June 23, 2008

We are Indiana Jones! We are National Geographic! We are fearless explorers! A hike through the jungle and then we are swimming (swimming!) into the vast maw of a cave, helmets and headlamps, absolute darkness with the lights off. No difference between eyes open and eyes closed. We splash along an underground river, sometimes knee deep, sometimes treading across deep pools, sqeezing under boulders, into fissures, over rockslides, the stalagtites sometimes brushing the tops of our heads, sometimes towering ninety feet above. Crystaline rock flows, sparkling in the glow of our tiny lights, shadows and browns and greys and greens.

We are travelers in Xibalba, the ancient Mayan underworld.

After an hour we climb a rock face, steeper steeper higher higher onto a plateau, cavernous, winding, bats, space, darkness, the headlamps barely piercing the depth of the darkness. And then, and then! There is a jug, half buried in the calcite. And there is a metate, and a plate and a bowl and they are impecable and painted and carved and 1200 YEARS OLD, all just resting on the ground, not behind glass, no railings, no ropes, no signs. The archeologists left everything just as they found it, untouched, a living breathing museum, and I am imagining the elite Mayans with their bloodletting and sacrafices and ceremonies and everyone is whispering because this is a sacred place, a place of desperation for a failing civilization, a place of last hope for rain, please Chuc, rain.

We traverse the flats amongst a hundred hundred artifacts, and then there is a ladder, which brings us to a deep alcove, high within the cave. Ten steps and there she is, the Crystal Maiden, a young woman, sacrficied to the gods, her bones crystalized and perfect. She lies with her legs straight but her arms splayed. Her mouth is wide open. She was strangled to death. And she is still there in her dark and cool and caverous tomb, and we are there, breathing softly, averting our eyes out of respect for the dead, but also longing to watch the bones, watch their stillness. We turn back and she is once more plunged into darkness and I tremble as I decend the ladder.