Sunday, July 29, 2012
I felt it yesterday for the first time. On a sunny, 80 degree day in July, the light and air held hints of a changing of seasons. Shadows were a bit longer, the blue of the sky gone from new denim to faded, the heat scalloped around the edges from tiny bites of cold. While not a date on my calendar, every year that day presents itself to me in a clear and unmistakable way. Some years it feels like a warning. Some years a gift. This year, as with so many things viewed through my older and wiser heart, it's both.
Technically, summer isn't even half over. Still, fall's approach is unmistakable. The greens are more subdued. Vivid blossoms that heralded the season's arrival are now brown. And the bright unlimited possibilities of June and early July are now softened with a whisper of endings carried on afternoon breezes.
For the first time, my awareness of the transition is happening at the same time of another huge awareness. Everywhere I look, no matter where I am, the air (and the ground, and every twig and solid surface in between) is full of fledgling birds.
Fledgling sightings are among my favorite things in life. I love their downy, wing-flapping awkwardness as they learn to fly, and learn that the bird next to them is not going to put food into their gaping beaks. They arrive in our feeder area in what appear to be an entire nest unit, a family exploring the world together for the first time, adults finally able to be more concerned about feeding themselves than their offspring.
This is what I've spotted in the last week: Two hummingbirds, one dipping into my bee balm while the other zoomed in a perfect pendulum swing above, one doggedly following the other when it few away. A half dozen Steller's Jays, all with top notches looking more Don King than the Elvis look of jay adulthood, scratching at the ground, hopping frantically after the adults, still not quite believing they're not going to be fed. Mourning Doves flying up from the driveway in front of my car, barely clearing the ground. Black-headed Grosbeaks cheeping loudly from the sweet gum tree, scooting out on the edge of branches, and making death-defying wing-assisted leaps at the feeders, sometimes landing and sometimes overshooting and ending up on the clothesline.
A couple of days ago, as I drove to town, I noticed a large bird perched on a low snag very close to the road. Definitely not a usual resting or hunting place for birds of prey. When I stopped and rolled my window down, I saw more fluff than feather, smudged grays and browns not quite emerged into the defining marks of a Red Tail Hawk. It occurred to me as I watched him in amusement and wonder, that I've never seen a fledgling hawk before. New happens every day, small miracles showing up out of the blue, no matter the season.
Summer is ending, as it always does. In a couple of weeks I'll start thinking serious teacher thoughts again, and the hours of freedom in my days will grow ever shorter along with the hours of daylight. For now each day is still more summer than anything else, so full of its own form of air and light and flight, offered for the exact and unique and unrepeatable gifts it brings.
I hold the picture of the Red Tail, launching himself into the air, great wings pushing gravity away as he wheeled away from me and into a life's waiting promise.
Sunday, July 22, 2012
I noticed the building and its bright colors on our arrival in Hopkins as we made our way south to find our hostess Ingrid. It stood alone on a large parcel of land that also contained a school and playground. We'd been in Belize for nine days by that time and I'd seen a number of schools. Each village had its own primary school, which corresponds with our version of a K-8 building. All pretty much the same: long low buildings with door and window openings for each classroom in the row; scrubby playgrounds with little or no equipment; two-door outbuilding for the bathroom; a feeling of age and fatigue radiating from the grounds.
It wasn't until I saw Miss Bertie's Library that I realized I hadn't seen any other libraries in any of the many villages we passed through. And I certainly hadn't seen anything school related that was that bright and inviting. The decorations had a distinctly American flavor, which intrigued me as well.
Because Hopkins is a village itself, we either drove or walked past Miss Bertie's several times during our week there. To my disappointment the library was never open. My heart lifted a bit every time I saw the bright building though, and I was curious about the story behind it.
Strangely, it didn't occur to me to ask anyone during our week in Hopkins. In part I think because I continued to struggle with my feelings of unease about being in Belize as a prosperous American. Nothing in Hopkins did anything to alleviate those feelings.
I had decided it wasn't the poverty that was the source of my disequilibrium. I grew up poor (wood for heat and cooking, no washer or drier, most of our food from the land we lived on). There is still comparable poverty in America, and while I don't necessarily see poverty that extreme every day, I'm aware it exists, I care, I do what I can to help. I don't walk around wearing my awareness like a wool shirt on a hot day. And I certainly don't feel like that aspect of my childhood hurt me in any way.
I considered the possibility that the discomfort came from being "clear" (what light-skinned people are called) in a country full of every shade of beautiful brown imaginable. Except for our hosts who were primarily clear, our fellow guests at the lodges where we stayed, and our fellow travelers on the excursions we took, we rarely saw other clear skin. Not driving around, not walking the streets of the towns we visited, not even in the occasional gift shop. But no, that wasn't it either. I like being surrounded by people who look different from me, who have different life experiences, who have different world views. That's a big part of why I love to travel.
Although the travel guide described the people of Hopkins to be warm and welcoming, we did not find that to generally be the case. They were warily civil when we said hi first. But no one of color ever initiated a greeting or a conversation. Often our waves or greetings were ignored completely. Even when we ate at restaurants owned by locals, there was no sense that the people who served us were actually glad to have our business. I engaged everyone within conversational distance, and while my many questions were answered politely, and I even managed to elicit smiles, I never felt like I broke through a really tough reserve.
On our last day we were talking to the caretaker, a cheek-kissing French-Canadian chiropractor named Yves. He asked how we'd liked our time in Hopkins, and was visibly shocked when I told him of our feelings of discomfort.
"No one has ever said that before. Everyone tells us how polite the locals are when they're spoken to." Then after thinking for a minute he continued. "The locals have seemed less happy in the last couple of years. Things have gotten harder for them. They have less money than they had before. Maybe that's what's going on."
And at that moment I got what was bothering me.
We as American tourists brought our money into a country where most of the citizens would not benefit from that largesse. The enormous homes we saw being built on the seashore did not belong to the locals, but rather to Americans who saw a chance at less expensive luxury. The travel guides which invited us to come and enjoy the incredible resources of this edenic country did not ask the locals if they wanted tourism to become the number one industry in their country. And there seemed to be nothing in place, at least that we could see, that could break the dam separating the very rich from the very poor.
While I grew up in poverty, I always knew of the many opportunities available to me to move out of poverty. I knew that if I worked hard and got a good education, my life could be better. My parents worked hard to provide a life where a good education was the primary goal, the highest expectation. I nourished myself with endless books, and found both hope and salvation in magical combinations of words. My inherent sense of curiosity thrived in those conditions, my need to ask questions, to know whatever is unknown.
Shortly after our conversation with Dr. Yves, we found Ingrid, our German hostess, to pay our bill. I asked about Miss Bertie's Library.
"Oh, that's kind of a sad story," Ingrid answered. She went on to explain that Miss Bertie was a 72 year old Peace Corps volunteer who had been working with the primary school in Hopkins. Miss Bertie was appalled that there were no books for the kids, so she created the library I'd asked about. Then just a couple of years ago she'd been found dead in her home. Since that time local women had taken over.
When we got home I did some research on education in Belize. While their system might not be as sophisticated or developed as ours, the stated purposes are very much the same. At the highest level, it is understood that a good education is the key to helping the citizens of Belize to find a way to a better life, to help them have hope, to diminish the huge discrepancy between the many poor and the few rich.
Miss Bertie clearly understood that when she created the library that the locals gave her name to after her death. While Ingrid didn't say, I'm guessing Miss Bertie was a retired American school teacher with a passion for reading and children. A passion so strong she was willing to spend her last days in a village that was surely difficult to become accepted into, working with children who had little experience with books or hope of a brighter future.
Another thing my research revealed was that Belize has a public library system with 18 branches serving a population of just over 350,000. The system in Clark County, where I live, has 13 branches serving around 430,000 people. A country that cares that much about books is going to be okay.
I am left with great hope for the people of Belize, along with a respect and admiration that continues to grow in these weeks since our return. Books and education—two of the things most central to my own life—are the key. And the willingness and heart of just one teacher to provide those, no matter the circumstances.
Friday, July 20, 2012
Close-ups of vivid avian colors in the wild. The scarlet macaws are endangered and hard to find. Green parrots wouldn't sit still long enough. And you already know the toucan story.
The woman washing her clothes, in her yard, on a stone slab, just yards away from where we turned into a new and luxurious resort where we went zip lining.
The river we drove by a number of times where there were six large flat stones set up for washing clothes, always in full use. A short distance up the river from the women doing laundry, we saw men bathing. One time we drove by to find a car immersed in the river being washed with great enthusiasm by a handful of young men.
The table set up by the side of the road, just outside a prison, where men in orange suits were selling products (including some nice looking furniture) I'm guessing they made in the prison. We didn't stop, but I sort of wish we had.
A young girl crossing the road in front of us with a cereal bowl balanced on her head. Our guide laughed and said she was practicing for adulthood.
Just a couple of days later we saw a woman walking in the middle of the main road in Hopkins, bare feet dusty red, a scowl scorching the air around her, hands swinging, plantains draped on her head— like Medusa with fat yellow snakes.
The two boys, about three and five, standing in the street after dark on a Saturday night in Hopkins, asking, "You got dollah?" as we walked by. We didn't have dollah, but I couldn't quite get comfortable with how they'd learned to ask that in the first place.
A man trudging up the highway carrying a load of wood, nearly as big as he was, on his back, supported by a head strap, just as the Mayas carried anything heavy hundreds of years ago. With all of their brilliance, the Maya did not have the wheel.
Incredible thunder storms, lightning lighting up the sky with a force and fury I've never experienced here. At the same time, lightning bugs flitting and blinking in the night air, all to the music of pulsing cicadas and chuckling frogs in the background.
The bright yellow police station in Hattieville where we were caught in a traffic check. Cars were being stopped going both ways through town and policemen were checking papers. We were asked to produce proof of insurance by a man who looked like Idi Amin, who did not smile the whole time he studied our papers, who studied our papers like he was memorizing them, and who only handed them back when another policeman came along side and told him it was okay. That one did smile and wish us a good day. I wanted more than anything to take pictures during the whole thing, but figured it might not have been a good idea.
The sounds. I tried to record the howler monkeys and parrots and motmots, but it didn't work. And no recording could have captured the magic of lying in bed on a morning surrounded by the wild wonder of that chorus.
The experience of picking a Valencia orange from a tree and eating it right there, barely able to contain the juice as it exploded from the membranes.
Walt and I standing under a mango tree, waiting out the rain, at Lubaantun, our last and favorite Maya ruins, kissing like we were new.
We've been home for two weeks now. In many ways, because of these reflections and all the work with the pictures, a big part of me has still been in Belize. I dream about it. I miss some of the people we met. Every day I remember and re-feel and re-see. I have one more story to tell, one last bit of reflecting, before I'm ready to return fully to the Pacific Northwest, a place I've come to love even more as I've explored Belize. I'm so glad you've all been here to share with me.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
As much as it is everything in the last post, Belize is also one of the most breathtaking places I've ever experienced.
|A house in Hopkins we walked by every day, and every time it made me stop.|
|Sunrise at Crooked Tree|
|A small Ceiba tree, considered sacred by the Maya. The branches hold up the sky. The roots connect with the underworld.|
|Soldiers were at two of the ruins we visited. Boys with big guns, and equally big grins.|
|Silk Cayes where we went snorkeling. Tropical postcard perfection.|
|Walt had so much fun shooting birds. One of many incredible photos.|
|El Castillo at Xunantunich. We climbed to the top of that!|
|Ivar (ee-var'), one of the many guides who led us, taught us, and entertained us. True ambassadors, every one.|
|Shot while we drove around San Ignacio|
|At the Community Baboon Sanctuary (where they call Howler Monkeys baboons for some unknown reason), the monkeys live in a wild made possible by the cooperation of the many landowners in the area.|
|The Hummingbird Highway, our last morning in Belize.|
|Green Iguana in the wild.|
|And another - these prehistoric monsters were everywhere, yet every time we saw one was an event.|
|Kids on the main street of Hopkins.|
|Champagne cup mushrooms seen hiking through the jungle.|
|A sunrise from the beach outside our house in Hopkins.|
|I felt like I should know this tree, but do not. They were common in the south.|
|You'll need to expand this for full effect. Oropendola nests with a bird, also known as a Yellow Tail, flying toward a nest.|
|The pier in Placencia.|
|A random house in Hopkins.|
|Sunrise from our deck in Hopkins.|
|Bromeliads (air plants) grew everywhere, some on power lines, some enormous like this one. Notice the vulture whose head is the same color as the flowers.|
|The market in San Ignacio, one of my favorite experiences in Belize, with my favorite guy.|
|We didn't follow this sign into the jungle, as the trail was big rocks, going straight up. For me this picture is a reminder that I'm living my life This Way.|
Monday, July 16, 2012
|Many Amish and Mennonite settlements in Belize|
|$1Bz for entrance and a wad of paper - at the market in San Ignacio|
|All the cemeteries were above ground - a tradition one of our guides said.|
|My first of five pyramids.|
|I was disappointed they were never open.|
|We took turns holding him before this shot. He liked Walt better.|
|Just the way it sounds.|
|I wonder where they were before 1981.|
|Do you just knock on the door?|
|Omar himself served us lobster for lunch that had been caught that morning.|
|Much later we did see people washing a car up to its fenders in a river - not this one, though.|
|Every village had a school that looked much like this one. Most were church schools.|
|This made me laugh every time we drove by. It was never open.|
|They were also called pedestrian ramps and speed bumps, but we liked this the best.|
|He turned out to be really nice, but had the intimidation thing in spades.|
|Straight into the jungle.|
Saturday, July 14, 2012
|This photo was shot at the market in San Ignacio, surrounded by booths overflowing with colorful fruits, vegetables and locals. The only toucan photograph I came home with.|
The keel-billed toucan is the national bird of Belize. I spent the months before our trip in delicious anticipation of seeing many toucans. I expected there would be such an abundance I would get my fill of observing and photographing and sitting in awe of the weird wonder of their beaks and plumage.
There were no toucans at the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary where we spent our first three days. Toucans prefer treetops and lots of fruit, neither of which were available in the flatlands of Northern Belize. I tucked my expectations away, and focused instead on the northern jacanas and limpkins and whistling ducks and snail kites and mangrove swallows and vermillion flycatchers the lagoon offered.
Our next stop, inland, westward, at the border with Guatemala, provided the jungle canopy and fruit toucans love. Both toucans and aracaris, their close cousins, were seen regularly there. I had six days in which to spot, and satiate my longing to observe, these birds.
Julie, who often served our meals at Table Rock where we stayed, was also a bird expert. She taught me to identify the loud froggy croak of a toucan. In the mornings she would stand with me on the deck of the dining palapa, listening and searching the jungle canopy. We often heard the toucan close-by, but he proved to be amazingly elusive.
While we searched, Julie also pointed out the incredible blue-crowned motmot whose soft hoot-hoot calls woke us up every morning along with the haunting cries of howler monkeys from across the river. She showed me flocks of green parrots squawking across the sky, and rufous-tailed hummingbirds dining on the bright blossoms that surrounded us.
We saw everything but toucans.
Our second morning at Table Rock another guest came running up the trail from the river, thrilled that she had just caught a photo of the toucan, while we stood in ignorance within shouting distance.
Another morning, I thought I saw a small flock take off from a nearby tree, but was informed they were the smaller and less vivid aracaris.
We returned from our excursion another day to stories of two toucans who had been sitting right off the deck of the dining palapa clacking bills at one another.
The day we went zip-lining, I heard one in the trees. When I mentioned it to our guides, they said that toucan had been sitting in full sight on the edge of the road not long before.
Toward the end of our stay at Table Rock, Jose, who had seen to our every need while we were there, told me a toucan had spent the afternoon hanging around outside the office. An afternoon Walt and I were hanging around the hammock palapa, and so were only yards (and lifetimes) away. However impossible as it seems, Jose had not picked up on my desire, and so did not come find us.
I didn't get completely skunked, however.
About halfway through our time in Western Belize, Walt and I were lounging in the hammock palapa, enjoying fresh lime juice and sharing stories with fellow adventurers in the pink light of late afternoon. I heard the tell-tale croak, and looked up to see Julie heading from the kitchen where she'd been working up the trail toward the office. I followed.
We tracked the toucan to a tree in the middle of the compound, between two cabanas. The croaking was directly over our heads, and Julie led me through plantings and rocks in an attempt to get a clear view. Just as we spotted him, he took off and flew beyond our sight into the jungle. I was so excited at even that quick glimpse I clapped and bounced and sang, "I saw a toucan. I saw a toucan." Julie beamed at me as I thanked her for giving me my first sighting.
It wasn't enough of course. There was no picture. And I hadn't had a chance to study his colors and his magnificent beak.
We got one more glimpse at Table Rock. Our next to last morning, on the deck of the dining palapa before breakfast, Walt spotted one flying directly over our heads. I saw his shape, the wing-beats, a hint of color against the bright morning sky. And then he was gone.
So were we - gone - the next day, driving the Hummingbird Highway to Hopkins on the coast where I knew I would have no chance in our last week in Belize to find a toucan in the palms of the Caribbean coast.
I let go of the disappointment fairly quickly. The lovely surprise of magnificent frigate birds (magnificent both an apt description and part of their name) floating overhead every day was more than a second best offering. Brown pelicans, laughing gulls, bare-throated tiger herons, oropendolas, social flycatchers, tropical kingbirds all filling my need for winged magic, and almost filling the gap left by not-quite-enough toucan.
On our next-to-last day in Belize, we decided to drive south, to the Deep South of the country, to explore some Maya villages and to experience one more Maya ruin. It was new territory, and as I had the whole trip, I leaned forward in anticipation of whatever new sights this outing would provide. And there, on a random stretch of the Southern Highway, out of nowhere, a toucan flew across the road and my line of sight, from right to left, in what seemed like slow motion. I saw the colorful bill that is a third of his size. I saw the yellow on his head. I saw his dark body. I saw the short wings and awkward flight pattern. Even though we were traveling at highway speed, I followed the full arc of his journey until he disappeared into the jungle on the other side.
"I just saw a toucan."
My voice was quiet, but overflowing with awareness of the gift I'd just been given. Walt, concentrating on his driving, had seen nothing, and seemed to not understand how significant that moment was to me. I didn't try to explain, finally grasping that no photograph or witness or sharing of experience could make the moment more vivid or enduring or more of a miracle. I couldn't share it, not really. Any more than I could truly share Actun Tunichil Muknal or the market in San Ignacio or looking a sea turtle right in the eye. I can only hold the vision and the feelings of all of it. And as time passes there is some small sense of an alchemical change in my cells where the flight of a toucan has become a part of me.
|Magnificent Frigate Bird|
Monday, July 9, 2012
|Entrance to ATM, photo courtesy of Jamir|
When we began planning our trip to Belize last winter, Actun Tunichil Muknal (or ATM as everyone called it) was a name that appeared often in travel guides and in conversations with people who had been to that country before. "If you can only do one thing while you're in Belize, this is the one you can't miss."
At first I was intrigued by the challenge. A cave. A long hike just to get to the mouth. A longer hike to the end where a centuries old intact skeleton lay. A guide required and only a limited number of people allowed in a group.
I should probably mention here that I'm claustrophobic, don't like heights, and am not that fond of the dark either. But still, there was something that drew me.
I decided I needed to have this experience as a way to face my fears, so it became a Belize must-see for us, along with Maya ruins, toucans, and the market in San Ignacio.
For most of the winter and spring, my hip was limiting a lot of my activity, and at one point I considered maybe ATM wasn't the right choice. I was worried about being able to handle the physical challenge. Walt didn't care much one way or the other so we decided that climbing ruins was more important and ATM was probably over-hyped anyway.
Our first hour in Belize, as we were checking out our rental car, I asked the owner what was the one thing he thought people needed to see when they visited his country. He said ATM. I asked if he'd ever gone, and he said no, but he didn't change his answer.
He did change my mind, and a decision was reversed.
When we arrived at Table Rock, we told our hosts what we wanted and when, and they made it happen. We were given clear instructions. Be prepared to be wet all day. Be able to swim 15 yards or so. Take a change of clothes for the ride home. No cameras - a tourist had recently dropped his on a skull. Take socks for the part where shoes aren't allowed to preserve the artifacts.
At 8:00 A.M. on a Monday Jamir, our guide, and Ronnie, the driver, picked Walt and me up in the parking lot of Table Rock in an SUV that seemed about to lose its battle with Belize's famously bad roads.
As we introduced ourselves, Jamir asked if we were afraid of closed places, heights, the dark, or tall ladders. I said maybe a little to the ladder, but I could handle it if I didn't look down. I didn't say anything at all about the other things.
We rattled our way to the highway, then left the pavement and rattled along more dirt and pot-holed roads until we reached a barrier manned by the Audubon Society. They let us through after we promised we had no cameras and that we'd listen to our guide, and we continued rattling and rolling up to the entrance.
The whole day, Jamir told stories about the Mayas, their sacrifices, their world. Part Maya himself, his connection to the stories was strong. For one myth about the creation of man (involving twins, a Maya game called pok a tok in which the winner is sacrificed, the underworld and corn) I commented what a great story it was. He said, in a serious voice, that it was the truth, not a story.
He asked why we chose ATM. I said I'd heard so much about it, and it was the one place in Belize everyone said we needed to see. He asked what they had said about their experience. I said they said it was a grueling day, you were wet the whole time and you got to see amazing artifacts. As the words left my mouth I realized that no one had really articulated what was so special about the cave, and I said that to Jamir.
He smiled and said he'd ask me at the end if I could explain what made it so special.
For the next several hours, we hiked through the jungle; forded a wide, deep, chocolate brown river three times; swam through the mouth of the cave in crystal clear water full of tiny shimmering fish ("You're about to enter the Maya underworld, Xibalba," Jamir said.); waded, scrambled, squeezed, stretched, climbed rocks; stood in awe at the fantastical cave formations.
|Photo courtesy of Jamir|
"Actun. Tunichil. Muknal." Jamir said in his careful but Caribbean heavy English. "The Cave of the Stone Sepulchre."
We stood quietly for uncharted minutes, just the three of us. Walt and I absorbing the wonder of it all. Jamir watching us.
"So can you describe this?" he asked with a smile.
"Not even close," I said. Even so, I thought, I'm going to give it my best shot. And so I have - inadequately, I'm afraid. I've read a handful of other firsthand accounts in the last few days, and none of them do more than give facts about ATM, or talk about the things, the substance. None get close to the real reason everyone who has a the chance would be giving themselves the greatest gift possible by having this experience.
For the last two weeks, I've considered how I might explain the magic that happened in that cave. I entered a place the Mayas considered an entrance to Xibalba, the underworld, also called The Place of Fear. I thought about the last year and a half of my life, a time when I felt like I was living in my own underworld. In this one I felt no fear the entire time we were there. No anxiety. No worry. Nothing connected to time at all. I felt strong, pain-free, unlimited. I felt whole, alive, and blessed beyond measure. I felt awe, wonder, gratitude. And when we swam back into the daylight at the end, that light was important, substantial, and sparkled with welcome.
ATM was a holy place to the Mayas, a place they worshipped and prayed and sacrificed in hopes their gods would bring the rain that might save their culture. Only the elite were allowed to enter. Yet there I was, an American tourist seeing sights only available to non Maya eyes for the last couple of decades. I breathed air that was in the lungs of ancient people, walked on limestone that was first trod by Maya feet so far back the mind can't grasp, saw the same formations their eyes beheld - shapes only slightly altered by the slow deposition of calcite over the centuries.
I live with and love someone who shared that experience with me. Who was as moved as I. And somehow that becomes a part of who we are as a couple at the end of our first quarter century together, and on the verge of whatever might lie ahead of us.
If I could give you more of Actun Tunichil Muknal than I have here, I would. Since I can't, I wish for you that you find your own (if you haven't already), even if you never get to Belize.
|The Crystal Maiden, photo courtesy of Jamir|