I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while now but haven’t had the time until now so here goes:
The weekend of Feb 8-10, I visited my 2nd of the 7 wonders of the world (Chichen Itza) and stayed in the Mayan village of Tinum. It was an amazing weekend, and I’m sure I can’t do the experience much justice in this blog but I will try.
Arriving at Chichen Itza, the first thing we saw was an enormous restored pyramid. Our tour guide explained the astronomical phenomenon that occurs during an equinox. When viewing from a certain side, the sun illuminates triangles of the steps on the adjacent side down to a snake head on the bottom, bringing the snake to life.
We also learned about the amazing acoustics of the pyramids which you really have to hear for yourself to believe. We also saw the ball court which looks very similar to the one in the movie “The Road to El Dorado.”
Being at Chichen Itza, I began to really appreciate how advanced these ancient Mayans were in astrology and physics. It is truly incredible. After seeing this amazing archeological site, we hopped in our vans and drove to Tinum and for two days, stayed in the homes of present day Mayan families. During these 2 days I learned more than I could have imagined.
Six people lived in the home I stayed at. There were two teenagers who attended school, their mom who made hammocks, an aunt who also made hammocks, and uncle who farmed their milpa (cornfield), and the grandmother who made hipiles (the traditional Mayan dresses).
The house was small but comfortable, consisting of one main room, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a dining room, and an outdoor kitchen area. Beyond the kitchen in the backyard, they had hens and a turkey, a dog, a lot of trees and other plants, and a couple smaller buildings. The roofs of the kitchen and dinning room were made of Guano Palm leaves which are the traditional Mayan roof building material.
So there’s a short background about where and with whom I spent the weekend. During these two days I had many meaningful experiences. The next morning when we woke up, we went to the milpa of a man named Don Fonzo. A milpa is a Mayan cornfield, but it was very different from the ones I was accustomed to seeing in Iowa. In the milpas, everything is done by hand. There are no planting or plowing machines and no irrigation systems, so they rely completely on the rain. To prepare a milpa for planting, it must first be burned. After a rain, the seed can then be planted.
The planting: Don Fonzo plants his whole milpa with a planting stick. With it, he makes a holes in the ground a meter apart and tosses in 5 seeds per hole as he walks the field.
The corn grows during the rainy season. This year there wasn’t a good harvest, but Don Fonzo left some of his crop for us to harvest.
The harvest: Don Fonzo walks up and down the corn rows picking each corn ear by hand and throws it into a bucket that he supports with his head. The corn ears are much smaller than the ones we eat in Iowa.
Afterward, we removed the corn from the cob:
One of the most interesting things about Don Fonzo’s milpa was the altar. In his field, he built an altar to the Chacs (the ancient Mayan gods of rain) and offers his first crop to them every season. It was really cool to see that he still practiced the ancient Mayan religion and that the people hadn’t lost that part of their culture over the years. A lot of the town is Catholic, and some practice both. There is also an evangelical church in the town.
Seeing this milpa, I was amazed at all the hard work that goes into each harvest. Corn is very important to the Mayans and is used in every meal. Looking at Don Fonzo’s skin, hands, and feet, you can tell that he has spent most of his life laboring in the milpa. This man is completely dedicated to his religion, his milpa, and his family. I felt extremely honored to be able to see his milpa and learn from him.
Another fascinating thing I got to experience was the making of corn tortillas. Every evening, my host family filled a bucket full of dried corn, water, and lime powder. The lime powder would strip the corn of its undigestable parts, and in the morning, they would rinse the corn several times until the water was clear. Then everyday, the daughter would take the corn to the molino (mill) to be made into masa (dough). They used this dough to make fresh corn tortillas every day. They were definitely one of the most delicious things I’ve tried in Mexico… and healthy! I can definitely see why they eat them at every meal.
I also had the pleasure of taking a Mayan bath. As someone who is used to taking 20-30 minute showers, I wasn’t sure what to expect when my host family handed me a single bucket of water heated over the fire and a small scooping cup. This was definitely one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had here in Mexico, and much to my surprise, after bathing with a bucket of water, I felt just as clean as if I had taken a 20 minute shower. In fact, I had extra water leftover! It was truly a humbling experience to realize how much water I waste (and everything else for that matter), while in Tinum, nothing ever goes to waste.
The people I met in Tinum didn’t just live on the land… they lived off the land and with the land. Nature is welcomed and not torn down. Food is all grown locally. And everywhere throughout the town, there was beautiful flowers and trees. It’s very similar to how I picture an ideal life… surrounded by nature, and a garden with delicious fresh food, living simply with the people I love.
One of our assignments for the weekend was to come up with a symbol that represented the town or the culture or was something that we took away from the experience. My symbol was hands. Everything they showed us was done by hand or made by hand whether it was Don Fonzo planting and harvesting his milpa by hand… my host family making tortillas before every meal… my host mom making a hammock… the workers in the bakery making desserts… or the women in the village preparing the vine and making baskets… Everything was hand-made and took so much work. But to me, hands are also the way you connect and communicate with others. I felt so welcomed into my family and the love they had for each other was definitely apparent, and I could see it in their gestures as well. It’s kind of similar to that Tarzan moment where Tarzan sees Jane’s hand and matches hers with his… Despite all the cultural differences, when it comes down to it we’re the same. And here especially with the language barrier, I use my hands more than ever to communicate. So in short, to me hands represent all the hard and delicate work that goes with the lifestyle of these people, and also the way they connect with one another and me with them.
The experiences I had in Tinum definitely had an effect on me. It’s something that’s really hard to explain to another person because the only way to understand it is to experience the full cultural immersion. I will definitely not forgot this weekend or the wonderful people I met. And wherever I go from now on, I will carry a little piece of Tinum in my heart.