Maya grandmothers spank their grandchildren—at least this one did. I’d been expecting a quiet afternoon of authentic cacao making in a cozy outdoor kitchen. Now, I stared at my blue tennis shoes on the brown dirt floor, feeling a little sick to my stomach. She released her grandson from her grasp and he ran back into the pack of other rowdy children. My hostess focused her attention back towards me and continued to demonstrate the cacao process.
I had jumped at the opportunity to spend a week in a remote Maya village in Southern Belize. This type of travel was not on the regular tourist track and I wanted to prove what an intrepid traveler I was. The Kekchi Villagers of San Antonio participate in an ecotourism association that’s designed to lure adventurous travelers out of Belize’s air-conditioned beachside resorts and into the steaming jungles where the Maya have been scratching farms out of the dirt since, oh say, ancient times. I was interested in seeing the “real” Belize, not drinking overpriced beer with other tourists at expat bars.
I’d arrived at dawn in the village and been met by Mr. Reyes, a farmer and family man who would be looking out for me. Across the dirt road from the comfortable Reyes home, and a few minutes walk into the jungle stood the isolated guesthouse where I’d be sleeping, showering, and hopefully, surviving. Half of the straw roof had caved in, there was no electricity, and the flat boards that made up rough bunk-beds sagged with mildew. Clearly, it had been awhile since anyone had stayed here. Mrs. Reyes set up a mosquito net to keep scorpions out of my bed and advised me to scream loudly if anyone came to bother me. “My son is a police officer, he will come running.”
I had a few hours to rest before a cacao making lesson. Early cacao was used by the ancient Maya as currency and offered as a gift to appease angry gods. I sat on the empty porch and gazed into the dense jungle, swatting mosquitoes, and wondered which god I’d angered, before falling into a sweaty sleep.
I woke up with a start. A shirtless child was staring at me, making a motion to follow him. The little guy headed straight up a steep hill, running up stones used as steps. At the top, almost hidden in the lush greenery was a house. Three children ran screaming out the front door, one of them naked. An old woman stepped out of the house, wearing a traditional colorful skirt and hand-beaded blouse, gray hair neatly braided to her waist.
“They’re all deaf!” the woman screamed at me, clearly exasperated and attempting to smack the bottoms of the unruly children running in circles around her. I complimented her skirt and asked her what the Maya word for her clothing was. “We call this a shirt,” she replied stiffly, before taking out a bucket of dried cacao. I watched her roast the beans on a wood fired griddle before crushing them. After grinding the cacao into a paste, she added sugar and spices to hot rain water, poured the whole thing into a mug, and handed it to me to drink. I burned my mouth.
Darkness came around 7. By darkness, I mean, no sun, no lamps, no light. I took a sleeping pill at 7:30, hoping to remain unconscious through any attempted robberies.
In the morning a mother and her teenage daughter waiting for me. They had been summoned to teach me how to make jippy jappa, a weaving technique involving dried palm fronds. Village woman routinely make strong jippy jappa baskets for artisan purposes. I would be attempting to weave a coaster. Sixty minutes passed as I tried to make small talk with the women and force a leaf into a pretty design. I failed on both accounts.
After they left, I sat on the porch alone. Then, as quietly as he’d arrived before, the little boy from the top of the hill was sitting on the porch with me. I showed him my coaster and he laughed. I knew he wasn’t supposed to be down here with me. I led him back up the hill to his grandmother. I walked back down to the sounds of another spanking and really wished I was in an expat bar, drinking beer with other tourists.