Speaking in Jaguar Tongue

Jaguar relief at Chichén Itzá

One of the boys, Israel, kept up the lesson with “otra, otra” after each new word or phrase; two or three words would not be enough. These jaguar muchachos were keen on not letting me escape until my head had a few of their words dancing around in it. The city of Valladolid was bathed in a fiery deep orange as the Sun neared the horizon. In a Maya creation story, accounted in the Popul Vuh, the Sun is personified as Hunapu, one of the Hero Twins who relive their story through the cycle of the day. When evening comes Hunapu and his brother Xbalanque, the planet Venus, descend into the Underworld for a series of ballgames against the Gods. Through their skill and a little cunning deception they are able to defeat the Gods of Xibalbá and rise again victorious each morning.DSC01768 Earlier, I had spent the day at Chichén Itzá wandering around in a fantastical daze marveling at the complexity and artistry of the Itzá civilization. The Gods of tropical heat had been victorious over me, draining me of most of my energy on the Great Ball Court of Chichén Itzá. This night while the Hero Twins battled their opponents, I would be sound asleep. But I still had some energy left to venture around the central plaza of Valladolid in the early evening. DSC01772  DSC01766

My hotel, El Mesón del Margués, was right on the plaza and I thought I’d get a few photographs of the Cathedral of San Gervasio in the setting sun light, before finding a place to eat.DSC01972 There were perhaps five or six boys sitting up against the wrought iron fence surrounding the plaza. They were all wearing school uniforms, green pants and white polo-type shirts against their lustrous brown skin.

DSC01974As I slyly tried to snap a few photos of them they saw me and starting waving, calling their best English greeting, “’ello, ‘ello.” They must have picked me out for an American, or at least an English speaker. They came over to me, as if expressing an interest in learning some English.

¿De dónde viene usted?”, one of them asked.

“United, ah….Estados Unidos,” I replied.

Cómo se dice ‘De dónde viene’ en inglés,” another one asked me.

I said, “Se dice ‘Where are you from?”.

They repeated the phrase with a little awkward pronunciation.

I got a little excited and said, “Yo puedo enseñar un poco de inglés y pueden enseñarme español.” I was hoping for a little trade in language lessons.

They shrugged, with a couple of non-committal “”.

Then one of them stepped up, I later got his name as Israel, and said, “Bish sha k’aba.”

“Ah…what? ¿Cómo?

What he had said did not sound like Spanish to me.

Bish sha k’aba,” he repeated.

Another boy whose name was Sergio said, “Eso es ‘¿Cómo se llama?’ en nuestro idioma.”

Now I knew ‘¿Cómo se llama?’ – ‘What is your name?’

Israel spoke Spanish again, “Queremos enseñarle nuestro idioma.” He said they wanted to teach me ‘our language’. To these young Maya boys ‘our language’ certainly wasn’t Spanish.

I was constantly being reminded on my trip that the Maya of the Yucatán speak and even read and write their very much alive Mayan language. The Maya of the Northern Yucatán speak Yucatec Maya, the most widely spoken dialect, of approximately a million speakers. At many of the cultural sites descriptions are written in Spanish, English and Maya. DSC00835 - Version 2I remember my conversation with a travel guide couple I’d met in the village of Santa Elena, near the Maya site of Uxmal. They were scouting out new itineraries for their clients. While talking to them I marveled at the fact that they provided tours in English, French and Spanish. I expressed my regret that I had not learned Spanish earlier in my life and that I had a lot of catching up to do practicing my Spanish with the people of the Yucatán. Helene, the French wife of the couple, told me if I really wanted to impress and secure the kindness of the local people, I should concentrate on learning and trying to speak a few words of Maya.

So here in Valladolid I finally found some worthy tutors. The words started coming fast and luckily I had my journal on hand, which I’d planned to write in a little, while having my dinner. With my pen I started scribbling down the words they gave me, checking for proper spelling.

a person – u tu’

two people – ka tu’u

boy – paal

girl – chu paal

sun – k’in

water – ja

house – naaj

rain – kash ja

The young men emphasized the glottal stops more vigorously than I had heard others use it. The glottal stop is indicated by the diacritic apostrophe after a letter or syllable. It’s the kind of sound an English speaker makes when saying ‘uh oh’ or the the word ‘button’, as in but’ton. The double vowels are pronounced as long vowels. Sounding the rain god ‘Chaac’ is to draw out the ‘a’ with an ‘ahh’.  Soon we moved on from single words to phrases of greeting.

Buenos días – Ma lo k’im

Hello – Bish ya ni kech

And longer phrases.

Where are you from – Tu sha taa

How much does it cost – Ba uush

Let’s go to see the pyramid – Koo’osh ile e pirámide

That last word being Spanish for pyramid, as they told me they did not know of a word in Mayan for pyramid. I suppose the Maya had individual names for their temples in pyramid form, and if they had a general word for these structures the boys did not tell me.

It was starting to get a bit exhausting for me, what with the double translation from Maya to Spanish, and then to English. My head was getting plenty full and so I announced, “¡Tengo hambre muchachos!” ‘I’m hungry, boys’. Before I could assemble the rest of the words in Spanish for the phrase ‘I’ve got to find a restaurant and get something to eat.’, the boys were already translating my first statement.

I’m hungry – Wi jeen

At some point I finally got it through to them that I was famished and needed to find a place to eat. As we parted ways they expressed their happiness in meeting me and that I was ‘muy amable’. I waved goodbye and headed across the plaza.

I wasn’t able to catch the Cathedral of San Gervasio in a golden glow, mainly because it is the only cathedral in the Yucatán without the honor of facing west. A cathedral on the plaza was originally built in 1570, but that one was destroyed after ‘ungodly things occurred on its alter’, as one description I read stated. Due to struggles and violence between the Maya and the Spanish the original was leveled and the current ‘chastised’ one was built in 1702 facing north. After nightfall and my dinner, I returned to find it lit up beautifully with a crescent moon hovering between its bell towers. DSC01998

Valladolid was once a Spanish, and later, Mexican city of white incursion, into a region predominately populated by the Maya. During the Caste Wars of the mid 19th century the city fell for a period to the Maya, as they fought bitterly against the white and mestizo population after three centuries of oppression and the privatization of communal lands. Even as the white citizens fled for the safety of Mérida and Izamal in the west, the Maya would not occupy the town they conquered, for it represented the hated Yucatecos. When it was finally recaptured with little resistance it was found abandoned with no sign of Maya occupation. But now it is a city of Mayans and I felt no trace of animosity toward others that colored centuries of the past. I felt the most welcome in Valladolid, as compared to the big city of Mérida. DSC02112

It may have also been due to the length of time I stayed. It was the end of my trip and I had planned also to stay in an ecolodge near the ruins of Ek Balam. I was tired of packing up and resettling after each couple of days so I decided to skip the lodge at Ek Balam and stay in the town for my last four days. With that length of time I got to know better the hotel staff and the town. The bartender, a joven with a fair grasp of English introduced me to X’tabentún, the local liqueur. It is a very sweet liquor distilled from honey and the flowers of the morning glory plant called x’tabentún. It is reminiscent of the ancient honey-fermented Maya drink called balche. Some even suggest more potent parts of the morning glory plant were used in that ancient brew. The kind of ingredients that produce actual visions of the gods. Then there was the parking attendant who described to me the rituals he and his children perform in the milpa to the rain god Chaac. Each child had his own small shrine to the god somewhere in the corn field, or at least that’s what I understood as I strained to understand his explanation in Spanish. DSC02100

After my explorations around the town and its environs, including swimming in several cenotes (sinkholes and underground caverns filled with water), visiting the Convent of San Bernardino de Siena and taking a day trip to the ruins of Cobá, I woke up on the morning of my departure and had breakfast in the courtyard of the restaurant of my hotel. The head waiter Medardo engaged me in a little Spanish lesson. During the conversation I brought up my Mayan language tutorial with the boys in the plaza. He proudly declared he too was Mayan. As I went to leave I gave him a farewell I’d learned from the Mayan boys.

Tu la k’eng.

Medardo put his hand on his heart and gave me a warm smile. I’d like to think I scored a little extra warmth in a language that has continued on since the days of epic ballgames and jaguar kings.

A few references because you know I don’t just know this stuff off the top of my head.

The Ancient Maya by Robert J. Sharer with Loa P. Traxler
Stanford University Press, 2006, 6th Edition

The Caste War of the Yucatán by Nelson A. Reed
Stanford University Press, 2001, Rev. Edition

And Cracking the Maya Code is a great PBS Nova video on the history of deciphering the original written script of the Mayan language. This is condensed from a longer film titled Breaking the Maya Code. A fascinating film which I can highly recommend.


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