The following is an excerpt from my first book, Journey to the Mayan Underworld
(Four Ahau Press, 1989). The scene begins as I leave Palenque on a late bus,
going through territory now controlled by the Zapatistas. The time is early
1987, and the events recounted give a sense of a typical couple of days
"on the road,"

A March Morning in Mexico

Leaving that evening for the highlands of Chiapas, I felt my attention being drawn more and more to my plans after returning to the States. There are only a few noteworthy events from the time I left Palenque to the time, less than a week later, that I walked across the international bridge into Brownsville, Texas.

My travel funds had been reduced to about $300. I had spent roughly $800 during three months of traveling through Mexico and Central America, so theoretically I could have continued for at least another month. However, in returning to San Cristobal, things were coming full circle geographically, and internally my wanderlust was nearing exhaustion. I looked forward to moving overland rapidly and cheaply to Texas, where I could rest with relatives for a few days. Then I would hitch-hike east along Interstate 10 through Houston, New Orleans, and northern Florida to Gainesville. Gainesville would be a familiar place where I could recline with friends, develop my photos and sell hammocks.

The spell of these daydreams was broken when our bus arrived in Ocosingo. It was late, the white-washed one story buildings were dark and the dusty streets echoed only a few empty, melancholy footsteps. I considered continuing on the bus to San Cristobal, but instead began walking. A mystic sense of the unknown invited me to explore the seldom visited town of Ocosingo which overlooks the spreading Lacandon rainforest to the east and shoulders the mountains of central Chiapas to the west.

The town had no bus station and only a few people were on the streets. As I approached the Zocalo (the central park), a more lively atmosphere pervaded the cool, pleasant park. It was modest by comparison with most Mexican Zocales but had an exclusive, small town charm with its towering trees, worn benches, and cement promenade. Loudspeakers mounted on poles on both sides of the park blared a strange blend of mariachi, romance, and carnival sounds. I sat on a bench to imbibe the ambiance. Packs of boys becoming men prowled together while school girls in groups of threes and fours ignored the boys' persistent whistling.

It was a typical Mexico scene, but this town had a tense, fertive element to its atmosphere that drew my attention to the expansive, brooding rainforest. Living so close to the untamed wilds and the raw, seemingly mindless battle of the jungle must constantly surround one with the uncertainties of life. This perhaps is a Western bias, and maybe this is the root of the mysterious tension hovering over the Ocosingoans: they were becoming indoctrinated into Western culture, Western biases, and its' inherent alienation from nature. Chiapas is also known for unjust policies toward the Indians, and revolution constantly simmers.

The Chiapan rainforest holds in its depths many mysteries. Dozens of small ruins fill the forests that are succumbing to Government development. Primarily in the area paralleling the Usumacinta River, oil fields are being established and several power plant projects are underway which will require the damming of the Usumacinta. Unfortunately, this will create a flood plain precisely where the Mayan ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilan lie, about fifty miles east of Ocosingo. One can visit these ruins by chartered plane, or a hazardous all day ordeal on jungle truck paths. Soon, however, they may be wiped from the map, plowed under to feed hungry gas tanks.

The night time chill of the mountains was shaking me, encouraging me to begin the necessary search for a hotel. Not for the first time in my travels I experienced difficulty finding a hotel. After long circular walks around town, the first two that I located were unsavory, and finally a young man grudgingly gave me a decent room with a shower in a well maintained but scarcely occupied two story hospice.

The neglected Mayan ruins of Tonina, on the western edge of Mayan territory, are located nine kilometers from Ocosingo and I thought that perhaps the next day I would seek them out. But I slept late the next morning, took a shower, and was generally slow in getting started. So instead I ate a hearty lunch at Cafe Ocosingo and did some writing.

Later I was dismayed to discover that the 5 pm. bus to San Cristobal was a phantom, and the next one eventually arrived at 10 pm. Or maybe the 5 pm. bus was five hours late, or perhaps the midnight bus was two hours early. The local Gods proved to really be against me when it arrived packed to the brim with festival goers. A festival was in process in the highlands and people from all over the state were journeying to take part in the annual religious holiday. Old customs and Christianity would blend in village dances, emotional prayer vigils in disintegrating colonial churches, and secret indigenous rites that were rarely viewed by the outsider. The festivities were related to the general Mardi Gras activities celebrated throughout Latin America, which have their root in the Easter Lent.

I was forced to stand in the aisle for six hours. More people jammed in along the way, and I merged into the amalgamation of humanity as innocuously as possible. The bus traveled hellishly slow, winding up steep grades and stopping several times at roadside soda shacks where everyone piled out except those who had seats, who then had the audacity to order drinks from their windows. The bus population was primarily market people and poor campesinos on their way to the festival, so no one seemed to mind the discomfort. As for myself, I became increasingly uncomfortable and was almost ready to collapse by the time we arrived at San Cristobal at 4 am.

At 7,000 feet the air had a dry, invigorating effect. The entire bus emptied and people dispersed to the hamlets of relatives or slept outside the closed bus shack. This was the second class bus station, one amongst a long row of squalid buildings dirtied by their proximity to the highway. I claimed bench space at a greasy coffee table erected under a canopy and illuminated by smelly gas lanterns. The proprietor was a tired looking, skeptical eyed man who guarded his fort with unbridled apathy. A few other travelers and myself sat for warmth, bought the obligatory coffee or pastry, and waited for dawn.

A timeless hour passed in which stares were exchanged, coffee was drunk, shivers subsided, and sparse words searched among sleepy ears for dialogue.

Inevitably we were entertained by an unexpected oddity. A bus from Comitan pulled up, and four enigmatic men who had been hovering in the shadows climbed aboard. Then three federales arrived in pursuit and a heated commotion ensued inside the bus. Out came an unruly crowd and the confusing shouts and banter were hard to decipher. It simmered to an argument between two men who had boarded the bus and the federales, with the driver kicking in his own protests.

The coffee table proprietor whispered among his freezing patrons that, "the drug runners are in trouble."

After ten minutes of confused diplomacy the two men were roughly taken aside and the bus sped off toward Tuxtla. Instantly, as if on cue, another man arrived and spoke briskly with the federales, who then promptly release the two men. Like two brothers on a common mission, one of the federales and one of the arrested men then ran to the middle of the highway and began to gesticulate wildly, giving shrill whistles to the bus, which was now a half dozen city blocks down the road. Incredibly, the bus stopped and the two arrested men, laughing all the way, ran with their illogical reprieve as if delivered from Hell by divine intervention and boarded the bus.

Silently the federales and the messenger disappeared and the passive onlookers huddled at the roadside table, not more than ten yards from the scene of the incident, coughed, readjusted themselves, and returned to their interrupted vigil. It was one of those vignets, at first confusing and unexpected, but later upon reflection, revealing of many hidden cultural traits.

Perhaps the drug runners were moving through town and the police had been tipped off by an informant. As the police were claiming their prey, a third party, perhaps a drug lord "payroll clerk," intercedes and arranges their freedom. My mind reeled through several hypothetical scenarios to explain the unusual drama until dawn came.

Dawn was a good excuse to leave the morose coffee hut, so I walked to the first class bus station, which opened at 6 am., and bought a Thursday ticket to Villahermosa via Tuxtla Gutierrez. Since it was Tuesday, I had a few days to spend in San Cristobal.

© 1989 Four Ahau Press. John Major Jenkins