Adventure Fiction Indigenous

February 10

We’ve arrived! After a long hot day in the double cab pickup, Jack driving, Alex in the front, Amara, Jaime and I in the back, we’re “home.” Our site is as far down a dirt road into the jungle as ever. Francisco and Louisa have done a wonderful job cleaning out and refurbishing our old haunt. Jack thanked Francisco for keeping guard on our past excavations so no one bothered them. His frail and elderly wife is a good cook and we’re glad to have them here along with five other workmen. 

Tonight I found I couldn’t eat, not hungry after our late lunch on the road, the heat, and hours of travel. Amara came in with calabash fruit in its green skin and white flesh. She offered me some saying “It’s so delicious!  Sweet and with a soft texture.” But I declined. I’m aware I’m getting older and less willing to try new things.  Alex and Jaime insisted they would have starved without Louisa’s soup and tortillas for a late supper. Jack spent time talking to Francisco and the workman, so I’m not sure when or if he ate.

           I claimed the bed by the door and am writing this on the porch with light from the Coleman lantern. Tomorrow we plan to see the tomb again—our great find from our previous season. Even though Jack’s grant focuses on another two temples plainly visible on our LIDAR map, our curiosity remains intense about what we’ve all dubbed “the road to nowhere.” This time we’ll see where it goes. Is it a formal road headed to a community which no longer exists? To a reservoir? To??? These ancient Mayans had a purpose for everything, so we wonder.

February 11

A great day. Wonderful to be together with the team and revive old jokes. Wonderful to see good old “King Jag’s” tomb and wonderful to start hacking through the jungle on the road so visible from the aerial reconnaissance, but not so visible from the ground. Alex and Jaime did yeoman’s work with their machetes and joked that they needed the magic axes of the mythological Hero Twins to cut it down without any labor on their part. Amara and I did our best as their partners, and Jack kept us going with GPS readings. 

Francisco and one workman will keep clearing jungle on the road while we start on the temple. We’ve made bets on how long his project will take, and the consensus is a week. We passed the ballcourt we had cleaned out last time and it reminded me of playing there with Jack’s children. That also brought back my acting out the story of the Popol Vuh for them, including the Hero Twins in the underworld.

I always forget how vicious the bugs are, how noisy the frogs, how often I see snakes, even poisonous ones, and how outrageously loud the howler monkeys sound as our pre-dawn alarm clock. But the birds remain as beautiful as ever, I have bug spray, Jaime has a snake-bite kit and first aid training, and I’m happy.

The mosquitos are killing all of us. Thankfully we’ve all taken our drugs to avoid malaria or I’m sure we’d already be hallucinating. Alex barely avoided a disaster. He hadn’t noticed that Louisa had started the fire on the metal stove and almost sat on it but veered away at the last minute.

February 12

Francisco planted corn in the space between our building and their small house. Now in dry season it has been harvested and only withered stalks remain. But I can picture how it will grow when he has planted once more and the rain makes the corn lush and green. It’s a mark of civilization in the midst of the always encroaching jungle. Our dry season digs give us only a partial vision of life out here far beyond any towns.

February 14

           I was too tired to write last evening, but we’re moving ahead on excavating. I needed to say “Happy Valentine’s Day” to my dear Luis and reached him this evening with the ham radio. I’ve tried with my cellphone, but we’re out of range.

February 17

           This gap in writing for two days did not occur from tiredness but from one of the more startling experiences of my life. As Jack said, “All’s well that ends well.” Luis would be appalled and might put an end to my archaeological career. But Jack still needs me. As a Guatemalan academic I have easier access to obtaining all the permissions we need, and the credibility to share our results in my own country. I’m not ready to quit.

           In the late afternoon the day before yesterday I took a walk to Francisco’s path down the ancient “White Way” to see how far the team had reached in five days. They’re not yet to the end by any means, though I could see signs of an old reservoir on the right. I could also see where breadnut trees had been cultivated. To the left I saw a rabbit escaping down an incline. As I cautiously followed, I slipped and plunged into an unexpected opening.

           The next moment I sat there, ankle sprained, in the dark.

           “Well, well, well,” I thought, “I’ve fallen into the underworld, and no mistake.” My painful ankle matched a similar pain on my right leg and right wrist where I must have unconsciously attempted to brace my fall. I tried to climb or even stand and soon realized I had so many pains coming from my whole body, possibly something broken, I couldn’t do it. I must have fallen at least 10 feet.

           Sitting in the dark, I felt a lump on the back of my head and wondered if I had knocked myself out. I felt groggy.

           Only after a while did it occur to me my colleagues might have begun to worry. At that point I sensibly recalled I had my cellphone in my fanny pack. Though I couldn’t use it to call, I knew the flashlight would work and comforted myself with its thin light.

           The phone said 6:52 pm. Almost an hour later I heard Alex’s voice yelling, “Karina!” I yelled back, hoping the sound would carry, even though it sounded hollow as it reverberated in my cave. Then I saw his face, slightly blue in my weak light, looking down through a hole up toward my left.

           What a relief to be hoisted out by Alex and Jaime, carried back through the dark, Amara guiding with a large flashlight, the others with headlights. Jack started to scold saying, “Why on earth…” but stopped himself as he looked into my eyes.

           “I found the underworld, Xibalba,” I said, attempting to make a joke.

           I stayed in the room, my sprain carefully taped by Jaime, no broken bones evident, dosed with painkillers, and commanded by everyone to rest. Louisa plied me with tea and soup and I slept most of the day. Now today I feel well enough to hobble around and write all of this down.

February 18

           I was back in business today. The team labeled the site of my fall “Karina’s Cave” and began exploring it yesterday. Jack found caving gear to use, and today I could not resist going along, even though my taped ankle still hurts. The rest of the pain is masked by enough medicine to keep me a little loopy.

           We climbed into the hole with the help of a rope. The others had found a large room yesterday, but that is as far as they went. The room full of stalactites looking like knives had an eerie feel to it as though they could fall and slice through us at any moment.

           The slope of a tunnel descended and we crept through in single file, able to see thanks to our headlamps. We reached another wide opening where we could gather. We all work in T-shirts thanks to the heat outdoors, but this felt so cold and damp we wished for our jackets.

           “Do we go on?” asked Jack and we all said yes. We had two openings from which to choose and took the right hand one, planning to come back to the other.

           After more travel we saw bones scattered on the ground and Jaime said, “This must be a jaguar’s den. No question that those,” he pointed, “are bones from a deer.”

           Amara’s voice sounded as thin and nervous as I felt. “Do you think a jaguar might be nearby?”

           “No,” said Jaime, “I don’t think so, but can’t be sure. He is probably at the river since they prefer that, and hunt at dawn and dusk.”

           “Do we go on?” asked Jack again. This time I was tempted to say no but waited and the group voted to continue. At this point it felt we had entered an area of higher humidity, and as we climbed we found ourselves uncomfortably hot. Something about the lack of air circulation had changed the temperature to something miserable.

           Then we felt fresher air and realized we’d entered an immense room filled with sleeping bats. The thousands of creatures hanging on the ceiling corresponded with gluey gooey refuse under our feet.

           “Help!” I yelled, as I slipped, and Alex and Jaime grabbed me from each side.

           We reached an opening to the outdoors in the late afternoon and sat looking out over the jungle treetops drinking water and chatting now that we had returned to daylight. Suddenly the sleeping bats awoke and flew out in an immense cloud of noisy chatter, an awe-inspiring sight lasting a long time.

           Below us we saw a river and since we all felt hot, sweaty, and repulsed by bat smells, we agreed a dip in the river would refresh us and climbed down. Afterwards, exhilarated, we climbed back up the hill. Jack used his GPS to set us on the road toward camp, and Alex and Jaime heroically opened the way. Within a kilometer, we’d found Francisco’s path.

February 19

           Discussion today has been re what the cave might mean. How does the far opening connect or not connect to the ancient road? Might this explain our Road to Nowhere? We don’t know.

           Amara and I agreed to dig at the temple while the three men spend the day looking for answers around the cave and the road. We don’t think anyone, even looters, have gone through the cave, but nor did we see anything ancient Mayans might have left there either.

February 20

           Consensus. We have to re-enter the cave to see if the turn we did not take leads somewhere interesting. The bat opening is about ½ kilometer from the road’s supposed end, so that is ambiguous. We’ll do temple excavating tomorrow and head to the cave soon.

When we passed the ballcourt this morning I again thought of the Hero Twins, since their noisy ballplaying caused the Lords of the Underworld to demand they come play ball in Xibalba and after daily ball games, each night the Hero Twins stayed in different rooms undergoing different life-threatening ordeals.  Over supper I commented on this, and Jack dubbed Alex and Jaime the Hero Twins, a new nickname that will stick. Amara says that with his blond hair, Alex is the sun which makes Jaime the moon.

February 22

Today we retraced our steps to the tunnel we had not taken. It went down, not far, and a natural shelf had signs of ashes, so likely it had been used as an altar. We took a sample of ash for establishing a date, and at some point we’ll take it to the lab.  As we continued we found another exit less than 100 feet from the road. We’ll work on proof, but our instinct is that the cave helps explain the road.

My hip began hurting and I told the team I must be falling apart like one of the gods from the underworld, having spent so much time in the cave. Jaime assured me I’d be fine and to take another pain pill.

February 23

           Jack took the ashes and used the need to test them as a “reason” to visit his family. I’m jealous, but he’s the lead investigator and has a right to do this. He left Alex in charge and I could take offense since I’m so much older, but it makes sense since our workmen will respond better to male direction.

           To my horror, I saw a rat streak across our dining area today. Admittedly, without any walls, our open-air kitchen/dining room doubtless belongs as much to this creature as to any of us, but it remained a shock. Alex and Jaime assured me it shouldn’t bother me. Amara responded that it was perfectly normal to be upset and to ignore these insensitive guys.

February 25

           Alex’s idea of being in charge was to instigate a late night of card playing and drinking yesterday. As the middle-aged responsible adult, I suppose I could have objected, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself and Alex and Jaime entertained us with stories of their pranks on a pompous professor and his equally pompous teaching assistants. A lot of laughter and a lot of alcohol. We all admitted to hangovers this morning and are reformed characters after accomplishing relatively little in today’s heat.

February 26

           This morning the early morning sounds of the howler monkeys, then the bright and glowing sunlight around camp, and the beauty of enormous giant taro leaves reminded me how privileged I am to experience all of this. The immense sapodilla trees, the breadnuts (ramón, maya nut, corn tree), the liana vines and the orchids more than make up for the mosquitos and all the spiders crawling about.   I enjoyed my river bath after such a hot day. This evening I stepped out into the night to see the stars and now the moon has risen and is casting beautiful light on the trees, distracting me from my writing. 

           A good day working on our trench into the temple. We’re hoping for another tomb.

February 28

           Today Francisco said that his grandfather, who lived in a village about 30 kilometers from here, was a Mayan prayermaker and held ceremonies in sacred caves and elsewhere. From previous comments, we think his grandfather may also have looted some of these temples as a way of supplementing family income.  Francisco has gone straight by choosing to help us (with adequate pay, of course), but I feel empathy for people like his grandfather who lived in poverty and had such lucrative goods at hand. Much as my archaeological community (quite justly) disapproves, I figure that on some level, these things were his inheritance from distant ancestors.

March 1

           Jack arrived late last night. He says the lab will call in a few days to let us know the dates. On my part, all is forgiven for his taking this small break—he has young children after all and they need to see him.

March 3

The lab called this afternoon. The ashes are from recent times, not ancient at all. We’re thinking about this.

March 4

           Jack proposed grilling Francisco about whether his grandfather might have known about this cave. After conversation, Francisco admitted going there himself as a small boy. So much for outside experts finding something new!

March 5

           We’ve been here over three weeks. Tomorrow we’ll head out for a break and be back in another week to keep working. Jack has claimed his title as Lord of the Underworld and the “Hero Twins” say they’ll be happy to defeat him. Despite Francisco and his grandfather’s precedence, I’m still claiming explorer’s rights to “Karina’s Cave”. Today I took pictures to share with my students. I’ve cleverly linked sections of the cave with the “ordeal houses” in the Popol Vuh, and included the altar, the river, and other things that remind me of events in the story. I even took a picture of Amara holding a calabash, and one of Alex and Jaime which I will identify as the Hero Twins, archaeology and mythology neatly intertwined. All this serves as a reminder that these places we explore, though covered by jungle for more than 1200 years, were inhabited for at least a millennia before that.

April 24, 2024 17:17

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Joseph Ellis
12:19 May 06, 2024

Great story Elaine. A fun adventure with not-too-much peril and characters that feel full and real. And I gotta ask: how are you indenting your paragraphs so well? I've never figured out how to get indenting to work on the Reedsy processor, and based on the other stories I've read, most writers here haven't.


Elaine Elliott
18:36 May 06, 2024

Thank you so much! I see inconsistency in my paragraph indents, because I haven't figured it out either!! I tried indenting with a tab if I didn't see an indent, but I think I don't have it right...


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