24 April 2014

"Go to the Jungle"

san cristobalWhen I was in La Paz and told my neighbor, a former anthropology researcher, that I was going to San Cristobal, she said, "Go hang out in the jungle."

Hmm, I told her, I already did that in the Amazon, back in 2005. (Not to mention Costa Rica, where I'd more recently cut short a month's stay in a dark, locust-infested cabin).

Another friend emailed me saying, "Go to the Indian villages." And do what? I asked. "Visit the churches there."

Hmm, I thought, I already lived in Inuit villages for three years, spent a week in an African village. Been there done that. Not to mention churches, all over southern Europe (as well as all over San Cristobal itself).

But what the heck, I can go on horseback with a guide and it'll be an adventure. One sunny morning I showed up at the tour office at 9, waited half an hour for the guide, and finally the tour operator apologized, "The caballero doesn't answer his phone. Maybe another day?" I declined, figured it wasn't meant to be.

Still, cooped up in my one-room apartment for a month, I thought, I probably should go visit the Mayan ruins, or maybe the lake district. Even though I'd already climbed the pyramid at Teotihuacan, toured the Aztec ruins in Mexico City. Even though it gave me the creeps to read in the guidebook about the grisly purposes of these archaeological wonders.

chiapas sunsetSo I came to my final week here, and ventured out in the rainy night to book my tour. The 15-hour trip to Palenque and the waterfalls was too much of a stretch, beginning at 5 a.m. The shorter trip to the Tonina ruins needed 4 passengers, which they didn't have. The third option, the 13-hour trip to the lakes, was still doable, but the rainy season had begun now and why would I want to ride a bus all day and evening to look at a lake in the rain for two hours?

Not that I'm complaining. I actually felt relieved. What I most wanted to do was stay in another day and work on my novel. Not very glamorous, I know. No pictures to share, no tales of exotic flora and fauna, no passing scenes of roadside forest, quaint lunch stops, colorful fellow travelers. Just, upon some later release, imagined scenes from an imagined world that never did and never will exist, except in the writer's and reader's imagination. Talk about virtual reality...

black christThe thing is, what does it really mean, to "go to the jungle"? Am I going to paint my face and learn, in an afternoon or a week, to hunt tapir, or talk with jaguar? Am I going to weave and pray with the natives?

When I did go to Peru and "hang out" - for a week of solitary retreat, punctuated by nightly group ayahuasca sessions - what came to me (apart from the archaic visionary mosaics of the night) to fill the empty space was, like jungle growth filling the vacuum that nature abhors, plans and schemes of a literary nature.

The point being, "jungle" is a concept, to be interpreted as one needs. It could be learning primitive survival skills. Anthropological or ethnobotanical research. Plain tourism. Escape from urban congestion. Vacation. Relief of boredom: something to do, somewhere to go. Sheer curiosity. And that's all good.

courtyardOr, it could be: being at home with oneself, the jungle of one's own being, the ecosystem within one's own world of activity and potential. This primal realm risks encroachment from all sides by industry, tourism, urbanization, commercialization, technology, population growth. Inside the jungle of one's own being - bounded in my case, it now appears, for a full thirty days - the wildlife can be studied in depth; the native plants cultivated, nurtured; the language purified; the sense of home honored.

Yes, "go to the jungle," indeed, and hang out there. And please, report back on what you find.

Postscript, 26 April:
All that said, I did manage finally to "get out" of town, an hour-long trek into the hills. The skies were clear and the temperature perfect. Destination: Arcotete, a nature reserve featuring sculpted limestone. There is nothing, I realize with senses awakened, as intoxicating as the aroma of a highland pine forest, especially when clarified at 8000 feet. And nothing, after all, to substitute for the peaceful clarity of a mountain stream, or the craggy beauty of a natural cavern more sacred than any Gothic cathedral. All this, it turned out, for the invigorating effort of an hour's hike, ten pesos and a handy taxi ride back to town ... for a parting treat of Argentine lasagne and Italian cappuccino. Hasta luego, San Cristobal!

San Cristobal de las Casas

For more "Forest Walks and Other Exercises," see my new book just published this week:
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