A vision of eternity in playa del karma: Ancient American Traditions

Posted by Brian Connor

I spent my Spring Break on the Mayan Riviera, cruising up and down the strip of mega-resorts, quaint cabanas and jungles filled with cenotes and ancient ruins that adorn the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. I slept the first few nights in Playa Del Carmen, where four years earlier I had blown two months of lifeguarding paychecks in one week. Playa Del Carmen, or "little Cancun," is a honky-tonk town across the Yucatan Channel from Cozumel and south of its nick-namesake, the mighty Mayan city-state turned frat-boy Spring Break Mecca. Amongst the ruins of these Ancient Mayan cities I was taught a lesson about historical karma and humans' relations to material wealth.

I went out one night to observe the hedonistic flailing, dancing and imbibing spring break rituals of Europeans, Americans, and Canadians in cheesy Mayan-themed clubs staffed by local Mayans selling overpriced sugary mixed drinks. These men and women of the west were crudely and, I presume, unwittingly engaging in activities similar to those practiced by pre-Columbian Mayans, in which alcohol, in the form of fermented and distilled Agave known as Pulque, was imbibed in large madness-inducing quantities (though in the Mayan's case, it was revered as a tool of communication with the gods: alcohol being an almost universal tool of divination, the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist easily usurped Mayan religious practices, and those of other conquered peoples, upon conquest and conversion).

Later that morning, as my companion and I stumbled back to our hotel room, we were accosted by a group of local Mayan women who aggressively solicited us. Motor skills and situational-awareness impaired by mezcal and many 32-oz. bottles of Sol, I was forcibly pulled into the gaggle of scantily clad women.

I managed to protect my wallet from the hands that scoured and groped my body and freed myself from the women's advances within minutes and staggered back to my hotel room, pesos intact. Only when I had awoken later that morning and jumped in the hotel pool to ease the grogginess did I realize that my gold chain and crucifix, a Confirmation gift, had been snatched. I waded in the pool for a seemingly endless amount of time, full of despair at losing it.

What I really missed wasn't the "Au," or the 3-dimensional depiction of Christ. I missed an object that I had worn for ten years, into which I imbued what I saw as meaning in my life, a possession that reified my existence. I'd once lost it at the bottom of a lake whilst camping along the Delaware River, and, passing by one year later, dove down and retrieved it, further granting it cosmic importance in my existential environ. Upon losing it I felt a sense of loss that only began to wane as I rode a bicycle through the ancient Mayan city of Coba and began to ponder the historical antecedent of that exchange, and the eternality of humanity through material objects.

Here, surrounding me, were the relics of a lost civilization. I climbed the crumbling steps of a pyramid that were once reserved for only the most elite religious figures of Mayan society. 519 years after the European discovery of the New World, gringos abounded and cameras flashed; the world had spun far too hectically and quickly out of those Mayan king-priests' hands. Rockets blast toward space and the cosmos are charted in detail surpassing their own impressive astronomical feats.

Yet, though long dead, they are still relevant and alive with us today, their presence still felt, pervading every inch of that ancient city. The power and privilege they wielded from atop those pyramids was palpable. They are survived by their material objects and an empire of tourism now dominates their domain and worships their achievements.

The Mayan empire had fallen by the time the Spaniards arrived on the Yucatan, but the culture remained somewhat intact, until the Spanish began colonization and acculturation ensued. Mayan texts were burnt and deities toppled, pious Spaniards believing these Meso-American cultures and rituals to be devil worship.

Indigenous Mexicans were enslaved and made to worship new gods, now channeled and personified by the Vatican and the Spanish crown rather than their own kings and priests. The pillage that wrought by European colonization has deformed Latin America to this day, creating what Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano described as the "Open Veins of Latin America," in which the resources and labor of that continent were stolen and exploited by European and American capitalists.

Though Europeans pillaged and exploited the New World in all material capacities, gold, above all else, came to most succinctly express the European lust for resources. Gold so emblematized the Spaniard's frenzied plunder of the New World, that legends were spawned of El Dorado, a city made entirely of gold, a myth so pervasive that it has cemented itself in common parlance as an expression of insatiable desire. But latent in the obsession with gold, in the acquisition of limitless resources, is the quest for eternal life.

In the bountiful New World, the Europeans, their material desires quenched but souls still yearning for more, believed the Fountain of Youth, an ancient legend of an immortal paradise, to be within their grasp. And so unfurled history, the Europeans repossessing and building upon Meso-American empires, themselves built by slaves and the underclass, pillaging and re purposing resources and enslaving indigenous peoples, subconsciously hoping that they might live forever; their culture and structures are testament to this desire.

Through my crucifix I sought the same thing and all of us, through our own possessions, seek immortality or confirmation of existence. We hoard possessions in the hope that they will grant us eternal life, and we build our own personal material empires on the backs of other human beings.

Our own American civilization, often referred to as unique and egalitarian, is unexceptional, built on the backs of African slaves, cheap immigrant labor, and the economic rape of Latin America. When alien conquistadors guide their ships across the galaxy toward Earth just like Europeans did to the Americas and the Empire State Building is excavated from thick jungle or glacial sheets, extra-terrestrial tourists will vacation and marvel at this grand temple to the god known as "Dollar," whose people sought immortality through this deity and trampled upon each other, stealing and exploiting, to attain it.

In a twist of fate, a chance encounter, 500 years of history culminated in a brief exchange. Gold, in the shape of the conquering god, was repossessed by an indigenous woman forced into economic exploitation by the forces of history, unwittingly enacted retribution, seeking economic exchange and engaging in a symbolic one.

I'll yearn for that chain for the rest of my life, it seemed to make me real, it reified my existence. But, like the soaring, crumbling pyramids of the Maya, it will outlive me, will decay, will be re purposed and rediscovered. For now I hope it will inspire a lost soul to straighten her life out, or be sold to feed a child or grant one chemically consoling evening from the terrors of modern life, or even to enhance her personal empire and confirm her existence, grant her immortality.

Our possessions can be taken away from us, small keepsakes and giant empires can tarnish and crumble, but they keep us grounded in existence. Like Ozymandias, we stake claim to our possessions, our kingdoms, and through them live forever despite our fleeting mortality.

Rene Belloq, Indiana Jones' rival archeologist, explains relics as such, holding out a pocket-watch: "Look at this. It's worthless - ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless." After trapping Dr. Jones in an Egyptian tomb Belloq tells him, "who knows? Maybe in a thousand years even you will be worth something."

That crucifix is now an artifact that allows me to live forever, its historical and personal symbolism along with me, lost in the sands of time at the bottom of an ancient lake, and like each of us, its atoms will be swallowed up by the sun in 5 billion years and re-deposited and re purposed somewhere in the universe, our material eternal.

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