BELIZE, June 11, 2011 — Celestine Cho shows me long rods of some sort of vegetable. They look like tightly rolled-up leaves.
“We eat it fresh,” she says. “Dry, I weave.”
She has bunches of brown fiber hanging on her clothes line, washed and combed and drying under a blazing sun. Later, while I eat lunch, she sits to weave them into a basket. That night I eat the fresh vegetable for dinner with rice, seasoned with habanero pepper. It’s delicious.
I spent two nights as a guest of the Chos, a Maya family in the Belize village of San Jose. They showed me how they lived and told me about their lives, and I told them a little about mine. Arranged through the Maya Home-stay program, these visits are designed to immerses the adventure traveler into a rich and gentle way of life that’s fast disappearing.
San Jose lies in the foothills of the Maya mountains, an hour and a half from the coastal town of Punta Gorda. An hour of that is over kidney-rattling gravel roads. That is, if you travel in a TIDE Tours van. It takes longer by bus.
By the time we get to San Jose, we’re driving through rainforest. Basilisk lizards dart across the road like reptilian squirrels, dodging and weaving in that suicidal can-I-make-you-swerve-off-the-road game that squirrels like to play.
There are small flocks of butterflies and a wide variety of birds, including toucans, herons and hummingbirds. Flowering trees blaze red, orange and yellow against the green of the rainforest. At one point an iguana stares down at us from a tree, so well camouflaged that I realize I’ve probably stared at dozens more without seeing them.
San Jose is a village of about 800. It has no electricity, no sewage system. There’s a grade school, a guest house, a couple of small shops, and a Pentecostal church. The alcalde (something between a mayor and a magistrate) is also a public health practitioner, providing the only medical services in town.
Red and pink-flowered hibiscus surround the houses as hedges, and large plumeria trees dot the landscape. As I look over the town in its rainforest setting, I think it’s beautiful and say so. Plainly written on my driver’s face: “If you don’t have to live here.”
After a couple of inquiries in town, my driver figures out where I’m staying: the house of Cosme Cho. The first person to meet me there is11-year-old Jose. Cosme and Celestine, his parents, are right behind him. They help take my things from the van, and we bid my driver goodbye. Cosme invites me in, points to a hammock and tells me to rest. I lie down on it, he and Jose sit on a bench, and we start to learn a little bit about each other.
Cosme and Celestine have two sons at home: Jose, and Frank, who goes to a trade school and isn’t home yet. It’s an hour by bus to the school, and Frank has to leave by 5:30 every morning, so I don’t see much of him. Another son is in high-school at the Tumul K’in Learning Center in Blue Creek, a boarding school that works to preserve Maya culture. Two children are in Cuba: a son in medical school, and a daughter who’s studying to be a teacher.
Cosme’s father had no use for formal education, so Cosme followed his path as a farmer. He grows corn, rice and beans for his family. “I don’t have a job, but we have food. If my son wants a banana, I cut bananas off our tree. If I worked, I’d have to take my money and buy him a banana.” We walk around the house and Cosme shows me lime, banana, mango and orange trees.
I’ll be sleeping in a separate structure with a galvanized (“zinc,” as Cosme calls it) roof. In one room is the table where Frank studies. Shelves on the wall are filled with old school books. Jose pulls down one he especially likes, a 1970s book about space. In a corner is a hammock. The other room contains three beds. From the looks of it, I’ll be displacing Frank and Jose. My bed is some planks covered with a blanket.
We go outside to look at the “bathroom:” some fabric hanging from a tree, next to a spigot with a bucket. The outhouse is down the hill. The toilet is a piece of 18” pipe leading down to a pit. I remember an outhouse in Kyrgyzstan that was wide-open to the road and figure, this one’s not so bad.
Not knowing what wanders the forest at night, and having already encountered something about the size of a rat but with more legs, I make a mental note to drink nothing close to nightfall. I want to avoid a trip down the hill in the dark.
In San Jose, the day’s rhythms are set by sunrise and sunset, not by the clock. By 7:30 the only light is from the stars and kerosene lamps. Celestine is cooking tortillas over a fire, and I join Cosme and Jose for a dinner of tortillas, rice and beans. Jose wants to know about my children, and I want to know more about his school, so we swap information.
Cosme is extremely proud of his children and their success in school. Frank and Jose are both diligent students. “They spend the whole evening studying?” I ask. He nods.
“In other towns they have TV and movies, and then that’s all the children want to do. Jose has never seen a movie.” Jose’s grin suggests otherwise, and Cosme admits that one of the neighbors has a generator (I can hear two or three of them running by now) and a TV. “But when you start that, children just sit there and watch. They stop doing anything.” Music players, he thinks, are just as bad.
Frank joins us for dinner. He’s handsome in his crisp, white uniform shirt. Like his father and brother, he’s friendly, but more reserved. He’s at the top of his class. I only see him at dinner or at his desk, reading and writing to kerosene light. After I close the curtain between his study area and my sleeping area, I see the glow of that light until I go to sleep.
Read Maya Home-Stay Program Day Two with the Chos here
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love and there he stayed. Now he teaches, takes pictures, and with wife Lisa raises two children. He tries hard to be Christian, but it’s a lifelong process that takes more energy than he’s always willing to give it. He tweets and has a badly neglected blog at pichtblog.blogspot.com.
- Belizean bird. (Photo: James Picht)
- Flowering trees in Belize. (Photo: James Picht)
- Iguana in a tree on the road to San Jose, Belize. (Photo: James Picht)
- The rainforest and Maya ruins, Belize. (Photo: James Picht)
- Cosme, Jose and Celestine Cho. (Photo: James Picht)
- Hibiscus, part of a hedge in San Jose, Belize. (Photo: James Picht)
- The Cho House in San Jose, Belize. (Photo: James Picht)
- The Cho residence, San Jose, Belize. Cosme Cho carried all these logs home on his back. (Photo: James Picht)
- Plumeria. (Photo: James Picht)
- Cruzita New and Used Clothing. (Photo: James Picht)
- Shoppers at Cruzita New and Used Clothing, San Jose, Belize. (Photo: James Picht)
- Celestine Cho, making tortillas. (Photos: James Picht)
- Jose Cho (Photo: James Picht)
- Maya woman on her way to Cruzita's bus in San Jose, Belize. (Photo: James Picht)
- Celestine Cho at home, weaving a basket. (Photo: James Picht)
- Flowering trees in the Belize rainforest, on the road to San Jose. (Photo: James Picht)
- The Maya mountains of Belize and Guatamala, seen from San Jose, Belize. (Photo: James Picht)
- Pentacostal church in San Jose, Belize. (Photo: James Picht)
- San Jose village, Belize. (Photo: James Picht)
- Thatched roof at Cosme Cho's house, San Jose. (Photo: James Picht)
- Cacao pods. (Photo: James Picht)
- Jose Cho (Photo: James Picht)
- Maya ruins at Lubaantun, an hour from San Jose. (Photo: James Picht)
- Maya children at Lubaantun. (Photo: James Picht)
- Students from the Tumul K'in Learning Center, a school dedicated to preserving Maya culture. (Photo: James Picht)
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