Monday, July 25, 2011

A Weekend in Tikal - Guatemala

Part of our humanity seems to be our capacity to be inspired beyond our expectations, and while this may happen more frequently than not, it still seems to be new every time it happens. The trigger could be a daily scene, an encounter with a set of puppies, a stirring verbal exhortation, or an amazing natural vista. They are each unique catalysts towards an integration of sights, sounds, feelings, history, and thoughts that soon swell into a "something more" than we thought possible. And since each is utterly unique, comparison is fruitless and simply unimportant.

Our visit to Tikal was one such experience during our stay here in Antigua. It's an experience that also seems to require very early rising, by the way. On Saturday morning, we were standing in front of the house in Antigua at 4:00 AM in the early morning darkness and almost complete silence, with just a dog wandering down the street, a passing police truck whose occupants waved to us (I'm sure they knew exactly what we were about), and a couple of weaving men at the corner having a cigarette and gesturing to one another. After a couple of minutes of standing, a tour van appeared and soon enough John, myself, and the other passenger (Lindsey) were on our way to Guatemala City and the early morning flight to Flores, the nearest town to Tikal.

Thankfully, TAG airlines had facilities on the other side of the Guatemala City international airport, so we were saved from long lines. There were no seat numbers, just a boarding pass with a 1, 2, 3, or 4 on them. An hour or so after arriving, our group was called and directed to a small plane - open seating. Then it was off into the air, the little plane slewing from side to side, and the 45 minute flight to Flores. Once there, the helpful taxi drivers and hotel drivers outside the terminal pointed us to the person with the "Tikal Inn" bus, and an hour later (he had to wait for another flight) we made the 90-minute drive to the park, with "Nixon" our tour guide talking most of the way in Spanish and in fairly good English.

At the Tikal Inn, within the park itself, we checked into our little cabana by the pool and settled in. The "regular" tour would begin 20 minutes later and go for 3-4 hours, visiting 70% of the park. Then the afternoon and following day were meant to be for visiting local shops and the like. The other option, which we chose, was to "upgrade" to an evening tour and an early morning tour, covering the park at a more leisurely pace and avoiding the crowds (600 people on average per day). Since John was particularly interested in watching birds, the evening tour was the better option.

There was no regular electricity at the Tikal Inn, but the generator was run in the early mornings and from 7:30 - 10:00 PM at night. While most of the group went on tour, John and I wandered around the property, he looking for birds and myself checking out the visitors center and buying a floppy hat for the hot, humid, insect-happy environment. The midday meal was provided as part of the package, and here we were well surprised. The food was exceptional in every way. Nothing fancy, but very fresh and well-prepared. From what I could tell, they use orange and lime juice more than we might, and that makes a big difference. It's a fine place to stay, especially since in the park itself. (Tikal Inn Website) After lunch, a bit of siesta and then the tour.

Our tour commenced around 4:00 PM, and the nine of us on the tour met Abel in the lobby. He was a very interesting character, clearly knowledgeable and of wide experience. He spoke loudly and had a somewhat aggressive personality, although very polite and solicitous of everyone in the group. We ended up being with him for some seven hours total, so I think most of us became used to his ways. He'd grown up at Tikal, had studied accounting, had returned after the civil war - where he'd lost some siblings and been in jail - and had become a tour guide. He said he was too lazy and preachy to be anything else at this point.

The tour experience was well laid out, staring with innocent enough things (crocodile pond nearby, scale models of Tikal, nearby vegetation) and moved to some of the smaller, half-repaired parts of the site. Gradually, we came to the big stuff. And these were impressive. You would see them from a bit away, jutting up out of the canopy - everyone froze in their tracks to take their first photographs. Then we'd approach more slowly, turn a corner, and there they were in all their ruinous grandeur. As we moved along, Abel would point out things in the jungle, tell us about Mayan history, pick up obsidian nuggets and pieces of pottery from the ground, find an insect we'd never be able to see, and the like. We were gradually being initiated into the world of the Maya, where the library of nature reigned supreme.

One of the things that struck me was that most of the 20 (?) square miles that houses the park is still very much a jungle. It's only in a few places that vegetation has been cleared and reconstruction has taken place. Between the various sites, you walk along small paths, some of them along old 50-wide ancient canals (the burms are visible in the jungle on the sides) where other life predominates. And with a purported 3,000 buildings within the entire complex, they haven't even begun to scratch the surface of the potential archaeological riches under the ground. Of the buildings that have been "cleaned up" only a few have undergone reconstruction; most of it paid for by Japan. For many of them, what you see is what was there.

The plan worked out so that we could be on top of the largest building, Temple IV, at sunset. Thankfully, we didn't have to climb the stone steps - steep, high, and precipitous. A sturdy staircase had been introduced on the side of the temple, and 182 steps later we were on the top level, overlooking the jungle canopy and seeing the sun sink beneath the clouds. I ended up sitting on the opposite side, overlooking the tops of Temple I and Temple II, since that was really the impressive scene. Looking over those trees, sitting at the apex of the largest temple and seeing the tops of the other temples as the sun was setting, one thought many thoughts, none making much sense - but that was okay in this kind of setting. Not only thoughts about the people who dwelt here from 800 BC until 700 AD, but also about why they moved elsewhere and left everything behind. The most popular theory has to do with drought and simple migration. A shaky video of my arrival on top of Temple IV is here.

We walked back in the dark through the jungle along a different path, one that was really a small trail. There were interesting sounds every once in a while from the wall of green on each side. It's amazing to think that if any one of us had veered off the path for even 10 feet, we'd be utterly lost. Once back at the Tikal Inn, we took our showers since the heat and humidity had been intense. John decided not to do the early morning hike but simply to go bird watching on his own, and pretty soon we were both zonked out, fast asleep.

Although John had forgotten to set his alarm for 3:30 AM so that I could join the early bird crowd, I woke up at 3:38 AM when I heard sounds outside. The rooms had thatched roofs and open-air "windows" all around, with screens thankfully, so that you heard everything from the outside. What had awakened me were the others going to the lobby for the 4 AM departure. I hurried to get dressed in the dark (no electricity, remember) and got to the lobby in time to have a cup of coffee that Abel had prepared. At least it tasted like coffee in the dark.

Then off we went along a different path to go back to Temple IV, the one furthest away in park. This time, Nixon came along quietly too, staying at the front while Abel kept up the rear. This turned out to be a good thing, since one person in our party was a bit overweight and elderly needed to go more slowly. An hour or so later, hiking in that dark jungle, we reached the stairs and made our way to the top of Temple IV where the now-familiar area was quickly covered with quiet folks watching the darkness before us.

This is the experience that I'll remember for a long time. As the night turned to grey dawn and the mist lightened, you could hear Howler monkeys sounding their deep-throated, gurgling calls from very far away, interspersed by 3 - 5 seconds of silence. Then another troupe would respond some distance away. And so it went for 15 - 20 minutes, echoing throughout the jungle canopy and gradually getting louder and moving more closely. Then all of a sudden, a troupe that seemed not 100 yards away began their roaring as well. It was as if someone had cranked up the stereo. At one point, there was a sonic track of Howler money calls reaching from my near left to the far right, punctuated by a profound silence, with an expanding view of the jungle canopy and an increasingly lighter mist that hung over everything. (Temples I and II were obscured entirely and we never saw them.) Once it had become lighter, the sounds changed and the monkey calls from far away began to stop or fade away. But the bird chatter began. It was as if all the bass instruments in an orchestra had carried the theme, brought it to a crescendo and were now gradually handing it over to the flutes. A wide variety of bird sounds filled the air, sharing the sonic spectrum for a while with the Howlers but then dominating the dawn and filling it with eager anticipation of the day.

Once it was light enough to move around, Able pointed out a number of bird species to me, most of which I forgot. I do however remember the Keel-Billed Toucan (the beak is shaped like a boat keel, hence the name), two of which were poised on a dead tree below us. And there was red-crowned song bird not 20 feet away from the top platform in a nearby tree, singing its little heart out. Just before leaving, we heard the resident hawk take off, screeching across the canopy on its daily rounds.

Somewhat reluctantly, we left Temple IV and continued our tour now that it was light. Since it was still quite early, we pretty much had the place to ourselves, and for the next couple of hours we visited a variety of sites and Able told us a lot about the Mayan system of counting, their astronomy, and some of their religious practices. Basically, you don't want to play their "volleyball" game, and you certainly don't want to lose. If you do, you're painted blue and beheaded. Puts a whole new twist on "sore loser" doesn't it? The Mayan cosmology, let along its culture, are as fascinating as they are mysterious. You could spend a lifetime studying them and still only scratch the surface. Just think of how strange we think our own culture was when we look at photographs from some 50-100 years ago. Project that about 2500 years back and you've got a cultural chasm that lies beyond our ken.

One of the things we did was pursue a nearby troupe of Howler monkeys, walking into the jungle and following their calls, most of which were responses to the calls that Abel made - and he did a pretty darn good imitation. Finally, they were right above us, excited as can be, thinking that we were poaching their territory. Of course all we poached were pictures.

We got back to the Tikal Inn at around 8:30 AM. Abel had done a fine job in showing us around. He'd been dropping hints about tips all along and most if not all the people in the group gave him a 5-10 dollar tip, which he appreciated. In that environment, every little bit helps.

John had spent his time bird-watching but had waited for me to return so that we could have breakfast together. Again, it was a wonderful meal. I was especially impressed with the syrup for the pancakes. John was asking the waiters about some birds he had seen, and they were kindly trying to figure out what he was asking and looking at the pictures he was pointing to in his bird-watching book. Finally, a lady at a nearby table cutting a melon section into tiny pieces (for the Coati in her room) came over and explained, in very good English, what John wanted to know. Her name was Roxy and she was a naturalist who gave tours in the area and knew at least as many birds as John did.

John, being the friendly guy he is, soon had her engaged in a conversation about birds, and we ended up talking with her quite a while. John asked if she would do a morning naturalist tour of the area with us, since we wouldn't be leaving the Tikal Inn until 2:30 PM, and she agreed to spend a couple of hours with us. And so we had a wonderful "extra" tour by this naturalist and archaeologist who really knew her stuff. She'd spent six years in Atlanta during her high school years and knew English real well, although it took a while to lose the southern accent that tour groups found funny ("If y'all look at that there pay-ra-mid ..."). She took us all around the property, to places we'd passed by earlier and didn't know existed, pointing out native birds from 100 yards away with her naked eye, highlighting vegetation and medicinal herbs, pointing out animal tracks in the mud, tracking a rare bird that they had both heard but couldn't find even after 30 minutes of quiet movement into the trackless part of the jungle. This little excursion was one of the highlights of the trip.

The thing that I particularly liked is the "formula" she gave for that breakfast syrup. It wasn't maple syrup at all but was made from Allspice. Abel had crushed up Allspice leaves on the tour and had each of us smell it. Roxy pointed out that the Allspice berries, which we can get in the U.S. are what's used for this "miel" as they call it. You take a handful of Allspice berries, put it in about 2 cups of water and let it sit for 3 hours, letting the berries expand into the water. Then you heat it up, filter it, add sugar and cinnamon, and reduce it down to a syrup-like consistency. Now you have wonderful syrup for pancakes and the like. I know I'm going to try this one when I get home.

As a kicker for our "extra" naturalist tour, Roxy took us to the back of the the Tikal Inn, where the staff is housed, and brought out two juvenile Coati. These are of the ant-eater family, and these two little buggers would not have survived if Roxy hadn't taken them from the wild. She's now their "mother" and they follow her around like puppies. She's bottle-feeding them, and as they were exploring the grass around her, she would catch the occasional cricket and feed it to one of them. Her plan is to wait until they are beyond bottle feeding and then re-introduce them to one of the Coati troupes that live among the ruins. Since these are two females, the troupe will very likely adopt them and "educate" them as their natural mother would have. We stayed out there talking about nature and Coati and taking care of wild animals for a while and then went back to the restaurant for a bit of refreshment (I had my second Licuado, made of papaya and milk and ice; much better than my first).

If you know of folks who would like to see Tikal or any other Mayan site, have them contact the Tikal Inn and ask for Roxzanda Ortiz (Roxy). As an archaeologist, naturalist, and guide with 32 years of experience, she can arrange and guide trips in Tikal or other remote sites such as Nakbe, Nakum, Yaxha, Mirador, and a host of others. John and I would recommend her very highly.

Soon enough the bus was loaded and we were on our way back to Flores and our return flight, this time on a slightly larger plane.

So that was the trip. Lots of words, I know, but realize that there's a lot more behind the words and I'm only sharing tidbits of the experience. The more interesting impressions may be found in the photographs below (click on the photographs in order to go through them individually, with their captions):