Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods

Christopher Shaw, Author
Christopher Shaw, Author W. W. Norton & Company $26.95 (316p) ISBN 978-0-393-04837-7
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A naturalist who once edited Adirondack Life magazine, Shaw canoes the rough waters of Guatemala's Usumacinta River in this uneven Mesoamerican travel adventure. Like the river itself, the narrative begins slowly, gradually gathering momentum as the author abandons secondary anthropological research in favor of his own, often profound, impressions. The Usumacinta has always contained a liminal world; Shaw describes the fluid boundary between Guatemala and Mexico as ""an unruly no-man's-land inhabited by political refugees, fugitives and foreign adventurers."" Shaw's travels took him through Mexico's Chiapas region not long after the Zapatista uprising (a little more modern political history earlier in the narrative would have helped novice readers immensely, especially since Shaw slips back and forth between the main journey and one undertaken in 1989, before the uprising). During his river run, he encounters rebels, wayfarers and, in the book's most exciting sequence, drug smugglers. He also confronts exhilarating danger in the river itself (""the boat leaped forward onto the crown, and the world dropped away""). In describing the remote, rugged landscape, Shaw comes down heavily on the side of ecological conservation, bemoaning the loss of the surrounding rainforest to loggers and chicleros (workers who harvest sap from the chicle trees to make gum). A gifted travel writer, Shaw evokes the Usumacinta's territory with startling clarity, though his chronology is sometimes confusing. Veteran canoers and armchair travelers, as well as fans of ancient Mayan civilization, will find these narrative waters exhilarating, if a bit choppy. (Aug.)
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