On top of the hill the old man and his wife were standing next to the altar they had made, muttering words into the smoke. The dogs that had been fighting in the bushes had gone and the raucous rock music that had been pulsating from the town 1.5km away had mercifully stopped. There was a moment of total peace and tranquility.
Two black vultures suddenly broke from the horizon of trees and wheeled low over our heads. The old woman knelt down and kissed the earth while the old man kept on chanting, in a strange guttural language full of creaks and hisses. If languages can sound like the lands they inhabit, this one seemed perfectly attuned to the volcanoes, cloud forests and ruined temples of Guatemala.
This is as close as one can get, I thought to myself, to pre-Columbian America. I had a vision of priests in feathered gowns standing on high stone platforms and sacrificing human beings to the sun god. Then the old man rummaged in his pocket and took out not a deadly jade dagger but a bottle of cola. He took several gulps and then carried on chanting.
We were on top of Pascual hill, near the Guatemalan town of Chichicastenango, Chichi to its residents, and I was with Don Diego, a Mayan ajq’ij, a word often translated as shaman but literally “day-keeper.” The Mayans are a people much interested in time and numbers. They count in 20s, a human-size unit — all the fingers and toes — which they multiply by the number of major joints in the body — 13 — to make 260. Long ago they noted that the planet Venus moved from being an evening to a morning star in 260 days, the same time it takes to grow a crop of maize and to complete a human pregnancy.
From this basis, and the solar year, they linked humanity with the heavens and built a calendar of minute precision, and also of epic size. It runs in short cycles of about 20 years (or katuns, of which 13 make one may — hence Maya, people of the may) and longer ones of more than 5,000 years. One of these long cycles is due to end on Dec. 21, 2012, a fact that has led some people to claim that the Mayans have predicted the End of the World. I’d come to Guatemala to investigate — as good a place as any to spend some of my limited time on Earth.
The ceremony on the hill was over. Don Diego and his wife, Juana, walked slowly down the hill to their house, where they showed me a room full of masks. In the corner was a shrine to Guatemala’s homegrown deity, Maximon, a strange syncretic god who manages to combine the apparently contradictory aspects of ancient Mayan deity and Marlboro Man. His image is that of a cowboy: Stetson on his head, cigarette forever on his lip and Coca-Cola close to hand. But looking closer I could see jungle fruits too, vestments in hammocks and skins of animals. This was a god who drinks and smokes and needs placating. My guide, Rita, leaned over and whispered: “He will do bad things for you, if you ask correctly.” She grinned. “Really. Lots of people come for that.”
The Mayans have had to survive for a long time as underdogs and they have done it by accommodation. When the Spanish came in 1523, plotting total cultural destruction, the indigenous people (Mayan is a catch-all term for several related languages and peoples) responded with guile. Images of Catholic saints were stuffed with old Mayan gods; parts of temples were incorporated into churches; at Nuestra Senora de la Merced in Antigua Guatemala you can see how Mayan masons carved symbols of maize and hummingbirds into the church facade.