I can still remember joining the massive group of cousins around the table with my teeny-tiny wizened grandmother, listening to her creepy tales of the Alux (al-oosh/Tata-Duende), or of the Xtabai (ish-ta-bai). Every tale had a moral to the story, and each story was a warning against bad behavior. For weeks afterwards, it would be a scary ordeal to head to the outhouse. Cousins would accompany each other, when a parent wasn’t willing. By light of the moon, or flashlight, we’d make a dash for the far-away building, praying that no short little man in a pointy hat and backward boots would try and steal us away.
Joining those memories are the ones of her cooking over her beloved fire hearth (fogon). To this day I threaten the hubby with D-I-V-O-R-C-E if he doesn’t build me one (screw open-flame policies!) Nothing is sweeter than memories of the hunters coming in with their fresh kill, one which we’d know about because of the echoes of gunshots in the mountains surrounding the village. The best hunting days brought in huge deer, and the excitement and buzz around that, meant a feast. My grandmother’s salado (smoked venison – similar to jerky) was considered legendary. Wrapped in hot fresh corn tortillas – naturally, with corn grown by the family, cooked in lime, and ground by the children - flattened and baked by Grandma, the salado would be dipped in her fiery habanero sauce. I think it’s funny that I remember those moments, because I never partook in eating the actual meat. Perhaps I fancied myself some type of vegetarian, as I stuck to beans, eggs, corn tortilla and sweet coffee.
Now that I think about it, it was the Maya bit in me that was crying for the basics.
I am a mutt – a mix of diluted Garifuna – hence my build and booty, Creole – that explains my skin color, Spanish – check out my dark, curly hair, and Maya – my eyes have the same characteristically slanted look of the Mayans. There is so much more within me that makes me so happy to be the mix that I am. For the most part, I am just happy to say I am a Belizean. But the culture that I grew up in was certainly Maya.
Imagine a little black girl heading to school, speaking only English and Spanish, and everyone she meets speaks a completely different language! It could have been lonely, but at a young age, we make do. Within two weeks, I could hold full on conversations, and had made tons of friends, many of whom had never left their village, and so didn’t know that skin color like mine existed. I can’t say that I had an unpleasant upbringing, and my school experience taught me something valuable about the place I grew up in: acceptance. (In time, that would become a sinister thing, but for the innocent days, it was a beautiful thing).
Learning the language meant that I could also interact more with my family. Everyone else around me spoke Mayan, and now, I could understand. Conversations with my grandmother meant the world to me, and knowing she was more comfortable speaking Mayan than Creole or Spanish meant those scary stories could tumble out with more meaning! During that time, Belize was just being discovered by eco-tourists and culturally starved visitors. Soon, our local healer was a legend: Mr. Elijio Panti, a little old man who rarely left his home except to go hunting for his healing herbs. Suddenly, being Maya was a status of sorts. People who had never truly embraced their culture suddenly had an awakening.
And while that happened, high school happened to me. High school was a one-hour drive away from the village, and quite a bit of a surprise. Everyone was different! In terms of the color spectrum, we ranged from the beautifully milky skinned Mennonites to gorgeously ebony Garifunas, and in between, the Creole, Mestizo, Mayan, Asian, East Indian and even a couple tanned Americans! Imagine the culture shock – for me, for my village classmates. We had been so insulated, with only the occasional vehicle passing through the village, often simply carrying blond, blue-eyed tourists, or the “gurkhas” or British soldiers, that we couldn’t fathom so much cultural explosion in one classroom, much less in a large campus. Sure we’d been to ‘town’ before, but in a haze of shopping and following Mom’s orders to ‘stay, behave, don’t ask for anything, carry these bags, etc etc,’ acknowledging the presence of more than oneself was hard a task for a simple, backwards child.
Thank goodness for good teachers and open-minded friends, because we were also an anomaly. We were the “village kids” – much like the city mouse and country mouse. We couldn’t stay on and ‘hang out’ – there were designated cars we had to take, and if one was missed, how were we to get home? We were boring! For three years, I thoroughly immersed myself in learning and appreciating other things besides who and what I was. And it was great, so great that life passed by in a blur of meetings, books, new friends, moves, upheavals and more. Heritage and culture was the last thing on my mind. I had discovered books and television! The world was a wide one, and there was much to savor from it. Pretty soon, I forgot all about my little insulated village, which, quite frankly, was not quite so pristine as before.
In some ways, I came to think of it as a backwards sort of place. Hardly any electricity, no real TV (3 channels maximum, and the majority of villagers still thought Bruce Lee was alive), and a church on every corner – what a funny little place. I was a big girl, off to see the big world! (On an island, where everything was just a little bit more fast-paced – what a ninny I was!)
Reality hit when I got an invitation to visit Europe. A girl dreams of visiting Paris, and Spain, and why not London – if for the mere fact that there is a stamp on the passport that proves one has been somewhere other than border towns of Chetumal and Melchor. Not one to turn down an invitation, I packed my bags, gleefully sold my measly belongings to rack up a total of $600USD to go spend a month in Europe. That was more money than I had ever held before, and I thought I had it made!
Going through an international airport alone, showing up at an even bigger airport with no clue as to what my host looked like simply overwhelmed me. Thankfully, said host remembered what I looked like, and we were soon off, for my first ever train ride, my first encounter with Goths (to this day I swear they were gliding), and the proverbial English tea. It was incredible and awful, all at once. It was not home.
To say I didn’t enjoy myself would be to lie. I found myself liking every stop, but often comparing it to my country, and my village. Thanks to my host, I also found myself questioning my culture and country – his views on Belize were, sadly, not the most flattering. I reminded him, often and loudly, that he had only spent a few hours traveling through the city, which, to be honest, can overwhelm even the most jaded of tourists. How would he know what wonderfully silly people my country had.
Did he know that my grandmother had learned to cook on the fire hearth since she was six? Did he know that my grandfather, uncles and father could track a herd of deer through mountains, and even at night? Did he know that everything we had, we worked for, and hard? Did he know that we ate what we grew? Did he know that our homes were built by hand, with no loan from the bank? Did he know that in my village, we had one of the best Maya healers in the country, if not the region? What did he know? He was more culturally confused than I was at the time – a Scotsman living in London but dying to be Indian. At least, I knew what I was.
Or did I?
All those years spent indulging in the selfish pleasures of a modern world. If my grandmother knew how I could no longer flip a corn tortilla without using a spatula! My hands were now soft and delicate, no longer callused and burned at the tips, and no longer able to flip and pat and fluff those little yummy delicacies. There I was absorbing another culture; already planning on staying on and attending design school, doing anything other than go back to my country. I couldn’t even handle a proper Indian Curry. What was wrong with me? I used to eat habaneros whole! It was time to go back home.
So I did. And once home, I realized that while education had fostered a love for learning, it also showed me a different way to appreciate my heritage. Over the years, there were many people who strived to bring about an awareness of the variety of cultures and peoples – and finally, I was ready to accept. It took leaving the country to appreciate what was at home all the while. I am still learning to this day what it means to be sitting on so much history – and the enormity of it all can be overwhelming, but if I only do one thing, it is to take it all one day at a time. There is no reason to pretend to be something I am not. There are days when I feel like any ordinary person, days when I don’t feel the need to be Mayan, and I certainly don’t speak the language often. But I know who to go visit in order to have a fabulous conversation and reconnect. It’s not about being at all times, because to me, that would be a bit hypocritical. I am not ever going to be those people who ‘embrace’ their culture because it’s de rigueur, but within me is a cacophony of cultures and if and when it comes out, it does so because it feels right. And I don’t apologize for it either way.
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