Friday, November 17, 2017

Getting High

Imagine that you’ve never seen an object farther away than 100 yards. No satellite photos, images from airplanes or views from skyscrapers looking down with a heavenly perspective on the world below. It’s just not part of your experience. You are a Mayan, and you live 1000 years ago in a dense jungle on the Yucatan peninsula.

I have looked out over New York City from the viewing deck of the Empire State Building. Chicago is a surreal wonder from the top of the Sears Tower (now Willis) or the John Hancock building. I’ve flown over the Badlands of South Dakota, and crested the ridge of a dormant volcanic peak on Kauai in a helicopter. But none of these compares at a fundamental level to another elevated experience I had in Mexico.

You see, I stood on top of the massive pyramid called El Castillo located in the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, several hours by bus from Cancun. The area thrived from around 600 A.D. to the 1200s, hidden away in the Mexican jungle until restoration began in the 1920s.

At 98 feet in height, El Castillo is barely as tall as a ten-story building. But the Mayans were small in stature, and lofty in their dreams of reaching the sky like the Tower of Babel. They were also more astute in the engineering of a method less fraught with risk than the wax wings of Icarus.

El Castillo
We were among a number of other fortunate visitors in 2003 to be among the last to scale the front face of the mighty Mayan temple. In 2006 the site was closed to climbing after a woman fell to her death. Unlike contemporary stairs, with treads of about 10 inches and risers less than seven, the daunting ascent up El Castillo requires that the foot be placed on a narrow tread of perhaps 5 inches, with a rise of just over ten. There are only 91 steps up the side of the first 79 feet. It is the Stairmaster of the modern world, and also one of its seven wonders. It is quite steep.

The Rope up the Stairs
Walking up the pyramid was generally accomplished with the aid of a heavy hand-held manila rope to steady the climber. This resulted in a ski-lift appearance to observers from below and a single-file ascension by most. The return down was a more hair-raising experience, often completed in a slow seated crab crawl, inching down face first one step at a time, or retreating backward on hands and feet, leaning forward toward the structure to mimic the angle of the pyramid’s face. Walking down upright was an errand for fools or fourteen year olds.

At the top the successful climber was greeted with a breathtaking view of the surrounding jungle. The clear air allows for viewing in all directions above tree top height and for many miles. I can only imagine that the comparatively primitive people, with their somewhat claustrophobic world-view, would have felt like gods, or near to them. The bright sun, the strong breeze and the incredibly massive stone underfoot all contributed to the feeling of literally being king of the hill.

At the Top
The small square stone temple at the top has a spiritual quality that causes some to speak in whispers. It is unknown what went on here, or who was allowed the privilege of visiting the space.

But I mentioned fourteen year olds. As we were taking in the wonder of the temple, assessing and procrastinating our eventual climb down with a newly discovered fear of heights, the alarm went up from our son. It may have been the watermelon he indulged in earlier that day. Perhaps a careless drink of unsterilized water during the same time period. In any case it was Montezuma’s revenge (an Aztec, and much later). He had to leave. Now.

Certain bodily urges are great motivators. Diarrhea is a humbler of all mankind. It gets the clock ticking triple time and is both heartless and relentless. Our son proceeded to plummet down the face of El Castillo as if it were an escalator at Macy’s. We watched in horror as he sped down the deep and miniscule steps, flying past amazed and bewildered people, pausing to catch their anxious breath and contemplate the number of remaining stairs in their own journeys. His gate was not unlike a top-hatted Fred Astaire, sidestepping his way down a staircase on stage, positioning his feet to land fully on each step instead of landing and balancing only on his heels. We held our breath and prayed he wouldn’t fall. Ninety-one steep stone stairs is a horrific, unsurvivable tumble, with nothing to disrupt momentum once set in motion.

He made it to the open field at the base of the pyramid and just kept going. He knew that somewhere there must be a porta-potty. Buses of tourists demand such conveniences after a three hour ride. We saw his now tiny image from on high, scampering like an insect, zig zagging across the field until he disappeared into a blue phone booth marked “Men.”

A happy ending was had by all. It was an excellent and memorable adventure that may be lost forever in the future. Scientists have discovered a massive sinkhole beneath the pyramid, capped by 16 feet of limestone that is slowly dissolving. The Earth reclaims what man has wrought, slowly in our fleeting existence, but swiftly on the scale of time.

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