During my second week of twenty in México, I visited Chichén Itzá. The ancient lowland Maya constructed El Castillo, the principal pyramid, in today’s Yucatán. There are no natural mountains to call the people in the area; they simply supplied their own centuries ago. Like a true mountain, Chichén Itzá’s stones draw their power and magic from within. Staring up at the monument, I half-expected the Chaac carving to spew wisdom from its decidedly rocky and un-kissable lips.
“Emily–¿qué es tu animal de espíritu?” they asked me from across the sunny patio, picking at the remainder of the Thai food. A classic ice breaker game–“What is your spirit animal?”–to melt that which the Yucatecan heat had not already in the first three weeks of my study abroad program.
“Una pantera.” I will always be clever, sleek, and obsidian. “Venado, rana, llama…” the others continued.
I stepped closer to the edge of the Lol-Ha Cenote, meaning Flower-Water in Yucatec Mayan. My chest swelled and nostrils flared with fear. Although it was a jump of a mere 25 feet, I became acutely aware of the throbbing in my head and heart. I fought the innate “flight” response, knowing that otherwise regret would steal this moment.
“Sea. Una. Local. Salta.” Be. A. Local. Jump.
My fear left me as soon as my feet did the ground; I felt only the roar of wind in my ears, the brown shadow the sun left on my skin, and the water cleansing my soul. If I felt anything more, it was that I felt like a wild animal. Indomitable. Alive. Salvaje.
I had packed for the week-long excursion in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, México. I finally shut my computer and eyes to rest for a few hours before getting up in the madrugada to depart for the higher altitudes and blissfully lower temperatures on the Mexican-Guatelamalan border. A day later, our program sponsor led us into the square and gestured to the mountains encircling San Cristobal. She explained that the highland Maya–ancient and contemporary–believe that everyone has a spirit animal which lives in the surrounding and sacred mountains, which rose up as earthly and lush cathedrals kissing the horizon. We filled the rest of our day with Day of the Dead altar viewings, bartering in the local market for amber jewelry, and searching for real hamburgers.
The next day, our group visited a few cemeteries to observe Day of the Dead rituals. One cemetery perched atop a hill nestled between two sacred mountains, but was completely hidden from view during the ascent. I walked and stretched my legs and suddenly the most spectacular scene enveloped me. I navigated the low-slung clouds shrouding the cemetery and the Día de Los Muertos revelers with intrigue. The people, flowers, textiles, music, mestizo religion, and sheer emotion swirled together to be a living creature independent and greater than the sum of its parts. That moment coiled itself like a feathered serpent through the folds of my memory and around my heart. It was otherworldly, perhaps in the world of the spirits.
How could one not believe in spirit animals in this environment, cradled between rolling mountains, ancient and contemporary times, and heaven and earth?
* * * * *
They would say that I was running wild. Walking Chicén Itzá, jumping in cenotes, eating salbutes, night skinny dipping in Sisal, going to the folk ballet, and celebrating the Day of the Dead in the mountains. I thought about my American life that I missed sometimes. Trips to Chipotle for “Mexican” food, not trips to the Riviera Maya. Traipsing around campus as a tour guide, not traipsing around ruins. Reading about other cultures, not living them. I was running like a wild animal.
I take time to run wild and stretch not only my legs, but the legs of my panther too. Maybe it’s not the mountains that are calling, but my soul. Regardless, I must go.
Note: Chaac is the Maya rain god.