Maya Roads, One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest by Mary Jo McConahay (Chicago Review, 2011, 288 pages)
McConahay recounts the history of this Mexican/Guatemalan rainforest through the prism of her own travels, which were set into motion before the Central American wars that she subsequently covered as part of a cohort of courageous journalists. Her journey, as well as her book, starts decades back in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology, where dioramas of Lacandón men and women set her off to meet the real Lacandón. She goes south to Chiapas with the great esprit of those times: here is a young woman traveling alone, improvising as she moves along, hitchhiking, finding an odd traveling companion for a brief interlude, and hauling around packs of black Sobranies as gifts for the Lacandón who will host her. Full of curiosity, optimism and anticipation of wonders, she soon finds them, be these the flight of flamingos, the density of lush green forest or the clutch of dead birds Lacandón women wear in their hair. McCarthy soon thereafter leaves the rainforest to spend years reporting on the 1970s conflicts in the Middle East and those of the 1980s in Central America. But in the 1990s, tired of wars and dead bodies, she picks up the Maya roads again to “breathe jungle air” and to satisfy her curiosity about the ancient Maya. If only it were that simple.
Ruins and digs are central to Maya Roads. The first journey of her 1990s return is to the site of the Maya city of Dos Pilas, founded in 629 AD. McConahay portrays the colorful characters working to reassemble this long-gone city, to imagine its past and to decipher what they find, with a crew from National Geographic trailing behind on occasion. Accompanying the renowned U.S. archaeologist Arthur Demarest through slow excavations during which fragments of pots and other objects are carefully brought to the surface, she even follows him to the bottom of a long shaft where he, playing Jim Morrison on a portable stereo, gently picks out and puts together the bones of ruler Itzam K’awil. The unforgettable scene is made more so because all the while Demarest is deeply troubled about ancient Dos Pilas’ relationship to the delicate natural environment surrounding it and what the digging will reveal about the wars this city-state waged.
McConahay cannot help but have that dig and those ruins at Dos Pilas in mind when she reaches the digs and ruins of Dos Erres. In one of the book’s most moving chapters, a young Argentine forensic anthropologist named Patricia Bernardi pulls up buckets from a deep dry well into which a villager has descended to dig up the dirt at the bottom and fill buckets with it. The year is 1993. Bernardi and others shift through the soil for remains of the 376 women, men and children massacred in December 1982 by the Guatemalan Army in the once vibrant village of Dos Erres. Deep in the Petén, Dos Erres was settled in the 1970s by pioneers, poor peasants from elsewhere who built their community with hope and worked the land they desperately needed. Bernardi is watchful that the bucket not tip and something fall out. A bit of fabric, a rubber boot, after days of digging the bones start coming up to the surface where they are lovingly placed on the ground. Perhaps at least part of a skeleton can be put together. A priest bends over tiny bones, trying to preserve what is left of children in a small piece of cloth. Village survivors guard, help and observe. Time is short; there is little funding and no doubt army spies in the woods. Bernardi feels under pressure to get more and more out of the earth because witnesses to the massacre have come forward to testify and the bones and other fragments of life now gone must be analyzed and processed to enter into a proceeding of a possible trial. Do the bones tell if the as yet unknown person died crushed by a rifle butt, or thrown against a wall? McConahay takes hours of testimony to help create what follows. In addition to village witnesses, two kaibiles, members of the military’s elite corps, whom McConahay and human rights workers must personally protect, decide to step forward to testify in a case that will eventually lead to arrests and trials.
In a different part of the Petén, near Ti’kal and tourism, McConahay comes across another kind of ruins. On her way to ruins of Uaxatum, a city-state that warred with Ti’kal in 378 AD, she finds the town of Uaxatum, founded in the 1930s by the Wrigley Chewing Gum Company. Wrigley put in a railroad, built housing along it and hired a workforce to tap sapodilla trees for the sap that was then boiled down to reappear as Juicy Fruits et al. When vinyl resins, Mc- Conahay explains, replaced this sap, grass invaded the tracks and this Uaxatum became almost abandoned except for a few residents. One of these is a remarkable local woman named Neria Herrera, who protects hundreds of pre-Conquest Maya pieces—vessels, plates, jewelry—from tomb robbers in a locked room of her home that she has converted into a museum, one she has registered with the Ministry of Culture.
Whether exhumations, excavations, the murals of Bonampak, the special look of the Lacandón milpas, or the extraordinary ordinary people of the a region, such as “the man who died”—a survivor of another massacre—McConahay depicts all with eloquence and empathy, including the trees. She writes beautifully. Her book ends with her return to Chiapas, decades after her early 1970s adventure, to find the same Lacandón. She still hitchhikes, quickly makes friends, asks questions thoughtfully and observes people and places with care and in detail, but this time she is anxious. The Mexican army is attacking Zapatista communities in Chiapas while the drug lords are building runways and roads distinct from the Maya ones. Yet she ends her book with concern, not disenchantment. Knowledgeable and politically savvy, she is uncertain about the future, but she is sure that the Maya paths of the past and present offer spiritual wisdom and the refuge of beauty that her book gives us again and again.
Deborah T. Levenson is an Associate Professor of History at Boston College and she works with the Asociación para el Avance de las Ciencias Sociales in Guatemala City. Her books include Trade Unionists Against Terror, Guatemala City 1954-1985, Hacer La Juventud and the forthcoming ‘Adios Niño,’ Death, Political Violence and the Maras of Guatemala City.