This post has also been published in the Feburary 3rd, 2016 edition of the CSM and can also be viewed directly on their site at: http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/The-Home-Forum/2016/0203/A-simple-staple-enhanced-by-hunger
The small wooden sign hammered into a dead tree grabs my attention. I’m soaking wet from a quick-moving jungle rainstorm and am feeling just a tad bit sorry for myself. I’m also starving, but this small Guatemalan village has no place to grab a bite.
Our local friends have dropped us off at this village on the shores of Lago Peten Itza. They warn us that they won’t be back for several hours, but an afternoon walking a sleepy village with nothing much to do sounds more appealing to our car-worn bodies than joining our friends on a supply run.
We’ve walked up and down the village multiple times, slow steps helping us while away the hours. With one hour left to kill before we meet back up with our friends, the promise of tortillas lifts my sodden spirits.
Following a dirt path, we wind deeper into this village of rural poverty. One-room homes of stone and mud have no doors to keep out the bad elements of weather, nature, or humanity. We are now a mile away from the heart of the village and the homes are dwindling in numbers.
“Do you really think there are tortillas at the end of this road? Or are we walking into a trap in which our kidneys will be harvested?” I nervously joke to my husband. His laughter calms my first world fears.
Hearing the laughter, a cow peeks out of one of the doorways and moos a warning to its owner. A multi-generational family is sitting on the dirt floor of the home and their heads turn to watch us go by. Never before have I encountered such poverty. In this village, sharing your living quarters with a cow is not considered a misfortune. Instead, the cow is a prized possession, one to keep close and treat as a member of the family. In this moment, I come to understand how being born in a first world country is like winning a global lottery. I let this realization reconstruct the fibers of my being and wave at the family as I pass by. A hunched and wrinkled old woman waves back. Deciding we are not a threat, the other family members lose their interest and turn away from us.
Several yards ahead stands the border of the town, dense jungle trees marking a spot where we can venture no further. I’m about to give up on the thought of a warm tortilla when I spot another small sign in front of a minuscule wooden shack. A stout Mayan woman is in the yard feeding three tiny piglets. In Spanish, my husband asks her about the tortillas. The woman shakes her head, not understanding his Spanish. She speaks Itza, one of the 21 Mayan dialects of Guatemala. He turns to the international language of charades, miming the act of patting out tortillas. Her eyes light up in understanding.
“Sylviaaaaaaaaaa!” she screams. A small girl, no older than eight, comes running from behind the house. Her mother explains what we want and Sylvia beckons us inside. A parrot squawks from a corner stool as we enter the dark room that serves as both the kitchen and the living quarters.
Sylvia gets to work. Reaching into a lye-filled pot, she pulls out a mound of cooked corn. Tossing a handful of the corn to the parrot, she then slaps the rest on a giant stone molcajete. The parrot makes happy noises as Sylvia grinds the corn into a smooth paste. Gathering the paste into balls, she quickly forms the tortillas using her hands as a press.
A fire is already burning under the large sheet of iron that serves as her stove top. Sylvia arranges the tortillas on the iron and tends to them, flipping them tenderly as the smell of charred corn fills the air. Once they turn golden and puff up, she puts them into a small bag and sprinkles on some chunky salt. In exchange for the tortillas, we hand over a few more quetzals than she is asking for payment. Sylvia beams and waves goodbye.
Back on the dirt path, I take my first bite. My taste buds scream with pleasure. I have found the holy grail of tortillas. Before we can make it back to the main road, I decide that it would be a sin to not return for another batch. Despite the heavy rain that has picked back up, my husband obliges. We make our way back to Sylvia’s house.
Her mother sees us coming and begins to laugh. “Sylviaaaaaaaaaa!” she screams once more. The little girl comes running. Upon seeing us, she joins her mother in laughter, grabs my hand, pulls me inside, and starts the routine again.