Day of the Scorpion

November 19 was both Conor’s birthday and a public holiday, (as well as the astrological sign of Scorpio) celebrating the anniversary of Garifuna Settlement Day. As I wrote recently, the Garifuna have a rich cultural heritage, and on November 19 there is a re-enactment of the arrival from the sea of the people from Honduras, and then a procession of drumming and traditional dancing through the streets. Dangriga, south of Belize City, is the heart of the Garifuna people, but the coastal village of Hopkins a few miles further south is also Garifuna, and does all the celebrations too. Since Hopkins is on a huge curve of a sandy bay, with a good reputation for swimming, whilst Dangriga is more of a town, not a particularly inviting beach, and very full of people celebrating the day, we decided to catch the bus on Tuesday evening to Hopkins. Using our now very well thumbed guidebook, we phoned a place mentioned that was reasonably priced, booked a room and set off.

The bus journey was both reliable and predictable: from BC to Belmopan, then down the Hummingbird Highway towards Dangriga. We had been given a number of a taxi to phone as we approached the crossroads where the southern highway continues south towards Toledo, rather than going straight ahead to Dangriga. But the Maya Mountain Range was behind us and affecting the signal on Conor’s phone, leaving us uncertain as to whether or not the message had been received. Alighting from the bus at the gas station, we asked the woman behind the counter about how far away Hopkins was, and whether she knew of another taxi. Still waiting just in case  the one we phoned was on its way, two Hispanic women from inside the garage approached us and offered to taxi us there themselves. They started off asking a ridiculous amount of US dollars, but we managed to agree a reasonable price. These two had a large bag with them, and explained that they had just come from Hopkins were they had been selling clothes. After about ten minutes, we turned east off the Southern Highway and headed for the lights in the distance.

Hopkins is a series of three parallel roads running alongside the sandy beach lined with palms, mangroves, cashew and sea grape trees, and many more. The gentle slap and swish of the waves could be heard against the cicadas and the rumble of drums here and there as the local people were beginning their annual celebration. Making our way through a restaurant area, we were directed a few yards further to the north and mounted a flight of wooden steps into a time warp from the seventies. A woman about our age introduced herself, and the other younger backpackers staying there: two UK medical students who had just finished two months’ elective  in Belmopan; one intrepid traveller from Switzerland who managed to go for months with just a very small pack; and two social workers from Germany travelling through Central America. They were a very nice group of young women.

Our host showed us down into our room, a wooden cabana looking directly onto the shore, and left us for few minutes. It had been decorated in a random, free style, with some painting on wood here, a conch shell there, mosquito net decorated with shiny shapes, or flotsam and jetsam artistically placed on wall or shelf. As I looked around the rustic wooden place, I spotted a small scorpion resting motionless on the concrete wall. As the owner entered the room, I pointed out that we had an extra resident. She lifted her flip-flop and gave it a resounding thwack followed by a scrape along the wall. Job done, she reassured us that that was a small one, and they invariably are alone, and that they are looking for the dry places after all the recent rains. I refrained from saying that we had heard that they are usually found in twos especially in the mating season. And being a wee one, I suspected that the two adults would be somewhere. Hmm.

Feeling resolute, we settled in and then walked the few yards back along the sands to the restaurant, and had a delicious meal of the local fish of the day accompanied by the drums and dancing of local people. After a day’s work and the long bus ride, we were ready for bed but it was obvious that others had a long night ahead! Our host had informed us that the re-enactment from the sea would be about 6a.m. (Belizean time!) and that we could either get up or just watch out of the screens from our bed! We suspected we knew which one we were going to do….

Somewhat to my surprise, given the thorough inspection of every nook and cranny before turning in, I slept soundly. The following morning announced itself by the sound of dim drums in the distance. I peered towards the sea, but fell back into a sleep fairly quickly. An hour or so later, warm sun rays came through the open windows onto the bed, enticing us to begin the day, Conor’s 61st birthday. Still treading very cautiously, I began to dress myself, and reaching for my linen shirt noticed a large scorpion on the wall immediately above and behind the shirt. UGH! Shaking everything even more diligently than before, when I turned back it was nowhere to be seen. Which is worse? One you can see close by, or one that has disappeared? I am not sure.

Returning to the restaurant for some breakfast, we were surprised to see the same crew that had been serving the night before. Asking them when they had got to bed, they said 5.30am, but some of the folk the previous night had said they would return for breakfast. They hadn’t, but it was to our advantage as we had a delicious omelette with tomatoes and avocados, the last of the season. One of the cooks came out to wish Conor a happy birthday – it had transpired the previous evening that she and Conor shared the same day. Conor always says you can tell the nature of the boss by how contented the staff is.

Before I go on, let me set the scene. A sandy beach, part of a huge bay fringed with mangroves, palms and other vegetation. Early morning sun rays warming the atmosphere, and a restaurant with tables and chairs under strategically placed palm-thatched shades. Here and there, boats and dug-out canoes are pulled up onto the beach, patiently waiting till the next voyage. Some have been waiting a long time, and have had others inhabit them meanwhile: seaweed here, termites there, and the intrepid bromeliads. The backdrop of the gentle Caribbean creates a pleasant chorus against other conversations. The grackle squawks, the Kiskadee cries, the cicadas drone. People occasionally pass back and forth from their homes to their workplaces or to their friends and companions.  Two young teenagers can be seen carefully plaiting one another’s hair under the shade of a rubber tree.

Conor and I sat on the beach drinking coffee and green tea, our chair and table legs sunk into the sand, and having a long chat with the owner. Canadian, he had only recently completely moved to Hopkins. He had been going back and forth for about 5 years. Our conversation ranged far and wide, and he was very interesting. At one point, a staff member came up to ask him something, and we were told how this man had the only car that was not submerged in the recent floods in the village of Sittee River. Sittee River is just a couple of miles to the south, on the river, and as Hispanic as Hopkins is Garifuna. Apparently there was a flash flood when a seven foot bore tore down stream. The member of staff had just pulled away in his car when he saw it coming and drove straight to the one place of high ground in the village. There was no time to warn anybody – the wall of water came down with extraordinary speed. (We later met a taxi man with an unusual vehicle, and he explained that his original taxi had been ruined in the flood. When asked if it had been insured, he gestured wide and said that you only get third party insurance in Belize. “You give them money all the time but they never give it to you.”)

The restaurant owner gave us a bit of local history. He explained that the two villages, despite clear cultural differences, had lived compatibly for donkeys’ years. The road only came to the area 15 years ago, and until then everyone was entirely dependent on boats: boats to Dangriga, to Sittee, to BC and beyond. At least once a week there was a large market boat when people would load their surplus produce to take to BC or Dangriga. Whilst Sittee people were farmers, the men of Hopkins were fishermen. Therefore the men’s working patterns were traditionally very different: farmers work with the light; fishermen work hard for 3-4 hours a day. With the advent of the car, life-styles had been rudely challenged over the fifteen years, and many were still adjusting. The age group of 25 – 35 year olds were least in existence in Hopkins because of lack of work, but that is beginning to change. Tourism creates job opportunities. Tourism can also ruin that which it is trying to sell – though there is a strong eco-tourism movement here in Belize. On the northernmost edge of the bay, near Dangriga, is a deep water jetty used for shipping the orange and grapefruit pulp for juice. There is apparently a plan to divert some of the tourist ships there rather than to BC. It is well situated for exploring the hinterland, close to Hopkins too, has access to some of the cayes, and very much more pleasant an experience than BC. The restaurateur also informed us that 80% of Hopkins’ population is under 12 years of age. That will transform the village in a few years time.

Our long leisurely breakfast came to an end, and we made our way back to our room – only to find our house guest back in its spot on the wall. Reluctantly I went upstairs and fetched the spray…a quick squirt and the scorpion contracted – which I assume was claws in, sting over – and then disappeared again. Looking around, we thought it had fallen behind the shelf. A while later, our business over, Conor opened the screen door, only to find our friend stretched out full length under the door jam. Wow – it must have shot across the length of the room with the speed of light, and I am so glad my feet were not in the way. It was not quite dead, and could arch and sting but not walk. We scooped it up onto a dustpan and brush, took a few fascinated but cautious pictures, allowed the other backpacker residents the opportunity to inspect, and handed it over to the woman with the excellent flip-flop technique!

We had also discussed the possibility of moving to less rustic quarters with the restaurateur, but in the end decided to move upstairs to another room which had become available, and which was more in the main body of the house. Nevertheless, I had a jumpy night full of insectitous. I slept lightly and with caution, hearing every nnnnn of a mossie, sensing every swish of a possible scorpion upon a nearby surface. Waking with the sun, we and three other backpackers caught the 7am bus to Belmopan and BC, ready for a new day’s work.

A post-script – the day of roaming the beach, spotting different varieties of waders, swimming, listening to the children practising their drumming and dancing, following the Garifuna Settlement Day floats and processions, seeing everyone dressed in their Garifuna clothing, mainly black, yellow and white, was lovely. And in the dusk, having moved our things upstairs, and sitting quietly on the communal balcony staring at the sea and chatting to the Swiss woman, I wondered if I was seeing waves starting to break or was it fish? And then we realised it was manatees! (A pod –shoal – family? Just looked it up: because they are cows, bulls and calves, it’s a herd, of course!)

What is a manatee you ask? Or at least, I did when we first came to Belize. The manatees are one of the water based attractions that tempt the tourists here, and these dears presented themselves to us. Manatees are a protected species of fully aquatic mammals. They are also called sea cows, hence the ‘herd’. They are very round, like seals, but with large round soft faces with a dark patch on the top of their head, and two front limbs. Their tail is a flat paddle shape. Apparently they come up for air every 20 minutes. They eat sea grass, mangrove leaves and some algae, swimming in the warm shallow waters of the Caribbean and up to Florida. Some species are freshwater (Amazon) and some can handle different degrees of salinity, moving between the sea, the brackish swamps, and into freshwater rivers fed by a warm spring in the winter. Tests have revealed that they are intelligent like dolphins, and good at memory tests – which is interesting because apparently they evolved millions of years ago and their nearest relative is the elephant – who also never forgets.

It felt a real gift to see them.