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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)