I began the second half of my K’ichee’ Maya language immersion last Friday – today is my first internet in 5 days. I woke up to a 7.1 earthquake at 5am. I have fleas.
But I’m learning a lot.
That is to say I’m taking a lot in. My retention rate however, leaves much to be desired. I’m in Nahualá, Guatemala – a K’ichee’ community about 30 minutes from Quetzaltenango/Xela.
My normal day begins with a feeling of immense thirst, which is no different than the thirst developed from sleeping for eight hours in Albuquerque. But here in Nahualá, sink water is not exactly potable. And although New Mexico has some of the highest levels of naturally occurring arsenic in the country in their drinking water, I decide not to chance the Nahualá tap water; partly because the program told us not to, but mostly because on my second day there we visited a little cow barn where we were able to practice some K’ichee’ vocab. Upon arriving to the
cow barn we students grinned at the opportunity to finally utilize animal vocabulary. I pointed and yelled “waakax” (which means cow) excitedly. When I looked back for adulation, our Nahualeño teachers were instead looking at the “ja’” (river), which was full of “kiik” (blood) from slaughtering the cows.
Bottled water has been a staple.
Following the “ronojel q’iij” (every day) thirst of water, I get my washcloth and walk downstairs into the courtyard. In the courtyard there are two washing stations with spouts – one for food and dishes, one for bathing and laundry. There is a maid at each one every morning when I wake up, no matter how early. Leaning against the bathing sink is Dorka, washing the family’s clothes. Her real name is Dora, but Naan Talin (Mother Talin) can’t pronounce a Spanish “r,” which sounds more like a “sh” in K’ichee’, so she sticks a “k” in to make it easier.
Dorka is a small girl between 8-12 years old. Some days she seems much older, like when she’s doing her chores. But some days she looks at the other kids playing and she can’t be a day older than 7. She never tells me her real age, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind to me when nobody is watching. I wet my washcloth and rub it over my face. “La utz awach?” (How are you?). She stares at me. She knows I know she won’t respond. She won’t respond because she thinks it’s a stupid question. She won’t respond because I’ve already been around two weeks. I shouldn’t be asking such simple questions anymore. She won’t respond because to her, it’s obvious. Of course she’s not “utz” (good). She’s washing people’s underwear.
“Xinkoosik,” says Dorka. I scrunch my face, close my eyes, and put my left hand on my forehead. I don’t know what she’s saying. “Na weta’m taj” (I don’t know), I say. She draws her soapy hands out of the water and looks at me angrily. “Chaakuyuu numaak” (Pardon me/sorry), I say. She waves her hands in the air “Xinkoosik!” I squint my eyes and stare at her deeply and mumble “Xinkoosik…Xin-koos-ik. Ahhhh! La xatkoosik?” (Are you tired?). She looks, smiles quickly, and picks up the knob of soap again, “Jee, Xinkoosik”.
I smile and give her a thumbs up. It’s not until I get back to my room that I realize that I gave her a thumbs up to her telling me she’s tired. I wonder if 'thumbs up' is a thing here. Nonverbal communication is a HUGE deal in Nahualá. In any conversation it’s normal to point using your lower lip when referring to objects in the room. When speaking about trees, it is custom to lift one’s palm, flattened to the sky. When talking about a dog, or other animals, it’s customary to point to the animal with all five fingers in a flattened, spread fan manner. Then, there are all the derogatory hand signs that are made.
Due to my proclivity for that which is interestingly crude, it has taken a mere week to learn most of the vulgar words and hand signs in K’ichee’. Of course these are rarely used, and only ever among close friends. The Nahualeño teachers help me out with that. Later that day at school during our 15-minute-long break that frequently runs to 30 due to impromptu soccer games, I huddle in a corner with aXuan and aTe’k, and ask them about vulgarities as we sip coffee and eat fresh sweet bread. I convince them it’s because I want to more fully understand K’ichee’ and its intricacies. It works. aTe’k shoots me the five fingers in a flattened, spread fan hand sign. I think about it for a second. aXuan whispers “tz’i’” (dog). Oh.
He’s calling me a female dog.
Most of what is to be learned about cuss-words in K’ichee’ is similar to that in English and can be easily guessed.
Tz’ikin (n) bird
Pruta (n) banana
B’aaq (adj) thin; (n) bone, needle
All these mean essentially the same thing. But the most interesting are the ones that aren’t so obvious.
T’oot’ (n) snail, vagina
Learning all these actually made it easier to learn vocabulary. But the vocab was only a byproduct of learning the vulgarities of K’ichee’. Mostly, it made me much closer to the Nahualeño teachers who told me they were happy to speak to me in “confianza.” They told me all this under the pretense that I would never use vulgarities in Nahualá. Which I never did, except for the inside jokes we whispered among each other, followed by the sounds of middle school giggles. But they did instruct me in one special instance for which they would allow me to use a certain set of words that weren’t exactly vulgar, but were the defacto retort to ANY and every K’ichee’ diss and downgrade;
This must be said with exaggeration, accusatory pointed lips, and the ugliest face ever. “La Taat!” is the K’ichee’ equivalent to “Yo Mama!” except that instead of it being your mom, it is the person in question’s father, which is oddly more common. The Nahualeño teachers told me not to say the phrase lightly, and only in a singular situation of dire need, like if anybody was calling me any of the aforementioned names or flashing me a pointed hand fan.
All of this should have been prefaced by saying, at the very least, the vulgar exchanges were far and away the most polite I’ve ever seen. In all truth nothing was ever said or done to disrespect their language or culture. It did, however, provide me the opportunity to broaden my scope on culture.
That night we had a candlelit dinner because we lost power. And since we had to light candles, I was invited to take a “tuj”. Here people clean themselves in little sweat lodges called "tuj." Inside the tuj there is a slimy wood bench, two containers of water, one cold, one hot to mix and bathe - all lit by candlelight. It's relaxing aside from the slimy bench. I squeezed through the little opening and sat down on the slimy bench. I used the bar of soap the family gave me and slathered it all over me, scrubbed with a washcloth, and then began to dry off. As I stood up to exit the tuj my back grazed the roof of the little mud-brick hut and I had to sit back down and wash mud from my back for another 30 minutes. Then I carefully re-dried. I changed into my clothes in the little sweat box. I only took one tuj because I was never quite sure it was possible to leave the tuj cleaner than I had been before going in.
At dinner that night my host family wanted to know how I felt about the tuj. I told them I was “sib’alaj choom” (very fat) for the tuj, and they laughed. I realized later what an integral part of family life the tuj was. It was the place designated for delivering children, and for cleaning the bodies of dead family members. The tuj in my opinion, along with the kitchen, is the center of family life. It all began and ended with the tuj.
The next morning, a fellow K’ichee’ student named Katie invited me over to her house to try on a “coxtar,” or a man’s skirt that is traditionally worn in Nahualá. The skirt is accompanied by a special hat, shirt, shoes, belt, and scarf. 50 years ago, all the Nahualeño men were wearing these outfits. Today, men still wear them, but it has become less common as styles have changed. Now they are worn mostly in ceremonial settings, and for many they have become too expensive for people to afford.
I thought they looked hip.
But because I’ve got an easy six inches and at least 60 pounds on the average Nahualeño it was difficult to find a coxtar that would actually fit me. After asking all around town, Katie passed along my desire to flaunt my feathers, and her host family so graciously obliged. Her family dressed me up, laughed and cheered at seeing me try on the coxtar. It was fun. But underlining the entire experience, I wondered if they felt I was somehow making fun of or exploiting their culture. That feeling sunk deeper into me as Katie and I walked through the town square to get to class that morning and people stopped and stared, pointed, and laughed. While there’s very little I love more than attention, I was also acutely aware that my goodhearted desire to experience the cultures of others in a fun way might be a different experience for Nahualeños.
That night as I sat eating egg soup, fresh tortillas, bread, and hot coffee with my host family, I asked them if it was ok that I wear the coxtar, and how they felt about it (in Spanish of course). They told me that they thought I looked funny. And I did. For a 5’11 guy, the skirt sufficiently showed off my pale thighs, causing me to make the traditional outfit a tad risqué. But then Isildra, one of the family members, looked at me and said that even Diego (her little 5 year old son) didn't like to
wear the coxtar. In fact, none of the men in their family wore a coxtar. As the night wore on, we talked about politics, life, and my girlfriend –whom had become “nupeepe” (my butterfly) after a translation error made in class. Before long, we had all eaten, decided it was time to stop gossiping, and we began to dance. I say we, but basically they turned the radio channel to some static music and looked at me with wide grins. I busted a move, and they all began to riot. I did the "Soulja Boi" and Isildra almost went to the ground laughing. Then Naan Talin (the grandma) started mimicking my dance moves and tried to do the "stanky leg." Finally, I asked for little Dorka's hand, who was sitting near the corner of the kitchen laughing quietly, and I asked her to join me. And she shook her head. I laughed, gathered myself, the music roared, "La xatkoosik?" I asked. She shook her head, "Na xinkoos taj," and she got up to dance. I never saw her laugh so hard, and I was happy with my family.
The Mayan Language Institute is a summer program that takes place every year from June 14 - July 27 in Guatemala. UNM's Dr. Mondloch is one of three professors in the U.S. that teaches K’ichee’. If you're interested, sign up for K’ichee’ I, which begins in Fall 2015 listed under Linguistics (LING 401).