Tuesday

Belize Survivor, part 65

It was obvious that Matthew was a skilled dory man who stayed in tune with the shifting channels and obstacles left by the floods. At times he hugged the far left side, staying within an arm's reach of the bank, forcing his passengers to duck the brambles of thorny bamboo. Then, abruptly, he crossed diagonally to the extreme right, squeezing through a narrow channel between sharp rocks. Other times he guided the boat right up the middle of broad open pools, skirting the boulders in the swirling eddies. Farther upstream, Alexis saw a large log above their heads in the fork of a tall tree. Puzzled, she turned and shouted back to the driver, "Matthew, how did that big log get up there?"

"Well, Miss Alexis, de flood lef it."

"Up there? That's fifty feet above the river!"

"Yes, ma'am, I seen dis river go up bout sixty five feet inna de hurricane. Why yu tink de houses built so high up away from de water?"
Alexis tried to imagine herself fifty feet under the floodwaters. What on earth did this river look like when it filled the valley? It was an awesome thought. "Mrs. Whitmore? That pointed hill up there on the ridge, is that natural?" she asked.

"You have a good eye. It's a Mayan ruin,” the old woman replied. “This area has hundreds of them. Some are just house-mounds like that one. But if you know what to look for, you'll notice larger ones from time to time. At first you might think it's just another hill. Then suddenly you'll realize it's the covered remains of an ancient temple. Of course, all the mounds near the rivers were robbed by diggers long ago. But no one knows how many temples are still hidden deep in the high bush."

"What kinds of things did the Mayans leave behind? Gold and silver?"

"Maya is the name of the people; Mayan is the language and culture," Mrs. Whitmore corrected mildly. "But to answer your question, no, the Maya didn't have metals, or the wheel, or beasts of burden. But they did have beautiful works of jade and pottery. Sometimes you find small potshards just lying around the house mounds."

"How do you know they’re real, and not fake?"

"Where would anyone get imitation artifacts around here?" she laughed. "This is the jungle."

"Is there a museum anywhere in the country? Stuff like that has always fascinated me. I'd sure like to see some artifacts one day."

"Not in Belize, but there's a wonderful museum over the border in Guatemala at the ruins of Tikal. All we have here is a vault in the Archaeology Department in Belmopan. But if you go there on a Monday, they let people go in and look, accompanied by one of the supervisors, of course." Mrs. Whitmore nodded, then turned and pointed to the left.

"There's the house," she said. "That's the property ahead."

"Yu wan dat I pull in here first, Mrs. Whitmore?"

"Yes, please, Matthew. We'll stop here and show them Michael's first, then we'll go on to my place. Look, the Brahma stud's here. Victor must have finally dropped him off so he could breed the cows."

As Max and Alexis stepped onto the narrow sandy bank, they shared one common emotion from the first moment they saw the place – they not only wanted to rent it, they wanted to buy it. The plain unpainted rectangular wooden house stood about seventy-five feet up the hill from the river, and like many of the more substantial wooden and tin-roofed dwellings in Cayo, it was solidly rooted into the bedrock by means of enormous twelve-by-twelve hardwood posts. Upon closer inspection they found that, except for a front veranda and railing, the rear of the house was identical to the front with a central staircase and door, the western one facing the river, and the eastern one butting up against the adjacent hillside behind. The house had eight windows with heavy wooden shutters, two on each side. Surprisingly, there were no screens. Mrs. Whitmore assured them that, unlike the coastal areas, all the land near the river had good drainage and therefore very few bugs. The house was unfurnished except for a small butane stove and fridge in the kitchen; the living room was empty as was the only bedroom. And yet, crude and unsophisticated, the entire house was built of solid mahogany. However, the lower level beneath the house had one major difference; it had been reinforced with cement blocks between the stilts, creating solid walls, and therefore, an enclosed workshop and storage area.

"…and this is a spice tree. You know it as ‘allspice’," said Mrs. Whitmore as she continued her tour of the grounds. "The local people use the seeds in a delightful dish called escabeche. It's a chicken soup made with white onions, a little vinegar, and allspice seed. Sometimes they collect the spice seeds for export, although it's not a big market. And here is an achiote bush." She popped open the Brazil nut-shaped casing with her forefinger and thumb to expose the red-orange berries inside. "The people crush these and mix them with salt, pepper, and other spices to make recado, a flavoring and coloring agent for stewed meat. The Mayas also used it for dye and painting their faces. This is a tamarind tree. Its fruit is sweet and tart at the same time and it makes a cooling drink. My girls love it. See these pods? They're still green, but they'll be coming into season soon, during the dry."

"When exactly is the dry season?" said Alexis.

"Well, it's almost the end of January now. The heaviest rains are over, although we'll still get some in February. The dry will begin in early March, but it won't really get hot until April. May is the hottest month. June and July are wet and humid, but the rains are more like gentle summer showers than real downpours. In August, there is a little mini-dry that the locals call the mauga, or meager season. The real rains start in September, going right through until February."

"Something tells me we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto," said Alexis, under her breath.

"So, you haven't told me what you think of the house and property?" Mrs. Whitmore said.

"Well," Max said. "What would you charge for monthly rent?"

"How about seventy BH?"

"BH?"

"Belize dollars used to be called ‘BH’ for British Honduras. We've had our new name for eight years now, but I still can't break the habit. Seventy Belize dollars per month. That's thirty-five U.S."

"We'll take it," said Max.