Hunt for Steel
Man of Earth
Preface & Reader Response
Rarely since beginning our journey had we witnessed such public happiness: there was an infectious freeness, gaiety, and unity among these handsome people.
Patterns from a Rooftop
Chapters: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII
by Jerry Murley
When we set foot in Guatemala, merchants refused to accept our British Honduras currency. We got a lift with some Pentecostal missionaries down a dusty gravel road through the thick jungle. Riding in the back of the truck with us were a German couple and a Canadian we had joined up with in Belize. We passed several Indian hut villages along the way. At Tikal, giving in to heat and not having proper camping equipment, we all checked into a hotel with a swimming pool, bed bugs, and no electricity. The pool was worth it, particularly after hiking the trails that first evening.
The hotel attendant in charge said he had spent ten years in exile in San Francisco. He said he had been a major in the military but was accused of being a Communist after an unsuccessful coup. He also said that he had once been governor of the province of Peten. It turned out that he was not the manager of the hotel but rather a rancher friend of the manager, who had been shot in front of the police station after a feud with another Guatemalan. These initial discoveries about social tensions in Guatemala nourished doubts I had about the safety of the country for off-track travelers.
At five the next morning, we explored the remains of the great Mayan city of Tikal, which was begun somewhere around the 4th century BC. We were awed by the wildlife and the gigantic plants and trees. I was equally captivated by the variety of natural sounds. At play among the ruins, we climbed the vines growing around the pyramids and inspected the labyrinth of tunnels within the structures.
Peten, Guatemala, was a hot house: wet and thickly layered in huge trees like ancient pillars stretching to the sky and plants like small trees. Leaves blanketed the air and concealed the stealthy movement of creatures. The canopy was a veil over virgin earth. Great secondary roots, like ropes to the clouds, stiffly draped the limbs and ground. The foliage above was so high, gigantic, and dense that it limited undergrowth; with arms and careful steps, one could navigate the jungle floor and explore the depths. Walking the hundreds of yards between skyscrapers of the ruined city, I saw an interior in pinto and venetian-blind highlights, with splotches and streaks of bright white sunlight glowing and shifting upon the black cellar floor, giving forms an indeterminate, dreamy flow, devoid of all but a semblance of reality. In the deepest caves of vegetation, the sounds and movements of birds, monkeys, and insects – shadowed, colorless solids – ceased, frozen and alert, watching and waiting for human intrusion to end. Steep inclines and declivities added to the motion and mystery of the experience. As I walked about, the tips of white temples high in a bright blue sky gradually appeared and disappeared behind the camouflage of vegetation.
Around Tikal I saw hummingbirds, parrots, and toucans; there were large spiders, tapirs, and huge four-inch-wide snake tracks across the dirt paths. Because of the utter vastness, richness, and underdevelopment in 1973, I pondered Tikal's dissolution all the more. Really, I was surprised it was not better preserved. But I found the blend of solemn, solitary, and dormant stone temples towering above a sea of surrounding trees immensely attractive. Added to this was the beneficial absence of human beings, lending the experience a slightly threatening, intriguing, contemplative, and utterly peaceful cast. The close combination of ruins and prolific vegetation rendered Tikal completely foreign – a place as pervaded by sensations of rapture, contrast, immensity, and decline as any on earth.
After spending dusk and early morning in this environment, I came to appreciate how different it was from the vegetated expanses of eastern Mexico. In Tikal there was old growth above an uncluttered, fertile earth. The atmosphere was a rich organic mixture, a moist green darkness accented by thin penetrating sunbeams. In moments alone in this place, with no human beings near, I had an urge to rid myself of excess clothing like a modern-day Tarzan. On the eastern Yucatan coast of Mexico, the vegetative mass seemed much the opposite: dry, bushy, scratchy, and forbidding, where one felt need of cover from assault.
Early one morning we went to an obscure temple site where workers later in the day would fell trees to make clearing for a large tourist park. There were several stone gateways standing spaced upon a ridge. They were level with the temple, which closed up the top end of the U-shaped area. Within was a sunken arena where many a giant timber martyr lay, brought low by the ultimate termite – an ax-wielding laborer. The area had the aspect of an abandoned Gothic cathedral. Decorously, stone doors stood sentry in their cloak of green vines. The long thin temple, with its ends crumbling, was entirely composed of straight vertical and perpendicular lines, except for the curious Mayan affinity for lengthy, block-A-shaped ceilings with short flat tops. In the quiet, the straight-standing trunks of encaptured trees shot a heavenly thrust, bursting into palmy ribbed vaults above the wooden columns. We sat among a chorus of yellow-beaked toucans and heard the winding, soaring solo of a black bird with an orange beak. My pulse was set to the hollow, echoing thumps of woodpeckers cleansing diseased red trees. The cool, early day liberties of a wild primitive life slowly succumbed to the magnetic streaks of warming sunlight.
At the primary plaza, there were two temples facing one another, each with a 60- or 65-degree set of steeply ascending steps – probably 60 yards high on the incline. In the plaza bas-relief altars stood in a row as if marking the graves of high priests. Farther removed from the quad, at diagonals from the dominant stone-block temples, was a group of smaller structures, creating an enclosure, a discontinuous perimeter of hilltop posts overlooking the plaza and miles of jungle.
Off alone, I climbed to where I could see the major structures amid the misty blue vapors rising and hovering over the treetop-plain, stretching far to the mountains to which we would travel on the following day. I thought of how a great people and trading culture could thrive thousands of years and vanish; of the contemplative powers stimulated by simple communion with majestic nature; and of how I wanted to return home and cease my constant movement, so as to know my own work, to build my own home, and as much as is possible in this evolving world, to know the people of my time and place, so as to raise something just as noteworthy in our lives together – though these, too, would someday be ruins.
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On Friday, the five of us went to Flores, on Lago Peten Itza, where we found a cheap pension and swam. Flores was a poor, tranquil fishing town. The others took a two-hour boat trip while I walked the island. I met an old French painter and his wife from Bordeaux who had lived for 25 years in Tahiti. That night, there were more bed bugs and little sleep. We lay just feet from the lake on the second floor. It was humid and noisy. Even the corridors had been rented – to a family with small crying children.
On Saturday it was mass confusion at the bus stop, in part because the manager of the pension had sold us tickets for too much. When another bus arrived with cheaper rates, I ran back to ask for a return of our money. At that moment our originally scheduled bus arrived. The manager did not have correct change, so we had two buses pressing their horns for us. Finally, in utter frustration, the manager took a U.S. quarter coin from me and refunded our money. We quickly bought new tickets and left.
As the bus wound a twisting mountain road, we became entwined with the hill people. The forests contained stable settlements, like pioneer homes but close to one another, upon private plots in undulating hills. Small farms were cleared from woodland and enclosed by rail fences. Each hut was surrounded by a patch of cultivated land. Pigs and poultry roamed at will. Hunter-farmers with their machetes walked the road and about the clearings.
Women commuting to market, or to visit neighbors, climbed aboard the bus bearing chickens casually but firmly held upside down by the legs. The people we saw were delightful. Rarely since beginning our journey had we witnessed such public happiness: there was an infectious freeness, gaiety, and unity among these handsome people. There was a hill-country atmosphere in that place, but without the taint of despair, lethargy, xenophobia, brooding, brutality, and dull absence of creativity often associated with North American backwoodsmen in 20th-century fiction. These were smiling people whose community seemed to gayly ignore, withstand, and maybe overpower the daily drudgery and privation afforded them in terms of developed-world living standards.
Guatemala had about 5.6 million inhabitants at the time, of which 2.7 million were related to Mayan Indian groups, which were then often rural, culturally distinct, and, to a visitor's eyes, clearly of low political standing.  With observations hour by hour, I would learn in the days ahead that while they were not a class of people who wielded local and national power, they appeared to be a cohesive group with outstanding, even exemplary, qualities. There appeared to be no strict governing hierarchy among them other than the universal mutual arrangements of family, friends, neighbors, and village. They adapted casually to both travelers and the national state. They were the closest example that I had experienced of a culture where every industrious man, woman, and child worked as fit the needs and resources of the family in a way that was conducive to collective harmony. Maybe it was the complete uniformity and distinction of the local dress that lent credence to this perception. Though males and females proceeded in same-gender groups, with young people working beside and looking like their elders, there were not obvious signs that one gender dominated another or felt any discomfort with the other gender or with strangers. Except for clearing, gardening, and fishing, the men occupied themselves in village markets, selling textile products of the women. All in all, these gentle but worldly Mayans appeared to co-exist in parallel activity that augmented the patterns of family members and neighbors. Their world had an attractive eternal quality to it, as if their lives reflected a common, essential thread of human existence through the millenia.
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The bus was sweltering by noon. The only cool relief was the spectacle outside the bus windows: We grew more and more fond of these people as we passed over streams and rivers seeing the bright colors of their clothing; the pleasant, embarrassed, or bashful smiles; and the lustrous long black hair of the women and girls against their smooth creamy brown skin. Every body of water we passed was crowded with groups of laughing half-naked women bathing themselves and washing their clothing, talking, grooming, and laughing in the shade, while their children played and bathed half in the shadows, hidden from the unpleasant glare of the sun.
As it happened, no one told us where to exit and we saw no signs, so we felt few scruples about riding farther on to Guatemala City without a supplemental payment instead of getting off earlier as our tickets indicated. The farther south we traveled the dryer and more barren became the terrain; as it swelled, we pulled up the mountains to Guatemala City. We arrived there on Saturday and found inexpensive and homey lodgings with an interesting English-speaking proprietress. She graciously consented to store some of our baggage while we traveled to Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango, and Antigua for a week.
On Sunday, in Guatemala City, slightly inebriated at 1:30 in the afternoon, I sat and wrote letters. It was just about an hour before I was to go to a livestock show at the zoo. There was a religious festival in Guatemala City on that day as well. It started early in the morning with fireworks. Full of fancy – and the talk of political tensions that I had heard about since Belize – I at first thought it was an armed insurrection. A procession bordered by men in black suits and women in black veils moved solemnly down the main street. Young bearded men in conversation wearing black caps and hoods surrounded about forty old men carrying a heavy effigy of Christ, a wig-wearing manikin in a black, gold-embroidered cloak. The platform on which Christ lay was adorn with flowers, and four carved monks in mourning or prayer occupied each corner. These men were followed by a band playing a funeral march. Boy Scouts guarded the affair with ropes. As the procession passed the church, fifteen minutes of fireworks exploded and everyone went to mass. That night the streets were strewn with grass and flowers.
Elsewhere in the city center, I witnessed an incident that drove home the deep rift between Guatemalans of different class and ethnic background. Near the bus terminal, I saw a man hit by a car. He was knocked down and the car barely stopped. In fact no one paused or went to the man's aid. The man got up and stumbled away. It was not clear if the man was inebriated or not. Perhaps he hung around that spot often and such a thing had happened to him before. Perhaps that sort of thing happened frequently in Guatemala City. It was like watching one of those horror movies of the 1950s where ordinary people have been inhabited by aliens and had their souls deadened. No one blinked at the incident. It prepared me to keep closer watch for myself as we joined the herd of travelers using Wild-West bus services to traverse Guatemala.
On the appointed day, we made our way through the bustle of the grand bus terminal of Guatemala City and actually managed to catch the correct bus. The bus was piled high on top with luggage and boxes. As it approached a stop, while still moving briskly, a steward climbed out of the bus and onto the roof. Some yards before the bus stopped, the baggage of the riders who were about to get off flew ahead of the bus and hit the dusty ground beside the road, often landing at the feet of those waiting to board. It was a chaotic and recurring performance of unceasing amazement to me. I was much relieved that I had carried my important bag, the one containing my camera, with me inside the bus. With every stop, I feared that the baggage handler might fall while managing baggage from atop the bus, or that some mild would-be rider below would be knocked senseless by a projectile of luggage launched by the handler. Never once did I see a bag burst, spilling contents among unsuspecting strangers in the dirt at their feet. Though the spector of harm lingered, it never materialized. Were it not for the ever presence of Mayans along the way, my apprehension about what lay ahead around Lake Atitlan and points beyond would surely have turned to dread.
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1. Lovell, W. George. 1988. "Surviving Conquest: The Maya of Guatemala in Historical Perspective." Latin American Research Review 23, 2: 25-57.