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Under the Volcanoes of Guatemala

After a week of travels so darkly tinted by politics (that is, of the past 600 years or so), the towering ruins of Tikal were as soothing as they were inspirational. There, in the flat Petén region in the north, not far from Belize, scarlet macaws fly through the mist and howler monkeys call. In Tikal, which means "place of spirits," the Mayans ruled their land without interference, building pyramids and temples that still rise above a 30-foot-high forest canopy.

The day I arrived, it was raining and the visitors were sparse. They seemed strangely subdued and respectful—mostly Europeans, who, according to my tour guide, have a higher regard for cultural history than Americans do. I was alone and channeling my inner Pollyanna again, the one more attuned to aesthetics than reality, the one who could revel in that bubble of delight as a know-nothing tourist on my first night in Antigua. Here, the latter-day world once more melted away.

It is estimated that 1,500 years agoabout 100,000 people inhabited Tikal, a metropolis that spanned nearly 20 square miles. If the presence of architecture, complex irrigation, a writing system, and rudimentary science are the benchmarks of high civilization, then Tikal fits the definition. Its stone buildings rival those of ancient Egypt. The monolithic buildings, rescued from the clutches of the jungle over the course of the last 50 years, quieted my soul.

To be entirely honest, though, I found what I saw the next day in the Palacio Nacional, on the main plaza in Guatemala City, even more compelling. The ornate and monumental government building erected in 1939 is now a museum. It has wooden carvings in the Spanish colonial style. But it also has towering stained-glass windows (restored after a bombing in the nineties) dominated by images of Mayans. It has a wall on which a mural depicting Don Quixote lies next to one depicting a scene from the Popol Vuh, the Mayan Bible. It also has a display of posters, one of many ongoing contemporary exhibitions, from the Myrna Mack Foundation. One poster shows a pencil, with the words WE CANNOT ERASE THE PAST, BUT WE CAN DRAW THE FUTURE written beside it. Nearby, a bronze sculpture of sinewy arms linked together sits modestly in a central courtyard. In the hand at the top of this sculpture is one fresh white rose. It is replaced daily, a tender symbol of hope.

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