As I prepare for my tenth trip to Guatemala, I’ve been reminiscing about previous visits, including this journey into the exotic forests of the northern territory six years ago…
Frank Zappa once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Akin to that would be trying to describe the aural and visual sensations of an overnight stay at Parque Nacional Tikal in northern Guatemala. But I shall try.
A dozen of us decided to stay in Central America for two additional days on the tail end of our church mission trip. We had been in the central highlands, at about a mile high altitude for the better part of a week, and, even though it was July, had been enjoying sunny humidity-free days working alongside our new friends at Bethel Student Center in the humble burg of Patzicia. Populated with tranquil Mayans who are small-of-stature, but huge-in-heart and good will, it was easy to see why this culture has remained sacred for over 2,000 years. There’s an abiding sense of peace and understanding of their relationship with each other and to the land.
It’s not been without problems, however. Through several epochs this people has both flourished and gone into deep decline. Archeologists and historians are still puzzled as to what transpired to bring the mighty Mayan Empire that covered over 60,000 square miles for over a thousand years to closure. Was it pestilence? Disease? A prolonged drought? Toxic volcanic ash from a mighty eruption? Genocide brought about from internal warring? Being overrun by an outside nation? It now appears that it was some sort of combination of all the above that hastened the downfall from prominence around 950 AD.
Rising at 3:00 AM, we had to strap most of our baggage atop a creaking mini-bus, and motor our way from Antigua to Guatemala City for a pre-dawn check-in. Operating out of a small hangar off to the side from the main airport, we flew a domestic airline that ran several one-hour shuttles each day between the capital city and the infamous ruins two hundred miles to the north. If we had chosen to drive, it would’ve taken close to eight hours each way to navigate the mountain passages and primitive roads leading down into the rain forests.
As soon as the door to our twin prop aircraft opened, we realized we were in a much different circumstance. Hot, steamy air whooshed into the cabin, and we began sweating even before we deplaned. We had descended to nearly sea level, and there were no more hills, let alone lofty mountains, as far as the eye could see. Just lots of huge, exotic trees,and intermittent swampy lowlands.
Boarding another bus, we drove one more hour further into the jungle, getting to know others from London, Luxemburg, and New York who were also going to explore the Mayan wonders. When we emptied out at the official hotel of the park, we were greeted by chattering spider monkeys in the trees above us, and swelling waves of buzz-saw like armies of cicadas in quadraphonic bombast around us.
After quickly disposing of our luggage in our rooms, we set out with our tour guide (curiously named “Nixon”) for an initial four hour hike of the ruins. With temperatures and humidity percentages both approaching a hundred, we traversed dusty trails under gigantic ceiba trees (some twenty stories tall, with massive spreading trunks as wide as a UPS truck). Mahogany and cedar also dominated the scene, the latter with a distinct odor reminiscent of bean and onion soup. An All Spice tree added to the olfactory sensations with a scent quite reminiscent of Old Spice after shave.
Our anticipation grew as we trekked deeper in the woods. The Mayans had built some gargantuan pyramids and temples that had become iconoclastic worldwide. I had wanted to climb them since I was a youth…and now, finally, I was so close.
When we eventually came out of a thick clump of fauna we gazed upon the back side of the Jaguar Temple…standing there mesmerized…our necks craning back to take in the two hundred foot high edifice that jutted out from the greenery surrounding it.
We scampered about the main acropolis, taking in the exquisite carvings, and marveling at the combination of brute force and craftsmanship that built these various holy sites. How many died from falls, or being crushed, or fevers over decades it took to erect these at roughly at the same time the Romans were conquering the Mediterranean?
My roomie for the trip, David, and I scaled several of the largest pinnacles together. As we made the strides up the steep steps (almost ladders, really), we wondered how tiny Mayans managed to climb the hundreds of twelve to fifteen inch leg-lifts to reach the top. With lungs heaving from the thick air, and sweat glands working overtime, we were rewarded with a gentle breeze at the top of each summit—the only wind we ever felt in Tikal. From these perches we surveyed half a dozen other pyramids standing strong like Gibralters in an otherwise all-encompassing green sea of leaves. Some of these identical views were captured by George Lucas in the very first Star Wars film in 1977 to represent one of his exotic far-flung planets.
Descending was even more stimulating. Not only were the steps just six inches wide, but they were often covered in limestone dust and rounded off from two millennia of wear and tear. One misstep could have resulted in more than just a band-aid. Visions of multiple fractures and even loss of life crossed our worried minds as we walked backwards down those unforgiving stairs like two-year-olds attempting their first solo try down the basement steps on their own.
Working our way from one cluster of temples to the next we heard so many exotic sounds above us: descending whistles like infant bottle rockets, clipped chirping, squawking, inquisitive tones, and even a tea kettle approaching full boil.
At one point Nixon stopped us suddenly and told us to crouch low, where we saw a miniature superhighway of thousands upon thousands of leaf-cutter ants coursing across our path. Carrying ten times their body weight, these industrious red workers hoist what look like little green sails of leaves back to their humongous colonies (some with mound clusters the size of a living room) for food storage. I studied these tiny critters several more times over the next day. I was fascinated with the sociology of common purpose, and the single-minded commitment to their calling.
We came across several tremendous beetles---some the size ofa half dollar; and handfuls of different chameleons and salamanders; red-winged grasshoppers twice as large as what one sees in the U.S., and a Jesus Christ lizard—so named because it can run across the top of a pond—making a dash across some water.
Though brimming with it, not everything was life. A carcass of a four-inch tarantula was wedged in a hole---no doubt being dragged in for supper by another spider (they eat their own dead). A large dragonfly with a translucent back, was struggling in a sticky web, about to become someone’s meal. A wren with yellow and black markings no less vibrant than a bumble bee, had apparently starved to death struggling to free itself from a screened porch. Squadrons of foreboding vultures were circling above some recently felled beast that they were zeroing-in upon. Even one of our group members, Gayle, was stung by a scorpion that had found its way into her suitcase overnight. Fortunately, the venom was not strong enough to kill a human (although it did cause some searing, swelling pain)…but most certainly would’ve felled a lesser creature.
After hiking several miles amongst the main compounds of this once burgeoning city of over 100,000 ancient citizens, the afternoon rains began. With the thick canopy above us, we mostly just heard the rains; intermittent drops coming down in patches around us. As we worked our way back to the hotel, we saw lemurs, toucans, raccoons, and howler monkeys all scurrying about for cover in this daily ritual.
That evening, as the hotel turned the generators off at 10:00 PM, we were plunged into sudden and absolute darkness—so thorough we couldn’t even see our hands in front of our faces. As I lay as still as possible, trying not to think about how sticky I was from the smothering heat, what was initially eerie quiet became an aural feast that helped lull me to sleep. Layers of sound cascaded down from the above and around: chirping crickets trying to woo each other; the creaking and blurting of various tree frogs and toads (some that were as large as a cereal bowl). Occasionally the rhythm would be punctuated with a coconut’s thumping splat as it met the soaked sod. All in all, it seemed like God’s soothing benediction to another magnificent day. One of Debussy’s soft evening pastorals couldn’t have been lovelier.
At daybreak, the forest began to giggle with life, and once again, I lay there soaking it in. I would be hard pressed to be awakened by anything better than the tender, lilting sonnets of tiny parakeets, wrens, and sparrows. A very light rain, much like gently tapping my finger against my throat, was working its way down through the layers of forest above us, and cascading upon the dozen layers of dried corn husks that made up the thatched roofoverhead. Other droplets were ricocheting off bathtub sized banana leaves outside my window. A puddle below was receiving sundry drips with a rounded, melodious plunking like a lone pebble into a deep cistern.
I couldn’t just lay there any longer…I needed to get out in the midst of it. Out along the edge of the compound there was a swing, and as I quietly rocked back and forth on it, I felt like I was joining into the beats and measures of that early morning serenade. A light fog that was creeping through the greenery above was hardly muting the celebration of life. Most of the over 260 types of birds that inhabit Tikal were unseen, but certainly not unheard. Titters, muffled warblings, and gurgling melodic conversations were everywhere. Between a few were several harmonic vollies unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. There were caws, hooties, wah-wahs, warks, pata-tooeys, and wija-woks. Some modulating with relentless repetitivity, others untimed and meandering. One with an ascending triple call, another like the warning beacon of a truck inreverse. Over my shoulder, in a clump of hydrangea bushes, I heard the warm fluttering of hummingbirds—so faint that it was nearly imperceptible.
A few minutes later I heard the slightest of shuffling behind me. I quietly turned to see a family of coatamundies stealthily picking its way thru the thicket. A brown-furred, tail-less type of critter about the size of a beagle. Having never seen these before, I was curious, and slowly stood up, beginning to approach them. They suddenly sat motionless hoping I wouldn’t see them blend into the earthen tones of the jungle floor. As I got within twelve feet, they silently arose and walked away from me. When I got closer still, they froze once again, rabbit-like with their eyes opened wide and whiskers twitching. When they felt I was too near, they gently stood in unison and strode quickly away into some low-lying brush. Chances are, I will not be able to repeat that awe-inspiring interplay with such a rare species ever again.
Tikal, with all its intertwined dependence and relentless pursuit of life, reminded me of the resounding, abundant joy that each day can bring to us, if we allow ourselves the privilege. It sure seems that the Mayans recognized that and embrace it even to this day. In my daily toil of computer screens, airport terminals, cell phones, and traffic tie-ups, I desperately needed that visceral memo on the profound simplicity of God’s creation in all its splendor.