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A Special Gift from the Ruins of Copan

  

I didn't realize when my four-year-old daughter, Arielle, and I set out for the ancient Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras that our fondest memory would be of something that took place outside the ruins themselves. But then, when you travel with a child, you learn to expect the unexpected.

Arielle and I had been dreaming of our trip to Copan for months - and preparations were part of the fun. We surfed the internet together and learned more about the ruins at the "Lonely Planet" web site. Double-clicking through our "National Geographic World Atlas" CD-rom, we studied the historical background of the ruins and enjoyed the colorful pictures on our computer screen. We rented a video, bought books, and spent hours mesmerized by the ornate carvings, tall pyramids and grand staircases that danced before our eyes, each new image charging us with anticipation. When the day came for our flight, Arielle looked up at me as we sat down in the plane and excitedly said, "Daddy, we're going to Honduras!"

We arrived in the village of Copan, after a tough three-hour journey over poorly paved roads from San Pedro de Sula, where we had flown in. Dumping our bags in the hotel, we had a quick snack and promptly drove the half mile to the ruin complex just outside town. "We're here, Dad, I can't wait," Arielle said.

We parked the car. I placed Arielle in the child carrier and hoisted her on to my back. "Will it be like the ruins in Tikal?" Arielle asked, remembering our trip to Guatemala last summer.

We passed the Visitors Center, stopping along the way to play with a few brightly colored parrots sitting by the entrance. Arielle fed them some crackers. One of them began stretching its wings, flapping them wildly. Arielle immediately dropped the crackers, climbed up my back, and perched herself safely in the child carrier. I laughed as she said, "Let's get out of here, Dad." We asked the gatekeeper for directions and were on our way.

Copan had lain hidden by the Honduran jungle for nearly a thousand years. Rediscovered, in 1839, by travel writer, John Lloyd Stephens, Copan was a link to a great civilization that had inexplicably vanished a millennia ago. Part of the Mayan world that extended from north-central Mexico to as far south as Costa Rica, Copan had been one of the imperial Mayan city-states that had flourished for centuries before disappearing mysteriously. It left behind the ruins of its massive monuments, pyramids and statues for future generations to marvel at and study - including, now, my eager four-year-old daughter and me.

We walked along a shaded tree-lined path that led to the "Great Plaza." This was a breathtaking expanse of grassy meadow studded by gnarled, ancient trees. There, also, stood the intricately chiseled stelae depicting the rulers of Copan - immense monoliths erupting, it seemed, from the earth itself, pressing themselves upright against the bright cerulean sky. Arielle and I approached each of the majestic stelae almost reverentially. We looked at our guidebook, Arielle's face nudged against mine, identifying the royal personages represented by each of the powerful carvings. "Waterlily Jaguar?" Arielle asked when I mentioned the name of one of the kings. "Was he really a jaguar?" "Yes, and I guess he liked waterlilies," I replied. "I like ‘Smoke Sky,' too," Arielle said, when I announced that particular king's name. "Could I have a name like that?"

We sauntered leisurely across the Great Plaza, passing huge trees, some hundreds of years old, with spider monkeys dangling from their branches. Toucans and husky crimson parrots cawed raucously in the hot afternoon sun, darting from tree to tree like colorful flashes of light. A couple of the parrots even came down from their roosts, high up in the trees, close enough for Arielle to feed again - this time from the safety of my back.

We then crossed over to the ball court. By now, Arielle had climbed down from my back to run around on her own. I told her that this was where the ancient Mayans competed against one another in games. She became excited. I neglected to mention that the contests carried stiff penalties - the losers were sacrificed to the gods!

Then came the "Hieroglyph Stairway," the most famous monument in all of Copan, completed around 743 AD by "Smoke Shell." Arielle and I had seen pictures of this in our books at home. We looked up at the 63 steps and more than 1200 inscription blocks that narrated the history of the royal house of Copan. The rulers were shown in the center of the stairway wearing garments of powerful warriors. Other glyphs displayed epic battles, conquests, or eclipses of the sun. Arielle grabbed my hand, pulling me over to an altar at the base of the stairway. It showed a plumed serpent with a human head arising from its jaws. "Daddy," Arielle said, "I don't like snakes."

We walked to another lofty staircase, which ascended to the "Acropolis," the highest point in the complex. "Can I get on your back," Arielle asked. And up we climbed, Arielle happily nested on her daddy's back, enjoying the view, while Dad did all the work. Once on top, we rested. I opened my canteen, and we both savored a much needed drink of water. With the ruins arranged splendidly below us, we savored the magnificent panorama of Copan as well. The tall green mountains and the strong brown currents of the Copan River in the distance formed a stunning backdrop to this ancient city. "I like Copan more than Tikal, Daddy," Arielle remarked. "Why?" "Because there aren't so many mosquitoes."

After catching our breath, Arielle and I went back down the staircase to the trail leading to the entry gate. We had drifted happily in and out of time here, Arielle and I, willing captives of the hypnotic spell cast by this forsaken city - felt by many to represent the summit of Mayan civilization. As we walked down the stairs, we didn't know it, but there would be yet another surprise awaiting us.

Once past the gate, as often happens at important tourist sites, a

torrent of local children selling crafts and souvenirs besieged us. We stopped to look. They displayed Mayan jewelry, garments, pottery, musical instruments, and stone replicas of sculptures found within the ruin complex. I let Arielle down from my back. She, of course, went right for the necklaces. "It looks good on me, Dad." While browsing around on my own, I noticed a young Honduran girl, barefoot, about ten years old, befriending Arielle. Although neither understood the other's language, they managed well enough using a combination of sign language, facial expressions, and much smiling. I returned to the eager young faces clustered around me. I made my selections and then called to Arielle. She waved goodbye to her companion. I placed her on my back, and we started toward the parking lot.

About half way there, I noticed the little Honduran girl that had played with Arielle scurrying after us. I heard her say over and over in Spanish, "un regalo," (a gift). I continued marching toward my car, thinking she was trying to sell me another craft. I politely told her, "no gracias" (no thank you). She persisted however, repeating, "un regalo." I kept walking, reiterating once more, "no thanks."

She retorted, "no, no, un regalo," almost suggesting by the tone of her voice that I was misjudging her, which I found amusing. After all, what else could she possibly be after than to peddle me something?

She persisted. And, finally, I stopped. When I turned, I immediately recognized that I had made a mistake. Looking over my shoulder, I saw that Arielle was holding a beautiful clay figurine, given her by the girl. Arielle was smiling at her, clutching the small statue as if it were made of gold. She then said in a shy voice, "Thank you." The girl smiled back. "Di nada," (you're welcome) she said. "Como se llama?" (What is your name?) she asked. "Arielle," I said, answering for my daughter. I sheepishly realized that our little friend wasn't after my money at all. She had only wanted to give a gift to my daughter. I was both embarrassed and deeply touched by her generosity. I thanked her and offered to pay. She refused the money. She then asked how old Arielle was. Arielle responded proudly, "four years old!" The girl then said, "Arielle es muy linda." (Arielle is very pretty.) "Gracias," I replied. With a wave of her hand and a warm smile, she was off. I watched her scamper up the path in her barefeet to rejoin her friends.

I was not impressed, I was amazed. For a barefoot Honduran girl to present a gift to the daughter of an American tourist was incredible. Apart from our being perfect strangers, from her perspective, I was the rich American, shelling out money for frills; the well-heeled gringo indulging my daughter and I with extravagances completely out of reach for her. But none of that seemed to matter. Not even my rudeness could get in the way. Under the circumstances, it was as moving an act of kindness as any I had seen. It also revealed the magic of children - their ability to create, instantly, friendship and intimacy under any condition.

Traveling with my daughter has always been wonderful. The shared memories become part of the weave that binds us together. And when we look at the small sculpture sitting in my study, we think of the young girl back in Honduras, who added one more precious memory.

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