We had driven for three hours to try to find the Cauich family whose house had burned down while they were out on a posada in Yaxachen, Yucatan. We had decided to give them some money, roughly the amount we would spend on a fun weekend “out” in the United States since our trip to the destination was both entertaining as well as educational. The newspaper article that inspired the trip didn’t show “before” photos of the house. We had no idea what sort of housing they lived in, what they had lost in the fire, but we figured it wouldn’t hurt to find them and offer them something. Of course, we got something out of the endeavor too and as such, it didn’t smack of righteousness, goodness, godliness or anything redeeming per se according to any particular religious perspective (i.e. this was not a “mission trip”). It was just about interest and the desire to be entertained by something other than historical relics or a theme park.
We turned at a convenience store in Yaxachen and then passed two corners, ending at a little estate at the end of the road. A small man and his large family met us, waved to us as though they knew us and welcomed us to get out of the car. I handed the small, shirtless man the newspaper article and told him that we wanted to find the family and offer “help” (since this was what the article asked for). He smiled enthusiastically and went inside his tiny little hut and got a shirt, waving for us to follow him.
We followed behind him like trained animals. An uncomfortable silence fell between us on account of the language barrier. I struggle with small talk in Spanish. People tend to get frustrated with me when I try to talk about the weather or some other neutral topic and then I fail to understand their response (Que? Que? Repite, por favor…Lo siento. Soy una tonteria.) Actually, I’m not that good at small talk in English either so we all just walked on in silence down a hill and then up another hill, around a corner. We were like giants among these people. Aliens from another planet emerging from our tiny (and uncomfortable) spaceship, freshly showered with super-tidy clothes and high-quality hiking and running shoes.
I didn’t know what this man’s relationship was to the woman in the article. Indeed, I wasn’t even sure exactly how to pronounce her last name (Cauich), so I just walked
with my lips glued shut, our shoes crunching at the gravel softly in the warm light of the afternoon sun. We turned the corner and walked half a block past some plants with giant leaves and some trash to a small, partially burnt hut without a roof. The man then left us there, waving for us to stay put at the threshold of the structure. He went off on his own, presumably to find the woman in the news story.
The little hut was roughly the size of our bathroom at home. It was probably 8 feet wide by 10 feet long and made of sticks that were covered with an insulating mixture of mud, manure, and hay on the inside wall. The foundation was a cement slab that raised the house up off the ground by a few feet. Obviously, the thatched roof was completely gone. As we stood there waiting silently, I wondered if “losing everything” when you have practically nothing is more or less painful than “losing everything” when you’ve got lots of stuff. I’ve never abruptly lost everything, but I would guess that losing everything when you had practically nothing to begin with is probably the more difficult of the two scenarios.
A group of people suddenly emerged from a building behind the little charred hut. The woman in the newspaper article, Maria Cauich, was among them and she shook our hands awkwardly, never looking directly at us. We were very tall as we stood among these people. Giants. Her husband and another Mayan woman came to greet us and shake our hands as well. Their four children looked us up and down, giggling with curiousity and hoping for some attention. We told the group about the newspaper article and showed it to them. Maria clearly hadn’t seen it. She handled it with great care and gazed at it for several seconds while the group stood around us. Then she smiled gently and handed it back to me.
Lydian gave Maria the gift.
The woman took it, thanked us matter-of-factly, but didn’t count it or even look at it in her hand. We asked if we could see the inside of her house and the damages and the family enthusiastically took us up the stairs to see the devastation. The woman spoke quickly, mumbling emotionally and gesturing at different blackened items on the floor. I would catch a word or two and repeat them back to her, nod vigorously, and then ask questions in my broken, clumsy Spanish . The man who had walked us down to the house would translate to her what I had said and then she would begin to talk more about another upsetting aspect of the fire. The husband, Luis, lifted up what looked like a brightly colored plastic disk and told us that it had been their hammock. The loss of the hammock clearly upset him. We saw a scorched tortilla press on the floor. Essentially, they had only the clothes on their backs left after the fire.
I asked them how much it would cost for them to replace everything including their house. The husband thought for a minute and then said, “treinta mil pesos.” Treinta mil pesos wouldn’t even be enough to make down payment on a 1970’s trailer home in the bad part of town anywhere in the United States. Treinta mil pesos is roughly $1500 USD depending on the currency conversion. This is a lot of money for Yucatecan people who make $4.00 per day on average.
Originally, we had planned to try to gather together some things together to send to the family once we got back to the states. I carefully inquired about the local Yaxachen post office. Tienes correo aqui? They looked at each other, scowling with confusion. I tried saying the question in different ways. A little voice in my head kept urging me to ask about UPS or FedEx (ha!) and I had to continually bring my thoughts back to the reality of here and my actual location on the planet. “Is there mail in Xul?” I asked. They said there was. “Could you travel to Xul to receive mail?”
They looked at each other and discussed it in Spanish, then Mayan, then Spanish again. “No.”
“Do you have friends in Xul who could bring mail to you?”
Spanish, Mayan, Spanish…“No.”
(More thoughts about FedEx and UPS…) I tapped my finger against my lip thinking over the situation carefully as they all stared at me. We bought two hammocks for our month in the vacation rental property in Progreso. I wanted to leave them behind with this family. We had purchased a variety of kitchen supplies that we needed in order to cook. A part of me revolted against the idea that there were still places in the world that didn’t have mail? Mail?!? I’ve been pissed off for the past two weeks about not having the Internet in our house!
I thought about being spoiled (specifically, that we are spoiled) and how I don’t want to be uncomfortable for even 30 days in Mexico. This family had struggled to purchase a hammock and it’s possible that the six of them even shared the hammock. I bought two hammocks to use just during this trip. I bought disposable plates and spoons and a couple of items of clothing in a very off-handed way. I live in a world where almost every thing is disposable (for convenience sake). It’s hard to wrap my head around these people’s way of life.
But mail seems like a basic staple of human survival or at least communication. I know that there are probably tribal societies in Papua New Guinea that don’t have mail. I’m sure Bedouin tribes wandering around in the desert don’t regularly receive parcels (Is there FedEx in the desert?). But it seems odd that a place that’s accessible by car and relatively easy to find (even by a bumbling family like ours on a Saturday afternoon) wouldn’t have mail. Really? This is the Yucatan, not the Amazon.
Problem-solving in this part of the world involved an entirely different set of resources than what I was familiar with using. We chatted with the family for a few more minutes and then I said that I would try to talk with friends in Progreso to see if we could send more supplies down to them. On this note, we began walking back to the house and our car with the small man.
This time, on the walk, I went ahead and asked the man some questions about himself. He was indeed related to Maria Cauich (they have the same last name). His name
was Gumarcindo. I handed him my notebook to make sure that I spelled it correctly. We arrived at our car and his wife and three of his nine children gathered around us.
“Quieres boluton?” He asked us.
“Bolunton? No se esa palabra.” (Bolunton? I don’t know that word.)
He kept saying it over and over smiling broadly and gesturing wildly. I looked at John and repeated the word. John said the word back to me as we squinted at each other, trying to make sense of it and then suddenly John exclaimed, “He wants us to help out.”
“What?” I said.
“Voluntar! Voluntar!” The man said. (I could hear it now.)
He told us that he and the community members would be going out to chop wood for the woman’s house the next day. He wondered if we could stay and help out. I imagined us building that house and got excited about it. I’ve poured cement and built many buildings.
“Podemos ayudar.” (We can help.) I told the man. One of the daughters had disappeared inside their tiny hut. She returned with a machete in one hand and an axe in the other. This brought the situation back down to earth. In my mind, I had my Ryobi power tools and a chain saw to do the job.
I’ve seen a lot of people in the backwoodsy areas of the Yucatan, Chiapas, and Costa Rica carrying machetes and axes. I’ve even seen a few unfortunate accidents resulting from their use as well. They look harmless enough compared to a table saw or carpet knife, but if something goes awry with a machete, the results are usually irreversible… at least this is what I’ve heard. Perhaps it isn’t the machete or the axe itself, but the fact that people use these tools to get stuff done in places where there just enough ice to keep a severed limb frozen until the victim reaches a hospital.
John took the axe and told the man that he knew how to use it. I contemplated, tried to imagine the three of us in the wooded areas of the Yucatan, chopping down trees with machetes and axes. In my mind’s eye I saw a snake dropping down on Lydian’s head and her screaming and running through the forest and then tripping and falling into a big swarming mound of spiders. I imagined us following after her and then getting lost and the ordeal of trying to get her to a hospital nearby. I imagined how pissed she’d be. I remembered a day that I was harvesting cornstalks out of our corn field maze at the farm in the United States. I had looked down at my hand after four or five loads to discover a mysterious “bruise” on my hand that didn’t hurt. I’d been bitten by a brown recluse. I wondered what sort of spiders lurked in the trees here.
Just then, one of the sons, came over to me and moved me away from a big pile of poo on the ground, deposited by some large animal from their farm. He didn’t want me to step in it.
I thought about all the things there are to avoid in the Yucatan forests and how I wouldn’t know about any of them. Some might think that going out into the Yucatan jungles to chop wood with a machete with no prior experience would be ignorant and stupid. Some might think that passing up such an opportunity would be just as stupid and ignorant.
A part of me was giddy about helping to build the house for the family. The other part of me was more realistic. The man told us that he went along through the trees, marking each one slated for the axe with the machete first, and then other men followed behind to cut the trees with an axe. It sounded interesting, but I doubted that they would expect or appreciate Lydian and I doing “man’s work”. The plan was to drive back to Progreso, get some things to bring back with us, and then get an early start the next morning and go back to Yaxachen to help chop down trees.
Then, Gumarcindo realized that the plan wouldn’t work. They would be finished cutting the wood early in the morning before we even arrived. Disappointed. Relieved. So be it. The son who saved me from the pile of poo eyed Lydian’s Spanish-English dictionary. He was fascinated by our Mexico Atlas and my Kindle Fire. The father asked me if he could have our U.S. phone number in case one of his children ever wanted to visit. We guessed that the son probably wants to get out of the small town. We gave him the Spanish-English dictionary and told him that we love to have visitors.
John and I decided to just make another trip before the end of our time in the Yucatan to visit the family and bring supplies to them. We have so many items from this trip that would be valuable to them, but practically worthless to us once we get home. It seems strange that the value of our items can wax and wane like that, but that’s our reality, I guess. And it isn’t necessarily better, just different.
I get a really strange feeling when we pass through small, isolated towns in other parts of the world. How do the people there entertain themselves? What do they get excited about? I could sit and watch people in some of these towns for days. The dogs, the chickens, and the people riding on mopeds and bicycles with propane tanks, two kids, and a goat. What do they do all day? And how do they stay isolated? Don’t they wonder about the rest of the world?
Though I could observe the small town people in different parts of the world with rapt attention, I’d need a reliable escape route because I’m not a part of whatever keeps those people happy and content with the status quo. And I can’t join their ranks. At least not in this lifetime. I’m always the heretic, handing out my bilingual dictionaries and atlases, conspiring to find the quickest route to somewhere else.