Funny, how memory is a collection not of coherent stories, but of snapshots: life poetry, sounds with presence… the crunch of a plastic sled pulled through slushy snow as the bright full moon shines down. Belly-fulls of laughter as a mass of children swing on a purple hammock, the rafters creaking as the kids imagine a sailing ship coming into port. The thunderous boom of a mass gathering, the rumble of humanity’s discord echoing as far as the eye can see and clearly beyond, a rising tide of humans as ferocious as mother nature’s greatest storms. These are just a few snapshots from my last few weeks, the ones people keep telling me: “Wow, that is the kind of experience that changes lives.”
To which I think, “Well sure, that is the whole point of life, is it not?”
For when was life’s point to stay static?
So this was our itinerary: overcome stomach flu to pack in a rush, Thursday midday knowing you needed to be in Washington D.C. by Friday morning, hoping to avoid the logistical nightmare that will descend on the city as the king fool of fools takes his crown. Get out of Maine and to Boston, pick up a rental car, get to hotel where we’ll stow our car for the trip’s duration, eat a sushi dinner, hit the road and pray the children fall asleep… which they do… which means, we drive like hell through the night and arrive 2am at Brian Farrell’s house in Arlington, VA.
Brian — not just a legendary friend from college, but also the man who introduced Amy and I, if accidentally, a lucky 13 years ago. Brian and I drink till 4am, for our time together is short and every moment must be savored.
We wake the next morning, on what I’ll call ‘Infamy Day’ and ignore the incoherent rant that constitutes a speech in this new era. The next morning, Jan 21, we galvanize for The March.
Washington DC is an ocean of people, and the tide is coming in as we arrive. Everywhere are pink hats, commotion, buzz, energy, all flowing to the Washington Monument, the epicenter of righteous fury. The electricity running through the crowd is palpable. We are part of the large majority of the crowd that cannot hear any speeches; yet, the energy ripples through the crowd. Chants spark up, roll through, “Show me what democracy looks like… This is what democracy looks like!” and at some point, the tide breaks, the crowd moves. We march.
How to speak of what happens next? I should say, Nyana (4) and Chandwen (1) are with us for all of this, and the crowd has the predictable American chorus of “What great kids!” meaning, in code, that in America children are more often better out of sight, out of mind, and that to see children in public who are not howling out in withdrawal from their Walt Disney Drug is an uncommon treat indeed.
For hours and hours, the tide of people flows out, so many people that the streets are filled, then overfilled, then filled again , and filled, and so on, until maybe 5 blocks wide and one mile deep the crowd flows toward the White House, crying out slogans, holding signs, raising angry fists… all to utterly deaf ears.
Go on, you rich white privileged maniacal morons who set about deconstructing the earth with the only, rather unimaginative goal, of lining your own pockets along the way. Sow the wind. Reap the whirlwind.
At 6 am the next morning we’re amidst a crowd again, this time the crowd at Dulles Airport, and it strikes me, as the two men in “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hats get patted down among a throng of women in pink hats, that airport security is something of an unintentional unifier.
Our flight out of DC to Houston is packed, but when we change planes and board our flight to Belize, it’s pleasantly sleepy. Not a lot of Americans are fleeing to the jungle right now.
After landing in Belize City we have one more half-day’s travel ahead of us: getting our ride to Red Bank Village. Raul, a Mayan guide and generally awesome guy, picks us up from our hotel and starts filling us in about Belize in our drive down the twists and turns of the aptly-named “Hummingbird Highway” connecting Northern Belize to its South.
This very conversation proves to be indicative of what makes Belize so perfect for mono-lingual Americans like ourselves. In Mexico we could tell there was brilliant culture, just outside our reach, but having no useful lingual skills we were constantly at the periphery, barely able to find an ATM, let alone learn something about the country. As our trip unfolds, we learn a lot (from Raul and others) about Belize — how important the chocolate industry is, how there’s a culture of Afro-descendant peoples who intermixed with Caribs pre-Columbus (oh right, black people could build boats and cross oceans too, imagine that), how the British came, and went. How long ago the time of the Ancient Maya really was.
One of the first things we need to learn, however, is more practical: how to navigate life in a small Mayan village.
As much as we entered this endeavor with open hearts and minds, there are a few quirks to our accommodations that catch us off guard — namely, there’s no kitchen. How the heck are we going to cook dinner?! After a foray for a camp stove that successfully lands us a camp stove (but no fuel to power it), we accept that maybe we’ll have to make it through the night eating cold cans of refried beans.
This is where the magic of throwing yourself into uncomfortable situations come in. The very fact that we were not really prepared (though we were decently warned) sets into motion us needing to thrust ourselves onto the generosity of others — first, our guide Raul, and then, the Mayan family who lives at the hut next to where we’re staying — “Ummm hey we don’t have any food or any way to cook really… Could you help us out?” and it’s through the generosity of strangers that the most transformative aspect of our trip comes to be.
How quickly fortunes can change! One night, we are confused weary travelers who are wondering what the heck they just got themselves into. Less than 24 hours later, Nyana is spiriting off with a gang of Mayan children to run corn down to the local mill, Amy and Chandwen are working with the women to make tortillas, and I’ve gone off with a man and his son to chop down a palm tree and cut out its heart (later we see the dish prepared, the palm heart shredded, boiled, spiced. delicious! there is also an iguana dish, but I digress…)
With our new Mayan friends, we go on a series of adventures (which I think for them is just called ‘life’) — getting peed on by Howler monkeys at the father’s farm, bringing food out to the field crew at the habanero harvest, driving down bush roads to a special swimming hole with 15+ people in the vehicle, driving across a river to visit Mennonites and buy their vegetables and cheese, swinging like madpeople off a zipline, and the peak moment of the trip: camping in the jungle, surrounded by the enveloping quiet which is not so much quiet, as a thrum of the nocturnal…always cicadas, always birds, and then the crunches and cracks and thumps in the night. The flicker of a bat as it hunts mosquitoes, a beautiful stereophonic hum left — right — center — back — right — left and then — quiet — morning. Bird symphony. Daytime. Time to go for another dip in the deep, clear, fast-running water.
Somewhere in here we also go to the beach, pound smoothies, lay in a hammock. Touristy stuff.
We learn our first Mayan word, “Botik.” Or, “Thank you.”
We have the opportunity to use it often. We’re surprised by how appreciative people are of us knowing even a single word in Maya Mopan. I think we haven’t learned nearly enough.
A week or two into the trip, I realize my neck pain and shoulder pain has just gone away. Wow, I should stow my computer away more often. I also realize that I’ve detoxed quite a bit from the American news media cycle. What little bits of it we do catch — He instituted a ban on who?! — we tune out, like an unwanted radio signal.
We’re not the only ones. I hear a conversation like this at a beachside bar.
‘Hey, I recognize that accent, you’re from… ?”
“Minnesota, (Names Town)”
“Oh, that’s a rather… um… liberal part.”
[awkward pause, then]
“So how are the fish biting? I saw you got a great boat there — ”
“Oh the boat? The boat is great…”
And so on. There is a reason we’ve escaped to the sun. It is an undeserved privilege for which we are unendingly grateful.
Life in a Belizean village is far from perfect. It is, surely, quite real. Currency is scarce in most households. Medical care is limited, antibiotics are precious. One’s worth is measured in the amount of solid cooking pots you have and propane in the stove. Or perhaps cows, chickens, and cornmeal. But surely not the size of your bank account.
There is the reek of alcohol. There is the sharp tension between the demands of an economic system and the simplicity of a subsistence level farm. Not all technological advance is progress.
Yet within the village there is an echo of something I think you might have found in America, a hundred years back, maybe still find in a couple of communities left out there somewhere.
Have you ever gotten the sense that, as a society, we are mourning the loss of something we can’t quite articulate?
It is not that the village is without danger, but, children are trusted to go out into it. It’s not that cell phones don’t exist, but, they work poorly enough that they don’t come out at the dinner table. Elders are cared for by the family and aren’t stuffed in homes to be forgotten about. Children are part of the orbit of the village, but that orbit does not center around them. They trust the kids to wield sharp objects.
On our last evening, Nyana snuggles up with her Mayan friend Aurela (7). Aurela relays through her mother than she will cry when we have to leave. She is already crying. Nyana is her sister, she says.
Funny, the two are so close though they don’t speak the same language. At their ages, language is immaterial. Laughter has no language.
Fred Greenhalgh is the writer/producer/director of FinalRune Productions. Outside of crafting radio dramas and working in solar, he writes occasional rants about the chaos and beauty of life as he struggles to maintain simplicity while embracing technology. His projects include The Dark Tome, The Cleansed and Locke and Key. He lives off-grid in the woods of Maine with his wife Amy and daughters, Nyana and Chandwen, as well as an ever evolving cast of animal companions.