(Read Day One here)
BELIZE, June 11, 2011 — The sun rises before 6:00. I get up to find that Frank and Cosme are already gone. I learn later that Celestine was up at 4:00 to fix them breakfast and get Frank ready for school. Cosme has gone to work in a corn field. He’ll be back after lunch.
I go for a walk to explore the village, but within minutes it’s so hot I have to retreat to the shade of a tree. A bus is parked in front of the Cho house. It’s the “Cruzita New and Used Clothing” bus and it comes to town every three weeks.
I met Cruzita the evening before at the bathroom spigot when I washed up for dinner. She’s a wide and pleasant woman who seems to enjoy driving from village to village to sell clothes. There’s a steady stream of women and girls coming to check out Cruzita’s wares. Maya women love color, and so all the colors of the rainbow trek barefoot up the hill to chat with Cruzita and shop on her bus.
Celestine has set out some fried Jack for breakfast (a sort of fry-bread that seems to be the national breakfast dish of Belize), and then she gathers up laundry to take down to the stream. I find myself wondering how she manages to get Frank’s shirts so crisp and white. We chat a little, though with difficulty. Her sons speak English beautifully, but Celestine is much more comfortable in her Mayan language, Mopan.
“How do you say ‘thank you?’” I ask. Botic. Hello? Dyos. How are you? Bilki’ilech. Jose joins us and tries to help me figure out correct spellings, but he hasn’t studied Mopan in school and isn’t sure.
I ask how to say these things in Q’eqchi’, the other local Mayan language, and am greeted by a torrent of sound that I don’t bother trying to transcribe.
Jose leaves to go to school. I ask Celestine about her other children. Her face shines with pride as she tells me about them. She misses the two in Cuba, but it was a wonderful opportunity they received to study there. She and her husband could never have dreamed of sending even one child to study at a university, but everything is paid for.
I’ll meet other parents with children in Cuba, and I start to understand how that nation has gained the affection of the region’s poor. I think about the Central American students I’ve met at American universities over the years, and I realize with regret that not one has come from a place like San Jose.
As Celestine tells me about her children, I’m staggered by the sacrifices she and Cosme make for them. I’ve visited the Tumul K’in school where one son studies, and I think that it’s an excellent educational bargain, but even the small fees it asks are enormous for people like the Chos. Celestine’s day starts hours before American parents even think of waking up, and before she goes to bed, she’ll work harder than any woman I know.
The bulk of that labor is devoted to her children and helping them get an education - laundry, cooking, making baskets for sale.
Celestine sets off to do her laundry. I set a chair out under a woven (thatched) roof and start writing down my impressions. It’s a pleasant spot, and the high thatched roof almost seems to generate breezes. I find myself wishing that I could spend the night here in a hammock.
My room under the galvanized roof is like an oven, even with the doors open to permit a breeze. Galvanized roofs have become more popular since a hurricane a few years back. Thatched roofs blew away, and they need to be replaced every few years. There seems to be a little more status associated with galvanized roofs. I don’t know how much work is required to build a typical Mayan palm-frond roof and won’t patronize the Maya by criticizing their choice of metal, but the thatched roofs have metal beat from the standpoint of aesthetics and comfort.
My reverie is broken when Celestine walks by. She walks up to the chicken coop and grabs a chicken. She’s carrying a machete. “We’re eating chicken,” she announces with a smile. And so we do.
She serves it with a big glass of limeade. Perhaps noticing the slight trepidation in my face she says, “the water is boiled.” She points to a big plastic bucket full of water that she uses for cooking. My class in parasitology comes flooding back to me (the class that had me avoiding nature and cremating my food for a year), but then I think about what I’ve been doing for the last two days and experience a “what the Hell” moment.
After the chicken I eat some tortillas and watch Celestine weave a basket. She looks up and asks bashfully whether I’d like to buy one. “Of course. What do you have?” She pulls out a small one woven as a turtle and suggests that one of my children might like it.
“My son would love it. How much would you like for it?” Three dollars, she answers. “US or Belize?” I ask. Belize. “Would you accept $3 US?” Indeed she would. The dollars are to send to her daughter in Cuba, and US dollars are what she needs.
I end up buying a lot of baskets in Belize, not just from Celestine.
When Cosme gets home we sit in the shade of his thatched roof (most of the building that was under it is gone) and chat. It’s too hot to do much else. We talk about growing corn (the alcalde is pushing for an end to slash-and-burn), whether children want to stay in San Jose (no), and the Maya home-stay program.
The Cho’s have one or two visitors every year and wonder how they could get more. I tell him he should let them sleep on hammocks under a thatched roof. He looks at me like I’m joking. I point to the bunch of bananas that’s hanging in the corner and ask how he likes them. “They’re good, aren’t they?” He nods, puzzled by the question.
“Actually, they’re delicious. I never get bananas this good in the US. I could lie in a hammock, read a book, and eat those bananas all day. And drink your lime juice.”
Eventually Justino Peck comes to join us. He’s the village coordinator for the Maya Home-stay and a past president of the Toledo Cacao Growers Association. Toledo, the southern-most district in Belize, grows a fair bit of cacao, mostly for the “fair trade” and organic markets.
We spend a couple of hours discussing cacao farming, Maya home-stay, local Maya sites and how tourism might better help villages like San Jose. Justino tells me about a couple of tourism ideas he’s had and invites me to visit his cacao orchard to see them in the early evening, when it’s cooler.
Two hours later Cosme, Jose and I set off for Justino’s house. On the way we stop to visit Valentino Tzub, another home-stay host and a nature guide. He’s been cited in a couple of academic publications on Belizean gastropods, and also in connection with expeditions to sinkholes and their unusual flora. He tells me that there are several Maya ruins within a day’s walk, as well as excellent places to observe the local fauna. He took one group on an eight-day trek to Belmopan through some of the deepest rainforest in the country.
Justino joins us and we walk to his orchard. He’s building a pavilion there, a typical Maya thatched structure, but on a raised wood floor and adjusted for American heights. At 6‘3”, I tower over most of the people I’ve met in San Jose and have hit my head a couple of times on ceiling beams. Here I can walk freely. Justino plans to put in hammocks and woven screen walls to allow breezes to blow through, and some counters for food preparation. There will be good quality toilet facilities (an outhouse, but a nice one). I suggest a solar camp shower, but he’s ahead of me on that. The site is lovely. I’m ready to put in my reservation.
“People who stay here can see how chocolate is made, from the very beginning. They’ll see us working the trees, then help roast and grind the beans.” He asks whether I like what he’s doing. I love it and I tell him so. “Will people come?” I answer that I just don’t know.
On the way back to Justino’s house, we stop to look at the wall of a Maya ruin that hasn’t been excavated. There are waterfalls and a larger, excavated site just two miles away. We look out over the rainforest from the top of this ruin at the Maya mountains under a purple sky and I savor the moment. It’s sublimely beautiful.
It’s dark when we get to Justino’s house. His son is doing homework to an electric light; Justino has a solar cell on his roof and a battery. Unfortunately another son was listening to music earlier (Cosme’s mouth twitches in mild disapproval) and the battery is nearly exhausted. The light goes out and the kerosene lamps come on.
Justino brings us bowls of “cacao tea,” a rich cacao beverage with corn starch and seasoned with black pepper. At first the smell is strange and not pleasant, but after the first sip I think it’s fantastic. Justino brings me another bowl with a slightly different flavor. “I can’t drink all this,” I protest. He smiles and says just try it. I drink it all. This one is even richer. He says that’s because there’s no corn starch. I feel my heart racing and figure I’ve consumed my year’s allotment of caffeine, or rather, theobromine, the primary alkaloid found in cacao, whose name is Greek for “food of the gods.”
The walk back to the Cho house holds a spectacular surprise. The cut areas around the houses are a perfect habitat for fireflies. I can see them in my own back yard, but I’ve never seen them as numerous and as brilliant as these. It’s like walking through one of those neighborhoods that goes all-out for Christmas - literally thousands of twinkling lights drifting up from the ground and sparkling in the trees. I wish I could take a picture, but the image is powerfully etched in my memory.
Celestine has dinner ready when we get back. We chat a while, but while I’ve really done very little during the day, the heat is enervating and I’m ready for bed. A car will arrive early in the morning to take me back to my lodge near Punta Gorda.
Before I leave I find a note with a small Belizean flag next to my bag.
It’s from Frank:
“James, We would like to thank you for coming to Belize and at our residence. It is with great pleasure to meet you. I want to give you a flag that represents the country of Belize so that you can also remember Belize and us living here. Please remember to write when is your birthday on a paper and address. As you return home, may the Lord be with you. Frank Cho and family.”
(Read Maya Home-Stay Program: Day One with the Chos here)
Maya Home-stay is a fascinating glimpse into the village life of the Maya. It won’t last. Electricity is coming to villages like San Jose, and within a couple of years they expect a paved road will pass nearby. As the village children go to school and learn trades, they move to Punta Gorda, Belmopan and Belize City. The villages will change, and then in most cases they will die.
Maya Home-stay isn’t for everyone. It offers little privacy and no amenities. Treat it like a camping trip; take sleeping bags, towels and toilet paper (if you feel you must). But if you feel up to the challenge, do it. It offers a rich experience if you’re open to exploring the region and open to the people there. In the end, the experience is all about the people.
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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