Two days ago now, we took a tour to Chichen Itza. We met a guide and rode the ferry from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen, where the rest of the tour would meet us. We clambered into the 14-passenger deluxe van. We wound around through narrow streets. It seemed stop signs and streetlights were mere suggestions. I couldn’t watch.
Nelson handed us food packets. Mine contained a ham sandwich with onions and a little package of cookies, like Pinwheels back in the States. And a little bottle of mango juice. I downed it all. Breakfast was hours ago.
We stopped at a grand hotel off the highway. Our driver, Nelson, turned and greeted us.
“We need to pick up some more passengers,” he said.
We drove and drove. The mainland jungle pressed in on both sides. The foliage reached near-uniform heights all along the highways. Nelson passed people, the yellow line the faintest of markings. Was it solid? Was it broken? Couldn’t tell.
Finally, we stopped in a small quaint city.
“We pick up your guide here,” Nelson announced with boyish optimism. “You have 30 minutes free time.”
At this point, I didn’t want any free time. It was 11:30. We had been in the van for more than 3 hours. Are we there yet?!
We stepped out into the furnace and wandered the streets. We took pictures of the front of the church there.
We wandered the square. I felt like a slug melting along the sidewalk. I got a coconut popsicle and Jonathon found a shirt made by local artisans.
Aside: As a short person, I have found, visiting in Mexico, that I am not the shortest person in the world. In fact, there’s a whole country of people shorter than me. It’s pretty cool.
We got back in the van, declining the offer of great local tequila.
“Amigos, I am your guide, Herman. I will be telling you about Chichen Itza. I am Mayan, and these are my people. This city” – he pointed out the window as the van pulled away – “is a magical city. It’s full of history and legends.” His eyes blazed with passion.
“But first, we stop for lunch. There’s a restaurant here that serves Mayan food. Not as spicy as Mexican food, but very good. Buffet lunch and you can have a soft drink. If you want beer, you’re on your own.”
A shaman sat outside, burning off evil spirits, or mosquitoes. The restaurant held an extensive gift shop filled with Mayan art – plates, jewelry, carved stone daggers. At this point, even the South Americans on the trip were complaining about the heat. We sat with a couple from Peru and another from Buenos Aires. Conversation was stilted at best. A bright blue pool sat just outside the eating area. We joked about diving in. It had a slide and everything. Who would know?
Finally, we reached Chichen Itza. It was 1:30 p.m., the start of the hottest part of the day. It was 84 degrees with 84% humidity. Herman picked up our tickets and we entered the historical area. We walked along the dirt paths. Vendors lined both sides, tables laden with painted ceramic skulls, T-shirts and silver jewelry.
“Hey, lady, all this only one dollar. Come see,” hopeful salesmen would call out as we passed.
Several other vendors used wooden instruments to make panther sounds or the calls of tropical birds to get tourists’ attention.
But back to Herman’s tuition.
“When Cortez arrived here, he found the ruins, covered by the jungle. The Mayans were gone. All the royalty, nobility, aristocracy had vanished. The only people left were the common folk. They lived in villages all around this square, this plaza. They kept the traditions alive through stories, passed down from one generation to another.”
We walked around the plaza to Kukulcan, the feathered serpent god. We learned about the soccer-like game the upper class played twice a year and how the best player got sacrificed to the gods at the end of the game. I think, sometimes, it pays to hold back a little on your abilities.
“They would cut his head off, and offer his heart up to the gods,” Herman told us. This culture, he told us, was a religion of death. They worshiped it and believed the best came in the next life. It was an honor to be given an honorable way to get there.
In fact, a lot of heart-ripping went on with this ancient people. I have to say I was a bit put off. But then I realized, these people, this culture has been mostly dead for a millennia. We have what stories survived and the carvings on the buildings and walls to go by.
“What about music?” I asked, as Herman pointed out the excellent acoustics in the soccer arena by clapping. He said 7 echoes followed each sound.
“Oh, yes, musica! They had great concerts here, mostly at the spring equinox and the winter solstice.”
Then he went on to talk a lot about the math involved in the temples. Fifty-two columns, 13 sets of 4 steps, etc. Frankly, the math talk, fascinating as those astronomers and astrologers were, made me sleepy.
We ended up with an hour to discover Chichen Itza on our own. We strolled by the walls, restored by archaeologists. In 2007, Chichen Itza was proclaimed a wonder of the world and thus off limits to any climbing or touching. Ropes and signs saying “don’t touch” surrounded every monument.
Then the clouds rolled in. A light mist fell, then a downpour. The rain cooled things down a little.. Thousands of people milled around the ruins. Behind us, I could see a mother and child playing. The mother blew bubbles. The daughter chased them. It looked like joy in motion.
It inspired me. It made me think of this:
Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” – I Corinthians 15:54-55
Because ultimately, even here on earth, life conquers death. Plants grew out of the ruins. The jungle crept in and took over the great towers and shrines to a long-lost deity. It’s a foreshadowing of the next life, a foretaste of glory divine. We don’t worship death, but we do believe the best is yet to come.