Handy Tricks From Guatemala




About: Tim Anderson is the author of the "Heirloom Technology" column in Make Magazine. He is co-founder of www.zcorp.com, manufacturers of "3D Printer" output devices. His detailed drawings of traditional Pacific...

Monica and her brother Cristobal Jesus guide us up the side of volcano "Agua" near Antigua, Guatemala.
The trail is steep. People have dug many pits along the trail and at the end of each row of corn.
In the rainy season the water runs into these pits instead of washing the trail away.

I'm visiting Guatemala with my mother, hosted by an amazing NGO called Common Hope

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Step 1: The Birthplace of Corn

Monica and her brother are ethnic Maya, like most Guatemalans..
The oldest archeological evidence of maize cultivation, 3000+ years ago, is found here in Guatemala.
Their family has grown it ever since. The corn has already been harvested in this field but the beans are still growing. The vines climb up the cornstalks. The cornstalks were tall, ten feet or more. To harvest the ears of corn they cut the stalk with a machete overhead. That made the top fall over so they could reach the ears.
The corn depletes the nitrates in the soil. The beans put nitrogen back in with the help of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in root nodules. Beans supply the diet with amino acids lacking in the corn. It's a perfect system.
In this photo smoke issues from the summit of active volcano "Fuego". "Acatenango" volcano is to the right of Fuego.

Step 2: Tump Line

We met this gentleman named Senso Seis coming down the trail.
He's carrying his corn in a net bag with a "tump line" over his forehead which is their traditional method.

Step 3: Ceramic Griddle

Monica makes tortillas on a hot ceramic platter called a "Comal". The pat-pat-pat sound of flattening tortillas is one of the domestic sounds of Guatemala. They grew the corn for these tortillas right here, halfway up this volcano.

Step 4: The Freshest Guacamole

We are sitting under an avocado tree. They are making guacamole from avocados right from the tree. They also brought refried beans from home along with the tortilla dough.

Step 5: Greasewood Kindling

Their father, Don Filiberto, shows me the pitch-pine sticks he used to kindle the fire.

Step 6: Corn Stalk House

They live with their family in this traditional Maya house with walls made from cornstalks. The walls are more substantial than you would expect.
Handfuls of cornstalks are lashed to a crosspiece with wire. The crosspiece is another bundle of cornstalks. They build fences the same way.

Step 7: Corn Cob Tool Handle

A file handle made from a corncob stored on a cornstalk wall.
My farm relatives in Illinois also use corncobs for tool handles.
A good corncob tool handle can last a long time and be very comfortable in the hand.

Step 8: Ergonomic Clothes Lines

The clotheslines hang down low for ease of hanging the clothes. Then they use these long diagonal poles to prop the clotheslines up high out of the way, where the clothes get more sunlight and breeze. Everywhere you go you see women washing clothes or sweeping. Personal cleanliness seems to be a priority.

Step 9: Mule Muzzle Made From Wire

Two of of their brothers. The wire thing hanging from the tree is a muzzle to keep a mule from biting the passenger.

Step 10: How to Catch a Possum

Don Filiberto explains how his father used to catch small animals. He'd prop a box or basin up on an avocado pit or another round object. He'd put a weight such as a board resting on top of the box. The animal would go inside to get some bait, and while tugging on the bait, the box would fall down. Then his father would slide the box around until the animal's tail was poking out and grab it by the tail. I'm not sure what happened after that, but it must have been fun to watch.

Step 11: Nixtamalization - Chemical Transformation of Maize

The next day I'm on a construction crew building a prefab house for a family not far away.
The lady of the house, Maria Luisa Garcia explains how Maize is prepared. The chemistry is pretty interesting.
First mineral lime ("cal" in spanish) , calcium oxide, is steeped in water to make alkaline lime water.

Step 12: Boiling the Corn in an Alkaline Solution

She adds some of this lime water to a pot of water and uses it to boil the corn kernels. It makes the endocarp (skin) of the kernels split and come loose. The alkaline solution releases the niacin that's locked up in the kernels.
It gives them a nice nutty flavor and adds a lot of calcium to the diet. I didn't see any sign of osteoporosis in anyone there, even old women.

Step 13: Removing the Endocarp

Then she strains the corn and rinses off the loose skins. If she has chickens, or other livestock around she feeds it to them. Removing the skins also removes any fungus and associated toxins such as aphlotoxin from the corn. Then she takes her basin of corn down the street to the miller, who has a power grinder. That's her tortilla dough for the day, which she makes into tortillas.

This alkaline reaction process is called "nixtamalization". It's very important to prepare corn this way. Otherwise maize can't be eaten as a staple.
Ugali in Africa is an example of a of maize-based non-nixtamalized staple food. People who subsist on those foods without other good sources of niacin get deficiency diseases such as pellagra and kwashiorkor. In some parts of Africa aflotoxicosis occurs which could be prevented by removing the skins as the Maya do.

Step 14: How to Sharpen Knives

This is a Guatemalan Handy trick documented by ewilhelm on his recent trip to Guatemala.

Here, Don Mati demonstrates how she sharpens knives by rubbing them against the basin of a stone fountain. She's using essentially the same trick shown in Knife Sharpening Tricks: Improvised Sharpening Stones, rubbing the knife away from the tip of the blade. It may be ugly, but you can't argue with the results: she's taken a super cheap serrated made-in-China knife, and turned into a quite a sharp and useful implement. She cooks every day, and re-sharpens the knifes about once or twice a week.



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      25 Discussions


      3 years ago

      My grandmother was hanging clothes out to dry this way in England over a hundred years ago and it's still common practice today. I wonder if it originated in South America?

      2 replies

      Reply 2 years ago

      You mean "with the long lifting stick"?


      Reply 2 years ago

      We used a lifting stick in Scotland also


      10 years ago on Introduction

      Question about processing the corn. Am I right that the woman does the lime process with the fresh corn, which results in wet corn, then takes said wet corn to the grinder? Doesn't wet corn turn to mush instead of getting ground into pieces?

      2 replies

      Reply 2 years ago

      Think about it: What does mush dry into?


      Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

      It's mature corn dried in the fields on the cob. Then it's soaked in lime water til the kernels puff up and the skins crack and start to peel off. The grinder is made for the wet corn. Yes it turns to mush, or tortilla dough. Before they had mechanical grinders they used to do it by hand on a metate. The metate still gets a lot of use for grinding chilis and other stuff.

      Lots of us in the "modern world" could learn very much from these simple things!


      6 years ago on Introduction

      The people are so happy! They have literally nothing compared to the "spoiled" people here in the USA. But they are down to earth, real and not phony like some people here! I would love to help them with solar power for electric and clean water filtration. But maybe that would be wrong and change their whole economic structure. I should leave them be. Happy and unspoiled!


      10 years ago on Introduction

      i love guatemala. i'd love to live in antigua one day. i went once and now i'm hooked.


      10 years ago on Introduction

      Must appreciate the irony of a volcano named "Agua" (water, for non-Spanish speakers). : ) Great text.

      1 reply

      "Volcan de Agua", is called that because it is been extinct for so many years (hundreds, thousands?) that it has a lake in the cone. So it's not an ironic name so much and an obvious one.... but you have to know about that lake for it to make sense.


      10 years ago on Step 2

      important note, you're supposed to place the tumpline on top of the head just back from the hairline, not on the forehead but above the forehead.


      10 years ago on Step 3

      Comals are very important for many latin cultures. I myself of mexican descent and i can't remember not having one in the kitchen. Of course it's not huge like the one in the picture here. I've only seen cast iron comals and they are for stove tops.


      10 years ago on Introduction

      Was the part of guatemala you were visiting Son Lucas Toleman by any chance?


      10 years ago on Introduction

      I like the Tump Line.
      And I love the name!

      My dad might 'preciate some of these, he lives out there.


      11 years ago on Introduction

      Non-reactive means not aluminum. Aluminum reacts strongly with both acids and alkais (like lime)and quickly developes small holes. The lime adds calcium to the diet. The alternative wood ash (Potash)is associated with a higher rate of stomach cancer. Back on the farm (Minnesota, 1950's) we used corn cobs for stove kindeling.