Fox Shapeshifter Dream

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.

A Penance in Verapaz

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….

Continue reading

The Stone Horse of Flores

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?

Betwixt_Issue_2

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.

Layers, Echoes, Decay and Its Lack

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.

100_1678

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.

100_1658

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:

100_1667

 

Tree Meditations

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.