Sometimes it isn’t the things you expect that have the strongest impact on you.
We sat on top of a Maya ruin that was hidden from view by trees growing all over it, the dirt covering it and the small grass-roof topped shrine dedicated to the three crosses sitting on top of it.
The “we” was me, my partner Max, Don Francisco (who is our shaman) and his son, their friend Gordo, his son, and Gordo’s father Thomas. Max is from Mexico City. I am from the US, and all the rest of our company is indigenous Maya from the local area. A plastic table was filled with Coke, water, ice, handmade tortillas, two soups (one with pasta and the other with chucks of beef and what looked like pickles but were fat slices of a Yucatan pumpkin) some grilled chicken, red rice, and a bit of cabbage salad.
We were all hungry and thirsty. Gordo had been giving us the grand tour of his land which was 3 kilometers into the dense jungle. We’d driven there (thankfully) down a muddy path filled with limestone boulders. Gordo and Don Francisco invited Max and I to see a cenote they had recently discovered and some Maya ruins that were literally buried in the jungle.
After parking the SUV, we traipsed through narrow jungle paths rife with prickly vegetation, Francisco occasionally cutting the way clear with his machete. It was slow going, but our hosts were patient and kind, constantly looking out for our wellbeing. Both teenage boys looked after me, making sure I had a hand for support any time I needed it, and even when I didn’t. The first thing that loomed out of the dense growth was a Spanish arch from an abandoned hacienda.
It was beautifully built, but was one of the only things left intact from the old home. Gordo was excited and asked if I wanted to take photos with my cell phone. He was so proud to have such a treasure on his property. Don Francisco cleared some of the growth that obscured the detail of the stones and I took photo after photo. We admired the old construction and then moved on, over rocky mounds and avoiding vines until the cenote came into view.
I was stunned at its size and its depth. A bit nervous, I moved toward the edge, assured by the men that the ground would not give way. I held onto the branch of a tree whose roots descended some 30 meters (about 100 feet) into the blue, but leaf covered water below. The plunge was intimidating. Stoney walls had perhaps once been underground and were now exposed by a piece of the meteor that hit the earth and possibly ended the age of the dinosaurs. Francisco explained plans of how they might one day be able to more easily reach the water’s edge. In truth, none of the plans sounded safe to me!
We took more photos and video. There was a collapsed well structure at the edge of the cenote and another Spanish arch nearby. Gordo took me to every nook and cranny, excitedly showing me the Spanish ruins and the majestic natural sinkhole from every angle possible.
Finally, we made our way out of the thick stand of trees and to another path. I admit, I was getting tired. It isn’t good to be tired under such circumstances because it more easily leads to mistakes, which could be dangerous or even fatal.
Don Francisco insisted that we all sit and rest a bit. I saw the smoother path before me which I (mistakenly) thought we would be venturing down. I told him I was able to walk, but he insisted I rest and explained that we would be walking up. High. Climbing. I guess I thought the path would rise in elevation. I was wrong.
So, I sat some more. And when I felt completely rested, we all moved across the path and back into the jungle. That was when we began to climb. For before us, hidden beneath chaca and zapote trees, buried beneath centuries of growth of henequen and feet of rotting jungle debris lay a Maya pyramid.
We climbed over limestone boulders and avoided thorny branches. Once I tripped a bit when a vine attached itself to my shoe. Bit by bit we wended our way up and up until we reached a place where I could see the ancient, squared stones, perfectly fit together. Walls appeared with jungle atop their carefully designed faces. Gordo took the lead and called me to an edge where I could peer down into the dense undergrowth 30 meters (100 feet) below. He showed me fallen stones and what appeared to be areas unfinished by ancient architects.
With such a large structure, there must have been smaller structures in the jungle below. Typically, a pyramid is built in the center of the Maya city. And of course, the cenote would have been a sacred source of water over 500 years ago and probably a source of water at a later date for the henequen hacienda built by the Spanish who inhabited the city after its fall.
How do you even get your mind around such a thing? To stand there on top of an ancient temple, a mul, or mountain built to reverence the Maya gods? How do you shake yourself hard enough to let the significance of such an experience dawn on your consciousness? Only Gordo’s family and very close friends knew of its existence. Only they had seen it in hundreds of years.
We carefully made our way back down to the flat plain that is the land the jungle sprouts from. I was tired. I was elated. I was overwhelmed. I was underwhelmed. I think it would take me days to internalize the significance of the experience. I focused just on putting one foot in front of the other and safely making it to the bottom.
And then, a half hour later, we were sitting having lunch on top of what was likely the tableau of a grand Maya palace or perhaps the raised platform of a busy marketplace teeming with life more than half an eon before. We had a simple lunch. Hands grabbed tortillas and dipped them into the soups, folding the soft circles of cooked masa to grab chunks of fatty beef or swollen elbow pasta and feed hungry bellies.
We rested. We ate. We drank ice cold coke and refreshed ourselves. Gordo’s father, Thomas beamed, but not from pride about his land, rather from an inner peace that I may never know. One, I imagine that comes from a lifetime of living off the land and working closely with friends and family. Max was so relaxed, chatting and smiling, and leaning back on the rusty garbage can turned upside down and into a makeshift stool. Don Francisco and Gordo made more plans to clear the immediate area and expand the simple structure they were building there, perhaps to make it into a place they could spend the night while harvesting wood for making coal for fires to cook on in their homes in the small nearby village.
Much of the talk was in Yucatec Maya, a language full of glottal stops so foreign to any Romantic languages. The rest of the conversation was in Spanish. None but mine was in English.
It was in this moment that I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. For most of my life I felt profoundly drawn to a darker skinned people with a mysterious, almost undecipherable language. Since the age of 10, I knew I would one day be in the Maya jungles among the ruins. Peace swept over me. Contentment warmed me from the inside. How profound to have these gentle people so openly, excitedly, sharing their secrets with me. The walk into the ruins was accompanied by mystical stories of their ancestors. Stories I am sure no gringa has heard before. The journey was filled with tales of jungle guardians and secrets of how the Maya built the pyramids. Don Francisco told us the Maya were once people of the night. They worked into the wee hours of the morning carving stone from the earth and as long as the stars shone and the sun was buried in the underworld, the stone became as soap, as light and as easy to carve. He said that once the sun climbed back into the land of the living it warmed the beautifully carved and perfectly cut karst and turned it from soap back into stone, hard, unforgiving, and ready to support the sacred mountain of the pyramid for the gods for centuries to come.
Magic. There is no other word for it. Except maybe family, for that is what I, to them, have become.