A tarantula fell from the guesthouse’s thatch ceiling and gracefully landed a few inches away from my feet. A small Mayan girl jumped up from her seat, grabbed a broom from the corner, and swept the poisonous creature out the front door. As if nothing extraordinary had happened, her father smiled welcomingly and handed me a spiral notebook so I could register at the Toledo Eco Association Village Guesthouse. I would be spending the next few days in San Miguel, a rural Mayan village in the Toledo District of Belize, experiencing Mayan culture and Mayan family life firsthand.
The Toledo Eco Association Village Guesthouse program was formed so that local Mayan families could design and participate in sustainable tourism in their village. Guests stay in a clean, rustic bunkhouse with a basic shower and toilet. Meals, tours, and activities are all organized and provided by Mayan villagers who share in the profits while promoting their culture and traditional way of life.
After I completed registration, eyeing the ceiling for more uninvited crawly creatures, I was escorted from the bunkhouse to a nearby home to eat dinner. Though I had seen many Maya families selling their goods at the market in Punta Gorda, this was my first experience in a Maya household. I was excited and humbled to be welcomed into such a culturally-diverse and relatively private space.
“Miss Jennie” and her husband were waiting for me in their dimly-lit, one-room house. Bright green-and-red knotted hammocks had been strung from the ceiling. A litter of kittens cuddled together in one corner. I took a seat on a tiny stool at the small wooden table, worn smooth from use and age, about two feet off the ground. The floor was made of well-swept cement and the roof was done in a traditional thatch style, made from interweaving palm leaves ideal for keeping the house cool in the tropical heat. I felt very at home in the clean, cozy space, probably because of my years as a Peace Corps volunteer living among rural Paraguayans.
From Miss Jennie’s sparse furnishings and few belongings I could tell that the family was by no means wealthy but small touches like bright tapestries on the wall made the place comfortable. Miss Jennie busied herself between her modern stove and her burnt-smelling smoky comal, a traditional flat griddle made for toasting tortillas, while her husband told me about San Miguel.
San Miguel is a small village with a population of about 400 Kekchi Mayans. The Kekchi brought their language, weaving skills, and farming techniques from Guatemala to Belize after fleeing from the Spanish. In small ways, the villagers live their lives like the ancient Mayans did. The men still farm cacao for chocolate and corn for tortillas. Women weave jippi jappa baskets from palm leaves and wear conservative homemade dresses. Lubaantun, a sacred Maya site, is located less than a mile away.
Miss Jennie announced that she would take me to Lubaantun the following morning. “Before it gets too hot,” she decided. Afterwards I would have the opportunity to swim in the Rio Grande river which runs through the middle of the village. It’s unusual for the women to take a dip for mere pleasure – instead, the village mothers wade into the river to wash their families’ clothes over the rocks. This is a social time, when women chat and warn their children to watch out for La Llorana, a weeping ghost who drags children into the river. Myths and oral storytelling are an important part of Kekchi life.
I ate by myself, a custom meant to show respect for strangers – but Miss Jennie hovered near me, smiling. She had made a typical meal from scratch: hot corn tortillas, smooth creamy beans, wilted salty spinach from her husband’s fields, and a traditional hot cacao drink sweetened with sugar. Everything tasted fresh and delicious. “My mother taught me to cook,” Miss Jennie explained, showing me a prized photo album with pictures of her extended family. Her mother posed next to a piece of cloth she had woven. She stood stiff and unsmiling, her somber attitude in juxtaposition to the brightly-colored cloth she’d created, which featured a rainbow-colored toucan, a bird revered by the Maya.
“Do you like the tortillas?” Jennie asked me, as I finished my fifth. “Tomorrow afternoon Miss Dolores will teach you to grind corn and make your own tortillas.”
Miss Jennie refused to let me help wash the dishes so I got out my flashlight and made for the bunkhouse. The night was dark and empty – bedtime comes early in a farming village. I walked up a dirt road flanked by identical wooden homes with thatch roofs. The only noises came from the occasional chicken flapping its wings or radio softly playing a ballad in Spanish. I arrived at the bunkhouse and crawled into bed. Somehow, though I was far from my family and way of life, I felt at home and safe among the Maya in San Miguel. I was ready for a full day of activities in the morning. But first, I pulled an insect net around me and checked for tarantulas.