Mayans, McDonalds, and the Real Apocalypse of 2012


Do you think the world is going to end in 2012?

I look over at the young Italian woman who asked the question, thinking she’s joking. But by the look in her eyes, I know she’s dead serious. And I can’t say I blame her, given our surroundings.

It’s one thing to dismiss the Mayan apocalypse myth from the safety of a coffeeshop-and-laptop in Oakland, but it’s another thing to hear it standing here on top of the pyramids of Tikal, the heart of the ancient Mayan empire.

It’s December 2011 – exactly one year before my boy Ronnie keeps telling me the Mayan calendar is going to run out and life as we know it will cease to exist (Yo, that shit is real, son! I’m telling you!) – and I find myself deep in the jungle of northern Guatemala.

I recently finished up my two months of studying Spanish and teaching poetry (bilingual poetry, I congratulate myself) in the city of Xela on the other side of this small, beautiful country. Now, before I head back to the U.S. and the uncertain artistic future that awaits me there, I make the obligatory tourist trip to the famed ruins of Tikal.

We are a group of twenty on the tour. Mostly Americans and Europeans, with the occasional Japanese or Brazilian traveler thrown in. We climb up and down the former palaces and burial grounds, each of us angling to get the perfect photo to email to our friends back home.

Our tour guide, Roberto, is talkative and constantly smiling. He is young, early 20’s at most, but has an encyclopedic knowledge about Tikal, both the place and the people. We learn which historic king killed which other historic king, how Mayan hieroglyphics predate those of ancient Egypt, and why the pyramid we’re standing on is called the Temple of the Great Jaguar (The answer, Roberto tells us: the Temple of the Great Raccoon just didn’t sound as cool.)

Roberto speaks near-perfect English, which is even more remarkable considering it’s his fourth language. Spanish, in fact, is only his third. He grew up speaking Quiche, then later on learned Mam, two of the 23 indigenous languages spoken by the surviving, still-oppressed Mayan population that makes up the majority here in Guatemala.

“Our empire might be gone,” Roberto says with a smile, “but we’ve still got our tongues.”

And now it looks like his tongue is stuck, unable to move, as the Italian woman asks him that one ridiculous-but-maybe-not-inconceivable question.

Is it true? she says. Do you think the world is going to end in 2012?

Roberto takes a deep breath, like this topic is a secret that’s painful for him to even acknowledge. He looks out at the tombs of Tikal, full of who knows how many ancient kings. After what feels like an eternity, he gravely looks back at the Italian woman and gives his answer.

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

You can hear a gasp of shock in the tour group. Even I feel myself holding my breath. How can I not, standing on top of the ruins of dead Mayan royalty?

Really? the Italian girl says.

Roberto’s face breaks into a huge smile.

“No, not really,” he laughs. “I’m sorry. I just have to do that with any group that asks. Which is every group.”

Roberto goes on to explain the truth about 2012 — things that most people know by now. No, he says, there is no Mayan prophecy that this is the end of the world. Yes, the calendar ends this year, but that it just the end of a really, really long cycle (5,125 years, mas o menos). Yes, there will be another cycle. So don’t worry, you crazy white tourists, the world will continue! Some people say this new cycle might possibly usher in a new wave of heightened global consciousness. I don’t know about all that, but what I do know is that movie with John Cusack…it was all wrong. And the acting? Ay, que mierda. 

Roberto finishes his little speech, and I look around at the group. Most people are laughing, happy to be in on the joke. Some are smiling with relief, glad that they don’t have to learn wilderness survival skills.

But a couple people (mostly the Americans, I notice) are wearing another expression on their face, one I would have never expected: disappointment.

  * * *


And here we are, one year later: December 21, 2012. If my Facebook feed is to be believed, half my friends today are getting ready to go to “Apocalypse Fuck Yeah!” parties, while the other half are huddled in their apartments with a shotgun and a pillowcase of their life savings. Back down at Tikal, indigenous groups are protesting the Guatemalan government’s exploitation of the 2012 phenomenon. Everyone knows the world’s not going to end, but that doesn’t stop us from entertaining the illusion.

Is it such an illusion, though? The world’s not going to end, but everywhere you look these days, you find disaster.

Global warming has become Global I-Told-You-I-Wasn’t-Playing, with Mother Earth sending us tsunamis in Japan and a crazy “superstorm” in New York that made my aunt Sandy want to change her name.

Drones — the military equivalent of ATM’s (automated terror machines) — rain down on Pakistan and Afghanistan, killing uncounted, unnamed civilians with the push of a button. And now the  Oakland Police Department, that bastion of civility, is pushing to get domestic drone planes in Oakland.

And last week, the safest place you could imagine – an elementary school in the suburbs of Connecticut – becomes the site of unthinkable tragedy. 27 people. 20 kids. Gone. Just like that. If that’s not the end of the world, what is?

And yet, it’s not. Whether the tragedy is political or personal, through it all — the funerals, the foreclosures, the heartbreak — we do keep going. The earth continues to spin. And Roberto — whose people saw their civilization collapse, endure colonialism and genocide, only to be reconquered by a CIA coup in 1954 and enjoy more war and exploitation courtesy of Uncle Sam and his local puppets — plays a joke on some gringos on top of Tikal.

The world is going to end? Bullshit. That’s not even good writing! It’s too passive, eliminates the real agents in the situation. The world is not going to end, but yes, we the 7 billion people on this planet could end it if we continue our destructive ways. If we (and by we, I don’t mean all seven billion people…I mean the people with the internet capability to read this blog) continue on this path of unchecked materialism, racism, and Kim Kardashian levels consumption, we can and will destroy the planet in unthinkable ways.

But here’s the fun part — if we have the power to end the world, we can also help restart it. Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, said that’s what the Mayan prophecy is really about, “an end to individualism and destructive capitalism and a turn toward the collective good.”

Sounds good, right? But for us to do that, we need to stop fantasizing about Earth’s pending destruction.

And that’s hard. I mean, I love disaster movies as much as the next guy. But why, when I turned on my TV last night, did I see not one, not two, but three movies about how WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!! AAAAHHH!!

(For the record, the movies were 12 Monkeys, The Day After Tomorrow, and the one I finally settled on, the glorious Dr. Strangelove.)

I understand the impulse. We live in a scary world, and the possibility of nuclear war, or continent-destroying mega-hurricanes, or deadly virus-spreading monkeys, is a real thing. But so is the effect of this ongoing fetishization of apocalypse. Think about it like this:

The more we hear about the end of the world, the less likely we are to try to change the world.

Doomsday scenarios absolve us of the responsibility to change the conditions we live in. Why try to make things better, when we’re all going to die in a super-tsunami/chemical kangaroo attack on 12.12.12? (2112, that is.)

The apocalypse myth — be it a misinterpreted Mayan prophecy or a fake Hollywood movie or the twice-called-for, twice-profitable Oakland rapture — leaves the fate of the world to the stars and numerology. And when it removes responsibility from our hands, it leaves people with apathy and isolation — the very emotions that decrease the social action we need to combat the actual crises that could lead to destruction.

Our job is not to think about, or party about, or profit off the end of the world. Our job is to rebuild the world — and end the things that are ending the world. War. Poverty. White supremacy. Environmental devastation. And, sorry John Cusack, all that Hollywood propaganda.

And what do all these things have in common? A certain superpower nation in the Western Hemisphere. And no, I’m not talking about Guatemala.

   * * *


Back at Tikal, it’s still 2011 and we’re finishing up the tour. We’ve seen all the pyramids, the altars, even the ballcourt where the ancient royals played a deadly game that seems to combine elements of soccer, racquetball, and Russian Roulette.

Roberto tells us the tour is almost over, but there’s one last thing he wants to show us.

“It’s not part of the actual ruins, but it’s definitely part of history,” he says. “Take a look over there.”

He points out toward the highway, the only road connecting Tikal with the rest of the country. I look to where Roberto’s pointing, out into the trees, and then I see it. And I don’t believe it.

Just on the outskirts of the ruins, rising out of the Guatemalan jungle, I see a pair of golden arches. They’re skinnier than I’m used to back in the States, but even here, their color and shape is unmistakable: McDonald’s has found its way to Tikal.

In a tone that I can’t tell is pride or shame, Roberto tells us that they started building the arches last month, and the full McDonald’s should be ready and open for business next year.

2012, I think. The end of the world.

I came to Guatemala to try to escape America for a few months, but even here, it’s found its way back into my life. I can’t decide if I want to throw up, or get some Chicken McNuggets.

Luckily, Roberto interrupts my thoughts and gives one final speech.

“Well, there you have it, my friends. That’s the tour. Tikal, the great home to the last great empire of Central America.”

Tikal used to be ‘the New York City of the Mayan empire’ — its giant pyramids like skyscrapers, its economic power like Wall Street, its cultural and military dominance that served as both inspiration and intimidation to the rest of the Mayan world.

At its height in 700 CE, Roberto says, Tikal was home to over 75,000 people. But then the Mayan civilization mysteriously fell apart, and the city became a ghost town. Whether it was due to over-consumption of resources, internal conflict, or natural disaster, no one really knows.

“The one thing we do know for a fact,” Roberto says with a smile, looking at his American audience in particular, “is that all empires fall eventually.”

He lets that one sink in, but just for a moment.

“Now who wants a free t-shirt?”