Discover more from Or So Ben Thought
The human touch, jungle scenes and ambient beats
Hello from a different place!
Season 3 of “Or So Ben Thought” (where the notion of seasons has no relevance but…structure?) will be slightly Central America-flavoured. These snippets of Sabbatical-think will taste similar – technology, playfulness, culture, climate – but for the time being, come with a side of jungle sauce.
It was cloudy and cold this morning, but the sun has risen over the lumpy hills and burned the mist away. A breeze is passing through the poured-concrete balustrade, draped with sheets and a few of our freshly laundered clothes, incongruous amidst the industry of this careworn guesthouse. We’re in Copán Ruinas, a small town in the Honduran hills a stone’s throw from the Guatemalan border, to see the ruins of a Mayan dynasty that stretched through 16 rulers, from 400 to 900 AD.
I’ll admit the flaws in judging every cultural site against the Western paradigm, one built on grand Victorian facades, painstaking interpretation and frictionless ticketing. Here, things run differently and, I now realise, are to be digested differently.
At first one stumbles along, trying to piece together the procedure. The tickets for Tikal, Guatemala’s famous Mayan ruins lost to the jungle, should be bought in advance, cash only, from branches of a bank in a town almost two hours from the site. This in itself is a series of sweaty logistical twists: find a functioning cashpoint, find the bank, pass security, collect a timed ticket stub, wait anxiously for your number to show up. Tickets are written out in pen and stamped: the human touch.
We are learning to curb our addiction to audio guides in a place where human guides are the dominant medium. I can’t help but perform a UX analysis on each: their ease of use, breadth and depth of content, customisation options, interactivity. Our Tikal guide was a vibrant storyteller and performer, captivating to a fault, but over three hours we only grazed the surface of the site. We spent another six hours roaming solo, discovering quiet, sunlit plazas surrounded by tumbles of jungle and rock, glimpsed half-forms amidst the dark green. You absorb these places through every sense – colour, incense and avian screeches encircle you – while the ankles and knees record their own impression. Smooth paths and protective barriers are a world away.
Copán, across the border in Honduras, is perhaps the little sister of the Mayan sites, a more manageable size and only 1km from the cobbled hill town of Copán Ruinas. Trees burst from stony mounds, former monuments folding slowly into jungle. Scarlet macaws squawk from tree to tree, waiting for their feeding tables to be lowered from canopy to floor and stocked with fruity treats. They swoop in colourful flocks, startling and thrilling visitors. Tour guides trace out the hieroglyphs on great stelae using sticks be-topped with bird feathers.
Our guide, a Mayan descendent himself, takes great pleasure in reciting the Mayan words, telling stories of sun gods, skulls and dancing jaguars. He has a route and a script, so we follow, listen, point, click. Afterwards I sit exhausted, while Lynsey loops the loop again. She is the deep-diver to my grazer, insisting every word on every panel is absorbed, while I skim and bimble, trying to find my way behind the scenes, work hat never quite left at home.
On one covered monument, a series of 64 elaborately carved steps, there is one row missing, plucked out like a tooth. These beautiful, curving hieroglyphs tell the story of this early civilisation. A century ago, the Peabody Museum paid 200 pesos to the Honduran government, and now those rocks sit behind Perspex somewhere, lit and labelled like a skeleton. How funny to see, for a change, the space where the object once was, a page of the story torn out. We talk apologetically with our guide about repatriation and the shifting tides of opinion in the UK.
All this is a rather languorous route to the observation that here, in Central America, where culture drips from every leaf and lean-to, digital interpretation feels almost entirely redundant. The experience is lived, not mediated; it is people-powered; information is gathered slowly in fragments, faint outlines of fact merging with colourful stories to convey something vital.
Mayan life was dominated by stories of stars and sacrifice. Great dynasties built and maintained at great cost. The downfall of Tikal was their own ambition, their addiction to lime render. Every tree in the jungle was burned so their temples could shimmer white and red until eventually the ecosystem crumbled beneath them. The stories we live by today are perhaps less explicit but they exert the same hold, giving the impression of self-determination and choice, but inextricably wrapping us up in the story of growth and personal gain. At Tikal, the trees have reclaimed their place and for a moment one imagines their roots snaking through the concrete, steel and glass many of us find ourselves surrounded by.
This ancient place hints at a very modern story.
Costa Rica awaits, a global model of sustainable priorities, where the military has made way for pro-nature policies and great swathes of the country are protected. It’s a minute portion of the planet, but amidst the trouble and tumult that ripples through this part of the world, it’s a beacon of hope and perhaps a model for other countries, albeit one that depends heavily on tourism and the associated impact of long-distance travel. Something for another episode?
To continue this audio guide, select:
(A) To learn about cement (and how the Roman formula, thought to contain defects, is actually regenerative and far better than modern cement)
(B) To hear a super-chill Scottish train station announcer (in this curiously compelling, and configurable, ambient beat-maker to be filed next to the Shipping Forecast. ScotRail released all their MP3s and the internet did what the internet does)
(C) To watch Mr Wind (an amazing advert, and cute concept, to remind us there is energy out there that doesn’t involve burning fossil fuels)
Thanks for reading. Feel free to remind me how wet and cold England is. Until next time!
PS – This website about plant care is beautifully illustrated, useful and far more pleasant an experience than panic-searching when you find brown tips or mould.