Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Just Me and Maya Shadow

I had the whole of an ancient archaeological site to myself. This wouldn’t happen at Maccu Piccu.

I’ll definitely look back on this last week as the one where I really settled into life here. In some ways it’s been less eventful, but so many things have left me smiling in the last week, especially the things that haven’t gone so well.

The weather forecast predicted a monsoon for the weekend so the fishing trip was cancelled, and I think most people in Belize decided to stay home and do their washing. I wasn't in the mood for doing my washing – it’s amazing what you can get away with in a country with a good strong ‘background’ smell – so I decided to try to get to the Mayan ruins at Altun Ha instead.

Altun Ha is in the middle of nowhere, 60 miles out of Belize (a long way in this country) and 12 miles up the old northern highway, which is nothing more than a heavily pot-holed single-track road. Getting there would need a combination of buses and cadging lifts.

Buses in Belize tend to get crowded and standing in the heat can quickly become exhausting. It’s therefore a blessing that the drivers are thoughtful enough to get a good breeze going by keeping the door forced open whilst driving at motorway speeds. At the same time, it’s rather unnerving standing right in front of the door, aware that any overly enthusiastic braking would see me pitched onto the hot tarmac.

After getting off the bus it was ridiculously easy to cover the last 12 miles. People were stopping all over the place to offer me a lift. A bunch of rough looking guys were even friendly enough to let me borrow a bicycle to save me from walking the last couple of miles.

Altun Ha - one of the better preserved sites, though abandoned over a thousand years ago - was a real experience. For the two hours I was there the site was completely deserted. A bit like turning up at Stonehenge and finding you've got the place to yourself. In fact, I think I could have had most of Belize to myself, the weather report was so dire. And sure enough my luck ran out after about half an hour. At which point I discovered exactly why Belize is so fantastically green.

There’s a little jungle path from the site that runs three hundred yards down to a reservoir. In between sacrificing virgins and establishing a stupendously accurate calendar, the Mayans dug this reservoir to provide them with drinking water and somewhere to bathe when the rains came. And when I got to the reservoir the heavens opened.

It was as I stood, half under a tree, wondering if I should make a mad dash back to the shelter of the site and praying unhopefully for the rain to turn back from biblical to merely tropical, that I noticed a human-sized, but distinctly scaly bather in the water. Putting my specs on, I realized it was a crocodile, maybe about 100 feet away and slowly arcing towards me.
The croc is in dead centre of the pic, just above the green patch of foliage. No complaints about the picture please – it seemed menacing at the time!

In these types of scenario, you tend to root around in your brain for whatever apocryphal tale you last heard about the situation in question. I could recall some story from somewhere that went roughly along the lines that, statistically more people died from cattle running into their vehicles than from… something else. But as the croc approached, I couldn’t remember whether this was elephant stampedes, shark attacks or crocodile encounters. I could also remember that something could run faster than any man, but I couldn’t remember whether that was crocodiles, snakes or Hong Hong Phooey. Anyway, he didn’t come that close in the end, which was a little disappointing as I didn’t get a more impressive picture than the one above.

After sheltering for some time the rain had barely let up, but the narrow jungle path was becoming seriously flooded so I headed back to the ruins. About half-way along, I felt something lodge itself in my open sandals under my right toes. When I shook it out, it turned out to be this frog:
Unfortunately, as I paused to preserve a record of my amphibian hitcher, a huge fly landed on my ankle and gave me a bite large enough to leave a tiny trickle of blood on my leg.

I was quite worn-out with all these wildlife encounters by the time I got back to the ruins. But at least the sun had come out, letting me get some picture postcard shots.

For me, the lesson from that day was that it’s best to accept the weather here and get on with things. I do occasionally log on to the BBC weather page for Belize City to look at the 5 day forecast. It’s not been particularly accurate so far but I’m always amazed to read the minimum night-time temperature – the prediction for each day has never been less than 26C yet. And though the rainy season is now here in full force, the heat has barely diminished. Apparently at this time of year, hurricanes forming over the Caribbean push the weather on to the land, making the humidity soar and making the changes from rain storms to clear blue skies more frequent, and less predictable. And you can still get fried if the clouds clear for even just an hour. When I logged onto the weather site on Wednesday the ‘current’ humidity level was… 98%.

Otherwise, the project continues to come along nicely. My boss has gone on four weeks holiday, but I’ve got a really good idea of what I want to do in the next month and I’m quite happy to get on with that. I’ve been traveling with work too, interviewing staff about administration/sales of glasses, here in Belize City at first, but also up north at Orange Walk. Really enjoying this part of the job – there’s so much to learn.

Going to Mexico for the holiday weekend now (Columbus Day this time). To say I’m looking forward to Mexico is putting it mildly. I’m just praying that some stranger comes up to me at some point and says “Hey, Gringo!” That would truly make my year…