Jumpers and Biters

Mr. S kindly gave us a lift back to the bus stop in Ladyville, and we had a great conversation about living in foreign lands, world health, poverty, and much more. When we remarked on how much racial tolerance we perceived, he said that there had to be as there had been so much intermarriage between the different ethnic groups over the centuries. As parents you were never quite sure what features your children would have. It made me feel hopeful for countries like the US and the UK, where such intermingling is relatively young compared to a country like Belize.

On Monday he phoned us to say that his wife agreed the rent and conditions he had made with us, and then dropped the keys off the following day. Conor jiggled a few clients around, and caught the market bus out at 11 am on Wednesday, starting to take some things out to the cottage. He chuckled about the bus journey, full of women and fruit and veg., laughing and chatting together like a Works Outing. When they got to the village, the driver suddenly turned off the sandy lane and drove over a field right up to a woman’s house. “What’s she got that we haven’t? VIP treatment!” ricocheted around the bus!

Conor arranged with Corletta for the standard 5 gallons bottle of water to be dropped off on Friday, checked out the bed for comfort, and reported back on whether we had towels and bed linen provided, and the state of the lemon trees! The overall verdict was good! By 5.30pm on Friday we were standing at the bus stop at the Belcan Bridge.There are 3 main bridges over the River Belize: the swing bridge at the mouth of the river, where the fishermen are moored and the Caye Caulker Water Taxi terminal is; then the Belchina Bridge – Belize/China; and the main artery north via the Belcan Bridge – Belize/Canada. Both China and Canada have supported Belize’s economy and infrastructure in a variety of ways. Most of the volunteer projects and NGOs I have come across seem to include Canadian involvement. We wonder if this is particularly because of Commonwealth connections.

Anyway, there we were, anxiously waiting for a bus marked Crooked Tree, with a small wheelie case, two folding garden chairs as we decided we needed something a bit softer to sit on than wood, whether inside or on the verandah, and each with a backpack full of provisions (olive oil, S&P, herbs and spices, loo rolls, the essential rubber gloves, rice, kidney beans, tins of coconut milk…etc!). Various buses came and went for points north – Orange Walk, the next biggest town in Belize, and Cozumal on the Mexican border. We were beginning to wonder whether the bus didn’t go via this stop after all, when a young man, about 22, wandered over from a group of friends and sat on the bench near us. He caught my eye, and asked whether we were going to Crooked Tree. When I said yes he smiled warmly and said he was our neighbour! When I asked whether he was Corletta’s son (assuming he had seen us the previous w/e) he said her grandson. He assured us the bus would come, and told us they are marked with ‘Jex’ not Crooked Tree, which is the name of the bus company. When the bus eventually arrived, he heaved the case onto the back for us, entering with all the other young bloods through the back door, whilst we in our dotage got on the front of the bus, armed with backpacks and chairs! (Both Conor and I are referred to as Mama and Papa here in Belize, a respectful term for elders, but it’s a bit unnerving! A bit of a reality check!)

Since the majority were bound for Crooked Tree (CT from now on) there was again an easy familiarity between folk, with chatting going on, children falling asleep whilst their heads were supported by their neighbour’s shoulders, and the now familiar diversity of shades and features. There was also a lot of variety in the way people were attired, too. People in the more professional classes over here tend to dress relatively formally for work, rarely jeans or anything more exposing than a short or ¾ length sleeved top, whatever the weather. The exception to that seems to be in organisations like PAHO (the Pan American branch of the WHO) when those Americanised folk have smart jeans and polo tops. Others looked more in the shop assistant league, whilst others again manual labourers. But regardless of how they earned their living, the majority would have known each other from time immemorial, with a smattering of in-comers like ourselves who soon get known by default.

The bus stopped right outside our and Corletta’s houses, and we struggled off the bus with all our stuff, and came inside! The light is just going at 6.30pm in the Tropics, so we had about half an hour to acquaint ourselves with everything before full darkness fell. After about ten minutes, all the toes on both my feet went red, slightly swollen and itchy. I thought that perhaps I had brushed against a poisonous grass as I walked across the garden into the house. And then I remembered that many called some of the ants ‘fire ants’.  Now I knew why – my toes were on fire! Fortunately it didn’t last too long – I think they must have been relatively small ones – and I resisted the urge to scratch.

I was the jumpy one that first night. As a child the story of my mother’s first night in a married quarter in Aden was vividly etched into my brain. My father was in hospital with a severe dose of hepatitis, and mum awoke to find her bed, pillow and every surface in the room heaving with cockroaches. They disappeared as soon as she turned on the light, which she left on, of course! So whenever I am in an unknown ‘hot’ place, I am partially awaiting for the hoards all night. Truth be told, it is a fine, watertight and insect-proof little place and the worst I saw in 3 nights was 1 small beetle and 2 small spiders – far less than I live with quite amicably in Ellemford! But I didn’t sleep well that w/e, and ended up with a trapped nerve in my back by Monday morning. Fortunately it was not serious and as soon as I had some painkillers and lay down flat, it began to loosen up and was fine by Tuesday.

On Saturday, we did a recce of the village to discover what is available there, and what we need to bring out from BC. There are about 3 shops, each selling a smattering of basics. The one nearest to us, between us and Birds Isle Lodge, sits in the centre of a large field. The fence has barbed wire to keep out the horses and cows which roam freely through the village. One section has no barbed wire, just two wooden crossbars through which you clamber! We took a photo…Carmen, a most helpful woman who has the shop, told us it’s open most of the time except only 7-9am on Sundays, but if you holler (pronounced halLAH with a rising intonation) she will come downstairs for you. She also sells some fresh produce from the farm behind the shop, whatever may be in season. When we asked who to contact to arrange for some fresh fish each w/e, she told us to follow two lads down a track opposite.

A lot of folk seem to have a small holding and to be growing fruit and veg., and to supplement their diet with a daily catch. The track led us into a surprisingly well-inhabited area of houses dotted through the fields, trees and shrubs and vegetable plots. Some were wooden on stilts like ours, surrounded by lines of clothing blowing in the wind, some concrete blocks, one or two mobile homes, and one larger building at the bottom complete with a fence, animals and some fierce sounding dogs. We hoped it wasn’t there. We saw the white T-shirt on a shoulder sitting in a mobile home – which we had been told to look for. As we approached, a tall, older man with an affable smile wandered over to his gate. What followed was such a pleasure…somehow he captured a lot of what is just glorious about the place. I thought that Leonardo had amble and stop as his speeds because he was a birder. But no, everyone moves like that! And speaks like that. You ask something, and they chew the cud of your words, digesting them and thinking about it. And then a few minutes later they refer back to it with some comment or two. The complete antithesis of Alberto the taxi driver in Belmopan! The long and the short of it was

Yes he could possibly supply us with some fish.

And that he would probably charge us BZ$2.

There again, he may even have a couple of fish he could give us for today.

He would fillet them and send them up with one of the boys later. 

Conor ventured that we were wondering if he knew who we could ask to hire a boat for exploring the water ways, as Bird Isle lodge was expensive.

He nodded sagely and slowly repeated that Birds Isle Lodge was expensive.

(He reminds me of folk you meet in the Highlands. That was the Creole equivalent of a long ‘Aye’.)

After a bit he said that he had a boat moored by the water (pronounced wahTAH).

It needs a second seat put into it.

He’ll let us know.

Money was exchanged, and later that morning we received a bag of two delicious large filleted fish for the princely sum of 50p. Oh, and his name is Uriah.

In the afternoon we decided to walk a bit further out into the northern bit of the island, to find what is called Cashew Products on the tourist map. It was blisteringly hot, as there had been no rain in our area for about 10 days (though huge storms in Dangriga and further south. A bridge across the Stann Creek on Hummingbird Highway had been washed away.) We wandered out along the sandy lanes, still marvelling at the huge girth of some of the trees and tree roots, and the serendipitous nature of the shapes and styles and smartness and decrepitude of the houses. We thought that we ought to have arrived at one of them by now, and when we happened across 3 vehicles and assorted mechanics and aids outside of a house, we asked if we were close. A good natured confident young man picked up our map, telling us that there were two places selling cashew products, and this was the other one! And the better one as here you could get the cashew seeds (not called nuts) as well as the wine. He proudly announced that Henry was the chief agent for all the cashews in the island. Everyone sold them to him.

As he spoke, he led us up to a shy man in his late thirties, and if he doesn’t have some Irish blood in him I’ll eat my hat! Henry was in the middle of shaving one of the boy’s heads, seated on a wooden stool between a truck and some large barrels. The principle of living outside and sleeping inside was very evident here, with the children playing around, the barber’s post, car repairs, all life really. Henry showed us the cashews he sold for BZ$20 – £5, quite expensive we thought. No wonder it’s a cash crop. He then told us about his wine: cashew and black berry – which is like an elder berry, at BZ$6 a bottle. As cheap as the cashews are expensive. He let us taste the cashew wine, which is 5 years old and fortified like a port or sherry. Good but not for guzzling. He then led us to his still –beside us 8 huge blue barrels were covered with corrugated iron sheets (to run the rain off) and each tightly covered with thick plastic. He uncovered one, took out a little of the rich red liquor, and let us quaff it. It was much lighter and fruitier and very pleasant. He took great care to fix the plastic tightly down again – the insects would have a field day! We ordered a bottle of each for the next day.

Oh, and we have found that one of the ponds, near the pigs, is a favourite haunt for some of the more interesting waders. On both Saturday and Sunday we saw goodies there, including a Roseate Spoonbill in flight against the green foliage as we startled it – quite stunning; the Bare-throated Tiger Heron (again!) and a Spotted Water Rail. There is an interesting little bird that sits on the wire by our verandah which can’t confidently identify yet, too.

Biters? – Well, after the canoe trip my feet were covered. Obviously not enough Deet on.