I own a piece of land in the middle of the Mayan jungle in a small town near Valladolid called Uayma. I bought it because I love its church. But soon after my purchase I fell in love with the people.
Miguel Xooc is my unaware Mayan Professor and helper. He keeps calling me to tell me every detail of what happens in this isolated and abandoned, by me, piece of land. He gets extremely excited when I visit the place and he shows me all the progress he has made in keeping the jungle away from the small destroyed construction of the Hacienda home that used to be there. He keeps track of every wild animal he sees and of every snake he kills. He even saves their skins for me. I had to tell him to secretly inform me all the details of what he does and specially keep any animal skin he kills away from my wife or I will never convince her to move there in our retirement!
Last weekend Miguel told me that he discovered a cave. He anticipated my desires to give it a look and so he made a path so we could walk with my son to explore the cave. It was about one kilometer from the entrance of the lot so he really worked hard to create this path. While we were walking I told my son to look at the wild orchids blooming on tops of the trees. While looking at the tops of the trees Miguel warns us to watch our steps and be careful with the thorns of one of the branches of the trees he cut earlier. I asked him, “What do you call this tree Miguel?” and he said, “It is a Tzubim.”
We continued walking until I saw an identical branch and I warned a friend of my son by telling him to be careful with the Tzubim. Miguel immediately corrected me by telling me, “No, Patron, that is not a Tzubim, that is a Chimmay!“
“How would I know? They look all identical to me,” I responded.
Miguel could not believe that I was not able to tell between such tremendously evident differences. He decided in that moment that he was going to give me a botanic tour and he started to name and describe every tree he saw while we were crossing such a densely thick forest.
“So Patron, this is a Chaka. Look how red its wood is!”
It has a very soft wood.
“Now look! This is a Dzilzilche, this has very beautiful shells around its trunk.” Miguel said. “This is a Chacté. This one has bigger shells around its bark and it has a very red Chulul.
“Hey Miguel,” I said, “Stop there. What is a Chulul?”
“Ohh! Chulul means heart in Mayan. The Chacte’s chulul is very red and its wood is very hard.”
“Look that is a “Bacabché. In this one the trunk is very smooth, it does not grow thorns and its “chulul” is brown,” he said. Then Miguel gets extremely serious and tells me, ”Patron, this is a Chintoc.”
Miguel introduces me to this tree as if it were a person. “This tree is so hard that it breaks axes.”
We slowly continued moving our steps into the forest when we found more than fifty flowers laying on the floor. Miguel tells me those are the flowers of the Piim. That tree has many thorns but its flowers get bees crazy. Then he points to the top and there they are, hundreds of flowers coming out of the branches like a miracle. Then I asked Miguel why bees get so crazy about these flowers. He takes one and asks me to smell it. In that moment I joined the bees as the most incredibly intense and unexpected vanilla essence escapes from the flower.
We moved on and then he points at a tree and tells me, “That’s a Mahahual, this tree’s bark is so thin that we use it for tamales’ wrapping.” Then we walked next to a Tzubim, and Miguel’s experience sadly tells me that this tree has such big thorns that if you step on one you cannot sleep all night long. We walked again next to a Chimmay and then he tells me that it has a very, very hard wood with an extremely brown “chulul” but it compensates those sins with its very beautiful fruits.
He goes on with and describes trees with names such as pomoCHE, bacabCHE, chinCHE, ikiCHE, piniCHE, yaxCHE. Then I asked why most names end with “che.” Well, it means wood. So the beginning describes the type or purpose of wood we Mayans give to a tree. Some are the wood that cures, the wood that hurts, the wood for shelter, the wood for the gods.
While he describes all the trees features, I get close to them, I look and touch them, I start to detect their subtle differences as Miguel tells me what they are used for until we found a “Chechen.” In that moment as I approach to that tree a scared Miguel yells at me to stop. “No patron, do not touch that one! Its bark is highly poisonous, you will get a terrible itch and the swelling will be unbearable.”
As I am impressed by the height of the thousand oaks among their Mayan friends I cannot help asking Miguel, “How come do you know all these trees?” Miguel tells me, “Well, we are all Mayans. The trees and us were born here and for us knowing the trees is like recognize a family member.”
Overwhelmed by the immense variety I end our tour by asking, “And who planted them?”
Miguel, with absolute conviction answers, “God, of course!”
Rodrigo Rodriguez is a human rights and immigration lawyer living in the Yucatan among the Mayans. He is a lover of good music and food, and is always looking to be amazed by nature. Rodrigo is a student here at CUNY SPS working on his Advanced Certificate in Immigration Law.