It was dusk when I arrived at the mainland at Boca de Cielo,
in southern Chiapis, Mexico: a magical place where the jungles
of the Lacandon Rain Forest meet the tropical Pacific. The
tide is about half way out, so I have time to kill. When the
sand bar becomes bare enough to walk out to the far end, I
can signal my presence with a flashlight, to Pedro, my friend
who occupies the island with his family. The distance across
the lagoon to his island is only about two hundred meters
at low tide; life there, however, is light years away from
where I am now standing.
I am returning from several weeks travel on the Rio Usamacinta,
in the jungle rain forest that lies between Mexico and Guatemala.
My mission there has been to fulfill a millenium-old need
to supply ceremonial parrot feathers to the Hopi and Zuni
elders, in the southwest United States. The success of the
trip is secreted in the map tube that I am holding: fifty
molted scarlet macaw tail feathers, each one over twenty inches
long, each a beautiful scarlet with blue tip.
There is a lot of gear from the trip, and I begin to shuttle
it out onto the sandbar as it exposes itself, assuming that
Pedro has noticed my signal and will arrive shortly. Soon
I see the soft luminescent splash of the long boat pole entering
the water, as he pushes the dugout canoe toward me. Helping
me stow my gear, Pedro observes that I am not looking well.
The hour is late and I am, in fact, exhausted. So, instead
of first visiting the family compound as I would normally
do, we tie up fifty meters down the lagoon, at the small isolated
thatched palapa where I always hang my hammock. We quickly
unload my gear and string up my hammock. I hang my pack on
one of the forked upright poles of the hut, so the scorpions
can't find their way in. Pulling out a light cotton serape,
I wrap myself in it and climb into my hammock. Feeling a light
breeze from the turning tide, and hearing the muffled sound
of the sea, only fifty meters away, I doze.
As always, I waken just before dawn, feeling fresh. I lay
in my hammock a few minutes, listening to the birds chirping
and the waves crashing, happy to be out of the jungle; happy
to have completed my mission. As I lay here, I remember some
of my less successful excursions: missing my connection with
the small Cessna that I had arranged to pick me up in Yachilan,
and having to get out of the jungle overland, hauling a raft
and a parrot…taking several days to return here to Boca
Then there was the time that I convinced to defense minister
to approve my flying into the jungle via a Guatemalan Air
Force plane. I had finished my business in good order and
was ready to exit with a large bundle of parrot feathers;
but, found myself in the middle of a seven day torrential
downpour in the town of Poptun, and was confined to a straw
hut with no reading material. Finally, on the first semi-
clear day, I started to walk out of town and got a ride with
an empty 5 ton delivery truck, standing in back for a 200
mile ride on brutal dirt roads.
Or the year that I had gone to the edge of the Rio Passion
in the dead end town of Sayaxe, and rode that river into the
Usamacinta on an empty sixty foot corn barge. The boat operator,
Maguine C'fuentes, stopped at every village on the way up
the river, helping me procure various parrot feathers.
My desire for coffee brings me back to the present, so I
wander up to the main group of family huts and, after asking
the customary "Con Permiso", I enter the cook hut.
My desire for a cup of coffee is strong; but, not as strong
as Pedro's immediate suggestion that I partake in an herbal
purge. We had discussed this purification several months earlier.
So, knowing how weak I really feel, I immediately agree, and
go to the front hut to wait for the preparation of my purge.
I am in a thatch-roofed hut. The front part of the room is
less than 10 feet from the lagoon. Two crude hammocks are
strung side by side. There is a wooden dining table several
feet to the rear. A short, semi-transparent bamboo wall separates
the front room from the kitchen. The floors are natural sand.
Lydia, Pedro's wife, comes out of the kitchen to greet me.
"Buenas dias, Chefi, como esta?" Lydia is a beautiful
woman. She has a large birthmark centered perfectly between
her eyes. Lydia's family goes back at least ten generations,
living in the islands and sand spits of southern Chiapis.
Knowing I would agree, Lydia passes me a cup of liquid and
says to drink it all. I do this with great difficulty; this
is the nastiest, most bitter drink I have ever tasted. Reluctantly,
I get it all down. Lydia tells me to return to my hut and
wait for Pedro…and, under no circumstances should I
walk around barefoot.
The tea has an immediate effect on me. As my stomach begins
to churn violently, I rush to the outhouse, where I spend
the next two hours. This intense purge of my entire intestinal
tract will continue to occur every thirty minutes for the
next twenty-four hours.
I lay in my hamaca trying to read, and feel my head burning
with fever; my thoughts are unfocused and raging out of control.
My mind is moving at such a rapid rate of speed that I think
I have been drugged. I discover that I am completely unable
to direct my mind into a positive space…thoughts jumping
around wildly, only to pause briefly to dwell on some of the
more negative aspects and experiences of my life. I am beginning
to understand that my emotional system is being purged along
with my digestive system.
The inability to control my thoughts and body are becoming
too much for me. I suddenly experience the realization that
I am going to die, and become filled with fear. All day long
my attention is pulled back and forth…from mind to body.
I guess I finally sleep at one point because, when I open
my eyes briefly, I see the sun going down behind a cloudless
blue horizon, the sky meeting the sea.
Although it is the dry season, a light rain begins to fall
as dusk arrives. As I listen to the rain play a steady rhythm
on the thatched roof, and the surf beat methodically 100 yards
away, my thoughts finally become more orderly and calm.
Pedro comes into my hut, whistling, wrapped in some old piece
of sail cloth, greeting me with his customary "Que tal,
Chefi?" ("How do you feel Jeff?"). I look up
from my self-centered reverie, almost too miserable to answer.
I answer, forcing a congenial note: "Bien, Pedro."
Lighting a cigarette, Pedro asks "Porque tiene mucho
triste, Chefi?" ("Why are you so sad. Jeff?").
I intuitively feel that Pedro is totally aware of what I am
experiencing; but, I answer anyway: "Mi vida es pasando
en frente de mi ojos, Pedro. Yo me visto muchas memorias negativas.
No me gusto!" (My life is passing in front of my eyes.
I see many negative things from my past that make me feel
I find myself telling Pedro many long-forgotten experiences
of my youth. This monologue goes on for quite some time, with
Pedro occasionally commenting "Como no" or "Muy
Later , Pedro comments at length, that, although I have for
many years desired self actualization, and have studied and
practiced in earnest, my approach has not been correct. He
says that I must regress and deal with the sorrow and guilt
of the past until it has been reconciled with the present.
A prior year, returning to the states, my old VW bus had
died. I was left stranded, on my 28th birthday, without even
enough money to take a bus. I hitched into the nearest pueblo,
sold or gave away all of my possessions, traded a hatchet
to the bus driver, and made my way back up north. Arriving
in New Mexico without a penny, and only the clothes on my
back, was a challenge. My only possession was a package containing
41 macaw parrot feathers, a gift to the Hopi. This experience,
Pedro explained, was the materialistic symbolic beginning
of this purification. I would now continue to another level
by cleansing my body.
"No problema, Chefi," insists Pedro. "Tu tienes
la potencia por una vida muy especial. Ahora, como un nino…proximo
ano, mas fuerte. Chefi, con fey in dios, todo is possible."
("There is no problem, Jeff. You have the potential for
a very special life. Now, you are like a child. Each year
you will become stronger and stronger. With faith in God,
everything is possible.")
The fog shrouding my mind temporary lifts, and I comprehend
very well what I need to do to gain the strength I need…not
only for myself, but also to fulfill the timeless requirements
of a large group of Pueblo people, whose ceremonial future
depends on reestablishing a connection between their Central
American brothers, the Maya, for the acquisition of esoteric
paraphernalia. This, I know, is my mission revealed.
Pedro leaves, and I drift into an often interrupted and troubled
sleep, until, finally, the dawn breaks bright and clear. The
intense fever has subsided and I am clearheaded, though a
bit weak from fasting. The brief feeling of well-being subsides
as the experiences of the past twenty-four hours weigh heavily
on me. The desire for interaction is not high on my list of
priorities. Nevertheless, when Lydia's daughters, Yolanda
and Maria de la Luz come to say that their mother has food
for me, I go directly to the cook hut.
I enter the palapa, calling out the tradition "Con permiso."
"Pasa," everyone answers at once.
The present scene comes clearly into focus. Yolanda is grinding
corn into a pasty dough called masa, to be used to make fresh
tortillas. Maria is helping by keeping the top of the hand
grinder full of pre-soaked corn. I can hear Arachelli calling
the chickens to come eat some of the same corn her sisters
are grinding. Lydia is in the kitchen, toasting tortillas
on a flat piece of cast iron called a comal, over an open
fire. I look to the Lagoon and see Pedro at the edge of the
water, twenty feet away, tossing his cast net. Glimpsing my
approach from his one good eye, he folds his net-full of fish,
and comes to the hut.
"Como esta, Chefi, bien o mal?" ("How are
you , Jeff, good or bad?")
Pedro asks me, reaching around to feel the pulse in my neck,
and then for the pulse in my temples. "Mas calma hoy.
Verdad?" ("Much calmer today. True?")
I answer "Si", beginning to feel less fragmented
"Tiene hambre, Chefi? Quiere comer?" asks Lydia,
while at the same time setting two toasted tortillas in front
of me, along with a glass of steaming liquid…a drink
made of thin cornmeal mush, called atole de maiz. I eat this
meal very slowly, savoring each bite of the delicate crisp
handmade tortillas, and feeling strength from the hot atole
spreading throughout my body. This turns out to be my sole
diet for three days. The satisfaction from this sustenance
gets stronger with each meal.
Beginning to feel 'here' again, I call out to Lydia, "Es
possible dos mas tortillas, por favor?"
Pedro interjects, with a smile: "No mas ahora, Chefi.
Poca a poca. No quierre su todo vida in un momento."
("Just take a little bit at a time. You don't want your
entire life in a single moment.") He reaches in the drawer
in the table a pulls out a bag of dominoes. We begin the first
of countless games that continue on and off for the next two
days of my purge. This is how I pass the time between my tortillas
and atole…attempt at mindless activity. The dominoes
seem to have a calming effect on me.
Island days pass slowly. There are about fifteen hours of
light between the early 'false' dawn and sunset. Sometimes,
when the moon is big it seems as though darkness never comes.
Today is one of the longest days of my life…sitting
here, playing dominoes. Pedro and Lydia's children: Yolando,
Maria, Arachelli, Leopoldo, and Octavio, finish their chores.
They disappear, returning again scrubbed clean with book bags
in hand. Pedro excuses himself, loads the kids into the dugout
canoe, poles them over to school on the mainland, and returns
with a sack of dried corn. Lydia puts the corn to soak in
water to later be ground for tomorrow's tortillas.
We play a few more sets of dominoes, watching the water…
schools of mullet leaping through the air. Soon we see a small
boat approaching; it's Pedro's friend Don Guyo, in the junked
out rowboat we call the 'Papaya', paddling with a broken oar
and managing to bail enough water at the same time to keep
the tub from sinking.
Coming ashore, Don Guyo pulls the launch onto the sand and
tosses out a rope-tied rock to keep it in place. As he moves
unsteadily up to the hut, I can see right away that he been
hitting the punch bowl. Pedro greets him with the respect
due an elder; and, after nodding to me amicably, launches
into a forceful dialogue with Pedro. Don Guyo's life, and
every action, is dictated by two things: injustices done him
by the Mexican government, who he claims took his land, and
his family and children, who put him out and barely tolerate
him. Pedro sympathizes and agrees affirmatively to what he
is hearing, occasionally commenting "Si", "Como
no", "Bueno", "Lastima".
Finally, in a polit effort to change the subject, Pedro says
to Don Guyo "Vamos". Don Guyo picks up his machete,
grabs his water-filled gourd and follows Pedro down the beach
toward the land they have been clearing for a small milpa
or farm. I continue to lay in the hamaca, contemplating the
After returning, we resume our play of several more sets
of dominoes. Attempting to keep my mind from drifting into
negative areas, Pedro continues to make casual conversation…
about the tide, the fish, the condition of the thatches on
the huts, the approaching rainy season, the coconut trees
we plan to plant, the ripped fish net, the ripeness of the
mangos on the giant tree across the lagoon, the tastiness
of iguana eggs from fresh water iguanas as opposed to salt
water iguanas, Lydia's recipe for iguana tamales
The man has developed the fine art of casual conversation.
Hours drift by; the tide is now at it's low and the wind has
stopped. It is very hot now, maybe mid-90's, with the sun
straight up and not even a hint of a breeze. I am beginning
Pedro begins talking of other times in his life, in other
places. His youth on the gulf coast, by Alvarado, near Vera
Cruz, where he fished. His grandmother's home in the state
of Guerrero, where he studied herbs. The job in Costa Rica,
driving heavy equipment, where he lost an eye. All the while,
Pedro has his good eye looking towards the sea.
Suddenly, Pedro jumps up, grabs his cast net, and runs the
thirty feet to the water's edge, saying "Watch, Chefi"!
He stamps his foot on the wet sand, and a school of maybe
fifty mullet jump. Pedro tosses his net and pulls in twelve
or fourteen pan-sized fish. Without even bothering to take
them out, he hangs the net on the post supporting the hut
and returns to the table and we continue to play dominoes.
It is late afternoon and I am lying in my hamaca again. My
stomach is full of corn and feeling good; tortillas and atole
have come to mean life and nourishment to me. Pedro says that
I can begin to add other food to my diet in a few days. I
start to imagine the big fish that I will catch. Pedro, reading
my thoughts, explains that I have to realize that my stomach
is like a baby's: delicate and unable to take a mix of foods.
I should forget my food senses for awhile and just live on
tortillas. On that note, Pedro is off to finish his chores.
The sun has just disappeared into the sea, and the strong
afterglow of red-orange continues to disperse through the
clouds for the next hour or so. My mind is full of thoughts
that take me far from my present location, here where the
Chiapis Rain Forest meets the mouth of the sea…the end
of the world. Thinking thoughts that are not in the present
is an unproductive habit that has plagued me for far too long.
It seems impossible to exert the momentary self-control to
change the pattern of my thoughts; but, as a light breeze
picks up, my mind's focus suddenly becomes very clear.
Perhaps it is this peaceful, calm setting and its inhabitants;
or, maybe, the lack of electricity, running water and other
outside forces, which always seem to cause constant emotional
changes. I become very aware of myself and the world I have
created. I think about the experience of the last days, and
become very quiet and content, with the certainty that life
continually renews itself within the context of our previous
The full moon is rising from behind the mountains across
the lagoon. The sky continues to brighten and when the moon
is high enough to reflect on the water, I get the feeling
of a false dawn. I look out from under the thatches of my
hut, still lying in my hamaca, and see the strong shadows
of the palms against the sand. I see the long silhouette of
someone approaching; hearing the soft, familiar whistle, I
know it is Pedro.
"Buenos noche, Chefi," says Pedro, entering the
hut and dropping into the hamaca next to mine, in one motion.
"Bien, gracias," I give the expected answer, "Y
"Muy bien," returns Pedro, lighting a cigarette.
We are both dressed in t-shirts and old shorts, our perennial
island outfits. Pedro is silent for a few minutes, so we both
contemplate the night…the sound of waves breaking, thatches
rustling in a light offshore breeze; arms dangling from the
side of the hamacas, fingers trailing in the sand.
"Que pensando, Chefi?" Pedro begins, wanting to
know my thoughts.
"Nada, Pedro." I answer, attempting to indicate
the lazy nature of my mind at that moment, and not wanting
to admit that my thoughts are again darting everywhere except
in the here and now.
"Chefi, necicito ayudar tu cabeza aprender nuevo realidades.
Por mucho anos tu tienes pensamientos bravo. Vamos a cambiarlos
ideas mas sanos, intiendes," states Pedro, getting up
from his hamaca. I follow his example and also get up. Pedro
tells me that the time has come to learn new realities; to
change some of my concepts to stronger, more logical and clear
ways of thinking.
Pedro goes to the center of the hut and spreads a serape,
indicating that I should remove my clothes and lie down. As
I do this he proceeds to unpack a small bundle that I had
not noticed before.
From the bundle he removes four candles, two plastic bottles
containing some sort of liquid, and a small box containing
some metal dust, clinging to a magnet. He takes up one of
the bottles, walks in turn to each corner of the hut, pausing
long to sprinkle a bit of liquid on each corner post. Coming
back to the serape, he picks up the candles, lights them,
and places one in each corner of the hut.
I am lying on the serape in the center of this tiny thatched
hut… completely vulnerable, yet full of faith in this
new and unknown reality, wondering what this man is going
to do. Pedro approaches me, kneeling by my side. He begins
to massage my body methodically, working from the center of
my back, outward, down my arms, down my legs; out to the very
ends of my hands and feet. Entranced and only semi conscious,
I glimpse at Pedro's hands; almost luminous in the moonlight,
he reaches my fingertips, gathers something up and flings
it away, almost violently. I feel this procedure repeated
for each of my limbs, as if he were pulling away imaginary
cobwebs off of my body. Pedro does this process repeatedly,
until suddenly, he grabs me up by the arms and quickly guides
me, naked to the edge of the lagoon.
With both hands on my shoulders, Pedro turns me and points
to the enormous globe in the sky. The glare of the moon is
so strong that I almost have to shut my eyes. With great and
deep conviction, Pedro says: "Mira, Chefi! Mira muy bien
a la luna. Que vista is realidad… no es fantasia! Realidad
nunca cambia. El sol y la luna in el cielo…el maiz y
frijol en la tierra. Es una sistems de la vida que nunca cambia!
Es la ley naturaliza." ("Look Jeff! Look very hard
at the moon. What you see is realidad…not fantasy. Reality
never changes. The sun and the moon in the sky…the corn
and beans in the earth. This is one system of life that never
changes. These are the laws of nature.")
He continues, "Tu pensamientos cambio diario; entonces
nuevo realidades cada dia. Con tu manera de vida, no puede
tener feliz…no puede tener tranquilidad." ("Your
thoughts change daily; your reality is different every day.
With your manner of life, you are not able to have happiness…not
able to have tranquility.")
"Que quiere, Chefi? Quiere mucho dinero? Quiere podre?
Quiere falsidades o quiere la vida propriadad?" ("What
do you want, Jeff? Do you want a lot of money? Do you want
a lot of power? Do you want a life of lies or do want to live
a proper life?") Pedro finishes this statement with even
I am so shocked and overcome by the force and power of this
manipulation that I barely am able to reply. Finally, like
an arrogant child to a parent, I say, "Yo quiero calma,
pedro. No quiero problemas. No quiero dolar in la cabeza.
You puedo pagar el precio por la vida bueno. No importa cuantos
questa." ("I want a calm life. I don't want problems.
I don't want headaches. I am willing to pay the price for
a good life. The cost is not important.")
Pedro walks me back to my hut and goes off into the night,
whistling. I return to my hamaca. Tears run down my face as
I contemplate the true beauty and incredibly simple reality
of life here at the mouth of the sky. I know it is late because
the moon has passed its apex. A light breeze begins…a
sign that the tide is turning on the full moon. Soon, I hear
the soft splash of Pedro's dugout canoe entering the lagoon.
I know there will be a big fish for breakfast.