South of the Border, Upside-Down Mexico Way

In remote Zapatista country, the good people of Chiapas are engaged in a once-a-year change to upend the world. Men become women. Night becomes day. And a pilgrim in a rental car is barreling toward them.

Doug Stanton

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It was the opportunity to fling the dung of a strange land across the abyss of centuries that kept me watching while a Catholic priest, a transplanted Frenchman known as Padre Miguel, cleared the main square of the Maya village of Chenaló in preparation for, of all things, a fire-eater’s midnight performance.

“Attention, amigos!” barked the padre, who despite 30 years as pastor of this tiny parish high in the mist-shrouded mountains of southern Mexico hadn’t lost his Parisian flair for theatrics. “May I present a friend whose performance, I’m sure, will amaze us all!”
The fire-eater, a backpacking New Zealander with an ornately pierced eyebrow, was swinging his blazing batons and shooting long flames from his mouth. The villagers milling in the square fell silent—too uneasily silent, I thought, as I felt the first rocks rain down upon us. Shouts of “Diablo! Diablo!” rose among the women in the crowd, some of them looking as if they might faint as they jabbed fingers at the fire-breathing man.

I felt sorry for the women—and then for myself as their husbands, having never seen a man breathe fire, circled us gringos warily. Padre Miguel shouted for calm. We ran.

It was then that I heard my friend Rob cry for help. He was crouched on a side street, surrounded by a gang of Maya policemen, each wielding a length of polished wood bound with a thin leather shoulder strap. Their canes were upraised. Shouting from the sidelines and gesturing wildly was a man wearing an embroidered shawl and head wrap.

Rob spotted me and explained that he’d been shooting pictures, as he’d been given permission to do by a village elder, when he was approached by another elder, this one dressed as a woman. He pointed to the man in the shawl. In the cosmology of the festival we were attending, this man/woman signified the change that all things were undergoing. Men were now women. Up was now down. We named the little prick Phyllis Diller.

At first, Phyllis had cordially offered Rob pox, a homemade sugarcane brew with the bouquet of jet fuel. To refuse an offer of pox is a grave insult, which in itself might result in a beating. So Rob drank. But when the man discovered that Rob was a photographer, he grew angry and summoned the police. Now he wanted Rob’s camera.

Pablo Quiñones, our mestizo translator, hissed at Rob, “Give him your camera!” Rob refused, explaining that he had permission to take pictures. “They will beat us,” Pablo said, agitated. Later, we would learn that two foreign photographers were, in fact, severely beaten during the festival. Pablo next pleaded with Phyllis, to no avail. “Now he says he wants money,” he announced.

Our ransom was 300 pesos, about $60, which seemed cheap, considering the alternative was a supreme ass-whipping. We had, however, only 100 pesos between us. A restless crowd of perhaps 50 villagers closed in. Upon hearing we couldn’t pay the money, Phyllis puffed his chest and said, “Then you men will leave this village without your pants!”

“Excuse me, Pablo,” I said. “Did he say our pants?”

“Our pants,” he answered. “There is nothing we can do. We are in their world.”

Over the Border, Off the Map

Rob and I had been driving Mexico’s Ruta Maya, the Maya Route, which is part of a 1,500-mile string of highways and border crossings weaving through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. We had started in the Yucatan, near Cancún’s crowded oven of a beach, and were spinning south and west into country less explored by gringos: the state of Chiapas, home of the insurgent Zapatista rebels. Our destination was the town of San Juan Chamula, near the Guatemala border, which was preparing for the most sacred and raucous of all Mayan celebrations—a midwinter bacchanal when spirits are said to rise up and walk the land and the living get the chance to kick back and blow off a year’s worth of pent-up steam.

The Maya call this festival of spiritual renewal Ch’ay K’in, “the five lost days.” In his book Crazy February, American anthropologist Carter Wilson describes it as “a fiesta of wildness, of men in women’s clothing, mock battles with horse dung, and rituals run wrong on purpose.” The world is turned upside-down, and creatures are reborn.

What would it be like to turn my own world upside-down, I wondered, if only for a little while? Mexico is so close, conjuring the usual paradisiacal visions of bleached beaches and brilliant sunlight that bites longingly at the back of your neck. But it was that other portal I wanted to pass through—the one that led to a place where paradise was a mad hatter’s creation, where the rules didn’t apply, where I wouldn’t be playing things so safe. I used to travel this way, and it had created some interesting moments. But now the risks had narrowed, and I’d uncomfortably begun to understand what writer Jim Harrison calls the theory of Christian fat. The theory holds that when we begin living responsible lives we purposefully get fat to make it more difficult to get off the couch and leave the house, where we might be tempted to take chances—to, say, go to Mexico and throw dung with strangers. I was 34, married, a father, and troubled by the fact that recently my young son had looked at me and said, “Dad, you’re starting to remind me of Elmer Fudd.” I needed a quick escape. The journey would be my disappearing act.

Lessons from the Headless

“No sacrifice, no freedom,” our tour guide was saying. “For the ancient Maya, there was no—as you Americans say—free ride.”

We were walking the yellow limestone road of Chichén Itzá, one of the most famous of all Mayan ruins, some 100 miles southwest of Cancún. The path led us through the cool shade of balsa and cedar trees and past a tall, stately ceiba. It’s a Mayan belief that ceiba trees are the link between heaven and earth. Their towering, elmlike branches are said to brush the clouds; their roots are sunk in Xibalba, the Otherworld. Each night the earth tilts and Xibalba rises to become the starry sky.
Beneath the ceiba tree was a deep, freshwater sinkhole, called a cenote, fed by an underground river. The cenote was almost perfectly round, about 200 feet in diameter: a jade eye staring heavenward, blinking occasionally when a ceiba leaf dropped. “I am not Mayan,” said our guide, a retired schoolteacher who resembled the grandfatherly actor Wilford Brimley and who now passed his days leading hordes of gaping tourists through the crumbling ruins, “but I feel magic in this place.”

Wilford went on, “Some say about the ruins, ‘You’ve seen one pile of rocks, you’ve seen them all.’ Not true. Listen. Can you hear them?”

Nearby stood the stone remains of what looked to be a diving platform. The cenote, it suddenly became clear, had been a swimming hole of the doomed: Men, women, and children, victims of sacrifice, had been flung into the jade eye to appease Chac, the rain god, among other deities. They’d clawed at the yellowed limestone sides, I imagined, until the long, soft hand of the water reached for them. I heard their voices.

Well, almost. What I heard was the whine of semitrucks on Highway 180, a quarter-mile below us through the jungle.

“Last year, when the rainy season was late,” Wilford said, “a group of Mayan farmers came here to pray. They threw vegetables into the cenote. After three days, it started raining. Amazing the old-time ceremonies still work today, no?” We mused a moment on this, time past and time present flowing through the sunny afternoon as one ceaseless river.

“Follow me,” Wilford commanded. “Up.” Rob and I began crawling, white-knuckled, up the 91 dizzyingly steep steps of the Pyramid of Kukulkán, a temple honoring the Mayan solar year. Higher and higher we crept, the pyramid mewling with the whimpers of nervous tourists. At the top, I felt suddenly weightless, as if I were perched on a giant wedding cake.

Stinging with sweat, we stood and watched the thick, 300-foot shadow of a serpent slink down the steps, its shadow-body eventually joining with two immense stone heads, jaws agape, resting at the temple’s base. On the equinoxes, when the play of sunlight along the steps is most direct, the serpent makes its boldest appearance, announcing the earth’s shift in course around the sun. The temple, in effect, is a big, stone calendar, its steps, sides, and terraces numbering 365. The Maya were a time-obsessed people, possibly the Americas’ first science wonks.

“We are living,” Wilford informed us ceremoniously, “in the Fourth Creation, which began in 3114 b.c.” He cleared his throat. “It’s scheduled, by the way, to end December 24, 2012. Earthquake. Call it the Big One.”

We stood there, pondering the final years of the Fourth Creation, gazing down at the temple’s expansive grass plaza, clipped close as a putting green. Wilford pointed out the nearby ceremonial stone ball court, 545 feet in length, the largest stadium of its kind in Mexico. Here a soccerlike game was played to honor Hun-Nal-Ye, the god of corn.

“It’s believed the losers of the game were decapitated,” said Wilford, not at all glumly. He explained what an honor it was to sacrifice oneself, to feed the gods with one’s blood—a kind of terminal act of self-expression.

The kindly schoolteacher smiled. “We must pay for what we need. Remember this.”

The Inner Nerd Emerges

“Hello, you big men!” cooed Liesel, wobbling her knee suggestively.

“We’re waiting for a cabana,” said Tanya, her friend. Tanya and Liesel, from Switzerland, were lying nude in the scorching sand outside the scuba rental shop of Cabañas Santa Fe in northern Quintana Roo, a place of many naked people just a few miles away from the squat and unassuming ruins of Tulum. Bob Dylan twanged on outdoor speakers: Ow, ow duz i feeel, to be un yur oannn. Like a roallin’ stoannn.

“Do you guys have a cabana?” asked Liesel.

“Cabanas are hard to come by,” explained Tanya.

“We started out in Majorca,” chirped Liesel, “and we’re headed to Monaco. Or maybe Belize. And you guys are up to…?” She let the question trail off, Audrey Hepburn-like.

“We’re going fishing!” I announced, a bit too cheerily.

“Fishing?” said Liesel. “How dreadful.” Her eyebrows lifted behind tortoiseshell sunglasses.

“Fishing!” Rob was chuckling as we later navigated a boulder-strewn road that would take us down the coast to the fishing resort of Boca Paila. “You could practically hear the nerd alert go off.”

“Shut up.” I stared ahead at the jungle’s stiff curtain, the road pulling us toward a hypnotic green vanishing point. We had entered the immense, 1.3-million-acre Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, the home of the tapir, the macaw, the jaguar. Soothing birdcalls rose from the canopy in musical puffs. Through gaps in the foliage we could see the blue Caribbean, so bright it made us blink.

Long shadows darted over the hot asphalt, making me think I’d spotted a jaguar, which was unlikely, given the size of this area. Still, I began following the shadows into the rioting green. How nice it would be to see a jaguar, I thought.

Just the thing to take the Fudd off.

A Death Unforetold

Roy Wander, a retired machinist from Omaha, was smoking a Tareyton in the orange twilight, tattooed arms draped over the bridge railing at Boca Paila and jiggling a fishing rod. The air smelled of tidal mud, like wet grocery sacks, like salt.

Wander’s not his real name; he wouldn’t give his real name. He nudged up the volume knob on his boom box with a boot toe and wanted to know if I thought he was crazy, living down here like a vagabond.

Hell, no, Roy.

I explained our destination, and Roy said, “Yer not looking for this festival to change yer life, are ya?”

“Certainly not.”

“Good. It was just me and my Airstream,” he went on, “the first time I drove down here. Winter of ’91. I left my wife at home. And when I came back, she was gone. That’s what this life of mine cost me.”

Bob Marley yodeled from Roy’s boom box, calling other wanderers from the jungle to the bridge—two hippie Vermonters in a Dodge minivan and a married Canadian couple on bicycles: Laura was a nurse, and her husband, Ben, was a “shop rat” in a Vancouver auto plant. Had life on the Rasta Coast changed them?

“You travel, you change,” said Ben. “You don’t change, you die.”

“We work all summer to play here all winter,” said Laura. “At night, we fish.” She leaned back like a pitcher in the windup and expertly cast her lure into the lagoon. I mentioned that earlier in the day I’d fished and nervously blown every cast.

Ben piped up. “You didn’t have your mind right, eh?”

At the Boca Paila Fishing Lodge, Chevy Suburbans roared up, delivering new guests, men and women who brandished bouquets of fly rods and smiled broadly as they surveyed their heavenly digs: yellow, green, and pink thatched cabanas set under swaying palms along the white mustache of the surf. A violet darkness fell, and Xibalba, the death lords’ home, rose and floated overhead, swirling with creamy stars. The cold teeth of the sea air rattled over the sand.

After a wine-soaked dinner, Rob and I and a handful of guests who an hour earlier had been strangers dragged lawn chairs to the surf’s edge. John, a Boston insurance executive, leaned over toward his friend Steve, who operates a ski resort in Oregon, and tapped him on the arm.

“Hey! Tell Doug about your conniption fit!”

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” said Steve.

“Well,” John went on, “we were fishing in Russia, and, uh, one of our friends? Well, he died. Heart attack.”

“He wasn’t that old!” Steve said.

“That’s right, he was young—like us,” said John. “I mean, we all freaked out. But Steve really freaked. Had to take a sedative.”

Steve tapped out a pinch of Skoal. “It bothered me to think of him dying. See, about every two years I used to get an urge to free myself up, you know? I’d quit my job, sell my house, and hit the road. I’d go out and live. But I can’t do that anymore. Not at my age. It really confuses people when you goof off and they can’t goof off. So when this friend died, I realized I could be next. And I began wondering if I’d let myself get lazy, if I was just going through the motions of being alive.”

He laughed, “Now, instead of selling everything and taking off for six months, I come bonefishing for a week, which seems a fair compromise. Which is about the best you can hope for. A compromise. What a bitch.”

Bad Tidings in Escárcega

Every person who takes a road trip is seized with a sickly urge to give up at some point. Road trips, even the good ones, pummel your stamina, your goodwill, and pretty soon you feel like an armed, disgruntled postal employee. I mention this because the stretch of road we were now cruising had been hell even for a veteran traveler like Graham Greene. “No hope anywhere,” he wrote while traveling by mule to the Palenque ruins in northern Chiapas in 1938. “I have never been in a country where you are more aware all the time of hate.”

The Maya, he decided, were just “little men” with “black mops of hair” who were “more sure-footed than mules.” The hilly jungle “was like a scene from the past before the human race had bred its millions.”

In fact, the Maya are resilient people, having kept their culture intact despite centuries of rape, torture, and poverty-stricken servitude. Indoor plumbing and ownership of automobiles are rarities; they herd sheep and plant plots of corn with a stick, one kernel at a time. They are, in some ways, an invisible race. In his book The Lawless Roads Greene wrote that Chiapas, the heart of Maya society, was a place “forgotten in Mexico City, so far away Mexicans didn’t know that it existed.”

I had Greene in mind as we pushed through the heated dusk into the village of Escárcega, some 200 miles from the Caribbean coast. People leered from the portals of cramped shops as we passed, all of the shops displaying the same assortment of chains, saws, and bullwhips. From one of the doorways came the recorded voice of a ranchero singer, a cross between Julio Iglesias and Alvin the Chipmunk, who trilled “It’s a Small, Small World”&3151;so small, in fact, that it looked as if we were the only tourists in town.

We stepped into a grimy pool hall full of men missing fingers; apparently, the rules of the game demanded losers to place a hand on the table rail and forfeit a knuckle. We stumbled back into the street and two owls immediately flew over, strafing us so low they almost knocked my hat off. Then they turned and came back, straight for our heads as we made a run for our room.

That night, I read in my guide to Mexican birds that these were either least pygmy owls or ferruginous pygmy owls. The least pygmy’s call was said to be a pleasant “too, too, too,” ending with a slow “took, took, took,” while the ferruginous pygmy exclaimed, in similar rapid fashion, “poop, poop, poop.” Rob leafed through the Popul Vuh, the Mayan book of creation, until finally a page stopped him. I knew it would. It was a passage describing the significance of owls. We tried watching the Bulls beat the Knicks on satellite TV, but it was hard to concentrate. Finally, we agreed it was only a myth. Yes, it was just a Mayan myth that owls, even pygmy owls, were messengers of death.

A Mood Boost from the Jungle

Just over the Usamacinta River in northeastern Chiapas, we left the highway and bumped along a dirt track that led to various hamlets comprising the settlement of Lacanjá. We stopped the car in a mowed clearing where palm trees stirred in a muggy wind and blinked with medallions of sunlight. Around the clearing were tidy, dirt-floored shelters made of lashed bamboo and topped with ragged thatch. I hired a local translator and went exploring. We passed a Pentecostal church, and my translator, Juan, told me that in the fifties, American missionaries, after little success with the Maya of the region, effected a mass conversion here in Lacanjá. Manual Castellanos, Lacanjá’s herbalist, was also its Pentecostal preacher.
I drew back at the sight of Castellanos, standing unsteadily in the doorway of his house: His hair was red, his skin pale and soft, his eyes light blue, almost white, like an overexposed picture of the sky. “He’s not albino,” whispered Juan, “though he looks it. He’s nearly blind.”

Castellanos greeted me warmly and guided me into the house. “This man is interested in hearing about the Maya old ways,” Juan explained.

Castellanos frowned. A chicken scratched at the dirt around his feet, and he instinctively arched a toe to stroke the smooth, white breast.

“Will you talk about the ceiba tree, which connects the world to heaven?” Juan asked. When the conquistadores arrived in the mid-1500s, they noticed, with real alarm, one imagines, that the sacred ceiba tree resembled Christ’s cross. Even as the Spanish were burning Mayan religious texts, the Maya were mutating the figures of Christ into the sun and the Virgin Mary into the moon. In short, the Maya ate Catholicism for lunch, creating a new, syncretic religion.

Castellanos spoke rapidly in Spanish. “He says he will not talk of it,” said Juan. Castellanos shook his head and pointed to an eight-track tape player mounted on a wooden shelf above his flaming red hair. The speakers hung from the wall, dangling from their wires like torn eyeballs.

“He says his life is now in those speakers,” Juan told me. “The voice of Jesus Christ comes from them.” Castellanos reached lovingly toward the speakers and gave them a gentle push.

Later that night, I considered the irritation I’d felt as I watched Castellanos caress his damn speakers. Time and Jesus, it seemed, had not been kind to the Mayan culture. But my anger, I knew, was the ugly child of a zeal as damaging as a missionary’s.

My thoughts were interrupted by a girl’s voice, a plaintive singing, which seemed to weave with the mists through the forest. I started down a jungle path after the voice, but each time I closed in, the song withdrew deeper into the trees. Shadows moved across the forest wall—jaguars?

There was the smell of cooking meat on the breeze, and following it, I stepped through dripping foliage to a clearing. Children looked up blankly from the open doorway of a bamboo house, both the boys and the girls dressed in white knee-length gowns called saknoks. None of them seemed old enough to be the singer who’d lured me from my bed. A stone cooking platform stood in the center of the clearing; a young woman in a saknok smudged with ashes was feeding tree branches into the fire. Above the platform stood a tall ceiba tree, and on wires strung through the branches hung brown strips of javelina curing in the wood smoke.

The woman shot me a bemused look and then held up a finger—one moment, please!—and ducked into her bamboo house. She returned bearing a wood-bead necklace adorned with two long, yellowed teeth—canines from a large cat, by the look of them. She placed the necklace over my head, anointing me, I thought, with her pleased smile.

Looks damn good on you, she seemed to nod. Jaguar really suits you.

Pandemonium Approaches

We were climbing the road to San Juan Chamula, ascending beyond the jungle and its gauze of heat to the bracing, piney heights of the Sierra Madre del Sur. With us now was Pablo Quiñones, our translator and guide to the fiesta of wildness. Pablo was a poet and former bellhop from Mexico City, a gritty life he gladly jettisoned in the seventies for the cooler, hipper clime of San Cristóbal de las Casas, 12 miles south of San Juan Chamula. Imagine a Latin Haight-Ashbury marooned on Pluto and you’ll have an accurate picture of Pablo’s hometown.

We’d been warned not to drive in this country at night for fear of attack by armed highwaymen, who possessed the unnerving habit of setting up impromptu roadblocks and relieving passersby of their belongings, including their cars. We were less concerned about the Zapatistas, who were also active in this area but who were conscious of their image in the international press and tended to steer clear of tourists. During the 12-day uprising in January 1994, some 300 members of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, made up mostly of Maya, ransacked state offices in nearby San Cristóbal and took over six other villages. Despite ongoing peace negotiations with the Mexican government, there were still occasional violent flare-ups between rebels and soldiers in far northern Chiapas.

We descended a long, steep hill that dropped us into the village square, or zócalo. Bordering the zócalo were outdoor restaurants, the municipal building, called the Presidencia, and modern, concrete residences that more resembled parking garages. These houses, explained Pablo, were owned by the village’s powerful caciques, landlords in a feudal system in place since the 13th century.
“Very poor, these people,” said Pablo. “Perhaps the very poorest on earth.”

Indeed, most of the houses of San Juan Chamula were small mud-and-wattle structures, their pyramidal thatch roofs mirroring the silhouette of ancient Mayan ruins. Ceremonial fires glowed within the houses and smoke poured out from glassless windows and rose up in silver scarves lit with moonlight. Chanting echoed from many of the homes, the prayers of shamans delivered to heal the sick, to find lost souls, to commune with the lords of the Otherworld in preparation for the five lost days of Ch’ay K’in.

Upon the chill air lay the sharp odor of wood smoke. Thunderous rockets—fireworks for the festival—boomed at unexpected intervals over the village, creating an anxious feeling that we were under mortar attack.

“These rockets represent the war for men’s souls, fought during the five lost days,” said Pablo. “These days are like a gate through which the spiritual forces of the universe—the murderous chaos and the sweet harmony—pass in a battle to destroy or recreate the world.”

We stopped the car in front of a flat-roofed cinder-block house. A terrible cry came from the darkened interior. This was the home of Juan Gallo, a surrealist painter and part-time ethnographer of Maya tradition. During the festival, said Pablo, he became what is called a Free Monkey, an embodiment of the chaos let loose from the Otherworld.

Gallo, dressed in black polyester slacks and a white dress shirt, sat at a card table in the middle of the cement-floored room, surrounded by his vivid paintings. One of them was of a nude woman, done on velvet; others depicted former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari crucified on a cross and the Zapatistas’ Subcomandante Marcos gripping an automatic weapon. In a corner, barely visible in the gloom, sat Gallo’s barefoot wife, silently knitting. She wore a traditional black woolen skirt, a red sash, and a blue blouse, her night-black hair bound in long braids. She amusedly ignored the mysterious cries of her husband at the card table. It was, it seemed, just another evening with Juan. He hugged me in greeting, as is the Chamulan custom, and offered a seat next to his companion, an older gentleman of about 50 who gazed ahead as if in a coma. I produced a bottle of Wild Turkey I’d brought for the occasion, and we earnestly drank.

We then began drinking pox. It is said that a man who is pure of soul will not get drunk imbibing pox; through it he can communicate with the Otherworld’s spirits, as well as Christ and all the saints. We drank until we were stinkingly purified, whereupon Pablo announced that we wished Juan Gallo’s blessing during our attendance of the festival of wildness.

What was our purpose? Gallo asked. He cocked his head and spat upon the floor.

We were friendly travelers, said Pablo, who wished to see the world tip upside-down.

Of course! nodded Gallo. He horked once more. His coma-companion roused and he, too, let fly.

Tears suddenly welled in Gallo’s eyes, saliva forming a milky window in his open mouth. “Our culture—the old ways—are dying!” he cried. He explained that as men left the village to find work in the cash economy of the outside world, the Maya’s traditional agrarian way of life was disappearing.

Are we not a fierce people! cried Gallo. Did we not bravely resist the conquering Spanish! Hadn’t we kicked the priest from our church so we could worship with shamans? Those who converted to Protestantism, said Gallo, are banished forever from the village! They live homeless on the streets of San Cristsbal!

Fueled by the alcohol, Juan Gallo wept on and on. Finally he collected himself and announced that he would be honored to give us his blessing. After that, we drank and horked and hugged for hours, until I lost track of time itself, the village exploding with more fireworks, with the sounds of war.

Man Becomes Free Monkey

Several thousand maya were trekking down from the hills to San Juan Chamula for the festival; for many, separated by deep valleys and speaking different dialects of the Mayan language, the occasion marks the year’s only contact with distant neighbors. In the zócalo milled hundreds of men and women selling live snails and dried fish, ice cream, boiled corn, and watermelons split with machetes.

Amid the din roamed Juan Gallo and his troop of Free Monkeys, dressed in red pantaloons and black frock coats, grinning berserkly from behind gaudy mirrored sunglasses. Atop their bobbing heads sat tall, conical hats covered with howler monkey fur and adorned with flowing ribbons. Strumming guitars, playing pennywhistles, and plucking violins, they created an awful, monotonous dirge as they shuffled along, reciting dirty limericks to any who would listen. As Free Monkeys, they were sowing chaos wherever they went and attempting to distract the pasiones, or religious men, from the fasting and vow of sexual abstinence that precedes their fire-walk down the path of the sun. During this walk, the pasiones serve as symbolic stand-ins for Jesus Christ, the Mayan sun, who will soon ascend to heaven to rest after his long battle with the forces of mayhem. This ritual of rebirth would restore order to a universe that had wobbled out of balance.

I was reeling along in Juan Gallo’s wake, plagued by a throbbing hangover. We passed by the house of a pasione, where a feast was taking place; earlier, a bull had been sacrificed as an offering to the gods. Through billowing clouds of incense, I could glimpse the bull’s head nailed to a porch post, its jaw skinned of flesh.

As I stared, hypnotized, at the leering mouth, Pablo and Rob pulled up in the car and bundled me into the backseat. Pablo wrenched the steering wheel and we flung up a steep, winding mountain road. If I really wanted to get a taste of freedom, he said, he knew the perfect place.

Palm trees sprouted near groves of pines, a discordant landscape that increased my vertigo. It’s a 20-minute drive from San Juan Chamula to San Andres, rumored to be a Zapatista stronghold, and we were treated to the constant roadside attraction of machine-gun-mounted jeeps and sandbagged bunkers manned by unsmiling government soldiers.

The festival in San Andres, which is a much poorer town than San Juan Chamula, had an almost funereal aspect, much like a star extinguishing in an unknown galaxy, watched by no one. Pablo pointed out the municipal building where peace talks between the Zapatistas and government officials were taking place. “This is the cradle of a new universe!” he exclaimed. “Imagine the freedoms being discussed here!” The Zapatista demands, he said, were your basic recipe for democracy: better housing, more educational opportunities, increased health care, regional autonomy.

Pablo went on, his honesty emboldened by the pox he had been drinking. “Don’t you see that goofing off is not possible here? Freedom simply means the freedom to live! Freedom is very different for these people than for…” He paused. “Gringos.”

On our way back to San Juan Chamula, we coasted into the town of Chenaló, and soon we were surrounded by policemen, angry villagers, and the man dressed as a woman who wanted to steal our pants. The riotous mob pressed in. Pablo whispered, “We must go, if we do not wish to be naked men.”

We walked very slowly, pursued a short distance by the crowd, which suddenly broke away, drawn to another gang of revelers down the street. Pablo studied the frenzied horde and said wryly, “It has begun. Everything is tipping.”

A Walk to the Sun

As the sky over san juan chamula boomed with rockets, young boys spread the zócalo with the roof thatch that was symbolic of the sky, laying down, in essence, a swath of heaven on the cobbles at out feet. Juan Gallo and his Free Monkeys circled the swath, shooing bystanders from the sacred space with whips made of dried and stretched bull penises.

The dung began to fly around the zócalo, first as tiny chunks flung haphazardly. It was the Free Monkeys versus a group of somber men dressed as Guatemalan soldiers. Chiapas once belonged to Guatemala, and the Maya who were sent there during the Inquisition often didn’t return. The laughing monkeys were flinging their hearts out.

The dung began to fly faster, more furiously, as it had been ritually strewn for a long, long time, hurled across a chasm where the difference between past and present was a fiction.

Soon the monkeys won the war and the thatch of heaven was set afire. Black arms of smoke writhed over the zócalo, snatching at the bare feet of the pasiones as they dashed with manic precision through the embers, across the earthly sky, their floral banners representing the Sun-Christ snapping in the wind of a new day. Before our eyes, the world was being reborn. The crowd hushed; then, slowly, it erupted into laughter, a collective release of anxiety that spread like wildfire over the zócalo and continued for several minutes. It was during this happy interlude that I noticed several tables curiously levitating at the far edge of the zócalo.

Then the crowd began to part, as if by magic, and suddenly transformed itself into a screaming sea of faces. Running through the sea was a man with blood streaming down his cheeks, tables and chairs flipping over in his wake.

Then I saw the flash of canes—whump, whump—as Chamulan policemen caught the man and pulled him to the ground.

By now, bulls had begun to circle the zócalo, round and round in a dizzying orbit. There were about 40 of the beasts, bucking high and hard as men tried to ride them. “The bulls are from the Otherworld,” said Pablo. “And the men, if they can stay on, feel they have power over the forces of darkness.”

The bleeding man broke free and ran to the municipal building, where he stood below the balcony and implored the onlooking caciques to hold off the police. The caciques pointed and guffawed, as if they’d never seen anything as funny as a man with blood coming out his ears.

Pablo stepped forward and pleaded that the beating stop. The regal men looked down from their balcony in disgust. A few laughed, others horked. It was a vision from a cruel hell—from Xibalba itself.

Why didn’t Pablo mind his own business? the caciques demanded. Didn’t he know this man had violated the ritual order? Pablo whispered to me, “We should leave now. What I have just done is very dangerous.” Had I been ten years younger, or even five—without a doppelgdnger life of responsibility on pause back stateside—I kidded myself that I might have hung my ass on the line by protesting on the bleeding man’s behalf.

My second thought was that it would be damn interesting to hop on a bull hell-bent from the Otherworld and take him for a spin around the zócalo, around the edge of the still-smoldering thatch of heaven. Pablo informed me that the bleeding man had tried just such a thing. A man must place his name on a special list a year in advance of this bull-riding moment. Now the policemen were beating the poor sap who’d jumped atop a bull out of turn.

“These men are very drunk,” said Pablo. Was I drunk? he asked anxiously. At that moment, I felt stone sober. The next instant, I felt the sting of flung dung. It came winging across the zócalo from an unseen hand. It was not, as I’d hoped, the road apple of liberation. The realization hit me hard.

Some days, dung is just dung.

From Outside Magazine, April/May 2021 Lead Photo: PhotoDisc