Wednesday, May 02, 2018


Mayan Roots and Guidance into the Future

Aurora and guest
We stayed the previous night with Ernesto and Aurora Saqui at Nuuk Che’il Cottages, their ecotourist haven in Mayan Village (a re-placed community like Indian Church, with the creation of the Jaguar Preserve) . Aurora is a ceramic artist, a traditional healer, and stoic (but cheerful) cook-den mother for the legions who have steadily visited this hostel, a combination of ecotourism, art center, wholistic healing, and Mayan cultural exploration.

Ernesto heals
Ernesto is a remarkable man, a naturalist-teacher, entrepreneur, and Mayan elder. He was director of the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve for fifteen years, and still provides expert guidance in the preserve. After retiring from that position, he was head of the Maya Center council, representing his group in regional Mayan political gatherings. He told me that he had tired of all the political conflicts, and was now focusing his energy on being an elder, sharing the tradition with serious students, and attending gatherings of Mayan elders/shamans from Belize, Guatemala, and southern Mexico. The day we moved on to Cockscomb, he hosted a Mayan Ceremony for a Danish television crew who helicoptered in from their ship anchored offshore. It would be featured in a tv series on indigenous cultural renewal and teachings. I asked him the day after the ceremony whether he was able to enter the spirity realm, or was he just performing for the camera. He said he had dond this so often, that he was able to enter that place of quiet readiness. “Some of them were crying,” he said.

The regional gatherings of shamans and elders happen once or twice a year, and are the highlight of Ernesto’s life. He explained that each time they met, the elders set a problem that needed healing, and they went into deep exploration prior to the ceremonies, bringing new material from the spirit realm to add to the tradtional ceremonies. Ernesto initmated that most of these problems were ecological. I was struck by two things. One was that they did not simply perform the millenia-old Mayan ceremonies by rote, but that this was a living tradition into which they integrated new visions from the spirit world. Second, I was reminded of the Pachamama workshop (Awakening the Dreamer) which Equadoran shamans have created to teach all over the world to save the biosphere. I participated in one of them several years back, and felt the power of their teaching. We are not healed, but the immune system, as Paul Hawken puts it in Blessed Unrest, is being activated.   

From Cockscomb we taxied with Ernesto’s brother to Hopkins. Emerging from Cockscomb Basin Reserve, we entered a European orange company’s plantation. Upon inquiring, we leatrned they had ruined the communal water for Maya Center. Ernesto’s brother told us that the health department nhad come and tested the water, confirming that it was highly contaminated with run-ff from pesticides and fertilizers. But they took no action. Geeta encouraged him to contact European enviro groups to put pressure on the company. This strategy worked in the case of la Milpa, where a Coca-Cola distributor from Belize City was shamed into donating the major portion of the 250,000 acres in the reserve, rather than growing more Tropicana orange juice. Massachusetts Audobon was also involved – and of course Judy Lumb.

Judy has a long history with the Garifuna people in the south coastal area, and we stayed in a beach cottage run by one of them in Hopkins. I was glad to finally get my imagined time “at the beach,” but unfortunately we encountered the same sargasso seaweed disaster which was plaguing Caye Caulker. From talking to other tourists, I surmised that the stuff was strewn all along the coast. Here, at least, it was not rotting yet. The brief history of the Garifuna is that they shipwrecked en route to slavery in the Carribean, landing on a rocky island. They were rescued by a sympathetic party, and managed to hold off the British for well over a hundred years before finally attaining independence. They are a smart, resourceful, resilient people, and we enjoyed our brief time with them.

Coming from a country still plagued by racism, Geeta and I were struck by its absence in Belize. Folks get along in Belize. I didn't get the slightest whiff of discrimination by class, culture or race. The model of ecological preserves, embedded with ecotourist sites, seems to be working well. The big remaining ecological challenge is to find a way through major highways intersecting in central Belize to create a wildlife corridor, crucial especially for the threatened jaguar.

The model is similar to Costa Rica, and like Costa Rica, there is virtually no army. The biggest military presence I noted was a small constabulary outside Belize City. But there is no air force, nor navy, nor heavy weaponry. I did not see a gun the whole time. The night watchman at our hotel in Dangriba (the Garifuna capital, where we ended our journey) was relatively tall, with beautiful greying dreadlocks. Noticing that he held his hands behind his back, Geeta peeked and saw his peacekeeper – a machete.

The country’s prospects are reasonably good, though there is a potential threat from Guatemala, whose president ran on a platform of exercising their traditional claim to much of Belize. Both countries have scheduled referendums to have these claims adjudicated by the World Court. Unsurprisingly, Guatemala has voted no. After the election rolls are cleaned up, Belize plans to hold theirs.

In my conversation with Ernesto, I told him that I foresaw in the not-too-distant future a chastened humanity re-grounding after the collapse of global civilization on the foundation of indigenous religion (and culture). This religious culture is reviving in many places, especially in Central and South America (note the Pachamama Alliance, for example). Though this revival is less strong in the US, the recent longstanding protest camp in South Dakota over the natural gas pipeline was led by a deeply grounded core of Sioux elders. Living in western Minnesota for eleven years, I was struck by the dignity and confidence of the Plains Indians. I met. Similarly, the Mayans were not broken by their conquerors, unlike the Cherokee in my own area of Southern Appalachia. Even the Eastern Band, who were spared the Trail of Tears, seem uncertain, poignantly reaching for something that continues to elude them.

The Mayan elders are seeding a rooted, resilient future for a remnant humanity emerging from the severe bottleneck which awaits us. For this I am thankful, and I feel blessed to have met a man who embodies its possibilities.


Mayan Ruins and a Jaguar Preserve

Our last days in Belize were spent visiting Mayan sites and encountering the Garifuna culture. The archaeological site at Lamanai (“submerged crocodile”) was remarkable. This city, one of the largest in the extensive Mayan empire, was continuously inhabited from 1500 BC until the nineteenth century. When the British initiated excavation in 1974, there was still a small Mayan group in makeshift shacks living on the site, who were moved to a small town built for them in nearby Indian Church. What was most impressive about Lamanai was not the excavated pyramids and palaces, but the extensive mounds still unexcavated on the 950 acre site. This place was huge, one of several making up the one million residents of the classical period in Belize, which now has a population of 335,000. Since today Belize imports a lot of their food while preserving extensive forest, one can see that growing corn for a million people in this small country would have led to ecological disaster.

Judy took us to Cockscomb, home of the world’s first Jaguar Reserve. We spent one night at the preserve, in a clearing of the forest with rustic shacks and eery models of the early Jaguar cages.
An old Ford truck used by Alan Rabinowitz, the original creator of the jaguar reserve, hovered in the background, mowed up to the frame and wheels, thick with high weeds. I noted that it was not quite as old a model as the one with which I built my house, then retired to the forest at a junkman’s place, where nobody cleared the vines and forest debris. (Yes, I too am fading into history.) Judy had herself been part of the team which re-introduced howler monkeys to the area after it was rescued from orange plantations. We learned that there were now four howler families persisting in the area.

We were less able to see birds here than in la Milpa or Crooked Tree, both because the vegetation was so dense, and because Roni had left us. But the wildness was invigorating. We tubed down the Stann Creek River, during which I endured numerous chigger bites. A treat was going a little further upstream to
see a Boatbilled heron which Dorothy had spotted on a hike that morning. All day long the melodious black birds sang at the primitive site, their varied, liquid songs reminding me of the woodthrush which arrives here at my Southern mountain place every April (local Audabon folks tell me it likely winters in Belize.) A bus full of high school kids from Oakland roared in around 10 pm. As thirty souls set up camp in the dark, the electricity from solar panels failed. But I’m now a country boy, and peeing in the dark is normal.

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