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Producer's notebook: 'Mystery of the Maya'

Sept. 21, 2012: A woman carries a basket of food at the Mixco Viejo archaeological site, in San Martin Jilotepeque, during a special series of events that celebrate the Mayan culture as the country prepares to commemorate the dawn of a new era on Dec. 21, 2012.AP Photo/Moises Castillo

We were all very excited when Clay Rawson, head of Specials Development, assigned us to go to Southern Mexico to investigate “The Mystery of the Maya,” as part of our "Countdown to Doomsday 2012" special. After days of researching the subject and getting our medical shots and filling prescriptions for malaria pills to venture into the rain forest, we were on the ground in Mexico, to catch the Summer Solstice on June 21, 2012. One of our goals was to see how the Maya, also master astronomers, designed their grand temples aligned with the sun—and developed a reliable calendar.

The first thing you realize is that “You’re not in Kansas anymore” when we arrived at our first hotel in Villa Hermosa, Mexico, because you needed your room key card to turn on the lights in your room! “Hello front desk, someone, please help me. I’m in the dark.” 

Aside from being careful about what we ate and drank (and some of us were not so lucky—Montezuma’s Revenge) the extreme heat and humidity did its best to wear us down. But not this hardy group consisting of our reporter Adam Housley from the Los Angeles Bureau and Iraida O’Callaghan, a producer from our New York documentary unit, who is fluent in Spanish, (she’s actually Cuban, not Irish) did her best to keep me out of trouble with the waiters at local restaurants and the Mexican officials at the airports. But more importantly, she may be responsible for saving my life. More about that later.

We were also accompanied by three talented and experienced professionals. Freelance Photographer Chuck Denton, soundman Norman Neuweiler and our Australian fixer, from Mexico City -- Verity Oswin. Without any of these individuals we would have never had such a successful trip! The travels to our locations were a long drive every day. Along the way we could not help to notice all the very young military soldiers at check points, with automatic weapons on some of the paved roads.

On June 21, the first day of the Summer Solstice, it poured, when we left our hotel rooms at Palenque, on route to the Maya ruins. Even as we climbed the slippery wet steps of King Pakal’s, “Temple of the Inscriptions,” in the dark, so we could capture the sunrise, we quickly became disappointed at first light. It stopped raining, but unfortunately, it was cloudy and overcast most of the day, but our Pre-Columbian expert, Archeologist Christopher Powell gave us a dynamite interview, in front of a million dollar-like set, featuring ancient Maya architecture.

The next morning, it was an early crew call, and departure from the hotel at 4 a.m , as we headed in our van to another Maya site called Yaxchilan, on the Mexico-Guatemala border, for a 30 minute boat trip along the brownest water I’ve ever seen! After the refreshing ride ended, it was back to the rain forest and the intense heat and humidity—and the animals that occupy the location. Including some kind of large rat, huge spiders, howler monkeys in trees (very noisy, they certainly lived up to their name) and vampire bats in caves! Oh, My…

To make a long story short, upon arriving at the entrance to the underground Maya city, our Archeologist Dr. Powell went into the cave entrance to check it out, and told us he had “good news and bad news.” The good news was there were no dangerous snakes in the cave. The bad news is, it contained some vampire bats! My first instinct was this was not a good idea! Bats can contain rabies—I announced that to all, but everyone ignored that little factoid and entered the cave anyway, including me, the guy in charge. We were all directed to the back of the cave to meditate in the dark, like the ancient Maya once did. Unfortunately, I did not realize it at the time, but one of the bats living inside took a real liking to me. Even though I was only in there, for a few minutes!

Once we got home, in addition to the dozen or so, mosquito bites, I was bothered by the two raised bite marks on the back of my neck, and it was Iraida who researched the strange bite on the Internet, and noticed the similarity, and photographed it, and told me to call my doctor, who then sent me immediately to the Emergency Room in Mount Kisco, NY, for the first wave of rabies vaccine shots. 

In the “END” it was a total of 8 shots, and yes they hurt! But, I’m alive today, to tell you this story. To summarize, it was a great trip, great photography, interesting stories, plus the experience of a lifetime. And thanks to the vampire bat bite, I could live forever!

Peter Russo is a senior producer for Fox News Channel.