|The Courier N° 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)|
There was no way, with an ordinary vehicle, that we were going to be able to drive back up that four kiLome long slope. Persistent rain had fumed it into a quagmire of fine, slippery mud. Yet our young driver only finally lost heart when the clutch gave out. For two hours, we had been moving forward in fits and starts in the vain hope that all our pushing, aided by the use of scores of branches under the wheels, would provide sufficient grip. The possibility of being towed out by a Canadian globe. trotter, complete with a fourwhee-drive, also came to naught. He had proudly announced to us that he had just crossed North America and was preparing to drive down to the south of the continent. Rut our hopes soon evaporated as he too found himself bogged down in the mud. In fact, he did manage to extricate himself an hour or so later having resumed to the bottom of the hill. There he managed to get up enough speed to tackle the slope. Unfortunately, our putative rescuer fumed out to be a 'hit and run' driver. In his attempt to beat the mud, he drove straight into our door and, perhaps fearing the consequences of the accident, had kept on going, disappearing into the darkness. In fact, the prospect of spending the night in the forest, and of having to walk several kiLomes the next day to seek help, made the collision seem a trivial matter. We pretended to sleep in the muggy heat of our vehicle which had become an oven, the windows wound up to protect us from mosquitoes, cunning snakes and, who knows, a crafty jaguar or two. Then there was a miracle. On their routine round, with a fully-equipped vehicle, the owners of the inn just inside the protected zone caught sight of the dim light from our headlamps. Covered in mud, we were taken back to civilisation and then, after hot tea beside the big open fire in the Hidden Valley Inn and a three hour taxi ride, we were back in our hotel in Belize City.
This was our only (slightly) adventurous episode-and an involuntary one at that-in a country which attracts true adventurers. These are the people one encounters at Eva's Restaurant in San Ignacio, a small town full of character at the foot of the great Mayas mountains. In Belize, they can throw themselves wholeheartedly into the pursuit of their passions, whether it be climbing, caving, rafting or walking. There are also those who specialise in diving into the 'Blue Holes'. One such is to be found off Belize City, on the coral reef. There, it is possible to dive down into the deep blue of a 1000-foot-diameter, 480-foot-deep shaft. Altematively, one can stop on the Hummingbird Highway, not far from Belmopan, in Blue Hole Park and take a phenomenal leap from the rocky promontory or the surrounding trees into a sapphire-blue shaft of sparkling, icy water about ten metres deep, set in the middle of a pool. You have to aim carefully though because it is very narrow. The abundant foliage which shades the pool and the shadow of the half-open grotto create a kind of religious serenity which envelops the visitor.
While descending the last slope leading to the waterfall (which few Belizeans have visited), we knew that what we were doing was unwise. There was a steady drizzle and the car was already sliding about. Yet even at the most awkward moment, we had no real regrets. Perhaps we should have insisted on taking the 4 x 4 we had used before. Perhaps we should have asked for the cellphone (wrongly seen as a new toy, purely for show). But the site of the Hidden Valley Falls, and the drive in silence down a one-thousand-foot-drop to the invisible bottom of the funnel-shaped mountain range, was an unforgettable experience. Down in the valley, we were flanked by the mountains, standing as if ready for some bizarre formation dance. The lights of our vehicle, diffuse in the yellowish, drizzly dusk, barely illuminated the scene. We could sense the site more than we could see it but, in our admiration, we became part of it.
The flight of the jabiru
With his dented straw hat, khaki T-shirt and fatigues, John Masson looked like a guerilla fighter, an experienced guide, an archaeologist in search of hidden treasure and a holiday-camp group leader all rolled into one. John, who is the Site Manager for Programme for Belize is, in fact, a bit of each of the last three. Above all he is a professional-a manager who knows the scientific subtleties or perhaps a researcher with management skills. No matter. To discover the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management area with him is a privilege. He tells you about the creation of the Programme for Belize, a private but non-profit-making company which has bought 230 000 acres (about 100 000 hectares) of tropical forest. He speaks knowledgably about research into biodiversity, the natural habitat and horticulture. And he waxes eloquent about the 60 or so Maya sites located on the land he is responsible for. One of these is La Milpa, one of the three most important sites in Belize, which has recently come to be regarded as the birthplace of the classical Maya period. The work of the archaeologists, he says, is geared to finding the answer to one single question: why did this civilisation collapse. You may find it difficult to remember all the details from this flow of erudite information, as you try to keep up with the names of the flowers and the birds (the yellow tones of the Ludwigia on the Chichibe hedges, the purple bells of the Morning Glory). Yet you cannot escape the feeling that here is someone who wants to share his encyclopedic knowledge. The facts may get jumbled but the essential remains: the sugary aroma of the coffee bush which grows in the shade of ancient trees; the mixture of smells of flowers and damp earth; the rare sight of the jabiru taking flight on its six-foot wings; giant mahogany trees and Maya structures standing side by side; roots embedded in the stone; sensations of freshness; the harsh contact of leaves and branches; the soft moisture of droplets of dew on your neck; and your own frisson of alarm on learning from your guide that the musky smell is that of a jaguar who wants to remain hidden. Then there are the sounds-the cries of animals -and the silences. Seeing a jabiru is a good omen.
The route to the park from Belize City is circuitous-up towards the border with Mexico, then west and back down in a south-westerly direction until you are almost level with your starting point. The sight, however, is well worth the detour.
'Made in nostalgia'
It is also worth staying in Belize City. This town's languid air and the affability of its people make one forget the advice to be cautious and the fears about lack of security. Criminality, although it probably exists, must lie below the surface. Belize City invites you to relax, with its colonial houses, tree-lined avenues, flowery squares, meanderings and, above all, the sound of water from the lagoons, Haulover Creek river which dawdles its way through the town, and the many canals. You are reminded of the charm of Venice as you watch the swing bridge in operation, or the balletic dance of the fishing boats with their sails, leaving at dawn and coming back at dusk, always surrounded by an unreal light. Friday is market day, but street vendors can be seen every day: players on a daily stage of colour and fantasy. You see a little girl in a colourful satin dress with lace and flounces. The label could be 'made in nostalgia'. She is probably a Mennonite, descended from 19th century European immigrants, who has come this very morning from the western mountains, accompanying her parents who sell wooden artifacts and thereby keep the old crafts alive. It is this feeling that time has stopped which is the magic of Belize City. It is a magic that has been spotted in Hollywood. Films crews are not uncommon and one might easily encounter stars like Harrison Ford in the foyer of the Fort Georges Radisson Hotel. It is a pity, though, that the films made here (Mosquito Coast, Dogs of War or Heart of Darkness) should have titles which give no hint of the town's true seductive nature.
Flying over the coral reef in a light aircraft at low altitude offers a different kind of thrill, but one which depends on the vagaries of the weather. Normally, the islands guarantee sun and relaxation but when we went to San Pedro, it had been raining. The potholed streets, which are covered in sand for the comfort of barefoot walkers, had become waterlogged. We found warmth again in the atmosphere of a family 'pension' called the 'Seychelles'. Its owner, Sandra Cooper, combines the friendliness and reserve characteristic of many Belizeans. She lived in the USA for some years, but decided a short time ago to settle in this small comer of her country, offering visitors something other than the artificial gaiety of the hotels; something of the real Belize. It is rare to find extensive beaches on the islands - you have to go to Placencia on the coast for these, but the striking views of the sea and the rocks will soon take your mind off them. There is always a quiet corner to be found, wherever you are in Belize. This is particularly the case at Caulker Keys, the wildest and least tourist-oriented of the islands which tends to be visited mostly by locals. If you want peace and quiet, though, perhaps you should avoid the cemetery on the beach. This unusual juxtaposition, not surprisingly, is a draw for visitors!