the small Cessna gains altitude, I see the sun break through
the early morning fog, playing into a brilliant patter on
the plane wing as the capitan veers off at the last minute
to fly around the face of the mountain; ultimately pulling
up and out through the small pass, away from San Christobal
de las Casas, the small mountain town on the edge of the Lacandon
Rain Forest. I feel the sensation that I am seeing the "side
of the earth" as we fly on to the other side of the mountain.
Having successfully achieved this exit from San Cristobal,
we slowly fly over the layers of mountains. Down the plateaus,
the land falls away, forming wide brown steppes, like an imaginary
staircase on the side of the earth, dropping off, downward,
one layer at a time, toward the dense jungle regions that
The terrain is beginning to level and turn greener. Even
at our altitude, I am able to see the density and feel the
hugeness of the trees below. I see a lake, reflecting so brilliant
a blue, that it becomes a complete reflection of the sky;
then, a river, flowing out of it like a blue-green snake,
weaving its lonesome path through the forest away from home.
At once, I am fascinated by the huge burned-out clearings…ugly
scars inflicted on the earth by the ignorant slash and burn
method of jungle farming.
The humming of the prop of the small Cessna puts me into
a bit of a reverie; I begin to drift back and remember my
first meeting with the Medicine Man on the Hopi mesas at New
Oraibi [Kykmoshovi] in Arizona. It was an early Fall day;
I am here because my friend Richard from New Mexico had accidentally
met them months earlier and wanted to introduce me to the
Marion, the wife of the medicine man, and her daughter are
standing outside the house. They greet us and invite us in.
I walk through a small entry, really a porch, where I hear
and then see a corn grinder operating. The pungent rich smell
tells me that the several sacks I see about the floor are
freshly milled. Marion explains to me that the people from
her village grow their own sacred blue corn and indicates
where the rock ledge of the village drops off to reveal sandy
fields, deeply in contrast to the lush, bushy corn stalks,
bean and squash plants, and short, stocky peach trees; and
how in the summer she walks down to tend her crops before
the sun comes up and it gets too hot.
We enter a darker interior room; there is a couch and an
easy chair, covered with a serape. There are two beds, a roll-a-way
in the corner, two sets of dresser drawers, and a formica
kitchen table. I look around me at the plastered walls and
rough hewed beams. Every where I look I see bright colors
in contrast to the almost twilight feeling of the room. Ceremonial
gourd rattles hang from the beams...painted turquoise, ochre,
sandstone brown. Katsina dolls that look as though they have
hung there forever, covered with plastic wrap to protect them
from the constantly sifting dirt from the roof overhead. On
the walls are brightly painted tablitas, clusters of turtle
shells, fox tails, and several other items that are unrecognizable
I suddenly feel a strong presence, and at the same moment
see that a man has entered the room from a back door. He is
small in stature, like many Hopi, with an incredibly big grin
on his face. He walks over and stands directly in front of
me. He is holding something in his hand that at first appears
to be a bouquet of beautiful flowers. Looking closer, I see
that it is a cluster of long feathers that are so vibrantly
colorful that they seem to pulsate!
"We need these feathers", he states very matter
of factly. "They come from down over there," he
says, making a motion toward the South. "That is where
we get our sun and rain," as though I should know.
Suddenly I am brought back to the present, sitting in the
rear baggage compartment of the small Cessna, with the feeling
that my stomach is in my throat. The humidity is penetrating
the small cabin of the plane as we are surrounded by tropical
rain forest. My body is perspiring and I feel slightly claustrophobic.
I am brought out of these dangerous thoughts by a sudden shrieking!
Just beneath my window a small flock of Scarlet Macaw parrots
wing by; their red, yellow, green, and blue feathers flashing
like a mirage before my eyes.
We are now looking down over massive jungle forest and I
suddenly see large rock structures peering straight up at
me. Jutting out from the forest is an entire city of rock,
resting on the banks of the most beautiful river I had ever
seen. The Rio Usamacinta, known as the "Amazon of the
North", geographically and politically separating Mexico
and Guatemala, lay beneath me. At this spot the banks are
made up of soft white sand, rising up to the edge of the ancient
Mayan city of Yachilan, over 800 years old. Accessible only
by river or several days walk through the jungle, this city
was formally one of the gems of the Mayan Empire.
Only the elite few lived in the apparent luxury of the temples.
The priests and scholars dwelt here, involving themselves
in such sedentary activities as astronomy, mathematics, language,
arts, and structural designing. These activities, along with
religion, the all-pervasive activity around which all their
lives existed, and trading, the thing the Maya did best, filled
As we begin to circle over primitive thatched huts, moving
into position to attempt a landing, I see little room for
error. The landing field adjacent to the Lacandon village
of Lacanja is a narrow, short strip, cut out of jungle closed
in by 100 foot trees and heavy brush. The plant life is so
prolific that the strip must be maintained by the Indians
constantly cutting back the encroaching jungle with their
machetes, or else within a few weeks landing would be impossible.
The captain has found the clearing in the jungle. He comes
in, just over the trees, and brings us down fast and hard
on the strip, moves to the end of the runway and stops. I
jump out quickly, ready to feel the earth beneath my feet.
My traveling companion is right behind me. Captain Pepe tosses
my gear out behind me, starts his engines, moves out to the
far end of the runway. He revs his motor, comes back toward
me, quickly picking up speed, and takes off, his wheels again
barely clearing the trees.
I draw a deep breath. The air is so heavy that I momentarily
question my ability to inhale it. There is really no time
to ponder the air, because a crowd has already begun to gather.
About fifteen Lacandon Indians are surrounding me, appearing
absolutely aboriginal; in fact, quite ferocious-looking. Men,
women, and children with long bushy hair down to their waists;
feet that have never known shoes…and all wearing below-the-knee
gowns pieced together of hand-woven cloth.
Their manner is very excited, voices extremely guttural,
as they all speak at once, principally in Mayan, with a few
Spanish words interjected. Everyone is obviously surprised
to see the captain fly off, leaving my companion and myself
standing on the landing strip. I am feeling extremely vulnerable,
and self-intimidated by that knowledge. However, the Lacandon's
seem to be just as taken aback by our presence. Looking around,
beyond the landing field, I see the tops of a few huts as
I try to think of my next move in this non-verbal atmosphere,
acutely aware of my self-consciousness…..to be continued