March 2, 2001

Letter from the Jungle

by Albert Simonson

This is an easy getaway!

I have the temple to myself now, except for all the bats in the dripping stone ceiling and a friendly tarantula checking out my rotted K-Mart shoes. Next time I'll get footwear at Alpine Shoe and Western Wear.

The smell of incense hangs heavy in the humid air, mingling with my insect repellent which is merely food for these mosquitoes. Native worshipers were just here, praying and burning incense to their Maya gods. They said they had prayed for me, too.

I need prayers. I finished my IRS stuff and so I decided to just get away from it all.

This is an easy place to get away from the IRS and Washington crap and whatever bugs you. Just fly you to Tuxtla in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas. From there, it's a two-hour ride to the chilly, foggy mountain city of Las Casas, with charming colonial stone mansions and cobblestone streets, a favorite of Europeans.

I like to stay at Na Balom (jaguar house). This was the mansion of anthropologist Franz Blom and his wife Trudi, the famous and feisty defender of the Lacandon rain forest and its Maya Indians. I remember her with awe and almost affection for her sinewy toughness. She bequeathed their home as an institute for scholars.

Walkways in the garden are paved with the empties that the thirsty Franz left as a testament to the joy of life. There are lots of them. Dinner finds me at the long table, seated between an Austrian anthropologist and a wild-looking Maya dressed in a coarse-woven tunic. Evenings find us chatting in the library before a crackling fire. Unattached female students are in abundance here.

I usually rent a VW bug in Las Casas, and head higher into the deep-green mountains on the road to Ocosingo (where they like to see a gringo). At Ocosingo you find passable lodging and the ruins of Tonina with fine mosaics of chopped-off heads and subterranean monsters.

Further north, you can rent a nice cabin at Misol-ha, next to a thundering waterfall, from the friendly Chol Indians. Descending spectacularly to the lowlands, you must visit the world-famous ruins of Palenque. There are many hotels there, but five dollars will get you a fine dinner and a hammock for the night close to the ruins. The clientele is young Europeans of the adventurous sort. Americans prefer beaches.

A new road has been cut into the Lacandon jungle from Palenque. At kilometer 94, by the fourth army checkpoint, the chicken soup is recommended. The chickens pecking around your feet are obviously in good health, with shiny black plumage to whet your appetite.

When you get to the tiny jungle village of Lacan-ja, simply ask for Señor K'in. He looks like a wild man from Borneo, but is a hospitable chap, and speaks passable Spanish. Like everyone else, he parts his long black hair in the middle and wears a long tunic. His wives will feed you fish, potatoes, and eggs and set you up with an indoor hammock.

My dream of getting away from it all was shattered as I lay in a hammock next to my host. He mentioned that some anthropologists had taken him to Chicago and even Washington, where he was introduced as a curiosity to Bill Clinton. "What did you think of Washington?" I asked. "Un monton de caca," he laughed, "A heap of crap." I see his point.

We were joined by an extremely black Guianan from Amsterdam, a multicultural marvel who is fluently cheerful in seven languages. Maya was not one of them, but he knew where Nook lives.

We were joined by an extemely black Guianan from Amsterdam, a multicultural marvel who is fluently cheerful in seven languages. Maya was not one of them, but he knew where Nook lives. Be sure to meet Nook, a slender sure-footed pretty woman who will happily take you down a long stream-crossed trail to the most pristine gushing cascades you have ever seen. Nook showed us paradise as we bathed in purifying, bubbly, churning water, far from all that burdens you. Who needs a jacuzzi?

After visiting the painted murals at the ruins of Bonampak, I teamed up with a young couple from Barcelona for the quagmire road to the broad Usumacinta River, which looks just like the upper Amazon. The opposite bank is dense Guatemalan rain forest, where guerrillas have blocked roads.

An hour downstream in a dugout canoe brought us to the utter isolation and desolation of Yaxchilan, at a loop in the river. This is the temple city of King Bird-Jaguar, whose solemn profile is carved in mossy stones overgrown by dripping lianas and sacred ceiba trees with tail fins. His solemnity is understandable when you see how he drew sacred blood from his penis. According to locals, this is the ultimate refuge of the Maya gods.

According to me, it is the refuge of one who has been too much in the "civilization" of a way of life that here seems far away, and even a bit ludicrous. I feel quite inexcusably happy here. But also hungry. I should have borrowed Nook's bow and arrows.

I wonder if that tarantula would make good fish bait? Maybe I could just eat what the howler monkeys eat, tax-free, no harmful preservatives.

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