Rolling into Flores as late as we did I stressed finding a decent hotel. Not to worry: La Casona de la Isla, a little boutique hotel (a term I use very loosely for Guatemala) came complete with hot showers, an air conditioner, two beds, a pool, wifi (for father’s epic iPhone addiction) and a lovely breakfast balcony view of Lago Peten Itza.
SPK FTW! (For you oldtimers out there, that means “Sean Paul Kelley For The Win!”)
Over breakfast, as day-glow dugout canoes with outboard motors slid across the lake and docked just below us, father and I decide to make for Tikal today instead of tomorrow, which in hindsight was an excellent call. Had we gone Saturday we’d have been fucked trying to return our rental car, not to mention that Saturday proved to be a gray, gloomy and overcast day, one not at all conducive to jungle photography, especially at Tikal. Instead, it was a “necessary day” (a day when father and I do our own thing, alone) on which I relaxed and walked around the island and did a little bit of Christmas shopping, but more about that later. Maybe.
We ate our breakfast, mine was a lovely pair of huevos divorciados, one egg covered in green salsa and the other covered in red—both divine—refried beans, fried bananas and as many of those little maize tortillas they make in Guatemala as I could eat. All washed down with carafes of fresh coffee right off the mountains.
The first thirty kilometers of the drive to Tikal was little but rolling and treeless grassy hillsides. I passed through them feeling ill at ease. Whole fields are depressions of black water and cattails, attracting all measure of birds but for some reason no mosquitos. Perhaps it’s the wrong time of year? Or we just got lucky? But I was not bitten by a single mosquito the entire time I was in the Peten.
This mostly treeless landscape—the jungle is not supposed to be open or have a horizon—had been cleared within the last three or four decades by rancheros. For you norteños that means cattle ranches. Here’s how it works: the pristine jungle is torn to shreds, or euphemistically speaking “the land is cleared.” Then cattle graze on it for three or four years until the grasses have sucked all the nutrients out of the soil. The cattle are then sold up north for ground beef to McDonald’s, Burger King and their ilk. We’re not talking about Kobe beef here. Then the rancheros move on to the next twenty miles of jungle they can clear cut and start the whole process over just so we can Super Size It!
The rancheros, all of them, have a bleak, worn out feeling. And though this is a deeply tropical landscape, one I am culturally conditioned to assume to be ever growing, inexhaustible, regenerative and forever waiting to re-devour civilization like some pathetic palimpsest of an Indiana Jones movie, that assumption is wrong. The exhaustion of the land here—although it is still green, and crazy with vines, succulents and other parasitical plants—reminds me of what happened to the exhausted land back home: our hills, once covered by a lush golden carpet of gramma, buffalo and other great grasses are now covered with the invasive Juniper we call Cedar, or other opportunistic species, which leach out what little nourishment remains and every January or February reproduce, causing an orgy of Cedar Fever from San Antonio through Austin clear up to the middle Brazos Country. Just as at home, here too the land has been gang-raped, and left to die. Will the rancheros here have the same good fortune of moving into the cities to build airplanes and cars like they did in mid-twentieth century America? Doubtful. And what of the eroded treeless hillsides, decaying rusted hulks of Toyotas, corrugated iron roofed shacks and plastic bags? Will the land be given another thousand years to regenerate like it was after the Maya collapse?
Ill kept fences, half up, half down line the road.
“To keep what in?” I ask father aloud, breaking the silence.
“To keep what out?” He replies.
Unbranded cattle wander across roads as freely as chickens and dogs and pigs. Allspice and asphalt mingle in the humid air. The further in the Peten we drive the more lush the vegetation grows. On occasion half a hillside is bereft of any cover except grass. The other half, however, is a thick, deep pile carpet of flora sometimes olive at others a twinkling emerald under a leaden sky. The jungle is overtaking mankind’s scars now. The road is almost covered by trees. Bromeliads bloom, what specific species I know not, but the pinkish flowers add a wistful touch to the drive. The sun is high now and just beginning to burn off the morning gray.
Fewer lands and even fewer people have endured more surreal and hideous scars than what the Mayan’s have endured (and in many places still continue to endure) since the Spanish first arrived. This region of the Mayan world wasn’t completely conquered until 1697, and even then it was held only tenuously until after the great Caste War in the Yucatan during the 1840s. Even so, an independent city-state existed in Quintana Roo until the 1920s. That’s the Mayan model: city-states. Scholars have pointed out that the Mayan were to the Aztecs at Tenochitlan what the Greeks were to the Romans. It makes sense, even to this day, the way the Maya remain fragmented in the high cordillera of Guatemala, speaking several different languages, having endured genocide at the hands of the whites and Mestizos who rule Guatemala even now.
I recall myself as a callow youth (there goeth a man?) during the late Eighties piously reciting anti-communist bromides about dominoes and Castros and Ortegas. Such blasphemies I spoke, utterly oblivious to an unimagined suffering occurring at the very moment: families ripped apart, fathers frog-marched into the jungle to dig shallow graves and then executed, daughters raped, sons killed or those even more unlucky, pressed into the army to commit similar atrocities against “subversivos” in Guatemala.
No wonder I am ill at ease: a deep sadness permeates this place. It is a sadness I have not known since I visited Cambodia (I got stinking drunk the night I saw the killing fields. And you would have too, had you seen what I saw). Could it be the depth of historical loss? Profound silences echo across the Peten. One such echo is that of a single conscientious 17th century Spanish friar, Andres de Avendaño, who translated the Mayan glyphs into Spanish and how that single copy of his life’s work disappeared.
But it’s not just history’s loss. The hint of liminal brutality is present even now, for everyone, everywhere has an armed guard and all of them carry sawed-off pump action .12 gauges. Not only is the land exhausted, but so are its people.
A largish bird in the middle of the road plucks me from my grim reveries. I grab my camera, focus and start shooting. Digital photography is fantastic. I can take as many shots as I wish and delete what I don’t like.
“What is he?” Dad asks.
“Here, hold the wheel,” I reply. “I’m trying to figure it out. He’s a raptor, for sure, but I’ve never seen one with his coloring.”
“And that is?”
“Kinda grayish, with darker stripes underneath, with a touch of reddish, but a kind of dirt red. He’s got yellow feet, yellow beak with a blue tip. Big yellow eyes, too!” I say and put the car in first, better to creep up on it while the camera is shooting. I get closer, snap more shots.
“Strange. He knows I’m here and getting closer but he’s just hanging out. He seems quite comfortable in the middle of the road. He’s eating something but I can’t quite tell what. He’s a beauty,” I tell Dad. “Grab your binoculars, take a look.”
“He is a little on the gray side, but his breast feathers are lined, striped, definitely a hawk. And you’re right he’s got lovely yellow feet, a prominent yellow beak that ends in an almost blue gray curved tip,” says Dad.
The hawk watches me with a wide open gorgeous yellow eye as I get out of the car to snap more photos. I get too close and he flies.
But not too far, only twenty or thirty feet away and then he squawks, clearly irritated that I interrupted his feeding. I smile, knowing I have some nice photos, and my inner-Buddhist thanks the bird for his cooperation.
We drive on (short video of drive through jungle at link).
Several plain Chachalacas fly across the road and around a long curve I see a dozen Oropendola nests hanging like yarn covered tennis-balls from a Ceiba Tree, the tree Mayans believe connects this world with that of the underworld, Xibalba. Then we see a Bat Falcon. Why in the middle of the day, I don’t know, but still, there he was, orange and blue and white atop an empty tree.
The area around Flores and the Lago Peten Itza is a shallow limestone depression, the lake the deepest part of it. Peten Itza is an odd shaped lake: long and narrow, running from west to east and then cutting south, then even more narrowly cutting back east. It is in this smaller, southerly aspect of the lake that the Island of Flores sits. But we are now on the far eastern end of the lake, having driven all the way around it, at a small town, actually a village, called El Remate.
The view along the lake is irresistible so we stop for lunch. We sit in an apsidal thatched-roof Mayan hut where hammocks hang from the piers. We order a simple meal of chicken, jungle vegetables and rice. I ask a local, sitting in a hammock, what kind of hawk it was we saw on the road in. I described it and then showed him a photo on my camera.
“This is what we call a Roadside Hawk,” he says in perfect English. I was disappointed with the name, but it certainly fit.
My surprise at his English registered.
“I lived in Nevada for a few years building houses,” he said. “Saved my money, came back, got married, built this restaurant and now I live in paradise.” He smiles and slides back into the hammock.
“It is lovely,” I return the smile and then walk towards the lake.
I bend down to see strange vegetal growth apparent in the limpid waters. Tempted to drink it, I know better, and yet I don’t get the sense the lake is overflowing with industrial effluents. If there were any pollution at all it seemed it should be simple runoff from a handful of small towns (more like large villages) along the lake and at worst, the lake serves as the sewer for Flores and Santa Elena. That hunch turns out to be true. The most recent study done in 2011 by the University of San Carlos and a handful of NGOs notes drily that most of the pollution in the lake is within acceptable levels but that the local communities need to be better educated in sanitation practices. Plus, the government in Guatemala City needs to invest in water treatment for the area as a whole to protect one of the country’s most important tourist resources. Good luck with that, I think to myself.
Coincident to my pondering of filth and its disposal a pig begins frolicking and wallowing in the lilly-pads, muck and mud lining the lake. He is as pink as pigs come and I wished, silently, to be around, when he was butchered for fatback. Organic bacon is hard to beat.
There were also half a dozen shores birds, sandpipers and plover-types poking, digging, snatching up whatever kind of bug life they could find with their long bills. The pig snorted at me, came within a few feet and probably caught my bacon vibe and trotted off.
I was unable to identify most of the birds for the pigs curiosity scared them off before I could get any decent photos. Regardless, shore birds aren’t my strong suit. One bird, however, was singing behind some growth about ten to fifteen yards out in the lake. He sang a high pitched, accelerating rattle and dumb old me is looking around trying to find out from which direction the noise is emanating.
I’m looking around to see just who is making this sound and then it gets faster, a jik-jik-jik-jik. Then it stops.
Then the whole thing starts again. Then I see him.
“Oh,” I say aloud, “it’s that ugly little brown bird out there in the mud flats,” pointing towards it for the benefit of my father.
Just as the thought clears my synapses and the words pass my lips that plain ugly brown bird jumps five feet straight up into the air, wings spread open.
My jaw hit the ground. The Northern Jacana (jacana spinosa) is, first and foremost a bird with the largest toes I’ve ever seen, each six inches long if not longer. The outside half of his wings are a delicate butterfly yellow—and to the Mayans butterflies are the souls of their dead loved ones—that blend into a thick, chocolate brown. At each main joint in the wing bones there was a gold medallion that made it look as if his eyes were in the middle of his wings. An unsurprising, but lovely, evolutionarily defensive adaptation making the animal appear to have a larger face than it apparently does. From where the breast meets the neck is a darker brown, merging to black all the way to the eyes, above which is a strange formation, like a medieval shield but sideways across the Jacana’s head. This gave him an oddly large yellow brow. When the bird looked directly at me, once he landed from his dance, he was decidedly neanderthalish.
While I stood dumbfounded on the lakeshore, begging the bird to dance again so I could get photos this time, melodious blackbirds chanted from a power line behind me, and I fancied they were saying, “go ahead, dance for the stupid human one more time. At least he’s not trying to eat us.”
I was lucky. The moment was forever in his simple dance: rattle, rattle, jump. Wings open, glide, land, wings close.
And then he sprung up twice as high, did a three-sixty, as if to bow, and flew away.
The full sequence of the Northern Jacana’s dance can be seen starting here and moving forward.
The most recent photos can be seen starting here and moving forward.
The full set can be seen here. Enjoy!