Mayan dreaming

Douglas Cruickshank discovers serpent-headed clouds, jungle-entwined pyramids, nubile archeologists and other Mayan visions on a stay in the Yucatan.

Published January 6, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

How could I have known that what began with Kukulcan's head exploding would end with two dogs blithely humping away at the House of the Magic Dwarf on a moonlit Yucatan night? I couldn't. But then, who could these days? A thousand years ago such portentous events would have been foretold by plumed Mayan priests (who apparently had the same easy intimacy with the turnings of the universe that we do with a cuckoo clock), but we've long since traded away clairvoyance for corn futures, which means that all sorts of things sneak up on us that didn't used to back when Kukulcan and company were calling the shots.

For example, there we were -- a drowsy crocodile, a wandering piglet and me -- watching the sunset at Coba, a town located by an ancient Mayan city about two and a half hours through the jungle from Canczn. It was too early for serious drinking, and it was too hot and hypnotic -- what with the sky on fire and all -- to read, so I walked down Lake Coba's grassy bank to a short wharf that terminated in a small thatch-roofed pavilion. From there I could see the entire lake, its polished surface only occasionally disturbed by a jumping fish or prowling caiman. At one end the peak of a Mayan pyramid, called La Iglesia, towered over the jungle. The full moon rising behind it created a garish glow that made the whole scene look like a painting you'd find in an art gallery in Las Vegas. In the opposite direction, the over-ripe mango sun was descending behind a 40-story cumulonimbus that the gods -- who never miss a trick -- had given the shape of a serpent's head, complete with a long vaporous tongue whipping the lush horizon. It was a singular sight (the vivid reflection in the lake turned it into the world's largest Rorschach image) that even a confirmed skeptic would have to admit bore an uncanny resemblance to Kukulcan, the feathered-serpent Mayan god whom the Mexicans call Quetzalcoatl.

A serpent-headed cloud would have been good enough, but this one was outfitted with a lightning storm, and whenever the lightning flashed, the inner contours of the monumental thunderhead lit up and every curl and corrugation of Kukulcan's brain was illuminated. Everything was revealed! All questions were answered, the way was shown, the toucan squawked, the jaguar stood upright and talked and click went the key to the master lock: Doors were opened, time stood still, light was infinite and transcendent wisdom was delivered at a jillion kilobytes per second. It was a life-changing, cathartic event.

And that's precisely why I'm so peeved. I'll be damned if I didn't forget nearly all of that exalted sagacity by morning, and the few shreds I retained mysteriously disappeared from memory as I stumbled over ruins during the next several days, or sipped mescal at poolside while allowing myself to be mesmerized by the lyrical flutter of metallic blue butterflies napping on bougainvillea blossoms. It doesn't matter. I wasn't there to achieve enlightenment. My mission was a brief archeological orgy -- driving across the Yucatan Peninsula, through cloudbursts and sun, past caramel-colored children, butterscotch cattle and agave plantations -- stopping at Coba, Chichin Itza and Uxmal, three of the numerous pre-Columbian cities that have been discovered in Mesoamerica during the last couple of centuries.

It's impossible (and pointless) to rate such splendid places, but of the three Uxmal is certainly the most ornate, evocative and spooky, while Chichin Itza, perhaps the most well-known, is also the largest and most thoroughly restored. However, it is at Coba, much of which is still crowded by dense forest, that it is easiest to imagine what it must have been like to come across these lost cities in the contagiously romantic era of 18th and 19th century exploration.

The jungle creeps up the backside of Coba's great pyramid, Nohoch Mul, and massive, boa constrictor-sized tree roots still wrestle with the steps of La Iglesia. Unmarked trails wander off into the jungle and lead to elaborately carved stele -- giant surfboard-shaped stone monuments, some standing 10 to 12 feet high -- their once crisp bas-reliefs now dulled by centuries of heat and rain. Elsewhere at Coba there are lines of columns, fragments of steps and arched passageways that lead to small acrid chambers populated by fidgety bats whose beeps fill the sweaty darkness. It is a curious place indeed.

No matter how potent your imagination, envisioning what the ancient Mayan metropolises were like at their zenith, 500 years or more before the conquistadors arrived, when many surfaces were plastered and richly painted, is probably impossible without several days of fasting, significant blood loss (the Mayan aristocracy's favored form of spiritual transport) or a soul kiss from a cascabel. Still, regardless of where you stand on metaphysics and altered states, the lost cities have an indisputable emotional impact by virtue of their age, scale, architectural exactitude and the exotic, forceful vision of those who built them. "Chichin Itza," a Yucatecan remarked to me, "is the Maya's Jerusalem."

At the center of Chichén Itzá is a pyramid, nearly 10 stories in
height, known as El Castillo or the Pyramid of Kukulcán. Built more than
1,000 years ago, El Castillo is a masterwork of astronomical
encoding on a monumental scale, an interlocking arithmetical puzzle,
eternal testament to the Maya's obsession with time and their mastery
over its measurement and symbolism (the steps of its four huge
staircases, for instance, total 365). The Pyramid of Kukulcán has been
described as "a solid clock," a precision chronometer with only one
moving part -- the universe that revolves around it. The Maya, as one
character commented to me at Cobá, "were stone freaks for time." They
believed in the wheel of time, the wheel that takes all things away and
then -- dreamlike -- brings them back around, then takes them away and
so on. But they had little time for vague speculations. Indeed, the Maya
projected events to specific days over 2,000 years from now. As
Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller write in their superb book "The
Blood of Kings," the Maya "perceived this creation to have a minimum
cycle of slightly under 142 nonillion years." No wonder their cities
endure a thousand years after they were last inhabited -- the cats were
way deep into long-term planning. They were keeping their eye on a ball
that was bouncing across the centuries.

They also must have been immune to vertigo, as the staircases up the
pyramids are dauntingly steep and the steps themselves are quite
shallow. At Uxmal I watched a girl scamper up one side of the
pyramid-like House of the Magician, turn around and shriek to her
boyfriend as she looked back down the severe staircase, "I can't even
see the steps!" As it turned out, her problems had just begun. Within
minutes, high wind and a driving rain forced her to seek refuge inside
the small temple atop the structure. The doorway, appropriately enough,
is a carving of the monstrous face of Chac, the rain god. The last time
I saw her she was walking into his mouth. She may be there still.
Nevertheless, people of all ages trot up and down with abandon. I might
have joined them if the ambulance parked nearby, and my own acute sense
of mortality, hadn't squelched the joy of adventure.

Instead, I went back to my hotel for a swim and a few bottles of Leon
Negra, a voluptuous dark beer made in Merida. At all three of the sites,
my lodgings were the Villas Arqueologicas built by the Mexican government and
now owned and operated by Club Med. They are the French resort company's
best-kept secret. The Villas -- there are six in Mexico, all located
adjacent to major archeological sites -- bear little similarity to other
Club Med properties (mercifully, some would say). The usual routine of
unrelenting fun 'n' activities has been replaced with a soothing,
understated atmosphere, a lush garden, a small pool and a comfortable,
well-stocked bar filled with old photos of Gens. Zapata and Villa
and their ilk. The overall effect is that of an oasis, an outpost, where
one expects to see Sydney Greenstreet wandering the airy corridors in a
sweat-stained white linen suit, drunkenly debating philosophy with the
hyacinth macaw on his shoulder.

At the Villas one starts to fantasize
about holing up as an expat. Why not spend whatever years remain sitting
around in tropical torpor with an impossibly brilliant lost city humming
away nearby, while you're beating out an endless, labyrinthine novel,
running a home for wayward dogs and, perhaps, taking in the occasional
nubile and willing archeology student who listens with rapt fascination
to all of your half-witted theories, half-funny jokes and half-hearted
come-ons as if they'd never been spoken before? It wouldn't be heaven,
but it might be a reasonable facsimile.

South of Merida, the road from Chichén Itzá to Uxmal gradually rises
through the Puuc region, an area of low, scrub brush-covered hills
interrupted by the occasional village. Dogs are more abundant than
usual. I even saw a Dalmatian, a rarity in Yucatan. The only other one I
encountered was in Valladolid, a colonial city between Cobá and Chichén
Itzá. After performing a bloodletting worthy of a Mayan ritual by
stubbing my big toe on the steps of the cathedral and lopping off a
callous the size of a veal chop (an act that fascinated the angel-faced
little girls who were trying to sell me embroidered hankies), I hobbled
a block and a half east to the Church of San Roque. It's a small
cathedral lacking any ornamentation, altar or pews. At one end of the
chapel sits a large piano covered (at least when I was there) with a gray quilt. At the other
end, leaning against the wall, rests an amateurish but utterly winning
portrait of Jesus wearing red Mary Janes and standing next to a seated
Dalmatian with a blissful smirk on its face.

Jesus, on the other hand,
looks like he's fed up with posing for portraits. He did it for the dog,
right? Because he knows that being a dog in Mexico is a tough gig at
best. Most of them look like skeletons shrink-wrapped in dog hide and
apart from the odd Dalmatian they're all variations on a single breed. There's
the Shorthaired Rock Dodger, its close cousin, the Mange-ravaged Mud
Wallower, and a cross between the two affectionately known as the
Bony-butted Taco Snatcher. And they've all got a trace of Suicidal Road
Snoozer in them. You can hardly blame them. Their lot is such a grim one
that a certain ambivalence toward staying alive is understandable. It's a
comfort to know that Jesus loves them.

An hour out of Merida, reaching the top of a hill during a pounding
downpour, I was met with two startling visions almost simultaneously.
First, the dirty blond stone buildings of Uxmal appeared through
billowing veils of rain that made them look like they were hovering over
the green mounds where they've rested for 10 centuries or so. From a
distance, they were as beautiful and austere as warehouses on the moon.
But what I saw at the roadside was even more arresting. Two men emerged
from the forest wearing multi-tiered metal bird cages on their heads.
The cages were bright red. One man carried a long pole with a net on the
end. It was a scene Marcel Duchamp might have cooked up, but easier to
explain than his efforts. As the
bartender at the Uxmal Villa Arqueologicas later told me, they were out to catch wild birds, which they
sell in Merida as pets. Prosaic as the explanation may have been, the
sight of two men adorned with bird cage hats stayed with me like a
jolting image from a dream.

But then the Yucatan is the sort of place where one comes across dreamlike images
on a regular basis. Perhaps that's why some believe that the dream --
the dream of time and the wheel that brings everything back -- is the
key to understanding what made and unmade the Maya. A more pragmatic
theory than you might first assume, the idea is well described in a
fine, peculiar little book called "The Mexican Dream, or, The Interrupted
Thought of Amerindian Civilizations" by French novelist J.M.G. Le
Clézio. Le Clézio calls the Maya "one of the last of the magical
civilizations" and the interruption he refers to in the title is Hernan
Cortés. The downfall of the Maya (and the Aztec, et al.), Le Clézio
writes, can be seen as the star-crossed intersection of two dreams --
the Spanish dream of gold, which the Maya called takin (excrement of the
sun), and the Indian's dream legend of the bearded men guided by
Kukulcán/Quetzalcoatl who would come to rule them again as they had in
the past.

The collision of those dreams, as everyone knows, had particularly
unfortunate repercussions for the Maya and the rest of the indigenous
population of Mexico, which numbered 30 million when Cortés arrived in
1519 and less than 3 million a half century later. But it's only part of
the story. For reasons not altogether clear, Mayan civilization had started to fade
centuries before Cortés arrived. Yet who's to say if, left to their own
devices, the Maya and others might have dreamed their civilization right
back to its peak, or beyond. After all, the perpetual wheel of time,
dreaming, visions, ritual were their currency and Mayan culture was
centered around them, much as ours is centered around our currency. The
dream, whether waking or sleeping, was a literal reality.

That, of course, is silly talk these days. Now, when we speak of
visionaries we're usually referring to a CEO at a software company or
the corporate high priest behind a media conglomerate. But what was real
to the Maya was something quite different, so different, perhaps, that
we can't even discuss it for fear of being thought foolish. At the least
it's tough to write about -- though Le Clézio does an admirable job. In
the techno-centric, shadowless, jaded and ironical times in which we
live, getting across the notion that previous civilizations may have
existed in a reality fundamentally different from our own puts one at
risk of being cast out with the woo-woos and the feather-headed. Yet leading
Mayanists, including the justly renowned Linda Schele, believe that
appreciating the Maya and the world they inhabited may be dependent on
grasping just such a notion.

It is a slippery, elliptical topic -- and Uxmal, I found, was an especially
apropos place to pursue it, as it's the location of the only elliptical
building known to have been constructed by the Maya. It's called the
House of the Magician, or House of the Magic Dwarf. Nearly 115 feet
tall, it is technically not a pyramid, but resembles a slightly squashed
cone. It was constructed, according to legend, in one night by a dwarf
who was hatched from an egg by an old woman. I was standing at the
gigantic building's base making notes and reading the dwarf's story in
John Stephens' classic 1843 account, "Incidents of Travel in Yucatan,"
when an older, hippie-looking woman walked up to me and spoke in a
German accent.

"There are incidents in Yucatan," she said, looking at the book cover,
"but never coincidence."

She was apparently making a joke, but no clever response raced to mind
so I said, "Did you travel all the way from Germany?"

"No," she replied, "I traveled all the way from Merida -- I live there.
Besides, I'm Dutch." She was no Sidney Greenstreet, but she was an
expatriate who had lived in the Yucatan for nearly 35 years and visited the
Mayan archeological sites, she told me, whenever she got a chance. At one
point, after I mentioned that I was writing about my trip, she pulled a
copy of Cees Nooteboom's "The Following Story" out of her bag and paged
back and forth looking for a passage.

"Ah, here it is. Do you ever read Nooteboom? He doesn't think much of
travel writers," she said. "Listen to this: 'Since losing my job, I
have written travel guides, a moronic activity whereby I earn my living,
but not nearly as moronic as all those so-called literary travel writers
who can't resist pouring out their precious souls over the landscapes of
the entire planet, just to amaze the middle classes.'"

"I'm neither a guide writer nor especially literary," I told her.

"So you're some third kind of moron?" she teased. She wasn't charming
in the conventional sense, but we hit it off. Her name was Nollie Roote.
We talked for a long time about all sorts of things from dogs (she had
two male Taco Snatchers) to dreams to you name it. "Well, guess I'll go
on up," she said, indicating the severe staircase that had forced the
girl into Chac's mouth. Nollie invited me to accompany her but I gave
some weak excuse and went back to the Villa to rest up for the evening.

Normally I wouldn't have gone to something like the nighttime light and
sound show at the Uxmal ruins, but I'd picked up a brochure and the
cryptic headline was such a mind-bender that I felt compelled to attend.
"This is the relation of how everything was in suspense," it announced
across two pages.

That night, I walked back over to the ruins. A small crowd was there for
the show. It was warm with a few clouds and a three-quarter moon. Green
plastic chairs were set up in front of one of the long, low buildings of
the Nuns Quadrangle, so called because the buildings, set around a large
courtyard, reminded the Spanish of their own nunneries. All four
buildings have elaborate stone façades with latticework friezes, and one
has a carved serpent that stretches all the way across its long front
wall. I found a seat and a few minutes later Nollie sat down next to me.
"So, you didn't go back to Merida," I said.

"Oh no. I always stay for the show. It's so hokey I wouldn't miss it for
anything. The only thing it lacks is Yanni. You'll see." As the lights
came up and the music over-inflated to John Williams proportions, a
bombastic voice explained that "the ear of the Indian listens to the
wise bird as the sun sets," and continued in that vein, presenting a
number of excruciatingly didactic scenarios that depicted Mayan family
life as a pre-Columbian version of "The Brady Bunch." Nollie was wearing
headphones and listening to a cassette on her Walkman. She had it right.

The narration and music were tedious, but sitting in the middle of Uxmal
on a sultry Yucatan night with the moon and cloud show going on
overhead, beeping bats buzzing the audience and colored lights fading
up and down on what must be some of this earth's most magnificent
architectural relics was not a bad way to spend an evening. There was
even one moment that was downright inspired: The music and voice fell
silent and all the lights darkened except for a deep lavender one that
spilled ultraviolet haze from Chac's grotesque mouth on top of the
House of the Magic Dwarf. It would have been perfect if the rain-stranded girl had run out and shrieked, but you can't have everything.

After the show I walked out with Nollie. Her two dogs were playing on
the lawn near the House of the Magic Dwarf. They ran over to her and
then, as we talked, ran off again to play. "What were you listening to?"
I asked.

"I make special mixes," she said, "so I don't have to put up with the
narration." She placed the headphones on me. "It's Fleetwood Mac before
they became the big stuff," she said loudly. It was a spacey-sounding
song from a 1973 album -- not my kind of thing, but I could see how it would've gone nicely with the light show. As we stood there, Nollie pointed out
the dogs, which by now were performing that most intimate of acts with
each other. "The love that dare not arf its name," she bellowed. "It
must be the moon!" At which point, exactly on cue, the moon sailed out
from behind a cloud, a bat swooped down and circled our heads and the
last verse of the Fleetwood Mac song played, reminding me of Nollie's
incident/coincidence gambit when we first met. That final verse, what I
can recall of it, went something like this:

"They say there's a place down in Mexico

Where a man can fly over mountains and hills

And he don't need an airplane or some kind of engine

And he never will ...

Seems like a dream

They got me hypnotized."

Tell me about it.

A day later I flew home and two days after that a friend took me to a
Rolling Stones concert -- probably as close as I'll ever get to an
ancient Mayan ritual. If only they'd play Uxmal, I thought to myself
during "Little Queenie," Nollie wouldn't have to wear her Walkman.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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