To put it another way, you may have dipped a few chips into the guacamole, but the whole enchilada has yet to be served.
Who are the strange little Maya people who live there, and what do they really think? It is hard to say because centuries of oppression in Guatemala have taught the Maya to keep their mouths shut; but, the Maya don’t just live in Guatemala.
(Note: The indigenous people in question are properly referred to as “Maya” not “Mayan” people. There is some controversy concerning the use of the word ‘Mayan” as an adjective. Some believe it is only properly used in reference to language. I disagree, so I have not been rigorous in regard to precise usage.)
The Maya who inhabit Belize are rather more accessible than those in Guatemala because almost all speak English. As previously mentioned, these are very smart people, so in Belize many speak four or five languages including Kekchi, Mopan, Spanish, English, and Creole. Even in remote villages most Maya speak better English than most black English speaking Belizeans.
Now that we have established communication, please allow me to share a another great adventure; and in the process, to explain how I first learned something of their belief systems.
I well remember my trip with Ann up the Swasey branch of the Monkey river of southern Belize in 1999. We had made arrangements with Geronimo, the chief of Red bank village, to provide us with three porters so that we could explore the magnificent 1000 foot deep gorge of the Swasey.
I was initially displeased with our crew. The leader Athonasio was a tubby looking little fellow, Julio was frail but friendly, and Alberto was a jovial giant, a black Belizean who had been raised as an Indian.
Note the woman’s downcast eyes. Maya men may be little but they are still traditional men, so their culture is extremely sexist. Ann is about twice as big as Athonasio but he still tried to boss her around. Needless to say that didn’t work!
Our first camp was at a beautiful place we called Breakfast rock where granitic boulders emerge from a deep pool. It was a great place to swim and absolutely full of playful otters!
It was here that we met a party of fishermen returning to Red Bank.
The Monkey river has three branches, the Bladen, the Trio, and the Swasey. All have completely different aquatic ecosystems. The Bladen is beautiful and blue but supports relatively little life because the waters are alkaline due to the surrounding limestone. The Trio branch is acidic, dark, and nasty. The Swasey water is mildly acidic to neutral and thus is “just right”, so the river is filled with life.
Neutral pH is good for a wide diversity of aquatic life, but the extraordinary abundance of fish and other organisms in the Swasey requires an additional explanation.
The aquatic vegetation seen above is an unidentified member of the Podostemaceae, prosaically known as Riverweeds, a worldwide group of rare submerged plants whose presence is an indicator of excellent water quality. Wherever there are Podostems the fishing is certain to be good!
These extraordinary plants grow only on the brink of waterfalls, in rapids, and other places where the water is fast moving, clear, and clean. They look delicate and fernlike but are incredibly tough. It is almost impossible to pry one off a rock. They remain submerged for most of the year, then when water levels drop they bloom to spectacular effect.
We soon arrived at our base camp, the beautiful Swasey stopper falls. From there on the going got rough.
Athonasio and I were walking through the jungle when I gestured at a nearby tree with yellow blossoms and asked if it was a Prickly yellow (Zanthoxylum sp.), but he replied, “No. That is Quamwood, Schizolobium parahyba.”
I almost fell over. He was exactly right! How was it possible that an Indian from a remote village in Belize would know the correct Latin name of a tree? He casually explained that he had heard it once while taking a class to become a certified ecotourism guide. Years had gone by yet I was his first customer. Lots of people in Belize take such short courses but rarely learn anything. Apparently Athonasio was paying attention so I started paying attention to him.
As we made our way up the gorge Athonasio soon demonstrated that his knowledge didn’t just come from classes. He noticed a few little green fruits on the jungle floor that had been nibbled by something. Tracks soon proved that it was a gibnut.
The gibnut (Cuniculus paca) resembles an overgrown guinea pig and is the most delicious animal on earth. When Queen Elizabeth II visited Belize she was served a gibnut, henceforth known as the “Royal rat”. Our expedition came to a halt as the men searched for further signs.
The gibnut is a solitary animal that makes a complex burrow with a lower main entrance on a hillside, then several hidden upper entrances to facilitate escape. After a bit of searching Athonasio discovered the lower entrance and built a fire, the smoke of which was directed into the hole. He then located the upper hidden entrances and positioned a man with a machete at each one. The burrow served as a chimney and soon smoke was emerging from the secondary holes.
We waited for almost an hour but nothing happened. Perhaps the gibnut wasn’t home, or perhaps the tiger (jaguar) had dined well last night? So we gave up and continued hacking our way up the gorge.
At the worst possible place we encountered a Tommygoff. (Sorry for the bad photo.) It was a big female with a full belly. We had no choice but to pass within striking range of the snake.
I have a live and let live attitude. The snake was just resting so I was willing to quickly sneak by, but Alberto would have none of it. Either the snake had to die or he was going to turn back.
Alberto’s attitude was understandable. Unlike the rest of us he knew from personal experience what happens when a Tommygoff bites. Years earlier he had been working in his plantation when a Tommygoff struck his leg just above his rubber boot. (Rubber boots are good protection from snake bite.) He immediately began to run for Red Bank. Within moments paralyzing pain began to shoot through his body as though acid was running through his veins. Within fifteen minutes blood began to pour from his eyes, from beneath his finger nails, and from the end of his penis. He doesn’t remember the rest of his desperate journey back to the village.
But what good does it do to go to a village? Traditional healers recommend herbs, incantations, and the tying of a dead chicken to the affected body part, none of which works and is almost as ridiculous as traditional Chinese medicine. Belize City was many hours away, and besides, he had no money. There was nothing to do but wait it out.
Most people bitten in the jungle either die or lose their leg, but Alberto is tough, so he survived and ultimately regained his strength. He wasn’t about to go through that again so the innocent snake was chopped in half and thrown off the cliff.
Speaking of my favorite subject, here are two more species commonly encountered in the Belizean jungle.
Belizeans believe that this to be a “Female Tommygoff”, said to be the deadliest of all! It does look and act like one, but in reality it is a harmless mimic. Perhaps harmless is the wrong word. They are fierce, mildly venomous, and have huge fangs with which to puncture toads, much like the familiar Hognosed snakes of North America.
Coral snakes are common throughout Latin America. There are many different species. This is the beautiful Micrurus hippocrepis. The venom is even more deadly than that of the Tommygoff, but they are small and innocuous so the danger of being bitten is slight.
Progress was slow, so Ann decided to cut loose and swim up the raging river. She made better time than we did!
After a spectacular day of exploration we headed back to our third camp at the confluence with Double falls creek, a beautiful place. To the best of my knowledge the upper reaches of Double falls creek remain unexplored to this very day.
As per usual I was walking ahead and went right on past the gibnut hole. Nobody was home so why bother?
Back at camp I wondered what was taking the others so long? That was when Athonasio appeared triumphant with the gibnut. He had seen a tiny fly enter the hole and had concluded that the gibnut was lying dead inside from smoke inhalation. It is always a scary and dangerous thing to reach into a hole in Belize, there could be a tommygoff, but he did it anyway and came home with the prize!
It was time for a feast, so Julio and Alberto decided to add some fish.
Several days later we reached our goal, the well named Sale si Puede (Leave if you can!) an old Chiclero camp in the Coxcomb basin Jaguar preserve. By this time Athonasio and I had become friends so we sat atop a huge granite boulder in the moonlight smoking joints while he told me the stories of his ancestors.
Despite his intelligence Athonasio believed the world was flat. He knew it was round but thought it was round like a plate so he asked if I could look over the edge when I flew home.
He wondered if the United States was a big country like England and was astounded to discover that England was a tiny little place, big in influence only. The actual size of the USA was beyond his comprehension.
He also had a theory that no one else would believe, that rivers actually came from rain falling on the mountains. Whodathunkit? Everyone else believed that all rivers emerged perpetually from the underworld, which is to say from Xibalba. This was the first time I had heard a Mayan person mention the magic word which I thought was known only to archaeologists from inscriptions on pyramids.
I asked Athonasio about his people’s myths so he told me how the sun and moon came into being. (I apologize in advance for the fact that this story doesn’t make any sense but I have transcribed it more or less directly from my field notes. I later learned that there are many versions, and besides, we were smoking joints!) The story went something like this:
Old man Thunder had a beautiful daughter. One day a handsome young man saw her and fell in love. (This was in the time of the Gods long before there were ordinary human beings.) The young man transformed himself into a humming bird so that he could visit the flowers in front of her house unobserved.
Old man Thunder suspected something so he shot the humming bird with his blowgun. His daughter was horrified that he would shoot such a beautiful little bird so she took it to her room to nurse it back to health. She woke up in the middle of the night to discover a handsome young man making love to her.
They decided to run away, so when dawn came he hid beneath a turtle shell while she hid beneath a crab shell. Old man Thunder was furious when he discovered her deceit so he blasted his daughter to bits with lightening.
The heartbroken young man later emerged from hiding and collected the blood and bits into twelve bowls which he sealed with beeswax. The following day he opened the bowls to discover the first filled with mosquitoes, the second full of butterflies, the third scorpions, the forth flies, fifth frogs, etc. until he opened the last to discover his beautiful princess, but to his dismay she had no vagina.
He called to his friend the deer to step between her legs and slash a vagina with his antlers so they could make love once again. Years went happily by until he became jealous for no reason, and learning this the girl became unhappy too.
One day she looked high up into the sky and there beheld a great white vulture flying free. She called to him to say that she wanted to fly free herself. The great vulture landed so she jumped on his back and at the count of three they flew away. To her dismay she realized that she had been kidnapped. The vulture took her to his father’s house.
The vulture’s father was a mean old bird who kept her as a slave in his big house. His mansion was white from vulture shit, just like the King vulture is today. (The King vulture is a magnificent white bird second in size only to the condor.)
Her heartbroken husband had seen her fly away but there was nothing he could do so he killed his friend the deer and flayed the carcass so he could hide beneath the skin. From the rotting carcass came thousands of bot flies, one of which he sent to fly up the nose of a vulture and thus learn the location of the house where his beloved was being kept. The smell drew all the vultures and he caught them all. The last one confessed to the crime and agreed to fly him to his father’s house where the girl was being kept.
The stricken lover hid in the woods outside the house and there met a firewood collector who agreed to hide him in a bundle of sticks to be carried onto the porch. Once inside he uttered a curse that caused the old man to get a terrible toothache. (Apparently in those days vultures had teeth!) To accomplish that he sprinkled twelve grains of red corn on the roof.
The toothache was driving the old vulture crazy; so, the hidden husband began to play a violin that eased the pain. (Athonasio explained that the violin was made from a hollow log and had strings made from bromeliad fibers, the whole was glued together with copal incense.)
The mean old vulture realized that a magician was causing his pain so he invited the husband to continue playing his magic music until he fell asleep. While the old Vulture slept the husband summoned an armadillo to make a tunnel all the way to the edge of the village so he and his wife could escape. They fled and made love, then decided that the earth was no longer safe.
The two lovers could both fly so they rose up into the sky to become the sun and moon and there lived happily forever after. Even to this day, whenever they make love the moon either hides the sun, or the sun hides the moon, and this is known to mortal beings as an eclipse.
I later asked Athonasio where people come from. He explained that his people have been here forever, but that is not true of other people.
“The sun and moon eventually got tired of their fixed orbits in the sky so on special occasions they would transform themselves into vultures so they could return to earth to fly around and eat some rotting carcasses. After filling their bellies and flying away they needed to relieve themselves. Vulture shit is both white and brown; so, wherever white shit landed white people sprang out of the ground. Black people, however, come from plain old brown shit.”
So there you have it, the origin of mankind!
Needless to say I considered this to be the best story I had ever heard, so when I got back to Belize in 2017 I asked my various Mayan friends if they had ever heard any such tale? To my amazement they all knew the story though each one had a different version. They all believed in Xibalba too. This did not conflict with Christian belief, it was just another way to tell the same old story!
I subsequently did some research and was astonished to discover that the myth of the Great vulture acting as an intermediary between the gods and man (The sun and moon if you wish) was widely believed by unrelated tribes throughout the Americas in pre columbian times.
Xibalba “The place of fear” has made a comeback too, not just in devilish discos, but in popular culture. Tourists who visit Chichen Itza make jokes about throwing perfectly good virgins into pits, but it is not a joke to the Maya. When time begins anew the joke will be on you!
Xibalba looks like a great place to party; plus, it is located inside of a cave! But where exactly is it and how do you get there?
To find out stay tuned for the next installment of our thrilling adventure, “Return to Xibalba!”