Last Wednesday afternoon I had the opportunity to visit the Chiac family home here in Big Falls village. I went along with Judy Karwacki and Cheryl Chapman from British Columbia. They are both consultants in cultural tourism. Judy comes with years of experience in the travel business and international experience consulting in the develop of cultural sustainable tourism. Cheryl comes with first hand experience of establishing cultural tourism businesses with her First Nation people in Canada. She is a leader in the Aboriginal Tourism Association of BC Her real name translates as “Sun rise when salmon come”

The Chiac family home on Big Falls is a new cultural tourism experience in Big Falls village with a focus on craft making. What makes this different is that the family make their living selling their crafts to other villagers rather than tourists, although that is likely to change when visitors learn of the incredibly fun learning experience to be had there.

cultural tourism among the Maya in southern Belize

Marta welcomes her guests and introduces the family

Marta introduced her father Juan and mother Hilaria as well as her own older daughter Melody. More of the family gathered as the visit went on, with brothers and sisters returning home from school and her brother Carlos getting back from work at The Lodge at Big Falls.

Mayan cultural tourism in Big Falls

Juan selects fibres to spin into yarn

Her father Juan was in the middle of spinning some yarn from fibres that come from a large succulent forest plant with long six to eight foot long leaves. He chooses the fibres, dusts the board on his knee with ash from a burnt termite nest (between his feet) and spins and joins the sections by hand to create an amazingly strong yarn.

Making fibr4es from "henikin"

Juan shows the fibrous insides of the leaves

The fibres come from inside the leaves of a plant known locally as “henikin” which he collects from the forest. The leaf is normally roasted and dried first to make it easier to work with.

Handmade fibres for making hammocks and bags

Cheryl examines the fibres from the “henikin”

Cheryl was fascinated by the fibres which she had thought at first were horses’ hair. They will eventually be made into bags or hammocks like the two hanging on the wall behind Marta.

After spinning yarn and hammock making we learnt about basket making using cane derived from the taitai vine which is also gathered from the rainforest and is a nasty looking thing with sharp needle like spines an inch or more in length. It needs handling with great care.

Tai tai vine

Carefully removing the outer skin from the vine with a machete

Apart from providing flexible cane for making baskets there is a treat waiting in the soft end of the vine where the new growth is. The heart of this end of the vine can be eaten raw and is quite tasty as Judy and Cheryl found when Juan offered them a piece.

Mayan home visit in Big Falls

Yum, yum!

Basket making in Big Falls

Cheryl tries her hand

After a short training session Cheryl tried her hand at basket making supervised by Juan and Marta. She was a very quick learner coming as she does from a culture with similar weaving and craft making traditions.

Kek'chi Maya weaving in Big Falls

Mrs Chiac sets up the loom and gives a demonstration

Marta’s mother weaves using this hand loom. The loom is attached to the wall. The tension is set by the her body weight pulling away from the wall. Once again after brief demonstration and refreshments of coconut milk served in a calabash bowl Cheryl was ready to be strapped in to do her stuff.

Weaving in Big Falls Chiac family

Cheryl gets her big chance

Cheryl was given a different piece to work on, something where she couldn’t do much harm, but once again she proved herself an adept and fast learner. The visit moved quickly with lots of laughs, from hammock making to basket making, to carving rosewood to weaving and finally everyone made a barbeque fan made from the plaited leaves of the cohune palm. The two hours flew by and at the end of it all new friendships had been made. The visitors also had much admiration and respect for people who not only made fine crafts by hand but also made their materials starting with the plants provided by the abundance of the forest interior.

Craft making in Big Falls

That’s all folks!