Monday, January 26, 2015

The Fattest Gringo They Ever Did See

In the summer of 2004, I spent a month or so living in the village of Jocotán, Guatemala as I was learning to speak Ch’orti’ Mayan, the closest living language related to the ancient Mayan hieroglyphic writing system (which informs much of my research). I arranged for a local native Ch’orti’ speaker named Hipolito to come to my hotel each day to teach me vocabulary, basic grammar, and the like. 

After several weeks he decided I was ready to hike up to his hamlet in the hills surrounding Jocotán to make small talk with some of the villagers. Weighing in at 330 lbs, the 45 minute hike was admittedly a bit strenuous for me. Some of the local children took notice of us and began to follow as we made our way up the hill, whispering and giggling as we went along. After several more joined the little crowd, I smiled and asked Hipolito, “They’re not used to seeing gringos around here, are they?” He responded, “They’ve seen plenty of gringos. They’ve just never seen anyone so fat.” Ouch. Just call me the Pied Porker of Jocotán.

Exactly ten years later (and ten pounds heavier) I was conducting linguistic and ethnobotanical fieldwork among the Mopan Maya in the village of San Jose, Belize. I heard countless comments each day about my size from virtually everyone I came in contact with. People on the streets would stop dead in their tracks and marvel at me. Those at home would come out of their houses and stand on their porches to stare at me as I walked by.

 One day I asked one of the oldest men in the village (a man with an astonishing cultural memory of his people) if I was the fattest person that had ever set foot in San Jose. “Oh yes,” he replied emphatically. This was confidently reaffirmed by all of the other elder statesman of the village. They told me of a man that had visited a decade or so prior that weighed about 100 lbs less than me, who apparently was the previous heavyweight champion. However, they praised me for my strength because I could hike for hours each day through the rainforests with a vigor that put that other fat man to shame.

 I have little doubt that they sit together in council from time to time and reminisce about my heroic stamina. I’m hopeful that the tales they tell about me will eventually grow to mythic proportions and ultimately I’ll be apotheosized into the local pantheon (which kinda makes up for all the embarrassment I endured there).

What makes my fortitude all the more surprising is the fact that I was subsiding on roughly 1000 calories per day, eating nothing but prescription meal replacements from my doctor that I packed down with me from the United States. With no running water or electricity in my hut, it made for some interesting challenges (see the video below, which I shot in my hut in San Jose, Belize). 

I could share similarly unpleasant stories of people's reactions to my physical presence from Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, China, France, England, Denmark, Greece, or Italy. (As an aside, please never ask me about the China Incident. I still wake up screaming in a cold sweat because of it).

To Russia’s credit, no one there seemed to care about my size, though to be fair they didn’t seem to care about any other aspect of me either. In some ways it was a little disconcerting to feel so invisible, but truth be told it was actually quite refreshing to be not be singled out because of my size. Would that it happened more often, not just abroad, but here at home as well. 

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