The Living Maya Experience

As I’ve mentioned previously, the southern Belizean district of Toledo is home to the majority of Belize’s Maya inhabitants, with around 20,000 of them spread over 60 villages.  And while many of them seem happy to live in their thatched wooden houses and tend to their beans and corn on the farm, living the kinds of rural lives their people have lived for generations, some of them are slowly embracing the kinds of cultural tourism that the nearby Garifuna people have been pioneering.

The Garifuna have been promoting their unique music and dance (thanks to organisations like Ray & Ruth McDonald’s Warasa Drumming School), and now the Maya have started to advertise their own rich culture and traditions.  And two families who’ve been doing this in Toledo are the Cals and the Chiacs of The Living Maya Experience in Big Falls village.

Realising that many overnight tourists (particularly the ones who’ve got out of the Cayes and made it all the way down south) are interested in Belize’s different cultures and want more than just a beach holiday (and perhaps also realising that an increasing number of visitors from first-world countries feel that they’ve lost some of their traditions in their lives of ever-increasing modernity), the Living Maya Experience shows tourists how people used to live (and how some still do), before electricity and modern appliances, when the Maya depended on the land for everything, from food to furniture to medicines.

After organising the tour the night before (via mobile phone – the modern world does have its benefits), I take a bus from Punta Gorda to Big Falls, where I’m met by one of the Cal’s many children, who takes me to the family home.  Also on the tour are a couple from Scotland, who are staying at the nearby Big Falls Lodge (members of the two families work at the Lodge, and the Lodge helped to set up the business and regularly sends guests their way).

The visit to the Cal’s home is focused on Maya culinary traditions.  There’s the fire hearth in one corner, smoking away, with the flat metal comal on top for use as a hotplate (the fire hearth / comal combo is still quite common in kitchens throughout Central America).  In another corner is a bed made from the wood of the balsa tree, with the ‘mattress’ made from the bark (I had a quick lie down on it, and while not quite as uncomfortable as it looked [and it looked very uncomfortable], it certainly wasn’t like lying on a memory-foam orthopedic mattress, either).  And in another corner, a home-made marimba (sadly, the person who helped build it died before he could teach anyone else how to play it, so it remains unused).  And in the last corner of the kitchen, there’s the mother-in-law, hunched on a ridiculously-small stool and making tortillas.

Outside, we take a look at the family farm.  There are cohune palm trees, whose leaves are used to thatch houses, whose nuts produce oil, and whose hearts are eaten.  There are cacao trees, the pods’ beans waiting to be turned into chocolate.  And there are vanilla vines, allspice plants, and groves of chilli peppers, squash, oranges, pineapples, and bananas.  Plus a home-made sugar cane press that looks a giant wooden mangle.

Back in the kitchen, we try our hand at grinding corn on the metate, a large, flat, stone pestle-and-mortar-type device, where you push the mano (the grinding stone) onto the corn kernels to crush them.  Or in my case, where you push the corn kernels off the sides, off the table, and onto the floor.  Ditto for my attempts to grind cacao beans, although this time at least there’s a pleasant chocolatey smell to accompany my pitiful efforts.  Despite the emphasis on tradition and ‘the old ways’, the ladies admit that grinding by hand like this is time-consuming and laborious, and they proudly show off their new grinder, which is still old-school and hand-powered, but is a step up from two stones and plenty of elbow grease.

(The corn kernels have to be cooked in an alkaline solution, in order to break down their cellulose and make them ready for dough-making [a process called nixtamalization]; and the cacao beans have to be separated from the fruit in the cacao pod, then fermented, dried, and roasted; so there’s a huge amount of manual work that’s done, before we even get to this point).

After grinding the corn, it’s time to mix the powder with water to make masa de maíz, and then shape and cook the tortillas (after washing our hands with the locally-growing soapberry).  It takes a few minutes to get down onto the stool and get comfy (I can only imagine how many more minutes it’s going to take to get up again – that’s probably why I’ve not seen the old lady in the corner move, she’s probably been on that stool for years, slowly growing into it like the space jockey from Alien).  Then we spend a relaxing while shaping and cooking our tortillas on the comal, and storing them in a container made from a local gourd, hollowed-out and dried.

Lunch consists of heart of palm (also known as cohune cabbage, the edible shoots of the cohune palm tree), various fresh veggies, rice, and of course plenty of fresh tortillas (including the misshapen monstrosities made by the white people), all washed down with a drink made from the ground cacao beans (served in dried gourd cups).  The food is healthy and tasty, and there’s something pure and simple about eating home-made food in friendly company, sitting close to the earth, and watching the rain come down outside.

After lunch, it’s time to cross the village to visit the Chiacs, who focus on Maya crafts.  They show us how to make baskets by gathering the vines of the tai-tai plant from the nearby forest, stripping the vines (they’re covered in sharp spines, so the gathering and stripping stage is a real pain), drying them (which takes several weeks), and then weaving them together (which takes anything from a day to a week, depending on the size and complexity of the product).  Then, if a multi-day basket-making job wasn’t enough, we try hammock-making (which takes several weeks).  Gathering the leaves of the local agave plant henequen, stripping them with a machete to expose the inner fibres (which is sisal), drying the fibres in the sun, and then making twine by braiding the fibres together by hand on a wooden board dusted with ash – painstaking is the word that springs to mind.  And that’s before you’ve even started to make the damn hammock!

The sisal fibres are also used to make the multi-coloured shoulder bags worn by Maya men, and seen hanging up for sale in market stalls across Central America.  To make the bags (and all the other beautiful textiles the Maya produce), one of the Chiac ladies sets up the loom (which takes a full day in itself), and then sits down and starts weaving…

Finally, we have a go at making a hand fan, by braiding together the dried leaves of the ubiquitous (and very versatile) cohune palm tree.  That’s probably the smallest job the Chiacs do, and it still takes a day of manual work.

And at the end of the enjoyable and enlightening day, sitting on the bus back to PG, I reflect (like most people who’ve attempted these activities) at how much hard work goes into the simplest thing – virtually everything comes from the jungle, and the production of everything that’s eaten or used requires a phenomenal amount of manual labour and a huge amount of time.  Next time I eat a tortilla or a bar of chocolate, I’m going to remember that.  And next time I look at a hammock or basket or bag for sale, I’m not going to think about how much I should try to haggle them down, I’m going to give them their asking price (I should probably be giving them three times what they’re selling for).

It also makes me realise how lucky I am that I live in the generation of electricity and running water and factory-made goods – because, almost without exception, I was terrible at all the things I attempted (and the families make you try everything, much to your education and their amusement).  I could possibly have a career as a tortilla maker, but if I had to grow my own food, make my own hammock, and weave my own baskets, I’d probably end up eating raw corn-on-the-cob on the floor…

Anita Cal: +501 627 7408

Marta Chiac: +501 632 4585


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