Time Change

This title can be taken three ways.  There is a literal time change when you fly to Belize from almost anyplace in the U.S.—which itself has six time zones, counting Alaska and Hawaii.    Canada has five time zones.  If you’re coming from anywhere else, you’ll have to figure out the time change for yourself.  As a country, Belize represents a different time—a slower, more relaxed one—and your mind and body will have to get in sync with it.  But those two words can also be taken to mean that the times themselves change, and that’s what I want to talk about today, now that Belize is 50 years behind me.

Fifty years ago, Gloria was a small girl who watched me try (and fail) to make tortillas.  (Photo by Joan Fry)

Fifty years ago, Gloria was a small girl who watched me try (and fail) to make tortillas. (Photo by Joan Fry)

What triggered this particular post is a comment from someone who first wrote, “Your blog is full of bull,” and then expanded it to “you’re full of bull.”  He didn’t give his name but did give me a reason—actually two of them—about why he feels that way.  First, he doesn’t believe the Maya eat, or ate, raw, uncooked tortilla dough.  Second, he believes that the Maya respect the jungle, but they don’t fear it.  Since I’ve written several times about what the Maya eat, and how important corn is to them, I’m not sure exactly what post he’s referring to.  As to how the Maya view the jungle, I’ve written two recent accounts of Maya folklore, all having to do with the human-like—and in some cases some not very nice—creatures of the rainforest.

First of all, I have to admit I’m not always careful about clarifying what time period I’m writing about, or even what part of Belize I’m writing about.  Am I describing what Maya men ate while hunting 50 years ago, or am I describing what they eat today?   Do today’s Maya still believe in the ix tabi and chol gwink?  So let me be specific.  Since I was the teacher, I was a stay-at-home.  I rarely left Santa Elena—the village that was my first home as a married woman—and I only left Toledo District once, when my husband and I decided to spend Christmas in Guatemala.

When I said that the Maya aboard the Heron H. were eating masa, or uncooked tortilla dough, I was talking about a trip that happened 50 years ago.  In 1963, masa was Maya fast food.  It didn’t need to be cooked, it wouldn’t spoil easily, and it didn’t weigh much.  That made it the ideal snack.  On a boat trip lasting two or three days, maybe it wasn’t the ideal food—when you eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it tends to get boring—but at least nobody went hungry.  Besides—passengers who didn’t rent a cabin didn’t eat at the captain’s table, the way my husband and I did.  Except for the masa, they didn’t eat at all—they couldn’t afford to.  In those days very little money was in circulation in the Maya villages, and most of it was coin.  Not paper money.  Why?  Because in 1963, almost without exception, the Maya were subsistence farmers.

Also keep in mind we’re talking about a tramp steamer.  The Heron H. transported the mail to Puerto Barrios in Guatemala and back, transported people to various coastal settlements, and transported cargo in her hold.  One trip she might carry KLIM, powdered “milk” spelled backwards, donated by an international aid group.  On this particular voyage, the Heron carried pigs.  The head was unisex, right next to the boiler room, and the men working there would often peek through the boards whenever a woman walked in.  But before you reached the door, you had to get past the bull that was also being transported down the coast, tied to the railing by his horns.

Fifty years ago, when the men of Santa Elena went hunting, it was often an all-day affair.  Since green wood has too much moisture to burn well, they seldom built a fire for lunch.  They packed lunch, usually wrapped in a mox leaf (also handy as an emergency umbrella) or a banana leaf.  When my husband and I first arrived in Santa Elena, there were very few chickens—a recent fowl pox epidemic had killed most of them.  But once their hens started laying again, the men would also carry a hard-boiled egg with them.  Since I never went hunting (I was too busy trying to learn how to cook), I relied on my husband’s field notes that he and the other men ate masa for lunch.

It’s very possible that today’s Maya in Toledo District don’t eat raw tortilla dough.  For one thing, a lot of men no longer plant corn. Their “real” job—the one they’re paid to do—involves working for somebody else.  As a result, a lot of women make flour tortillas instead.  They’re a lot less work, and if you add baking powder, you’ll get a fluffy starch that tastes very much like a circular slice of Wonder Bread with a crust on all sides.  I have no idea what the Maya of today eat for lunch when they go hunting—or if they still hunt at all.

Almost the first thing I noticed about Toledo District when I went back about eight years ago was that the rainforest has shrunk.  What was once high bush is now either wamil (second growth, and so dense you can only see about two inches in front of your face) or has been cut down so many times it resembles a lawn.  Fifty years ago a single man, or in some cases a single woman, would have walked along the road from the village to San Antonio without worrying about a sisimito, an ix tabi, or a chol gwink.  These creatures lived in the rain forest, not a public thoroughfare, even though the “road” was six inches wide and dirt.  Today a lone traveler is relatively safe in the rainforest.  People have been killed walking the road between Santa Elena and San Antonio.

Times change.

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