Little Caesar’s Apocalypto

This blog entry about the events of Sunday, November 25, 2007 was originally posted on November 30, 2007.

DAY 6:  In Mel Gibson’s Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (that’s not a typo; he egotistically augmented his director credit to the title), a lone Mayan runs for his life to avoid being sacrificed by his Mayan rulers, during the fall of the Mayan empire.  The Oscar-nominated film of 2006 was Mel Gibson’s last directorial effort before he went on a drunken public anti-Semitic tirade, putting him in the ranks of other embarrassing tirades alongside Michael “Kramer” Richards against African-Americans, and Kanye West against U.S. presidents who “don’t like black people.”

I never actually saw Mel Gibson’s Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, nor does it matter, for this blog entry is Little Caesar’s version of the Mayan civilization:  Erik Trinidad’s Little Caesar’s Apocalypto.

By Little Caesar, I don’t mean the “Pizza! Pizza!” guy, I mean Caesar Augusto Moran, a Guatemalan-American tour guide of his own Little Caesar’s Travels agency.  Originally from L.A. — and with the accent to prove it — he was like a young Cheech Marin, guiding tours to Tikal for eighteen years, a popular one being the sunrise tour. 

TIKAL, THE ONCE POWERFUL CITY-STATE of the Mayan empire, flourished for almost 1600 years, from 700 B.C. to 900 A.D.  Consumed by the jungle and “lost” for nine hundred years, it was rediscovered and brought to attention to the Western world by Modesto Mendez and Ambrosia Tut in 1848.  Over a hundred years later, I would step on the grounds of its ruins, with one of the better guides I’ve had at such a type of place.

Starting at stupid o’clock, Caesar got things rolling by 4:45 in the morning for a group of about forty people.  Under the darkness of the pre-dawn hours, he led us from the entrance gate along the designated jungle path to Temple IV on the other end of the park.  The ghastly calls of howler monkeys filled our ears, from a distance at first, but eventually above our heads.  The luminosity of the coming sun slowly revealed the mysterious, misty silhouettes of nearby Mayan ruins.

“This is a reminder that we are all small even though we think we rule everything,” Caesar said quietly.  He led us up Temple IV for a prime vantage point of the sunrise, which would have been good if not for the cloud coverage that day.  “Lights off.  I got the sunrise in my pocket.”

Eventually the sun burned away the mist, revealing the jungle canopy, where distant toucans flew in the foreground of the faint outlines of Mayan temples.  As tranquil a moment it was, the scene seemed a little violent with the menancing calls of howler monkeys.  “Shhh… or I’ll feed you to the jaguars,” joked Caesar.  “No, those are just howler monkeys.”

With the arrival of daybreak, Caesar led our group around the ruins, explaining them in his signature style.  Blending historical knowledge, speculative theory, reality, astronomy, and a little L.A. street cred, Caesar tried to make his tour relatable to everyone — he even translated a few words in Hebrew in a nod to the several Israelis in the group.  As his tour of the grounds started, a toucan flew above our heads — a good omen.

“Sheeeit,” raved Caesar.  “It’s lookin’ good!  Okay, let’s go. Lock and load.”

TIKAL, ONE OF THE MAJOR MAYAN CITY-STATES of the jungle, was not built overnight.  Like the pharaohs of Egypt enslaving the Jews to construct their pyramids, the Mayan nobles had mandated the commoners to lug slabs of limestone for their temples, about 30-40 kg in weight, on each of their backs, held in place by a strap on their foreheads to keep it from slipping.  “If you didn’t, excuse the word, you would have been bitchy.”

Unlike the pyramids of Egypt, which were made as tombs, the temples of Tikal didn’t actually house any sarcophages — with the exception of the Temple of the Jaguar (Temple I), Tikal’s iconic temple.  Created under order of the son of Au Cacau in 721 A.D., Au Cacau was found buried underneath.  It may be of note that Au Cacau translates to “Lord Chocolate,” although the temple was made entirely of solid limestone — not chocolate, which would have been lovely but a little messy.

Mayan civilization had a caste system, where the nobles were denoted by their deformed physical characteristics.  Sometimes the commoners would try to deform their young right after birth, so that they could grow into the noble aesthetic; with a piece of wood, they’d try to elongate their skulls to produce “coneheads”, and elongate their ears (like the Masaii tribes of the Serengeti).  In the bigger picture, it was the commoners that prevailed, according to Caesar.  “Who are the people that always survive a civilization?  Us, the common people.”

He continued, “I have Mayan features but you could be Mayan too.  See, the Mayans were navigators.”  He explained the possibility of the Mayans traveling to other civilizations, explaining why pyramid structures have been found in other locales around the world.  In fact, in Greek and in Hebrew, there are words derived from the word, “maya.”

Like the Egyptians and the Aztecs, the Mayans had built their temples in accordance with the constellations; the layout of Tikal’s temples are in alignment with the Little Dipper. (Egypt’s three main pyramids of Giza align with the three stars of Orion’s Belt.)  “They weren’t trying to predict the future, they were just calculating,” he said.  One temple of Tikal, the Temple of the Lost World was an anomaly, incongruous with the constellation pattern — not that it stopped us from climbing up and looking out to the grounds below

“Earth is very much alive and it’s evolving.  We’re only here for a short amount of time.”

All of Caesar’s lessons and rants were spoken during our walking tour of the ruins, from Temple IV to Temple III to Temple V (picture above) and eventually to the Great Plaza, where Temple I (Temple of the Jaguar) and Temple II (Temple of the Masks) faced each other, flanking the Northern Acropolis — an area were big Mayan masks had been uncovered.  As we walked, toucans continued to fly above us, while a family of howler monkeys swung from branch to branch high in the trees.  We were also joined by a few wild turkeys, and a group of raccoon-like coatimundis grazing the lawn.  Most of all, the mosquitoes were in full force, blistering my skin with bites in several places.  “I have extra knuckles,” I said.

The mosquitoes didn’t follow us when a few of us climbed up to the top of Temple V for a look at the view of other temples in the distance.  “Can you get a good shot?” I asked Jim.

“Eh, the mist keeps coming in.”

“At least there are no mosquitoes.”

Mosquito bites were pale in comparison to the the bites of the bot fly, the tropical fly the impregnates you by depositing an egg underneath your skin for you to host and nurture it — and without your permission nonetheless.  The growing larvae crawls under your skin for a while and eventually breaks free after the incubation period — a rather nasty concept if you ask me.  One girl on the tour had a bandage around neck from her her bot fly ordeal.  “That’s nothing, look at this,” Caesar said, showing off his three bot fly scars in different parts of his arms and legs.

MAYANS TODAY STILL USE TIKAL as a place of worship, although it’s different.  “They come because they feel they have some connection to the Mayan gods,” Caesar said.  “But they start out [with the sign of the cross], ‘Ave Maria…’  People say it’s trans-culturization, but it’s not trans-culturization, it’s still a conquest.”

If there was any tirade Caesar had, it was against the conquistadors.  He definitely had an anti-imperialism slant to his tour, and with good reason; it was the Catholic Spanish conquistadors that destroyed the Mayan culture with their guns, steel and ammo.  “[It’s speculated that the Mayans felt powerless against the conquistadors.  They had prophesized that gods would come that were bigger than they were, and the Spanish arrived on horseback.]”  He reminded us, like he did after every bit of information he lectured, that everything was just speculation.

“The thing that we know is that we don’t know anything.” 

Nothing about Tikal is for certain for the conquistadors destroyed all Mayan records.  Perhaps records would have explained the big mystery of Tikal.  Based on archaeological clues, Tikal had been abandoned around 900 A.D. with no signs of attack or disease — most of the traces of bodies had been found near El Mirador, a Mayan site to the north.  How Tikal came to fall is, and will forever be, a mystery for the ages —  a fascinating one at that, for “we’re still talking about these people,” Caesar said.  “I leave it up to you.”

INEVITABLY, SOMEONE ASKED CAESAR about his opinion of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.  “First of all, nobody likes Mel Gibson,” Caesar said, before going into a tirade about what was accurate and what wasn’t in the movie, based on accepted theory — most of the movie was over-dramaticized.  “They had makeshift temples in Costa Rica or something, but they were not in Tikal.  But Hollywood had to make its mark.” 

“So what did you think of it?” I asked.

“Eh.  Hmm…  Thumbs down,” he said.  “I give it a thumbs down.”

“You’re too close to the subject,” I said.

“Plus it’s Mel Gibson,” Camilla added.

“Yeah, he should have stayed with Braveheart.  He messed up with Jesus Christ.”

* * * * *

WE WERE DONE WITH TIKAL by ten in the morning and just chilled out at the Jaguar Inn until mid-day.  I had a “Pyramide del Mundo Perdido” (a breakfast stack of eggs, beans and toast) and some pancakes before posting an entry and checking out of our room.  At 12:30, we all took a bus to the touristy outpost town of Flores, about half an hour away.

Flores, a city on an island in the middle of Lake Peten Itza, was the last independent Mayan city, until the conquistadors eventually took over in 1697.  Nowadays, it is a quaint little town of brightly-colored buildings and cobblestone streets, with a little plaza holding a Christmas tree sponsored by the national beer, Gallo.  Serving as a travelers hub for those going to Tikal and its environs, Flores accommodated every level of traveler, from the youth hostel backpacker to the flashpacker.  It wasn’t hard to find a place to chill out for the rest of the afternoon, and Camilla and I settled on the Hotel Santana, a humble place with a A/C, cable TV, private bathroom, a pool, and a balcony with a view of the lake — all of which we took full advantage of. 

The rest of the day was one of leisure, chilling out with the Berkeleys, having lunch (pollo con salsa de Chaya, a regional dish) at the Cafe Arqueologico Yax-ha, and dinner at the trendy La Luna, where we ended the night off with complimentary shots of rum.  That kind of treatment made me feel like a Mayan noble I guess, and without having to elongate my head into a cone either.


Next entry: Pondering of Pig’s Milk

Previous entry: Accentuate The Positive, Eliminate The Negative

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Comments for “Little Caesar's Apocalypto”

  • FIRST AGAIN! Loving the journey thus far Erik!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/30  at  01:53 AM

  • Here’s another one for you, as I play catch up… More to come for the WHMMR…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/30  at  02:02 AM

  • bot fly bites are nasty…did the gallo beer taste like chicken? hehe

    Posted by markyt  on  12/01  at  02:42 PM

  • you can’t get Pyramide del Mundo Perdido in IHOP.  hail caesar!

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  • How did this compare to Angkor Wat, E??

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/02  at  02:35 AM

  • NOELLE:  Tikal is the same same, but different.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/02  at  01:45 PM

  • I find that the phrase “same, same but different” can be applied to so many things in life.. such a useful phrase!

    OK - Bot flies?  Wha??  In Guatemala?  haha.. I didn’t read that part of the guidebook. ICK!  Did you get malaria pills Erik?  I’m debating going to the clinic or just winging it with DEET. 

    I can’t wait to be travelling again.  You guys all chilled out on the balcony with your Gallos.  In three weeks that will be me.

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    great post -

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This blog post is one of thirty-nine travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: The Central American Eviction Tour* (*with jaunt to Colombia)," which chronicled a six-week journey through Central America, with a jaunt to Bogota, Colombia.

Next entry:
Pondering of Pig’s Milk

Previous entry:
Accentuate The Positive, Eliminate The Negative


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