Pastor Judith lived just over the river from where we lived in Totolapa, but she lived in a world apart. Her home had running water and lights on the lowest level but the bedrooms did not even have lights. Pots of herbs, veggies, fruit, and flowers covered the porches and empty spots in the yard, street and sidewalks. She was a plant lover and spent her time growing stunning flowers but, having been born in the hills high above Puebla she could not grow everything in the little area she had around her home. The rest of her gardens were high up on the hill, a good long walk from the spot she lived but near one of the missions she faithfully ministered in each and every week.
Pastor Judith was a stunning cook, learned from the best of them, and could cook anything if it was spicy! Her Aguas made with watermelon, cantaloupes, cucumbers, pineapple, and any other fruit that was available, made the 100 degree plus summers very bearable. When teams would travel to the area to help build the churches, I would help Pastor Judith gather what she needed and cook the foods. The day I dreaded most was the next to last day the team was there... it was the day we would go up the hill and hunt for banana leaves.
The last day for each team was the fresh tamale day, a final thank-you for everything they had done. We would make sweet and spicy tamales and the girls had been all over gathering the spices and vegetables, and getting the pig ready to be drained and cut apart later that day. First, on the day before, Pastor Judith and I--armed with machetes, long pants, long sleeves, hats, and two or three reed mats--would head up the road to the top of the hill.
Once, heading up the road, we wanted to hit the top of that first hill before the sun came up. From there on the day would be hot and we had work to do. We walked until the road changed to a dirt road, then until the dirt road changed to a pathway, and until the pathway was just a row we walked on, one foot in front of the other. We walked for two to three hours, passing the natural wonders of the Mexican jungle. Orchids and tropical plants would be blooming in the trees, and I prayed we did not see fruit ready to be picked, seeing we would gather now and carry it the rest of the day.
Once our feet felt like rubber, we came to a little village high up in the hills. After resting at one of the sister's homes, we would head out towards the gardens looking for the giant trees--giant banana trees.
After the trees were in sight, we still had some travel to keep working on to reach the trees. Towering over 5 meters in the air, this was the reason I was there - someone had to climb the tree and fight the spiders and other creatures that called this tree home to cut the giant leaves off the tree. The outer leaves would not do. They had rips and tears in the leaves. No, we needed the newest leaves in the middle that had just come out and still would be fresh and new. After we had cut 30 good-sized leaves, it was time to build a fire.
Once we had the leaves, we dug the pit. In this pit we built a fire and had to pass the leaves over the top of the fire one at a time and slowly. We did not want to burn the leaves--just wilt them a little. After we passed them over the fire, we would cut the sides off the center vein of the leaves and fold them into the mats we had brought with us. Once all the leaves had been prepared and the mats full we put out the fire and packed up once again.
Stopping at the sister's home again for water and bread, we began the long trip down the hills back to Totolapa with the wonderful leaves we had gathered. When we reached home, it was time for supper and bed before we got up once again early in the morning.
The next day we helped make the corn masa filling that went into each leaf square and added the meat and veggie, mole, or sweet fruit fillings into each tamale. Then we placed these tamales into the top of huge steamer pots to cook for an hour or so before the big thank you dinner. Tasting the wonderful tamales made me forget the hard work, blisters on my feet, and the huge spiders I had to fight for the leaves. By the next time a team came around again, I had long forgotten the pain and signed up once again to go banana leaf hunting.