I’m horribly, horribly behind in updating this whole thing. My apologies. In my defence, Mexico is really poor and the internet is pretty crappy at the best of times.
I’ve been in Mexico for ten days now and I’m shocked that it’s evidently the poorest place I’ve visited yet. For such a vast, rich nation with an abundance of natural resources, soil fertility and a pleasant climate, pooping in a lidless toilet and then flushing it with a bucket of water thrown in at sufficient power to instigate a flush seems a little backwards. The spicy food does not aid in this procedure, as you may have guessed and my stomach has suffered all week. Judging from the sounds from the public bathrooms, the locals seem to have the same problem. Thank Shiva I´m not alone…
Tacos, quesadillas, pescadillas, burrittos, tortas, tlyudas, chorizo, nachos, grasshoppers, guacamoloe, papaya, coconut – all come with the option of excess chilli which I rather foolishly (read:deliciously) ate with a furious appetite at very little cost. A taco may cost some 3-5 pesos, approximately £0.20 or €0.17 at a market stand. I do worry over food hygiene and general rules of sanitation out here (see the bucket flushing mechanism above) and it’s quite likely that that’s the source of my digestive agitation.
Nights have been regularly interrupted by voluminous sessions of Johnny Cash Syndrome.
My apologies to those sensitive souls shocked that I would begin a post on my travels through Central America by discussing pooping processes, but it’s been a shiny week of chili con caca out here in the sunshine. I haven’t had a good chance to update this all, so give me a short while to catch up.
To begin roughly where I left off last post:
Mayan Ruins of Tikal
Taking a bus from Antigua Guatemala to Guatemala City and then on to Florés took some fourteen hours. This wouldn’t be so bad if it hadn’t been for the two sweaty, vest-wearing Guatemalans sitting to my left and right. I was right in the middle seat at the very back of the bus… right where there’s no air con. It was quite uncomfortable.
Anyway, I arrived in Florés, a wonderful little town on an island in a lake at about 04:30, my body exhausted and in need of a real bed. I grabbed a bus out to the Mayan Ruins at Tikal which included a tour for four hours or so. I didn’t realise it took another two hours to get out there, so I slept yet again on the bus to the ruins.
Once there, dawn was breaking slowly. My tour group was composed of the usual mix of Germans, Australias and other assorted Europeans. Not in the mood to socialise after several bustling days in Antigua, I opted for mere chatting and the like. Then I saw the ruins and started to completely ignore the people in favour of excessive contemplation, deep thought and to begin feeling the emotions of such an old place. I gasped in awe at the majesty of the complexes, the richness of culture, the many-layered dilapidation and historical beauty of it all.I felt awe inspired at the mastery of form and meaning the Mayans achieved in their short lived civilisation. I tried my hardest to imagine the city as it looked in its prime. Hundreds of thousands of people, the bustle, the intensity of city life now extinct.
I thought of the lives lived a thousand years ago. Less than ten, maybe twenty of the lives have survived into the modern times, their legacy written in runes, on walls and in histories of these people. These were the lives of the rulers, the priests, the most important of the Mayan in Tikal. Nothing is said of the bakers, the farmers, the builders and engineers, their lives as insignificant as the wheat they sow. Their names and memories lost forever within fifty years of their passing, their contribution evident, but forgotten. Only those who led them deserve mention now.
I thought the fact the rulers of Tikal were taller and lived almost twice as long as the serfs was pretty significant. Apparently, the bones measured the royals at about 170-190 cm – that’s tall even by modern standards. Considering the modern descendants are pretty short, one can only assume they towered above the citizenry, impressive in their fine regalia, their jaguar costumes, feathers and jade everywhere, twice the age and three times as wise. How could a peasant dispute their God-like stature in the face of such magnificence? It was these powerful mind games that enabled the rulers of Tikal to keep a solid grip on the city for some seven hundred years.
Side Note: In the Nickelodeon cartoon Invader Zim, the Irken aliens, race of the protagonist Zim, live in a height-based hierarchy and their leaders are referred to as the “Almighty Tallest”. I wonder if the Mayans did the same.
Ultimately, it was doomed to fail. Internal conflict, war and famine seem the most likely causes for the fall of Tikal as a major centre of Mayan civilisation. The city dominated in the political, economic and military affairs of the region and had somewhere between 40,000 and 90,000 inhabitants. That requires a lot of grain and a pretty solid agricultural system – which may have been lacking. In the end, overpopulation probably killed Tikal. Too many mouths and too many wars takes its toll and the great city collapsed towards the end of the first millenium, only to return to significance when it was used by George Lucas in Star Wars (site of the rebel base at the end of a New Hope, snork).
I spent almost thirteen hours in Tikal, meditating and pondering at the foot of the ruins, at the apex of temples and upon sacrificial stones while spider monkeys threw down the remains of figs from above. The wildlife in the park was exceptional: crocodiles, tucans, howler monkeys, giant trees, gorgeous flowers, vast vine systems and the variety of flora I’ve come to expect from the jungle.
The Mayan temples are truly spectacular. Some of them reach a height of some 50m and contained expansive chambers within them. The acoustics were one thing that shocked me. A normal volume conversation at the top of one pyramid can be heard perfectly at the bottom. This did not go well for a Swiss fellow chatting with an Asstralian about his girlfriend below. Something along the lines of: “We’re not really together, it’s more that she’d just be really angry if she heard me say that” or words to that effect. She was seated below, taking photos and I was descending the temple steps, their conversation audible all the way down. Dark scowls passed her face as the restless spirits of Mayan audio engineers chuckled to themselves, their plan to cause chaos for tourists defiling their life’s work an unmitigated success.
At times I wonder if the only reason we built the metropolises of London, New York and the like is so our descendants can show rich (Chinese?) tourists around the decaying heart of what was once a multi-continent-spanning empire.
Tikal was a beautiful place indeed – the temple-tops peeking through the canopy is a truly spectacular sight. I do love a day spent doing nothing but thinking about the grand mysteries of time and civilisation. In the ruins, the fragility of our society is laid out before you in the spectacular remains of a once great city, its alien architecture absorbed by a jungle and nature that cares not for the thought and effort put into creating it. I pondered upon the fragility of civilisation for one long day using the ruins as my muse.
We would lucky to be remembered in thirty years with any clarity, extraordinarily lucky to remembered in a hundred or two hundred years. Absent of high political office, works of great creativity, great wealth, great experiences, most lives pass by with only the slightest notice. In a thousand years, 99.999999999965% of people alive today will be irrelevant to the existent population. Most of us will leave a genetic legacy, but what will we leave that is tangible? My genetic legacy goes back almost a billion years, as does yours, but how many of that line do we know of? My mother’s family traces back some 600 years or more. My father’s tree struggles beyond 200 years and even there exist gaps. A thousand years ago, I have no idea who my ancestors were, how they lived, what they learnt, what they wanted to share with me. They could have been peasants rucking in the dirt or chainmail-wearing bandits in the woods shooting holy men for the money in their tassels, barons in the Scottish Glens hoarding land and gold, an archer crossing over with the Normans worried that William the Conqueror might be poorly-equipped for the ensuing invasion or an Anglo-Saxon huscarl fighting tribes unknown, thinking of his wife and child back home, thinking of his future. I don’t know who they were or what they did, all I know is that I don’t know them. Their legacy can only be felt in ripples, their blood flowing through mine and the confidence I can gain by knowing that their genes and DNA were successful enough to survive in this world. I know little beyond the fact that every single one of my ancestors successfully got laid and had children – otherwise they wouldn’t be my ancestors.
Does this make our lives insignificant, unnecessary or frivolous, this body and mind a temporary experience with little bearing on the grand scale of evolution or even on the lives of others? No. Absolutely not. I don’t really have much proof against that, so I guess it’s more of an argument against because I dislike the ramifications if it were true. Moving on. It is our duty to live as best we can for ourselves and our peers, but also for the future of all mankind. If they learn from our mistakes, they evolve and progress beyond us, even without appreciating what we did for them, our descendants live better than we did and our existence had been justified and worthwhile. They should live stronger, fuller, happier lives with equal or greater meaning to our own – they will only do this if with every generation we build upon the mistakes and successes of every previous generation. The arc of the future, judging from the past, tends towards the greater good, towards justice, towards enlightenment. We may or may not be able to control the destination, but the rate at which that future is brought into being is within our control. We can learn. That’s what civilisation is. That’s what humans do. That’s what pushes us forward as a species.
We are just as fragile as the Mayan peoples and civilisation – we may live for longer, we may live more comfortably, with more boredom-curing devices, more life-easing technology and we may believe ourselves far more advanced in every sphere of society, technology, thought and mysticism, but we cannot escape that which collapsed their lives, their civilisation. Just as the Roman, the Mongol, the Persian, the Khmer, the Napoleonic and the British Empires have fallen from grace, each new civilisation, each new way of organising a society gets better every time, is still subject to that which all humans are, that inescapable state of being: mortality.
Our own lives are for us first, for those around us second, but they are always for all people for the rest of time. If we don’t work work for the betterment of all, we all suffer and collapse is inevitable. That is the lesson I learned from Tikal.
Wrecked, I made my way to Florés at dusk. This is a wonderful little town built onto an island on a lake. There are a couple of lovely restaurants, including one Mayan speciality place that serves a variety of birds and endangered species, but the prices were a little prohibitive for me. My ongoing quest to eat as many different animals as possible is hindered by my price sensitivity on this trip. Once I actually start to make some real money, then I’ll go and eat the darker side of carnivorous living.
I went out for some food with a Canadian fellow I met in Costa Rica and some friends of his. There, I met a lovely German couple who at the time of writing, I’ve been travelling with for about two weeks. Roman and Tina are Berliners, a banker and film editor respectively and very good company. Both are relatively experienced travellers, intelligent and know how to make a party. That’s right – make a party. In English, we tend to say “have a party”, meaning some sort of possession or inclusion in a party. IN German, they make a party which I think is a far superior concept. To create, to nurture and to grow a party is to make one, you don’t just experience it, you caused it. I’m going to do my hardest to get this phrase into English and to not just sound like a poor translation because a party is what you make it and it is made by the people in it, not just enjoyed. So Roman and Tina were on their way to Palenque, Mexico, too and I was getting the same bus as them. It turns out we’d planned an almost identical route for the next two weeks, so we joined forces and made an adventure.
The bus to Mexico took about nine hours. this one left at 05:00, so I got about four hours sleep before rising and jumping on the bus. At this point, I had not slept properly in a bed or for a full night in three days. My body was starting to feel it.
The bus journey was uneventful but naturally the view from the bus was lovely. The best part was towards the border, where we jumped on a boat for about ten people and made our way up river to Mexico. Along the route, locals washed their clothes in the water, cattles grazed nearby and we enjoyed the shore and the jungle as we made our way north. The border crossing was easy as hell – pretty much just a stamp saying I have 180 days in Mexico. Although this was my first experience with Mexican sanitation – the bathroom had no toilet seat and no toilet paper and the flusher didn’t work. I thought this was just a rarity, but my vexatious experiences with toilets in Mexican continues.
And thus the post comes full circle!
Coming Next- Mexico!