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

 

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.

The Great God Chac

Chac Masks at Uxmal

From my trips to Yucatán, I became impressed with the one dominant image of Yucatec Mayan art: The face of Chac (pronounced CHOCK), the rain god. You see, Yucatán is a land without surface rivers. Oh, there is plenty of flowing water underground, but none of it breaks the pitted limestone surface of the peninsula. In areas several hundred feet above sea level, such as in the Puuc Hills, the water that sustained the ancient Mayans came from chultunes, underground cisterns. In some years, the cisterns were full; in others, there was pitifully little to sustain the cornstalks that fed the people.

When one visits Yucatán, particularly in Puuc Hill sites such as Uxmal, Kabah, Labna, Sayil, and Xlapak, the dominant image is that of hundreds of Chac masks acting as façades of the Chenes-style buildings.

After the rainy winter Southern California had last year, I was hoping for a repeat, but so far this rainy season, we haven’t received anywhere near an inch, or even a centimeter, of the wet stuff. We have rain forecast for next week, but my fingers are crossed. So often the winds just blow the clouds inland where they go to water the desert.

I am thinking, perhaps, of going to Yucatán again this year. There are a number of Mayan sites I have yet to visit, such as Coba in the State of Quintana Roo and Edzna and Xpujil in the State of Campeche. Despite the heat and humidity of the great limestone block that is the peninsula, it is a fascinating tourist destination, well developed with reasonable accommodations and good food. In addition to Yucatec cuisine, which is quite distinctive with its reliance on achiote, bitter oranges, and Habanero chiles, there are Syrian restaurants (the merchant class of 150 years ago was heavily Middle Eastern), plus the standard Mexican antojitos.

If I go, it will be toward the end of the year, after the rainy season which is also super hot and sticky.

 

Mad About Travel

Crescent Lake Oasis Near Dunhuang, China

Immanuel Kant was a great philosopher, but I have no desire to emulate him. According to an editorial in Philosophy Now:

A curious case, this Kant. They say that travel broadens the mind, but Kant never in his whole life travelled more than ten miles from his home city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). He scraped a living for years as a private tutor before eventually becoming a hardworking professor at the university. He lived a life of disciplined regularity, taking the same walk around Königsberg at the same time each day, with such regularity that it was said that the inhabitants set their watches by him.

Living in Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s, I desired more than anything else to travel. Even when I came out to California and got a job, it was a full seven years before I could afford to go anywhere but Cleveland. And when I did, my parents were appalled. “Why don’t you come to Cleveland?” Mom wheedled. “I’ll cook my favorite dishes for you.” That’s all I needed—to get even fatter.

I started out with baby steps, going to Mexico and traveling all around the country by bus and train (back when there were trains). I went to England and Scotland, too, and even joined my parents in 1977 to visit Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

In 2001, I went to Iceland; and, in 2006, I discovered South America. Now my desire for travel is insatiable. On the left corner of my kitchen table is a collection of travel guides from Lonely Planet and moon. While waiting for my morning paper to be delivered, I can read about the Trans-Siberian Railroad (2 guides), Iceland, Bolivia, Ecuador, and New Mexico while sipping a cup of hot tea.

December 29 is the last day of my working career, so I may not be able to afford some more distant locations; but Mexico and Guatemala continue to beckon. If I should win the lottery (hah!) I will try for the Trans-Siberian Railroad between Moscow and Vladivostok, though maybe diverting through Mongolia to Beijing. I can always dream, can’t I?

 

 

 

 

Christmas in Palenque

The Town of Palenque, Chiapas, Near the Ruins

The year was 1979. My brother Dan and I were traveling in Southern Mexico, roughly following the route Graham Greene had taken in his book The Lawless Roads (1939), when he was doing research for his novel The Power and the Glory (1940).  It was Christmas, and we were in the little town of Palenque, just a few miles from the Mayan ruins of the same name.

Dan liked hanging out in the cafés along the zócalo, because that part of Chiapas was a major coffee-growing area, and Dan is a coffee aficionado the way I am a tea aficionado. You have to understand that Dan was wearing slip-on loafers. While we were munching away, we were approached at our table by a shoeshine boy. Dan slipped his shoe off and handed his foot to the boy, which foot was clad in bright red wool socks. The whole restaurant erupted in laughter, including the shoeshine boy.

Mexico has some wonderful Christmas customs, especially the posadas. Between December 16 and 24, children travel around singing carols. We always donated to them.

Christmas Posadas Singers

 

 

Facing South

Skeletoid Academics?

Dartmouth College was the beginning of many things in my life. One of the most influential was the Reserve Room on the ground floor of Dartmouth’s Baker Library. On three sides was a magnificent sequence of frescoes by José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) which began with the invasion of Mexico by the Conquistadores and ended up with the mess that Mexico was in during the 1930s. One of the most shocking images was the one above of the skeletoid academics giving birth to a baby skeleton.

These frescoes influenced me so much that I would study or even just hang out in the Reserve Room just to imbibe the atmosphere of Orozco’s powerful political murals. It was no accident that the first vacation I took on my own, nine years after my graduation, was a visit to Mayan ruins in Yucatán. Over the next seventeen years, I was to go to Mexico eight times, spending as much as a month on each visit.

José Clemente Orozco

During those visits, my eyes turned further south. I would have loved to go from Yucatán to Belize and on to the Mayan ruins at Tikal in the Petén region of Guatemala. At that time, however, the man in charge was Efraín Ríos Montt, a murderous dog who was responsible for the massacre, rape, and torture of thousands of indigenous people; and the U.S. State Department did not recommend that Americans vacation in Guatemala during his presidency.

Around then, Paul Theroux published The Old Patagonian Express (1979), about taking trains from Boston as far south in the Americas as one could go. I vowed that I would eventually make it to South America, and I did. Since 2006, I visited Argentina (three times!), Uruguay, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador. An despite Mexico’s continuing problem with narcotraficantes, I would not mind going to Yucatán and Chiapas again.

 

 

That Stupid Wall

Will There Be Any Guard Towers Manned by Machine-Gunners?

Last night I was reading author Ursula LeGuin’s blog, and I came upon this poem about Trumpf’s infamous wall written by a poet who is part Mexican Yaqui Indian and part European ancestry.  I am referring to Anita Endrezze. Her poem is called, appropriately, “The Wall.”

The Wall

Build a wall of saguaros,
Butterflies, and bones
of those who perished
in the desert. A wall of worn shoes,
dry water bottles, poinsettias.
Construct it of gilded or crazy house
mirrors so some could see their true faces.
Build a wall of revolving doors
or revolutionary abuelas.
Make it high as the sun, strong as tequila.
Builders of sugar skulls. Adobe or ghosts.
A Lego wall or bubble wrap. A wall of hands
holding hands, hair braided from one woman
to another, one country to another.
A wall made of Berlin. A wall made for tunneling.
A beautiful wall of taco trucks.
A wall of silent stars and migratory songs.
This wall of solar panels and holy light,
panels of compressed Cheetos,
topped not by barbed wire but sprouting
avocado seeds, those Aztec testicles.
A wall to keep Us in and Them out.
It will have faces and heartbeats.
Dreams will be terrorists. The Wall will divide
towns, homes, mountains,
the sky that airplanes fly through,
with their potential illegals.
Our wallets will be on life support
to pay for it. Let it be built
of guacamole so we can have a bigly block party.
Mortar it with xocoatl, chocolate. Build it with coyote howls
and wild horses drumming across the plains of Texas,
from the memories
of hummingbird warriors and healers.
Stack it thick as blood, which has mingled
for centuries, la vida. Dig the foundation deep.
Create a 2,000 mile altar, lit with votive candles
for those who have crossed over
defending freedom under spangled stars
and drape it with rebozos,
and sweet grass.
Make it from two-way windows:
the wind will interrogate us,
the rivers will judge us, for they know how to separate
and divide to become whole.
Pink Floyd will inaugurate it.
Ex-Presidente Fox will give it the middle finger salute.
Wiley Coyote will run headlong into it,
and survive long after history forgets us.
Bees will find sand-scoured holes and fill it
with honey. Heroin will cover it in blood.
But it will be a beautiful wall. A huge wall.
Remember to put a rose-strewn doorway in Nogales
where my grandmother crossed over.
pistols on her hips. Make it a gallery of graffiti art,
a refuge for tumbleweeds,
a border of stories we already know by heart.

Anita Endrezze

I love the heart behind this poem. Maybe it’s not perfect, but it adequately chides the Cheeto-headed mofo for his stupid ideas, none of which he is capable of putting into action as yet. And never, I hope.