The variable meanings of Chu’j

Actually, there’s only two meanings for “chu’j”—it refers to both a culture and a language (which, interestingly enough, my students and many people around here define as one and the same thing… culture and language, that is). It’s pronounced with a glottal stop after the “oo” sound, and the “j” is soft, almost silent. So it sounds like “choo-oo” or sometimes “chook” if you’re saying it wrong.

Which brings me to the next point. “Chuc” (chook) is a type of steam-sauna bath house that people around Guate (at least, around the highlands)use twice a week to bathe, the night before market day. It is actually a Mam word (a different Mayan language), that is now used in Spanish to refer to this sauna. There is a different word for it in Chu’j — the language.

I bring this up because chuc, the sauna, is an awesome tradition, and one that I did not take enough advantage of until the end of my stay in San Mateo. Personally, I could not feel clean enough after using the chuc, and therefore did not use it for bathing (though I kind of regret this—if I came back, I think I’d limit myself to only using the chuc to bathe, and not the shower… though showering is such a comfort thing!).

Angela and I took to using it for sauna-purposes only. Since we weren’t bathing, we felt comfortable enough going in there at the same time, and therefore were able to stay in for twice as long!

This is how the chuc works:

Don Mateo and Doña Ana (our landlords, they live upstairs) have a chuc on their level, right before the stairs to the roof and right next to their kitchen. On Wednesday and Saturday nights (market days are Thursday and Sunday) Doña Ana prepares the chuc.

The chuc is a 3.5 foot-high adobe structure with a 3 foot-high and 2 foot-wide door to get in and out. Inside, there is a bench on the left that stretches the length of the chuc (about 4.5 feet). On the right are three buckets: one for cold water, one for hot (HOT!) water, and one to mix the two to your preferred temperature. Next to the buckets, against the back-right corner, Doña Ana prepares a fire using charcoal and “leña”— basically, wood.

The family all uses the chuc first (the two parents, the three kids), and then one of the kids comes down to let us know that we can “subir al chuc”—climb to the chuc.

Then, one at a time (based on who is fastest at saying “I’ll go up!”, or who simply appears dressed in nothing but a towel) we take turns chuc-ing. You have to run through the court yard (avoiding the chickens and dog underfoot), climb the concrete steps, and wiggle your way through the door to the chuc without flashing the family at their dinner table.

The others generally bathe, which is quite a ritual. There are branches for smacking yourself clean first, then you mix the water (that hot water is really hot—it’s in a metal bucket right next to the fire), then you soap up, then you can dump a little water on the fire to make it steamy, and then you rinse off. If you’re one of the first to chuc, you have to be really careful about making steam. It makes a LOT of steam (the first time I chuc-ed I about scalded my windpipe!).

If you’re later on in the line, the fire has died down a bit and sometimes it’s not too warm anymore. The family is really nice about refilling the hot water bucket after each person though, so it’s always piping hot.

On Sunday night, with the others gone camping (I was not invited ☹)Angie and I sat up there for about 45 minutes—whew! We must have looked like lobsters afterwards. I wonder what the family thinks when two of us go in there at a time? Especially two girls… there have been couples in the Foundation (and currently there is one) and I don’t think that seems so weird to them because Don Mateo and Doña Ana sometimes chuc together. Hmmm….

After our marathon chuc- sauna session, we made up some hot cocoa and fished the rest of the “Ricanelas” (a play on the words “rica”—rich or tastey, and “canela”—cinnamon; it’s the name of a cookie that is “perfect to accompany your coffee!”) out of the cupboard, and popped “Monty Python: The Life of Brian” into Angie’s computer. A nice way to end my official stay in San Mateo…

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