When I crossed over the border into Honduras, I had one goal in mind: get to the ruins. Windows to the past, ruins offer a glimpse of a once-omnipotent society. It’s a special experience to stand where greatness once stood, to see where ingenuity worked, to walk where nobility once walked.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, the Maya were the presence in Central America. They were the only civilization of the pre-Columbian Americas to fully develop a written language, and they were also known for their splendid art, elaborate architecture, and sophisticated mathematical and astronomical systems. From their inception around 1800 BC, these sharp pioneers continued to develop and grow and advance their culture until the 1500s, when Hernán Cortés figured out how to read a map and navigated his soldiers to Veracruz, Mexico, guns drawn. From there, the Spaniards worked their way north, west, and then south through Guatemala and into Honduras, a bloody march that cut down the native population of Central America by 90 percent according to some sources.
People still defend the Spanish conquest today, while others vehemently argue that the Spaniards had no right to do what they did. One side says the natives were doing just fine, hanging out and loving life, when along came Cortés and other Spanish conquistadors to murder and destroy on a very large scale. They note that the Maya calendar was once more accurate than the Gregorian one and that their hand-built temples rival Egypt’s pyramids in both size and scope. Conversely, Michael Berliner of the Ayn Rand Institute makes the claim that Western civilization brought “reason, science, self-reliance, individualism, ambition, and productive achievement” to communities that represented “primitivism, mysticism, and collectivism,” and to a land that was “sparsely inhabited, unused, and underdeveloped.” The Maya favored simple community, and genocide and slavery brought innovation and progress.
While the Spanish colonization meant destroying almost all native expressions, rituals, texts, and art, the old stone civilizations of the Maya still left their mark at various places throughout Central America. There are many Maya today who still practice what they always have. In the United States, we forced Native Americans onto reservations where they could either choose to maintain their traditions or build casinos, and in Central America, the Maya were pushed into the mountains to live off sparse resources. They continue to craft huipils and necklaces and bracelets and bags and many other handmade crafts to be offered to svelte tourists at the bottom of the mountain. Native languages like Ch’ol and Kaqchikel and Mam and Q’eqchi’ and K’iche’ and Yucatec Maya persevere as the primary languages of millions of people in many villages in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador. Many Maya are responsible for maintaining the tourist sites where their ancestors once lived, ate, drank, worked, hunted, cultivated, created, played, and carved out dudes’ beating hearts in sacrifice. I wanted to see those sites. I wanted to stand in an ancient place and feel the echoes of all those heartbeats, the echoes of a culture so vast, beautiful, and bloody all at once.
But first I needed a bicycle.
Everything is for sale in Latin America. Everything. If you forgot it at home or you need it, somebody has it, and for the right price, it can be yours. This goes for food, clothes, and any other wares you might have forgotten to pack. If you’re looking for a specific item—say, a pressure washer—somebody knows the one person in town who has it, and then it’s up to you to begin negotiations. That book on the shelf at the restaurant around the corner doesn’t have a price tag, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be had. Jan once told me about a guy he was getting ready to travel with, Roberto from Belgium, who had six weeks of volunteer requirements he needed to complete to qualify for university graduation. After a week of working with the kids in Guatemala, Roberto paid the director one hundred quetzales ($13.07) for the printout of the six-week certificate, and he spent the next five weeks traveling around the region.
Everything is for sale in Latin America. Or rent.
So, when the lady at the travel agency in Copán told me that the slow season had struck and nobody was renting bicycles, I grinned and offered up a gracias. Turning, I strode out onto the cobbled streets and started playing the numbers game.
A man pedaled by slowly on his bicycle a few moments later. I trotted after him until he squeezed the handbrakes and met my stare. “Pardon me,” I said in Spanish, “is your bike for rent?” Pardon me. That’s what I said. If one’s skin color doesn’t shout “tourist,” stiff language skills will. The Latinos in America who just learned English as their second language say, “Hi, how are you?” But when you’re born in a country, you gradually learn to say, “What’s happenin’?” And “Where do you think we should go tonight to enjoy ourselves?” becomes “What are we up to tonight?” “Pardon me” is the same thing. Nobody says “pardon me” in America, with the exception of convicted Wall Street criminals with powerful political friends. Still, it’s one of the first things I learned to say in Spanish.
He said his bike wasn’t for rent.
I shuffled two blocks down the cobblestone road to grab some lunch at a little one-room restaurant. After swallowing a mouthful of chicken and spicy beans and rice, I asked the lady cooking (and serving and cleaning) whether she knew anybody with a bike to rent. She poked her head out the door to talk to Javien.
“Javien, this guy in my restaurant, he wants to borrow your bike,” she called out. “Do you want to rent it to him?”
Javien was twelve, and a hundred lempiras was twenty thousand in his world, so he was naturally excited to rent his bike for five hours. “I have to ask my mom first,” he piped, already pedaling quickly down the street with a grin plastered across his face. “I’ll be right back.” But after the thirty minutes it took to finish our dinner, he still hadn’t returned.
I tapped my fingers on the worn surface of our table. This was frustrating. Everything is for sale or rent in Latin America, I’m telling you, and it wasn’t usually this difficult. I persisted. Abandoning the restaurant and any hopes of Javien returning, I crossed a few blocks to the post office, a one-room shed hugged up against the market, and asked the lone attendant if she knew the owner of that gray bike chained up right outside the door. She didn’t, noting that it had been sitting there for three days, but we chatted for a minute, and she knew a guy next door at the market—the guy with the red shirt, she said—who owned a bike. I continued my search next door and found him, Oscar, cutting and weighing chicken and fish for twenty eagerly waiting hands. He was busy, hustling, likely in the mood to have someone babysit his bike while he worked. We struck our deal rather quickly.
“Hello. Uh . . . I . . . uh—dammit, how do you say it? I . . . uh . . . like your bicycle,” I stammered in broken Spanish. “To rent!” I screamed, excited to find the right expression buried in the depths of so many misplaced vocabulary words. “I like your bicycle to rent! One hundred lempiras until two.”
He nodded—once—smiled, and stuck out his hand as he continued listening to a lady place her order. He said nothing to me, no time for that. Chicken to chop; fish, relieved of their heads, to stuff into plastic bags. I pulled a one-hundred-lempira bill out of my wad and stuffed it in his palm. His smile widened.
It was odd, yet captivating. In the United States, this obviously doesn’t happen. We have a generally honest, accountable culture in America, but I know I’d never trust some random individual who approached me at work and wanted to rent my bike. Yet, in Honduras, in Central America, as corrupt as any system in the rest of the world, Oscar trusted that I would return in five hours. He wasn’t worried about the brake pads or the gears or that I might bend the front tire rim when I found some super sweet jumps to attack. He knew I’d take good care of his rusty-red bicycle with its two missing spokes, and he knew I’d be back in the afternoon.
I grabbed his bike and slowly, furtively, dodged my way through the busy market and out into the wide-open stone-cloaked streets of Copán.
At first, I didn’t understand the hoopla of the ruins. “Wow,” I said flatly. “Pretty neat.” My thoughts shifted to what I’d packed for lunch. My gaze roved down over all those fantastic stone structures, but I still felt . . . letdown. No, letdown isn’t the right term. The ruins met my expectations but didn’t exceed them. Satisfactory. Gigantic stone structures rose out of the earth, staircases reached farther into the sky than I could have thrown a baseball at full throttle, and I just thought, I mean, it’s cool, but if given the chance, I think I could assemble a crew to construct that.
There are two things to note about that attitude: First, no I couldn’t. The deeper I walked into Copán, the more elaborate the structures and statues and walkways and hieroglyphs became, and the more I started to respect this marvelous construction. The season’s first heavy rain would bring down the tower my team and I would construct if given the chance—even with an illustrated step-by-step guide.
Second, the Maya erected these edifices long ago. Really long ago. With modern machinery and a little illegal labor, we could presently put the structures up in four days, loll around on Friday morning, and then, after lunch, get an early start on our weekend trip to the lake. These folks, though, these crazy Maya mofos, had no machinery. No pulleys. They didn’t even have any metal tools. Bare hands, an idea, and a prayer. They saw a pile of stones to the left and an empty field to the right, and thought, I know what would go pretty great over there. A house! A big, stone house. And then we can put up a huge stairway and a couple altars to host ceremonies and sacrifices! Let’s do it! They didn’t have plans, no blueprints to work from; no Temple Depot around the corner to help them build it. Just trial and error. Lots of trial. Surprisingly little error.
The Maya were revolutionary. They built with limestone; they developed an advanced calendar (their Ladies of the Yucatán calendar reportedly sold millions); and they made grand, colorful clothes—cornflower blue and maize yellow—from homespun yarn and intricately woven fabric. Could they have been more efficient and complex? The Spanish sure thought so, but standing there, looking at those ruins at Copán, nearly fifteen hundred years after their construction, I marveled at what they’d been able to accomplish and the role that every Maya played in advancing their society. Everyone got involved; everyone had a job, a responsibility. Weak links, the deficiently skilled, charged forward with lesser functions but were nevertheless industrious.
I wondered, therefore, whether they were better off than Honduran society now. Today, as we continue the hunt for perfection, we bar from our social and professional circles those who don't fit the mold; so many years ago, they welcomed one and all with open arms and offered them a purpose in the community.
It’s very eerie to be in a place where so much went down so many years ago. You pay your entry fee to the ruins and you’re immediately transported from the world out there on the highway, not a soccer field away, to an ancient era. A thousand years ago, on top of that scaled structure right over there, some dude stood, had some buddies brace his arms and legs, and sacrificed his body, his life to the gods. The priest cut his chest open and wiggled his fingers inside that bloody cavity before pulling out his still-thumping heart. A week later, it rained. “See?” the townspeople said, nodding as they stood smiling beneath the torrential rains. “Told you it would work.”
They even combined human sacrifice with sport. Pitz—a popular Mesoamerican sport—involved players using their thighs or hips to navigate a nine-pound rubber ball through a ring on the other side of the field. Sometimes, opposing rulers would play against each other for rights to property or a prosperous bounty. Generally speaking, however, the tribes decapitated the losing captain and offered his various organs or blood to the gods after the game. This was the original agony of defeat. In the modern world, if a player loses, he puts on his best pouty face for the media, phones his agent (who assures him that his stats are right where they need to be), and returns to his gated community to watch a movie with his family on his plush sectional couch and big-screen 3-D TV.
But then? In the times of the Maya? Dire consequences. Can you imagine being voted to represent your team as the captain, and worse, having to give a pep talk when you were losing at halftime? “Seriously, guys,” I imagine a captain saying, alternating between pleading and screaming in a desperate attempt to motivate. “Can we show a little more effort out there in the second half? Maybe play a little defense this time around? Golly. Buncha’ pansies. Marhatl, what the heck, man? Get serious! Can you put the ball through the ring just once this afternoon? Just once? Or maybe somewhere near the ring? Boy, I’ll tell ya. Buncha pansies. That’s what you are: a bunch of goddamned pansies.” He looks down, shaking his head. After a pause, he looks up. “Itzamnaj, what are you doing? Put those away. You know the rules: no effort, no orange slices at halftime! C’mon guys, focus! And Ux M’el? C’mon, Ux M’el. We go way back, you and me. We used to play pitz together when we were kids! I brought you a rabbit last week when Wifey was sick. Do you remember that? Yeah, you do. You remember the rabbit. Frickin’ pansy. Look at you now; my seven-year-old has more powerful hips than you. Unbelievable. You all oughta take a moment to reconsider your effort before you leave this locker room. Otherwise, don’t even come out at all.”
Despite all this, the Maya weren’t barbarians. They simply believed in sacrifice. They shot a little blessing once in a while to this god or that, but otherwise they spent their time hunting, building, or figuring out how the stars aligned.
My entry fee to Copán was three times the cost of the previous night’s lodging, which seemed excessive until I began to respect the work required to maintain this epic place. So many workers meticulously, quietly chipping away at the rock to unearth a new stairwell or sculpture, a new altar or residence, careful not to damage precious artifacts. For three hours I wandered silently among the ruins, taking it all in. A heavy, touching presence settled over me. I brushed my fingers over the stones of a long-dead-man’s temple. I stood alone. A tour guide would have mesmerized me with his stories and fun facts, but then I wouldn’t have been able to stop, look, muse on my own terms. I craved these moments alone. Where a guided tour takes an hour and a half, I took three solo, including time to scale various platforms and to peer down across an empty pitz field and the Great Ballcourt—a location defined by many researchers as the most beautiful creation of the entire Classic Maya period—to chew over my own athletic career.
Marcelo, one of the groundskeepers, took a break from work to take my bare-chested picture at the summit of the royal residence. A thousand years ago, a Native American man stood shirtless at that same spot growling with his arms curved at his side. Just as I did.
The Maya scavenged and hunted. In Central America—and notably in Copán—they found rich, dark soil and a favorable climate. Greenery. So much green, blanketing the earth from edge to edge as far as I could see and extending into the sky, coating the tips of spiny branches. From the ancient woodlands surrounding the stone city, the Maya harvested food and medicinal herbs and collected wood. They hunted deer with carefully constructed weapons; they picked berries, fingers stained deep blue-black with juice; they unearthed roots, split them open, and created salve to sooth the pain of cuts and scratches. And they shared with their neighbors. “My kill is our kill; my berry collection is our berry collection; and it turns out that the roots I excavated can be used to heal your cuts, too.” They traded throughout the region, from Honduras to Mexico and even with far-off Mesoamerican groups in the Caribbean.
I found, in the Royal Precinct, the most voluminous series of hieroglyphic etchings in the Maya world. The Hieroglyphic Stairway is the longest pre-Columbian hieroglyphic stairway in America and one of the Maya’s most astonishing accomplishments during the Classic period. Have you ever seen these hieroglyphs? They are brilliant and completely mesmerizing. Just as ancient Maya would look with bewilderment at our modern prose, I looked at their writing system with the same confusion. Through all of these carefully etched lines and images, stories are told. Culture is preserved. History is passed forward. Beginning with the dynasty’s initial leader, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, royal genealogy, military triumphs, and various other histories, events, and accomplishments were stamped in stone before the invention of pen and paper.
I’m not that captivated by history. Maybe that will be a rite of passage for me in the future. “Ah, yes, Stonewall Jackson,” my friend Surry says to me with a glint in his eye, a story ready to fire. “There’s no greater strategist in U.S. military history . . . ”
But now, I’m invested in the present. I’m interested but not amazed by cultural things, and when you spot me at an art gallery or history museum, you’ll see a slight haze over my eyes and know that my interest is mild and that I’m at least partly putting on a show for the young lady on my arm. As yet, I’m fundamentally ignorant, though, as time passes, decreasingly apathetic regarding people in black-and-white photos whom I won’t ever actually get to meet.
So let’s not jump ahead and think that I’ve quite arrived at the point where I’m jazzed up to start reading accounts of periods past, but let’s all agree that it’s fascinating—nay, essential—to consider that we got where we are today because someone else came before us. Bearded dudes used to start fires by striking stone to stone, the wheelbarrow did wonders for transport (and gave us one of our most beloved Monopoly tokens), and houses stood upright with a lime base and repelled most rain with a roof of interwoven leaves and branches. The cell phone started with Alexander Graham Bell telling Mr. Watson to get his ass over here; the laptop computer once took up a full room; lead balls used to be stuffed into musket barrels; that piece of machinery that holds all of your music in your pocket began as a tower of records; and Nutella started as a hazelnut hanging from the hazel tree before somebody got the sense to make it into a delicious paste. Evolution. Progress. Modification. It started long before you and I were bulges in our mamas’ bellies.
Besides, pausing to imagine what happened a thousand years ago on that stone facility over there can be pretty fun, too.
Looking back raises the question of what our lives can be like moving forward. What will they say about us in fifty years, a hundred years, a thousand years? Next year, next month? Will they revere us or scorn us? Are they proud of our accomplishments or resentful that we could have done more? Are they inspired by our passion or baffled by our passivity? The Maya came together to build an elaborate, extraordinary community and have been effectively moving forward for the five hundred years or so since they—and every other native group in the Americas—were pushed into the mountains. But that doesn’t mean the next five hundred years are a gimme, as we are always faced with a new set of challenges and problems with which to contend. Right? Even the Maya, the revolutionary and gumptious Maya, struggled with overpopulation and overhunting and drought and wars as their empire—this empire where I stood—started to weaken, even before the gun-toting Spanish hit the shores of America. The Maya made a thousand mistakes, surely, just as they did a thousand things right, but the point is that they did something. And their legacy is planted in history as a result.