I’m not sure where I am, but the only thing I’ve seen during the last hour of this bus ride has been nothing but ghostly shadows of dark pastures and unlit gravel roads that have shaken my body like a dice inside a Jatzee cup. I’m headed to San Jose village, in the district of Toledo in Belize, to meet for the first time the family that will host me during my Maya home-stay. They will give me a glimpse of a way of life that is fast disappearing.
It’s almost 10:00 pm; we should’ve had arrived hours ago when the sun rays still shined over the isolated and technologically challenged village that seems to retain a lifestyle taken from the 19th century.
The bus suddenly stops and honks twice. It is the sign to let my host know I’ve arrived. I see nothing. The bus’ headlights can only illuminate so much. Within a few minutes, my host appears out of the darkness, like a ghost appearing out of nothingness.
I pick my backpack and start walking as I watch the bus disappear in the distance.
My host leads the way, pointing his vintage flashlight in front of the grassy, humid path that leads to his distant wooden house – several hundred feet away from the gravel road. I help illuminate the path with my own headlamp.
We reach the house. No light emanates from it, except for the dimmest candlelight that silhouettes the entrance threshold.
To enter, he moves the latch-less, pivot-less wooden half door that keeps the half a dozen stray dogs and cats that surround the house like if they were guarding it. To my surprise, I have to slightly duck my 5’ 5” body to avoid knocking my head with the wooden beam.
Once inside it’s time for introductions. “Hi, I’m Norbert”, I say in a somewhat emphatic way, not knowing if they can understand me or not.
Immediately my host responds in broken English, “My name is Brigido Cal. She is Andrea Cal”.
They are a couple in their 60s, originally from Guatemala but forced to migrate to Belize after the Guatemalans persecuted many Maya communities.
He then continues, “you sleep here. You hungry?”
I nod. I’m hungry and tired from the almost 7 hours journey it took us to get here from Lamanai.
Dinner has been ready for a few hours already.
“We wait for you at 2:00, you don’t come. We wait for you at 7:00, you don’t come. We eat already. Now you eat”, says Andrea about my unfashionably late arrival and missing dinner with them.
Since there is no electricity, life in San Jose is still majorly based on the sun’s cycle. Wake up before dawn, work during daylight, and go to bed as soon as the sun sets.
“Wash your hands”, demands Andrea I do before eating. I wash them in a blue bowl standing on the floor with just a thin layer of water. The water feels heavy and greasy, so I’m not sure if I’m actually cleaning them. That is until later I see a cat drinking water from it. Great!
“Come, eat!”, says Andrea pointing towards my already served plate.
I sit at a calf high ottoman next to a small table of the same height. Dinner is chicken stew, white rice, and fresh corn tortillas. I eat my dinner vigorously in the dim candlelit environment as Brigido and Andrea sit by to make sure I’m ok.
I know this chicken I’m eating was alive just a few hours before I arrived, but I don’t mind the thought. That is until I see a full chicken foot, nails included, swimming in my chicken stew bowl. That I put aside and don’t eat. There are parts in the chicken anatomy I prefer not to see in order to be able to eat it.
Brigido is kind enough to not tell me, but later on, I learn that the offering of a chicken foot in your meal is a sign of welcoming and that you are “worthy of being here”.
We are soon joined by Roselio Teul and his parents. Roselio, who is 12 years old, sits out of the grown-ups conversation. It is done in the original Mopan Maya language, so I sit out too. I look at him, as I don’t understand a word that is filling the space. He looks at me, as he’s bored, and grabs an old Jehovah Witness book sitting on the table. Sitting next to a candle, he flips straight to the “connect the dots” drawing and gazes at it as if solving it in his mind.
I reach to him and offer a pen. His surprised look and smile tell me everything. In no more than 10 seconds he has finished the drawing of a cow and a farmer. He had mentally practiced it so many times that he knew it by now.
“I know how to draw”, says Rogelio with joy as he shows me his drawing. I agree with him and offer him my notepad so he can draw more.
The air gets filled again with familiar English words, a sign that the other conversation is done. It’s time for Roselio and his parents to leave, and for us to sleep.
Andrea shows me my bed –made of wood planks, two layers of cardboard, a quarter-inch foam, and a bed sheet– and bids me goodnight.
Candlelight out, nothingness takes over the place, and I quickly fall asleep…
The constant cock-a-doodle-doos wake me from my light sleep as the first rays of sunlight seep through the cracks between the wood planks. The morning breeze shakes the palm-tree-leaf roof making a pleasant fresh sound. The smell of Andrea’s tortillas inundate the small home and lure me straight to the kitchen – only after brushing my teeth 40 feet away from the home where they have a small PVC pipe that feeds from a small creek.
Yippi Yappa (a boiled local plant with mild spices) and tortillas are on the menu. For a “non-green” eater, I find it delicious.
Before heading out, the three of us sit and chat for a while – comparing life, family, social standards, money, and work. They teach me a few Mopan Maya words like Ki (good), Xid’al (boy), Bo tik tin hanal (Thanks for my food); as I exchange a few Spanish words. We even chat about the end of the world in 2012.
Brigido talks about his 10 children, all grown up and still living in the village of about 1,000 residents, and how proud he is about one of his sons for being able to join the Belizean Military. “I’m proud of him. He will earn $B1500 ($750) per month in the military.”, he says. For the living standards in this village, this salary is well high above the standards.
I take the courage to ask a personal question, “How much do you earn?”.
“It varies depending on the crop. In November we pick all the rice. We keep half and sell half. That gives us $B1000 ($500). In April we pick beans. That is $B800 ($400).”, he says as he continues, “there are months with no crop and no money.”
They don’t have income every month, and tourism here is very minimal to support them, as the village is too deep in the mountains and hard to reach.
“We are poor”, Andrea adds to the conversation.
That single sentence shocks me and saddens me at the same time. I see how they accept they are “poor” farmers and they are not afraid to admit it. While it’s true that making a capital living here is hard, the lifestyle quality is better than in the city. There is no criminality, relatively no social issues or stress, and they are almost self-sustainable.
Now I question myself, “who is poor?” Their life is rich in health, values, culture, and a great sense of connection with nature. I consider their daily life to be very pleasant, relaxed, and silent. Actually, too silent that makes me want to crave for a dose of white noise. I’m not used to the heavy silence of the mountainside.
“What about the end of the world in 2012?”, I ask the mystic question that surrounds their culture.
“That’s wrong”, responds Brigido, as he adds, “The Mayas didn’t say that. There could be a change in climate, good or bad, but no end. We pray, light incense, and ask to be good with nature.”
Why am I not surprised by his response? Why is it so easy for us to misinterpret things?
It’s time to head out. We walk the dusty gravel streets to visit the rest of the village and the Cacao plantation. Now, without the darkness that covered the village on my arrival, I’m able to see the picturesque beauty of its composition. Wooden bungalow homes with palm-tree-leaf roofs sprinkle the gently sloping green hills. Kids walk around and play freely as the elder do their chores, traditionally clothed women sell their beautifully weaved baskets to help bring money home, and elders welcome you to show you more about their village and culture. I spend time with each and every one of them to absorb a little bit of their culture according to them.
The rest of the day I spend buying a few baskets for $3 and $5 each, seeing first hand the process of creating chocolate, and walking around the village under the scorching sun and suffocating heat.
Life here is far from economical riches, but the lifestyle I’m experiencing feels priceless and very humbling.
Soon enough it’s time for me to leave. I bid farewell to Brigido and Andrea, and thank them for welcoming me to their home and for this humbling experience that forced me to trim all the luxuries I’m used to and to see things with “open eyes”. Yet, I was able to enjoy myself – better than expected.
If only I could stay longer.
[box type=”info” border=”full” icon=”none”]Traveling to San Jose Village is a wonderful experience that I highly recommend. Villagers who travel to the city to sell their products are more than happy to take you up there and bring you down on every market day. There is a small fee of $10 to do the home-stay, which goes directly to the families that host you. Contact the Belize Tourism Board through their website for more information and for arrangements.[/box]
As a guest of the Belize Tourism Board, I had the chance to experience Belize and the Maya culture. While my trip and accommodations were sponsored, the opinions expressed herein and photos used in this post are solely my own.
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