I depart San Cristobal in the morning and head to the combi station. I ask about the bloqueo near Ocosingo I was told about that has forced the OCC buses to reroute through Tuxtla Gutierrez and up through Villahermosa in the state of Tabasco (yes, like the hot sauce), adding 2 hours to an already 6 hour trip. There are no side-roads or alternate routes we can take. However, the combi drivers don’t seem to know anything about it. Perhaps it is between Ocosingo and Palenque, or maybe it has concluded. Regardless, I am not going to get my hopes up. I squeeze into the back seat between an older campesino and a young couple carrying a baby which hacks a phlegmy my third world cough throughout the trip.
In Ocosingo, I am informed that the bloqueo is in fact on the way to Palenque, but that we can drive up to it, get out and walk to the other side of the bloqueo and pick up another combi there. I conclude that this sounds reasonable, and in all truth, I have little other choice. The bloqueo is about half an hour beyond Ocosingo. Protesters have felled several large trees across the road to voice their concerns about the recent elections…I think. Somebody explains that they are protesting the Verde Party stealing the election. I also see signs about the roads not being repaired, which would be a somewhat ironic thing to protest by blocking the roads. I get out and carry my bags across the protest line. I step over one tree trunk, then another, and another. They have blocked off somewhere between half and a full kilometer of road, but it is an easy walk and it only takes me about 15 minutes to get to the combis waiting on the other side.
The road to Palenque is a torturous zigzagging thrill ride. I am already accustomed to the curves, but a young girl and an older woman are not nearly as acclimatized as I. They vomit into little plastic bags which the surrounding passengers and myself have dug out of purses and backpacks. The stench quickly envelops the small cabin of the combi until all the passengers gag. We open all the windows, but it only provides mild relief. I pray that the pungent, acrid smell does not cause anyone else to puke and that we may descend the rest of the contorted mountain road without further incident. Wait, if most Mexicans are quite happy to throw plastic bottles and all other manner of trash out of the windows of moving combis, why aren’t these people tossing the puke-filled bags that continually accost our olfactories? Fortunately, we roll into Palenque about an hour later.
The heat of Palenque always hits me hard when I step out onto its baking white hot sidewalks. The sun beats down like a cudgel. Any thoughts you may have evaporate instantly replaced only by a burning desire for a cold drink. I eat lunch quickly and continue to the combis to Lacanja, where the nearby forest can provide some shade and relief from this oppressive swelter. As soon as I turn the corner near the combi station, I am attacked from all sides by members of two competing combi transport cooperatives, both of which stand on opposite sides of the same plaza. I go with the combi which has a roof rack to accommodate my bags. As an added bonus, there is a fan in front of the waiting bench. Passengers pass their cargo to the combi driver, a portly, mustachioed older man, who stands atop the roof rack dripping with exhaustion from lifting everyone’s bags. No rest for the wicked, he gets into the driver’s seat and we’re off.
We bounce along the highway. Bouncing may be the wrong word, given that this vehicle has nothing resembling a suspension or shocks. We feel every tope (speed bumps in the middle of the roadway to slow traffic near towns) in our tailbones. The rush of air through the open windows is glorious after the heat of Palenque. After two more hours of driving, I am deposited at San Javier, which is less of a town and more of a place for travelers to Lacanja to wait for a taxi. I wait for one to pass by and pick up myself and two other combi passengers.
Like San Cristobal, Lacanja is already something of a home away from home in Mexico for me. Like the Cheers theme song suggests, sometimes you just want to go, “where everyone knows your name.” The children see me first and shout my name. Apparently Tom Ek translates to, “Macho Black Man” in Lacandon, which happens to allow everyone to remember it. After three years, most of them have no trouble. I suspect they don’t get too many return visitors here, as the town is small and people feel that one visit is enough to see all that there is to see. This is understandable for tourists, but I am still fascinated with the changes that I observe from year to year.
This visit is no different. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Lacanja seems to be on an inexorable track away from their past and towards a future dominated by campamentos and restaurants rather than milpas and forest. Thatched roofs are being replaced with metal. The store is bigger and now features wine and tequila alongside the wheat tortillas, which are replacing the fresh corn ones mothers and wives would make every day. There is a new telephone booth where one can call anywhere in the world. There is word that the cabins may have WiFi next year. This is no longer the sleepy, provincial town of Trudy and Hans Blom, the Swiss anthropologists who popularized the Lacandon “brand” in the early to mid 1900s. Chanbor, Uke, Josue and Rigoberto are another year older. Uke is a bit more mature. He doesn’t complain quite as much. I haven’t seen Josue and Rigoberto haven’t gone swimming with me in two years. Chanbor has cut his hair and sports a buzz cut rather than his long traditional hairstyle.
I walk to Adolfo’s house. The path is different. I see new milpas being cultivated as the trail weaves around and through the sea of corn. This change is hundreds of years old. New milpas are made, old ones are left fallow. The cycle of the Lacandon agroforestry system. Adolfo has changed as well. He too has a new roof on his house and appears to be trying to grow a beard. Did I inspire him? We chat briefly. All seems well, so I head back along the trail given its novelty and the approaching darkness. Fireflies light the way. Back at the cabins, I drink a cold Modelo Especial. It’s shit, but it’s the good cold kind of shit that goes down easy on a hot muggy rainforest night.