Thursday, May 05, 2005

Obsolete travel notes--another installment

For some reason I like to write about places I went a long time ago. Maybe that's because there's a sense in which these places can no longer be visited, as time renders them accessible only through travel stories.

I mentioned San Pedro on Ambergris Caye in Belize in a recent post. The first time Kay and I went there was in 1975, when we hired a teenage boy to take us out to the reef in his dugout canoe. The boy's job was to paddle. Our task, it turned out, was to bail vigorously with a couple of rusty cans. We were shipping a lot of water, so the canoe was half awash the whole voyage, but the boy seemed untroubled by this. When we got to the reef we swam for an hour or so, I won't say dived, since face masks were the only equipment we had. We had neither fins nor snorkels. The reef was beautiful. Our struggle to get back into the canoe filled it up with water completely, so we had to do yet more bailing before starting back.

Our last trip, gee, it must be a decade ago, already--time flies--we stayed in a new but continually unfinished hotel. The dugout canoes were mostly hauled up on the beach. I don't remember seeing any in use.
From the porch in front of our room at the hotel, we could watch the rain. It would come in as a tall gray veil over the rumbling white line of breakers of the reef half a mile offshore, and then the rain would drift over the lagoon and over the blue-masted wooden sailing smacks that rode at anchor in the turtle-grass shallows beyond the weathered tropical hardwood piers. The sky would dim over the rags of coconut fronds bunched on their elastic poles that were now starting to thrash in the rising wind. A squall would hit land and darken the luminous green shallow sea while the frigate birds slightly swiveled their heads as they trimmed their motionless glide to the wind, as the palms heaved and the masts swayed. In ten minutes it would be over and the sun out again. That would be during the rainy season.

San Pedro village consisted of three parallel sandy streets whose ramshackle houses stood on rickety eight-foot stilts. The houses fronted the street without any setback, making a little wooden sand-bottomed canyon of tin-roof houses and shops. The roofs caught the rainwater and funneled it into the barrels and cisterns which provided the drinking water of the village until the cisterns ran out of water in the dry season. After that the people drank the brackish municipal well water which stank of anaerobic mud. Housewives raked the pale coral sand of the street in front of their houses every morning.

The small stores with their meager and unpredictable island provisions were all at street level, little dark holds with sacks of rice on the floor and small piles of cucumbers and eggs on the counters and tins of canned milk and lard and corroding batteries and kerosene lanterns on bare plank shelves. All the food except fish came in from the mainland. Nobody grew any food on the island, or raised animals. Here and there you would see a chicken or some kind of fruit tree, but the people got their living from the ocean, or increasingly from a less wary and more rewarding quarry than lobster or conch, the tourist.

The ancestors of the islanders were mestizo refugees who fled to Belize from Yucatan during the great Mayan insurrections of the mid-19th century, the so-called Caste Wars of Yucatan. All the previous generations of islanders were buried above the high tide mark on the beach in the middle of town. The graveyard was a small thicket of white cement crosses in the sand next to the ocean, along with some wooden crosses with the names gone and some large concrete vaults, almost all of them undermined and overturned by storm waves, their contents long since spilled and washed out to add to the sediments that build the Yucatan Platform, a little more calcium in the slow diagenesis of limestone. There were also crosses erected for those lost at sea.

Tourists had to go out hunting for necessary stuff several times a day, first maybe a trip one direction for a Pepsi, then maybe an excursion the other direction in search of a banana or a couple of mangoes, and always a hunt for that most elusive of islanders, someone who would cash a traveler’s check. No ATMs. I wonder if that's changed?

One day Kay and I were sitting on a bench in front of a small store that sold stuff from the United States, Fritos and sticky candy bars and bags of some kind of cheese-puff morsels, and we struck up a conversation with a garrulous, rheumy-eyed, paunchy American with bright Bermuda shorts and two buttons missing from the middle of his sweat stained shirt allowing a hairy tan belly to protrude. I was surprised at his fluency in Spanish as he greeted people going by.
“Fluent. Of course I’m fluent. I was born here. I grew up here. I went to college at Texas A&M and worked in Orange, Texas, till I retired."
He said he was an engineer--in fact he had designed his house there on the island.
“I built it out of reinforced concrete, for the hurricanes.”
We talked some more, and when we told him we were interested in archeology he told us his crew had dug up some skeletons while excavating for the foundation to his house--Mayan burials, he said, with pots and other things.
So he took us to his home, a big eccentric castle with raw cement walls and whorehouse chandeliers and mirrors. He didn’t remember exactly where he had stowed the bones, so we followed him around his bizarre dwelling as he searched. An imposing and powerful ham radio dashed us with static as a woman's voice began loudly calling out our host’s name. He turned the radio off. “That’s my wife.”
“Your wife? She talks to you by radio? Where is she?”
“She’s back in the States right now. In Orange.” He waved dismissively toward the North, and changed the subject.
“Let me show you my parrots.” He showed us a fledgling macaw from Guatemala which was mostly naked and was just beginning to sprout red and green feathers like colored toothpicks. “Isn’t it beautiful?” He said of it, stroking its head. The bird was the size of a pigeon and tried to bite his finger. He had another parrot he offered to sell us.
“Lemme see. Where did I put them damn bones?” He began rummaging under the beds for a skeleton but couldn’t find one. He looked in a closet under a stair and pulled out a box which contained a human skull with a big hole in the top, and parts of another skull, lots of skeletal bones, and a quantity of shards of broken Mayan pottery, an incised brown ware.
“I didn’t know what to do with this stuff. So I just kept it in this box. If you’re an archeologist you can have it.”
“No,” Kay said, “I’m an anthropologist. It’s a little different.”
He seemed disappointed that Kay declined his offer. I was not. I thought about trying to explain a human skull with a hole in it in my suitcase to the customs officials.

He returned the bones to his broom closet. Later we learned from the villagers that he was one of the island aristocracy, whose family had once owned most of the island, but who was now reduced to a concrete castle, a wireless spouse, a house full of parrots, and a skeleton in his closet.

There were various sharp characters on the island always on the lookout for things that might interest the tourists. Fido (pronounced FEEdoe) was one of them. Fido was dark and cheerful and handsome with alert eyes which would flit from face to face scanning our reactions.
“Check it out, mon,” he said whenever he detected doubt. Fido proposed a trip to “the Mayan Ruins.” We were OK with that, so he said he would arrange it for a small fee per passenger. He brought his boat around to the back pier where Kay and I and a bunch of Kay’s students were waiting, which made him happy, as he thought about his money, but as we got out into the lagoon in back of the island he became uncharacteristically downcast--he had a fast boat and liked for it to spank smartly across the tops of the waves, but he got so many of us aboard that the boat labored low in the sea as it wallowed toward his destination.

A couple of miles to the northwest we entered murky shallow water and the high blender whine of the boat engine changed to a noise like someone gargling mouthwash as a cloud of yellow mud rose in the water behind our boat. Fido turned off the engine and threw out the anchor. We took off our shoes and got out and waded toward the mangrove island with the tallest vegetation. We slogged though the calcine ooze which slimed between out toes as our feet sank six inches deep in the mud, occasionally finding a hard and jagged rock but not the sting rays we worried about in the murky back-bay water.

When we reached the island we found that it was surrounded by shoulder-high mangroves growing in the shallows. Then we reached dry land, a hard, eroded karst like you find all over Yucatan, with occasional areas of thin dark soil an inch or so deep. We put on our shoes and walked a few feet and we were in a hot, tangled jungle, or “the bush,” as Fido called it. Fido began hacking his way inland with the confident machete cuts of an expert guide. Trust evaporated quickly, though, as we followed him into the forest. Fido's path was meandering at best. We began to suspect that he was unsure of the way. In any case we made our way deeper into the bush, passing small clearings with scatters of pottery and a few pieces of flint on the ground.

Finally Fido pointed to some some piles of rock, jagged pieces of limestone piled up in mounds three feet high and several yards in diameter, and declared they were ruins, not those he had been looking or, but they would have to do.
“Ruins?” Someone asked, incredulously.
“Yeah, mon, pyramids, there was tombs here,” said Fido, “check it out,” vaguely waving his arms at the craters as if inviting us to excavate.

There was some vegetation that looked like sumac that Fido said was poison ivy, and we were in the middle of a lot of it, and it was gloomy in the under-story where the rockpiles were, so we decided to start back. But which way? Fido's confidence faltered. He couldn’t find his previously blazed path again, which was remarkable, considering the extended course of its meandering. He would say, “Here it is,” and start off, and then after a minute of so he would slow down and look about and aim a few random machete whacks at a termite nest or a tree trunk, and say “No, I think we have strayed a little, mebbe we better go...that way,” pointing his machete in another direction, and begin hacking in the direction he had pointed.

We began to be alarmed. It was hot. It was midday, and the sun was almost directly overhead, so you couldn’t tell directions from it. A sense of desperation suddenly overtook everyone. A college boy wearing a debonair bandanna and Panama hat burst out irritably, with a hysterical edge to his voice, “I can’t believe it. We’re lost and we don’t have any water and we don’t have any food and we’re in the middle of the fucking _jungle_.”

At this point there was a general mutiny against Fido’s leadership and we began trampling in a sort of random mob path through the bush. Finally we came upon a tumble-down shed. Fido was so visibly relieved that we believed him when he declared “Hey, we right near the boat now. You don’t have to worry about bein’ lost with Fido, mon.”

And so it was. Soon we were wading back out to the boat, and a couple of hours later we were on the porch in front of our room, eating our supper of shark empanadas sold to us by a little girl who hawked them through the village carrying them in a bucket.

Having returned to our hotel, we swung in our hammocks in the afternoon sun and watched the distant line of spray a half mile out at sea where the coral heads of the barrier reef exploded the incoming waves into slow, far sparkles like shrapnel.

"I like this place," someone said out of a hammock. "It's even cheaper than Isla Mujeres."

In search of ruins with Fido--wading ashore
wading ashore

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