This past week has been filled with memorable experiences—mostly good, but a few sad. The good have included a great two day mission presidents’ seminar, an equally good area council meeting with the Area Seventies, and an unforgettable trip to the spectacular ruins of El Mirador with the Area Presidency and Area Seventies. On the sad side have been a number of reported criminal assaults. Just over a week ago a former Area Seventy (who was currently a bishop and an elected government official in Honduras) was killed about thirty miles from Guatemala City when he and his family were stopped by armed bandits while on their way to the temple. It occurred about 7:30 p.m.—not a good time to be driving on remote roads. The funerals for him were Friday and Saturday, and we had to make some adjustments to the mission presidents’ seminar agenda due to the fact that Elder Falabella went to the funeral in Honduras to represent the Area Presidency. Our three Area Seventies from Honduras all went to the same funeral, so attendance was limited at the meeting we had Saturday with both the mission presidents and the Area Seventies. The day after Brother Jarr was killed, we got a report that another Church member in Guatemala had been shot and killed outside his store. He had two kids in the mission field. One of our Area Seventies from Honduras, while he was in Salt Lake for additional meetings following general conference, had to return early as his wife and two children had surprised burglars in their home and had been tied up and abused a bit as the burglars took all they could from the house. Then this week we learned that a couple of office elders from the Guatemala City South Mission were robbed less than a mile from our apartment after they had withdrawn nearly $2000 from the bank and were on their way back to the office in their car. Either someone had seen them put the money in their backpack or someone working for the bank was an accomplice, as when the elders stopped at a stop light, armed men came up to them and told them to give them the backpack with the money in it. Fortunately, the elders lost no more than the money. On the bright side, of course, every day there are far more people in Guatemala and other Central American countries who are not robbed or killed than are, but it’s unfortunate that there is as much crime as there is. The latest report from the Church Security people indicates that Mexican drug gangs are expanding into the weaker Central American countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
But back to more pleasant topics. Our mission presidents’ seminar began Friday with a temple session, to which Virginia, Sister Clarke, and the wives of the local mission presidents were also invited. It was almost like a family reunion at the temple, as we got to see our Panama Mission president, President Madrigal once again, along with the three of the twelve mission presidents who were CES men with whom I had worked on the last Guatemala Mission. A counselor in the temple presidency was also a CES man at that time, and we saw still another former CES man in the temple. We also saw two brethren we had known in the Piedra Parada Branch when we were here before. After the temple session we had meetings with the mission presidents the rest of Friday. We started with them again at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday, with the available Area Seventies joining us from 11:00 to 1:00. Saturday evening we had the privilege of hosting the Area Seventy from Panama in our home.
Sunday morning early the Area Presidency and Area Seventies left for Flores, in northern Guatemala, where we had Area Council meetings all day Sunday.
Monday we all left by helicopter for a two day tour of El Mirador, compliments of Brother David Sheets, owner of Emergency Essentials. May I digress a moment to say a little about Brother Sheets. I had assumed he must have served his mission in Central America to have such an interest in it, but it turns out he served in Scotland and Ireland. But he speaks excellent Spanish for one who didn’t learn it as a child or as a missionary. His interest in Central America began some ten years ago when Hurricane Mitch devastated large areas of Honduras, and the Sheets family and others of their friends came down to help build houses. Since then Brother Sheets has basically retired from day-to-day involvement in his business, turning it over to others to manage, and has worked virtually full time in humanitarian projects in Central America at his own expense. One of his major initiatives has been to organize dental “brigades” for prospective missionaries, as dental care here is often marginal at best, and many practicing “dentists” have not even been to dental school. He has a volunteer group of 101 dentists, doctors, nurses, and lab technicians coming down to Nicaragua this coming week at their own expense to treat some 500 young men and women there. (Brother Sheets finances the equipment, and other related expenses.) They help the young people fill out missionary papers, give them medical exams, including lab tests, and perform any needed dental work on them. The large influx of missionary applications we received in January and February was due in large part to a similar brigade they conducted in El Salvador in November. Anyway, Brother Sheets has become good friends with all the Area Seventies in the process of his service and felt a strong feeling that he needed to give them the opportunity to get acquainted with the significant part of their cultural heritage that El Mirador represents, so he most generously paid for the flights to Flores as well as the helicopter transportation to El Mirador. And he paid for Richard Hansen, the director of the El Mirador Basin project to fly down to serve as our guide.
I’ve previously mentioned a bit about El Mirador, but for those who didn’t read my earlier post, I’ll repeat some here. El Mirador has the distinction of being one of the oldest and by far the largest ancient Mayan site, dating from about 800 B.C.—hundreds of years before Tikal and most of the better known sites in both Guatemala and Mexico. It took Brother Hansen some twenty years to convince the “experts” that it was as old as it is, as he was still a comparative beginner when he found preclassic pottery on top of some of the sites, clear evidence of their antiquity. El Mirador has three pyramids larger than anything in Tikal. In fact, you could fit the entire central plaza of Tikal, with temples 1 and 2 and the buildings in between, inside El Tigre, the second largest pyramid of El Mirador. The largest one, named La Danta, is larger in volume (if not in height) than the largest pyramid of Egypt, and thus is the largest ever discovered in the world. And El Mirador is just one of the 51 ancient cities in the Mirador Basin that Richard Hansen has mapped during his 30 years of working there (4-5 months per year). There are another two hundred, at least, in the basin that he hasn’t even had time to explore. In fact, he learned of another on the day we were there, with some 1000 small buildings around a larger center. There were about a million people living in the basin in its heyday. The site also features the oldest known Mayan writing in existence, from about 200 A.D., which we got to see but which no one can read. Back in 1982 Brother Hansen discovered an ancient codex, by far the oldest Mayan codex in existence, but the following year a looter stole it and had the whole incalculably valuable document turn to dust in his backpack. El Mirador is in a lush jungle setting, about 20 miles from the nearest town. If you don’t go by helicopter, access is by foot, along a jungle trail. (We hiked along it about 4-6 miles and back to see some tombs on Tuesday.) It was still the dry season, and moderately warm, so the jungle didn’t look as lush on our visit as it will in another couple of months, but it was more comfortable to visit without having to contend with the mud.
Among the interesting features of the jungle, in addition to the archaeological sites, are:
• Jaguars. They are very difficult to see, but we did get to smell one. Their urine smalls much like a skunk. Richard Hansen has seen only five during his thirty years of working at the site. But they are three times as numerous in the El Mirador basin as they are in the Amazon basin.
• Monkeys. We saw several groups, and we heard a bunch of nearby howler monkeys at 3:00 a.m., who wanted to make sure their presence was known. A couple of the Area Seventies from Honduras, who had never heard howler monkeys before, were quite certain it was a menacing jaguar and were more than a little apprehensive when they went to report it!
• Snakes, including the fer de lance, one of the world’s most poisonous. Richard Hansen says that he’s never had one of his workers get bitten by one of them, though he’s had a couple of close calls of his own when he almost stepped on one. Our guide from our last visit to El Mirador says he’s killed several with his machete.
• Toucans, parrots, and other beautiful birds, more often seen than heard.
• Wild oscellated turkeys—very pretty birds.
• Wild pigs. Some of our group got to see some.
• Tapirs. We didn’t see any, but they are allegedly there, the largest animal in the jungle.
• Tarantulas. We saw a large wasp hauling one away that it had stung.
• Other colorful bugs and caterpillars.
• Orchids in large numbers, though not blooming at the time of year we were there.
• Other exotic plants, including vanilla plants, ceiba trees (with very dangerous looking thorns on their trunks when they are young), and another tree capable of giving you third degree burns if you touch it. It even emits an “aura” that can make one sick if he spends much time close to it.
A word or two more now about Richard Hansen. I’ve previously mentioned that he and I grew up in the same ward near Rupert, Idaho, where Richard still lives. He’s twelve years younger than I am, however, and I wasn’t paying much attention to the seven year olds when I left on my mission at 19. Richard is a professor of archaeology at Idaho State University, in Pocatello. He has become very prominent in the field. He is to be the keynote speaker at the world’s fair in Shanghai, China, this year, and he’s working on a book about El Mirador. He loves El Mirador with a passion and is very zealous about the need to protect and preserve it for future generations. He hopes to see the day when there may be a small train bringing passengers to a future eco-lodge in the park, but he’s adamantly opposed to highways and the kind of commercial exploitation they would bring. He has support from government leaders in Guatemala and from prominent people and organizations around the globe, who help finance the work. Mel Gibson, of Hollywood fame, is chairman of his board of directors. It was very generous of Richard to give the time he did to be with us. Not only was his expertise invaluable in helping us know what we were seeing, but he allowed part of our group to stay in his bungalow, which actually has showers and flush toilets, and others of us to stay in tents with cots and foam mattresses, so we didn’t have to rough it as much at night as we might have expected. We were able to prepare our meals in a roofed area with a big wood stove that he uses for his workmen. (He’ll have several hundred working from about June through October, when the rain brings enough water to support the needs of the workers.) I was in charge of making the arrangements for the tour, including the food. I almost had my three dozen eggs in my computer case taken away from me in the airport, but they ultimately had mercy on me. (I did have to give up my camping tool and insect repellent, however, which I had forgotten to take out of my carry-on luggage, but I was able to reclaim them after getting back to the city.) David Sheets generously brought along freeze dried food from his business for our Monday night dinner, and I brought two suitcases full of food and drink for other meals, not counting a large cooler full of bottled water and other boxes with the same that we purchased from the hotel in Flores to take with us.
Another great thing Richard Hansen did for us was to let us use his two small motorized vehicles (“mules”) to get around, which enabled us to see much more than we could have on foot. We did, however walk about eight miles on Tuesday morning, and we climbed a number of pyramids, so it’s not as though we didn’t get any physical exercise out of it.
Another highlight was a special testimony meeting we held Tuesday morning at the site of some large burial vaults. Richard has a strong testimony of the Book of Mormon, though he’s not sure what relationship El Mirador may have had to it. He does say, however, that certainly the Alma’s and Helaman’s and Moroni’s of the Book of Mormon would have known about El Mirador, whether it was a Nephite City or a Lamanite City or neither, as it was easily the largest ancient civilization in the area and fits the time period of the Book of Mormon.
When we flew back to Flores from El Mirador, the weather still looked fine. We had appreciated that it had been a bit overcast to keep it from getting warmer than it did, but we had no idea that a major storm was raging in Guatemala City that would delay our getting back. We were supposed to have flown back at 7:35 p.m., arriving at 8:40, but the plane couldn’t leave from Guatemala City for Flores due to the storm. Some of our group got to go on a flight which had been diverted to Flores from Tegucigalpa because of the same storm. Three of our group decided to stay another night in Flores, as they didn’t want to be driving to their homes outside of Guatemala City on potentially dangerous roads at midnight. But I and the brother staying at our home wouldn’t have to drive on dangerous roads, so we waited for the flight, which finally got us back to the city at midnight and into bed by 12:40. Four hours later I was up to take our guest to the airport for his flight back to Panama, but it was with wonderful memories of the previous several days.
The following are a few of my favorite photos of the several events:
Mission Presidents' seminar, April 9, 2010.
Videoconference hookup permitted us to interact with a couple of missionaries in Costa Rica during the mission presidents' seminar.
Dinner Friday evening with Area Presidency and mission presidents.
Area Council meeting with Area Presidency and Area Seventies in Flores on Sunday, April 11, 2010.
Lunch in hotel in Flores at Area Council meeting.
Helicopter arriving in Flores to pick us up on Monday morning
On board. Pilot on right and mechanic on left try to figure out why a warning light won't go off.
The elevated line of trees is an ancient and very large Mayan highway. These connected the major cities in the area.
Approaching El Mirador from the air. The "mountains" are really pyramids.
Our landing strip in the jungle
Group in front of our helicopter, after we all arrived
Elder Falabella kicking soccer ball on what must be the most remote soccer field in the world.
One of the two motorized "mules" which transported us from one place to the next for much of Monday.
Richard Hansen, director of the Mirador Basin Project, talking about the area.
Beginning the climb up La Danta, the largest pyramid ever discovered and still largely covered by vegetation.
Beginning the next level of the climb
Still more climbing
The top of the La Danta pyramid and the most excavated part
The last leg of the climb to the top of La Danta, with a wooden staircase
La Danta as seen from the top of El Tigre. Everything seen in the photo is part of the pyramid.
The whole group on top of La Danta
David Sheets and Richard Hansen, who made our trip possible, on top of La Danta
At the base of the last section of La Danta
A metate, or stone for grinding corn, near the top of La Danta
Seven of the eight Area Seventies (one didn't climb this particular pyramid), the Area Presidency, and the area executive secretary
Elder Martino enjoying a moment of rest.
Elder Clarke doing the same.
Group in front of recently discovered original carvings of scenes from the Mayan book the Popul Vu, which until these discoveries was thought by many to be unreliable as it was thought to have been influenced by Spanish conquistadores. This shows that the book is truly Mayan and very ancient. Note the depiction of the flying serpent at the top.
Close up of one of the twins from the Popul Vu, carrying the rescued head of his father. This is considered one of the great recent archaeological finds in all the world.
El Tigre, the second largest pyramid in El Mirador, as seen from the top of La Danta with a zoom lens.
Yours truly on top of El Tigre.
Group on top of El Tigre
The peaks in the background are temples from the ancient city of Nakbé, as seen from the top of El Tigre.
Pretty sunset from the top of the El Tigre Pyramid. The photo doesn't do it justice.
Temple of the Jaguar's Paw (Brother Hansen tells of having swept up on top in preparation for the visit of some dignitaries and finding when he went back fresh jaguar tracks going up and down the temple stairs!) The door leads to tunnels where one can see another older temple inside this one, with original color on the walls.
Original paint on wall inside tunnel of the Temple of the Jaguar's Paw
Inside ancient tombs some 4 miles down the path toward civilization.
David Sheets rounding the corner in tunnel in tombs.
Elder Falabella emerges from tunnel leading to ancient tombs.
Testimony meeting at tombs
Richard Hansen shares his feelings in testimony meeting.
Climbing up the Pyramid of the Monkeys, 3rd largest in El Mirador. I was grateful for the walking stick Elder Falabella gave me.
On top of the Pyramid of the Monkeys
Coming down the Pyramid of the Monkeys
Pyramid of the Lion
Elder Pedro Abularach plays Tarzan.
One of the many monkeys we were privileged to see
Young ceiba tree with imposing thorns.
Open air but roofed dining area where we ate
Wood stove where we cooked dinner and breakfast