Interview with Mary Jo McConahay

Exciting news for all you Latinistas out there: journalist and documentary filmmaker Mary Jo McConahay has just released a new book about 30 years of travels across southern Mexico and northern Guatemala. Along the way, she witnessed the transformation of the Lacandon people, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, and the onslaught of the drug war. Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest was recently named “Book of the Month” by National Geographic Traveler Magazine.

Maya Roads documents your thirty-year experience — I was going to say love affair — with the Central American rainforest.  We’re talking jungle here, right? As in, eight-foot snakes?

We are talking jungle, its beauty, magic, and violence, too, but also unforgettable people, archaeological digs, ancient towns and the crown jewel of the region’s colonial cities, San Cristobal de las Casas. Classic Maya rainforest cities such as Palenque, Tikal in Guatemala and the city of paintings, Bonampak, are reached fairly easily these days by travelers, even though they are surrounded by jungle.  Oh, and yes, poisonous snakes appear in Maya Roads, too.

How did your obsession with the Maya rainforest begin?

As a Spanish student in Mexico City, I saw a museum exhibit about the Lacandon Maya Indians, showing that they still hunted with bows and arrows, wore togas and wore their hair down to their shoulders, and lived much as their ancestors did more than a thousand years ago.  Being very young then I said to myself blithely, “I must go there,” and while it was not quite that simple, I did make my way to Lacandon villages and never forgot the adventure.  After becoming a journalist, covering the Middle East and the civil wars in Central America, I returned to the rainforest, with different eyes and experience.

Tell us about the people you met.

What’s exciting about traveling through Maya lands is not just its natural beauty, but that people you meet practice customs and habits that go back more than a couple of millenia, and you can recognize them once you know what they are. It’s like being in the present and the past at the same time. I call Maya Roads “deep travel,” the kind of book you read when you want to know more about where you’ve been or prepare yourself well for where you’re going.  I’m hoping travelers interested in the 2012 phenomenon will get a lot out of it, too.

Any advice for readers who dream of launching their own adventures and becoming a travel writer?

Let’s assume you already write well, know how a story arcs and rewards and can take good pictures — editors expect all these. Choose places in which you already have deep interest, places you read about for pleasure, whose art or food or history intrigues you. And know some of the language, where a lot of understanding is embedded. (Maya speak 29 different languages, but you can travel happily among them with a little Spanish.) And good luck!

Where can we catch you?

I’m really enjoying this tour of readings and discussions at bookstores, campuses and other venues.  They’re listed here.