The International Writers Magazine: Helpings Hands in Belize
Lettters from Belize
A bus was waiting for us when we landed in the Belizean airport, and we all crowded aboard. It creaked off in the direction of the orphanage, and when I stared out of the windows, I saw a land so beautiful that I wanted the ride through it to last forever.
Everything was ramshackle and dilapidated. The houses were tiny, and their yards held chained dogs and thin horses. But all of those signals of poverty were surrounded by tropical trees and grasses that looked like fans and our grass times ten. The scenery was untamed and simple, but it had a wholesome look that our groomed American lawns lack. It was as though it had been stripped to its roots, but those roots were enduring and strong and sustained themselves without help.
Belize’s flora and fauna are so different from what we know, but there are touches of similarity. Those exotic trees are neighbors to pines like any you see in the Carolinas, and even though a bird the color of cool flame flew nearby, even though a smooth-skinned gecko hung on the ceiling above my dinner table, even though a beetle whose length was better than an inch walked through the dining hall, there were still fireflies. Seeing them made me miss my family.
The children who live at the orphanage are sadder and kinder than I have ever been. Several have scars on their faces, and shoes are nearly unknown. Some seemed to be apprehensive about the strange machine on my head. But others sat down beside me as I wrote in my journal, asked for the pen and paper, and drew a field of flowers for me, a stranger, or wrote me a letter saying how they wanted to know me and have me know them. And whatever they wrote, the words “I love you” were always included.
Belizean soil is rich and black, and it stuck to our shovels and mattocks. Its clinging consistency made our work - digging a ditch to set fence posts - halting. The dirt we were working against is behind the orphanage, further from the main building and closer to the overfilled coop of chickens. Beside the poultry are the sheep, some wearing shaggy rags of wool and others bare, and some kind of ox, a small white-brown animal with two tiny, straight spikes for horns. They all stood in their pens grazing as we worked.
A red string was stretched between two strong posts. It marked the route we were supposed to follow as we dug our ditch, and we tried hard not to cut it with a shovel edge. We were digging a shallow hole, only eight inches deep, but our water bottles were constantly needed. The atmosphere was, as two of my teammates put it, “like you’re in a hot tub with very little water in it, just enough to cling all over your body, and someone turns the heat up high.” It was a relief when it rained - three different times during our work session alone. It rained a fourth time afterward, as we played with the children. I was walking towards the wooden bleachers standing on one side of the plain concrete basketball court, and I stopped and turned my face up into the rain with my eyes closed.
I was sitting nestled against a tussock of grass when the orphanage dog approached and stood nearby, looking hopefully at me with her bright black eyes. I looked back for a moment, then patted the ground next to me. In a split second the dog rushed over, bounding so joyfully that the bystanders cooed.
She is not the only dog living here. There are three others: one with its feathery fur matted along its back, another who looks like an inhabitant of one of Kipling’s Indian villages, and a third, so large and black that I was intimidated. But then I noticed the calluses on his elbows and the way he stretched and sat, both saying he was old, and I lost my fear. The dogs ate the table scraps last night, and the first two played outdoors while the black one lay on the stairs before the iron gate to the children’s compound, an ancient but unafraid guardian.
As I write, a storm is battering outside the thick walls of our shared room. It arrived minutes after our work was finished, its winds sweeping through the open dining hall, snatching stray gloves and slamming doors.
The rain would have been appreciated during our work hours. The heat was worse than yesterday, and one of the images that stays with me is the dark mahogany face of a worker, bejeweled with a hundred individual drops of sweat that hung perfectly still on his skin.
There was little work for me yesterday and today. The ditches were complete, and we had to wire sheets of chain link to metal poles, a labor that only needed a few hands and left the rest of us inactive. I walked around the field behind the orphanage yesterday, and splashed through it today - it rained so hard at breakfast time that small channels had to be dug to let the murky water slosh out of the ditches.
My hands lacked any task, but my tongue worked hard. When the sky cleared, I sat under the palm tree before the orphanage gate and answered the kids’ questions. They all focused on the implant sitting atop my right ear. I explained that I was born deaf, that doctors had discovered it when I failed a hearing test, and that sound traveled down the cord in my shirt and back up. I took the implant computer out of its rough, red pouch and showed them the batteries after they had finished removing the headpiece and running their hands over the raised shape of the magnet under my skin.
A little boy gave me a tiny piece of blue chalk, and we wrote our names with it until it crumbled in my fingers. Then he plucked the leaves of a green-purple plant and showed me how to press my fingers against it so that, when dragged over the pavement, it would leak juice thick enough to pass for ink. He used one of those leaves to draw an animal’s shape. I couldn’t tell which one, but its face was marked with a bright smile.
We drove into Belmopan today, riding the rickety bus that took us from the airport. I looked out the windows again, and saw a city that I preferred over any American one. It wasn’t full of concrete and suited businessmen, but rather of sun and talk and the work of living. The paved roads were dusty and the drivers had an iota of recklessness in their actions. A horse stood next to a billboard that advertised fine jewelry, and an ebony vulture with white-tipped wings launched itself off the ground of a neatly kept lawn.
We passed the Capitol building of Belize halfway through the ride. It was no larger than a good hotel, many fractions smaller than the least building of the American bureaucracy. The whitewashed British Embassy stood across the street.
The government district was full of civilian homes as well, the grandest of them shabby by our reckoning, but more like true homes than our sanitized, made-to-order houses. A florist’s shop was built next to the walled compound of the Belizean Ministry of Health.
We stopped at a tiny outdoor market, where the stalls at one end sold clothes and plastic jewelry and those at the other offered fruit and foods of Central America. I bought nothing, although a man whose clothes were in dusty disarray walked by begging, and I put five dollars in his hand.
On our way back to the orphanage, we stopped at an art store, but I won’t discuss it except to say that it wasn’t real Belize - it was a place with an arbor of yellow flowers and a propensity to take the stereotype of Belize and use it to sell carvings and bookmarks with information on the species they depicted. Real Belize was behind us in Belmopan and in the billboards that told you whether it was hunting season for armadillo or iguana.
To me, the city showed the human side of Belize; the tarantula that crawled across the field back at the orphanage was the animal part. It was a small one, its whole body, with legs included, only enough to cover my palm, but we all gathered into a circle around it. Another girl wanted to kill it, but it was beautiful to me. Its exoskeleton was black, and its forebody was bare except for a mysterious brown-black marking, in contrast to the orange-red hairs coating its abdomen. Two feelers, shorter versions of its limbs, probed beside the curved sheaths of its fangs. Its legs looked like scraps of gray and black velvet. The only thing that disturbed me was the way they moved, all of them somehow working independently of each other as the spider scurried away.
Today nobody worked. Instead, we took the promised cave tubing trip in a nearby river. While we drove to the site, the plants along the road grew dense and became a jungle. From the bus window I spotted the trunk of a massive tree, embraced by vines and creepers. And when we walked down a pebbled path after fording the river, I saw on both sides trees like palms, but with fronds that burst out of the trunk much closer to the ground and rose fifteen feet high. Most were healthy, but I was disturbed by the dying ones at the start of the path; their leaves had become a bleached whitish shade, and the leaf blades jutting from the stems looked incredibly like the bare ribcages and spines of the long dead.
When we splashed into the river the water felt pleasantly cool, and the leisurely current carried us into the first of the caves. Our guides had given us all headlamps, and I tilted my head back and rested my light on the ceiling. It showed a mosaic more complicated than anything manmade - the stone was red and white, but there were so many shades of those colors and so many tiny blotches of them alternating that I became dizzy and lowered my light.
We went on into the second cave, a much deeper one. While the walls of the first were flat, there were no level spots in the second. Small islands of rock extended from the walls into the path of the river, and they and the walls were alive with shapes. There was a formation that resembled the snarling head of a large animal, and abstract flows of stone poured everywhere. But I was most deeply touched by the shape that rested at the center of a high plateau extending from the wall. Although no hands had ever touched it, the large boulder on the plateau was shaped like a human figure swathed in robes and a hood, kneeling in penitence and prayer.
It was difficult to judge reality inside the caves. The little light that existed played tricks, presenting shallow indents in the walls as endless black tunnels. When I looked at the ceiling in the second cave, something glittered back at me, and I wondered if there were crystals embedded in the stone. But then I saw that it was the moisture dripping off tiny newborn stalactites.
There were places in the ceilings from which scattered drops of water poured, falling from the tips of stalactites or working through pores in the rock that connected to wet places above. There were also strange round holes that led a foot at most into the ceiling. I struggled to explain their origin, but they hosted the only other life in the cave.
In the first cave, I saw a bat fluttering across the highest portions, but it wasn’t until the second one that I saw their roosting places. A group of people gathered under one of the bizarre holes, and at first I didn’t understand the draw of that particular spot. Then I was handed a flashlight, and when I shone it into the hole, I saw a wriggling body that squirmed in distress when the light struck it.
Further along, a fissure in the roof held several bats as they hung upside down. A few were pressed close together, little forms in the darkness, and I was startled when one stretched and for a moment showed an extended wing that seemed too large for that tiny crumpled body.
Belize is like Texas; everything is bigger. Last night, after returning from our evening devotional session, I heard a burst of screaming and hurried to its source, assuming some of the girls had encountered a tarantula. But I found clinging to a doorframe a grasshopper whose body measured five inches long.
It was the most amazing creature I’d ever seen. Its anatomy was identical to a normal grasshopper, but its bright green body was of such massive proportions that I could see every feature clearly. Its black eyes were globes that stood out of its head, and the massive back legs held almost completely still as the four slim forelegs sent its body gliding up the doorframe. I was fascinated by those legs - they moved unlike any other insect’s limbs, not stepping one after the other, but anchoring themselves to one spot and lifting the heavy body but barely moving as they did so.
The grasshopper perched beside the door of the communal bedroom adjoining mine, so my roommates filed off to bed without any insect-caused hysterics. The only noises of displeasure came this morning, when the wake-up call sounded at five-thirty. But it was our last day of work, so our spirits were better than they might have been otherwise.
After breakfast we set to building wooden frames to place at the base of the fence and trap the final dose of concrete, one that would cover the bottom of the chain link and make it impossible to creep under the barrier. That task continued until our lunch break, and when we returned we formed into lines that passed buckets, some empty and some filled with wet cement, back and forth from the fence to the concrete mixer. Lines of sweat were drawn all over my back and legs by the time my work group was sent to the showers.
A Belizean church planned to welcome us that night, so after I had washed in the erratic and heavenly cold spray of the shower, I donned a green dress and went outdoors. My friend Juana met me, and we wandered across a section of the orphanage grounds, sometimes not touching, sometimes hand in hand, sometimes with arms around waists.
We ate an early dinner and started walking to the church. It was only a short distance as the macaw flies, but we took a winding route that led us between houses and shanties. Children waved at us from one cluster of shacks, and dogs of all kinds crouched in every yard. Some of the canines barked, and others remained silent as we went by. Unready green coconuts were gathered at the tops of palms, and we passed one squat tree that had a hundred colors of moss sprouting on its trunk and twisting branches shooting in all directions. Each limb held a green fruit at its end.
We jumped over a water-filled ditch to reach the church door, and once we had sat in the plain wooden pews and passed the woven collections basket and sung many songs, the pastor spoke. He was American but said his home was Belize, and he talked about many subjects; the number of texts sent every day, how the Greek Bible said Peter and John were idiotes, and how patient his wife was when he mentioned that she was older than him.
When we walked back to the orphanage, I found a giant beetle in the road and thought thoughts of no importance until I looked into the sky. Then I walked with my head thrown back, staring until I staggered and almost tripped.
Over the orphanage, I saw the Milky Way and the shining dust between the stars for the first time. The inky velvet sky was studded with so many diamonds that I decided to go and live somewhere with no electricity, so that I could look up, unhindered by light pollution, and see the indescribable every night.
There was no crying this morning - all the mourning had been done yesterday when we said goodbye to the children. I was not among the ones who had wept, but it was hard to turn and walk away from Juana. I remembered the scars blazed over her brown skin and the green dress she wore as she pressed against the black iron bars of the gate, and I wanted to stay and protect her.
We all climbed onto the bus as soon as we had cleaned our rooms and eaten our breakfasts, and as we drove down the dusty road beside the orphanage, the children shouted and waved farewell past the bars in their windows. We waved back, I with a pencil in my hand, reminding me of pictures I had drawn for them.
The bus rattled onto the highway and bounced the whole journey, first to the airport, where a few of our number disembarked, and then to nearby Belize City. We drove a short distance into the city and stopped at a marina, where I glimpsed the largest seabird I had ever seen, a black heron whose wingspan startled me. The bus drove off into the city, and we all climbed onto the long pier stretched out into the water and waited for the boat that would take us to the island.
I looked off the pier into the ocean and watched the fish that swam in small schools underneath us. They were a strange breed, long and narrow to the point that I first thought they were eels, and their bodies began with a prominent snout and ended in a colorful tail fin. There were turquoise stripes on their sides that held a neon shine as their gray-brown bodies wriggled through the clear water. I tried to think what name they might have, and when I tired of cogitating, I went to the end of a smaller floating pier and stood there alone.
Behind me, men were loading baggage onto the boat, and my fellow travelers were talking, but I looked silently into the sea. Its waves rolled up to and under the pier, gently rocking it from side to side. Each wave was identical to the one that came after it, twinned so precisely that I could not tell the difference between two I saw in the same moment, and every one touched the floating pier with the same sound and motion. The never-ending sameness brought a trancelike feeling, and as I stood there, I was overwhelmed by the greatest peace I had ever known.
The call to the boat tore me away from that place, but I continued looking into the water as we began sailing. The liquid changed color as the boat took us out into the ocean, which grew darker until it looked as if waves of jade were rippling off to our sides. It was beautiful, but strangely I preferred the scene in a memory - me standing alone on an empty beach, with a gray sky overhead and the sea the color of iron.
The pilot stopped the boat twice, once to let us see some fish that leaped out of the water and skipped across the surface like small stones, and once at the halfway point of the ride, where our eyes searched the waves until the wet brown back of a manatee arched out of the water and immediately disappeared. Then we sailed on into shallower water, where fields of marine grass grew and the light on the clear ocean played tricks, making it look as if our hull was only a few feet from the bottom.
We passed near to an island of small trees with plentiful roots and drew up to a dock. Ungracefully stumbling off the boat one by one, we left a helper to unload our bags and went into the modest lodge, where we ordered lunch.
Most of the resort was built over the water, and there were all species of fish swimming through the pylons and open spaces between boardwalks. Around the moored boat swam tiny fish with flashes of color on their sides, moving in schools that met hesitantly and then melded and went away as one. More of the strange thin fish lounged near the boardwalks, and a group of larger ocean dwellers with black-tipped tails moved by. A fish the shade of dark flame darted past and vanished, and there was a family whose bodies had the bright yellow and black pattern of bumblebees. Another fish with a boxy shape and light brown patches edged in white wandered by, blending into the bottom. As we entered our cabanas, a sternly colored fish with an almost two-foot body swam under them, and when we left our rooms, I spotted a small electric blue and yellow form that made a roommate yell “Dory!”
We went swimming later, and a guide handed me a conch shell with the live article inside. I set it down and watched until the creature crept out a little ways, first extending a pale snail-like mantle and then an eyestalk. The eye met my own, and though the visual organ was startlingly recognizable, its presence on such a bizarre body was unexpected. It only made the conch more alien, and I also felt very strange to be having a staring contest with a shellfish. The eyestalk pulled back into the shell, and another guide explained the culinary side of conches, ending by proclaiming that they tasted like chicken. I said everything did, and we both laughed.
Now I am lying in a chair with faded paint on the porch of my shared cabana, my hand lazily moving to form words on paper. A white-crowned pelican is diving into the water lapping against the spit of land across from the lodge. A little striped fish is hovering around the next cabana, and the breeze is blowing in my face as the ocean wanders to the ends of the earth.
© Caroline Ervin December 2015
The trip to Belize was organised by Son Servants Short Term Missions
Email: ervincaroline0 at gmail.com