Time Among the Maya by Ronald Wright

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

The Maya were a people who inhabited a large chunk of central America. In their time they from 2000 b.c. to the late 900s, they had a highly developed culture and were known for their art, astronomical system and calendar as well as their architecture, art and their sophisticated writing system known as the logosyllabic script. After the collapse there were still people living in the region, even though some of the cities were still in use, many were abandoned. In the early 1500s, the first Spanish arrived and after a number of battles, they finally succumbed to the Spanish in 1697.

Even though they were defeated the people still survived and the remnants of their great civilisation slowly fell into ruin. The region is now separate countries, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, but there are still seven million people that speak the old Mayan languages and whilst hey have suffered suppression for hundreds of years they still maintain their unique culture. This place and people have long fascinated Wright, he read every book he could about them prior to going there and from that made a list of places that he wanted to go on his travels there and he was soon on his way to Belize.

Heading south over the Hondo River in a battered old school bus he watches as the people change from the smaller Mexican people into colossal black matrons in floral bonnets. Pausing at Orange Walk Town, the police grab a passenger and march him off, wright heads to the Vietnam Bar for a drink before getting back on. The sugar plantations give way to wilder country and the radio on the bus is playing calypso. A little while passes and they enter the outskirts of Belize Town, driving through rusty corrugated iron corridors. Splashing through muddy puddles. It was time to find his hotel.

Moving on from Belize he heads over the disputed border into Guatemala. The officials are not the slightest bit interested in his luggage but do take the opportunity to charge him five quetzals for the tourist card that is clearly marked with a price of one quetzal. He crosses the bridge to the slightly seedy town of Melchor de Mencos with the hope of getting the camioneta. The bus is smelly and packed, he gets some fresh air when they are stopped are various checkpoints but the journey stops when they stuck. He hitches a lift with two American preachers from Florida and they drop him at a checkpoint where he decides that the next bus along will determine his destination for the day.

At the end of the vee rear the perfect cone of Volcan Agua, framed like the foresight of a rifle with a gun barrel of straight tarmac running towards it. The sky is clear, a deep steel blue, and the volcano wears a wreath of vapour that forms at the summit and streams from its leeward side the way a comets tail flees from the sun.

The third section of the book takes place in the southern part of Guatemala. He arrives in the city in an old 1950s Fokker that flies through the mountains rather than over them. He looks down on huts covered with pine shingles on the roofs. This is the fourth city, the others having been flattened by earthquakes volcanos and the Spanish. It is still a troubled country, a place where the native Indian have been oppressed by the white elite and it is in constant political turmoil. He is there for the ruins though and is being joined by a friend to see the structures of Quiriguá nestled amongst the bananas.

Finally, he ends up in Mexico, weary from the journey and then unable to sleep because of the maids crashing and banging and the squawking of the three parrots in reception. After a breakfast of Huevos rancheros, he heads to the New World Archaeological Foundation. He is meeting Suzanne and she shows him the various artefacts they found before leaving him in the library to lose himself amongst the books. In some of the towns, almost everyone is in the local dress, and the markets are an orderly bustle. In Chamula, for example, all the properties are owned by the Maya, and outsiders are banned from living in the centre of town. In the ruins of Bonampak that were rediscovered in 1946, he is there to see the murals. Even though they are covered with scaffolding they shine bright with colours and energy; just being in the presence of them is enough to generate a physical tingle.

When we get back to the lookout with the nine verses, the sun is about to drop off the edge of the world. Silver light pours from a chink in the overcast, painting fans between tiers of charcoal cloud.

He is primarily in the region for the archelogy and to absorb the history of the places, but what you, the reader, actually end up learning the most about is the people that live there now. His heart really is at home in this place and with the Maya. His conciliatory manner and endless curiosity draw out the best stories that they have to tell. It is beautifully written too, his extensive knowledge of the history of the places that he visits, helps add the extra depth to the prose. Well worth reading.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    Another good one from this publisher!

    • Paul

      They have the luxury of picking from out of print books so they can avoid the duff ones. Posted a picture of my new bookshelf with all the Elands books that have on Twitter yesterday

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