Skip to main content
Publish date:


This is a personal account of a journey taken by the author and a group of fellow adventurers down Mexico's Usumacinta River and the jungle along its banks—a leisurely two-week exploration that ended in a flaming nightmare

I do not know why I keep on loving Mexico. In each brief love affair I have had with her I have ended up an embarrassed loser; still I am a sucker for her charms. On my first visit to Mexico, long ago, in a matter of two days I got dysentery, was bitten by a dog and was arraigned before a local alcalde for swimming through the shark traps off a public beach. Shortly thereafter I was picked up at the border on the suspicion that I was somehow involved in the murder of Leon Trotsky. At the Hotel Del Prado in Mexico City two summers ago, after three days of drinking only bottled water and thinking only the purest thoughts, I suddenly awoke in the night with a storm in my stomach. One hour later an earthquake shook the whole city, driving me half-naked to the lobby, where I sat, swaddled in a window drape, until the rumblings in the earth—and in my stomach—subsided.

Now here I am in Mexico again, recovering from another love affair. It is a Sunday, a timeless sort of day. I am lying on the roof of a small hotel called the Manzur in the town of Villahermosa in the Mexican state of Tabasco. The scowl of dark clouds that hung over this part of the land for the past week has dissolved, and the town now basks in soft winter sun. In the streets the children of Villahermosa are in full voice, celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe. Someone is setting off firecrackers, and in the distance, against the clean sky, I can count 40 buzzards riding in a single thermal.

It is a very decent day, but I am not altogether up to it. There is a pain in my leg and a crick in my back and a buzz in my head. My mind is a riot; my memory is in tatters. I know what day it is, and where and who I am, but I am not sure how I happened to wander so far off the usual tourist track into this remote pasture where Conrad Hilton cannot comfort me. A moment ago, while I lay here on the roof, a hotel maid charged up and gave me a prolonged scolding. As best I could catch her torrential Spanish, she was objecting because I had hung my torn, dirty and wet clothes on a line sin permiso (without permission). "In the name of Jesus, please pardon me, Miss Torquemada," I apologized in poor Spanish, "for I have just escaped from a Protestant leper colony." While there was no truth in this remark, it was sufficient to drive her away.

I lost my passport a few days ago in the jungle near the Guatemalan border 150 miles to the south and east of this town. I have about $8 (even American Express has temporarily forsaken me). On a bright day such as this the proper place for a tourist is down in the streets, drinking in the atmosphere and buying out the town. With neither the desire nor the means, I am lying instead on this roof, sorting through the fragments of a diary—and through the fuzz in my head—to find out where I have been and what I have been up to for two weeks. (When I get back to the border the damn immigration clerks will want to know, for sure.)

From the scribbling on a hotel bill I know that around the end of last month I landed in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, a jewel of a town that sits among eroded hills about 100 miles south of Villahermosa in the state of Chiapas. I had gone to Tuxtla Gutiérrez from New York City because Rodney Rodd, an overimaginative New York friend, suggested that I should get out of the rut we were both in and try a different kind of vacation on a Mexican jungle river. (If I ever get back in the same rut with Rodney Rodd, we will have a few words.)

Before I came out—or rather, was carried out—of the jungle two days ago, I had filled two stenographic pads with an account of my travels. Many of the pages have been lost or destroyed, alas, and much of what remains of my writing—never too lucid—is now barely legible. For example, on one torn page I find the following obscure and fragmentary account: "Awakened before dawn by the din of a military band and much bugle blowing. When I opened my door to see what was up, two attractive ladies walked down the hall with nothing on except tennis...."

Lying here on the roof, I have tried to dredge up the memory of two ladies wearing only tennis shorts, or tennis sneakers, while bugles blow in the predawn, but the details elude me. I have no recollection of when the incident occurred, or of its outcome, but I suspect it took place during the four or five days I spent in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.

Fortunately, near the start of one pad some meaningful but disconnected passages about Tuxtla Gutiérrez are legible. On one clean page, under the dateline "Monday, I think," I can pick up the following thread: "Two lizards have taken over a corner of my hotel room, and on the floor by the window there is a three-inch-long creature that looks like a cross between a praying mantis and Blériot's first midwing flying machine. Every now and again, after flexing several hind legs, this Blériot bug takes off, flies straight into the far wall, rebounds the length of the room and falls to the floor exactly where it started. I am reluctant to do away with the bug. It may be one of a kind....

"There are 19 of us gathered here to go down the Usumacinta River. As Rodney told me in New York, running rivers in rubber boats has become a big thing, particularly among U.S. Westerners. Jack Currey, the Salt Lake City man who is leading us down the Usumacinta, has guided more than 1,500 voyageurs on U.S., Canadian and Mexican rivers in the past three years. In fact, I am one of the few novices in this party, and the only Easterner. There is one near-Easterner here—a Canton, Ohio hardware wholesaler named John Brothers, who is about 60 and has itchy feet. John Brothers has trooped over a good bit of Central America, visiting the comfortable spots with his wife and prowling alone in the bush. He has been on stretches of the Usumacinta before, paddling with Indians in a cayuco. He is back now in Tuxtla with us because he saw a TV film of the Usumacinta last summer. Apparently the film so aroused the river-rat fever in him that he was impossible to live with, so much so that his wife told him to go down the river again and get it out of his system. Personally, I think John Brothers is incurable. Without a drop of Ron Rico or a Margarita to loosen his tongue, he often starts ranting about the river, spouting jungle facts and lore about the Maya Indians...."

The next page in the diary contains the cryptic note, "Dr. Clyde—$5—beer," followed by several ancient Maya glyphs that I sketched crudely for some reason. Then the decipherable narrative continues: "In the past three days we have visited Tuxtla's zoo and a Maya museum, and have driven 12 miles into the hills to look down into the ragged guts of E1 Sumidero Canyon, a scenic wonder of the sort you do not see often outside the National Geographic. But most of our time has been spent at the Tuxtla airport, sitting, waiting and wondering. Two days ago we were scheduled to fly 160 miles to a jungle airstrip called Tres Naciones on the Usumacinta. Originally we were to make the trip in a B-18, a big-bellied plane that was built along the lines of a sperm whale in the late '30s and proved to be such a bad actor that it was not allowed to fight in World War II. There are two B-18s still operating out of Tuxtla. The one we chartered lost a motor, so we must wait until the other is available. A curator of the Smithsonian Institution would go simply wild among the old flying machines at the Tuxtla airport. In addition to the cast-off B-18s, there is an oddball craft that a Mexican pilot tells me is a DC-1½—one of the few still in the air. There is also an aged, wooden-framed Avro buzzing around on borrowed time. Two or three times a day the Avro appears out of the blue over Tuxtla. Sideslipping in, sometimes upwind, sometimes downwind, it lands with a bounce and a screech, quickly disgorges bags of native produce, takes on boxes and bales of God knows what and staggers back into the sky, bound for somewhere.

"Jack Currey, our leader, tells us to be of good cheer. Often a big part of a river adventure, he says, is getting to the river. After seeing the ancient flying crates at Tuxtla and inspecting the rumpled carcass of a spiffy DC-6 that crashed here last week, I am ready to believe Currey. But we are all getting restless—all of us except Paul Halabrin, a voyageur who works for a power company around St. Louis. While the rest of us wander around a good bit, chatting, fretting and leaving a trail of orange peels and pips, Halabrin sits uncomplaining—a model of patience perched on an ammo can that contains his valuables. Even when the spunky old Avro takes off, blowing grit at him, Halabrin is unmoved. In the heat of the day I sometimes go sit beside him. Halabrin is a large man—easily 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds—and at this time of year, even seated on an ammo can, he casts a good shadow...."

On the next page of the diary there are straight and wiggly lines of the kind one makes to start the ink in a pen flowing. After studying the page I now realize the scribbles are a map of the airstrip at Tres Naciones—I drew it to clarify some verbal instructions for a Mexican bush pilot. I now recall that on our third or fourth day in Tuxtla, Paul Thevenin and Art Gallenson, the boatmen of the expedition, and several others did fly into Tres Naciones with a good bit of the gear. On returning to Tuxtla, the pilot of that flight wanted the next pilot heading in to ask someone in Tres Naciones please to cut the sugarcane off part of the runway and to chop down a tree that had almost caught his starboard wing. I do not know if this was done, because I never got to Tres Naciones. A day or so after Thevenin and Gallenson flew in, about 10 of us took off for Tres Naciones in the belly of the B-18, crouched between the wood frames of our rubber boats like rats in a bilge. For the last 50 miles our pilot had to fly low under filthy clouds, flirting with a few canyon walls and flushing scarlet parrots from the trees. Regrettably, by the time we reached Tres Naciones, there was too much water on the strip for our flying whale. After circling a few times in an erratic manner that brought my lunch back into my mouth, we flew 160 miles back to Tuxtla.

Most of the 19 voyageurs finally got to Tres Naciones somehow. My two diary pads obviously went with them, for the next chapter of my travels—rambling but legible—turned up on some loose, wet pieces of paper in the pocket of pants that I hung out to dry a moment ago. Under the dateline "Thursday, or maybe Friday," this chapter goes verbatim:

"We have reached the Usumacinta at last, and it is a particularly cheerful sight for me. I grew up in the state of Georgia back in the days before its beautiful brown rivers were dammed up for kilowatts, conservation and kooky water skiers. It does me good, after all these years, to see a big, dirty river that is still allowed to run fast and loose, giving all kinds of flotsam a wild ride and an occasional mad whirl in its eddies.

"The Usumacinta is exciting, but I cannot say the same for every minute of my first day beside it. I took off late yesterday in a Cessna, along with John Brothers, the 60-year-old Ohio river rat, and a Salt Lake City couple, Dave and Maxine Thompson. Our pilot consented to fly us into the jungle providing he could land us at the nearest open patch downriver if Tres Naciones was closed in. So, after worming our way again between the clouds and the treetops, here we are beside the Usumacinta at a thatched village called Filadelfia—population 50, not counting dogs or chickens. This village got its name long ago from big Philadelphia, Pa., and deserves it. Here on the Usumacinta, as in Philly on the Delaware, almost nothing happens.

"We were expecting the rest of the voyageurs to come downriver this morning and pick us up, but they have not. Before leaving Tuxtla we were given instructions—third-or fourth-hand—to try to get into Tres Naciones and. failing that, to land downriver. So here we are. but where is the rest of the gang? Upriver? Downriver? Wherever they are, our baggage is with them. The four of us waiting in Filly have, among us, one razor, two combs, three toothbrushes, two flashlights and enough camera equipment to cover all aspects of a Martian invasion, if such an event should occur before we get out of here.

"Both Dave Thompson and I are super camera nuts—he even has an extra Leica that he keeps persuading his wife, Maxine, to use. This morning we were all down at the riverside, photographing six Filadelfians who were assiduously hacking a handsome cayuco out of a log, each craftsman deftly chopping dangerously close to the feet of another.... There is an aloof, clown-colored parrot—a macaw, or guacamaya, to be exact—that hangs out around the warehouse where we slept last night. I have taken pictures of Maxine feeding the macaw, Maxine has taken pictures of Dave feeding it and I have taken pictures of Maxine taking pictures of Dave.... I tried penetrating the jungle a short distance this afternoon, but in sneakers I found it impossible. I was driven back by high water and bugs, and had the wits scared out of me by an errant cow.... John Brothers is in fine fettle. In a slow-moving place like Filly, I quickly fall into a stupor, but the village seems to stimulate John. Normally John speaks through his nose in a low pitch, a few cycles above the frequency of an offshore foghorn. Peculiarly, when he gets excited, his voice drops even lower, almost out of range, but this never stops him. We had scarcely climbed from the plane in a drizzle yesterday before John was asking the villagers questions. Filly on the Usumacinta is not a complicated place, but all today John has been prowling around it with the zest of a CIA agent. He keeps disappearing for half an hour, then reappearing with a fund of information and an armful of luscious fruit....

"Today is Friday or Saturday. We have now spent two nights in Filly. Last night, again, we went to bed with the sun—or, more correctly, with the evening downpour—and were awakened when the first village rooster sounded off at 3:30 a.m. By 4 a.m. all the roosters and the first of the 20-odd dogs that live here had joined in. As I write this, at 10, the roosters are quiet, and every dog in Filly is barking. From the bank on which I sit I can see four dogs at the river edge, standing in a circle, barking at each other. A few minutes ago when I walked 100 yards to the other end of town. I came across a dog sitting alone in a small pasture, barking at an orange tree. 'What else is there for a dog to do in Filadelfia?' Dave Thompson asks.

I used up half an hour this morning in the river, washing myself and my clothing without getting either much wetter or cleaner. There are supposed to be crocodiles, flukes and other denizens in these waters, but nothing bothered me except three small, white fish that kept trying to nudge my bar of soap out into midstream. While I was standing around hoping for some sun or wind to dry my clothes, John Brothers, the free-lance CIA agent from Ohio, reported back into headquarters with new information. We have not heard howler monkeys in the jungle around us, Brothers announced, because yellow fever wiped out most of the howlers a few years back. Since I am a hypochondriac at heart, this reminded me that 10 days ago a smarty-pants New York doctor had inoculated me for everything except yellow fever and wheat rust.... This morning four cattle egrets flew in and went to work on the legs of the village herd. I used up another half an hour making bets with myself as to which egret would next pick a bug off which leg of a Brahma bull.... While buying a pack of 8¢ cigarettes from the headman, or alcalde, of Filly, I learned that a plane lands here every four weeks. That means we have 26 days to go...."

Although I would not take an oath on it. I think that on our third day in Filly the other river rats came and took us away—certainly, if we had spent another night in Filly I would have had something to say about it. The balance of my journal of the Usumacinta was written, I believe, in the second diary pad. Some of its pages are so badly charred that I must handle them with the delicatesse of an Egyptologist. Others fortunately were so rain-soaked before being exposed to fire that they are still intact and only toasted lightly around the edges. After fussing all the remains into a fairly logical order, I am able to pick up the thread somewhere in midriver: "It is good to be on the rolling river again and feel the writhing fabric of a rubber boat underfoot. This afternoon we had a good time bouncing through some rapids, with the bows and sterns of the boats taking turns leading us downriver. A 33-foot rubber boat is not like the surfboats I used to know on the Jersey shore. There is a different rhythm. When we plunged into the first back curl of water, I braced my legs to go up, but instead my end of the boat went down, and I was still several feet in the air when it started coming back up to meet me. Jack Currey, our leader, considers the Usumacinta rather tame compared to, say, the Fraser in Canada, where a single whirlpool will suck a whole boat into its spinning bowels and keep it there until the hair of everyone aboard has turned a proper shade of gray.

"According to several acceptable religions, on some cataclysmic day in the future the world will be consumed by flames. After two days of trooping in the jungle inspecting Maya ruins, I am convinced that this part of Mexico will never burn. Everything is wet, wet, wet. When you try to strike a match here, the phosphorous tip slides across the friction strip like soft fudge. Cigarettes taste like mattress ticking. Furthermore, this is the only jungle I know that has slanting swamps. I slid down one yesterday, picking up a couple of bruises and thorns. The old Maya structures hiding under the dripping trees—the exquisitely carved stelae, the altars and the temples with perilously steep stairs—are very impressive. Regrettably, the jungle has so completely taken over that it is often impossible to tell whether you are climbing on a temple or a natural hill. A number of us have fallen down old Maya stairs without knowing it. Paul Halabrin, the St. Louis voyageur, took a good fall today. I had just descended 60 feet from a temple, crawling part of the way, when I looked up to see Halabrin coming at me fast, followed by part of the staircase. Halabrin is a skier, and for the first 30 feet down he held his form well; he had his knees together and was leaning back slightly as if schussing through deep powder. Then he lost control, plummeted and was luckily caught by a web of vines. He emerged from the tangle with as good a solution to the mystery of the ancient Mayas as any I have heard from experts. 'The Maya civilization declined,' Halabrin declared, 'because the priests kept falling down the temple steps.'

After three days of following them around, I notice that Tom Lee and Rex Yeaman, the pathfinders who usually clear the way for the rest of us with machetes, have different techniques. Lee is a fullback-size archaeologist who is digging in southern Mexico on a grant from Brigham Young University. His machete work is what you would expect from an archaeologist: he cuts a neat hole in the jungle just big enough to slither through. Rex Yeaman is a mathematician with a couple of graduate degrees. Although professionally a man of precision and usually a man of restraint, when he picks up a machete something comes over him. He charges forward, swinging the blade vigorously to the left and right, finishing off every sapling and vine within reach as if it were an immediate threat to Western civilization. I find it comforting to follow him. Even when I drop a quarter mile behind to nurse a wound or to lick the mud out of a camera lens I can still hear Rex up ahead, knocking down the jungle.

"Yesterday afternoon while we were cruising downstream, lo! a jaguar appeared on the riverbank. Many cameras aboard immediately began clicking and whirring, but not mine, for at that moment I was up to my elbows in a sorry mess. My shaving-cream can had exploded in my duffel bag. By the time I got the foam off my hands the jaguar was long gone. I predict that a few weeks after this expedition gets off the river a great wave of boredom is going to sweep across the U.S. Among the 19 of us there are about 30 cameras—all kinds. I alone have taken enough pictures of people, parrots, tarantulas, campsites, Maya ruins and river scenery to drive many close friends out of my life forever. Almost everyone here has been using cameras as hard as I. There is one anti-camera man among us—a gruff and winsome Californian named Art Dusenberry. He has been on some very bad stretches of river with Jack Currey in past years and has a passion for white water. Whenever we start into good rapids Dusenberry is always seated right in the bow, decked out like a Gloucester fisherman, expecting, and hoping for, the worst. During our exploration of Maya ruins Dusenberry's interest drops off fast; spiritually he seems to wilt. He does have a plastic Kodak but has not taken a single picture of a Maya temple. In fact, he has taken only five pictures all told and claims he will finish the river trip before he finishes the roll. 'When you have seen one Maya temple,' Dusenberry insists, 'you have seen them all. When you have seen one Maya potsherd, you have seen one too many. I didn't come here to photograph a cemetery. I came to enjoy a river.' Sensible words. But with only five pictures, how is he going to bore the folks back home?

"Today, I claim, is Tuesday, although Jim Dean says it is Monday. In any case, it is our third day of camping on an island called El Cayo, about 70 miles downriver from Tres Naciones. After four—or is it five?—days of jungling I seem to have the insect problem licked. All it takes to keep the mosquitoes and their allies at bay is determination, an ample supply of bug spray and good jungle netting—if there is so much as a dime-size hole in the netting, the Usumacinta mosquitoes pour through it like Jap bombers through Kolekole Pass. The trees often are a greater nuisance than the bugs. A few nights back, when we camped near the old Maya ruins of Yaxchilàn, I bedded down under a chimon tree, a leafy giant as innocent-looking as a New England elm. Within an hour the chimon was dripping milky sap on my face and poncho and was pelting me with a fruit smaller, but harder and heavier, than a golf ball. Today my ankles are very swollen and stiff from an encounter with some tree. Art Gallenson tells me that the small spines of a certain tree are imbedded in my flesh. He says that as soon as enough pus forms around them the spines will squirt out, the swelling will subside and everything will be hunky-dory. Gallenson is a geologist, but since there is nothing else to take for this ailment I might as well take his word for it. We do have a doctor with us, a Sacramento pediatrician named Clyde Ralph. He has been tending our ailments, but since he and his wife, Katherine, arc supposedly on vacation I am reluctant to bother him with trivia. I did trouble Doc Ralph yesterday when I started running a fever somewhere between 100° and 130°. By nightfall the fever was so upon me that I skipped supper, swallowed the pills Doc gave me and staggered off to my sleeping bag, falling into the camp garbage pit en route. The fever must have hung on awhile, for I slept nightmarishly, dreaming at one point that I was a TV signal in a fringe area.

"This morning the fever is gone. I am a new man. After breakfast I shaved and put on a fresh pair of wet socks and a clean wet shirt. The sun came out briefly. Since most of the gang were already across the river digging in an Indian cave, I started spreading my clothes out to dry. Unfortunately, three clouds on the horizon saw me. In no time at all they assembled overhead and began dumping rain. In a place like this a man has to watch his belongings every minute. My jungle boots disappeared last night, taken perhaps by a jaguar. A moment ago, when I looked for the boots under my poncho, I caught two large ants in the act of carrying off one of the pills Doc gave me. Speaking of missing objects, I have not seen John Brothers, the Ohio vagrant, for 24 hours. Katherine Ralph now calls him Long John Quicksilver, because here, as in Filly, he keeps disappearing. Knowing him, it is my bet that by the time the cave diggers get back to camp with a bag of bones and potsherds John Quicksilver will emerge from somewhere in the jungle carrying a solid jade idol....

"We spent most of Thursday riding the river. John Brothers tried trolling awhile, using a gang-hook lure half the size of a Goodyear blimp. I have no idea what he hoped to catch—an utter optimist like John often does not have a particular fish in mind. In the afternoon we traveled between high, narrow canyons, sharing the rapids with logs that had been cut somewhere upstream and were riding to market in the town of Tenosique below. The logs swerved in and out of the slow and fast lanes like idiot drivers, but we managed to stay clear of any bad collisions—our boatmen seem to know just how to zig when a log is zagging. On the downside of one rapids we spent 15 minutes chasing an ammo can that had bounced overboard. Whenever we tried to sneak up on it with outboard power, the can would disappear in a whirlpool. When we eased into the whirl-pool after it, the can would squirt out the far side and hook a ride back upstream in an eddy...."

At this point, some miles upriver from Tenosique, the legible record ends. The rest is ashes. According to a typewritten itinerary preserved in my wet clothes, we disembarked at Tenosique, rode in a boxcar to Palenque, subsequently took a truck from a place called Teapa and still later flew into a jungle strip at Bonampak. Some of this I must accept on faith. I do not remember Palenque or Teapa or the boxcar. Vaguely I recall riding forever from nowhere to nowhere in a dark train coach, sitting with Bill Snell of San Diego and drinking gin out of the top of a can of bug killer. And, for sure, I remember the jungle at Bonampak, for it was there that Jim Dean, Rex Yeaman and I crashed two days ago.

Certain moments at Bonampak stand out clearly. About 4 Friday afternoon 10 of us were standing in a circle, swatting bugs and debating whether to fly on to the village of the Lacandón Indians. The Lacandón tribe is a vestige of ancient Mayadom, a living epitome of the strange faces carved in stone. Most of us wanted to visit the Lacandónes, but several of the pilots who flew us in had reservations, and so did a lady named Se√±ora Blom. Where Se√±ora Blom came from, or who she is, I cannot say—I remember only a short, stout lady who kept jangling bracelets on both wrists while insisting in the voice of a first sergeant that the Lacandónes would charge tourists like us many pesos for a visit. The pilots had graver doubts. Ever since an outsider brought whooping cough to their village, the Lacandónes have been shooting arrows and bullets at planes. Furthermore, one pilot insisted, the Lacandónes have a cute trick of rolling logs onto the runway just as a plane is settling in.

Since the Lacandónes were obviously restless, in the end we headed for Villahermosa. Jim Dean, Rex Yeaman and I took off in a Cessna with Pilot Ramón Alamilla and his small son. Our plane bumped along the rough grass in the blurring jungle and finally rose into smooth air. About three seconds later the port wing suddenly swung up. We're going in, I thought. In the middle of the thought there was a crash, rending and resounding, half heard, half felt.

I could not have been unconscious long because I recovered half knowing it was important to get out of the plane before gas hit the hot motor. Pilot Alamilla and Rex Yeaman were slumped forward, blood running from their heads. The little boy was moving, no blood. Jim Dean was stirring, blood on him. I got the seat belt off, the door open. My right leg would not move. I can fall out, I thought. I swung my left leg over and scrambled for the ground. A yellow sweater gave me a hand—Jack Currey's wife, Betty Ann. "Get Rex," I said, "he's hurt." I was dragged by Doc and Katherine Ralph. I heard a soft boom, then another and another, and felt the heat and was dragged farther.

The boy and Jim got out of the wreck. Alamilla and Rex were pulled out in the first minute before the gas tanks blew. While still only six feet off the ground, our Cessna had run head on into another Cessna that had been warming up for takeoff but luckily was unoccupied at the time. Locked together, the two planes had done a shallow cartwheel for 20 yards down the strip and finally come to rest, their bodies aligned and wings overlapping, like two odd birdfish in the act of spawning.

Dean, Yeaman, Pilot Alamilla and his boy were flown out that afternoon in the two operable Cessnas waiting on the strip. Since I was by far the least bashed, I was left in Bonampak overnight, a solitary, wounded river rat enjoying all the solicitude of the seven river rats stranded with me. In about an hour the blinding flashes began to leave my eyes, the pain settled into specific corners and my mind began to discriminate between fact and delusion. The whole affair, once terrifying, became ridiculous. All of the beautiful cameras and lenses that I had protected from dripping trees and river rapids were destroyed now by fire. All the pictures of parrots, Maya lintels and river campsites—every single ultrachromatic roll of boredom that I had exposed for the folks back home—all ashes. (One diary pad fell out of the plane with me and, by the luck of it, was pressed into the damp earth when a wing collapsed.) Lying in the grass, I began shouting to Dave Thompson, instructing him on how to photograph the wreck (a real camera nut never quits annoying another). As I lay there Paul Halabrin approached solicitously, casting the same shadow over me that I had used often in Tuxtla. At the sight of him, an old line of Groucho Marx came to mind. "Halabrin," I pleaded, "I am ebbing. Force brandy down my throat, quick."

"My bottle was in the other plane," Halabrin replied.

"Halabrin," I said, "you are a bungler."

We slept that night crowded in a room of a maintenance cabin near the Bonampak strip. Before the lights were doused. I remember eating rice and talking with a French movie producer named Patrick, who may very well have been nothing more than a residual delusion. The night passed well enough in sleep mixed with aches, until I was awakened in the middle of it by babbling outside. I heard shuffling and then the strong voice of Se√±ora Blom rallying us all from slumber. "The Lacandón Indians are here!" she cried.

Seeing the smoke of our burning Cessnas in the late-afternoon sky, seven Lacandónes had padded 10 miles through the jungle in the night to find out what was cooking. From the far corner of our dark sleeping quarters, Halabrin spoke up. "Tell the Lacandónes," he said, "that they cannot see us for less than 100 pesos."

In the morning I limped around in the plane wreckage, hunting for bits of my cameras while the Lacandónes searched the rubble for molten gobbets of aluminum. (The Lacandónes will use the metal for points, and I shall take the shards of my cameras back to New York and bake them into a cake for Rodney Rodd.) While the Lacandónes and I sampled some tortillas that we found nicely toasted in a charred ammo can, the rest of the river rats tugged the gross wreckage off the strip. By 11, new Cessnas came and took us away. I spent an hour for X rays in a Villahermosa clinic, then checked in here at the Hotel Manzur, where I am now fumbling with the loose parts of the past two weeks.

When the sun drops a little. I shall go downstairs, borrow $10 from John Brothers and go with him in a cab to see how Rex, Jim and Pilot Alamilla are doing in their hospital beds. If my leg is up to it, this evening I shall walk to the town square where cool fountains dance, and on to the river edge where lampposts give out both light and recorded music. I have become used to bed soon after dark, and tonight I will sleep well, forgetting the Cessnas easily, and hoping to remember the river.