Vienna, 20 February 2023
I’m normally quite good at writing posts about the wonderful experiences which my wife and I have enjoyed as we pass through this Autumn of our lives. Sometimes, though, they escape me. We get carried along by the River of Life as it rolls remorselessly on and soon something else has happened which becomes the topic of my next post. That experience disappears from the rear-view mirror and is gone for ever.
This post is about one such experience, which I am determined will not wriggle free of my electronic pen, because it was simply too wonderful not to document. It’s been eight years since it occurred but it has never quite disappeared from my mind’s eye. Every time the memories resurface, I castigate myself for my laziness and vow to write That Post. I am finally making good on that vow.
As I said, I have to take my readers back eight years, when we went to spend the Christmas break in Mexico with our son and daughter – he was working there, and she flew down from New York where she was working. As a last trip before we went back to Bangkok, where I was stationed at the time, the two of us along with our son (our daughter had had to go back) flew down to the state of Chiapas, which borders with Guatemala. We had arranged for a car and driver to pick us up in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, from which we were to take a one-week tour. The itinerary was put together by an agency, with limited input from our side; we were happy to go along with their recommendations. And so we found ourselves going to the Sumidero Canyon, San Cristobal de las Casas, Palenque, a couple of Mayan ruins in the Reserva de la Biósfera Monte Azules down by the Guatemalan border, and finishing off in Villahermosa in the neighbouring state of Tabasco (I had to check our photos floating around in the i-cloud to remember where we’d been).
Ever since my wife and I, together with my mother-in-law, had toured central and southern Mexico back in the early 1980s, I have had an enduring fascination for the ruins of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican civilisations. On that earlier trip, we had visited Palenque, so I looked forward to revisiting the site. Alas, the intervening years have not been kind. The site was in good shape, I hasten to say; that wasn’t the problem. Actually, the site was in too good a shape, very much tamed, with the surrounding semi-tropical vegetation cut back and kept under control, a far cry from my memory of Palenque as a place where the ruins poked out of the jungle. And it was terribly crowded! The curse of having been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I’m sure. So I’m afraid to say I felt slightly deflated after the visit.
The next day, the driver announced that we would be visiting two other Mayan sites today. They were quite remote, requiring us to drive a good long way down to the Guatemalan border. It all sounded very intriguing, but after Palenque I, for one, was game for a little adventure. So off we went, down this rather minor road, with our driver doing some alarming overtaking along the way. After a while, we reached the first site, Bonampak, which lay just off the road.
Its main claim to fame are its murals, which are indeed quite remarkable. I thought of inserting here some of our photos of these murals which are adrift in my i-cloud, but I find that other photos available on the internet are much better, so as is my habit I have instead shamelessly lifted these two photos, showing some of the murals.
On we drove, until finally we reached a river (I later learned that Guatemala started on the other side). Our driver parked the car and we got out. Where was the site, we asked, looking around. Oh no, he said, you could only get to the site by boat. We would be taking one of the boats (rather frail-looking, I found) pulled up on the bank, and it would take us about 40 minutes to get there.
And with that, he handed us over to the skipper of one of the boats and brightly informed us that he’d be waiting for us. Right, we said, and took our seats somewhat gingerly in the boat. As the skipper roared off upstream, I was feeling quite like Indiana Jones setting off into the jungle to discover a long-lost temple stuffed with gold.
A sudden squall of rain dampened the thrill, especially as our trousers and shoes began to get seriously wet. But the rain left mist trailing romantically through the increasingly thick jungle on the Mexican side of the river.
Finally, our skipper pulled up to a jetty and motioned us to take a path which disappeared off into the jungle. And so we climbed up through thick vegetation until we finally entered some moss-covered ruins jutting out of the jungle.
The path led us to a dark, creepy corridor, which we felt our way along
until we finally exited back into the light.
We walked into a clearing, where we could see other ruins peaking out of the surrounding jungle.
We had entered the ancient Mayan city of Yaxchilán.
I find any ancient ruin fascinating – the pull of a place once the centre of a vibrant life but now just a tumbled pile of mouldering stones. Others before me have captured this melancholy fascination of ruins in words much better than mine. Sultan Mehmet II, the Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople, is said to have murmured a distich by the Persian poet Ferdowsi as he surveyed the ruins of what had been the Sacred Palace of the emperors of Byzantium:
The Spider has wove her web in the imperial palace,
The Owl has sung her watch song upon the towers of Samarkand.
While an anonymous Anglo-Saxon penned these lines about Roman ruins he encountered somewhere in Britain:
Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,
Walls gape, torn up, destroyed, consumed by age.
A hundred generations have passed.
Earth-grip holds the proud builders, departed, long lost,
In the hard grasp of the grave. How often has this wall,
Hoary with lichen, red-stained, outlasted the passing reigns,
Withstanding the storms; the high arch now has fallen …
(At this point, there is a gap, for the parchment on which the poem was written has itself suffered badly from the passage of time).
But there is something very special about ruins like Yaxchilàn immersed in jungle. It has to do, I think, with Nature much more obviously reclaiming what is hers, a powerful reminder of the warning uttered endlessly by the catholic priests of my boyhood on Ash Wednesday as they crossed your forehead with ash, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” That sense of Nature slowly growing back and smothering men’s foolish dreams in stone is overpowering in Angkor Wat, of which this one photo, endlessly reproduced, is a potent example.
But it was also there in Yaxchilàn, all the more so since the overcast weather gave the site a brooding feel.
And so, with the site more or less to ourselves, we wandered from ruin to ruin.
Finally, we climbed a long flight of stairs that disappeared up into the surrounding vegetation.
At the top of which there was this structure.
And beyond which rolled away to the horizon the thick jungle of the Reserva de la Biósfera Monte Azules.
As we walked around we came across carved stone steles showing the proud rulers of this once thriving city state.
Looking at them, it was hard not to murmur Shelley’s Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
And so we travellers walked back down to the river, got into our boat, and skimmed along the river to our waiting driver.