13 Bak’tun: End of A Maya Time Period

Well, December 21, 2012 has come and gone and we are all still here. Guess it wasn’t the end of the world after all! The ancient Maya never predicted the end of the world as we know it; they just counted to the end of a time period, reaching the closure of another cycle of consecutive days. Unfortunately, because the ancient Maya were so accurate in their calculation of the passing of time and the lining up of the cosmos, this special day became a little over-commercialized and plagued by apocalyptic hype. To no avail, I might add.

Originally I thought I would write a little about this “big day” before it happened, but since I didn’t know too much about it except that all the indigenous Maya people currently living in Guatemala were simply looking forward to a celebration (NOT counting down the last days of their lives), I figured I might have a better report to share after living through it and experiencing this special day first hand amidst many indigenous, traditional Maya people.

One guy went a little over-the-top in his costume choice while guiding a Maya ceremony on 13 Bak'tun!

One guy went a little over-the-top in his costume choice while guiding a Maya ceremony on 13 Bak’tun!

Upon receiving my PC assignment to Guatemala, I got excited because since Guatemala is home of the Maya Empire, I thought if anything crazy did happen on December 21st—like a bunch of volcanic eruptions, a meteor shower, or a gigantic earthquake—at least I would have a front-row seat. Some of us PCVs out here did engage in the hype, wanting to take advantage of our location so we could witness the events of the day. Many tourists and Guatemalans flooded to Tikal, the famous Maya ruins site in northern Guatemala, but since we PCVs are prohibited to travel there via land (because the department Tikal is in is dangerous due to narco-trafficking), most of us settled for other Maya ruin sites and volcanoes closer to our sites.

The place I chose was the Q’uma’rkaj Maya ruins site in Quiché, just outside the capital of my department about 2 hours from my site, which I have been meaning to visit for a while now. I met up with my friend Chelsea and we rode out there together.  First we walked through the small museum containing some ancient artifacts, but we quickly moved on to the center of the ruins where all the action was taking place. In comparison to other ruin sites, Q’uma’rkaj is relatively small so it wasn’t extremely crowded with people, however there were significantly more visitors than on any other day.

The Central grounds of the Q'uma'rkaj Ruins with ritual fires and ceremonies going on.

The Central grounds of the Q’uma’rkaj Ruins with ritual fires and ceremonies going on.

The activities that were going on around us included mainly Maya ceremonies and people praying around the ritual fires. All Maya ceremonies I have seen revolve around a central fire in which different sorts of items are “offered” and burned including different-colored candles placed in the directions North, South, East, and West (then one prays facing each direction, asking for the thing associated with the direction), nuts, seeds, fruits, flowers, plants, sugar, spices, soda, tobacco, and hard liquor (and sometimes chickens, like on the volcano I hiked last year on my birthday!). The offerings all depend on what one is praying for or giving thanks for. For example, sometimes candles will be tossed on the ritual fire in remembrance of one’s ancestors and to ask for guidance from them.

Maya women praying around a ritual fire with a basket of small offerings, mainly flowers.

Maya women praying around a ritual fire with a basket of small offerings, mainly flowers.

Chelsea and I wandered away from the crowd for an hour or so in order to explore other areas of the ruins, namely the caves. We stumbled upon other small groups also practicing their ceremonies in more exclusive areas that afforded some privacy. We also inched our way through several narrow, dark tunnels that had small altars with offerings of fruits, flowers, pine needles, and candles set up at the caves’ ending points.

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One of the caves Chelsea and I crawled into and explored. Tight squeeze!

In addition to the ceremonial proceedings back in the central area, there were other aspects of entertainment that contributed to the day’s festivities including different groups or individuals playing traditional Guatemalan music on marimbas, drums, flutes, etc., various people decked out in costumes or masks dancing around, food vendors selling snacks and drinks, tourists, reporters, cameramen, and those people who came only to observe and celebrate.

An indigenous boy resting after playing on his drum with his father playing a flute by his side.

An indigenous boy resting after playing on his drum with his father playing a flute by his side.

The day was officially titled “13 Bak’tun” in Guatemala and was intended to be a joyous celebration in the Maya world. In the Maya calendar, the “Long Count” is based on short cycles of 20 days that fall into larger cycles of 360 days, 7,200 days, and 144,000 days. A “bak’tun” is equivalent to 144,000 days so 13 Bak’tun represents the end of this particular era. The Maya calendar started 3, 114 years before Christ and only went up to December 21, 2012. The reason as to why the calendar did not continue officially in books and charts may be unknown (at least to me), but I speculate that it might have something to do with the Spanish conquering Guatemala in the 1500s, forcing their ways on the indigenous people of the land, and destroying all but 3 books/manuscripts detailing the life, history, beliefs, and knowledge of the Maya people.

Nonetheless, the Maya people of Guatemala have proven to be resilient and have managed to maintain a large part of their identity and traditions. This change of the Maya Era of 2012 was an opportunity to celebrate the history of the Maya culture. For the people, it was a time to give thanks for what had passed and to turn their attention to a new era and the changes that will come with it. (Supposedly, we just left the age of materialism…) December 21, 2012 was a day to shed what has passed, and to refresh and renew one’s focus, energy, and spirit in preparation for what is to come. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be a part of it.

Women praying by a candlelit altar.

I know it has been a while since I have posted, but now I am back in writing mode so stay tuned for upcoming chapters that will be posted very soon! (UP NEXT: Skipping Christmas; SOON TO FOLLOW: Fiesta Follow-Up & Future Plans.)

Love,

Alexandra

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Christina
    Jan 14, 2013 @ 13:23:20

    So cool! :)

    Reply

  2. Aaron Adelman
    Jan 14, 2013 @ 21:01:54

    The Adelman’s are still praying for your safety. The Langston family Christmas card is on our refrigerator! There is no doubt that you have been blessed with a wonderful family.

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jan 15, 2013 @ 19:41:11

      Thanks, Aaron! That same Christmas card is on my bookshelf here. Lol! Teri is so efficient–sqeezing in family X-mas photos in my short visit home. Haha! And I agree–my fam is pretty cool!

      Reply

  3. Aaron Adelman
    Jan 14, 2013 @ 21:03:18

    When does the writing career commence?

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jan 15, 2013 @ 19:45:47

      Um…now, perhaps? Lol. Maybe all this material I’m currently producing will be good for something someday… I sure appreciate your reading and continued support! :)

      Reply

  4. eileen grega
    Jan 17, 2013 @ 11:50:03

    Alex! my beautiful girl. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing but could I share this with our History teachers? I love the photos and explanations you give!

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Jan 19, 2013 @ 10:54:05

      Yes! By all means, please share! Cross-cultural awareness is one of the motivations I have for writing. :) I look forward to the next time we can have an in-person date when I get back (probably in August). Miss you and love you!!!

      Reply

  5. Cynthia Peterson
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 10:09:47

    Hey Alex! I always enjoy reading your wonderful stories – I think you’ve got a great book going here! It’s Martin Luther’s King Jr. Day – and in looking at my calendar – it’s your birthday too!!! Do I have that right??? And are you REALLY 26 already??? Wish you a fabulous day of love, blessings, and celebration. Please continue to stay safe. Happy Birthday!!!

    Love ya,

    Cynthia ;0)

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Feb 04, 2013 @ 20:41:37

      Thanks for the b-day wishes!! Yes, the 21st was my birthday (and I am 26!), and I spent it with my best friend down here and her visiting parents. I have a feeling this is going to be a fantastic year and I am looking forward to all that will come in the upcoming months! Between my blog and my journal, you are right–I should have a pretty complete book. :) Just need to get up some more posts I have been working on… Love you and think of you often (especially when I hear your ‘tunes playing on my iPod)!
      Alex

      Reply

  6. gary&rita pacheco
    Feb 09, 2013 @ 12:59:11

    hello alex happy belated bir. always in our thoughs and prayers love gary&rita pacheco forbes mill regulars”””

    Reply

    • Alexandra
      Feb 14, 2013 @ 07:42:50

      So nice to hear from you, Gary & Rita! Thanks for the birthday wishes. I hope all is well!! (And I could go for a good meal from Forbes Mill right about now…YUM!)

      Reply

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Common Peace Corps Acronyms

PC = Peace Corps (sounds like "peese kor")
PCT = Peace Corps Trainee
PCV = Peace Corps Volunteer
PST = Pre-Service Training
ET = Early Termination
COS = Close of Service
NGO = Non-Governmental Organization
HH = Healthy Homes, the PC program I am in.
YD = Youth Development, the other program in my training group.

Mail & Care Packages

I am very near to my COS date and no longer living in my site. Please do not send any more mail for me to Guatemala. Thanks to all of you who did send me mail and care packages during my 2-year service. It was all greatly appreciated!!!

Disclaimer

Anything that is written or views expressed on this blog are mine personally and do not represent the Peace Corps or the United States government.
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