The Ruin of Civilization
Flores, Guatemala, March 2007
Mosquitoes, ants, spiders, flies and more mosquitoes; mud up to my ankles and sometimes up to my knees; oppressive heat and unbearable humidity. Yeah sure, I’ll walk 150 kilometers round trip through dense jungle to see the largest Mayan pyramid ever discovered. Why not? I was warned that it would not be easy. I’m tough; I can handle a little difficulty for a spectacular reward. I wasn’t warned, however, about the greatest danger of all… the vicious jungle chickens.
Flores, Guatemala is a small but pleasant tourist town located on an island in the middle of a lake. It is the main starting point for tours to the famous Mayan ruins of Tikal. I’ve been to Tikal before, however, and I have something else on my agenda when I arrive here in March of 2007. I want to go to El Mirador. It’s supposed to be some very spectacular ancient Mayan ruins but, unlike Tikal, it’s very hard to get to. Apparently, it requires trekking through dense jungle for 75 kilometers (50 miles) to arrive. And then a return trip of similar duration and difficulty. There’s no potable water on the route either so all water has to be brought with you. I’m perfectly capable of carrying my food and stuff for the 5 day round trip journey. But the 25 liters of water per day I will need in the jungle is just too much. No doubt about it, if I want to go to El Mirador, I’m going to have to hire myself a guide and a mule. And that might be expensive…
So I spend a few days wandering around Flores talking to tour agents about prices for a guide and mule to take me to El Mirador. Mostly they tell me it will cost 300 bucks for the 5 day journey if I go on my own. It might be possible to go for 250 or less if there’s a group going but it’s hard to get a group together because the journey is so difficult. I search the guesthouses for other adventurous souls but don’t have much luck. I try negotiating with the agents for a slightly cheaper price. No luck. If I just wait around, sooner or later a group will go…
On my fifth night in town, I’m talking to a local marijuana dealer and I mention that I’m looking for a reasonably priced guide to take me to El Mirador. Much to my delight, he informs me that he knows a free lancer. The guy is cheap because he doesn’t work for the agencies but he speaks no English only Spanish. No problem for me because I speak Spanish. When can I meet him? A few hours later, I meet the guide, Juan Francisco Sanchez, in the dark parking lot near my guesthouse. The first thing I notice about Juan is his age. He’s older. I’m guessing early 60’s. He’s got grey hair and a grey beard. He wears a big sombrero. He seems healthy enough but I hesitate. I wonder if a man his age can handle a trek through the jungle of such distances. But Juan speaks with great confidence. He’s been taking travelers to El Mirador for 20 years. The journey is no problem for him. In the dangerous jungle, wisdom and experience counts for much more than youth and strength… He also tells me that he can take me there on my own for only 200 bucks and that basically is all I need to hear. If he says he can do it, why should I not believe him?
So I give Juan 200 bucks cash right there in the parking lot and he gives me a voucher with his name and identification number on it. He promises to meet me the next morning at 7am in front of my hotel so we can take the 7:30 bus to the small village of Carmelita and begin the trek by the late morning. As Juan explains to me, the expensive tours all take air conditioned mini buses to and from Carmelita but because of my discount we will be going by local bus. This is something I do not mind at all. As a matter of fact, I almost always prefer local transport.
The problems begin with Juan shortly after I give him the money. He comes by my hotel two hours later to tell met that there is no 7:30am bus to Carmelita. The only bus leaves at 12:00 noon. We will arrive in Carmelita in the late afternoon, stay the night there and start the trek the following morning. It will delay everything by a day but the price will not change. Oh well. No big deal. He leaves promising to meet me at my hotel in the morning. But the following day at 11:30 Juan has still failed to show up. Finally, I receive a message from a stranger that I have to meet Juan at the market near the bus station. So I hustle across town, wander around the market until I find Juan standing on a corner next to two huge sacks of supplies and three 25 liter containers of water. We wait on the corner for an hour but then the bus arrives. The ride that follows is a classic; typical ancient Guatemalan chicken bus held together by chewing gum, bandaids and plastic wrap, packed full of people and supplies and animals traveling for three hours down the most pot holed road you can imagine. But we make it to Carmelita; a tiny village in the middle of the jungle.
There are no hotels or guesthouses in Carmelita so we have to stay at the home (shack) of Juan’s friends. It’s an older couple and they are extremely friendly and welcoming. After dinner, I go for a walk around the village on my own. I smoke a joint in the shadows. It’s very atmospheric; a jungle village bathed in moonlight. I notice a bigger building a few doors down from where we are staying. Looks like some kind of Christian church. I return to the guest shelter where our hammocks are hung to find Juan waiting for me. This is the first time that it occurs to me that perhaps I made a serious mistake in hiring Juan as a guide. For some reason, he looks very ancient under the light of the lantern. His face is furrowed deep and his hair bright white. I ask him his age and he tells me 73… Oh shit, he will have a damn heart attack on the trail. What should I do? Back out? Return to Flores and find a new guide?
And then the strange thing happens. All of a sudden, Juan starts talking to me about Jesus and “El Senor”. In the glow of the lantern, he looks the perfect image of a prophet from the Old Testament. He’s very sincere and he wants me to come to understand the truth of the bible…. Oh no, rings through my head. What have I gotten myself into? 5 days of Christian zeal… To make matters worse, believe it or not, the church a few doors down takes this particular moment to boom forth with a glorious joyful Christian hymn. How bizarre is the universe I live in? Here I am in a small village in the middle of the jungle and I have to listen to a preachy Jesus sermon complete with background music…aaugh… But I don’t engage Juan in any serious theological or philosophical debate. Instead, I lie back in my hammock and drift off to sleep.
The following morning, we are supposed to leave at the crack of dawn. I awake at first light and find that Juan has breakfast waiting for me. I wolf it down and am ready to go. Unfortunately, Juan isn’t. And the time it takes him to get ready is absolutely unbelievable. He has to organize supplies, load up a mule and saddle the horse before we can leave. Yeah, that’s right, to my great relief I learn that Juan will be traveling by horseback rather than on foot so the chances are now significantly better that he won’t die. But seriously, how long can it take to load up a mule and saddle a horse? An hour? 2 hours? I try to help him but he stubbornly refuses my assistance. It almost seems as if some sort of crazed angry demon takes over his person. He packs and repacks; adjusts and re-adjusts; all the while he is muttering to himself like some kind of psychotic madman. When we finally head out on the trail, it is after 10:00.
Once we are moving, I am as happy as can be. Juan stays with the mule and the horse a fair distance behind me so it seems almost as if I am walking completely alone. The dense jungle surrounds me, birds sing and chirp, howler monkeys howl, insects buzz and small animals rustle through the trees and shrubs. There’s so much life in the jungle it’s hard to comprehend. The trail is muddy as hell though and very confusing; with lots of side trails and inter-connecting trails. To stay on the main trail requires crossing many knee deep quagmires of mud so I frequently veer off in one direction or another. Whenever I get confused as to direction, I stop and wait for Juan and he comes along and points the way. There’s no way I could make it without a guide. I would be lost as hell.
We stop around midday for a break and that’s when my jungle adventure takes a somewhat surprising turn. After eating some sweet rolls and drinking some water I set myself to the task of rolling a joint. At first I consider hiding it from Juan because I don’t want to offend his Christianity but ultimately I decide that if we are going to be together for 5 days on this journey he might as well get used to it. I break up the little buds and put them in the rolling paper. Juan is not at all offended but is instead curious. He watches me closely and then asks in Spanish, “is that marijuana?”
“Yes,” I say, “are you familiar with marijuana?”
“Of course,” says Juan, “I have lived in the jungle all my life. I smoked it for many years when I was young. I don’t smoke anymore but I know all about it. Can I see?”
I hand him the small bag of grass and he looks at it. He smells it. “Looks pretty good,” he says. He hands it back to me. When I spark up the joint I ask Juan if he wants a couple hits. I am only trying to be polite. I don’t think he will say yes. At first he says, “no, thank you,” but after I take a couple hits he says, “well okay, maybe one for old times.” I hand him the joint and he sucks down almost the whole thing with one huge inhale. And so, not for the first or last time in my life, I get stoned with a septuagenarian…. And I can hardly believe the transformation that takes place. In a matter of moments, Juan transforms from psychotic grumpy old man with preachy Christian tendencies into the incredible and amazing Juan Francisco de la Selva (of the jungle). It’s beautiful. A big smile stretches across his face and he starts telling me crazy stories about things that happened to him during his life in the jungle: snakebites, encounters with jaguars, his life as a chiclero. Before he became a guide, Juan worked for 20 years as a chiclero. He lived in jungle camps and stripped chicle from the trees, bundled it up on mules and sent it to Carmelita where it was sent to Flores and sold to international gum manufacturers like Wrigleys. He lived in camps in the jungle. He knew everything there was to know about jungle plants and animals. He lived the jungle, he was the jungle. I could not possibly have a better guide…or so Juan liked to believe as he is stoned out of his crazy old mind.
We continue on after a short break. On this first day, I must walk at least 50 kilometers. The distance is only supposed to be 35k but with so many zigs and zags to avoid mud holes I’m guessing there is at least 15 extra. The scenery is unreal. The canopy blocks out most of the sun but beams of light make their way through everywhere so the entire jungle floor is splotched with patches of light and shadow. Juan has me on the lookout for snakes. He told me five very good snake bite stories during our break and let me tell you; roots and trees in shadow and light look a hell of a lot like snakes. For real, I see at least ten snakes including the deadly corral snake (black and red and slithering). But I imagine that I see hundreds. Meanwhile, the heat and humidity are oppressive and every time I stop to rest I am attacked by some sort of vicious little insect. All in all, it’s a very challenging journey.
We arrive at the camp in the late afternoon. I am a bit zapped out from the walk but poor Juan looks like a dead man walking when he climbs off the horse. He insists he’s fine though so we immediately unload the bags off the mule and set up camp. I try to help when I can but angry old Juan is very insistent about doing things his way. He seems to resent my offers of help as if I am insinuating that he can’t do it. He starts a fire and puts on water to boil. Meanwhile, I decide to roll another joint. We drink coffee and smoke the joint and that makes everything better. Juan starts smiling again. He seems relaxed rather than near dead. He announces that he will take the mule and horse to the watering hole. I offer assistance but he says I have to stay behind at the camp to watch our belongings. He disappears with the animals and I relax in the hammock.
Juan wakes me in the hammock after dark to tell me that he is back and that dinner is ready. It isn’t anything special; just noodles with msg (sabor de Cameron) and some really good tortillas. But I am hungry and it really does taste kind of, sort of, a little bit like shrimp. After dinner we smoke another joint and then Juan gets into his Jesus thing again. He bible quotes in Spanish with out of control enthusiasm. He’s a big fan of Revelations and Apocalyptic predictions… The end of the world is at hand. There’s sinners everywhere. People no longer worship Dios. Evil has a foothold in the planet and now it’s time to destroy. Last time; God destroyed by flood. What will it be this time: fire, wind, earthquake….”
“Okay Juan, whatever you say. Thanks for the warning. I’ll sleep better tonight now.”
I do sleep fairly well that night and I awake at the crack of dawn. Juan is already making breakfast and he has coffee waiting for me. The day gets off to a good start. We manage to break camp by 9:30. What a day! Long fucking walk; beautiful scenery; lots of snakes and birds and butterflies; deeper and further and farther into the jungle. We traverse mud holes, climb a few small hills and walk and walk and walk. We arrive at the “Tiemplo de los Muertos” in the late afternoon. Way cool; big giant stone things covered by jungle in the middle of nowhere. They are only partially excavated. I climb the stairs to the platform. I sit on the landing and smoke a joint with Juan. Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah. But we are still an hour’s walk from El Mirador so we don’t stay long.
We finally arrive at the camp for El Mirador at about sunset. I am fairly exhausted but interested in going to the ruins for the close of the day. Juan, however, looks dead to the world. It takes all our effort to get the stuff unloaded and the camp set up before dark. I give a pass on the ruins for now knowing I will have all day there tomorrow. The evening is relaxed. We eat, get stoned and then I climb into my hammock. Tonight, Juan avoids the subject of the bible but instead talks about his life in the jungle and all the different Mayan sights he saw before they became tourist destinations. He has been in this jungle all his life. He always knew about the temples. He worked in and around the temples long before the archaeologists.
I awake the next morning at first light. Juan has coffee waiting. I gulp it down and take a pass on breakfast. Food will have to wait until mid-morning. I’m going to the temple for sunrise. I leave Juan at the camp and follow the kilometer or so trail to the top of the temple. Honestly, I have had many incredible moments in my life but this is one of the best ever. The temple is mostly covered by vegetation. Only some of the steps and the very top platform are excavated. There is not another soul on the trail or on the temple. I have it all to myself. The top of the temple pokes out above the canopy of jungle. Standing on the platform I have a 360 degree view of infinite green jungle spreading off into the distance forever. A slight mist hangs on the tree tops. A big yellow bird lands on a tree branch in front of me. Howler monkeys scream out from the jungle. Birds sing and insects buzz. I sit on a rock, spark up a joint and watch the sun rise above the greenery like a beautiful miracle…. It sure is great to be alive.
After an hour or so of soaking up the intense jungle Maya stone inspiration, I head back to camp and have breakfast with Juan. After breakfast, Juan gives me a full informational tour of El Mirador. There are lots of very big temples but they are almost all buried under jungle. Only three or four have been excavated but they all make for great climbing spots with panoramic views. Juan explains to me that the city of El Mirador was the beginning seed for the whole Mayan civilization. It was the biggest city with the biggest temple and it is the oldest city. All the rest of Maya world spread out from here. No doubt, there are also countless treasures still buried beneath this super dense jungle. Standing atop the over grown pyramids I can’t help but wonder what this place looked like before the collapse… before the apocalypse. I visualize the hard working stone masons and sculptors working to create these amazing masterpieces. I imagine the great feasts and parties to celebrate the completion of great works. Maya world was a bustling and beautiful civilization yet somehow it didn’t last. Why? Nobody really knows? There are plenty of theories: war; famine; environmental collapse; invasion by aliens; epidemic illness etc… As the fall of our own civilization seems well within the realm of possibility and the Mayan doomsday of 2012 approaches, the fall of the Maya world becomes more and more important. Why? Why did it happen? Are we destined for the same thing? Since the one and only Juan Francisco de la Selva is my guide on this here journey, I ask him his opinion on this all important subject. Of course he has an answer and it’s a beauty…
“The Mayans ,” says Juan shaking his head with disappointment, “they were great architects and artists and hunters and farmers and builders and scientists and engineers but their civilization had one fundamental flaw. They did not worship Dios; El Senor. The Mayans worshipped false gods like the Sun and Water and the wind and the animals. And because they did not worship the correct Dios, Dios decided to destroy them. At the time, there was only one man who worshipped Dios correctly. His name was Noah. God told him to build an ark. He did. God sent a flood and destroyed Mayaland. Only Noah and the animals he loaded on the ark survived.
“Noah’s ark huh? That’s what happened to the Mayas. They got destroyed in the biblical flood?”
“That’s right,” says Juan, “people will tell you otherwise. But that is the truth about what happened to the Mayas. They worshipped the wrong gods.”
After that enlightening conversation, we return to camp and have lunch. After lunch, Juan takes a siesta in a hammock and I go back to explore the ruins some more on my own. I have a grand time. I climb to the tops of the overgrown pyramids and check out the stonework on the parts that are excavated. The howler monkeys follow me from temple to temple. What a life… They swing from the trees in the jungle all day. That’s almost as much fun as building things out of stone. What a life those Mayans must have had. They got to spend their days making really awesome stuff like this. Or perhaps I paint too nice an image with my mind. I know not the day to day reality of the Mayans. The true story is buried beneath this super dense vegetation.
I go to the top of the highest temple again for sunset. It’s quite spectacular. The sky turns purple and red and orange and yellow and blue. The green jungle shimmers in the haze. A flock of birds takes flight from the tree tops. The atmosphere seems charged with supernatural energy. The gods of sky, sun and cloud paint much better pictures than any human can… Wow! It occurs to me now that, I, like the Mayans, worship the wrong kind of gods. Oh well, I guess that means I’m a goner when the next apocalypse gets here.
The following morning, Juan and I head back the way we came. The return trip is difficult but not particularly eventful. It takes us two full days to hike the 75 kilometers to Carmelita and when we arrive we find out that we missed the last bus of the day. We will have to spend the night in the village and catch a bus in the morning. No matter, Juan’s friends are glad to have us back for another evening and they offer us hammock space in the guest shack with two other travelers.
Shortly after the evening meal, I slip into the back yard to roll a joint in private. So, here I am, with marijuana and a rolling paper in hand when I look up and see a rather large chicken sitting on top of the nearby outhouse watching me. That’s funny… a jungle chicken. I look away from the chicken and turn my attention to the joint rolling process when, all of a sudden, the chicken leaps from the outhouse, lands square on my head, the marijuana scatters to the wind, his claws get tangled in my hair, he scratches my forehead and it takes me several seconds to shake free. I almost kill the damn thing with my bare hands…. But I don’t. And really, if you think about it…. To suffer an attack by a jungle chicken is a fair price to pay for the inspiration of El Mirador.