Caves and Canoes and Connections

My days in western Belize were full. Full of awe at the great ceiba tree, the Mayan tree of life,  reaching into the heavens and connecting its roots down into the underworld. Full of wonder at the variety of birds and bats spotted from a canoe at dusk on the Macal River. Full of trepidation and the overcoming of a great personal fear as I paddled into the yawning mouth of Barton Creek Cave, setting aside my irrational fear of dark water in order to witness the majesty of sparkling stalactites and ancient Mayan artifacts buried nearly a mile into the earth. Full of education as I wandered the natural history exhibit and blue morpho butterfly enclosure and cantered on the back of a docile mare named Sweet Thing to the working organic farm. Full of meandering hikes alone and laughing dinners with my fellow campers. Full of naps in my hammock and scribblings in my journal and nights rent by the otherworldly and magnificent calls of a troupe of howler monkeys in the jungle of our camp.  My days quickly began to form a rhythm, a perfect combination of solitude and quiet with conversation and connection.   

{Curious about the sound of howler monkeys? They don't howl…it's more like a prehistoric roar…this video on You Tube captures it well}

Of Mornings & Mayans

I love to be awake in the wee hours before the rest of the world begins to stir. Admittedly, I'm often much happier about the being awake than the getting awake, but it is always worth the pain of leaving a comfy bed to experience the world in those early hours. This lesson was driven home to me many years ago when I awoke alone in Budapest and greeted the sun as it rose above the gothic parliament building across the Danube River from where I sat in solitude at the Fisherman's Bastion. It was a morning that will remain with me forever.

On this sticky morning, I slapped the snooze button on my phone twice before stumbling out of bed in the dark, performing my ablutions, and locking my door behind me as I made my way quietly out of the guesthouse in the pre-dawn light. Coming to life as I walked and munched one of the bananas I'd picked up at the market on Saturday, I passed through the entrance of Cahal Pech just as the dark sky began to give way to the dim greys of an overcast morning. A little bummed that it didn't look like I'd get the golden rising sun I'd hoped to photograph, I was still eager to investigate one of the oldest recognizably Mayan sites in western Belize. 

There is something undeniably mystical and eerie and magical about sitting alone among structures built more than 1000 years ago as the watery light of the early morning leaves the shadow deep. I sat quietly for minutes at a time as I tiptoed from structure to structure and passed beneath the low hanging branches of wormwood and qualm wood trees and bay leaf palms. Howler monkeys roared in the distance and small songbirds flitted through the leaves, unconcerned with my presence. My disappointment at the flat grey light ebbed as I tuned into my surroundings and began to sink into a sense of connection and mystery.

Somewhere long ago I read about the idea of "thin places," places on earth where the distance between this world and the mysteries that lie beyond it contracts just a bit and we humans can sense a greater closeness. I don't know what truth there is in this idea, but I felt it once as I wandered the damp recesses of San Miniato al Monte near sunset, as the lamps were being lit by brown-robed monks. And I felt it here in these ancient ruins alone in the jungle, the echoes of lives and eras and ways so archaic.

After wandering and being still among the stones for nearly three hours in solitude, I left the site and walked back toward the main part of San Ignacio, hungry and ready to try out Pop's restaurant after hearing that their fry-jacks and refried beans were the best in town. Tiny Pop's was bustling and while I waited for a table, I met 91 year old Vivianna Logan, who joined me for breakfast and grabbed my heart with her tale. {shameless plug- the story of our conversation over breakfast that morning is the subject of my recent publication in Traveler's Tales…head over and check it out!}

We sat for hours, Vivianna and I, drinking coffee and talking. When we eventually parted ways, I decided to grab one last San Ignacio experience I'd heard about before figuring out how to get to my next destination and walked up to the luxurious San Ignacio Resort Hotel to visit their iguana exhibit. As our guide educated our combined group of four, we held and fed and were scowled at by the exhibit's many residents. It was a novel and enjoyable experience, though I admit to harboring qualms about these types of displays, not knowing enough about the local ecology or the reptiles to know whether the exhibit is responsible, sustainable, and humane.

I had reservations just a few miles outside of San Ignacio at Chaa Creek's Macal River Camp for the next few nights, so I checked out of my guesthouse and weighed the many options for getting there from town. Deciding that it was the perfect short distance to dip my toes into the local custom of hitchhiking from place to place, I headed toward the road near the edge of town. I barely had an opportunity to stick my thumb out as the very first car pulled over and I was greeted by Mr. Ireland, a gregarious man in thick glasses and a checked hat who actually took me right to Chaa Creek's entrance instead of dropping me at the end of the road as I'd expected. I waved goodbye to the rattling jalopy and smiling Mr. Ireland before turning toward the concierge desk for check in.

A bit about Chaa Creek. Founded as a small jungle farm in 1977 by Mick and Lucy Fleming, who took their veggies to market in San Ignacio via dugout canoe, visitors would sometimes find their way out to the property and ask to stay. As the number of those visitors increased, the Flemings had the idea of building a guest cottage from materials sourced from their land. One cottage grew into two and then three, the operation culminating in the swanky eco-resort that now dominates the property. In 1997, they added the Macal River camp, an unplugged camp located just under a mile downstream from the main resort on the Macal River. This is where I was headed.

Passing by the infinity pool and thatched roofs of the luxury cottages and suites, the camp's caretaker and manager, Dulcio, explained a bit about the day-to-day workings as we  bounced along the dirt double track in his truck. The only electricity in the camp is located in the kitchen/dining area and centrally located bathrooms, all solar-powered and thus in limited supply. Each room, or casita, is a screened-in raised platform outfitted with beds and two kerosene lanterns which he or his son, Ariel, would light each evening at dusk. Breakfast and dinner are cooked by his wife, Francelia, and are eaten in the dining area as a group at the designated hours. I could access the rest of the resort at any time by walking the mile-long Rainforest Medicine Trail that connected the camp with the main lodge.

When we arrived at the camp, Dulcio showed me to my casita and around the property and I met Francelia, already busily laboring away in the kitchen for dinner. It was perfect. Without the constant hum of electricity, I could hear the many birds in the surrounding jungle without impediment. My casita's small patio faced the web of trees and was complete with a hammock, of which I made immediate use. The soft breeze, rustling leaves, birdsong, and utter lack of human or machine powered noise lulled me into the first of many naps I would take on that patio, awakening just in time to get my fill of Francelia's culinary magic.

Mo' Love, Mon!

"Da world, it needs mo' love, mon! Whatchu need, what we ALL need, is mo' love!"

The rasta dude with glistening ebony skin and an enormous, dazzling white smile was clearly selling something from the two plastic 5-gallon buckets strapped to the side of the rusty bike he was pushing along the thoroughfare, but I had absolutely no idea what it might be. Passersby didn't so much as glance up as he yelled out about the world's need for "mo' love, mon" and I watched as he made his way across San Ignacio's central green in my direction.

When he was a few feet from the bench where I sat munching my way through the epiphany of fried flour and mashed beans and stringy melted cheese that were my pupusas, our eyes met and I couldn't help but smile big at his mischievous expression.

"Ahhh, girlie," he exclaimed, "you look like you already got plenty o' love wit a smile like dat!" He grinned even wider and slapped my hand in a gregarious high-five as he passed and continued across the green and down a side street. I could hear his message of love long after I could spot his impressive dreadlocks or decaying bicycle or buckets of mystery substance.

I finished the last bites of my pupusas, licking every last bit of flavor from my fingers, and waved goodbye to the two Mennonite women at the cart whose talented hands had made my scrumptious lunch.

This was a first for me, this traveling in another country without companion or agenda. All of my past international experiences had included one or the other (usually both), but I had an entire week ahead of me in Belize before I was due in Caye Caulker to work. This combination of foreignness and freedom was both thrilling and intimidating and I was still making heads and tails of it, though my experience accidentally purchasing sixteen tacos at the market the day before was exactly the breakthrough idiocy I'd needed to begin to settle in.

With nothing but my personal whims and fancy as my guide, I decided to spend the day ahead simply wandering. I wandered a few miles up to the Mayan ruins at Cahal Pech, making sure that I knew the way so that I could explore them as the sun rose the next morning. I wandered past pastel homes built high on stilts with yards strewn with sleeping dogs and children's toys. I wandered into a cluttered convenience store to buy an ice cream from a freezer that sounded as though it were heaving its last as I scraped open its door to retrieve my treat. I sat on a bench in the center of a busy roundabout to eat a tamale next to a cracked fountain with no water in it and smiled at the man eating his lunch on the bench beside me as a grizzled old vaquero walked his horse through the traffic.

As I made my way back toward my guesthouse, I popped my head into Ajaw to see if there was room for me to join a demonstration in making chocolate in the Mayan tradition. As it turned out, I was lucky enough to get a private lesson in taking the humble cacao bean to sacred Mayan hot chocolate drink. Elida, my teacher, even scolded me on proper form as I ground the beans on the ancient stone metate that her great grandfather had unearthed on his farm decades before.  

Feeling a bit like Juliette Binoche in Chocolat, I left the little shop and headed next door to my guesthouse where the adorable and very pregnant proprietor greeted me warmly. Setting my alarm for 4:00 a.m., I collapsed onto the bed thinking of all of the love that had touched my small world that day, smiling again at the thought of my rasta friend, and fell asleep already dreaming of the coming sunrise spent with Mayan gods.

Sweet Sixteen

As I circled el mercado for the third time I could hear my stomach rumbling above the din of the crowd. Apparently so could the gangly teenage boy with the big chocolate eyes who was handing me my change for the three bananas I'd just purchased. He looked up at me in surprise and then broke into a wide grin.

"¡Comé!" he exclaimed, pointing at my bananas.

"Gracias," I smiled back and nodded as I began to walk away.

But it wasn't bananas I wanted. The breeze shifted in the already hot morning air and once again the tantalizing aromas of grilling meat, grease, and spicy hot peppers wafted over me. As if Mr. Pavlov had just rung his infamous bell, my mouth immediately watered.

In Belize less than 24 hours, the last time I ate anything of real substance was before my 6am flight yesterday morning. By the time I reached my hotel room late last night, I could barely keep my eyes open long enough to eat my crushed granola bar in three bites before falling asleep on top of the covers still wearing the clothes I'd traveled in all day. This morning I woke early and by the end of my glorious (if rather cold) shower, I was energized, excited, and hungry.

I passed the shrunken old man in the bent straw hat and the young boy working alongside him as they cleaned their enormous pile of coconuts with razor sharp machetes and unbelievable precision and ease. I made a mental note to come back to their booth for fresh coconut water to enjoy on my walk back to my hotel later. But first...

I hesitated and immediately grew annoyed with myself. I was intimidated. I can get like this when I arrive in a new place, becoming uncharacteristically timid, a little overwhelmed until I get my bearings. It drives me crazy. Now I was hungry and lacked patience…this was not the time or place to be shy.

I walked past the stand that had grabbed my attention on my first two passes, three women moving quickly and surrounded by such an enormous crowd that I had no idea what it was that they were selling. The crowd jostling for position appeared to be predominately local, so I joined the mass of people shouldering forward, sure that the combination of local crowd and irresistible smell made this an ideal spot to begin my culinary adventures in Belize. 

As I was knocked from side to side by the press of people around me, I craned to get a glimpse at what we were all so eagerly awaiting.I finally spotted the gigantic aluminum cook pots and covered plastic bowls perched atop a red-checked vinyl tablecloth and one of the women using a battered cookie sheet as a tray, balancing it precariously as she assembled the various mystery fillings on fresh soft corn tortillas.

Tacos!!! 

In my elation, I missed the opening to my right and three men in their early twenties deftly sidestepped me and jumped in to order. You snooze, you lose. I used the delay to try to get a sense of the ordering protocol. People were holding up fingers, some just one or two, but others all five. The number of tacos they wanted? I assumed that was the case and pressed closer to try to hear the questions the women were asking. No luck.

"Perdón, Señor," I attempted to ask one of the twenty-something guys in my less-than-stellar Spanish,"qué es este?" He gave me a long look, clearly unimpressed.

"Tacos," he snapped and turned away. Alrighty then.  

Suddenly it was my turn. I held up four fingers and just said yes to everything she asked me, having absolutely no idea what I was agreeing to. With confidence her hands flew, assembling a cookie-sheet tray full of tacos that I assumed were multiple orders. As she began stacking them onto one plate, taco upon taco, I began to realize that my one-finger-means-one-taco assumption was clearly wrong. 

"Cuatro," she said and held out a hand. I looked at her for a moment, confused. Four? Yes, I'd ordered four tacos, but there were a lot more than four tacos on the plate she was holding. 

"Cuatro," she repeated and pushed her hand out more, beginning to look exasperated. Duh. Four dollars. Four dollars worth was what I'd asked for when I'd held up four fingers. I handed over my cash and as she grabbed a napkin to go with my bulging plate, I did a quick count.

Sixteen. I had a plate of sixteen tacos. 

I looked up from my taco pile and met the eyes of Mr. Twenty-something Grumpypants. There was a pause that seemed to hang there for a long moment and then I burst out laughing. He looked surprised for a brief second and then gave in and joined me, clapping one of his comrades on the shoulder and pointing at my plate. I offered them each a taco and after they acquiesced at my prodding, I made my way back out of the throng to find a quiet place to stuff myself on my remaining thirteen.

As I settled on the ground beneath a giant ceiba tree and looked out at the Macal River gently meandering past, I realized that my intimidation was gone. In a single botched taco order, I'd broken through my own inhibitions and self-consciousness. I'd mangled some Spanish but managed to communicate enough and even had a few glorious moments of connection and community, even if it was over a shared laugh at my own foolery. A pretty good deal at only four bucks.

I ate every single one of those thirteen insanely amazing tacos and licked the grease off my dripping fingers when I finished. I began planning a few more laps around el mercado, this time wondering how long before I'd have room enough to hit up the pupusa stand.

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Thank you so much for your patience as I get back to my "regularly scheduled programming"! I have so much to share with you and am more than a little excited to get some posts wrapped up and scheduled! Happy spring, y'all!