AND DIRTY in SAN JUAN
Alice Kelly requires a' Chug'.
|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 womens' 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
More fiction at Dreamscapes
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