Traveling has always been an inspiration to me. Get away, explore, experience a new culture—it’s fuel for my creativity.
In the summer of 2014, I visited the Maya city of Chichen Itza in Mexico, and that trip inspired parts of The Auriga Project.
The Mayan Riviera
I reached Chichen Itza the same way many of the 1.4 million tourists find themselves staring up the steps of a massive stone pyramid every year—by way of a Mexican beach resort vacation.
I was working for a company at the time that decided to take us down to the Mexican coast for a trip. I flew to Cancun, and we spent most of our time on the beach or in the swim-up bar (I’m a writer, not an animal) on the Mayan Riviera.
We also took a couple day trips to get away from the resort. On one such trip, toward the end of the week when we had grown somewhat accustomed to living in the sauna that the Mexican coast becomes each summer, we boarded a bus and drove inland to Chichen Itza.
A Swim in the Cenote
My biggest regret of any resort vacation is the inevitable isolation from the real culture of the country I’m visiting. Resorts are big and the locals avoid them. So, despite my hangover and the prospect of four hours of bumpy bus time, I was alert and excited to be making the trip inland. This was my chance to find that creative fuel.
Our first stop was an underground cenote, a sinkhole filled with rainwater. Archaeologists suppose two things about these underground caves: that the Maya used them as a water source, and that they hold religious significance for the ancient people.
I descended a set of stone steps and knelt by the cenote. The water was chilly, and very deep. After I kicked my shoes off at the stone edge, I jumped in feet first and didn’t touch solid ground until I was ready to get out. I swam a few laps around the bright spot at the back of the cave. Dust motes danced in a ray of light above the water. There was artificial lighting strung across the cave, but at that time of day it wasn’t needed.
Sounds like a magical scene, doesn’t it? A literal ray of light, dancing with dust motes, shining in through the ground above…
It wasn’t a religious experience, but it was very cool. For the first time that week, I was cool outdoors, and began to understand why the Maya treasure cenotes.
Hearing the Yucatec Mayan Language
Our next stop was Chichen Itza, but the tour company had a surprise waiting for us on the way.
The bus stopped by a small village to pick up a local man. I don’t remember his name, unfortunately, except that he had two—a Spanish name and a Mayan name, one for each culture he straddled.
He was selling parchment paper with your birthday written out in the Mayan calendar system. He walked up and down the aisle, taking orders. We would pick them up on the way back. I admired his entrepreneurial spirit.
What I remember most about his visit, however, was not the paper he sold but the words he spoke. I’ve always been fascinated with languages. Hearing this man and the bus driver speak in Mayan absorbed my whole attention.
I asked the man to speak more to me, and he did, and I got to hear all the glottal stops and soft shushing sounds that are missing from the languages I know.
Mayan is a truly beautiful language. In the weeks after this trip I reflected often on this interaction: on how the language and much of the Mayan culture continues to live in the Mexican lowlands while the jungles were allowed to reclaim their impressive cities.
Because culture doesn’t live in buildings, does it? Culture lives in people.
(Nothing replaces a local speaking the language in front of you, but I found a couple YouTube videos of spoken Yucatec Maya in case you want to hear the language, too: Maya Making Hammocks, field work; spoken Yucatec Maya and What Yucatec Maya Really Sounds Like.)
Chichen Itza, or “The Mouth of the Well of the Water Sorcerers”
After we dropped the local entrepreneur off, we drove on to Chichen Itza. By the time we arrived the sun was high overhead. We grabbed some lunch and water and then headed into the ruins with a tour guide, keeping to the shade of the few trees whenever possible.
Chichen Itza is one of the largest Maya cities. The great stepped pyramid that stands in its center, known as the Temple of Kukulkan or “El Castillo,” was restored by archaeologists in the 1920s and ‘30s, and it’s impressive even from a distance. Other ruins like the Great Ball Court and the Temple of the Warriors stand within a couple hundred yards of the pyramid. The jungle surrounding the entire city has been pruned back to expose the magnificent structures.
Our tour guide walked us through the Great Ball Court first. If you’re standing on one end of the Great Ball Court, he explained, you can hear someone speak in a normal voice from the opposite end. He clapped, and the sharp noise reverberated across the Court. On the walls, carvings depicted—in one instance–the captain of one team holding the head of the captain of the other as his trophy for winning the game. This story of the ball game as a sacrifice to the gods was part of their mythology. Whether or not the losing team was actually beheaded is a matter of debate among the experts.
When we stood staring open-mouthed at the Temple of Kukulkan, our guide pointed out the place along the stairway where the body of the snake appears highlighted during the Spring Equinox. To this day, the Spring Equinox draws a crowd to Chichen Itza from all over the world.
I learned that Chichen Itza (Chee-CHEN Eets-HA) translates roughly to “The mouth of the well of the water sorcerers,” and that the Itza were the ethnic group of people who ruled this area of the ancient Maya world.
The well refers to the Sacred Cenote, located down a straight path through the trees. Today, the way is lined with insistent hawkers pushing carved trinkets at tourists. I imagine that walking that road was a lot more peaceful—and, perhaps, heavy with significance—when the Chichen Itza was a trading city.
The Sacred Cenote is uncovered, and you’re not allowed to swim in it. It’s filled with blue water. From the excavations in the mid-20th century, we know that human bones and jade and indigo dye line the bottom of the well—that’s why it’s also known as The Well of Sacrifices.
The Mystery of the Maya
Eventually, we boarded a bus and drove back to the resort. The heat had zapped me, and getting turned around and lost in the city for a while wore me out. It’s bigger than you think.
Tiny monitors that folded out of the ceiling of the bus played a documentary about the ancient Maya while we napped and drove back.
Two months later, I found myself writing a story about a woman who wakes up on a strange beach with purple water. It was supposed to be a science fiction story about this character who gets accidentally transported to a strange new planet. Imagine my surprise when she found people living a pastoral life very similar to what we know of the ancient Maya … near a city with buildings of stone very similar to Chichen Itza.
The story expanded into a novel, and the rest is history.
What I learned on that visit to Chichen Itza—and afterwards by reading archaeological texts—informed and inspired my novel. Though the story isn’t about the ancient Maya, and the location certainly isn’t Chichen Itza (remember, it’s scifi and the water is purple there), it was certainly inspired by those ruins, and that man speaking to the bus driver in Mayan.
The mystery of the ancient Maya continues to draw me in. The forest lurking at the edges of Chichen Itza would surely swallow the ruins again if we let it—how many other cities have been consumed that we don’t even know about? New archeological tools continue to unearth discoveries as well. Last year, researchers conducted an electrical resistance survey and learned that the Temple of Kukulkan sits directly on top of another cenote.
What else is hidden below the surface?
The Auriga Project
I’ve always been inspired by my travels, but this was the first time a trip I took made its way into a novel.