National Geographic : 1941 Sep
Jungle Housekeeping for a Geographic Expedition BY MARION STIRLING " UT, Sefora, you don't eat our kind of food. We don't know how to cook your way." Practically every woman and girl in the village told us that. For two days we had been canvassing all the communities within ten miles of the Na tional Geographic Society-Smithsonian Expe dition camp at Cerro de las Mesas in Veracruz. In such an out-of-the-way section of Mexico the idea of domestic help was a novelty. Every man had in his household an ample number of children or female relatives to ac complish all the housework needed. During two preceding years at Tres Za potes, we had encountered similar difficulties.* There the question was largely one of pro priety. It did not seem respectable that young, unchaperoned women should spend the day at a camp occupied primarily by men. The lure of the peso, however, finally over came the scruples of some of the more broad minded parents, and soon our girls became the envy of other women of the village. Gossip Appeal for Domestic Help Here I had to assure them that we, too, enjoyed rice, black beans, eggs, and tortillas. I also pictured the advantages of hearing the phonograph and radio and the prestige of be ing the first to know what was happening in camp. At last, when progress seemed hopeless, Miguel, who has a way of his own with the women, appeared with Florinda, a not unat tractive widow with three young children. Our relief at finally getting a cook was so great that we made no objection to the un solicited addition of the rest of the family to our camp personnel. Dulce, Florinda's eldest daughter, was eight years old and soon won her way into our hearts (Plate V). Florinda, once established as head cook, helped me complete our staff with a general handy girl and three potsherd (broken pot tery) washers. As at Tres Zapotes, we planned to eat native fare supplemented with canned luxuries we brought along, such as jam, pickles, sar dines, chipped beef, peanut butter, cheese, fruits, and vegetables. * Mrs. Stirling, wife of the leader, was housekeeper, bookkeeper, and supervised washing of figurines, var nishing skulls, etc. She was on all three of the Na tional Geographic Society-Smithsonian Archeological Expeditions to Veracruz: 1939, 1940, and 1941. In the Tropics it is much more practicable to live in the native type of palm house than in tents. To build a house in Cerro de las Mesas, no formality is required other than permission to cut the building material in the neighboring jungle (page 320). Anyone can obtain as much land as he wishes to plant. Nonresidents are usually required to pay a small fee for palm, but we escaped this charge by telling the local au thorities that we were going to present the houses to the village when we left. The "Bird Man" Cuts Palms All the men know how to construct a house, but we hired the town master carpenter as general supervisor. Some of the men cut trees for the posts. Others cut bejuco, vines used for tying and binding in place of nails. Chilango cut all the palm used for thatch ing. Florinda called him the "bird man" be cause he stayed in the tops of the trees with his machete, using a long pole as a perch to slide from one to another (page 278). Those owning burros were paid one peso (about 20 cents) a day extra to haul the thatch to camp. This was a good return on a 15-peso investment, the local value of a burro. Meanwhile a ground crew cleared and leveled the house site and the carpenter lined up his post holes with a piece of string. The only tools used were the machete, a long heavy knife, and the tarpala, a stick with a straight hoe blade on one end. This all-purpose tool is employed to clear brush as well as for planting and cultivating crops. Even in mound excavation the crew would not, at first, use our picks and shovels, but in sisted on digging with the machete and shov ing the dirt aside with the tarpala. This was hard on buried pottery and inefficient as well. However, once they learned how to use the picks and shovels, we were continually peti tioned by would-be borrowers who wanted them for working their fields. The builders were careful to orient the houses exactly north, south, east, and west, and to thatch the north and south sides as well as the roof. This afforded protection from the cold northers which brought rain, and from the warm but sometimes violent southers that foretold clear weather.