The end of the world in the heart of Mayan country
Although the Russians and the Chinese are reportedly fretting about the end of the world tomorrow — according to an interpretation of the ancient Mayan calendar — down here in the Yucatan, which was part of the Mayan empire, the locals couldn’t care less. Nor does anyone in Mexico City seem to notice. They are too busy thinking about what the new government is going to get up to. With its candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, sworn into as president on Dec. 1, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is back in power after 12 years out of office.
The new president is known in Mexico for a) being married to a famous soap opera star and b) not being able to answer when he was asked at the Guadalajara International Book Fair to name three books that had influenced his life. After mentioning the Bible, he blanked out and apparently could not remember the details of anything else he had read. He has, however, brought in young talent from the party’s lower ranks, and we met some of these officials in Mexico City last week. As in the Egyptian revolution, many in this group are elites who have been educated overseas. But instead of protesting in the streets, they paid their dues, waited patiently for their turn. Now they are raring to introduce reforms. The major parties have already come together to agree on a list of priorities, taken on the teachers’ union and pushed to give private capital access to the massive, state-owned oil company Pemex, which has been faulted for a decline in production over the past eight years. Included on their to-do list is tax reform; a complete overhaul of Pemex; improving education; introducing new technology to speed up the export of goods to the U.S.; and increased cooperation with like-minded Latin American countries.
In short, the new government is in full-blown honeymoon mode (although no one we saw mentioned fighting poverty or drug trafficking). We’ll see what gets accomplished.
PRI supporters argue that their party can get things done because it ruled for so many years and has an entrenched network across the country. It’s a strength that resonates in the Yucatan, a state that is still fairly old-school. But while more Mexicans are now focused on the next chapter of the country’s political life than on the end of the world, here in the Yucatan there are more practical reasons to be interested in a modern misinterpretation of a centuries-old calendar. Tourism is a major part of Yucatan’s economy, and the Dec. 21 festivals at the pyramids of Chichen Itza are expected to draw everyone from Burning Man enthusiasts to professional crystal readers and pierced teenagers whose primary source of knowledge on Mayan culture is Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto Locals have been regaling us all week with the tale of the Italians who, expecting a flood, built condos on the highest mountain peak they could find.
In addition to fretting foreigners, there are plenty of homegrown New Age types, including the autodidact Alberto Haggar, who sprinkles his lectures on Mayan cosmology with power points of sudoku puzzles, references to geometry, dismissals of global warming and a complaint about the number of drugstores that have opened in Merida in the past decade (4,000!). Haggar informed us that the world will soon start spinning in a different direction, as he said it has twice before, but noted if we all meditate together the next world will be a new reality with equality for woman. Not all bad, in other words.
Haggar and his ilk will be hanging around Chichen Itza on Friday, and traffic is expected to back up for miles. The local paper, La Verdad, which uses quotation marks when referring to “the end of the world,” reports that the government is planning extra security measures, including military patrols, in all five Mayan areas. Ticket prices for tourists are also being jacked up, which seems fair given the dozens of dance spectaculars, lectures, tree planting ceremonies, craft and food markets, conferences and book parties organized by the government. Subjects include Mayan astrophysics, death rituals, ancestry and food. Controversial Guatemalan activist, writer and Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu flew in over the weekend and called for the world to try to understand the potential for the Mayan culture to help bring about global harmony. I somehow managed to miss the parade of buggy carts in Izamal and a performance of a play in Merida called How to Find a Boyfriend. The events on offer are enticing, and I wish I could stay for weeks.
If I can get away from my stepchildren, I’ll see you tonight at the Mayan Ball Game — no decapitation allowed.
PHOTO: A man in Aztec warrior costume dances in front of the Pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza in Yucatan state, December 20, 2012. The archaeological site of Chichen Itza is expected to receive approximately 30,000 people on 21 December, almost twice that in the spring equinox on March 21, according to the Institute of Archaeology and History. REUTERS/Victor Ruiz Garcia