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Healing Places
Tikal: Ancient City, Ancient Power

In February 2000, Body & Soul producer Eric Neudel traveled to Guatemala with a two-person crew to film the segment on Tikal. Following is his account of their time there:

Two taxi drivers muscled our gear into the trunks and back seats of the cabs as we waited on the streets of Guatemala City. It was the start of our adventure in filming one of the most powerful spiritual sites on the planet, the ancient Mayan capital of Tikal.

After winding our way through the suburbs of Guatemala City and over the mountain passes, we arrived in the city of Antigua. We were scheduled to meet up there with Mercedes Barrios Longfellow, a Mayan Shaman and Priestess from the highlands of Guatemala, who now lives in the United States. She was to lead our Body & Soul crew into the magical city of Tikal.

For the Mayan people this was an especially significant time. It was the first instance in hundreds of years that two Mayan New Years would be celebrated in one calendar year. The year 2000 also marked the culmination of a 500-year-old Mayan prophecy predicting a unification of indigenous peoples into one spiritual movement to save the Earth. That's why 150 indigenous elders from the three Americas were gathering in Guatemala to celebrate with ceremonies and prayers.

Mercedes was coordinating this special Mayan gathering, as well as shepherding a group of North American tourists who had paid to witness the exotic happenings. When their group was late arriving, we settled into our own lodgings. That evening, when our team met over dinner, we decided that the only thing we knew for certain was that this project's outcome was unpredictable. It would have lots of visual color and a strong spiritual component -- but other than that, it was all up for grabs.

The next day we finally hooked up with Mercedes' group. The crowd filled the hotel's inner courtyard and spilled out into the narrow street. Several medicine men from the continental US, Hawaii, and Colombia were also there. We eagerly waited to see what Mercedes had planned. Finally, this small, unassuming woman arrived and stood silently as a circle of people naturally formed around her. She laid out the day's agenda and then introduced her assistants. Among them was her adopted daughter Melissa, who she said had great intuitive powers and would someday be the recipient of her medicine bundle. The group was very quiet as Mercedes went on to describe the importance of respecting the events we were all about to witness. "Leave your ego behind as it will interfere with your experience," she said. "Open your heart without judgment and you will receive great wisdom."

In planning our segment on Tikal, we were especially interested in featuring Mercedes' observations from her perspective as a Mayan Priestess. We knew that she was going there, along with the tour group and several of the elders. We flew to this ancient capital in the remote jungle of northeast Guatemala a day ahead to prepare.

As we approached the entrance to Tikal, we were stopped by the guard who told us we needed permission from the Institute of Culture and Anthropology in Guatemala City to film the monuments and temples. We began negotiations with the Institute's directors, but they were slow and painful. We spent the next two days on the phone waiting for faxes, trying to push the process along. We were extremely discouraged, as we knew that Mercedes was only going to be in Tikal for a brief time, and now it seemed we would miss our opportunity to include her as our guide. Finally, on the second day, an hour before the site closed we received permission to shoot the following day. We drove the 25 miles to Tikal's entrance, reaching the chief ranger just in time to arrange for the shoot. But sadly, we thought that we had lost our chance to film Mercedes and her group.

By 6 AM the next morning, we began filming the huge ancient city in the dawn light. Several hours later, we were surprised and delighted to see Mercedes, three medicine men and a small part of the tour group arrive. After agreeing to lead us through the city, Mercedes had some words of advice for first-time visitors.

"Many people recognize the magic of Tikal. And yes, there is great magic. We are not creating experiences. We are given experiences as a gift. And when we walk in gratitude for every moment, then we feel the power that all living things have. No higher and no lower than the power that is here.

"So when I enter Tikal, I bring a gift of gratitude. It's the only gift that I can really bring to Tikal. And in return, I am showered with all the great gifts. So that I can perceive the magic that is there… The magic of the animals, the magic of the trees, the magic of the stones. The magic of the whole place."

As we explored the city, Mercedes told us that there are some 4500 temples and pyramids in Tikal. Because the Mayan people who lived in Tikal believed they came from the constellation Pleiades, Tikal's builders placed the seven most important pyramids of the Grand Plaza in the same geometric pattern as the 'seven sisters,' or seven stars comprising the Pleiades constellation.

Climbing up the steep steps of the monuments we wandered in and out of doors and passageways that led to small triangular rooms. All the while, Mercedes talked about their intricate structure and sophisticated design. When we entered certain rooms, the medicine men spoke of the "great library of knowledge" an attuned person could find in the sacred walls that reflected "the wisdom of the grandfathers. Man has lost his spiritual way and we need to get back in touch with Nature in order to be connected again," they said.

"One needs to become childlike with wonder in order to receive what these hallowed walls have to give," Mercedes told us. "If you listen to this place, it will speak to you and guide you."

Tikal spoke to us. We had come there as strangers, hoping to gain some understanding of this powerful place. By the end of the day, as we filmed Mercedes and the medicine men walking across the plaza and down the path, we had experienced its magic and were left with a strong feeling of gratitude.

We learned from Mercedes that gratitude allows Tikal's power to transcend the sacred city's boundaries. "Any place can have magic if you enter it with that vision. Any place can have magic, and any person. Anything alive can give us that same magic…"

Program Description
Biological Medicine
Thomas Rau, MD
Tikal: Ancient City, Ancient Power
Tell Me More
Help YourSelf

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