Sunrise At Izapa, Mexico: The Place Where Time Began

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).

Pirates vs cruise ship: Travel fibs I’ve told my mother and a poll

I don’t plan to tell my mother lies when I travel. I actually think what I’m saying is accurate information, but I have one of those mothers who sees disaster looming at many corners so I try to sideswipe her fears with a “That won’t happen.” The latest fib has to do with the pirates that attacked the MSC Melody cruise ship on Saturday.

See, just last month I insisted that pirates would not attack an MSC Cruise Line because I wanted her to agree to go with me and my son on a Greek cruise on the MSC Musica. My mother balked at first. She wondered about pirates. “Oh, Mom,” I said. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Then there was the fire.

Two summers ago, I told her there wasn’t any chance that we were going to be in the midst of the fires that were blazing in Montana the same time that we were heading there. Never mind that the fires were making the national news.

Do the fires that were blazing right next to the highway count? They weren’t dangerous. All they were doing were burning up sections of hillside a few feet from the road when we passed. We did follow the warning sign that flashed “Don’t stop.” My daughter was able to snap this picture, however. Neat, huh?

Then there was the earthquake. I told my mom that Taiwan was perfectly safe and sound when my husband and I decided to move there with our then 6-year-old daughter. Three weeks after we moved to Hsinchu, I woke up in the middle of the night with the bed shaking like the tornado scene in the Wizard of Oz.. It wasn’t like we were at the epicenter, just close enough that objects spilled off shelves, we lost electricity for four days and most of the TVs at the swank Hsinchu Royal Hotel down the street took a tumble and broke. You might remember that earthquake. It made national news and there was a girl on the cover of Time Magazine with her head bandaged up and building rubble in the background.

It’s not that I plan to fib. It’s just that when one goes out in the world things happen. I’m thinking that since one MSC cruise had a run-in with pirates, our cruise should be excitement free. The pirates aren’t near Greece anyway. Right?


Galley Gossip: A question about being a mother and a flight attendant

Dear Heather,

I have one quick question for you… I am about to be a new mom (with a baby boy due in February) and I’m also a flight attendant. I love my job (people, travel, benefits… everything!) but I’m worried about how hard it’s going to be for me to be a flight attendant and a mommy. Any tips?


Dear Varina,

First I must congratulate you on being a new mom! It’s the best job in the whole world. As for being a flight attendant and a mom, I’m going to tell you two things several flight attendants told me when I was pregnant and worried about how I would handle flying and being a new mother…

  1. Don’t worry
  2. It will all work out

And it did work out, even though I did worry, and still worry – at times! What do I worry about? What I’m going to do when my two year-old is in school and what am I going to do if we have another child. I want another child. How am I going to make that work – writing, flying and commuting? And just when I start to get all worked up, those flight attendant voices come back to me and say…

  1. Don’t worry
  2. It will all work out

Now I’d like to add one more thing…DON’T QUIT! No matter how hard it may seem when you come off maternity leave and find yourself back on the line, don’t give up your job until you’ve figured out how to make it work for you, because it can work, it’s just a matter of finding the routine that is right for you and your family. Whether you drop trips, fly turns, work nights, work days, only work the weekends, or work a week straight and have three weeks off (like me), you’ve got options, lots and lots of options. What makes our job great job is the flexibility, so work it, girl!

Of course you’re going to feel like quitting, we’ve all been there, but do me a favor and give it at least six months before you make any drastic decisions. I say this because I know many new mothers who wanted to give up their flight attendant careers the year their babies were born, but then, later on, were glad they continued to work. With a job like ours, there’s no reason to quit! Remember, the first year is always the hardest.

SUPPORT: If your significant other is supportive and understands your job, you’ll be just fine. While my husband is a great guy, he’s a hard worker and doesn’t always know when to turn it off. Because I live in Los Angeles and work out of New York, he gets frustrated when I’m gone for a week straight. In the beginning, it was my husband who stressed me out the most, not my job. I can’t tell you how many times he begged me to quit flying. But I stood firm and reminded him of our second date when I told him I would never quit – EVER! Thankfully my husband has gotten much better when it comes to my job and taking care of our son. It took two years, but he’s now handling the situation like a pro.

FAMILY: The hardest part about being a flight attendant and a new mom is worrying about your child when you are away from home. If you know your child is in good hands with people who love him, you’ll be more at ease. In my post, A question about being a flight attendant when I have a small child at home, I mentioned that my parents and in-laws have helped me out immensely during reserve months. Without them, I don’t know that I’d be able to do my job, not when my husband travels as often as he does for business. While line months are doable, reserve months are killer. While it’s hard on my husband and I when I’m working away from home, my two year-old son is just fine.

“Ready to go back to California?” I asked my son as we walked to a nearby park in Queens, New York last week. It was my day off of reserve and my mother-in-law had just dropped him off to stay with me.

“No,” he said matter of fact as he held on tight to a big yellow bouncy ball.

“No?” I repeated, reading his face for any signs of distress. “You don’t want to go home?”

He smiled. “Not yet.” Then he added, “I like New York!”

Me, too!

And there you have it. My son is happy in New York, even though mommy is working. Me, not as happy, not when I’m on reserve for the entire month. But knowing my son is doing just fine makes flying a lot easier on me. While I miss my son greatly when I’m working, my son is getting to know his father and grandparents in a way he wouldn’t have if I didn’t have my job. So if you’ve got family nearby who are willing give a helping hand, take the offer and run – er, fly!

DAYCARE – During the months I hold a line, I take my son to a preschool / daycare. He’s been going to this facility since my four month maternity leave and six month personal leave of absence came to an end – he was just ten months old. Trust me when I tell you that it was harder on me than it was for him to go to daycare. The key, though, is finding a place that you are comfortable with, a place that you can trust. Because most daycares have waiting lists up to six months long, make sure to start your daycare search as soon as possible. While I still feel a little sad dropping my son off at school, I know he’s fine, especially when he says, “I had a fun day at school, mommy!” when I put him the car at the end of the day. At first I would only take my son to daycare when I worked, which was about eight days a month. Now I make sure to take him at least twice a week, even when I’m not working. I don’t want each time he goes to daycare to be like his first time. To alleviate stress, I try to be consistent. Even when I want to keep him home with me.

NANNY – While I didn’t go the nanny route, I did entertain it. The reason I chose not to use a nanny is because the nanny could get sick and if that happened who would watch my son while I was flying and my husband worked? We do not have family or friends nearby who can step in at the last minute in case of an emergency. However, I do know many flight attendants who use nannies and even a flight attendant who shares a nanny with another flight attendant. They alternate work days. One flight attendant I know placed an ad in the newspaper for a sitter at night and found an elderly woman who ended up working for her until all three children were grown. I know another flight attendant who found help through her church. Just keep your ears open and talk to flight attendants and other mothers around you.

Like I mentioned above, you’ve got option, options, and more options, it’s just a matter of figuring out which combination works best for you. Even if you try them all and still nothing works, at least you gave it a shot. You’ll be able to look back with no regrets. Hey, flying is not for everyone, I know that, especially when you’ve got the most important job in the world – caring for a child.

Hope that helps,

Heather Poole

Have a question? Ask me!

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