The Hunger in the Jungle




The Lanacondon jungle, Chiapas, Mexico;

It all begins with a conversation.  I’m sitting by myself having breakfast one morning in Ocosingo, Mexico while I wait for the morning bus to Palenque.  Actually, I’m the only person in the entire restaurant until an older gentleman walks in, sees me, and asks if I like eating alone. I invite him to sit down.   He’s a German, rather tall, with sparkling blue eyes, short light grey hair, a tiny grey goatee, and a healthy glow to his complexion. I guess his age to be late forties or early fifties but he soon reveals to me that he is 68. Then he tells me his story.  At the age of 63, he retired from his job as a construction designer and bought a motorcycle. He had never ridden a motorcycle before in his life. Nevertheless, he hopped on that motorcycle and started traveling and he had more or less continued traveling on that motorcycle for the previous five years. So far he had been all over Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India, Asia, Russia, Siberia, China, Southeast Asia, Australia, North America and Mexico. The only place he had left to go was Central America and South America. For the next two hours (the conversation is so interesting that I miss my bus), we proceed to exchange traveling stories. His stories are so much better than mine. Really, I always like world traveler types but something about this guy is even beyond that. The way he describes his interactions with different people and different cultures and even the way he interacts with me is all positive and non-judgmental. It is a joy to listen to him. He tells me that it is important to be “open to the experiences the world wants to give you.” I think his perspective is amazing so I ask him how a person can go about acquiring this sense of openness he is talking about.

“Fasting,” he says, “the best way to cultivate openness is to go without food for a few days.”

“Really?” I say, “fasting; you think that works?  I used to do that once in a while.  On several occasions, I went without food for 36 hours to try and give my body a break from the burden of digestion. I always thought it was good for me but I stopped doing it because of stonework. My job is very physically demanding so my body needs the calories.”

“36 hours is not enough,” he says, “you need to go for at least three or four days. That`s how long it takes to cleanse the system. I fast for 7 days at a time, twice a year. I like to do it when I`m alone somewhere with nature.”

One week later, after my time in Palenque, I ‘m on my way to a small village in the Lanacondon jungle. My plan is to camp out for a few days and visit the nearby Mayan ruins of Bonampak. I smoked my last joint the night before in Palenque and am wondering as I ride in the collectivo towards the Mayan village of Lancaja Chayab if I will be able to find any marijuana there.  And then suddenly, the thought occurs to me…  As long as I’m all out of grass anyway, why don’t I just go without food for few days? Why not see if I can cultivate some openness?

I arrive in the village and find an acampamiento. They have some rather expensive bungalows, a pleasant outdoor restaurant and a rather large camping area between some trees on the side of a river. I set up my tent by the river and tie my hammock between some trees. That evening at sunset, I eat my final meal in the restaurant. I’m going to try to go at least three days, maybe four if I could handle it. I have fried chicken, rice, beans and tortillas; wash it all down with some beer.   It’s definitely not bad for a final feast…

The next morning I awake early with the usual growl in my stomach. For the first time in a long time, I ignore the call of hunger and think about other things. I will walk to the temple of Bonompak. I go to the restaurant, buy a big bottle of water and head on my way. After I exit the camp, there is a paved road for about two miles. Then there is a turnoff onto a dirt road that leads to the ruins. It’s about 7:30 in the morning and a sign indicates that it’s 12 more kilometers to the ruins. I won’t get there walking until at least 9:30 and by then the tour groups might arrive from Palenque.  I want to be there when it open at 8:00.  Thankfully, there is a transportation stand just another two kilometers down the road. So I catch a ride to the ruins with a very old but very friendly Mayan guy.   Along the way, he tells me a long story about three tourists who went wandering into the jungle and ended up getting lost for three days. “Three days without food,” he says to me as I get out of the car, “imagine that. The only thing they had to eat was mosquitoes ha ha ha ha…”

I am the only person at the ruins when they open.  Bonompak is not a particularly large Mayan site but it has a few beautiful buildings, a nice wide open grassy grand plaza and some rather impressive wall paintings and stone carvings. It also happens to be set against a backdrop of dense jungle which is very atmospheric. I climb around on the temples and examine the stone carvings. Several times it occurs to me that it would be nice to have a joint to smoke or an orange to eat… but hey, you can’t have everything in this world. I sit on the grassy plaza, drink some water and try to soak up the energy of Bonompak.

It doesn’t take long before the tour buses arrive. I only have the place to myself for an hour or so and then an army of people with cameras, backpacks, white sneakers, sunglasses and tour guides show up. I take that as my cue to leave, head for the exit and begin my long walk back. I could take transport; that would be easier. After all, my body is weak from hunger. But the dirt road from the ruins passes through dense jungle. Why not enjoy the walk?

I make it back to my campsite about 1:00 in the afternoon. I’m very hungry. It is, after all, lunchtime.  Normal people eat at this hour.  But I’m not normal today.  I sit in my hammock and think about it. The restaurant is just over there. I have money. All I have to do is go over and order some food.  My stomach growls and my brain attempts to rationalize. What is the purpose of not eating? It’s just stupid? The body needs food. Eat. But I overcome the temptation. I guzzle down some water and then go for another walk.

About three miles away from my campsite, there is supposed to be a beautiful waterfall in the middle of the jungle. I set out to find it. Along the way, I start to sense my body undergoing some kind of transformation. It’s adjusting to the lack of food; tapping into reserves. I don’t feel hungry as I walk but rather I feel energetic; though slightly lightheaded. The sounds in the forest seem more precise and the colors of the jungle seem more intense. It’s sort of like being stoned.

I find the waterfall and it is glorious. I also have the great pleasure of meeting the “keeper of the waterfall.”  A fifty year old Mayan guy collects 30 pesos (3 dollars) from any tourist who happens to show up there.  He’s a very funny guy who likes to talk about sex. When he heard me coming down the trail, he was hoping I was a chica.  Apparently traveling gringas are frequently curious to have a sexual experience with a Mayan.   The keeper of the waterfall tells me that his job at the waterfall puts him in the perfect position to satisfy their wishes.

After our conversation, he shows me down the trail to the base of the waterfall where I can swim… Honestly, is anything more fun than swimming in a waterfall in the middle of the jungle?  Stone ruins in the morning and a waterfall in the afternoon… I sure know how to live. Who needs food? I can feed on experience alone. I bathe in the waterfall for an hour or so and then say goodbye to the waterfall man.  As I leave, he tells me to come back tomorrow with two women; one for me and one for him.

On the way back to my campsite, I stop to have a look at a couple other acampamientos. There are several tucked away in the jungle surrounding the small village. Some of them are rather nice and I think maybe I will move tomorrow just for a change of scenery. I make it back to my tent and hammock around sunset and spend the evening there watching the light fade from the sky as the stars peak out one by one from behind the dark curtain. The restaurant is only a stone’s throw away. I wonder if it’s inappropriate to stay in their campsite and not eat any of their food. Maybe I should just go have a snack. My stomach is growling like crazy. Only one day and I already can’t handle it. But I can. I guzzle down half a bottle of water and lie back in the hammock. Look at the stars Pat, look at the river. Watch the fireflies…just don’t think about food.

When I awake the next morning, I am not particularly hungry. There is a vague emptiness about my body but I have no intense craving for food. I lie in my hammock and drink water. Hmm… what should I do?  The German guy told me that it’s best to keep busy while fasting but not exert yourself too strenuously…slow and steady, easy as it goes.  If I just lie around in my hammock all day, I’ll think about food and drive myself crazy. I have to do something. I decide to switch campsites. I pack up my belongings, say good bye to the people in the restaurant and head on my way. After walking around the dirt roads that surround the village for an hour or so, I find another nice acampamiento with a place for me to set up my tent by the river. It’s still early in the day though so I needed an activity. I decide to return to the waterfall.

Really, is there any better place to spend an afternoon than at a waterfall?   Is there any better way to distract your mind from hunger than swimming in a waterfall?  While I cleanse my insides with liter after liter of water, the waterfall cleanses the outside. All the toxins, poisons, slime and stink that have been collecting on my insides and fouling up my system sweat their way to my exterior where they are washed away by the river This has got to be good for me. I spend the entire afternoon there, talking to the keeper of the waterfall, swimming, bathing…. getting cleansed.

The evening is the most difficult. That’s when the hunger really gets to me. That’s when it fucks with my head… This is stupid. The body needs food. Come on you idiot. Go eat something… But I’m a stubborn son of a gun and I refuse to. I lie there and listen to my stomach growl; a very natural, a very animal sound. It’s beautiful if you think about it… or maybe I’m just going crazy from hunger. It’s very hard to sleep and I keep waking up all night because I have to pee (all that water without food has that effect). But somehow, I survive the night and when I wake up the next day I no longer sense the acute hunger.

Apparently, that`s the cycle of fasting. The mornings are easiest. But as the day progresses, the hunger grows. Can I really go another whole day? Is it possible? What should I do to distract myself from the torment? I consider moving to still another campsite to change the scenery. I saw a really nice one yesterday afternoon with cheap cabanas on a lagoon. But no, instead, I decide to travel on, away from the jungle village and towards Guatemala.

The stone ruins at Xaychilan are said to be some of the most impressive Mayan ruins in all of Mexico. There`s no road that leads to them. You have to go to the border town of Frontiera Corrozal and take a boat for an hour on the Yucaminta River to reach them.  From my campsite, I have to walk two kilometers to a collectivo stop, take a collectivo to a road junction, take another collectivo to another road junction and take a taxi from there to the border town. All in all, the journey takes me about two hours and my body seems ready to collapse from hunger.  But I arrive at the border about midday.

There are no campsites in town so I take a cheap room. I leave my bags in the room and head to the river to find a boat. The normal price for a boat trip to the ruins is sixty dollars but I talk directly to a boat captain rather than the tour agents and get one for only twenty dollars…. It’s a one hour boat ride on the Yucaminta River in the middle of the jungle and it is one of the most bizarre hours of my life. By this time, I have not eaten in about three days and my brain is going rather wacko. I swear, it’s like an LSD trip but without the hyper energy. The colors in the jungle are so vibrant, the sounds of the howler monkeys so loud, I feel as if every sensory perception in my body is turned up full blast. Yet, at the same time, my body is limp with relaxation. Wow. This is cool.  Now I understand why people get addicted to hunger.  Have you ever read “The Hunger Artist” by Kafka?  Now that weird short story makes perfect sense.  Hunger can be a buzz; a beautiful buzz; a strange, comforting, glowing, wide awake, bizarre universe kind of buzz.

The ruins themselves are almost too beautiful to comprehend. Set on the riverbank, shrouded in jungle, giant temples, grassy plazas, labyrinthian passageways, and long stairways to beautiful viewpoints. Sure there are quite a few tourists around. Groups of them make day trips from Palenque to get here. But I hardly notice the other tourists at all. I wander around in a daze. I don`t actually hallucinate but I do feel as if everything I am looking at is a hallucination. My senses feast upon this amazing artistic creation from centuries gone by. I can’t help but wonder why no one makes cool stuff like this anymore. I wanna go back to Maya world. I wanna live in Maya world…

On the way back from the ruins in the boat, the driver cuts the motor, glides towards the bank and points at something. It’s a crocodile; a really big crocodile.  As if this day has not been interesting enough, here I am face to face with a crocodile; the great big monster of death. Talk about your beautiful creatures. They say that crocodiles only eat about once a month, but when they eat, they really eat. Sitting in that boat, looking at the croc, with my stomach growling and my senses on overdrive, I can really relate to the reptile. For the first time in my life, I understand hunger. Not the concept of hunger or the idea of hunger…but real hunger;  deep down, aching, craving, longing for food.  Yes, Mr. Crocodile, I get where you are coming from.

The final night is dreadful. I promise myself that I will make it until morning… sunrise. That will be a total of 84 hours, or three and a half days; plenty of time to cleanse the system and open up.  Lying in that small hotel room, however, with a restaurant and good food only a short distance away is absolute agony.  I think about food. I dream about food. I long for food. But my brain keeps saying NO. You can make it Pat. You can cleanse the system. I drink more and more water.  I pee and pee and pee.  I hardly sleep the whole night.  But somehow, I survive.

By the next morning, the acute hunger has passed. I consider the possibility of continuing my fast for another day… But hey, why overdue it? Three and a half days is enough.   Thus, I am sitting at a table in the restaurant when it opens up at 7:00 am. I order the big American breakfast. The first thing that arrives is toast. Talk about the best tasting piece of toast in the history of the universe. Every taste bud in my tongue is awake, active and smiling. Oh yeah, I have made it to the Promised Land…

I am no expert on fasting. I don`t know scientifically or nutritionally how it affected my body. I will never try to persuade anyone to do it nor convince anyone not to do it. All I know is, now that I am eating again, I feel great, fantastic, incredible, superb.   As a matter of subjective truth, I feel better and healthier than I have felt in a long time. Hopefully, this feeling will stay with me as I continue on my journey. Goodbye for now Mexico…. Hello Guatemala.

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