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MERIDA, Mexico – The celebration of the cosmic dawn began with a fumbling of the sacred fire meant to honor Friday's end of the Mayan long count calendar.
Gabriel Lemus, the white-haired guardian of the flame, burned his finger on the kindling and later somebody knocked a burning log out of the ceremonial brazier onto the wooden stage, before he quickly scooped it up.
Still, the white-clad Lemus, like about 1,000 other shamans, seers, stargazers, crystal enthusiasts, yogis, sufis and swamis in a Merida convention center about an hour and a half from the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, was convinced that it was a good start to the coming "New Era" supposed to begin around 5:00 a.m. on Friday.
"It is a cosmic dawn," said Lemus. "We will recover the ability to communicate telepathically and levitate objects ... like our ancestors did."
These are not people who believe the world will end on Friday; the summit is scheduled to run through Dec. 23. Instead, participants say, they are here to celebrate the birth of a new age.
A Mexican Indian seer who calls himself Ac Tah, and who has traveled around Mexico erecting small pyramids he calls "neurological circuits," said he holds high hopes for Dec. 21.
"We are preparing ourselves to receive a huge magnetic field straight from the center of the galaxy," he said.
Terry Kvasnik, 32, a stunt man and acrobat from Manchester, England, said it's the beginning of a new era, and his motto for the day is "Be in love, don't be in fear." While he didn't know exactly which ceremony he'll attend on Friday, he guaranteed with a smile, "I'm going to be in the happiest place I can."
The summit is the kind of place where you can see people wearing T-shirts that read "Shiva Rules," or get your aura photographed with "chi" light. In the exhibition hall you can chose from a number of crystal vendors and faith healers.
You can learn the art of healing drumming with a Mexican Otomi Indian master who calls himself Dabadi Thaayroyadi. He said that his slender, hand-held, plate-sized drums are made with prayers embedded into them and emit "an intelligent energy" that can heal emotional, physical and social ailments.
During the opening ceremony participants held up their arms and chanted mantras to the blazing Yucatan sun, which quickly burned the fair-skinned crowd.
Violeta Simarro, a secretary from Perpignan, France, took shelter under a nearby awning and noted that the new age won't necessarily be all peaches and cream.
"It will be a little difficult at first, because the world will need a complete 'nettoyage' (cleaning), because there are so many bad things," she said.
Not all seers endorse the celebration.
Mexico's self-styled "brujo mayor," or chief soothsayer, Antonio Vazquez Alba, warned followers to stay away from all gatherings on Dec. 21, saying, "We have to beware of mass psychosis" that could lead to stampedes or "mass suicides, of the kind we've seen before."
"If you get 1,000 people in one spot and somebody yells 'fire,' watch out," Vazquez Alba said. "The best thing is to stay at home, at work, in school, and at some point do a relaxation exercise."
Others see the summit as a sort of model for the coming age.
Participants from Asian, North American, South American and European shamanistic traditions amiably mingled with the Mexican hosts.
"This is the beginning of a change in priorities and perceptions. We are all one," said Esther Romo, a Mexico City businesswoman who works in art promotion and galleries. "No limits, no boundaries, no nationalities, just fusion."
Still, organizers of Yucatan's broader Mayan Culture Festival saw the need to answer some of the now-debunked idea that the Mayas, who invented an amazingly accurate calendar almost 2,000 years ago, had somehow predicted the end of the world. The Mayas measured time in 394-year periods known as Baktuns. The 13th Baktun ends around Dec. 21, and 13 is considered a sacred number for the Maya. But archaeologists have uncovered Mayan glyphs that refer to dates far, far in the future, long beyond Dec. 21.
The Yucatan state government invited in a scientist to talk about the work of Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, to debunk the idea it could produce world-ending rogue particles, a concept popularized by author Steve Alten in his recent book "Phobos, Mayan Fear."
Alten suggests the rogue particles — "tiny black holes" — could unleash earthquakes that might cause a huge tsunami, but acknowledges that linking such events to Dec. 21 "is author's license."
"It's science fiction theory, I'm a science fiction writer," he said.
Even as the clock ticks down on the latest doomsday rumor, the European Organization for Nuclear Research has listed a number of odd subatomic phenomena — "magnetic monopoles," ''Vacuum bubbles" and "strangelets" — that could play a role in the next apocalypse scare.
All of it had Mexico City tourist Deyanira de Alvarez amused as she snapped a photo of the countdown clock mounted in the Merida international airport showing just over two days left to "the galactic alignment."
"My grandmother says that people have been talking about this (the world ending) ever since she was a little girl," De Alvarez said, "and look, Grandma is still here."