clare-hill.com The story of Clare Hill's voluntary work adventure in Belize

23/11/2008

Goodbye Crooked Tree

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Crooked Tree,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 05:14 pm

On Saturday 15 November, we decided to catch the 11a.m post-market bus to Crooked Tree. (The bus leaves the village at 7a.m .and returns from BC at 11a.m., giving folk time to purchase their wares from the market, or dusty old Albert St., etc.) Knowing by now exactly where the bus leaves at any time of day, we found it parked next to the canal, and full of both familiar and new faces. We started chatting to a woman sitting on the seat in front of us, only to find that she was married to someone from the Grenadier Guards, had lived in London and been posted to various other places in the world, and had returned to Crooked Tree for the last eight years. She said that her husband – from Peckham, south London – loved Belize, except that he still couldn’t really speak Creole! I do understand. She told us that her husband was Chair of the Crooked Tree Committee, and that if the coastguards were not running a return ferry service in the afternoon, she would make sure that we could catch a boat back to the mainland.

The bus started the journey along the northern highway, and once passed Ladyville, we could immediately see the lingering effects of the flooding. Many houses were still under water, and the brackish marshes were covering much larger areas than usual. The bus trundled on up the highway, and turned into the left-handed side road towards the causeway. We knew from colleagues in the Women’s Dept. that at its height, the floods had extended to one mile in from the highway (it is 3 miles to the causeway) and so we watched to see how far we would manage in the bus. Soon a row of cars parked on the left-hand side came into view. About half a mile from the eastern end of the causeway, we saw the channel with two flat bottomed boats with Belize Coastguard emblazoned clearly along each side. The bus load disembarked: men, women and children, young and very old, a bit helpless like refuges. We climbed the wooden jetty, and jumped up into the coastguards’ boat. It was pretty basic: a well near the wheel tower, some life jackets lined up along the length each side, and the bows. We were asked to sit in the body of the boat, rather than on the sides, and once started it was evident why: just as Kate had been entangled in the shrubs when we all went canoeing together, so too anyone sitting on the side of the vessel would be attacked by the thorny mimosa which propels itself upwards and over wherever it may.

The view was staggering. (There are some photos.) The whole of the causeway was under water except for the bushes on either side. We passed at least two other boats ferrying folk back to the mainland. The lagoon was one vast expanse of water, and as we approached Crooked Tree – not the normal bit at the causeway but further to the north beside the Baptist Church and the house that the young woman with the very premature baby lives in – we could see many houses were still deep in lagoon water. On the other hand, as we approached the new docking area, there was great excitement. Four or five different types of boats were moored to a temporary jetty of planks of wood placed strategically next to one another – another coastguard vessel, a rubber dinghy and some other boats with outboard motors; people waiting for a lift out were patiently sitting together with their various belongings. Throngs, no packs, or posses even, of children were entranced by the comings and goings, quite the most exciting thing forever! The bigger ones were trying to help here, carry there, and tinies were waddling after them, precariously making their way across uneven planks.

Having disembarked, we began to make our way round to Stephanie and Birds Eye View Lodge. People explained to us how at first even the mooring area had been much further out, but the waters were beginning to recede. We made our way past our little cottage, passed Corletta’s house and the tree with the pair of iguanas, and on round passed the pool with the pigs, the bare-throated green heron and roseate spoonbill – none of which were to be seen. Suddenly we could go no further. In the distance over an expanse of water down the lane (I am hopeless at judging distances, but between 100-150 yards I would think) we could see both the Lodge and to the right, the owners’ house. The water is currently about one and a half feet above the ground, but we could clearly see a grey water line just above the bottom of the windows – at least 3 feet up the wall. Poor things, no doubt at its height the water had penetrated the entire bottom floor. With so much water still lying around the buildings the clean-up process will not be able to be started. A few weeks ago Stephanie was telling us that November was the start of the ‘proper’ tourist season and was already well booked up. What a set back.

Aware that if we were to get back to BC that night we needed to catch a boat between 2-3p.m. so started our return journey. We were delighted to see that Corletta was abroad as we passed, and said our goodbyes and appreciation of her help and support during our stay in the Isle. She assured us that unlike some folk nearer the water, her well water was OK. Those with contaminated water needed to have their wells drained and treated with fluoride – quite something for people with no access to taps and mains. I noticed that her accent seemed far less ‘foreign’ to me now than it did in the month of August, ten weeks ago. As we approached the makeshift jetty, the woman we had spoken to on the bus walked out of a nearby house. Thinking that she was going to reassure us that despite the coastguards going to have their lunch for at least an hour she would make sure that a boat was going to get us back over the lagoon, we were most surprised when she said that her sister – long afflicted with diabetes which is pretty endemic in this culture – had died seconds after she had entered the house off the bus. She had been very ill for a long time, so her death was greeted with a mixture of sadness and relief. A boat needed to go over and back because she was a tall woman with a large frame, and a coffin needed to be brought in. As we had approached the Isle, a helicopter had been overhead, and we began to put two and two together: the doctor who had been called in, and who had eventually signed the death certificate. So our new acquaintance from the bus that morning, discussing experiences of travel around parts of the globe and across flooded lagoons, continued to discuss another sort of travel by members of her family…

Eventually we had a ride in a speedy outboard motorised boat together with another passenger and 5 empty gas cylinders used for cooking in these parts. Our fellow passenger gave us a lift in his car to the highway, where we caught a bus back to BC. It was good to have witnessed the Isle after all their difficulties, and very good to have said our goodbyes to that place which gave us much solace through the month of August.

And guess what! As we were pulling away from the landing stage in the car, a small turtle trundled across the road. And we still haven’t see a croc there!

A footnote. The waters in a village near Orange Walk have still not receded. The whole village has been evacuated for some weeks, and is considered to be a contaminated zone, with a danger of typhoid and other water-born diseases from stagnant waters. The government is considering dredging the mouth of the Belize River to help the drainage process. With the possible onset of climate change and a raising of sea levels, countries like Belize with a vast salt marsh just below sea level through the length of its eastern sea board would be very vulnerable. Furthermore, vast areas of agricultural land have been flattened by these floods. Produce grows during the rainy season; folk live off their produce, and the excess is sold in local markets. The effects of the extraordinary volume of rain here in October are going to be felt for some months to come. Equally in Scotland, the volume of rain this summer has been phenomenal. We do need to take climate change seriously.

02/09/2008

See ya latah, Halligatah!

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,BBC,Beisle Cottage,Crooked Tree,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 03:14 pm

As I sit at my computer, we have just eaten our supper on a Monday evening, having heard the midnight (your time) Radio 4 news, and listening to the ‘Listen Again’ version of Just a Minute! Julian Clarey and Paul Merton on top form, and a nice touch of Old Blighty…as the fan blasts against the sticky evening, and a little gecko sneaks up the window frame.

Last Friday evening, we got off our bus (the conductor selling top-up phone cards this time; cashew nuts a few weeks ago…) unlocked the door, turned on the light and brought the bags in from the verandah. As I turned round, a movement caught my eye, and I saw two black eyes and a wide Kermit-style grin of the tree-frog. We had found him behind the back door when we locked up the previous Monday morning, and when we tried to put him out he leapt 4 feet across the room and used his suckered webbed toes to cling to the wall. Since we had to get the 6.15am bus, we left him to it – he could go out the way he came in. He is very sweet, and we watched as he hid himself behind the wooden sofa that Conor was sitting on.

After we had eaten, we were both sitting quietly reading our books, when I saw a brown movement by the front screen door. At first I thought it was another cockroach, but as I looked more closely, I saw that it was low against the ground, longer, slimmer, with elegant arching claws and raised tail – a scorpion!!! Large! My feet immediately shot up into the air, at the same time as Kermit decided that this was interesting, putting his concern about us to one side and leaping towards the raised tail. To our amazement, as he approached, the scorpion moved fast towards the screen and (alarmingly) squeezed out between the wooden frame and side of the door….Good old Mr Kermit Frog – he definitely has a permanent place in Beisle Cottage! I checked with Leonardo the next day, and he was as surprised as we were. If the frog had actually approached the scorpion directly, there is no doubt which would have come off worst. Fortunately, although the scorpion’s sting would have been pretty sore, and have swollen, they aren’t fatal in Belize.

We had invited 4 of the young volunteers and interns to join us over the w/e – two staying in Birds Eye View Lodge, one in our spare room, and the fourth in the hammock – slung above the cockroaches and scorpion! They were going up to Lamanai, a large Mayan site reached by a boat trip from Orange Walk, north of us on the Northern Highway, and catching the bus down late on Saturday afternoon. With no buses over the weekend from the highway into Crooked Tree other than the 11a.m. from Belize, everyone coming and going either has independent transport, walks or sticks out a thumb. About 4.30pm, a ring on Conor’s mobile was followed by that tired and weary sound of 4 hot and sweaty folk at the end of a good day! They were in the full glare of the sun – the 3 kilometres are without protection from sun or rain – and hoping for a lift. Half an hour later we rang them, and they were still walking, still flagging, all the vehicles too full as they past – and one stopped for them while Conor was on the phone! Dropped off at the crossroads, in single file 4 people slowly walked the last sweltering five minutes up to the shade and gentle breeze of Beisle Cottage verandah, where a large jug of cold juice awaited them. It was the first time I have cooked for any more than 3 since we arrived, and doing it on two burners and small pans was a challenge! Despite the fisherman not having enough spare fish (again) we found avocados, peppers, tomatoes, cashews and mangoes galore on the island, and managed to have a good evening together, washed down with bottles of Belikin beer and the local berry wine.

At 6.45 the following morning we all congregated outside the Lodge and got into 3 canoes. The previous w/e Conor and I had crossed the lagoon, and paddled down Black Creek, but hadn’t started till 9.30am. By 11.30 am I was feeling faint in the middle of the lagoon, despite sunhat and a covered body. So we started soon after sun rise, and it was an exquisite flat calm, shimmering softly, birds calling, little fishes nibbling, still cool. I had been a little concerned that 4 young people (22 -36) might be bored by the charm of canoeing through a creek with not much else in it, but I needn’t have worried. And we had some fun moments – in the narrows, it takes a bit of practice to use the back paddle as a rudder and slowly nudge your way round the overhanging prickly bits, or the mimosa shoots sticking up out of the water. If you try to paddle out of the predicament you end up head first in the thorns and spiders webs, and poor old Kate had war wounds to prove it. At one point a plaintive “It’s not fair” could be heard from within a bush! We saw the black-collared hawk again down by the big tree, and a large ringed kingfisher kindly sat on a branch for us. The snail kite – the lagoon is full of snails – was swooping past too, with its distinctive very hooked beak, perfect for pulling the snail from its shell.

Two hours later and yet another very hot day, we were glad to stretch our limbs on terra firma, and make our way round for a late breakfast. The water level was still receding fast, and unfortunately the lovely variety of waders and ducks that we normally see in the swampy bits were no where to be seen, no doubt moved on to where they can rely on the water and a source of food. After breakfast we decided to walk the Limpkin Trail, now accessible because of the low water, and fantastically shaded with a beautiful variety of palms and vines. As we had decided to give up the cottage (our month’s rental is finished and September is the month of carnival in Belize City, so we will be spending weekends there) it was our last chance to see a croc before we left. The trail was beautiful, and as we stood watching a large lizard on a tree, we suddenly saw a long, slim, silvery green snake slither over the lizard’s tail and into the water, getting away from us. A parrot snake apparently. Towards the end, back near the lodge, I thought for a moment we had at last seen the top of a croc moving through the water; but as I looked excitedly, the top moved shape, and we laughed as we saw a gaggle of tightly packed baby ducks paddling full steam ahead! There must have been at least a dozen of them!

Lunch over, the four hitched a lift back over the causeway to catch the bus to BC, and we started our final pack up and clean of the little cottage which has given us so much pleasure over the last few weeks. As we left early this morning, with some clouds in the sky, a large beautiful rainbow arched over the cottage in a wave of farewell.

29/08/2008

Good looking!

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Beisle Cottage,Crooked Tree,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 10:04 pm

There are so many different things I could say about our weekends at Crooked Tree, it is hard to know where to start. We did eventually find the starting place for the 5.05pm direct bus, and we are now recognising the faces, anticipating who will be on till Birds Isle, who will get off beforehand. There are the grandparents who go all the way up the northern highway almost to our turnoff, who have a sprinkling of grandchildren with them. The grandfather has a special connection with a wee boy, about 4 years old, who sits on his knee and they chatter together all the time; except, that is, when the man sees someone he knows along the way, when he invariably stands and calls something out the open window. “Good car there” or “How d’ya doin?” “Hey, man!”

Our bus conductor suddenly appears on the bus on the outskirts of the city. On Mondays we get the bus at 5.45 a.m., and it meanders around picking everyone up, and then sets off across the causeway about 6.15am. Having done it a few times, I now notice that he gets off the bus at the same place too. He carries the leather pouch which all the conductors use, taking the fares with him off the bus in the morning, and back on in the evening returning to CT. Our man is quite dapper. First of all I thought that unlike any other conductor I’ve seen here, he has his own version of a uniform: smart beige polo shirt and matching beige slacks with a leather belt. Most conductors wear jeans, or the baggy long shorts hanging off the hips with a tee shirt. Then the penny dropped – it is a uniform for the place he works in.

Travelling with him feels a bit like being a guest in his domain. He is very courteous to all his passengers, helping women and children on and off, passing out parcels, bags, even delivering things en route. He always checks with you first, standing quietly beside you with a small smile tucked into a cheek: “Would you like a hand with your bags?” “Shall I do that for you?” A bus conductor version of a “maitre d’”.

When we arrive on a Friday night, it is just getting dark, and by the time we have settled in and started cooking, night has fallen. But on Saturday and Sunday evenings, it is lovely to walk in the evening cool, and sit on the verandah catching the breeze. As the light fades tiny fairy lights begin to twinkle momentarily here and there across the grass, and amongst the undergrowth over the lane. Fire flies! They don’t last for long, and my understanding is that it is the same as the phosphorescence that the plankton glow with when you sail in the sea at night. As far as I can find out (Wikipedia) it works by organisms absorbing light and then releasing it at a slower rate.

We have got cockroaches here in CT, grandfather bull versions of them: not a lot but enough to make me wary. Conor brought up some special little contraptions – two layers of 2” by 4” about ¼” apart, with four wide entrances and some poison in the middle. We thought this was preferable to some ghastly spray that most folk seem to use. Trouble is, the two very large ones – one the standard Americanus version, the other more like an elongated pebble – have such sumo shoulders that we suspect that they won’t be able to reach the poison. Judging by the corpses, some can though. Conor managed to sweep one of the mega-roaches out the backdoor, but there is at least the other giant pebble, and one Americanus which is about 4”, an inch less than the other two. Maybe we will resort to the spray after all.

Corletta ambled over the road towards our gate the other day, and we welcomed her in. She came onto the verandah as we were tackling some of the mangoes (end of the season so not so good – bruised or damaged by insects) so we found her a chair and offered some of our fruit. She tucked in with relish, proving that there is no easy way to eat mangoes – just enjoy and mop up afterwards. She had an electricity bill for us, but we used the occasion to talk about all sorts of things. Conor found that she reflected his memories of an Irish childhood – she sat easily with us, talked touchingly about her recently dead husband while gazing out across the ‘yard’ (garden to you) and then when we had exhausted our conversation, quietly got up and took her leave, taking some mangoes for her extensive family with her.

It was very hot yesterday afternoon (it has been very hot everyday for the last two weeks) so we thought we would try again to see the croc that occasionally basks on the bank behind Bird Isle Lodge. We saw a very pretty blue heron, and a bird that we can’t decide whether it’s a rail or one of the small dumpy herons you get in these parts, but not a sign of the croc. The water level has gone down by about 8 feet from when we first ever came across the lagoon, and we guessed that we would probably be able to reach the board walk which is there for the birders in the winter and spring bird migrating season. It was glorious to be in there in the shade, dappled water underneath in parts, the mimosa and mangroves and flowering vines all around, the open lagoon a few feet to the right, the swampy – potential croc – pond to the left. But nothing larger than the heron and a few whistling ducks in sight. Plenty of small fish, frogs croaking, the occasional butterfly or damsel fly but not even an iguana. The cool was lovely though, and we went back to the start and just sat on the boards enjoying the soft breeze in the shade. We saw our fisherman and one of his sons start an outboard motor and set off across the lagoon. He was bailing out all the way, so we hoped the boat was safe! Before reaching the other side the boat stopped, and we trained our bins onto them. The son was setting the fishing nets – they must have repaired them since the HaligaTAHs got them.

Eventually we ventured out into the sun again, crossed in front of the Lodge and ambled up to the table and benches with a nice big wooden shelter on them. Christina was there chatting to the fisherman’s lads – Sons? Grandsons? We greeted them, and then I struck up a jokey bit with them, saying that I thought that it was just a story that there are crocs (HaligaTAHS) in the lagoon, to get people like us to come again and again looking for them. They enjoyed the banter, and we heard again how in the dry season, you can see them with out trying. (In fact this morning, Leonardo said you can see coatis and lots more really easily because the animals go to the narrow channel for water. Just have to come back in April!)  Christina said that she thought that the croc had moved out of the pond because a canoeist had gone in a couple of weeks ago when the water was higher. “I saw it yesterday” the elder boy said quickly, “on the hill”. At which point the younger raised his eyes heavenwards and said “You is just no good lookin”…..

26/08/2008

Horse Power

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Beisle Cottage,Crooked Tree — Clare Hill @ 09:58 pm

“Remember Clare, horses sweat, men perspire and ladies glow.”
 Said to me by Pat Jeffkins, my grandmother, about 1958.

Everywhere: on the end of your nose, between your toes, under your finger nails; a crusty sensation as the normally smooth movement of the blink of your eyelids is interrupted by salty granules.

The dampness of a humid atmosphere is quite remarkable (and people with arthritis suffer from the damp here just as much as in Scotland). When you move out of a room with ‘air con’, it envelopes you with the same alacrity and totality as a ha’ar off the North Sea. You are instantly – instantly! – clammy. It reminds me of post-it notes. Apparently their inventor spent ages trying to make a sticky substance that was sticky enough to stick but would release its hold when pulled. He obviously didn’t live in the tropics in the rainy season.  There’s an old-fashioned sort of formality here (it goes along with the bureaucracy, I suppose) which includes hand-shaking as well as the ‘Miss X’ or ‘Mr. Y’. And there the post-it note sensation happens – my hand lingers just fractionally too long against theirs as we release our grip.

If you are sitting absorbed in something, and fail to notice that one surface of an arm or leg is against another for any length of time, suddenly you feel a trickling sensation following a gravitational path. Or you shift your position, as you do, and find a virtual pooling between your thighs.
 
I have discovered the relative merits of weights of fabric. My two cotton voile blouses of which I am very fond don’t quite do the trick. Or rather, have a trick of their own which is most unpleasant. Just as a damp piece of toilet paper sticks to a surface like a second skin, my once-loved voile does the same – a wet layer of cloth adhering to your flesh, and needing to be peeled away like skin. Horrible. My 100% linen shirt, which before I came I had assumed would be really useful, is too heavy, too hot when it is both humid and high temperatures. (Inland, where the humidity is less and the evenings are cooler, the linen can be about right.)  The couple of tops which are mixes of linen and cotton, or of heavier cotton, are the best; cool enough to be comfortable, and robust enough to be able to absorb some of the sweat without leaving me looking like – or feeling like – a washing line.

Occasionally I do glow, it’s true. I catch my reflection off a window, in a glass picture frame or a mirror. There is a shine across my whole face. When I was little, there were rare occasions when someone dropped a thermometer and the beads of magical mercury spread across the floor. I remember Sister Annunciata, matron at my school, sent one flying once as she shook the thermometer to bring the mercury down to normal before taking my temperature. I had been in isolation in the San. with some contagious ailment or other, and it was the most interesting thing that had happened to me for days! I spent hours on my hands and knees, gathering up the precious fluid, marvelling at how close each bead was to the other before there was a sudden ‘whoosh’ and the two became one. Painstakingly, you could move around the floor and garner up more and more. One false move and you had to start all over again. Great occupation when nothing else to do.

(I remember while in there listening to Radio Luxemburg on my little transistor, ear pieces in so the nuns couldn’t hear, and one of chart toppers was a song called ‘Hold the ladder steady’ or some such. Its words were perfect for someone locked in a convent sanatorium, and I still remember how the chorus goes:

“James, James, hold the ladder steady,
 James, James, I’m packed and I am ready
 I’m a-coming down to your ah-ah-arms
 I’m a-coming down to your arms.”

For years I thought it was because like most of my relationship-obsessed school friends, I wanted to fall in love. I now see it was eloping to freedom!!)

But to get to my point: beads of sweat, or ‘glowing’ to Grandma, are all well and good. But there is a critical point when many become one, and there ain’t much you can do about it, it seems to me, whether sweat or mercury.

When I worked in Dundee, the architect of the very modern building had made a few interesting touches. Rain water was channelled off the roof (into a water barrel or two here in Beisle Cottage) so that it streamed down a sheet of clear Perspex. It was quite effective, and folk could while away a few minutes watching the patterns the water made as it cascaded down. I have substituted the Perspex for Conor’s back. Actually, it is what in Process Work we would call a coupled channel experience. What I see on his back I can simultaneously feel on my own. Sweat pours off his head (particularly when wearing a sun hat, which in this heat in the high 90F over the last two weeks, is essential) round his ears, drips off his hair, down the back of his neck, to meet his broad back with glee. A large surface area to move around on as it flows ever-downwards. Sweat, like all liquids, follows the line of least resistance, so there is really only one place that this designer waterfall can end up in.

In BC, we have a fan strategically angled at night so that it ripples over the top of our bodies. (We have purchased a quiet fan because the one in the apartment was like trying to sleep on Heathrow runway. I think I have already told you that.) Fortunately the bed is large so we can both lie spread-eagled without any danger of inadvertently creating the sixth Great Lake in the middle of the night.

At least here in Crooked Tree I am sitting typing away in the shade of the verandah on a late Sunday afternoon, the glare of the mid-afternoon heat now receding, enjoying the cool breeze which has come in over the last couple of hours. Oh, and here the clamminess goes at night – whatever the temperature during the day. What a relief!

20/08/2008

Laughing All The Way Home

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Crooked Tree,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 09:14 pm

I was out early (back in Maya Mountain Lodge but doing it cheap-skate this time, taking advantage of their kind discount to volunteers) exploring the rainforest and trying to find the motmot, or at least a trogon or toucan, when I heard a huge din coming from quite high up above and slightly behind me on the hillside. I had just had a conversation with a member of staff that I nearly walked into as I walked backwards with my monocular against my eye, who told me that the trogons and toucans usually go to the top of those trees about 2pm when it’s very hot, singing noisily. Could this be them eight hours early, I wondered. Excitedly, I followed the noise. It was truly loud, and was obviously two, not quite calling and responding, rather being a demi-semi-quaver out from each other. And raucous! Repeated sounds again and again and again. 

I clambered up the path, convinced that I should see them any moment it was so loud, but all the time the noise led me further on and up. The thick tangle of trees and vines revealed neither parrot nor parakeet, toucan nor trogon. At least, not yet….The mantra drew me on, till I reached a clearing near the brow of the slope, and still I could hear it further away from me. I looked across to where the trees started again, and suddenly saw two very large birds sitting facing outwards, one above the other, on the bare exposed stumpy limbs of two dead branches in a tree. They were still a good two hundred yards away, and still raucous! Using my monocular, I could see they were each about 2 feet long, yellow and black markings, and I wondered if they were parrots. My stupid glasses could not give me a good enough resolution on the head parts, but they seemed beaky.

(I am learning fast that you need the resolution because to identify birds accurately, you need to check out the relevant bits. Thus, to identify a parrot accurately would be to clock the beak, head shape and the tail. The black collared hawk of the other weekend was its tail length being the same as its wings, and so forth. There is also another fascinating thing called ‘the giss’ – the overall shape, flight pattern and feeling tone of a bird. For example, and these are easy because they also look very different, a duck’s flight is different to a heron’s, or a flock of starlings move very differently to the fractal pattern of lapwings.)

I watched entranced, and then the birds quietened as suddenly as they had started. I went into the Lodge’s dining area where I knew they had a bird book (ours was in Crooked Tree) and began the second round – the fun of identifying the ‘find’. I scoured the parrots, the parakeets and the trogons. None was quite so big, none was yellow and black. Hmmm. I went further afield, and suddenly saw the exact yellow and black markings – yellow head and breast, black back, yellow and black barred tail. I read the details – forested area, in pairs, 22 inches, diet of snakes and small lizards to supplement…guess what its name was? Unforgettable! The Laughing Falcon!!! The description of the call, and the slightly out of sync duet meant that they were unmistakable, and never to be forgotten! The falcons’ hooky beak which my silly monocular didn’t clarify enough would be suitably blurrily similar to have mistaken for a parrot.  By this time Conor had joined me, and I lead him back up and through the trees so he could see them too, sitting serenely on their perches like a pair of Grecian vases.

Anyway, to the point of it all. When we had first come to the Lodge, on my birthday weekend, we had met a woman who told us about someone called Rosita Arvigo who had adopted, or been adopted by, a local traditional healer or shaman. We didn’t pay too much attention, but then Conor found a book by Rosita in a local store. He was fascinated, and decided that he would like to pay Don Elijio’s successors a visit.  We discovered that they lived in San Antonio, a village near the Lodge, and decided to do a quick sprint up on the Saturday and down on the Sunday. Conor wondered if some traditional herbs may help his overall health and well-being.

We arrived about 10.30am, good old buses, and enjoyed mooching around the fabulous market, burgeoning with produce. We are still finding fruits and veg that are completely new to us, and enjoying the tasting! Knowing our way, we wandered up the short cut over the hill to the Lodge, and settled back into the Parrot Perch. The charm of the place was still potent, and different flowers were blooming everywhere as the rainy season unfolds. We had intended to visit the Rainforest Medicine Trail, but it was an exceedingly hot day (it’s been a very un-rainy two weeks) and because of the high canopy of trees, darkness descends much earlier than sunset in the wooded areas. The most helpful Emily agreed with our decision to wait till Sunday, and told us about Xunantunich, about 1 mile from the Guatemalan border, and 15 minutes in the bus from San Ignacio. We walked back to the market, picked up some bananas (10 for 25p) and cashews for lunch, and set off. The bus stops right by the hand-winched cable ferry across the Mopan River – one of Belize River’s two tributaries – which moves broadly and shallowly and pretty fast down through the mountains and out to sea in Belize City. Once over to the other bank, we had a 2 mile walk up to the site on a well paved road through less dense rainforest, full of loads of dancing moths and butterflies. They seemed particularly fond of some chamomile-like flowers growing beside the road. Being very hot, we were grateful for any shade as we made our way uphill. Conor noticed a movement beside us, and then a greyish brown shape became clearer as it snuffled through the grassy verge. As it got closer, apparently oblivious to or unconcerned about us, we saw the pattern of rings on its tough back plating, long thin tail, long piggy snout and relatively big ears – an armadillo!

Xunantunich – pronounced ‘Shun…’ – is a most impressive site, with huge pyramids and friezes, mostly active between 600-1000AD. (There are some good photos.) It was also a fantastic way to get a panoramic view of the region – Guatemala, Cayo and the Pine Mountain Ridge. Because of the never-ending border disputes between Belize and Guatemala, the site is also guarded by both police and soldiers sporting M16 rifles. Not Kalashnikovs, one told us ruefully! They enjoyed being at the top of the highest pyramid too – great look out! As we sat under the shade of some trees, we realised they were dripping in avocados, so initiated ourselves in the art of avocado scrumping…

Once more we were entranced as this fascinating country revealed its treasures, whether flora or fauna, landscape or architecture.

Later that evening we were perplexed as to what to do. Emily had told us a. that the Medicine Trail was no longer kept properly and really wasn’t very interesting, and b. indicated that in order to get there up-river by canoe and pay for tickets etc., it would cost an astronomical US$ 75 each. We had come all this way to make contact with Ix Chel, and it seemed that the Trail was not where it was at. We went back to both Rosita’s book and the Guide book, and were wondering whether to visit San Antonio directly. A bit irritable because the pilgrimage wasn’t working, we were approached by a gentle member of staff asking about the next day’s tour. We explained that we were not going to do it after all, but will probably go to San Antonio. We asked if buses ran there on Sundays, and as we suspected, he said no. But, he explained, he lived there and everyone hitches rides with the local passing traffic, all of whom give lifts in their pick-ups if they have room. “Is it safe?” we asked anxiously. He reassured us that it was completely safe, and we recalled how the same thing is done at Crooked Tree across the causeway on a Sunday. He said you can offer BZ$3 but most do it for free. Conor mentioned why we were going, and this young man said that his father was one of the apprentices who took over the healing practices when Don Elijio Panti died aged 103. Then we knew we were on the right track!

After our meeting with the laughing falcon and a great breakfast, despite our grey hair we stuck out our thumbs along the stony unpaved road. A couple of pickups passed, full, and then a big blue 4×4 came by. He passed, stopped, and asked us where we going. Ok, he said. As we got in I remarked that he sounded like a Brit, to which he replied “So do you!” About 35 years, he manages Fyffe’s banana export business down south in Independence. He has a house in Basingstoke, and was here for 3 years, and had just returned for 3 months to help out for a bit. He was on a jolly, just exploring, and once he was confident that he had enough gas in his tank (petrol to you!) he took us all the way to San Antonio. Although only about 15 miles from the Lodge, it is a relatively slow and pot-holey ride through a deeply rain-forested area, past the village of Christo Rey and on to San Antonio which is nestled in a wide and lovely natural basin. The main area of the reserve, full of trees and mountains, is ahead of you as you approach. Both San Antonio and Christo Rey were spick and span little places, full of the usual range and style of houses, but both with a feeling of being well-cared for even if a very simple wooden thatched house. We knew roughly where to go from Eric’s description the evening before, and made our way up towards the school and some thatched houses. Getting final directions, we approached a wooden house on a hillside. Jerome Coc came out to see us, a short man of typical Mayan features, and said that he did indeed do healing, and yes it was fine to do such things on a Sunday.

He led us into a small wooden room which had a door and one window. It had a simple dirt floor, a couple of wooden shelves and also the typical 3 legged stool of these parts. It was very clean and tidy. A curtain hung over a doorway into the larger part of the wooden building. A tattered photo of Don Elijio was hanging from a nail on the wall behind us, and on the opposite wall was a drawn replica of the Mayan God of the Rainforest. Conor and I sat on stools as Jerome stood up directly in front of Conor and asked him lots of questions. He didn’t take his eyes off him, which were smiley and still at the same time. Then Jerome disappeared into his main house and came back with the leaves of wild coffee, explaining to Conor how to make an infusion, and how to take it both internally and externally. He then burnt some copal incense in a small pan, wafting the smoke over Conor and also over the leaves, the whole time intoning a prayer to the spirits in Spanish. I could hear that bits of it incorporated the Catholic liturgy, as the Mayans have been able to modify their deities to fit the catholic ‘spirits’, thus managing to hold onto some of their older beliefs and customs without alienating the Spanish Catholics when they took over their lands.

And then it was all over. Conor had a donation for the spirits, we shook hands and said goodbye, and managed to get two lifts in the back of pick-ups to Christo Rey and San Ignacio. We leaped up and into the trucks with finesse, and chuckled to ourselves about being two grey-haired grandparents squatting on spare tyres in the back of pick-ups in a jungle, surrounded by the shy, curious smiles of Mayan children!

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