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"A layered examination of a place and a people whose ancient culture is rapidly disappearing." —Kirkus
"From the moment Mary Jo McConahay steps into the deep Mexican jungle, you will follow her anywhere. In this extraordinary travel memoir, McConahay journeys through beauty, history, disappearing cultures, and revolution. . . . Her courage, keen observation, and open heart make her an unparalleled guide to this gorgeous, mysterious, sacred, and sometimes terrifying corner of the planet."
—Laura Fraser, author, An Italian Affair and All Over the Map
“Powerful, descriptive, spiritual and lush.” —June Carolyn Erlick, editor in chief, Re:Vista: Harvard Review of Latin America, and author, A Gringa in Bogotá: Living Colombia’s Invisible War
"I can't imagine a better book to help us understand the power of the rainforest and of the Mayan cities, the way violence and majesty permeate both. . . . All that [McConahay has] seen in thirty years of covering death informs the deliciously melancholy view of life that infuses the book. This is a superb book—thoughtful and reflective." —Jim Handy, author, Gift of the Devil: A History of Guatemala and Revolution in the Countryside: Rural Conflict and Agrarian Reform in Guatemala
"What you hold in your hands is a gift of rare courage and insight. McConahay rips off the layers of a little-known world, exposing to us its hypnotic beauty—and violence—through her own experience. The author’s familiarity with the region and its people enables her to do what no one else before has done, setting incidents of the current crisis against centuries-old wisdom." —Jean Molesky-Poz, author of Contemporary Maya Spirituality
"Brilliant. Maya Roads takes the reader on an intense journey deep into tropical forest landscapes, described so eloquently one can feel the sweaty climate, see the birds wrapped in the indigenous women’s braids, and experience the stress as witnesses and survivors recount stories of repression and resistance. [It] combines the prose of a skilled journalist with the in-depth knowledge of a long time observer of the Maya peoples." —Amy Ross, associate professor, Department of Geography, University of Georgia
"Mary Jo McConahay guides the reader of Maya Roads from enchanted jungles at the center of the Americas all the way to military roadblocks and nightmare massacres. Her own progress—from wide-eyed newcomer, wary of spiders and snakes, to world-experienced journalist familiar with the unblinking look of death—makes her the best sort of guide. She is innocence and experience; discoverer and knowing witness. The Maya believe we are nearing an end time; I cannot imagine a better chronicler of this time and place than McConahay.” —Richard Rodriguez, PBS NewsHour, and author, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez and Brown: The Last Discovery of America
A travel memoir of journeys in the jungles of Central America and encounters with the Lacandón people, descendants of the ancient Mayans.
Journalist McConahay has covered the Middle East and Central America for a variety of publications, but her fascination with Mayan culture predates her career. It began in 1973, when she visited the National Museum of Anthropology during a vacation in Mexico City. As an adult, she traveled 700 miles south to San Cristóbal, joining a fellow tourist and a guide to visit a Lacandón village at the border of the jungle. The inhabitants spoke a Mayan language, and while they had some acquaintance with Spanish culture, their way of life was traditional. Fish and beans were a mainstay of their diet, and the men used bows and arrows to hunt. Women pulled their long hair back into knots from which dead birds hung as ornaments. On her return trips, McConahay journeyed further into the jungle, looking at ruins and meeting an archaeo-astronomer who explained the Lacandón's ancient calendar to her. The author ponders the decline of Mayan culture from its height 2,000 years ago, imagining a parallel between their destructive power struggles and wars today. She also chronicles the Guatemalan civil war, the current encroachment on the rain forests by peasant farmers looking for land, large tourist destinations and the $40 billion drug trade through the region. She writes that since her first trip, the tropical forest has changed more than it had "in the entire five hundred years since the European conquest."
A layered examination of a place and a people whose ancient culture is rapidly disappearing.
AS A SMALL GIRL IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, PLAYING PRINCESS in pink tulle, I never imagined someday my dream clothes would be loose khaki pants, my dream shoes canvas boots. But something happened when I hit my twenties.
Visiting Mexico City, on vacation with my sister, I saw an exhibit about the Lacandón Maya Indians in the National Museum of Anthropology. The year was 1973, but the native men still carried bows and arrows, their black hair long and wild. They wore tunics of white bark pounded so fine it looked like cloth. Women gathered their tresses at the nape of the neck, adorning them with the bright plumes of tropical birds. I lingered so long at the dioramas, I dreamt that night of white gowns among green trees, orange birds rising.
I had been studying Spanish in Cuernavaca, south of the capital, fleeing university life in California and a crumbled early marriage, living from odd writing jobs, like brochures and ads in English. My sister, just graduated from high school, came to visit. By her very presence she reminded me of home, the orange grove at the foot of sharp mountains, family. Perhaps I will return with her, I thought, surprise our parents, get back into step.
We went to the museum again the next day, she browsing room to room, I drawn once more to the figures of the Lacandón. How remote from civilization these forest people lived! How entwined with the nature around them. They honored ancient gods, drank sacred substances to achieve heightened states of mind. Fewer than four hundred survived in remote jungle. They were said to be the last of the Maya, whose ancestors had built the great Mesoamerican rainforest cities more than a thousand years ago. Nowhere could be farther from home, nowhere more distant from the predictable path of academia—and probably another marriage—awaiting me in the other direction. The rainforest beckoned.
"I must go there," I said to my sister, surprising myself. Once the words were out, however, it seemed the most natural idea in the world. My sister left for home.
Thus, like many of the best journeys, this one started alone, on impulse, chasing imagination. All the Maya roads I have traveled since, through history, revolution, and ineffable beauty, began in that first experience.
The road from Mexico City to San Cristóbal de las Casas, almost seven hundred miles to the south, took a day and a night on the bus. I arrived at a hotel at dawn, walking outside soon after to see the mountain town on foot. Thick fog chilled unexpectedly, lying heavy in hushed streets. In the distance, the outlines of three figures appeared, coming toward me. I stopped to make them out. Men? Women? Wearing what?
Whoever they were had seen me, too. They stepped from the high sidewalk into the cobblestone street, even though it ran muddy from overnight rain. Soon I saw that the figures were women with indigenous faces, not wearing the loose white Lacandón tunics I had seen in the museum but bright blouses and long, black wool skirts so feathery in texture they looked like fur. Even in the street, the women swerved as they passed, as if my body emanated an invisible resistance field, keeping them a precise distance away.
"Buenos días," I said.
One replied with a rapid tightening of the mouth, which I took for a smile, although she did not look in my eyes. Several feet on, the three stepped up to the sidewalk once more. I experienced that disconcerting dance several times during the week I spent preparing for my jungle trip. Sometimes the dance was so subtle, Indians avoiding non-Indians, it seemed woven into the movement of the town as tightly as the woolen ponchos I saw on the streets.
* * *
San Cristóbal reflected its history as a Spanish colonial center for a region of subjugated Indians even five hundred years after the European conquest. White residents were called coletos, for the low-hanging ponytails (colas) favored by sixteenth-century Spanish aristocracy. Maya Indians, like the Chamula women who wore the dark, furry-looking skirts, came to town from their villages, sometimes hours away, to buy and sell. Or to experience one of their few contacts in a lifetime with the Mexican government, such as a court case or, rarely, to register a newborn.
Despite the fault line that ran beneath the community of coletos and indigenous, San Cristóbal claimed my senses. High atop hills east and west, simple white churches bracketed the town like sentinels, with staircases so steep they took the breath away.
Over the horns and human caterwauling of the marketplace, a grave cathedral loomed. Inside, Santo Domingo smelled of the incense that had smirched its gold-leafed walls for centuries. Outside, afternoon heat bounced off a sandstone-colored facade of scrolls, twisting ropes, scallop shells, Hapsburg eagles. I walked uneven cobblestone streets for the pleasure of it, past colonial-era buildings with elegant patio gardens seen through open, carved wood portals. At night, smells from street-corner braziers rose and mixed deliciously: green onions grilling, corn on the cob sprinkled with lemon juice, toasting over coals, tortillas slightly burnt, the kind that tastes best.
One day I entered a pharmacy seeking aspirin for a headache, probably from the altitude. As I browsed, an old native appeared at the open doorway, removed his straw hat, and waited for the pharmacist to acknowledge him. They did business six feet apart until the elder came inside, placed his coins on the counter, and grabbed a bottle of pills. Leaving, he bowed to the pharmacist and me, as if apologizing for entering our space, taking our time.
* * *
San Cristóbal might have held me, but in 1973 I did not have the experience to understand its air of danger and discomfort, the breach between Indians and coletos. Anyway, I had set my mind on the jungle. The more I thought of the coming journey, the more the city began to feel crowded. Celebrations, usually religious, seemed to erupt every other day, punctuated by fireworks, bringing back the headache once alleviated by the aspirin.
For the trip to come I bought a light string hammock and found a mosquito net for it in the market with sleeves at both ends that could be tied so tightly no bug could squeeze through. A package of dark green coils promised, when lit, to release insecticide against flying pests within a four-foot radius. I bought waterproof matches and a bus ticket to a cattle-trading town called Palenque, 125 miles northeast, outside the ancient Maya city of the same name. Palenque was near the Lacandón jungle on the map, the last place on my route that showed a bus station. As soon as I reached the town I walked to the ruins.
When the American adventurer John L. Stephens wrote of the ancient city in 1841, he said that if he and his artist companion, Frederick Catherwood, had not hired a guide, "we might have gone within a hundred feet of all the buildings without discovering one of them." For miles in every direction, giant trees grew in a forest impenetrable, "except by cutting a way with a machete." Trees had invaded massive structures, colonizing them, tearing stone facings from temples, twisting through portals in a way that made them seem living features of the old palaces.
The jungle still held the ruins of Palenque. From temple tops I could see the gray-green forest "in all directions" and imagined it in Stephens's time, stretching unbroken to the Gulf of Mexico, the Lacandón jungle, the river Usumacinta. Still virtually unreadable, the hieroglyphic carvings inside temples drew me like illuminated manuscripts in a strange language. In the mornings I explored the ruined buildings and in late afternoons walked in the surrounding rainforest on paths across brooks that once watered the old city. Some trails dead-ended in tree-covered mounds, structures still unexcavated.
Amid the broken temples, talking to other travelers, I heard the name Moises Morales, a local guide who studied the stars. He might know about the Lacandón Indians and how to reach them, Maya aficionados said. Workers told me where he lived, on the five-mile road between the ancient city and today's town, where the bus station is located. I found Morales sitting near his family home, under a champa, a roofed area with open walls. He was examining some sort of charts.
No sooner did I say hello—before introducing myself or saying why I had come—but Morales bid me enter and take a seat, the equivalent of inviting a total stranger into your living room. He was about thirty- five, dark-skinned, lean and fit looking, with quick brown eyes. His face already showed the grooves common to those who spend their lives in the sun.
When I laid out my plan, Morales said, "You remind me of myself when I was your age." He looked at me for a long time and shook his head. "It's too bad you are not a young man."
It was no time to take umbrage. Besides, after querying fellow travelers in San Cristóbal, I had met a British artist on holiday who agreed to come along on what he seemed to consider a fine lark. "Right," he had replied easily, when I proposed visiting the Lacandón in their rainforest, of which he had no knowledge. "You'll bring the maps."
Moises Morales asked me to return to his house that night to observe the stars through a telescope on his roof. I told him I would come back with a traveling companion who, he should be pleased to know, was "a young man."
* * *
Morales is an archaeoastronomer, a calling I did not know existed before that night, one who studies ancient beliefs about the sky. We looked through his telescope at the Milky Way, which Maya call the sacbe, the White Road. Constellations, planets, and stars, the travels of the sun and moon, each had meaning for the Maya, said Morales. Their astronomer-priests had observed the night sky for centuries, came to know its movements and recorded their details, even predicted future celestial events with remarkable accuracy.
"You must take fireworks," Morales said at evening's end. Apparently he had decided to help us with information. "That is one of two important things to remember."
The other: "Bring gifts."
"You light the fireworks at the edge of Lake Metzabok to let the Lacandón know you are present," he explained.
"Then they come and get us?" I asked.
"If they want to."
If they did come for us, presenting small gifts showed we honored them. Without the gifts, they would not respect us, which would be a difficult state of affairs in the middle of an unknown forest with no means of communication to the outside world. The map I had brought showed a blue drop where Lake Metzabok might be but no road anywhere close.
"How do we reach the lake edge?" I asked.
"That," said Morales, "you must figure out for yourself."
Morales was too busy to come, preparing for an unprecedented event in the history of Maya study that December, the First Palenque Roundtable. International scholars, enthusiasts, guides, and villagers had been invited to share insights on the art of the site. I had no idea at the time about Maya writing. Only years later would I realize the First Palenque Roundtable was a watershed in breaking the Maya code. Having worked separately for years, after eight days together participants established the entire dynastic line of Palenque, read from stones. It was Morales who suggested regents' names be rendered in Chol Maya, closest to the ancient rainforest language, not Spanish or English, the usual way, setting a precedent for readings of the glyphs. Deciphering the ancient writing had proceeded in fits and starts for decades, but after the Roundtable, it soared.
Of course I could have known none of this at the time. And even if I had, perhaps it would not have mattered, so single-minded was I about experiencing the Maya tropical forest.
The morning after we looked at the night sky with Morales, we headed for a point from which trucks supposedly drove south on a new road. My traveling companion strode a pace in front of me, carrying a trim shoulder bag. He had introduced himself by name when we met, but since then I had called him the Etcher, for his work. He had blond hair, was slight, shorter than I, with a confident British public school manner that said he had done all this before, even though he had not. For the first time since the dark café in San Cristóbal where we had made the agreement, I was looking at him as the man with whom I would share this trip—for safety and accompaniment, because that's just the way it seemed to me a woman traveled—accompanied.
"So what's that?" I asked, nodding at a large, square leather case I had just noticed, hanging from his other shoulder.
"My etchings," he said.
I almost tripped. "The naked ... naked ..."
"Nudes," he said. He had shown them in San Cristóbal, very lovely but wildly out of place in these parts, I felt.
"Why?" I said.
"In case we run out of money."
I suppose I should have been grateful for the gesture of consideration, but I could only think ruefully that I deserved this impractical fellow traveler on what was, after all, an impractical quest. The climate would quickly eat such unprotected paper. Our goal was a jungle whose inhabitants used money little and would be most unlikely to buy images of thin, undressed women. He brought them anyway.
An hour later the two of us, among other passengers, were struggling to keep our balance in the bed of a pickup. The truck flew along a dirt road so new it wasn't on the map, but already grievously pocked. We passed a few tiny settlements of newcomers cutting down jungle for land, but most of the time we ran between impenetrable-looking walls of trees.
"Fine!" the Etcher shouted over to me once, the picture of exuberance. He held the roll bar with two hands as the wind lifted his fine, longish hair. He didn't even bring a hat for the sun, I thought. Mad dogs and Englishmen.
"Yes, fine!" I shouted back.
The pickup's last stop was a house-front shop, with a few more houses behind and jungle beyond. Except for a young man carrying a burlap bag stitched closed, which might have carried canned goods from Palenque, we were the only two passengers left. One by one, we jumped down to the dirt.
At the shop, two shelves scalloped by termites held an assortment of whiskeys, imported rum, fancy cigarettes. The proprietor, a Spanish-speaking Tzeltal Maya Indian, said the fancy items were bought by hunters and, recently, by timber men and oil explorers who had begun to pass through. We were far from legal authority—and close enough to private airstrips, waterways, and the border—for the stock to be contraband. Cheap, too. We already had the fireworks Morales had advised, rockets bought before leaving Palenque. As gifts for the Lacandón, at the shop I picked up a shiny flat box of Benson & Hedges Lights and two of Sobranies, one containing smart black cigarettes with gold tips, the other soft pastels.
That evening we walked among the houses greeting residents, looking for food, but families told us they had none to spare. "With all the chickens running around, you would think someone could sell us an egg," said the Etcher.
I was on the verge of pulling out my salvation chocolate bar, to be eaten only in emergency, when a youth approached with eager eyes and an unsheathed machete. "Tell him to put that thing away," said my companion, who did not speak Spanish. Instead, I asked the youngster if his family might sell us a meal.
Shortly, we were eating beans, tortillas, and one fried egg each as the teenage boy gave instructions to his mother and sisters, reminding them to serve coffee afterward. The area had no resident priest or minister, he said, and the government teacher was away on his monthly eight-day rest, given to functionaries in remote posts. This news temporarily crushed my hopes of finding a worldly person who might advise on reaching the Lacandón Indians. Nevertheless, the youth said he would arrange for us to sleep overnight in the schoolhouse and pledged to find us a guide. I imagined returning in a few years to find the boy prosperous by local standards, running a growing town.
Without chairs, or hooks or poles to which we might fasten the hammocks, we slept on the schoolhouse's furniture, like picnic tables with benches attached to their sides. The large room indicated that all six grades probably were taught at once. Its concrete walls looked sturdy, and we could lock the door. As long as no snake or insect dropped from the thatch roof overhead—a possibility I did not mention—we were good for the night.
Just as I became comfortable, we heard a man's voice outside. "I come. I know the forest."
"Quien?" I asked. "Who is it?"
"My name is Emanuel. You want a guide." The Etcher looked alarmed, but I translated for him, slipped on boots to cross the dirt floor, and opened the door.
Emanuel was a fine-looking Tzeltal youth who spoke some Spanish, said he was soon to marry, and would be happy of any fee we might pay. He declined to sit and admitted under light questioning that no, he had never been to the villages of the Lacandón. At that, however, he rose to his full height and addressed my traveling companion. Apparently, Emanuel thought this was the person he must convince.
Excerpted from MAYA ROADS by MARY JO McCONAHAY Copyright © 2011 by Mary Jo McConahay. Excerpted by permission of CHICAGO REVIEW PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Maya Time and Place ix
Prologue: Into the Lacandón 3
1 Looking for Itzam K'awil 29
2 Usumacinta, River of Dreams; or, The Man They Killed 59
3 The Skulls of San José Itzá 91
4 Equal Day, Equal Night 107
5 Voices from the Well 133
6 Dead Birds, or, The Return to Naha 165
7 Welcome Aboard 195
8 They Never Came, and They Never Left 211
9 The River, the Stars 233
Epilogue: Clearing the Breath from the Mirror 245
Posted July 11, 2011
I loved this book. The author is a journalist who has spent years covering Central America. This is her memoir of her travels in the Maya Rainforests in Guatemala and Mexico. Her writing is beautiful and evocative, but it is primarily the hearbreaking story of the peoples of the forest, descendents of the ancient Maya, and how they have been brutalized by the modern world. McConohay is passionately political and stands in solidarity with these people.
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Posted July 5, 2013
I have been travelling to Chiapas since 2007 for Church Mission trips. Some of those trips went into the Lacondon jungle. I had a lot of questions, and the answers are not as easy to find for someone that does not speak any Spanish. This book filled in gaps and provided a lot of background I probably would not have found out otherwise, and through it I think I have a much better grasp of the Zapatista uprising. The book also encouraged me to visit Na Bolom on my recent visit to San Cristobal - a very worthwhile stop. If you have an interest in "modern Maya history", this is a very good place to start.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.