Diane Sawyer Newsletter/Blog #15 February 2014

Diane Sawyer Portrait

Hello to all my loyal newsletter readers and thank you for your kind comments. Greetings and welcome to all of my new readers, including the 15 I met recently in Guatemala.


Diane Sawyer

Writing News

Montauk Mystery Montauk Steps Tomoka Mystery Cinderella Murders Montauk Cave


Enjoy the hardcover, paperback and e-book editions, available on Amazon and other on-line sites. Happy Reading!

By the way, I set out for Guatemala hoping to find the inspiration for a novel, featuring a fictional heroine I have named Rosie. With luck on my side, I found it! I now look forward to pulling together ideas from my notes written “on the spot,” that draw from geography, history, archaeology, the tour guide’s detailed knowledge, research materials, along with anecdotes and humor that can’t be found in any research books. Then, of course, comes the hard part: creating an exciting plot with a beginning, middle, and end, all of which takes place within several days in Guatemala.


This and That

 Some interesting things about the month of February.

  • Many of us associate February 14th with St. Valentine’s

Day and with love. But one particular February 14th doesn’t fit in: the St. Valentine Day’s Massacre in Chicago in 1929 when mob members associated with Bugs Moran, Al Capone’s rival, died execution-style at the hands of four unknown perpetrators.

  • Anglo-Saxons called February Solmonath (mud month) and

Kale-monath (cabbage month).

  • February took its name from the Latin word februum, meaning purification, a ritual that took place at that time of year.
  • In Shakespeare’s day, February was known as Feverell.
  • February is avocado and banana month.
  • February 2 is Paul Bunyan Day.
  • February 20 is Love Your Pet Day.
  • In the United States and Canada the whole month of

February celebrates Black History.

  • Groundhog Dad is celebrated February 2 in the US and


  • February 28 is National Tooth Fairy Day.



I’d like to share with you the highlights of the eleven-day tour I took throughout Guatemala with a small group of well-seasoned adventurous travelers. But first, a few facts to help set the scene. Guatemala, meaning “Land of the Forests,” is often called “The Heart of the Mayan World,” and “The Land of Eternal Spring.” Guatemala, about the size of Tennessee, is the largest of the Central American countries. Belize, Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras are its neighbors. The population of about 11 million is 56 % Spanish descent and 44 % Mayan descent, with 21 indigenous populations. The languages spoken are Spanish, Garifuna, and 21 Maya languages, including Quiché, Cakchiqul, Kekchi, Mam, and Xinca. (Qui is pronounced KEE; X is pronounced SH.) The religion is Roman Catholic and Maya–Catholic. Among the more than 5,000 (!) archaeological sites in Guatemala, several have been restored and are very popular with tourists-Tikal*, Yaxhá, and Quiriguá* to name three included on the tour, plus Copan*, in nearby Honduras.(*= UNESCO World Heritage Monuments.) I’m going to focus on the archaeological sites for this newsletter. For the March edition I’ll describe what our group saw and did during the other days.

Our trip really began in earnest on the second day with a wake-up call at 4 o’clock A.M. for a departure in a small commercial plane. Away we went the 16 of us, our tour director, Estuardo, and two pilots, into the foggy yonder toward the town of Flores, in the highlands of northern Guatemala. From there we traveled by van to Yaxhá, meaning “green-blue water,” our first Maya ceremonial site. The third largest site of Maya ruins in Guatemala, it boasts 1400 monuments, including ballcourts, the North Acropolis, residential and religious sites, and temple 216, which is over 90 feet high (talk about the WOW factor!). What a wild welcome we received from the aptly named howler monkeys, shrieking and shaking branches from their perches in the leafy canopy far above us. Macaws, the national bird of Guatemala, flew from tree to tree and landed on branches at eye-level near us, showing off their brilliant colors and posing for photos.

We couldn’t wait to explore the dazzling site. “Explore” has many meanings, including hiking over rugged terrain containing slippery slopes and a sprawling web of tree roots, thick as boa constrictors that seemed to have slithered in every direction before coming to a standstill. This type of trek meant leaving every non-essential item in the van. Carrying only a water bottle and camera (for me a notebook and pen instead of a camera)and possibly a small backpack left our hands free to grab hold of rocks and branches.

Once we reached the actual site, we were rewarded with the fun of climbing the pyramids, residences, and other structures—and imagining what life was like when the Maya civilization flourished and its people, possibly in ceremonial regalia, stood in the very places where we now stood. Estuardo (fluent in 5 languages, a former physics and math teacher, and a darned nice guy with fascinating information) told us that when the structures were built they were painted in vivid colors, but now the paint was gone. We were left in a monochromatic world with only random traces of color. However, it was possible to imagine a rainbow of colors as multihued birds flew by, the sky showed hints of lavender then turned deep blue, and the rays of the yellow sun shone down on mighty Yaxhá, turning the grass and leaves vibrant green.

Estuardo led us to the ballcourt, consisting of two parallel sloped walls along the sides of the field. The fields apparently came in sizes, small to accommodate only 1-2 players per team or as large as a football field for as many as 11 players. The rubber ball used in the game weighed about 8 pounds and was hard and solid enough to cause injuries. The players wore protective gear, such as stone or wooden yokes, headdresses or helmets, cotton pads on the elbows and knees, and heavy belts or yokes probably of leather worn around the waist. Some yokes weighed as much as 50 pounds and were worn around the hips so that the player could effectively return the hard rubber ball. We know all this because protective gear was found in court ruins and the burial places of ballplayers.

Here’s a ghoulish detail (I’m thinking maybe a Halloween story could come from this.) Ornaments hanging from the players’ belts might have been skulls, trophy heads taken in battle. Moving on (I avoided saying moving ahead), the ball was bounced off the player’s elbows, hips, knees or head. Using hands was illegal. There’s some debate as to the purpose of the stone circles or hoops attached to the side walls, but we do know that the ball wasn’t allowed to touch the ground. We can see in engravings that the heads of players were chopped off with obsidian blades, but we don’t know if the sacrificial death was a punishment for the loser or an honor for the winner.

The Mayan myth of the Hero Twins is an intriguing interpretation of the game. The story goes that the twins battled the gods of death who inhabited the underworld, Xibalba, by playing a ball game. The twins won, rose to heaven, and became the sun and the moon. Symbolically the ball represents the moon and the sun, whereas the court represents the earth. During the game, the ball must not touch the court. Such an interpretation indicates that the ball game may be an extension of the Maya religion and it probably shows the importance of the sun and its nighttime twin the moon.

Estuardo told us that the ballplayers arrived in elaborate eye-catching costumes topped off with impressive feathered headdresses. He left us to ponder if the ballgame was truly a game. Or possibly was it a battle of life and death to settle disputes? Or perhaps it was a ceremony about the sun and not a sport at all. But since betting was incredibly popular at the event, so popular that people went into debt and even ended up in slavery, it could be the obvious, a sport.

That same afternoon we drove over challenging roads and then went by launch to Topoxté which occupies several islands clustered in Yaxhá Lake. We hiked along a trail through the forest to visit Mayan structures dating from 900 to 1200 A.D. Workers using ropes to ascend the pyramids were removing the fungus and vegetation encroaching upon the steep cement steps. Tough work by anyone’s standards and Mother Nature, apparently eager to reclaim her forest, was fighting them every inch and step of the way.

The following day, we arrived at spectacular Tikal, meaning “Hole of Water” in Yutec language. Tikal is considered the most powerful kingdom of the ancient Maya, who reigned there from about 600 BC to 869 AD. Dazzled by the sheer size and number of the structures located in the 222-square-mile park, we followed Estuardo to the most famous ones. Let me give you their names (aren’t they just perfect for a mystery novel??): the Lost-World Complex; the Palace of the Windows; the Pyramid of the Great Jaguar; the Pyramid of the Masks; the Palace of the Nobles; and the highest of all the Maya pyramids, Pyramid IV, offering a panoramic view of all the structures and the jungle.

Wild turkey (real, live, contemporary turkey, not fabrications of our imagination) with iridescent blue, red, and purple feathers and strange little yellow-orange nodules that looked like corn kernels sitting on top of their heads strutted around the grounds. At moments like that, it was easy to question whether you’re seeing something real or something as surreal as the subject matter of a Salvador Dali painting.

Quiriguá, a Maya site considered small because it has only 21 monuments and occupies a relatively tiny area, appealed to me because, by all accounts, it contains some of the finest stone carvings in the entire Maya world. Situated along the Motagua River, Quiriguá consists primarily of a flat grassy plain, surrounded by banana plantations. Almost immediately we came upon 12 stelae, each an upright carved or inscribed stone slab decorated with figures or inscriptions used for commemorative purposes, usually relating to the king. Estuardo, who could read the long panels of stunning glyphic text (top to bottom, left to right) filled in information about the king who was being celebrated on the stone. He, Estuardo, not the king, taught us how to decipher the dating/number system, a very complicated process.

Try to imagine this (or find images online). At Quiriguá each stela was carved from a single block of red sandstone. The tallest one stands 35’ high, is 5’ wide, 5’ thick, and weighs over 60 tons. It is the largest ever quarried by the ancient Maya and the tallest stone monumental sculpture ever erected in the New World. Each of these ancient stelae is protected from the elements by a deeply pitched thatched roof supported by four poles, one at each corner. This creates an intriguing mix of a complicated message in stone housed in a simple dwelling.

Estuardo explained that the tallest stela, not far from where we were standing, tilted and eventually fell, but didn’t break. Later, when it was raised with a winch and steel cables, it fell and this time it broke into two pieces. It was repaired and is still standing in all its eye-popping glory. Here’s a mystery without an answer: The Maya had no metal tools (they used jade and obsidian for carving stone), no wheeled carts, and no beasts of burden, so how were they able to move these gigantic stones from a nearby quarry through the forests to this plain? Hmmmm.

Besides the stelae, there are boulders, some probably serving as altars, sculpted into mythological animals called zoomorphs (my new favorite word), dating from the late eighth century. It’s easy to spot toads, jaguars, crocodiles and birds of prey among the creations. One multi-ton boulder was sculpted into a formidable half-crocodile and half-mountain-beast. There is a jaguar-like creature clenching a human head in its jaws, possibly the king’s head. One interpretation is that the jaguar kills off the old king and gives birth to the new king. Another zoomorph shows a ruler sitting cross-legged in the open mouth of a fierce monster. The jaguar, by the way, was the protector of the military and the jaguar is known for its ability to crush bones, including skull bones, with its teeth. Just thought you’d like to know that.

My favorite zoomorph was nicknamed “The Great Turtle” by an archaeologist and was covered with carved figures and glyphs. Estuardo explained that the turtle demonstrated the Maya concept of the sun’s journey. The sun started at the turtle’s head, traveled across the back to the tail where it dropped down. The waiting jaguar pounced, swallowed the sun whole, carried it through the netherworld beneath the turtle, and finally headed up toward the turtle’s head. There the jaguar spit out the sun, which then began its journey all over again across the turtle’s back.

Not surprisingly the jaguar is black and yellow, black for the darkness of the night and yellow for the brightness of the sun. This may help us to understand why in the Maya world when the sun didn’t come out in the morning, the people feared for their crops and perhaps their very existence. They put on jaguar masks and jaguar skins and performed rituals trying to force the sun to come out. (That could explain why today people in northern climates leave the snow and ice and head here to Florida. We call them “Snow birds.” They often call themselves “Sun worshippers.” Just a thought.)

Our final Maya complex was Copán, in nearby Honduras. This is a huge site with temples, palaces, plazas, residences, and an amphitheater amounting to a whopping 4509 structures in all. Everywhere we walked we saw mighty ceiba trees, with spikes that looked like jaguar teeth. The tree, sacred to the Maya because of its power and spirit, was believed to connect the underground (the roots of the tree) to heaven (the canopy of the tree). Today, towering above us, the ceiba seemed to be holding the ancient structures, above and below ground, in its grip and nearly smothering them. Time may be running out to save the structures. There are currently 4000 mounds waiting for money from the Honduras government to excavate them. Meanwhile the trees, so to speak, are gaining ground.

Our local guide, a delightful young woman, stopped along the way to show us drains that the Mayans had built throughout their complex. “Today everything in the country is flooding, except Copán,” she said and with a touch of pride added, “We need Mayan engineers.”

She led us to a pyramid named Rosalinda, containing the tombs of kings, one on top of the other, and the tomb of a woman (discovered in 1989). Our guide said it was conjectured that the woman’s husband the king died, their baby boy was too young to rule so the wife ruled “as queen.”

The most unusual structure of all was Temple 11, discovered in 1891. It has a Hieroglyphic Stairway. There are 63 steps displaying 2000 glyphs, currently being scanned in 3D, and six or so statues perched on the steps. A long line of 16 rulers presided over Copán. The greatest of them, 18-Rabbit, was defeated by the military of Quiriguá. He was captured, fed magic mushrooms, placed on an altar in the grand plaza in Quiriguá, and sacrificed to the cheers of thousands of spectators. Their method of sacrifice, complete with an executioner, went like this: cut the victim in many places with an obsidian blade, catch the blood in shells, add herbs to the blood, and fire up the concoction that will send up clouds of swirling smoke.

Curious about the names of the other kings, I compiled a list of those mentioned at the various Mayan sites. They seem to reveal important aspects of the Mayan world. For instance there was Moon Jaguar, Smoke Skull, Cauac Sky; and Fire burning Sky Lightning God, known to the Maya as K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yoat; and Yax K’uk Mó meaning First Quetzal Macaw.

I hoped you enjoyed this taste of Guatemala’s archaeological wonders. Speaking of taste, please read on.


Cooking Delights

Guatemalan Chicken Soup

Sopa de Tortilla


8 oz. cubed skinless, boneless chicken breast

1/2 oz. vegetable oil

1/2 tsp garlic powder or minced garlic

1/4 tsp ground cumin

28-30 oz. chicken broth (homemade or store-bought)

1 cup each chopped onion; a mix of chopped red, orange and yellow peppers; frozen or fresh corn off the cob; chopped or crushed tomatoes or chunky salsa

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1 tbsp lemon juice

salt and pepper to taste

a large handful of corn tortilla chips crushed (or an equivalent amount of real corn tortillas cut in matchstick strips)

possible addition: one cup black beans, drained



Cook and stir chicken in oil in a large pot for 5 minutes over medium heat. Add and stir in garlic and cumin. Add all remaining ingredients (except tortilla chips/strips). Simmer for 25 minutes. Add tortilla chips/strips and simmer for 5 minutes. Some people like to top off the soup with a tablespoon of sour cream and shredded cheddar cheese, but I never saw that in Guatemala.

Bon appétit!



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