During the four years I spent working for the private school system, I must have passed the old, rusty sign forty or fifty times. It was kind of beat up and it leaned a little. In plain black letters on a white background it said simply, “Zona Arqueologica”. A crude arrow pointed toward a set of tire tracks that led into the dense overgrowth that was not uncommon in the state of Veracruz, Mexico.
I was always curious to know what lay at the end of that little road. As a freshman in college I almost chose anthropology as my major. That was required at the time if one wanted to make archeology his or her profession. Since high school I had been fascinated by the ancient inhabitants of the Americas. There was nothing I would have enjoyed more than digging into the things they left behind when they disappeared hundreds of years ago.
I suppose I drove past that sign so many times because I always seemed to be running late getting from my office in Mexico City to the school I supervised in Veracruz. Or perhaps I asked myself, “What could be so great about an ancient site just off a major highway in the middle of cane, coffee, pineapple and mango plantations?” After all, I had visited the famous temple sites at Teotihuacan, Tula, Monte Alban, and Chichen Itza, just to name a few. What could be so great about this place?
Well, one day, on impulse, as I was about to drive past the sign for the umpteenth time, my foot hit the brake and I swerved onto that uninviting dirt track. I drove about a quarter of a mile with the dense vegetation caressing the sides of my car. I began to wonder if I had made the right decision. Then it was there, right in front of me: a beautiful little pyramid overgrown with green stuff including an occasional mango tree.
I was captivated.
There didn’t seem to be anyone around so I decided to explore. I climbed up the skillfully worked stones, many of which, over the centuries, had fallen from their places of origin and lay strewn down the sides and at the foot of the four-sided pyramid. When I got to the top, probably fifty or sixty feet above ground level, I detected many more pyramids, smaller and in various stages of ruin. Some were merely mounds of grass-covered stone and earth silently awaiting the archeologist’s tools. My pyramid stood at the center with the others arranged around her geometrically.
Local farmers had planted an extensive mango orchard in and about the site that lent even more fascination to the scene. By the height of the trees, one could tell where the ruins lay hidden beneath their dark green canopy. I didn’t want to leave the place but the urgency of my job called to me. I made a mental note to return when I was not so pressed for time.
He seemed to have come out of nowhere… a small, elderly man dressed in white, baggy homespun pants drawn tight around the ankles. His huarache sandals were made of old tires and they showed more than a few miles of wear. He wore a battered straw hat of a design common to the “Jarochos” of Veracruz. Although he carried a long machete, his friendly demeanor and the sparkle in his eye gave me to know that I had nothing to fear from him—except, perhaps, being delayed.
He asked me about my interest in antiquities and gave me a brief history of the site, indicating that Hernan Cortez, himself, had been there at some point during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. I just knew he was going to try to sell me something or otherwise profit from my visit. I told him that I really had to go but promised to return.
“No!” He insisted. “You cannot go until you have seen what I have!” “I knew it,” I thought, “Here comes the sales pitch!” He blocked the way to my car, took me by the elbow and gently but firmly conducted me toward a long, narrow wooden shack almost hidden in the vegetation. The paint was peeling off the faded Coca-Cola sign on its side and it looked quite the worse for wear. Although I was reluctant to go with him, I never felt any sense of fear or danger. I didn’t want to put the man off or in any way belittle him or dampen his enthusiasm, but I was, after all, in quite a hurry.
Then he opened the creaky wooden door and I had to choke back an audible gasp. There before me on the floor of that shanty was displayed the most marvelous collection of pre-and post-Columbian artifacts that I had ever seen in one place with the exception of the great Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. I was stunned.
There were small and medium-sized figurines and idols of clay, obsidian and malachite. There were small Aztec calendars of clay and stone brightly colored, fertility gods and goddesses, bowls, pottery, tools and various and sundry kinds of stoneware. There were carefully crafted stone ornaments for the body and dress. In a hurry or no, I had to record what I was seeing. I almost ran to my car, found my camera and began taking pictures. The little man was delighted by my obvious enthusiasm.
“Every time the farmers around here plow their fields they unearth this stuff. The government does not have a place to display all of this at this time so they have entrusted me with its care.” He then proceeded to point out various items that he thought might be of special interest to me. Time elapsed, I was late for my appointments and somehow it didn’t seem to matter any more.
When I finally, reluctantly prepared to leave the place, I offered him some pesos for his services. He refused them with a pleasant smile. This time it was my turn to insist and I pressed fifty pesos (about four dollars at the time) into his palm. He waved as I drove away.
What a shame it would have been to have ended my employment in that area without having had that priceless experience. What if I had driven past that sign a few more times, never to have ventured onto that unknown track? I can’t help but wonder how many other things I have missed in life by being too busy, too proud or just plain too lazy to venture into the unknown. What is your “Zona Arqueologica?” Where would you like to go or what would you like to do or see while in this frail existence that you have been putting off for too long? Don’t procrastinate! Hit the brake, slow down and climb your little pyramid! Life is short. You’ll be glad you took the time. I am.