Thursday, May 19, 2011

Postcard :: Maya Village {Na Luum Ca}

The old school bus was our ride out to the Maya Village of Na Luum Ca. We were off to spend three nights living with a Maya family. We bounced along a dirt road and I noticed after some some time the power lines were no longer along side the road. The bus paused at villages {tiny groups of thatch covered houses}.

We wondered if we'd missed Na Luum Ca when we drove past a sign for San Jose, the village that was at the end of the bus line. But upon asking, the driver said not to worry and he'd let us know when we got there. "There" turned out to be a small road to nowhere leading from the main dirt drag through the jungle.

As we walked up the road we chatted with a villager who was returning from his job in Placencia. When the road forked he went right, but directed us to go left to find Emeterio Sho's house - our host family. To our dubious expressions he said, "you're never lost." We certinly felt unsure of where we were going even if we weren't "lost".

At the top of the little hill we came to house with flowers out front. A woman came to the doorway and we told her we were looking for Emeterio Sho's house. "This is his house," she replied with a smile. Her front two teeth were missing. "Come in." We followed Emeterio's wife, Mathilda, into the dirt-floor house.
The house was a long rectangle. At the far left corner there was a hearth with a fire and comel - the flat cooking surface. The right side was the family sleeping area hidden by a big tarp. There were two rooms with doors at the front of the house - one, the son's room and the other the parents' that they gave to us for our stay. A long, skiny table occupied the center of the main area. A work bench with grinder and stacked dishes along the left wall. Sunlight came in through the three doorless doorways, but even still the house remained on the dark side.

Mathilda set us up with two plates of brown mush. "Jipijapa," she said. "What's this?" I asked not understanding that she had just named the food. "Jipijapa," she repeated. So, although we knew the name of the food we still didn't know what it was. "It's not meat," she said by way of further explanation. "And it has egg." And it was very tasty. Lukas would have sworn it was chicken. We ate it with a stack of hand more corn tortillas.

Learning to make tortillas was on the top of my list for the home stay. After lunch we got to try our hand at grinding the corn for the evening's tortillas. Attached to the workbench was a grinder made of cast metal. Corn went in the top funnel. Cranking the handle turned the screw-like device inside that fed the corn into two plates. Out the end and into the big waiting bowl came mashed up corn. I commented that it looked really hard. "It's not so hard," she replied. "It's just hard because I've got to do it twice." Twice as in Mathilda reground the alreayd smashed up corn. Twice for the tortillas for breakfast, twice for the tortillas for lunch, twice for the tortillas for dinner - six times, every day!

Lukas and I both took turns at the grinder. The mountain of smashed corn grew, but goodness that was hard work.

Later in the day one of the girls, Angela, showed us how to pat the corn meal dough into a tortilla. Even though she slowed down to show us the steps her fingers still moved with expert speed. When I tried to follow my first attempt was not pretty or circular at all. Angela's on the other hand was even in thickness and beautifully round. When I slowed down I had better luck, but still my tortilla making skills had a long way to go. The Sho women were whipping out about 3 tortillas for every one a Wenger was able to make.
Each finished tortilla was layed on the comel to cook. Using just her fingers Mathilda would flip them and pull them from the hot surface when they puffed up and were ready. She didn't make it look all that hot, but they were because at dinner a little while later the tortillas were still almost too hot for us to handle.

We ate well after sundown but weren't sitting in the dark. Instead, the power from the little solar panel out front was to light a couple small fluorescent bulbs strung down the center of the house. At 9pm the family turned in and so did we. While brushing our teeth outside the house we looked up. No lights or city for miles meant an unadulterated inky sky filled with more stars than seemed possible. I could pick out Orion, but now all the spaces between were dotted with little pin points of light. At first glance it was enough to take my breath away.
After breakfast the next morning {every meal was like dinner in content and large portions} Lukas and I followed Emeterio to the farm. The walk there was filled with steep little hills that left us a bit winded. Emeterio would pause, letting us rest and point out medicinal plants. "We can't always go to the clinic. But what we have here works." We tasted the bitter wood of the cedar tree - good for head aches and the even more bitter Jackass-bitters.
Here at the farm Emeterio grew cacao. The cacao were harvested then sold wet to a couple of companies that would ferment the beans and later turn it into chocolate sold in the UK. A few of the low trees had pods on them the length of a man's hand and green. Not seeing a ripened yellow one, Emeterio cut off a green one for us to try. He held it in his palm as he hacked it open with a machete. One false move and it would have been goodbye hand. But he smiled and opened the pod in a few well directed hacks.

The inside was filled with white pulp and divided into sections. Each section surrounded a purple bean. The white part was tangy, the seed bitter and spit-out worthy. Emeterio found a ripe cacao, but this one the birds had gotten to. A woodpecker had bored a hole in one side. Earlier Emeterio had shown us a tree he had planted hoping the woodpecker would like it better than the fruit. There was still enough good on this fruit, so Emeterio opened it up. The ripened fruit was quite a lot different than the other. The white pulp was softer and almost gooey. It was also much sweeter. The beans were still purple and still bitter.
Walking to and from the farm left us covered in a sweaty sheen. The only solution - a bucket bath. I filled the bucket with water and lugged it to the bath house. The bath house was a small 3'x3' slab of cement with sides of corrugated tin and a tin roof just barely taller than my head. I moved another piece of corrugated tin in front of the open door way to get as much privacy as I could despite the gaps. I doused myself with bowls full of the cold bucket water. As I crouched and poured water over my head a lizard clung to the roof watching me.

That evening we taught the kids yahtzee and card games. I helped the women make the mountain of tortillas for dinner. Still, I was slow but I did eventually earn the praise from Mathilda, "You're getting better."

Our last day in Na Luum Ca was filled with another trip to the farm - this time to the cassava fields. Emerterio dug the cassava up using just his hands and the machete. And he carried it back in a sack hanging from his forehead. The heavy sack didn't slow him down at all.

We also went with Emeterio to San Jose - the big village just down the road. This really was a village, big enough to have several stores, more than one church and a mechanical corn grinding machine. The people here didn't have to grind corn by hand. Instead they paid something like 5 cents a pound to have their corn ground. At the top of the hill was the school and below we could see the hills dotted by thatch covered houses, green lawns and plants. We could hear the hum of someone mowing their lawn. Besides the fact that everything looked different, if you closed your eyes it was almost like a summer weekend back in the states. To cap off that feeling, on the walk back we heard the distinct must of an "ice cream truck?" I asked. Yes and it rolled right by us a moment later.
That afternoon Emeterio took us to the creek behind the house. The water was murky brown and the level low, but we were there before the rainy season. He showed us where, when there was more water, the family would do dishes, washing and bathing. Down the creek each family in the village had their own spot for this purpose.
Our three nights spent with the Sho's came to a close and the next morning we were up at 3am to catch the bus back to the more developed part of the country. We paid one last visit to the latrine - where earlier a little black fly had flown into my mount and I had accidentally swallowed it. Emeterio walked us to the main road and a few minutes after 3:30 the bus rolled up. We bounced down the road listening to the same 11 song scratch CD - an eclectic mix of country and rat pack favorites. Just as dawn was beginning to show we got off at the cross roads to wait for the bus to Dangriga. We could have waited longer and paid more for the express bus, but Lukas and I were all too eager to leave the bitting bugs behind.

{click here for: Postcards #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, and #9}

*Note: I know when we were planning this trip we were hunting down any details we could find. So, if someone doing the same thing happens on this little blog of mine and would like more information and specific details shoot me an email. I may not have the answer, but I can tell you what we did. megan{dot}a{dot}wenger{at}gmail{dot}com

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