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The Lacandon Jungle...The Beginning

As 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 lay beyond.

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 family.

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 to me.

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 their existence.

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

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