Book Reading: Prologue & Tikal

EXCERPT: “And that’s when the full humor of the situation hit me. Here we were in plastic ponchos, every color of the goddamn rainbow, slipping and sliding on the ruins of a culture that had collapsed due to climate change, environmental degradation, overpopulation, overconsumption, brutal infighting and war-mongering, and finally the sheer weight of its own bloated, ineffective governance… And that was all before the Spanish arrived to finish the job. Sound familiar? You’re damn right it sounds familiar, Rodrigo! Here we are raising our eyebrows over the exact same issues that we are facing in our own culture, and watching these amorphous blobs of purple, yellow, pink and blue, staring wide-eyed and taking pictures like the whole scenario was so completely alien to them seemed pretty damn funny right now. “

The Motorcycle & The Molecule is a book about a humorous and risky Central American adventure featuring Mayan rulers, mischievous beavers & mind-bending molecules! This book reading features an excerpt from the first couple of chapters. If you enjoy it, consider pre-ordering the book here!

PROLOGUE

The sun was setting on the Autumnal Equinox as Great Jaguar Paw, divine ruler of Tikal, gazed down upon his city from the Temple of the Moon. 

Times are good!” He said as he smiled to himself.

Now, historians and scholars might argue about what Great Jaguar Paw actually might have said, but whatever it was it was probably something along those lines. After all, he was Chak Tok Ich’aak I, the great Mayan king, imbued with the power to communicate with the gods themselves, so humility wasn’t really that necessary. What was necessary was looking absolutely divine as he postured from atop the immense temple, in front of his humble denizens. 

The gleaming Mayan city of Tikal, hewn from the jungle itself, protruded high above the tree canopy. Tikal stood as a testament to Great Jaguar Paw’s power and influence, an undeniably phallic statement of man’s will, thrust upon nature. An assortment of temples, palaces and ball courts lay spread out across his field of view, each assembled by generation after generation of devotees. For centuries, countless humans had spent their lifetimes hauling seemingly inexhaustible amounts of limestone from Tikal’s distant quarries, assembling them into structures that would challenge time itself.

Like the rulers before him, Great Jaguar Paw had leveraged his divine power over the people to manifest his dreams into reality. And why not? He was their direct connection to a greater realm, born and raised for this role, to assert his dominance upon the world. By continuing the work of his predecessors, Great Jaguar Paw had continued to transform the land from untamed jungle into a vast expanse of paved limestone, studded with monolithic structures and neatly manicured farmland beyond. His noble leadership directed the focus of an entire people towards a unified vision, ensuring the growth of his empire and his continued attainment of power and glory. This was his divine right and his people were grateful for his leadership. Without him, nature would be an inhospitable force and society would have no direction; the people would be forced to fend for themselves, alone in a harsh world, full of suffering and emotionally unpredictable deities. Instead, Great Jaguar Paw gave them purpose, he gave them security, and the people praised him for it. For indeed, their labor, their structures and their artwork were more than just a gift to a king, but a requirement that the gods themselves demanded. 

“Aaa, yes.” Great Jaguar Paw spoke into the breeze. “What better way could there be to spend a life?”

And so it had mostly been for thousands of years. Food was plentiful, water abundant and the weather was downright delightful. Neighboring cities, some of formidable size, were either supportive of mutual trade or at least mostly tolerant towards each other. Skirmishes still broke out but besides the occasional kidnapping and public sacrifice there was more than enough space and plenty of resources for all to coexist. Times were indeed pretty damn good for Great Jaguar Paw and the Mayan people. But then of course, nothing lasts forever.

ACT 1: The Guatemala Part

Downfall At Tikal (Part 1)

It was raining, it was slippery, and I was certifiably, for the next few hours at least, psychologically hobbled. This wasn’t just your ordinary rain, this was the kind of tropical downpour that drenches the earth and the severe humidity made the biblical deluge that much more intense. The inside of my cheap, plastic poncho had become my own personal steam room, but despite that, and despite the drips of perspiration seeping down my back into my already soaked underwear, I couldn’t help but smile at the scene that was unfolding in front of me. 

‘Humans are ridiculous!’ I laughed to myself. A small, Asian woman standing across from me shot me a glance. Had I actually laughed out loud? It was hard to tell in my current state and it didn’t really matter anyway. She didn’t know me. In fact, none of the other twenty tourists on the tour knew me, so as far as any of them might know I might just be the kind of guy who laughs at the downfall of a civilization. But I wasn’t laughing at the downfall of the Maya. I was laughing at something darker, more subtle, that was emerging from just below the surface of this whole jolly escapade. 

Our tour guide, Rodrigo was standing in the rain, enlightening us with stories of the Maya. 

“So if you can imagine, even these pathways that connect the buildings, were paved with limestone. Most of the temples are solid limestone too. Early looters used dynamite and heavy machinery to try to get inside them, but they just found more rock. The sheer amount of effort it took to build this city is staggering. They didn’t have beasts of burden. They didn’t even have the wheel. But they had lots of manpower.” Rodrigo then repeated it all in Spanish for the other half of the group. I opted for the cheaper tour package without realizing that half of it would be in Spanish, and the group was so large that we had barely squeezed into the tour bus. On the ride to Tikal, Rodrigo told us that he used to be a captain in the Guatemalan army but had defected to become an environmental activist turned jungle tour guide. It made sense; he brought the same seriousness that he’d no doubt honed in his military escapades into his new profession. 

“But no matter how much they attained,” Rodrigo continued, “No matter how much they built, it was never enough. Sound familiar?” His gaze fell upon me. Was this a rhetorical question? Was he referring to all of humanity or just Americans? I wasn’t sure of the answer to either question so I just pursed my lips and gave him a slow, knowing nod.

During the bus journey to Tikal, Rodrigo had told us about the Mayan empire’s rise to power. The earliest villages began to form around 2000 BC and over the centuries grew into the first towns and cities. Hundreds of years before Jesus Christ was running around and doing his thing the Maya were using writing systems and creating monumental structures. By 250AD the Maya were connecting their city-states by great roads over which trade routes were established. Of these, Tikal and Calakmul rose to great prominence. Known for their hieroglyphic script, art, architecture, mathematics, calendars and astronomical system, the Mayan empire at the height of its power had spread through southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. 

“Among their great accomplishments” Rodrigo continued, “was the creation of what we believe to be the earliest version of basketball. Teams would face off in large stone courts and use their elbows and hips to knock rubbery balls through vertically oriented hoops. Certain games were of enough importance that they’d end in human sacrifice, often with the decapitation of a team’s captain.” As was the case throughout much of Mayan culture, an emphasis was given to human sacrifice as a way to honor the gods. It was not seen as barbaric to the Maya, but instead they believed that the sacrificial victim would be elevated to a higher plane of existence.

“So which team’s captain would get sacrificed?” A young Indian girl asked. 

“Well, there’s some debate over whether the winning or losing captain would be sacrificed, but it’s possible that different games called for different religious practices. Can you imagine the incentive of not wanting to lose for fear of sacrifice?!” Rodrigo asked, laughing for a moment before becoming serious again. “But on the other hand, imagine knowing that by winning the game YOU would be sacrificed. Imagine a world like that.” He let the silence hang for a moment before continuing.

“Okay!” Rodrigo clapped. “You have twenty minutes to explore the great plaza and then we will head back to the bus. And don’t be late!”  Rodrigo paused for effect, before hissing “The snakes come out when it gets dark.” He repeated it in Spanish which prompted a squeal out of an old, pudgy Latina lady. People scattered and began clambering off in every direction.

And that’s when the full humor of the situation hit me. Here we were in plastic ponchos, every color of the goddamn rainbow, slipping and sliding on the ruins of a culture that had collapsed due to climate change, environmental degradation, overpopulation, overconsumption, brutal infighting and war-mongering, and finally the sheer weight of its own bloated, ineffective governance… And that was all before the Spanish arrived to finish the job. Sound familiar? You’re damn right it sounds familiar, Rodrigo! Here we are raising our eyebrows over the exact same issues that we are facing in our own culture, and watching these amorphous blobs of purple, yellow, pink and blue, staring wide-eyed and taking pictures like the whole scenario was so completely alien to them seemed pretty damn funny right now. 

I wondered what it was like for the Maya to experience the decline of their empire, their own slow-motion cultural train wreck. Like us, most of them were probably in denial too. I might have felt depressed if I wasn’t so out of my mind. So instead, thoroughly amused by the absurdity of it all, I just shook my head, definitely laughing out loud this time as I stumbled up the first, steep step of the Temple of the Moon.

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