The roar of jaguars echoes everywhere in the plaza beneath the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan. I couldn’t take more than a few steps without setting off another round of their reverberating snarls. But the cat calls did not come from actual cats – instead, they came from a legion of souvenir vendors, who all possessed a collection of brightly colored ceramic whistles. The whistles were about the size of a fist and carved into the shape of a jaguar’s head; the noise came from a whole between two huge incisors in the cat’s mouth.
The first salesman approached us when we were only a few steps into the grounds, and we walked past similar vendors hawking their wares throughout our whole day at Teotihuacan. Despite each of them appearing to be an independent seller, their inventories were nearly identical: some jet carvings of statues in the style of the Toltec atlantes from Tula, some replicas of the pyramids, a few abstract masks that looked to be shaped of plastic, and, always, the jaguar calls, which the sellers would helpfully demonstrate no matter how much we professed to not be interested. (My companion did finally relent and purchase one from a stall at Tula on the last day of our trip, reasoning that she could use it to scare the hell out of her husband.)
It’s true that the presence of the hawkers did interfere somewhat with the majesty of the Teotihuacan complex, but they didn’t bother me as much as I expected. The base of the Pyramid of the Sun, I had read, was always a center of commerce when the ancient city was at its height, and in any case, anywhere in the world that pilgrims come, souvenir sellers soon follow. “Señor, please stop,” one said to me. “I need your money.” He was joking, but I expect it wasn’t much of a joke; being a souvenir seller strikes me as a hard and oppressive job, and probably not very lucrative.
That said, at least they get to spend all day with the pyramids.
When we began our approach to the Pyramid of the Sun, I could only utter a certain mixture of the sacred and the profane (that is to say, I lost the ability to say any words except “holy shit.”) It is huge, weighty, impressive even without any idea of its history or importance. I also had a certain understanding of my own mortality during the approach, as I was aware I had signed up to climb to the top of the pyramid as my first order of business that morning.
I made my way up, slow and hard of breath, wishing I had thought to put in a few weeks of preparation beforehand. During those frequent points where I stopped to suck in air, I found myself staring down at the at Avenue of the Dead, the long row of stone plazas that connects the main area of Teotihuacan from the Pyramid of the Moon at the northern end and the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent to the south.
My father had taken this same trip when he was around my age, and the artifacts of that trip still litter his house; a whole wall is covered in the photographs he took here and at Tula, and our household altars held many depictions of the gods of Mesoamerica, including a stone mask based on the carvings of Quetzalcoatl that ring the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. In a sense, I lived most of my life with the Pyramid of the Sun in my peripheral vision; any time I entered our living room, there it was, a framed photograph beckoning toward another time and place.
Despite that, I had a strange sense of disconnection – not alienation, exactly, but I recognized that I felt less enraptured by Teotihuacan than I expected I would. For some years now I have tried to mold my consciousness into a “pilgrim mindset,” approaching travel, especially travel to ancient and sacred places of all kinds, as a kind of religious devotion, even when the place in question fell outside of my own religious tradition. I took in Evensong at Durham Cathedral and made my obeisance to Mithras, even though neither Mithras nor the Christian god have ever much spoken to me, and had reactions to them that were similar, if not quite the same, as my encounters with Thingvellir in Iceland or the Rollright Stones in the English Midlands, places that were central to my own Pagan traditions. I felt capable of basking in those places’ holy auras even if I did not belong to the religions that had consecrated them.
I did not have that feeling at Teotihuacan. I felt the awe and splendor of the place, certainly – there is no denying that majesty of the pyramids and the Avenue of the Dead, which possess such force that the Aztecs claimed the Teotihucanos as their ancestors after they re-discovered the site a thousand years after its original decline. They maintain that force today, too. But as I looked down from the summit, over the many square plazas framed by stone stairs that connected the Moon to the Feathered Serpent, I saw also the many other people at the site with me. I heard their voices, speaking in English, or Japanese, or French, but few in the Spanish of Mexico City. I heard that mostly from the men trying to sell me their jaguar calls.
Sore of knee and short of breath, I stood at the top of the Pyramid of the Sun and took in the glory of Teotihuacan in the morning sun. But I did not pray; I did not lapse into the language of ritual, as I might have somewhere else. I did not ask the Feathered Serpent for his blessing. I was an American tourist; I had already taken more than enough.