B’ak’tun 13

We walked across the Belize-Guatemala border and were set upon by taxi touts. According to my notes, the initial bid for taxi service was $60 US per person; but I waited until the rate of descent in the asking price dropped below the salary I pay myself for the task of listening to touts, and accepted an offer of $10 US per person to Flores on the bus. This was acceptably lower than the initial taxi quote; the elapsed time between arriving at the Belize side of the border and getting on the bus to Flores was from 12:09 to 12:51. If the price had been declining in a straight line, we would have saved $50 in 42 minutes, per person, about $71 per hour; not as lucrative as flying economy, but still decent wages. In fact, the last ten minutes of that period only got us from $15 down to $10. This was all without making any counteroffers, about which I know nothing, just the taxi drivers talking among themselves and wondering what manner of man we were. I charge a lot more for talking.

The bus was delayed in getting started due to having to change a tire and wait for several people to get their passports stamped. The bus tire changing at borders could become a low-grade meme; I have a 1600 x 1200 Coolpix photo of a couple of guys changing a bus tire at the Bulgarian/Turkish border in 1999. (That’s not bad for 1999. I only lately upgraded past a 1600 x 1200 monitor.) We were on our way to Flores by 13:22.

A girl on the bus fanned herself with her Maltese passport. I wrote postcards about it to my friends in Malta.

Flores is an exceptionally cute little town in eastern Guatemala, on a small island in a lake. It looked distinctly European, with narrow cobblestone streets, and scads of hotels and restaurants. It and its not-so-cute counterpart Santa Elena across the bridge are the jumping-off points to Tikal, a massive set of Mayan ruins. We planned a four-day three-night tour to Tikal and two other sets of ruins, but it turned out that at some point in the planning they simply stopped answering e-mails, and that we forgot to notice. So we arrived in Flores having no idea what would actually happen next. See above about three guys telling you exactly what; we were able to walk into a travel agency near the hotel and to book the three nights in Tikal that we planned to stay, and to go on most of the tours we’d planned to go on.

It was a little unclear what all was included with the booking we made; it was said to include transportation there, and meals the first day, but it turned out to include breakfast and dinner, tours, and the trip back as well. We were a little worried the next morning at 9:45 AM when the transportation hadn’t shown up for 45 minutes, but finally it did and everything seemed legitimate again.

The Mayans were a pretty amazing civilization. They lived on the Yucatán Peninsula and what is now Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and western Honduras. They flourished from about 500 BC to 800 AD. They were definitely into astronomy, and built pyramids in many places from which three towers were visible showing you where the sun would rise on the solstices and equinoxes. They used Venus to determine when to go to war. So far we have visited three different Mayan sites, and will be visiting two more in the next week. We spent a couple days at Tikal, and a couple hours of each of the next two days at Yax Ha and Uaxactún on private guided tours. Tikal is immense, and has been 20% excavated. It did not suffer from the looting which has befallen many other Mayan sites, unless you count Harvard. It has many temples in the form of pyramids, which held the remains of royalty, who all became gods or goddesses when they died. Why don’t our guys do that? Outside of Steve Jobs, I can’t think of a fallen pillar of American society who is anything you would call venerated. All the crosses had their tops cut off…

Tikal has ruins of other smaller temples for burial of less-important elites, and ruins of areas where the elite class resided, all built of stone. Most interior spaces had a roof in the form of a “Mayan arch”, with diagonal sides and a short horizontal span at the top. This form could support a room about two meters wide. Mayan cities had immense populations, though: someone had to build all those pyramids and temples and platforms and causeways. Their houses were made of thatch, and have not survived. If you had stood on the top of one of the pyramids at the height of the Classic period, you would not have been able to see the forest in the distance. That ultimately proved to be a problem. It takes about 4 square kilometers of forest to build a temple — fire for lime for the plaster and the masa for the workers.

On the first day we took an “archeological tour” which introduced us to most of the areas in the central part of the city.

The second morning we took a “sunrise tour”. This is less a magical experience than a pagan pilgrimage. We left the hotel with all the other occupants at 4am, walked to Temple IV and up the wooden stairway, and sat there silently from about 5:30 to 6:45. We could see Temple III illuminated by the full moon; after a while the unforgettable sound of the howler monkeys began, as well as all kinds of bird foley. The flash units silently sparkled, catching glimpses of the hajji. There were lots of clouds near the horizon, so while Venus was clearly visible, we didn’t get to see Mercury rise. Finally the sun broke through the cloud layer, and we walked back through the city, stopping to see not only buildings but also plants (including an allspice tree and an edible palm plant, the pacaya) and birds (including a large toucan visible from a distance, and several small toucanets flying around a tree in the Gran Plaza, and colorful Ocellated Turkeys) and insects (including mating moths, army and leafcutter ants, and termite tubes attached to the bottom of branches). Why do termites put themselves in such untenable places and then build tunnels to get to where they want to be? We saw this in Western Australia as well: the termites will build on the top of some rock and then construct a twenty meter dirt passageway down to the ground. It’s as if a human were to work in the city and build a house miles away — say, where is Levittown?

We returned later in the day to explore on our own, visiting Group G (a small palace complex with a very interesting entry tunnel with a 90-degree angle, tall enough to walk through, which a lot of passages aren’t) and the acropolises around the Gran Plaza.

Our guide to Yax Ha and Uaxactún was again Juan Sandoval, a tourism lifer who was born in the area. His father is a chiclero, the woodsmen who collect chicle and for whom none of the lost cities were ever lost. Juan’s family pointed out to the archaeologists some Mayan areas. He speaks flawless English, and it was a great learning experience. He knows the name of every temple and stele, and what year it was built, what Mayan discovered it and what European archaeologist/vandal took credit for it, or looted it. He also knows the common names in English of all the birds in the area. Yax Ha is slightly larger than Tikal, but much less has been excavated. It is located next to a large lake. Uaxactún is a smaller site, not far from Tikal, and it was badly looted. Even some archaeologists there did a bad job: a few decades ago a team from Harvard decided to simply dynamite several temples in order to get to the stuff buried below. (Apparently, most looters knew how to tunnel in without causing so much destruction.) And they built an airstrip through the middle of the site. Later excavations were done more professionally and carefully. Today, Uaxactún is a small village with pigs and chickens and radios. The runway has become a soccer field and a marketplace.

The Mayans had a technique of adding to a pyramid every once in awhile (often every 52 years), making it somewhat like an onion: you peel off one layer of steps and find another one inside. This certainly complicates the presentation to tourists visiting the site. They, also, were vandals and looters. The Red Guards and Harvard and Ansar Dine have not invented anything.

Now we are back in Flores for New Year’s, in a nice hotel room with a lakeside view. Hopefully the fireworks won’t keep us up all night.