One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest

GoNOMAD Book Excerpt: Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest

By Mary Jo McConahay

Cover art for Maya Roads: One Woman's Journey Among the People of the Rainforest
Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest

In this book, Mary McConahay tells the story of the people of the Central American rainforest over the last thirty years. She displays her extensive knowledge of the archaeology, the wildlife and the political life of the Mayans and captures the scenic splendor, the magnificent ancient ruins — and the terrible violence. She provides eyewitness accounts of archaeological discoveries, the increased drug trafficking and the Zapatista uprising in Mexico.

Author Jim Handy writes, “I can’t imagine a better book to help us understand the power of the rainforest and of the Mayan cities, the way violence and majesty permeate both… All that [McConahay has] seen in thirty years of covering death informs the deliciously melancholy view of life that infuses the book. This is a superb book — thoughtful and reflective.”

[In this excerpt, the author explores a cave at the Maya site of Dos Pilas with archaeologist Jim Brady]

Just inside the cave, stalactites hung from the roof like limestone ici­cles. Watery mineral drops fell as they had fallen in the same places for eons, adding to calcium mounds rising from the floor like a garden of phalluses. Some of the growths had embraced pieces of ceramics over the centuries, joined now as one substance in hard stone. Most, how­ever, rose pure, white, smooth to the touch.

Brady rejects the “caver” label.

“I love what the caves tell me, but a natural caver I am not. The proof is I get too claustrophobic.”
The cave mouth is a place where you have to speak the truth.

“I feel my stomach knot up during the nasty little crawl to get at some bones,” he said. “Yet I get pulled in almost against my will. Pulled by the thought of the thrill of coming upon a place and knowing no one else has been there for twelve hundred years. It’s just exactly the way it was left, its altars and chambers.”

We say rain comes from the sky, but for the Maya it comes from caves, the birthplace of water. Most of Mesoamerica traces its ancestry to caves, and most of the Popol Vuh takes place underground. In Maya mythology the road to Xibalba, the region of awe, the underworld, goes through a cave. At the cave mouth, Brady was not the crisp, no-non­sense scientific type I had taken him to be.

This drawing of a bat is among the fourteen original drawings in Maya Roads, after Maya Classic period art by Rene Ozaeta.
This drawing of a bat is among the fourteen original drawings in Maya Roads, after Maya Classic period art by Rene Ozaeta.

“Sometimes I feel things shouldn’t be disturbed,” he said. “Often we burn incense and light a candle before we go in. Sometimes workers absolutely won’t go inside and won’t tell you why, so you don’t insist they enter. This is one of the real deep mysteries. Very difficult to get at.”

We were already walking slowly toward the dark interior, Brady in the lead. He turned and warned me with a look from under the hard hat.

“These are very powerful places where some people are extremely uncomfortable.”

He was right to smell ambivalence. The string of chambers, past the mouth and its tubular maw, was strong as a magnet. Who knew how far back it went? It felt like I could stand too close and it could suck me in with its deep breath.

I did feel afraid. I feared being helpless in the wet underground, prey to an unexplored subterranean river that could rise unexpectedly, fill a chamber in a few seconds, afraid of holding my breath, feeling in panic at the slimy walls for an exit, sucking at the last air with my mouth against the ceiling of the cave. I have always been afraid of the water. Odd for a sailor’s daughter. I blame it on the asthma, the experience of gasping for breath.

Brady was heading into the cavern’s dark entrails, farther than I had expected to go. I willed my lungs to hurry, to adjust to the clammy air.

The Jaguar Temple at Tikal
The Jaguar Temple at Tikal

I followed him as closely as possible, or rather I watched the glow from his flashlight. Our boots made a squishing sound. A wet, mineral smell blew lightly but did not sting. We ducked to pass under a low ceil­ing; just keeping up with him was a job. I moved forward even when unsure of the floor, not to lose him. Hands-in-your-pocket walking, my eye. The beam of my torch shone too narrow and dim, confusing rather than helpful. Then I saw no light ahead at all.

I took a single step one way, then another. In every direction, only darkness. Disorientation happened quickly; I didn’t know any more which way took me forward, which back. There might be side tunnels, I thought. I could get lost. I should stand still. I should call out to him, and I will if this goes on too long. But I did not want to hear my plaintive voice echoing in the cavern.

Brady’s light reappeared, comforting as a lifeline. He must have stepped behind a limestone growth for a moment, or around a corner and back, blocking the glow.

“Stay right where you are,” I called.


I caught up at a point where a shallow underground river surfaced. It trickled in one place, in another flowed with the velocity of a stream. Where the water pooled, Brady was picking out achromatic life with his flashlight. To compose myself, I made an effort to observe more sharply what I could barely see, as if I would have to tell someone later what it all looked like.

Life underground pallid, miniature. Catfish the size of little finger, whiskers floating like filament. Wan fungus on wall. Blind blanched crabs the size of shirt buttons. Brady collects translucent female shrimp, full of eggs, on hunch it might turn out to be a new species. Pops her squiggling into vial of acetone. Dies instantly. Floats in beam of flashlight.

Time passed, but I could not tell how much. Perhaps total silence throws off the sense of time. But the silence of the cave is an illusion. In time the ears sharpen to the gray spitting sound of rock walls perspiring into rivulets, the in-and-out hush of the cavern breathing from deep in its unseen lungs.

As Brady had warned, I did feel we had crossed a line between worlds. Outside, the jungle changes daily, even hourly: trees fall, animals move, vines flower and wither, sometimes in the same day.

Cicadas march in line up a woody trunk and then suddenly exit their shells and scurry away in response to a signal only they can hear, leaving carapaces behind in static formation, like the remains of an armored caravan struck by a neutron bomb. Inside the cave, time might be measured by a stalag­mite’s growth over a century. But not by the disintegration and change we are used to in the world of light. Skulls do not deteriorate in a cave. They are not a measure of time.

Mary Jo McConahay
Mary Jo McConahay

I was glad not to be alone, although another person would not be much help if the river rose suddenly. In certain seasons, after strong rain, it has risen and flowed out the cave mouth in a torrent so loud it is heard outside Ruler 2’s pyramid, almost half a mile away. I wanted to turn back but did not suggest it. I felt like a child whose curiosity had led her too far, who didn’t mind being a little scared but who now decided she was unprepared to find whatever it was that had titillated her, who just wanted to go home.

I heard a rushing sound. “Water?” I whispered.

“No,” Brady said. “Bats.”

Thousands of them, disturbed by our coming.

“It’s time we leave, anyway,” he said.

In the Popol Vuh, the Lords of Darkness test the hero twins with snatch-bats, monstrous beasts with snouts like knives, instruments of death. One plucked Hunapu’s head right off his body as the youth looked out the muzzle of his blowgun, trying to see how long it was until dawn. I aimed my flashlight overhead.

In the circle of light, the ceiling looked plastered with hills of shin­ing black coral. Staring, I saw the mounds were not solid but writhing. Suddenly they broke apart, becoming bats descending and flying past us toward the late afternoon light outside, at first just a few but then black clouds of them, screeching at high pitch, making me feel I was stum­bling through a nightmare. I wore a wide-brimmed hat, but in the dark it was still upsetting when occasionally, its sonar gone awry, one of the bats slammed into my head.

“You OK?” called Brady. “This is the part some people might not like.”

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