After a quick turnaround at the hostel, headed back out to make the two and a bit hour trip to the next village, Aguacate (pop: ~400). This required a bit of planning as there are only four bus journeys per week there, which revolve around market days. On the upside, the timetable is easy to comprehend.
Once we turned onto “the rough road”, a torrential downpour began. By the time we had to cross the river to get to the village, the bridge was only just visible, but we arrived in once piece, albeit a little behind schedule.
My first destination was the village’s homestay organiser (and school principal). He was out, but I sorted some admin with his wife, and she informed me that I was staying across the road with his father, Felix, and family. This was my home the following couple of days, and can only speak kind words of their hospitality. I lived just as they did, with no special treatment, and was able to at least begin to understand how they went about their lives. I was introduced to a number of daily tasks which I took on with interest, and also was able to spend a lot of time talking with people in the village, comparing cultures. These conversations gave a unique insight beyond any book I could’ve read, and left me with a sense of the modern day Maya.
After a tour of the buildings and an introduction to the six people who lived there, it was nearly time dinner. The staple food is corn, and I went along with the process of making tortillas; eaten with almost every meal. They had one of the village’s three corn grinders and so to feed the seven of us, roughly 5 pounds of corn was mixed with water to leave a pulp to be taken back to the kitchen. The grinder is in a separate building, and several other families came along and paid their 10c/ pound to also have it done. It looked like a petrol motor, and was done in minutes, rather than the hours needed to grind it by hand, I was told.
Back by the stove, we sat down to make the ‘tortilla discs’ to be cooked. This required a bit of technique, which the ladies could do almost with their eyes closed. The whole process of making tortillas took thereabouts an hour, and was repeated by Petrona and Minita (Mother and Daughter) for every meal I was there.
The freshly made tortillas acted as a side dish for the boiled jipijapa (see 6.3.1). With no central kitchen table, Felix, myself and the younger kids hung in hammocks, whilst Petrona and Minita ate from the low tables and stools we had sat on for preparation.
With full bellies, we swung and began one of our many attempts at putting the world to rights, and after that, I moved to the other side of the room to settle in for my first night’s sleep in a hammock.
By 4am, the night’s rest was over, as it was time to get up and ready for planting corn in Lucas’ (Felix’s son) field. Breakfast was tortillas and eggs, and we were accompanied by Rihanna finding love in a hopeless place, as a house down the way was booming out their radio. The walk was about about a mile out of the village, and we were met there by 5 others, all of whom were related through either blood or marriage. Felix later told me that village was essentially the extended family of about six couples.
The technique for planting this corn would’ve been used for hundreds and hundreds of years. It comprised of finding and sharpening a stick to puncture a hole in the soil, filling it with five corn seeds, and moving to a spot 3 or so feet away to repeat. The whole field took roughly three hours, allowing time to chat with the guys and also get a serious sweat on.
They asked about the Queen and Santa, commenting how “Santa is broke in Belize” and that the Queen should send some money to compensate for this fact. As we approached the last corner as we (rather ad hocly) worked our way around the field, Lucas commented how “the turkey is boiling…”. Jose asked if I understood, and I said “…so we need to hurry up?” which they found an amusing way of putting it. The ‘turkey getting cooked’ metaphor continued on the walk back to Lucas’ house, where we sat down for some food (not sure of the name) and some bowls of cacao drink.
Sat around the room, it was the equivalent of being in the pub back home. Various jaunts back and forth between ‘the boys’ including Lucas proudly telling us how his house had beams made of mahogany (native to Belize) meaning it would last for several more years than his workmates’. Jose won the prize for eating the most ‘pasties’ which, they joked, would be a plane ticket to England. Lucas thanked me for the help, and gave me a couple more pasties for the road (literally (!) a stone’s throw away) back to his father’s.
When we got in, Brian (Felix’s youngest son, 17) invited me out to see the farm and do some fishing. About 15 mins of hiking through the trees and we were there, checking up on the coffee, peppers, potatoes, and cacao in the next field. Property rights work by if someone is willing to farm the land, they can have it. If there is an infringement, the village’s ‘acalda’ (the courts) will investigate. Brian didn’t really know of any time where fields had been exchanged for money, as often if someone didn’t have the time, the would just leave it to go fallow for a few years.
When we got to the cacao field, Brian and I circled it, picking off ripe fruit that grew on the branches when we saw it. There were trees all around, many with fruit that had been sucked at by squirrels. He said that around 20% of what they grow can’t be harvested for this reason, but by not using pesticides, they had to accept it.
Here also we dug out some worms and clambered down the river bank for a spot of fishing. We managed a couple of tiddlers in the midday heat. Unfortunately because the river was muddy, conditions weren’t the best. I had to climb down to the water to wash my hands but realised to get back up, I would need to again get them dirty. Not to worry, said Brian, “just put some water in your pocket”. Perplexed as to whether this was some old Mayan technique that I hadn’t heard of, I responded asking “how do you do that?” which was met by a wide grin from Brian. He’d got me. Back at the house, I was duly reminded of the incident and I spent the rest of my time being overtly sceptical of anything he said, which the family seemed to enjoy.
On the way back from the cacao field, Brian opened one of the fruits up, so I could see how it worked, and also better comprehend the chocolate making process. Inside, the seeds are covered in a sweet, white flesh (like a slippery lychee texture), which you suckle off to leave the bean. This bean is then dried out, for usually three weeks or so in the sun, cracked to remove the shell, roasted, and then ground to get the cocoa powder (in its purest form) that we know of back home. The white flesh can be enjoyed in its own right, so I tried a few, keeping the seeds for later.
Our ‘Just William’ adventure continued by taking a slingshot at what Brian thought might have been a stray iguana that was bouncing around the trees. In the end we just found other targets to aim at, and flung off some stones. With it time to go home, we chatted about my camera, sports, and also hairstyles. I said he should consider getting a trendy European style of going short on the back and sides. He asked if this meant he could get English girls. I said I’d hook him up. This led to talking about David Beckham, who Brian hadn’t heard of. “He used to be a soccer player, but is now a bit of a celebrity”. Brian stumped me when he asked for a definition of what a celebrity was…
The whole morning/ early afternoon left me with quite a sweat on, and so went off for a ‘shower’. The outhouse consisted of a bucket of water from the outside tap and a bowl. Found it quite refreshing, if not a little slippery.
After lunch, I got cracking on a recipe idea that I’d been thinking about the previous day. For details on how to make a “Sam banana”, look to 22.214.171.124.
Once that was complete, got in the h
ammock for dinner. This was the fish we caught earlier, a boiled vegetable I didn’t recognise, and tortillas. Spoke some more with Felix and, amongst other things we compared cultures on a number of different topics including: elections, poverty/ people on benefits, caring for the elderly, how/ where people die, funerals, how a ‘man meets a woman’, family life, the concept of an insurance policy, and education policies. I won’t detail here, but if anyone would like to know what he said just let me know.
By this time it was nearly 7pm, and time for the village school’s annual “Christmas Entertainment”, that by chance I was here for. In the equivalent of the Nativity Play in England, the whole village came together to watch the children from ages 5-13 perform songs, dances and poems. The evening was interrupted by Santa at one stage, who burst in bearing sweets, causing mass hysteria amongst the kids. Back on schedule, the MC (one of the school’s five teachers) coordinated the various classes to continue their performances with Santa picking a number in a raffle at several points throughout the evening. It came to a close with ’12 Days of Christmas’ and the whole village returned home by flashlight.
Morning came, and by 5.30am I was back on the bus to PG leaving behind my family of the last two nights. Back in town, I met with Louis (the coordinator) and gave positive feedback of my experience, however he might need to think about improving the toilets for other guests. In all though, it was a fascinating way to spend some time, and get a perspective on the present/ future of this type of community.