San Jose, Peten
What a gift it has been! I have enjoyed spending time in the Mundo Maya Language school. It feels a bit isolating being the only English speaker in a community of 3,000 people. It is the best way to improve one's language skills though. It's "Sink or swim", as they say. Meaning use what Spanish I do have and learn from my mistakes. Or talk to noone. We all know how difficult that is for me.
If one were to look at a map of Guatemala, they would see the big box shape in the north. This is El Peten. Two sides share a border with Mexico and one side by Belize. The pueblo of San Jose, Peten is sits near the west end of the lake by the same name. The ruins of Tikal and other sites are part of the same complexes hidden in the jungles of southern Yucatan. The Itza as they call themselves were allegedly the last holdouts in the war with Spain. A local historian told me the story of the final battle. The Itza king told many of the people who could not fight to run north. They settled in the Lacandon in Mexico. The two places share common ancestry.
I spent a rainy afternoon working with the local Itza women. They have organized themselves to make health and beauty products that they sell to hotels in the area. It's a cottage industry and they use local plants and herbs grown in a garden or gathered nearby. I cringed whenI first saw the packaging, lots of plastic. They are re-purposing almost everything in the packaging. They sell the products to local hotels. The housekeeping staff collect the used bottles and send them back. The Itza wash and refill them. They use the large plastic soda bottles to package the whole thing. We spent the day filling bottles and experimenting with different fiborous materials to tie the boxes with.
On the outset, it seems this corner of the world has been forgotten by everyone but God. The mayor has absconded with all the money that comes from the government to pay local employees. As a consequence, few of the local municipal workers have been paid in close to 18 months. When I asked my Spanish teacher why they don't burn everything down, she just shrugged. Responding that it would do no good. They are not apathetic. They still go to work and volunteer their time. They also have their own little micro-economy. There are two language schools offering Spanish and home stays that bring in a little money. And there are two companies owned and operated by the women that produce health and beauty products. This also generates income. The herbs and flowers come from gardens scattered in the hills.
Two of the daughters of Doña Merlina (my host mother) take in ironing and laundry. Merlina's husband Don Urbano is a plumber and works for the municipal water works. He has not received his salary in a long time. But they have indoor plumbing and even though the water "goes out" from time to time, the pila (large sink used for everything) is often filled. Neighbors in the immediate vicinity share tools and other resources.
The property where I have my class is in a big garden owned by
Señor Don Modesto Chayax. Two of his daughters and wife are part of the cooperative that makes the soap and shampoo. Some of the materials come from this garden. Don Modesto is 82 or 83 I think. He spends most of his day in the garden. He is always there when I arive in the morning. He is either planting, harvesting, cutting firewood or maintaining what looks to be about two or three acres. It's on a steep terraced slope and overlooks a creek.
Don Modesto worked as a Chiclero. A man who worked the great chicle forests collecting the chicle from the trees used to make chewing gum. But politics and big money conspired to change the landscape. The trees and great forests are all gone now. Don Modesto related to me his sadness at the loss. "It's not just the trees", he said, "It's also the loss of the whole environment. The animals and beautiful birds are all gone too. And it's all for money. Trees replaced by grazing pasture for cattle". El Don Urbano the husband of La Doña Merlina was also a Chiclero.
My first impression was that the family had next to nothing. I suppose by North American standards this is true. Four of Urbano and Merlina's children live with them. Between their children and an assortment of spouses there is a total of fourteen people. They cook over two wood fires on hearths built by one of Doña's four grown daughters. The house has one pit toilet, a flush toilet and a shower with only cold water. It's usually pretty hot so hot water is not necessary.
Two of the older daughters do an incredible amount of work every day. They take in ironing and laundry for money. There is always something to eat. In yard behind the kitchen are an assortment of animals. A few turkeys, hens and four piglets. "La cocheta Estrella" (the sow, Star) lives in a pen in the yard behind the kitchen. They let her out to forage in the street and woods everyday. She runs through the house on her way in or out. One better get out of the way because she looks like she weighs about two hundred pounds. She's got ears like a bat and as big as an elephants. There is also a young duck that gets to come in the house to forage for crumbs. One of the younger boys calls him Pato Juan de La Laguna. Roughly translated as John the Duck of the Lake. I'm sure it seems odd to most Americans to have a pig run through the kitchen. The floor of the house is solid rock and the house is also immaculate.
The little cat, Mishy sees to the vermin and bugs that try to find their way in. I never saw a roach, rat or mouse. There were two large spiders one evening near the room where I slept. I think they were attracted by some ants. Merlina shooed them out with a broom.
The family seems wealthy in so many other ways than financial resources. In my opinion, they are all relatively healthy, happy and the children are well behaved. La Doña runs a tight ship and does not take any crap from anyone. Nobody seems to slouch around the house. This family has not been forgotten by God. One of Doña's granddaughters had a life threatening health issue with her lungs when she was quite young. There are no social services for the sick or maimed in Guatemala. La Doña explained that some one from the US who knew the family raised the money for her care. She had an operation in Guatemala City that saved her life. Guatemala city is not far as the crow flies. But for people with little money and limited public transportation, it was akin to an expedition to Mars. The girl (Yessica) went to the city with her dad carrying her on his shoulder. Now she is an inquisitive and highly intelligent twelve year old. She wants to be a singer. I taught her some guitar and listened to her sing some songs she had written. It was tough leaving her behind.
Some final thoughts: Spending time with these folks touched me deeply. In a previous post, I mentioned responsible tourism. I'm hoping that showing up and enrolling in the language school will go a long way. I feel like I've reached out across borders and ideologies to connect. It was often very uncomfortable and awkward because of the language barrier. As I pedaled away from San Jose Peten I aspire to be half as strong and resilient with twice the resources.
Thanks for reading.
Thanks for reading.