“There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as
simply messing about in boats.” — The Wind in the
Canoeist and travel-scribe
Christopher Shaw must find some comfort in this quote from Kenneth
Grahame’s Ratty, for “messing about in boats” is an activity to which he
seems to have dedicated much of his life.
Shaw, a skilled canoeist and former whitewater guide,
takes his passion for boats to a new level in his book Sacred Monkey
River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods (Norton). The book chronicles Shaw’s
river adventure across the high plateaus and dense rainforests of Mexico
and Guatemala, forbidding places where drug dealers lurk in the tangled
undergrowth and monkeys scream like banshees from the high
Writing very much in the spirit of
Bruce Chatwin or Paul Theroux, Shaw skillfully catalogues the promise and
perils of the region. His adventure is not just a travelogue, it is a
lesson in history and geography, as well as a passionate appeal that we
begin to take seriously mankind’s impact upon the region’s rain forests.
From the snake’s eye view of his canoe, he ventures into some of the
area's darker, more mysterious recesses, places most tourists will never
But perhaps the first question should
be: Why undertake such a trip? Shaw’s answer provides a glimpse of his
straightforward, yet lofty prose:
I wanted to infiltrate, to be absorbed into,
and to absorb as much as possible the essence of that strange new place,
however confusing and unwelcome it might be. As I stood at the bridge,
it seemed the most natural thing in the world to launch a boat and
follow the rivers where they carried me, even necessary given their
entry to the region’s character — the quickest route to the heart of the
The heart of the country is found along the
“Watery Path” of the Usumacinta River, one of the less settled areas of
Central America that Shaw calls “an unruly no-man’s-land inhabited by
political refugees, fugitives and foreign adventurers.”
The term Watery Path is a translation
of the Mayan term for the local waterways, but as Shaw explains, the name
implies more than just geography. The watery path is also a metaphor for
the Mayan way, the ancient civilization’s means of transport — not just
for the body, but also for the sprit.
is also to say that on the watery path, as in life, there are hazards.
Each bend in the river provides its own intrigue, each rapid its own
moment of excitement. The furious river water “boil[s] and spout[s] like
lava pits.” The team Shaw travels with “roar[s] over the chute in a plume
of spray.” All this leads one of the less-experienced assistants — a
novice canoeist — to pack it in altogether and bail out of the
Shaw knows his subject, and it is his
obvious interest in it that makes this book such a compelling read. Like a
Joseph Conrad yarn, Sacred Monkey River searches for meaning along
the river that explains a bit about our own lives. The river is the
pathway of understanding, its unpredictable turns and falls are an
inescapable part of the natural landscape, qualities to be both
appreciated and respected.
Mayan and Mexican
Shaw draws from a large body of
anthropological research to interpret the ancient way, almost to the point
of overwhelming the reader with terms and data, but towards the end he
slips into a more personal discourse, using his own observations rather
than those of past travelers to carry the story
Shaw’s journey, while mostly an
examination of Mayan and current Mexican life, does veer into the personal
realm, where the author gets in touch with his own watery path, a means of
understanding his place in the world. As a veteran rafter and canoeist,
Shaw claims to have always been aware of the spiritual nature of water,
its value as a vehicle into deeper meanings.
Here, he describes an early experience on the water near his home:
The mountain, the water’s surface, and the
ring of forest formed a diametrical middle plane separating two
identical, equally spacious and complementary concavities — one above,
the other below. I floated, my canoe making a soft indentation in the
sky, a portable personal portal connecting me to both hemispheres
simultaneously. It was the clearest picture of the universe as we
experience it I had ever known.
Overall, Sacred Monkey River is a well-researched book, and Shaw
pays great attention to detail, occasionally to the point of stodginess,
but otherwise remaining true to his subject.
Its subtitle, A Canoe Trip with the Gods, is apt, for that is
exactly what the trip almost becomes in one of its more exciting moments.
Shaw, navigating a particularly violent stretch of river in his kayak,
finds himself caught in a dangerous vortex that very nearly takes his
life. His cavalier reflection of the moment says a lot about the extent to
which he embraced the mysticism of the locals:
What more direct route to the Otherworld
existed? It would have been the ultimate form of belonging, to be
subsumed and digested into the landscape through the purification of a
watery death.We should be grateful that Shaw did not
unwillingly join the Otherworld, for his book, despite its shortcomings,
is a pleasure to read.
W E B L I N
W.W. Norton: Sacred Monkey River
T R A V E L B Y
T H E B O O K
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