El caracol observatory at Chichen Itza.
It has been a life long dream of mine to gaze upon this modern wonder of the world, the magnificent ruins of Chichen Itza. I watched so many documentaries and read books about the great civilization that hacked out their stronghold from the grasp of the jungle. Great pyramids that scraped the sun, human sacrifice, the vicious ball courts arenas, and the mysterious chac mools all derisively reclining.
And finally, I arrived. After 32 years of imagination, I personally was being beat down by the jungle heat and shouldered by the many people as excited as I was. In fact, I was so daunted by the uncompromising sun that I tied up a bed sheet and draped it over me, hat and all, to escape the merciless rays. The sun is an awesome force. This is the sun that inspired bleached white temples, bald in the glare, and rituals as drastic as human sacrifice.
*Note to travelers, if you are of fair complexion, prepare x 3 for the inescapable sun.*
Certainly, Mexico has embraced this ruin as a major commodity. There are very few plaques explaining the significance of the ruins, but at least 3 guides versed in 5 languages willing to reveal the ruins’ mystery for a fee. Lining every path to every ruin are hundreds of locals selling their Mayan related wares: obsidian blades, calendars, and different incarnations of the temple’s imagery. They are all calling out, “Almost free!” and “One dollar!” and “Princess…beautiful!.” The onslaught of salesmanship is comparable to the heat, and “no gracias” quickly becomes one’s most uttered phrase.
The vendors are armed with small devices that make scratching jaguar yawls, and cracking bird cries. The air rings with clay flutes and skin drums, so despite the nuisance of being constantly harassed, one can move on to appreciate the animated economy and peoples thriving at the base of these austere pyramids. These are the Maya today, the descendants of the people who long ago built these timeless tributes to nature’s cruelest powers.
The only purchase I made there was from a man who never pushed his wares. Instead, he showed us the seeds, flowers and leaves that he used to dye his wood sculptures. He also showed us a peculiar leaf that worked as sandpaper, and taught us some expressions in Mayan. I was thankful for his insight because he was still actively using the secrets of the jungle in his craft. He let us in, however briefly, to the pride he held for his craft and his bloodline. This too changed my perception of the vendors. This was their Chichen Itza, and they were surviving off of it still.
I fell into deep contemplation at the edge of a large cenote, one of the deep wells that communicate with a subterranean cave system all through out the region. During a sudden rain storm we ducked into a cabana and read some literature on them. The leaders would push their human sacrifices over the edge of the cenote, and if they were still alive the next day down there it was perceived as good fortune. Along with humans, they threw jewels and gold, the best they had to offer. What force where they praying for, or trying to appease? To abate the sun? To end illness? To bring the rain? This was one hell of a wishing well.
It is hard to ignore the Mayan’s blood rituals and practices. Before every ball game, a warrior was beheaded. There was a ruin near the ball court that was completely inscribed with skulls, presumably for the heads of these game sacrifices. Perhaps it is the act of survival in these extreme conditions, the heat, the wildlife, the jungle, that inspires a culture’s extreme rituals. Whatever the reason, before me stood all the evidence of a people who kept death as close to them as birth.