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

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A Maya statue of the human figure Chac Mool sits underwater off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico (Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

So, were the Maya right? Is the world going to end this year?

I have spent the last three weeks in Mexico searching for an answer to this question. My quest for the truth has brought me to the birthplace of the brilliant Maya Calendar, into the tomb of the Palenque Astronaut, to the site of the original doomsday prophecy, into the realm of the Maya gods, into the minds of the ancient astronomers and into the Maya underworld Xibalba. Like all good travel, there have been some fast-paced adventures and some slow sunny days and a few delicious detours.

As I said from day one of this voyage, travel delivers truth, and making my way through El Mundo Maya has educated me on this ancient society far more than anything I could have read online or watched on television. Surrounding myself with the Maya of today and soaking in the remnants of the past have enriched my understanding of time and what time means.

The Maya developed a comprehensive calendar of genius, of this there is no doubt. These people who lived so long ago learned to count time to coincide with the natural cycles they observed. This knack for sound observation is what made the Maya so powerful and insightful that this year, in 2012, we look back to them for answers. It is a good lesson for all travelers to follow: watch, listen and learn.

Observing today’s world, especially through the eyes of the nightly news, is enough to make us think that we have already arrived at the end of the world. We are going to pieces, people, and it’s not pretty. In fact, our current age is filled with such ugliness and horror that we tend to shield our eyes from the mess we’ve made and either glorify or vilify the ancient cultures before us. It is the tactic of a toddler: to degrade his nearest neighbor in hopes that no one discovers his own dirty diaper.

Yes, humanity has squandered the gift of time that has been granted us all on this planet—no one is debating this. But as a human, my hope lies in the truth that we still have more time. A lot more time.

Researching the rumored apocalypse has changed the overarching question in my mind. No longer am I asking, “Were the Maya right?” Instead, I am asking, “Why do we want to know?”

To answer the first question: the Maya were most definitely correct about their long count calendar. It ends this December 21st and if you are following along, you should start counting afresh on December 22nd. Also, if you live in the northern hemisphere, you should set your clocks back an hour.

As to the second question, “Why?”, well, I wonder. If we actually did know the precise day and time of the end of the world, what would we do with that knowledge?

What would you do with that knowledge? Would you go to work, or would you go party? Would you spend time with family and friends or would you stop holding back and just go crazy, unhindered by fear of long-term consequences?

What I have gathered from my time in Mexico is that all humans face a daily dilemma: our need to work versus our desire to play. Because we know the sun will set, we try to have some fun during the daytime. But because we know the sun will surely rise again, we do some work so that tomorrow will be better. The natural cycle of time encourages individual improvement based on the hope of a new day.

If the world is really going to end on December 21st, 2012, then there is no reason for any of us to go to work today. Stay at home and do nothing, or else do everything. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

But . . . if the world is not going to end—if this December is just one big baktun handing its baton to the next big baktun, then we’ve all got work to do. As humans, we’ve accomplished a lot the first time around: we went from wheel to airplane to spaceship, we got rid of smallpox and invented phones that are more pocket-sized oracles than phones. But we’ve also failed (need I count the ways?) and are still fumbling with the same ills that plagued our Maya predecessors: war, hunger, corruption, and destruction.

I don’t know about you, but I could sure use another baktun. I think another 5,124 years would be just the thing to get us going in the right direction. That and Bolon Yokté, who is due before Christmas.  Let us hope that this rather dualistic god is set to “creator” mode, rather than “destroyer”.  We have already destroyed so much without the divine intervention.

Yes—it is the end of the world as we know it. We do not need the Maya to tell us that. What the Maya have given us is a strong reminder that it doesn’t have to be the end. At any moment, even on December 21st, 2012, we can start over again, clean and fresh, counting the days anew. That is why I am not worried at all about the future. It’s going to be alright.

To overquote R.E.M: it’s the end of the world as we know it . . . and I feel fine.

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Life is good. #Mexico (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

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