National Geographic : 2013 Aug
compound. In the oval kitchen hut was strung a row of hammocks, each cradling a Caamal relative who lay chatting and rocking gently. It would have been cooler without the hearth--- three large stones on the dirt oor with embers glowing beneath a large iron griddle---but the kitchen embers are always stoked. Caamal's erce, tiny mother glared at me, a "Spanish," or non-Maya, visitor, but she made some tortillas, o ering them with meat and chilies. Later she would pointedly ask her son when I was plan- ning to get out of her hammock and leave, but the rules of hospitality, as set as the movement of the stars, dictated that food be o ered. Back on the road, we saw slender trees shoot- ing up from the bone-white, bone-hard surface of the karst. We stopped at the village of Chun- Yah, which, like many in the Zona Maya, has no land or cellular phone communication with the outside world and only rudimentary schools. In his own dusty compound of oval thatched-roof huts, Caamal's mentor and hmem, Mariano Pa- checo Caamal, greeted me with a broad smile. Don Mariano said he knew how to use 40 di erent kinds of plants to cure illnesses and heal fractures and snakebites. At a particularly fragile time for Pastor, Don Mariano had built a protective ring of invisible re around his friend. In dreams he had learned what to ask each god and on which day of the week. He knew where to nd the sacred caves. Don Mariano wore cuto s and ip- ops and seemed to have remarkably few possessions for a man of his age and prestige. He spoke only elementary Spanish, and because my Mayan is nonexistent, Pastor had to translate my questions a few di erent ways to get the meaning across. I asked Don Mariano how he knew he was Maya. e mild-mannered hmem blinked behind his thick glasses. "Because we are poor," he said. I asked again. "Because of what we eat, our skin color, our height," came the reply, and then he thought of a better answer. "Because here there are no factories, machines, smoke. At night we have peacefulness, silence. In the morning I say, Today I will do this or that. Our work is our own. When one works for outsiders, they say, Give me your time. But Maya are their own rulers." Did he know of a Cha Chaak coming up? Alas, Don Mariano could only con rm that I was late. In Chun-Yah as elsewhere, the time for planting and rain invoking had already passed. en he graciously explained how a Cha Chaak o ering is set up in his small part of the Maya universe. A rectangular altar, or o ering table, about three feet wide and made of saplings and a few boards, represents the world. e vari- ous foods for Chaak are placed on it in a strict order, along with half-gourd cups of a sacred fermented drink, balché, made from tree bark, and gourds lled with holy water taken from a hidden cenote or cave. e special food o ering consists of 13 loaves of "bread," thick tortillas made of 13 layers of masa, or corn dough, rep- resenting the 13 layers of the otherworld above. e bread is wrapped in leaves of bakaalché, a local vine, and baked in a co n-size pit, or pib, dug out near the altar. A cross is placed at the center back of the table to oversee the whole. I ventured that I had heard about sapitos, small boys who crouch at the base of the altar table and encourage Chaak to arrive by imitating the call of frogs during the rainy season. Pastor and the hmem looked at each other and smiled. "You heard about that [near Chichén Itzá], right?" Pastor said. He imitated the boys imi- tating the frogs: " ey go lek lek lek." He smiled again. "Muy bonita costumbre. A very pretty custom." He grinned. "We don't do that here." In Yaxuná, a little town in the middle of the peninsula---on yet another parchingly hot morning, the rains overdue, not a cloud in sight---where a late season ceremony was being held for the laggard Chaak, they most certainly do. Yaxuná is some 12 miles south of Chichén Itzá, and in this part of Yucatán many people still depend on milpa, making them the anxious subjects of Chaak. e ceremony in Yaxuná had almost ended by the time I caught up with it. For going on two days rain-desperate villagers and their hmem had toiled without rest or sleep to per- suade Chaak to come to them. ey had walked , , .