Mexican Days: The Ladies of the Chains*

Scaling the steps of Kukulcan (El Castillo), a Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico to the boxy temple on top is a climb of 91 fairly narrow steps at a steep 47 degree slope that was best done with sobriety, care and no silly bravado. From the ground, glancing up, the climb seems doable, the perception being that nobody falls up. But once on top with a terrified downward look and knees suddenly shaky as Jello, the possibility of falling leaps up to the front of your brain’s amygdala. And a struggle begins to contain the shriek of “no way, get me a couple of Mayans…they built this thing…let them get me down.” For suddenly it looks like you’ve climbed to the top of the world. Mexicans who don’t usually allow for an easy escape from human miscalculation, took pity on those with the boldness to climb up, but who then got shaky legs for the return trip down.

For those souls of abandoned bravery, the overseers of Chichen provided a heavy chain, running top to bottom along the steps.** It is not an engaging sight, seeing folks bent over, gripping the chain of life for dear life, backing down…enduring the heat of a metal chain, baking during daylight hours in 95 degree heat. But what’s a little discomfort, when the safety of terra firma gets closer with each backward step. It’s surely a lot less humiliating that sitting down, face front, and slowly lowering oneself, one step and a time. Besides  a few minutes of embarrassment is a little enough price to pay for having embraced a challenge  you might not have taken, had you thought about it a little more thoroughly. But that challenging first step up usually means no turning back and for three ladies (The Ladies of the Chain) it all ended well, as they backed down, kissed Mother Earth, and retained all the bragging rights for having climbed the pyramid. Fortunately for me, four twenty-something French girls ran up and down with the ease of popping the top of an Orange Crush can. I took courage from them and descended with carefree (read careful) abandon that gave me the joyous feeling of MacArthur victoriously wading ashore at Luzon, when I reached bottom.

Years later on a trip to Mexico with my wife, we went to Uxmal, another wonderful Mayan city with a well-preserved ceremonial center…and a pyramid. Since I proved myself by climbing El Castillo at Chichen Itza years before, I retained the residual immunity from having to conquer any Mayan heights again. I declined the challenge of Uxmal, fearing I might have to resort to the humiliation of taking the chain to get back down. To adapt an adage…once lucky, twice shy. Climb Everest once and you’re inoculated from having to do it again. My wife, however. did get her pyramid climbing merit badge by ascending and descending without using the chain.

*The title of this blog was taken from the sight of three spunky ladies of less than youthful presentation…but old enough to have put more thought to it…who panicked on top before realizing there was a chain of descent.

**The OK to climb has since been withdrawn after the fatal fall of a tourist about 15 years ago. Now you’ll have to prove your climbing bona fides by climbing Everest…everyone’s doing it these days.