UH-MAY, Mexico — Amid a worldwide frenzy of advertisers and new-agers preparing for a Maya apocalypse, one group is approaching Dec. 21 with calm and equanimity — the people whose ancestors supposedly made the prediction in the first place.
Mexico's 800,000 Mayas are not the sinister, secretive, apocalypse-obsessed race they've been made out to be.
In their heartland on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, Mayas continue their daily lives, industriously pedaling three-wheeled bikes laden with family members and animal fodder down table-flat roads. They tell rhyming off-color jokes at dances, and pull chairs out onto the sidewalk in the evening to chat and enjoy the relative cool after a hot day.
Many still live simply in thatched, oval, mud-and-stick houses designed mostly for natural air conditioning against the oppressive heat of the Yucatan, where they plant corn, harvest oranges and raise pigs.
When asked about the end next week of a major cycle in the 5,125-year Mayan Long Count calendar, a period known as the 13th Baktun, many respond with a healthy dose of homespun Maya philosophy.
"We don't know if the world is going to end," said Liborio Yeh Kinil, a 62-year-old who can usually be found sitting on a chair outside his small grocery store at the corner of the grassy central square of the town of Uh-May in Quintana Roo state. "Remember 2006, and the '6-6-6' (June 6, 2006): A lot of people thought something was going to happen, and nothing happened after all."
Reflecting a world view with roots as old as the nearby Ceiba tree, or Yax-che, the tree of life for the ancient Maya, Yeh Kinil added: "Why get panicky? If something is going to happen, it's going to happen."
A chorus of books and movies has sought to link the Mayan calendar to rumors of impending disasters ranging from rogue black holes and solar storms to the idea that the Earth's magnetic field could 'flip' on that date.
Archaeologists say there is no evidence the Maya ever made any such prophesy. Indeed, average Mayas probably never used the Long Count calendar, neither today nor at the culture's peak between A.D. 300 and 600. The long count was reserved for priests and astronomers, while average Mayas measure time as farmers tend to do — by planting seasons and monthly lunar cycles.
Mayan priests, or shamans, at the temple of the Talking Crosses in the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto say they don't know when, or if, the world will end. The church was the focus and last bastion of the 1847-1901 Mayan uprising in Mexico and perhaps the most sacred site for average Mayas. Its name comes from the conspirators who hid behind the crosses and whispered instructions to incite the revolt.
Mayan priest and farmer Petronilo Acevedo Pena says God may punish humanity someday, because people have stopped going to church.
"When people planted their corn fields 50 years ago, everybody from all the towns around would pray" for good harvests, he said. "But when the government started giving out aid, seeds and fertilizer ... what do the people do now? They go to the government to ask for help."
"The world is going to end, but we don't know when it will end, nobody ever gave a date," said Acevedo Pena. "They said it would be in 2000, but nothing happened."
Still, advertisers are running wild with the doomsday theme.
One beer-company billboard near the resort of Tulum proclaims, "2012 isn't the end, it's just the beginning — of the party!"
The Mexico subsidiary of Renault is running "end of the world" promotions with interest-free loans for car sales: "Given that the world is ending, we're ending interest rates!"
Oprah Winfrey's website got into the act by publishing a list of "Apocalypse Dinners." It says: "Whether the world is really ending or whether you're just having a busy week, these six make-ahead meals from cookbook author Lidia Bastianich freeze well and feed many."
The Caribbean coast resort of Xcaret issued "million-dollar reward" certificates for anybody who survives the end of the world. "In case the world ends on Dec. 21, 2012, the beneficiary must be in Xcaret the day after the cataclysmic event with a valid photo ID in order to request payment," the certificate reads. "In case the world comes to an end, the beneficiary will be fully responsible for repopulating the world."
Sandos Hotels and Resorts, a Spanish-owned all-inclusive resort chain, is promoting a "New Era" celebration at its Sandos Caracol hotel in Playa de Carmen, near Tulum. "We invite guests to celebrate a transition to the beginning of what we, and many Mayan leaders and scholars hope will evolve into a new era of environmental sustainability and cultural consciousness," the hotel's website says.
Expectations are also running high in New Age circles.
Shantal Carrillo helps her mother, The Venerable Mother Nah-Kin, run the Kinich-Ahau spiritual center in Merida, and hopes to lead hundreds of people in an energy-renewing ceremony at the "dawn of the new era" at the Mayan ruins of Uxmal. They hope Uxmal, whose rounded-edge pyramid is unique in the Maya world, will act as an "antenna" for cosmic energy.
"We have performed ceremonies for many years to reactivate the pyramid at Uxmal as an antenna, because it had been unused for many years," said Carrillo, who expects Dec. 21 "to give the world an injection of this energy" by having hundreds of people hold hands at the foot of the pyramid.
It's unclear whether archaeological authorities will allow such ceremonies.
Jose May, of the Merida tourism office, expects all of the city's hotel rooms to be full Dec. 21.
"I'm worried that there are going to be more people than (hotel) rooms," he said. "The people who are coming are basically spiritual, and that could be a problem as well, because those people like to form circles to receive energy, and there is no way to reserve space for that kind of thing at the ruin sites."
Moises Rozanes, who runs the run-down Hostal Zocalo in an old building on Merida's main square, says he once saw a flying saucer and spoke with an extraterrestrial who identified himself as Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec equivalent of the chief Maya god, Kukulkan, the bringer of wisdom.Comment on this story
He "told me the world was going to change, but he didn't say when," Rozanes said, recalling the 1997 encounter. He doesn't know what's going to happen Dec. 21, but is happy his hotel is getting business. "Everything's filling up" as far as bookings for the date, he said.
In all the fervor, Mayas rely on an ancestral calm built of good humor, calmness and the fact that it's too hot to get all worked up about things.
"A lot of people are reading things, and getting scared, about the world ending. But that's not going to happen," said Mayan priest Ildefonso Cahuich May. "God is not going to turn around so fast and say, 'I'm going to kill all my children.'"