Some days I walk along the beach. The sand is clean and white and the line of the surf runs straight and unbroken. Save for the occasional fisherman coming ashore in a small, bright-painted wooden boat, the beach is empty. To my left, ten or fifteen kilometers distant, is the long iron pier stretching out into the Gulf at the town of Progreso. To my right, the line of white sand and the edge of the sea and the shoulder of palms all come to an indistinct point where the world stops. Somehow, I always knew paradise would be boring.
I took a bus to the old colonial town of Mérida to spend a few days and found small, nice hotel with white walls and tile floors and large potted plants. It was in an old building being worked on at the moment and there were unprotected holes in the floor where you could look down through into its nicely appointed lobby, but as I did not think I would be roaming about in the dark, I was sure this would be no problem. At the hotel I learned that the following morning someone was driving out to the ruins at Uxmal, so I arranged to ride with him.
Plato & Aristotle in the Yucatán
He was a young, well-educated Mayan fellow who had been to the University and spoke good English. As we drove across the flat scrub country toward Uxmal he mentioned that his home was in a nearby village. I asked if it were true, as I had heard, that in the villages they still made sacrifices to Chac, the old rain god.
“Yes,” he said, a bit shamefacedly. “I suppose you would say that they were still pagans.”
“Oh, well,” I said, “so were Plato and Aristotle.”
He broke into a big smile.
When we say “Mayan” we can mean either the high civilization that flourished and passed away before the Spanish arrived, or we can mean their descendants who still live in that same area and speak their same language today. The high civilization with its priestly and political superstructure is long gone, collapsed of its own weight. The Mayan themselves are still here, speaking the same language that their ancestors a millennium ago carved into the glyphs of monuments that we have been for the last century extracting from the jungle.
The gods who demanded blood to maintain the cosmic order and whose ways and intentions could only be divined by priests have passed away, along with the haughty lords and puffed-up warriors who had been part and parcel of that old elaborate and expensive regime, and Chac, the old god whom the people knew before and who brings life-giving rain and may be approached directly, is, it would appear, still with his people.
I almost hate to mention this, but how often do you get the chance to tell a charming story about a Meso-American deity?
When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip were visiting Mexico in 1975, they were guests at a light and sound show at the ruins of Uxmal. At the high point of the presentation -- and I can only imagine that it must have been a spectacular show because they are spectacular ruins -- the audio played an ancient prayer to Chac. Whereupon, the skies opened and a furious rain poured down from heaven.
This happened in late February, at the mid-point the dry season.