Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Chiapas Story

After clearing the plot of land with our machetes, we stopped into the general store for a refresco. We made it inside just as the mountain rainstorm hit.

It was a small wooden shack, a corrugated tin roof that made the pounding rain resound with a fierce echo. A scattering of products lined the walls—Coca Cola, Arco Iris snack cakes, canned chiles, plastic bags of laundry detergent. A television set had been set up on a simple wooden stand next to the crude table where we sat drinking our Cokes. On the TV, a DVD played of a woman from Guatemala singing Evangelical praise songs.

We sat around chatting with the owner. The rain was in full force, rattling on the tin roof. The men leaned on their machetes and sipped from the glass Coke bottles, some of them wearing the boots, jeans, checkered shirts and cowboy hats typical of Mexico’s country towns, others in traditional native one-piece garments. The rain made it difficult for me to make out the conversation in Tzotzil—the Mayan language spoken in this part of the Chiapas highlands. Spanish is definitely a foreign language out here.

Every now and then, a young boy or girl would run in holding a piece of plastic tarp over their head, sent down the road by his or her parents to buy one of the five grocery items available in this store. Invariable, the kid would poke their head in the door, stare at me in disbelief, then look around at the other men incredulously. The expression on the kid’s face seemed to say, “Are you guys SEEING this shit over here? What’s the deal with the white guy, man?”

I was able to follow the conversation enough to figure out that the men were talking about the rain coming down: “vo” in Tzotzil. I decided I’d capitalize on the occasion to try out my Tzotzil and make an ass of myself in the process. After the shopkeeper handed me my Coca Cola, I told him, “Koalabal, vinic” (“thank you, sir”) holding up the bottle. I decided to flex the word “koalabal” some more.

“Thank you all, gentlemen.”

“Thank you, general store.”

“Thank you, chair.”

Then came the real kicker. I leaned towards the open wooden door, looking up at the dark rain clouds above. “Koalabal, Chac”. This was pure gold—the men cracked up laughing at the cultural reference I had just dropped. I had showcased my knowledge of Mayan history by thanking the ancient pre-Hispanic rain god Chac for the downpour.


If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my adventures, it’s that there is no better way to bond with other men and overcome cultural differences than doing manual labor together and dropping a well-placed cultural reference.

Also, being willing to make a complete ass of yourself.

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