Saturday, November 29, 2014

Discovering Eden: A Mayan Excursion

Backpack strapped on with an indigenous woven blanket tied across the top. Leather mail carrier back slung across my shoulder with 2 guidebooks, a worn out Bible, college textbooks, and my Macbook tucked inside. A canteen for water and a few granola bars. The bus is at the top of the hill… it’s go time.

Kellie and the kids walk with me up the gravel drive towards highway CA1 that slices above our house. The night is humid and rain falls that the locals call chippy-chippy, which is an ever so detectable mist that blankets in a gentle touch. Dogs are barking across the city-edge neighborhood and Spanish language echoes down the pavement from the local tienda. We board the bus. We find our seats. It’s going to be a long night, 10 hours of treacherous mountain driving in a retired school bus. We trust Manuel who sits in the driver seat. I’ve seen him back this bus down impossible trails with no room for error. A mistake equals a 200 foot free-fall. This drive is no different. A two lane highway with no painted lines that will carry cars, buses, and trucks three wide on hairpin curves with no guardrails. The pavement is cradled between sheer rock walls that often collapse, and black abyss that seems to beckon like a black hole. It’s best not to look out.

The trees meet above the road and black out any chance of moonlight. The road can suddenly be blocked with rock, fallen trees, stalled vehicles, random livestock or road-kill, or a times even on oncoming semi-truck, filling your lane. You say a quick prayer, suck in your gut with clenched eyes and listen as the wind whips between the heavy vehicles. Once again… you’ve cleared. Twisted steel and nightmares avoided. You chuckle to yourself. This life is insane.

Sleep comes. Despicable Me Two has been playing on the screen to keep the littles from getting restless, and now it has ended. Most of our crew of around 30 are asleep and the Main Menu sequence is playing over and over and over. I roll the blanket up and place it behind my neck to reduce the back of my head bouncing off the glass. I’ve been sick. I’ve had 4 hours of sleep in the past 3 days. I had to complete my Exegesis paper on Deuteronomy 30:11-20. I’m exhausted. I sleep.

I feel myself falling forward as I instinctively reach out to stop my pack from falling into the floorboard. My head is tucked down so my forehead rests on the standard school bus green seat back. Somehow most everyone is asleep. I look up to see soldiers. We are at a military check-point. Our bus has been stopped for search.

I stand up and here the helmeted man with the gun say that everyone must get out. I turn and begin to address my friends. “You have to get out. We all have to get out. Right now. Get up. Let’s go.” They look worried, I suppose I do as well. But I know that this is standard. They say they are checking for unauthorized transport of fruit, but I think that it is also drug trade and sex trafficking that they are thwarting. They are the good guys. We are in safe hands. Just don’t do anything stupid.

I locate some restrooms at the end of the guard plaza. There is also a shanty of a tienda, wood planks strapped together with twine and covered with sheet metal. You can buy Limonada, Naranjada, Grapetta, Coca, and most any alcohol. We buy no alcohol. We are good church people, after all.

Restroom… no, that word misleads you. A wooden door swings open to reveal a wall of stench that violently rams up both nostrils. A concrete pedestal rests on concrete floors. The light of my mobile phone reveals smeared and streaked walls. I look down and find that my feet are resting in liquid. I have to breathe and I resist the urge to add to the filth with a lurch. Mission accomplished a fumble at the door latch, thinking of what germs are on the surface and I make a desperate retreat. 

The bus restarts and the voyage continues. It’s 3:30 a.m. I fall back asleep.

I blink awake on occasion to catch glimpses of scenery. I see broken down trucks, closed tiendas, small shack houses along the road, and deep wilderness. Lights flash across the narrowing road and I see a parked semi truck with his hood up. A man is laying across the roof. I silently play a frequent game called, “Dead or Drunk?” I determine he is likely drunk as our bus blows by.

It’s still dark but the horizon is waking with a soft pink glow. We’re crossing a bridge. Welcome to the Isle of Flores. We’ve arrived around 5:30 a.m. We aren’t expected until 7:00. And so we turn off the bus and sit as the island comes to life. The sounds were deafening. I’ve never heard anything like it. Try to  imagine sounds from Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park. In the cacophony I could hear birds, thousands of birds, countless varieties, frogs from the brackish water below, and a roar of insects. Welcome to the jungle.

7:00 comes and the group must abandon the bus. We have the option of riding Tuk-Tuks, which are lawn mower engines mounted on an over sized tricycle. The driver sits along up front and a small bench seat holds passengers. Kellie, Aleksandra, and Sterling mount a Tuk-Tuk while Caleb and I decide to walk it along with our mission partners Justin and Kevin. Of course we walk past the place and have to double back to find it, but we reunite with our clan and enter the lobby.

We’re there on time, but we’ve forgotten the rule on time in Guatemala. Being on time is way too early. Our 7:00 breakfast is ready around 8:30. We’re tired, cranky, and hungry. We devour the scrambled eggs, plantains, refritos, and red sauce. The rooms are available, we toss our bags in our rooms… and head back toward the bus. Peten and Tikal awaits. There’s no time to spare. It’s back on the bus for another hour and a half. We’ll see our beds later tonight.

How do I describe the most otherworldly, epic-movie looking place I have ever seen? Tikal is so much more than you can see in a picture or on a post-card. It is expansive. It is vast. To see everything that has been excavated to date you must hike for over 6 miles. And there is much more that remains unearthed. The heart of an empire. You can still feel the power it wielded. 

Our guide gave us a brief history of a people rising to power. The Mayans worshipped multiple Gods with one as the head. Their beliefs were based on the alignments of the planets and stars, and cyclical to harvesting and planting. Overall they were a peaceful people, but special occasion could result in annual human sacrifice. To be the sacrifice was considered a great honor. You blood would be spilled down the steps of the temple. Your sacrifice would ensure the prosperity of your nation.

And then came Aztec influence. Things became bloody. Sacrifice was no longer an honor, it was a terror. We stood in the shadow of Temple One and listened to the screams of history. I reflected that those cries were not unique to this culture. We all have our demons. The beauty here was absolute and overwhelming.

We climbed two of the temples. The views were simply arresting. We would reach the summit and we would be silently transfixed as we were captivated by the rising temples from the canopy of the wilderness. What must this have been like when it was inhabited? I imagined myself as a Mayan warrior, reflecting the sun with steel in signal to Temple One, over 1.5 miles away. 

While we were at the peak, there were about 30 small, steep stairs that lead to the upper chamber. I grabbed Sterling in my arms (she is my most daring child) and together we climbed to the highest point. It was being balanced against the spire of the top of the world. The wind blew strong and we were at the level of birds. I sat her down on the ledge beside me with a grip on her hand. If we fell, we would fall together… having witnessed something that very few people have ever seen. 

We watched great birds soaring in the distance. They had vibrant red tails and splashes of yellow in their green feathers. I don’t know how long we were there. My legs began to grow weak and we began our descent. It was at this point that my right knee suddenly was swollen and could not be bent. With Sterling in my arms, I hobbled and hopped down the sharp incline. One missed step would send us tumbling towards the six foot unguarded ancient stone platform, and then over the ledge into the treetops below.

Of course this little drama is tempered with the reality that you are reading my words and so the conclusion is foregone. We made it safe. My footsteps were sure. The day was spent exploring carvings, passageways, foot-trails, ridiculously intricate architecture that harnessed sounds from shouted voice, knowledge of the stars and alignments of planets. The intelligence of this ancient race still bears respect. 

The Mayans believed that the square between Temples One and Two was the cradle of creation. For them, it was Eden, the center of the universe and the resting place of the Great God. While their religion is not my own, I could not find criticism for them as I stood in the shadow of their achievements. As to whether an ancient people encountered the one true God in this place, or if they simply constructed a tower of Babel, I cannot say. 

However, we do know that it ended abruptly. A people vanished. By conquest, pestilence, poisoning from building materials, blight, or a religion gone fanatical and violent… the end is not known. Nonetheless, if you stand in that place, you will feel the power of that ancient culture. In it’s time, it cannot be denied that it was indeed the center of their known world.

And so I found myself reflecting on my own view of God. There could be a day when someone stands in the ruin of my own life. I wonder what will be seen? This place is a place mixed with beauty and blood. The best of humanity mingled with the worst. Too often our own lives are no different. We all seem to think the world spins on our own understanding. I think there is a lesson here. 

I reflect back to my completed paper, discussing a remembered covenant between God and His people. Promises kept by a faithful God to a people who would seek His face and place nothing else before Him. I consider the faith of the Mayan. I consider the faith of the Israelites. I consider my own faith. 

I want the remains of my life to be a monument that points to God.

“For this commandment that I command to you today 
is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 

It is not in heaven that you should say,
“Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us,
that we may hear it and do it?”

Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say,
“Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us,
that we may hear it and do it?”

But the word is very near to you.
It is in your mouth and in your heart,
so that you can do it.

See, I have set before you today
life and death, good and evil.

If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God
that I command you today,
by loving the LORD your God
by walking in His ways and 
by keeping His commands, statutes, and His rules,

then you shall live and multiple
and the LORD shall bless you in the land that
you are entering to take possession of it.

But if your heart turns away
and you will not hear,
but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them,
I declare to you today that you will surely perish.
You shall not live long in the land that you posses.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today,
that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.

Therefore chose life
that you and your offspring may live,
loving the LORD your God,
obeying His voice and holding fast to Him,
for He is your life and length of days,
that you may dwell in the land that the LORD
swore to your fathers,
to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob
to give them.”

Deuteronomy 30:11-20

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