September 05, 2006
Tikal’s Mayan Ruins
To the north of Guatemala – a ten hour bus ride or hour hop in a puddle jumper from Guatemala City, lies Tikal’s Mayan Ruins, a known Malaria zone. In its hayday (400-900 A.D.), a half a million people lived in the settlement, some of which is in its original form and some of it restored. 869 is the last evidence of a ‘recorded monument,’ not long before the entire Mayan civilization collapsed in 900 A.D.
In Jared Diamond’s: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he covers Mayan society, using comparative methods to understand societal collapses to which environmental problems contribute, as well as climatic change, hostile neighbors, loss of trading partners and the society’s own responses to all of these issues. In addition to Central American Guatemala, he talks about the Polynesians of Pitcairn Island, Easter Island, the Anasazi, and the Greenland Norse.
Despite the fact that since the collapse in the 10th century, it has not been occupied since, its remarkable to think of a 500 year success, when we’ve barely passed 200, not all of which was as a global superpower.
My first impression of the ruins, particularly the center, was “this was the Times Square of ancient civilization.” Under the grass lay four layers of pavement, the oldest of which was 150 B.C. and the newest at around 700 A.D.
Strangely, the ruin site did not leave me with a spiritual connection, in the way so many other ancient sites have. Perhaps it was the neatly trimmed lawn encircled by the prestidious white fence, benches and garbage bins, or could it be the arrogance and complacence of the lodge waiters and staff, who preferred we’d simply go home?
Was it the shocking Americanization of the solo three lodges themselves, complete with 1980s rock music, Dell laptops and western menus, all of which included English and American breakfasts, hamburgers and pizza.
It was a stark contrast from the authentic villages and towns we just left; the prices reflected the western influence, so much so that many items were more expensive than they would in a large U.S. city.
Trickles of local corruption were more and more apparent by the day, such as the park guard suggesting we could pay him half the entry fee if we did so directly. It was not even clear to me if the official $5 fee went directly to the preservation of the park and with the extraordinary elevated prices of our turismo surroundings, I was left feeling more cynical than grateful, a far cry from an emotion I’d typically feel in such a natural wonder.
Despite the western impact, the early morning walks through the jungle made Tikal exceptional and worth the trek. Between four and six am, the monkeys can be heard in unison – and sometimes not – topped with a layer of indigenous birds calling to the jungle below. Other exotic animals add harmony to the otherwise loud buzz that both thrill and mesmerize you.
The jungle is both exotic and exciting, invigorating and chilling, breathtaking and surreal, yet surprisingly not at all emotional, which half a dose of such breathtaking environs and natural wonders would otherwise invoke.
It was in this environment I received word from home that a client closed a deal with Wells Fargo, and would release the news the following Monday at the Gartner Conference in Boston. At this point, I was detached from the technology world and corporate rat race, yet my mind quickly sprung to action (albeit quiet action), curious how close we were to finalizing other such deals.
Grateful to be present with both worlds (and not lose the natural one in lieu of the fabricated one), I couldn’t help but wonder how easy it would be operate in two countries well beyond a holiday.
Monsoon showers and unreliable electricity would play havoc with a regular business day’s productivity, yet perhaps the ability to be more present during the time you had, would make up for such setbacks. Sustainable presence amidst a world where technology controls you rather than the other way around, is difficult if not impossible at times.
Working from the lodge wasn’t entirely pleasant. Unlike the Guatemalans I’ve encountered elsewhere on our trip, our Tikal lodge hosts were more aggressive, and at times, even antagonistic. I wondered whether it was because we – the rich tourist – have induced a negative and perhaps irreversible effect on the local community, not unlike the arrival of the Coke bottle from the Gods Must Be Crazy.
While this is always so when western affluence meets the third world, it was more prominent in Tikal, a saddening observation.
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Great photos, which other maya places have you visited? I love maya ancient knowledge as long with the other ancient civilizations. Love the post.
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