Friday, May 25, 2007

San Agustin and the Mayan Calendar

Short story submission for the Bradt Travel Guides Travel Writing competition 2007

The fire crackled and licked, conversing wordlessly with the crystal messengers in the night sky above. I had gathered the wood myself, erecting a teepee of twigs over a humble candle flame until a ravenous fire took shape. We sat around it under the stars, my teacher Ernesto beating a drum softly, chanting the words of the shamans. His strangely distorted voice echoed out into the darkness as a huge fireball burst across the sky, startling me with its brilliance. It looked like a spaceship crashing to earth; the most unearthly Christmas of my life.

A week earlier I was wandering down a muddy, sun-scorched path to the Pelota archaeological site, blissfully unaware of the surreal turn my journey was about to take. The warm-hearted people and simmering political undercurrent of Colombia had given me a wonderful taste of South America, but it wasn´t until I reached the south that I discovered the place that was to have the biggest impact on me: San Agustin.

An oasis of tranquility, the cosy town´s environs were all dirt tracks, low-lying mountains and elusive, unique archaeological sites: one-of-a-kind in a country with very little indigenous presence. After six days of relaxation I set out on a long walk to the Pelota - a set of standing stones excavated from the neighbouring hillside, daydreaming of Mayan and Inca temples. Arriving lethargic and craving good coffee, I entered the cafe next door and sat beneath the shade of a deck umbrella.

A long-haired guru sat in the shade of the veranda, surrounded by colourful, arcane charts. He glanced in my direction, stood up and lurched towards me with a huge grin on his face holding a chart. "Would you like to know your Mayan sign?" he said, his accented voice musical. "How much does it cost?" I asked cautiously. "Nothing," he said, still grinning from ear to ear. Taking my birthdate, he sat behind his desk intent on some kind of formula, his long hair framing his Hispanic features. I soon discovered that I was Yellow Rhythmic Seed, or ´Uac Kan´ in Mayan.

Introducing himself as Ernesto, the maestro produced various scraps of paper bearing Spanish explanations of my sign´s characteristics. It seemed that this was no mere tourist attraction: this was a place of Mayan study. “You know what the Mayans called themselves?" he asked rhetorically as we sat shaded from the hot morning sun. "Earth wizards. They believe they came to this planet to improve it. In 2012 much change will occur, the Earth is getting ready to do some exercise.”

For the next three hours Ernesto and his companions taught me the workings of the Mayan calendar: the 13 months of 28-day cycles perfectly synchronised with the lunar and solar orbits, the Tzolkin key, the spellwaves of the body and the order of the 20 elemental seals of creation. We invite people to stay with us and learn," he told me at the end of our chat. "Some people stay for seven days, others stay for 28 days. It is up to you." He showed me around the guest cabin: beautiful, secluded and rustic. Unable to resist, I decided to stay a week.

We spent much of the following seven days slumped in hammocks, discussing the Mayan schools´ beliefs; their goal was to reharmonise with the planet by synchronising with the natural cycles of the Mayan Calendar. We collected water, we gathered wood; on Christmas Eve we conducted the fire ceremony, a test of my hunter-gatherer mettle, scattering ashes soaked in sacred oil.

On my last day, Ernesto took me across town to another ranch. He had something important to show me. Making our way up a dirt path we emerged into a small field with rough, ploughed furrows. Ernesto excitedly explained that this was their main project, their path toward self sufficiency. I made approving noises but sensed his disappointment that I didn´t share his enthusiasm; I had been expecting something more than a small patch of farmland – perhaps a crashed UFO.

Later that night, Ernesto announced that we would be watching a documentary about the Mayan prophecies. As we sat waiting for the show to begin, Ernesto appeared behind me. "Would you like to see something interesting?" he said. I walked out onto the balcony and followed his gaze toward a mesmerising light, flashing red, green and blue in the night sky over nearby Pitalito. I couldn´t believe my eyes. "I asked a question at the fire ceremony,” Ernesto said gravely, “that is their response."

I´ll never forget the feeling of that moment, nor the day that I left the ranch, Ernesto´s words echoing in my ears as I walked up the path: "Remember, you are welcome to stay with us. When you decide to return, the doors of the time ship will be open."


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