A Sweet, Sour, and Vaguely Slimy Tribute
Balche in Chiapas
In 1951, Danish polymath Frans Blom, and his Swiss wife Gertrude “Trudi” Duby Blom, a journalist and ecologist, founded the Na Bolom Center of Scientific Studies in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, to provide education and health care to the indigenous people of southern Mexico, including the Lacandon.
When the Bloms died, they made it clear that they wanted to be buried amid the Lacandon in the jungle they knew and loved. Unfortunately, when Frans and Trudi passed (in 1963 and 1993 respectively) the jungle was still virtually impenetrable—even more so during the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas at the time of Trudi’s death.
In 2011, Frans and Trudi were finally taken home to be buried in the cemetery in the Lacandon village of Nahá next to Chan K’in Viejo, a legendary Lacandon leader and friend to Frans and Trudi. To mark the occasion, the Lacandon planned days of seldom-practiced ceremonies. And they made a batch of balche, which is wild honey fermented for days in an old dugout canoe.
As the son of Chan K’in Viejo, Chan K’in Antonio is the most revered living keeper of Lacandon traditions. We filed into his God House, an open-sided, dirt-floor, thatch-roof structure. The women sat on one side and the men on the other. Chan K’in Antonio began chanting in the fast-disappearing Lacandon language and distributed drops of balche to figures representing the Lacandon gods.
The ceremony culminated in the drinking of balche. Using a coconut shell, Chan K’in Antonio scooped balche out of the canoe and into a ceremonial urn, filtering the cloudy, beige liquid through an old bandana. Ceremony participants were given their own half of a coconut shell to use as a cup, which Chan K’in Antonio filled—and refilled—from the urn.
The balche was slurped up enthusiastically by the Lacandon, who were eager to enjoy the rare treat. I approached with more caution, uncertain of the strength or flavor of the stuff, which turned out to be sweet and sour and vaguely slimy—not unpleasant, but not delicious either.
The flavor was not particularly alcoholic, but balche is a sneaky booze and its effects are cumulative and legendary. One local man had too much, too fast and dropped the ceremonial urn (luckily, only breaking a replica of the important original vessel).
As people shared stories and memories about Frans and Trudi, emotions started coming to the surface, perhaps lubricated by the balche. By the time the coffins were loaded into the back of a small white pickup truck and convoyed to the cemetery, tears were on the way. They soon gave way to joy, however, as Frans and Trudi were interred next to Chan K’in Viejo. Now that these three friends had finally been reunited, the Lacandon believed that they could “continue their conversations,” even in death.
We all returned to the village for more balche, leaving the trio of old friends to catch up in peace.