This post is about some of the secular Guatemalan creencias– beliefs- that we’ve encountered during our trip. Some of these things sound pretty out there to our American ears, but are considered completely genuine by the people who explained them to us. We generally try to listen and learn in as non-judgmental a manner as possible, and I want to make it clear that in writing this I’m not making light of anyone’s culture or beliefs. This is interesting stuff and we’d simply like to share it.

Note: remember that everything here was told to us in complete earnestness by at least one person at one time or another, but it’s not like we did any fact-checking or surveys. We have no clue how widespread some of these ideas are, and some of this stuff is very local to certain villages or areas.

Mayan alter in Tikal

If a stray dog pees directly in front of you on the street three times in one week, you’re probably going to die soon.

Moza beer (a better than average dark brew, definitely alcoholic) is specially formulated to be safe for pregnant women to drink.

In many places doctors are disdained in favor of curanderos, or healers, who use medicinal plants and traditional wisdom and methods of healing. They are definitely sought out to treat broken bones, and multiple people incredulously explained to me that regular doctors would only use casts, which apparently are not a respected form of treatment.

I explained to one of my teachers how the days get longer or shorter during certain parts of the year at higher latitudes. She told me that in her hometown, sometimes, randomly, the sun will come up half an hour or so earlier or later than usual.

The men in San Pedro la Laguna are physically incapable of experiencing fear or cowardice. They’re just born that way. A woman told me this, after I’d made some little self-deprecating joke about how something had scared me.

Denae was sick to her stomach one day and her teacher almost fainted when Denae started to drink some water to stay hydrated. “You have cold in your stomach, cold water will make it worse! Drink hot tea.”

Cloudy days can cause diarrhea.

It’s very bad luck for a pregnant woman to grind corn.

Eating raw chicken ovaries will cure menstrual pains. We heard this from a friend we met who learned a vivid and bad tasting lesson about not complaining about menstrual pains to her host family.

A market set up over and around a modern Mayan alter in Momostenango

Mal de Ojo– the Evil Eye. This is a big one, I asked lots of questions and took careful notes. It is- or is similar to- an illness, one that strikes babies and kids up to the age of five or so and is potentially fatal if not properly treated. Symptoms include fever, pain, sweating, crying, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, etc, and eventually death in extreme cases. Doctors and modern medicine are unable to help and in fact deny its existence; this is the realm of the Curandero.

What happens is this: an adult with “strong blood” encounters a cute baby and pays it attention; coos at it, smiles and looks at it, touches it… unfortunately this can be quite dangerous- if the baby happens to have “weak blood,” the Mal de Ojo can be passed. The more attention paid, the higher the danger. Good or bad intentions on the part of the adult have nothing to do with it, it’s an involuntary process. Parents never pass the Ojo, but more distant relatives sometimes can. This range of weak to strong blood apparently only shows itself in relation to the Mal de Ojo, ie there is no correlation between strong blooded people becoming political leaders or talented athletes at increased rates, and weak blooded people are only weak regarding their increased susceptibility to the Ojo.

So if you find yourself with a feverish, pained baby, and have reason to suspect the Mal de Ojo, first find yourself some “ruda,” a locally available plant with wide medicinal uses, and some whole black pepper corns. Rub them over the baby in cross patterns all over her body, then throw the pepper corns in a fire. If they explode, the baby has Ojo. If they don’t explode, seek modern medicine. Alternatively, you can use a chicken egg from a neighborhood hen- factory farm eggs won’t work- instead of the pepper corns. After you’ve rubbed it on baby in cross patterns, splatter the egg, and if it’s all yellow, es Ojo!

Mal de Ojo is treated in the same way it’s diagnosed, with the egg or pepper and ruda, rubbed in cross patterns on baby. Do it three times a day for three days, and baby should be well again.

There are various ways of preventing the Evil Eye. Most effective, like abstinence, is to keep the baby in the house. Unfortunately, like abstinence, that tends to be difficult to stick with and not very fun. During outings baby should be equipped with a red bracelet complete with a cross over her inner wrist. Also, a necklace containing a tiny pouch of ruda and pepper is a good idea.

If your baby has a suspect interaction with someone on the street who looks especially strong-blooded, you can prophylactic-ally complete the pepper/egg/ruda procedure right when you get home, and that should prevent the baby from getting sick, if in fact it was going to.

Note: with this information in mind, tourists should be careful with their interactions with babies and young kids in rural areas. Even if you’re not concerned about spreading the Ojo, many of the locals are and negative interactions might occur.

A cave we hiked to outside of Todos Santos. Apparently the locals don't consider this an auspicious place- it was an especially ominous looking cave.

Susto, or fright, is a kind of disorder or illness that occurs after a traumatic or scary incident. It seems to be very similar to what we in the US know as post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Common causes include dog attacks, bus crashes, war or violence related incidents, etc… Symptoms include trouble sleeping, a general decline in physical and mental health, and the inability or difficulty to continue with anything related to the cause of the Susto. One’s health can be so impacted that death can eventually be the result.

Treatment is conducted by curanderos, who can use a variety of medicinal plants, often ruda. Drink the special herb teas prepared for you (note that some curanderos will sometimes also put modern medicine of some sort in the teas, for good measure); you’ll begin to sweat. Flowers, it doesn’t matter what kind, will be rubbed over your body in cross patterns. Set the flowers aside.

Wash your face and hands thoroughly in a large bowl of water, then put the flowers from earlier in the bowl. Put the bowl under your bed and sleep there for three nights. During this process you should stay in your house for three to four days, covering up as much as possible. Do not expose yourself to cold air under any circumstances.

After seven nights, the patient should bring the bowl of water and flowers to a river and dump out the contents of the bowl. If no river is available, a creek, pond, or even a decent sized puddle will do. The treatment is complete; the symptoms should be completely gone.


6 responses to “Creencias

  1. Your grandfather said his grandmother told him the same thing about only drinking something hot when you had a stomach ache. (I think she was German ;>))….Usually there is some kernel of truth in all these ‘old wives tales’ (as we call them)…f’rinstance, even I can see the wisdom in keeping babies away from strangers and in the house when they’re sick.

  2. We call them ‘old wives tales’ over here you know! Like creencias, usually some grain of truth in there.

  3. Just spent several enjoyable hours browsing your blog. It’s been more than 20 years since I’ve traveled to Guatemala, India, and Nepal, and it was wonderful to read about your experiences there. I love your writing style and thoughtful engagement with the people and places you visit.

    This particular entry brought back a memory that I’d forgotten for years. I spent a month in Todos Santos living with a family, and one day on a walk into the countryside, a dog raced up behind me and bit me. It hurt a lot, and I was also worried about rabies. By the time I walked several miles back to my house and told the family what had happened, I was freaked out and couldn’t stop crying. When my crying lasted beyond the bandaging of my leg, my host mom diagnosed me with susto and took me to a curandera. My treatment was different from what you described here–it all happened at the curandera’s home, and took maybe half an hour. But amazingly to me, at the end of it, I felt totally calm and hysteria free. (And I didn’t get rabies, but I do still have a faint scar on the back on my leg.)

    When I was in Todos Santos (in the mid 1990’s), it was off the beaten track, but there were at least 3 thriving language schools and maybe 25 tourists studying Spanish, Mam, or weaving any given week. I’m sad to hear that only one school is left.

  4. Wow Carol, it sounds like you have some great stories to share! A lot of people that we’ve met swear by the curanderas and I guess each healer has their own different techniques. One of my Spanish teachers even told me about people who claim to have curative powers but are really just impostors who take unsuspecting people’s money. Most everyone in the villages know who they are though and steer clear.

    Thanks for the great comment, I love trying to imagine how Todos Santos has changed over the years. For me it is my favorite place that we visited in Guatemala; the perfect combination of nice people, beautiful scenery, and a little bit of back to basics.

  5. Carol, thanks for that wonderful story! If you happen to see this, we would love to hear specifically how you were treated for your Susto, so interesting that it worked so well!

    Todos Santos hardly had any tourists at all, and the last language school was just barely hanging in there. I dont know if you heard about it, but tourism in town took a huge hit in the late 90s or early 2000s when there was a really horrible incident where a mob of locals killed a Japanese tourist who they mistakenly believed was a satanic murderer (!). Its a tragic, horrible story, and we really just didnt feel like including it in our post, but one of our teachers was there during the incident and told me the details as he remembered them. If you let me know your address I will email you the story.

    Thanks again for your comment, its the kind of thing that makes writing a blog like this fun.

  6. Hi again. I don’t remember the specifics of the treatment–it was so long ago, and I was pretty upset at the beginning. But I do remember that at the end, the curandera drank a little of some kind of alcohol–either a strong drinking alcohol or rubbing alcohol–and then suddenly sprayed it from her mouth onto the back of my neck. Sounds strange, I know, but it was a very fine spray and evaporated quickly. It felt icy cold–and it completely surprised me–and that was the moment when my anxiety evaporated. Maybe it wouldn’t have had the same effect if I’d been expecting it? I don’t know, but I was just so relieved and surprised at how calm I felt afterward.

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