Friday, December 31, 2010

Chiapas Diaries: Day 8, Part 1 - Visit to a Family's Home

This is the nineteenth diary in a series about my recent trip to Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, to meet with and learn about the Zapatistas, an indigenous insurgent movement made up of several ethnic groups, and their food and agriculture. On our eighth day - our last day with the Zapatistas - we visited a family's home to see their beehive. Except, I immediately spotted a few chocolate trees and went off wandering to check out what else they had...

(I went with the group Schools for Chiapas, an organization that works with and provides aid to the Zapatistas. Check out their website if you are interested in either traveling with them to Chiapas yourself, or simply buying some artisanal goods or coffee produced by Zapatistas. Aside from the obvious politics involved in supporting Zapatistas, you are supporting human beings who live in extreme poverty and work their asses off to educate themselves and their children and provide for basic needs like water and health care.)

If you've read my last few diaries, you know that the group I traveled with was in Chiapas to train the kids and teachers at a secondary school to keep two species of native, stingless bees that produce tasty and medicinal honey. The bees, of the genera Melipona and Trigona, are threatened due to habitat loss from deforestation, and the Mayan tradition of keeping them and using their honey is suffering as a result.

Thus, on our very last day, we loaded our entire group and all of our stuff into the car, along with several students who would go with us to see an actual Melipona hive in a nearby family's garden. At this point, we had about 10 people crammed into a small car along with our luggage. Even still, a few people did not fit and they stayed behind to wait for a ride of some sort (hitchhiking, I assume).

Despite the excitement of going to see a real Melipona hive, the day started out on a rather somber note as everyone in the group except for me went to visit - possibly for the last time - a dear friend of theirs who was dying of cancer. He was suffering from a great deal of pain and terrified that he only had a few days worth of morphine left. Our group gave him money for more morphine, and, later in the day, stopped to buy him a walker. This man was currently using an experimental drug from a doctor who had trained in Cuba, and everyone hoped that it might do some good.

The home we visited was in a neighborhood that had a market going on that day. Everything was for sale, from food to clothes to random hardware. I bought a tortilla press for 130 pesos. Later, I learned that I was likely ripped off, and not just because I'm a Gringo. At first, we all wondered aloud how a market might possibly succeed in such a remote neighborhood. Then we found out that the government was handing out welfare money nearby, and the market was set out - with prices twice what they should be - hoping to get business from the people who had just received their welfare money.

The roads were not passable so we had to walk a few blocks to get to the home we were visiting. The family there had 14 children. The family, 18 people in all, in a small home, the front of which was built to serve as a small store where they were selling, among other things, fresh baked bread. Next to the small building where they slept was another small building that served as a kitchen, with a counter for cutting, a wood fire stove, and a real luxury - an electric corn grinder. In yet another room they had a clay oven.

The home, where 18 people lived

Inside the kitchen

Corn in the kitchen

The oven

We visited with the older children in the family while the younger kids tagged along. Our first stop was the Melipona hive. It looked exactly as we had been told it would, and exactly like the pictures of Melipona hives I had seen. In an area that looked like honeycomb, the bees stored their brood (larvae). However, the honey was stored in little "honeypots" that were each about the size of the top joint of your thumb. I took a picture or three, and then wandered off to check out what else the family was growing.

The hive

Inside the hive. Mostly, these are honeypots, with some cells containing brood on top

Door to the hive, with a guard bee in it

In the small area where we were, I observed at least:
  • 10 pigs and 6 piglets
  • 10 or so turkeys, plus baby poults
  • 10 or so chickens, plus chicks
  • 10 or so Muscovy ducks, plus ducklings
  • Citrus trees
  • 3 coconut palms
  • LOTS of cacao
  • Banana trees
  • Sugarcane
  • Pineapple
  • Tamarind
  • Noni
  • Peppers
  • Squash
  • Pinenuts
  • Breadfruit
  • Coffee

Immediately next to the area with the melipona hive, there was a grove of cacao trees, each with many pods on them. Unfortunately, it appeared that most of the cacao trees suffered a disease that was rotting the pods before they could be harvested. And while the cacao trees weren't entirely shaded, there was some shade provided by a few taller trees, such as a breadfruit tree.

Cacao trees

Cacao pods, with dark brown spots from disease

Breadfruit tree, shading the cacao trees below it

When I asked one of the older sons of the family, he told me that the cacao was primarily for their own consumption, particularly because of the disease that was causing reduced harvests. He said he got about 10 to 15 kilos of cacao per harvest. If this is the weight of the beans as they come off the trees (and I'm not sure), then their total weight after fermentation and drying would only be about 3 to 5 kilos.

From there, I began exploring other trees, trying to count how many they had with each. But there was no way to count, since the property was large and I had no idea where it started or ended. I later asked the son who did most of the farmwork about their property and he told me that they held 20 hectares about an hour's walk away, and that's where they grew their corn, squash, and beans.

Citrus fruit

Coconut palm


Several coffee trees


Tamarind tree

After I had gone about surveying the food-producing trees, I came to an area where they were drying seeds, beans, and peppers, showing some other foods the family produces.

A table, made with living trees, where they were drying seeds, beans, and peppers

Seeds drying. The white are squash, the brown are cacao, and the dark ones are pine nuts



And then I checked out the livestock...

Pig eating bean pods (after the beans were removed)


A turkey joins the pigs for a snack

Baby chicks


And I took a few other pictures of some details I found interesting - the tap for running water, the firewood drying, a beautiful flower, and the ubiquitous soda bottles that seem to have invaded every corner of the earth.

This family has running water

Firewood, drying - and in the back they are also drying palm fronds for thatch.

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