Mundo Maya: Stories from the road

Release Date: 6/10/2010

Mundo Maya wraps up with a sixteen day trip touring the most prominent archeological and cultural sites of the ancient Mayan civilization, all the way from Merida to Playa del Carmen. Dr. Kim Van Scoy, one of the course instructors, sent this story of one of the stops on the trip.

Dr. William Clary and I say goodbye to Elias Chanbor Yuk, our Locandon Indian guide.

June 3rd was an exciting day for those of us on the Mundo Maya study abroad trip. After a week of visiting Maya ruins across the Yucatan,  we had  a chance to hike with Locandon Indian guide, Elias Chanbor Yuk, in the 35,410 hectare Reserva de la Cojolita, part of the vast ecological treasure of the Locandon Rain Forest in Chiapas, Mexico.

Elias shared his life-long knowledge of many of the medicinal and herbal plants of the rainforest. He showed us the Pacaya tree (or Chiip in Maya), which has long been used by the Locandon Indians for its antibiotic qualities. Pointing to a long scar on his nose, he explained how the tree had healed his wound. He then cut the bark of a Chacahuanten tree (or Chucah in Maya). Scraping just below the bark, he explained that the wood of this tree is similar to mercurochrome, and is used to treat sores of the mouth. Its bitter taste and red stain are a small price to pay for having sores disappear overnight. Elias also shared the bountiful fruits of the rain forests, giving us the chance to taste tropical fruits we had never seen before. Each had special medicinal properties and could be used for specific ailments. He explained how his people use the fallen trees to construct the bridges which transverse the many creeks and rivers we crossed. Fallen trees are used because the Locandon teach that cutting down a living tree is the equivalent of killing 500 people.  If you cut a tree, you must replace it with 5 more. 

The hike included a small detour to his uncle’s milpa, or corn field, where Elias explained how the Locandon Indians grow maize. Unlike many indigenous and rural farmers, the Locandon do not practice standard slash and burn agriculture, a destructive practice where vegetation is cut from large parcels of land and then burned. Slash and burn farming degrades the soil in the rainforest, as nutrients are quickly leached out, leaving the soil compacted and unable to support crops (or rainforest trees) after only one or two growing seasons. Instead, the Locandon clear small parcels of land within the rainforest, burning only at night, and leaving the rubble and branches in their fields. Maize is planted with a planting stick, using 3 kernels of corn per hole at about 30 cm apart. Three crops per year are harvested in this tropical climate with plantings in April, October, and December, always during a full moon. Beans are later planted to climb up the corn stalks and squash are planted once the corn and beans are well established. Chiles and tomatoes complete the Locandon garden. After harvest, all stubble and plant materials are left in the milpa to nourish the soil. A Locandon garden will be used for 5 years. After the 5 year period, the plot will be rested for between 5 and 10 years, before being available for use once again. The Locandon Indians don’t use pesticides or herbicides in their farming; in fact, to do so is prohibited in the reserve.

The highlight of the 6 km trip was a swim in a rainforest river with pristine waterfalls and refreshingly cold water. The swim was truly a welcome relief from the sweltering temperatures in the 90s and the high humidity characteristic of a rainforest. Elias shared that his community gets all of their water from this river, and they enjoy swimming in it year round.

We took a break from the heat and humidity by swimming in a cold rainforest river.

After the hike, we enjoyed a lunch of quesadillas, and beans and rice prepared in the Locandona village, and Elias shared more of his heritage. The Locandon Indians population is made up of approximately 800 people, spread over 3 villages. They are committed to preserving the rainforest and act as its guardians, reporting any illegal cutting to the police and military which support their preserve. Elias, the father of 6 children, explained the need for further education of members of his community, including the need for an archaeologist, an anthropologist, a biologist, and a lawyer, all to help them in their quest to preserve the Locandon Rainforest. He said that as a child he was taught that respect of his elders was very important, but he was also taught to respect nature, as it is the giver of life. 

As the trip ended, Elias shared two ears of dried maize with me. His family has saved this seed for hundreds of years. In return, I will send him some of my Ozark Pink tomato seeds, a variety my family has grown and saved for a decade, and which was developed at the University of Arkansas to flourish in hot humid climates. I plan to plant some of the maize seed in my garden and share the rest with a seed bank which specializes in preserving indigenous species from around the world.  

At the end of the day, we piled back into our vans for the slow 3 hour trip back to Palenque, where air conditioned rooms and hot showers waited. This was a stark contrast from the previous night, which we spent at the rustic Escudo de Jaguar Eco-lodge sleeping with mosquito netting and listening to the chilling calls of the Howler Monkeys. Without a doubt, the challenging experiences during Mundo Maya have led to strong friendships and an increased respect and appreciation for the importance of the tropical rainforests and the indigenous people who work to preserve them.