Below is a digest of Heather’s 13 March 2006 email about, among other things, her trip to Tiactac. Upon re-reading it, I discovered the amazing similarity of our experiences: the chicks following their mothers; the Cup-o-Noodles; the chilacoyote; Izabela’s “¡Hay que comer!”; the sun shining through the smoke and onto Izabela’s wrinkled, content mother; the silence…
Saturday, my biggest accomplishment was sleeping. Dear Lord, how sweet sleep can be. At 4 a.m. I boarded the bed of a pickup truck with one of my two female quinto students, Izabela Jacinto Lucas, to visit her and her family in an aldea–village–about an hour outside of town by car, 2-3 hours by foot. I have never seen so many stars…the Milky Way, when you’re in the mountains like we are, wraps around the sky, hugging all us small ones. My Yankee ability to withstand the cold helped me feel a bit more like I was worthy of this hardy company who travel to and from their aldea, Tiactac, to make a living.
At 5:15 a.m. we arrive at two adobe huts in complete darkness, and by candlelight Doña María sticks a few wood splits in the fuego, warms up some sweet, weak coffee, and after washing my hands over the earthen floor, I eat two almost-stale, sweet muffins. If this is breakfast, I’m going to eat BOTH. Slowly but surely, through the cracks in the adobe hut’s wood-plank walls, I see the sky start to lighten. Huddled around the fire, her smiling and sun-wrinkled father attempts to engage me in polite conversation with broken Spanish, but I was hard pressed to know what to say. How cool to be sitting in the middle of nowhere enjoying this ritual, quiet awakening of life!
But then comes the first, “¡Hay que comer, Seño!”, and I’m handed a plateful of hot pasta seasoned with cup ‘o noodles flavoring, and a never-ending stack of warmed tortillas from their cupboard. An affectionate gray cat joins us, flopping from side to side with failed back legs. An eager young dog scours the floor for crumbs. All give them both a kick now and then to keep them out of the way. Then comes the da Vinci moment when the sun surmounts the mountains, casting its glow through the adobe-hut gaps, capturing the swirling pine-log smoke, creating six shifting walls of light and smoke. Dona Maria sat perched next to the wall and fire, veiled and decorated by her own protective smoke-light wall. I sat transfixed by the pleasure of experiencing this age-old, simple sight, and managed to murmur at one point in response to inquisitive looks about my well-being, “I’ve never seen light like this before.” Umm, ok, Seño. Way to engage in conversation.
Izabela then dressed me up in a corte, a big piece of fabric that you tie to yourself by wrapping around a cloth belt tied tight enough that it’s hard to breathe…or that after you eat you might be eating it all again if you bend over too quickly. Side note: my girls play basketball in these things! And little tiny rubber shoes.
Adorned with an oversized, gray-and-purple cardigan and sandals that are 2 sizes too small for me, I receive a glowing, “¡Seño! ¡Que guapa es!” — “Teacher, how lovely you are!” Beauty IS in the eye of the beholder. We stroll through the street to their unpaved b-ball court, wander a few yards into the woods and sit to enjoy the sounds of the birds and chainsaws.
Deforestation is a major issue here. More often than not, I have walked through the memories of robust flora and fauna, heated by the sun more often than cooled by protective, loving shade. I really have seen about no wild animals here: a rabbit this weekend, some birds chirping, but hardly any in San Mateo central. A few lizards. Starving cows and black sheep that keep the forest floor at an enchantingly low carpet-like length. It’s a little creepy when you stop to think about it. According to Izabela, through whom just this weekend I gained an appreciation for the real language barrier that exists for mostly Chuj-speaking people, a tree lasts 2 weeks to a month. It is used to heat the fire stove that is burning all day long, the Chuj, and I’m not sure what else. Forests here are also recovering from the government’s active deforestation during the war to reduce guerilla warfare.
What you do no see here, despite this human needs driven forest depletion, is ruthless, soulless, self-important clear-cutting the likes of which our country is suffering immensely and indescribably.
For every felled tree here blocking a walking path, every passing person can appreciate the need for this tree. As my mind tries on lifestyles for size, imagining a life of making tortillas and sitting the majority of my life in a carcinogenic kitchen hut breathed full of life, death, and lovely smells, I cannot help but marvel at these incredibly strong people. Who reading this could or would walk one hour for water, at a river that might dry up, to carry the 40 lbs or more back on your head…in tiny rubber shoes? Those feet slide so adeptly over rocks, up inclines, through pine needles as I clump along behind them in my sturdy, high-quality, ankle-supporting, Gortex-and-leather boots…which I totally cannot wear with a corte. Duh! Tiactac suffers mainly—and perhaps only—for its water situation. I wonder how the body adapts to low water availability, because Izabela seemed nonplussed by my adamant three liters or more a day! Mantra of agua pura. With all this scarcity screaming at us humans from all directions, I have to ask myself, “Should I procreate?” Will it be MY children who change the world?
But back to the sleep. I proceeded to sleep the morning away after our short paseo in a bed about a foot too short for me. The sweet mountain air kept me put for three hours. I awoke to another “¡Hay que comer, Seño!” and a plateful of their huge, sweet, winter squash, chilacoyote. Full and pressing against my corte belt, I was whisked into the kitchen for my next “¡Hay que comer, Seño!”: another plateful of unending tortillas, eggs, refried beans, and a strangely artificial strawberry-syrup-flavored version of yesterday’s coffee.
The rest of the afternoon consisted of ogling at baby chicks trailing their mother, entering the forest to machete off leaves in which her mother would wrap tamales, hacking off leaves of a plant that everyone uses to smack themselves clean here in the Chuj—no ocean…fewer natural sponge options! Washing soaked corn in clay colanders; washing my hair standing up; watching Izabela chop wood; trying my hand at crushing corn into dough to the laughs of the women of the house; being trumped by her sister’s show-off ability to tortillar a perfect tortilla better than the flattening device they’ve taken to using and in less time than me and my clumsy uninitiated hands; chujing; eating one more time; and sleeping at 7.
I tell you, I am not sure I have ever enjoyed a sleep so much. COMPLETE darkness, NO sound, sweet, clean air sneaking through the cracks in the bedroom adobe hut…I slept for 12 hours. Which….allowed me to make the 2.5 hour trek through the forest and over worn, traveled rocks back to San Mateo by foot the next morning without stopping. Izabela’s family encouraged the car, but secretly, I really wanted to walk. Praise Jesus! I still have muscles!! To keep it in perspective, Tiactac only got a “highway”—which means winding dirt road—5 years ago. Imagine the loads carried to Sunday and Thursday market days in San Mateo for generations. One foot in front of another…that is one of the outstanding things for me here. It doesn’t matter if you hurt, you put one foot in front of another and life goes on…and you’re better for your struggle.
I think this kind of slowing that I tasted this weekend is what my body is craving. I do not have this at the Foundation with a room full of computers, buses honking by at all hours of the night, drunks crying outside my window, dogs whining and talking, lots of things cluttering space, gas stoves, and hot water. Those students from our Centro Comunitario, most of whom I did not realize live in Tiactac, have what I have now dubbed the “Tiactac Smile”…EACH of them smiles like they’ve just tasted the sweetest water in the world. Maybe that’s it…water is so sweet for them and they know it. Where I will find my slowing place? I don’t know.