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Fox Shapeshifter Dream

November 3rd, 2015

It started with me bugging out again, assembling supplies as I made my careful escape from civilization in the process of collapse.

Having escaped, I was sitting in the woods taking a breather and I saw a fox. It saw me. It was curious, it came over and turned out to be a Mayan kid in a leopard mask (not a jaguar mask) and then his whole family was with him and they all wanted to be friends and I was stumbling to remember my Spanish as they spoke to me in English.

   Dreams, Guatemala | No Comments »

A Penance in Verapaz

January 30th, 2014

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Volcán Agua from the Hill of the Cross overlooking Antigua, Guatemala

Verapaz means “true peace”. The neighboring Guatemalan departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz are so named because of the warlike Achí Maya, who like the Apache in the US stubbornly refused to be conquered until long after the rest of the country. When they finally did submit, it was because of the spread of religion, not the sword.

This is a story of breakdown and redemption, in which I strive again and again to interrogate and dismantle my assumptions only to find more awaiting beneath, until finally, mental and physical resources spent, I give up hope, only to be lifted up and saved by human kindness.

Before the dawn of January 25th in the mountainous jungle town of Lanquín, Alta Verapaz, I cursed out a small crowd of self-important American adventure tourists packed into a rickety minibus bound for Antigua. That evening, I danced goofily (the only way I know how) with a small crowd of teenage Achí Mayan girls to a marimba band at a saint’s day fair in the desert valley town of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, then fell asleep on a cardboard pallet on their kitchen floor long past midnight on the 26th. These were serious breaches of character for me. I get angry, but I never vent it at other people no matter what kind of assholes they are; I bottle it up, then expel it into exertion or prose. I dance in public only under duress or the influence of strong drink, and I open up to people under more or less the same circumstances.

Understanding the cause of these transgressions perhaps requires a little backstory.

I’ve read much on the subject of Guatemala; I’ve written stories, blog posts; I’m working on a novel. I don’t consider myself any kind of authority. I’m a hobbyist, a tourist. But I try. I love Guatemala, and I want to do it justice, to treat its people and culture with empathy and respect. This is where the assumptions come in: privilege, whiteness, entitlement. I’m trying to see through these things to the truth, trying to understand what it is to be born to the opposite of those things in a place I love because of them.

At the end of this, my fourth and latest visit, I’d planned three days to myself. This concept was anathema to the white kids on the minibus, who with shrill laughter equated the notion of an afternoon alone even in Antigua, a city full of English-speakers, to waking nightmare. For me, though, those three days alone were a promise of release, a getting back to myself. Disinclined though I’d normally be to resort to Christian metaphor—particularly since the motivations in question include no small pagan influence—I thought of it as a penance. Penance for the cushy, full-bellied vacationing I’d done with my family up to this point; penance for the cushy, full-bellied living I’d been doing at home.

What I sap I am, I know. And this is long. So I’ll forgive you for not clicking….

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   Angry, Guatemala, Monumental Metaphor, Religion, Travel | 2 Comments »

The Stone Horse of Flores

January 2nd, 2014

The new issue of Betwixt, out yesterday online and in print, features a new story of mine, “The Stone Horse of Flores”, what I’m calling a post-virtual retelling of a Guatemalan folktale.

Being as how my rendition takes significant liberties and the original is awesome and not likely to be something you’re familiar with, I thought I’d share the story here the way I first heard it. If you have any inclination to read my version, however, might I suggest doing so first so as not to spoil it?

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Flores is a little city on an island in Lago Peten Itza, in the southern (Guatemalan) portion of the Yucatan Peninsula. It was settled in the early 16th century by the Itza Maya, a sect of water priests, after abandoning their former home, Chichen Itza, to the conquering Spanish. This turned out to be quite a prescient strategic move for the Itzaes: the natural protection provided by the lake and the trackless jungles of the surrounding Peten helped keep Flores under independent rule for the next 175 years, far longer than any other Mayan settlement.

Cortés himself actually visited Flores in 1541, but his supply train had been so decimated by disease on the long trek through the jungle that he no longer had the resources to muster an attack. Instead he only rested a few days and moved on. He did, however, leave behind one injured horse, asking the Itzaes to care for it until he returned.

They did the best they could, but having never cared for a horse before, they didn’t know what to feed it or how to treat it, and it died. Luckily, Cortés never came back. Under increasing protest against his tyrannical policies from the colonies he himself had founded, he fled the New World for Spain within the year, never to return.

In 1618, seventy-five years later, two Franciscan friars visited Flores on an evangelical mission. They found its people dedicated to their own religion and made no converts, but discovered a stone statue of a horse in the city square, erected in memory of Cortés’s gift. They claimed the Itzaes had taken to worshipping the statue golden calf style. which maybe wouldn’t be so hard to believe but for the tellers, without whom this story would in all likelihood never have been carried down.

When the Spanish did finally capture Flores in 1697, they razed it to the ground, along with all its oral and written history. The usual story.

Thus far in my travels I’ve spent all of half an hour on a bus idling in a grocery store parking lot on the shore of Lago Peten Itza at four in the morning, gazing at the orange lights of the island flickering reflected in the lake.

In a few weeks I get to go back and, with any luck, spend some quality time there.

   Guatemala, News, Yucatan | No Comments »

Layers, Echoes, Decay and Its Lack

February 6th, 2013

zaculeu_ruined_shrine

This is an unnamed shrine southeast of Plaza 1 at the Zaculeu archaological site, Huehuetenango, Guatemala: an example of the temple-within-temple phenomenon I mentioned in the last post. Hard to say what happened to leave both inner and outer layers exposed like this. I’ll hazard a guess: a somewhat more judicious use of the excavation-by-dynamite technique employed by early British explorer Thomas Gann (and no doubt others) to disastrous effect at Chichen Itza and elsewhere. At least here—if that’s what happened—they only blew up this wee little outlier shrine instead of the main attractions. The white structure you can see in the near distance is a corner of the ballcourt; the mound on the right is Structure 9, an unfinished temple whose construction was interrupted by the conquest.

Then there’s the other layer, not immediately noticeable: click the above to zoom in and you’ll see that this entire bombed-out shrine and even a couple feet of earth surrounding it has been covered over in concrete. The United Fruit Company, in 1946, hired another incompetent non-archaeologist, John M. Dimick, to ‘restore’ the temples at Zaculeu as part of their PR campaign to appear to be improving Guatemala’s infrastructure and protecting its cultural heritage while sucking its land and people dry. Dimick, a building engineer from Iowa who’d caught the Mayanist bug, came to the understandable but stupid conclusion that all the weird angles in the pyramids were the result of incompetence, and the ancient Mayans had really intended everything to be at nice clean right angles if only their engineering skills had been up to snuff. Concrete was the obvious material of choice: cheaper, harder, withstood earthquakes better and lasted longer than the traditional Spanish colonial stucco (which was already falling into disuse), never mind the orginal Mayan cooked limestone mortar.

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Zaculeu’s concrete-encased temples are the only ones I’ve ever seen without weeds, or even whole trees, growing from cracks between stones. They’re the only thousand-year-old temples I’ve ever been allowed to climb and leap all over like in a Prince of Persia video game. They’re also the only temples, with the exception of the Castillo at Chichen Itza (also restored, though with infinitely more painstaking faithfulness and care) with any kind of functioning acoustics: not the effect its original architects intended, for certain, but it’s not like I was ever going to get that anyway. Shout in front of the ten-terraced Temple 1 at Zaculeu, you get back ten harsh, staggered echoes, like yelling into one of those toy echo microphones with a vibrating spring inside you had as a kid. The effect is disconcerting, dissonant: it forced a halt to our conversation until we’d reached a point oblique to those unassailable planes. Interestingly, though, when two hundred people gathered in the plaza before the temple, the press of bodies dampened the effect; instead of feeling shouted down by several angry copies of myself, it just seemed like there were twice or three times as many people in the crowd, clapping, cheering, babbling.

Gonzalo de Alvarado conquered Zaculeu in 1525, after a protracted, horrific siege during which the entrenched Mam resorted to eating their dead. For 421 years, it decayed. Then it stopped decaying. The effect is something like that of an alternate history Mayan ruin replica as conceived by aliens. No, not that kind of aliens.

You know what it’s like? Those concrete tipi motels on Route 66. Or the miles of parking lots and concession stands surrounding the Niagara Gorge, the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful. What was maybe at one point a well-intentioned effort to allow regular people to interact with this beautiful, unfathomable thing without destroying it has in the intervening generations become an ageless, indestructible monument to epidemic cultural disconnect. And the doomed effort to traverse all these layers of misinterpretation and time becomes part of the point of being there.

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One of the “traditional” Mayan costumes centers on a mask depicting what I can only interpret as an absurdly stylized roly-poly German gentleman, complete with rosy cheeks and ridiculous moustache. These costumes also come in red monkey, black monkey, jaguar, black moustache guy, demon, tiger, etc.

What does this effigy mean to the guy wearing it? I get the impression this style of costume is a throwback to a different time, where the relationship between the colonizing and colonized culture was simpler, more black and white, though still weird and screwed up. And maybe it’s trotted out now only when called for by political pageantry (such as a PR tour for a future presidential candidate) or tourism (such as Oxlajuj Baktun). Certainly I only saw this style of costume in the context of the government-funded 13 Baktun celebrations when there were armed police present and helpful educational banners strung up everywhere, as opposed to the more intimate events where real Mayans followed their own beliefs with less regard for the crowd watching.

Traditions change, things cease to mean what they meant, and it happens over and over. Other things, though, seem as transparent now as ever:

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Tree Meditations

January 28th, 2013

How is a tree like a Mayan temple?

Layers. Every 52-year cycle of the Calendar Round (every time the synodic period of Venus made it halfway back around to resynchronization with both the orbital period of Earth and their own 260-day sacred calendar), the ancient Mayans built a new layer of temple atop what was already there. Trees build fifty-two new layers in the same period. Both are meditations upon time.

Some of the most beautiful trees I’ve ever seen have been at Mayan sacred sites (like the ceiba at the gate to Tikal). Coincidence?

Kaminaljuyú is the ancient Maya city on top of which the modern-day Guatemalan capitol is built. It’s huge–widely cited as the greatest archaeological site in the Americas–but most of it is buried now under highways and high-rises. The archaeological park preserves only a tiny fraction behind a 12 foot high barb-wire fence in what is perhaps not the nicest neighborhood. Not a lot of nice neighborhoods in Guate. Like at Takalik Abaj, centuries’ accumulation of earth has turned the temples into green hills covered in jacarandas and moss-bearded cypresses (this is where I saw the foxes). At the foot of this particular tree, two Maya priests were celebrating, still at it two days after the solstice, the tourists long gone. They asked me not to take pictures of the sacred fire atop their little brickwork altar or the offerings of tamales and aguardiente.

The tree was just as awe-inspring.

Same tree from the squirrel’s POV. Also my desktop background.

This enormous, amazing tree has been growing in the central plaza in Tecpán outside the church I daresay since before the church was built. Pedro de Alvarado’s troops built their first permanent military base here in 1524 just after they razed the nearby Cakchiquel capitol of Iximché, at the ruins of which I spent the night of Ojlajuj Baktun. I have never seen a tree like this–it’s clearly some kind of conifer, but the foliage is fernlike, soft to the touch, though much thicker than a fern’s. I’ve researched to the end of my ability and I can’t figure out what it is. The twitter of a thousand birds in its canopy competed with the ranchero band ringing in the new era at the other end of the plaza. I sat on that wall with my back to its trunk and ate a chocolate-covered frozen pineapple.

Laguna de Chicabal is a tiny volcanic crater lake in Quetzaltenango department that spends about half its time inside a cloud. On the trail descending to it from the mountain, a hand-cut wooden sign asks visitors to stop and ask permission of the Mam ancestors before going on. On the path around the shore are twenty altars piled with calla lilies and carnations, each corresponding to one of the twenty days of the month in the Mayan ritual calendar. I paced it out labryinth-style, thinking of nothing, while the cloud condensed in gray jewels on my eyebrows. This tree corresponds to the altar of Noj, day of self-reflection and creative thought.

Next, maybe some temple meditations.

   Guatemala, Monumental Metaphor, Religion, Travel, Trees | No Comments »

Whose Dawn?

January 14th, 2013

What by way of inertia we here came to call the end of the world, the Mayan apocalypse, I spent in Guatemala, the center of the Mayan world.

Now that the grand tidal wave of misinformation has crashed and the world didn’t end, I’ve had trouble figuring out what name to give that strange night’s vigil. “The end of the world” doesn’t work anymore. “Winter solstice” doesn’t quite cover it. The Mayans, both ancient and modern, called it 13 Baktun, or Oxlajuj Baktun, meaning simply that it represented, depending on how you want to count, either the beginning or the end of the thirteenth unit of 144,000 days since they started keeping track in 3114 BC. The Guatemalan tourism department’s propaganda machine has been calling it “the new dawn of the Maya”, plastering the words all over posters and websites like they’re a catchphrase for the latest summer popcorn doomsday movie—meaning, depending who you ask, either that it’s the dawn of a new golden age for the Maya, their culture will regain and even surpass what it achieved at its peak, its people will be respected again etc…or else that it’s merely the dawn of a new age the Maya happen to have predicted, but which is really up for grabs in terms of whose new dawn it will actually turn out to be.


Temple 3, Iximche archaeological site, Tecpán, Guatemala, half an hour before sunset, December 20th, 2012.


Temple 3 again, with ghost, wind and Orion, sometime after midnight on the 21st.

I’m not sure if anybody actually believes in the former interpretation. Certainly a lot of people are hoping for it, many of whom I heard speak or sing or pray at the ruins of Iximche in the cold, windy hours from the afternoon of the 20th through the morning of the 21st, as the sun’s last rays slipped from the surface of the altar, the moon and the constellations of the Feathered Serpent and the Seven Hundred Boys rose and set. When it came my turn to throw my candle on the sacred fire and light up the ceremonial cigar graciously provided for me by the Ministry of Sports and Culture, I prayed for that too. But I’m not holding my breath.

Smart money, sadly, must lie with the latter interpretation, which has been taken to heart by every one of Guatemala’s 28 political parties and pretty much everybody with a soap box or a chunk of rubble to lift them half a head above the crowd. A few days earlier, I happened to show up at the ruins of Zaculeu at the same moment as “next president of Guatemala” Manuel Baldizón (I strongly advise you not click that link without first turning down your computer volume), mid promo tour, solidifying his position as prophesied leader of the new era acclaimed by several local beauty queens and a half dozen white guys dressed in rented monkey and jaguar costumes. Surrounded by late Classic temples half-assedly “restored” with concrete in 1947 by the United Fruit Company, he somehow managed to keep a straight face as he promised to represent all Guatemalans, not just robber baron industrialists in geek-rimmed glasses like himself, but Quiche, Mam, Cakchiquel, even Garifuna, and to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity blah blah blah blah facepalm.


Baldizón at Zaculeu (nerd glasses, center right) with beauty queens and monkey man. Click for full size.

In case the above hasn’t made it obvious, nobody I met in Guatemala thought the world was ending. Nobody even brought it up—with the notable exception of a Korean 24-hour news reporter who interviewed me on the morning after. He asked what I was planning to do if the world actually ended. I disappointed him; I had absolutely no plans for that contingency. Hadn’t even considered it. Funny: I know exactly, down to the letter, what I’m going to do in the event of a zombie apocalypse—but the Mayan apocalypse would have caught me unawares. Good thing it didn’t happen.

He asked what I was doing there.

“I’m here,” I told him, “to find out what the real Maya think.”

Because I didn’t know. For all my research, for all the ranting I’ve done for years on this very subject, all my information has come from outsiders—white people, mostly—the kind who’ve spent decades sitting in jungle mud puzzling out fanciful interpretations of crumbling reliefs left behind by a decadent, brilliant civilization disappeared these thousand years without once looking up at the quiet, calm-eyed guide who led them here and wondering how or even if the one could have engendered the other.

Guatemala, like the US, like every other nation in the Western Hemisphere, lives with the legacy of its colonial past: a disenfranchised indigenous population, descended from those who lived there before everybody else showed up, but lacking nearly any say in what’s done with land that was once theirs. Unlike the US or any other nation in the Western Hemisphere besides Bolivia and maybe Peru, Guatemala’s indigenous population, with dozens of unique cultural groups and even more distinct languages than there are political parties, is actually the majority, yet they have if possible even less of a voice in their government and the world, less recourse to combat the appropriation of their lands, resources, and yes, their culture. Guatemala has yet to issue its indigenous peoples any casinos, if you follow me.

Perhaps you heard how in advance of 13 Baktun, Mexico banned Maya peoples from performing ceremonies at their own ancestral temples. Perhaps you wondered, like I did, why the hell anyone would do that. It didn’t take long to figure out. What bigger soapbox could the modern Mayan people hope for than the summit of an ancient Mayan temple on the day the whole world is waiting for the not-apocalypse they never predicted? If you’ve spent decades, centuries marginalizing those people, you’re probably not going to be particularly interested in letting anybody hear what they have to say. Especially if you’ve made big plans to invite a bunch of foreigners and charge them a lot of money to see the same ancestral temples, especially if those foreigners have collectively deluded themselves into thinking the Mayans whose doomsday prophecy they’ve bought into have been dead for a thousand years and at the same time developed some not very complimentary opinions about the state of your democracy.

We’re talking about countries who put ancient, jewel-bedecked Maya kings on their money. Can you see how the sight of a bunch of poor, oppressed actual Mayans might be muddying the message?

Everywhere I went in Guatemala, I saw evidence of the (overwhelmingly non-indigenous, non-Maya) government appropriating Maya cultural icons to promote tourism, validate the regime and foster a sense of national identity. In Guatemala City there’s a giant chrome and glass mall designed to look like a Mayan temple. At Zaculeu there was Baldizón, riding the crest of a populist political campaign funded by the sale of mining rights to indigenous lands in El Petén. At Iximche, while the real Maya were quietly murmuring prayers around a fire, the government carted in truckload after truckload of armed police, a stage and sound system, a garishly-painted plywood ballcourt and a bunch of white guys dressed up in feathers and beaded loincloths to reenact the ballgame to the tinny sounds of recorded birdsongs and thumping synthesized bass. Granted, at least they let the Maya people be there and take part. But there were, very clearly delineated, the fake government-sponsored prayers and the real indigenous prayers. The fake ones (amplified, with backing vocals) talked about a bright future. The real ones talked about a harried, tortured present.

And given all the bullshit about apocalypse we’ve been telling ourselves for years out here in the rest of the world, it’s those real prayers we need to hear, to remind us what’s still at risk.


Protesters at Iximche. Translation: 13 Baktun is our time, the time of the people. No to the illegal development of electric power. No to the privatization of natural hot springs. No to the privatization of communal lands. Repeal of the General Mining Law.

So. I’ve got a soapbox here, a little one. And despite being well aware of the problems involved in my being the one to tell you this, I still think it’s better if I say it than nobody.

Here, as best I can remember and in paraphrase, from a seven-page manifesto I heard read aloud in Spanish and Mam at Iximche on the first morning of the new era by a pot-belied Mam gentleman in a straw hat and scraggly black beard, is what the real Maya think.

This isn’t your new dawn, it’s ours. Stop trying to take it from us. Stop trying to profit from our culture. Instead, listen to our ancestors for a change. If you don’t want there to be a real apocalypse, stop destroying the earth. Stop damming and poisoning our rivers. Stop dumping pollutants into Lake Atitlan. Stop bulldozing our forests. Stop mining for gold. Stop evicting us from our lands. Stop massacring our people. Stop pretending like it didn’t happen. Stop pretending like we don’t exist. Archaeologists: stop saying the Maya are extinct. Let us live and speak and teach our children and practice our culture and languages in peace, or else this new Baktun will be even worse than the last one.

Update 1/31/2013: I’ve been looking for the full, real version of the above massively abridged, painfully subjective recollection. El Nubo has a printed copy, which I hope she’ll eventually post over at Cultural Survival; in the meantime, here’s an earlier edition of the same manifesto: Second Declaration of Iximche (en Español).


Zaculeu Temple 1, with flowers and ashes.

   Altars, Angry, Environmentalism, Guatemala, Religion, Trees | 2 Comments »

Fox at Kaminaljuyu

January 2nd, 2013


Guatemalan gray fox pup, Urocyon cinereoargenteus guatemalae
Kaminaljuyu archaeological site, Guatemala City, Guatemala

Taken the morning after the end of the world, December 22nd, 2012. There were two of these guys, living in a concrete drainpipe built into the side of an unexcavated temple.

I spent the two weeks leading up to the winter solstice traveling in Guatemala. I visited three different ancient Mayan ruins, at all three of which, with varying degrees of authenticity and government co-opted-ness, modern Maya people were celebrating oxlajuj baktun, the end of a 400 year cycle which began in 1618. I visited a crater lake and a hot springs sacred to both the modern and ancient maya. I saw the oldest church in Central America, erected by the conquered Maya at the behest of Pedro de Alvarado in 1524.

Plus I got my shoes shined.

All this and more in the coming weeks of the new age as I slowly unpack my luggage, brain, notes and memory cards.

   Beasts, Guatemala, Visions | No Comments »

God I Hope the End Is Near

January 9th, 2012

How many jokes/invocations/questionably ironic references/panicked remonstrances will I hear this year about the coming end of the world? When they’re talking about it on The View and the Nightly News with Brian Williams, it’s time to give up counting. How much more mainstream can a nutso newage conspiracy theory get? Consider Y2K. That apocalypse was about Jesus and Revelations; its poor conclusions and minimal research were drawn from the mythology of (one of) the world’s most popular religion(s). This apocalypse is about obscure blood-drinking deities last best personified by Hernán Cortés and a religion legitimately practiced by far less than 0.01% of humanity. Yet already the 2012 hype seems to have far outstripped the 2000 hype. Blame the internet, I guess. It was a far tamer place 12 years ago than it is now, that’s for sure. For the title of last bastion for shamanistic folkloric mythmaking on earth, the competition is hot between the internet and one tiny uncontacted village in the Amazon.

I’ve already done all the debunking of the Mayan apocalypse I’m going to do on this blog, at great length and with much windbaggery, in posts such as Circular Time and No Apocalypse. I also have a little sidebar essay about it (as applied fancifully to the plight of the working writer) in A Working Writer’s Daily Planner 2012, available from Small Beer Press in print-on-demand and ebook form.

Instead I want to talk about how great it would be if there actually was an apocalypse.

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The Ritual of the Mountain

May 2nd, 2011

Sitting through my semi-annual Catholic mass the other Easter Sunday, I thought about ritual. In some ways, it seems a silly thing to do–the same thing, over and over. But we all do it. We all have rituals: religious or not, spiritual or not, whether it’s watching The Princess Bride for the umpteen thousandth time and struggling not to say every line along with the actors or lurching out of bed and blearily assembling the material components for a cup of tea. A ritual is a benchmark, a means for acknowledging and measuring change by observing something that doesn’t change. A ritual is also something you gain some emotional benefit from–otherwise you wouldn’t keep doing it.

I have climbed a lot of mountains. Not as many as some, not enough. But I’ve climbed my share. And there is absolutely a ritual to it, though I’m only really becoming conscious of it now. It goes like this.

Get up early, full of mixed dread and anticipation. Assemble what you think you’ll need to carry with you, then cull it down. The more you carry, the slower you’ll go, the harder it will be. Bring what’s essential, leave everything else. On the way to the trail, be aware of the ease of your conveyance. Shortly, by choice, you won’t be able to rely on it. At the beginning, move too quickly, tire yourself out prematurely. Rest. Tire yourself out again. Repeat until you settle into a rhythm. Time your breaths, count your heartbeats. Sing songs in your head–only the ones with repetitive riffs, those to which you remember almost all the words, and preferably those with relevant lyrics. Knocking on Heaven’s Door has always been a favorite of mine. Remember to look up from the trail from time to time–but not for too long. The higher you climb, the more careful of your footing you must be. Rationalize the exertion required. Are you a third of the way? Halfway? Three quarters of the way? At the peak, drop everything you brought with you and stare empty-minded into space for as long as it takes for your pulse to subside. Close your eyes and point yourself at the sun. Eat any food you carried with you. It will stick in your throat, but taste different from all other food you’ve eaten since the last time you stood on a peak. Drink water. Relive the ascent in your head in preparation for the return. Resist the urge to fall asleep. Think how far away the world is, how here you are, without all of it, still alive. All that stuff you left behind–you didn’t need it, even though you’re already missing it, already anticipating the moment when it will be returned to you. As you begin to descend, favor your ankles and knees. They’ll turn rubbery soon, you’ll risk falling. You’ll fall. By the time you get down, you’ll be sticky, dirty, so tired you’ll be barely in control of your extremities. The view from the summit will flash before your eyes when you blink. Stumble back to your conveyance. If you’re not driving, it’s okay to sleep. Stop somewhere along the way to eat a ridiculous meal, more copious and more rich than anything you’re used to. Consider it the first step in piling back on all that stuff you left behind. When you get home, shower. The dust and sweat and bits of stick and pine needle and sap and dead bugs that slough off down the drain–that’s your old self. Step out from under the stream. You’re renewed.

This is the tallest mountain I’ve ever climbed: Volcán Santa María, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, 12,375 feet. Santa Maria has been dormant since 1902. The smoldering protrusion on its left flank is Santiaguito, 8,500 feet, which began forming in 1922 and has erupted every few years or so since. The rocky cut in the foreground is the path of the pyroclastic mudflow from an eruption in 2008.

Variations on the ritual:

I got up at 4:15 AM. Venus and Orion were in the sky as we started hiking. I could barely see my feet. Our guide was Edgar, a 21-year-old, four-foot-tall Mayan cabbage farmer who does this once a week. There were hummingbirds everywhere, hundreds of them, sucking nectar from trumpetlike clusters of red flowers, shooting up into the heavens above the slopes and then diving madly, according to Edgar, for the pure joy of it. The locals, of the Mayan and Christian religions alike, consider this mountain sacred. We didn’t see practically anyone on the way up–it was too early–but at the peak, panting for breath and incoherent with altitude giddiness, we found altars of calla lilies and an old, old man with his wife and daughter singing laments, burning incense, importuning the saints. On the way down, there were scores of them, carrying offerings of flowers, food, huge jugs of orange soda. The boys stopped to congratulate us and shake hands. The adults looked suspicious. All of them indiscriminately tossed away their trash on the slopes of the mountain–water bottles, plastic packages of toasted corn nuts, chips, gummy candies, tissues. This saddened Edgar to no end–that people who purportedly love this mountain so much, even to the point of considering it holy, don’t have enough respect for it not to cover it with trash. For years he’s been trying to convince them to stop, organizing teams of foreigners to pick up trash thrown by his own people. But he’s young and idealistic, and his elders don’t seem much inclined to listen. So my sisters and I collected trash, filling up about a dozen plastic grocery bags in the course of our descent. We tried to help brainstorm solutions, but it’s a hard thing–there’s no way to get the word out. They speak lots of different dialects. Many don’t know a common tongue. Most don’t know how to read. My sister El Nubo, who works with community radio stations (about the only form of mass communication that works out here), said she’d try to help him get out some PSAs over the airwaves. I hope it works.

The Central American volcanic arc, looking east from Santa Maria.

   Environmentalism, Guatemala, Mountains, Religion | 2 Comments »

Veiled Lady

March 21st, 2011


veiled lady stinkhorn, Dictyophora indusiata

In a clearing among thick brush under ceiba and palm trees, Quiriguá archaeological site, oh about 25 metres west of the ballcourt plaza. This may be the nicest mushroom picture I have taken. Look at the texture in the full size image. D. indusiata appears in tropical regions all around the world. In China it’s cultivated for cooking. I did not eat this one because I had no idea what it was at the time, and even if I had, they were blanket-gassing banana fields with pesticides on the other side of the forest.

But of course I’ll eat those bananas later.

Happy equinox.

   Banner, Environmentalism, Fungi, Guatemala | 1 Comment »

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