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Beng, Beng, Bengity Beng, Beng, Beng, Beng, Beng Mealea

BengMealea3Our guide barks a stern warning:  Do not stray from the path, not under any circumstance.

He isn’t concerned about damage to the temple or about one of us breaking an ankle as we climb the immense, moss-covered temple stones that had collapsed long ago.  In this rural area, a former stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, he’s concerned about land mines.

As Cambodia has one of the highest unexploded ordnance mortality rates in the world and an estimated 6 million remaining mines, this is a warning to take very seriously.  While the path through the Beng Mealea complex has been cleared of land mines, a fall into any of the surrounding fields could prove deadly.

This 900 year old temple was not yet on the tourist trail, free of both the fees and the touts of the more popular Cambodian ruins.   We BengMealea6find ourselves alone to explore the ancient structures that the jungle is determined to reclaim.  In nature’s own version of the childhood game “king of the mountain”, tree roots clamber over stones to sprout large trunks on top of the remaining roofs.  Some of these games create two winners as the encroaching vines weave their way into the walls, reinforcing the structures from collapse.  Others result in a clear loser as the structure gives in to nature, crumbling into piles of rubble below.

Childhood laughter sounds from behind.  My mood suddenly darkens.  A family must be approaching and will inevitably ruin my sense of peace.  I am not good at sharing special places.  But then, the laughter rings out from in front of me.  I spin a circle, looking for the source, baffled at how the family could have gotten ahead of us without our seeing them.  I feel eyes watching me, yet cannot make out the source.

A flash of movement andBeng Mealea 7 more laughter, this time from inside a temple.  I’m reminded of a silly movie of a tomb raider searching for jasmine at a temple 63 kilometers from this one.  The laughter of a hidden child led the tomb raider to find what she was seeking.  Where would the laugher lead me?

We follow the sound to a wooden platform and down steps leading to an ominous doorway.  The laughter continues from inside, echoing off the walls.

“We must step carefully and move slowly”, our guide says as we approach the corridor.  “Sleeping snakes live inside.”

“Sleeping snakes?” I ask.

“Yes, sleeping snakes.  If you are bit by one, you will fall asleep and you will never wake up.  Don’t worry.  The sleeping snakes are asleep. ”

Posing a greater danger than the remaining land mines, the  snake of concern is the monocled cobra.  Known as having the highest fatality rate among snake bite victims in Southeast Asia, the firstBengMealea4 manifestation of the venom is often drowsiness.  Respiratory paralysis and death follow within 60 minutes of the bite.

Hesitating at the temple door, I consider the risk.  We are a good 90 minutes away from any hope of an anti-venom.  Having no source of light to guide our passage, pure luck will decide whether a foot rouses a resting cobra.

Laughter emanates from the corridor once again, beckoning us to follow.  I look back at my husband and smile.  “Let’s do this.”

In a single file we follow our guide, toes colliding with fallen stones as we gingerly make our way through the darkness.  I hear the footsteps of my husband behind me as he estimates where my last step had been, trying to place his feet in that exact spot.

We speak no words, our ears listening for any signs of slithering.

At last, light.  We have reached the other side.  Once safely outside, I inquire to what timeBengMealea2 the sleeping snakes wake.  “Five o’ clock”, our guide answers.  My husband looks at his watch.  It is 4:55.

 

Before our adrenaline levels normalize, laughter rings out from above.  Raising our eyes to the sky, we finally identify the source.  A local child is standing on top of the temple that we had just passed through.

He smiles and runs away.  In an amazing display of parkour,  he scampers across the roof, bouncing off tree roots to clear the places where no footings remain.  He leaps from the temple and over the walkway where we stand, landing on the stone wall opposite of us.  The show is worthy of a million YouTube hits, yet in this remote area, the child undoubtably knows nothing of the internet.

Using the branches of a tree as a trampoline, he springs down toward the path in a death-defying act that pays no heed to the dangers of mines possibly obscured by the roots below.  A few feet from the bottom, the child lands in a perfect sitting position onBengMealea5 a natural swing formed by the branches.  We applaud.  With that, he laughs again, pausing just long enough for us to snap a photo before reversing his path and disappearing over the wall.

As we take our own exit, I look back to the empty complex.  In a few years, news of Beng Mealea will spread.  The area will be cleared of more land mines and of the sleeping snakes to make a safe passage for an influx of tourism.  The boy will likely learn to charge for photographs or will give up his antics altogether to sell postcards to tourists.  Knowing that a future return could never be the same, I take one last mental picture of the empty complex and vow to remember the sound of his laughter.

A Simple Staple, Enhanced by Hunger

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

“Tortillas”.

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.

Guatemalan Tortillas

  • 2 cups of corn flour (masa)
  • 1 1/4 cup cold water
  • 1/4 tablespoon salt

Directions:

1. Mix the salt into the masa before slowly mixing in the water.

2. When the mixture has a doughy consistency, separate the dough into 10 balls.

3. Shape the tortillas by hand, by clapping the dough between your palms until the tortilla is circular and thin.  Alternatively, use a tortilla press.

4.  Heat a skillet or griddle over medium-high heat.

5.  Cook the tortillas until they begin to puff, turn them over, and cook until they puff further or reach your desired level of golden color.

6.  Sprinkle with salt and keep warm until ready to serve.

Hairspray, My Momma Told Me Not to Use It!

The first time I laid eyes on the Donger, he was walking across a luggage carousel at a small airport set in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle.

With brooding eyes and a strong posture, he could make you break out into a sweat if he held your gaze a bit too long.  The Donger was in charge of the place and he knew it.  No one could board a plane without his inspection and approval. Continue reading Hairspray, My Momma Told Me Not to Use It!