In the Time of COVID. Day 32
April 19, 2020
In the Company of Genius
in the spring of 1973, my pal Billy and I hit the road for Mexico. We hitch hiked, took the train and caught a chicken bus or two. It took us a couple of weeks until we arrived in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas. We were about 50 miles north of the Guatemalan Border, in the Mayan Highlands.
At that time, San Cristobal was a remote outpost on the Pan American Highway. Most young people were in search of cheap, plentiful drugs and that wasn’t the scene in SC. They congregated in Oaxaca and Michoacán or along the beach in Acapulco , Zihuatanejo and Mazatlan.
The backpackers in San Cristobal were a global wandering tribe. They were interested in culture and art, rather than getting loaded. Some drifted down from Mexico City and further north, others came up from South America . San Cristobal was a wonderful resting place. There were backpackers from many nations. I settled in for a couple of months.
The first private automobile arrived in the town in 1948 after the completion of the Pan Am “Highway”. Trains of burros were more common than cars. The walled center of the town had narrow passages that only wagons could traverse. It was a fine place to take in the charms of remote Mexican village life.
One day I was looking for a new book to read. There’s was a used book rack at a cafe just off the zocalo. As I was searching the spines for English editions, I heard a group of young people around a big table. At one end was an older , white haired European. Next to him was a young Quiche Maya woman, dressed in a traditional huipila. She was nursing a light skinned baby. She was blind.
I listened in, and the older man invited me to join the discussion. The young people were speaking in Portuguese, Spanish, English, Italian, Japanese, German, Dutch and Quiche. The topic was what would become of the Mountain Mayans as progress overtook the region. I knew this because the older man was rapidly translating what everyone was saying so that everyone could understand. He made the point that within 10 years the Mayans would be riding bicycles.
Actually, within 20 years those very Indians came down out of the mountains with wooden carved gun replicas to try to reclaim land they were being driven off of. Their movement was called the EZLN. The Emiliano Zapata Liberation Front. For two decades they stood in a state of rebellion against the Mexican Government.
I’ll call the old European, Karl. I learned that he was on a study sabbatical from the University of Amsterdam. He came to Mexico to write down the Mayan legends and the Popol Vuh in western phonetic Quiche Maya so that the Maya could retain their sacred cultural identity. While in Mexico, He fell in love with Akna. She nursed their child.
I had never met a person that seemed to understand every language and could speak and shift from language to language effortlessly. He refused the demands of his university to return to his professorial responsibilities in Amsterdam. He lived with the Maya. He found his people and his home. He and Akna lived higher in the mountains in her parents village, away from The Mexicans.
He was a genius, pure and simple. He was so awake he could read everyone’s concerns at the same time and in multiple languages. As we broke up our political salon that day, he directed me to the bookshelf. He pointed at a book and said, have you read Graham Greene? I hadn’t heard of him. Karl said “The Power and the Glory” will teach you about Mexico.
I spent the next few days laying in my hammock engrossed in a tale that occurred during the Cristero Rebellion in the 1920’s. I have loved studying the history of Mexico since.