it feels like southeast asia. crushingly hot and humid. like the rain forests of northeast borneo or central java. it’s wilting in the sun, and there are ravenous mosquitoes in the shade by what’s left of the river. it’s because we’re in the last rain forest in north america. a place so stifling and oppressive that even cortez, in his systematic conquest of meso america, skipped the place. he never even saw the pristine mayan temple ruins and pyramids at palenque.
after a few comfortable days in tourist-friendly san cristobal de las casas in southeast chiapas near the guatemalan border, super mario and i have signed up for the 14 hour, all-in-1-day tour to palenque. san cristobal has been named after fra bartholome de las casas, the first clergyman and dominican monk in the spanish americas, and the only one on record to have spoken up for the indigenos. fra bartholome was outraged that the king and his colonial appointees were mining the wealth of mexico and the indies on the backs and lives of the indians, but even after convincing the king to rule in the natives’ favor in the mid 16th century, the new laws protecting them were completely ignored in spite of de las casas’ life-long, but ultimately futile campaign. be that as it may, perhaps because of the sympathetic and impassioned father, san cristobal has always been a place where the indians have had a voice.
modern day san cristobal is an odd mix of cultures. if you go to “na bolom” house of the jaguar, a former monastery turned into a research center, museum, & reforestation project by frans blom, the danish archeologist and his wife gertrude duby-blom, a swiss anthropologist and photographer, you will get one take on this part of the world. you will find out about the jungle-dwelling lacandon indian population of southeast chiapas, the only indigenous people of mexico to remain untouched by the jungle-phobic spanish. the bloms were ardent defenders of the lacondans, and their center will put you in touch with political activists, natural herbal and healing centers, and with all things authentic and educational on native culture in the region. if however, you stroll along calle 5 de febrero mid-day, you will feel more like you’re at the 3rd street promenade in santa monica, where you can buy the same sexy, teenage garb in one undifferentiated shop after the other. and if you take that same stroll after 10 at night, you will no doubt be lured into one of the two throbbing night clubs, “revolution” or “circus”, on the same adjacent street corner, where local musicians from haiti, cuba, and todo south america pump out the buena vista social club sounds six nights a week to the ever-revolving tourist crowds and the local chiapa girls who have an obvious penchant for dreadlocks, black skin, and all things rasta!
super mario and i are rolling along the well-paved country roads toward palenque, which some locals say are the only good thing to come out of the recent civil unrest of sub-commander marcos and his gang. the new roads, however, have about 150 topes (speeed bumps) along the 210 kilometers, which i suppose slow down renegade drivers like our own van commander from making the 5 hour haul in 3. the guy knows every turn and hitch in the road, but he’s paid to get us there alive, and to make three stops along the way at scenic water falls.
the best and most striking of these falls is called “agua azul”, and like its moniker says, it’s one of the bluest and most beautiful falls in the world. we get an hour and a half here to walk up to the top of the falls, to buy some lunch and some modern-made mayan trinkets, and to sweat in the jungle humidity. there are some locals swimming down at the bottom of the falls, but the busloads of gringo and euro tourists are just climbing, and as i said, sweating. me? i’m looking for my perfect moment, like i learned to do from my swimming to cambodian mentor, spalding gray. and while spalding is sadly no longer with us, i figure someone has to carry on his rabelaisian-poet tradition. and hell, i’ve worn my swimming trunks under my pants and i’ve stashed a towel in my day pack. so while super mario follows the hordes up and above, i find myself a private little sinkhole and discreetly disrobe. i pile my clothes, pack, wallet, and sandals on a log, and i jump into my water hole.
it’s freezing cold at first, but deliciously refreshing for the next half hour, during which i stare up into the glorious mayan sun and feel at one with the gods and the planet. i don’t know much about the mayan history of the place other than what i’ve been reading in the last week, but i can imagine tawny mayan warriors in the 7th and 8th century AD hunting fish at these falls, and i can see brown, leather-faced women washing clothes and preparing meals in these same eternal waters. yeah, i’m a dopey romantic gringo traveler, but i’m so relieved from the jungle heat, and i feel so lucky to have found some private communion with the sky and the earth amidst the tourist hordes, that i realize i’ve found my poetic perfect moment - here in my blue sinkhole - even before we ever get to palenque. it’s 1:30; our 90 minutes are almost up, and i don’t want to get out of this agua azul, but the bus driver is a task master, and he hauls my ass out of the stream and back on the bumpy road to the ruins.
about seven hours after our 6:30 departure from san cristobal, we finally arrive at palenque. it looks like we’re the last tour group of the day, and we have just two hours for our visit. i’m not happy about this because it means i won’t be able to find a group tour to take me through the place. which means, i’ll have to wander through the temples and up the pyramids without a guide, having to rely on the minimally marked english signs, which tell me almost exclusively about the architecture and nothing about what went on here during the height of the mayan empire. i’m flat-out frustrated, and i’d have to say that one temple looks pretty much like the other. which is not to say, that these giant stone, hand-built structures are not awesomely impressive; only that they seem more dead than alive, and what interests me more is what went on inside these structures, not just the fact that they exist. what did the mayan people do? wear? eat? practice? worship? i’ve read they too made human sacrifices, but not at all in the brutal way of the heart-tearing aztecs.
so i’m pondering the heart of the mayan soul and sweating my gringo ass off, as i get out of the sun and make my way into the rain forest. i sit down near a little bridge built over some quiet running water. i look up through the canopy of trees. the mosquitoes are out in full force, but not yet feasting. i suppose it’s the 70% deet repellant i’ve sprayed and smeared all over any of my peeking skin. (i’ve been appropriately frightened by the malaria and dengue fever stories i’ve heard over the years in southeast asia.) and although i’m all for napropathy, acupuncture, homeopathic remedies, and any or all kinds of natural curatives or magical healings, i guess i’m just not one for letting nature have its way with me.
after the two hour time limit is up, we all make our way out of the ruins, and i have to grovel to buy a book on “the mayas” from one of the touts at the palenque entrance to satisfy my historical hunger. but this mostly dry and clinical text is a far cry from seeing the contemporary indigenos actually living in the maya-descendant cities of modern-day san juan de chamula and zinacantan, where super mario and i have visited the day before. there, we learn about the three artist gods of the mayan world who have created the universe, not just once, but many times, depending on the geological and human circumstances of the day. we learn about the mayan cross, the wooden cross exactly proportionate to the catholic cross of jesus, but made out of the holy “chieba” tree that the mayans believed grew at the center of the universe. this cross, painted blue or green, fooled the early spanish missionaries, who thought they’d have an easy time with catholic conversion since the cross was so similar in form. little did these dominicans know that they would never get the indigenos to more than superficially pay homage to the catholic lexicon of gods and saints. for instead of worshiping jesus, peter, paul, and mary, the mayans cleverly transmuted their pagan worship of the gods of the sky, sun, crops, earth, and animals to the christian names of the spanish catholics, still keeping their pagan practices and beliefs. so that finally, so stubborn was the mayan system of worship with its shaman-led sacrificial rituals, that long after the mayan civilization waned by the 10th century AD and was absorbed into the later indian cultures (including aztec), that the spanish priests and governors simply had to settle for the pretext of catholicism, rather than fight a losing battle against centuries of history and local spiritual belief.
the trip back to san cristobal from palenque is the condensed version of the daytime descent. no water falls, no meals; in fact, no stops whatsoever. just the centrifugal, back and forth hypnotic sway of the van’s climb out of the jungle heat into the night chill of the mountain air. and of course, the topes. by the time we get back, super mario is ready for a quick meal and a good night’s sleep. me? i’m ready for another night at “la revolucion” and “circus”, with the latin reggae music and the irresistible cuban “son”. perhaps it’s been the long trek into the jungle heat, or the frustrating encounter with palenque’s mysterious mayans, but i somehow manage to really tie one on until 3 a.m. in the morning. i’m the straw-hatted gringo buying drinks for all my new local friends and trying to show the local and euro girls that i can samba and meringue with the best of them.
by the time i stumble home past the famous yellow church where senor sub-marcos and his gang have rocked the world, and past the little zocalo long past the hour when the nightly marimba band has packed it in and the local families with so many beautiful young children have finished their nightly strolls, i am no longer walking a straight line. in fact, i walk past my little hotel, the posada margarita, more than five times, before i finally realize that that’s my home for the night.
i tumble into bed, mucho baracho, sleep until three o’clock the next day, and barely make it out of bed for the 4:30 tour at “na bolom”. the 3-person tour is inspiring. it’s given by a mayan native who grew up with the bloms, and he gives us everything in personal color and experience that i wished i had gotten at palenque. my stomach is a little squeamish, but i can’t complain. i’ve danced the night away, made it back to my hotel (barely), seen the mayan ruins at palenque, and bathed in the jungle waters of agua azul. and... i’ve had a perfect moment along the way.
off to espagne…….