As a car horn keeps piercing the morning stillness, and as we stumble in the darkness down the hotel’s narrow stairway, I cannot help but loudly wonder if such an early departure was really necessary. It is the ungodly hour of 4 am.
The kid promised the most beautiful sunrise in the world, remember?’ My husband reminds me, but he doesn’t sound overly enthusiastic either.
The evening before, shortly after our arrival to Flores, a town in Guatemalan province El Peten, we had dinner in a small restaurant overlooking the peaceful lake Petn Itz. A boy of maybe fourteen came to our table, introduced himself as Miguel and in a charming mixture of English and Spanish sold us the early morning ride to the ruins of the ancient Mayan city, Tikal, some 45 miles to the north.
The only light on the street is coming from a van parked at the corner. Miguel is leaning out the passenger side window and waving for us to hurry up. Another boy, not much older, is in the driver’s seat.
We climb in and the young driver begins driving around town and picking up other tourists. The streets are narrow and at first it doesn’t seem strange that he has difficulty maneuvering, but once we are out of town and on an open road it quickly becomes clear that he has no idea what he was doing.
He is trying to take steep hills in the third, sometimes even fourth gear and he seems equally surprised each time when just a few feet before the top, the engine stalls, coughs and dies. With Miguel’s help he then locates the reverse, slams on the accelerator and speeds backwards down the hill so the van can gain enough momentum for the next try.
We, the eleven alarmed passengers try to explain in our variable Spanish that the lower gear might be more appropriate, but the boys don’t listen. Instead, with each unsuccessful try the driver gets more frustrated and as we speed downhill, we swerve closer to the ravine on our right. Finally, I cannot take it anymore.
“Stop. I’ll walk.” I yell to the driver. Our eyes meet in the rearview mirror and he can instantly tell that I am serious. And I am. I have no intention of ending up in some ravine just because I was stupid enough to let some underage kid drive me. I really rather walk. And besides, at the rate we are going, I figure that I might be even faster on foot.
The driver finally shifts into neutral and impatiently turns around. He scans the other passengers and suddenly realizes that everyone in the van shares my sentiments and that if he wasn’t careful, he might loose not only me, but all his others as well.
Now appearing even more nervous, he reluctantly smiles and explains that his brother, who normally drives the van, is sick that day and that he is just trying to save family’s income.
He also adds that he had driven before and that he was certain that he could do it again. We listen and although we are all very sympathetic, we are also very doubtful. We try to talk him into letting someone else drive, but the boy isn’t ready to give up the wheel. Finally, we compromise, the kid will do the driving, but one of us will tell him exactly what to do.
Eventually, many hills, and many hours later we enter the jungle that has reclaimed Tikal. We have missed the most beautiful sunrise in the world’, but traces of early morning activity are still all around us. Small foxes are crisscrossing our path and colorful parrots screeching from the dense canopy. Suddenly, a frightening roar sends chill down our spines.
I quickly leaf through the guidebook to see if there is any mention of any beasts in the area, but then I remembered reading about the hollering monkeys. Well, you would be amazed at the roar these cute, small primates can produce.
Tikal was once a large ceremonial center that covered an area of approximately fifty square miles and was home to eight monumental pyramids. The Maya first settled here around 700 BC, and by the time of Christ, the city had already reached its present size. Around 500 AD, when various Germanic tribes were just beginning to invade Europe, Tikal already had a population of 100,000; and by 700 AD a powerful king Ah Cacau (Lord Chocolate) had already finished building all today’s temples and pyramids.
A typically unpredictable tropical downpour suddenly creates a solid curtain around us. We quickly find shelter under a huge tree, but only a few moments later, and just as abruptly as it started, the drumming stops leaving us engulfed in a musty smell of raw earth.
We climb the remains of a mossy and now very slippery giant stairway and find ourselves on the roof of a building facing a majestic temple. It is some 150 feet high and it appears as if it is reaching for the sky. At its base is a grand plaza stretching over a limestone plateau and bridging two ravines, which were once water reservoirs. Along the edge of the plaza, numerous altars still silently display scars of many sacrifices to blood-thirsty gods. The engraved walls tell stories about civilization which flourished in arithmetic and astronomy, understood the concept of zero, predicted eclipses of the Sun and the Moon, and accurately calculated the time needed for Venus to complete its cycle. They made paper out of the bark from fig tree, and developed a complex permutation calendar with basically the same lunar months as ours.
But then, around 900 AD, long before the Europeans had a chance to see any of it, the city was mysteriously abandoned. By the time Spanish conquistadors arrived, some seven hundred years later, it was already reduced to a series of ruins. For reasons still unexplained, the Maya retreated into the jungle, and in the centuries that followed the descendants became so disconnected from the glorious past of their ancestors, that today it is sometimes difficult to remember that although the ancient culture may be dead, the Maya are still alive, and very much here.