Spaghetti Western on the widescreen in the ceiling of a palapa.
Dawn in Belize is like 4:30am. There is no daylight savings time making it two hours later than Eastern Time US during Daylight Savings. The day begins and ends early with a normal bedtime between 9 and 10 except for young adults. By 6am I am on the computer booking a day trip to Lamanai, a destination suggested by the night-before- Canadians. I book with Lamani EcoAdventures and am assured that I can take the bus that will stop for me on the highway and be dropped off right in front of LEA’s launch spot. This is a river tour to the “ruins” and eats up a good part of the day.
The Canadians give me a ride to the main road in their filthy four wheel drive rental, barely a word spoken the few miles to the main road. A bus appears just as I alight from the car and I wave frantically as it speeds by. I think of the misery of baking on the shadeless highway for another bus as I cross the highway to the stop. The Canadians pull onto the highway then yell something inaudible out of the car window. They pull over and one jumps out to yell very loudly, “THE BUS STOPPED!” I turn and sure enough about 20 yards ahead the bus has pulled over for me. I wave farewell to my quiet northern friends and turn south to run to the bus.
Traveling like the locals is fun! It is a slice of normal life in a foreign country that is priceless. The faces and conversations of regular folks getting on with their day. Real life. Plus it is cheap, 3 to 7 Belize dollars. A cab would cost 10 to 20 times that. Car rentals are fairly expensive as well and gas, I am told is outrageous. Not to mention the danger as Monroe Fisher pointed out the night before I left the States.
Busses in Belize are former school busses with no AC and are often packed to the gills with locals. It can get quite close in the tropical heat but makes up for any discomfort with close observation of he faces of the people riding. Belize is a salsa of ethnicities and the people of this part are mostly Creole, a mix of Brits and Africans. They have gorgeous skin that ranges in color from caramel to a rich blue brown with dark brown almond shaped eyes and luscious black hair.
I get to my stop and go into the outfitters. It is OK but the guys are unorganized and I feel a sense of envy as I look down river to the outfitter next door, Lamanai EcoTours, with its charming palapas, neat pier and better kept boats. I am told I must wait for the next group so after a bit of debate I walk out and down the street to LET. The facilities are nicer and as I walk back to a large covered waiting area there area some guys relaxing and watching a spaghetti western on a flat screen mounted in the top right corner of the palm frond cover. “Fist Full of Dollars?” I say. They look up, beaming with delight at my film knowledge. I am in the right place. I cancel with the first outfitter and take a tour with LET’s guide Colin and four cruise ship guests.
Above:Waiting area at Lamanai EcoAdventures
Below: Waiting area at Lamanai EcoTours
Colin is an outstanding guide. He is knowledgable, funny and mixes a mean rum punch for the boat ride to Lamanai. Well timed information on local flora and fauna sprinkled with historical information between playful boat maneuvers make the ride to Lamanai most enjoyable. A luncheon of spiced chicken over beans and rice with slaw, water melon, corn chips and an onion jalapeño salsa is served under a palapa covered pavilion on real places with stainless steel cutlery. The food is excellent, homemade by the company manager’s wife. Colin guides us through the ruins which are amazing. He makes sure we are positioned to get good photos avoiding the hordes of cruise ship tourists and points out special plants and animals (including a family of howler monkeys!). This is an art I appreciate as I also give tours at a historical landmark in Charlottesville. I cut my kneed climbing up the side of a temple and think about other blood that was spilled at this very same site in the form of human sacrifice.
Outstanding Guide, Colin, explains the purpose of this temple at Lamanai
We are deposited back at the tour company base at 2:45p. The tour group do not wish to share their ride up the highway with me so it the the bus again for me with no designated way back to the village from the highway. It is hot as the sun beats down on the flat breezeless land. Mic has suggested I hitch a ride to the village which he assures me is totally safe. “The only people coming on that road live here,” he says. Monroe’s “Trust no one” warning pops into my head but as I become draggy from being miserably hot and sweaty on the shadeless road I gleefully accept a ride to the WS visitor center to return Derick’s field glasses.
The barely chilled Air conditioned interior of the Samaritan’s SUV proves somewhat refreshing. My driver, his shotgun mate and I arrive at the visitor center 5 minutes later without incident.
Derick is not there so I leave the field glasses with Wilhelm, the “ranger” on duty who gives me walking directions to the Crooked Tree Lodge. “Turn at the Cemetery then turn again at the barbershop, landmarks I assume will be apparent to me. As I am being directed, two Britt’s are standing nearby. The man, who later identifies himself as Chris listens closely and starts up a conversation. “What are you doing in Belize?”, he poses. I explain about the SI field station and how I am having trouble securing a boat there. He says that he might be able to help as he lives near Dangriga and would I like to come to a gathering of friends on his organic farm at mile marker 21 on Saturday and then for a hike to an amazing waterfall on Sunday. I am encouraged by having a new friend who might be able to assist me in my quest to get to Carrie Bow Cay. Chris scratches out his contact information on a piece of paper and I depart on my walk through the village to the lodge.
Horses eat discarded cashew fruit in the village of Crooked Tree
The streets are a combination of white gravel and fine white dust that poofs a little with each step. The air is thick with the pungent odor of fallen cashew apples and sweet smelling tropical flowers. As we pass, villagers ask, “You OK?” or “Good evening”,which is the Creole way of saying hello regardless of the time of day. I make it to the lodge and get online to see if Derick or Scott from the Field Station have emailed.
I wanted to follow up with you to make sure that you received the necessary information from Ryan? Also, when do you plan to be in Belize and when are you planning to take a tour of CBC?
Hmmmm. How to respond.
“Ryan” has failed to respond to both of my messages, one a month ago and the other early last week, regarding “the necessary information” required to visit CBC. I am already in Belize with an itinerary that is built around getting out to CBC. It is my reason for even coming to the country in the first place so how will I get around this issue of what is essentially permission to go out there as a journalist? I rationalize that tourists are allowed out there with prior arrangement so as a tourist, I should be able to go – thus contact with Island Excursions. I am not going to lie to Zach who has been absolutely wonderful through this entire process and because lying is not in my wheelhouse since I passed the age of 12. I will however do what is easy to do via email, take a cue from my mischievous teenage years and respond to the half of the email to which I can truthfully respond. Childish, I know, but getting out there has now become a test of my luck and wits. It is a mission. If a fellow freelance writer from my town can pull off a similar coop in Panama, then I can do it in Belize.
Here is my Response to Zach who obviously does not have teenagers and was most likely one of those really lovely kids who never did anything bad:
I am in Belize already. Am planning to come out to CBC on Sunday. Not sure how yet but that is the plan. 🙂 Does that work for you?
The next step is figuring out how I will get out there. Scott sends me the name and phone number of a reliable boat captain. I have a few days so I focus on securing transportation to Dangriga from Placencia, my next destination. The bus is cheap but promises to be a 4 to 6 hour hot-sweaty ride. Flying is fast but rather dear. Since I ditched the rental car idea, I have some scratch for some airfare and am able to book a round trip flight for about $210 USD or 420 Belize (dollars – but no one adds the “dollars” word in Belize. You simply say, “That is 10 Belize or 5 US”, is something costs 10 Belize dollars which translates to 5 US dollars). This is expensive but it is still cheaper than a $300 US per week economy rental car. I optimistically book the return flight from Dangriga to Belize International Airport , keeping the faith that I will need to be in Dangriga at the end of my journey to reach Carrie Bow Cay.
Angie, the stunningly beautiful mistress of Crooked Tree Lodge, is a native of the village. She has smooth caramel colored skin that glows with the vibrancy of a person who is truly happy in their heart. Her features are softly African with dark brown perfectly almond shaped eyes. Though her brother, who now resides two houses down the street, was raised in the States, Angie loves this place and would not leave to be educated or otherwise. She tells me she has been picking cashew all day when I see her at the lodge in the late afternoon. I explain how I would like to taste cashew fruit and cashew wine and she sets out to bring me some to try.
Cashew fruit growing along the village road
Just before dinner time Angie presents a bottle of cashew wine and a bag of freshly acquired cashew apples, the formal name of the fruit of the cashew tree which more closely resembles a bell pepper than an apple. The slices the juice laden fruit and warns me and the other guests, a German couple, to avoid touching the brown “c”shaped blob at the end of the fruit which encapsulates the cashew seed. It contains a toxic resin which can cause a painful burning sensation when it connects with human body parts. The Germans are doing some birding and plan to visit Lamonai while biding their time until the May full moon which apparently signals whale sharks to swim over to Placencia for proverbial procreative flings.
We are all eager to taste cashew fruit.
It has the consistency of bread fruit while being juicer even than mango. The flavor is light like a cucumber but distinctive with notes of yellow bell pepper and pineapple. It is fantastically refreshing and I feel as though I could eat ten of them in that moment but Mic is ready to serve dinner. Mic is a master at presentation. The square white dinner plate features a deep fried whole snapper cleverly angled across the bottom right corner of the plate, a luscious looking artfully arranged, salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and mango with a cilantro vinaigrette.
Following desert of ice cream and bananas, Angie brings out three shot glasses with skull and crossbones dressed as a pirate with bandanna, eye patch and black three cornered hat on a tray with the chilled cashew wine. “It is for sipping, like port,” she explains. “It must be served very cold and sipped or you will have a terrific hangover the next day.”
I am a fan of Port. Not everyone is. So cashew wine suited me just fine. The Germans drank their glasses as well so they must have enjoyed it too.
I paid Angie for the bottle so I could take it home and share this taste sensation with my friends. She gave me some cashew fruit as well which due to its soft juiciness failed to travel even as far as the municipal airport in Belize City the following morning.
Angie offered to drive me to a meeting of the Cashew festival planning committee where I was to meet Ms. Salome Tillet and Mr. Dean Tillet who are not closely related. I remembered as being held in the storm shelter at 7:30pm. The boys piled into the SUV with us to go along for the ride.
When we arrived at the center which is also, I think, the high school building, the lights were off and no cars in the parking lot. Hmm. While we waited to see if someone would show up, Angie drove around the high school playing field and described the layout of the vendors and events associated with the Cashew Festival. “Over here is where bands play and there is beer drinking,” she points out. Angie is a little skeptical of what the cashew festival has become. Loud music, drunk people, a Miss Cashew beauty contest that has trouble finding women who want to compete, she feels that the event has perhaps lost its heart- celebrating the gifts of the cashew tree. She recalls the days when it was about tasting the various products, a gathering of residents who have scattered to other parts of the globe and demonstrations of the unique way the residents of Crooked Tree process cashews by hand.
No one comes to the high school. The meeting is obviously not tonight. I am sure it is my mistake. Angie takes me around to find some “cashew seed”, the local moniker for cashew nuts.
You don’t go to the store in Crooked Tree. You go to people’s private homes to buy stuff. Being a native villager, Angie knows who is likely to have some cashew nut available. The lights of Angie’s car, wake a mutt sleeping in the driveway. The village is home to many stray dogs which are indistinguishable from owned dogs as they are all allowed to roam collarless and freely. Horses have the same status. They are often free to roam the village and into the Wildlife Sanctuary, much to Dericks’ chagrin. “Some tourists don’t know about horses,” he says. He thinks they scare some tourists.
Angie honks the car horn and yells out of the car window in a sharp Creole. I understand only a couple of words like “cashew seed”. We stopped at four houses but everyone had already sold their stash of cashew.
We returned to the lodge empty handed but better acquainted.