Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The language of the Mayan jungle

The horse seems all right, but a smear of blood runs from her cheek down her neck.
A soft-spoken, slight man of 43 with brown skin and a farmer's wiry musculature straps my backpack to the horse with the help of his 13-year-old son Ignacio. He explains that overnight, as we hung in our hammocks, the horse had been bitten by a vampire bat.

My guide doesn’t speak any English, only Spanish and Kekchi, one of the two dozen extant Maya languages in this region. And though this meant we trekked thirty kilometres on foot through the jungle to the archaeological site of El Zotz and I didn't get the detail I was hoping for (it turned out he was no expert anyway), it did give me the perfect opportunity to practise my Spanish. Despite my impressive ignorance of the language, we actually carried out a long conversation. He is a rancher with ten horses and eight children. We spoke about our families, about his horses, and about the life of las Mayas. About the food in Guatemala, the food in Australia. The plants in the jungle. The implications for the US-Russia relationship since the resumption of the presidency of Vladimir Putin. About the weather.

I am constantly amazed by it. Conversing in another language is like having a superpower, as though I am able to penetrate another dimension of reality which other mortals can not.

In simple Spanish, he explained to me the use of the many plants in the Mayan biosphere. Often called "nature's larder", my guide refers to the jungle as "la tienda de Maya"—the Mayan shop. There was food everywhere. We picked up small orange fruits the size of grapes, fallen from high in the trees, called ramon. Most of it is a stone; you peel the surrounding rind like the skin of a citrus and eat that. It tasted like apricot. Another fruit called zapote, related to the mangosteen of southeast Asia, had a consistency similar to kiwifruit and tasted like pear. We plucked leaves of pimiento to make tea. There was also sassafrass, used to make root beer, but that's a bit more complicated. There was Mayan garlic (unrelated to garlic); a clutch of tentacles growing on a tree trunk called Mayan spaghetti that looked like a green octopus (unrelated to octopus); and Mayan chewing gum, chicle, which was sap harvested from the slashed bark of a tree.

When we reached the temples of El Zotz, we trekked up a long, steep rise and scrambled up the side of a narrow hill. This was the first temple—an unrestored mound, as they all are, of centuries of jungle debris with shaped stones peeking through the composted leaf litter. We sat and caught our breath at the peak, above the treetops, and as we surveyed the vast carpet of green canopy a spider monkey leapt across the chasm before us, arms aloft, and latched onto a liana vine.

These and howler monkeys are common. Less common are the diurnal pumas and the nocturnal jaguars, but those are famously hard to spot. From the corner of my eye I did spot a grey and red tarantula the size of a hand peering with a cluster of eyes out from the hollow root of a tree. As soon as I stopped he shot timidly inside his little grotto and wouldn't reappear despite all my guide's gentle coaxing: rattling a whip-like stick around inside the hole, followed by beating on the tree trunk with a machete. If only we'd had a shotgun.

By the time we reached camp, we had been walking for ten hours. It's usually 40 degrees Celsius in April, and though the weather was merciful and didn't break 30, the jungle was humid. I was drenched slick with sweat. I longed for a river to splash in, but there are no bodies of water in the Petén. Instead I had to settle for a Wet Wipe shower. And though I wasn't thirsty per se, all I had had to drink the entire trek was warm water. Tepid coffee would have been more refreshing. If a pub magically appeared out of nowhere with enough beer left for just one cold pint, and a man dying of dehydration crawled through the doors, I would have murdered him.

Hammocks are standard sleeping quarters in rural Guatemala. I think I've now got the hang of it, so to speak, and was comfortably asleep in minutes. Then again, my legs were so tired I could have slept on a bed of snakes.

The hammock and mosquito net (a cotton sheet) is also a preventative against vampires. Vampire bats live exclusively on the warm blood of mammals, typically horses and cattle, but they have been known to feed on people. Attracted by heat, the bat lands on the ground nearby and crawls towards its victim—you can picture it writhing like a de-shanked zombie with broken elbows—where it scales the leg, hauling itself up with wing-end claws, and bites the horse's neck. The fangs are sharp as obsidian. The bat actually cuts away the fur so it can make an incision in the flesh and laps up the blood as it pools in the wound.

But the horse appears to have suffered no ill effects from the bite, and under her burden she placidly weathers the return journey with my guide, his son and I leading on foot. We speak much less this time. Perhaps we are tired. Perhaps just my vocabulary is exhausted, and we have nothing left to talk about as we pass the same trees and the same plants.

Eventually we arrive at the little village kitchen where my driver back to Flores is waiting. I thank my guide and tip him a hundred quetzales and his son fifty. We shake hands and I spend the last of my Spanish to bid him adiós.

On the drive back I realise the one thing I forgot to ask my guide was his name.

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