Thursday, March 8, 2018

Visiting Mayan ruins


     "Caracol" is Spanish for "snail," our guide told us, and the Mayan ruins we were approaching in jolts and sways were so named, he continued, either because of the snails found on the ground there everywhere, or because of the jarring van trip over pot-holed roads to get there.
     A joke, that second part, certainly. Though I was glad he mentioned it, since I otherwise might have overlooked the pale dime-size shells that were indeed everywhere, and quite beautiful. While I'm all for not stripping natural locations bare of their treasures, I did bend over and select a promising shell as a souvenir of my a week in Belize at the end of January. Judge me if you wish.
    It's odd. I think of my life as pretty much an unbroken shuffle through unbroken routine and relentless work, and it is, for the most part. But there are exceptions, and as I wondered about subject matter for today, it occurred to me that I hadn't mentioned visiting Mayan ruins, which is perhaps the definition of out-of-the-ordinary. I suppose because I felt that doing so falls under the rubric of "travel writing" and thus of not much interest to anyone. You probably are never going to Belize so why would you care? I'd be like one of those oblivious hosts pulling out the slide projector and the screen and a few boxes of carousels for his squirming guests. The dimmed lights, that hot slide projector smell, the thunk of the machine cycling through the static, dull photographs.
     So I'll make it quick. Since it might be worth alerting people to their presence.  I certainly had no idea. I mean, I knew they were there, vaguely.  Hunkered down in Mexico, in Central America, the sort of thing that blissed-out spiritual types seek out, I don't know, to get closer to the sun or something.  Not something I'd ever act upon or even consider acting upon.
     But we had a niece's wedding to attend — at a small Mayan ruin — and being nothing if not a practical person, I decided I wanted to make the most of being in the vicinity and a) hike in the rain forest b) explore a coral reef and 3) visit a Mayan ruin. 
      Actually, we went to two. The first was called "Lamanai" Yucatec Mayan for "submerged crocodile," and yes, we saw those too, on a 25-mile boat trip down the New River to get there.  The trip itself was an adventure, the guide stopping to point out birds and sleeping bats and various spots of interest.
     Lamanai is in a nature preserve, and the hike in had much to recommend it—our guide plucked leaves from an all-spice tree and had us chew them—I always thought "all-spice" was a melange of spices but it's not: it's a tree that tastes like a mix of cinnamon,  nutmeg and cloves.
       The pyramids loomed ahead of us as we hiked. There is a lot of really steep climbing, expansive views and the collective weight of history. The Maya lived for over 3,000 years at Lamanai, from 1500 BCE to Spanish colonial times.
     After our trip to Lamanai, in the Northern part of the country, I felt a little bad that we planned to go to Caracol, near the country's western border with Guatemala. I blithely assumed that nothing could be more incredible than what I had already seen.
    I was wrong. Caracol far surpassed it — far bigger, first of all. Not just a pyramid or two but entire complexes, plazas, patrolled by Belize soldiers to guard against Guatemalan infiltrators. Carvings of priests and birds had been recovered, and were on display. The trip itself was an adventure, going and coming — on the way we stopped at the utterly fantastic Rio Frio Cave on the way in, and paused to swim in rock pools on our way back.
     It put everything in perspective, somehow, to stand in front of a carving that someone chiseled 1300 years ago and reflect just how effaced their history is, how lost: whether a period is recorded or lost might depend on whether a stone plaque toppled back, and was preserved, or forward, and had its writing washed away in centuries of rainfall. The mute, green covered hillsides of the pyramids seemed a kind of judgment. 
     We assume such places fell to Spanish invaders, but Caracol was abandoned around 1050 AD, a reminder that no outside force can hurt a society as much as it can hurt itself. A lesson  I knew already, but it was worth flying down to Central America to see it in such dramatic and beautiful fashion. Plus seeing all there was in Belize, a country I had barely heard of, reminded me of just how much world that I, a moderately well-traveled guy, had not only never traveled to, but never wanted to travel to. Better get busy.

Rio Frio Cave



  1. Took Anthropology with a Dr. Petryshyn, a Ukrainian, who was a Mayan expert and spoke English with a German accent. The one fact that I remember most clearly about his forays to Guatemala and Southern Mexico to visit living Mayans was that all the girls in the one tribe he visited most summers hankered to be married to the chief, an old but vigorous man already blessed with 12 wives. I don't think the slash-and-burn farmers living in the jungle inherited much of the Mayan culture shown by the impressive ruins in the areas they dominated a thousand years ago.

    December 15, 2000
    Jaroslaw Theodore Petryshyn, 83, an anthropologist who could speak the ancient language of the Yucatan Mayans, died from congestive heart failure Sunday, Dec. 10, in Balmoral Nursing Home, Chicago. A professor at Truman College for more than 20 years, Mr. Petryshyn would often take trips to the Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala to study Indian cultures and artifacts, said his friend, Ann Williams. She and her son, Albert, first met Mr. Petryshyn on a plane trip about 37 years ago. Even after he retired at 70, he enjoyed talking about anthropology.


  2. Guatemalan infiltrators? Is that some sort of euphemism? I think you might have just revealed more about your perception of Guatemalan immigrants than you realize, Neil. Unless this is an application of Poe's Law, in which case I'll say well played.

    1. No, I'm referring to poachers slip over the border to steal plants and, occasionally, kill people. Immigration has nothing to do with it.

  3. Before reading this I wouldn't have given a thought to visiting Belize; good to be reminded there are wonders in every corner of the world.


  4. Out of curiosity, why did your niece and her spouse choose that location for their wedding?

    1. His parents have a house there, and their visits were significant in their romance.

  5. Caracol abandoned around 1050 AD. It's history lost. Evocative of "Ozymandias.


  6. I recently tracked down a fraternity brother whom I had last seen in 1969. He is now a priest at Loyola University New Orleans. He regularly goes to minister to the flock in Belize and is planning on retiring there. Based upon what he has talked about and this column, I have put it on my list of things to do while I still can.

  7. What you disparage as "travel writing" can be of enormous interest to many people, especially those who are curious about faraway places or who are unable to travel for physical or financial reasons. They were once known as "armchair travelers"...and even at nine and ten I watched travelogues on WGN and read "travel books" (many about the adventures of kids close to my age).

    By eleven, I dreamed of seeing the White Cliffs of Dover from the bow of an ocean liner. Closest I ever came was seeing the sand dunes of Michigan from the Manitowoc-Ludington car ferry at 54. But in the meantime, I somehow managed to get to 43 states and Canada. Don't know whether that counts for very much. Never even got to Mexico, and I won't be going to Belize unless I win the lottery, which I don't play. So why would I care about it? Because I have always been curious about how the planet's seven billion residents look and talk and behave and live.

    My father was one of those "oblivious hosts" who pulled out the blue film cans, and whose droning monologues tortured family and friends. The sound of the 8mm projector was the sound of my youth. He once spliced a Christmas Eve mass into a Jewish wedding. The new bride (his nephew's wife) was NOT amused. But everyone else was, especially teen-aged me. I come from a tribe of wise-asses.

    1. Growing up in my family, I was always the one with the cameras and projectors. I like to think that I'm a good photographer, but I suppose my audience was just indulging me.


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