Belize

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Shortly after arriving in Belize City I discovered that the town held few charms.  Very few, to be honest.  Despite its quaint clapboard houses and tropically colonial British architecture, this city on the shores of the Caribbean was replete with unemployed young men who had little to do in life except prey on the unwary tourists who wandered its precincts.

Once again I consulted a map, obtained at the local travel office conveniently located near the swing bridge over the Belize River.  It showed the major offshore islands, of course, as well as a few uninhabited cays not so far from the coast.  Uninhabited? I asked my traveling friend.  What’s that all about?

We made discrete inquiries along the riverfront, which was lined with docks and fishing terminals, not to mention a plethora of run-down wooden sailing craft in various states of disrepair.  The smell at low tide was powerful, like that of  a strong cod liver oil potion given by Mom during the 1950s to ward off both illness and good humor.

We showed our map to a number of riverside gentlemen, most of whom shook their  heads at our notion of securing a one-way passage to a random island.  We now had one locale fixed in our minds – Goff’s Cay.  This island looked promising for a number of reasons.  It wasn’t very far away, lying only about 10 miles east of the river’s mouth, but distant enough to be outside the polluting influences of the city.  The map showed another island nearby with a lighthouse, so if we found a ride to Goff’s, we would not be too distant from civilization in the event of an unforeseen mishap.

Now, who has never thought about spending time on a deserted island?  The more we considered the concept, the more plausible and attractive the idea became.  We finally located a friendly, if somewhat peculiar character who agreed to take us to Goff’s Cay.  His price was steep,  perhaps $20 for the one way passage.  We were not prepared to spend so much money for the return trip so we told him, “Don’t bother to pick us up; we’ll hitchhike a ride back to town with a passing fishing boat or yacht.”  He thought this plan crazy, but twenty bucks was twenty bucks. We agreed to meet the next day to begin our journey.

We spent a frantic afternoon purchasing supplies.  What would we need and how long would we stay on the island?  Educated guesswork formed our answers.  We bought canned sardines, lots of rice and beans, snacks, rum, and other supplies to keep our spirits afloat during this self-imposed isolation.

Our boat driver arrived at his dock on time the next morning and we departed without incident, after giving him his fee up front.  He had a mad glint in his eyes that matched his skinny build and toothy smile.  Soon we cleared the river and left the city behind.

1) Departure downriver from Belize City

The weather was clear,  beautiful, and sunny, but the seas ran high.  Our redoubtable pilot, understanding that he was being paid by mileage and not by the hour, allowed no leisurely comforts  as we shot over eight-foot ocean swells, his entire 25 ft. plywood boat jumping clear of the water every time he powered the vessel over a wave. I began to wonder if the craft would hold together under the strain.  The pilot held his position at the outboard throttle just forward of the boat’s stern with that mad smile fixed to his face. He didn’t talk much, other than to point out our destination, which grew from a green-hued smudge on the horizon to an actual island that finally resolved into a marvelous view of coconut trees and beautiful sandy beach.

After what seemed like hours of pounding through the seas, we coasted to a stop in the shallow water on the lee shore.  Our pilot helped us unload our gear, asked again if we didn’t want to arrange a pick-up, and soon departed, leaving us to the quiet  of our private island.

Goff’s Cay encompassed about an acre of land, mostly beach with a raised hummock where a few mature coconut trees provided shade. Previous visitors, probably fishermen, had built a rude thatched structure to shelter themselves from the wind, but it lacked a roof and looked pretty rough.  So we pitched our tent under the palms and sorted our belongings.

We spent three tremendously fine days on the cay.  With plenty of books to read, water to drink, and food to eat, all our needs were met.  We had time for reflection, to lie on the beach and make sand angels,  and to gaze at the brilliant star-studded night skies free from the maddening effects of city lights, with only the sound of the wind, waves, and seabirds piercing the harmony of nature’s silence.  Occasionally a small skiff would pass close to the island, its occupants observing us with questioning looks, but we would smile and wave them away.  Our time on Goff’s Cay was special, the sort of experience a person stumbles into by accident but is never able again to repeat.

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2) Our campsite on the island

On the fourth day after our arrival we had a visitor. The lighthouse keeper had seen our evening cooking fires and wondered if a yacht might have been shipwrecked near Goff’s, which is surrounded by an imposing coral reef.  He decided to hop into his runabout and come to make sure all was well. By now our food supply had dwindled, along with our cigarettes and rum.  We appreciated his offer to take us, for free, back to his lighthouse for the rest of the day and then transfer us to Belize City.  We bade goodbye to our island paradise and once again crossed the turquoise sea.

The lighthouse was a fine example of British-inspired architecture, and the keeper proudly showed us its mechanisms and lenses, along with the tiny cottage he called home.  He was a gentle soul, living by himself as a kind of hermit.  Not unlike ourselves, really, lost and far from home.  At the end of the day he returned us to the Belize River, to a dock near the one from which we had departed.  After one more night in the city we headed south, determined to find another Caribbean hideaway that would match our island discovery.  We were never quite successful, but to travel involves embarking on a quest, not reaching a destination.

I hear Goff’s Cay welcomes squadrons of cruise ships these days and has developed into a day-trip spot for hordes of fast-tripping tourists.  The place has moved on, and so have I.  Now older, I dream of the Marquesas, the Tuamotu chain, and Vanuatu.  My dreams have expanded their reach while the world continues to shrink.

When I first visited Belize City in the 1970s, the former capital of Belize possessed a certain seedy charm.

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The city in 1978

I hadn’t been there in years when I revisited the country in April of this year. The Belize River, which divides the city in two, didn’t look much different.

The river’s mouth from the ferry dock. The building on the other side was, unsurprisingly, for sale

I strolled the town with my son and his friend.  Belize City has a reputation as an unsafe place. While we saw a good number of homeless men and poor people, at no time did we feel threatened in any way.

The oldest Anglican church, a Brit import

The interior, suitably lavish, one supposes, to impress the locals

The north side of town,which in the 1970s had a bad vibe to it, was now positively chic, at least by the water.

The shoreline as seen from the famous swing bridge

We stayed a night in a hotel that had seen a number of remodelings of both looks and purpose.

The Chateau Caribbean Hotel

We had fine waterfront views.

The hotel’s front porch

And the next day we departed for Cay Caulker in a small ferry that was a bit warm while sitting at the dock (it had no passenger deck space) but was breezy enough once underway.

Inside the ferry

 

The year is 2012 and I’ve been seeking illumination about the date of December 21. What better way to find inspiration than to visit a major Mayan site in Central America? So last month we set out for a day trip to the Maya ruins of Lamanai in northern Belize. The route we took involved driving north from Belize City toward Chetumal, Mexico and then embarking in a boat and traveling up the New River.

1) the road north – not much to see except small farms

We turned off the highway at a nondescript collection of wooden shacks. Two small outboard runabouts waited for visitors. We boarded without delay and set off through the dry forest along the river.  A baby fresh-water crocodile posed photogenically for us in the lilies near the dock.

2) Baby croc – only about a foot long: Photo by Shawn Herring

As we wound our way through narrow, snake-infested passageways, the undergrowth soon gave way to open river.  The forest contained plenty of wildlife but was hardly primeval. Still, it was a part of Belize that most tourists seem to miss, preferring instead to delve into the wonders of the rain forest further south.

3) Thick, overhanging bush

4) The river opens up: photo by Shawn Herring

We moved slowly, in order to examine the critters and their abodes.

5) Tree termite nest

The boat driver was sharp-eyed and called our attention to a variety of birds, including the hard-to-see Mangrove swallow.

6) Not rare… just difficult to spot

A large Mennonite community had a settlement on the river bank.  The woman in their old-fashioned frocks reminded us of nineteenth-century German peasants as they stood watching us from their wharf. We didn’t photograph them; the action would have been disrespectful, and it wouldn’t do to steal people’s souls with modern optical contrivances.

7) Mennonite village

At last the river widened further, into the Lamanai Lagoon, effectively a huge lake in the middle of the bush. Truly a dramatic location, it’s easy to see why the Maya picked the spot, with its commanding views and strategic advantages.

8) The lagoon

Partially excavated pyramids rose like great buttresses through the trees.  An aura of mystery and sadness hung over the landscape. Unlike its sister cities in Mesoamerica, Lamanai was never abandoned.  The complex was occupied continuously for three thousand years but devastated in the end by European disease and exploitation.   Pillaging Spanish and English slave-seekers did what the environment could not; the culture disappeared quickly and quietly after contact with the outside world.

9) Tourists atop a pyramid as seen from the lagoon: photo by Shawn Herring

We debarked from the boat and walked into the city.  A greeter flapped vigorously from his tree.

10) Toucan.  I have a nagging feeling this bird may have been someone’s pet

The Belizean authorities have done a good job at uncovering a few of the pyramids and other buildings but most of Lamanai remains buried under a 500 years of detritus and plant growth.

11) Most of the city is buried under intact dry forest: photo by Shawn Herring

We explored the site.  You could see that people had once lived here but the obvious traces were gone.

12) Basins or metates?

At one of structures the frescoes had been reconstructed.

 13) Here a face was copied in the plaster – the real version lay underneath, protected from weathering

And of course we climbed the highest pyramid, dodging rain squalls.

14) Diana looks up as we climb

15) On the way down

The ball court presented a significant anomaly.  Lamanai’s version was very small, and perhaps merely symbolic. However, in the middle of the pitch, underneath a carved circular stone, archaeologists have found a pool of pure mercury, placed there by the Maya.  Were the ancient ones skriers? Peering into the liquid metal and divining the future like their peers in medieval Europe?

16) The weird ball court. The mercury pool was found under the small stone that looks as if it’s below this woman’s purse.

We’ll never know their intent.

At the Temple of the Jaguar (a modern name and almost certainly not that of the Maya) the frescoes are original and spooky.

17) Jaguar eyes

The biggest excavated series of buildings is found here, too.

 18) Standing near Shawn and his friend, Danny

The rain poured down on us as we stood, baffled by the monumental architecture and by a culture so far removed from ours as to be unfathomable.  So what does that magical date in December hold for civilization? Mostly likely more of the same, the never-ending cycles, the ups and downs along with rebirth and destruction, as humanity blunders its way through present time. Will we be able to avoid the mistakes made by both the Maya and their eventual conquerors?  All indications point to the answer as, “No.”

And the Maya are not talking.