Laughing All The Way Home

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!