Friday, March 27.......Cascadas de Pulhapanzak, Honduras

I entered western Honduras at the Florida / Copan Ruinas border. The three books I had with me, regarding travel and border crossings in Latin America, had all said there could be some small-change corruption with the border officials. For a number of reasons it interests me that this problem still happens. One reason that particularly fascinates me goes something like the following: 1) Many of the guide books, published and sold in languages around the world, mention this problem with the border extortion racket - and remember, this border is only a few miles away from the single most-visited tourist attraction in Honduras - the Maya ruins of Copan. 2) The Honduran government has for the past five years been putting a lot of money into tourism promotion. One of the major expenses on the budget of the tourism department are the fees paid to US advertising firms that handle the world-wide tourism promotion of the Honduran government. You would think, or at least I did, that someone in one of those advertising firms - someone who is intelligent and watchful as a person, and careful and considerate as a paid business advisor - would read the various tour guides of the country their advertising firm was representing, would notice what was said about the bothersome corruption in a place very important to the Honduran national self-image, and would communicate this in no uncertain terms to some persons in the Honduran government. 3) You would also think that those Hondurans working in their country’s Tourism department would likewise read the foreign tour guides on Honduras, would have noticed what the travel experts were saying about the border corruption, and would try to do something about the problem. But, nobody in any position of authority cares enough to do anything about the problem.

This problem, the small-change ($5 -$20) corruption that many foreign visitors, both knowingly and unknowingly, experience, could be easily stopped. It has been stopped in other parts of Central American and the wider world.

Twice during the twenty-minute formalities of the border crossing, I encountered an illegal charge. Once by one of the "officials" (he was wearing shorts, a filthy, ragged T-shirt, and no shoes) in the "immigration office," and next by the police officer in charge of the border gate. The first guys got money from me but the second guys didn’t. I have a little trick I sometimes use when crossing borders. I mention to the officials that I am going on pilgrimage to their countries most celebrated sacred place. Saying this in the most natural - and true for me - way seems to open the hearts of the big boys with badges and guns, smoothing my way across the border. While I was telling the police officer that I was going to see the Virgin of Suyapa, the other government official walked into the police officer and gave back the ten dollars someone had taken from me a minute ago (I had heard them talking about where I was going as I paid the corrupt charge). When the police officer saw this happen he quickly told me that I didn’t have to pay the additional $5 charge he had been demanding. To really make the whole exchange really sweet, one of the officials then mentioned how beautiful were the paintings on my van.

The next three days I spent in and around the small town of Copan Ruinas. Perched amidst gently rolling hills strewn with patches of forests and pastures, this colonial-period Spanish town sits next to the famous Maya site of Copan. Frankly speaking, I was somewhat unimpressed by Copan in regards to its being a beautiful and well-reconstructed archaeological site. In both the academic literature and the popular, the ruins of Copan are listed alongside the other "major" and "most important" sites of Palenque, Tikal, Uxmal, Chichen Itza, and Teotihuacan. I won’t go into more detail about this issue here (a lot of the ranking of sites has to do with what prestigious, usually US, university funded and performed the large scale restorations that brought the place to popular attention). Don’t get me wrong, I am not underestimating Copan. It is a significant place for a number of reasons. It was a major Maya center in the sense of political stature, economic power, longevity, artistic innovations, and other factors. But, Copan can not be compared - at least now in its woefully inadequate state of reconstruction - with stunning architectural masterpieces like Palenque and Tikal.

3.jpg (39624 bytes)What most distinguishes Copan is the magnificence of execution and detail in the carving of its stelae. A stela is a large, usually standing, block of stone upon which have been carved various images and scripts illustrating any number of things. The Maya site of Quirigua a few miles away also has stelae and they are much larger than those at Copan. But it is the extraordinary clarity and detail of the stelae at Copan that has given rise to the, I think, over-stated idea of Copan being such a great site.  

Stela at Maya site of Copan, Honduras

Another interesting fact about Copan is that its decline as the capital of a city-state was the direct result of the destructive environmental practices of its culture. Simply speaking, Copan grew too big for the valley ecosystem it was embedded within. Once the limits of local resources were reached and exceeded, the society went into severe decline and the site was abandoned. It is not fair to fault the Maya for this. They certainly would not have wanted or planned their own decline. And also, it is quite unlikely that they were aware of the environmental/social process of disintegration that their city and many other Maya sites experienced (this is only really something that has become a scientific study in the past few years).

A few days before coming to Copan I had been speaking to Robert about the rise and fall of Maya city-states. Robert had the romantic but silly notion, common among people who have not actually studied the subject of long term city behavior, that cities are a bad thing, a "cancer upon the earth." It’s not that simple. We cannot so conveniently point a finger at cities as a way of explaining the environmental problem and assigning blame. Robert also had this idea that "enlightened people who are connected to the earth" would not build cities. This is an equally absurd position. Cities do cause a lot of problems, there is no debating that. The real issue, however, is to examine the tendency of humans, in every age and nearly every region, to gather together into ever larger social collections. The facts are there to see for anyone who cares to read the archaeological and historical literature. I do not think it is fair to say that none of these city-building people of the past have been enlightened (what ever that is) and connected to the earth. I think that probably a great many have been deeply in touch with the livingingness of the planet and not a few have also been highly awakened spiritual beings. These two things are not the real issue. What is the far more crucial issue is the tendency of people - whatever their state of consciousness - to gather together in larger and larger social clusters. While there are numerous postulated reasons, the primary two seem to be some deep, psychic need for togetherness and the greater ease of food production and distribution. Lots of birds and animals alter their local environment by fashioning living spaces. Humans just do it on a much more massive level because of their tendency to want to live together. And, I do not think that this tendency is something that will automatically change once more people become "enlightened." Large social centers have lots of nice things about them that enlightenment will not make us not want. Things like hospitals, museums, and schools.

The problems is not the cities themselves, anyway. The problem is the lack of consciousness and education of the people managing and living in the cities. We need to have a greater level of ecospiritual consciousness and education in both the managers and inhabitants of cities. I don’t know what cities will look like in the hopefully more enlightened future. I have read a lot about this subject and must report that nobody can really say what cities will or will not look like. Besides being an interesting philosophical speculation, there is not much value to fantasizing about what enlightened cities will look like. The vastly more important issue is how to go about taking the steps to increase ecospiritual education and consciousness. One of the ways of doing this is to study the lessons that our ancestors left us around the world. The past ten thousand years have given us so many examples of places like Copan. A very common element in the decline of many of these places is their growth beyond the carrying capacity of their local environment. Therefore, the vital issue is developing greater understanding regarding the relationship between humans and their regional living space.

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I would enjoy writing more on this subject but my back is tired from two hours of sitting typing in my van. Also, I am only a few feet away from the highest and most beautiful waterfall in Honduras, the Cascadas de Pulhapanzak. So, I am putting away the computer and going for a swim where the falls crash into a turbulent pool. After that, I’ll juggle for an hour in the ancient Maya ceremonial plaza one hundred yards from the top of the falls. Tonight I’ll sleep in the van, the windows open to the breezes and the sound of the roaring waters.  


Cascadas de Pulhapanzak, Honduras

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