Friday, September 7, 2012

The Americas' Still-Beating Heart

I live at the territorial crossroads of the ancient Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Maya. My office window looks out on iguanas and hummingbirds. I wake each day in the cradle of American civilization and go to bed each night in the coffin where the last remains of unglobalized indigenous culture may someday be laid to rest.

A few years ago, I scaled a nearby volcano. Mount Pacaya, like my libido, has been continuously active for decades. As we strode up the burro-dropping-and-volcanic-rock-strewn trail through lush forest, my guide remained continuously silent behind his Ray Bans. I chose him solely for his name: Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” I’m not usually superstitious, but I don’t usually walk across hot lava either. (Hmmm, God with us, guiding us across hot lava—sounds like an old Tony Robbins seminar.)

Above the timberline, we trekked over charcoal-gray extinct lava and ash-white avalanche debris. The panorama stretched from golden-cloud-covered Pacific Ocean below to glowing-red-veined black summit above - heaven and hell flipped over. Suddenly, I felt and smelt something amiss. Just as many religious folks had predicted, my sole was burning. They were new boots, too. I hustled on up the moonscape, past lava flows so thick they appeared motionless.

The ground became ever more treacherous: up then down, cold and razor sharp then hot and melting away beneath your feet. Finally, I reached a rushing near-blinding River Styx, into which I thrust my walking pole to see it burst into flame and move steadily down the stream, like an Olympic torch for the Hadean games. A bit dramatic? It is, because it was. 

Hiked down the mountain and proceeded from that shaky ground (which erupted soon after my visit) to the Mayan village of Malacatan. Here I expected to see a quaint rustic Mayan festival unchanged over centuries. Turned out the fiesta was now sponsored by the transnational Gallo beer company, who had plastered their corporate rooster logo on all flat surfaces, as well as the curvaceous butt cheeks of the dancing Gallo Girls. I sat down and wrote this:

"Like it or not, all cultures are forever changing and forever changed. Such is life on earth. Perhaps we love to climb mountains because they seem so eternal, while everything else appears so transitory. Yet, volcanic eruptions shatter the illusion of permanence, spewing forth new earth even as the old is tucked underground along deep-sea portals, destined for the fiery subterranean melting pot into which the minerals comprising both mountains and our bodies will eventually be folded. So, climb those lofty peaks and visit those nostalgic peoples while you can, because they do symbolize the only eternal reality, which is change." - from Sacred Ground & Holy Water

If you want to visit those nostalgic peoples while you can, you better do it soon. Before your sacred journey, read the bulky book Oaxaca: Mexican Cultural Heritage by Luis Fernando Talavera Benitez. The work is written in Spanish. However, there is an English translation version, which is clear but a little stilted. This guide to Oaxacan regional culture is an encyclopedia of festivals, traditions, music, architecture, artists, galleries, cuisine, mescal and scenic cultural routes.

Imagine the loss to the world if Western and Eastern cultures vanished tomorrow. Yet, the native culture of the Americas may not be long for this world. (Recreated villages and reenacted acorn stew cookoffs with Ranger Rick at the national park don't count.) To stop globalization, we'd have to stop people from traveling, trading, innovating and falling in love. Pausing earth's rotation might be more realistic. So, cherish the ancient cultures of the Americas. Pray they last another millenium. Learn about them in my new book Fresh Wind & Strange Fire. Burn them into your memory like a crime scene observer with a fleeting glance - just in case we must someday make a sketch or give eye-witness testimony to our children.


  1. Lyn, what a great reminder! The world keeps changing and charging ahead, which is a good thing in many ways, but it's important to stop every now and then, breathe, and look at where we come from. Old civilizations and cultures had, and still have, enduring wisdom which is here for us to learn from. A fabulous post!

  2. Excellent post, Lyn. I found the account of the volcano fascinating... and then coming back down and having to face advertising at its most crass... to be rather sad.

  3. I love Mexican food and I love his music.

    Anna Ethel Arceo Morales.

  4. Great !!! good post. I love Mexico

    Yaritza Naranjo