No.31 Trekking and Stopping

After a couple of weekends in wet BC, the prospect of a slightly drier weekend over Halloween and The Day of the Dead encouraged us to catch a bus up towards Succotz and the Guatemalan border. (Succotz is the village a couple of miles south of the border town of Benque, where we caught the wire and ratchet ferry over to the Xunantunich pyramids.) The towns with a Spanish and/or Mexican influence celebrate the Day of the Dead, not just Halloween, (ie All Saints not All Souls) and in particular the souls of dead children. More remote traditional places have very special ceremonies, but these tend to be well into Mexico and too far for us. So we decided just to head west and see what we see.

Thus to a bus on a Friday evening! Once more ensconced on the Western Highway, we were heading for Trek Stop, on the eastern edge of Succotz, and with an interesting write up in the guide book: an eco-centre, complete with wooden cabañas, kitchens, bio-degradable composting toilets and a butterfly farm. After nearly three hours on a busy commuter bus, the bus driver deposited us in the dark. Seeing our look of “EH?” he pooped his horn and made a hand gesture to show us in which direction to look. Through the darkness we saw a billboard on the other side of the road proudly announcing Trek Stop. As the bus drew away and we crossed the road, we saw a torch light and a friendly voice coming towards us. “I saw the bus pull up. You said you would be here about 8pm.” A charming young Spanish sounding man met us and with two large torches guided us up the slope to the centre. The ground was firm but damp underfoot, and we asked him if they had been OK in the recent floods. This area is in the reaches of the large tributaries of the Belize River, where much of the damage from floods had occurred. (The river was on the near side of the road when we got off the bus.) He explained that the lower lying ground near the road had been under water; but the centre itself had not been affected, other than the increase in mosquitoes and other insects which had been  noticeable everywhere, including our generally insect–free zone in the flat. We were guided through some light vegetation to a series of cabanas and one or two larger wooden buildings, including a communal kitchen with facilities for (free) tea and real coffee, Scrabble and other board games, and an interesting collection of spear heads, fossils and stones. We passed the showers, with water heated by solar panels, and the loos. I could see immediately that I was going to have a problem. I have a very sensitive digestive tract – not just because of my more recent dramas with diverticulitis, but throughout my life. It is supposed to be typical of those born under the sign of Cancer, and my mother says my grandmother (of the horses sweat statement for any regular readers) also had to take great care about what she did and did not eat, and she too is a Cancerian. Any upset in my life at all, and I immediately get a funny tummy or chronic constipation.

Many years ago, about 1971, my friend Caroline and I were at a Sufi camp on the side of a mountain above Chamonix, in the French Alps. There were a lot of us, and it was the hippy era so we all tended to have long hair and flowing robes. As we were about 50 in number, three holes in the ground were dug, with wooden planks around them, with a stunning view over the valley to Mont Blanc. At sunrise the sun glowed on the snows on one side of the peak, and in the evening cast long rosy shadows on the other. It was midsummer, so the days were long, and being in large tents, it got hot soon after sunrise. But try as I may, I just could not ‘perform’ squatting over a hole in the ground with two companions, even if we were looking at one of the most famous profiles in the world. So it was with a sense of resignation I noted that the next few hours would not be the most relieving that I had ever had. Despite the fine eco-notion of composting toilets, the long drop into a cavernous hole, not quite knowing if anything might rise to greet you, is still something I have yet to struggle with.

Nevertheless the wooden cabanas, though simple were perfectly adequate, and very soundly constructed. Because of the rains I had wondered whether our Trek Stop might have had the company of every snake and scorpion looking for dry ground, but I needn’t have worried. The insect screens and all joints were tightly sealed, and the worst I saw was a little spider. We settled in and made our way through the village to Benny’s Kitchen, which had been recommended as a good watering hole. It was Halloween, and there were children and adults in occasional houses and yards, doing what people do with masks and pumpkins, creating a congenial sense of ‘family’ in the pleasant evening.

We awoke to the early morning dawn chorus, being on the edge of the rain forest, and to my delight we heard a parrot or parakeet just above us. By the time I got out of bed it had gone! But in the day light, we could appreciate the centre and its setting. Small cabanas were dotted around, with shingle paths linking up the various buildings. They were all interspersed with beautiful trees, with their gorgeous barks, and large and small shrubs, some in flower and some with fabulous foliage. One green leaf has a lacy creamy white border to it, whilst another looks as if Jackson Pollock has had a go. The various rubber plants and other indoor plants we see in the UK all grow wild and free here, delighting the eye with their vigour and variety.   Towards the back of the area is a ‘proper’ wooden house on stilts where the family live.

Navigating the ablutions without mishap, we wandered down to the eating area for breakfast – it had been closed the evening before. A party of tourists sat at the table beside us, two from Australia, two from Ireland and one from Canada. They had just arrived from Cancun and were going on to the Mayan site of Tikal, unable to visit the local sites because of the flooding making some roads impassable. We pondered over how very different their experience of the country was to ours. For the first time ever I indulged in banana pancakes and to my amazement two huge ones appeared on both Conor and my plates. We struggled gamely through, and they were quite delicious! An enormous bottle of maple syrup was passed liberally from table to table.

Before leaving, we decided to have a look at the small exhibition centre and butterfly farm behind the breakfasting area. The farm area was a vast netted-in piece of the rain forest, with particular plants for the caterpillars to feed off, or to camouflage a certain species. Because at this point the weather was just beginning to change from the few weeks of rain to a ‘cold’ front, and still a little overcast, not many of the butterflies were flying. A small boy, about seven years old, wandered in, and began to delight in finding the names of the butterflies for us (in Latin, Spanish and English!) shaking a branch here to disturb a particular butterfly, pointing out the chrysalises pinned up in a special box there. He was such good company that we gave him a couple of dollars for being such an excellent tour guide. At this he seemed to think that he had not really earned his wage yet, for he stopped us from leaving, seemed to pause a moment, then turned us back to show us how one butterfly was perfectly camouflaged on the bark of a tree trunk, and two large rust coloured caterpillars (he called them worms) were stationary on another trunk looking completely like the twigs around them. Clever.  At this point he seemed satisfied that his job had been well done, and let us go, each of us with a contented smile on our faces.

The sky was clearing, and the conditions perfect for walking: temperatures in the upper 60’sF, about 27C, and NO humidity! We had decided to just follow our noses, and began the walk through the village. We had noticed a sign about a local artist as we wandered through the previous evening, and had decided to look inside before moving on. As we approached the series of three simple buildings, we immediately noticed the details in the stone work steps, the careful positioning of plants, and a sense of welcoming peace. The middle of the three rooms was an open studio area with a typical potter’s room behind, complete with clay and wheels. A small Mayan man (most of the villagers in Succotz are of Mayan origin) probably about 60 years old, was sitting painting some pottery. His work immediately caught our attention. A variety of shapes and sizes but all most delicately painted. He uses local clays, and is currently developing more traditional glazes. The ones we saw were painted in acrylic, so will not be dishwasher proof, and will mark if scratched, but the art work was exquisite. Being limited by weight as we travel home, we purchased a couple of small pieces for gifts, depicting scenes from the Mayan cosmology. We stayed chatting to this gentle man, who told us about his work over the years, teaching women and children how to use the clay, and creating financial independence for the women. This has been a big issue within the Mayan culture as for aeons women were considered to be the property of their men folk, and any sign of independence seen as an insult to the family’s – and in particular the husband’s –  honour. He and his wife have been social activists for the last thirty years, and it was so good to talk with him and feel such hope for society that in every nook and cranny there are people like him quietly making changes and working towards a fairer world.

Usually we wilt after walking about two miles, so we were relishing the clear sunshine and fresh air, striding along the swollen river banks towards Benque with not even a hat on our heads! The high water marks were very evident, well up over the road, and though still a fast and vigorous volume of water speeding by, it was considerably lower than a week ago. As Succotz and Benque sit higher on the side of the valley, very few people’s homes were affected, fortunately. Meanwhile, all sorts of water birds, kingfishers, small herons, limpkins and waders were taking advantage of the waters. People too, were gathering to wash their clothes and themselves, or to dunk their pickneys (children) into tubs of water, pouring water over their screwed up faces. 

Keeping to the river bank, we avoided the main road up to the Guatemalan border and Immigration, and meandered through some leafy lanes, enjoying the sense of village life. The usual accompaniment of stray dogs and scrawny cats followed us, as we picked our way forward. While standing debating whether to keep going along a narrowing track, a red pick-up truck with a family in it stopped beside us, asking us where we were going. The man advised us that down that lane and into the undergrowth we were yards from the border, a notorious area for illegal immigrants and not very safe. Decision made, we thanked the man and turned back!

Still enjoying ourselves enormously, we decided to keep walking towards Succotz and San Ignacio until a communal taxi came along – which it duly did! The San Ignacio Saturday market was our first port of call, its abundance of fruit and vegetables sorely diminished from the last time we saw it. The whole market area had been under water, and thousands of acres of agricultural land ruined for this growing season. This will have a huge impact on the rural people, who have a subsistence-farming lifestyle, selling any extra produce in the markets of villages and towns. We were heading towards Bullet Tree, which had been flooded but was now passable, and which had some cabanas beside the falls according to the guidebook. It is the spot where the Macal and Mopan tributaries become the mighty Belize River. Suddenly the truth of Belize being a small country hit us, and everyone knowing everyone else. Waiting to cross the road to an ATM, we were hailed loudly and turned to see our ‘first day man’ hanging out of a front passenger window waving frantically! It was a taxi, with a couple of tourists looking at us curiously from the back. He had got himself a good deal there as a guide. Good for him, he knows his stuff.

In the queue for the ATM, a man who had attended a training day a week or so ago, based in San Ignacio, grabbed our hands. He had been very involved in the assessment of some of the flood damage, and told us a tale or two. He reassured us that we should be able to get to Bullet Tree. And whilst chatting to him, who else should come along but Ernesto! He greeted us warmly and it was good to see him. We hadn’t seen him for well over a month, and he looked scrubbed, with clean clothes and shoes on his feet. As we walked towards the market to get a local bus to Bullet Tree, we saw him loading some things onto the back of a stall holder’s lorry, so hopefully he had some work and was doing better for himself.

The road to Bullet Tree was indeed clear, and the taxi man – no local buses at that time of day – dropped us off near the river. He was gone before we had time to take in the scene……Both banks had the flattened vegetation left after water has receded, and on the far side, the restaurant and cabañas were soggy-looking and draped with mats and other bits and pieces out to dry. The so-called falls were completely covered with a raging mass of water, nothing particularly beautiful or picturesque, but at least no one was harmed.  Disappointed, we had no alternatives to make our way back to San Ignacio. Another communal taxi passed – great scheme that, we should do it in the UK – and we were soon back in the market place. Scouring our guide book, we suddenly recalled that one of the ones listed was recommended by the man from Fyffes bananas who gave us a lift up to San Antonio a few weeks ago. It was full, as a big concert was happening at the Cahal Pech site that evening, and the owner recommended another near by. Soon we had a room, very different to our Trek Stop the evening before.

The following day dawned brightly too. We had had a pleasant afternoon and evening roaming the town and its side streets, enjoying the names of drinking holes such as ‘Fiya Wata’, and despite odd bursts of noise, were not too disturbed by the concert overnight. We decided to take advantage of the perfect walking weather, and head off towards Belize City, and just pick up a bus when we had had too much. Eight glorious miles of trekking through the countryside, enjoying the space, the hills and forests, the flats and marshes, and all the wild life and cattle along the way, we eventually came to Georgeville and the bus stop. A small shop provided deliciously cold liquid, and then we had a very long wait as full bus after full bus went by. Beginning to know how the buses work, we decided to start walking again, and to stop somewhere where we could be easily seen and where we were alone. If too many people are waiting at a stop and the bus is very full, the driver does not stop. But for the odd one or two, he may. And he did! The people we were sitting with were not on the bus when we eventually got on.

We arrived back in BC very contented after a weekend of perfect walking weather in very pleasant countryside. I was golden, Conor lobster pink!

“The River”

Last Saturday, after the visit to St. Herman’s Cave, we had been invited to join one of the Women’s Dept Officers (a social worker responsible for seeing folk who drop in, taking people to the Family Court to prepare restraining orders and such like, helping battered women to find secure accommodation, etc) for her sister’s 16th birthday and graduation party. It was held in the local YWCA, and when we arrived there was a disco going, tables covered with coloured cloths, candles and glitter, and various friends, relatives and the birthday girl’s school chums, all arriving in dribs and drabs. After two weeks of hearing dire stories about the break down of relationships it was heartening to see the extended family and friends. There were young nephews and nieces who did ‘turns’ at the front, cousins who loved to sing, and others to dance. The boogying was impressive, whether 3, 13, 33 or 63! It was also a chance to taste homemade local cuisine too! We didn’t stay too late as Conor had pushed himself with his infection still lingering with the jungle trek that afternoon, and needed to rest. But we thoroughly enjoyed the homeliness of it. I could see clones of our 4- 12- 18- year old family members!

On the Sunday the clouds were lowering, with strong downpours and lightening and thunder so we decided to check out the other big hotel – called Princess – a little further around the northern coastline from the Radisson. Well, to not put too fine a point on it, it was gross in parts, good in parts. Large, air conditioned, typical tourist hotel, open foyer, big glass windows looking out onto the sea (it was fun to watch the waves of storm come in squalls, the visibility go, and wait to see where the lightening will be) and a restaurant that looked as if it had a good deal for a 3 course meal at BZ$23 plus tax per person. That’s the plus part. The down side was a pair of glittery doors which opened onto the hugest gambling hall – one armed bandits, gaming machines, poker, roulette tables….We walked through corridors following the signs to the swimming pool – which we wanted to check out to use another time – when we realised that we had to traverse a vast amusement area for children and families. The walls were lined with computer games and loads of kids racing cars here, banging guns there, with the occasional bored parent sitting at a table waiting. There was a bowling alley which actually had a couple of families playing together, and all of it topped with canned music and flashing lights. If I ever want to go to hell I know where to go! (Later we saw two dads join up with two mums who were sitting in the foyer, trailing 4 kids between them. The children all had that starry-eyed, sunken-sockets look of too much screen gazing.) The swimming pool, which we eventually found, was 3 times the size of the one at the Radisson, but we knew which one we were going to use! We remembered that Mark had said that he preferred the Radisson too, and we could see why. As we left, we also spotted a two screen cinema, which Conor decided mightn’t be so bad after all!

After work on Monday, Conor and I realised we have the Belizean equivalent of ‘just checking out the river’s still there’ (when we would go and gaze at the river at Ellemford, seeing the fish jumping, hoping for a glimpse of the heron or kingfisher, and feeling the direction, temperature and strength of the wind). Our apartment (UK2, BZ3) faces the sea. The great thing is that being a taller building and facing east the sea breeze comes straight into our windows – as well as the dust and rain of course, but the wind is precious. When we are standing we can see the sea as it’s only 2 blocks away, with nothing too large between us and it except a few palms and some broad leaved trees. A local told me they are common and easy to propagate but didn’t know its name. And guess what! We go and walk to the sea wall and sit and chat most evenings before going to Brodies for a few bits and pieces. And while we were sitting there Ernesto – the young street artist – came ambling up, drawing Conor this time! We chatted to him for a good forty minutes, and gained further the impression of a nice young man.