Chapter 1


1993-05-01, Pune

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the World before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

             Song Of The Open Road,  Walt Whitman

This trip is a burden. I feel like a mule. All I have been doing is hauling baggage throughout Mexico. Backpacks, crates, boxes, books, attachments, Mahogany Canoes. I am weighted down with the cargo of a lifetime of existence. A life of contemporary living in a neon blinded new wave new age jungle.

And now stepping out for the first time in the "Real" ... ooops ... Third World!

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go.
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill'd with them;  and I will fill them in return.)
The words from that poem of Walt Whitman's that Peter gave me as I left the States remain in my mind. It is so appropriate, rings so true in more ways than one. I am filled with burdens. Walt is so Right-On.

Thought this was a journey of discovery, now I realize there is much more letting go to do.

That's alright. This is really just the beginning. I am moving now with freedom. No schedules, no appointments, no work responsibilities. Just this desire to let the Mystic carry me and a longing to discover other aspects of Reality.

Or perhaps, what is 'Real' to begin with.

Followed a long and winding road from Mexico City, where I touched down nearly three weeks ago, to the Yucatan and gateway into the Lacandon rainforest. On the way I traversed the country South, West then East.

Went down to what used to be a mysteriously exotic old Indian Village, Oaxaca. Now it's got growing pains, and resembles more an emerging modern town. People are warning me everywhere about theft and witchcraft. Still, it was fun to walk the old streets, sit around the town square, the Zocalo, for awhile.

Brought back old memories of when I first visited years ago. Then I had money. Then I stayed in "El Presidente", an old monastery converted into a first class hotel. Large wooden beam ceilings, smooth brown stone floors, a garden filled with fantasia and abounding in sweet exotic flowers.

Now I'm a backpacker. No more opulence for awhile. At least they still make a good Pollo con Mole, that chicken in spicy chocolate chili sauce.

Then on to Zipolite, that beach where Gloria's place, Shambala, is. Just south of Puerto Angel. That may be the last nude beach in all of Mexico from what I hear.

An old hippie hangout. Lot's of Ganja, lots of Tequila. Ramshackle bungalows on the beach to sleep for a few Peso's a night. Palm trees rooted haphazardly along the sand are good for shade as long as the coconuts don't fall out.

Fresh running water is hard to find though. Usually Gloria has it, when the electricity is working. And a delicious Pescado de Atun. Tuna fresh from the Sea.

Still, Everything is new for me. An adventure. These are new dives, new haunts, new scenes. I'm meeting all sorts of travelers. Interesting people from all over the world. Usually a bit younger than me. Many still in College. Even more than that, I feel fresher. More alive.

In a week or so I'll meet Joan Halifax and her American group in Palenque, on the North-Western tip of the Yucatan. Have never met the woman before, and heard much about her. I'm excited to start into the Jungle.

Joan calls this a Pilgrimage. We will be living with a tribe of Lacandones, the last pure-blood Mayans. She mentioned over the phone about sacred rituals with an old Shaman. That's what I came down here for. Now I can just relax and enjoy the other scenery around Mexico.

When I last came down south I felt rushed, like I had to get it all in quickly. In one week I swept through Mexico City, Oaxaca and Acapulco. Much too quickly. Barely time to unpack in one hotel room for an evening.

Then I had a suitcase full of Izod Gator shirts and a Gold Card to rely on. Times change.

Still traveling quicker than I would like. A few days here, then moving on to the next 'scene'. This too must change or I won't survive the year.

That's what I have, now. Time. One and a half years for Central and South America! YEAH! Time enough to explore a continent. Time enough not to be rushed, frantic and absorbed in getting it all in, while immersing myself in it! Time enough to slow down and just let this odyssey unfold.

Getting around in Mexico is not so difficult really. Don't know Spanish, and many Mexicans speak a little broken English. I'll attend Spanish Language school in Antigua, Guatemala. That should prepare me for South America.

The First Sojourn

Came to Palenque early and waited to meet Halifax here. Finally she shows around mid-day at our appointed rendevous.

What an encounter! We had never met, yet immediately we both recognized each other! There was an immediate acceptance I felt, and a camaraderie. She certainly has warmth and an easy outgoing spirit. Shorter than I imagined, yet a bundle of dynamic energy.

After traveling around Mexico for three weeks, it feels good to connect with some faces from home. I don't know any of these people, yet can feel a certain kinship and recognition. A certain way of relating that feels comfortable.

There is no language difficulties or social awkwardness. An interesting group. A Psychiatrist, a doctor, a few therapists, a business person, a bodyworker, an artist, one or two adventurers, Barry, our guide and Barrett, a Native American Medicine Woman.

Our first few days spent in horrible Palenque. A Pueblo famous for it's antiquity and for the quality of it's Hongos, mushrooms! A sweltering hot town, filled with unfriendly natives. Although alive with daily commerce, there is a heavy atmosphere here, like a tiredness that is never ending.

Desperation hangs heavy in the air like a rain in the dead of winter. Just walking the streets, feeling those malign stares up through my back and sensing that the natives are like carrion buzzards waiting for something to die.

Not far from the town are the ruins. Ancient Mayan Pyramids. A whole community of structures carefully revealed and preserved as a commemorative to a lost civilization.

Feels to me more like a Mausoleum for the Rich and Famous. The sensation of ancient society gone astray blows like a whisper through the labyrinthine walls and up those precarious steps to the high places where royalty and priesthood gazed down upon the ants of commerce.

I spent days walking up and down those sun-bleached white stone steps, sitting in the temples at the top meditating and gazing out across the broad expanse of land revealed from these high places. You can see for miles across the flatlands from these hills, looking out on farmland and jungle alike.

It's hard to believe a whole city once dwelled here, living and working in this heat. I wonder what the climate was like back in those days.

Just to build these monuments took enormous human energy. The cut stones themselves weighing thousands of pounds. A thousand years ago when these structures were built there were no earth movers, no heavy machinery. All of this enormity was the result of raw human labor.

The architecture so precise, I am constantly amazed at the accuracy and longevity of the construction.

Each Pyramid I explore seems to contain a grave at the base or buried in some hidden chamber. I can't help getting the feeling that what I am really exploring is some outrageous cemetery. Yet all the brochures speak of this as a city!

Trying to get a sense of history from a spot so totally like a showplace for the Mexican Government is like eating a burrito and imagining it's the flavor of the month at Baskin-Robbins. Impressive in size, yet I felt a deadness, a sad mortality that this is 'just another spot' along the Human Highway toward the end of time.

Disturbing Confrontation

Leaving Palenque behind for good, we headed across dirt and rock roads, really no more than tracks dug out of the earth toward the Lacandon Rainforest, a section of the Yucatan.

The three Volkswagen Vans we have commandeered sit relatively high off the ground. Still, they aren't jeeps and it's slow going. The tracks are filled with large boulders and in many places virtually awash in mud as the rains erode any uncovered ground.

Often we must leave the vehicles and push them through water- holes that are knee-deep.

Barry is used to this terrain and knows how to get around. He has lived here in the Yucatan for years, speaks the native language and has a rich knowledge of the jungle and tribes. When Barret's pouches full of Indian Tobacco don't protect us from calamity Barry is always there to provide relief!

Along the way I notice barren land used for grazing and other dead spots that have been decimated for timber.

All of this open space used to be filled with trees, animals, forest. Thousands and thousands of acres laid bare. Once the land is ravaged, erosion sets in, washing away that rich thin topsoil.

These areas will be nothing more than open wounds and scars in a few short years.

I was to notice this in abundance throughout Central and South America. I had read about Rainforest destruction in the States, just to be amidst this was an entirely different experience. The land cries.

Death has overtaken what was once abundantly rich and fertile. The Sun, without those sheltering trees just beats down relentlessly. And such a totally different feel to the climate once inside a forest. Who wants to live here?

Scorched earth.

This scene forces me to reflect on my previous existence. At one time I was so caught up in accumulating 'things'. Material possessions and immersion in abundant worldly pleasures.

How many suits did I really need, was all that furniture necessary? Just an excuse to spend money or escape boredom through diversions. And my big gas guzzling car. What a monster!

I have eaten a lot of beef. Large heavy steaks that came from some animal. Most of the time more than enough for two meals in one sitting. Maybe not from this land, yet, the more my desires and cravings needed to be filled, the more resources are needed to supply an unending stream of products.

Viewing firsthand the results of our modern day disposable goods lifestyle is shocking. Never was a rabid ecologist, yet confronted with the impact of all this makes me ill.

Meeting With A Remarkable Man

Chan Kin Viejo lays back casually in a hammoca supported by two old posts in a dark corner of his thatched-roofed bungalow, smiling merrily. His eldest wife is tending a simple wood fire in the kitchen in another area close by, a second wife is sweeping out the dust on a dirt packed floor, while the third, a young thirty year old bride is quietly nursing his newest child, a two year old baby girl.

He is the Priest/King of Naha, this village. Both it's secular and spiritual leader. The old man is well known throughout the Yucatan for his longevity. He has led this tribe from an existence of isolation and obscurity up to now, as they emerge into a modern age of commerce.

Sitting on his hammoca, Chan Kin relates what has happened to his world, his tribe.

The Mayans had lived for hundreds of years in peace and prosperity on this land. Yet their existence was to come to an end. They knew this.

They had prophesied the coming of the Spanish and knew that a cycle was passing. Their power and sovereignty had come to an end, a new era was emerging.

These Lacandon Mayans wish to maintain their heritage and tradition knowing they must adopt to a modern world.

The Shaman does not speak as a helpless victim, rather as someone who seeks to maintain continuity along with compromise. He wishes to accept what is helpful for his people while assuring that they remember their roots.

Chan Kin, known to be at least one hundred and two, tells me he has lived one hundred and fifty years already, as he takes another drag from a hand rolled native tobacco cigar. The old Shaman is constantly smoking one of these doobies.

Asked when he will give up smoking, he just chuckles in reply, "When I Die!"

Going Native

The big event with this tribe is the all day Bal Che Ceremony.

We all gather around 10 AM in a large open thatch-roofed palapa called the GodHouse along with much of the village. Women sit around the periphery as the men wearing their traditional long white cotton robes congregate toward the center.

All of us sit mixed together on the dirt floor, Indigenous and Gringo alike. A little uncomfortable at first, but as the day progresses, familiarity surfaces as inhibitions are loosened.

Chan Kin is sitting near a post with three of the tribal elders. Not standing on circumstance, and with not much pomp or ceremony he hands out empty coconut shells.

Filling his from a 500 year old clay jug full of Bal Che he takes a swig, then hands the jug to the old Indian next to him. Thus the jug gets passed around in the beginning of this Ritual Observation for the Gods.

The drink is made from the bark of the Bal Che tree. After scraping the bark, it is laid in one of those long Mahogany canoes set just before the GodHouse. Water is added, then the whole brew is covered with Banana and Palm leaves and allowed to sit for three to five days.

What emerges after the fermentation is a lightly alchoholic wine that brings a slightly psychedelic effect, tastes somewhat bitter, yet is surprisingly smooth. It is the Sacred Drink for these Lacandones.

All during the day, the ritual observation consists of continually refilling our coconut bowls with Bal Che, quaffing liberally. Everyone in the village drinks their fill, constantly returning to the always full jug to pour more into those coconut bowls.

The purpose is to become inebriated. Eventually, passing out somewhere near the GodHouse, dreams and visions arise. These are considered significant, they have mystical meaning.

Sitting near Joan and Jim, we are 'Going Native', just pouring down the brew and gabbing. This is what it's all about, as the medicine enters my blood, conversation becomes easier, and we just become naturally familiar.

Barry hands me a native cigar and I light up, laughing at this unique assembly of Indigenous and Gringos all under one roof.

I had participated in Native American ceremonies back in the States. Those mostly with White people, a few Indians. Out here, I am in the minority and feel a little shy.

Most of the conversation is meaningless in the context of words. Just everyday talk about the jungle, the heat, the beauty of this village, the lack of modern conveniences, the armies of ants that are everywhere.

Underneath, a current of communication far more real. A connection between people that makes me feel closer, more intimate with my fellow adventurers, and with the Indigenous surrounding me. We smile awkwardly at each other, acknowledging our sharing the cup of Bal Che and our shared humanity.

Although we live in different worlds, there is a common bond of unity here, toasting and drinking Bal Che.

Chan Kin is speaking with other villagers. A couple of men are arguing heatedly. Occasionally, Chan Kin just nods, grins and says a few words. The men eventually cool down, seem to come to an agreement.

The Shaman is adept as he helps settle old quarrels, negotiates settlements between differing parties, consciously bringing the tribe closer together.

Barry occasionally interprets the gist of conversations and explains that this ceremony is used constructively to maintain cohesion as a tribe.

Old disputes are dropped, new intimacies between neighbors are recognized. The old Shaman is like a Maestro directing the cacophony of individual music to create a symphony.

Through it all the old man just keeps refilling his bowl and drinking. Much later, after everyone has staggered away, he just gets up and walks away toward his house, as if all he had been doing is drinking water the whole day!

Now it is time to pay homage to the Gods. In the Center of the GodHouse are seven clay pots. Their spouts each wield a molded face. These gruesome and seductive appearances are worshipped as representatives of the spirit world.

Among them are the ultimate God, Hatchwanik, and the god of foreigners, hatchakum, and Sukakum, god of the underworld.

The pots are handmade out of brown rough clay, crudely fired in a local oven. The faces resemble some caricatures of ancient gargoyles displayed in the basilicas of old cathedrals.

Some with strikingly long noses, others with darkly piercing eyes. In an odd fashion they almost seem alive with a consciousness dwelling deep inside the clay.

Half animal, half human, these too are crude and novel renditions of the deities. Perhaps they are in fact those divine beings.

Two young people cover these faces with a shiny brown substance. It is jelly-like with patches of bark and small sticks protruding from mounds.

This is Copal, the resin gathered as sap from a tree. It hangs thick and musty around the pots, mingling with the burned remains of other frequent offerings. This is food for the deities.

As the old Priest, Chan Kin, begins to chant in a sing-song voice, each pot is lit from a burning branch. The thick sweet aroma billows in clouds covering the pots, expanding and surrounding all of us in veils of mystery, curtains of ambiguity.

The smoke drifts upward, spiraling out of the palapa, as the Copal, food for the Gods, is consumed. The ancient chanting drones on, amidst a dreamlike haze, I sway back and forth. Inside, the Bal Che is affecting my perception.

Outside, my senses are reeling from the music and smoke, and I am somewhere in an unknown cosmos. These Gods are laughing!

Toward evening some of the others, swaying back and forth, toppling over, have come to their limits. A few are helped out of the GodHouse and toward their own homes. Others are seen passed out on the grass.

I'm feeling plenty woozy, the old posts supporting this palapa sometimes disappear and all I notice is the jungle surrounding me. What is out there? Just beyond that brush the wildness begins.

If I wander too far this whole dream could turn nightmarish.

Anything can happen deep in the Rainforest. This is not the Zoo, those Jaguars and Snakes aren't kept behind cages. Not to mention all these poisonous trees. Just a brush on my skin, I've got a rash for life. Or worse!

I don't know this world, yet. And here is exactly where I need to be. I won't deny it. When I step back, out of the certainty that I'm surrounded by knowledgeable and supportive people, I feel a little lost.

Not knowing how to communicate with these natives and unsure of what to do, how to act. Sometimes I feel foolish, and more than a little like a child. Hell, even the children here know more about this jungle than I do! This is alien and more than passing strange.

Joan knows what she is doing. It seems like always. She is always comfortable and moves appropriately in any given circumstance. I'm impressed, and realize that more than just taking this interesting trip into the jungle, I need to learn from her!

That's what this exploration is about. How to travel into these obscure places, how to act, to be, what to say or not say, how to connect on a human level with cultures totally alien to mine.

More than an exciting venture into this particular world, I realized that what I signed up for was to learn from this woman. All that research back in the States just prepared me to step off into the unknown.

It did not address the everyday reality of confrontation with the unknown on basic levels like what to eat, what types of clothes to wear, how to encounter native tribes, what to offer or not offer as gifts.

Most of the Anthropologists I spoke with were very hesitant closed and doubtful. This even occurred continuously as I encountered other well-known 'authorities' in Central and South America.

They all speak of five to ten years of study and relationship building before the slightest door begins to open.

Joan herself is a Shaman of another breed, and has dwelled amongst many tribes. Perhaps the greatest insight I may receive here in the Lacandon will be from her.

This is the key, and it's up to me to absorb this teaching, drink from this well as deeply as possible.

I stagger out of the GodHouse, full of Bal Che, rolling over on the warm grass. Almost immediately I feel a whirling cloud encircle me in a sublime stupor. I have not been drunk it seems in years, and this is a kind of drunkenness. Yet not exactly.

Visions keep arising in my consciousness, or semi-consciousness. I have fallen into a lethargic state, not asleep and not awake. Sort of like a waking dream.

Images of the Natives I am with surround me. Chan Kin is there, smiling that abundant grin with his stogy hanging from his lips. He is prancing about madly like some monkey while next to him, wearing an all white dress and feathers in his hair is his son, Chan Kai-Ume.

The young artist Shaman, appearing and disappearing in a gray fuzzy cloud that seems to be filled with animal images as well. Is he a Shapeshifter?

These progress onto other pictures, of other people, strange ragged costumes and what seems like a different jungle altogether.

The light and the texture of the air are altogether of another place, another Reality. The foliage is different, leaves broader and larger and even more lush and full than here in the Lacandon. The insects larger, louder and more colorful. Even the facial features of the indigenous are different from these Mayans.

I don't recognize anything, and have a sense that what I am imagining is absurd.

The images dart past on surfboards of light and even the smell of the copal changes slightly, yet is eerily present as I seem to lose all bearings of time and space.

This is no ordinary dream! Who is that old man with a necklace of bones grinning wildly through the mist? My body is filled with terror and awe, and even that is just some bubbling volcanic madness rumbling in this fondue.

Rainforest Homestead

During the day we visit with members of the tribe, settle in to our campsite, the outpost established by Trudy Blum for her frequent visits to research and support the tribe at Naha.

There is a lake nearby, a good place to bathe and swim. It smells fresh and clean in the warm sun and is deliciously refreshing to dive into.

Although Barry advises that alligators frequent the marshes, as well as the occasional snake. He keeps warning us of the much feared poisonous Fer-De-Lance that thrives in this area.

The biggest nuisance though are those incredibly active Leaf-Cutter ants! They are everywhere, building roads and highways through the jungle, through our camp. Always hauling leaves back to their mounds.

Nothing stops them, and it is dangerous to set anything in their path. They simple carry away or disembody anything that confronts them! Their mounds are incredible! Whole colonies, millions of these large industrious laborers. These suckers bite!

In the evening even more critters come out. Not just the mosquitoes, there's all sorts of biting bugs out here. I don't even see them, just watch and feel the welts appear on my legs and arms.

Brought tons of repellent with me, and it doesn't work nearly as well as I need. I'll be damned if I'm going to cover my body head to foot in clothes while half these natives walk around barefoot!

The Indigenous don't seem to mind. In fact, they seem seldom bitten! Maybe it's the skin, or the blood.

In the morning, as we wake up with the dawn to the sound of roosters crowing or a Howler Monkey screaming, there is the occasional large spider or two crawling around the roofs of tents. These are often colorful, yet not so poisonous.

Young kids usually come by the campsite for breakfast. They are very much at ease with us, as well as naturally curious. Among many of the indigenous I've encountered there is a fear of being photographed. Not so with these guys, they eagerly pan for the camera.

Hard Labor In The Lacandon

We came to this tribe to help them finish a job began over a year and a half ago. Haul a canoe down to the water. The Lacandones build these large wooden boats from a single tree. Made from Mahogany, they carry ten to fifteen people easily. Takes more than that just to haul these frigates to the water!

When the Lacandones need a new boat, they don't just order one. This is a sacred affair.

They begin searching the jungle for the appropriate tree. Once this tree is identified, they cut it down and leave it right where it sets. From there they begin the work of hollowing the trunk and shaping the craft.

This may take over a year. Two or three men come to the construction every day, and with their traditional implements or tools donated from visitors they carve out the wood to form the vessel.

It's time consuming and yet, that's the way they have always worked. This is no ordinary canoe. These people rely on the craft for transportation and food. The shape as well as the material must be right and in accordance with their relationship to their environment.

We have arrived near the completion of their task, and our endeavor is to bring that barge to the lake. For some strange reason they chose a tree rooted at the top of a nearby mountain.

Well, not really nearby. About three miles from the lake, up through dense forest. Without the convenience of modern tractors we will bring it down by sheer manpower!

Blood, Sweat and Tears! This humidity and heat make it all the more difficult. I am part of the crew that is moving that boat to water.

Now there are no paths, no trails. Just stomping through the brush, swatting horseflies and climbing over fallen trees and other assorted plant debris. It's a long haul up that mountain.

The heavy musk of decaying matter is everywhere. This moist rainforest is constantly dying and being reborn.

In the distance the sound of an animal foraging through the trees and thick wet mulch. My face is ringed in sweat. My body, covered in damp salt, leaves and branches. My clothes are soaking wet as I keep dreaming about falling into that lake for a cool dip at the end of the day.

Never enjoyed stifling humidity. Makes my body itch all over and feel sticky. Need to get used to it, I'm headed south toward the equator from here.

All it can do is get hotter still.

Getting that thing down is a chore! We all begin moving it off it's cradle and pointing the prow downhill. Wish we could just give it a push, let it roll!

Not so. This baby weighs in at nearly a ton!

It's large and ungainly. Not built for land. Taking a few logs, lifting the prow, we set them under as temporary wheels. Pushing now, straining, the craft moves an inch or two. Takes seven of us just to get it moving.

There must be fifteen or twenty of us dragging this ship through the jungle! Takes us nearly two days of hard straining to move it down from the mountain.

I had not envisioned hard labor as part of this trip! My body aches at the end of the day, sore muscles from all that pulling and shoving.

Every ten or twenty feet, stopping to place a wooden log under the front just to roll it a little further. Even moving downhill, which is most of the time, there is brush to be cleared and trees to circumnavigate.

The danger is letting the monster get away. Anyone could be crushed in an instant if the mammoth slips forward too fast and there is little chance to get out of the way. Lot's of yelling and screaming as well as laughter.

An Enlightening Trek

Jorge Kin is leading us through the jungle. He's wearing torn pants, a T-shirt, walks barefoot and carries a machete. Nothing more.

We follow him back to a site of unearthed ruins. An old Mayan village not yet uncovered by archaeologists. Along the way, following Jaguar spoor and submerging in a mystical forest. It's a beautiful day for mushrooms and I indulge.

We are deeper into the Lacandon now, visiting another tribe of Mayans at Lacanha. Parked our Volkswagen Vans just outside Jorge Kin's home, a sprawling untidy patch of land with chickens, dogs and goats everywhere.

Palm and banana leaves lay scattered brown and decaying all over the yard. Pitching tents in his yard is trying. It is difficult to find a clear spot where there aren't any chickens running around and the ground is relatively flat and uncluttered.

Loading and unloading all this cargo from the Vans is also becoming a chore. Each stop begins a new cycle. My backpack much too heavy, I don't need nearly as much as once believed, and am beginning to feel like a mule.

Each time, packing and unpacking. The pack weighs nearly ninety pounds!

Why did I bring five pairs of pants, five t-shirts, three bottles of mosquito repellent, two flashlights, two knives, a heavy cold- weather sleeping bag, three pairs of shoes, two sweaters and a mosquito-head-net anyway?

Jorge has two huts that he shares with his family. He has a wife, two sons, a young daughter and one or two older relatives living with him.

Mostly, at sixty-five years old, he just grows a little corn, takes care of his chickens and sharpens his machete.

His brown skin illuminates the shine of health and strength. Missing a few teeth, big callused feet that may never have worn shoes, he just moves along in the forest seemingly at random, yet leads us where we need to be.

Half an hour from his shack, following a thin richly packed earthy worn trail to God knows where, I have already swallowed about a dozen Hongo caps. Jorge stops to inspect the ground.

He has noticed tracks and says there is a big cat close by. A Jaguar!

This is a good day to Die.

The sun is warm, the trees providing shelter and a humid sweet breeze. The earth beneath my feet is soft and cushions each step I take in all that decaying foliage. We have picked up a trail now, not only tracks, there is Jaguar spoor as well. A distinct rich fecal aroma that explodes in my sinuses and cannot be mistaken.

Here the Cat stopped and crouched, in another place he is lopping along at a good pace. This Cat is on the prowl, looking for food.

The Hongos are in my blood, heightening all my senses, opening all the filters I've lived with for so long. It is easy for me to spot the tracks and notice the richness and life surrounding me. The jungle just emerges in a kaleidoscope of sensation.

In the distance I hear monkeys jumping from tree to tree. They may be running away from us, or something else. Occasionally a wailing howl that sounds almost lion-like pierces the forest. Those monkeys are agitated.

The lushness of the forest surrounds me and enters my body. Literally, I feel a part of this exterior world inside. I sense in some mysterious way the presence of life and death.

Not just the knowledge of all the growing things, a deep sensation of attunement with the process, that I and that tree next to me are a part of one similar whole!

That in many ways, what I know as my body, my being, aliveness is tied up with the life around me, and expands far beyond this physical body.

Jorge just keeps on trucking, swinging that lone machete occasionally to clear the path. Each tree I pass has a distinct aroma, sweet, bitter, brown or green.

The life of this forest just flows in rhythmic freedom, waves of life, like a river in the air. Even the decay that is so abundant in a rainforest is filled with the life that is transforming everything through decomposition into a new rebirth. The land sustains.

A rush of excitement vibrates through me as I wonder what will occur if we catch this animal. By the warmth and freshness of the spoor, we are not far behind.

There is some noise up ahead, a rustling in the bushes as an animal moves quickly deeper into the brush. We stop, then Jorge suddenly takes another turn away from the trail, just moving through the brush.

I sense immediately that the Cat has escaped, and we are headed elsewhere.

Crossing rivers on log-bridges just one and two planks wide can be a trial even while straight. In my altered state it becomes an adventure in itself.

Just remember to breathe, and all will be OK. One step after another. Left, then right, then uhh..... watch out for that hole, and well, the logs are swaying a little, maybe a little slower, I'll hold onto that branch, it's dead, about to break, can't put to much weight on it. Also, there's all these crawling insects, the logs are swaying more, I'm close to the other side, almost slipped, last step. Safety!

Below me, a cool dip filled with sparkling stars, reflections of the sun and big yellow fish moving lazily near the surface. We cross six or seven bridges, each a different bridge, a new test. The water is inviting, I wish we had time for a swim.

I've noticed that I am more sensitive to the forest than some of the others who have not indulged. I have spotted a snake moving slowly through the brush, and can pick up the movement of birds high in the trees just by the slight rustle of branches.

Walking for what seems like days, actually about three hours, we come to a halt in an eerily lush and overgrown area.

The trees, ancient and gnarled. Trunks grown up at lopsided angles, around stones, through other trunks, winding awkwardly skyward. There is an abundant silence and passivity here. And something more.

Old shaped stones, square blocks, arches, doorways and mounds half built up wall merging with the earth and trees. The stones themselves appear dark brown and gray, blending into the environment as if they are a natural growth.

We have come upon an ancient village, an unearthed site deep in this jungle. No archaeologist has been here to disturb this slumbering city. It is all standing as before. Before when?

Jungle grown up all around and through, Mounds of earth pushing buildings lopsided. Plants, an abundance of vegetation growing in between stone and stone. The awesome might of nature, slow and indefatigable has overwhelmed once solid structures.

Climbing up steps, over brush, pushing aside dead foliage, watching a myriad of insects scatter for cover, peering through windows standing askew, walking into musky rooms, stepping softly so as not to disturb any current residents.

The vibrations are uncanny, not just the skin sensations, tinglings of excitement and fear, something deeper and altogether different. Like the air is charged with the memories of humanity, lingering among shadows, attached to walls and stone facings.

Even these memory vibrations have a distinct feeling of life, yet not as I generally know it.

An odd tingling sensation courses slowly through me. This feels more like someone's home.

I feel a little like a voyeur standing before the veils that separate known existence from what's on the other side, half expecting to meet some old ghost or perhaps an immortal resident caretaker of this place.

The buildings here are hundreds of years old. Centuries of growth, cycles of birth and death have transpired here mixing the abandoned evidence of communal activity with the inevitability of a constantly overrunning and consuming alive forest.

Jorge sits up on one of the stone steps of a pyramid, what looks like the entrance to some ancient temple. We gather around as he slowly closes his eyes and lays down his machete.

He begins chanting an odd gutteral melody. It comes from somewhere deep, hidden. A recessed cavern of memory and sound, more than just a sweet tune.

The jungle man is reciting an old rhyme, a tale of wisdom in a language similar yet older than his everyday indigenous tongue. As he drones on in a gutteral ethereal voice one of his sons translates into Spanish the story he is telling.

Jorge is relating the tale of a Shaman who became a shapeshifter. He changes himself into a Jaguar to roam the forest and hunt. The Shaman has a wife whom he wants to join him in the freedom of being an animal in the forest.

He makes a coat of Jaguar pelt for her to wear. She must put the coat on, and eat freshly killed raw meat. In this way she would become like the animal. In fact, she will transform into a jungle cat and leave her humanity behind.

The wife is full of terror. She has this crazy Indian for a husband who wants her to become an animal.

He wants her to run off with him, to really live in the jungle. To crawl around on four legs, hunting for food, killing animals with her teeth, their blood dripping down her throat and running out of her mouth down her neck.

He wants her to be primitive with him! I can understand that!

The woman feels trapped, helpless as night after night her Jaguar husband comes to her with the fur coat she must wear. One day she goes to the village council seeking salvation from her wild destiny.

That evening as the Jaguar Shaman comes stalking his hearth and home, she warns him that she has sought help from the village. In a furious rage, the transformed husband kills his wife, then eats her!

Warriors of the village lie in wait close by. They attack the cat with stones and spears running the Shaman out, chasing him far into the woods and away from the village forever.

Jorge finishes his chant, slowly opens his eyes. He had entered an altered state as the old song emerged. It was so perfect, there in that setting, the misty forest and those old ruins, a silent witness to ages past.

The chant an immanent connection to that distant past, to this dwelling place where the spirits of the animal world were an everyday part of existence.

Another Easter Holiday?

Easter in Chamula is much more than a Catholic affair.

A small indigenous pueblo two hours from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chamula becomes alive with celebration and pageantry on this festive occasion. The funny thing is, it's not all about Jesus. Or rather, he has joined the ranks of other pagan idols that are still discreetly revered here.

The natives kicked out the Catholic priesthood years ago. A massive structure, the cathedral is still standing in the center of town and is the most impressive piece of Real Estate around. It is still used for holidays and rituals like this Easter, or Todos Santos observation.

We arrive to participate in the services that are held every year in the town. It's not that the natives have discarded the religion. They have taken it into their own hands and accommodated different beliefs into a wholly moving experience.

In the streets there is gaity and celebration. This is a festive occasion, with lots of singing, dancing and drinking. A special local firewater called Poshe is present in abundance and cups are overflowing. All that is needed is a few shots of the Rum-like drink to feel the effects of this brew.

Fireworks explode at random. There is a man encased in a metal frame of a bull prancing about, as hundreds of firecrackers attached to the frame erupt all around him.

The Iglesia, or church is a massive stucco structure. Has all the symbols and style of a typically Roman Catholic edifice.

A large cross above the door with a weather-beaten Jesus hanging by his nailed hands. In the dome a large bronze bell. A few Roman symbols carved upon the walls near those fake cupola windows. From the roof a man-sized effigy of Judas hangs swinging from the noose of a rope.

Inside a surprising scene unfolds. Crowds of people are jamming through the doorway constantly shuffling in and out. Once inside it's another world. Masses of people sitting on the floor and standing bunched together like bananas.

Everyone is busy lighting candles, blessing some object or another, reciting a prayer and placing the candles all along the stone floor constructing congregations of sinewy light. The glow from all these candles helps illuminate a dark shadowy ritual-filled atmosphere of other-worldly mystery.

The air is full of Copal as incense-bearers walk casually among the crowds swinging charcoal burners filled with the heady smoke.

Along the walls are statues of saints all decked out in pious regalia, solemn looks on their faces, countenances of reverential attitude.

If you gaze carefully along the high arched ceiling, other images can be noticed. These do not belong to any church liturgy. They are paintings of older gods and spirits discreetly embedded in the ornate depictions of latter day mythology.

As I walk into the church I am immediately struck by this incredible scene like some Fellini movie being played out in real life.

My senses are buffeted by the aromas of burning candles and copal, crowds of shuffling and chanting Indians fill my ears with an old and gutteral drone. The misty ethereal light reveals another age long past.

I feel a deep hidden vibration rumbling along my spine and begin to fall into a mood of perception akin to swimming drunkenly through a foggy lake. I am drawn into an altered space along with the other participants.

Toward the front of the massive hall there is a podium built of many steps. Behind that are large tree branches full of leaves, as if the forest is right inside. And in front of that is a huge Cross, as if the cross is the tree and the branches and leaves are all part of one natural whole.

The smoking incense curls up through the podium and around the branches as candles cast shadows like some deep forest from floor to ceiling.

Up on the steps are the Officials, a selected group of men from the community that are designated spiritual leaders. There is not a priest among them. These are all common villagers. About fifteen of them all standing, and through unseen signals, directing the chorus of events.

Suddenly there is a commotion at the door. A group of men enter carrying a large object. They are pall-bearers! On their shoulders is a massive wooden casket adorned with flowers. Many Indians reach out to kiss and touch the casket, weeping openly.

The bearers slowly march to the front of the hall gently laying the casket on the stone floor before the altar. As flowers are cleared away, the casket is opened to reveal an idol: the body of The Christ!

The body is lifted out, then carried up to the Cross. Men scale a ladder behind the Cross, as the body is moved up and into position. There it is nailed by hands and feet to the wooden beams.

I feel I am witnessing the crucifiction right here in Chamula, and the uncanny sensation that I see blood dripping from those nailed hands and feet!

Even though it is just a wooden statue going up, there is an almost live presence that can be felt washing over me as my skin ripples with sweat. Many in the audience are in tears.

Jesus hangs on the cross, head nodding downward toward the crowd surrounded by a forest of leaves and branches, tendrils of Copal haze wind around his body and the cross.

This is like no Easter Service I have ever attended. I have this sense that something alive has penetrated the church, that what I am surrounded by is some mystical revelation.

My heart pounds and my breath deep and fast. Ear ringing with some ancient chant synchronized to the beating in my chest.

My emotions are filled with fear, awe and longing and somehow I have the sense that here amidst an incredible display of ritual I am submersed in the deepest waters of worship.

In the midst of my reverie a startling revelation! That even with the Catholic ornaments and objects for reverence used here, what is being observed is far older than a two thousand year old remembrance.

Perhaps even the ceremony itself is older than that, with other spirits acknowledged. I feel swept back in a tunnel of time to an ancient yet eerily familiar place.

Stepping out of the Cathedral I remember what Chan Kin Viejo, the Lacandon Shaman related about the ascendance of the New World Power:

The Mayan gods have lost much power and now it is the cycle for the god of the White Man, Hatchakum, to take over. That god has more influence upon the Cosmos, it is his time now. The Mayans have known this.
Then he went on to talk about the end of the world, when the Great Jaguar would come from the deep forest to eat everyone. For him, this is all a pre-ordained cycle. Chan Kin just shrugged as he talked about inevitability.

The incredibly moving scene I was still absorbed in brought that power home to me, yet these Indigenous had not fully relinquished their ancient beliefs.

Joan noted one of the reasons these tribes were so easily conquered by the Spanish was that as the boats landed in this new land, the Priests came first carrying large wooden crosses. And the Indians recognized the symbol as one of their own!

Farewell Amigos

For most in the group an end came in San Cristobal de las Casas, where we stayed with a very old and eccentric Trudy Blum at her Hacienda, Na Bolom.

Along with a celebratory feast, weary and bitten bodies finally recovering, new associations and relationships, and finally, tearful farewells. For me this was just the beginning.

I was headed farther south, eventually to spend months traveling along out of the way tributaries deep in the Amazon rainforest.

Along the way, picking up a new language, letting go of more baggage, encountering outrageous Rastafarian sailors, snorkeling in Barrier Reefs among shark infested waters and delving in an odd assortment of novel experiences with other Indigenous tribes throughout Central America.

I have a lifetime before me!

Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman

[Email] [Next] [Contents] [Home]