“Hola Yenni!” A bicycle zooms past me as I walk back to town in the dark. It´s the fisherman I met earlier that day.
“Whoa you scared me!” I exclaim.
“Haha, I know. That´s what I do.” He says chuckling as he rides away.
I was on my way back to town after having visited a friend of a friend who lived on the island.
“You have to meet Ángel. He knows so much about the Maya. You two would have a lot to talk about.” Eli told me the night before I decided to spend my final days in Mexico on this tiny little island called Isla Holbox.
She had told me where he worked so I decided to go and introduce myself to him.
“Hola, is Ángel here?” I asked the waiter in the crisp white dress shirt.
“Yes, in the kitchen, just one moment.”
A few moments later I see him. He doesn’t look like a shaman’s son who has the answers to all my questions about the Maya. Instead, he looks like a Rastafarian. He has three long dreads in the back of his head while the rest of his hair is black and wavy. His eyes look peaceful and sleepy with an inverted moon-like shape. His nose gives away some modern day Mayan blood and he wears a fitted beige long sleeved shirt with slightly loose jeans. He is younger than I thought, not much older than me, late 20s maybe.
“Hi, I’m Yenni. My friend, Eli, told me I’d find you here. She said that you know a great deal about the Maya, and I’m really interested in the Maya. She thought it would be a good idea if you and I met.”
“The Maya…What in particular interests you?” He says while examining my face.
I had not anticipated this question. In fact, I really hadn’t thought about before coming here. What was I thinking? I felt so unprepared and I could feel him studying me. How often does some random American woman come to this tiny little island and look for some stranger they don’t even know to ask about the Maya? Am I crazy? Then, on top of it, not even know what questions to ask.
“Well, everything about them interests me. I think I am most interested in their spirituality and the Mayan calendar, the Tzolk’in.” I finally say.
“I see; how long are you here for?”
“That’s not a long time. So what do you do?”
“I’m a writer and a traveler at the moment. I live in Chicago.”
He nods his head. “I have to get back to work,” He says glancing at the couple that just walked into the restaurant. “Come back here around 10p.m. with specific questions and we will discuss them then.”
The ancient Maya had interested me for many years. I was intrigued with their society since studying them in anthropology classes in college. So many things about them fascinated me: their mathematical advancements at such an early time in human history, their incredibly specific and accurate calendars, their astronomic knowledge, and their expansive civilization and modern day ruins. They were amazing architects that were in tune with their environment and the Earth’s cycles; so much so, that they implemented many of those elements into their architectural design.
Four years ago I found myself around these parts of Mexico. I was twenty-two years old and fresh from just graduating college. I had planned a backpacking adventure for myself through southern Mexico, specifically the Mayan route. I’d visited more than a dozen ruins, studied their architecture, and was wowed by the expanse of their empire. I would spend all day at different sites noting the difference in the designs, in the Gods worshipped, in the purpose of the site. I imagined women and men in white terra cloth trading jade and quetzal feathers. I would envision the pyramids as they once were: colorful offerings to the Gods. I could almost smell the copal incense smoke and see the turquoise stones ornamenting the figures of Chaac on temple walls.
Here I am again in the lands of the Maya. I can’t seem to escape this region. My dreams are cloaked in Mayan hieroglyphics that I can never decipher. Were the books burning? Did I forget the language? In my dreams, I catch glimpses of memories I think are mine, but never quite sure.
Come back with specific questions. His voice kept repeating this in my mind yet it was nearly 10 p.m. and my mind was a mess of Mayan words and symbols. It was as though my head had shifted from this compartmentalized notion of a people to a hodgepodge of random thoughts fluctuating from the symbolism behind one particular God to the pronunciation of the word ‘corn’ in Mayan.
Questions..questions…so many…like where did they go? The ancient Maya are rumored to have just vanished suddenly. Why do I feel so sick whenever I go to Chichen Itza? How did they view time? What was the obsession with the jaguar? What did the women do in society? Why am I so obsessed with them? Why do I keep coming back here? Out of all the places I want to travel to like India,Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, China, why do I come back here? What is it about this place?
The time had come and I started walking back to the restaurant.
“Yenni!” a golf cart zoomed past me. It was Ángel. What is it with these people and scaring me like that? I thought to myself as I got into the golf cart. He takes me to the beach and we sit on these chairs that lean back towards the sky. We have a perfect view of the stars.
“I thought about my questions,” I said.
“Good.” He replied while lighting a cigarette. There was something about him next to me that made my mind go blank. It wasn’t anxiety, in fact, the exact opposite of that. My mind had turned from a hodgepodge mess of God knows what to an expansive emptiness of nothingness and tranquility. I stared into the stars looking for words because it had seemed that the ones I had were stolen from me or lost somewhere in that moment.
Ángel took a long drag from his cigarette and stared into the stars as though expecting nothing from me.
“Tell me about you, how do you know so much of the Maya?” I asked thinking that this question might remind me of my own.
“I am a native to these lands. Not this island in particular but not far. I grew up in a Mayan town here in Quintana Roo,” he said. “My father knows many things and my aunt is a curandera and heals patients with plants and herbs. She has taught me many things, as my father has. We lived near many ruins and the jungle. Our town has always been very peaceful, looking to nature for answers rather than science. People in my town don’t go to medical doctors when they are sick; they go to my aunt.”
“I have studied with many medicine men and learned as much as possible about the curative properties of plants as well as other things…” He looked away from me and back at the sky, “We spoke Maya at home, a language that has afforded me many lessons from the shamans in my village and other Mayan villages. I have learned from those men who still keep the count in the Mayan calendar. Unfortunately, my town is not so small anymore and much is being forgotten. No one cares about the teachings anymore. I fear they will die unless the young people come together to help preserve them.”
“What will happen in 2012 when the long count Mayan calendar ends?” I ask.
He took a long sigh. “I cannot tell you this. I do not know, what I do know is that the Maya have had four such endings before in the Tzolk’in. They symbolized an ending to their worlds as they were but not an end to the world as a whole as many people say. After all, we do know the Maya persevered and continued recording their history. In many ways, the endings are symbolic of a specific age for them. They utilized astronomy a great deal in this calendar. There will be a cosmic event occurring on the 21st of December in 2012 that is rare and has not occurred in a very long time. Many of my teachers have said that this event will pave the way for the feminine within the earth to assume more power. The feminine, after all, symbolizes nurturing. Women feed the children and care for the families. Many teachers say that this is necessary because the Maya regard the Earth as a female deity since she does many of these things for us: feeding us, clothing us, nurturing us…and now she is threatened by pollution and man is no longer in synch with her. She must regain power.”
“Remember though, Yenni,” he said, “To the Maya, time was always cyclical and not linear like it is in our society. That is why in Chichén Itzá the observatory from which they observed the stars was called ‘caracol.’” ‘Caracol’ means spiral Conch shell. Its shape can be best described like a snail’s shell. “Their sense of time had much to do with the stars as did their calendars. The caracol was sacred to them because of its shape.”
I stared at the stars wondering if this was the same sky the Ancient Maya looked at. “It’s getting late,” he said, “how about we continue this conversation over breakfast tomorrow?”