Purge at the Mouth of The SkyIt 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 de Cielo.
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 very uncomfortable").
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 bien".
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 and detached.
"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 lagoon.
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 to drift.
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 experiences.
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. "Que tal?"
"Bien, gracias," I give the expected answer, "Y ud."
"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 more force.
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.
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