Deconstructing Travels To Tikal
In Tikal, amongst the huge stone temples excavated from jungle plants, I waxed philosophical: It begins and ends in the jungle. Literally. Metaphorically. Life reflects mental images, subconscious vines tangled and twisted around tree trunks grown over with moss hanging like green dreadlocks. Stones stacked on top of each other, jutting out of the ground emerge to great heights above the canopy. Warriors once stood in this spot and priests prayed to gods, ritual embedded into a society. We all have our rituals. Being in a primal place surrounded by jungle and screaming howler monkeys juxtaposed by early engineering feats of the Mayan, history seems almost non-existent.
I came to Central America by design, to visit Dan, who had a few weeks holiday from teaching English in San Andreas Tuxtla, a few hours from Veracruz, Mexico. Flying on buses through southern Mexico and Guatemala landscapes became a blur broken into categories of time and space by the experiences specific to each place. I watched movies on tiny screens that are at times subtitled in English and found myself reading the subtitles instead of just listening, I guess because they were there to be read. The details are ingrained in images of memory, brief moments expand into drawn out scenes.
In Mexico, we walked through the Mayan ruins at Palenque, the cobbled roads of San Cristobal and the limestone caves a few miles outside the town, talked into it by a local taxi driver instead of visiting a botanical garden nearby. I have a feeling the fare cost more to the cave and the taxi driver’s cause was more self-serving than an insider’s tip. Located in pine forest, the caves are reminiscent of Carlsbad Caverns but not as vast or as well lit. Orange tape and temporary metal railings along the walkways denote the ongoing construction process, the never-ending refinement of tourist attractions.
The night we were leaving Mexico for Guatemala, we didn’t want to rent a room since we had to be up and on the side of the road at 5 AM to catch a shuttle to the Guatemalan border. To save money, we slept in the ATM lobby in the front of the bus station. We laid on hard ceramic tiles with fluorescent lights softly glowing over us. People would walk in to the lobby a few feet from our makeshift beds, insert their bank cards and pull money from the lips of the machine, not giving us more than a quick glance. It was a cool night out and the draft from the doors repeatedly opened by night owls looking for cash did nothing to retain what little warmth existed. In a seemingly good-willed gesture the security guard brought us boxes to keep the cold off our backs. Laying out our packs and some clothes to buffer the cold, we drifted off to a light sleep.
I woke up to a kicking at my heels. Slowly opening one eye, I peeked at my feet, eyes half rolled in my head to feign unconsciousness. I observed what was happening in the way you’re not sure if you really want to know and, by moving slowly, you have more time to think or maybe get out of the situation. Looking through one half closed eye I saw a blurred vision of the security guard at my feet, his black leather shoes kicking at the heel of my hiking boot. Because I didn’t really speak Spanish, I ignored it as though in a deep sleep, shifting and readjusting my position, then lying still like it was all part of a dream. With no response from me he stepped to the side and started kicking Dan’s feet.
At first, I think Dan attempted using the same tactics I employed: ignore the problem and it will go away. To this day I am unsure as to why parents espouse conscientious ignorance as a form of dealing with confrontation. Ignoring the guard obviously wasn’t working so Dan changed his approach. With a quick demon-like jolt he sat up and confronted the security guard. “What the hell!”
It didn’t matter what language he used. It was all in Dan’s tone. He broke the language barrier with a quick look at the security guard. In attempting to intimidate us into giving him money the security guard resorts to saying only “dollar” in English, holding his hand out and staring at us. Dan threw two U.S. dollars at him and lay back down on the cardboard boxes and clothes. The guard picked the bills up from the floor and wandered to the other side of the station. I was grateful to Dan for dealing with the situation. However, at the same time I wondered if my theory would have worked and maybe he would have simply gone away and parents could chalk one up for early childhood lessons.
Waking up pre-dawn, the shuttle drove us to the border. Soon we were making our way through Guatemala. Before arriving at Tikal, we drank big 40 ounce bottles of Gallo, the local brew, in Panajachel, with people crowding the streets and music pumping out through speakers, a DJ spinning music to a live audience like a street performer. We sailed across Lago de Atitlan, sunning ourselves on the bow of a boat and eating fresh pineapple chopped into pieces by a machete wielding local.
We spent Easter in Antigua, brightly colored flowers and sand carefully positioned on the streets in intricate murals later trampled by the crowds. At the end of the Easter festival, a prisoner was set free after parading through town bearing his real wooden cross in a literal representation of one story from biblical times. I imagined the wood splintering into his flesh as he hunched under the weight and thought everyone carries weight in some form, leaving us all a little bent.
Before leaving Antigua, we hiked to the rim of a volcano and watched the mesmerizing glow of lava through cracks in the ground, squinting as the fog-like gases around us burned our eyes. Then it was a twelve hour bus ride on mostly washed out dirt roads to Tikal, made bearable by the ingestion of two sleeping pills. The few bumps on my head from rebounding against the window and the darkness when I was jarred briefly awake are my only reminder of the drive.
I walked through the entrance gate to Tikal and followed trails winding through the trees and shadows. Sunlight reaches the ground sporadically like patches of weeds. Trails open into courtyards surrounded by temples decorated for tourists, fashioned to look like a painting or sculpture, perfect postcard pictures. The same trails are enveloped into the jungle leading to other temples. From a distance, tourists take the form of ancient Mayans going about their daily life, a sense of watching history as it takes place.
Close inspection betrays the polished appearance created for the masses. Looking through the façade to cracked stones, the temples still bear the weight of thousands of people walking up steps to the platforms set high above the ground. Even in this brief physical labor there is significance, making the short trip to a view that otherwise would have remained only imagined. People look for a point of observation not yet encountered. We go through life seeing situations constantly from our own experience, interpreting actions through our own bottom of a broken glass bottle. The only way to realize a different perspective is to have an experience that allows a new way of visualizing a situation. People want to look from a platform high above the trees because it is a point of observation that gains its significance simply from being different than what has become commonplace.
It is the same conversation in many places. There is an innate sense of adventure in making the effort to go somewhere or do something many others have not. The reason is less in reference to others than to ourselves and moving beyond our own limits. The greatest climbers and skiers exceed the limitations set by virtue of being involved in a specific activity, but more importantly they exceed the limitations they set for themselves. Those same self-defined limitations determine our own potential. The choices we make and the priorities we deem important become the standard by which all other actions are referenced. The activities we decide are valuable are those for which we create the time.
Necessary evils of tourism act as God in places such as Tikal, providing income to maintain the current park system and fund excavation and renovation to expand while attracting an inordinate number of people who trample through the trails and off them, feeding once wild animals and sneaking behind barriers erected to keep them out. It is the same industry most tourists and travelers complain about as though without it they would still have been able to visit this place or even been aware of its existence. Without the tourist industry these temples would likely remain great pyramids of moss. Most travelers looking for far-flung, pristine locations with few footprints polluting their attempt at self-discovery venture into these places because they are not to be missed. Like many stereotypes stemming from a degree of truth, attractions that become large draws for people from all over the world have a reputation that precedes them and usually meets or exceeds the expectations elicited by glossy photos in a travel guide.
For a brief moment I sat on the steps of one of the temples, picturing myself as a youth in ancient times looking into the night sky, staring at the stars trying to imagine what that person would imagine, what they would think about. Far removed from the time in which cars, buses and planes did not exist, to think in terms of what it would be like to not have the ability to travel is superficial, taking the form of small Ozark towns and farms and scenes out of Deliverance. Imagination runs in short frames of “what if…” and the question is never really answered, only briefly examined. Not a concrete image remains except the Mayan temples covered with tourists in Nike shoes and cameras carrying designer water bottles. I click off a picture of Dan and Adam, who is staying at the same place we are, superimposed in front of one of the temples. A moment in time transferred to an image serves as a reminder of thoughts that often fade quickly once the moment has passed.
Adam, Dan and I sat outside the park gates and ended up hitching a ride on the back of a truck, the type suited for delivering produce, open in the back except for a few rails across the top at the same height as the cab. Swerving around sharp turns, the trip is a carnival ride on wheels as we slide across the truck bed, wrapping pack straps around legs and metal bars, anything so as not to fly out. I grip the rails tight, forearms burning from the exertion, wondering if this is really a good idea but too entertained to put thought into such negativity. Only one image breaks in – the thought of the brief moment I could lose my balance and subconsciously know what it would be like to be vaulted over the side, a living inertia experiment.
We pounded on the metal bed of the truck, letting the driver know our stop was coming up. The truck abruptly halted at the crossroad to our “inn,” thatched huts and hammocks strung under cabanas on the side of a hill. For an extra $1.50 our hostess cooks a meal, large by any standards, with fresh tortillas frying on a stone next to the table. We thank the driver for the ride, walk a few blocks down the road and up the hill to relax. We bought a few beers at a stand off the main road for later that night, to drink under the stars. It wasn’t to get drunk but for atmosphere, the way some people smoke because it is one of the few times one can do nothing but think. The cigarette is just an excuse, but to stand and stare does not have the same image or feel.
In places like Tikal, history often takes the form of imagination, filling in the blanks between phrases, facts and statistics, making real something that in its current state of inanimate object seems almost fictitious. Its existence is not in question. Defined by our own perceptions and interpretation of artifacts and sculpture, we deconstruct the world through our own eyes. Some say truth is constant and facts change to accommodate the truth. Others, when the facts are determined the truth will reflect them. Like I said at the beginning: it begins and ends in the jungle. Literally. Metaphorically. Sometimes we make our own path to come out the other side.