The Artwork of Michael Divine

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Yaxchilan and the River’s Edge

July 19th, 2006

Getting into the boat we felt we leer once again on our way. A long three hour collective ride to the tiny dirt road shack laden town of frontera corozal left us weary of the road. We dropped our packs at a dirty little posada where a kindly woman was happy to give us a lock for the door. Sleeping there didn’t seem like it would be a high point in our journey but we’d see where we were at when we returned. The cab took us to the boat launch with the driver grumbling about having to wait the two minutes we were there, thinking he was missing some big ride or something. Doubtful, this town seemed to be waiting for the wind to blow it down.

The cab driver suggested we might find a better deal on a boat at the tour service than at the lanchas tho we were a little skeptical of that, knowing that everyone gets a payoff for bringing customers, but we humored him and were told the boat would be 650 pesos, which is about $65. we groaned at that price and left there hoping to finagle a boat ourselves, maybe jumping in on some tour.

At the palapas where the lanchas were, overlooking the rushing muddy river, we were offered a few not so good deals, knowing that if we found some more people we could get the price down some.

Then this dude I’d met back in palenque at the collective office, sharing my guide book with him and he speaking in broken English, myself in loose Spanish, called me over. There was a boat he said, which would be 400 pesos if we wanted to share it with him but we would need someone else. Two others had just shown up, a girl and a guy from Belgium who were also looking for a boat. So we got the boat for 500 pesos, a little group of not so touristy tourists and our amigo who was piloting from behind, sitting with one arm propped upon his knee, his hair slicked back and puffed up and his eyes squinting in the wind, we sped down the river.

Passing little villages, around groves of trees, in and out of corners, the long skiff with it’s little palapa roof navigating the swift current like an arrow, after forty minutes we arrived at the dock of Yaxchilan. Tonio, our new friend, a Mexican by birth, and a student at the University of Mexico, was able to navigate some of the negotiations and got our boat to wait for us for four hours. Most boats wait not more than two hours. Two hours is long enough to traipse through, take a few pictures and leave, feeling like you went somewhere. It’s never long enough to feel a place, to breath with it and melt into it. So we needed a little more time.

Gracias, Senor, I said to him.

No, said Tonio a moment after we’d left. Es Amigo. Senor is mas como (and he made a face like one of the cigar smoking fat finca owners.) Amigo is mas como (and he tapped my heart). Es mas como hermanos.

Ah, I said, I see. And suddenly the whole world opened up to me. If you want to get by, if you want to get good responses, friendly answers, help, you answer or ask with amigo. We are friends. I felt as if Tonio had shared some kind of valuable secret with me, welcoming me into a real world of people and not just senores y senoritas.

We hiked up to the little stone ticket booth, paid our 45 pesos each and entered the park.

Yaxchilan, a Mayan ruins set deep in the jungle on the border of Guatemala and Mexico, though on the Mexican side, is far les touristed than places like Palenque, which is more of the Disneyland of the Ruta Maya than this. Abandoned many years ago, it has towering temples only partially unearthed, vines growing in and out of stairways and trees overgrowing crumbling temples. Large stella remain, housed by tents and shaded from the sun and weather. Lintels reside over many of the doorways, some of them remarkably well preserved and others simply replacements for one taken by the British for their museums back when it was easy to heist antiquities from foreign countries.

Violet and I separated from the group and wandered through the main plaza, over the moss covered ruins with grass growing out of them, bits of rubble, gardeners in the never ending job of hacking back the jungle which forever tries to creep over the ruins. Ceiba trees growing in the middle of the plaza reached up towards the sky. The Maya, the little people that they were, with doorways that even violet needed to duck under, believed the Ceiba tree to be sacred, connecting the underworld to the heavens. With their branches soaring far above us, vines and linea tumbling down and wrapped in interweavings of vines and leaves that no human mind could conceive of creating, they are truly works of art.

From the main courtyard along the river, we began to make our way up the tall temple steps. Roots of trees coursed through the bricks, pushing them out in places, the steps as high as my knees. We entered several smaller temple ruins halfway up where bats hung overhead and the lime deposits had dripped a thousand shades of pink and white and peach over the walls. Then higher, in the jungle heat, our arms and legs and faces dripping with sweat.

In the desert the sweat evaporates. Here, in the hot sticky Yucatan jungle, it just sits on you, like a giant sweat lodge and as we rose higher above the trees, we could feel our own heat delirium beginning to set in. Woozy, eyes watering, from sweat lining our lids, colors more intense than before, the jungle literally crawling with umpteen billion millipedes, ants, centipedes, moths, butterflies, vines, spiders, ants and more ants. Every leaf fluttering, every cloud spiraling away overhead. Everything, blinking and breathing and inviting us, take one more step, come up, come in….

A leg, maybe an arm or a bit of hip remains from the giant body of the kind which used to grace the top of the temple, We could see the river from there and could imagine seeing this giant white effigy of the king from the river. For small people they built large formidable effigies of themselves. Inside the temple. In the several small rooms there remained a few pieces of the body, a torso, sitting upon some legs, now cross legged, like some meditator never to be moved again, remaining in this temple long after all others had gone to the great gig in the sky. A head, crowned with some decorative adornments, a carved feather headdress, lay at rest in another corner.

We wandered in circles around the temple- marveling at the work it must have taken to hoist the giant stone lintels that lay above each doorway- limestone slabs measuring a foot thick and six feet long and another two or three feet deep. This heat, this sweltering boiling heat must have led many to exhaustion. And yet, what kind of power people must have been convinced their leaders held. All of this work only for the glorification of their king who, claimed the priests, was the godhead himself . Blinded by this fact which they were to take on pure faith the people worked tirelessly and were driven mercilessly, to build build build. Empires have been built for the glorification of mans ego. And all of it carried along on the backs of men no different than those I see now, driving a collectivo, offering me a mango or papaya a la fruteria. These empires never would have happened had there been trade unions. No one would have stood for such intense work with so little pay. Now people organize, or try to. If they don’t get paid they don’t show up.

If they organize in the face of injustice and seek to challenge the dominant rules then they are considered terrorists, by the USA standards. I could never feel disdain for such challenges. That kind of challenge is what the USA itself was built upon. Those marble statues of forefathers like Washington and Jefferson, those effigies of our own great gods from times past, forward thinkers who tried to break out of their preconditioned molds, are the same kind of statues that used to be at the top of this temple.

The statue atop this temple is gone, a leg remains and it doesn’t seem like one which one could stand upon. All empires fall, all rulers turn to dust. All empires which build themselves on the backs of laborers who are never fully appreciated, never fully brought into the fold, are doomed for failure. And those who say that to challenge the dominant ideal is to be a terrorist, then, truly, I am a terrorist.

With that ideal in mind, that understanding, we circled the temple one last time, and then wandered into a trail behind the temple which led up into the jungle. Templos 39 or 41 or something were farther ahead, along a stone path, strewn with jungle debris, overhung with vines, lined with giant elephant ear sized leaves and ferns, giant trees growing straight up into the sky. Grabbing a vine but always being certain where our hands were headed- some trees are lined with needle sized spikes, others with thorns the size of our thumbnails. To grab one would be to pierce our hands worse than grabbing a porcupine.

Hotter, hotter, sweatier sweatier… Swallowing a gulp of water, should have brought more. Vines swarming around us. We came to a stone wall and climbed a little pathway upwards. The pathways slowly circled around the temples. Three of them, poking up through the jungle canopy, The clouds Soared overhead in great cotton candy spirals, darting out every which way, a thousand and one subtle colors interlaced before our eyes against eh clean blue backgrounds, and over the tops of the flora.

The ancient lines of the temples followed our footsteps as we spiraled our path up to their tops, into their little doorways, their stone lintels and bits of shade. A rain shower came and went, wetting us and cooling us for a moment and then, like throwing water onto the blazing rocks of a sweat lodge, the jungle heated up again and the humidity, hovering somewhere around one hundred percent, melted what remained of our skins and we no longer existed only in our bodies. Opened up to the jungles, the deep energies of the temples and the soaring heights of the clouds, our hands traced the lines of stone, our gaze followed a butterfly and we came upon some oddly shaped stones on the ground. Bits of green poked through.

Upon closer examination we found it to be some kind of greenish netting. There was discolored plaster along the top, chipped away. We looked at these pieces. Oddly placed. Two more over there. Two more here as well, a few steps higher. I took a step higher, almost sat in the throne reserved maybe for priests and saw the sign instructing me not to do so.

These are fake, said violet.

Yup. I replied. Why the hell would they do that?

Our friend Tonio showed up, we too was intrigued by the fake rocks.

Well, he said, stumbling through his English, if he’d just paid all this money to come here, maybe he would want to see more bigger ruins.

Yes, it was to give the tourists something bigger to look at.

We found then that the two stella which had seemed rather especially white and were on either side of the central temple had a hollow tone when knocked upon. Yes, fake also.

We read the plaque at the base of the temples explaining that some of the stella had been taken to the British art museum and the others had protective coverings. Hmmm. So the British had run off with the originals and had left Mexico with some cheap plaster fakes. Thanks!

A little disheartened but then deciding that our job was not to decipher which was a knock off and which was real, we let go of our reality once again, and let the place simply be as it was. Like going to see a movie and suspending our disbelief, we would let this also be as such. Many of the stella we had seen were in fact beautifully real.

Many of the lintels as well. But here, where one had to hike even to get to them, how could they leave them, with some many hundreds of hands wanting to rub over them, chip a piece off to take home with them, breath upon them, everything.

So we left the great temples and wandered back into the jungles, entranced by the high pitched cadence of cicadas, whirring at pitches like a thousand violins, more of them joining in, others fading away in constant and endless succession. Song birds singing beautiful harmonies which seemed to dance with the leaves and duck in and out of the path or butterflies.

An enormous dragon fly crossed our path, its wings creating a blur of yellow dots at either end and it’s six inch long body hovering so beautifully. It landed upon the end of a leaf and hung there, like a drop waiting to fall to the ground, it’s wings closed tight, its body dangling easily. We let it be, feeling like the cusp of a breath. Then, with a start, it lifted off and our eyes traced it into the jungle beyond the trail til it could no longer be deciphered from the countless other colors and movements of the leaves and sunlight dappling the trees.

Up into El Acropolis Pequeño. A large corner of a temple greeted us from the trail and, climbing up it we came to what seemed like a garden in the middle of four or five temples. High upon this hill, the gardens set into terraces but now merely grass, the trees all growing in and around them, we came to rest under a great tall tree. Howler monkeys cried out in the distance, the roars of our own hearts. I could feel the coming of another age of man, as we traipsed over these dreams of a former civilization so too would others traipse over the ancient wonders of our own. If they remain. If we remain. We too, shall go back to the dust. Ages upon ages, in endless succession.

The bricks and stone, the trees and vines, the in-between grasses, the leaves and winds and breezes all merging into one, lucidly breathing into a space out of time, I could hear ancient ceremonials, I could taste and smell ancient wisps upon the winds, in the sounds of the jungle the bugs, the darting path of a butterfly…

I wandered off into the edges of the temples. I traced their lines, gone off on my own. Far away, on the corner of another ruin I caught sight of the colored hair wrap of violet, like a rare bird in this jungle, but one which I know so well and I gave our whistle, like a bird, and she looked and smiled. And we crisscrossed the interlocking squares of the walls til we met and then parted again til at last, heat exhaustion setting in again, life flowing in every direction, we opted to leave this ruins as well. We wandered into the jungle again, back onto another trail which apparently led back around to near the entrance.

Hiking, walking, a few rain drops. I stopped all of a sudden, and looked up. In front of me the jungle opened up and I could see a view of a distant hillside where already it was down pouring. I could make out every line of every tree and luxuriated in the thousand different shades of green. I could hear the rain, from a distance, coming closer, over the leaves like a thousand different footsteps, coming closer closer, the sounds and songs of bugs getting more intense, the entire jungle coming alive, like a wave rising and waiting to crash, the electricity in the air, the change of scents, the wave of coolness til it was almost on top of us and it burst into a downpour and violet nudged me, “Hey c’mon, it’s raining, you know.” Ah yes.

Down back towards the entrance where there seemed to be a rush to leave tourists pushing through the exit, oh no the rain! I looked at the time on my ipod and saw it was later than we thought, 4:30, and maybe our boatsman wanted to go so we made it out to the dock in the rush of afternoon tourists, old people wearing white and overweight men grumbling about the rain, little old women holding on to the rails lest they slip- tourists are the same everywhere- and we asked a couple what time it was and were told it was only 3:30.

Ah. Well. We hadn’t even gotten to the Labyrinths yet! After a quick conference with the Belgian couple and Tonio, we convinced them that the labyrinth was worth going back to check out, after all, we had headlamps, though they did not, so we would lead them into it. There would be bats of course. But they were super cool.

Amigo! I yelled, Un media mas! He nodded his head even though all of a sudden his boat was ready, life jackets in place, he looking sharp, though he’d been napping for the past couple of hours.

We traipsed back into the jungle. My feet finding their way through the slippery muddy paths, back to the main courtyard. The Belgian dude led the way. His long legs took the steps easily though even for me, they were a stretch. Dude, I said, with your height you giant would have conquered these people no problem. He laughed.

We made our way to the labyrinths. Four doors presented themselves to us and all of them led into the underground. Hallways and little rooms, crawling with bugs and bats. Yay!

Well, they gulped. And we took out our headlamps.

Violet went first, then the woman and then me and Tonio Belgian dude followed. We crept in, low to the ground, though even then the dude was worried his head would scrape the ceiling. We shown our lights up and illuminated dozens of bats, all hanging quietly, like little black drops of tar from the ceiling. Then deeper. Suddenly someone spoke too loudly, the bats all squeaked and started fluttering about, everyone giggled, tried no to scream, violet shrieked, it was right past her head, twelve inch wingspan, no one wanted a bat on their head!

Deeper in there were no bats and instead we found old hallways drenched in hundreds of years of limestone silently dripping, water the catacombs were hot and the lime sparkled in a thousand different colors. In a small room we marveled at the drippings and found spiders that looked like small crabs with eight inch legs, spikes all over their green bodies and pinchers which looked like they would do more than just a little damage.

A thousand seeds were underway growing and it was hard to tell what was a spider or a scorpion and what was a vine or a plant. Spiders. Little ones, big ones, a few frogs. And more bats. We crept through. A little room here, another hallway. In and then out again. And then back in. To see what else we might find. We were kids, thrilled at being scared. Thrilled at bats. And if one person was going to go in then surely the others would follow and surely they did. We enjoyed it.

After a while we’d had enough. We came out in some kind of small courtyard which we had completely missed before. We climbed up to the top of the walls and saw we had gone several hundred feet underground. The gardens once again opened up to us, the trees towered overhead and we breathed the sweet fresh air.

Now monkey occupied us as we followed the adventures of a clan of them through the nearby treetops. Little ones reaching for fruit, big ones with babies upon their backs. Small ones but no tall ones. Reaching, grabbing, your eyes could zero in on one but if you let go of that you might loose him entirely, and the trees became a tunnel and we all hung up there with them, craning our necks to take back memories of hanging from the treetops which cameras never could capture, not the ones we had anyhow.

Wandering in and out of the area. At last realizing that we could get going. The collective back to Palenque town was probably long gone, but maybe we could make it.

We headed back out to eh gate as another flock of tourists nipped at our heels. Our friend had his boat ready and we climbed in. Puttering out into the river, we sped back upstream, along the edges, hoping maybe to catch sight of a crocodile. Little birds came in close to the water, circled the surface in wide arcing spirals and were off again. Little villages of palapa huts flew past. Three kids sitting in a dugout canoe on the opposite shore. The clouds towering overhead, folding into themselves in a thousand shades. Flying.

Rain came again. Our fearless captain, drenched, held his hand to his forehead like a salute, blocking the rain, his slicked hair bobbing upon the winds, his button up short sleeved shirt drenched, his dark skin wet, darting along the rivers edge where the current wasn’t so strong. Hoping to avoid any trees which might be poking up through the water and would surely kill his boat, if not us as well. A rainbow came out and arced in into the jungle ahead of us. We were wet but satisfied.

Back at the boat landing we parted ways with the Belgians who were on their way to Guatemala, hired a taxi to take us to get our packs as we decided we’d rather get out of there that night rather than stay. It was many hours til dark and the fat old Mexican senor who had replaced the kind older woman, seemed like the wrong kind of energy for us, the town was depressing and a long ride seemed more welcoming.

The kid driving his taxi drove it like friends I would drive with through the back roads of Vermont. None the less, I trusted him to get us there quickly into his little Nissan than I would have one of the older overweight taxi drivers. This kid had quick responses and was on the ball. He dropped us off at a lonely intersection which he said would have a collective coming by in a while.

He left us in the eerie silence of chickens clucking through the abandoned army bunker in the middle of the road, a few skin and bones dogs, some kids selling candy, an overweight señor leering at us, from his taxi where he shot the shit with a couple other señores. We waited at a small shack with the faded colors of a coca cola sign. A goat lay in one corner of the porch with it’s little kid huddled in the corner. Skin lay tight upon her bones. Violet stepped forward to pet it and it looked at her warily.

Ella habla: estoy no para cena! I said. She is not for dinner! Not tonight!

A dog watched us warily. Never go pet a hungry dog. It may be that moment that it mistakes you for dinner. Chicken clucked in and out of every corner. It looked like a storm might blow this whole scene away at any moment. Yet, we waited with our packs and faithful Tonio for that promised Collectivo.

Tonio, a student of English, enjoyed talking with us and, as he was learning the language of English, was compassionate to our own language barriers. Still my Spanish ahs gotten better and better and we were able to talk and laugh for quite a while, passing the time.

At last a collective showed up, we tossed our bags on top and crowded in. Violet taking the front seat, Tonio in back somewhere, and me on a little side fold down seat near the door and, thank god, an open window. Three hours of that would have suffocated me had I been in the front seat.

Through the rain and into the dark night we went, passing army checkpoints and the slow moving trucks. Red and blue police lights suddenly flashing behind us, we were pulled over by machine gun toting federales. They surrounded the vehicle, one of them sliding open the side door of the minivan and looking me up and down, machine gun in hand while another talked to the passenger on the other side of the seat, asking questions about his computer. They have been trying to keep down the Zapatistas for quite sometime. Various revolutionaries, everyone also wants a few pesos if they can think of some thing to charge you with. I sat there not moving, knowing from years of experience that the only way to deal with police is to not make any moves. At last, the door was slid shut, the van allowed to go upon it’s way.

Curfews, checkpoints at night and countless army barricades, roadblocks or bunkers along the way. The Mexican army, the government, the whole thing, this whole system down here: the USA is always on their case to stop their corruption, crack down on drug dealers, terrorists (unions) (though this is like the pot calling the kettle black) and yet- it is a system that has gone on for so long that it is hard to know who to trust. All these posters we see, selling the people their next great governor, the faces all have so much promise but who can really change anything?

We continued on past dozens of tiny shack towns, now incandescent bulbs glowing in the jungle night, that horrible mariachi music into some kind of tropic mariachi…

Almost there… Finally we made it to Palenque, walked into the rainy night and went back to the place we’d stayed the night before where we’d made friends with the fellow behind the counter who liked the fact that he and I had the same first names.

After showering the jungle stink off our bodies, cleaning up and getting into fresh unworn clothes, we went to a balcony restaurant edging el parquet central and ordered some ceviche, agua mineral with limon and some grilled fish. It was totally delicious, the music was nice, the waiter sweet and kind and a fitting and refreshing end to a day. It was a long time before we got to sleep but at last it crept over my bones and, deep in slumber in the mediocre housing of a cheap posada, alongside the soft body of my love, I dreamt of jungle ruins.

The Artwork of Michael Divine

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