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Maya Roads: One Woman's Journey Among the People of the Rainforest

Maya Roads: One Woman's Journey Among the People of the Rainforest

by Mary Jo McConahay


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Northern California Book Award Recipient 

In Maya Roads, McConahay draws upon her three decades of traveling and living in Central America's remote landscapes to create a fascinating chronicle of the people, politics, archaeology, and species of the Central American rainforest, the cradle of Maya civilization. Captivated by the magnificence and mystery of the jungle, the author brings to life the intense beauty, the fantastic locales, the ancient ruins, and the horrific violence. She witnesses archaeological discoveries, the transformation of the Lacandon people, the Zapatista indigenous uprising in Mexico, increased drug trafficking, and assists in the uncovering of a war crime. Over the decades, McConahay has witnessed great changes in the region, and this is a unique tale of a woman's adventure and the adaptation and resolve of a people.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781569765487
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/01/2011
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 819,863
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Journalist Mary Jo McConahay began covering Central America as a war correspondent in the 1980s and lived in Guatemala for eleven years. Her work has appeared in Vogue, Rolling Stone, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Time and is included in several anthologies.

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Maya Roads

One Woman's Journey Among the People of the Rainforest

By Mary Jo McConahay

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2011 Mary Jo McConahay
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-924-9


Looking for Itzam K'awil

Wouldn't we be afraid to go inside there into a lordly house? Wouldn't we be just wide-eyed? Take pity on us! Wouldn't we look like mere dancers to them? Don't be afraid.

Don't be ashamed. Just dance this way ... — Popol Vuh, the sacred Maya book

* * *

IN THE YEARS AFTER LEAVING THE LACANDÓN RAINFOREST, my life moved fast. I became a journalist, reporting on newly oil-rich Middle East countries in the 1970s. I was a war correspondent in Central America in the 1980s, covering Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. By the 1990s, Central American rebels and governments were moving toward peace agreements. I had seen enough of death.

I found myself thinking more often of that filtered green jungle light that had once enraptured me. I wanted to return to the rainforest, to the seductive maze of trees and mystery, as many times as I could, as long as my legs and unpredictable asthmatic lungs would carry me.

It had been almost twenty years since my first experience of the Maya rainforest. No longer was I a young girl traveling on a whim. I would not return immediately to the Lacandón villages, Metzabok and Naha, if I ever returned to them at all. I feared disappointment, that they could never match my memory of them. And why should they? Their forests had sparked my desire to breathe jungle air and my curiosity about one of the world's great civilizations, to know more about what the Maya Indians had once been. More than that a person should not ask of two jungle hamlets in a lifetime.

In the years since I had left Mexico, its magic never left me. I read every book I could find on the Maya, listened to any story that took place in the jungle cradle of their ancient culture. I came to know epigraphers — scholars and aficionados bent on unraveling Maya hieroglyphs. I became friends with environmentalists who were creating rainforest reserves to stop timber barons and cattlemen from cutting it down. I hovered around archaeologists who used Antigua, the Guatemalan colonial town where I lived, as a relaxing base when they came in from the field.

One day in 1993, I took coffee and the newspaper out to my Antigua garden, in view of a blue volcano. I read that a renowned archaeologist, Arthur Demarest, was excavating a site called Dos Pilas in the Petén, Guatemala's northern jungle province. He would be attempting nothing less, said the account, than to solve a central puzzle of archaeology, the Great Collapse: how the Maya civilization reached a spectacular peak between AD 200 and 900 — city-states rich with fine architecture, astronomers, mathematicians, the first written language in the Americas — and by AD 1000 had simply disappeared.

I hurried to search out a number for Demarest and left a message. That night when the phone rang, I woke in an instant, a journalist by habit. Midnight. What could be happening that might be making news?

"Returning the call," Demarest said, with a Louisiana drawl.

"Do you know what time it is?"

"It's not late, is it?" said the innocent voice. "I don't sleep, myself."

The next morning, I walked across town to Demarest's rented house near the market. A maid answered the door. She led me through an interior stone patio open to the sky, freshly washed, singing with parakeets. Sheltered on worktables in a protected corridor, red-brown ceramics sat whole or laid out carefully in pieces.

I entered the kitchen to the smell of chicory. "It's strong," Demarest said, pouring coffee from a blue enamel pot.

He wore a long, dark, belted lounging robe. His eyes looked heavy, as if he had been having sex and had not yet quite snapped out of it. Later, I would realize this was just the way Arthur Demarest looked: heavy-lidded brown eyes, sometimes far away, thick curly hair always slightly mussed.

"Have a seat," he said, motioning to a massive wooden table in the middle of the room. I had the feeling other team members lived in the house, because condiments sat on the table the way they do when residents eat at different times. He turned off the heat under an iron pot on the stove.

Demarest said he had already been on the phone for two hours, engaged in "archaeological politics." He exhaled impressively to show that his role as expedition leader weighed heavy. Such a "host of characters," he said, such rivalries, agendas, and sponsors to juggle on an expansive project like Dos Pilas.

He pushed a box of cereal on the counter out of his sight and heaped hot red vegetable stew from the pot into a bowl. He sat across from me and laced the stew with two kinds of piquant chili sauce. I raised my eyebrows, stunned at the firepower.

"I'm from a Cajun family," he offered. "My father always says we eat real food for breakfast, not animal fodder."

Demarest had read my reporting from Nicaragua and El Salvador. As a young archaeologist, he excavated at a Salvadoran site called Santa Leticia, founded around 500 BC, the ceremonial home of distinctive, ten-ton potbellied figures crafted by a culture that would become the Maya. When an El Salvadoran death squad, the White Hand, killed two of his laborers, he said, Demarest closed down the project. I had the feeling he was not afraid for himself but for his workers. Over his kitchen table in Antigua that morning, we discussed Central American wars, which I knew well, war in general, Maya war.

I longed to accompany an actual dig in the region of classic Maya civilization, especially like the one at Dos Pilas. It was a throwback to expeditionary archaeology, with dozens of specialists, hundreds of mounds. Demarest managed cavers, glyph readers, "a great fauna person," soil experts, bone specialists. His own particular quest was for the second regent of the Dos Pilas dynasty, who might be named Itzam K'awil.

The rules of Maya warfare appeared to have changed under the king Demarest sought, spreading what had been a limited activity among elites until it included civilians and attacks against population centers. When kings began aiming to kill on the spot, when war became a constant, the civilization spiraled toward destruction. Thus the regent was key to Demarest's theory of the Great Collapse, that increasing war led to the fall of the city-states, the disappearance of the classical Maya world. Arthur Demarest was about to excavate the pyramid where he hoped to find Itzam K'awil.

I knew Demarest could tell I was taken by the same questions that motivated his search. Why do people go to war? How and why do they limit wars once they start?

"You can sleep in the nurse's cabin," he finally said. "Just a bunk, no frills. Bring a candle if you want light."

The next week I boarded a vintage Cessna with Demarest and half a dozen team members. We flew out of the sprawl of Guatemala City over jagged brown mountains. Turbulence shook the aircraft, quieting talk. In less than an hour peaks and clouds fell behind, and below us spread the wavy jungle cover of the northern third of the country, twenty-three thousand square miles called Petén.

To the east lay the Lacandón rainforest of the Mexican state of Chiapas, ecologically a single vast swath with the Petén rainforest, although one part was in Mexico, the other in Guatemala. In fact, the Maya tropical forest stretched from southern Mexico across northern Guatemala to western Belize, the largest contiguous rainforest north of the Amazon. Once, the land lay at the bottom of the sea. It rose to the surface just three million years ago, recently in geological time, joining North and South America.

The new land drew animals and plants unique to the north to mix with those unique to the south. The forest became one of the most diverse regions on earth, comprising only 0.5 percent of its surface, supporting 7 percent of its species. Some plants and animals of Gran Petén, as the connected jungle of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize is called, are found nowhere else.

When we sighted Guatemala's Pasión River, the pilot descended slowly until a clearing appeared. We landed on a dirt runway with hardly a bump. When the door opened, it let in air so heavy and humid my lungs soon felt ready to pop. It took a few moments to capture a steady rhythm of breathing. By the time I stepped down from the ladder, the others had already claimed their backpacks. Even the ground felt hot through my boots.

Soon seven of us — a South Texas speleologist (like a spelunker, but less casual), four archaeologists, the camp doctor, and I, interested observer — stood in the bed of a fast-moving, jumping Toyota pickup. We held onto its flanks, the back of the cab, the roll bar overhead. On both sides of the jungle road, trees grew thick and dark green, their highest branches meeting overhead, cooling the temperature twenty degrees. Talk was impossible.

Dr. Arthur Demarest, wearing a brimmed jungle hat with a leather band, looked in command. Not too tall, with a knife at his waist in a weathered scabbard, he fit the adventure-movie image of an explorer: intense, imperfectly handsome, deep brown eyes. As the truck lurched, his knees bent and unbent for balance like a fencer's.

We hit soft mud and fishtailed. Nearly everyone cried out at once. But we didn't flip, and those who had cried out laughed in embarrassment and relief. Demarest caught my eye and winked, as if to say, "This is part of the fun."

I thought back to the last instructions he had given me in Antigua, 150 miles away. I should call him Arthur, he said. Other orders were brief:

Don't get lost.

Don't get fatally bitten or stung.

Don't get in the way.

We bailed out at the edge of a wide, grassy square fringed with high, eroding structures. One building rose in the pyramidal shape of a sacred temple. I was breathing hard, arm muscles wrenched from hanging on in the truck, but feeling excited finally to be among the ruins. The plaza was littered with stone tablets called stelae, each one taller than a man, fallen or tilting at crazy angles, engraved with strange symbols, some with human figures costumed in feathers and animal masks. Graven stucco stairways cast sharp, stepped shadows in the late afternoon sun. In the northern sky a storm loomed, throwing intense purple-gray light on giant ceiba trees. A death mask wrought in stone lay fallen among brown leaves.

A bright yellow saucer spun through the air. A youth with a Mohawk haircut dove and caught it just as the disc veered toward a thirteen-hundred-year-old engraved monument. Demarest shouted.

"I told you guys not to fool around out here when lightning's coming! "

The young men guffawed, bowing in obeisance to the sky.

"My Alaskan volunteer," Demarest said drily. "And my fauna person."

We took a path to the archaeologists' camp, a ten-minute walk. Twelve cabins on stilts took up three sides of a commons; on the fourth side stood a long, screened-in laboratory for examining finds from the excavations, the only building with a generator for electricity.

Thirty-two square miles of ancient civilization spread nearby. But the well-funded Demarest was said to have the only camp in the jungle with genuine showers, and I had never felt so hot and sticky, my lips tasting of salt. I asked for directions.

What a delight it was to stroll through dense foliage and come upon two rows of shower stalls, completely roofless, nothing between bather and sky but branches of cedar trees, high above. Making sure I was on the women's side, I stripped. Heat wasn't the problem, I realized, it was clothes. Standing naked, I unpinned my hair and spread my arms, flapping them like a cormorant.

Inside the shower, a twist of the tap pulled stored rainwater through a pipe, spraying from an overhead spigot. Above I saw yellow-billed toucans, flying in pairs, while water ran like a tonic over my body.

"I'll be fumbling around my tomb the next few days," Demarest told me later, in a tone meant to sound casual.

"Can I go?" I asked.

By 8:00 a.m. the next morning, I stood atop the pyramid in the plaza. Alongside, a nervous-looking Demarest had sweat through his safari shirt. He bit at his full, dark mustache. His Guatemalan codirector, an elegant Sorbonne-trained archaeologist named Juan Antonio Valdés, pulled at the wilting indigo kerchief around his neck.

A week before, the men had sunk a shaft from the top deep into the temple's heart. Now Demarest, Valdés, and their local sidekick, Rat Man, stared down into its blackness. Rat Man looked the most relaxed. Demarest claimed Rat Man's bones folded in like a rodent's, so he was capable of slithering through narrow channels. But it was not Rat Man's turn yet; he would stay on top, in the open. Cicadas screamed in the heat. Demarest and Valdés climbed into the shaft.

I followed with some trepidation. There was no ladder. We felt for irregularly placed beams with our feet, grasping at others with our hands. The deeper we went, the darker it became, as if we were entering the underworld. Thirty feet down, we reached bottom, a damp, confined space. The floor felt soft. The air smelled dank but not oppressive. I could breathe.

Valdés shouted up the shaft to Rat Man. "Lower the generator!"

We watched the orange metal machine swing its way down, alternately blocking and revealing light from the top, a shifting eclipse. Valdés caught the thing by its rope, placed it gently at his feet, and bent to rev it up. Gradually, weak light emerged from a single bulb hanging waist-high on the wall.

By crouching, it was possible to gaze directly into the tomb through two fist-sized holes near the floor. It looked gloomy inside but did not smell musty, as I had expected.

Demarest stretched a shaving mirror through one of the holes into the crypt, as far as his arm could reach. I peered through the other hole. A rat shied from the mirror's glint, kicking up dust. Another cut to a corner, disappearing into a rocky wall. If anything else was in there, it was hidden by dirt. Six feet up in the crypt loomed a huge capstone, sealing it from above.

"I want to shrink up and crawl through," Demarest murmured, taking his arm from the hole. "But all I can see is this big rock on top that's going to fall and kill me."

Two tunnels into the tomb had already collapsed. Workmen had reinforced another slender cavity with cedar planks a foot at a time. Metal rebar, transported with us on the Cessna, would give it more strength. This is where a royal burial might be expected — the very center of the base of the pyramid. Within days, Demarest figured, he would enter.

We came out of our stooped positions, stood, and stretched our legs. Valdés, who is also an architect, reached behind me and picked at a shoulder-high substance that flaked under his finger. The temples at Dos Pilas had been built in a hurry, mostly with rubble, and finished with fine facades, so this was not the sturdiest pyramid in the jungle. As warfare spread under Itzam K'awil, the theory went, people fled their homes and invaded the sacred spaces around the temples, which were being deserted by their elite inhabitants. Commoners tore the exterior face stones from structures like this one to erect defensive walls around the temple complex, trembling behind them in fear of the enemy.

Innumerable tons of loose fill — no facade to fight the elements and no matrix — hung over our heads, all around us. Demarest knelt to squint into the tomb again.

"We can put in beams — maybe rebar — to take pressure off that vault stone," he said.

"How much does it weigh?" I asked.

"Enough to ruin your day," he said.

"Let's hope the grave robbers haven't gotten here first," Valdés said.

Even in the odd yellow light from the generator lamp it was easy to see Dr. Arthur Demarest, asker of great questions, blanch.

"Surely not this deep," he said.

But Valdés was not so sure, and he seemed to enjoy twisting a small, psychological knife.

"Good-bye, Indiana Jones," he said.

"Hello, Geraldo Rivera," said Demarest.

Both were anxious to enter the tomb. They debated the use of long drills, and wooden feet on the rebar to protect whatever might be lying on the floor of the crypt. They considered additional tunnels coming in from other directions. They longed aloud for a mining engineer with nineteenth-century skills to figure out how to widen the peepholes into a crawlspace, without power tools and without sparking a cave-in, and then shore the tomb walls to hold the giant overhead slab in place.

The rainy season, which makes digging impossible for six months, approached. News that the archaeologists had found something was already spreading through villages. Slash-and-burn settlers were destroying the rainforest around Dos Pilas in a tightening circle. And the temple stood in the middle of one of the last zones where the war still sputtered: an enfrentamiento, or confrontation between squads of army and guerrillas, even an accidental meeting, could occur at any time. Even if no one were hurt, an enfrentamiento would spook local workmen and cost the expedition days of work.


Excerpted from Maya Roads by Mary Jo McConahay. Copyright © 2011 Mary Jo McConahay. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Map viii

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

Acknowledgments 249

Index 253

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