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Visiting the Last of the Mayans

The culture of the Lacandons in the Mexican jungle is dying out. In an interview, photographer Martin Engelmann and journalist and filmmaker Katja Döhne talk about how rapidly the lives of the descendants of the Maya are changing.

Maya Lacandons in Mexico (Photo Credit: Martin Engelmann)

Interview Conducted By Anna Behrend

March 28, 2018 01:17 PM

Adventurous travel, unforgettable encounters, anecdotes and impressions from foreign countries: In the Hörweite podcast series, SPIEGEL ONLINE reporters talk about their reporting trips around the globe (in German). In this edition, filmmaker Katja Döhne and photographer Martin Engelmann talk about their journey to the Mexican jungle. Here, you can read an abridged, English-language version of the interview.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Martin, you have been visiting and photographing the Lacandon people for many years. They are descendants of the Maya who had long lived in the Mexican jungle without contact with the outside world. And you, Katja, accompanied Martin and made a film about his work. How did you become aware of the Lacandons and what did you find so fascinating that made you want to report about them?

Martin Engelmann: For me, the journey began almost 10 years ago. I had traveled in Mexico many times and was personally very interested in the Mayan culture. I visited the archaeological sites and then traveled through the rainforests in the state of Chiapas. When I happened upon the villages of the Lacandons there, I realized that there is still a lot of authentic life to be found in the traditional sense. And that was where my interest was suddenly awakened.

Spiegel Online: And what does traditional life there look like?

Martin Engelmann: The traditional aspect mainly relates to the faith of the Lacandons. Most of the Maya were Christianized by the Spanish conquerors during the conquest. But the Lacandons have managed to preserve their faith for many centuries, and they were only Christianized in modern times.

Katja Döhne: They were very much opposed to it at first, fleeing into the jungle and running away from the conquerors to avoid being Christianized.

Spiegel Online: Then they lived without contact with the outside world for a long time. But now this contact has been established. When and how did it happen?

Martin Engelmann: They have been in contact with the outside world for over a hundred years now. You have to imagine that they were inundated with all kinds of impressions in this short period, and that their lives have changed considerably as a result. Of course, they now have access to television, telephones and cars, and yet a small part of their old traditional life has been preserved, especially when it comes to faith.

Journalists Katja Döhne and Martin Engelmann (Photo Credit: Martin Engelmann)

Spiegel Online: Is Lacandon a collective term for all descendants of the Maya or does it only refer to a distinct group?

Katja Döhne: It's a distinct group. I believe there are 6 million people in Central America with Mayan ancestors. But they have all somehow modified their faith, so that it now contains many Christian influences. They all speak Spanish, and so on. The Lacandons are this one group that resisted Christianization and lived in isolation in the jungle until a little over a century ago.

Spiegel Online: How many Lacandons are there? And do they all live in one village?

Martin Engelmann: They live in several villages and some now also live in cities. But I would say there are about 500 to 700 Mayan Lacandons in total.

Spiegel Online: Katja, how did you get involved in the project?

Katja Döhne: I have traveled to Mexico many times. It's probably my favorite country. I had heard of the Lacandons but I never really knew how to approach the subject. I got to know Martin through mutual acquaintances. And when he told me what he was doing, I thought: What a stroke of luck -- a German-speaking person who is already documenting the life of the Lacandons anyway. That could be my way in to finally get to meet them. It was really great.

Spiegel Online: What do the Lacandon villages look like these days?

Martin Engelmann: When you enter the villages of the Mayan Lacandons today, it looks like any other Mexican village you might find anywhere in the forests. But when the people are out in the woods, working in their cornfields or fishing on the lake in their canoes, then life is more like it used to be before.

Katja Döhne: It's also interesting to see how the path to the Lacandons has changed over the years. The villages are in the jungle and to get there you drive to Palenque, the nearest city. From there you continue in a colectivo, the small vans that serve as public transportation in the area. The trip took us about three-and-a-half hours. You make fast progress at the beginning because the road is paved, but that wasn't the case just a few years ago.

Martin Engelmann: Yes, the road has gradually been improved and paved in places. Six or seven years ago, it took five or six hours to cover the same distance in a colectivo. And I think it will soon be possible to cover the whole distance in one-and-a-half to two hours.

Spiegel Online: And what sort of work do the people there do in the middle of the jungle? What does their everyday life look like?

Martin Engelmann: People's everyday lives are very varied, of course. They still work in their cornfields. There are now attempts to establish a tourism industry of sorts, but it's been difficult so far because of the relatively long distance to the nearest larger towns. Fishing in the lake and working in the cornfields are common activities. Many of these cornfields are relatively remote, tucked away in the woods. Sometimes you have to walk through the rainforest for an hour or more to get there. Many Lacandons now also work in normal jobs in other villages. Some run grocery stores, small shops where you can get almost everything.

Katja Döhne: There's an unbelievable number of shops in this village, certainly almost 10. That's apparently the business idea there: to buy things in the next bigger town and then sell them in the village.

Spiegel Online: What's in these shops? Do they sell traditional food, for example?

Katja Döhne: Corn is the staple food of the Maya, who make it into tortillas. Tortillas are available in many varieties, as is the case all over Mexico. But it's even more apparent in the village. There is now a small restaurant there, which serves tortillas in all variations, rolled, filled or covered in sauce. At first, we tried to order various things, but in the end, we simply ate the same dish all the time, so-called synchronisadas, because all the dishes on the menu looked the same anyway. These shops actually sell all the things you would find in a convenience store, including cigarettes -- but no alcohol. That's only available in the neighboring village.

Spiegel Online: Why?

Martin Engelmann: They didn't want it for a long time. It was a decision made by the village council. You can now order beer in the restaurant, but that wasn't possible for a long time.

Spiegel Online: Is it part of the Lacandon culture to not drink alcohol?

Martin Engelmann: On the contrary, balche, the drink of the gods, is a traditional Lacandon beverage. The fermented, bark-based drink used to be prepared by shamans. It has an intoxicating effect. So, alcohol is not unknown.

Katja Döhne: And we've heard that it has also become a problem.

Martin Engelmann: I think the problem is simply that there have been extreme upheavals in these villages within a short time. Think about it: They lived untouched in the rainforest for many centuries and then, within a hundred years, they got everything we have developed over many centuries. When you look at the development process that has taken place in such a short time, it isn't surprising that people often have trouble dealing with it. I believe many were simply overwhelmed and, just as in our latitudes, alcohol can become a problem.

Katja Döhne: Another one of the changes is that the Lacandons now receive subsidies from the Mexican government for protecting the rainforest. They simply get money for the fact that this forest is there and they are not growing anything in it. One day we wanted to do an interview with Don Antonio, a shaman, but you could tell that he was distracted and completely beside himself. He had just heard the news that the Mexican government would pay even more subsidies if they stopped cultivating their cornfields. The village was totally in favor, and Don Antonio was distraught, because corn plays a central role in the Lacandon culture.

Spiegel Online: Can you talk a little more about Don Antonio? He seems to be a very interesting character.

Katja Döhne: Yes, an extremely interesting character. What I find most impressive about Don Antonio is his charisma. He has such a soft voice and is a very sweet man. I don't think he could hurt a fly. But the main thing about him is that he is the last shaman, the last wise man in the village, the last one who knows the songs and prayers, which are really very long. He couldn't find anyone willing to study with him. Many young people are put off by the many obligations a shaman has. Don Antonio said that the hardest part for him is that as a shaman, he has to hold a ceremony before he can sleep with his wife. We may see this as amusing, but these are actually things that hardly anyone wants to deal with today.

Maya Lacandon shaman Don Antonio (Photo Credit: Martin Engelmann)

Spiegel Online: How did you communicate with the people there?

Martin Engelmann: When I first went there, it was a huge problem for me that I couldn't speak the language of the people, the Maya Lacandon. Many people speak Spanish, and so do I, but you can only get so far with Spanish. Fortunately, I later met the Italian anthropologist Alice Balsanelli, who spends many months every year with the Lacandons and speaks the language perfectly. She has accompanied me on my travels from time to time and has been my ticket into this world.

Spiegel Online: Were you welcomed with open arms by the people there -- despite your cameras and video cameras?

Katja Döhne: We were definitely welcomed with open arms. Alice had already given them some advance notice about what we wanted to do. It was all discussed with the village council.

Martin Engelmann: The important thing, especially with a project like this, is to clarify everything at a relatively early stage. It all has to be done very carefully. There is now a friendly relationship with many people, partly because the project has been going on for so many years. Every year I brought pictures from the previous year as a present. We developed a good relationship over time, and when we showed up wanting to film that year, their arms were wide-open...

Katja Döhne: Well, until we got the drones out. When we flew them over the village, everyone was suddenly in turmoil and you could see Lacandons running around with radios and waving wildly. They were completely unnerved. Of course, we felt very bad and we quickly packed up the drone again. We were then summoned to the village council, where we had to explain what the drone was.

Martin Engelmann: It wasn't part of the plan, either. Before that, we had only used the drone to film and photograph uninhabited areas. On that day, it was a coincidence that it happened to fly over the village. We were actually planning to have a conversation about it in the following days, during which we would show the drone to the people and explain that we had them with us. The whole thing was a little unfortunate.

Spiegel Online: What was the most remarkable experience you had on this trip?

Katja Döhne: The thing that made the biggest impression on me and shocked me was something that happened during our first encounter. I was waiting for Martin at the bus station in Chetumal, a town a little further north of Palenque, but the bus didn't arrive. First it was supposed to be a half-hour late, then an hour. And then they said the bus had been in an accident. Martin is better able to explain what happened in the end.

Martin Engelmann: The bus crashed into a car on the way from Playa del Carmen to Chetumal. But it was actually a setup. The car was apparently deliberately steered into the bus, which, of course, forced the bus to stop. There were armed people in the car, who then tried to get on the bus. The only reason they couldn't do that was because the doors were jammed by the impact. Fortunately, the police arrived at the scene of the accident relatively quickly and nothing happened. But it was a shocking incident.

Spiegel Online: Was there also a positive experience that you particularly like to recall?

Martin Engelmann: Among the most beautiful experiences were the tours we did with the Lacandons into the rainforests. There are beautiful lagoons in this magnificent rainforest called the Selva Lacandona. We also made several canoe trips with one of the Lacandons, Juanito and his son. They took us to a burial site for the Lacandon Maya, where we saw human skeletons, ceramics, sacrificial vessels and other things. It was a big surprise, because I had never seen this place before, despite my long stays in the area. And I'm sure we only saw it because we were with Alice, who is on such good terms with the people.

Learning from the Lacandons: "An appreciation of nature that we no longer have in our part of the world" (Photo Credit: Martin Engelmann)

Spiegel Online: Can we perhaps learn something from the Lacandons?

Katja Döhne: Yes, undoubtedly a lot. For example, I find their relationship with nature fascinating. If they cut down a tree to build one of their traditional canoes, for example, there is a ceremony and they give thanks for the tree. This is an appreciation of nature that we no longer have in our part of the world.

Martin Engelmann: I agree. I also find the Lacandons' relationship with time very interesting. In contrast to the Western world, where everything is getting faster and faster, their approach is complete deceleration. Don Antonio, the shaman, told us that many Lacandons don't even know exactly how old they are. He said that it doesn't really make much sense to count the years of one's life. So relatively little importance is attached to that, and I thought it was a nice experience to be in a place where time does not play a major role.

Spiegel Online: Perhaps we Europeans also have a somewhat idealized, romantic view of the former life of the Lacandons in the jungle. But isn't that view arrogant in a way?

Martin Engelmann: That's definitely true. People have a right to change, especially if they want it themselves. This means you just have to accept certain things as they are. And it's not as if everything was good before. For example, they now have access to medical care. Many Lacandons, especially older ones, tell us that they are happy to be able to get more medication. Many things have also changed for the better. And just as it is with us: Everything moves forward and nothing stands still.

Katja Döhne: Dealing with these issues is really not that easy. When writing texts for my film as well as the visual story, I sometimes thought long and hard to make sure I avoided using words that could have a pejorative effect. But I also think the special aspect is not only that the Lacandons now live differently than before, but how quickly that happened. I think that's a particular thing and something worth talking about.

Martin Engelmann: Absolutely! I believe the things that are happening in these villages not only say something about the Mayan Lacandons, but about all of us. They underscore how quickly changes take hold in our own society. So, in a sense it's like holding up a mirror to ourselves. This means that when you study the Lacandon culture, you also learn something about what happens to yourself.


(c) 2018 Der Spiegel


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