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Belize, day three May 21, 2011

Posted by markgeil in Travel.

The rest of the team is here longer than me, many working for over a week, so Rob builds in a chance for some needed down time on Wednesday. So, I was privileged to join most of the team on a tour of the New River and the Mayan temples of Lamanai. It was an unforgettable all-day tour replete with moments of personal incredulity, when I’d stop and remind myself of my extraordinary surroundings with thoughts like, “I’m actually in the jungle, with a crocodile swimming under my boat!”

The transformation from city to jungle was almost instant as the river wound its way through the countryside. This was the same river the Mayans used to explore these parts some 3,000 years before, and it only takes a little imagination to consider what it would have been like in their wooden canoes. We had several wildlife encounters along the way to Lamanai. The aforementioned croc was a hoot. He sat motionless on the riverbank with his mouth wide open, like I’ve seen them pose at the zoo. The setting was a little too perfect as we approached, with the neat clearing in the vines, and the crocodile actually looked plastic, so when our guide Ignacio said, “Made in Taiwan” and invited Jessica to pet the croc’s snout, we all chuckled at being duped. That is until Jess, leaning over the water, and shrieked when the crocodile snapped his jaws shut and with shocking speed dashed into the water. He was under our boat, gone from sight, in less than a second. Made in Belize, definitely.

Later, we rounded a bend in the river and came upon a pair of spider monkeys. When we left Ignacio had brought along a bag of bananas. I assumed these were a snack for us, but I was wrong. He eased the boat under the overhanging branches and the monkeys spotted the bananas. Having gained their trust, we tempted one of the monkeys onto the boat, where he walked right across Tyler’s lap to fetch the treat. The other was a bit too timid to climb aboard, so Ignacio handed me a banana to feed her. It was then, just for a moment, that I had a thought that still makes me chuckle. I looked at the monkey, and then at the banana, and wondered, “Should I peel it?” Of course, monkeys have been eating bananas quite nicely without my help for a long time now, so I held out the fruit as the monkey reached out her hand. She grabbed the banana, snapped it in two pieces, somehow got the fruit out and into her mouth too quickly for me to figure out how, and dropped the peel into the river. Amazing.

The Mayan temples of Lamanai are quite sublime. I expected ruins, and the need to mentally fill in the gaps to picture the spots where great structures once were. I soon realized the great structures are quite intact. Massive stone pyramids, the walls of a royal courtyard, stone jaguar faces, and even a ball court pepper the riverside settlement. They’re massive, and it’s hard to imagine why they needed to be discovered and excavated in the first place until you notice something. There’s a strong symmetry in the structures, and you realize that the mound of jungle growth you’re walking on is directly opposite a temple. So, with a little digging, that mound would reveal another temple.

Adrian seems to know everyone in Orange Walk, and he booked the tour for us, so we got our own private boat and a much more personalized experience. Consequently, we were able to add a side visit that not too many groups ever see. As Europeans began exploring the area, the Mayan civilization was obviously affected dramatically. One lasting impact is a sugar mill, built in the 1800’s (A.D.!) by the British. This site has been excavated just like the temples. Rusted metalworks atop a brick structure reveal an elaborate factory, with massive cranks and gears driving two huge rollers that pressed the sugarcane. On the back side of the structure, a strangler fig tree has grown in and around and through the brick and metal, creating an ironic grafting of the natural and the unnatural.

Ignacio provided lots of informative storytelling along the way in a particularly charming Creole accent. To say something like, “a new temple was built atop the older structure,” he would with great expression say, “And then when them got a new rulah, he completely canceled da whole project, and them did building a new temple right on toppa da old one.” One other treat at Lamanai was the fact that it’s not an American park, so you can climb on everything and explore all you want. The climb up the steep and treacherous steps of the High Temple is not for the faint of heart!

On the way back down the river, we passed a huge Mennonite settlement. You’ll see the Mennonites in town, men in their familiar hats and beards sometimes selling furniture. My dad was raised Mennonite in rural Virginia, so I’m accustomed to the culture, but in Virginia, not in Belize! The dissonance has been a bit of a shock for me, and the steel-wheeled horse and buggy rambling through a farm in the middle of the Central American jungle was no less surprising.

Back in Orange Walk I was able to get some work done on grant proposal preparations. It’s still hard for me to get used to these late nights, eating dinner at 9:00 local time, which is 11:00 back home, about 6 hours after we usually eat. But the food is worth the wait, every time, and the company has been wonderful. Camaraderie is a natural byproduct on trips like these, and we’ve all become fast friends.



1. Dayna Contreras - May 21, 2011

I’ve enjoyed keeping up with your trip and glad you are back home safely. Great memories.

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