IT WAS AN EIGHT-HOUR TRIP BY CHICKEN BUS across the rough roads of the Peten to get to our next destination: Palenque, Mexico. It made for a long day, but a relatively uneventful one save for two minor episodes: minor because neither of them realized their potential to become full-blown disasters.
The first of these episodes occurred at the Usumacinta river crossing. We’d been on the bus for several hours already, bumping along dirt roads that filled our mouths with grit, when we stopped at the muddy banks of the Usumacinta; a large river and one of the main thoroughfares of the Maya. We followed a young boy down the slippery bank to the shore of the river where several long, canoe-like boats wobbled in the current. The boats were equipped with life preservers, an unusual precaution in devil-may-care Guatemala. My girlfriend made note of it:
“If they’re providing us with life vests here, we should probably put them on.”
The river appeared to be moving lazily along, but once we reached midstream I noticed dozens of whirlpools turning in the current, as if the river were being drained away in sewers. Whenever the boat got too close to one of these eddies it would lurch toward the swirling water and threaten to keel over. All of us on the vulnerable side would lean away from the gunwales and dart unpleasant looks at our young captain. At one point he swung us around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees to show us a crocodile on shore and very nearly capsized us in the process. Every maneuver of the boatman seemed to be executed with the very intention of endangerment: spilling us into the river at the mouth of a whirlpool or toppling us into the mouth of a crocodile. I gladly left the boat when we bumped ashore, and then saw my girlfriend hand our pilot a tip. I asked her why.
“Well, we didn’t die,” she said.
Ah, if only tips were so easy to come by in the United States.
The next episode came hard on the heels of the river crossing, which had put us in Mexican territory. We had just gotten our passports stamped and were proceeding in a minivan when the driver stopped at a small guardhouse. The side door was pulled open and a local man peered in, holding up a pad of tickets. He addressed me in a quiet voice, spinning off a long monologue in Spanish. When he finished I said, “No entiendo”. He turned and repeated his spiel to the other foreigners in the van (only half of the passengers were tourists), and mentioned the sum of fifteen pesos. I looked at the pad he was carrying and read the words zonas archaeologicas, so I figured it was just some minor shakedown of tourists where the money was supposed to go towards conserving the local resources. I was about to pay the dollar when a Polish woman in front of me started yelling about “corruption” and told the driver to just keep going. The driver gave her a bored smile, but didn’t move. Then the rest of the tourists took up a hue and cry against the petitioner that seemed entirely out of proportion with what was being asked by this quiet little man. He listened politely to their complaints, then explained that we had to pay the fifteen pesos or we could not continue on our trip. This was too much for the Canadian man sitting next to me, who suddenly lurched across the seat and tried to slam the door in the man’s face.
“Don’t do that!” I said, stopping the door in mid-slam.
“This is bullshit!” he spat.
A crowd was growing outside the van and a couple of them had machetes. Realizing that things could quickly get stupid my girlfriend reached in her purse and handed the man thirty pesos, indicating the two of us. He took the money and thanked us while the others glared at us for our betrayal.
“We’ve already paid for this trip,” the Polish woman said, scowling at us. “This is just corruption because we are foreigners!”
Eventually everyone paid the man, albeit grudgingly, and we were on our way again. All I could think of was how mean the Canadian had been. Didn’t he realize that Canadians are supposed to be the nicest people on earth?
The van dropped us off at a fenced-in yard with no services. Yes, this was the town of Palenque, the driver assured us. So we grabbed our bags and followed the rest of the passengers as they wandered up a tree-lined avenue. Within a few minutes we reached the main street and started pricing hotels. There was no need to pound the pavement – it was too hot anyway – because rooms were going for eight dollars a night. Once we’d settled in, unpacked, and had a couple of beers, we started looking for transportation to the Maya ruins of Palenque. We could have simply hopped on one of the vans displaying a sign for “Ruinas”, but my girlfriend wanted to see the terraced waterfalls of Agua Azul. She told me that she’s wanted to see these falls ever since she’d seen a picture of them as a child. So we signed on for a tour that included Palenque, Agua Azul, and another waterfall. That night, as I was reading The Golden Bough – a nineteenth-century book on comparative mythology – I came across this passage:
…the dim light of tradition reveals a similar union of temporal and spiritual power, of royal and priestly duties, in the kings of that delightful region of Central America whose ancient capital, now buried under the rank growth of the tropical forest, is marked by the stately and mysterious ruins of Palenque.
I held up the book and told my girlfriend:
“Look! He’s talking about Palenque, and here we are in Palenque! I love synchronous moments like this.”
The author, Sir James George Frazer, was talking about how the early priest-kings were considered to be gods themselves. They were regarded as divine and thus were able to bestow upon the populace such blessings as rain and good harvests. It is not difficult to imagine the precariousness of this post, however. If the rains did not come, if the crops failed, the people knew who was to blame. It has been strongly suggested that this may have been one of the motivating forces behind the collapse of the Maya civilization (and why it continued to collapse after every renaissance): the belief of the people in the divinity of their leaders. It was a matter of misplaced confidence that was destined to disappoint. In modern times we elect leaders who almost invariably disappoint when their rhetoric falls short of their accomplishments. These leaders often lose their titles. In the days of the Maya however, when kings were seen as gods, their failures were not forgiven so easily. These leaders often lost their heads, and few communities could survive when it was believed that the gods had abandoned them.
Palenque was the first stop on our all-day tour. As we entered the grounds and stood among the gray temples, the early morning mist began to lift and I felt as if I’d been transported to Europe and was now viewing the ruins of an ancient Roman city. Stately is the right word. There was the Palace with its central tower that would not look out of place in Italy; the clean, Romanesque lines of the Temple of the Inscriptions; a trio of temples in the main plaza rising imperially over a central fountain that could have been a shrine to Egeria; there was even an aqueduct running through the heart of the city that still carried water from the surrounding hills.
Palenque was a Classic-era city that was at its height during the long reign of K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, who lived to be eighty and ruled for sixty-eight of those years. His tomb is located within the Temple of the Inscriptions, and his carved sarcophagus lid is one of the most recognizable artworks of the Maya. This lid weighs seven tons, and because of its size it still rests in the chamber where it was placed in the 7th century. It was famously – and wildly – misinterpreted by Erich von Daniken in his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods, wherein it was claimed that the carving represented an astronaut sitting at the controls of an alien spaceship.
One didn’t have to tax one’s imagination, however, to imagine the paths that wound through the city crowded with vendors and noisy with commerce – because it was here. Wood carvings, obsidian blades, ceramic skulls, painted leather and silver jewelry, all laid out on long tables or on blankets in the grass. The vendors were young girls in breezy huipils and old men who sat in folding chairs in the shade and shouted at passers-by. Even if it no longer ruled the western lowlands, Palenque was still a lively and cosmopolitan market town.
Further on, past the heart of the restored city, there were a series of residential areas that more or less followed the river as it descended through lush forest. These structures were mostly unexcavated: walls half-submerged in moist earth and tree roots pulling apart moss-covered stones. This part of Palenque ended the Roman conceit and returned the visitor to the rank growth of the tropical forest of Central America. At the bottom of this trail, which featured thick vegetation and revealed fewer and fewer Maya ruins, we found ourselves at the entrance road across from the on-site museum. We were only given a scant half-hour to visit this museum, barely enough time to take in the jade masks and elaborate ceramic incensarios before being whisked away by our driver to the waterfalls of Misol-Ha and Agua Azul.
Misol-Ha was a twin waterfall, plunging 100 feet into a green lagoon. The river dropped from an overhang so the water fell cleanly into the pool below, like a lace mantilla, undulating slightly in the breeze. Behind the falls was a mossy cave where it was possible to stroll, listen to the thunder of the falls, and catch a chill from the rush of air and mist. But this was just an appetizer; my girlfriend was anxious to see Agua Azul. At last the driver waved us into the van and we set off. It was a short ride to the site, and my first glimpse of the famous waters was strangely familiar. These terraced pools occur at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, and I’d seen them at Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia as well. The mineral-laden waters form their own pools by depositing travertine in a series of descending basins, flowing from one to the next like a cascade of champagne at a wedding party. But it was brown champagne. The recent rains had washed sediment into the river and turned the waters of Agua Azul into agua marrón. But my girlfriend saved her disappointment for later, when we’d scaled the terraces to their upper reaches and discovered a small concrete dam and channels leading into the river which appeared to be – and smelled like they were – carrying sewage from the nearby community. We returned to the lower pools, having given up any thoughts of swimming, and watched without envy as children splashed in the cool water. I didn’t ask my girlfriend how she felt about all this. I didn’t have to: the stately and mysterious tropical falls of Agua Azul had been buried by the rank growth of civilization.