WINTER SOLSTICE, 2011 – The darkness enveloped us like a warm blanket as we walked carefully toward the center of the ancient ruins of Izapa. We carried a flashlight but did not turn it on, believing our eyes would adjust to the dark. With no warning, from the direction where I thought the royal throne should be, light shot into our eyes, blinding us to a halt.
“Make some moves with the flashlight,” Robert said. Someone must have arrived before us. “Turn the thing off and on a couple of times, so they don’t think we’re sneaking up on them.”
Our daughter quickly did so, and the other light fell away. We waved our arms in the air, but it was too dark to see if there was a response. I had not expected company. Izapa is off the beaten path even for Maya trail travelers, on the Pacific coast where Guatemala and Mexico come together. It’s not Palenque with its grand temples, or the intimate painted walls of Bonampak. I hoped the light hadn’t come from a drug trafficker. Maybe an early-rising farmer.Hungry families plant corn and beans right up to the ruins, errant stalks and tendrils invading old stones. But 3000 years ago Izapa was a powerful city-state, much bigger. An archaeologist told me that sometimes a peasant farmer, acres away from the center, is clearing brush with his machete and – clang! – he hits the stony remains of an old staircase, or a sacred altar.
I wasn’t worried about who was behind the flash of light that stopped us. At one time I would have turned back, worried or not, out of concern for our daughter; but she is in her 20s now, travel-wise and a good runner, should the need arise.
We started again, taking small steps, the three of us, and the memory returned. As a child she would tell people dolefully she never had a “real” vacation.
“My parents always want to see something,” she said, “usually ruins.”
She would be leaving us soon; these few days together were the end of a certain epoch for our very small family. I could taste my regret. Perhaps we should have gone to more theme parks or beaches over the years. Done something a different way.
“This is probably the birthplace of the Maya Calendar,” I said to her.
“I know, Mom. Cool.”
The calendar is 5,126 years long. Its last day is December 21, 2012. The culture that built Izapa gave birth to the Maya civilization, and both were obsessed with time. Izapa’s layout, its temples and sacred ball court, is not accidental, but strictly aligned with the movement of the stars. Some epigraphers say the end of the calendar, properly called the Maya Long Count, is merely like a certain moment on an odometer, when the date will turn over to 0000, and we will go forward another 5,126 years. Others say as the calendar ends, we are in for cosmos-size troubles, soon, or in the near years ahead.
I go for the odometer theory, but I am not surprised at what are now called weather events, signs of our broken pact with Mother Earth. Even an odometer will stop counting when a car is destroyed beyond repair.
We took seats on a step behind a thick, flat stone that was the royal throne; we made out lines of a long court where a heavy rubber ball was once kept in motion by the fittest young men, a re-enactment of the struggle of the Hero Twins against the Lords of the Underworld. The tale is familiar in these parts, found in the Popol Vuh, a Maya telling of the creation of the world. We kept our eyes on the far end of the court, where the sun was supposed to rise.
Our daughter climbed the mound behind us by light of the stars and moon. Eventually three other observers, a man and two women, descended from the mound and stood nearby, from where they could see the ball court, too. Ah, those of the bright light. They greeted us formally, but kept to themselves, speaking Spanish in hushed tones. Robert and I spoke quietly, too, as if in a church out of respect, even though we were all keeping watch in the full outdoors.
When our daughter came down, she whispered, “Two of them are astronomers. The lady in the poncho is the mother of one of them.”
At any other time, I would have approached the astronomers and asked endless questions. It is said the sun crosses the dark valley of the Milky Way, which Maya think of as a womb, at the time of the winter solstice that marks the end of the calendar. Is it true this transit of the sun happens only once every 26,000 years? Could the Maya have known?
Instead, I stayed quiet and tried to absorb the venerable feeling of the old stone walls, the hieroglyphic tablets around us carved with the first written language in the Americas. Outlines of three distant volcanoes emerged from the dark. Stars faded; the first birds called. Slowly, hypnotically, the eastern sky turned pearl grey, pink, and finally, the palest yellow.
Then, something unexpected. Before coming into view, the sun we had been waiting for sent out an astonishing ray of light, rich yellow edged in glowing orange. The beam illuminated the trees of the horizon until their very branches came to life, traveled toward us up the narrow length of the ball court and fell, squarely, on the seat of the throne of stone. I heard the astronomers and the lady in the poncho take in breath. I didn’t need to see their faces to know they looked like ours, with expressions of awe and delight at the workings of the human mind that could construct its surroundings just so, in harmony with the stars.
In the Maya creation story, the Hero Twins defeat the Lords of the Underworld. One twin becomes the moon, the other the sun. Our daughter touched my hand and nodded up to the sky. The moon, one brother, still hung there, just a few degrees south of his twin, the rising sun.
“Mom.” she said, “Remember when I was really small and you and Dad were looking for ruins and you let me climb that boulder in a cornfield and it turned out to be a huge carved head?”
“You remember that?” I said.
“Of course. Olmec, I think. Maybe 600 B.C.? I tell everyone that story.”
Robert caught my eye, contentment on his face, and she caught the look between us. “Whaaat?” she said.
The path out of the ruins ran through a grove of trees bearing pendulous cacao pods, holding seeds from which chocolate is made. Occasionally a farmer passed and touched hand to forehead, a silent hello. At the foot of something like a ruined temple staircase, we found remnants of a recent Maya ceremony, stones in a circle, feathers, fresh ashes. Farther on, a woman outside her house making chocolate candy for sale showed a profile like the ones carved on the stelae, the upright stones.
“The cocoa-pods have always been here,” she said, nodding to a tree. Under its branches a toddler, armed with a stick and unencumbered by clothes, speared dead leaves. “My abuelos, the ones who came before, have always lived here.”
Walking toward the main highway that led to the rest of the world, I found myself not overwhelmed by the end of things, but feeling the continuity of past with present. The odometer, I told myself. It gave me the nerve to ask that absurd question, “Well, what did you think? I mean, the sunrise and all?”
“I imagined what it would have been like in the Maya days,” our daughter said. “The king on that throne, and the ball court full of people, like it is in the markets.”
“I felt the silence,” she said. “Even with the birds singing.”
Veteran journalist Mary Jo McConahay is the author of Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest (Chicago Review Press).