In the wee hours of the morning marking the fourth month since my departure from Canada I woke abruptly to the sounds of deep, guttural howling outside my tent. As the sun had set earlier that evening on my campsite in the jungle of southern Belize, near the border of Guatemala, my guard puppy Chow had whined disconcertingly, tucked tail and spun in circles, and generally hid himself in every small dark corner he could find. The lengthening shadows and my inability to get a fire lit promptly had left me in a sweat of anxiety, wondering what creature or presence menaced just beyond the dark, ominous tangle of ancient roots and trees which bordered my camp. Now, rudely and without warning, long hours after I had forcibly set my guard down with raucous shouting and singing in the dark, I was becoming acquainted with that presence.
I lay stiff, right hand on my hunting knife, left hand on my machete, trying desperately not to smell like fear. I wondered why my guard puppy Chow had not alerted me to the menace outside. I considered my position; as the throaty grunting outside continued I contemplated the wisdom of requesting that my Mayan guide, Ernesto, leave me alone in a foreign wilderness, without communication gear, with minimal first aid supplies, and only a collection of rusting metalwork and a 3 month old mutt for protection. As my thoughts circled around my predicament, they repeatedly rounded on the foolhardiness of keeping a small, bite-sized animal as protection. From the muddle of emotions arose this thought – that damned puppy was braver than I! Not a sound did he make now in response to the demonic gurgling in the darkness, not one whimper. How could he whine for 2 hours to the gentle rustle of palm fronds at sunset, yet now make no move to assert his territory? I considered then what a cruel human I was to leave him outside to face the terror alone while I hid myself in my millimeter thick dome of tent. It was too insensitive. He must be trembling with fear, too afraid even to sniff for help.
The howling continued, and was responded to by creatures farther away in the jungle. More of them were approaching my vulnerable shelter. I sweated. I strained to hear the sound of every twig, branch and falling leaf for miles around the camp. I came to a resolution. With the image of every violent femme-fatale of modern cinema held firmly in mind, machete held firmly in hand, and hunting knife clenched firmly in teeth, I tore open the front of the tent, snatched the puppy inside and zipped us both back in, as though our paper-thin canvas barrier were imbued with magical, demon-repulsing powers. I was further irritated to find that despite my incredibly act of bravery, Chow was rather nonplussed. He yawned, chewed his fleas, and settled in to sleep on my lap. In the glow of my headlamp I sat hunched in the ambivalence of a thousand emotions. Something was not adding up. Then a branch broke overhead and fell just outside our compound. More throat wobbling growls followed. I at last selected a firm position of fear and addressed my tormentors at the top of my lungs; 'FUCK OFF YOU GOD DAMNED MONKEYS, I'M TRYING TO SLEEP!!!!” Not for the first time in my life, fear had provided the logical answer to a question my conscious mind couldn't address, and in so expressing my fear, I understood and was relieved. Howler monkeys.
Eventually the monkeys howelled off into the jungle to terrorize other animals, and I passed much of the rest of the night reviewing everything I knew about the territorial responses of monkeys, which was not much. I remembered small clips of The Nature of Things and National Geographic episodes from PBS. Though these remembrances did not shed much light on what I could expect if the monkeys returned, their context within civilized north-American life eventually calmed me back to a rational state. I released Chow back to his post outside, more to spare myself from his fleas than anything, and returned to a VERY light sleep.
In the morning, by the hand of god, and heralded by the music of angels in my sleep, Santiago, the father of my Mayan guide, arrived via kayak to my oceanfront camp, and I released the last vestiges of night terrors in regaling him with the story of my sleepless eve.
After a couple cups of fire-boiled coffee and a few lessons from Santiago on the medicinal, munch-able and construct-able uses of local flora, I bid goodbye to Chow and the camp that had been my home for 4 days and nights. I set to sea headed for Punta Gorda in a battered red kayak with a shit-eating grin on my face. THIS was the Belize I had been searching for. This was the adventure I had given up Canadian life to experience.
Punta Gorda is the southernmost community of Belize, and the touch-off point to destinations in coastal Guatemala and Honduras. It is a humble fishing village composed of colorless, rotting cottages and crumbling, unfinished cement homes. But it is vibrant with the colors of nearly a dozen eclectic culture-groups; Garifuna, Mestiso, Q'eqchi & Mopan Mayan Indians, Chinese, East Indian, Mennonites, Guatemalan and Honduran immigrants, and of course, a sparse collection of ragga-muffin Canadian and US Ex-pats.
My new home in Belize is the quaint and ramshackle collection of buildings that collectively make up Natures Way Guest House, a well loved back-packers hostel of sorts, owned and operated by US ex-pat Chet Schmidt and his local Garifuna wife and daughter, Diane and Diane. I came across this unique accommodation on a work-travel website which I highly recommend; www.helpex.net.
Attracted here by the call of service, I arrived at the Guesthouse on Wednesday, the third of April, and was quickly assimilated into an intense collection of social causes and activist initiatives. The bait that hooked me was a plea for volunteer help from the Toledo Eco-Tourism Association. Based out of Nature's Way Guesthouse, this not-for-profit organization has been struggling for the past quarter century against private sector tourism businesses and unseen forces within the Belizian government to induct an eco-sensitive, socioeconomic development plan for the people of the Toledo District of Belize. Their goal; to preserve the traditions and culture of the last of the Q'eqchi and Mopan Mayan Indians in the face of widespread, destructive urbanization. Through the creation of a region-wide Eco Park, the Toldeo Eco-tourism Association has spent the past 22 years working in conjunction with local representatives from the Toledo District Association of Village Councils, the Maya Leader Alliance, the Toledo Alcalde Association, and the Toledo Village Council Association, to hammer out a master-plan that would literally and figuratively connect the traditional lands and villages of the remaining Mayan peoples. In celebration of Mayan wisdom and culture, with respect for the biodiversity of the flora and fauna in what is one of the last free-hold land-shares in the world, the Toledo People's Eco Park plan addresses issues ranging from land management and preservation, to socioeconomic development, health and education, to industry and cultural integration. The Eco Park Plan is enormous in it's scope, revolutionary in it's vision, and what is more, it is highly replicable, thus acting as a potential solution to international native land-rights battles and global sustainable development issues. To date, the success of bureaucratic policy and so-called democratic process has deferred action on this ground-breaking plan for nearly a quarter century, and through marginalization of local native peoples, has whittled this admirable activist project down to a handful of tired members.
So enter I to the scene, full of ideology, but small of stature and of questionable capability. In the 10 days that I have spent learning with social activist Chet Schmidt, I have done my best to download 22 years of dreaming, planning, scheming, failure, frustration and anger. To date, I don't know what I have accomplished, or if I alone am capable of carrying the torch which is being passed. This much is certain, without renewed blood and faith in the project, it will surely dwindle to abandonment, and the last of the Q'eqchi Mayan culture will be swept away under the flood of foreign economic interest to arrive with the completion of the 4 lane highway connecting the Guatemalan west coast to the Belizian east coast. With the opening of the Panama connector, American oil conglomerates and Chinese forestry companies stand ready to devour the resources of regions currently protected by some 62 rural Mayan villages. As demonstrated by the recent Mayan End-of-the-World Celebrations in 2012 and their subsequent boost to the Belizian tourism economy, the world will not mourn the loss of a culture they already considered long dead. Where Mayan people still live and endeavor to survive, there will instead stand oil-rigs, denuded, devalued and barren terrain, and plasticized monuments to their ancient and misunderstood culture. Who will stand to preserve these people and their land? When will the citizens of the world connect the struggle of small native communities to save their heritage with our own struggle to save our global inheritance? At the moment, not many consider it a priority. If we continue to ignore these struggles we will continue to make the same embarrassing and horrific mistakes that former privileged white cultures have done, and we will forever continue to look behind us at the wake of destruction left by our consumption with the phrase 'Oh what a pity' on our lips. It is with ambivalence, a flicker of hope, and a great deal of fear and trepidation, that I leave this chapter of my adventure open to the next installment If you connect in any way with the cause I am presently engaged in, I urge you to contact me and get involved in spreading the word to international news-media, that we might influence the government of Belize and it's private sector business owners to make a positive and sustainable change supportive of ALL it's culture-groups and the environment. Thank you. Namaste.
Renegade Ocean Sports Instructor, Vagabond Art Teacher, Roving Writer: Jessica Lea Salo
"The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore."
"Having a healthy respect for the sea did not mean she owed me a moments grace."
"It is good to be alive."