Punta Gorda Stories and Tips

Craft with the Chiacs

Basket Making - The Living Maya Experience Photo, Punta Gorda, Belize

In the afternoon we were shown the route to meet up with Marta Chiac, a partner in this new venture. It was a 10 minute walk to Marta’s home and we hadn’t got that far when we saw her smiling face coming towards us. I have to admit that I commandeered her initially and had a great chat with her as she led the way to her home. She, like Amina, is very personable and it was a real pleasure speaking with her.

She explained that she and her parents shared Chistobal’s vision for the Living Maya Experience and they have developed a visitor’s centre, in a traditional building, in which all their skills and crafts can be carried out. After a 15 minute walk we reached Marta’s home and were introduced to her parents. The building is in the grounds of their home which is, like Amina’s, concrete with a thatched roof. The toilet facilities will be a bit of a shock for pampered visitors as it’s basically an open cess pit over which you must crouch. I was the only one of our foursome that braved the building (a rickety wooden shack) and it’s amazing how long it’s possible to hold your breath!

Marta introduced us to her parent’s skills following a brief family history. Juan Chiac learnt his basket making skills from his father-in-law and Marta jokingly said that he’d been drawn to Hilaria because she was a skilled back strap weaver and he wanted to learn the skill of basket making. At this point Juan, who was said to have very limited English, gave a broad grin. It later became obvious that he understood more than he let on!

Juan gave us a lesson in basket making – using his feet he held and turned the basket so that he could thread the raw material around the weave. Like all these skills it looked easy but controlling with our feet proved a little difficult. This was the first of many skills that we tried at Marta’s that resulted in laughter. Not only with us as visitors, but also our hosts. I was not about to be beaten by this skill and persisted until finally I was getting it right. My speed was sadly lacking, but the weave looked reasonable and Juan was happy with it and agreed to show us how to progress up the side of the wicker basket – that is to show how he developed the curve. This was a wee bit more challenging but I once again took centre stage and continued working the wicker. I don’t think I’d ever reach professional standards but felt that I developed a competence in the art of basket weaving.

Next Juan showed us how to make a hammock. Now this was complex as it required the "weave" to be counted in. I think the real skill had taken place earlier in the set up of the hammock and despite careful explanation I’m not sure any of us quite got it, but we did have fun trying.

Now it was time for Hilaria to take centre stage and teach us the fine art of Back Strap Weaving. We’d seen people weaving in this way when we were at Lake Atitlan (see separate Journal) but never been hands-on. Now it was our chance to shine. I was the last of our foursome to try it and I’d enjoyed seeing the others struggle. What I hadn’t banked on was how difficult a process it was. Moving the shuttle from one side of the cloth to the other but at one point in the process you had to pull up with one hand, push down with the other, give some slack to the tension and then take up the slack. Talk about multi tasking! And not only was it multi tasking at its best but it was also physically quite demanding. How come these weavers make it look so straight-forward?

At this point in the proceedings we were joined by two of Marta’s sisters who were keen to show us their skills. One etched intricate design on coconut shells. Once again it sounds a straight-forward task, but once we tried it we realised the level of concentration required to scrap the design into the nut. Not to mention the artistic requirement to create the design in the first place. I was impressed that we were allowed to try our skills on a carving that she’d already progressed quite well with, but she watched us carefully and I’m sure was able to rectify any errors that we made.

The final demonstration, by another sister, was in relation to small ornamental wicker-ware. This entailed sewing together the finely plaited "wicker" to create quite heavy lidded baskets. I didn’t try this as I’m not too good with a needle and the Chiac family were certainly of the opinion that this was "women’s work". My wife did have a go and said it was hard work as the wicker was real tough.

We see all the skills, had a go at most of them and enjoyed some great humour with the Chiac family and felt we were on target to catch the 5.00 bus from the bottom of the road. It was 4.45 and we explained that we needed to set off to catch the bus. The room went silent and then Marta entered into discussion with the rest of the family before very quietly telling us that the 5.00 pm bus went at 6.00 pm. Not a problem for us but clearly the family were embarrassed that we would have to wait longer for the bus. We explained that we were having fun and would certainly not have been ready to leave them at 3.40.

Now was the time for fond farewells and Marta gave all of a gift to take home – the men a wrist band and the women some ear-rings carved out of coconut shells. What a nice gesture. We left to many smiles and laughter and thanked the family for sharing their afternoon with us. We’d had a great time. What good value and superb entertainment.

As a postscript when we got back to Hickatee Cottages Ian, the owner, received a phone call from Marta. She was anxious to know if we’d got back to Hickatee and was really apologetic for "making us miss" the earlier bus. I asked Ian to let her know that we were fine and that we’d had a great day and didn’t regret catching the later bus. He did transmit this message, but said that he was due to meet up with Marta and Amina as he felt that they currently were not stucturing the visits to give visitors the best experience. I'm not sure he's right with that because we were able to gain knowledge from the families by asking questions - the lack of structure to the day gave us freedom to enjoy at leisure.

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