When I was a kid I had a book called “Wonders of the World” and I would sit and stare at the pictures it had of Mayan temples half covered by jungle or poking out of the trees and wonder about the people who lived there and what they were like. I imagined walking through the brilliant green fields beside the towering temples – obviously not realizing that the temperatures would be sweltering and the rain plentiful – and exploring the labyrinthine passageways inside. I wondered about details of life there that we will probably never know and the questions raised about this ancient civilization still fascinate me.
Last Friday, this 45-year old kid got to visit Palenque, one of the major Mayan architectural sites in Mexico, which was at its artistic and militaristic peak from around 600-800 A.D.. The excavation work at the site which began in 1952 and continues today – only a small portion of this vast metropolis has been released from the clutches of a relentlessly encroaching jungle – has revealed a treasure trove of information for archeologists about this particular city and its place in the pecking order of contemporary, rival cities like Tikal and Tonina, and about the Mayan culture overall. Watching the mist rise from the tangle of trees and vines surrounding these magnificent yet crumbling buildings gave me chills and I realized I am still awed by the questions places like these put in my mind. What did the war chiefs talk about when they met on the patio of the war chiefs? How did the great Mayan ruler Pakal feel when he looked over the city from the portico of Temple IV? Where did enemy captives get their heads cut off? Why are my children so lame?
We were only about 30 minutes into our visit to the museum outside the ruins, which is air-conditioned, and contains intricately carved artifacts from a thousand years ago with funny faces and serpents coming out of their heads, all described in English, including an enormous sarcophagus where bones of the ruler Pakal were found, when Coconut declared she was bored. The extent of her curiosity about the site over the next couple of hours was to ask why the steps of the temples were so big when the people are so small in stature. J climbed 25 steps to the top of a building where a Count from Europe lived for a few years in the early 1800’s, and that was it. He and Coconut seated themselves on a rock at the edge of the Central Plaza and got drizzled on while R and I climbed temples and explored passageways and took in the views with amazement and wonder.
We were pissed – R was going on about how our kids were missing such a great opportunity and I agreed, comparing their lameness to the greatness of another pair of kids who were on a guided tour with their family and appeared to actually be paying attention and asking questions. If I had found the sacrificial table, heads may have rolled. But then the greatest thing happened – the sky unloaded buckets and buckets of rain at a rate of about 15 inches per hour. This, finally, caused Coconut and J to climb the 40 or so steps to the top of the Palace to seek a dry corner and eat the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I had made for lunch.
The mood lightened even as the sky grew more overcast and dim. They still wanted to leave, but they let me go on a little bit about what I felt as a kid when I looked at pictures of the place in my book and how it made me feel to actually be standing there, and even agreed to walk the few kilometers back to our Maya Bell camp rather than taking a collectivo bus.
We hate camping in the rain, and even though Wesley is cozy and warm, R suggested that we pack up and head for the border town of Tenosique to spend the night. It was a good idea. Coconut and J showered, put on dry clothes, and played cards after ordering lunch at the restaurant while R and I packed our soaking gear as dryly as possible while the clouds continued to empty themselves so much that the pool overflowed. Finally, as we pulled out of camp, the skies cleared and the sun shone through – a good omen for our drive. If all goes well, we’ll be spending Saturday night in Guatemala.