GUATEMALA – IN THE SEARCH FOR THE MAYAS
Meridijani, September 2005
While we ride in the clunky old bus down the bumpy dirt roads of Guatemala, I think about where I am. Deep in the heart of Central America, civilization slowly swallows the last bit of true wilderness. In neighboring Mexico, all of the wild forests have already been cut down, and now the same thing is happening here in Peten, the northernmost region of Guatemala. According to the map I have that is two years old, the region I am passing through is marked with a dark green color that represents selva – the rainforest. But what I could see through the windows blurred by the unbearable humid heat, are endless fincas – farms built on deforested land where thousands of cows peacefully graze.
The bus stops where the road ends in Paso Caballos, and we unload some 50 kg of expedition equipment. We look for the alcalde, chief of the small village, to find out how we can buy a boat, and find him in front of the only humble store in that village with no electricity. With a quickness unusual to ladinos, the friendly old cowboy-like fellow gets us a boat and hosts us in his house. Since the morning is a better time to start an expedition, we spend the evening in front of the only store that also serves as a meeting point and the centre of the village. The sun slowly sets over the green landscape. Women carry water from the river source in pots balanced on their heads, and young boys play ball on a dusty field. While we slowly sip homemade rum, we gather information from the alcalde about the journey ahead of us. “When you set off tomorrow, you won’t see any more fincas, and the jungle will get thicker and thicker. Very few people live by the river, and you must watch out for the narcotraficantes. This is their territory!” Just as he was saying that, a jeep speeds towards the store and pulls to a halt. Two big men with guns strapped to their hips jump out of it. Everybody shuts up. They buy something from the store and disappear even faster. “These kinds of guys are the ones you have to watch out for!” Our host advises us.
With the first rays of the morning sun, our uneasiness disperses and we slowly paddle down the slow, heavy and mushy river. The first few days we didn’t see anybody and the jungle just got thicker and louder. While the tropical heat and slow rhythm of rowing keeps us in a trance, we enter deeper into the jungle. Massive black monkeys howl from the canopy and colorful guacamayas fly over the river. On the fourth day we see the first human being there: a small brown boy standing and rowing in a canoe dugout made from one trunk of the mahogany tree. Such boats were used by the first inhabitants of the forest as well: the Mayas. The boy’s calm composure and hunter’s look in his eyes as he scans the banks in search of food revives the picture of the past. A long time ago, even before the Mayan civilization reached its peak, these Indians had lived like nomadic hunter-gatherers in the jungles of Central America and had used waterways to travel through the impenetrable expanses. They lived in caves and traveled by canoes all until the early classical period, around 250 A.D., when they started building big cities in the jungle.
There still exist hidden remains of that Mayan civilization in the jungles of Peten, so the search for them is one of the objectives of our expedition. But, no matter how much we look along the shores of the river, and probe our way through the jungle, watching not to step on barba amarilla, the snake whose poison kills in one hour time, we didn’t find anything. Only when we began leaving the thick jungle and began nearing finca territory, did luck strike. We accommodate ourselves for the night in a finca where Jeronimo Chok’al lives with his wife and six children in a poor shelter. “Our master bought a piece of jungle and paid me to cut the trees in one year time.” He explains. While we sit around the fire, the rum loosens his tongue, and Jeronimo feels he has to say something very important to us, for we are the first people he has seen in a long time. He brags that the other day, while cutting down trees, he discovered a cave with remnants from the Mayas. We go there in the morning and find signs that man had been there before: a wall, a fire place, and few pieces of ceramics.
After reaching our journey’s end by the Mexican border, we return to Flores, the capital of Peten and look for an archeological institute. After examining the ceramic pieces, pictures, drawings, and data that we had brought with us, Dr. Jari Lopez concludes, “The cave was used in pre-classical history. It may be up to 4000 years old. The piece of ceramic looks like it belongs to the Zapata type, and it was used for carrying water.” He thanks us for our effort, stores data under the name “Club for Expeditionism and Culture, Zagreb,” and promises to send his team of archeologists to the place we had found using GPS coordinates we had written.
A few days later we continue our research of the old Mayan civilization. This time we rent horses, load them with food and water, and set off on a five day trek through the forest to Mirador, one of the biggest cities of the old Mayas. Mirador was one of the most dominant cities of the Mayan world two millennia ago. It was abandoned under unknown circumstances, and the rainforest quickly covered all of its buildings. Since its rediscovery 30 years ago, it hasn’t changed a lot. Pyramids and temples are still covered in tropical plants. Passing by the foothill of the pyramid, not many people would realize that it is not just a hill. Only when we climb to the top of one, we realize what it is. Around us spread endless greens and the overgrown pyramids spring out of them. We then realize the obvious: the straight plateau of Peten could not have hills, each protrusion that appears as a hill is actually an ancient building overgrown by time. The most fascinating one is the pyramid la Danta that rises 70 meters above the canopy, which makes it the highest pyramid in the Mayan world.
Soon after Mirador disappeared, nearby Tikal took over the role of the most dominant city and history saw the golden age of the Mayan civilization that is usually called the classical period. This lasted from 250 to 900 A.D. The glory of the golden age is best seen in restored Tikal, Guatemala’s pride and biggest source of income from tourism. Dr. David Friedel, a world renowned historian and the leader of the archeological mission in Guatemala, gives us a guided tour of this attraction.
He is a specialist in war history. “The Mayas were an extremely warlike people.” He tells me. “We can hardly put aside ten years of peace in their history. They weren’t familiar with ideas of state or patriotic feeling on a national level, instead they just felt belonging to their own city. They were always in war with nearby cities, and one of the biggest motives for that were to gather prisoners. Ordinary people were taken into captivity, and captured leaders were sacrificed and offered to their deities.”
When king Big Jaguar Paw ruled over Tikal in 4th century, the power of the city started growing. “He himself invented a new fighting strategy.” Dr. Freidel explains. “They would besiege the nearby cities – Uaxactun, Xunantunich, Caracol, and others, and continue attacking with spears, all until everybody would die or surrender. Thanks to this ‘air force’, Tikal conquered the whole region and became its capital that grew in luxury.”
As we reach the main square in Tikal, all the glory of the past resurrect before my eyes: pyramids, king’s palaces, acropolis, and paved squares. The most beautiful scene, and the most common picture from Guatemala, is without a doubt, the twin pyramids. “One of them is called The Great Jaguar Temple,” the friendly archeologist explains to me, “It was built by king Moon Double Comb, at the beginning of the 8th century. You can almost visualize him appearing on the top of the temple and calling his servants to offer a human sacrifice to the rain god Chac because the fields inside the jungle cannot yield fruit in the draught that struck them!”
When at its peak, Tikal stretched over 30 square kilometers and was home to almost 100 000 people, the same as Rome or Constantinople at that time. “Because of the dense population and steep pyramids that reach toward the sky, we in the USA, call it the New York of pre-Columbian America.” Says Dr. Freidel.
Even though the reason for the end of the Mayan civilization is still unknown to us, the most probable theory is one of overpopulation. Ecological resources got exhausted, the earth couldn’t bare so many people, and the ruling elite exaggerated in its vanity. They demanded more and more slaves, competed in luxury, and all problems were solved at the altar by spilling human blood.
High achievements of their civilization, esoteric knowledge, mythology and rituals, were all abruptly stopped. One of the biggest was their farsighted and precise calendar. Using it they didn’t just oversee their own collapse, but the collapse of the world as well that should happen on December 23, 2012!
After the glamour was gone, the Mayas continued living as nomadic hunters all until the arrival of Spaniards and their colonization of the continent. But still today, they are the most numerous ethnical group, they still talk 23 Mayan languages, wear traditional clothes, and in some areas, they still maintain old rituals and use the old calendar.
In search of them, the road brought me to the other side of Guatemala, in the mountains by the Pacific, hidden in clouds. On the black fertile land of volcanoes, where four different types of corn are grown, the main staple of the Mayas both then and now. Wandering through the hilly region, I reach a simple village where people live now as they had before. They wear thick clothes with hundreds of woven colors, that all seem the same to us foreigners, but to one who understands, there are differences among them. Every village has its own costume, with its own unique combination of colors and patterns. Big families live in small houses, and their everyday diet consists of beans, eggs and tortillas.
A cheerful mountain dweller that I met in the corn field explained to me their symbiotic connection with earth. “Corn, bean and pumpkin: a recipe discovered by our ancestors! Corn grows vertically, bean creeps and climbs around it, and pumpkin grows deep underneath. Using a minimum amount of space, we get a maximum amount of food!”
In the small village of San Martin Chiquito in the foothill of the volcano Chicabal, I find Efraim Tzunum, a Mayan sacerdote, the chieftain of his small community. The good man lets me be present during one of their frequent rituals in which they pray for universal peace. We wake up early, and even before the dawn, find ourselves climbing up the volcano. Three more people join our group along the way, and I find out they are all sacerdotes. They are dressed like Efraim, in white ritual dresses. When we reach the peak of the volcano, an amazing landscape appears in front of our eyes. Dressed in the morning mist, pierced by the first rays of daylight, the crater of the sleepy volcano is filled with the waters of holy Lake Laguna de Chicabal. We descend to its shores and the sacerdotes begin preparing the scene for the ritual. They gather around the place with three crosses, prepare candles and flowers, burn copal and incense, and start throwing all the elements of their life into the fire: corn, beans, cocoa, sugar, caramel, seeds, cuilco, and romero. They shout mysterious formulas in Mam, the universal Mayan language, breaking it sometimes with Spanish word for God: Dios.
I did not understand how much of the ritual is Catholic and how much is shamanistic and animistic, until Efraim explained later on to me: “The cross came to us with the Spaniards, but we had worshipped it before. Our holiest tree: ceiba, has a cross-like form. They told us about baptism, confession, fasting, but we had already been practicing that. We also drank wine in our rituals, used altars, and burned incense. We had worshipped 12 spirits and the thirteenth man, Ostlahoh, who can be compared with the apostles and Jesus. Actually, our two religions blend together successfully.
I hadn’t known that there are four different colors of corn, all until I saw the Mayas use them in the ritual. Sacerdote Tzunum showed me all of this and explained: “Corn is our everyday bread. Our grandfathers taught us that God made man from corn. That’s why we have four different colors of corn: black, red, white and yellow. Just like four races of the world. Today we pray for peace to rule among all people of the world, just like the peace that rules on this serene lake at the top of the volcano Chicabal!”
People of Guatemala, even those Mayas in the remotest villages of Cordillera, know very well how important peace is, because all until recently a civil war had raged in the country. It had lasted for 36 years, took 100 000 human lives, and displaced a million people.
As I watched those four spiritual men gathered around the holy fire, how devotedly and passionately they pray for world peace, I felt how I could imagine the connection between the Mayas from the past and the Mayas from the present that I was looking for through all those three months of travels through Guatemala. The mystery of the fall of the ancient Mayan civilization still hasn’t been explained, but maybe it lies in their warlike nature. That brought them to their destruction and survival. Through the centuries that came, they peacefully worked on their own land, instead of attacking the one that belongs to their neighbors. They even peacefully assimilated with the Spanish conquerors. They needed a lot of time to redefine their own identity to survive on this planet. Now, after more than a thousand years of effort, in the firm gaze of the sacerdote during his prayer for world peace, I understand they have found the universal concept. Maybe most of people think that the Mayas have disappeared. But no, there are more of them now than ever, and they still live in Guatemala.