As the day came to an end and my visits of Yaxchilán and Bonampak were already in the past, I arrived in the Lacandón jungle. Partly in Mexico, partly in Guatemala, the jungle was home to many Mayan communities. Some left behind temples and cities which we can now visit, but most buildings have been left to disappear in the jungle. The Mayan people, however, are still living on their ancestral home land. I spent the night in an ecovillage somewhere amongst the trees with a French Tahitian friend I made along the way.
To be clear, the whole setup felt weird. For one, the whole place was dirty. The toilet I won’t even discuss. There was dirt and dead bugs everywhere, the place seemed as if it was never cleaned (or even rinsed). No soap was available, the food was minimal and they charged extra for EVERYTHING imaginable. The staff/owners seemed disinterested in their guests and seemed to only be in it for the money.
Sad thing though is that’s the case. My whole purpose there was to go on a jungle walk led by a local Mayan to learn about their cultural context within the jungle but also modern dilemmas. Walking along the path, our guide indicated important plants for the village’s food system and their medicinal uses. We passed by the local milpa, we smelled the leaves, branches and flowers of the forest plants. As we were doing so, our guide invited us to ask any questions we had. The visiting Mexican family from Aguas Calientes initiated with questions on cultural differences and beliefs. We heard stories of her three children, and about how the intergenerational transmission of knowledge on ceremonies, stories and meanings behind words had been partially lost. She didn’t know how her ancestors used to call on the jaguar or the rain. She didn’t know the songs that were used, she didn’t know the dances. She knew how to speak Mayan, she still went out in the jungle, but she shared how that loss of knowledge was impacting her children.
Her children had to go to school by state mandate. But the state couldn’t provide Mayan-speaking teachers due to the lack of licensed teachers in older generations. Her children spoke Mayan with her, but the lack of a taught writing system learning abilities. The one teacher they did have, she said, died from Covid the year before. As we were talking about education, I remembered studies I had read in my cegep classes talking about how often times, communities implement ecotourism projects from external pressures without understanding the goal and implications. They do it because they get the external reward of money and in part from government insistance. “Why do you welcome visitors in your village” I asked. “Because we have to pay for school and because we have become acostumed to using modern products” she replied.
This whole ecotourism project was mainly for money-making purposes. But along the rest of our walk, she shared with us her passion for the forest, for her community. She brought us in to a small slice of her everyday life. She shared the stories of her children’s birth and about her friends in the community. She asked us stories about our own lives.
We then went to a river, swam for an hour and put on masks of clay from the riverbank. We walked back, thanked her for her services, ate a final meal and left shortly after.
I loved being able to go on that walk. Our guide really was a great women. But seeing how disconnected those ecotourism projects were and how badly modernization had impacted her community left a sour taste. Hopefully, both will eventually manage to make right towards the other.
As my time in Chiapas slowly ended, I brought the good and the uncomfortable with me to my next destination. I said goodbye to my friend who offered valuable insight on life and gap years, and headed off to Campeche!
Read more in the next post!