that ascension of the stairs was not an everyday occurrence but reserved for major ceremonial occasions and likely done by priests on their hands and knees.
When asked what caused the decline of the Maya, Armando said that archaeologists attribute it to many of the events occurring around the world today—over-population bringing a depletion of natural resources, resulting in drought, famine, disease, and wars. It seemed ironic to Tom and me that growing concern about the viability of current environmental resources is now fueling Belize’s eco-tourism industry, while the country continues to uncover the ruins of a society, once one-million strong, which struggled to survive in the face of similar challenges.
On the return trip to Belize, we paused along a desolate stretch of road at a hilltop cemetery, having seen from afar the pastel shades of its above-ground tombs against the emerald green grass. The crypts were painted in hues of sky blue, tangerine and pink, and well-cared for, highly decorated with candles and garlands of flowers. George told us that custom calls for the ninth night of mourning to conclude with a feast and procession to the cemetery, in the traditional belief that the spirit of the deceased is being led to his grave and only then will realize his passing and depart this world.
Maya’s astronomical prowess may be more widespread than Armando realizes. I remember learning that hotels across Belize and Guatemala had sold out for December 21, 2012–the last day of the Maya Long Count calendar, which began in 3114 B.C. While initially I found a little baffling the desire to be at the epicenter of what non-Mayans were predicting as "the End," after some reflection, I could see the appeal. While endings of any type so often are accompanied by dread, they also conjure awe.
I remember receiving a call that my mother, long ill, had been hospitalized again. I responded to the news with a jolt of anxiety followed by a wave of sadness that settled into acceptance and then profound gratitude. She and I traveled quite a road together, one that had many peaks and valleys, eventually evening out into a comfortable path that more than occasionally was (and still is) strewn with unpredictable beauty.
Being a daughter at a distance as her health declined was a long lesson in how fear can be transformed into wonder, and powerlessness can evolve into humility. The catalyst for that miraculous metamorphosis is nothing other than passage of time, and the perspective it brings. That intangible element that I so often feel is my enemy in a life-or-death battle is in fact the very force that makes life so precious. I’m learning to embrace its wisdom rather than fear its finality.