Friday

Belize Survivor, part 64

Previous to the building of the Western Highway, the Belize River had been the only practical means of transportation between the mountains and the coast. Flat-bottomed steamers known as Cayo Boats traveled the waterway in the dry season, carrying supplies upstream for the chicléros and loggers. During their three week journey to the western uplands, the boatmen stopped at villages with curious names like Baking Pot, Double-head Cabbage, Young Gal, Teakettle, Burrell Boom, More Tomorrow, Guinea Grass, and Never Delay. In the course of this passage, the Cayo boats had to contend with one hundred thirty-three "runs" or rapids where they often ground out on the shallows. By using long ropes attached to trees on the banks, the crew painstakingly winched the unwieldy crafts yard by yard against the current until they reached deep water again. Once they had arrived in Cayo and loaded the cargo of chícle, the return trip east was a virtually effortless float downstream to Belize City, taking a mere two days.

As they stood waiting for the dugout to come back, Mrs. Whitmore turned suddenly. "Alexis, I'd like to make you and your husband an offer. I told you that I have another son, an older one named Michael; he recently left for the States and will be gone for quite some time. His property is adjacent to mine. There’s a house on the hill above the river. Would you and your husband like to consider renting it?"

Alexis' eyes lit up with delight. "Oh, Mrs. Whitmore! On the river? That's just too good to be true. Wait 'til I tell Max. When could we see it?"

"We'd have to ask Matthew if he has room in the dory for all of us. If he does, I suppose we could go right now, by river, to take a look. With the amount of rain we've had lately, you couldn't possibly get there any other way. The road is too bad right now."

"I can't tell you how much we appreciate an opportunity like this. Do you want to hold Jordan while I run up and get Max? I'm sure he could be ready to go in a couple of minutes."

Max was just as astonished when he heard of the offer.

“That's great. Heck, yeah. Let me lock up here and grab a few things. What did Mrs. Whitmore say the boatman's name is?"

"Matthew Richardson. Why?"

"It just seems funny that someone as black as he is would have a name that's so English. I would have imagined something more African."

"Mrs. Whitmore says the British have been a long-time influence. They have interbred with the local population for two hundred years or more, and left their names behind. I understand that Jones, Smith, Waight, and Brown are all common names here. Others have Scottish names like McDonald and McKay, and a lot of them are as dark as Matthew."

Upon arrival of the dory, Mr. Richardson agreed to take the newcomers. He would wait while they looked at the property and then bring them back to town.

"Whoa!" exclaimed Alexis as she stepped into the tipsy craft. "I guess there's a right way and a wrong way to do this."

Matthew stood to help her. "Yu mus step inna de middle of de bottom, so de dory don rock."

"Sit low and try not to move your upper body," added Mrs. Whitmore. "Most of all you have to relax."

First Matthew arranged the people and cargo for ideal balance and weight distribution. Then he started the outboard motor, shoved off from the bank with a short stick, and pointed the bow upstream. Once past the bridge, Alexis could hear Max talking to Matthew. Since she sat in the bow with Mrs. Whitmore in the middle, she could only catch snatches of the conversation at the stern.

"…and these big trees on the banks…are they the ones that are used to make the dories?" Max asked.

"No, replied Matthew. “Dat is de one de Maya call ‘ceiba.’ It is very sof. We call it cottonwood. De correc tree for dories don grow close to de river. Wat yu wan is de mahog’ny or de cedar trees wat grows inna de high bush. De wood is very hard. Dem trees have to be at least bout six feet right tru de center for have de big heartwood. Inna de old days they used mules fu drag de tree. Now-days yu get a friend wit a tractor to drag it close by de river. Den yu cut away all de sof sapwood from round de outside wit de chainsaw if yu got one, so only de hard heartwood lef. Den yu dig out de center wit de tool called de ‘adze’. You know de tool?"

"Yes," said Max. "I know what an adze looks like."

"It take one long time fu mek it, an yu mus be careful when yu dig it out. It have to be jus right on the bottom curve an de point correc, or de dory drag sideways inna de water."

With acute awareness, Alexis looked around her and observed a fantasy world of tropical grandeur. Around the first big bend, she saw a concave wall of rock. Two boulders, each as big as a three-story house, rose proudly above the surface. The upper portions of the rocks had been smoothed by a thousand floods, and the algae-covered bases were shrouded in deep water. Beyond the rocks on either side of the river, peculiar-looking trees rose out of the underbrush. Enormous gray-green iguanas, up to four feet in length with long black and orange tails, sunned themselves lazily on branches overhanging the river, plopping into the water as the dory came too close. From time to time, stretches of bush bamboo gave way to open pasture. Thatched houses shaded by tall cohune palms came into view. Brahma cattle grazed on the slopes, standing contentedly as white egrets feasted on the fat purple ticks embedded in the humpbacked beasts. The river was a haven for all types of birds. Crested blue kingfishers seemed to skim no more than an inch above the water's surface. There were flycatchers, warblers, tanagers, doves, orioles, and curious-looking woodrails with their gaudy orange feet.