This is the eighth in a series of monthly stories by travel writers from EPIC Group Writers, an Edmonds non-profit organization whose mission is to support those who create, communicate and connect through cultural and artistic endeavors, especially the literary arts.
I follow an old woman pushing an uncooperative wheelbarrow, as two dogs bark at her heels and chickens scurry from the noise. She was maneuvering the windy streets of the little village of Santa Elena, near the Mayan ruins of Uxmal, in Yucatan, Mexico. Observing a yellowish mound in her wheelbarrow, I watch curiously as she stops at a stone building with one low entrance. She joins a line of women inside, while I wait at the dark doorstep. Deciding to peek inside the dark old quarters, I suddenly realize that it is a rural tortilleria. What a find! Here is a mini tortilla factory — all run by women– perhaps eight of them working efficiently, from pouring ground corn mush into a tall vat to pulling off the cut tortillas flopping onto an conveyor belt.
It was nice to arrive by myself, a temporary break from my two American friends with whom I had been traveling with in close quarters for nearly a month – from Cuba to rural Yucatan. They were elsewhere in little Santa Elena, and I would see them soon, but just being a temporary solo traveler is such freedom! I notice that when I am alone, I can interact more authentically with locals than a gaggle of three women. When we three would walk into a place, it becomes quiet.
As I watch some women pour the corn masa into the churning vat, one is on top of a table, moving in her own interpretive dance. I smile and motion if it is o.k. to take a photo of her. She smiles. I shoot. The women near her speak in rapid Spanish, but I understand enough to know that they are teasing her – that she is going to be famous now. I decide, “What the heck! We’re all women – let’s tease together.”
Over the din of the whirring machines, I yell to her, “Si! You will be famous and many revisitas (magazines) will have your picture on the front! “
Oh, do they howl with glee. They begin primping their hair and sashaying their hips, and she does the same. So do I. As she prances some more, other women in the back room leave their positions to discover the reason for gaiety out front.
Emboldened by their happy faces, or perhaps because I was alone and not afraid to be silly, I begin to tease the others that they will soon be asking for her name to be written on her many magazines and she will be very rich! (I didn’t know the Spanish word for autograph. With my limited Spanish skills, I simply throw out many words and rely on recipients to put them in correct order and tense.)
Meanwhile, more gyrations and shouts of joy erupt. The woman on the table now begins to pretend she is throwing out dollar bills to the adoring crowd below, while still attending to her machine. Others pretend to catch the “money.” I forget to take photos – it’s time to be in the moment.
I flash on this thought: Well, isn’t this the “it” experience I’ve read about? The “it” that Jack Kerouac’s character in On the Road constantly looks for when crossing the country – that perfect moment of spontaneity and closeness and freedom and enlightenment?
Seconds later, the dancing and laughing stop suddenly. The unsmiling male boss has arrived– he heads to the old cash register and weight scale. Minutes later my two traveling companions enter as well. Customers! Two white women. The “dancer” stares at me and warns without words that it’s over. I back away and join my friends to buy some very tasty, fresh tortillas. Stacks of warm, bakery wonderfulness replace the laughter, as we interact with the serious man, exchanging coins for the weight of our tortilla stack – a quiet, slow and polite dance of its own sort.
Before stepping out into the hot afternoon dust, I stop and look at my new friends one more time. The dancer and fellow workers are waving at me wildly and smiling, as are others by the tortilla assembly line in back. No sounds, just exuberant joy. I wave back energetically because our secret feels so fantastic. A little sweet teasing can spark more authentic acquaintances faster than a fresh-made tortilla!
— By Rita Ireland
As an offshoot of EPIC’s Monday morning writing sessions held at the Edmonds library, the EPIC Group Travel Writers meet at Savvy Traveler once a month. Participants of this fluid group love to travel and write stories about their journeys. You are invited to attend on the second Wednesday of the month from 3:30-5 p.m. Free to members and non-members of EPIC Group Writers.
A business in Santa Elena near the Tortilleria