Thursday, August 20, 2009

Off the Bus - Tikal

gran plazaTikal (or Tik’al, according to the more current orthography) was a religious and government center in the Mayan world for about 800 years, starting about when Hannibal was crossing the Alps in 200 BC. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, in a six-square mile protected biosphere.
VIEW FROM TEMPLE FOURPhotobucket It is the largest of the ancient ruined cities of the Maya civilization, and is located in the El Petén department of Guatemala. This view from Temple IV was used as a filming location for Yavin 4 in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, looking east where Temple I, II and III can be seen, according to certain fans. Also atop Temple IV is where the only cell phone signal in the park can be obtained, in case you need to change your reservations, or call a friend in Israel, or send along your photo, all of which was being done while we were there.

Tikal is in the middle of the jungle. There are a few hotels on the site, expensive and often fully booked by tour groups. People stay 30 or 40 minutes away at El Remate or Flores on the shores of a lake. Or they fly in a small plane to a small airport, for a small day trip. We stayed in El Remate, and were waiting at the park gate at 6AM with forty other turistas.

Supposedly the harvesters of chicle, a sap collected from trees and once used to make Chicklets chewing gun, were the first to alert the world to the presence of these ruins, in the mid 1800s. The University of Pennsylvania played a significant role in modern restoration, although there had been several small uncoverings and investigations earlier. A Guatemalan/Spanish consortium is in charge now, I think.

One reason people like Tikal is that it’s shady, which is a good thing when you're trudging along in August. Also, it's another way of saying significantly unrestored – maybe one tenth of the 3000-odd structures have been uncovered.
How do dey know dat? De satellites tol dem so.

NASA provided a snapshot of solar radiation reflected off of the plants in the region, and amazingly (a scientist) saw patterns of discoloration in the satellite image that outlined some of the buildings he had already uncovered. With his GPS device, he pinpointed the location on a map of other nearby discolorations and discovered several areas with hidden Mayan architecture. The Maya used limestone and lime plasters in their building. As abandoned buildings disintegrated, chemicals from these stones seeped into the ground, preventing some plants from growing around the structures and affecting the chemistry of those that did grow.

Ironically, by clearing away the vegetation to investigate and reveal the structures below, their ruin is accelerated. Since they’re no longer stuccoed, rainwater gets into all the joints. There’s talk of covering some sites back up until there’s better technology (and more money!) for protecting, and investigating them. Photobucket

What went on here? Well, as usual, we went in knowing not too much, and we came out much the same way. Googling around for factoids, I’m impressed with the fluidity of the statistics – top population 100,000, or 150,000 or even 500,000? 3000, 4000, 5000 structures? First settlement 3000BC, 2000 BC? Name means “Land of Many Voices’? “Green Bundle”?

I have my usual problem with the Mayans, which is that I know so little that I have trouble imagining daily life, which is mainly what interests me. I don't have a good book and the guides- well, let's just say, often play to the lowest common denominator. Julius Caesar in a toga is within the range of my culture, and thus, my imagination. General Smoking Frog or King Chocolate, not so much, though they do sound interesting. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve met them both, in other incarnations!

One reason we aren't reading reliable information about the Mayans is because a Spanish priest, Diego de Landa, in 1519 or so, took it upon himself to burn almost all of the substantial records that had existed, lest they hinder his efforts at conversion, I gather.

So we're left with what the chichleros and the archeologists and the code-breakers can tell us. Archeologists say the jungle took over the city about 1100 years ago. Before that, current thinking favors overpopulation and/or environmental disaster, specifically drought, (as long as 40 years?) brought about by deforestation, and exacerbated by a long run of unfavorable weather, as the cause for the culture’s collapse.

Tikal was surrounded by a series of man-made limestone-lined canals and ‘bajos’, reservoirs left from quarrying operations. When these ran dry, there was no other resource. Compounding the problem, apparently, was the insistence of the rulers, self-styled demi-gods, that they could control the seasons and the climate. This contention must have been increasingly difficult to believe for the people doing the actual labor.

Society seems to have been highly ordered, at least while the leaders maintained their control.There was much trade, and also much warfare. There were roads connecting the many cities, which, since these people were astronomic wizards, were aligned with the solstices and equinoxes. It must have been quite something to approach on broad boulevards these temples and palaces glistening white with hard-packed limestone and colorfully decorated with masks and trim. Remember, there wasn't jungle then. Somewhere I read that from the 60-meter top of a Tikal temple, the top of a temple ?70km? north, near the Mexican border, could be seen.

Or, as one of the backpackers said: "these guys weren't just a bunch of Indians running in the jungle they had a distinct culture and were educated."

Here’s a brief discussion taken from a Smithsonian magazine article June 2004
Though magnificent, the ruins of Tikal visible today represent but a
fraction of the original city-state. During its heyday, archaeologists
say, “downtown” Tikal was about six square miles, though research
indicates that the city-state’s population may have sprawled over at
least 47 square miles. Yet most of Tikal—the heart of Guatemala’s
Tikal National Park, about an hour’s drive northeast of the modern city
of Flores—has not even been excavated. And until recently, the same
could be said about the nature of the Maya themselves.
Mayan art and writing, it turned out, contained stories of battles,
sacrificial offerings and torture. Far from being peaceful, the Maya
were warriors, their kings vainglorious despots. Maya cities were not
merely ceremonial; instead, they were a patchwork of feudal fiefdoms
bent on conquest and living in constant fear of attack.
Perhaps the greatest Maya mystery of all is the cause of the
civilization’s abrupt decline. The last dated stela erected at Tikal
was put up in a.d. 869; the last anywhere in the Maya world, in 909.

PhotobucketNowadays of course the experience is quite different. Certain Mayan ceremonies are apparently still held, but seem limited to the ritual killing of ?chickens? and spraying of blood on small round altars. There are Mayans working on restoration projects – we were told it took a day for them to chop a new limestone block with their machetes, but of course we don't know the benchmark from the original construction.

The ruins themselves date from early, middle and late periods and have different architectural influences. There are pyramids built covering older pyramids and much in-fill development - too much to take in, so I just curiously but uncritically admired everything I saw. Doug's perpetual question was: why did such short-legged people build so many tall steps? The tour guide's answer was to point out that, unlike tourists, the Mayans didn't climb to the top every day. On ceremonial occasions when they did climb they did it in a slow and ritualized fashion, as in a church procession.

The jungle that has been arising around, and through, these ruins for the last 1100 years is full of trees and shrubs and vines of course, and rich in animal life, birds, monkeys, insects, butterflies, even jaguars. Our guide, an ornithologist in the main birding season (spring and autumn), was at least as interested in showing us the wildlife as the ruins. He rustled up howler monkeys, spider monkeys, a coatl. He pulled a fist-sized tarantulla out of a hole with a stalk of grass and took pictures of tourists pretending to eat it. He found us a toucan – such a lovely improbable creature – and orependula, a yellow-tailed bird with a spectacular nest.
He was looking for a jaguar, but they were off for the day.TOUCANPhotobucket
A friend saw a toucan drink out of a puddle. To do so the bird had to turn its bill sideways and lay it in the puddle, take the water over the gunwale, so to speak, being apparently unable to suck it through the point of its bill. Also, apparently the bill is such a heavy piece of equipment that when a baby toucan fledges, it leaves the nest forever, being unable to maneuver back in.
ORRPENDULA NESTS Another interesting bird lives in these hanging nests; supposedly sleeps in them every night as protection against predators.
orependula nests in grand plaza

Being unable to get a grip on the ancient culture, I turned my attention to modern culture – our fellow travelers.
Our group was dominated by backpackers of many nationalities, Canadians and Israelis and Dutchmen. Some of the Australian girls wore frothy little dresses to the jungle, and what I thought was inappropriate footwear, since we expected to do a good 10 kilometers on rough terrain, not even counting whatever temples we climbed.

But they did fine, no whinging Poms here, and it was fun to watch them posing outlandishly for dozens of photos. In fact it was their presence that inspired us to stay at the youth hostel in Flores later on, more about which anon.

After our official tour, we ate our box lunch, took a little nap , and tried to charge my camera battery. The things you don't think about: there's no power out here - the restaurant refrigerator is gas - and the generator only hums from 6-9 pm. Also the ground water was very sulfur-y, and we had to buy bottled water, which really goes against the grain these days. This is a park with trash cans, and 90 percent of the trash was those plastic water bottles.

Later that afternoon we walked back the entire ten kilometers a second time, though skipped some of the climbs. We went back to the corner of the park where I'd had the best vibes, Mundo Perdido. Most of the tourists were gone, and we got to sit and watch the filtered light on the ruins, and the butterflies and monkeys and birds, all of which were out in force and slowly imbibe just a little of what an amazing place we were in. Not Mayan amazing, just lovely.

Cue the violins. The sun sank slowly in the west. We had a modest dinner, crawled onto the air mattress in the tent we had rented, because I hoped to stay in the park and listen to the 'jungle sounds'. If there were howler monkeys, I never woke up to hear them, though I could hear deep breathing in neighboring tents before I got my own rhythm down. I was thinking I'd get up early, sneak around the ticket taker and the tour guide (that was a dream!) and get on the trail to temple IV for sunrise, but t didn't happen.
Next day, another load of tourists was at the gate at 6 am. We crawled out of our hole on the ground and decided to try another Mayan site, YaXha.