Monday was a lazy Punta Gorda day. The sum total of my activities was visiting the post office, going to a cafe, and hanging around. The restaurant part of where I’m staying is called Mangrove Inn; the guest house part is Casa Bonita. As distinct places, though, they are separated only be a screen door. And the family’s living area (apart from their bedrooms and bathroom on the second floor) is also part of the guest house. It feels like I’m staying in the spare room of someone’s home. I like it.
The place – on the northern outskirts of Punta Gorda, in a village called Cattle Landing – is run by John and Iconie (pronounced “eye Sony”). John is a Canadian expat, who has lived in Belize for 17 years. He visited, went home, then came back, met Iconie – a Belizean – who was pregnant with her third daughter at the time, and they built a life together, raising the girls, and running a guest house and restaurant. One of their four dogs is called Saddam.
I’ve briefly seen the two elder daughters – late teens or early twenties, at a guess – but the youngest one, Cina (pronounced “keen-a”), helps out in the restaurant in the evening, so I’ve seen her a couple of times. Sixteen years old, always smiling, clever eyes, and the sort of girl that, one would imagine, has all the boys after her.
There’s one other guest at Casa Bonita, a Canadian woman in her early sixties called Pat. She escapes the Canadian winters, it seems, by coming to Punta Gorda. She has that settled-in manner that makes you think that she probably doesn’t do much more than sit on the deck, chatting away, smoking her cigarettes and having the odd coffee, juice, or beer. We spent a great deal of time talking about all sorts: Canadian, British, German, and American politics, the joys of the BBC and CBC, Belize, Belizians, music, and how one of her sons would bite her nipples when she was breast-feeding them.
Before dinner, I had a stroll along the sea front. Along the front here, every couple of hundred metres, there’s a little thatched palm-leaf shelter. Locals seem to pass the time there. Earlier in the day, as I cycled by, I said hello to a guy sat under the one nearest to Casa Bonita. He shouted hello and asked where I was from. I did a quick circle and stopped and introduced myself. He told me he was Johnny, and he introduced me to the girl he was talking to. He then said, “she’s a beautiful Spanish girl, huh?” (she wasn’t Spanish Spanish; she, I assume, had Spanish ancestors ages ago). She smiled an embarrassed smile. And it was a pretty smile.
Back to my evening stroll. I saw Johnny there again, and he invited me to sit down with him. Johnny is 49 years old, has a few grey hairs in his dreadlocks, and plenty of tattoos. He told me a lot of things. That he used to be a sinner, a bad man. He spent five years in prison in the US. Now he makes money here and there, and sits by the sea to pray and meditate. He then talked me through all his tattoos: a scorpion to remind himself to beware that people could sting; a spider in its web, because he likes to pull people towards him; the Taurus star-sign; and a thin black rectangle on his wrist which was “a secret.” The only tattoo he didn’t refer to was the one on his neck: I Love Doreen. I didn’t ask.
We chatted for ten minutes or so. A guy on a bicycle pulled up and Johnny told me he’d be back in a couple of minutes. They both rode off behind some trees and Johnny came back, like he’d said, in a couple of minutes. I don’t think I need to explain what was going on there, do I? When he returned, he asked me if I’d ever eaten iguana. I told him I hadn’t, and he said I should come around to his place the next night ’cause he’d caught two and it was delicious. (I didn’t enquire about the taste, ’cause you can almost guarantee that people will always say the same thing when you ask that question about virtually any meat: “a bit like chicken.”) In that flustery, English manner, I left my options open on whether I’d take him up on his offer, chatted for a little while longer, and returned to Casa Bonita for chicken pot pie, a few beers, and an early night.
I woke up gradually. Waking to the sound of dogs barking, drifting back to sleep; waking to the sound of a group of men on a morning run; drifting back to sleep; then waking again, and just listening to the waves on the shore. The day was already interesting, and it was only 6.30am. I went on to the deck, had a coffee and a smoke, as the other people in the house passed by, doing their morning things. Pat seemed a tad irked to not be the first person on the deck. Only a tad, but I guess if you’re a semi-permanent guest, a newcomer disturbing your morning ritual can be weird. Cina dashed past in her school uniform. Another daughter’s face appeared at the screen door and said goodbye. And Iconie asked me if I wanted breakfast. Yes, please.
Ten minutes later, a mountain on a plate was put in front of me; way more than the coffee and cigarette, and perhaps a couple of slices of toast that I’m used to. Fry jacks, scrambled eggs with lumps of spicy sausage, and beans. Fry jacks are a Belizian breakfast thing: kinda like a fried tortilla that’s puffy and crispy on the outside. I imagine it’s not particularly healthy. I got through as much as I could, though, ’cause I had a jungle morning ahead of me. As I ate breakfast, the sky over the sea, out on the horizon over Honduras, was dark. The water, though, was still a beautiful Caribbean turquoise. Slowly that changed and the sky and water eventually became two shades of grey as the storm got closer. It was a great way to eat breakfast, watching a thunder storm coming towards me. It got closer and closer, pelted the roof for ten minutes, and cleared up, leaving a gorgeous day behind for us.
The morning was to be spent rescuing orchids. Not a tourist activity, just something interesting for Bill and I to do, which would also help Ian out. But Ian, being a big girl’s blouse, doesn’t particularly enjoying being in a boat on the sea, and that would be the way we’d be getting to where we were going. So Bill and I joined up with Ian’s resident orchid experts Mr Shal and Mr Rafael, and we got in George’s boat (he of the kayaking and bird-watching adventure a fortnight ago), and we sped off north along the coast. Fifteen minutes later, we pulled up on a teeny-weeny beach, and it was our task to walk along the tracks that marked out the edge of other people’s land to look for dead trees that might have orchids. Mr Shal and Mr Rafael went off in one direction; George took Bill and I in another direction. He showed us the small concrete posts that mark the straight lines we’d follow, and he went off to look along another line.
Leaving Bill and I alone to find orchids. Errr, I can’t see any. And the ground was quite muddy, with puddles everywhere. Neither of us had shoes that wouldn’t get soaked should we step in a puddle. Bill chopped away at the jungle path with a machete. I smoked a fag.
And then I saw one. And then another. There was a big, dead branch that was suspended between another tree and some vines. I got the machete and chopped away at the rotten wood, and the roots and leaves of an orchid came off easily. Bill had a go at the other one with similar success. We’d broken our cherries. After that we were a bit more confident. The bugs and sweat that covered me were no longer an issue: we’d found some orchids, and wanted to find more. Which we did. Probably about ten in total. A decent haul for two total beginners.
After feeling good about ourselves and standing on the beach like real men for a while (one leg on a clump of grass a bit higher than the beach, hands on hips, occasionally removing our caps to wipe sweat from our brows), the others returned with their orchids, and we all piled into the boat and George decided we could go and catch some snapper.
Around the coast for a few minutes, then we cut inland, up a creek lined with mangroves, darting around corners at
what felt like great speed. George had quite obviously motored around here before. It felt like some half-remembered – probably fully-imagined – scene from Miami Vice. After weaving along for maybe quarter of a mile, we slowed down to a crawl, and George’s hands shot out to crab mangrove crabs from the branches. When he had about four or five, we stopped and put them on hooks and we were fishin’. Of course, when I say “we” I mean “George.” Similarly, when I saw “we” didn’t catch anything, I also mean “George” didn’t catch anything.
Back on dry land, I had a shower, and sat down on the bed to write what you’ve just read. I only had a chance to write a couple of paragraphs, though, before I heard Bill’s voice outside. Was I there and did I want to come along for another ride to Big Falls? Yeh, alright then.
When we were having a beer by the Rio Grande a couple of days ago, Bill and Robin had talked to the bar owner, and she’d told them of a friend who might also be interested in selling a piece of land, this time with a stretch of the river itself as one of the boundaries. They’d arranged to meet with her friend, and that’s what we were doing.
Hey there, reader. How you doing? Thanks for reading this far. You enjoying it so far? You’re past the half-way point. Fancy a YouTube break? There’s one coming up shortly. Maybe you might wanna nip and put the kettle on ready for that. Anyway, back to the words…
Candelaria was a tiny Mayan woman. (Not sure of the spelling, but that’s what it sounded like; candelabra with -ria instead of -bra at the end.) She had a chirpy little voice and a shy smile. As we crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande, she told us that’s where he husband was found dead two years ago. Nobody knows what happened, and one of their sons found him. And that’s where he was buried, or as she put it, “that’s where I planted him.”
We picked up her second eldest son Enrique on the way, and we trundled off down one of the better dirt tracks that I’ve been on. The dirt track turned into a grassy track, and when he reached the brow of a small hill, we parked up and got out and went into the jungle. Candelaria was way beyond what you’d expect from someone showing a potential buyer a piece of land. She narrated the journey like a tour guide. This tree is called that, that tree we use to make this, and she talked a lot about all the work her husband did on the land. And it was so sad when she told us about her daughter: “it’s her third birthday this week. But she died.”
After a good twenty minutes of trekking, we came to the river. Their land goes from that bend up there, all the way past that bend down there. About 100 metres of river front, I’d say. We all took a break by the water, and then returned to the car. Driving back along the track, Candelaria pointed out a piece of land she owned by the roadside. A friend of hers is living there, but she wanted us to see the house. It was a very simple concrete rectangle with a tin roof and wood shutters. (That was your YouTube link.)
The woman in the house smiled at us, the three white people suddenly stood in her home, as she washed the infant in her lap. The puppy howled at us. The chickens ignored us. And Enrique offered to show us their orange orchard. When we got there, he insisted we try one. Bill got his manly knife out, peeled one, and sliced it in half. And, I dunno if it was the situation, sweaty and hot from a walk in the jungle, or the proud look on Enrique’s face when he offered us an orange: but it was the best orange I’ve ever tasted. My moustache and beard were covered in pulp and juice, as Bill and I gorged on three of them. Back at the house, Enrique offered us a drink. Not a Nescafe or PG Tips, oh no. He went to a tree, twisted off a couple of coconuts and chopped the end off for us so we could drink the water. These people were the best estate agents in the world.
As we left, the woman who was living in the house asked, via Enrique, if we wanted to buy some cherry tomatoes. We did. (And we ate them in a salad later that evening. They were great.) The final stop of the afternoon was Candelaria’s own home. A wooden building, thatched roof. She showed Bill and Robin the official papers for the land, and proudly took framed pictures off the wall to show us. He husband, her children. She showed us her eldest son’s high school certificate. She and Enrique looked so proud of Domingo for finishing high school, and it kinda made me realise how, in Europe etc., we all take finishing high school for granted. Candelaria had the same pride that British mothers would have getting a degree from Oxford.
Our time with Candelaria and Enrique was over. Robin and Candelaria exchanged phone numbers. Who knows if they will eventually buy the land. It would take a heck of a lot of work to clear even a small portion of the 40 acres to build a house there. But there was a twinkle in their eyes that suggested they were up for such a mammoth project. It’d be too much for me, I think, but then I’m a pussy with soft fingers. Bill’s a cattle rancher, though, so you never know.