The blogger is (finally) back!
This is another story from when I lived in Belize. I didn’t include it in How to Cook a Tapir because it’s still painful to think about. Most Americans have no idea how boring life in a small, primitive (no electricity, no plumbing), isolated society like Rio Blanco can be on a day-to-day basis, especially 50 years ago. The only similar societies here that I’m aware of are the assisted living homes where my mother, then in her 90s, spent the last few years of her life.
The people living in these “homes” spent most of their time watching TV, playing cards, arguing about politics, or chasing members of the opposite sex. Most seemed to have no inner life at all. They seldom read, didn’t (or couldn’t) communicate with friends by phone, email, or text, never went anywhere, and had no way to fill their days except waiting for the mail and attending events sponsored by the home. As a result they were avid for anything new, and they especially relished the details of each other’s lives—particularly if those details were salacious (was so-and-so sleeping with the new guy in the wheelchair?) or scatological (one elderly woman didn’t wear underpants, and rather than make a dash for the first-floor restroom, left a turd in the hallway). If somebody got sick, the rest of them would pump the staff for details. The more gruesome the disease, the more they wanted to know. Alzheimer’s patients, especially those mainstreamed into the general population (their dementia wasn’t bad enough to justify moving them into a separate wing), were often verbally abused by those who supposedly had their wits about them. Alzheimer’s patients often ate alone while the normal people stage-whispered things like, “Have you watched her eat? She picks everything up with her hands—it’s disgusting!” After-dinner card games were the worst. Some players were out to win and turned mean when they didn’t.
Maya communities—especially small villages 50 years ago when technology was limited to battery-powered boom boxes and nobody in Toledo District had a telephone, let alone a computer—were very similar to those assisted living homes, especially during the down time between planting season. The men were home with nothing to do except swing in their hammocks, make chicha, illegal corn beer, (there’s a recipe for it in Tapir—50 years ago nobody used yeast), and gossip—usually about who was sleeping with somebody else’s wife. (They were certain that the nuns in Punta Gorda were there for the physical pleasure of the priests.) The women still had their chores—grinding corn to make tortillas, doing laundry in the river, making their dirt floors “pretty” by smearing wood ash over them, cooking three meals a day and supervising the children. But for the most part, both men and women—probably because of the unchanging work they performed day after day—were bored senseless. The kids amused themselves with games, but after the age of sixteen, they weren’t considered children anymore, and “playing” was not encouraged.
But one idle day, something completely unexpected happened. The kwax i roo—“crazy man”—was sighted in the bush. Notice I said “the” crazy man, not “a” crazy man. There wasn’t much mental illness evident in Maya society. While physical pain was openly discussed, extreme emotional pain, if it existed, was held close. But for the past several weeks, people from nearly villages had reported seeing a crazy man in the bush. They decided he was crazy because one, nobody recognized him—he was an outsider. Two, when he saw them, he ran away. And like a pack of dogs smelling a victim, they pursued him. Because the first group of men who saw him were hunters, they wore rubber boots. He was barefoot. But he evaded them. He even evaded their dogs—a truly impressive feat.
“Who do you think he is?” I asked Aaron, my anthropologist husband. “Would he hurt anybody?”
“Probably not. If he did, we’d have heard about it by now.”
“Do you think somebody made obeah against him?”
“I don’t know.”
For the next week catching the crazy man was a village obsession. It was something to do—something different and exciting—and nearly everybody joined in. Patrols of men and adolescent boys scoured the bush, sometimes with dogs, sometimes relying on their own tracking prowess. The women stayed home with the younger children, and if they had to leave the house—to get water, to wash clothes—they all went together. The only men who didn’t participate were the intelligent, self-motivated ones who preferred to use their free time doing something productive—hunting, fishing, re-thatching the roof, quietly discussing the Big Questions in life.
And then it was planting time again, and the men had rituals to prepare for and seeds to pick through. Gradually life slowed to its usual pace. Aaron started to visit some of the outlying households, families that didn’t live in Rio Blanco proper but liked the proximity of village life without participating in it. It was in one of those houses that Aaron stumbled onto “the crazy man,” sitting in a hammock. The owners of the house weren’t concerned that their guest might be crazy. All they knew was that he was a stranger, and as was the custom, they fed him and offered him sleeping accommodations. Aaron himself, on his treks to Guatemala and back, had relied on the kindness of Maya strangers for food and a place to sleep.
The crazy man was very thin, Aaron told me, had good manners, was willing to talk, and sounded perfectly coherent—although his feet were a mass of sores. “Is he really crazy?” I asked. Aaron said the man had only declined to answer direct questions about where he was from and why he had traveled to Rio Blanco.
But now I know something that I didn’t know when I was 20. All of us, especially when we’re under severe emotional stress, are capable of doing and saying things that seem crazy to others. A grief-stricken mother whose child died, for example, or a man who has just lost his wife to cancer have both been known to do irrational things. I’m glad this particular man found a temporary haven and a measure of solace. But the other Maya’s callous behavior towards him bothers me to this day, and it shouldn’t—now that I know that so-called “civilized” people are capable of behaving the same way.