The Stela and the Wasps

Written by Dennis Wheeler

There we were, playing charades with a man who we feared wouldn’t live past sunset.

One day, late in 1966—while surveying land the government had granted to our cooperative—instead of returning to base camp on our own trail, we decided to angle off and explore some more of the jungle. Much to our surprise, the path we cut led us past a lone standing Mayan stela. A few weeks later Ledyard Smith, the head archaeologist at Ceibal, came over with his team to see it for themselves. Ultimately they would unearth 28 monuments, several palaces and a large hieroglyphic staircase!

In the time that we came across what turned out to be a magnificent ruin and the subsequent visit from Dr. Smith, we had yet another it-could-only-happen-in-the-jungle experience.

A canoe from a neighboring cooperative stopped at the banks of our rancho and out stepped Jean Pierre Mober. He introduced himself as a French free-lance photographer and told us that he was hoping he could spend some time with us in the jungle, and that he was especially interested in photographing the stela we’d found.

During Jean Pierre’s stay with us I took him up a nameless stream that I wanted to explore. We were not able to get very far though because a tree had fallen, blocking the waterway. Jean Pierre, with machete in hand, was at the bow of the 30-foot canoe and I was at the motor end. The first whack of his machete into the offending branches upset a large and very angry hoard of wasps.

They were big wasps, huge in fact— more than an inch long and extremely aggressive. With the wasps smarming around us, stinging, Jean Pierre fell backwards into the canoe and I fell into the water.

It took us about 10 minutes to get back to camp, and though we’d both been stung, Jean Pierre was now having trouble breathing. We persuaded him to take some antihistamine but his breathing just got worse and worse. He was managing what seemed like maybe a breath a minute, and at that, it was just a gasp! His face swelled to the size of a volley ball, his eyes almost disappeared into the folds of his face.

Suddenly he started waving his arms, clearly wanting to tell us something important. There we were, playing charades with a man who we feared wouldn’t live past sunset. At last we understood what it was he wanted. Ever the consummate photojournalist, he was telling us to take a picture of his face! The story has a good ending, Jean Pierre not only lived to tell his tale, he had the proof in black and white.

Epilogue: Felipe Guillen, a retired chiclero, was always my best source of jungle lore. When I told him about the wasp encounter he said, “Oh the standard wasp isn’t a problem, all you have to do is jump in the water and the stings won’t affect you.” That’s why Jean Pierre had gotten so very sick—he didn’t end up in the water like I had!

A few months later, Ian Graham came to record the hieroglyphics at the ruins that we now had named Itzán. He found a lens cap belonging to Jean Pierre, left behind from the day he’d been there with us, photographing the site. Ian stuck the cap in his pocket and, sure enough, he later came across Jean Pierre in Paris and returned it!

This Revue article was first printed in February 1999

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