It’s the End of the World As We Know It

I do not die today. I do not die from an earthquake, or from a volcanic eruption, or from an asteroid hitting the Earth. I do not die because the Earth’s magnetic poles reverse, or because a solar storm causes world-wide blackouts, or because of a rare galactic alignment of our sun and our galaxy. I do not experience a profound transformation in consciousness either.

Seven months ago, a poll of 16,000 adults in twenty-one countries found that eight percent had experienced fear or anxiety about this day. At least one suicide was directly linked to it, with others anecdotally reported. Scientists questioned on the topic during a plenary session at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific contended that the Internet played a significant role in the fear gaining more traction than in previous mass panics.

My fears today include: sunburn, contaminated water, mugging, kidnapping, and the polícia estatal. But mostly I fear the crowd. Synthesis in particular. Synthesis and their three-day festival have taken what was expected to be a crowd, and have turned it into a horde. Thankfully, the buses containing sound equipment and collapsible stages are turned away at the border, but that doesn’t stop the white-clad, mostly white-skinned festival goers – with their Chacos, leather fanny packs, and the wafting odor of skunk – from flocking here to look for the feathered serpent god on a day that is comparable to watching your car’s odometer roll over to all zeroes.

Every year, on the December solstice, the Sun and the Milky Way Galaxy appear (from the surface of the Earth) to come into alignment. And every year, the phenomenon of axial precession causes a slight shift in the Sun’s position in the Milky Way. It takes between 700 and 1,400 years for the Sun’s December solstice position to precess through it. This year – today – it is about halfway through the Milky Way, crossing the galactic equator precisely. The forbearers of this place knew of these celestial movements, which were painstakingly accounted for in their complex calendar system.

Every spring and fall, thousands also flock here during the equinoxes, on which days the pyramid puts on a spooky, natural light show ending with a handclap near the base of the structure that results in an unusual chirping echo, which is said to replicate the call of the sacred quetzal bird. During the rest of the year, the light show is artificially recreated.

Add artifice to my list of fears today.

The ancient four-sided structure has staircases on each face. Each staircase has ninety-one steps. Combined with a platform, this totals the 365 days of the solar year. Perpendicular to the eighteen terraces on each side of the stairways, there are fifty-two vertical panels, representing the fifty-two year cycle of the solar and religious calendars. It is aligned so that the spring or autumn equinoxes create an optical illusion. As the sun sets, the north western corner of the terraces cast a shadow on the northern stairway, creating a diamond pattern representing a snake’s body. For five hours an illusion of light and shadow creates seven triangles on the side of the staircase starting at the top and inching its way down until it connects the top platform with the giant stone head of the feathered serpent at the bottom.

Add snakes to my list of fears today. But I am not afraid of a calendar. I am not afraid of the end of a day, or a week, or a month, or a 5,125 year cycle. I’m not afraid of birthdays or anniversaries or Día de Muertos. I’m not afraid of Mondays. I’m not even afraid of New Year’s Eve, although I am afraid of drunks. Yes, add drunks to my list of fears today.

The calendar is simply a calendar and this place is simply a place. And I am simply curious. It’s a windy Friday. And It’s hot, even at dawn. Even in December. I do not arrive wearing an all-white purification uniform with a suicide-cult vibe, though I do wear a straw hat which looks disturbingly similar to those worn by the members of Synthesis. I am simply waiting for sunrise at one of the best places in the world to witness this astronomical event on this particular day. I am simply here alone, along with people from all over the world – dressed in all sorts of ways – some of whom have now formed a circle and are holding hands and chanting in a language I don’t understand. Others sit, stand and recline in sundry poses. Some meditate holding quartz crystals of various shapes and  hues, waiting for something to happen.

A woman who calls herself Mythos– adorned with face paint and wearing a bindi – says she is Synthesis’s accountant and urges me to go to a bar a few miles away where a rave is still raging from last night. “Or,” she says, “check out our workshops. There is one this afternoon called, “Birthing a New Humanity: Shifting Collectively into the New Paradigm.” I decline. A carnival atmosphere fills the field with sounds of drums and traditional music. They try too hard to recreate the ceremonies of a thousand years ago, minus the cutting out of hearts, of course.

Add human sacrifice to my list of fears today.

A blond, light-skinned, English-speaking woman named Star plays an alchemical quartz bowl tuned to the heart chakra. An even lighter-skinned man beside her holds a crystal skull. Star bows at end of the ceremony and no one says a word. As far as I can tell, none of the Synthesis members speak the Spanish language of the locals. And most of the locals don’t remember the languages that were spoken here in pre-Columbian times: Huastecan, Yucatecan, Ch’olan-Tzeltalan, or Q’anjobalan. A local activist group objects to the commercialization of this date. A spokesman comments that for them, the ceremonies are not a show for tourists but something spiritual and personal, and complains that living descendants are excluded from the activities. Most are indifferent, and the small number of people still practicing ancient rites hold solemn, more private ceremonies. A technical advisor to one of the ancient sites complains that many visitors during the days preceding the celebration illegally climbed the stairs of a temple, causing “irreparable” damage.

Add conquering empires to my list of fears today.

I heard a non-Synthesis-member describe the hype about this day as the product of a disconnected society. “Unable to find spiritual answers to life’s big questions within ourselves, we turn outward to imagined entities that lie far off in space or time—entities that just might be in possession of superior knowledge,” he said.

Star, of alchemical-quartz-bowl fame, had seemed more interested in her audience than in the main event, and has now disappeared. The Sun is the star of this show now, and as I face the western side of the monument and the Sun rises, it appears to roll up the pyramid’s edge before floating into the tropical sky.

I am not part of Synthesis. I am not a Shaman – real or pretend. I am not a mother. Nor a wife. I am a photographer and my camera is my cult. I will capture the soft light of sunrise. The white horde. The hand of a meditator, holding a set of light-colored Tibetan prayer beads that look like they are made from authentic Yak bone. But how can a person really tell? I am here to capture the textures and the shadows of the pyramid – one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. A temple pyramid that sits atop another much older temple in well-planned city that was once a powerful economic force in the region, and is now flooded with tourists who watch staged light shows and buy cheap serpent god and jaguar souvenirs, and T-shirts that say ‘Sobreviviente el ‘Fin del Mundo’ and are made in China.

Today I will see everything and I will capture all the light that I can because I am going blind. I don’t know when it will happen. There are no predictions or prophecies. There is no date marked on my calendar. But the condition is degenerative and it is only a matter of time. I will go blind. And on that day I will die. Add darkness to my list of fears today.

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