The International Writers Magazine: Guatemala
Nature to Nurture
Sunlight trickled through the “Jurassic Park”-esque trees intertwining above and on either side of us. Below us the vegetation tangled, roots crisscrossing and undulating through and on the confined hiking trail. With bowed head, I heeded where I stepped and half-prayed that I would not splay out across the forest floor, a victim of the innumerable roots. At midday, the flora reigned as the most treacherous organisms in Tikal National Park. Then, a sound between a howl and an elongated hoot echoed through the forest.
“What’s that?” my mother asked our local guide, Milton.
“A jaguar,” he responded nonchalantly.
He chuckled. “No. It’s howler monkeys. They are calling to each other. Or they call for the rain.”
Rain—despite Tikal’s average 1 metre of rainfall, it hardly seemed likely that day with the powder blue sky and beaming sun above the forest canopy. Perhaps the monkeys were wrong today. At least their howls gave us hope that, if not rain, we would see a few of Guatemala’s fauna sooner or later during our three-hour trek through the park.
Covering 222-square miles in northern Guatemala, Tikal National Park is a UNESCO Mixed Cultural and Natural World Heritage Site, home of one of the largest archeological pre-Colombian Mayan sites and incredible biodiversity. Through the late-1950s and 1960s, University of Pennsylvania archeologists excavated only a fraction of the large site and uncovered archaeological treasures — skyscraper-challenging pyramids, colorful ceramics, jade jewelry, and huge stone stelae, carved stone markers covered in figures and Mayan hieroglyphs—displaying the surprisingly well-developed architectural and artistic talents of the Mayan civilization flourishing in the area between 6th century B.C. to 10th century A.D. While the towering, dark-grey stone monuments (reaching up to 230 feet tall) inspire awe, the surrounding lush jungle, a green sea surrounding the isles of stone, equally amazes; over 2,000 different plant species, and a wide variety of animals, including the jaguar, the three-toed sloth, the giant anteater, and 333 different species of birds, inhabit the semi-deciduous forest.
Despite the overwhelming setting with the vegetation endlessly surrounding us and the heat and humidity becoming more oppressive as the day went on, we were more engrossed in watching our steps along the trail than of the nature enveloping us. Suddenly, we entered a clearing, a miniature desert relative to the encircling forests—a reverse oasis. Occasional trees grew out of the blazing sand-colored soil, brightly lit by the uninhibited sun, too abruptly non-green after making our way through the green-walled tunnel-trail.
||As we walked through the seeming expanse, Milton pointed to a dark, scarred, rugged giant looming over us and said, “It’s a chicle tree. See the marks? The crosses? The tree is cut to get the chicle. You know, for Chiclets. Gum.” He further explained that local men used to climb the trees and use machetes to make diagonal cuts in the trees’ bark to collect the chicle that oozed out. The trees healed as bark regrew over the slashes, but the diagonal scars remained visible, the bark grown in slightly askew, offering a clue to how mankind can take advantage of nature’s resources without destroying them.
As we made our way through the clearing, I spotted on the ground a green-skinned, fist-sized fruit, unmarred from its fall. Eager to learn what else the surrounding nature offered, I asked Milton, “What’s that?”
He picked it up and carried it with him to a tree a few feet away. Hanging from the tree, the same fruit grew in pairs. He pointed to a low-hanging twosome and asked with a sly smile, “What does it look like?”
I could not help but laugh. My parents wondered at the fruit with puzzled faces. Then, my mother dared to respond, “Like…balls.”
The tree was the aptly named cojon tree—for cojones, Spanish slang for testicles. Holding the fallen fruit in his hand, Milton used a pocket knife to scratch a spot out of its surface. A milky sap, like white liquid Elmer’s glue, oozed out of the avocado-like fruit’s wound.
“Touch it,” said Milton. Tentatively, I tapped my index finger into the cool goo.
“Now press your fingers together.” I pressed my finger to my thumb.
“See? They stay together!”
Indeed, the milky white gel-like sap glued my fingers together, and when I gently pried them apart, a collection of fine white threads spanned the distance between my fingertips. The tackiness reminded me of how my mother used to mash together a few grains of cooked white rice to use as the adhesive to wrap gifts when we ran out of transparent tape. The four of us stood in the shade of the cojon tree and marveled at the simple yet remarkable ways nature can provide solutions for something as often taken for granted as glue.
As we trekked toward the Grand Plaza in the center of the park, Milton pointed out other noteworthy flora: the Mahogany tree, the incense-producing Copal tree, and the multi-purpose All Spice tree, its unripe berries used to produce allspice and its fresh leaves chewed for an oral anesthetic. Seeing the sources of relatively commonplace materials, I realized we live in a different world back in the States where all spice comes from a little jar bought from the grocery store and potent sticks of incense resembles strands of dried spaghetti.
||Meanwhile, we could not escape the recurring howls that echoed through the forest, a haunting soundtrack to our otherwise hushed hike. The howler monkeys were aptly named; there was no other way to describe the repetitive, guttural bass tones that resonated from their medium-dog-sized bodies. As suddenly as their cries would interrupt the forest’s silence, we came upon a small troupe lingering in the canopy. Their ebony-black bodies sucked up the sieved sunlight, black holes visible despite being backlit. They howled to each other, to the trees, to the sky.
A male, noticeably larger than his companions, nimbly clambered hand-over-foot up a tree trunk, shepherd’s-hook-curled long tail trailing behind him. Another member of the troupe adroitly leapt from one slender tree limb to another, swooshing the leaves to a loud rustle, adding another note to their whooping cacophony.
Trying to keep the monkeys in sight as long as we could, we gaped toward the sky, ducking and craning, cautiously stepping. Another three visitors quietly sneaked behind us, also trying to catch a glimpse of the monkeys and share a wondrous, rare moment.
As the monkeys traversed across the branches out of sight but not out of earshot, we continued down the trail. Then, a light rain began to fall. The monkeys were right about the weather after all.
© Grace Zhang May 2012