Interview with Josh Berman on his new book
Joshua Berman, 38, originally from West Virginia, divides his time between Boulder, Colo., and Central America, where he has been living, working and traveling for 13 years. Berman is the author of the just-published "Moon Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras" ($7.95, Avalon Travel) and "Moon Spotlight Belize" ($17.99; Avalon).
Q. How did you happen to write a book about the Maya?
When I was updating "Moon Belize" last year, I got curious about the hype surrounding Dec. 21, 2012 - the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar. (Some claim it will be the end of the world.) I was at a Christmas party at the famous jungle lodge up the Macal River. I asked the owner what she was going to do for Dec. 21. She said they were turning the Lodge at Chaa Creek into the re-enactment of an ancient Maya village. Guests will wear Maya garb, there'll be archaeologists and astronomers on hand, etc.
The Long Count, one of dozens of calendars the Maya used, began Aug. 11, 3114 B.C. The ancient Maya placed great importance on the end of cycles; the bigger the cycle, the bigger the event. That's why next year is very important.
What's more interesting to me: What are the Maya doing about this and what do they think about the end of the calendar? The book is about traveling there in the final year of the 5,125-year cycle.
Q. Do you speak Mayan?
No, and there are 30 distinct Mayan languages that still survive. I speak Spanish, which is spoken in most of the Mundo Maya (Maya World), and know several linguists who specialize in Mayan languages.
Q. How do you rate the ruins of Tulum?
i It's an easy day trip from Cancun, so North Americans can get there easily.
Tulum is just gorgeous. But it was constructed relatively late in Mayan history and was a trading post. It had a relatively small population and was mostly a palace for elites and royalty. Coba - only a few miles away - was much larger and more significant. Coba has some pretty significant stelae - rock slabs with writing on them.
Q. Why do visitors to Cancun rarely hear about Coba?
Good question! It's the only site I've ever visited you can ride around on a bicycle - and on the original roads the Maya built 1,200 years before. The roads are called "sacbeob." They are made of white limestone, were perfectly engineered and extend hundreds of miles.
Q. What about Chichen Itza?
It's very famous, but is quite commercialized at its entrance. Chichen was an important city and is a truly impressive site, despite the crowds from Cancun. Get there early, when the doors open. Enjoy it before the tourist buses arrive. It's worth it.
Q. What are some other must-see ancient Maya sites?
Copan, in Honduras, was the "Athens of the Maya World" and had the most artists, artisans and scribes. It's one of the grander but less-visited sites. It's more overlooked because it's in Honduras and a little trickier to get to.
The temple at Lamanai, in Belize, is on the cover of my book. You get there by boat - up the New River and into a lagoon in the middle of the jungle. Lamanai has some really impressive structures that get you above the jungle canopy so you can look out over the forest. There's also an excellent lodge. It's rare that you can stay in a lodge so close to such a stunning, remote site. The area is filled with wildlife; it's a popular place for birders.
Q. What's the thing about the end of the calendar and the end of the world?
There's only one known Mayan calendar inscription that definitely mentions Dec 21, 2012, and it's on a stela in the basement of a museum in Vera Cruz, Mexico; it's not accessible to the public.
There is zero hard evidence that says anything is going to happen on that date. There never was a prophecy that "this will happen on that day." That's just craziness that got spun out; it's like when people got excited about the millennium in late 1999.
There are people already gathering in a village in France to get beamed away by extra-terrestrials landing Dec. 21, 2012!
It's all nonsense, according to a lot of academics.
That said, there is a definite importance to the end of the cycle for the Maya. Maya priests have been doing cleansing ceremonies on special dates for the five years leading up to this date to prepare the world for the next cycle.
Go to see what you can learn about the Maya and their calendar. And keep it to that.