Mexican Days: Palenque, the Silence of the Ants

Palenque is a magnificent Mayan ruin. Ruin, of course, is a description of age not condition. As condition goes, parts of Palenque that flourished in the Yucatan jungle until about 800 A.D. are in great shape. Even stucco frescoes amazingly survived well in the jungle. A good deal of modern archeological  refurbishing has made it so. The steps up its highest pyramid, then down into the depths to the burial chamber are as perfect as when they were new. A lot of the site is rake-clean and trimmed, despite the heat and humidity. The stones have lost the ferocity of the blood-red paint they sported in the power times of 800 A.D., but then Benjamin Moore wouldn’t have lasted from then to now either.

But it’s the ants of Palenque that truly inspire. True, Mayan architects and astronomers and builders and  artisans were without peer in the pre-Columbian Americas. They moved huge stones  without the benefit of the wheel. They had no telescopes, but observed the Earth’s movements with precision.. But, ah, it’s the ants  that will make us go weak in the knees from ingenuity and tenacity. Their civilization didn’t disappear after a scant five or six-hundred years of ascendency, like the Mayans did. They’re still billions strong after wars, pandemics, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and pestilence…millennia after millennia. No op-ed articles of complaints, no lobbying for better working conditions, for daycare, health care. Nope, they know their jobs and they just do them.

After a day of walking and climbing around the stones of Palenque…and swimming in the natural pools and streams and waterfalls that run through the area…we had to find lodging. And we did…a sort of a motel in the jungle…a hut set in a tangle of vegetation…with a bed, a bathroom and a bare bulb on a wire, dangling from the ceiling. What else do you need? Whatever it might have been, it wasn’t there. It was the jungle primeval…with night noises that terrify city folks.

Back to the ants. We had during the day found a bakery in the town of Palenque, filled a tray with pastries… ate some, but saved some for the next morning. The ants of Palenque, we were told, will descend and eat your grub well before you can. They were here, when  the asteroid hit Earth that killed off the dinosaurs. They laughed at the Ice Age. And we thought we were going to bring something to the battle that they hadn’t seen before? You think you’re going to stop them from getting to your sweet rolls? Well, we can battle them with human intelligence. We can use guile and cunning. We have tape and string and a carry-all with Velcro closures. First we took a sacrificial honey roll and put it at the base of the wall…a diversion. It was enough to feed several million of them. They’ll wobble off on a sugar high and leave the rest of our treasure untouched, we reasoned. Then we double-bagged the rest, wound tape around the bags, put it all in the carry-all, pressed the Velcro together, hung the carry-all from a string tied to the light bulb wire from the ceiling, turned off the light and drifted off, satisfied that we had done all that we could.

Morning came with light and humiliation streaming through the lone window in the hut. The diversionary bun was gone without a trace. From the place where we put it, they launched an invasion…a wavy column of ants went up the wall, across the ceiling, down the wire, over the bulb and into the carry-all. Another wavy column went in the opposite direction, carrying bits of buns. The incursion was ongoing. They were not wobbly from a sugar high. In awed silence, we dressed as a defeated army would, slipped out with our travel bags and returned to the bakery in town to replace the pastries…and then sat in the plaza and ate quietly.