The day starts early and with the first sun rays and the birds’ chirp, the last few remainders of the night’s magic fly away. It’s time to prepare breakfast, there’s plenty of hungry mouths waiting to be fed. She left the masa resting during the night, covered by a cloth, and now it’s time to start moulding it into small balls to prepare the tortillas. With rapid movements, the woman’s expert fingers pat down the corn dough into a thin, round layer and throws it over the comal to cook under a generous fire. There’s boiling water with toasted ground corn to make a drink, for the children need some energy before going to school. “The kids need to wake up”, she thinks while removing the beans from the fire and turning the plantain rings in the hot oil. The eight children sit around the long wooden table and with hurry, devour the breakfast. One of them is a bit quiet, the younger boy complains of being sick: “Mummy, my tummy hurts, I don’t want to go to school.” “Eat your breakfast”, she says, “you’ll feel better. Later I’ll take you to the doctor to see what you have, but for now you need to go to school.”
She gives the husband his lunch, a boiled thick tortilla wrapped around a banana leaf and the caldo, a rich chicken soup with several spices and herbs, including the achiote that gives it its traditional reddish colour. The man is leaving to work in the family’s cocoa farm, where he will spend most of the day. He knows he needs to care for the trees, for they to grow strong, he has to cut the newborn sprouts. Although it seems cruel, the tree needs the maximum amount of light to be able to bare good cocoa. He will also collect along the way one of the herbs his father used to treat stomachache, maybe he can relief the little one’s discomfort before the doctor sees him. When the cocoa is ripe, he will ask for his older sons and friends help to pick up the pods and remove the cocoa seeds. They will be put under the sun to dry for some days and they’ll need to turn them from time to time to ensure they are of good quality. The good cocoa depends on careful attention to make sure the buyer from town gives them a fair price.
It’s the woman’s responsibility to take care of the house and the kids, she will spend most of the time preparing meals, working in the garden beside the thatch-roof house, sewing and weaving. Today it’s time for one of her favourite activities, she will join the other women in the Alcalde‘s wife home, to spend hours weaving the elaborate coxtal, a colourful bag made by interlacing woollen threads with different colours, creating intricate motifs. She already started a small one but it would take her maybe two to three days to finish if she worked hard. “A woman has always so much to do! This is the only time I have to dedicate to crafts”, says Teresa, one of the eldest ladies in the room and one of her best friends. The women all laugh, a loud, feminine sound filling the space with energy and warmth. They keep chatting, sharing the latest news about the poor woman in a neighbouring village whose husband was caught with another girl, or a new design one saw in a magazine in town that would look good in some jipijapa earrings she’s crafting. The same week, the village will get some visitors through the home stay program, so she hurries to produce a couple more crafts to sell them and make some more money. “My Rosa is going for the third grade, I’ll have to start paying for her school. Life isn’t easy and the money we make with the farm barely suffices to pay for the food we eat. Soon, my husband will have to look for a job in town or even further…” The Alcalde‘s wife reminds her of the new cruise ship dock the government is planning on building in the Maya villages district, an investment that will bring around 4000 tourists every week to the region. “My husband has been going to the meetings with the Tourism board and they say this will bring tourists to our villages and it will help us make more money to pay for our kids schools and to have a better life”. “What if we get crazy tourists? I heard they walk naked!”, says an older woman, with a worried look in her face. The others laugh at her, “Don’t be silly, of course they don’t do that, they will respect us, moreover they will be eating in our homes, playing with our children, they need to have some sense in their heads!”. The topic creates two factions, the elder women seem suspicious of this new way of income and they fear the younger generations will step away even further from their valuable traditions; the younger women, because they have a new family and mouths to feed, think of nothing else but the extra money they will get with the tourists visiting the village.
The loros start screeching on the high branches of the trees, calling for the rising moon in the night sky, it’s time to go back home and prepare the meal for the kids that are already back from school. “Good thing I’ve gone to the mill yesterday, I have enough corn to make some more tortillas. I’ll cook the cohune cabbage tonight, the kids love it with a bit of chilli and onion.”, she thinks to herself. The hogs are coming back from the jungle where they spent all day feeding and laying in the mud, the insects fly against the querosene lamp she carries to light the way back to her house and the bats fly over her head after leaving their hiding place in the nearby caves. The air is cooler and it reminds her of the time when, as a child, she would sleep in a hammock, watching the stars.
This little narrative was inspired by the Ke’Chi Maya from Laguna village in the district of Toledo, Belize, where we would spend two nights, eating with the families, witnessing their rural and simple of way of life and listening to their worries about development and its impact on their proud cultural roots. This experience was made possible through a sustainable and fair tourism program developed by T.E.A., Toledo Ecotourism Association, a Maya and Garifuna local board created in 1990 with the leaders of several villages and with the help of William “Chet” Schmidt, a local hotel owner. The program offers the guests accommodation in a guesthouse built by volunteers with local resources (mainly materials from the jungle) and several activities, from eating traditional food prepared by the families in their homes, guided tours to some natural points of interest, craft lessons, among many others. The philosophy of this program is to ensure every village and all the families involved have their share of the burden and the profit, so it’s set in a rotational system, allowing for this type of tourism to be of low impact and sustainable. If you’re interested in living up close the life of a modern Maya, contact the T.E.A. through their website and ask to speak with Chet, he can clarify any doubts you have about the program and set you up with the villages.
The Laguna village and our experience of a Maya “home stay”