Ancient heights conquered By...

A MEMORABLE PLACE

January 30, 2000

A MEMORABLE PLACE Ancient heights conquered

By Elizabeth Wilmot

SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Inspired by the silly scene in the movie "Pet Detective II" where Jim Carrey's character tries to get a Slinky to descend the steps from the Dali Lama's palace in Tibet, my 11-year-old son, Paul, and I went to the ruins in Chichen Itza near Cancun, Mexico, armed with our own Slinkies. Because we were on a guided tour, we began by listening to the historical information, then we were set free in the older section called Chichen Viejo to explore the Mayan ruins by ourselves. The ruins in this section were not too high but the treads of the steps were relatively narrow, and the Slinky worked pretty well. In high spirits, we went to the newer section to conquer the famous towering ruin called El Castillo.

We easily started up the 91 steps, but with each step, the height, steep slope and sheer magnitude of the temple began to play with our minds. With no rail to clutch. Paul began to climb using both his arms and legs, becoming more and more frightened with each step. He reached the top in tears, trembling and shaking. For a few moments, I thought it might be impossible to get him back down without the help of some kind of helicopter air rescue. He is far too big for me to carry, and I was also slightly paralyzed by the height and openness of the structure. We sat with our backs to the wall of the top section for a long time, discussing our options. No calming words or assurances could overcome his reaction of total terror. Looking out only confirmed how high we were, and looking down only meant visualizing an unstoppable fall.

But we had to get back down, and Paul knew it, so he finally sat on the top of the highest step, and, clutching the metal chain that ran up the middle, he inched down each step on his bottom. I stayed one step ahead, so he knew that if he did fall I would be there to stop him. As we descended, the perspective changed and he got braver near the bottom. He was able to stand slowly and walk down the steps. Later he told me that he kept repeating the phrase "I'm invincible" to himself. We were both covered with sweat at the bottom.

We saw and explored all the other magnificent ruins while talking about how the steps hadn't changed but how our minds had on both the ascent and the descent. After we saw everything else, we still had 45 minutes until our bus was scheduled to depart. With a little prodding from me, Paul decided that he needed to conquer his fear and try it one more time. It wasn't easy or without trepidation, but it was a lot easier than the first time -- this time no tears. We even tried the Slinky at the top, but it froze. But Paul conquered El Castillo, and his fear. The bonds that we forged that day in Chichen Itza will always remain, no matter what the coming tumultuous teen-age years bring.

Elizabeth Wilmot lives in Severna Park

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