Sometimes a bit of travel turns out to have been a pilgrimage. It all depends on whether our destination surpasses our expectations. As soon as we set out, airports and highways start to seal into us everything that we’re going to think about where we’re headed. Leaving our surroundings behind us extinguishes them. The conclusion that we’re going to arrive at accumulates in us little by little. Finally it spills over. And we stop.

Viewed from the right vantage point, even a journey on the scale of that Hernán Cortes and his men undertook can resemble devotional travel. Especially to observers like us, inhabiting the future their journey created, they seem both to dread and revere the landscape they are exploring. I myself think a lot about the Conquest now that circumstances have me in Honduras—not only the least developed country in Central America but, as well, a land both puzzled and paralyzed by dreams of its preHispanic past.

Up and down the length of Honduras, its heritage from Mayan civilization runs like a flavor, a subtle essence. The ruins outside the town of Copan constitute what is today the nations single greatest tourist resource. Even 150 miles east of the ruins, all over the national capital—where I happen to be working at the moment—postcard and coffee-table book yield vistas of ruined grandeur: blue sky over altar, pyramid under green hills. Long before he or she gets to see them in person, a visitor is able to recognize the huge limestone statues that line the roadsides of the country’s westernmost department.

Shopkeeper and tourist guide and bureaucrat, tens of thousands of people here make a living off what s left of Mayan culture. Even in the bank down the block from our apartment, Mayan pottery figures stand on shelves, stiff as armed guards. They eye us while we wait in line, initialing our withdrawal slips. In fact, I passed under their gaze only this afternoon, clutching the fistful of pink and blue and green bills that are going to finance my travel. I sit tonight in the patio, out behind my air-conditioned apartment, reading about those rubble mounds that represent what has become the country’s earliest glimpse of itself, not to mention its most glamorous industry.

Tomorrow’s going to be a long day. I’m going to extinguish these cozy surroundings. I’m going to climb through the rubble of a civilization extinct 500 years before the Spaniards came.

With a grease pencil, on the windshield of the bus, someone has printed Copan. The engine turns over. The gears clash. The dirt in cutbanks starts to vary, red to golden, tan to gray. Through a tangle of leaves and hanging gullies, back-roads connect and separate: paintless plank walls, rusted windowscreen and thatched roof, cane fence around packed dirt. Every time the bus stops, kids bang my window with trinkets and sandwiches they’re selling.

The whole landscape looks drenched, saturated with water: clothes dry on riverbank bushes; bedsheets sprawl over half the highway, heaped with drying rice; a cemetery huddles in a valley so wet that individual graves have concrete poured around and under them. Women in flower-print dresses, knee-deep in river current, pound clothing clean on a rock. Kids kick a soccer ball in the raw mud of a schoolyard ringed with weeds, laundry dripping on a line beside them.

In an isolated village, every inch stands out—ribs on horses, corrugations on rusty roofs. Under the whitewashed spire of a church, a rusty ferris wheel teeters higher and higher, part by part. Gandy dancers pry a rail into place at the edge of town, chanting.

I wonder about the belief system that brought ancient Mayan civilization into being. What set of devotions bound together some 20,000 human beings? What habits of worship put them to creating the city which now lies in fragments? Archaeologists dig and reconstruct, map and sift and argue with each other. And yet, no matter how many years they put into clambering up the sides of pyramids, regardless of how frequently they squeeze into musty tombs, aren’t archaeologists merely learning to listen to stone, to catch the least inflection of jade earring or 10-ton stela? They start to resemble the sorcerer kings whose works they unearth: a class of human beings trained to read a chisels hints and insinuations.

The classical Maya period in Copan ended 700 years before Columbus’ ships touched the north shore of this land. The earliest Spanish missionaries marvelled at the deserted stone staircases and doorways, the roads and walls and tombs. By l84l U.S. explorer John Stephens was hiring local campesinos to cut through vegetation, to view what was left of a citadel once the third largest Mayan population center. I keep comparing his anticipation to my own. Stephens wrote about the anxiety that overcame him as branches and vines fell away, and sculpted hands and faces and ears and feet appeared. Each time a machete rang out against stone, he winced. The site impressed him so, he sought out the farmer who owned it. He bought the whole thing for 50 dollars.

The driver’s shirt reeks. A three-day growth sprouts on his jaw. His hands flutter off the wheel as he tells me how a dam broke in the mountains up above us in ‘74, how the flood that followed cost thousands of lives. He remembers how one little boy, sole survivor from a family often, grabbed a log and rode the crest 15 kilometers down the valley to where he got rescued by a helicopter.

Anyhow, the driver continues, I get off right here if I want to visit the abandoned fortress off to the right of the road. It dates from the time of the Spaniards, of course. But half a century ago, the dictator who ruled Honduras used it for a torture chamber. Professionals would strap the victim upright on a stool, fixing razor-like barbs all round him so he couldn’t move. A drop of water a minute would fall on his head. One clever prisoner placed a coin on the top of his head to cushion his thought.

My curiosity’s gotten the better of me. A plaque on its stone doorway says that, from 1909 to 1959, the fort served as the national penitentiary. Stacks of bricks and bags of plaster testify to current efforts at reconstructing it. Basking like caimans in the weeds, oblivious in their rusty skins, cannon barrels doze at the foot of stone stairs. A glance around the patio discloses 23 cells, iron door and iron-barred windows sealing the front of each, on each door a couple of hinges thick as my wrist.

Each cell measures something like 20 feet by 80, with an arched ceiling of mortar and brick. Outdoors the heat is so biting I flinch. The cells are full of rust and shade, the floor dank dirt, bits of plant life breaking through. The clinging, musty odor varies, now bearing a hint of smoke, and now of sweat. The doors emit a kind of low scream when they swing open.

By the time I arrive in Copan, it s raining so hard the streets run six inches deep. Sheets of rain cover the front door of each of the four hotels. When I check, I find there’s not a single room in town. The three busloads of grade school children that arrived an hour before me are playing tag in the lobbies.

I sit out of the rain on a bench, hoping the restaurant waitress I spoke to will find me some living room floor to sleep on. A preternatural crack of lightning plunges us suddenly into darkness, the children shrieking back and forth at my knees, until the waitress returns bearing a candle and news that her friends Don Antonio and his wife will put some pads on their living room floor for me.

In the rainy dark, she and I grope our way down a street to a screen door. I shake hands and thank my host and hostess. I stretch out under their leaky ceiling, below their walls crowded with baby pictures, with grade school graduation diplomas, with magazine covers which they’ve cut out and framed. The next morning I rise from my pads, fold and hand them to my hosts with thanks and a fistful of currency, and head for breakfast.

Around a corner in the road, the ruins themselves at last spring out of the green tangle all around them. Trees 150 feet in height, their trunks six feet thick, tilt out of debris that is slowly cohering as doorways and stairs: from each bulge of rubble, corners protrude. The ball court spreads out, oblongs of green and beige and white and pink stone rippling with a millennium of seismic pressures. Overhead, up and down a pyramid, a wheelbarrow full of mortar gets winched on cables. Like pieces of a multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, thousands of fragments lie underfoot—framed by the stone tongues of the sculpted guacamayo birds. On which living guacamayo birds perch and growl like cats in heat.

No two of the stone faces look alike: noses aquiline or stubby, the old with a pair of teeth protruding, the young high of cheekbone. A pair of shapely legs crossed, lotus fashion, disappears in midair, torso-less.

Red paint still clings to the hands and forearms of the lords carved on the stelas. Their thighs clench, and their eyes aim right through us. Something that may be a smile lifts their lips. The stone calves behind the stone greaves seem to twist and knot. A look almost serene is playing about the eyes and lips of the lord whose name has gotten reduced to Stela H, his ribbons and pendants and loincloth dangling, feet relaxed at an angle that betrays the post-classical bias of whatever sculptor hammered him out of raw rock. It looks like an invisible wind is streaming the stone feathers away from his features.

The restaurant I’m dining in tonight teems with a hundred U.S. missionaries, all of them white, fair haired and middle-aged, their dinner talk ringing with terms like “Christian fellowship” and “witness.” A latecomer, a woman weighing perhaps 200 pounds, approaches the twin glass doors that lead to where we sit. When the door on her left doesn’t respond to her tug, she seizes the handle with both fists, plants her feet and heaves once, then again, and again. Sizing up what’s happening, a thin dark waiter sprints between the tables. With a flick of the wrist he opens, by its handle, the door on her right. She stares at him in disbelief. She mutters something to the effect that the other door was locked when last she ate here. Then she pulls up a chair, and seizes knife and fork, and starts adding her part to the fellowship of Christian witness.

Moments later another woman, larger than the first, arrives at the same glass doors. She too seizes the door to the left and, giving the same tentative tug, wraps both hands around the knob. She proceeds to shake the whole thing as a dog would shake a rabbit. Again the waiter sprints across the room. Again he flicks open the other door. And this woman too fixes both him and the door with the same glare of slow comprehension. Then she pads over to a chair, and assumes the place that is rightfully hers in the witness of Christian fellowship.

This morning I stroll up and down the great courtyard. Sunlight seems never to reach the dead leaves and twigs that litter the rubble. A musty odor clings to the corners and broken angles of rooms deserted a thousand years. Their yellow and blue and pink plastic lunch sacks dangling from branches, swaying in breezes, shirtless Honduran boys in straw cowboy hats dig and lift and heave.

Smoke from the workers’ cookfire thickens the air. Lizards scamper over glyphs. A glass skylight illuminates a tomb, the wall niches of it empty.

The seated human figures lodged every 10 steps up the great staircase flex their thighs and tilt their headdresses—the missing second figure represented by the ugly hole Harvard’s Peabody Museum left when they plucked him out and hauled him away. Two positively saucy jaguars, each with one paw on its hip, gesture with the other paw, inviting the visitor up the staircase their bodies frame.

In the museum, under a 100-watt bulb, wearing a heavy jade necklace, a skeleton called the Sorcerer reclines among his ray spines. Jade earplugs He beside him where his earlobes would’ve been. Two turtle shells, some caiman teeth, and the jawbone of a deer encircle him. When he got dug out from under some building, the light dusting of red pigment that covered his bones led those who unearthed him to think that he had enjoyed a certain alliance with the spirits of animals. Ten feet away, an ear of corn sprouts out of the hair of a sculpture of the corn god, a young boy with delicate features, his left hand raised as if to stop the passerby, his right index finger pointing earthward.

By the door stands the clay statue of a monkey-god man, apparently the patron of scribes. His face still blushes from red pigment his maker lavished on him. In one hand he carries a conch inkwell, and in the other, a brush. I admire his small blunt teeth, the apron dangling over his crossed legs. I figure the alert smile crossing his face must be that of a writer forever amazed at the world.

A week or 10 days ago, two weeks maybe—time leaks away in all directions—I resumed my place in my deck chair behind my apartment, reading, admiring the view. Evenings the street lights spread up and down the hills, and the stars reach across the sky. I keep re-reading the little that seems to be known about the history of Mayan worship.

Scholars mention a first era when commonplace concerns generated the mode of devotion. Hunting and fishing, planting and harvesting, their everyday needs kept people kneeling at makeshift altars tucked into the corners of their living quarters. But little by little something like a priestly caste evolved, and a class of professional worshippers began elaborating the family gods. Clearings appeared in the jungle. Temples filled them. Huge blocks of stone inched out of quarries, creaked across great distances, and took on the very features we see today: feathered serpents, jaguars crouching, monsters releasing reptiles from their mouths.

No one knows exactly when official worship took on its final form. But subtly, over the six centuries represented at Copan, images from the animal world began to yield to portraits of dead rulers. Only rather recently have archaeologists changed their minds about the low relief carvings that the sorcerer kings threw up. What once were thought to be divinities now are considered to be the kings themselves.

At least for the last period of its glory, the sacred city owed what it was to the worship of men, not gods. The Maya buried their dead rulers under 30 feet of carved stone, and then chiselled replicas of them in order to go on obeying. Still, we know the names of only five of the final eight monarchs: Jaguar Smoke, Eighteen Rabbit, Squirrel, Jaguar Smoke Monster Inix. Altar Q shows the last ruler receiving—from the founder of the line—what looks like a scepter. The name of the last ruler is Morning.

Though classical Mayan civilization may have become extinct, the rubble mounds I visited are nothing if not survivors. And yet, no matter how much I read, my permanent impressions of them derive from all that I put up with, and tried to ignore, in order to see them.

How fitting it was, the benevolence of that couple who let me sleep on their floor. After all the Maya sacred city always did offer shelter from a landscape inhospitable, if not antagonistic. The site never was easy to get to. Only priests dwelt there all year ‘round. But during all the centuries that they towered high and white against the surrounding jungle, the stones which formed that holy enclosure did provide—to countless pilgrims like me—survivals own vantage point, a grip on the world every bit as fortuitous as the log which that drowning boy clung to. Like that coin protecting the top of the prisoners scalp, the sacred city sealed off consciousness itself, preserving it.

But the city also served to isolate and confine, to enforce an orthodoxy that—however brilliant all the arts and sciences it fostered—did leave its victims’ hearts quivering in bowls, and its priests flinging around their shoulders the skin they flayed off those victims. The more I recall how much at home those missionaries seemed to feel amid what they knew were pagan ruins, the more I wonder whether that jungle, teeming with plant and animal life, hasn’t always had the effect of making ideology feel garish. Probably the sacred city always imprisoned as much as it sheltered.

In one sense, at least, the city now serves the same function it always did. Its current conditions represent nothing more than the latest stage in its growth from the worship of gods to that of men. The city today encourages our worship of our common past—wandering, interrupted, but persisting through the Conquest and a millennium of neglect. Just as it always did, the city celebrates our irreducible human urge to seek advice from older, wiser versions of ourselves, however obscure their relation to us, however oblique their utterances. A thousand years removed from them, we stroll their limestone avenues, puzzling out their carved expressions of time and disappearance.

By now I can see that Mayan religious history amounts to a journey every bit as convoluted as the one that took me to Copan. The city itself was a kind of pilgrim. Its faith progressed from a worship of gods to a worship of men dressed up as the very creatures that inhabited the landscape which nourished the worshippers. Over the years, the element of dressing up became central. Adoration took the form of adornment.

They ornamented their bodies with almost every possible natural motif because they revered one thing above all: the limitless possibilities afforded them by the fact that they inhabited human bodies. No wonder they left off worshipping gods. They worshipped, instead, the one passion which freed them from what they were—that appetite for imitation memorialized by their costumes. I think of a caiman-skin cape from which there emerge only a pair of hands wearing gloves in the form of jaguar heads. What was the wearer celebrating, if not human beings’ endless power to imagine themselves as other forms of life?

So why should it surprise us if, more than the gold that they worked from time to time, the Maya prized whatever was green? For them the feathers of the quetzal bird—or even the stone jade—represented the center of the earth, the essence that generates all living things.

Consider how they slipped, into the mouth of their dead, a sliver of jade the color of the water that drenches this land. Jade pendants and bracelets, necklaces and ear plugs, belongings like that got passed along from parent to child for so many generations that archaeologists scarcely can date them. Mayan lapidaries used a powder of ground granite—or maybe of jade itself—to cut and shape the jade they worked. Coating a thread or leaf with animal fat, to which the grinding powder stuck, they managed to shape and cut at the rate of one or two millimeters an hour. The work was painstaking of course. And it yielded a costly product. But people who dwelt in the sacred city felt an urge to attach something green to themselves. Copan even yields skulls with expensive jade designs set in their teeth. Whatever the price of such dental work, the Mayans were apparently willing to pay. More than a few such skulls belonged to people poor enough that their remains get disinterred from what we know, by now, was the public trash heap. There’s reason to think they hoped the jade would guarantee them a second chance at life. And maybe it does. Every time some archeologist’s fingers brush a thousand years of dirt off a skeleton, another pilgrim arrives. And a lot of them are flashing a green grin.

About the Author

Philip Garrison

Philip Garrison teaches courses in American literature, critical theory and Spanish at Central Washington University. Augury, his collection of essays, which won the Associated Writing Program’s 1990 prize for creative nonfiction, appeared in North American Review, Northwest Review, Iowa Review, Willow Springs, Cream City Review, and Southwest Review. 

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