Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Living the Mayan Life

Sat afternoon update- September 13th ....Last Week

OK, now I officially don’t care if I ever learn even a word of Spanish because I’ve just seen something more remarkable and fascinating than any language, Espanol or English, could describe. This falls somewhere in the broad category that one picture is worth a thousand words. What I witnessed this afternoon would take far more words than you want to read to do the scene full justice. So I will try to be concise and you can color in the rest.

Earlier Saturday afternoon, I found Christine, the family cook, washing and readying a huge stone called a piedras para moler. It is made of a stone basin with a stone rolling pin, much like you would roll a pie crust, except this stone was for grinding. I thought she was grinding corn but it turned out to be unidentified soft vegetables. While she knelt there on the ground in the courtyard grinding this into a gooey blend, Berta would occasionally walk by and drop a few more spices onto the piedras, which Christine would incorporate into the grind. I think she called it mole but I’ve always thought of mole as chocolate based and this was more like a salsa.

Communication between Christine and myself is still going slow. Some of the problem is that Spanish is her second language, too, K’iche being the first. But mostly it’s because I’m still learning. Christina is always a good sport and slows down for me. A lot of communication right now for us is ESP and mostly we just pretend to understand each other. It is a little better talking with Christine than Berta because we have noticed that Doña Berta doesn’t hear well in any language. Not well at all.

Later that same day I noticed Christine was grinding something else. So I sat down on the ground next to where she was kneeling to watch her and this time it really was corn. I had already noticed a table in the courtyard where they keep dried corn and sometimes we’ll spot a pan of corn soaking in water to soften it. So I figured Christine was grinding the corn for our tortillas, which we have at every single meal. The family dog walked up to let me pet her and we had a serene moment there in the sun petting the dog and grinding the corn.

For some reason I decided to go look into the mysterious dark nook beyond the shower and bathroom. It’s where the living quarters end and there’s a very old wooden shack connected to the back of the house with a dark door that has just enough gaps in it to keep me interested. There is always the aroma of burning wood coming from there. I had heard cockadoodle-doos from there each morning with various other fluttering and peeps. I had asked once if that’s where our morning eggs came from and was told yes. I felt like that gave me some sort of permission to check it out. After I unlatched the rickety old door I had a time getting the door to shut behind me but knew it was important to keep the chickens from running away. It was dark but some light came from a gap between the roof and the ceiling, plus there was a light bulb. On one side of the room I spotted Marcos puttering about.

Marcos is a tiny little old man who is very stooped over in his old clothes who shuffles around the courtyard and into various rooms of the house. He was never introduced to us and I had to ask Christine his name. He doesn’t eat in the kitchen with us as the other family members do. He appears to have a mental deficiency but I can’t tell how much. He doesn’t talk to us but when I hear him talk to Christine I noticed he has a speech impediment that would make him hard to understand even if you knew the language he was speaking. No one has told us anything about who he is; whether he’s a family member or just someone in need that they care for. He spends a lot of time sweeping the place and taking trash out, shuffling around bent over a full 90 degrees at the waist. The mystery room seems to be the place he spend most of his time.

On the other side of the room were two cages full of chickens. Christine came in to explain. One set of chickens, the fat brown ones, were for eggs.



The other cage held skinny white chickens with sparse feathers. These were for comida – to eat.

In the center of the room on the concrete floor was a small fire made of the tidy wood sticks I’ve seen sold in the market. They burn down into perfect coals. Over the fire was a giant pot full to the brim with something bubbling.


Pappas”, Christine explained, “para cena.” Tonight’s dinner. Then there were two smaller pots on the ground set against the coals. “Frioles,” Christiane explained. The old world equivalent of a crock pot.

Just then two of the un-caged roosters began to fight and Marcos shuffled over to calmly separate them.


So now I know the majority of our food is cooked over a wood fire in the back shed. Our morning eggs come from the brown hens. And I’m not sure what I will do if I’m presented chicken for dinner. Except that the poor little dears looked so cramped and unhealthy, maybe I would be doing them a favor to help send them to chicken heaven. As I walked out and carefully latched the door I felt like I had been accepted into the inner sanctum, even though I had invited myself. I had seen something I never would have ever lived to see had I not come to this city, to this family.

Back in the courtyard, as I watched Christine heave and roll the heavy piedra to grind the corn I couldn’t help think how fast she could do this with my Cuisinart back home.

But I think there’s more than efficiency going on here. Both Christine and Berta are proudly Mayan K’iche. They both wear brightly colored traditional blouses called huipils and skirts of rough lengths of woven cloth wrapped around their waist and tied with yet another brightly woven length of cloth. Neither has ever had her hair cut and they wear it in long braids, sometimes with bright ribbons entwined in the braid. Christine wraps her braids up with brightly colored cloth but Berta leaves her braids down.

The next generation down--Berta's daughter and son and grandkids all dress in contemporary style. We can tell whenever the youth are home because the CD players are going full blast—so loud that we hear only the bass thumping in rhythm, vibrating through the stone walls. I can’t help but wonder if there was one conversation around the dinner table or maybe several conversations where Berta’s daughter announced her independence from the old ways. This family seems fairly well off by Xela standards but living the simple life out of tradition. I wonder what this town and this house will look like in 30 years. I’m glad I’m getting to see it now.

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