Maya Roads: One Woman's Journey Among the People of the Rainforest
by Mary Jo McConahay
||Chicago Review Press
The magical, violent, rich rainforest region of Central America, seen by a woman journalist who loves it, over a period of thirty years.
Buy your copy!
Barnes & Noble.com
"Powerful, descriptive, spiritual, lush"
In Maya Roads, McConahay draws upon her three decades of traveling and living in Central America's remote landscapes to create a fascinating chronicle of the people, politics, archaeology, and species of the Central American rainforest, the cradle of Maya civilization. Captivated by the magnificence and mystery of the jungle, the author brings to life the intense beauty, the fantastic locales, the ancient ruins, and the horrific violence. She witnesses archaeological discoveries, the transformation of the Lacandon people, the Zapatista indigenous uprising in Mexico, increased drug trafficking, and assists in the uncovering of a war crime. Over the decades, McConahay has witnessed great changes in the region, and this is a unique tale of a woman's adventure and the adaptation and resolve of a people.
Every once in a while I stumble upon a book that is so beautifully written and infused with so much intelligence and heart that it leaves an indelible mark on me. Mary Jo McConahay's Maya Roads is such a book. In its hungry passion and wide-eyed wonder, it's an extraordinary literary journey and a moving testament to a region and a life. —Don George, National Geographic Traveler
...Crossing the waters of Lake Metzabok was like going through a tunnel in time and space. Nothing seemed familiar: not the oversized tropical foliage, not the massive, carved-out tree trunk in which we floated, not the shape of faces in the canoe--except the Etcher’s, of course, but he sat behind me. I was entering a world mysterious, lonely, possibly dangerous, but seductive; I could feel it in my skin. I skimmed the water with my fingers, trying to touch the passage itself. Even at that moment, so many years ago, I sensed the tunnel was one-way, that having come through, I could never go back.
“Cocodrilo,” said the Lacandón facing me, a warning to keep hands inside the boat.
All the men were now smoking the absurd pastel cigarettes I brought them, gilt tips glinting in the fading sun. The two Lacandón smoked as they had smoked their cigars, no hands, the objects hanging from their mouths, pink, baby blue.
As we neared the opposite shore, I saw half a dozen women standing on the beach. Between them and our cayuco, a cormorant nose-dived into the water. It came up empty and soared away, as if the dive had been just for fun. When we banked and stepped onto land, the men dragged the bark to higher ground.
I stood alone before the women. They giggled and chattered in their pura Maya language. All the while they looked me over in a way I’d call rude were it not for the fact that it was I who had arrived on their doorstep uninvited, and for no apparent reason beyond implacable whim. Like their men, the women wore loose, unembroidered white gowns, but multiple strings of red seeds graced their necks. Their hair did not hang loose and wild, like the men’s. Instead, it was pulled back so their features--brows, noses, chins--looked chiseled and refined.
I stood my ground, about four feet away. I could not remember a thing from the museum exhibit about Lacandón Maya greeting customs.
“Buenas tardes,” I said. “Mucho gusto.”
No response. I wore a cap that covered my hair, no makeup, a Levi’s shirt and jeans, boots. If they are new to me, I figured maybe I am new to them. Three of the women broke away from the others. One reached toward me, and I smiled, thinking she would touch my face. Instead, she gave a good hard squeeze first to my right breast, then the left. I felt my eyes go wide, the smile freeze in place. The other two who had stepped forward did the same as the first. As quickly as it started, the strange test--I think it was a test--was over. The women motioned I should fall into line, and they turned to walk.
Last in the queue, I looked ahead and saw an extraordinary picture that I have carried ever after: at the nape of the neck, where the hair was gathered, each woman wore a clutch of dead birds. Those birds just hung there from the knots where the long, black hair had been pulled together, lushly colored dead birds that must have been somehow magically preserved, whose wearing marked the women as natural members of the forest, yet its conquerors, too, a race of queens. Together we walked, they gracefully barefoot, I in my boots, toward their settlement named after the lake, Metzabok.
National Geographic Traveler
By Don George
Book of the Month:
Maya Roads, by Mary Jo McConahay
Every once in a while I stumble upon a book that is so beautifully written and infused with so much intelligence and heart that it leaves an indelible mark on me. Mary Jo McConahay’s Maya Roads is such a book. In its hungry passion and wide-eyed wonder, it’s an extraordinary literary journey and a moving testament to a region and a life.
That region is the Maya tropical forest—once known as the Gran Petén—that extends from Petén in northern Guatemala to Chiapas in southern Mexico. As McConahay’s adventures demonstrate, this fecund jungle is home to a complex culture of Maya marvels, from intricately constructed and decorated stone buildings and temples to sophisticated astronomies and religious rituals.
McConahay gradually uncovers these riches over the course of her professional life. That journey begins in 1973, when, inspired by an exhibit in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology, she impetuously sets out in search of Lacandón Maya Indians. She travels to the rainforest ruins of Palenque and beyond, past “impenetrable looking walls of trees” to the shore of a lake where she and a companion shoot off fireworks to let the Lacandón on the other side know they are there, and where they are welcomed and eventually taken farther through the “miasma of greens” to the village of Naha.
After two decades as a journalist and war correspondent, McConahay returns to the Gran Petén in the early 1990s. As she explores deeper, McConahay brilliantly evokes some of the region’s preeminent sacred sites: Bonampak, Uaxactun, Palenque, Tikal, Toniná. She helps us understand the Maya cosmology, the significance of the end of the Maya calendar on Dec. 21, 2012, and the Maya understanding of the interconnectedness of the world. She also reveals the dark side of the region, where a cycle of development, disenfranchisement, and death—fueled now by drug profits—seems to intractably endure.
But despite these daunting realities, McConahay’s enthusiasm shines through these pages, illuminating the Maya roads we would all do well to follow.
Chris Robinson Travel Show
Summary: This beautifully written and evocative book takes us on a journey through time and space to gain a privileged insight into the culture, past and present, of the Maya people. Mary Jo McConahay is brave, sympathetic, a brilliant observer of the small detail that paints a picture of a people who are at once noble, complex and tragic. This is the story of the Maya…and of Mary Jo herself.
Chris’ View: This is not a dry history book or an self-centred travelogue, but rather a sensitively observed and timely chronicle of a woman falling in love with a people whose spirit somehow survives through historical cultural collapse and modern crimes against humanity. It is timely both because the Maya people need the international support that writing such as this book evokes, and because we are approaching the pivotal Mayan calendar date of 22.214.171.124.0., the end of the Fourth Age of the World, which translates into December 21st, 2012.
The Author’s journey along Maya Roads began in 1973 in Mexico City at the National Museum of Anthropology at an exhibit on the Lacandon Maya Indians. From there, the roads seemed to lead inexorably to the border regions of Mexico and Guatemala, the Lacandon homeland. Over the next nearly forty years, her mostly solo journeys through this Maya heartland, its mysterious vestiges of past cultural glories and macabre sacrifices, takes the reader through a journey of discovery about the Maya people, the abrupt implosion of their great cultural flowering and, most importantly perhaps, the position of the surviving Maya people in today’s Central American political maelstroms.
Her writing has stirred a renewed interest in the Maya for me. I feel guilty about my lack of awareness of the atrocities perpetrated upon these people in the recent past and all-too-unknown present. I am in awe of how she is able to place the Maya people that she meets on her journeys at the centre of her narrative – never herself. Even so, this is very much a personal account, an autobiographical love affair with a people whose virtues and character demand so much more of our modern society than they have received.
Sad, yet joyous. Angry, yet sensitive. Flowery, yet factual. Travel the Maya Roads with Mary Jo and you will be swept along with her on her journeys through this unique part of our continent. .
Will Appeal To: Travel, history, geography, political journalism, autobiography…if any of these genres appeal to you, you will likely love this book. And if you have ever been to Cancun or the Riviera Maya and visited one of the nearby Maya sites and, like me, wondered just who were these enigmatic Maya people, then read on…
Contents: The chapters flow into one another like the river of dreams in the book, mixing time and place in a quilt-like pattern that moves the reader through the wonders- and the horrors – of the Maya world.
Prologue: Into the Lacandon
1. Looking for Itzam K’awil
2. Usamacinta, River of Dreams; or, The Man They Killed
3. The Skulls of San Jose Itza
4. Equal Day, Equal Night
5. Voices from the Well
6. Dead Birds, or, The Return to Naha
7. Welcome Aboard
8. They Never Came, They Never Left
9. The River, the Stars
Epilogue: Clearing the Breath from the Mirror
Illustrations: Not the reason that you will read this book – apart from a few line drawings at the start of each chapter and a very basic map of the region in the introduction, there are no illustrations or photographs, which is a shame, as the Maya people are colourful and Mary Jo ably reminds us of this throughout her book.
Where Have I Heard of her?: Mary Jo was a war correspondent covering Central America in the 1980’s; her writing has appeared in Vogue, Rolling Stone and the San Francisco Chronicle. Maya Roads is National Geographic Traveler's Book of the Month for August 2011.
Publisher: Chicago Review Press (2011); Distributed by Independent Publishers Group (1-800-888-4741) ISBN978-1-56976-548-7
Website: www.chicagoreviewpress.com www.ipgbook.com
Equal parts travel narrative and meditation on Mayan cultural history, McConahay’s gripping memoir exposes the devastations of war. On a visit to Mexico City in 1973, McConahay saw an exhibit on the Lacandón Maya Indians that sparked an urge to find these last links to ancient Mayan culture. Over nearly four decades, she returned to Mayan sites in the vast rainforest spanning Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas and Guatemala’s northern state of Petén while working as a journalist. She records a personal odyssey along the clay roads running through the rainforest in which she participates in an archeological dig, an exhumation at the site of a massacre by government soldiers, and a Zapatista national convention; interviews Mayan priests, missionaries, and survivors of civil war; visits caves, standing stones, and burial mounds; and illuminates surprising holdouts (indigenous women, adorned with dead birds, who speak the Lacandón language). McConahay expresses her reverence for the rainforest with graceful imagery, describing, for example, the act of creation while listening to the sounds inside a waterfall. As the end of the fourth Maya era, on December 21, 2012, approaches, attention has focused on Mayan prophesies of apocalypse. McConahay’s insightful memoir suggests another story: Mayans’ veneration of nature, respect for human dignity, and expansive view of time are powerful antidotes to the poverty, drug-trafficking, violence, kidnappings, and destruction that has plagued rainforest settlements for decades.
Want to review or comment on this
Click here to login!
Need a FREE Reader Membership?
Click here for your Membership!