Terrestrial Visitation to the Contemporary Mayan Underworld



Outside Church in Chichicastenango


>> Leg 1 Guatemala

(Leg 2 Chiapas, Mexico)

(Leg 3 Oaxaca, Mexico)  4 Ok 8 Tzek (July 1, 2005)  In the air between New York and Guatemala City

“This is the account of when all is still, silent and placid. 

Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky.” –Popol Vuh

This is the account of how Derek and Jessica traveled to the land where the old Mayan world used to be. Or still is. 

According to the Popol Vuh, the Mayan world was created Ahaw, 8 Kumk’u, or according to our comparatively inaccurate calendar, Aug. 13, 3114 B.C. That’s when the Mayan gods set three stones in the dark water and struck them with lightning, which charged the world with life. Then the gods fumbled around to make humans:

On the first attempt, they screwed up and made animals that couldn’t speak.

On the second attempt, they made a human out of mud, but it didn’t have knowledge and understanding, so it dissolved and crumbled.

On the third attempt, they made a human out of wood, which was relatively successful. Their creation chattered nonsensically and procreated, but without purpose. The survivors of these people are monkeys.

On the fourth attempt, they fashioned people out of maize. That did the trick. “Instantly they were able to behold everything.” 

"Dame un elote por favor"

Interesting how analogous to evolution this Mayan creation myth is. I didn’t bring the Popol Vuh on the trip, but it was fresh in my head from reading it last year. And, ur, there was a convenient summary in the Lonely Planet book.

And now, Right Now, we are on a plane headed for Guatemala. Into the regions from which such creation myths were created.

In my version of the story, first there were eyeballs. Eyeballs wanted to see more so they evolved bodies to carry them around the landscape. They still wanted to see more, so they fashioned airplanes and such to carry them to further reaches of the landscape to see. Or feel. Or taste. Or smell. Or hear...

On my Napster faux-Pod we are listening to Poem Rocket, Pyschogeography. I don’t know where I was late 90s or circa 2000, but I missed the boat on this one. It wasn’t until I recently met the guitarist/singer Michael Peters (at the Miami Vispo show) that I checked them out. Blew the wax out of my ears. Rumor has it they are working on a new album, and he also is working on some new visio-textual stuff, hopefully in time for the next issue of SleepingFish.

These are the other items that I brought with me on the trip, besides what I was wearing:


black Yak Pak (smaller day satchel)

swim trunks purchased in Coney Island

gray cargo shorts

orange Flip-Flops

red Adidas Sambas

6 pairs of socks, old and holey enough to leave behind

6 old T-shirts, old and holey enough to leave behind

6 pairs of old underwear, old and holey enough to leave behind

black lightweight denim shirt (for those highlands)

anorak that stuffs into itself

Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch baseball cap


cash ($500)

travelers cheques ($800)



disposable razor/shaving cream (confiscated on plane to Tikal)

Cannon 3.3 Mega Pixel Digital Camera (with 128 MB chip)

8 AA batteries

extra 32 MB chip

Napster YP-910 Portable Device (loaded with 20 GB of music)

Y-connector with spare headphones for Jess

this notebook and something to write with

books to read and leave behind:

The Bold Saboteurs by Chandler Brossard.

Dear Mr. Capote by Gordon Lish
The Way the Family Got Away by Michael Kimball

Home Land by Sam Lipsyte
Lonely Planet Guide to Guatemala
Lonely Planet Guide to Mexico

And here is our tentative itinerary that we wrote out on a napkin on the fly:

July 1 – fly to Guatemala City, then to Antigua

July 2 – Panajachel

July 3 – Chichicastenango

July 4 – Antigua

July 5 – Flores

July 6 – Tikal

July 7 – cross the border to Mexico, Bethel

July 8 – Palenque

July 9 – San Cristobal de las Casas

July 10 – San Cristobal de las Casas

July 11 – Puerto Angel

July 12 – Mazunte

July 13 – Puerto Angel

July 14 – Oaxaca

July 15 – Oaxaca

July 16 – Oaxaca

July 17 – fly back to NYC

Lets see if reality mimics our tentative intentions. 

Calendar (from Palenque)

The Mayans used a vigesimal (base-20) counting system because they counted both their fingers and toes, unlike the rest of us who only counted our fingers (hence the more universally accepted base-10 counting system).

The Mayan calendar is 1/10,000 closer to the truth than the Gregorian calendar we use. More than a millennium after the Mayans developed their calendar, Pope Gregory XIII declared that the day following Oct. 4, 1582 would be Oct. 15, 1582 to make up for a 10-day error that had accumulated. Imagine living during that week?

Mayans also believed that the great cycle of the present age would last for 13 baktun cycles, which according to our calendar puts the end of the world as we know it on Dec. 23, 2012. Though they believed in death and rebirth, so there’ll still be a world after this date, just in another capacity. Time is a continuum, not a cycle.


Wall in Antigua  4 Ok 8 Tzek (July 1, 2005)  Antigua

Landed in Guatemala City. Cinder blocks and galvanized tin. Diesel exhaust. A random arrangement of humans and buildings. Humans building. Building what? Akin to ants or termites. People were living like this before we got here. People will be living like this after we leave. People have been living more or less like this since Aug. 13, 3114 B.C. People live like this all over the world. This is just another city. Of course when you drive through a city you get a biased view. I have spent time in Guatemala City before, though it has been a while. We already get enough city culture. We decided to head straight on to Antigua.

Antigua is an expansive village. Everything wide open, battered by volcanoes, earthquakes and the elements. It has weathered well, the distressed adobe walls, the cobbled streets, the sense of history. Half-broken and sun-baked churches everywhere. Some rebuilt, some in service. Others left to decay, back to the earth. Our hotel room feels like a vaulted monastery rebuilt. Built from real materials—stone, thick brick walls, dark woods, terra cotta tile. Everything aged. The grounds out our window are full of exotic plants and pool fountains. Percolating fonts. I am writing this by dim twilight. Last night we slept with the fire burning (it's cold up here). I dreamt of hand-cranked rickety elevators that kept stopping at different floors, people coming and going, but I didn't know where to get off.


Horse in Antigua  5 Chuwen 9 Tzek (July 2, 2005) Panajachel

They gather on the shores of the bottomless lake. Not thinking, or seemingly aware of, their own beauty, but of how they will eat tomorrow, yes. A yearning to get above zero. Selling you something you don’t need. “Tengo hambre. Comprame un Coca-Cola. Soy Trieste. Un quetzal?” 

I’m sad. Even taking a picture costs you 2 quetzals. I didn’t take any pictures today. Not because I’m too cheap, but it would make me sad to take someone’s picture for money. I don't like taking pictures of people who don't like having their pictures taken. And Lake Atitlán, while beautiful, is too deep and big to capture a picture of. Just believe me when I say the wind picked up the white caps and that it's a lake surrounded by volcanoes and misty clouds. 

We sat on a busy intersection and watched the busses and vendors and tourists and took mental pictures. There are no walls or buildings in Panajachel to take pictures of. The streets are lined with one long hawker flea-circus, hawking textiles to hippies, stuff people buy for the sake of buying something but that they will never wear. Or at least those in their right minds would never wear. We did score some Gallo beer shirts though. 

This lake was the center of the Quiche Maya empire, the land of the Popol Vuh, and now what is it? With Bob Marley or Seal or Abba blaring from the cafés, and the hippie-traveler knick-knacks and clothing, it could be Bali or Kathmandu or anywhere else. The indigenous population has learned to react this way, a survival mechanism, and now they expect tourism. They need gringos. They don’t know how else to survive now. Our presence continues to corrupt what's left of their culture.

I would like to think life would go on without us sitting here, just observing. That we have no impact. But we do. Even sitting in the bus watching the countryside go by. Lots of people have disappeared here and no one knows where they went, except maybe those that killed them. Life goes on. But they find a way. They smile more than we do. The crops grow back next year. The crops look good. There is lots of variety in what they grow. They get lots of exercise in their daily chores. But when they see us they want to live like us. And we want to live like them. 


Market in Chichicastengo


Steps of the Church in Chichicastenango


I'm reading The Bold Saboteurs by Chandler Brossard. Great pulp fiction with brilliant surreal passages that creep on you. Not sure what it has to do with Guatemala. It’s about teenage thieves in DC, so its making me paranoid as all they do is steal shit and commit crimes in the book. Makes me realize how easily people could steal our shit here. I wouldn't blame them. I probably would if I was in their shoes. But no one does. Despite all the state department warnings and all that, its probably a lot safer than the States.  6 Eb 10 Tzek (July 3, 2005) Chichicastenango

Chaos of color and commotion. An onslaught to the senses, of the human condition. The villagers from all around Chichi congregate to display the fruits of their labors. Literally. Fruits and vegetables, meats, textiles—all the things necessary to survive. And of course they sell stuff to tourists. Things we try to explain that we have no need for—that we live in a tiny apartments in New York City and have no room for. But they just want to get rid of the junk they have and get some money from us in exchange. We would rather spend our money on food or shelter or transportation, or other disposable and transient necessities. On experience. They don’t care. They just want to sell something tangible. Or for us to give them money. 

We have corrupted them with our presence. They have become dependent on us in these towns. But in the countryside you see them working hard. Working the land. Working the looms. Everything with pride. Everything a work of art. They are comfortable in their own skin. Eating and chatting. Sitting wherever. Laughing. Hanging out. Living. Breathing Copal incense and smoke from the cooking fires. Queuing up at the water spigot.

Waiting for Water in Chichicastenango

As the "give a man a fish" saying implies, giving food or money is overrated. Everyone should be given a job. Everybody in the world should have meaningful work to feel meaningful. To have something to work for. Work should be a universal right. Everything else is a privilege.

We had lunch in the market. Consóme de pollo with beans and rice. Tap water flavored with Tang that they called fruit juice. Watered down coffee with sugar. Then we got stuck in a downpour. Water flowing on the tarps, filling the gutters. Following the path of gravity. We took shelter inside the church with the others burning candles and making offerings. A dog and a cat lay on top of basket of chickens. The chickens cost 150 quetzals a piece and the dog cost 2 quetzals. Even if you don’t know the exchange rate, you can figure out the relative value. Last time I was in Chichicastenango kids wanted to take me to a chicken sacrifice. For a price of course. Good thing sacrificing animals has become passé.


Chichicastenango Rain  7 Ben 11 Tzek (July 4, 2005) — Antigua

Jess woke up with the Mayan version of Montezuma’s revenge. Of course I insisted it had nothing to do with the Tang-flavored tap water we were drinking in the market place. Even living in NYC can't prepare you for Guatemalan amoebas. We had booked a flight to Tikal, but changed it til the next morning. Good day to lay around the pool anyway and enjoy the hotel as we were gone all the previous days. Only problem is we have to wake up at 3:30 a.m. tomorrow to catch our flight.

Guatemalan food pales in comparison to Mexican food. Today we had Mexican (once Jess 's amoebic count was restored). The best meal so far. I went in to town to check my email, make travel arrangements, change money, etc. Antigua feels like a large Ajijic (town in Mexico where I spent 3 of my formative years). Its weird how easily we adapt. Now these colonial streets seem familiar, and the thought of NYC streets seems foreign and far away. In my mind I know it's different. 

Afternoon is guaranteed to rain here. Everything is old and damp. There are rich old NYC ladies in our hotel that complain to me about the mold. They ask me if it bothers me. It doesn’t. The moldy musty smell is refreshing. For a change anyway. Clothes here never really dry. There are tanks of water with corrugated washboards all over in public places, where women can wash clothes. Public fountains. I can hear one outside our window. Continuously flowing. An eternal font.

I finished The Bold Saboteurs. Lovely read. Better than Kerouac, for that beat crap anyway. I got 100 pages into Gordon Lish’s Dear Mr. Capote, but I just didn’t get it. Maybe if I tried reading it another time in another place. Here and now it wasn’t doing anything for me. He's too much of a writer’s writer—you have to be an insider, and I am not. I am not well read. Sad to say I haven't read much Capote or Norman Mailer. If only there was more time.  I’m leaving the Lish book behind in Antigua, as well as an old T-shirt that I’ve been wearing for 3-days straight with my DNA embedded in the fabric. 

Its 3:30 A.m. It is so silent I can hear my own ears and pulse. A John Cage silence.

Tikal Sticking out of the Jungle  8 Ix 12 Tzek (July 5, 2005) – Tikal

This is the account of how Derek and Jessica went to Tikal. An empire built by Mayans, ruled by the likes of Yax Moch Xoc (King Great Jaguar Paw) and King Moon Double Comb (a.k.a. Lord Chocolate), who was the 26th successor to Yax Moch Xoc. If only our leaders had such names. 

In 26 or 27 generations, they built this, then mysteriously left it all behind. At times 100,000 people lived here. What an honor to walk on such ground. For the second time for me, though it's been 15 or 20 years, and it has changed a lot since then. They don’t let you climb most of the temples (all because one or two idiots fell off and died). The interior rooms are full of bat, bird and human guano, and lots of graffiti. People are fucking idiots. Annoying tourists everywhere. Not that my presence is not having an inevitable impact, but at least I don't shit or spray paint in a temple to show I was there. 

More than the ruins of Tikal is the setting. Dense Jungle. We saw foxes, pacas (rodent like creatures that look like they would make good food), pheasants, spider monkeys, 3 different types of toucans, parrots, wild turkeys, etc. Now we are spending the night at Tikal. They turn off the power here at 10 P.M., so after that it’s just us and the sounds of the jungle. The heat is oppressive here.  9 Men 13 Tzek (July 6, 2005) Flores, Guatemala

Hit a snafuey snag of swindly bus peddlers, so we are in Guatemala one day longer than anticipated. After waking up in Tikal, after a long night of complete darkness so dark you couldn’t even see your own hand waved in front of your face, we got a cab to the Flores bus station. A concrete hovel with a hot dusty lot full of sketchy elements, competing to get you into their bus, lying about the other options, no cooperation and everyone being totally unhelpful. 

We abandoned our efforts and retreated to the island village of Flores, a circle of jaded roads and structures that feels more like Italy than Guatemala. It's completely surrounded by beautiful lake Peten Itza. 

Fisherman on Lake Peten Itza, Flores in background

Arranged our travel to Palenque for tomorrow at 5 a.m. Walked around town in nauseating heat and intense white light (forgot sunglasses). Took a spontaneous excursion on the lake in some fisherman's boat. Hung out by the pool. Drank beer and watched a storm come in at sunset.


I woke up in the middle of the night. The power had gone out. I could tell because the overhead fan stopped, so the air stopped moving. Pitch black and dense hot air. Lucid dreams of dark angels spurned by the sound of bats and geckos that sounded like saliva dripping of some alien creature. It all sounded like it was in the room with us, and we couldn't turn on any lights to check. Maybe they were. Woke up again as I felt someone was dragging me off the bed.

It wasn’t an intentional power outage like Tikal. There I lay in complete blackness, feeling my way to the toilet. There the crickets and other jungle creatures were deafening. And not like Antigua where we couldn’t hear anything. In Tikal you hear the pulse of the jungle, like you are sleeping in the womb of it all. In Flores we had to go out on our balcony it was so oppressive. The lake was below us in the starlight. There were millions of stars. Billions. 

I'm reading The Journey of Man by Spencer Wells. An interesting proposition—he collected DNA samples from indigenous groups across the globe to pinpoint the origin of man and the subsequent migration patterns—but his academic and arrogant voice was projected into the writing, distracting and deflating the intent (which was basically to show the migration paths of humans out of Africa by studying the Y-chromosome markers in men and mutations in mitochondrial DNA in women). The general trend is in agreement with other evidence (anthropological, linguistic, and just an intuitive look at variations in human features), though the dates are questionable. He has man coming into the Americas around 10,000 to 13,000 years ago, which was what we were always taught in school. But in the past few years (granted the book was written in 2002) it seems I have read about a few different discoveries (in the Carolinas? Another in Mexico?) that puts the date of human occupation more like 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. [see http://www.cnn.com/2004/TECH/science/11/17/carolina.dig/ and http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4650307.stm for more information on this]. 

It's still debatable of course, and probably always will be, but what it seems like is that Spencer Wells' data conveniently fits the old accepted dates, and now that they have new evidence I am sure he will find conveniently change his findings. Not that I'm skeptical about what he is saying, but I can see where it would make people skeptical. Is he just trying to prove what we think we already know rather than go out on any limbs? Not to mention the manner in which he conducted his experiment should have properly been an international effort. If I lived in another culture, I wouldn’t want Americans and Brits taking my blood samples and coming up with all these grand theories. One thing that is probably indisputable though, is that we all came from Africa, around 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. Definitely way before Aug. 13, 3114 B.C.


>>> On to Leg 2 : Chiapas, Mexico