‘Palenque still has its hairy pilgrims…’—Ronald Wright

Of the hundreds of people I’ve met on this trip, almost without exception my favorites have been New Yorkers, or at least New Yorkish. It shows how provincial I am, I suppose.

Kelly and Amy adopted me in San Cristóbal. You wouldn’t guess from Kelly’s studenty demeanor that she’s a senior public defender; three months in Guatemala has dissolved the stress of working with rapists and murderers every day back home. Amy, it turns out, is a Brooklyn Heights neighbor of mine. She advocates for immigrants and refugees, and we spent a happy evening complaining about John Ashcroft and the INS, and swapping notes on our favorite neighborhood spots.
   ‘You go to Ferdinando’s too? What about Frank’s Lounge?’

After San Cristóbal we headed to Palenque together. The heat was a shock after the chill of the mountains, and I felt submerged in the thick air. We caught a taxi out of town, where foliage cover promised more bearable temperatures.

El Panchan is one of those self-proclaimed jungle paradises that’s carefully nowhere. There were few indications that I was not back in southern Thailand. Rakshita’s, a vegetarian restaurant, offered fruit smoothie combinations with gringo names. Signs invited guests to hatha yoga and kabbala chanting, full body massage and ‘Maya’ tarot card readings. There was carrot cake for sale. As we looked around doubtfully, gray-bearded Keith bounded over with a history.

   ‘Don Moises, the founder here, he was a real visionary. Fifteen years ago this was just a field. The mature trees were here, but otherwise it had been cleared. So he bought the land and reforested it. And the birds came back—stuff grows so fast here—and the howler monkeys and spider monkeys showed up. He divided it into parcels of land for his kids, and they each built something a bit different in style. But it all hangs together. Rakshita’s is the vegetarian, spiritual resort. Then there’s the Italian restaurant over there by those cabañas…’

Certainly, it was beautiful. The restaurant deck was on the second floor, and the open sides looked out on vines, ginger, jacaranda, and palms. There was a small meditation temple down the path, and groves of wooden cabañas hidden by trees. Budget travelers swung in bright hammocks. Birds and butterflies fluttered.

The staff spoke English automatically. I hadn’t seen this anywhere else in Mexico. Some could barely speak Spanish; they had been recruited from the guests, who themselves were from the International Traveler Tribe. Keith was typical, an eager old hippie here to do some ‘inner work’.
   ‘It’s where I need to be right now,’ he said, mistily. ‘I don’t know how long I’m here for, but every day I give thanks for the healing energy of this place.’

My lawyer companions nodded politely and turned back to their smoothies.

There were dozens of young Germans and Dutch, and far too many blond dreadlocks and body piercings.
   ‘I feel old,’ said Amy. At the next table, a baby-faced boy with matted dreads held two young women in thrall with his manliness.
    ‘And when I woke up the second bottle was totally empty. Guess I musta just started slammin’ into it right after the guys left. So I woke up, and I’d puked under the hammock, and my dog was eating the stuff…’
   ‘Ewwwww,’ said the girls, and giggled.
   ‘Oh for Jesus’s sake,’ I said, twirling my gringo spaghetti.
   ‘Shush,’ said Amy, ‘the boy is courting.’

I went to yoga that evening, as an exercise in community bonding, and also to exorcise the phantom limb of my backpack. This was kabbala yoga, whatever that was. I arrived late and missed the introduction, and so assumed it was little more than a gentle beginner’s class with not much attention to form. But then, after final relaxation, when we lay floppy and spreadeagled on the floor, the teacher announced it was time for chanting.
   ‘If you have any kind of Judaeo-Christian background this chant will be fermiliar to you. I’m going to chant “For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory” in Hebrew. If you’re already fermiliar with it in that context, you need to understand that here it goes beyond that. For Thee is Thine, and Thine is Thou! The light of God shines in you! Imagine it as a ball of light gathering through your body and exploding out your third eye as I chant!’ she said, smiling at each one of us lying in corpse pose.

Flake, I thought, and wished Graham Greene could hear this bollocks.

Then she began to chant as if possessed, a woman wailing for her demon-lover. When she finished, she asked us to join her in a five-minute round of loud, free-form ‘Amens’. The secular Teutons on the ground responded with embarrassed mumbles. Her face shone as she dedicated our beautiful practice to her favorite angel, Azrael. When I got up, my phantom backpack was still strapped on tight.

We left our new age Eden early the following morning and walked the four kilometers to the ruins before it got too hot. We were stopped three times by local who shook little ziplock bags furtively.
   ‘Mushrooms, señoritas?’

But the Palenque ruins made up for the sideshow, and when I saw them rise from the jungle I forgot the philistinism I’d brought to Angkor Wat. Where the Angkor temples are domineering religious monuments, at Palenque you can hear the echoes of a busy, industrious people going about life in a beautiful capital 1400 years ago. It appeals to my urban instincts. The palace, the burial pyramids, the ball park, the temples, the aquaduct, the apartment buildings—they are all set like jewels against dark jungle-covered hills. The vision is great, but the scale is human. I am jealous of Ronald Wright, who writes of his first visit as a student in 1968, when he was advised to camp in the Pyramid of Inscriptions for safety and was kept awake by a violent thunderstorm flashing over the pyramids.

I know of nowhere in the world that has a setting like Palenque’s. Delphi comes close, if you can imagine its hills and its views amplified and covered in rainforest…Palenque’s structures are buoyant, elegant, harmoniously proportioned to the magnificent hills with which many of them are engaged.

Time Among the Maya, Ronald Wright

We were forbidden to follow the jungle path beyond the Temple of Jaguars. ‘Bandits,’ says the guard sternly. I hear that whenever I try to stray in Chiapas. Latin America, so far, does not feel as safe as Southeast Asia. Instead, we followed a back road to the museum, past the Cascadas de la Reina, a series of perfect scalloped jungle pools filled by small limestone falls. Ronald Wright describes meeting a group of stoners staring into those pools twenty years ago. They are still there, presumably watching a procession of Maya kings emerge from the water like Ursula Andress in Dr. No.

When we catch a rickety VW bus back to town, one of the them is on it, glazed, matted, and tattoed. He is slumped across the seat and smiles a slurred greeting. There is no room for Amy.
    ‘Close-eh yourrr legs!’ says the Mexican opposite, with disapproval. The stoner snaps them shut, and she squeezes in. Mushrooms, señor?

Our stoner encounters don’t end there. Back at El Panchan, I refuse to get off the bed until it stops being so damn hot, but Amy and Kelly venture out.
   ‘We met the weirdest person,’ Amy says when they return. ‘I’m not sure if it was male or female. We were walking past the cabañas down the path, and someone called “Excuuuuuse me. Are you afraid of moffs?”
   ‘A really odd accent,’ Kelly confirms.
   ‘I didn’t even know what she was saying. We had to go into her room—it was a woman, I think—and set free this butterfly she’d caught.’
   ‘A moff,’ said Kelly.

I felt hunted.
   ‘Did she have a brown Ziggy Stardust shag? And a very strong London accent?’
    ‘How did you know?’
    ‘That’s Ziggy. The one I told you about from the youth hostel in Oaxaca. So she still came to Chiapas despite all my propaganda about Zapatista rebels machine-gunning tourists in the streets.’

It is time for me to get off the International Traveler Tribe circuit.

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