Wednesday

Belize Survivor, part 63

Three days had passed since Max, Alexis, and Jordan had crossed the Hawkesworth Bridge to Cayo and parked their truck on the western savannah of the Macal River. The sight of the impressive river had been the first time they’d been able to breathe a sigh of relief, that maybe Belize might have the features they were looking for after all. It was Saturday, and Alexis was at the water’s edge washing Jordan's diapers when she saw a dugout canoe coming from upriver. A skinny old white woman carrying an empty plastic handbag stepped lithely onto the bank. At the stern, a slim black man wearing a cowboy hat manned the small outboard motor. It was impossible to tell his age. His eyes seemed old, yet his skin was smooth and unlined, his body lean, but muscled.

The woman saw Alexis watching her and smiled.

"Hello," she said, speaking with a slight European accent. "Did you just arrive here in Cayo?"

"A few days ago. I can't believe how beautiful this river is."

"I never tire of it and I've lived here for fourteen years now. My name is Mrs. Whitmore."

"Nice to meet you. I'm Alexis Lord." She stood up and extended her hand.

"Are you here with your family? Your parents?"

"Oh no, my husband and baby. We own that truck over there."

"So you're visiting Belize. Will you be staying long?"

"Permanently, if we can find what we're looking for. We want to find a piece of land to start our own farm."

"Ah, homesteaders. A lot of young Americans have been coming to Belize with that on their minds. I've seen many new faces in recent months." Mrs. Whitmore lived several miles upstream. Her husband had died the year before, and she lived with one of her sons and her two young teenage daughters. “I'll be glad to tell you about the area, but you'll have to come with me to market. I want to get my fresh eggs from the Mennonite before they're all gone."

"I'd love to go. Let me get my baby first. My husband's looking after him."

After introducing Max to Mrs. Whitmore, Alexis put Jordan into his backpack, slipped on the shoulder straps, and spent the rest of the morning making the rounds. She couldn't believe the variety of skin colors. Many people were shiny coal black; others varied from dark brown to café con leche. She saw three Chinese, some Lebanese, a few white Americans, some Mennonites in their horse-drawn wagons, and six or eight British soldiers in uniform. As they walked, Mrs. Whitmore kept up a steady commentary about what to buy and where to buy it. Together they purchased fruits, vegetables, and eggs, all at different stalls. She advised Alexis which store had the freshest flour, sugar, and rice. The old lady was eccentric, but sweet and informative. She explained that the local dialect was called Creole and that everybody learned to speak it eventually. She talked and talked, about her farm, her children, her late husband, and the excessive rain in recent months. Then Mrs. Whitmore waved to a young boy selling some kind of leaf-wrapped food from a plastic bucket.

"Try one of these," she said, as she peeled back the corn husk for Alexis. "They're called tamalitos. You take fresh green corn, cut the kernels off the cob, and grind them in a molino. Then mix in a little oil, some salt and chopped hot peppers, and wrap the mixture in the same husks the corn came from. Then you steam them for about twenty minutes."

"Wow. They’re delicious," Alexis said, taking a bite. "What do you mean ‘green corn’?”

"In Belize we don't have sweet corn. It's too soft and rots in the high humidity. Green corn is actually field corn, or what you'd call ‘dent corn.’ But when it's young, it's perfectly tender and juicy. Tamalitos are my favorite of all the local street foods, but it's very seasonal. Corn matures quickly as the dry season begins."

Later, they stood on the edge of the savannah waiting for the dugout that would take the old woman back up the river. Still enjoying the spotlight, Mrs. Whitmore told Alexis more about the river. Above the bridge, although broad and majestic, the river was navigable only by dugout. It had two distinct personalities – dry season and rainy season. In the dry season, although it retained its width, the level of the river dropped so low that the mahogany dugouts, called dories, often scraped their bottoms on the shallow rapids and were never steered straight up the middle. Instead, specific channels had to be followed. The river changed constantly, not only year by year, but even within the course of the season. Only a dory man who stayed familiar with every alteration was safe from its hidden dangers. During the floods of the rainy season, the river became a brown deluge. Mrs. Whitmore told Alexis that when the river flooded, it could rise at a rate of four feet an hour, sometimes spreading to more than a quarter mile wide. Sometimes flash floods would occur, and a wall of water would sweep the banks, engulfing anything or anyone in its path. Mrs. Whitmore told her that once she had seen a squealing pig and two chickens marooned on a pile of sodden debris, swirling helplessly in the torrent. Under the surface of the river lay the evidence of countless floods, submerged boulders of immense proportion, and the remains of giant trees. Once the Macal River flowed north past San Ignacio and the Hawkesworth bridge, it flattened into treacherous shallows just before its merger with the Mopan River from the west. Together, the two branches formed the River Belize, which wound its way slowly to the sea.