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A time to smoke May 27th, 2014 by

Kaminaljuyú is the Mayan site with the longest occupation, from about 800 BC to 900 AD. It now lies almost completely buried under the modern city of Guatemala. I’d read about Kaminaljuyú when I was in college and always wanted to go there.

Most ruined cities manage to preserve their central core, but not here. A modern Guatemalan neighborhood of uninspired architecture crowds right up to the main pyramids. Just outside of the park, between two modern houses, archaeologists excavated a stone carving of a fantastic tapir-man, with a snake wrapped around his neck like a business man’s tie. What other wonders must have been destroyed by builders?

Once inside the archaeological park, most of the visitors pay little attention to the ruins. Guatemala City is so congested that people use the rolling green lawns as a playground. Lovers embrace beneath the trees and kids roll down the grassy knolls that were once the pyramids of a powerful Mayan city. This monkey business is a little distracting, but there is something charming about seeing the pyramids un-cleared, still covered with soil and grass, like natural hills.

A sign at the park entrance says that spiritual guides are welcome to make offerings, but they must be registered as such and they must only offer traditional goods. The sign was like a large, one-page fact sheet, complete with a photo illustrating the permitted offerings, bureaucratizing native religion, but also explaining it and giving it legitimacy. The picture reminded me of some of the photos and descriptions in Evon Vogt’s classic book Tortillas for the Gods, about Mayan religion. Many of the offerings are agricultural products, like cacao, which one would expect from a farming people like the Maya. Others are honey, which Central Americans have collected since ancient times, even bringing the wild beehives home to care for. At least one of the ingredients, sugar, is a colonial introduction. Religions evolve, adopting new symbols from time to time.

Many people had left offerings of flowers around the site, and the groundskeepers left them, until they wilted and dried. The gardeners cut the grass with machetes and picked up the trash, but they left the flowers for the gods to clean up.

The park also left a space for rituals at the foot of the pyramids. At first I mistook the place for a picnic area, until I realized that the fires on the stones were not cookouts, but burning offerings. One woman in neo-Mayan dress sat on a stool, flanked by two young men, perhaps her sons, or her little brothers. She puffed slowly and reverently on a home-made cigar the size of a panini.

Tobacco is a sacred plant for the Native Americans, once cultivated from the Canadian woods to the tip of South America. Even hunting and gathering people grew tobacco. It wasn’t for habitual, addicted use. This woman was smoking tobacco the way the ancestors intended, as worship. I fingered my camera, fighting the temptation to take a shot. Then I saw a sign sternly cautioning against taking photos of the people practicing their sacred rituals, and I relaxed and left my camera alone. Sometimes it is comforting to be reminded that we are doing the right thing. There is power in well-written messages.

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