One of the coolest things here is that all of the materials that it takes to build a thatched hut are out in the forest, waiting to be found. Many families here proudly bring us into their houses and show us that they have used only what they can find or make from natural materials, and in some cases, the natural stuff lasts longer and works better than imitation materials. Of course, some houses are made from cement blocks with tin roofs and are nailed and cemented together and everything must be purchased from the city. But a palapa, or thatched hut, can be built from felled trees, topped with palm leaves, and tied together with vines. Even the floors in many cases are still just dirt. And it was the floor that we were going to help with at a neighbor's house down the street. This particular family had plans of having a big party at their house spanning a whole week, and needed more room for guests to work and eat in, so they were hurrying to finish the roof and floor of a new palapa. The frame was already there, consisting of four poles supporting an oblong roof with rounded ends. The floor was mostly just an empty space, and around the edges of the would-be floor were large rocks, meant to be a boundary for the floor. To help keep it flat and even, strings had been run around the edges and across the middle.
Our job was to fill this 10ft x 20ft space with about 8 inches of rocks, first larger rocks on the bottom, and then smaller and smaller ones, until finally it would be topped with just dirt. A corner had already been filled in to show us the correct method. When we asked where we would find such rocks, the women pointed around their yard, and said "Take whatever rocks you can find." So we set out to gather rocks, using a couple of old 5-gallon buckets to transport them in. The yard was on a small slope, so the back was maybe 10 feet taller than the front. The slope was entirely one huge porous limestone rock, so we literally just pulled rocks out of the ground to fill our buckets. One of the men helped us out, placing and leveling the larger rocks around the edges. We pulled rocks from everywhere, even their old burn piles and around the pig pen. As finding the loose rocks got sparse, he actually took a pickaxe and started chopping into the dirt and stone to pull out more and more rocks of all sizes. It was backbreaking work, and we were soon hot and sweating from the sun and the weight of the filled buckets. As the morning wore into afternoon, our breaks started getting longer just to recover our strength and stop sweating so much. But, after four hours of work and probably 100 buckets full of rocks, the floor was level full with rocks and ready for the dirt top. And even better, lunch was ready...we had watched and smelled the process of killing and cleaning and grilling the chicken, and cutting vegetables to cook in broth over the fire. I even tried my hand at patting corn tortillas, because that is something every woman must know how to do. So for our starving tired bodies, chicken soup with handmade tortillas and a sweet rice drink was the best food we had ever eaten, plus the knowledge of a job well done.