Yucatan, 900 AD
How do you get to know an ancient culture that is shrouded in mystery? One that supposedly predicts the end of the world this December?
I went to the Yucatan to investigate the ancient Maya during the Terminal Classic Period (900 AD), when the awe-inspiring cities of Chichen Itza and Uxmal were at their peaks. My mission was to learn as much as I could about the ancient Maya, their way of life, spirituality, how they saw the world (flat, as is turns out, four corners representing religious elements).
In the deep humidity of the jungle, I tour Chichen Itza with a well-known archeologist, who is a wealth of information. Yet I am bottomless with questions: “When was the city abandoned? Wasn’t Chichen taken over by the Toltec? I read that the Castillo is a 3-D Mayan calendar?” With answers come more questions, contradictions with my research. One theme becomes apparent: “We don’t really know.” Trying to wrap my head around the details, I’m somehow lost to the big picture.
Afterward, I arrive at Hacienda Chichen and am greeted with a glass of Chaya from Beatiz Correa, Director of their Maya Spa. Beatriz has a glow, warmth in her aura, and quite a sense of humor. She is seventy years young, not a wrinkle over forty, and has an intense confidence that’s intoxicating.
Beatriz and the Mayan holistic healers (aka Maya X-Men) show me around the gardens of the hacienda where we smell, feel, sometimes taste, and give thanks to all of the herbs for allowing us to use their healing powers (chaya , hoja santa, lemongrass). Everything is One. Time is cyclical rather than linear. 2012 is a year of rebirth.
I decide to tour Izamal (City of Three Cultures), a particularly unique town that is literally layered in history – Mayan ruins dating back to 600 AD, with an enormous Catholic church built on top, surrounded by a humble Mexican town.
Driving my car through the town square, I spot a man dressed all in white, wearing a traditional Mayan necklace. He’s waving at me enthusiastically. My guide, Israel, cannot be more than 18.
Walking through Saint Anthony’s Convent, I realize that I only understand 65 percent of what Israel says, but his friendly demeanor, genuine patience, and striking enthusiasm wins me over immediately. We explore all three cultures, the bastion of 16th Century Catholicism (visited by Pope John Paul II in 1993), Mayan ruins, and local workshops – an herbalist, a woodcarver, a jeweler.
When Israel notices that the jeweler isn’t there to demonstrate his craft, he opens his home to me to personally show me how to make a necklace from coconut seeds. Israel’s home is essentially a hut with a thatched roof, reminiscent of the ancient Maya, with a dirt yard that has seemingly random items strewn across it: power tools, a dead armadillo, children’s toys. I’m out of my comfort zone. “Get over yourself, Long Island girl,” I think, “This…this is travel; this is understanding.” The flies, the dirt, the sweat running down my ponytail all fades with the kindness in Israel’s eyes as he makes me a necklace from a single coconut seed. He drills, polishes, and sings.
Israel—a young father, archeology student, living within minimal means—is genuinely happy. I breathe and allow the happiness to raise my heart. As I thank Israel, he tells me that the next time I come back to see him, he will be certified to perform an ancient Mayan blessing.
As a continuing student of history, I have a tremendous amount of questions about details and timelines. In truth, whether Chichen Itza was taken over by the Toltec or influenced by their architectural style through travel doesn’t really matter. Facts are a great backdrop. Really understanding the Maya is to feel the vitality of Beatriz and the love she sends to every herb and to allow Israel’s enthusiasm to affect you.
As far as the world ending, when I ask the archeologist about the infamous December date, he responds with a smile and says, “If the Maya were still living in Chichen Itza, December 21st would be one heck of a celebration.”