Monday, October 4, 2010
The Jesus Lizard -- Part 14 -- Of Temples and Gloves of White
Rockbottom insisted on climbing Temple 1, all 154 feet of it, each step the size of two giant steps, the Mayan Stair Master from Hell. I didn’t discourage her, but some of the other ladies did. They were truly concerned for her, but the mule in her took that first giant step and up she went, with her diabetes and her bad heart and her beet red cheeks. We all went with her, except for Nigel. He went up Temple 2 on the other end of the Plaza Mayor to demonstrate something extraordinary.
When we all gathered at the top of Temple 1, we turned and as if the climb hadn’t already stolen our breath, the view of the plaza below emptied our lungs completely. Our Mayan guide, a university student, asked us to imagine the temples as they were more than 500 years ago, painted in bright colors, the reds, blues and greens of the Tucan and Macaw. She described the ceremonies of shaman, the illusions and delusions of transformations, sacrifice, blood, and magic. And then I heard Nigel’s voice, “Wolfy, can you hear me?” as though he were standing behind me, but I knew he wasn’t on Temple 1, I had seen him only moments ago, still climbing to the top of Temple 2. He was a good climber, but not so superior, that he could descend Temple 2 and suddenly be at my side on Temple 1. He laughed, and I became certain I was hallucinating. Our beautiful Mayan student touched my arm, she saw the fear in my eyes, she had seen this affliction in others before -- but it wasn’t Jungle Fever, and now I saw the confused expressions of Rockbottom and the others. They could hear Nigel’s laughter as well. At this height, panic was something to be avoided, I needed an explanation. “Look, everyone, look out there, Nigel is waving to us from Tower 2” our khaki uniformed guide pointed across the plaza, and I thought for just a brief flash that she changed form, she was the Jaguar Goddess, but a deep breath and now, she was just a raven haired woman with skin the color of cumin, and so I followed her direction and there, off in the distance, was Nigel, in his madras shirt, his shorts, and his binoculars peering back at us. There was nothing supernatural about him at all. Indeed, he was waving and our day guide told me to ask Nigel a question, “Ask him anything, in a normal tone of voice.” I was beginning to catch on.
“When’s your birthday Nigel?” I practically whispered.
“December 27th” came ringing back to us . . .ventriloquism, perhaps?
The ladies laughed and Rockbottom ventured a question, “What’s for lunch Nigel?”
“Beans and rice Mizz Rockbottom.”
We were thrilled like children at a side show. Acoustics was the culprit. The Plaza Mayor possesses the most perfect acoustical qualities of just about any place on earth. This allowed the high priests to speak to thousands of Mayans from on high with nothing but a normal tone of voice. Not only could they conjure visions and rule the masses by various religious sleights of hand, but they could communicate to the people almost as though they resided in each Mayan’s mind, they literally could make their voices inhabit their followers. Tikal was not surrounded by old growth rain forest in the 10th century, it was a city of fields enabling the shamans voices to travel much farther than we can imagine, so of course the people were entranced by their leaders, whose words traveled like humming birds.
Climbing down Temple 1 was more difficult than the ascent. I find this to be true of any mountain hiking experience, there is something about descending that is harder on the legs, on one’s sense of balance -- climbing the temple didn’t bring on vertigo, but you had to face all those steps going downward, and it was tricky at best. Many of the crew held eachother’s hands and some went down on their butts, placing their bottoms on one step and then scooting forwards to put feet down to the next step, where they would stand and then squat down again to repeat the process til they reached the base. Rockbottom was having a terrible time of it. I asked if I could assist, slightly afraid that she might take me rolling down the flight of stairs with her, but it was my job to be helpful, it said so in my trip job description—be helpful— but Rockbottom glared at me when I offered my hand. I was clearly an idiot in her beady eyes.
It didn’t strike until later, perhaps thirty minutes later. We were deep in the jungle, a good two hour walk from the Tikal Inn, and wouldn’t you know it? Rockbottom went to her knees. She was covered in a cold sweat and the whole crew surrounded her, “Mizz Rockbottom! Oh dear, oh dear. What is the matter?” Nigel told them all stand back, to give the woman air. He gave me a look -- and I knew everything he was thinking at that moment, Wolfy, where’s the first aid kit? It doesn’t happen to have a defibrillator in it, does it? Maybe all the woman needs is a sandwich? Wolfy? Do something . . .
And this is where the story takes its turn you see, because this is the moment when Rockbottom put me to the test -- there would be another moment, later on, the day before the excursion was done, but this was it. She set her eyes on me and wouldn’t let me go, that poor old thing, as though she was trying to take life force from me. She was sitting on the jungle floor now, the dark soft peat like dirt made from the detritus of gum trees, mahogany, and spider monkey scat, sticking to her pale fat calves, her meaty hands upon her chest, which heaved and gasped for something more than air. She needed a shaman. I took off my back pack and dug around for the letter in the side pocket. I had been saving that letter for this moment, the moment that Rockbottom tried to die on me. I clutched the letter and looked back at Rockbottom, the veins in her neck rose like little blue rivers—I thought to myself, “You asked for it you old battle ax” and then I pulled the letter from my pack and handed it to Nigel. He looked puzzled, but he took the letter from me and unfurled it. He began to read it, but stopped after the first sentence, then folded the letter back up and returned it to me. He nodded. He had seen the letter at the beginning of the trip, and now he knew I was reminding him. Mizz Rockbottom wanted no extraordinary measures taken, she was a Christian Scientist. So all we could do was pray. And find a sandwich. Which we had. Our Mayan had a sandwich, well, a tortilla neatly filled with beans and cheese. She offered it to Mizz Rockbottom, but Rockbottom needed sugar, “Oh! I have that too!” And our studious Mayan produced the most beautiful chocolate bar I had ever seen. Rockbottom devoured it. She drank water. The sweat on her brow dissipated, her great shoulders quieted and seemed to suspend her frame again. Rockbottom would live to see Thanksgiving dinner. And I would not have to call headquarters to inquire as to what to do with the body.
That afternoon, Nigel and I set off for another hike. Mizz Ghandi came with us. Much to our relief, she had broken her fast the night before and she was very excited to climb Temple 4, the highest of the five temples in Tikal, its peak being 212 feet. I was excited too -- we had left the older folks to nap before Thanksgiving supper and we could move through the jungle at a free fast pace. And I was even more elated at the prospect of being Luke Skywalker, for just a moment, floating above the canopy of the deep green rain forest, contemplating the Force, memorizing Yoda’s instructions. Yes!
I had no idea how we would climb Temple 4. Would there be great horrible steps like Temple 1? Or some intricate ascending walkways of cut stone. My questions were answered when we reached the base of the temple. Ladders. Rope and wooden ladders. Anchored by what? I had no earthly idea. They had been constructed at some time by the Guatemalan park service. They did not look up to OSHA standards, but they were the only way up, so I put my foot in the first rung and went from there, hand over hand, right behind Nigel, and Mizz Ghandi below me, to break my fall. There were several ladders, each with their own terrifying quality. And climbing them was full of effort. They laid flat against the trapezoidal walls of the temple and gave to your weight and swung! We were climbing with the strange sensation of leaning backwards really, so your ass was pulling you down and out into midair. It was not a secure position whatsoever. One false move and it was curtains.
We reached the top and found a few other intrepids waiting there for us. For all I knew they had been trapped there for days, without food or water or Belikin Beer, unable to face the climb down the ladders to the surface of the earth again.
But everything dropped away. I mean EVERYTHING when I looked out over the ancient city of Tikal! We were one hundred feet above the forest canopy and the howler monkeys were below us. We saw flocks of Macaw fly under us, like fishes swimming beneath the surface of the ocean. This wasn’t Star Wars. This was Guatemala! We were on top of the world. Sitting atop mountains in North Carolina never felt like this, and couldn’t have prepared me for this feeling of flying and floating and highness all at once. There was strong magic at the top of Temple 4 -- and you had to respect it with quiet revery. We must have sat up there for an hour, maybe two. The climbing party who met us when we arrived took their leave -- I didn’t even notice they were gone. I was in a trance, maybe the Force was with me.
But the sun was getting lower, and Thanksgiving dinner was calling. It was time to get back on the ladders and become earthlings again. I was absolutely terrified with each step down the ladders, but each step brought me that much closer to solid ground. Just as we reached the last ledge and last set of ladders, we noticed a crowd gathered below us. Quite a large crowd, maybe forty or fifty people. They were all dressed alike. Little blue and white sweat suits and white caps. They were waving madly at us. We could see cameras and binoculars flashing away. Nigel chuckled, “Oh, oh. Its Japanese tourists!”
“What?” Ghandi and I asked at the same time. We squinted down at the crazy looking little crowd. I thought, hmmm, they will break my fall quiet nicely!
“Don’t you know about the Japanese and their pilgrimages to ancient holy sites around the world?” Nigel was annoyed that we had no idea about this Japanese habit.
“No Nigel, can you fill us in?”
“Let’s just get down there and meet them and then I’ll explain.”
Meet them? What did he mean by meet them? As we made our way down the last ladder we heard shouts, “Congratulations! Congratulations!” We were literally mobbed when we came off the ladders. There was this push of tiny beautiful and perfectly clean Japanese. They were all wearing white cotton gloves, something about not wanting to soil the holy site, and they were reaching for us, touching us. They wanted to touch us because we had gone to the top. One man insisted on hugging me and having his picture taken with me. Nigel was surrounded by many women, who all hugged him and had their photos taken with him. Mizz Ghandi too. We were all to be touched and photographed, “Congratulations! Did you go to the very top?” Yes, Yes, we did, “Oh oh! Congratulations!” Snap snap! Touch! Shake your hand! Hug you! Congratulations!
When we left them, or should I say, when they released us, we saw them taking turns climbing the first ladder, up they went, half way, to have their photo taken. None of them were going to make the arduous and death defying climb -- they didn’t need to, they had us to represent them in their pilgrimage. We had done it for them and they had the pictures to prove it. They had touched us, so it was as though we had carried them all up there with us.
Somewhere in Japan, there is a picture of me standing with a very happy Japanese man. I am half smiling, half screwing up my face in a puzzled expression. This picture is framed and sits on the man’s bookshelf, the one with his photos of the Pyramids of Giza and the Vatican. Everyone who sees the photo asks him, who is the little blond woman? And he proudly answers, “I climbed Temple 4 in Tikal with her, she was American!” and his friends reply, “Oh!! Congratulations!”