We visited the Mayans of Punta Gorda Belize in 2012. Time magazine declared 2012, “the year of the Mayans.”
We were in Punta Gorda celebrating our 14h Wedding Anniversary. We had the rare opportunity of spending a day, as a family, with a few traditional Mayan families. Punta Gorda, described in the travel books as being the “end of the world,” is (for Belize) a long ride through the largely uninhabited banana and orange groves along the Hummingbird and Southern Highways. Uninhabited, that is, except for several Mayan villages that dot these highways for an hour before arriving in PG. Characteristically, the Mayan houses have been built using the same thatched roof style for two thousand years.
We had heard about a Mayan family who was giving a hands-on demonstration of small batch, organic, traditional Mayan chocolate. Thinking this would be a great adventure for the children, we drove the winding rough dirt road. When we arrived at the Mayan chocolate farm we found a handwritten note taped to the door, which read: Sorry, we are closed for the day.
Not willing to give up, we figured that since the Mayans have been making chocolate for centuries, someone else in the village might be willing to show us a little about chocolate making. We ambled along the country roads, stopping to see pigs roaming freely.
We also stopped to get a closer look at a cocoa tree. The pods were an unripe green instead of a soft yellow.
We drove a little further down the road to a village store. Brent went inside to buy a drink. As the only non-Mayan family anywhere in sight we stood out. The children and I jumped out to get a closer look at the food cooking on the outside the store/house. I am still not sure whether we were looking at grilled chicken or gibnut (a Belizean rodent) grilling on the makeshift grill.
Either way the grilled smell tickled our noses and made our tummies growl. I caught sight of a grandmother watching us out of her window. I greeted her with the International language of friendship, a smile.
She returned the greeting and invited me inside her tiny one room house. A hammock serves as her bed and sitting spot. She has both a tiny propane stove and a traditional Mayan open pit stove. All of her earthly belongings are stored inside her 10×13 ft. wooden house. She even has a solar powered light bulb. Everything was clean and in perfect order.
She was very proud of her Mayan fire-pit where she daily roasts her corn before grinding it and rolling out tortillas.
The store owner, a young man, came inside the house we were visiting and invited our family to his mother’s home. His mother, a short, stocky, smiling woman was the picture of Southern Belizean hospitality. She kicked out her skinny dog and warmly welcomed us into her home.
Señora Cyrilla treated us like an honored guest. We entered her little home and admired how clean and in order she kept her tiny house. She did not pay any attention to the chickens that entered and exited at will.
Instead, she gave us all a chair and began explaining how she had learned to make chocolate from her grandmother and her mother. Her home smelled of the sweet chocolaty smell of roasted cocoa. Miss Cyrilla showed us handfuls of cocoa beans already roasted and ready to crush into cocoa nips and powder.
Mayans serve the bitter nips over breakfast cereals. We all decided that we liked them very much. Nice to know that cocoa prevents strokes.
She then showed us a Mayan artifact passed down from generation to generation–her pestle (crushing tool). Smiling, I asked if she would want to sell it. She laughed and explained that one day she would give it to her married son. As I looked around her basic house, I thought that might be the only treasure she has to pass on. She was very proud of her pestle and insisted that it could out work the more modern tools.
Next, she allowed us to walk out and see her gardens. I loved seeing the herbs and plants she had. There was cassava, bitter melon, papaya, many hot pepper plants, and many others, too.
She also showed us her homemade solar drying rack for drying her cocoa beans. Hannah was especially interested in her kitchen where a large bowl of hot peppers was being slowly roasted. As we walked around her yard and visited in her home, I was very aware at the richness of this special visit. This was not a touristy chocolate factory tour, but we were receiving the deepest form of hospitality–welcoming strangers and making us feel like family. I want to be like that. I want to be ready to show hospitality without notice, just like Señora Cyrilla.
Before we left, we purchased a jar of her freshly ground cocoa. I wish now that I had purchased more. Since she does sell her goods in town she had some labels. One read “Cocoa Powder” and the other “Cayenne Pepper”. She asked me to read the labels since she had never been to school and could not read. We chose the correct label and she carefully cut the sticker and labeled our jar.
We gave her a tip for her kindness; she was very appreciative of the gesture.
Even as I write this blog post, I feel that I can not adequately convey the deep specialness we all felt being shown such rich hospitality from this Mayan lady. She lives very much like the Mayans before her.
As we drove home we made several more stops to view Mayan homes. Some were not at all interested in outsiders, and the strictest ones held to religious superstitions against photos.
In every culture the children are irresistibly cute, but especially true among the Mayans we saw. One young fellow about nine years old was on his horse with a machete on his back. He was serious-minded and not about to stop for a picture. I thought I found a smart place to sneak a picture, but he outsmarted me and darted through a jungle path. I liked his spunk.
There were a few other Mayans who also greeted us warmly. One family with several children who asked us to come visit them as well. This family was ethnically Mayan but Christian by conviction. We had a fantastic time hearing their story of living life as Christians while keeping all they could from their culture.
We may not get around to covering the ancient Mayans in a textbook, but our day visiting Mayan people certainly gave faces to what life was and is like in Mayan communities.