Gustavo Had Four Tongues

Before departing for my first year of college, my parents gave me the book Turn Right at Machu Picchu, which traced the Inca Trail paved by Hiram Bingham to “discover” the famed archaeological site (not unlike another recent high school graduate receiving Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go!).  This selection led to other pedantic choices, revealing other explorations.  I particularly enjoyed The Lost City of Z, which chronicled an English troupe’s quest for El Dorado in the Amazon.  In particular I remember a scene about slashing through the Amazon without indigenous knowledge–catching and consuming poisonous fish safely, avoiding hungry felines, harvesting plants that wouldn’t turn one’s stomach–the unforgiving jungle would surely swallow one whole.  This was the ultimate and unfortunate case for those rouge explorers, and they essentially delivered themselves into a “green hell” because they did not seek local knowledge.

Two years later after turning the final page, I directed my father onto a narrow, two lane highway cutting through what appeared to be a “green hell” outside of Tulum.  The thick brush hugged the edges of the road, nearly scraping the car.  Its own beast, impenetrable and foreboding in a way that only a lime-green jungle can be at dusk.  We passed through a few villages, the likes of which I had never encountered before traveling in Mexico.  One-room thatched huts for an entire family, no running water, notable endemic malaria, and starving stray dogs.  I wondered what I would do if I were a Mexican farmer’s daughter rather than an American lawyer’s and businessman’s daughter.  Would I die young–from  limited access to healthcare, if not boredom?  I simultaneously cringed in the unfamiliar poverty and shamed myself for feeling so uncomfortable.


This is an example of a house in rural Mexico, that of which can be found in Punta Laguna, Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Finally we arrived at our destination, Punta Laguna’s spider monkey reserve, contracted Gustavo as a tour guide, and stepped into the jungle.  To my surprise, our guide spoke nearly impeccable English.  He told us that his grandfather had founded Punta Laguna and that Mayan was everyone’s first language there, but his flawless English had captured my attention.  He spoke Mayan natively, obviously learned Spanish in school, but how someone achieved great fluency in English….I’ll never know.  Even I, with my access to phenomenal education and resources to finance extended studies in Spanish-speaking places, know I will never be as fluent in Spanish as Gustavo was in English.  I cannot fathom how  someone in a little town like his could gain access to an education supportive of trilingualism.  But he did.  Eventually I concentrated on the spider monkeys Gustavo scoped out and described.  He told us that the spider monkeys recognize his calls to them after years of living in Punta Laguna.  And it dawned on me.  He was actually fluent in four languages: Mayan, Spanish, English, and Spider Monkey.

On our return drive to Tulum, I again mused on what it would be like to live there myself. No money for a library or books to escape within.  Limited internet access, if any.  Most of my American creature comforts would be unavailable. Would I feel trapped and unhappy?

I go to university out of state.  I traveled to Spain and home and school and back again.  I’ve traveled Mexico twice now.  I will travel to Cuba next summer for research.  My friends have opportunities to do work in Ecuador and Kenya and Tanzania and, if they play their cards right, Thailand and Finland too.  My father studied in Italy, and my mom sustains a passion for Hawaii, much to my delight.  They–parents, classmates, and various academic mentors–encouraged me to physically move; in my communities, movement is a prize to chase and stamp into a passport.  Living in a rural Mexican town like Punta Laguna would be my own “green hell.”  Gustavo was raised in the environment label as my own “green hell.” I would be ill equipped to survive there.  But he had the indigenous knowledge to survive, to thrive, just like the Amazonian tribes in The Lost City of Z.

And who am I to say Gustavo does not move?  He moves throughout four languages, with a dexterity and agility akin to that of the spider monkeys in the trees.  We all move, with the knowledge indigenous to our upbringings, to our homes, to us.


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