Touching the plastic Jesus
We flew into the jungle in a single engine Cessna, the pilot and me up front. A couple of others, two of the scientists were in the backseat. Most of our gear, and the rest of the team rode in the two other aircraft. No decent road ran to our destination, and we had too much gear to carry on our backs — generators, gasoline, fresh water, food enough for a half dozen people for two weeks, cases of cameras, film, lights, strobes, extension cords, step ladders, reference books. Clothing, boots, raincoats, hammocks, mosquito nets, and sleeping bags. Lots of coffee. Big first aid kits with epinephrine pens in case of poisonous snakebite – to keep you comfortable until you die, I think – and special dressings for gunshot wounds. Just in case of gunshot wounds. The nearest hospital was hundreds of miles away, but there was no telephone to the outside, no cell phone reception, and one short-wave radio that worked sometimes. I enjoy a nice, isolated camping trip now and then, but this one had some real possibilities.
This was the edge of the rainy season, when one major storm every afternoon fills the sky with lightning and hard rain. Thunderheads build over the mountains with deep purple and puffy white clouds, and the pilots skirt them out of caution. Few places offer somewhere to set down in a hurry in the southern Chiapas jungle. Next to me, the pilot, Jose, an older man with a bushy mustache and a tan ball cap ran his hands nervously over the worn dash of the old plane. He was touching the plastic Jesus, and feeling the temperature of the windshield; touching the dials on the dashboard, none of which appeared to work too well. Wind-speed indicator was broken. Altitude indicator said we were on the ground. The fuel gauge looked uncertain.
The Cessna skimmed the ridges of mountains and dodged big clouds and suddenly the wings waggled with a gust of rain. Jose the pilot let the air out of his cheeks and said “Madre Dios.” I didn’t need a translation. The plane was flying crab-wise, pushed by strong gusts. Don’t worry, the pilot seemed to smile in my direction, then went back to muttering and touching things, always touching. He must’ve touched that plastic Jesus a hundred times for reassurance. Sometimes, on expedition, life is like that. We look for something to keep us equitable and calm, even when there seems a bit of danger. The butterflies in one’s stomach could be from a case of nerves back at the office, the uncertainty of how a boss might review one’s work; or they could be from an adventure such as this. I know which one I prefer.
The aircraft came around the airfield once from a good altitude, checking it out. A slash in the jungle, it was just a light-colored line to show where we were planning to land. The aircraft spiraled down and gave the field another buzz. Down below I saw some horses kick and run off the field. The horses, surrounded by clouds of fleas, were wild, and were used as inexpensive lawnmowers to keep the grass trimmed to a manageable length on the single airstrip. The trick was to look for water splashing from hooves when the horses run. Too much water on tall grass can be a fatal mistake for a bush pilot. And the horses keep poisonous snakes off the field, or so the locals believe.
Landing was a blur of trees whizzing past on either side of the wings. Looking like we would scrape at any moment, the wings had about fifty feet of clearance on either side. We cheered the pilot as he taxied to the aircraft parking area just barely off the strip. From there we watched the two following aircraft land with our luggage and supplies. I made some pictures of the other aircraft, so we could prove how narrow the airstrip was. I’ve heard it called “the most dangerous airstrip in the world.” I don’t know if that is true, but the remains of airplanes surround the runway, where they’ve been pulled into the jungle. To inspire the other pilots, perhaps.
Pascal, the INAH guardian, stepped out from behind a tree that was twenty feet wide at the base. He was a Lacandone, one of the modern Maya. Perhaps forty years old with a black moustache, wearing a blue cap with the INAH logo on the front, he carried a big machete. He was expecting us.
I’d been there before, and had done a good turn for Pascal and the villagers at this location. Before flying out after my previous expedition, I turned over to Pascal the generator I’d brought to power the photographic lights. To go with it, I’d drawn up a document on my organization’s letterhead that gave the INAH guardian custody of the generator, and the right to use it for the convenience of the people in his village. To Pascal, and some other local people, I am Senior Electrico. Pascal laughed when he saw the new generator I brought on this second journey to his part of the rainforest. Wouldn’t take long for the village to start making plans for putting the second generator to work.
It was all part of going to the job. Weeks of planning, arranging, logistics, supplies, team building – I’d contributed as I was able, and depended on others to finesse the permits. The art historian from Connecticut, and the archaeologists from Utah and California gained the approval of INAH. The imaging specialists from Utah arranged funding from their parent organization. And of course we’d faced the questions from the Mexican Army at the small airport in Palenque. They asked to see the permits and papers, and searched through our massive pile of equipment. For some, it was a test of patience.
What would we find on this expedition, that we didn’t already know? That was always the question when setting out on such excursions. The questions one asks at the beginning are not the same as those one broods about when departing some days or weeks later. Is there more to be learned? Yes, there is always more to be learned, especially about oneself. Finding the ability to laugh at a critical and difficult moment; discovering again how to walk away, stiff-legged from anger and conflict; it becomes a time of basic truths. Those are as important to me as what was found in the archaeology, or in the paintings on the walls.
We dance and bleed, one wall of the murals tells us: we who come there to study also dance and bleed, in our own ways. Some prey on others; some just pray and touch the plastic Jesus.
– David W. Wooddell