“Traveler, there is no path — paths are made by walking." - Antonio Machado
The air sucking into the van's open windows smells like honey, its golden scent mingling with the silvery light of the nearly full moon that lifts over my right shoulder. The van is still careening toward Palenque, though the night makes my carsickness less defined. Fields pass in flickers, brief firefly-filled moments of joy, between steeply sloped bends that spin my head with blurs of dense underbrush and fallen rocks.
Occasionally we slow to let out a passenger, to accommodate speed bumps or to rumble through dimly lit towns. Men cluster mysteriously along their edges in threes and fours, lingering like the stench of burned maize. We stop longest at a gas station, a windowless room full of faded, ruddy gas cans and plastic tubes strung about the walls. In the grocery next door, a grandmother and her granddaughter slump on a bench, staring blankly out into the night. The grandfather idly paces the rows of his store, under the dangling light bulbs, shuffling through aisles stacked 10-feet high with bags of rice and powdered soaps.
I’m dropped in Palenque much too late to wander for a hostel, and I’d still rather venture closer the ruins to find the supposedly “funky traveler’s hangout” called El Panchan. I cross the road, loaded like a beast of burden, and flag a taxi. He has other passengers so I assume it’s a collective; I assume wrong. A drunken man who appears to be the driver’s son sits in the back next to me (he occasionally sighs out “Papa,” despite being nearly thirty); the daughter sits in the front. I guess that “Papa” is making one last fare in the process of heading home with his family for the night. The son is much more drunk than I’d like, repeating himself over and over as I pretend not to understand Spanish. We stop so he can buy beer, which he offers to me once every minute as we continue down the highway into the dark. He is never chastised by his family; occasionally they snap, “Tranquila, güera,” despite my non-reaction, assuming my discomfort with the situation yet unwilling to honor their own. As we turn down into the road for El Panchan, I am still wiping the spit off my hand from an unwanted, beer-laden kiss, unable to make my fingers feel clean again.
I can’t get out of the cab fast enough, and I arrive to a confusing hodge-podge of businesses inside the single compound. I keep declining an over-insistent offer of cheap cabañas until I am finally directed up a rickety set of stairs to a barren, lightless platform for camping. My tent set up, I pee off the side of the platform, and collapse for a moment in a tangle of the contents of my pack. Only now do I notice the aggressively loud music wafting up from a few feet away. Make that three sources of music. No, four. I check my watch, realize it’s still early for “funky travelers,” and go in search of WiFi and dinner.
Two hopeful hippies begin to follow me on my walk to dinner, inviting themselves to sit with me. They smoke excessively, eyeing me between their half-shaved heads, over their scraggly beards, and order cheap, cold beers as I peruse the menu of “fine Mexican and Italian food.” Access to WiFi is as overpriced as the fare, so I choose only the latter. It’s the most disappointing rendition of sopa Azteca I have ever experienced: roughly Campbell’s cream of tomato soup with a quarter of an avocado thrown in and chicken that just doesn’t taste right. I eat around it, pay quickly, and retreat back to my tent.
I can’t read over the din of the various sources of painfully-loud drums and dance music. I writhe on my camp mat, attempting to suffocate the sound, until I finally fall into something like sleep. At half past five, I snap awake from the combination of a nightmare and someone’s drunken argument. I prefer the sound of the howler monkeys, which follows shortly.
And I follow them, after hastily throwing on a shirt, and trespassing into a nicer hostel until I find the tree they are growling from. The sky is slowly lightening and I’m ready for the ruins, though I’m determined to settle myself into a quieter place before heading off. I choose the same locale as the monkeys. It takes an hour of waiting for someone to stir and rent me a room, and after tent-breakdown-and-abandon within the cabaña’s rustic walls, I’m off.
I walk through the gate to the park, pay too much for an entry that is without map, and begin plodding down the path. A man comes up behind me and begins to make casual conversation about the park. A tour guide, he says he can escort me to the archeological zone and I won’t have to pay the second entry fee. After walking in unison for a mile or so, he brings me to an abandoned pathway, stops talking mid-sentence before he ushers me under the rope, then hurriedly says, “Go, just go now and keep walking, don’t look back and if anyone asks, you paid.” The sentence all strung into one word and the urgency in his voice make me nervous, so I run, my gaze straight ahead.
But the path is empty and wild and I feel free. I wander to the side of a bridge, wade into a stream beneath a waterfall, and sense someone coming up behind me, clearly a member of staff by his shirt. I am a faster hiker than him, and though I don’t run, he can’t catch up to me — still I hear his heavy steps crunching into the gravel after me. Eventually, a woman comes toward me from the direction I’m hustling toward, asks me for my ticket, then tells me to walk to the other entrance and pay. But, post-apology, as I walk the carefully restricted pathways, I am surrounded by matching-shirted tour groups and no pay-booth in sight. So I wander the ruins thoroughly, silently, finding a quiet space up more stairs than most people care to climb. Here I sit, slicing open a weighty papaya — energy I’d rather contain in my belly than expend carrying on my back. I rocket its spicy little jellied seeds into jungle on the tip of my spoon before laying into its fragrant pink flesh.
The manicured, reconstructed ruins don’t take as long as expected to explore but I refuse to leave so quickly, finding a spot in the shadow of an enormous Mayan palace to linger over another chapter of Lord of the Flies. But even on this grand and sun-filled lawn, the bugs are persistent, so I wander off toward the exit, and out into a parking lot full of the cries of taco venders and so-called artisans.
I’m seeking the nature trail, hoping it offers some less-observed exploration of the area. I find, or rather I am found, by a tour guide hoping to charge me 800 pesos to show me secret temples and waterfalls. But the trail is free? No, no thank you. Now it’s 200 pesos, now it’s whatever I wish to pay. I wander toward some tacos.
After a food-funded escape, I cross to a tour-guide-less side of the road and head into the jungle path on my own. I am followed by a grade school-age boy whose yelled tour-prices fall softly to the ground like the leaves from the trees, muted by the encompassing rot of the jungle floor. Free at last, I plod happily and lightly, until two men appear in my peripheral vision. My pace quickens, my mind searches for the weight of my knife in my pack. Will they try to 1) rape me, 2) steal from me, or 3) merely attempt to sell me something?
The gender war, currently absorbing the American media-sphere via hashtag activism, weighs on my mind; I think: #yesallwomen have to fear the first option, where men only need to fear the latter two. But #notallmen turns out to be behind me, so I am forced to be grateful to receive only the third of possibilities.
I have thoroughly refused, explained I’m looking for a quiet walk, but am accompanied by one man anyway, as a “courtesy.” The man turns out to be not so bad to walk with, pointing out medicinal plants and sharing wild, edible fruits as we make our way beneath families of monkeys and over lizards and snakes. We reach a junction and he tells me we’re not allowed to follow the path to the right because archeologists are working beyond it, but to the left is a climb to a temple. After the climb, I enjoy the cool of a more raw ruin, molding silently in the damp quiet of the rainforest.
On the return, we depart down a muddy, narrow trail toward a more private waterfall. Neither of us have bathing suits, but we are stripping off our sweat-laden layers anyway. The man gets nervous, apologizes for the smallness of his penis, and I plunge into the icy water in the opposite direction of him, avoiding either the suggestion of his phallus or my shame that he is as vulnerable an animal as I am, despite our respective genders.
We dress shyly, and cut back through the thicket to the trail. He points at a similar dirt trail and says it’s another secret waterfall, though we continue back toward the entrance. Another junction, and we say a farewell as I head toward the exit, he back to the entrance. I take another side trail and meander over what is clearly one of the un-excavated ruins, cut stones jutting out from under snake-like roots, until I rejoin the path. A huge waterfall with families snapping photos from its viewing platform causes me turn around suddenly, climbing back up towards the second secret waterfall.
I enjoy this swim immensely, perhaps too affected by my reading of Lord of the Flies, and splash around like a wild thing in the muck. Unobserved, I find myself childlike, limbs flailing around my relaxed belly. Naked as I was born (save my hiking sandals), I drink cool water fresh from the stream (through my REI squeeze filter).
Re-clothed, I take the supposedly forbidden path towards the archeologists. Emerging from the thicket, I am greeted by a stone obelisk, rising ominously in a clearing where I find five Penn State professors, graduates, and students bent over their work. They glance at me, still discussing measurements for stones to repair an aqueduct that feeds the ceremonial bathing pool that they are excavating. They are friendly, inviting me to climb down into the pool where, knee-deep, we discuss stone construction, the Penn States fencing team, archeology degrees, and how the hell one gets to do such a cool job anyway. They let me wander around the site, avoiding piles of bagged and tagged chips of stone, and peering into half exposed aqueduct tunnels. Beyond this point is nothing but farmland, and I’ve stayed too long, though I think they would have been happy to have me hanging about all day, chatting about familiar parts of the country we are all so far from.
I hate to leave, and as I walk back towards the exit, I fight the urge to run back and beg them to adopt me among them, to spend at least a night peppering them with questions about their experiences. But I plod on, emerging onto the highway, and walking the long, hot mile toward my bed. I am sidetracked by a field full of cows, at which I gaze intently, smelling that specific smell of dew baking out of hay in the afternoon sun. For a moment, I let the familiarity drench my brain, and I pretend I am in a place I can call home. I rest my chin on the cool metal of the pasture gate, fingers folded neatly under my chin, elbows kicked out to either side like the limbs of a grasshopper. A man on a motorcycle arrives and opens the gate, tells me he’s searching for magic mushrooms, and tells me I may walk within the grounds. I gravitate toward the cows, they gallop in the opposite direction, and I turn back too.
I stop at a few more clear streams to refresh myself along the way, climbing up and down crumbling banks on the edges of barbed-wired properties. Figures wobbling in the shimmering heat, the old farmers who cross my path are the only other people walking along the taxi-dotted road. We smile and nod as we pass each other.
Back in the “funky travelers hangout,” showered and exhausted after five hours of exploring and hiking, I collapse naked into my sheets. I wake after dark, brave the horror of the restaurant again, eating the subpar, pricey food next to the looming manager. He stands mouth agape, fingers clawed into his thinning, sweaty scalp, combing rhythmically, methodically down the sides of his head, staring out at nothing at all.
I close my eyes and find the imprint of the afternoon sun still glowing red in the membranes of my eyelids. The loud band and chatter of dinner-goers melds into an indistinct hum. I breathe in the smell of the field of cows once more, the cool of the stream again rushing around my sore calves.