Old Highways of Peten
Notes on the ancient highways of the Mayan world, from a perch in Peten, Guatemala.
Updated May 13, 2015
San Ignacio sort of slants into a river; a lopsided town with lots of lopsided streets. The lopsided streets are narrow, and dimly lit by popping neon lights. Many of the restaurants around here are Chinese, or Lebanese, or Indian. We had met some New Yorkers - Lisa and her triplets - in Southern Belize and agreed to meet at a Lebanese-owned bar just down from the Casa Blanca.
Vance and I stayed at the Casa Blanca because, well, we both needed a shower. Which is why I was rattled when the shower didn't work. I yelled. The hotel attendant heard this and yelled back through the walls that the San Ignacio main had just burst.
We met Lisa and the triplets at Eva's to talk about sharing the cost of the ride into Guatemala over beer and tortillas. It seemed appropriate to join a single mother and her children to Guatemala. It was a sense of safety for her, and cost-splitting for us. We sat at that light-flickering bar for hours talking about Woodstock, Los Angeles, and San Ignacio. Had I not noticed that the triplets were vigilantly keeping up with the conversation? Later, it would seem strange. Fourteen year old Americans are so often jack-ass stupid. What was different?
There is something about the triplets that reminded me of the Mayan children of Toledo. At fourteen, each is unusually inquisitive. Of a party they attended in their hometown of Woodstock; 'those guys were fried.' Of the patrons at Eva's, "barely human." At that age, I couldn't tell the difference between a heroin addict and blue-suit trash.
Lisa explained about taking her children to different parts of the country, and to Rome, and after that to Canada and Mexico. Was Lisa a wealthy mother who could afford the luxury? Not if she was splitting the taxi ride to Guatemala with us. Lisa was interested in her children's education, and she took it with a kind of hands-on ferocity.
We taxied in the morning to the border, with Lisa and her triplets, and crossed into Guatemala where some guy's cousin was waiting for us with a van.
The Guatemalan landscape is ripe with agriculture; valleys of green, cattle and goats, roadside shanties, bordered always by taller swaths of jungle. We passed the monstrous Lago Peten Itza, a lake infused with sulphur so thick that the lake gives off the aquamarine of a shallow ocean. At the southern reaches of the Peten jungle, the farms recede and the jungle road becomes shrouded by tangle and dampness, noise and life, beating, moving - turkeys cruising, troops of Coati browsing.
This was the way to Tikal, where we hired fast-talking Miguel Asturias to guide us through the ruins. Miguel, measuring up at about five feet, was ferociously wiry, like a long-distance athlete. At forty-something with a crooked nose and worn skin, he appears as in shape as a mountain-climber.
Our walk began on a slight incline, into the Peten rainforest. My first impression - the world of the Mayans could quite possibly be the strangest environment of any of the ancient advanced civilizations. Was there anywhere in human history where man slashed and built in a place so dense, hot, humid, and filled with such oddly-colored things? The fact that crocodiles frequented the old water catch-basins here made it even more odd.
"It has to be impossible for the crocodile to get here," I told Miguel, "They are marine animals."
"No, not at all. A crocodile can smell a lake seventeen miles away. They can scour through the jungle. As one lake dries up, they push through to the next lake. The crocodile can move all over Mesoamerica."
I asked Miguel about the scar on his chest. "I was walking with four of my friends down the street. And we come around this corner and see that the police are executing these gang youths. We weren't supposed to see that. So the police decided to get rid of the evidence."
"So how did you escape?"
"They killed three of us. Only two of us made it alive. That was me and my cousin. They shot me in the chest, and I ran some ways and fell into the river. They thought I was dead, but they had to wait until day to retrieve my body."
"How come didn't they detect you?"
"I swam for a ways under water, and made it to out of their view. I had to remove the bullet. You know, I've only been to the doctor once. I learned to take care of myself. I went into the jungle, and then I moved my family into the mountains. I then crossed into Belize by the jungle because they were looking for me."
"How long did you stay there?"
"Until it was safe. I counted the days until I could see my wife. I did not see her for two-hundred and thirty two days. From Belize I contacted a refugee lawyer in Los Angeles. We were able to convict five of the seven police."
"And the other two?"
"I keep a close watch on them. They have been moved to another district. As long as they are there, my family is safe."
Miguel' story is not uncommon in Guatemala, where 36 years of civil war ended with a death-toll of 200,000. Most were Mayan Indians, like Miguel. I asked why.
"The Spanish-bloods have all the control. The Indians have no land, no education."
"So what about 1996?" I asked.
The peace agreement in 1996 was supposed to end the atrocities. And things began looking good. "A lot of changes were made. For example, every Guatemalan with a high school education must by law now teach three people how to read and write. We need this in Guatemala. The literacy rate used to be under thirty percent. It's now over sixty. But when Alfonso Portillo was elected president in 1999, things began to go downhill again."
Army and police officers in Guatemala have begun a new campaign of abuse to cover the tracks of their past. Although from the left-wing that supported the demands of the Indian insurgents, Portillo has been unwilling to take steps against the new bloodshed. But all Guatemala's killings and bombings seem silly for a country of farmers. Who needs an anti-communist Gestapo when it's all mostly a matter of cutting sugar-cane and sifting coffeebeans?
"So what does it take for your family to be safe?" I asked.
"The people at Tikal watch out for me. This is because I coached their soccer team to win nine years in a row. They have no choice, I am their hero."
"So, how exactly did you get across to Belize?" I asked, "it's impossible to get through the jungle."
"It's the old highways of Central America. I swam the rivers."
Guatemala's vicious history complements its ancient history - the history of Mayan civilization is a bloody one; city-states endlessly battling each other. Alongside all this battling, one year, a drought hit Central America. Drought and battle could be harnessed by other civilizations, but the Maya had also overfarmed their crops; creating one of the first environmental disasters; spoiling their soil. The multiple tolls destroyed the civilization quickly; squashing priesthoods and dispersing the Mayans into the jungle.
The grades at Tikal slope more and more. "All of this is not a mountain. Tikal was a structure created by man," Miguel tells Vance. "Everything was engineered to precise measurements."
At the peak of the sloping grades stand five temples. From the tops of these buildings, you can see the lowlands of Guatemala; now just jungle. Once those lowlands were the streets of the real Mayan civilization.
One of the triplets kept tugging at my shirt. "A fake," he said. "Bullshit," of a priesthood carving of a King. I asked him why he thought that all of Tikal was a scam. "Come on," he said, "wake up."
The Latin American civilizations were the only advanced ones to be completely independent of the rest of the world. The Mongols who inhabited the Americas came across the Bering Straight as primitive people - they never had contact with Mesopotamia or Cairo, or Greece or Rome or China or Japan. All the African, European and Asian civilizations were linked by Hundred-mile trade routes. Way before Marco Polo, in the ancient world, wisdom and invention traveled slowly, but it did travel.
The early Americans had none of these connections, they were alone in a world completely different from where they came.
It has been a popular subject to claim that in fact all of the ancient civilizations were in contact with each other - and that the Egyptians regularly crossed the Atlantic to trade with the Incas. After all, we found reed boats in Lake Titicaca, isn't that evidence enough? We have been told that the Peruvians settled Polynesia, even though the blood-lines of the Pacific Islanders are clearly Asian. We have been told that Jesus visited Tibet and that Mohammed spoke with the Indians, and that the Libyans visited Oklahoma. That before steamships and planes, there were vast trade routes throughout the world.
Of course, all of this is false - the wild, but unscientific claims of the world's Thor Heyerdahls. The Mesoamerican civilizations were the only ones to become civilized independent of the rest of the world. This is also the one reason why the American civilizations are the most bizarre. No, not Egypt, not Greece, not Mesopotamia, or ancient China. The Maya. In a world of toucans and jaguars, bromeliads, and, oh the heat, between the Caribbean and the Pacific, those Asian migrants built a calendar, a society, complex astronomy and mathematics without Africa, Europe or Asia.
But the fascination of Maya has little to do with old stones. A temple is a signature more of dictatorial priests than the achievements of a civilization's clockwork. It was in the old highways; the trade routes of the Americas, that make Mesoamerica alive.
Strange evidences have come to light in archaeological circles; artifacts of Mayan origin found as far north as Abaco, Northern Bahamas, jade statues in the Caribbean, peopling of the West Indies by Indians who boated from the Amazon basin. Giant trade routes connecting the Mayan cities of Guatemala, Mexico and Belize by land and sea. Trade routes connecting the Floridian arawaks to the Caribbean Indians to the Mayans. Old highways of commerce and trade.
shorelines of Belize and the Yucatan were the homes of wealthy merchants,
bartering up and down the jungle rivers, and across the sea to Cuba
Arm-chair historians say that the Polynesians must have had a hand in this. How could these people independently develop complex boating skills? Certainly, they say, only the Polynesians, Vikings and perhaps Egyptians were capable of that kind of sea travel. To further their cause, they say that it was likely that if the Polynesians were skilled enough to settle the Marqueses without maps, wouldn't it follow that they also landed in Baja, Southern Mexico and South America? That they brought navigation and seamanship to the Americas?
Circumstantial evidence exists that, possibly, Polynesians mixed with Baja Indians, and perhaps landed in Peru during the Incan age. But there is no DNA evidence to date, and it is more likely that if the Polynesians did settle in these areas, their influence on the boating skills of the American Indians was insignificant due, purely to the scale of their populations.
In fact, recent studies suggest that the giant canoes, like the one first spotted by Christopher Columbus on his first trip to San Salvador, were variations of an evolution of Inuit kayaks from Alaska. They were transformed by environment and ingenuity through Canada, into North America, and south from there. Skin boats to canoes to hollowed logs to giant merchant vessels.
Miguel pointed out the dried monkey blood on the leaves under a tree. The triplets folded their 'this is so fake' card for what appeared to be genuine bug-eyed fright. "He was up there three days ago," Miguel said, "and this jaguar just pounced. The jaguar is not known to be able to climb a tree vertically. But you can see his claw marks here; three pounces to the top. He killed the monkey, but he was out of breath. He had to come down. So he waited for the monkey to fall out of the tree, but the monkey, he got caught in a fork. So the jaguar left."
the sun began to hang low and cast a shallow yellow through the leaves,
the howler monkeys began to screech. This is a haunting effect. Not
like the spider monkeys, whose low-level tree antics are comedic. "Do
they get pissed?" I asked Miguel. "Pissed?" he asked.
"Do they get mad at humans?" I asked.
"Yes, the spider monkeys just throw their feces at you and try to wee on you, but a howler monkey is very strong. He can break a branch and drop it on you."
same triplet hit my shoulder again. He told me it was all a crapshoot,
and not to believe anything.