Margarita could be considered a master chef, that makes some of the best stuff I’ve ever tasted coming off of a fire. She’s also very skilled at making a variety of items that are cooked best in a pib. She often makes cha-cha-kwas in great numbers to sell throughout town, as well as pibi-wahs and buli-wahs, which are similar to cha-cha-kwas but made with beans in them and with or without meat. She’s also the undisputed champ at making makulam, which is the process of carefully spreading out soft masa onto a makulam leaf and then topping the masa with a ground pepita (pumpkin seed) sauce flavored with chopped cilantro and chili. Another difference between makulam and all the others, is that when makulams are taken out of the pib, the leaf is not unwrapped or peeled off, it is eaten. The makulam leaf has a natural sharp mint taste that most people either love or hate, and she sells well to those who enjoy it.
When she gets the chance, Margarita likes nothing better than watching her favorite soap operas on her TV that she has in her na from a cozy, sprawled out position in her hammock. I sometimes watch them with her just to watch her see things she’s never seen, like big ‘ol fancy homes with elaborate furniture and appliance-glutted kitchens, or exquisite wardrobe collections and absurdly large, gaudy, and shiny vehicles for transportation. She rarely seems to think much of it all, either because she doesn’t care for a pillow covered black leather sofa with gold trimmed glass end tables, or it’s just all fantasy to her like what we see in Star Wars is to us. Tachi on the other hand, has all kinds of reactions. Not to soap operas, which he never watches, but to cartoons. The guy sits straight up like a giant kid in his hammock, and becomes just a show himself of hysterical facial expressions. This isn’t to say that he is a hammock potato going brain dead watching the tube for hours everyday, but when he’s got a spare minute during his otherwise always busy schedule, you’re sure to find him in his other hammock in the kitchen. A torn up collection of soiled strings that looks like it can barely support his giant belly and is sure to unravel at any minute.
Tachi, like all campesinos (farmers) in Tinum, is an amazingly hard worker. He spends hours upon hours in his milpa (cornfield) doing what’s necessary to yield an abundant harvest, and it’s somewhere where I can always find him arriving on his triciclo (three wheeled bike) just as the morning sun has risen. I sometimes help him with easier tasks in the milpa like harvesting beans, because milpas are such quiet and peaceful places, and he’s such a trip to hang out with. It’s easy for me to forget sometimes, that Tachi and everyone else in Tinum, have a much different set of perspective dimensions than I. Once out there picking ibis beans with him, a white bean that must be harvested early in the day before its pod dries in the sun and exposes a thorn end, Tachi wanted to know certain things.
First of all, he sometimes forgets that he has to speak Spanish with me, but his questions would be as thought provoking in any language. He was curious to hopefully learn from a well-traveled, well-schooled “gringo” from the mighty United States, if it would be possible for him to go to another planet where people live in an airplane, … like the airplanes he’s never been on that sometimes pass high overhead and have a white tail. And he wanted to know that if God made amazing things like watermelons, pigs, and flowers for bees to make honey, was he also responsible for making other fascinating objects like triciclos, watches, and telephones. But Tachi was most curious to know, … why clouds don’t fall. And he was completely stunned to find out, that moonshine was a reflection, and that was by far the easiest thing to explain.
Tachi is also an accomplished hunter, and whereas about half of the campesinos in town own a rifle, he has a shotgun. It’s perfectly legal to walk or ride your bike right through the center of town if you want with a loaded weapon, although most guys only have them with them out in the milpa in a case a deer happens to walk by. But Tachi is very keen at spotting signs, tracking, and hunting animals that when killed and sold, pay for his shots, and put food on his table and in my belly. He talks about sitting perfectly still in trees sometimes during the middle of the night out in the jungle or in his milpa, awaiting what he lures with bait. Or, he says he knows how different animals “talk” to each other, their roaming habits, and how to tell where they’ve been and are going. But whatever he shoots, one thing’s for certain, … I’ll end up eating some of it.
Tachi and Margarita have a strange fascination with seeing me eat whatever odd thing Tachi shoots and brings home. Whether it be a cereque (large rodent thing), a tejon (small mammal with a long nose and long tail), a halib (small wild bore), a deer, a chacalaka (wild turkey), or a boa constrictor, Margarita can turn each into a feast for a king. Usually, anything Tachi brings home is first cooked by itself in a pib, and then Margarita sneaks up behind me holding its head in her hand. She then dices the meat and mixes it with red onions, chilis, tomatoes, and cilantro all sprinkled with naranja agria (sour orange juice), for delectable hot corn tortilla tacos with guacamole on the side. But she’s also made a number of scrumptious soups and pasta-type salads. And once, Tachi came home with a rabbit he said he’d just seen get hit by a car on his way home from the milpa. I just happened to be there, when he tore off its fur coat and promised me a great lunch for the following day. And sure enough, it ended up being one tasty bunch of “tacitos de road kill”.
Another one of Tachi’s talents is his ability to work with bees. The Mayans have long been expert beekeepers and of course make good use of the honey they produce. Their almost addicted desire for the sweet treat is understandable, if ever you were to taste the honey that their special bees make. The bees they’ve always traditionally worked with are native to the Yucatan and are coincidentally called Maya bees. Maya bees only make honey in short hollowed out log sections and are appreciably and thankfully sting less. The honey from their hives is smoother than silk and a pure liquid gold, and unmatched in every way by any other honey. Unfortunately, about 20 years ago, bees from Africa were mistakenly introduced to the Yucatan. Coincidentally called African bees, they are much more aggressive than the Maya bees and have been chasing away and killing them off at a steady pace ever since. So, most campesinos as a result now work with the African bees as well. The honey they produce in boxes is nowhere near the quality made by the Maya bees, and they sting like it’s going out of style. But there is a strong market for their yield, and the transition hasn’t taken the shirt off of Tachi’s back, not that it’s really ever fully on anyway.
Curious thing that I haven’t ever asked about, but in all the years that I’ve known Tachi, every single time that I’ve seen him, he’s been wearing a short sleeve button-up shirt that’s never been buttoned. Not the same short sleeve shirt, a variety of different ones that all seem to have perfectly functioning buttons on them, yet have never been used. Margarita takes the kids to church, and it is she who takes the kids to school. So, Tachi rarely ever has the actual need to button up his shirt. Don’t know what he did on his wedding day. Perhaps it’s a genetic idiosyncrasy, because I’ve never seen his brother named Rio with his shirt buttoned up either.
Margarita and Tachi decided to use our visit to Tinum as an excuse to throw a party. A party in Tinum is an all-day event, and this time we would be making cha-cha-kwa for the festivities. We went over early in the day to get things started as is always the case, and our first chore was dealing with the meat. Nobody’d just gone to the supermarket to buy it, because there is no supermarket in Tinum. It was more of a matter of running around the yard chasing chickens and turkeys, and taking a walk to the home of one of the butchers in town to obtain some freshly cut up pork who’d been up since midnight slaughtering a pig. Catching a turkey or chicken isn’t an easy thing, but with a little persistence and help from those who know how to, we finally got a few. Once caught, each bird is hung from a tree branch by its feet, and then Tachi handed me a knife and giggled. It was suppose to be my job to cut out their tongues or slit their throats, but I allowed Tachi the honors. Soon, all of the birds were flopping around and dripping blood, until their bodies were limp with death. It’s somewhat of a gruesome event to witness, but as common a task in the village, as waking up each day.
The birds are then dipped into a large cauldron of boiling water heated by a raging fire, to scald their skin and make it easier to pluck out their feathers. Once then absent of all plumage, Margarita and her friends skillfully butchered the birds on a rickety table, while throwing what could not be used to waiting dogs. The rest went into another pot to be cooked, just as work began to prepare the masa. The masa (ground corn dough) is first mixed with manteca (pig fat), and then a dye made from the dried seeds of acheote is introduced to give the masa taste and an orange-red color. Meanwhile, Tachi and his friends start digging a hole in the backyard that will become an underground oven known locally as a pib (pronounced peep). They also gather firewood, rocks, and banana tree leaves, and separate sections of banana tree trunks.
Back inside of the kitchen (hut), the cooked birds are allowed to cool a bit before Rob and the women start shredding all of the meat and skin into tiny little pieces. I am over next to the fire, where it was my task to singe the huge banana leaves collected by the men over the licking flames to give them suppleness, and then ripping them into square, paperback book-sized pieces. Eventually, I produce a hearty stack, and we are now ready to begin making the cha-cha-kwas.
First, a banana leaf piece is laid on the table. Then a ball of masa is flattened into a circle on top of it. On top of that, is added a tasty sauce with a manteca base called co'olito, strips of chicken, turkey, and pork meat, a slice of tomato, and if desired, a chili section. The flattened masa is then folded in a way to keep everything inside, and the leaf is wrapped around it to protect the ready to be cooked cha-cha-kwa inside.
Although the men and women don’t ever really partake or interfere with each other’s chores, they always have a good sense of where each other is in accomplishing them, and usually proceed accordingly without being told as to keep the entire process moving along as it should. So then as clockwork, the men suddenly and instinctually spring up from idle chitchat and decide out of the blue, that it was time to get the fire going in the underground oven. Choice firewood and rocks are carefully stacked in the pib and then lit with a burning ember carried to it from the women’s fire. It is the rocks that trap the heat from the eventual coals that make the oven work properly, and soon all is ablaze and settles to the bottom neatly.
The women meanwhile finish hours of cha-cha-kwa making, usually just as the oven is hot and ready to go. No time can be lost now, because the coals must be taken advantage of during the peek of their heat output. First, a thin layer of green leaves is scattered directly on the hot coals as a buffer from scorching. Then the cha-cha-kwas are placed throughout the pib, often on top of each other. This job is very dangerous because you have to be sure not to fall in the pib. Sticks are then laid across the top of the pib and the banana tree trunk sections piled thick on top of them. Finally, the dirt dug up to make the pib in the first place, is shoveled back on top of the trunk sections until not a single wisp of smoke can be seen rising from it. Normally by the time this stage of the day’s overall cooking challenge is complete, it’s late afternoon and the usual time everyone in the village begins to take their daily baths. So, we went home to do the same, and were instructed to return two hours later when the cha-cha-kwas would be ready and unearthed. And when we did return, everyone who’d gotten so dirty from the day’s tasks, were now all well scrubbed and in clean clothes. But then it was time to open the oven.
Usually by candlelight because night has fallen, or by flashlight if available, dust rises into the air, as the dirt covering the pib is scraped away with both a shovel and eager bare hands. The unmistakable, mouthwatering aromas of cha-cha-kwa then reach every nose far and wide, and the banana tree trunks are removed one by one. At last, the cha-cha-kwas themselves are exposed and seem to just be waiting to be munched upon. One thing though, ya gotta first get ‘em out of the pib. Putting the cha-cha-kwas in the pib is much easier, because although the coals are fiery hot, you can just sorta toss or softly place them all in. Getting them out though, requires getting down low and literally grabbing each one, and not only are the coals still smoldering with unbearable furry, the cha-cha-kwas themselves are more than a bit warm. Everyone is suddenly sweating again, and you hear the Maya word for “hot” over and over, “cho’ko, … cho’ko!”
It’s all well worth the trouble and torture though, because suddenly you have a giant, all-you-can-eat pile of cha-cha-kwas to choose from. And once carried back to the kitchen where tall glasses of cold Coke are being poured, the feasting will soon begin. Those cha-cha-kwas that were closest to the coals generally end up quite crispy if not partially burnt, while top layer cha-cha-kwas are soft and melt in your mouth. Everyone has a favorite type, and both Rob and I love the crunchy ones. Finally, everyone has a seat somewhere somehow, and begins unwrapping their banana leaf delicacies. And the taste, is nothing short of being absolutely heavenly.