First there were two of them, and then three and then five, maybe six, all in the same posture, hunching forward and snapping their whips in unison. The short, stocky men in matching sombreros looked almost comical as they marched in a tight circle around and around the stone patio. Snap! Crack! They whipped the floor of the terrace in a steady onslaught.
Perhaps their aggression was aimed at us, a band of four youthful adventurers openly visible in the palace tower barely 50 meters distant. “Naw,” assured Charlie offhandedly,” they’re just sweeping off the patio floor.” Sweeping with whips?
Charlie was always nonchalant about almost everything, but I was not so sure if we were welcome here at this early hour. However, we chose to ignore them from high above the scene, and they seemed to ignore us as the sun continued to rise and the new day unfolded.
On the day before and late into that evening, our trek of exploration had followed the jungle perimeters of this ancient site of a past civilization. Breathing in the lavish scent of flowering plants and reveling in the cornucopia of life with frogs and birds chiming away, we had clambered along the banks of a rushing jungle stream, and as night approached, our light chatter articulated the haunting threats of the local jaguars and added urgency to our quest.
* * * *
This stream of abundant water was in stark contrast to our trek days later but not so far in distance. Following a trail of fate with a dry and dusty ride in the back of a rock hauling truck, we disembarked as it left the main rode for a distant limestone quarry that undoubtedly served the ancients in building their cities and shrines. At this junction we found only one humble dwelling in a sea of flat jungle, and the occupants offered refreshment from their rain barrel of green, algae corrupted water.
“Why not strain the water through a tee shirt?” I suggested. Although gagging signs were the first reaction of my comrades, we commenced with the process and quenched our thirst as necessity dictated on this hot and dusty occasion.
Exploring the trails at hand behind this modest homestead brought us to surprisingly intact ruins of temples elaborately carved and overgrown with jungle. They were of moderate size, but of excellent quality and condition, and we were amazed that they were devoid of signage and unmarked on the detailed and extensive maps which I carried. Thrilled with the sense of discovery, we followed the trails and found more extensive structures of stone long ago resigned to the smothering leaves and vines.
At a village cantina further down this jungle road, the ceiling fans lazily coaxed away the heavy tropical air from a scattering of bar tables, as a veteran jaguar hunter ignited our imaginations with tales of stalking the jungle for the powerful beasts. Having explored for jaguars since 1956, he proclaimed “there are still plenty of jags out there, and the locals hold them in high regard, with an affinity that goes back millenniums.”
That affinity manifested itself in Mayan lore as their nocturnal jaguar god, which every evening replaced the sun god of daylight, since the jaguar god was of the dark underworld and hid the sun from the eyes of man. And to this day there are still jaguar masks worn in village jaguar festivals highlighted with wrestling and fighting.
Seeking out more Maya lore brought us to a nearby dwelling where a mysterious elderly woman spoke of the Maya past in her native tongue while a younger woman translated for us into Spanish. In a gifted moment, she revealed to us crude, translucent, quartz crystal lenses paired as eyeglasses. The elder claimed that these were used by Maya shamans of ancient times as she gave us the privilege of peering through their milky and mottled views. But alas, no extraordinary visions seemed to appear.
* * * *
We left the stream as twilight fell on our jungle exploration and the prevailing darkness drove us to our chosen sanctuary for the night. It loomed high above us as we entered the plaza in its shadow, and in youthful haste we navigated the ruins of stone and begin ascending the ziggurat with steps resounding like drumbeats to an ethereal anthem. In our ascent we followed in the footsteps of the great lord Pacal, the builder and emperor of this city and its temples, and whose eternal slumber was beneath our feet under tons of limestone, deep within his Temple of Inscriptions.
It was at the top of the pyramid and in the protection of its alcove that I reflected on what I had come here for, to be immersed in the underworld of the classical Maya priest kings. For one starlit night I could fully appreciate those ancients who had mastered the sciences of the heavens.
Throughout this starry night, as my mind opened up to the black sky, purple hieroglyphics streamed down like lightning bolts, interchanging between my eyes and the furthest depths of the ageless constellations. When this deluge from the heavens subsided, I peered through the haze at an earthly level, and to my right appeared a surreal scene of urban life as it was, an intact vision from the past appearing like a snap shot of activity in an ancient time and place.
It seemed an eternity passed before the dawn again closed the door on the celestial night ruled by the jaguar god and opened to a new day. Slowly the blazing tropical sun began to emerge, illuminating the jungle tree tops that were hugging the flat plain spread out before us. In unison with the increasing glow of light, a hum of insect and bird life grew in intensity.
In the new light the old stone walls came alive with their sculpted chieftains and warriors, jaguar gods and feathered serpents. Stelae after stelae lined the courtyards in a magnificent display, and I pondered over the intense labor, the painstaking chipping and chiseling by legions of artisans, that was never fully described in the history books.
Like four sets of wide open lemur eyes absorbing the morning light, we peered from the open cubicle at the top of the four story palace tower high above the jungle. Down and to my left, a group of short stocky men in sombreros began whipping a nearby terrace in unison….
Where on Earth?! Palenque, Mexico 1971