OVER AND UNDER IN BELIZE

 

Rumble in the Jungle -- Belize Part I

 

(click on thumbnails for larger pics)

 

           The boat ran fast and low in near total darkness, the only light coming from Benjamin’s powerful spotlight held in his right hand while he steered the boat over the snaking course of the New River with his left.  Ben knew the river like the veins rising from the back of his hands, having spent seven years patrolling the area as a Ranger in the Belizean Defense Forces.  Still, I found myself following the spotlight’s sweeping arc, hoping in those fleeting moments as light swept across the river not to see a hidden sand bar or newly fallen tree, over which we would most certainly and empirically prove that the laws of inertia did in fact apply this close to the equator. 

 

Soon enough, two new light sources appeared near the edge of the river, glowing orange and low in the spotlight’s glare; disembodied eyes seemingly suspended on the surface of the water like fireflies.  Dave, riding the bow and holding the snare ready, instructed Ben with silent hand signals, and the boat roared straight at the hovering eyes.  As the boat neared, the outline of a head appeared, almost completely submerged, but high and clear enough in the spotlight to recognize the outline of a freshwater crocodile.  Just when it seemed we would overtake the croc, Ben cut the engines, the boat slowed, and Dave tracked the croc’s movements along the side of the boat, a skill honed from his nightly forays for the past two months.  He raised the snare and prepared to strike.

 

                This was our first night in Belize, and we were on the New River with Ben, a local guide from Lamanai Outpost Lodge where we were spending two nights at this beautiful lodge resting on the edge of the New River Lagoon (it was supposed to be three nights, but Tropical Storm Allison had her way with the Houston Airport the day we were supposed to arrive).  The “Lagoon,” which is reported to harbor tarpon and manatees, is actually a body of water some 28 miles long.  More like a lake in my book. 

 

                When we finally made it from Los Angeles to Goldson International Airport we were efficiently greeted at the airport by Peter, LOL’s driver and utility man.  We were grateful to climb into a Mercedes van, anticipating that modern wonder known as air conditioning in the hopes of drying off after a long day of  traveling.  As we were getting in the car, sweaty, smelly and tired, Peter told us that he was sorry, but the air conditioning did not work, so an open window would have to do.  We found out a couple days later that, “someone” had recently been using the van for “recreational purposes” and had driven it into a lake.  Thus we also found out why the back of my wife’s shorts were wet by the time we left Peter’s company.

 

                We drove out the Northern Highway while Peter pointed out the sights.  After about an hour, we turned off and headed towards Shipyard, a Mennonite Village.  I knew about Mennonites from my research, and I had figured that they were native residents who happened to be Mennonites, as a native might also be Catholic, Methodist, or Rastafarean.  Imagine my surprise, then, when we pulled up to the small dock where we were to continue the journey on boat.  Sitting on the dock were two very white girls with long dresses down to their ankles and bonnets tied under their chin.  Blond hair, blue eyes, freckles, obviously Germanic in origin.  Like we had been dropped into a scene from “Witness.”  I half expected to see Harrison Ford walking around with a hammer.

 

                We hopped into the small ski boat painted military green and brown (the better to camouflage ourselves from the pitchfork-wielding Mennonites I guess) and sped up the New River with Ben as our guide, as he would be for the next three days.  On the way he expertly pointed out bats, kingfishers, bromeliads, wild orchids, and other local flora and fauna.  Arriving at LOL’s dock, we were met by the manager and inundated with information regarding meal times, activities, the gift shop, the bar (called the Diggers’ Roost in honor of the ongoing archaeological research conducted there), check-in, check-out; all of which was too much after a long day of moving and promptly forgotten. 

 

                We were led to Cabana 14, located right on the water, with a huge strangler fig rising through the deck.                     

The breeze coming through the well-screened windows was cooled by the lagoon on its journey to our Cabana window, rendering air-conditioning unnecessary.  If you can, request number 14 or 15, which are waterfront and thus cooled by the breeze.  You do not have to walk very far into the heart of the resort to feel the oppressive heat and humidity kick in.  The Cabanas are very large and (unfortunately) very well-lit by bright fluorescent lights that had two settings; blinding and X-ray.  The cabanas also feature ceiling fans that, while providing much-needed air movement, drown out the sounds of the jungle through the open windows.  LOL also has 24 hour electricity, fans, en suite facilities and well-screened windows.  Pitchers and glasses are provided for fresh water available at the bar.  You should avoid drinking the tap water.

               

                Meals were made available in the restaurant/bar/library/gift shop behind the cabanas at the top of the hill, offering a fabulous view over the lagoon.     

 

The food was very good, ranging from Belizean chicken and Belizean beans and rice to pork chops and pita sandwiches.  Fresh juice – lime, orange, grapefruit – was available at every meal, and dessert was also served.  We were on the 3-night package, which included all meals and activities.  Meals can be purchased a la carte as well, but you are pretty well isolated so there is not much of a choice.  Alcohol was extra, but the joy of a running tab on the room deadens the impact, at least until check-out.

 

                By far the best feature of LOL is the “hammock hut.”  A simple, thatched roof wall-less structure, supported by a center pole around which 8 hammocks were strung in a circle.  At any time during our stay one could pass by the hut and hear the soothing sound of the rare but handsome American male snorer.  Another highlight was the fireflies.  Being from California, I did not have many summer evenings just a settin’ on the porch with Mary Lou drinking lemonade and watching fireflies, so this was a special treat.

 

                Lamanai also hosts the Lamanai Field Research Center, which is becoming a renowned research facility in its own right, mostly through the hard work of the Australian managers, Mark & Monique Howells (Mark’s father owned Lighthouse Reef and started LOL before selling it), to make a name while still retaining their independence.  Now, rather than scratching for grants (and the attendant rules), they are finding grants coming to them.  In fact, when we were at LOL there were more researchers and archaeology students (about 12) than guests (about 7).  There was also Hannah, a diminutive bat researcher, and Dave the Canadian croc hunter (who efficiently hunted snakes by day).

 

                Which is how we found ourselves in a boat, at night, looking at the business end of a Morelet’s crocodile.  The funny thing is, these animals have been around for, what, over 200 million years?  But you can run a boat almost right up its nose and barely flinches.  Oh, but if someone as much as talks quietly, it’ll skitter away with a splash and a harumph as if it’s been shot.  So, after 20 minutes of patient and silent stalking, David finally snared the huge beast (well, huge is relative, but it was 4 feet long, so someone or something probably thinks it was huge).  It was snapping its jaws wildly, trying to escape from the snare or, failing that, sinking its teeth into something fleshy like an exposed arm or Teva’ed foot: anything to punish the thoughtless creatures that rudely removed him from his nighttime rapture.  Mostly, it succeeded in slamming its head against the side of the boat, and lost two front teeth in the process (they’ll grow back, that partly explains the 200 million year thing).  Once it was tired out, it was brought onto the boat, artfully taped up, and then released when Dave realized he’d caught this one several nights ago.

   

 

                We also visited the ruins at Lamanai, a 20 minute walk or two minute boat ride.  We were accompanied by two archaeology students on a summer program, and it was interesting watching Ben – who grew up around archaeology and archaeologists, but has no formal training – react to these kids and their book learnin’.  It appears there are many theories as to why certain images were carved or buildings used, but it does seem to carry psychological weight when you can preface the explanation with “My people believe . . . .”

   

            

 

                The word “Lamanai” has been popularly translated as “submerged crocodile,” but that is incorrect.  Lamanai actually means “drowned insect,” but that is not going to attract the tourist dollar.  The original Mayan word was “Lamanyan.”  Lamanai is important because the area has been continuously inhabited from approximately 500 BC to the present, beginning with the Maya, then the Spanish, then, after the indian revolt, Mestizos.  The ruins include the Mayan temples, Spanish churches from the 16th Century, and a sugar mill built by Confederate refugees from the American Civil War in the 19th century.

 

At the ruins there was also, as always, the ubiquitous gift shop carrying local crafts and tacky T-shirts (“Belize is Un-Belizeable!!” “Official Belikin Taster”).  Other activities included an herbal plant walk with Howler Monkeys in the trees, a trip up the lagoon, and a sunrise canoe trip, all guided by Ben, who set a high standard for future guides on this trip.

 

                Rather than taking their guests back out via the river and road, LOL charters a Tropic Air flight that takes off from the dirt airstrip about a mile from the resort.  The (air-conditioned!!) van ride to the strip provided our only glimpse of Indian Church, the local village that has 250 residents, 50 of which are employed at LOL.  Both Howells appeared to see all of the guests off, which was a nice personal touch.

 

 part 2

 

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