A Yucatan journey: Climbing pyramids, understanding Dia de los Muertos

(The following was written last November.)

Rambling JackSweat beads up on my face, the salty brine stinging my eyes, as I climb the weathered steps leading up to the top of the Acropolis, a gargantuan pyramid of stone jutting nearly 100 feet straight up out of the Yucatan jungle. The climb is steep and uneven, the stones sun-baked, radiating heat into the feverish humidity of the ancient Mayan kingdom of Ek' Balam. My shirt is soaked through with sweat. It's about 90 degrees and the humidity is in the high 80s. It's so fucking hot and sticky I can barely stand it.

The Acropolis is one of only a handful of pyramids on the Mexico peninsula that the public is still allowed to climb, so my wife Kim and I have little choice but to make the journey to the top. We have to climb the temples we’re allowed to climb. At other more heavily trafficked archaeological sites, like Chichen Iza, we'll be forced to peer up at the pyramids, the view from the top left only to our imaginations.

Under different circumstances, such a climb would be little more than a short but vigorous workout, like walking up a long flight of stairs, navigating your way to the nosebleed seats at a football stadium. But the tropical heat here is suffocating, and the steps are steep and dangerous. If I slip and fall, I'm dead. Or worse.

Two-thirds of the way to the top of the pyramid, I glance up, then down. I imagine the human sacrifices that took place here back in the day, severed heads bouncing down the steps like bowling balls, pleasing Buluc Chabtan, the Mayan god of human sacrifice, war and sudden death. Each year the god's thirst for blood is quenched by tourists like me plummeting down such temples after succumbing to heat strokes, slipping after the late afternoon rains or just being careless.

I have no illusion that I'll escape the claws of death, but I don't plan on feeding the beast today. I climb carefully, slightly stooped over so that if I slip and fall I'll land on the step above me rather than tumble backwards.

I make it to the top, with Kim soon to follow, her brow beaded in sweat. From the top I view the jungle, spread out below in all directions as far as I can see. There are palm trees, massive guaya trees, a canopy of lush flora filling the landscape and threatening to once again engulf the temples.

It's beautiful up here and I'm happy and satisfied, Kim is beautiful and beaming, and that makes me even happier. We gulp lukewarm water from a plastic bottle. I observe and take note: There is a geometric sensibility to the pyramid and its position compared to the other temples that surround it. Off in the distance, directly aligned with the front of the Acropolis, is the barely visible silhouette of another pyramid. There are roads, raised causeways called sacbeob, radiating out to the other kingdoms.

I take it all in, revel in the moment, thankful to be here atop the tomb of Ukit-Kan-Lek-Tak. It's time to descend back to earth. I do so carefully, one step at a time, hotter and sweatier than when the climb began.

***

It's another climb on another day. In the sultry heat of the Mexican city of Merida, I walk up four flights of marble stairs to our room atop the Piedra de Agua Hotel while gripping a double gin and tonic, looking forward to an hour or two of relaxation, under the air conditioner before our next outing. My plan for a little R&R slips into the realm of fantasy when I enter the room.

"Something's happening out there!" Kim yells. She's motioning toward the balcony doors, which are jammed shut. She can't get them open, so she's been staring through a one-inch crack, listening to and peeking at the commotion below. I put down my drink and unjam the locking mechanism.

We spill out through the doors onto our balcony and are greeted with a symphony of sound - blaring trumpets, strummed guitars, people singing and a dozen horses, white carriages in tow, clip-clopping on the cobblestones of Calle 60 below our bedroom window.

"It's a Dia de las Muertos parade! Let's go!" Kim commands.

I scurry about the room, gathering up my camera and spare batteries in preparation for our sudden change of plans. Kim hastily puts on her mini witch hat with feather, and applies makeup. I hurry up, wait, consume my drink, wait a little more, then we hurry down to the street below.

Our timing is perfect. The parade is underway. There's a palpable excitement in the air.

There are men and women in elaborate outfits. Their faces are painted like skulls. They sing beautiful songs in Spanish, accompanied by men with guitars and trumpets. The horses and their carriages, decorated with flowers and each carrying a costumed character representing a dead soul, bring up the rear of the parade.

Crowds of locals stream out onto Calle 60 to greet the parade and follow along. Kim and I make a mad dash to the front of the parade, determined to capture the spectacle. We speed walk down the street, bobbing through the crowd, stopping to take photos.

We get separated, and it occurs to me that we never discussed our plans for the evening, our intentions as far as the parade. It's nighttime in a foreign country. Where are we going? What are we doing?

I have it in my own mind that I want to follow this parade, take photos, and just absorb the whole experience. I look behind me in search of Kim, but she's nowhere in sight. Have I mistakenly abandoned her in my rush to get to the head of the parade? I look toward the head of the parade and there she is, yards ahead of me, snapping photos, jockeying her way forward, camera in hand. We're on the same page as far as this parade, so I no longer worry.

I race ahead and get lost in the crowd. All around me are faces painted like skulls and the music engulfs me and I forget about my camera and just take it all in. For a moment I forget about everything, but the dead. That's what this holiday is about, the dead. Their souls. There's a moment, a shiver up my spine, a wave of sadness, then euphoria. I'm awash in thoughts of the dead - grandmothers, grandfathers, friends, my brother, and all those beloved dogs, my best friends of yesteryear. Their souls, or at least my strong memories of them, are alive and with me at this moment, on this balmy night in Merida, as I march forward, ebullient and alive. I grip my camera and refocus, determined to capture images from this tremendous night.

Further down the road I meet back up with Kim. We're both excited by the unexpected change of events. After the parade we find ourselves at a restaurant on a plaza. We're beaming and excited. We enjoy a feast together as the souls of the dead linger in the fuzzy periphery.

Parade. Merda, Mexico. 2015 Jack Durham | Union

Parade. Merda, Mexico. 2015 Jack Durham | Union

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