Hey there friends!
I have much to report, and I’ve gotten a tad behind due to the lovely distraction of a visitor from Cayo! Brian’s friend Nicole, a fellow JMU-er and Young Life participant, is here in PG for a weekend, and we’ve been having lots of fun getting to know each other and hanging out with other interns here in Belize. Yesterday, we had a lovely day that began with a delicious breakfast at The Snack Shack and also included a kayaking trip along the Caribbean coastline with Jamie and Coi and a stop for some amazing juice and super-healthy oatmeal cookies at Gomier’s. But before all of that, I had an incredible opportunity to get a glimpse at Mayan life!
Noemi’s brother, Gustavo, is one of our project partners and homestay providers, and recently hosted beautiful Niki for a month so that she could assist Gustavo in maintaining and publicizing his ethno-botanical walk. Gustavo is a biology teacher and knows a great deal about medicinal plants and other uses for local flora and fauna. His wife, Catalina, is Mayan, and her upbringing has given her a good bit of knowledge about local plants as well. Perhaps best of all, she knows how to prepare all these local leaves and herbs so that they morph into an amazing, AMAZING meal. Gustavo and Catalina have three children, Melvin, Nelvin (who goes by Alex), and Delvin, who are 11, 10, and 7 respectively. The family is one of the most warm and welcoming that I’ve met–ever–and the children are so gracious and well-behaved. It’s really heartwarming and comforting to know that there are parents here like Gustavo and Catalina, who both demonstrate great love for each other and great concern for helping their children to grow into awesome adults. I felt so quickly enveloped into their family, and it was a joy. It was also neat to see how close they’ve all gotten to Niki. About 2/3 of the times that someone called me by name, I would be called “Niki,” and occasionally, “Haley,” before they got to “Sarah”!
My main interests in visiting Gustavo and his family were twofold: firstly, I wanted to experience a bit of Mayan culture at its most real, to be able to understand Niki’s love for the family (which I totally understood about three seconds after I arrived) and to be able to better express the lifestyles in Belize when speaking with prospective ProWorlders. Secondly, I wanted to kill a chicken. 🙂
For these reasons, on Thursday morning, Noemi boarded me on “Cal’s Bus” headed for Gustavo’s village, about 45 minutes from downtown PG. When I arrived, Gustavo gave me a quick tour of his home, which he built himself. The home is awesome, and reminds me in many ways of the Whitman family Friends Lake house because of the beautiful, large porch off the back, where you can look out on a view of all things green and growing. Also super impressive is the thatched roof. Gustavo told me that thatching a roof is done entirely with dried fronds, but you have to time the process properly. If you let the fronds sit on the flat ground for too long and they get wet, they start to decompose and become unusable. But once you tie them to each other and put them on the roof, the water effectively drains off of them before they can start to decompose, and a well-made thatched roof can last ten years plus!
Pretty soon after I arrived, Gustavo took me on a walking tour of the plant walk that he’s been working on. It was exciting to see the work that he and Niki had done over the past month, and also overwhelming (in a good way) to learn about the incredible healing potential of so many flowers, herbs, and vines. Gustavo is so enthusiastic about his work, and excited to share his knowledge with others who may want to visit his home and learn about Mayan culture and healing. It will be so cool to get to see his efforts come to fruition as ProWorld helps him to make his work into a marketable experience for visitors to Belize. His goal is definitely not to tourist-ify his home, but to create a sustainable learning environment for those interested in better understanding his (crazily interesting) culture.
While I can’t remember everything that I learned about the various plants that Gustavo showed to me, I wrote down a few notes and highlights, just to give an idea of the variety of healing properties to be found within his beautiful and beloved plot of land. Some examples…and please excuse my possibly awful spelling efforts. 🙂
– Jippi Jappa! – Jippi Jappa is used by many Mayan artisans to craft baskets that are often sold in PG and throughout Belize. Beyond this, it turns out that it’s DELICIOUS when prepared as a meal, and serves as a very versatile food item. Catalina made a jippi jappa, onion, and egg mixture served with tortillas for breakfast on Friday, and I believe that it deserves equal billing beside coconut crusts–aka it’s one of the two best things I’ve eaten in this country. Jippi jappa…who’d have thought? It looks like this:
– Fire Bush – Used to treat Athlete’s Foot and other fungal infections. You take the leaves, crush and rub them together, and then place them on the affected areas for relief. I think that the name “fire bush” has multiple meanings. Firstly, the flowers are tiny red and orange cylinders that look like sparks of fire, and secondly, the leaves can burn when first administered on an affected area.
– Choa choa – I don’t remember the use for this, but I do remember Gustavo’s three boys laughing hysterically at me because I referred to it as “Chu chu,” which is K’etchi for “breast.” Oops. 😛
– Wart flower – The wart flower has a more legitimate name, but I can’t remember it. The flowers release a small amount of nectar, which can be applied to warts to make them disappear. Gustavo told me that in order for the wart flower to work, you must apply it to your warts immediately when you wake up before speaking to anyone. When I asked him why, he explained that his father had always taught him that this was how the plant must be used. It’s very interesting to see the value and credibility given to knowledge passed down from generation to generation. That sort of trust in the knowledge of our parents and ancestors is rather hard to come by in the US these days.
– Dama de la noche – This flower smells AMAZING, and its name is Spanish for “Lady of the Night.” It gets its name because its flowers only bloom at night, and by very early in the morning, the blooms are gone. The tiny flowers, when blooming, produce an incredible perfume, which is so strong that you have to be careful not to let it give you a headache. Catalina told me that sometimes the flowers are used for the purpose of inducing feelings of lust because their scent is so alluring. I kept a flower in my room at night, hoping that somehow the wonderful smell might stay till morning, but alas–it was gone by the time I awoke. This is what the Dama de la Noche looks like:
– Guava – Apparently, the guava tree does much more than produce guava fruits. It also serves as an excellent source of Vitamin C and can help to alleviate diarrhea.
– Lemongrass, Allspice, and Ginger – In addition to smelling AMAZING and being transformable into spices that we know and love, these leaves are wonderful when brewed in hot water to make natural tea. Catalina prepared lemongrass tea for herself, Gustavo, and me, and it was one of the most pleasant and soothing drinks I’ve had in a long time. One of the first things I plan on growing when I get home is lemongrass, so that I can continue to enjoy that flavor upon return from Belize!
– Sandpaper Vine – This vine has leaves that feel exactly like sandpaper. Gustavo told me that he and his siblings used to use the leaves to polish pots and pans when he was growing up.
– Grapewater Vine – This awesome vine is pretty thick, and has a very valuable property, especially if you ever decide to live in the Belizean jungle and run out of drinking water. The vine stores water within itself, and by simply cutting it properly, you have immediate access to potable relief from thirst.
– Basket-tie-tie – I totally forget what this one does, but its name is awesome, and I think that it might involve some very strong thread-like outgrowths that can be used for tying things
This list is a very small sampling of the many interesting plants that Gustavo showed to me. His sons are also very knowledgeable about the life that grows in their “backyard,” and I’m pretty sure that going to the doctor would be unnecessary in almost any situation. I saw plants that cure jaundice, soothe cramps, heal scars, and treat snake bites. The respect and gratitude that people like Gustavo have for the earth and its life is truly inspiring.
After our plant tour came the moment we’d been waiting for–the chicken killing! I did make a video of the assassination, but it turns out that my lack of machete skills resulted in a slightly inhumane killing that may disturb those of you who like your chicken either clucking or pre-packaged. SO, if you want to see my video, just send me an e-mail and I will send it to you prontissimo! And I will share one lovely image, just to hype y’all up:
The experience was, in short, hysterical. Catalina was VERY amused by my killing efforts. The highlight was the eating of the caldo, a soup made from chicken (freshly killed!), herbs, potatoes, and vegetables. It was DELICIOUS. I can’t take much credit for the preparation. I helped Catalina to defeather our friend, and then she did the rest while I taught the boys how to play Dutch Blitz and Phase Ten. I’m excited to return to their home before I leave and see how much they’ve improved…I’m pretty sure they’ll be beating me easily in a matter of days!
One night at Gustavo’s was not enough to fully experience Mayan life, but it gave me an absolutely beautiful glimpse, and I’m much more sad about leaving Belize after having spent time with his family. More later–I’m off to help lead orientation for our new July participants!