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july 24, 2005 -> mayan fields: belize

After four days of scorching heat, stormy nights and fearsome mosquitoes, we returned to Belize City.  From a popular third-floor cafeteria, we looked over a narrow, oily canal – Haulover Creek – that led from the harbor into the heart of the city.  The boats to the cayes left from the opposite side, near the Swing Bridge, which opened like a door to let larger ships pass.  Cruise ships called at Belize City, but few tourists strayed beyond the purpose-built souvenir complex built near the harbor.  No one wanted to walk across the Swing Bridge to the true downtown, where an army of crazy and crippled beggars waited outside supermarkets and banks.  The city had a reputation for crime: pick-pocketing, robbery and even rape.  The guidebooks encouraged taking taxis everywhere.  Maybe it was just paranoia, but I was sure that someone had followed us after we withdrew money from the ATM.

A small, battered sailboat had just entered the creek, its deck invisible beneath crates, jerricans and tarps.  It was the maritime version of the overloaded transport lorries we had seen throughout Africa.  The boat was returning empty from the cayes, yet its deck still rode only a few inches above the water.  Stripped to their briefs, the black and brown-skinned crew unlashed the cargo, shouted at people onshore and whistled at a wasp-waisted girl with an impossibly large behind.  One young man lifted a long wooden pole from the deck and shoved it into the water, using all his weight to drive it deep into the thick sediment.  Then he dropped a loop of rope over the pole and tied the other end to the boat.  The creek was a jumble of craft so moored.  We finished our plate of beans and rice, grabbed our backpacks, and walked towards the bus station.  I wanted to prove to myself that Belize City wasn't as bad as its press.  A skinny, stoned man offered to escort us there.  He looked more accomplice than ally, so we refused his help and tromped ahead.

San Ignacio lies on the main highway between Belize City and Guatemala, not far from the border.  I found its full name – San Ignacio Cayo – confusing, as there were no islands (cayos) anywhere.  Bisected by the Macal River and coddled by green half-forested hills, the little town had a pleasant feel.  Most of the residents appeared to be Mayan or mestizo.  San Ignacio had developed into the center of tourism for western Belize.  Hoardings advertised tours to nearby Mayan ruins and cave systems.  There was a surprising variety of hotels, hostels and restaurants.  Max saw us at the bus stop and whisked us to his little hostel.  He had three rooms on the second floor of his house.  He had been born in Guatemala, but had moved to Belize to find work when his parents separated.  One of his first jobs was delivering soda bottles by bicycle to the bars and restaurants of Caye Caulker.  Spanish was his native tongue, but he spoke excellent English and fluent Creole – a pidgin English that might has well have been Urdu.  I found it incomprehensible.  “You gotta speak Creole to work on the islands, man!”

Several Mennonites had been on our bus from Belize City, and we saw others walking around San Ignacio, buying hardware and ice cream.  They began arriving in 1958, seeking a quiet life far from the pressures of – wait for it – Manitoba, Canada.  Max had great respect for them, who he claimed operated a stern, but efficient poultry and dairy cartel.  “They pretty much stay in their little communities.  They've got their own schools and government.”  The men were tall, robust and pale, with light eyes and tidy beards.  Sacrificing comfort to tradition, they wore denim overalls over long-sleeved, collared shirts.  I grew up in an area with a small Mennonite community, so I was accustomed to their dress.  But how strange it seemed in the tropics, juxtaposed against palm trees and Mayans!  The German owner of a San Ignacio bakery said that few younger Mennonites spoke any German, and that he found the Low German spoken by the elders impossible to understand.

Though not as famous as the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, or Copán in Honduras, Belize has a number of large Mayan sites scattered throughout the country.  Hoping to avoid big crowds, I decided that we should visit the ruins at Caracol – ‘shell' in Spanish – a bumpy two-hour drive south of San Ignacio.  I was excited to see my first Mayan ruins.  During a short, and completely superfluous, business trip to Cancun several years earlier, I had read two captivating books: “Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan,” by pioneering archaeologist John Stephens, and “Time Among the Maya,” by Ronald Wright.  The first, written in 1843, detailed Stephens' rediscovery and meticulous cataloguing of dozens of Mayan sites throughout modern-day Mexico and Guatemala.  The second – written with the benefit of 150 years of field research and scholarship – revisited the ruins, describing Mayan society with a focus on their complex calendar and religious beliefs.

The Mayans occupied Caracol between 600 B.C. and 1100 A.D., with a peak population estimated at 115,000 to 150,000 – half of modern Belize's population, in one ancient city.  The ruins comprise more than 300 structures, scattered over 200 square kilometers.  Our guide led us past the stepped platforms of four small buildings facing a tiny plaza.  It had been the home of a middle class family.  Trees with grasping roots grew atop the platforms, slowly turning the carefully laid stones into rubble.  They reminded us of the banyan trees at Angkor, in Cambodia, whose muscular roots bored through stone temples and draped across carved Khmer faces.  Cleared to make way for the buildings, the trees were exacting their slow revenge.  Further on, we passed two ceiba – sacred trees of the Maya – their massive trunks supported by tall buttressed roots that snaked like dragons' tails.  As we continued down the raised path – an ancient causeway – I noticed several steep mounds among the trees: more buildings shattered and carpeted over by the jungle.  Then we saw the pyramid.

Rising in regular, eight-foot “steps” – as in early Egyptian designs – with rounded edges and a grand stairwell that occupied half its façade, it was flanked by two similar, but smaller, pyramidal structures.  (For years it was believed that the native cultures were too backwards to have constructed such monumental buildings.  A fashionable – though farcical – theory was that the Egyptians had built them.)  The smooth face atop the staircase, with ruined “steps” continuing above it, suggested the wall of the pyramid's primary room.  The characteristic Mayan crown, a steep truncated wedge – still extant at several temples at Tikal – had been destroyed.  We walked along another causeway past a boggy depression that had been one of the city's reservoirs.  The “royal acropolis” had narrow tombs with corbelled arches and ceilings – one of the hallmarks of Mayan architecture.

Then our guide led us to an enormous, mowed plaza faced by even-larger pyramids.  We climbed three of the four, loving the vertiginous staircases and panoramas of the grey pyramids bursting out of the jungle.  At the base of one of them, flanking the staircase, were the remains of giant, carved jaguar masks.  A collection of stelae – large tablets carved with images of kings and gods and bordered with Mayan hieroglyphics – sat under a thatched roof nearby.  The final plaza was the most impressive, lorded over by the tallest pyramid – Caana, the Sky Palace – at 44 meters (140 feet), still the tallest building in Belize.  Across the plaza was a ruined pyramid with replicas of the undamaged jaguar masks found at its base.  Though highly stylized, it was easy to pick out the arched tongue, nostrils, and glaring eyes of the beast.  During Caracol's heyday, the jaguars would have been painted in garish colors – not unlike the school buses of Guatemala and Panama, I mused.  On the drive back to San Ignacio, we stopped at a beautiful waterfall that spilled into a deep, narrow pool.  There, I indulged my love of cliff-jumping until Nori and the two Canadian girls on our tour became bored.

While Nori explored Xunantunich – an extensive Mayan ruin not far from San Ignacio – I joined four Americans and three Germans for the Actun Tunichil Muknal “ATM” cave tour, which I had read about in a travel magazine several years ago.  It sounded challenging: an arduous spelunking trip down an underground river that finished inside a cavern used by the Mayans for religious ceremonies.  Online reviews warned readers not to consider the trip unless they were in great physical shape.  Nori was “finished with caves,” but I couldn't resist.  I remembered an old National Geographic article about the exploration of several cave systems in Belize.  The author had stumbled upon numerous Mayan artifacts, some deep within the caves.  The Maya, like many other cultures, saw caves as the passageways to the land of the dead.  But the Maya were so obsessed with death that caves became important religious sites.   

A two-hour drive and 45-minute hike brought us to the cave entrance.  We switched on our miner's headlamps and plopped gasping into the clear, cold water.  Apart from a few tight squeezes – for me, at least – and some modest scrambling, the cave was easy to negotiate.  I was disappointed.  Mostly we waded in waist-high water.  Seven hundred meters inside the cave, we climbed up from the underground river to a large, mouth-shaped cavern draped with beautiful formations.  Fat, wide-mouthed jars and shards of pottery sat fixed in the cavern floor, encrusted with calcium carbonate.  Warning us not to step on the artifacts that protruded everywhere, the guide led us forward.  Half-submerged in the slowly rising floor was a human skull and arm bone.  At the end of the cavern, in a tiny chamber accessed by ladder, was the complete skeleton of a young woman – face-up, arms and legs spread.  “The princess,” whispered our guide.  Archaeologists believe that she was sacrificed.  On the way back through the cave, I smelled something funny.  Someone in our group had taken a crap in the sacred chamber.  The guides were furious.  No one admitted it.

That evening, Nori told me that she had explored Xunantunich for several hours without another tourist in sight.  Her photos of the “Castillo,” a fortress-like pyramid with a encircling frieze of giant carved masks and hieroglyphics halfway up its 40-meter face, made me wish that I had skipped the expensive “Indiana Jones” cave adventure.