Birthday Treat

Oh my God! I looked up as I heard Conor mutter “What on earth’s that car doing, the one in front of the next one?” and saw a blue pick-up truck literally weaving from one side of the road to the other and back again. We were on the 5pm Express (non-stop) bus to Belmopan and San Ignacio, to stay in an eco-lodge recommended to us by Manda and Sara, the friends who bought our cottage, and who holidayed in Belize about 5 years ago. But at this point, somewhere in the region of the straight stretch of road between the Zoo and Belmopan, all eyes in the bus became transfixed on the drama unfolding in front of us. For about twenty minutes, our bus kept a wary distance as we watched, heart in mouth, as the drunk headed straight towards oncoming traffic. One large white pick-up was forced off onto the verge as they realised what was happening, spinning slightly as his tyre came back towards the tarmac, and temporarily heading towards our bus. A low “Oooh” could be heard throughout. Taxis have green number plates, and government vehicles have blue ones. (The Department’s pick-up has a blue one.) A red pick-up with a blue number plate had overtaken the bus, taking the place of the other vehicle between us and the drunk which had turned off the road. The driver had a passenger and a lad in the open back, and his hazard lights flashing. The lad and the passenger were waving their arms, trying to alert oncoming traffic to the danger in front of them. It was both mesmerising and terrible to watch, and it seemed inevitable that the drunk would kill himself and his passenger, or at least some others. We were all tense, oohing and ahhing at each narrow escape, and watching the red truck driver trying to both keep a safe distance and bring the car into the side of the road. Suddenly the red truck began to indicate a left turn (Belize drives on the right) and as it began to turn, to our horror the blue truck started turning left too, immediately in front of the red one. And then to our great relief, the blue truck moved into the side of the road once it had turned off, and the red truck pulled in front of him just as our bus driver put his foot on the accelerator and once more galloped along the road at his usual pace. We never saw any more, but oh it was exhausting to be awaiting at least drama if not death for such an endless period of time. (Later that w/e someone told us they never travel in their car on a Saturday evening because they had experienced too many drunks on the road – both in cars and lying in the middle of the highway!)

But to the real reason for our jaunt – my birthday weekend treat! We stopped briefly in Belmopan as the light was going, and could only make out the shapes of the hills as we proceeded to San Ignacio in the darkness. Suddenly we came across a sprawl of houses – San Elena – and then crossed the bridge over the Macal River into the town centre. A neat, bustling town, which had a totally different feel to both BC and Belmopan. Perched on a hillside, we could see the streets and houses spreading out from the centre. We had arranged with Maya Mountain Lodge that we would pick up something to eat, and as we got out of the bus and looked around, a man passing asked us if we wanted a taxi! We quickly said “No, a restaurant” and without changing his pace or direction, he said “Follow me, no charge!” whilst taking us to the Eagle’s Landed. It was a clean, simple, local eatery, where Conor enjoyed some fish and chips and I had a burrito made from a delicious soft homemade tortilla, accompanied by a delightful large glass of watermelon juice. (Wine is imported and very expensive here, plus in the heat alcohol is not very attractive – and the fresh juices made from the local fruits are far more appealing.)

Forty minutes later, after our meal and short taxi ride, we got out into the warm night air laden with scent and the sounds of cicadas. The now familiar jungle shapes were silhouetted by the lights coming from the open sided dining room and office. A petite Mayan woman greeted us warmly, and showed us to the Parrot Perch. We passed some cabanas – small dwellings with palm thatch roofs – set back in the grounds and up to a larger wooden building on stilts. A path wound round and up to the wooden slatted verandah, with some hardwood chairs and tables and a couple of striped hammocks swinging gently in the evening breeze. Conor asked if there were scorpions, and she reassured us they were only under the eaves of the cabanas – glad we had the cheap option! She said that the windows had good insect screens – against ‘bugs’ as all insects seem to be called, and that if we saw or heard anything at night it would only be the security guard with his torch. As she opened the door she laughingly said that some guests call out loudly “It’s a spider” and the security guard comes, and then squealed loudly as a relatively small one scuttled out from the shower room. We all fell about as Conor caught and removed it and she admitted that some of the locals weren’t too keen on spiders either!

The details in this small, clean room more than made up for our three weeks of squalor in Belize City. Sprays of leaves and flowers were beside the basin, on top of the cistern, on the head of the bed, and on the chest of drawers. Each was artfully arranged as one might see in Japan or Thailand, and was a sweet combination of lacey leaves, straight variegated red and green leaves, and the strong red flowers of the jungle in the rainy season. We climbed into our bed, and slept soundly until being woken by the grackles and the great kiskadees and many, many more birds in the trees.

Everything about the place was delightful: even the swimming pool – which was a glorified paddling pool really – was a joy when hot and sticky at the end of the day. Little humming birds – some golden, some sapphire blue with streaks of rust on the underbelly – swooped around us low over the water as they made their way from one hibiscus to another. You could kneel in it with your head above water, and Conor decided it was the perfect way to say the rosary in a sticky climate! (He often remarks that as a child the only thing he was expected to do was attend school, and come in to say the rosary at 8.30pm every evening. I think he was probably more successful at the latter than the former…)

The meals were all home-made and delicious, and a spirit of graciousness and generosity seemed everywhere. In conversation we later discovered the owners of the place were Ba’hais and that they give a 50% discount to volunteers in the country in the off season (winter is high tourist season because the rains are over and it is less sticky). We pricked up our ears as it would make it possibly affordable to come again without the excuse of a birthday.

We wandered – as we tend to do! – down the hillside, through a short track, and saw more clearly the town set across the relatively steep hillside opposite, with the strong, deep Macal river between us and it. The Mopan, the other tributary of the Belize River, converges with the Macal just south of San Ignacio. The original Spanish settlers called it El Cayo, or island, the same word as ‘cayes’ that the entire offshore islands are called. Now the whole region is called Cayo, and the locals still refer to the town as Cayo, too. We crossed a small, steel suspension bridge and entered the town proper. There was a bustling market spread out over a newly paved area. Some laid their produce on the ground, others on trestles, and all under large blue tarpaulins. They were needed either for the sun or the rain! The produce was of a much better quality than that in BC, and more varied too. I was disappointed that we just had a small case and couldn’t stock up with fruit and veg .to take back on the bus with us! There were some Mennonite men selling their wares, with some small boy clones sitting on a trestle stand nearby. None of them smiled or looked enthusiastic, playful or even angry. Just nothing. The adults weren’t much better. There are still some fruits and vegetables that I have never seen before, and when I asked what one very handsome pink thing was called, I got a Spanish name! It is about the size of an avocado yet more global in shape, with elegant peach pink petals/leaves tinged with pale lemon-gold (a bit like an artichoke but curling outwards like a fleur de lys). No idea whether it is fruit of veg, whether you eat the leafy bits like an artichoke, peel it ….whatever! I should have bought one anyway.

Cahal Pech is a Mayan site about 30 minutes walk up a steep hill – so we got a taxi and walked back! It was our first taste of the sites here in Belize, and is one of the smaller and less grand ones. Like many, it has only relatively recently been excavated, and has a central square courtyard, with large tiered pyramidal structures around the edges. Sections around it are for royal quarters, the inevitable ball park, royal burial chambers and no doubt much more besides. The hills in that region have been occupied since 1500BC, with much evidence of arrow heads, very sophisticated pottery, dwellings, clearings, agriculture…The pyramid here probably dates from 800AD – our Dark Age. As in Mexico, the Mayan culture had blood sacrifice at its heart – to appease the gods. They had a hugely sophisticated understanding of astronomy and time, and had predicted forwards about ½ million years to within half a minute of current reckoning. They say the world is going to end in October 2012. For some mysterious reason, Mayans from all over Mexico, Belize, Guatamala and San Salvador dropped everything and walked into the jungle, virtually ending the civilisation.

We climbed up to the top, wondering about why here as in the Toltec pyramids in Mexico, the stepped sides are larger than is a comfortable step, particularly when the Mayans tend to be a short people. At the top, I sat and rested, observing the whole scene, marvelling at how it was built buttressing right to the side of a steep drop. And then once more, just as on top of the Toltec Moon pyramid, and Conor’s experience in a stone temple carved into a mountainside in India, I suddenly felt not on top of the world but rather that this stone structure took me deep down into the stoney heart of the earth beneath us. It was unexpected but very centring, surprisingly relaxing.

Our time there included meeting interesting guests who were professional mappers of caves. They had recently gone into one cave system in near perfect conditions – rains not too high, oxygen levels not too low – found a new arm, with water flowing in it, and saw a skeleton perfectly preserved under the water. As there were 4 femurs, they realised it was in fact two bodies. A large metal knife was lying a few feet away. They have already had one bone carbon dated, and it comes from about 1500AD. They had been unable to enter that deeply into the cave this time round, but were nevertheless going to keep trying. This couple are responsible for mapping all the major cave systems in Belize.

All too quickly our weekend was over – we caught the bus back into BC at 7.15am, and made our way to our apartment before showering and starting another week in the Women’s Dept.! While I was on the bus, I mused that I was disappointed that I hadn’t spotted a motmot there. Motmots are beautiful blue birds with an elegant long tail feather or two with an ‘eye’ at the end much like a peacock but much smaller. I found myself playing with the word in my head – ‘motmot’ ‘motmot’ – and then before I knew it my 8 year old self had produced a scatological rhyme which made me giggle out loud in the bus, and still does! Conor on the other hand is not amused.

A lot lot!