Family, Legends, and Salt

As one might imagine, I was quite happy to be home after the epic journey.  And as a consequence, I’ve spent the past two weeks (and weekends) happily and tranquilly here in San Mateo.  So I haven’t had any incredible stories of travel far and wide; however, I have discovered that every now and then, even things in San Mateo can be as interesting as dusty camioneta travel. 

The second half of the semester began with a bang on April 9, the birthday of yours truly.  It was great—rarely have I felt so loved by so many people I’ve known for such a short time.  The teachers arranged a dinner; the Foundation folks got me little presents and cards; and my cuarto kids even made me leave class early so that they could go out and get me a cake!  [And of course, there were many excellent emails from my States-bound family & friends!]  And then to top it all off was an evening of hookah and, most appropriately, Aladdin.  Nice. 

For a few pictures of the birthday, the kids upstairs, and other things, see here: 

[] [Family, Legends, and Salt] 

After several more birthday parties for our strangely April-heavy group (9 April – Chat; 17 April – Fernando; 19 April – Jessica), the next out-of-the-ordinary event was this weekend’s seven-service bash at the evangelical church of the family I live with.   

The two services I went to—one with Jessica, one with just the family—were both experiences: great music from a Totonicapán band (“Ecos Celestiales”), who were hired to bring rhythmic and in-tune music (!) to the “youth conferences” the church hosted this weekend; lots of hymns; and of course, the requisite, energy-filled, extensive, high-volume sermon.  Quite a change from the relatively “normal” Mexican Catholicism! 

And today, after catching up on two months’ worth of Nature science articles, I went on a stroll to the salt mines with Angela and Juana, the school’s Chuj teacher and a San Mateo native. 

The stroll itself was nice: sun, warm air, and the usual beautiful vistas.  But one thing I realized—and not for the first time—was the importance of legend here in San Mateo, and probably in other indigenous places in Guatemala.  After hearing Juana recount several legends in her rough, lilting Spanish, I asked her how long ago some of the legendary stories had occurred.  And her response?  “I don’t know…a thousand years?” 

I think that’s a really neat thing about being in a culture that has been around for so much longer than the few hundred years we Americans have trotted around our nascent country—much of history becomes legend (and much non-history does, too) because the things happened so long ago.  It seems to me that in the case of the U.S., we don’t have much of a story telling culture, because all of our history started long after Gutenberg and long after people decided that taking down historical events was a good idea.  But our Native Americans?  Those are the Americans with the stories. 

In my four months here I’ve heard bits and pieces of countless legends: The valley San Mateo dips into used to be the bed of Lake Atitlán; at noon flocks of pearly white chickens appear at the ruins; occasionally the ruins transforms into a bustling market; huge serpents and tigers guard the small ruins of K’axepanh on the other side of the valley; when construction equipment tried to widen the soccer field at the bottom of the big ruins, they broke down so many times that the workers eventually gave up; strange, bright-eyed weasel creatures stalk people at night; people see bright lights traveling overhead from one mountain crest to another…the list goes on. 

But the best, most complete story I’ve heard—several times now, but most clearly this afternoon with Juana—is the story of San Mateo’s salt: 

Once upon a time there were three children, one brother and two sisters.  One sister was named Ácida (sour) and the other was named Salada (salty). 

The three lived together in a house near San Mateo, and as was the custom of the time, the two sisters cooked all of their brother’s meals.   

But the brother wasn’t happy. 

“Why is it that Salada’s meals always turn out so good and salty,” the brother asked Ácida, “while yours are so bland and tasteless?” 

Well, Ácida didn’t know, and she wasn’t happy that her brother liked Salada’s meals better than hers, so she decided to go find Salada and ask her what her secret was.   

“Salada,” asked Ácida, “why is it that our brother always says your meals are so deliciously salty?  How do you do it?” 

“Well,” Salada replied, “all I do is take some of my mucus and put it in his food every time I cook him a meal.” 

Intrigued, Ácida went to tell her brother: “Brother, Salada says that the only reason her food tastes better than mine is because she blows her nose into the food before she serves it to you!” 

The brother was furious, and ran to find Salada. 

“How could you treat me so poorly, Salada, blowing your nose into my food?!” 

When Salada didn’t answer, the brother got so mad that he came up to her and hit her in the nose. 

“Get out of here!” her brother yelled. 

Blood and tears streaming down her face, Salada cried, “but where can I go?” 

“Just get out!” he said. 

So Salada started to walk, looking for a new place to live.  The first place she went was Ch’ichjoj, just up the river.  She sat down and cried and cried, but soon found that there was too much water, so she had to leave. 

She kept wandering, this time to Payjelnha, where she sat and wept.  But there was too much water there, too. 

She tried one last time, wandering all the way to Ch’ilon, where she stayed for a little while, but it was too wet there, too.   

Finally, she came back to where she’d started, a place called Titz’am, on the side of the hill near San Mateo that’s close to the river, but just high enough that she wouldn’t get washed away by the water.  

And there she stayed, weeping and sanguine, her salty tears and blood dripping slowly into the mountainside. 

Thus is the story of San Mateo’s seemingly never-ending salt mines at Titz’am (literally “salt here,” as far as I can tell with my rudimentary Chuj), and of the much smaller—but not nearly as impressive—salt deposits in Ch’ichjoj, Payjelnha, and Ch’ilon, all areas near the center of San Mateo. 

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a picture with a story behind it is even better.

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