Belize Adventure: On the Trail of Monkey Girl

Uncovering the Other Half of a Life in the Jungles of Central America

 

By Rick Mannshardt

Woman in Belize holding howler monkey

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Part 1 of 5
Into the Land of the Submerged Crocodile

 

Timeline: August 2002, Lamanai, Belize

Morlett's crocodile in BelizeThe boat leaned into the narrow curve of the river, barely missing the foliage that crowded the banks. Throttled to forty miles an hour, the open-hulled launch threaded its way along the sinuous green snake that split the jungle canopy overhead. Painted olive drab, the boat resembled a military patrol vessel. But this wasn’t a military venture. Packed all around us on the floor and tucked under the gunwales were sacks of onions, cases of tomato sauce, bags of citrus fruit and various other provisions. Our destination: a jungle outpost lodge that lay twenty miles up river along the banks of a deep-water lagoon. Not only were we expected, our arrival was eagerly anticipated. But that anticipation had little to do with the supplies onboard, and everything to do with the woman sitting across from me. In fact, she was the reason I was here.

The steady whine of the outboard was hypnotic; we sat in rapt silence as the tropical landscape sped past. Off to starboard, the late afternoon sun was already cresting the treetops. Still thick and humid from the long tropical day, the steady breeze coming over the bow filtered through our sweat-soaked hair. I pulled in a deep breath of it and smiled. It was good to be back in the jungle again.

But this wasn’t just another adventure trip like Costa Rica. I wasn’t here to photograph exotic wildlife with a busload of co-workers from the states. This time it was personal. I’d been hearing about Belize for eight years now, but had never come here to see it for myself. Honestly, visiting this part of the world had never been very high on my list. But now it was.

Eight years earlier, that world was a vastly different one. In the spring of 1994, Brenda and I had just begun seeing each other when the opportunity for her to work in Belize came up. Actually, we’d only recently become intimate when she left for that first visit. The timing of our romance couldn’t have been any worse. Suddenly finding myself adrift, I wasn’t sure what all this meant for us. Sure, I was happy for her– but secretly, I hoped she wouldn’t stay.

But Belize awakened something in Brenda; something deep and primal. For her, there was no turning back; she was hooked. So we let go of each other, and soon found ourselves going down sharply divergent paths in two separate countries. Much would change for each of us during this time apart: education, travel, romance, self discovery… growing up. Over the years we stayed in touch here and there, whenever she was back in the states for a few months to continue her graduate work in school. But our lives had become very separate. Neither of us was waiting around for the other, and things easily could’ve remained that way.

Then in 2001, after seven years of living and working in Belize, Brenda returned to the U.S. for good. Admittedly, she hadn’t returned for me; it was a particular job offer that had brought her back. Still, it wasn’t long until we began dating again. Clearly, the time and distance hadn’t extinguished the attraction we’d originally had for each other. When we eventually fell in love, Belize began to take on a deeper significance for me. In essence, this was where half of her life had occurred. I didn’t want that part of her to remain a mystery. As our relationship grew, I realized that I needed to come here to finally understand what this corner of the world meant to the most important woman in my life. So here I was with Brenda, the one they’d come to know as Monkey Girl, on a small boat en route to Lamanai– the jungle outpost that had literally become her second home.

Formerly known as British Honduras, this tiny slice of the Yucatan Peninsula has struggled under numerous jurisdictions for the past five centuries. Fought over by British and Spanish settlers, its ownership was eventually disputed by Guatemala even after becoming a British colony. For a short time Belize was even considered a part of Jamaica. It finally became an independent nation only recently, in 1981. Comprised largely of Creole and mestizo peoples, Belize enjoys an exotic history of buccaneers and timber men, hurricanes and sugar cane, and an ancient Maya civilization that reigned for 2,000 years. With place names like Gallon Jug, Bound to Shine, Teakettle, and Monkey River Town, the Belize of today retains its quaint charm. Said to resemble the unspoiled pre-commercialized Caribbean of the 1950s, everything here is small-scale, unassuming, and comfortably laid-back.

But it wasn’t the colorful history or even the unspoiled landscape that brought Brenda here in 1994. While working on a bachelor’s degree in biology in the San Francisco Bay Area, she was offered an extraordinary opportunity by one of her professors: to study black howler monkeys in their native forest environment of Central America. Without hesitation, she jumped at the chance, and soon found herself at the Lamanai Outpost Lodge, an eco-tourism and field research center located in the jungles of north central Belize. During her first month-long stay, she quickly formed a bond with this unique place, realizing that on many levels she belonged here. Through her increasing involvement, she would return to live and work at Lamanai on and off for the next seven years. Now, after having left that life behind her only a year earlier, she was back for a brief visit. For her, this trip was like coming home again.

For me, it was the chance to see something that had existed only in my imagination. It was a chance to see the other half of Brenda’s life—where she lived, worked and played. We were here in Belize for a week, followed by another week in neighboring Guatemala, where she often traveled for leisure. Given her impeccable qualifications, I’d deliberately excluded myself from the trip’s planning process and had placed myself nakedly in her hands. In addition to the lodge at Lamanai, she wanted to take me to visit several of her friends who lived throughout the country. We’d also get the opportunity to explore some of the many natural treasures that Belize had to offer. For the next week, she would be my guide through it all– the color, beauty, poverty, wealth, filth, charm, danger, and ultimately humanity of Central America’s second smallest nation. In the end, I was hoping for a deeper understanding and a new level of closeness with the woman I was considering spending the rest of my life with. It certainly wouldn’t be your average vacation.

We continued to snake our way up river as the cloud-laden sky began to darken toward sunset. I glanced behind me as our twenty-one-year-old Guatemalan pilot Ruben headed us into another banking curve. Brenda had known him since he was twelve. Now, he worked as a wildlife guide at the lodge. Since the last time they’d seen each other, he’d had a child. Even so, Ruben was still just a big kid himself.

By the time we reached the widening waters of the lagoon, the last traces of light had just faded from the evening sky. Up ahead, a solitary light appeared on the horizon. Its reflection cast a mile-long streak of gold on the darkened water. Using it as a beacon, Ruben aimed the boat towards the light and kept the throttle wide open. Still a mile off, I was already feeling the pull of Lamanai.

It was fully dark when we arrived at the lodge. When Ruben shut down the engine, the buzzing chirp of the cicadas surrounded us like the heartbeat of the forest. Half a dozen employees were already waiting at the dock for us, along with several of the resident dogs. Everyone was overjoyed to see Brenda– especially the dogs. Watching them all say hello was like being at a family reunion.

As the provisions were unloaded for the kitchen staff, we lugged our gear down the seventy-five foot wooden dock. It was here we saw our first wildlife. Nestled comfortably for the night on a tree branch directly above our heads was a black howler monkey—the very species that brought Brenda here in 1994. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate welcome.

It was, in a way, just what I’d envisioned it to be. Yet it was actually much more—more exotic, more luxurious, more romantic. I’d imagined a place far more utilitarian, geared largely to the Spartan lives of archeologists and wildlife researchers. But the Lamanai Outpost Lodge was also a first class tourism destination: a place where you could wake up to a tangerine sun shimmering over the lagoon; a place to watch the stars drifting high above a canopy of palm fronds; a place to realize your dreams. Two dozen thatch roofed cabanas, each with a hammock on its deck, accommodate the guests in rustic charm. Just up the path, past brilliant blooms of red and purple flowers, sits the communal dining area– an open-air split-level thatched verandah with a palm-lined view of the lagoon. During the busy season of November through April, the lodge is full with as many as thirty visitors. Yet now in the month of August, at the tail end of the hurricane season, Lamanai was nearly devoid of guests.

young woman with dogs in BelizeComing up the corner stairs to the dining verandah, we once again ran into the resident canine population. They were a colorful bunch and more world-wise than any dogs you’d find in the states. Reefer, a black and white spotted pointer mix with a bad eye, was from the Cayes twenty miles off the coast. Scruffer-Doo, a mutt or “potlicka” as they’re known by the local Creoles, was from the nearby village of Indian Church. She limps around with a bizarrely twisted front leg stemming from an old injury that never healed right. Skinny, a brown and white spotted mutt, was at one time painfully emaciated. But now she’s put on so much weight that people think her name is some sort of joke. Having grown up in rough environments, none of these dogs were pets in the conventional sense. They lived outside, fended for themselves, and answered to no one in particular. They were the outlaws of Lamanai—tough, scrappy, and independent.

And then there was Max– Brenda’s favorite. He was the only dog at Lamanai that I’d heard about before coming here. I recognized his face from the large framed photograph on Brenda’s bedroom wall at home. A mix of brown and black, and more heavily built than any of the others, Max was originally from the island of Grenada. Despite his robustness however, he didn’t share the independence that the other dogs craved. When Brenda first arrived at Lamanai, Max quickly developed an attachment to her and soon installed himself as her sole protector (although I doubt any woman in Central America needed protecting less than Brenda did.) Whenever she was in her room, Max would refuse to allow anyone he didn’t know to enter until she gave the OK. He was the ultimate watchdog. But his toughness was transitory. Whenever a thunderstorm would hit, Max turned into the consummate baby, spending the duration shaking and cowering on the bed.

Needing constant attention, Max came to spend most of his time with Brenda, whether she was at the lodge or out in the forest where she’d often spend the entire day observing monkeys. There were even times when she stayed out all night, camping in a small tent a mile or two from the lodge. Ever faithful, Max stood guard outside the tent, even in the pouring rain. One evening, Brenda ditched him and headed out into the forest to a new spot that he didn’t know about. She should’ve known better. Following her scent along the trails, Max found her easily and refused to go back to the lodge despite her repeated commands to do so.

Even before we arrived at the lodge Brenda was hoping for something—hoping that Max had finally broken free of her. Unlike her customary stays of several months to a year at a time, this visit was unusually brief. But there was no way he could possibly comprehend that. All he would understand was that she was back. She didn’t want him to become attached to her again, only to have him experience the same loneliness when she left. This time though, it had been more than a year since she’d seen him—a longer absence than ever before. Hopefully that had been enough time. When she stopped to play with him on the steps before dinner, and when she saw him again around the lodge that evening, she knew that something had changed. Max was different; he had moved on. But in many ways he was still the same old Max, and she was happy to see that he was doing well.

During her seven years of intermittent wildlife research here, Brenda was part of a group of nearly two dozen biologists and archeologists from various universities in the US and Canada who worked at the lodge for several months at a time. In addition to the monkey research, programs were currently underway to study the nearby Maya ruins as well as the local populations of birds, bats, and crocodiles. The San Francisco-based Oceanographic Society had also established a dolphin study program on the coast. At the present time however, most of these researchers were gone. Apparently, neither the bat people nor the crocodile people were here at the moment, which was disappointing. They were a colorful bunch. Brenda said she’d gone out in the field with them numerous times at night and had a blast.

After breakfast the next morning, Brenda and I headed off for a hike into the forest to explore the nearby Maya ruins. These 6th Century stone pyramids, long since forgotten by time, now lay half exposed—their gray stone faces rising up out of jungle foliage that had contained them for centuries. The most dramatic was the Mask Temple, where a striking 13-foot high carved limestone face stood guard over a step-faced pyramid. Historically, Lamanai is unique. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s the Maya were still living here, whereas most other Maya sites, such as Tikal in Guatemala, had long been abandoned. At several sites we came across local workers who were busy restoring the eroded structures. Chatting briefly with them, Brenda knew many of the workers by name. Although her Nicaraguan-born parents raised her speaking Spanish in California, her confidence with the language had remained sketchy until she came to Belize. Once fully immersed in it, she quickly improved her fluency; the words now flowing naturally and without effort. Everywhere we went, she blended in like she’d been born here.

This native demeanor fooled more than one visitor over the years. A pretentious middle-aged American woman staying at the lodge happened to see Brenda at the dining area one evening and mistaking her for one of the local help, asked her for some coffee. The amusing thing was that she also assumed Brenda didn’t speak English very well. Lacking any sense of decorum, the woman held her empty cup in the air and called out to Brenda in a deliberately loud and slow manner, “Little girl, could you bring me some coffee? Coffee!” she repeated, shaking her cup for extra emphasis. Even as the Director of the Field Center, Brenda wasn’t particularly offended for her own sake. She did however make a point to inform this woman that the entire staff at the lodge spoke perfect English, and that she didn’t need to treat them in such a condescending manner. Though certainly no one enjoys being a party to a public scolding, this episode nonetheless became a source of amusement between Brenda and the staff for some time afterward.

In between the archeological sites, Brenda and I watched trails of leaf-cutter ants scurrying by our feet. These quarter-inch long rust-colored insects each carried a chunk of leaf material in their jaws the relative size of a grand piano as they made their way back to their nest. There, they use these leaves to grow a special type of fungus that they live on. It was fascinating to see them at work, moving their mammoth-sized cargo over stones and twigs that must’ve seemed enormous to them. Yet these weren’t the toughest ants in the forest. The undisputed kings of the Belizean insect world are the notorious army ants. A half-inch in length (with formidably large pincers) these voracious predators travel in hordes of 10,000 to 500,000 individuals, pushing through the forest in a multi-armed column several feet wide. Nocturnal yet surprisingly blind, they march through the forest often for weeks at a stretch, killing any animal that remains in their path. Although their usual prey is other insects, colonies of marching army ants have been known to strip incapacitated horses down to the bone. They don’t detour around obstacles in their way. They just plow right through them. Even streams can’t block their advance. Using their pincers, they link themselves together to form a living bridge with their bodies, which the other ants use to walk across the water.

One night in Lamanai a few years back, Brenda was asleep in bed when she was awakened by the sting of insect bites. Not knowing what they were, she slapped them away with her hand. When further bites found her fully awake, she noticed a curious rustling sound around her. Turning on the light, she discovered several hundred army ants on top of her bed. Dozens more were already crawling on her body. But that was only part of the story. Looking around, she realized that the entire floor was covered in a seething carpet of ants. Her room had been completely overrun. Yet she didn’t panic, or even scream. Actually, she was fascinated because as she admitted later, she’d “never seen that many ants in one place before.” Scientific curiosity aside, she realized she had to do something– and quickly. Outnumbered several thousand to one, she knew that trying to get rid of them was futile. Escape was the only option. So she calmly grabbed her shoes and left, seeking out another room to sleep in for the night. By the next morning the ants were gone, having left no trace of their sudden invasion. Brenda moved right back in as if nothing had happened. It never ceases to amaze me how utterly unflappable she is in times of crisis.

She’d probably respond to this by saying, “Crisis? What crisis?” Coupled with an enviable high threshold of pain, she’s one of the few people I’ve met who seem to be nearly fearless. Well known for her perpetual optimism, friends of hers have frequently said that she looks at the world through rose-colored glasses. And that positive attitude seems to reward her with a charmed life of good fortune. Like anyone else, occasional bad things happen to her. The difference is that she chooses not to let them bother her very much.

Another time, she was lying in bed at the lodge when something fell from the thatched ceiling of her room. Apparently this was a common occurrence at Lamanai; all manner of creatures were habitually squeezing in through the fronds for unannounced visits. Whatever it was, it landed on her head. It then began crawling around on her. The room was too dark to see anything, but she figured it was probably a scorpion. As it slowly made its way through her voluminous tangle of curly black hair, Brenda calmly lay there considering her next move so she wouldn’t get stung. When the creature stopped crawling for a moment, she carefully slipped out of bed and turned on the light. It was only when she looked in the mirror that she realized it was merely an eight-inch long praying mantis. In her typical manner she brushed it off, went back to bed and was probably asleep again in a few minutes.

Even though it was Brenda’s abiding love of animals that brought her to Belize, there were a few that even she had no love for. Before she came to Lamanai, she respected mosquitoes along with every other form of life, including much maligned creatures like spiders, bats, and snakes. But after contracting malaria and two separate cases of dengue fever (a month-long ordeal of severe aches, chills, fever, nausea and vomiting where she lost close to thirty-five pounds) as well as hosting an infestation of mosquito-borne botfly larvae inside her head, you might say her opinion of mosquitoes has changed.

Then you have the chiggers. Although not nearly as notorious as mosquitoes, they’re certainly just as unpleasant. Like the industrial strength mosquitoes of Belize, chiggers blithely ignore chemical repellents and go about their business with unfettered gusto. They are, in a word, inescapable. Barely visible to the naked eye, these six-legged mite larvae have the sneaky habit of crawling underneath tight clothing and sucking the blood of their hosts. They soon drop off, but the enzymes in their saliva cause an intensely itchy reaction to the skin that can last for weeks—even if you can resist the constant urge to scratch.

By the middle of our second day at Lamanai, Brenda and I both were covered with raised red welts that never stopped itching. Chiggers prefer areas of skin that are encumbered by clothing, so they tend to bite such places as ankles, waistline and most regrettably, in the crotch area. These itchy welts, some as large as a nickel, looked absolutely horrid. Staring down at my beleaguered privates that evening, I looked like a sailor after a reckless night of shore leave. I didn’t realize that my chigger bites would remain with me more than a month after I got back home to the states. Brenda had long been familiar with these tenacious parasites. Periodic infestations were practically a rite of passage at Lamanai. She said it was common practice for nearly every researcher at the lodge to sit around at mealtime or in the video room, absently scratching their chigger bites.

And then there are the so-called “doctor” flies. You can’t feel it when they bite you, but soon afterward the sharp pain hurts like hell. Even worse is the ongoing burning, itching and swelling that soon follow. Alas, the tropics are simply ripe with unpleasant little pests. Absolutely everything thrives there—not just the cute furry things like monkeys and jaguars.

 

Part 2 of 5
Becoming Monkey Girl

 

Howler Monkey in tree in BelizeThroughout our walk through the forest, we stopped frequently along the trail so Brenda could identify a particular plant or animal species for me. There was a lot to see if you were willing to be patient and quiet. But it wasn’t until after we passed the rusted half-hidden hulk of an abandoned sugar milling machine that we came upon the animals we’d been anticipating all morning. One hundred feet off the jungle floor was a small troop of howler monkeys gathered in the branches of the canopy. It was hard to see them very clearly. The foliage obscured the dark figures as they went about their business pulling leaves off the tree branches. Being members of the leaf-eating group of monkeys, a howler’s diet consists primarily of leaves, which they spend a good part of their day foraging for. Initially I was surprised that these animals didn’t recognize Brenda from her many extended visits to the forest until I learned that she always observed them from a discreet distance so as not to influence their behavior.

While most of the other primate researchers at Lamanai spent their time studying adult populations, Brenda chose to specialize in the behavior and development of juveniles and infants. A major component of her work was learning how these young monkeys fit into the social structure of their troop– who they interacted with and how their development affected them later as adults. Applying this work toward a graduate degree in animal behavior back in the states, it was Brenda’s goal at the time to become a veterinarian.

Her methods of study were typical of wildlife researchers in the field. Watching quietly with binoculars from the forest floor, she recorded her observations in the pages of a notebook at several minute intervals. Indentifying individuals and noting their specific behaviors within the troop, Brenda discovered who they hung out with and how much time they spent engaged in different activities such as eating, grooming, resting, dominance and aggression. Gaining knowledge of the troop’s hierarchy and dynamics over time, Brenda gradually learned what life was like for a young howler monkey.

Obtaining this sheer amount of data required a major time commitment. She often spent all day in the forest—week after week; month after month. As her field study continued, the forest became her home nearly as much as it was for the howlers. In time, her friends at Lamanai began to refer to her as Monkey Girl. With a machete slung on her hip, she also helped maintain the network of winding trails that she and her fellow researchers used to follow the roving troops of howlers through the forest.

But not everyone in the field got to use a machete. That decision was up to Trevor. As the founder of the lodge, Trevor was an Old School kind of guy. An expat entrepreneur from Australia by way of Guatemala, Trevor was patriarchal by nature, treating men and women differently as a matter of habit. If you were a guy working around the lodge he was likely to be hard on you, expecting you to endure hardships without crying about it. But he cut the women a lot more slack and pampered them, even if they might’ve considered it condescending. His policies at the lodge reflected this provincial attitude as much as his beliefs did. There were certain jobs and responsibilities that were suited for women and others that were not. Carrying a machete was but one example. According to him, trail clearing was men’s work.

Then there was Anita, a fellow monkey researcher that Brenda knew from San Francisco. She was among the first group of students to participate in the howler research at Lamanai. Strong-willed and outspoken, she approached Trevor one day and asked him if she could get a machete to help with navigating the overgrown trails in the forest. He said absolutely not– the men would take care of that sort of thing. Though she wasn’t thrilled about his response, Anita accepted Trevor’s decree and returned to her field research.

And then Brenda showed up on the scene: self-assured and always eager to challenge the status quo. One way or another, Trevor somehow ended up presenting Brenda with her own machete as a gift. Whether he sensed a greater degree of physical aptitude in her or had simply mellowed in his outlook towards women, he now seemed to have no problem with female employees carrying machetes in the forest. This was all fine until Anita came across the photo. Having finished her multi-season stint at Lamanai, she was back in the states doing support work when she happened to see a photograph of Brenda at the lodge jokingly cutting her birthday cake with her new machete.

As a wildlife field researcher and eventual Director of the Field Center, a great deal of Brenda’s work was fairly routine– observations, data entry, staff meetings, etc. But occasionally something unusual would occur. One time on her way back to the United States, she was carrying samples of monkey feces in her luggage. These samples were on their way to be analyzed by one of her colleagues back home. At the airport, a customs agent asked her about the “animal products” she’d indicated on her customs form. After she told him what was inside the plastic vials in her bag, he gave her a pained look and quickly waved her through the gate. He obviously didn’t want to deal with her load of monkey poo. Another time, she was in her room at night when a panicked knock on the door revealed a young crocodile researcher dripping blood from his hand. He’d been bitten by a small croc he had tried to capture, and was in urgent need of her first aid skills. Calm as usual, she fixed him up and sent him on his way. This wasn’t the only time she’d be called upon to serve in a medical capacity. When a female researcher got bitten by a large bat she was handling, Brenda was covertly authorized to administer a series of daily rabies injections to save the girl several long trips to the clinic in Belize City. And then there were the incessant problems with insects. Getting into every piece of electronic equipment at the lodge, bugs were causing major headaches. While talking to an American repair shop technician, Brenda mentioned her computer bug problems in Belize. “Yeah,” he said. “Viruses can really wreak havoc with your equipment.” He was quite amused to learn that she was talking about real bugs living inside her computer.

Then one day, life at Lamanai took an unexpected turn when an orphaned howler monkey infant arrived at the lodge. This seemingly inconsequential event would soon come to have a major impact on many peoples’ lives at Lamanai.

At the time, the lodge was owned by the Stevensons, an energetic young couple from Australia. They heard about a young monkey that was being kept in the village as a pet by the wife of one of the lodge groundskeepers. The animal wasn’t in good shape, and the woman had been unsuccessful in trying to feed and care for it. This wasn’t a case of an animal that had been bought at a reputable pet store in the way one might get a puppy or a kitten. This young monkey had been forcibly taken away from its mother in the forest. When the Stevensons went to the village to see for themselves, they found the animal badly dehydrated. So they decided to bring her to Lamanai and take care of her.

two young howler monkeys in Belize jungleA few weeks later another orphaned howler infant arrived on the scene—this time a male. In an all too common scenario, local villagers had thrown rocks at it to knock it out of the trees. As a result, it had a badly broken arm, and had a fever as a result of his injuries. Both of these monkeys were very young—perhaps only two or three months old– and unable to care for themselves. They were fortunate to have been brought to Lamanai as they likely would have died very soon without special care. These two little orphans soon came to be known as Chinka and Chinko.

Initially, the monkeys were looked after by the Stevensons themselves, who bottle fed and cleaned them, monitoring their health and inevitably forming a close bond with them. Despite the monkeys’ strong attachment to humans, it was the lodge owners’ hope to eventually reintroduce the animals to the wild. Yet this was no easy task; it had rarely been done successfully before.

The physical aspect of the monkeys’ recovery was comparatively straightforward. With adequate food, rest, and medical care, their wounds were able to heal and after several months the pair was strong and healthy again. The social component of that recovery was a different matter. Having spent all of their time around the lodge with humans and basically being treated as pets, Chinko and Chinka were becoming imprinted— identifying themselves more as humans than monkeys. Their behavior reflected this quite clearly: they were frequently interacting with the lodge guests, laying around on the furniture and eating a variety of human food. This may have been cute and endearing to those around them, but it presented a serious problem. Lacking the social skills necessary to survive with wild monkeys, the two of them had basically forgotten who they were.

In order to re-enter the monkey world, these little howlers needed skills that they would’ve learned from their own parents in the forest. With the parents gone, someone else would have to provide them with this vital knowledge.

The Stevensons managed to do most of this work themselves, teaching the two orphaned howlers everything they needed to know. They literally had to show them how to be monkeys again. This unorthodox education even included lessons in such basic behaviors as how to howl and how to gather and eat leaves from the trees.

Yet if this reintroduction was to be successful, the Stevensons knew they’d need help from someone with more of a scientific background— specifically someone with knowledge of primate behavior. So it seemed a natural choice for Brenda to be the one to assist them. As a result she became the lead member of the reintroduction team, a group which included the Stevensons as well as several hired assistants.

It wasn’t going to be easy; Brenda knew that her role here would involve a good measure of tough love. Despite the comforts that the monkeys had come to know since arriving at the lodge, she had to insist that from that point on, they be treated as monkeys. Any further humanizing only prolonged their inability to return to the wild.

Their biggest problem was Chinko. As he grew to adolescence, this gentle infant had become a typically aggressive adult male. At the full-grown age of three, he started challenging people at the lodge, ultimately biting anyone who didn’t back down. Since most of those people went away bleeding, Chinko thought he was a pretty tough character. He’d become particularly aggressive towards women. This put Brenda in a difficult position. She knew she wouldn’t be able to work with Chinko if he didn’t respect her. Their relationship would need to change. Brenda therefore had to assume the role of an alpha male howler.

With years of experience in the field to draw upon, she knew exactly what to do. Whenever Chinko tried to challenge her, she held her ground. Hiding her arms (his favorite target) behind her back, she stuck her foot out, allowing him to bite only her thick leather boot. Unable to elicit the desired flight response from her, Chinko became angry. To complete the picture, Brenda grunted at him and broke tree branches in a typical display of male monkey dominance. With each unsuccessful attempt to intimidate her, he’d back down, which was exactly what she needed him to do. Day after day this indoctrination continued, with Brenda reinforcing those behaviors that would enable Chinko to survive with his own kind in the wild. The days turned to weeks; the weeks into months. Uncertain how all this training would pay off, Brenda remained hopeful.

Three long years after the monkeys arrived at Lamanai—young, injured, and helpless—it was determined that they had finally absorbed all they could be expected to learn from their surrogate parents. It was now time to begin the job of reintroducing them to the forest. A difficult and frustrating task, this process alone took Brenda an additional year to accomplish. But she hit on a bit of luck when a pair of young adult howlers moved into the area and began hanging out near the lodge. This was a great opportunity; a chance for Chinko and Chinka to practice being with wild monkeys on their own home turf. It was also fortunate that these two new monkeys were only a little older than they were. This made it more likely that they weren’t part of an established troop yet, and would be more open to other individuals joining them. Their close proximity to the lodge also allowed Brenda and the others to observe this trial run more easily. They couldn’t have asked for a better set-up.

One morning after breakfast, the reintroduction team took the monkeys out of their night cages and put them up in the trees near the wild pair. Chinka wasted no time; she climbed high up into the trees and began playing with the female. She was clearly able to adapt to this new social role. Chinko on the other hand, was hesitant; he didn’t want to go. The team kept encouraging him and he eventually acquiesced, moving slowly toward the wild monkeys. But his presence wasn’t welcome. Without warning, the male ran up and bit him on the tail, administering a wound severe enough to require medical attention from the staff. From that point on, Chinko never once tried to integrate with wild monkeys again, regardless of the many efforts on his behalf. Each attempt simply became more heartbreaking to watch.

A few days after the attack on her brother, Chinka was still getting along well with both of the wild monkeys and was able to spend most of her time in their company. Things looked promising. But during an innocent bout of playfulness, she began roughhousing with the young female. It was well-intentioned fun, but the male saw it as a threat and attacked her. Though her wound was not as serious as the one he’d inflicted on Chinko, she was still traumatized. After that, she similarly refused to go back up in the trees with them. This signaled a distinct change in the dynamics; clearly, the party was over. It wasn’t long afterward that the wild pair moved on to another area of the forest to live. The great opportunity had amounted to nothing but more frustration.

After the departure of the wild pair, Brenda and the team began taking Chinko and Chinka into the nearby wildlife reserve in a further attempt to get them habituated. This put them in the proximity of other wild troops. As before, this process took time and patience. Eventually, Chinka began to show some interest and did well interacting with the next two troops, spending most of her time in the trees.

Chinko, on the other hand, preferred to remain on the ground with Brenda and the other researchers, playing with them or sitting in their chairs. After being injured in the unprovoked attack, he had no desire to risk a repeat occurrence. It’s not that he was less adaptable or courageous than Chinka was. Rather, females have fewer social issues with a troop. It’s fairly easy for them to assimilate. Yet because of the aggression and dominance involved, this sort of thing is much scarier for a male. He could hardly be blamed for his hesitation.

But it was during Chinka’s contact with the third wild troop that something began to change. One day, almost as if she’d been planning it for some time, Chinka started heading north. So Brenda followed her. Over the next two days, Brenda kept up with her as Chinka continued to make her way through the forest, moving farther and farther from the lodge. In a sense, she was chasing Chinka back into the wild. Although Brenda maintained a discreet distance and avoided any interaction with her, the crackly underbrush she was traveling through was extremely noisy. The sound was beginning to annoy the young howler. Grunting angrily and throwing sticks down at her from the trees, Chinka tried to drive her pursuer away. She clearly wanted to be left alone. This was certainly an encouraging sign, but Brenda needed to be sure. So she kept following her.

When it became dark and Chinka seemed to be settled in a tree for the night, Brenda returned to the lodge, as was her routine. She planned to check back in on her in the morning. But that evening, the four-year process of Chinka’s rehabilitation finally came to a close. Contrary to typical howler behavior, Chinka didn’t stay put that night. Taking advantage of the full moon, she headed off deeper into the forest. When Brenda returned the following morning, Chinka was gone. Brenda would never see her again.

young woman with howler monkey in BelizeAs one of the defining moments of her life, Brenda has told me this story many times. She said that despite the sadness of letting her go, she was profoundly happy that Chinka had made it. She’d always remember the last time she saw Chinka up in the trees on that moonlit night, just before she headed off to begin her new life. She liked to imagine that Chinka had gone on to start a family of her own, and that her offspring still roamed the forests of Belize. As a scientist, it may have been unwise to grow so attached to an animal. But as anyone who’s worked with animals can attest, it’s virtually impossible not to.

Whereas Chinka took to the forest willingly, the male was clearly reticent. He didn’t want to go. Yet to have him remain at the lodge as a pet was impossible. He was becoming more aggressive and unmanageable, and would have to be caged for the rest of his life if he stayed. It also gave the wrong message about wildlife to the people at Lamanai and the surrounding village who routinely sought out wild animals for pets. Despite the challenges involved, Brenda and her colleagues realized Chinko would have to be forced to return to the wild.

Yet it was still a tough decision, given what was likely ahead for him. As howler troops are typically comprised of a single male along with two or three females and their young, it’s not unusual for most young males to be solitary. Because of this lack of connection, males have a much shorter life span and are more prone to predation. They may not even breed in their entire lifetimes, as this would require ousting an existing dominant male. No one at the lodge kidded themselves that this endeavor was going to be easy for any of them.

After they’d lost contact with Chinka, the question of using an electronic tracking device on Chinko came up. This issue had been one of contention between the members of the reintroduction team over the preceding months: weighing the safety risks for the animals against the peace of mind of the researchers. Brenda argued that it would allow for better monitoring of Chinko’s whereabouts; this way, they could find him if he got into trouble again. Ultimately, the team agreed with her; it seemed to be the right thing to do at this point. With the issue decided, she and the team then evaluated several areas in the surrounding forest that would be suitable for his release, and put their plan into action.

Each day for the next few months, they drove Chinko to various locations far from the lodge and left him on his own for the day. But Chinko was cleverer than they imagined. He always managed to find his way back. He eventually learned that regardless of how far they’d taken him, he could always get back to the lodge by following the river. At this point it was evident that they needed to take things a step further. They needed to make it impossible for Chinko to return. But they were running out of time. Soon Brenda would have to leave for the states to return to school. She’d be gone for months. They needed to get moving.

During this next phase of Chinko’s reintroduction, Brenda repeatedly took him back out into the forest, camping in a small tent to keep a better watch on him. Her faithful bodyguard, Max, stood watch outside the tent each night, even when it rained. Over the next few weeks she set up several such camps, each one further away from the lodge than the last. Virtually living in the forest herself, there were days when she’d return to the lodge only for meals and a shower. Eventually, when she felt he was ready, Brenda began leaving Chinko in the forest at night, returning in the morning to resume her observations.

She continued to watch him in this manner for several more weeks. During this same period she was also training young Ruben, who’d been working closely with her for the last several months. This way, he could keep an eye on Chinko should the reintroduction process need to continue in her absence. Monitoring the male howler’s movements with a radio receiver, Ruben frequently hiked deep into the forest to check on him. But each time he followed the signal to its source, he found nothing but frustration. Chinko was scared and wary, preferring to stay on the ground rather than in the trees. Despite all the work everyone had put in to get Chinko back to the wild, it seemed likely that he might never be able to leave the human aspect of his life behind.

When the time came for Brenda to leave for the states, Chinko still hadn’t taken to the wild. This meant she wouldn’t be around to see the end result—the culmination of the process that had consumed most of her life for the last three years. Ruben would need to take over for her. Any news of the reintroduction therefore would reach her second-hand.

After Brenda’s departure, Ruben continued monitoring Chinko with the radio tracking equipment each day. But nothing had changed; every encounter revealed that Chinko still preferred life on the ground to that of the trees. But at least he was away from the lodge now, along with the temptation to interact with humans. Given enough time, it was still possible he’d habituate to the forest. He still had a chance out there.

Eventually, after three years of rehabilitative care, teaching, socializing and monitoring by Brenda and the others, this long chapter in their lives reached its conclusion. Even after the dozens of unsuccessful attempts by them to reintroduce Chinko to his native forest, it was ultimately up to him to make this happen. His story however, didn’t have the happy ending that Chinka’s did. Later that year, Brenda received word in California that Ruben had found Chinko’s mangled body in the forest. By the look of his wounds, it was surmised that he’d been killed by a jaguar. Mercifully, he had probably died quickly. In spite of the years she’d invested with Chinko, there was no way Brenda could possibly have prepared him for everything he might encounter. Such were the realities of nature. She more than anyone else, understood this.

young howler monkey in Belize

When Brenda and I got back to our cabana from our walk in the forest, we sat on the deck overlooking the lagoon. This was our first chance to relax since we arrived at Lamanai. The mood quickly became nostalgic as she began to share what it felt like to be back here. Even though the two of us had kept in touch over the years while she was living in Belize, I didn’t realize until coming here that I’d gotten only a tiny part of the picture. Belize was much more than a place to continue her graduate studies. It was even more than her attachment to howler monkeys. Belize in itself was deeply personal to her.

Despite being raised in an urban San Francisco Bay Area neighborhood, Brenda never felt at home there. The treeless concrete sidewalks, congested traffic, and gang related crime were things she never accepted nor got accustomed to. Even as a small child she knew there must be something better somewhere—a healthier, more natural way to live. It took twenty-four years, but she finally found what she was looking for in the rural towns and villages of Belize. And throughout her repeated visits over the years, she came to feel much more at home here than in her native country.

The reason for this was simple. Brenda found the people to be much friendlier here, discovering a sense of community that was too often lacking in the U.S. There wasn’t the climate of fear, distance and mistrust that permeates so much of our country, where we’ve practically become a society of strangers. Life here in Belize was slower, simpler, and closer to the earth. They said hello to each other on the street, didn’t lock their doors at night, and welcomed people into their homes with hospitality. It was this sense of community that Brenda missed each time she went back home. It actually made her depressed. It didn’t help that San Francisco was so often cold and gray. Brenda loved the heat of Belize– the humidity, the dirt. Even her hair and her skin felt more alive here. Her eyes became teary as she spoke about how closely connected she felt to this place. Hearing her mother’s stories of her own childhood in rural Nicaragua over the years, Brenda realized that her life in Belize was a way of reconnecting with her Central American roots. She may have been born in the states, but this was the way she was meant to live.

Clearly Brenda was much more attached to this place than I ever knew. As we sat there on the deck, I felt suddenly alone. I sensed her slipping away from me, as if she was telling me that she wanted to stay here and not go back. It seemed that she was ready to let go of everything–her family, her friends, and me… rather than let go of Belize. And I felt powerless to stop her. In all the years I’d known Brenda I’d rarely felt threatened by her independence. Actually, it’s one of the things I’ve admired most about her, and I’m grateful that she feels the same about me. Still, it was difficult to acknowledge my insecurity at that moment, even to myself.

Then, as gently as it had arrived, the moment passed. She dried her eyes and we sat in the doorway with an arm around each other. This was the first time she’d returned here as a visitor. Knowing that she was here only for a few short days, it had to have been difficult for her. She probably hadn’t cried about Belize in a long time. It wasn’t easy to end such a profound chapter in her life; leaving it all behind; closing off that part of her that had taken so long to find. It had been a year, but clearly not long enough to disengage. It would take time for her to process it all and to make peace with it.

 

Part 3 of 5
Toward a Deeper Involvement

 

woman in Belize playing with dogs and childAfter lunch, Brenda took the bag of gifts that she’d brought from California and started out for Indian Church, a nearby village of refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador who’d fled the atrocities of the 1970s and 80s. During the seven years that she worked at the lodge, she’d spent much of her free time in Indian Church, becoming a special part of that community. Whenever she returned from the states she always enjoyed bringing them small gifts— things that weren’t readily available, or that were prohibitively expensive in Belize. Crammed inside her bag were books and school supplies, jewelry, art materials, even candy for the kids. Altogether, it weighed nearly twenty-five pounds.

Word of her arrival in Belize quickly made its way through the streets of Indian Church. It was big news; it had been an entire year since they’d seen her. In fact, they knew she was back in Lamanai before she even left the lodge. Still, the impact she’d made on this community over the years went beyond simple friendship and gift giving. She’d done things to enlighten and empower them. For one thing, she became a swimming instructor.

During her visits here she’d noticed that whenever she was at the lagoon with the kids, only the boys were swimming. The girls all stayed in the shallows near the shore because they didn’t know how to swim. One day she asked the girls what would happen if they were in a canoe and it tipped over. The girls replied that the boys would save them. Always one to challenge the status quo, Brenda made it her job to teach those girls to swim– as much for the sake of their self-confidence as for their safety. These girls were constantly amazed at the things Brenda was able to do, despite her “being a female.” She often found herself enlightening them about opportunities that were taken for granted by girls in the United States. Regardless of gender or age however, everyone was amazed that she wasn’t scared to spend the night alone in the jungle.

Brenda could trace much of her own self-confidence to her graduate advisor in school, a gregarious white-bearded professor who openly encouraged women to participate in his class—the same professor that had invited her to Belize in 1994, and who headed up both the howler monkey and dolphin research studies. He became her mentor and good friend for many years. He was also the person responsible for bringing the two of us together. Without Dr. Hal Markowitz, Brenda and I would never have met.

When Brenda had first heard about the howler monkey project, Dr. Markowitz had explained that he was actually looking for a graduate student for this position. As an undergrad at the time, it was Brenda’s intention to continue her path toward veterinary school, but she felt this opportunity was too tempting to pass up. So she decided right there to postpone her vet school plans and opted for Dr. Markowitz’s graduate program.

Hal realized this decision was good for both of them. He knew that academic papers weren’t going to save the howler monkey. He needed someone who could make a difference on the ground. He needed someone to get the local people to change their attitudes– to change the way that they looked at animals, and to teach them to make a living in the forest without causing harm to its inhabitants. Because of her Central American cultural background, he knew Brenda was more likely to be able to do this than any other student that he knew. She was the ideal choice for this project.

And he was right. As soon as she arrived, she got in there and got her hands dirty, becoming involved with far more than just research. Through her many contacts in Indian Church, Brenda eventually developed a job teaching the villagers about local environmental issues. This job turned out to involve a fair measure of “un-teaching” as well. Utilizing live animals as a visual aid, she helped dispel much of the myth and folklore long held by the villagers. Such stories were plentiful in Belize. For example, owls were considered to be harbingers of death. Simply handling a marine toad was supposedly deadly. And boa constrictors were believed to have poison glands that they activated at 6:00 PM and turned off again at 6:00 in the morning. Nearly every creature had some sort of folklore attached to it. Even trained nurses believed these stories. After demonstrating how they were untrue, Brenda showed how in fact most of these animals were beneficial, in that they ate a variety of harmful pests. She was a persuasive teacher. As a result of her efforts, some of the locals began for the first time to appreciate their indigenous wildlife, rather than fearing or killing it. Over the years, as she expanded her conservation work with the community, it began to assume a role nearly equal to that of her primate research at Lamanai. Each time she’d return to Belize, it was as much for the people as for the animals.

A good example of this was Manuel. He was a seven-year-old deaf kid from the village, whose father worked as a groundskeeper at the lodge. Frustrated by his difficulty communicating with those around him, Manuel had become very high-strung and disruptive in class, often acting out aggressively. His young classmates ridiculed and shunned him. But Brenda saw something in Manuel. She knew he was bright; he had potential. He just needed a constructive way to express himself. So she found some books on sign language and brought them to the school. Using these aids, she put together some rudimentary lessons that not only benefitted Manuel, but also helped the other students understand what life was like for someone who couldn’t hear. Brenda also gave one of the books to Manuel’s father to help him converse with his son at home. Though he wasn’t much of a reader himself, he was inspired by her gesture and eventually sent his son to a special school for the deaf that was run by the local Mennonites in Belize. As a result, Manuel was able to get the special attention he needed. Some years later, Brenda ran into Manuel again. He had grown into a young man by this time. Even though they couldn’t really speak to each other, she could tell by his relaxed, confident demeanor that he had thrived in his new environment. It was also clear that he was very grateful for what she had done for him.

This connection with the community only grew larger with time. Collaborating with Karen, an artist who created reproductions of Mayan artifacts for the archeologists working at Lamanai, Brenda was able to come up with a way for the community to earn extra money in a manner that wasn’t harmful to the environment. Using pottery, jewelry making and metalworking techniques, their idea was to teach the villagers to produce Mayan and animal themed art pieces that they could sell to the tourists and guests of the lodge.

Originally, they wanted to teach these skills to the adults in the community. Instead, it was the children that showed the real passion for it. Soon these kids were producing a variety of quality jewelry and pottery pieces. During weekly crafts workshops held in the village, the tourists got the opportunity to see these items being made, watching the kids as they worked.

The long term plan at this point was for these kids to take over the operation. Yet once the women of the village realized how much money the kids were making from selling their art, their interest in the program reawakened, and they began to produce art pieces of their own. In time, Brenda and Karen helped the villagers form a cooperative as a step toward independence from the lodge. The group was then able to apply for grants to support the program, buying their own kiln with the money.

Karen even created a high school scholarship fund for the kids. This one boy named Marvin was especially talented in craft making. He soon became an assistant, helping to teach others to work with the various materials. As a result, Marvin was awarded one of the scholarships, which enabled him to continue his high school education. Eventually this same boy from Indian Church went on to enroll at a university in Taiwan. After Brenda left Lamanai, Karen helped the villagers take over and run the cooperative themselves, which by then was fully independent of the lodge. This artists’ cooperative is still active today.

By the time Brenda returned from Indian Church with her empty bag over her shoulder, I was already down at the dock with my camera. Some of the many benefits of her long tenure at Lamanai were the complementary tours for her and her guests. So we’d arranged for a guide to take us on a private two-hour boat tour of the lagoon, scheduled during that dreamy lull in the afternoon just before dinner. An excellent wildlife spotter, Carlos piloted us upriver to the south end of the lagoon, locating numerous birds, a couple of ten-inch bright green baby iguanas, and some extremely well camouflaged three-inch bats that clung to the trunk of a tree by the water’s edge. The ambiance was intoxicating as the sun soon dropped low on the horizon behind a bank of scattered clouds. It was a tiny vacation in itself; for two magical hours, the rest of the world ceased to exist.

That evening, we sat under the thatch roof of the dining verandah, enjoying an exquisite meal with a small group of employees from the lodge. Joining us at the amber-lit table were several longtime friends of Brenda’s. Simon, a tanned, solidly built Canadian was the lodge computer expert and manager of the tour company. A wind surfing enthusiast, he clearly enjoyed the freedom of the laid-back tropics and would end up spending many years in Belize. Blanca, a few years younger than Brenda, was the only locally born member of management. As assistant manager of the lodge, she oversaw the kitchen and cleaning staff. Mike, at the far end of the table, was a young bird researcher who’d been working at the lodge for only a few months. And across from me was a 52 year old American gent named Bob who was visiting Lamanai with his nine-year-old nephew David. As it turned out, the two of them would be joining us later for an evening boat tour, to see what sorts of creatures we could find lurking about in the lagoon.

Simon was doing most of the talking at the table. Fascinated about my job at a zoo in California, he grilled me for some juicy tales from the trenches– the more graphic the better. He was fairly impressed by my exploits helping to get an escaped lion back into her exhibit with a cargo net. But he was especially enthralled about the time a friend of mine had to use a chain saw to cut up a dead African bull elephant to facilitate its removal from its night quarters prior to its burial with a tractor. (It was that poor guy’s first week on the job too.) It amazed me that anyone living in an exotic environment of crocodiles, boa constrictors and malaria could possibly be starved for entertainment, but Simon genuinely appreciated tales from the outside world.

After dinner, Brenda and I rendezvoused with Bob and his young nephew at the dock. Waiting for us this time was the smaller fifteen-foot motor launch, presumably to provide us with a more intimate experience of the lagoon. Carlos was getting things ready. Before we even left the dock, we came across our first creature—right in the boat. Coiled up on one of the seats that we were just about to sit on in the dark, Carlos found a tiny cat-eyed snake. I soon learned that our guide had a weakness for picking things up—especially small cold-blooded creatures. He scooped up the snake in his hand, examining it under the beam of his flashlight while he told us a few things about it. It was barely a quarter of an inch thick, and yes– perhaps a bit feline-esque about the eyes. Yet it soon grew tired of being handled and released a pungent smelling fecal slime all over Carlos’ hands. That was the end of the snake lecture. He gently deposited the creature on the dock and started the engine.

Soon, we were far from the lodge, engulfed in a vault of tropical darkness. The engine purred quietly; the night air was moist and alive. With stars above and the chirp of cicadas in the surrounding bush, the atmosphere alone was captivating, even if we never saw another wild animal. Ten minutes later, we were cruising alongside a thick bank of four-foot reeds by the shore. Carlos swept his spotlight across the area, apparently looking for something. Then he stopped, focusing his light upon something clinging to one of the vertical stalks. It was a tiny bright green baby iguana, similar to the ones we’d spotted earlier in the day. It was almost iridescent. Carlos shut off the engine and brought the boat to a gentle stop. Then he motioned for me to come forward and handed me the spotlight. Next thing I knew he jumped on the foredeck and leaned far over the rail. I thought he was going to fall overboard. But Carlos knew what he was doing. As carefully as someone constructing a house of cards, he plucked the iguana off of its perch and brought it aboard. Apparently Carlos hadn’t had his fill of being defecated on for the evening. Mesmerized by the powerful beam, the tiny creature lay motionless as Carlos brought him close enough for us to see and even touch—and remained perfectly calm as Carlos deposited him back on the reeds when we were done with him.

The next reptiles we encountered weren’t nearly as docile. They were also the largest creatures to inhabit the lagoon—or all of Belize for that matter. Growing to a length of ten feet, the Morelet’s crocodile is the undisputed king of Belize’s aquatic food chain. The New River Lagoon supports a thriving population, which explains the Maya name for Lamanai: “submerged crocodile.” Despite their numbers, these animals are extremely elusive. Being nocturnal hunters, the only way to find them is at night—from a boat.

After leaving the shallows we soon found ourselves cruising the open water of the lagoon. Carlos, with one hand on the wheel and the other on the spotlight, scanned the expanse of black water ahead. Though the moon was nearly full, its light revealed only the vaguest of details around us. The darkness made the place seem huge. Then Carlos called our attention to something off in the distance. At the edge of the reeds a hundred yards ahead of the boat, we caught the faint but unmistakable glint of eye shine. We’d spotted one– a crocodile was floating at the surface. Even at that distance, their highly reflective eyes show up like blips on a radar screen. We still had a lot of water to cover before getting to him so Carlos kept the throttle wide open and continued straight toward the glowing eyes, hoping to reach the creature before it submerged.

At fifty yards, the croc was still there. Because of the engine noise, I was expecting it to vanish any moment. Yet it remained motionless as we made our final approach. At fifteen yards Carlos throttled back the engine. Silently now, we drifted closer. It lay there watching us. Known for its shy, non-aggressive ways, the Morelet’s crocodile presents no real threat to man. But any animal can attack if it feels threatened. And these crocs are certainly large enough to cause trouble if they wanted to.

crocodile in dark waterAnd then it vanished beneath the surface. We’d barely even seen it. Two seconds later, Carlos spotted it again. Swinging the light around to the starboard side he pierced the dark surface of the water, revealing the swiftly moving shape of the creature as it swam directly beneath our boat. Its inky black silhouette, some ten feet in length, cut powerfully through the silty amber-hued water barely five feet below us. The moment was visceral. In that brief instant, I could actually feel its presence. Carlos followed the dark shape off the port side where we saw the last traces of it—its muscular tail propelling it away from the light into the murky amber until once again, it was gone.

Years ago in East Africa, I watched an eighteen-foot man-eating Nile crocodile sunning itself on the opposite bank of a river, its huge jaws wide open. Despite its formidable size and reputation however, there was no real sense of drama; it was just lying there. Yet during this fleeting, five-second encounter with one of the more docile crocodile species here in the Belizean night, I felt a part of something mysterious and primeval. It was as if I’d actually touched it.

Within the next hour we saw three more crocodiles. They were everywhere. The first two sightings were of only moderate interest, but the last one of the night offered us something extraordinary. We had spotted the eye shine fifty yards out, beside the forested west bank of the lagoon. Carlos throttled back the engine and drifted in, just in time to get a fix on it before it submerged. But it wasn’t over yet. This time the water was shallow—and clear. We crept forward with the boat until we were actually amongst the leafy branches of the overhanging foliage. Carlos played the light across the water and discovered, very well camouflaged on the pebbly brown bottom, an eight-foot croc waiting motionless under a mere three feet of water. We crept in further still, till the bow of the boat was directly above him. We could practically touch him. Still, he didn’t move. Every other croc we’d seen had vanished seconds after we’d arrived. But this one apparently had something else on its mind—or perhaps nothing at all. Remaining motionless in the bright pool of light, it was in no hurry to escape. We were able to see every detail, from his unblinking yellow eyes to the curve of his knobby tail wedged against the undercut bank.

Bob’s nine-year-old nephew David was determined to get as close a look as possible. Crawling out onto the foredeck, he leaned over the rail, dangling his wiry body directly over the creature’s head. If this had been a Nile crocodile, or a “saltie,” as the Australians call the monstrous twenty-five-foot saltwater crocs, we’d have heard a quick lunging splash, and that would’ve been the last we’d have seen of the kid. But there seemed little to fear from this animal, provided that we stayed out of the water.

Yet apparently even his front row seat wasn’t good enough for young David. He wanted some action. Pulling several leaves off the overhanging tree branches, he slyly dropped them one at a time onto the surface of the water, hoping to get some type of reaction from the creature. The leaves sank and drifted to the bottom. A few of them actually landed on the croc’s snout, but failed to elicit any response. I probably should’ve said something to him, but I have to admit I was rather fascinated myself. With the dropping of each leaf, he seemed to reach farther out over the water. Incredulously, his uncle didn’t seem to notice what he was doing. Squatting on the foredeck directly behind him, I was expecting him to go tumbling overboard any moment. After the fifth or sixth dropped leaf, I quietly took hold of his belt. Despite the potential for further excitement, this episode ended without incident. Whereas the adults in the boat were absolutely enthralled by the wildlife we’d been fortunate enough to see, I got the impression that young David was hardly impressed.

As Carlos returned us to the dock, we mentioned that we were leaving Lamanai in the morning and would be heading into Guatemala in a few days. Hearing this, Bob made a point of warning us to “be careful about the soldiers.” We’d heard and read numerous advisories about Guatemala lately, but at this point we knew that common sense would get us through it safely. Actually, this wasn’t the first or the last time I’d hear this kind of thing about places I was just about to visit. It seems everyone loves to tell you the latest news, whether tabloid or otherwise.

The two days we’d spent at Lamanai had felt like a week. Even in that short time I felt I was able to get a good sense of this place; sampling its unique smells, sights and sounds. Our stay could’ve been longer of course, but Brenda had many more places to show me in Belize. If Lamanai could be thought of as her home and workplace, where we were headed now could be considered her playgrounds—the places she went to relax on her days off: the mountains, beaches and private homes of friends she had come to know. In the next five days, she was going to take me to see four people: friends of hers, both Belizeans and Americans, who had made this tiny tropical country their home. Each one of these people would open yet another window, and reveal a bit more of the world Brenda had come to love.

 

Part 4 of 5
A Circle of Friends

 

Little girls in Belize villageWe left Lamanai the next morning, taking the boat down river. Today we were heading north to the coast where Brenda had arranged for us to pay a visit to an old friend of hers. For three years, Romi had worked as a manager at Lamanai, but left because of personality differences with the owner. Since then, Brenda had stayed in touch with him, often going to visit him and his family at their house whenever she was in Belize. Over the years, they’d become almost a second family to her.

Twenty miles later we hopped off the boat at a tiny wooden dock and met Freddie, our van driver, for the next leg of the day’s journey. He’d be escorting us to the town of Corozal on the far northern tip of Belize, where Romi was to pick us up. Riding with us was a well weathered and well-traveled British engineer named Ian and his Dutch wife. We climbed in and took off down the gravel road, heading toward the highway.

I’d been in Belize for only two days at this point. Nearly all I’d experienced of the country so far were the romantic charms of an exotic, high-end tourist lodge in the remote central rain forest. Far from typical, Lamanai offered its guests and employees a standard of living not seen in most of the country. Where we were now heading was far more representative of the way average Belizeans lived. I guess I knew this on an intellectual level, but I still was caught off-guard by the sudden contrast.

Speeding along the Northern Highway, we passed mile after mile of rural settlements. Largely populated by Creoles, the areas were strewn with run down shacks built on stilts to protect against flooding. Gaudy peeling paint of turquoise and coral contrasted with a lush backdrop of tropical foliage. With the heat of the day fully upon us, we stopped off for water near the sugar cane town of Orange Walk, known by the locals as “Sugar City.”

During the ride, I got to talking with Ian about his work. He’d spent much of his career setting up power plants all over the world, including Africa, South America, and the Middle East. Tall, thin, and comfortably into his sixties, he lit a fresh L&M cigarette every few minutes. He obviously had many more stories than we had time for.

Within an hour, we’d arrived at the blazingly sunny coastal town of Corozal. With a population of 9,000 inhabitants, Corozal was built atop an ancient Maya city before it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1955, and subsequently rebuilt. After Freddie dropped us off, we ducked into a spot of shade and waited until Romi showed up half an hour later in his well-worn pickup truck. With skin as brown as a coffee bean and an easy genuine smile, Romi seemed the very picture of contentment. It was no surprise that Brenda had grown so fond of him during her visits here. We climbed in the truck and headed down a dusty road out of town. I took in the passing scenery as the two of them chatted away in Spanish. They had plenty of catching up to do.

Halfway to Romi’s place, the road stopped at the edge of a narrow muddy-water canal. He shut off the engine. On the opposite bank, the human-powered ferry that would take us across vividly exemplified the simpler world we were entering. With no motor or engine, the small wooden barge made its way across the canal on a rusty cable strung from one shore to the next. The canal was so narrow you could easily throw a rock across it, but the ferry took nearly five minutes to reach us. Once we eased our way aboard behind two other cars, the two-man team commenced their work, operating a hand powered crank system. Our speed was barely one mile per hour. I glanced inside the tiny, three-sided shack the men were seated in. On one wall lay a collage of pictures of scantily clad women— their one distraction from an otherwise tedious job. After they’d dropped us off on the other bank, the two of them began their slow, sweaty journey back across to pick up the next group of passengers. Romi said the ferry operated 24 hours a day.

Ten minutes later we arrived at Romi’s house in the nearby village of Copper Bank, a small fishing community less than five miles from the Mexican border. There we met Romi’s wife, BeBe, and their two young children, Shayani and Romerio. It was one of the better houses in the area– plain but spacious with a linoleum floor, glass windows and electricity, but no running water. Pigs and chickens shared the large cluttered back yard with the family’s hand-dug well and nearby outhouse. Several members of the extended family lived in a smaller house at the rear of the yard.

As we sat down in the kitchen to cool off with a soft drink, I could already sense the bond that Brenda had with this family. It was touching that little Shayani was sharing her bottled drink with her. Clearly, Brenda was as much at home here as she was at the lodge, where she had spent far more time. The closeness she felt with Romi’s family, much like the closeness she shared with her own family back home in the states was deep and genuine. It was this type of relationship that defined who Brenda was. Throughout our week together in Belize I’d see more and more evidence of this investment in family. Over time it became clear to me that the one thing that mattered most in Brenda’s life—more than wealth, status, academic acclaim or even health, was relationship.

She continued to chatter away freely in Spanish with Romi and his family, who were clearly excited to have her there again. Later, during a short walk around town with them I managed to get nipped in the ankle by one of Romi’s dogs. The bite was inconsequential, but I found it ironic as I remembered scoffing at the nurse’s concern that I might get bitten by something during my brief stay in Central America as she was administering a preventative rabies injection before the trip.

Back at the house, I got a chance to get to know Romi’s two children a little better. His eighteen-month old son Romerio was typically shy, but his darling three-year-old daughter Shayani was a genuine charmer. Despite having no blood relation, she referred to Brenda as her Tia (Aunt.) Well behaved, polite and with an uncommon awareness of others, she caught me off guard more than once. During a walk in their back yard, which was rife with trip hazards from roaming chickens, pigs, dogs and assorted refuse, she insisted on holding both Brenda’s hand and mine so we wouldn’t get hurt. During lunch, Shayani sharply observed that I wasn’t eating much of my food—just the rice and vegetables. She said that if I didn’t finish everything on my plate, I’d have to take castor oil. Clearly, she spoke from experience. I have to admit, it’s quite a lesson in humility at the age of forty-five to be righteously scolded by a three-year-old child. I had to laugh at myself. My initial apprehension about sanitary conditions around the house had made me somewhat wary of eating there. But now I was feeling a few pangs of shame for that rush to judgment.

It was clear that discipline and respect for authority were firm tenets in this house. At lunch, I’d noticed several Barbie dolls and other toys hanging in a neat row on the living room wall, about five feet off the floor. These were Shayani’s toys. Rather than having them available throughout the day, she was allowed to play with these toys for only a limited time. The rest of the day they were hung up out of reach.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this well-bred little girl with beguiling dark eyes singlehandedly restored my faith in child rearing. It was true. I couldn’t recall ever coming across another three-year-old that was so well mannered. And she didn’t posses any of the materialism so common in American kids. The priorities of most Belizeans centered on family and friends—not money, status, or material possessions. With so little to call their own, they were happier than most people I’d known who had far more. While Romi’s house was immeasurably nicer than the fetid, thrown-together shacks we’d later see sprawled across the outskirts of Belize City, it still exemplified the simple, down-to-earth existence of this country. The more I saw of Belize, the more I appreciated Brenda bringing me here. Habitually shunning fancy hotels and Americanized restaurants, Brenda always believed that you shouldn’t visit a foreign country unless you were willing to live as the common people did. Those words found new relevance here in the little village of Copper Bank. And for the duration of our trip I found my acceptance widening to encompass many things that would’ve otherwise bothered me, including cockroach-infested hotel rooms and restaurants in Guatemala to name but a few.

It was time for us to be going, as we’d made plans for the evening. When little Shayani realized this, she became upset. She clearly didn’t want her Tia Brenda to leave. But she didn’t scream or throw a tantrum; she didn’t make a sound. As she stood at the front gate beside her mother waving goodbye to us, tears trickled down her tiny brown cheeks. I got so choked up that I had to turn away for a moment. Nothing else I’d seen in Belize had showed so dramatically the impact Brenda had made on the people and communities she’d touched.

In true kid style however, little Shayani’s tears were gone a moment later as she moved on to the next thing to think about. When we took off down the gravel road in Romi’s pick-up, she was smiling once again. The next day, Romi had to get back to work. He’d be heading out in a small boat with several other men to dive the coastal waters for conch. Prohibited from using any sort of breathing apparatus, the divers rely solely on their lung capacity—one breath at a time. It was hard work. Well known for being the best conch diver in the area, Romi’s services were always in demand. As a result, he was often away from home—gone for days or even weeks at a time.

It had been a long day. Washing our chigger-infested laundry in our tiny hotel room’s bathroom sink before sundown, we enjoyed a casual dinner by the shore and eventually fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing against the nearby seawall.

The following morning, after flying in for a day of reef snorkeling at the island resort town of San Pedro, we took a jam-packed motor launch back to the mainland to the bustling, crowded environs of Belize City. At a sweltering terminal, Brenda fended off some seedy-looking street thugs while searching for a payphone before we boarded a dusty 1940s-era bus crammed with equal amounts of fruit, vegetables and colorful locals. Concrete and refuse quickly gave way to greens and browns as we once again found ourselves in rural country. Heading down the Western Highway, our ultimate destination for the day was the colonial frontier town of San Ignacio, the eco-tourism gateway to the Maya Mountain region. On the way however, Brenda wanted to pay a quick visit to a girlfriend of hers.

Robin was a thin, 40-ish brunette who’d been working in Belize for many years. As a wildlife biologist, she ran the nearby Wildlife Care Center of Belize, a cute little rehab center for injured animals. Although Robin was certainly not as gregarious as Brenda, the two of them were in many ways kindred spirits, both loving the adventure and independence that Belize offered. The three of us met for lunch at a roadside café called “Cheers,” where more than 100 donated T-shirts emblazoned with logos of every imaginable affiliation and locale hung from the rafters like so much drying laundry.

A mile down an unmarked road, we came to Robin’s place—an acre or two not so much carved out of the forest as peacefully coexisting within it. Two huge but fun-starved dogs greeted us at the gate and instantly wanted to play with me. Apparently I was the first male they’d seen in some time. Robin showed us around. Her compound reminded me of a tiny village—self-sufficient and isolated from the rest of the world. Two dozen wood and screen mesh enclosures, built by Robin herself, were scattered among a network of tiny trails. As we walked behind her, she warned us to be careful. Some of the trees we were nearly rubbing against were toxic to the touch.

Yellow naped amazon parrot in a cageHer collection of animals varied from time to time. At the moment, she was caring for two howler monkeys and three parrots. Most of the animals came to her from department of forestry officials who confiscate illegal pets from the locals. Adjacent to the animal enclosures was a cute screened-in cabana that her volunteers stayed in. She then walked us over to her own living quarters. From the outside it seemed little more than an old tool shed with a nearby tank for collecting rainwater. We walked up the steps. I wasn’t expecting much.

Inside, it was a whole different world. With an inner screen door and screens on the louvered windows, her place was well protected from both sun and bugs. A double bed, exotically draped with mosquito netting, dominated the center of the room. The rest of the space was well utilized: a desk, small built-in shelving for food, books and supplies; a stove, refrigerator, and even a couch. A steeply sloped corrugated tin roof finished the elegantly rustic abode. With a feel reminiscent of an Australian bush outpost, Robin’s was the first place in Belize aside from the lodge at Lamanai that I actually found myself wanting to live in.

We stayed for another hour to visit with Robin, who was preparing for an upcoming trip to the states. Clearly comfortable in the field, Robin possessed the inner peace you’d expect from a person who’d chosen to live for years in a remote corner of the tropics. Yet she was a bit anxious about her upcoming trip. As a wildlife biologist, she was scheduled to speak at an annual zookeepers’ conference in Texas. Brenda had known about this trip prior to her visit, so she’d come prepared. To help Robin with her presentation, she’d brought her a gift: a small bottle of an herbal anti-anxiety elixir called “Happy Camper.” Wherever Brenda and I went, the trail of thoughtful little gifts continued to rain across the Belizean countryside. I was thinking that Brenda’s luggage should be nearly empty by the time we left for the states. But then I realized she was also buying gifts here for her family members back home. She had a regular two-way trade route going on.

As the conversation gravitated to more serious health issues, Brenda and Robin found themselves comparing notes from their pasts. Between the two of them, they’d amassed the following inventory of diseases and parasites from living in Belize: giardia, bronchitis, conjunctivitis, sinusitis, chiggers, head lice, dengue fever, malaria, something alarmingly similar to the flesh-rotting disease leishmaniasis, and over sixty botfly larvae infestations– twenty of which lived in Robin’s head during a single season. The two of them sounded like a couple of old guys sitting around on the front porch comparing war wounds.

Botflies are certainly the most colorful of these maladies. Although the species that prey on livestock occur throughout North America, human botfly infestations are endemic to tropical regions, where mosquitoes thrive. The cycle begins when a female botfly lays its eggs on a mosquito that it has caught. The eggs hatch into maggots called bots. When the mosquito bites a human, the bots are transmitted to their new host. There, they burrow in and develop under the skin, puncturing an air hole through which they breathe. Left untreated, they can grow to a length of two inches as they live off the flesh of their host. Whenever they feed, it’s said to feel like being jabbed by an ice pick. Eventually, if the host can tolerate it long enough, the larvae emerge and drop out, to pupate in the outside world.

The botfly that Brenda picked up a few years ago was living in the back of her head, near the edge of her scalp. She first noticed it when she was flying back home, where the changing cabin pressure aboard the plane made the maggot start squirming around. When she got home, she had a friend try to remove it by squeezing the skin around it, but this hurt far too much. So she chose to let the bot continue growing inside her. Actually, she was curious to see the fully developed larvae, and planned to preserve it in a jar (ostensibly to show off to her city-dwelling girlfriends.) She said that the only time it hurt was when she was lying in bed and would roll over on her back. With its breathing hole restricted, the bot protested by jabbing her with the spines that it uses to anchor itself to its host.

Eventually, after repeated pleas from her harried mother and sister, Brenda decided to cut short her science experiment and took the medication needed to kill the bot. As a matter of convenience, she ended up taking a version of the drug normally used by veterinarians to treat infested horses. When her mother found out that Brenda had taken horse Ivermectin, she got a bit worried. So Brenda decided to have some fun with her that evening by making little whinnying horse noises at the dinner table.

We had to get back on the road, so we bid adieu to Robin’s forest hideaway, and left her to tend to her recuperating monkeys and her little bottle of “Happy Camper.” Another bus picked us up within minutes of reaching the main road. Leaving behind the sweaty blanket of rain forest, the bus headed down the Western Highway toward the Cayo District, in the foothills of the Maya Mountains. Like the island resort of San Pedro, the town of San Ignacio was another of Brenda’s favorite playgrounds. While on vacation from Lamanai, she often traveled there on her own, or brought along friends and family who were visiting from the states. Situated a mere five miles from the Guatemalan border, San Ignacio is a popular jumping off point for excursions to the famous Maya ruins of Tikal. Numerous limestone caves can be found throughout the area, along with various other archeological ruins. Several nature reserves also lie within easy reach of the town. For travelers with unlimited time and money, San Ignacio has plenty to offer. Yet we’d be staying for barely a day and a half, so we needed to be selective.

Gradually gaining elevation, we rolled through pastoral green countryside lush with grassy hills and broadleaf trees. I wouldn’t have imagined that Belize would ever remind me of Northern California. As we continued along the gentle winding road, passing cattle ranches and palm plantations, the weather turned refreshingly cool. Clouds gathered, bringing occasional showers that washed over the bus and sprinkled us through the open windows.

Within another hour, we reached San Ignacio. Lugging our bags through the narrow hilly streets, we found our way to our hotel. It had been a long day of traveling, but we still needed to decide on a plan for the following day. Brenda left it up to me to choose which one of the various side trips we’d go on. She’d been to nearly every one of these places and loved them all. To make it easier for me, she narrowed it down to her three favorites: the Maya ruins at Tikal, the Green Hills Butterfly Ranch, or the cave at Barton Creek. Making my decision was fairly straightforward. I was craving something exotic, yet not overly tourist-ridden. I chose the cave. It would be an experience unlike anything I’d ever seen.

 

Part 5 of 5
Completing the Circle

 

grotto inside cave entranceBut first we needed a guide. Brenda knew just who to call—her old friend Luis. After breakfast the next morning, he picked us up in his four-wheel-drive Jeep. At first I thought it was just for show, like all the spotlessly clean SUVs you see in California that never leave the asphalt. But I was wrong—we were definitely going to need all the muscle this vehicle could provide. With cold drinks in the cooler, we headed east out of San Ignacio and into the hills.

Round-faced and constantly smiling, Luis was the older brother of Carlos, the guide who’d taken us boating in Lamanai. He worked at the Maya Mountain Lodge, just outside of town. Having used his services whenever she was in San Ignacio, Brenda highly recommended him. More outgoing and chatty than his brother, Luis had more of the qualities she valued in a guide. He was enthusiastic, personable, and funny. And he loved to tell stories. A trip with Luis was always a treat, no matter where you went.

The lush green landscape, broken only by the single unpaved road, was owned by a community of Amish farmers. Different in their customs from the Mennonites, the Amish are openly friendly to strangers. Dressed in their traditional black pants, high black boots, long sleeved blue shirts with suspenders and tidy straw hats, they would smile and wave as we passed them on the road. Shunning technology and modern conveniences, their means of travel was just as traditional: they all rode around in covered horse-drawn buggies. Yet these vehicles were fitted with automobile tires to better handle the rugged terrain.

Over the next hour, we passed miles of hilly green countryside lush with tropical fruit trees— orange, grapefruit, mango, jack fruit, papaya, and coconut. Scattered here and there, they blended well with the natural vegetation, giving the area a decidedly Garden of Eden appearance. The Amish are well known for their fruit and vegetables, as well as their fine baked goods, all of which they sell in the local towns. And yet these farmers have no problem with tourists occasionally helping themselves to a fruit or two off their trees.

After nearly an hour of steep muddy hills and creek crossings, we arrived at “Mike’s Place,” a thatch roofed stable that served as the outfitting headquarters for expeditions into the cave. We were the only ones there. Under the thatch roof we met Mike, a slightly built man with a generous smile. We didn’t need much time to get ready. We grabbed a couple paddles, life vests, and a 6,000-candlepower spotlight wired to a small car battery. We then headed down to the dock. I forgot to mention something: you don’t walk into Barton Creek Cave. Unless you want to tread water for several hours, the only way to see it is by boat.

The shallow creek we’d been following for the last several miles had widened into a green still-water lagoon. Sunlight filtered down through a loose canopy of jungle foliage, throwing bright patterns on the water. Across the pool, carved into the face of a vine-covered wall of rock, stood the open mouth of the cave: twenty feet high, but barely eight feet wide. Stepping off the tiny dock, we climbed aboard one of the waiting canoes. I sat in front, with Brenda in the middle. Luis took the stern. As we pushed off, I dipped my paddle into the water and took the first stroke. Then Luis stopped me. He insisted on doing all the paddling himself. Brenda’s and my job was simply to enjoy the ride.

I’d explored plenty of caves on my own before. But as we entered its narrow mouth and slipped silently into the cool darkness, I already knew that this would be an experience unlike any other. According to Luis, the cave stretched on for nearly seven miles, though most of it was often impassable because of changing water levels. Today, if the conditions were favorable, we were hoping to venture in at least a mile. But even a mile can seem like ten when you’re underground—away from the sky and the sun and everything you’ve ever relied upon to find your way. It’s truly a different world.

Barely ten feet wide, the rocky passage didn’t even offer enough room for the canoe to turn around, but its walls towered nearly fifty feet above our heads. Despite Luis’ powerful spotlight, the ceiling of the cave remained black and infinite. One could easily imagine being out in a desert canyon on a moonless night.

Flat and silent, the water beneath us seemed more lagoon than creek; its current nearly imperceptible. With only minimal effort, Luis propelled us along at a languid pace, stopping frequently to talk about a particular point of interest. He always kept his voice low, as if out of respect for the cave. As he spoke, relaxed and unhurried, I grew to love the sound of his gentle lilting voice.

He’d turned the spotlight over to Brenda, and was now directing her attention here and there while he talked. Below us in the silty water, several three-inch fish swam just below the surface, occasionally giving a quick splash with their tails. An eight-inch turtle, unperturbed by the powerful beam, slowly paddled alongside the canoe before diving again. Only five minutes in, I realized this cave was more than simply water and rock. It was home to a variety of living things– not all of which were to be found in the water.

bats huddled on cave wallSix feet above our heads, dozens of bats huddled so tightly together on the cave wall that their dark squirming bodies formed a solid mass. The wall itself seemed to be alive. According to Luis, nearly sixty different species of bats made the cave their home, including fishing bats and nectar-eating bats that journeyed outside the cave each day in search of flowers. Researchers studying the bats’ habitat recently found a six-inch layer of dried guano in one area of the cave. If disturbed, this material can cause histoplasmosis, a fungal disease brought about by inhaling the airborne particles. The local Amish kids, apparently unaware of this, occasionally enter the cave to gather this guano, which they use to fertilize their crops.

While Luis was discussing the dangers of histoplasmosis, he mentioned that the cave was also inhabited by assassin bugs, which feed on the blood of the bats. The problem comes when these bugs then bite humans, thereby infecting them with something called Chagas’ disease. This disease can remain in the system for years, where it sometimes causes people to die unexpectedly from heart failure. But among these dangers, there was also history lurking in the dark.

Centuries ago the Maya people used this cave, along with many others, for ceremonial purposes. During recent expeditions, researchers had discovered numerous artifacts that had been left behind including clay pots, flutes, torch holders, and incense burners. Among these artifacts they also found the skeletal remains of human sacrifice victims. Out of respect for the Maya, most of these artifacts had been left where they were found. Yet in the ensuing years, tour operators habitually led their clients up onto the rock shelves of the cave to see these artifacts up close. This heavy foot traffic soon began to damage the cave’s delicate limestone surfaces. In response, Luis and several archeologists decided to move some of the bones and other items to places that were easier for people to see without leaving their boats. It was a clever idea. Luis showed us some examples of this strategic “planting” of artifacts. Ten feet up, resting on a rock shelf was a human skull. Not far away lay an earthen pot and a small flute. This may not have been exactly where the Maya had used them, but it was a sensible compromise that protected the fragile environment of the cave while still illustrating its cultural history.

The myriad rock formations we encountered throughout the cave were otherworldly. At the pace of a leisurely stroll, we found fluid-looking shapes and textures that defied the very definition of the word rock. Growing from the ceiling and cave walls were the classic cavern formations one would naturally expect to see: stalactites, stalagmites and intricately fluted columns. Other formations took me by surprise: curtains, pumpkins, and reptilian scales. The variations of texture alone seemed limitless: knobby, slick, pebbly, bubbly, crystalline, comb-toothed, even coral-like. There were shards, sharp overhanging angles, rough-hewn boulders, and twisting towers. Rivulets, fans, and alluvial shelves looked like miniature river deltas jutting out into the water, created by tiny streams emerging from holes in the rock walls. One wall looked like an ivory relief carving of a tiny enchanted forest. Above our heads, a fossilized “T-Rex skull” stared out over the water– created over the millennia, like everything else we’d seen, by the force of flowing water. As this ongoing process continued, water frequently dripped on us from above, the sound of each drop echoing off the walls as it hit the surface of the water.

guide leading cave canoe trip in Belize trip Almost as varied as the shapes of the rock formations were the dimensions of the cave itself. Though averaging perhaps twenty feet, the height of the ceiling changed frequently, sometimes dropping abruptly to within a few feet of the water’s surface. Numerous times, the walls squeezed in tighter as well, nearly scraping the sides of the canoe. Other times, shelves and ledges jutted out from the walls, creating flat areas above or beside us. Luis paddled very gingerly, always talking in great detail about the various formations. Though he’d been here many times before, he was clearly passionate about every aspect of this place.

Perhaps three-quarters of a mile into the cave, some of the bats that we’d seen squirming on the walls earlier had now taken flight. As Brenda aimed the spotlight overhead, we began to see them swooping down around us, some of them coming to within two feet of our heads as they searched for insects to feed on. Seconds later, the creatures vanished as quickly as they had appeared.

Then almost as suddenly, the roof of the cave dropped down to perhaps four feet above the water, forcing us to duck our heads to get through. When it rose just enough for us to sit up again, Luis brought the boat to a gentle stop and then directed our attention to something on the ceiling up ahead. Brenda focused the beam of the spotlight on something that looked like translucent strings of spaghetti. As we moved closer, it was revealed to be a web of some kind. Closer examination under the light caused part of the web to start moving. Undulating along the strands, less than a foot over our heads was an eerie translucent worm the size of a small bean sprout. It seemed almost otherworldly. Blind and nearly brainless, this tiny creature lived its entire life suspended from a piece of rock so far from the light of the sun that it taxed my ability to even comprehend it. Finding myself anthropomorphizing, I wondered if perhaps it was lonely, or in some way wanting, in such a stark environment. But I knew better. It clearly had everything it needed to live, or it wouldn’t be here. Like every other creature we’d seen on our trip, from the leaf-cutter ant to the crocodile under our boat, it was surviving in the only world that it knew. Paddling onward, we left it to its lightless world, still oozing along its tiny web.

Up ahead, the roof of the cave dropped abruptly. Then the walls closed in. It seemed as though we’d come to a dead end. Instead, Luis told us to lie down on the floor of the canoe, with our heads resting against the seats. Thinking it a bit excessive, I plopped down on the cold wet bottom of the boat and slid my legs down to the bow. My face now lay at the level of the canoe’s gunwales as the rocky passage quickly funneled down to a size scarcely larger than the canoe itself—three feet wide and barely two and a half feet high. I couldn’t imagine how, but by all indications it seemed Luis was planning to take us through here.

With my head laying back nearly level with the seat, I could barely see forward. Instead, my eyes were fixed upward. As the boat squeezed in through the impossibly narrow opening, the rough orange ceiling hung barely six inches above my face. Literally entombed by rock on all sides, I lay there transfixed– a smile of amazement spreading across my face. From my position at the front of the boat, I could see neither of my companions. The canoe seemed to be gliding under its own power. Somehow Luis managed to navigate between hanging stalactites so close together we saw barely three inches of space on either side. Even though we’d slowed to an absolute crawl by this point, I was impressed that the ten-foot boat never once scraped the rocks. As if the canoe had suddenly become as flexible as a snake, I watched as the textured orange rock continued to pass inches above my face.

Then, the walls began to back away. The ceiling climbed a foot or two, and then leveled off again. We now found ourselves in a tunnel-like grotto eight or ten feet wide, but barely four feet high. The three of us were still stretched out on the floor of the boat, but were now able to lift our heads and peer forward. Soon we came upon a gray haze of mist that filled the interior of the cave like hanging fog. Visibility dropped to barely fifteen feet. I’d never seen anything so atmospheric—eerie yet captivating, as if we were exploring the catacombs beneath Dracula’s castle.

Then things started moving. Within seconds I felt the rapid flutter of wings around me. In a spirited frenzy, a group of bats began swooping in and out of the mist, veering to within inches of our heads. I was speechless. What more could we possibly encounter? Lightning bolts and a fire-breathing dragon? It was like a finely-crafted stage show building to a dramatic climax. As if to challenge us, the bats raced straight toward the boat, veering off only at the very last second. Skillfully negotiating the cramped space between the water and the rocky ceiling, the creatures materialized and disappeared back into the mist faster than we could comprehend. I was tempted to reach for my camera, but I stopped myself. No camera could possibly capture this moment; the only way to experience it was to sit back and let it all happen.

In the space of an hour, we’d seen more natural wonders than either Brenda or I could ever have hoped for. I was grateful that she’d brought me here to share this experience with her. Yet not everyone feels the same way about caving. Luis said he’s known adult clients of his to scream out loud at the sight of a single bat. He told us about a group of people that he’d taken into the cave a few years earlier. One woman was so frightened and so anxious about the cave’s claustrophobic confines that Luis could actually feel the boat shaking from her trembling. Still, she was determined to conquer her fear and managed to hang on until the end.

We soon left the vampire catacombs behind, and within a hundred yards came to a small waterfall that had sounded like a raging torrent until we actually caught sight of it. Even the sounds of the cave were mysterious. It was here at the falls that we finally reached a dead end. The water level in the cave was too high to continue any further. So Luis found a spot wide enough to turn the boat around and we started back.

Just after we squeezed our way through the low-ceilinged maze again, Luis told us about the time when he and a group of clients got trapped in the cave. Fueled by recent rains, the creek rose up so quickly they couldn’t make it out in time. They were stuck– unable to move until the water receded. Eventually after more than an hour, the water began to drop again, allowing them to make their escape. Somehow even a story like this seemed a happy one when told by Luis. With his gentle lighthearted manner, he made it sound fun. But still, I was grateful he had waited until we’d squeezed back out of that gopher tunnel before telling that particular story.

Perhaps a quarter mile from the entrance, we heard voices. Up ahead, a stark beam of light played off the darkened water. Another boat was approaching. It turned out to be Mike, who was guiding two boats full of middle-aged American women. They were all wearing bright orange life vests and looking quite touristy. Our timing had been nearly perfect. For almost two hours we’d had the entire cave to ourselves. With no other sounds or distractions, we’d been free to experience its natural ambiance much as its earliest visitors had. A few moments later, the other party had slipped past us and the cave was once again ours.

It wasn’t long afterward that the first feeble traces of light from the cave entrance began to reach us. Brenda switched off the spotlight. With just enough natural light to navigate by, we gradually slipped back into the outside world—the world of trees, the world of sunlight, the world of heat and humidity. After two timeless hours in a phantasmagoric underworld, we were back in Belize once again. All I could think was: I’m glad we didn’t waste our day in Tikal.

On the drive back through the green Amish countryside, Luis entertained us with more stories from his long career as a guide. Most of them dealt with things that happened on the road. Several years ago near the end of a tour, he was persuaded by a group of clients to break one of the company rules and pick up a hitchhiker– in this case a woman and her young child. She seemed very distraught, but wouldn’t tell Luis what was wrong. After dropping her off at her destination, Luis took the group back down to town, but was eventually persuaded to return with some of their leftover lunch to give to her. So he drove back up the hill again with one of their sandwiches. When he arrived, he saw two policemen taking the woman into custody, her clothes covered with blood. Apparently, she’d just used the knife she’d been carrying to attack a woman who’d been cheating with her husband. Belizean women are notorious for their zealous pursuit of cheating spouses and their lovers. When Luis realized that he had unwittingly assisted this attack, he was shocked. Returning to his group of Good Samaritan tourists, he told them the story. He then asked them in his soft boyish voice, this time tinged with sarcasm: “So, did you still want me to bring her this sandwich?”

Things were always happening to Luis on the road. One time on his way to the cave, he accidentally hit an agouti (a rabbit-sized rodent.) Another time driving the same road at night, a cougar leapt across the road right in front of him, barely missing the car. Then, during the wet season, he got his old 2-wheel drive truck stuck in the mud. An Amish farmer plowing field with three horsesAmish farmer who happened to ride by in his buggy saw the predicament that Luis was in and soon returned with his six horses. He then hitched them to the truck and pulled Luis out of the mud. Afterward, the farmer humbly refused any payment for the service. Undaunted, Luis persisted, eventually offering to buy some of the fruit that the man had for sale.

The Amish are an interesting bunch. One old gray-bearded Amish man stood at his fence by the roadside as we drove by. He had posted a sign on his fence that was directed toward the young T-shirt and bikini clad tourists who come by to purchase the fruit and vegetables he had for sale. In neat handwritten letters it read: “Thank you for dressing up properly.”

Back in town after lunch, I fell victim to a case of intestinal distress, so I retired to our hotel room for the rest of the day to catch up on my journal writing. That evening, while the British guy across the alley cranked up the volume on the soccer game he was watching on TV, Brenda accepted Luis’ invitation for dinner at his house with his family. He was serving barbecued agouti (known as gibnut by the locals.) She said later it was quite good– a lot like pork but very greasy. I’m assuming it wasn’t the same one Luis had hit with his jeep. Brenda was always getting treated to colorful local dishes. When she’d visited Luis and Carlos’ mother in Orange Walk a few years back, she sat down to a dinner of cow foot soup prepared especially in her honor. It actually had pieces of hoof floating around in it.

The next day was our last in Belize. We had a long road ahead of us. By the time we’d fall asleep, we’d be in Guatemala. At a filthy litter-strewn bus stop, we waited over an hour for the three hour express bus ride back to Belize City. Yet even with a stopover in the stuffy-aired capital city of Belmopan, we reached our destination in less than two. When we arrived at the depot, we saw a sign on the front of a parked bus that suggested a certain sense of humor: “New York / Downtown / Wall Street.” The sleeping driver had his foot sticking out the window.

At the depot, I waited with the luggage while Brenda went off again in search of a phone. We had several hours left until we needed to be at the airport. Before leaving the country, Brenda wanted us to make one final stop. She was hoping we could pay a visit to another old friend of hers. I’d been hearing about this guy for some time now. I even saw him in a movie once. Twenty minutes later he arrived in his air-conditioned SUV to pick us up. We were in for a colorful afternoon.

emory king photo onlyFor an old white dude in a tropical country full of black Creoles, mestizos, and Maya, Emory King is something of a legend. His official title is The Film Commissioner of Belize, having facilitated and appeared in every film to be shot here. (In The Mosquito Coast, he plays the drunken old man that Harrison Ford buys the jungle town from.) But Emory’s fame extends into several other arenas. A tall, hefty man still active and sharp in his seventies, he came to Belize in a rather novel fashion. In the 1950s aboard a small boat, Emory left his native Florida with several friends. They were hoping to sail around the world. Yet after covering barely 1,000 miles, they became shipwrecked off the Belizean coast. Emory King came ashore that day and has been here ever since.

In the ensuing decades, he’s become the unofficial historian of the country, writing several books that combine accurate history with a liberal dose of his own imagination—“the way it could have been, or perhaps should’ve been.” Equally renowned are his series of driving guides for tourists. As a successful real estate agent, Emory purchased several square miles of rural land outside of Belize City, which he subdivided into 200 individual plots for sale. His own house lies in the middle of this sparsely forested area that he’s named Tropical Park. Despite his roguish jocularity, Emory fancies himself the reincarnation of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The jaunty, cigar smoking photo on his business card bears this out. Brenda had known Emory for years. He was an old friend of Trevor, and would come to visit the lodge in Lamanai from time to time, sometimes staying overnight.

We arrived at Emory’s house before noon– a two-story oasis of colonial Caribbean splendor, pleasantly concealed by a well-manicured jungle of vegetation. Reminiscent of a southern plantation house with wide porches and balcony, it gracefully blended the wild with the civilized. Before I’d even walked inside, I already wanted to live here. Stepping into the interior was like taking a step back 100 years in time.

Emory King’s ground floor study was a 19th Century adventurer’s sanctuary– a blend of safari club, nautical museum, library, and antique showroom. Everything in the room was old, exotic, or both: dark hardwood furniture, a two-sided partner desk, works of art, glass-fronted bookcases, tropical house plants, and several rocking chairs. On the wall opposite the desk sat an enormous collection of antique bottles. Much of Belize City is built upon a layer of discarded rum and medicine bottles from the last two hundred years. Whenever a plot of land is excavated somewhere in the city, the resulting find is put on display inside the house when it’s completed. Emory’s own collection must’ve included at least two hundred. In every imaginable shade of blue, green and brown, many of them showed outward signs of burial or submergence— mud stains, barnacles, etc. The light from the windows made them glow. As the three of us chatted over iced drinks before lunch, Emory talked animatedly of Belizean history and politics– two of his favorite subjects. Yet we weren’t just waiting for lunch. We were also waiting for a friend of his to arrive– a Jesuit priest named Father Maher.

At 12:30 the Father arrived. Far from the stuffy, gray-haired codger I was expecting, his bright red shirt, disheveled sandy hair and boyish grin instantly put me at ease. Actually, he reminded me quite a bit of Monty Python’s Michael Palin. Personable and engaging, his sense of humor and interest in photography gave us much to talk about while Emory’s Belizean wife Elisa was busy preparing lunch. After living in a high-tech world of instant gratification and distraction, it was a pleasure to rediscover the fine art of parlor conversation. After a delicious meal of chicken, rice, potatoes, and salad, we adjourned to the screened-in back porch for the afternoon’s entertainment.

It so happened that Emory and the Father were big fans of the game Trivial Pursuit. For the past fifteen years, they’d gotten together every Sunday for a spirited game. I was impressed by their tenacity; I’ve never been able to keep up that kind of tradition for more than two weeks. When Emory learned that I was a fan of the game myself, we had no choice but to accept the challenge. I joined forces with the Father while Brenda teamed up with Emory in what would become the most enjoyable game of Trivial Pursuit I’d ever played. Emory, a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge, flawlessly executed every history and political question we could throw at him. Yet Father was equally gifted, albeit in different fields. He and I gave the two of them quite a run. I even surprised myself with a few well-reasoned, but totally out-of-left-field guesses that actually turned out to be correct, such as the scoring system in Greco-Roman wrestling. The game remained close until the very end when Father and I pulled ahead for the win. The King, at least for now, had been toppled.

It was time to go. I wanted very much to stay, or at least to take a part of Emory King’s paradise with me, but Brenda and I had a plane to catch. After we said goodbye to Elisa and the Father, Emory gave us a ride to the airport. It was a memorable trip.

The late afternoon sun cast a pleasant glow on the tropical landscape. The two-lane road had little traffic. Brenda was sitting up front with Emory, who was leaning on the accelerator more than he needed to, for we had plenty of time. I was slouched in the back seat, sweating profusely. But it wasn’t solely from the heat. I was excited, anticipating the next leg of our journey. I’d heard a lot about Guatemala in the past few months—much of it cautionary because of the soldiers. But at this point I didn’t care. I was ready to see for myself.

We climbed aboard the plane just as the blood red sun was settling to rest on the horizon. As it melted into the tropical night, we found ourselves airborne, en route to Guatemala by way of El Salvador. Out there somewhere in the darkness, the second half of our journey was awaiting us…

 

Final Words…

 

This trip had been different from any I’d been on before. Not an adventure trip in the true sense, this one had a deeper purpose. The idea was to see the other half of Brenda’s life; to learn the rest of her story. Yet coming to Belize did more than simply fill in the holes. It helped me make the emotional connection. The understanding that I was hoping to gain from this experience came not so much from seeing these things as it did from feeling them: from the buzz of the cicadas at Lamanai… and the blueness of the Caribbean at the reef… to the enthusiasm of Max’s wet kisses… the gentle warmth of Luis’ voice…and the pathos of little Shayani’s tears.

young couple at jungle lodge in BelizeWhat was unique about this trip was that Brenda took me to see people, not just places. For her, Belize wasn’t an album of photographs or a drawer full of souvenirs. It was a part of her, and the connections she’d made here were visceral and alive. After meeting the many friends she’d made throughout the country, I finally understood what kept bringing Monkey Girl back to Belize.

During that first month when she was down here in 1994, I was wrenched with emotions. Yet it was more than loneliness and envy. A part of me wanted her to fail. I was hoping she wouldn’t like it in Belize; that she’d grow homesick and would lose interest in her research. But mostly I just wanted her to come back to me. This selfishness may have felt justified at the time, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized that each of us needed that time away from each other to pursue our own paths before we could have a chance of being happy together. In both of our cases, it was time well invested. We wouldn’t be who we are today without it.

This trip also became somewhat of a test. My family jokingly figured that if the two of us could survive a couple of weeks together in the jungles and buses of Central America, then we were probably a good match. Not only did this trip bring us closer together– it also served as a catalyst. Within three months of returning to the states, we stood on a hill overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, where I took Brenda’s hand in mine, and in nervous but well rehearsed Spanish, asked her to be my wife. I was very pleased when she accepted.

 

This story might have ended right there, with Brenda resuming a conventional life in urban Northern California. And for a while it indeed seemed that way as she settled into a career at various non-profit social organizations. But eventually, the call of her Central American roots summoned her once again. After receiving spiritual messages in her dreams and subsequent discussions with her relatives, Brenda learned that her maternal grandmother had for many years been a practitioner of traditional healing back in Nicaragua. Over time, Brenda realized she was being called to this same path, and she began training with elders and teachers to become a curandera, or medicine woman. This journey has transformed her in many ways. Grateful to her ancestors for the values that led her to indigenous, cultural, and spiritual work, Brenda now lives the life she was destined for. Although she may have returned to the frenetic urban world of cell phones and social media, the spirit of Monkey Girl still lives.

 

 

young woman playing with howler monkey in Belize

The End

Copyright © 2016 by Eric Mannshardt and I Didn’t Climb Everest.net.

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