|The house the bus driver dropped me off at and instructed me to go knock on the door.|
The woman whose house I was showing up at, thank goodness, was home. She handed me a key and told me to take it across the street to Christina and Manuel’s house, the family I would be staying with. A girl, who I would later know as Ana, greeted me, and then yelled to her father over the diesel-powered maize grinder in Mayan. The only word I was able to catch was ‘gringo’. Later when we had some time to get to know each other, I asked her about it, hoping gringo wasn’t derogatory, like it is in so many other places. She laughed and replied “No! We just don’t have another word for white people, and it’s not like a lot of you guys come out this way!” I giggled at the thought of random white people showing up at their house asking for a place to sleep and a meal.
|Ana and her cousin who were pretty amused at my desire to come to their town. Mayan women, I noticed, rarely smile with their teeth in pictures.|
The family asked me what I wanted to do, and I admittedly, hadn’t thought that through. The bus to the farm where they grow maize and cocoa had already come and gone at 5am, so I opted for a hike to the nearby waterfall on Rio Blanco. Ana, her two cousins, and I hiked up the road for 20 minutes to the entrance, where I paid my fee and signed my name in an ancient registry book.
|The falls of Rio Blanco. I jumped off from right here into the swirling cold water!|
|Temping my balance and coordination, walking to the edge of the falls. Somewhat dangerous places here are not like places in the US. There are no guardrails or signs warning you of danger. They just rely on the fact that you will be smarter than to go off the edge.|
|Incredible little wave at the top of the falls.|
This place was magical. The sound of the waterfall, the smell of the earth, and the cold water rushing over me as I jumped off the ledge into the pool is such a vivid memory, but I can’t seem to give it any justice through words.
After a long swim and a few plunges into the cold swirling water, the girls ask if I had any soap and I happily shared what I had and bathed in the river with them. This waterfall and river was their bathtub, and for today, mine too. And I was beyond thankful to wash away my dirt and grime in the cold Rio Blanco.
|Our bathtub! To the right of the falls you can see the ledge we jumped off.|
We all dressed and they ran up the hill in front of me. I lingered for a minute, taking pictures and trying to burn the whole picture into my memory. I trudged up the hill, feeling quite cold now that the sun had gone down, and I made it to the top to find the youngest girl, age 11, with a GIANT rock over her head swinging it down onto a large-egg sized nut. I would later google it and find out that was a cohune palm. It split open after the second swing to reveal white coconut-like meat. They instructed me to gnaw on it, so I did, feeling quite feral as I put the dirt-covered morsel to my mouth. It was delicious! As I bit into it, a sweet coconut oil seeped through my teeth and then I followed the girls and spat out the grit that was left over. We each took turns running into the jungle to collect more and smashing the nuts until we were satisfied. I’ve tried to practice eating locally and living off the land in my life, but this gave it a whole new meaning.
|The insides of a cohune pam fruit.|
We meandered back into town as the preparation for evening meals was beginning. Christina and Manuel had the only maize grinder in town, so I sat outside as the evening approached and watched what seemed like the entire population of Santa Elena come to their door with buckets of maize for grinding. They would enter the shed with whole fresh kernels straight from the farm, the diesel engine would fire up the grinder and Ana or Christina would grind it for them. They would exit with soft fluffy dough for making tortillas.
|The diesel powered maize grinder at Christina and Manuel's house. The only one in town.|
|Ana pushing the corn kernels through the spinning grinder while adding just enough water.|
|Ana mixing the end product which will later be turned into corn tortillas.|
In between grinding, Christine would sit down with me and show me how to make baskets and weavings out of ‘jippy jappy’. I don’t think that is the scientific name for the plant, but it was the only name she gave me. She said I was an ok weaver and I just needed to practice not pulling so hard (I kept breaking the dried leaves used as thread).
Christina had made plans for me to eat at a neighbor’s house and a young girl came to pick me up at what I assumed was dinner time. I had opted to turn off my phone for the day and pay attention to the sun and my surroundings instead of the actual time. She walked me across the road and through a field, pointing us to the ‘easy’ path up the gradually sloping hill. As we entered her home she introduced me to her mother and grandmother.
As I sat down on a small child’s stool, I looked around the thatch roof hut and took inventory of my surroundings. Two cats, 4 chickens, a turkey, 2 hammocks, a few sleeping mats, some pots and pans, plastic dishware and a comal, the traditional Mayan stove.
Sometimes in America, corn tortillas can be easily mistaken for a poor college kid’s food. Something you can buy a lot of for very little money. But the Mayan corn tortillas, ahhhh, they are an entirely different food than the flat dry stuff we get here! The family welcomed me with such open arms and served me a dinner of egg and tomato with some of the sweetest mint tea I’ve ever had. I later asked the T.E.A. representative about it and he told me that sugar is so precious to them that when a guest comes the use it in excess to honor them. I was so humbled.
I sat down across from the young girl and she led me slowly through the process. She showed me how much corn one takes for each tortilla, how to pat it into a circle, round the edges, and pat it down even more making a thin, soft, wafer the size of an appetizer plate. Then she reached behind her and gently placed the uncooked tortilla on the scalding comal, which looks like a giant flat cast iron skillet with a raging wood fire under it. She asked me if I wanted to try flipping it as she reached down with her tiny fingers, grabbed the scalding hot tortilla and in one swift motion flipped it to the other side.
I was nervous. Really nervous. All I could picture was burning my fingertips off and having no real clean water to clean them with.
After watching her flip them over and over, then put the white, fluffy, warm, gooey tortilla on my plate, I realized I needed to do it. My first attempt was miserable! I was so scared that I practically ripped the tortilla off the comal and ended up having to catch the fiery hot piece of food in my hand. It took a few (many) tries but I finally got the hang of it, lifting a tiny corner and waiting for that to rise, then grabbing it for the flip. We sat across from each other as the sun went down and then she traded places with her grandmother.
This was when my heart exploded and my trip was already complete. There I was, sitting across from a 93-year-old Mayan grandmother, who spoke no English, and smiled at me with a toothless grin as she made tortillas with a swiftness that only a lifetime can provide.
We finished turning the bucket of ground maize into tortillas and they packed up all of the tortillas I had personally made, probably about 16. I was shocked that this family who had so little wanted me to take so much food home. I insisted that I could only eat a few and after some negotiations I took home 5.
I spent a few minutes petting the little sorrel colt horse in their field, and then walked home in the dim light left over from the sunset: breathing in the smell of grass, river, and the burning wood from the comals of the town’s population of 200. When I returned Christina and I stayed up until nearly 11pm weaving baskets by a flashlight that I hung from the rafters of her house.
I have no pictures from the evening making corn tortillas because I chose not to take my camera, out of respect for the family and also in order to be fully engaged in what I was doing. While I sometimes wish I had pictures of this, I feel like it was the right choice.
|Christina (33), the beautiful woman who housed me and taught me the art of making jippy jappy baskets. We had been joking around and she was happy to let me take her picture but would not smile.|