The first time I came to British Honduras, as Belize was called in 1962, I was twenty years old and newly married to an anthropologist. The airport in Belize (now Belize City), was by the side of a dirt road in the bush
The customs official went through our suitcases item by item, stopping to exclaim over our belongings -Terry’s binoculars and laced boots, my typewriter. He seemed particularly taken with my flower-printed bras and underpants, holding them up so his co- workers could marvel too.
While in Belize City Terry and I stayed at a small guest house, where we slept under mosquito netting and showered under the cistern in a room with rock walls and an open drain in the floor. Some of the stones were covered with luxuriant black moss, so shiny they glistened. One day while I was washing my hair, I flicked shampoo on a moss-covered rock and it moved. They weren’t rocks at all. They were tarantulas. I didn’t wash my hair again until we reached Don Owen-Lewis’s house in Machaca Creek.
In those days the only way to get to the Toledo District was by boat. The Heron H. hauled cargo, the mail, and passengers to points south, all the way to Puerto Barrios in Guatemala. Then she turned around and headed back up the coast. We were barely out of the Belize City harbor when the tail end of a hurricane slammed us. I spent a miserable night in my bunk, too apathetic to slap at the cockroaches that swarmed over my bare legs. Terry had paid extra for a cabin, but all it had in it were two stained, naked mattresses no pillows, no sheets, no mosquito netting, no nothing.
In spite of the rough seas, the Heron stopped several times during the night to pick up passengers. Hurricane Hattie had destroyed a lot of the country the previous year, including the wharf at Monkey River Town. While the Heron pitched and wallowed, people squatted on pilings – all that was left of the wharf – and handed children and packages to people already on board. I was surprised nobody got swept away and drowned.
Arrival In Punta Gorda, Toledo
By the time Terry and I straggled ashore in Punta Gorda, I had only one desire in life: I wanted the ground to stop moving. Don met us in his four-wheel drive Toyota and drove us to his house over a one – lane dirt road with the occasional “passing bay,” a space where a driver could pull off to accommodate a driver coming from the opposite direction. Don’s official title was Amerindian Development Officer. He was funny and irreverent and I liked him immediately. For the next week he made sure we were properly bathed and entertained, and that his housekeeper kept plates of food and fresh fruits in front of us at all times.
When Don judged us fit to travel, he drove us and all our belongings to San Antonio and dropped us off at the Catholic church. The Jesuit priest there was so desperate for teachers that he’d signed me up, sight unseen, to teach in Santa Elena, even though I wasn’t Catholic. Photo: The village of Santa Elena, Toledo, where Joan Fry was teacher at the Catholic school.
Terry and I moved into our new house – -my first home as a newly wed in August, 1962. While I taught the 3 Rs to every child in the village between the ages of five and fourteen, Terry studied the Kekchi Maya. He was the first American anthropologist to do so, and I was the first white woman most of the Maya had ever seen. I lived in that bush house – thatched roof, plank walls, doors made out of saplings tied together with vines, a dirt floor, and cooked over an open fire for the next ten months. I was living there when I turned twenty one.
Return After 42 Years
Fast forward to June, 2005. The Belize City International Airport looks completely different – bigger, for one thing, and a lot more people. This time, nobody is remotely interested in my underwear. The immigration official notices that my final destination is Punta Gorda – apparently Toledo District still doesn’t draw many tourists.
“So,” he says. “You been to PG before?” “Forty-two years ago,” I tell him. “This is the first time I’ve been back.” His eyes widen. He looks barely thirty and could be my son. A slow grin crosses his face. “It going to be different.” I grin back. The question is, how different?
I have my answer when I arrive in Punta Gorda: so different I might have lived in another country. PG is still a Garifuna town, and the people are still laid back and very friendly. All the streets are paved, which is a surprise. The houses used to be unpainted and stand on stilts, so hurricanes wouldn’t carry them out to sea. Now P.G resembles any small coastal town in the Caribbean.
Don and his daughter Francisca, who was born the year after I left, and three of his grandchildren are at the airport to greet me. Don is seventy- nine now, his hair white as dandelion fluff. But I would have recognized him as soon as he opened his mouth. His sense of humor hasn’t changed, and his Limey accent is as strong as ever. (I would have been back years ago, but I thought Don was gone.
Back In Punta Gorda
In spite of a drought so severe that the rivers are drying up, the countryside is still green. Although June is the beginning of rainy season, the sky is a brilliant blue and cloudless. But what strikes me at once is the bush. It was a great deal higher and more lush when I last saw it, and empty. Now houses and little farms dot the landscape and the bush is little more than scrub. I arrive just in time to eat dinner with the Belize archaeological team spending the summer at Don’s. Their base camp is behind his house in a separate building.
After dinner I take out copies of my old photos. Most are of Don and his family; the rest are of my former students and neighbors in Santa Elena. The ones that interest the archaeologists are color prints of the Kekchi cutting bush to make new milpas (cornfields).
The next morning I wake up to hear Don yelling from the bottom of the stairs: “Joan! You have visitors!” It’s 5:30 a.m. Groggily I climb into my clothes and trudge downstairs. Seated at the head of Don’s table is a stately-looking Maya woman dressed in her Sunday best, her gleaming black hair looped into a figure-eight twist, wearing the heavy, rose-gold earrings that distinguish Maya women from women of any other ethnic group in the country. Forty-two years ago, Maxiana was one of my students. Now she’s a grandmother. I hug her, the same way I would greet any long-lost friend. Maxiana allows herself to be hugged but doesn’t hug me back – the Maya of her generation didn’t hug.
I also hug Miriam, Maxiana ‘s seventeen-year-old daughter, who seems to have had a little more experience with it, and the four of us sit down for coffee and to talk. Maxiana remembers some English but says she’s too embarrassed to speak it, so Miriam and Don translate. She has come to formally invite me to visit her house tomorrow, and probably to make sure I’m really here after all these years. She says she and her two married brothers are the only people left of my former students and their families in Santa Elena. Like many Maya communities nowadays, it’s a village of old women and children. A few men still plant corn, but most leave during the week to work on the shrimp farms or at nearby resorts and only come home on weekends.. When Don and I get back to the house he makes lunch eggs fried with sliced cherry tomatoes, a traditional Kekchi dish, although they use more chile pepper than he does. Then he makes us each a milkshake. This one is juice-bar quality fresh grapefruit juice, water with dried milk added (dairy products are still almost non-existent in Toledo District), and a ripe (raw, Chuck and conjugal!) plantain. I have to laugh. Don doesn’t have a telephone or hot water, but he has a blender. We spend the afternoon reminiscing until the archaeologists come back.
The next morning Francisca, who spoke Kekchi before she learned English (she also speaks Creole), drives me to Santa Elena to visit Maxiana. When we approach the village we see the ice cream truck – the Belizean Good Humor Man. Francisca asks me to buy her a soursop ice cream cone. It tastes a lot better than the last ice cream I had in Belize, which was made with sweetened condensed milk. As I carry the ice cream back to the truck, three Kekchi children appear with small woven black and white baskets for sale. The Maya rarely made baskets when I lived there-hollowed-out gourds were more common. My first impression of Santa Elena is that it looks much more open than when I lived here. Not only is the bush gone, but so are most of the trees. Nearly all the women wear Western clothing except the recent immigrants from Guatemala, who still wear the traditional long blue skirts and don’t want their pictures taken. When Francisca and I enter Maxiana’s house, she offers us seats on upturned plastic buckets (they have obviously replaced the wooden bancos of my day) and serves us sweetened coffee.
Then she retires to the kitchen, where she prepares a meal for us. By now we have attracted a horde of Kekchi children who hang around the open doorway to peek at the odd spectacle of a sac li gwink (white woman) and her Kekchi friend, who wears shorts and her hair in a pony tail but speaks their language as well as they do. Maxiana’s oldest daughter arrives with her baby. In profile, her face looks exactly like the carvings on the ancient Maya temples. Finally Maxiana serves lunch, treating me and Francisca the same way her mother would have treated honored guests by giving us food and watching us eat without eating herself.
Afterwards I ask Maxiana if I can photograph her kitchen, which more or less resembles the one I used to have except that her fireplace is molded clay and mine was made out of river rocks. Miriam takes me on a walking tour of the village. Nothing, absolutely nothing, looks the same. The Maya have fresh water piped in now, instead of having to haul drinking water from the Rio Blanco River, but still no electricity or phone service. Miriam says she’d like to go to high school in Punta Gorda, but her mother doesn’t have the money. (A high school education is not free in Belize.)
I hug Maxiana and Miriam goodbye and promise I’ll be back. Francisca and I stop at the Rio Blanco falls to cool off. It’s now a National Park, but the rain has been so sparse in recent years that the falls have been reduced to a trickle. When I lived here, the women bathed in the pool at the bottom of the falls and did our washing downstream.
Since it’s Sunday and the archaeologists aren’t doing anything, we all pile into two cars and drive to see Nim Li Punit, an ancient Maya site nearby. The ruin isn’t extensive, but it’s been beautifully reconstructed and maintained. Nobody knows what the ancient Maya called it. Nim Li Punit is Kekchi for “The Big Hat,” because one of the stelae shows a ruler wearing an elaborate headdress. The next day Don drives us to the archaeologists’ site. It rained again last night, and the site is muddy and thick with hungry sand flies. At last, two things that haven’t changed: mud and sand flies! It’s just past noon, not particularly good for taking photographs.
The linguist splashes water on a few of the stelae to bring out the details. Standing next to him, I get goose bumps as he scans a series of glyphs (syllables of speech in iconic form) and translates them: “This site was built in [the date] and commissioned by [the name of the ruler].” The team has found two tombs so far, both looted, but they’re confident that once they start exploring they’ll find more. The bush is still pretty formidable, even though it’s second growth.
On The Way To Placencia Peninsula
Francisca and I go to Placencia the next day because she wants me to meet her oldest son, who works at one of the hotels. We travel the way Belizean locals catch the bus on the highway (they play American country music), get off at Mango Creek, and take the motor skiff across the channel. It’s a cool, overcast morning, threatening rain, and a beautiful ride. Placencia is primarily a tourist town, very small and slow-paced. At the hotel, I meet Francisca’s son, and the manager comps our lunch.
When outsiders, even anthropologists, talk about the “modern Maya,” they’re primarily interested in “educating” them away from their traditional practice of slash and burn agriculture because it kills the high bush. But Don’s main concern, since his entire family is Kekchi or part Kekchi, is with the people themselves. It’s a question I never thought to ask when I lived here, but what do you do with an indigenous people whose culture is so at odds with the culture of the modern world? Do you encourage them to remain quaint curiosities, like the native Americans in this country, or to assimilate and become part of the Belizean melting pot? And how do you give them a choice if there’s a price tag on education?
Don and Francisca drive me to PG the following morning so I can catch the 10 a.m. flight. I’m sad to leave because I don’t know when I’ll see Don again, and I wish there were some way I could make sure Miriam goes to high school. But mostly I’m sad because I waited forty-two years to come back.
Joan Fry’s most recent book is a memoir of the time she spent here as a young bride. Visit her website for more information.