Under the Shade We Flourish

Two weeks. Belize. Nutshell.

Five airports and 24 hours to touchdown. Belize City air greets like a warm towel draped heavy around bare shoulders. Beer-drinking taxi driver. Man with a Boa. Constrictor. Sure, I’ll pet it through the window. Dirty bus stop. Powdered hand soap like detergent. Sweat. School bus. West, inland, to the country…Citrus and banana trees. Cocoa. Pressed white school uniforms. Jungle. Brightly painted houses on stilts. Lines of laundry flapping in the breeze. Fried plantain chips, salty, greasy fingers.

San Ignacio. Dirt streets. Amorphous intersections. Bikes. Taxis. Bare feet. Balcony room. Heat. Wild rose. Palm trees. Hazy hills. Fruit stands. Jicama. Pineapple. Watermelon. Papaya. Lime. The Macal River. A sturdy white canoe. Tremendous iguanas, everywhere, sunning in the grass, chests broad and heads to the sun. Eyes closed in revelry. Legs draped over branches, cat-like, over the water. Bright parrot face peeking from a silver snag. Yellow-footed egrets. Herons. Kingfishers. Little fish, biting toes. Shadowy vultures, gyring above. The World’s Biggest Wasp nest high in the canopy. Three feet long, buzzing with action, a great capitol of industry. Women beating cotton shirts clean in the river. Boys throwing rocks at lizards. Sun. Sunscreen. Swim, swim in a pocket of whirling convergences.

Local rum in coconut water. Marie’s ubiquitous hot sauce, crack to my taste buds. Burn baby, burn. Belikin beer in thick brown bottles. Stout. Fresh tortillas. Street dogs everywhere. Nursing mothers, virile males, puppies. Skinny, mangy dogs, cooling in the shade. Cahal Pech Mayan ruins. Ancient steps dappled in shade. Strange, tidy mosses. Mojo. Great courts. Arches. Tunnels. Stairs and stairs and stairs. More buses. Hot, crowded, three to a seat. Sticky sweat. Stuck to the seats. Windows that won’t open. Windows that won’t shut. Backpacks on laps. Nodding neighbors jerking their heads in sleep. Children. Good, beautiful, quiet children. Mayan, Garifuna, Indian, Chinese, and Mexican children. Reggae music. One love.

Dangriga. Fishermen. Boats. Pelicans, nosing between trash flotillas. Nightly ocean breezes, chasing heat, cooling skin. A town alive after dark. Pineapple smoothies from roadside stands. Sun-beat streets. Bewildering conversations uttered in Kriol. Gud maanin. Bus rides. Fresh popcorn for sale along the bumpy road. Fresh bread. Empanades. Coconut tarts. Cockscomb Wildlife and Jaguar Preserve. Sure, we’ll hop in the back of this pick-up. Jungle hike. A long, unbroken string of industrious leaf-cutter ants, marching back and forth along narrow highways, sharp green booty bouncing like emerald sails upon the sea. Hot hot heat. Strange noises in the forest. Tiger Lily twin waterfalls and the most delicious swimming hole you could conjure up. Dive, swim, float. Dive, swim, float. Pale and pickled fleur-de-lance, curled up and cloudy-eyed in a giant glass jar. Big blue butterflies. Maya Center. Matte black slate carvings of tapir and toucan, iguana and jaguar. Sweat. Sun. Three cold showers a day.

Placencia. Hot. Haggard. But ocean now. Ocean. Sargasso grass invasion. Great, dirty, stinking piles rolling onto shore, laced with trash. Bottle tops. Wrappers. A green army man. A syringe. Bits of plastic and coconut husk. Burrito lunch. Siesta. Vegetable stands, cheap fruit. Orange-colored limes, deliciously fat and juicy. Rain and rain and rain. Inches of rain, rafts of wind ripping across the water. Two days of straight rain. Wet walks through town. Chills. Holed up. Real espresso at last, and from a treehouse! Why not swim anyway? Already wet. Warm water. Shockingly warm water. Thrice daily visits to corner cage bursting with parrots. Leathery black tongues. Green feathers crowned in red or blue. Whistles and croaks. Indoor picnic. Cheap gin and tonics with magnificent lime. Terrifying barracuda steak. Beans and rice. Always beans and rice. Lizards in hallways. Lizards scuttling across the sand. Brown pelicans. Terns. Frigatebirds. Political signage. Flags. Vote for me! No, vote for me! Election day. Sun again, at last. Coconut palms provide lovely, if not perilous shade.

Maya Beach. Cabin time. Thatched roofs. Singing Sands. A long and narrow beach on a long and narrow peninsula. Sun and shade. Open windows. Rafters. Stilts. Seaside porch with a pair of languid lawn chairs. A two-inch roach, called Rodney. Mayan girls, selling their wares. A dog name Scurvy, scrappy and sea-worn. Machete meet coconut. Watermelon binge. Pineapple for breakfast. Chayote and plantains. Bike ride home past more laundry lines, more stilted shacks, more barefoot children playing in empty boxes, more shuffling dogs. One dozen cats lounging on cement. Caprihanas in the shade. Wind and wind. Kayaks in the lagoon. Bare-throated tiger herons with necks stretched long as a giraffe’s. Striped sheepfish. Stout taste-test with rice and beans.

Ranguana Caye. A boat called Dorado. Eighteen undulating miles out to sea, on the edge of the great reef. Sore bellies. Little Ranguana, just two acres of green poking out of the water. Brown-footed boobies preening in palms. Magnificent frigatebirds, dark pirates cutting through the sky. Snorkels, masks, flippery fins. And oh! What wonders! What gorgeous evolutions! Briny new worlds, cities built of brain and elkhorn coral. How many porticoes and porches! Fat starfish still as stones. Black brittle sea stars, fast moving on their five spidery legs, tickling palms. Parrot fish, angel fish, needle fish, blue tang. Schools and stragglers. Spiky urchins. Fishes defined by brightness of hue over syllabic structure. Hello shy octopus! Hello toadfish, so hideous and lovely in your hidey hole! Hello yellow spotted ray, casting sand curtains aside. I see you, spiny lionfish, poison to the touch. And you too, stonefish, you deadly mistake. Pink-rimmed conch. A lone lobster. And always the waves, the meditative, lulling waves. Mermaid hair, loose of the mask, swaying with the weeds. Steady Vader-mask breath drumming in ears. Salty tongues. And then the dolphins. God, yes, the dolphins. Beside and beneath, chittering in their squeaking tongue. Then sunburn, oh, you red devil. Since when was 85+ too little?

Monkey River. Placencia again, delivered in the back of a pick-up truck. Conch fritters and Campari. Early sleep. Up early. Boat dock. Terry, the gold-toothed guide. Back to the jungle, Monkey River town, now a shadow of its old banana boom glory. Hosts of herons and egrets, kingfishers and kingbirds. Bright Montezuma birds with pale-blue rimmed eyes. Hello little crocodile. A trio of tiny bats, pressed flat against a tree trunk. And then, the monkeys. Black howlers, creeping through the canopy, danging from prehensile tales, babies on backs. And that noise! Unearthly howls, raspy siren wail, beware, beware, beware. Then ouch! Sorry fire ants, chill out, my foot meant no harm. Blue crab holes, bamboo and breadfruit. Back on the boat, wind in hair. Then manatees. Great sea cows, gray smudges beneath the water. Wilfred Brimleys, all snout and whisker, round and lumpy. Mama and baby, surface and snort. Land again. Swim again. Grouper and gumbo. Last drink of rum. Early morning good bye. Tiny island-hopper plane, sitting practically in the pilot’s lap. Belize from above, growing smaller in the distance under a happy gaze.

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