Tuesday, January 1, 2008

In with the new

Flores, Guatemala - I made it here in time to ring in 2008. A new country for a new year.
I am updating the Lonely Planet guide to Belize, but the book covers this little corner of Guatemala, as many Belize-bound travelers cross the border to visit Tikal, one of the most impressive ruins in the Mayan world.
So on December 30 I made the long journey, flying from Boston to Belize, then busing it across the country and across the border. My bag apparently missed my connection in Miami, but American Airlines earned my respect by dropping it off the next day at my hotel in Guatemala!
I am staying on the Isla de Flores, a small island in the middle of the lovely Lago Peten Itza. The town's favorite pastime seems to be sitting on the lakeshore, enjoying fresh juice, cold beers and stunning sunsets. This is exactly what I did on New Years Eve.
Flores celebrated the turning of the calendar page with a festive display of fireworks, music and dancing. The fiesta lasted well into morning, as I could hear, but I could not partake. My goal was to see in the New Year from atop Templo IV, the fourth and highest temple at Tikal. My guide picked me up at 3:30am so I would be there in time to watch the sun rise on New Years Day.
I did indeed make it to the top of Templo IV in time (this despite nearly losing my guide when I stopped to photograph a giant black hairy tarantula!). I was there... along with about fifty other early risers!
It was not exactly what I had in mind (it never is, is it?). In fact, it was so foggy we could barely see the trees through the mist, let alone the sunrise. But nonetheless, it was amazing. The whole group sat in silence, listening to the jungle come alive. First it was the howler monkeys, letting loose with their guttoral roar while the sky was still dark. Then the parrots' cacophonous squawks filled the dawn. They were answered by the croak of a toucan, the melodious ring of the oropendola, and soon the sky was filled with light and sound. A new day dawns in the jungle. A new year dawns around the world.
I spent the rest of the day exploring the ruins of temples, pyramids, acropolises and living quarters of the Maya. Many of these structures are still adorned with engravings of animal-headed kings -- rulers who were perceived to be deities. Most of the ruins are open for exploration, so you can climb to the top of these stoic structures, survey the remains of the once-might city-state, and soak up the spirit of the place.
The Mayan civilization is one of the most mysterious in history. Its expansive realm - which stretched from southern Mexico through Guatemala and Belize - collapsed without evident cause around AD 900. Archaeologists and anthropologists have yet to decipher the language on the engraved glyphs, leaving us with plenty of questions but not many answers about this superstitious civilization.
But one thing is certain: if they built these massive temples to honor and remember their leaders (or gods, if you prefer), they certainly accomplished what they set out to do.
Templo I, also known as Grand Jaguar Temple, is an incredible, 44-meter structure that was built over the tomb of an 7th-century ruler who reigned for 52 years. Jasaw Chan K'awlil (known as King Moon Double Comb by some sources) represents the height of Mayan culture; and he was buried with 16 pounds of jade and other jewels to prove it.

Now his life is the source of inspiration for scholars and his temple is a source of amusement for children. In this way, the Maya continue to be honored and remembered. And in this way the spirit of the Grand Jaguar endures -- though perhaps it is not the way he might have imagined.
So here's to a new year - new beginnings - and the ever-present persistence of life and spirit -- even when it doesn't work out exactly in the way we imagine!

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