My Mayan Misconceptions

Article excerpt

The author shares what she learned during her first-ever tour: A "Road Scholar" study tour of Maya cultural sites in Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize. She started the trip with trepidation and ended it with new knowledge and new friendships. Several misconceptions were corrected, the most important of which is that the Maya culture thrives to this day. Each Maya site is very different, due to the geology and geography of the specific area. The "Maya Code" is now understood, and many more Maya sites await discovery and excavation.

When I was a fifth grader, I developed a fascination for ancient civilizations. If I finished my classwork and assigned homework, I pored through National Geographic magazines, searching for articles and photos of discoveries in Greece, Egypt, Mexico, Peru, and Central America. I knew that I would one day visit some of those sites.

My opportunity to travel came soon after I retired from a fulfilling, 35-year career of teaching language arts to students in grades 7-12. My husband retired also, so we began planning our next life stage of learning by traveling. We were used to traveling on our own, but we decided we needed expert help to learn about the Maya.

One day in May I booted up the Internet and typed in "Maya" and "Travel." There it was! "Honduras, Guatemala and Belize: Beyond the Mayan Walls." A program called "Road Scholar" advertised an in-depth exploration of the Maya culture, visiting sites in the three Central American countries listed. I knew nothing of "Road Scholar" and had never been on a group tour before, but I clicked on the box that said "Book this trip," then ran excitedly into the living room to tell my husband the good news that we were going on a grand excursion in January.

Road Scholar, a branch of Elderhostel, took care of all the travel details. We simply needed to "pack light" by following the suggested list, make sure our passports were current, and get to the airport with time to spare. Even so, we were nervous. Would we like being on a tour? Would we spend all of our time waiting for people? Would the pace allow us time for indepth study?

Our fears were groundless. We both loved learning with our tour. In fact, we corrected several misconceptions we had about tours and about the Mayan civilization.

Misconception #1: We thought we'd have to wait for people.

No, our 15 fellow Road Scholars were all just as eager to learn as we were. The group always gathered early, enjoying conversation before our scheduled departures. Ages varied from late 50s to late 80s, but everyone was a lifelong learner. In fact, we were the least-seasoned travelers of our group, so the others took us under their wings. We learned from them to be careful not to drink the "free" bottles of water in our rooms. (What? Those little bottles cost $3?) We learned how to say "No" to persistent street vendors. We learned, from the oldest members of our group, that diminished hearing doesn't keep a person from learning. They hooked a microphone to our guide's shirt then carried a pocket amplifier with earphones. Julio, our tour guide, was always alert to our needs and always prepared to share interesting information with us.

Misconception #2: The Mayan civilization disappeared over 700 years ago.

Actually, the Mayan civilization is alive and well to this very day. The Maya people no longer live in cities dominated by massive pyramids, but they live quietly throughout Central America. More than 24 different Maya dialects are spoken in the region, and the people still maintain many of the foods and traditions of their ancestors. Local experts joined us during every leg of our journey to point out the influences of Mayan culture. We experienced the bustling market in Chichicastenango, a town nestled high in the mountains of Guatemala where the K'iche' Maya have brought their goods to trade since before the arrival of Columbus.

True, the Maya no longer live in the large cities where their temples still stand covered by vegetation. …