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image: iStock Photo in the jungle who will, under the sacred ceiba tree, demonstrate traditional rituals. Unlike the ecotourists, we camped in the preserve. Early the next morning, Agosto came to wake us so we could see the monkeys moving. As soon as we popped our heads from the tent, we saw two male howler monkeys swing on branches over the road. He promised more spider monkeys, so we followed him on another trek through the jungle, and under the ceiba tree we bumped into the shaman, a man in his 50s with a deeply creased face, sitting near a fire. He also turned out to be Agosto’s father. Agosto introduced us and pointed out the altar, and we talked about the sack of copal, the aromatic tree resin, that he burns for ecotourists. After we walked away, realizing that we’d just seen a sacred aspect of Maya life tricked out for tourists, I should have just said, in Spanish or English, thanks for introducing us to your father and showing us the altar and the ceiba tree, we’re honored by that. Instead, wanting to compensate for having seen a sacred aspect of Maya life, I said in Spanish to Agosto, “I’d like you to teach me how to say in Maya, ‘I’m pleased to meet you:” \(Because I should be prepared to meet a Agosto stopped, turned to me, and quickly rattled off a long string of words, what sounded like 20 or 30 syllables. I lamely repeated a few syllables, left in his verbal dust. He rattled off the string again, just as quickly, then gave the Spanish translation. I shrugged. There was no following what he’d just said, and he wasn’t repeating. It occurred to me he might have been annoyed: It was 7 a.m., he’s a biologist, not a language teacher, and the question is ill-timed, a distraction. I was still confused, though. We thought we’d been having a genuine interaction with him. But the dark waters of the tourist sphere, in which the real and authentic are performed and sold, lay closer than we thought. People in Punta Laguna charge admission to their houses, so why not to the language, too? Or was the language where they drew the line? Agosto became chilly and left us behind to look for monkeys on his own. We talked about Agosto for days, puzzling over what we’d encountered, even once we had reached Tulum, a Caribbean coastal city, to spend some time on the beach. I was going to take a few days off from asking about Maya; once we got back on the road, I’d resume. I still listened, and thought I heard someone say something in Maya that could have been “thank you,” but I wasn’t sure. Later that night, in a group conversation under a darkened palapa that served as the lobby of the hotel, the clerk, a young man named Jesus, asks me if I speak Spanish. Yes, I say, then joke: “Do you?” “Sort of;’ he says. “I speak more Maya.” I perk upthis is my chance. “How do you say `thank you’ in Maya?” He whirls around. “Who are you? Where are you from? Why do you want to know?” I’m from Texas, I say, and I study languages, and we’re traveling in Mexico for a month, so I’ve been picking up some Maya words. He explains that his grandmother taught him that he should guard his language, because it was a secret. Then he tells a story about his uncle, a farmer, who had found a Maya ceramic that he had to hide: If the government knew he possessed it, they’d take it away. I’m not a missionary, I say, and I’m not looking to buy artifacts, either. I’m just interested in the language. After he’s stated his position and I’ve stated mine, he says he thinks there are powerful intelligences on the planet that we don’t know anything about, and that he believes he is a holy man. He’s a little crazy, but the air seems to clear as far as Yucatec Maya is concerned, and a few words dribble out of him. He’s sitting with a stray puppy on his lap and offers that the word for “dog” is peek’. “Peek’,” I say. Where’s my notebook? It doesn’t matter. Somehow, I think that one will stick. “Yes, peek’,” he replies. Now, I think to myself, we’re getting somewhere. Observer contributing writer Michael Erard lives in Austin and blogs at www. michaelerard. corn. JANUARY 26, 2007 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19