Adventures While House Sitting


My Feeble Attempt at Making Corn Tortilla's

It all started when we were invited to Nicolas and Pedro’s birthday celebration. We dressed up a bit, grabbed the salada (cabbage salad) I had made earlier, climbed the stone stairway and hailed a Took-Took. We proceeded to fly through the streets of Santiago. Took-took drivers are very similar to cab drivers the world over.  Many drivers disregard the speed bumps, fly around corners on the wrong side of the road, nearly miss pedestrians and other Took-Tooks, vi for the ‘leader of the pack’ position and worst of all lay on their horns when a jam up happens. It never fails to amaze me at the level of impatience when a local feels the power of wheels under them. Occasionally we will get behind a chicken bus, brightly painted and decked out with beautiful chrome work (obviously a very proud owner) belching thick black smoke out of the muffler right onto us.  Apparently Guatemala does not have emissions control, or if it does (as with everything) no one is around to enforce it.

We safely arrived at the cross roads and walk up a narrow stone alley with tall windowless walls obscuring the sky. We find the Mecia household buzzing with activity.  Two small tables were set and the women of the house were busily making corn tortillas over a wood fired. Nicolas immediately instructed the women to teach me to make tortillas.  Meanwhile David, Nicolas and Pedro ran an errand.

And so the humiliation began. I will never know for sure if Nicolas intentionally set me up or if he simply thought I would be a better-rounded spouse if I could make tortillas.  I suspect the later.  I was handed a one inch ball of cold wet dough and carefully instructed on the patting and shaping process.  After about the sixth failed attempt Conception, who is the workhorse of the family, began to look at me with serious concern then finally something edging towards disgust and after about the fifteenth failed attempt a definite look that indicated I had a serious disability and would never make a good wife.  The women began discussing amongst themselves in hushed tones. I repeatedly heard “Davee”.  I got the gist of the conversation and understood that David was the poor victim of a worthless wife and that that is why he is so skinny.

During this process one neighbor woman after another paraded through the house to watch the gringo lady.  They would come, watch for a while, laugh, leave and come back with another neighbor lady. Eventually the house filled with laughter as tortilla after tortilla stuck to my hands and had to be rescued.  I repeatedly asked for harina (or corn flour) to coat my hands with but they adamantly refused and instead made me wash my hands and start again. At one point a tortilla ball flew out of my hands and hit the floor with a hallow thunk, the neighbor women laughed hysterically but at that point even mom became a bit impatient and would probably have scolded me in Tz’utujil if she was not a picture perfect hostess.

I did manage to produce a dozen misshapen tortillas which I was informed would be David and I’s allotment for the meal.  It was obvious they were not going to eat them.  Josephina was the kindest during this humiliating experience and expressed that it takes time to learn the art and that already she could see that, if I continued practicing I would eventually get it.  When the guys returned from running their errand Josephina quickly displayed my tortillas and then compared them to their perfectly round tortillas and jabbered away about my irregular shapes, thickness etc…

In my defense I reminded them that I can make Pan (bread and cakes) which we have gifted them with many times.  The women of Santiago do not know how to make Pan.  I also indicated that I understood I was a failed esposa and that David had every right to divorce me (according to Tz’utujil custom). Nicolas reassured me that I could learn the fine art of tortilla making in time. What I didn’t tell them is that neither David nor I like their version of corn tortillas and that I had already made perfect, paper thin tortillas with a good old fashion rolling pin and a bowl to produce a perfect circle. Those tortillas made the best chips!

Eventually, they instructed me to go sit down at a table isolated in what is usually the kid’s bedroom. I think they were hopeful that I would contemplate my absolute worthlessness and errant ways since I obviously did not take tortilla making serious enough. 

Eventually, I was joined by David and the Mecia family.  Styrofoam plates, plastic forks and paper napkins (available only because of our presence) were set around the table with a lot of mix-up because plates, napkins and forks are not usually a part of the table setting.  The youngest children looked confused about this.  A strong wind gusted through the glassless window and kept blowing the plates and napkins around which only added to the muddle. Neighbor children sat in the narrow bedroom doorway to watch this unusual activity.

David and I, as the honored guests, were served huge bowls of boiled beef and veges in a delicious broth.  The table was stacked with dozens of tortillas; I might note here that a tiny basket with my tortillas was set before David and me and that Nicolas commanded his wife to remove the things and refused to let us eat them even though we protested.

Later, when I reached the bottom of my soup bowl I unknowingly inhaled a chunk of hot pepper. I was instantly on fire and pantomimed for a drink while everyone laughed at my bulging eyes, gulps for air and the beads of sweat that suddenly covered my face. The mom of the family is notorious for her ability to consume the hottest peppers of the land and in large quantities; she often snacks on peppers and coffee wiping the sweat from her face and forehead with her hand woven scarf. Even Nicolas scolds her for eating such hot peppers but she continues to do so and liberally adds them to all her dishes. Later I noticed David was very cautious when he reached the bottom of his bowl. 

We ate and talked for at least an hour.  The Mecia family, tried as always, to convince us to move to Santiago and then as is often the case, various members of the family began to wander off. Grandma loaded a Styrofoam plate with the remaining salada we had brought and disappeared. Later I quietly slipped around to photograph the family members in various siesta positions.  These people can sleep at any time, in any position and frequently nod off in the middle of raucous conversations. 

The kids and I played jacks and ball and generally had a good time.  We spent some time sitting in the squalid ‘courtyard’ which had a magnificent view of the San Pedro volcano.  A single red chicken pecked around in the dirt at my feet. Nicolas showed us his ID and Pedro’s birth certificate.  We looked at their shower stall, which they never use, and talked to Nicolas about installing an electric water heating head because the women of the family want to bathe in warm water instead of going to the lake.

We had a long round of goodbyes after promising that David and I would host a picnic (of which we had to explain exactly what that is) for the family sometime in February.

A few days later David got a call.  Nicolas would be coming over on his day off so the guys could fish and Josepha, his wife, was bringing over some tortillas!

UPDATE: Yesterday, David and I were sitting on the patio when we heard voices. Looking up we saw Josepha descending the stone stairway with a basket perched on her head and Nicolas right behind. We enjoyed fried lake fish smothered in tomato sauce, a fresh peppery hot salad and tortillas.  It was delicious.  The guys went off and Josepha (who speaks only Tz’utujil) and I looked at pictures of my bead, basket, and jewelry work. Then she demonstrated how I am to use the cement laundry washing tub, in which she was far more vigorous about it than I am.  Josepha enjoyed a warm shower and then I taught her how to make Indian fry bread! All in all it was a pleasant afternoon and we managed to communicate quite well.

Until next time, Adios




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