When we arrived at Chichen Itza last Wednesday, we were delighted to discover that our tour guide, Julian, was a direct descendant of the Mayan people and had actually worked with several famous archeologists in the early 1970s, when research was still being conducted on part of the ruins. Julian (pronounced Hulian) showed us the giant temple pyramid and the major structures surrounding it, as he described the amazing culture of his native people, including the very sad truth that his ancestors had practiced human sacrifice.
After completing the guided tour, Julian said we were free to spend an hour exploring the remainder of the ruins by ourselves. In his talk he had described a sacred well that springs up from an underground river, and which for centuries had served as the primary source of water for the Mayan people in this region. He explained that because the well was located at the end of a difficult trail at the westernmost end and the ruins, only the hardiest hikers could reach it and be back at the tour bus within an hour.
Naturally, I struck out for the well, sure that I would have no problems. At first the trail was open and easy to follow, but I soon found myself brushing back the leafy branches of the undergrowth and trying my best not to trip on the rocks and tree roots that jutted up from the trail. The foliage became so dense at one point that I thought I had lost the trail, but as I stepped around a large tree the trail cleared and I found myself at the edge of a small clearing. Rays of sunlight streamed through the trees and glistened on a shallow pool of water near the edge of the clearing. I had found the well.
The water was crystal clear and gazing into it made me thirsty. I knew better than to drink from the well so I slipped my backpack from my shoulder and pulled out a bottle of water. I twisted the cap off and lifted the bottle to take a drink, but was suddenly startled by a rustling sound coming from the shadows near the well. I paused and watched as a gnarled stooped shouldered old man slowly stepped into the clearing.
There seemed to be no need for fear, but I eyed him closely as he moved toward the pool of water. He couldn’t have stood more than four feet tall and his face was ruddy red and weathered from the sun. He was barefoot and wore only an old t-shirt and ragged khaki shorts. As he approached the well, he slipped a small leather knapsack from his shoulder and pulled out half of a coconut shell. I watched intently as he slowly stooped over, scooping water from the well. As he stood and began to drink from the coconut shell, he looked in my direction and was surprised by my presence. I lifted my bottle in the air as though making a toast of friendship and then took a long drink myself.
He gestured back flashing an almost toothless smile, then began to walk toward me. It was then that I noticed a stone attached to a leather strap hanging from his neck. It was thin, about three inches in diameter, and appeared to have a hieroglyphic image of the sun with a series of little dots in a straight line on each side of the sun. I assumed the dots represented the alignment of the planets and might have something to do with the Mayan calendar ending in December 2012. The old man’s eyes followed mine as I pointed to the stone. With a questioning look I simply asked, “End time?”
I could tell that he didn’t understand my words but he seemed to intuitively understand that I was asking about the symbols on the stone. Without speaking he turned and looked toward the sunlight that was still shining through the canopy. He slowly raised his arms toward the sunlight and began chanting in a rhythmic cadence. As he did, he waved his arms in large circles several times then clapped his hands with a loud bang and lowered his arms to his side. For a moment we stood together in hushed silence.
I realized he was trying to convey the mystery represented by the symbols on the stone he wore around his neck, and I was sure that it had something to do with what may happen when the Mayan calendar ends in December 2012. He could see from the puzzled look on my face that I didn’t understand his chanting and gestures. Without speaking he slowly slipped the stone necklace over his head and placed it in my hand. Then he pointed to my backpack on the ground beside me. I gave him an inquisitive look. Was he offering to trade his stone necklace containing the mystery of the Mayan Calendar for my backpack?
I reached down, picked up my backpack, and handed it to him. He gave me another toothless smile then disappeared back into the shadows of the forest as quickly as he had appeared. I slipped the stone necklace into my pocket and quickly retraced my steps, arriving back at the tour bus just minutes before it was time to leave. Yvonne was waiting for me and as we found our seats she asked, “Where’s your backpack?”
“Oh, I traded it for this,” I said, reaching into my pocket for the stone necklace. But it wasn’t there. I jumped from my seat and checked all of my pockets. The stone necklace was gone. My heart sank as I sat down and tried to explain my encounter with the little man at the sacred well, and how I had traded my backpack for his mysterious stone, which I was sure contained the secret of the Mayan calendar.
“Oh good grief” Yvonne said, “You lost your backpack and you’re making up another one of those silly backpack stories to cover it up. Never mind, I’ll buy you a new one.”
I realized there was nothing I could say that would cause her to believe me so I pulled my hat down over my eyes and went to sleep.
George Brown is a free lance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.