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Alice Kelly requires a' Chug'.

The Woodbearers
We Westerners may sometimes forget that our freedom to bathe ourselves by just twisting a hot-water tap is a luxury akin to fantasy in some parts. Once, I was forced to remember. I was travelling in Guatemala, a tiny country that appears like a concertina of vertical plains, slowly rupturing and folding between the geological pressures of the American Continents. Crops, animals, houses and Mayans cling to its volatile flanks. Sometimes, to reach a highland village like San Juan near Heuheutenango, you need to travel through four distinct layers of cloud before finding it perched on what must surely be the top of the world. San Juan sits on a steep incline, buried in grey, swirling fog one moment, and glistening beneath pure and heat-packed mountain sunshine the next.

There is the one potholed, dusty road leading to the outside world. It carries men clinging to the rails of bouncing flatbed trucks to the cash crop farms, and long-retired US school buses full of men, women, children, crops, clothes and chickens to the market in Chichitenango.

Highland Mayans exist far from the Latin culture of the lowlands. The Mayans of San Juan are instantly distinguished from those from other villages by their vibrant, hand dyed and woven Village "uniform". The traditional lore and ceremony taught by the village Shaman still structures daily life. A San Juanian, Roberto, who spoke excellent Spanish, negotiated two weeks room and board for me with Manuella, a tiny lady with a spare room and very little Spanish. Included in the deal, Roberto informed proudly, was one chug a week.

The Chug -pronounced chewg, my guidebook notes – is the Mayan method of bathing. Water is flicked on a fire lit inside what looks like a mudbrick igloo, creating cleansing steam. Highand Mayans might only bathe once every fortnight depending on the availability of wood.

One bath a week? This was somewhat less than the two showers a day I needed back home. I felt a little desperate. How was I going to survive?

Exhausted and pungent, I indulgently opted for my first weekly wash then and there. The reply, "esta no possiblé ahora, possiblé Ma-ana?" was puzzling, but I was reasonably happy with Ma-ana. The next day I found Juan to help translate my desire for a chug to Manuella. Juan told me that I must wait until Manuella's husband and son returned with wood. I looked doubtfully at the bare slopes stretching upwards into distant clouds. Wood? From where? I spent the day with Manuella and her daughters shelling frijoles (beans). We shared no common language but the work felt timeless and the women’s' murmuring conversation was as peaceful as a gently flowing stream.

Towards dusk, Juan returned and beckoned for me to follow him. We walked together down a steep track that dissolved into the glistening clouds. Juan pointed as two lone human figures - Manuella's husband and young son - inching out of the fog and bent almost double. But where was the wood? I looked around for a load bearing animal, a donkey perhaps.

As the pair slowly approached, I noticed straps digging into their foreheads. I soon became horribly aware of the impossibly large bails of logs perched high on their backs. Suddenly, I realised that washing on a whim was not always so simple as turning on the taps, but a long day's backbreaking labour. "Juan!" I whispered, "I believe I don't really require a chug after all."

© Alice Kelly 2001 - her first piece for Hacktreks

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