Serendipity: The Lacandon Apocalypse

The Late Chan K’in Viejo, Lacandonian Chief and Elder, in 1933

I have just begun reading Christopher Shaw’s excellent Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, a book about the river waterways used by the ancient Mayans for trading. The Lacandonians are a very traditional Mayan group that live along the Usumacinta River that forms part of the border between Mexico and Guatemala. In 1992, I saw a Lacandonian selling bows and arrows in front of the Casa del Balam Hotel in Merida, Yucatán. The following passage in Shaw’s book caught my eye:

Kayum, one of Chan K’in’s sons, a painter of naïve but arresting jungle scenes with one-man shows from Barcelona to Seattle to his credit, looked up from his ax work and gently scolded Victor [Perera, author of The Last Lords of Palenque] that he must let go of the world. It is creaking and groaning like an old man, he said. Everything prefigured the imminence of xu’tan, he said, the Lacandon apocalypse. The proper attitude of a hach winik [Lacandonian, “real person”] was to welcome it and the new era of creation it anticipated. He spoke with the deep calm and conviction of a believer. Victor never forgot it, though he never accepted it either, Kayum’s willingness to watch and welcome while a thousand generations of accumulated beauty and uncatalogued nonhuman life got traded for the shortest of gains, or in many cases no gains at all.

The Usumacinta River Near Piedras Negras

 

Los Encuentros

Highland Guatemala Town

I picked up a book from the library today by a Fulbright Scholar named Stephen Connely Benz entitled Guatemalan Journey and found the following poem entitled “Los Encuentros” in the front matter. I hope you like it as much as I did:

The phrase book tells me I’m at a crossroads,
I should expect encounters
in the vellum margins of this highway
where buses cough black clouds
and hanging men cry out destinations
I cannot find on the map.
I’ve heard rumors of what lies
ahead, the incidents hidden in hairpin
turns, dire straits for those who seek
passage through gullies, ravines, lava valleys.
The topography of this country,
an explorer said, is like a crumpled page:
palimpsest mountains, parchment plains,
hieroglyphic highlands awaiting interpretation.
Lexicographers take notes on each twisting
nuance in the road, turns of phrase promise
arrival or departure, movement along this text
I’m traveling. I read ahead
through the codex of curves
And straightaways to the congested towns
where babblers hail strangers
in unrelated vocables.
I study the morphemes in a parrot’s squawk,
signals sent up in volcano smoke,
stories revealed in aboriginal textile.
I skim long vistas of calligraphied macadam,
an endless panorama of road signs encoding
a traveler’s tale, a new message
But the phrase book’s no help now,
it all translates the same—
I’m at a crossroads,
expecting encounters, still waiting.

The book itself seems like an excellent introduction to Guatemala. I wonder if he wrote anything else.

 

Not a Fair Exchange

Malaria Mosquito

The New World gave the European conquerors many gifts, including potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, tobacco, corn, vanilla, chili peppers, bell peppers, pumpkins, avocados, peanuts, cashews, pecans, quinine, wild rice, quinine, squash, and many types of beans. They were richly rewarded with such European gifts as measles, smallpox, and malaria. The mortality rate in Mexico alone was in the millions in the 16th century alone.

Most people do not realize that the malaria mosquito was a stowaway on ships that brought slaves from Africa. Mayan records make no reference to malaria, and many jungle areas in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico were inhabited which over the last several hundred years have been abandoned. The Petén region of Guatemala has hundreds of Mayan archeological sites, and more are being discovered each year. Where Mayan cities used to be connected by sacbés, or ceremonial roads, today they are connected by shoulder-deep mud.  Much of the Yucatán Peninsula is now sparsely populated thanks to the devastation wrought by the malaria mosquito.

According to the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in France:

A large international study recently published in the PNAS by scientists from the UMR Migevec and their partners has shown that P[lasmodium] falciparum crossed the ocean on slave ships which crossed the Atlantic between the 16th and the 19th century, some 500 to 200 years ago. The research team has indeed just demonstrated that the parasite which is now found in America has African origins.

Through a global international scientific collaboration, biologists have collected several hundred samples of infected human blood from 17 countries representing the parasite’s entire distribution area. It is one of the largest sets of P. falciparum genetic data ever collected. The analysis of genetic material extracted from those samples has taught the scientists several things. First of all, the American pathogen is genetically distant from its Asian cousin, thus precluding an Asian origin. It is, however, close to the African parasite.

The IRD further concludes that the culprit were slaves who were brought into the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, partly, ironically, because blacks were more resistant to malaria.

When I go to Guatemala and Honduras later this year, I will spend part of the time in malarial jungles, which means I will be taking chloroquine and traveling with a mosquito net to place over my bed.

I hate mosquitoes, but I would dearly love to see the Mayan ruins, which are now in areas that are sparsely developed. The city of Tikal once had a population of 300,000 during Europe’s Dark Ages. Today, the entire Petén Department has a population under 700,000, mostly around La Libertad, San Luis, and Sayaxché.

A Great Travel Resource

In Australia, Travelers Posted Notes on the Thorns

A few years ago, I was an active member of Bootsnall.Com, which had great postings on travel to every corner of the Earth. Of late, Bootsnall has yielded pride of place to Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree (though I have hopes they’ll make a comeback). According to Lonely Planet:

Lonely Planet’s travel forum (Thorn Tree) has been a leading online destination for travel enthusiasts and thrill seekers since 1996. It was created as a place for travelers to exchange travel advice, hints, hacks, and tips in order to help them get to the heart of a destination.

Thorn Tree is by travelers, for travelers, and covers every place on the planet including places we don’t have guidebooks for (yet). More than 2 million members have joined the community since its inception and have engaged in conversation with others, while making countless connections, over the past 20+ years.

To get there, click here.

You may recall that, a few days ago, I wrote a post entitled “You Can’t Get There from Here … Not Easily, Anyhow.” I was researching how to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Copán, and Quiriguá, which are not too far from one another as the crow flies—but, alas, I have to take the roads, not crows, to get there. I checked out Thorn Tree, and found out how to get to Copán and Quiriguá easily enough . (Tikal will have to be a separate trip.) This is what the poster wrote:

If you are coming back to Antigua, there are tourist shuttles that stop by Quirigua, another Maya site with the largest stelae in the Maya world. It is small compared to Copan, but if you are already in the area, it is worth the stop. There are no shuttles that stop there on the way to Copan, only on the return.

Thank you, CraigAdkins! I found a number of helpful posts. If you are interested in solving any knotty travel problems, I suggest you give the Thorn Tree a look. And check out Bootsnall.Com as well.

Serendipity: The Name of God

Lithograph by Frederick Catherwood of the Mayan Ruins at Copán, Honduras

It is with the greatest pleasure that I am re-reading a book I first read in June 1975 in preparation for the first of my travels, to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. The book was Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán by John Lloyd Stephens. The book was published in 1841 in two volumes with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood, who accompanied Stephens on his journeys. At one point, Stephens and Catherwood visit a school in Zacapa in Guatemala, where they set about making a usable dictionary of Mayan Indian words. As Stephens recounts:

We were rather at a loss what to do with ourselves, but in the afternoon our host called in an Indian for the purpose of enabling us to make a vocabulary of Indian words. The first question I asked him was the name of God, to which he answered, Santissima Trinidad. Through our host I explained to him that I did not wish the Spanish, but the Indian name, and he answered as before, Santissima Trinidad or Dios. I shaped my question in a variety of ways, but could get no other answer. He was a tribe called Chinaute, and the inference was, either that they had never known any Great Spirit who governed and directed the universe, or that they had undergone such an entire change in matters of religion, that they had lost their own appellation for the Deity.

The two volumes are still in print from Dover Publications.

 

 

You Can’t Get There from Here … Not Easily, Anyhow

Maps Can Be So Deceiving

There are three Mayan ruins that I hope to visit on my trip to Central America. You can see all three of them on the above map: Tikal in Guatemala’s Petén Department, Quiriguá in Guatemala’s Izabal Department; and Copán in Honduras’s Copán Department. As the crow flies, the distance separating the three cannot add up to more than three hundred miles. Ah, but tourists do not travel as the crow flies. They must take planes or roads; and in the jungles of Central America, airports are few and roads are not built for the convenience of tourists.

Probably the easiest thing to do is to make three separate trips from Antigua or Guatemala City: to Tikal and back, to Quiriguá and back, and to Copán and back. Take Copán and Quiriguá: They look so close to each other on the above map. But to go by public transport, I’d have to go by way of Chiquimula or Rio Hondo, and probably spend the night at one of those two towns. The buses are mostly for the convenience of the locals, and they just don’t go traipsing between Mayan ruins.

I could probably hire a driver, but there’s this international boundary between Honduras and Guatemala, which complicates things.

 

 

Semuc Champey: “Where the River Hides Under the Stones”

A Land Bridge With Pools Under Which the River Flows

My niece Hilary has been to Guatemala a few years back. When I talked to her a couple of weeks ago, I asked which place impressed her the most. Her answer sent me to the index of my guidebook. It was Semuc Champey in the department of Alta Verapaz. This is what I found in my Moon Guatemala guide from 2015:

A giant, 300-meter-long limestone bridge forms the backbone for the descending series of pools and small waterfalls that makes up Semuc Champey. The water that fills the pools is the product of runoff from the Río Cahabón, churning as it plunges into an underground chasm from where it reemerges downstream at the end of this massive limestone overpass.

One can swim in these pools—it does look refreshing considering the surrounding jungle. There are also trails to a lookout point (from which the above photo was probably taken) and down to another point where the river plunges into an underground cavern. Sounds like Coleridge’s Xanadu:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

The only problem is that Semuc Champey is not really on the road to anywhere. My first reaction to that, though, is “sounds like fun.” I may just decide to take my swimsuit and try a dip in the waters.