As hard as it was to peel ourselves away from the gentle rhythms of the seaside, we woke up to the rousting of the out-of-tune cockerel for an early start into the jungle with Julien, our guide from the Maya Centre.
Julien and his family run the Tutzil Nah Cottages at the Maya Centre, and are part of the Mopan Mayan tribe. Before becoming a guide, he was a citrus farmer, and it was past fields of these orange trees that he drove us in the first morning light, towards a small gate at the end of a narrow dirt road, where the Mayflower Bocawina National Park is located, about 20 km from Hopkins.
One of the more distinctive trees you’ll find is the Tourist Tree, so named because of the red ‘skin’ that peels off the bark, resembling the painful sunburn of certain travelers to the tropics, especially of the European or Scandinavian persuasion. This tree, like their tourist counterparts, are found all over Central America, and aside from poking fun at the delicate flesh of the gringos, are particularly useful as a cure for black poisonwood sap. It is said that in the places where you find poisonwood, you should plant a tourist tree beside it, so that the bark can be used as a topical treatment on the blisters produced by coming into contact with the sap, and even boiled down to drink. The actual local name is Gumbo-Limbo.
If you think that was an odd name, wait til you hear about Horse Balls tree, and Jackass bitters. We each tried a bit of the Jackass Bitters leaf, testifying once and for all that it really was pretty darn unpleasant. If bitterness is any measure of medicinal potency, then this one could prove the rule. The leaves are boiled in water and taken intermittently as a prophylaxis for malaria, although it may not be particularly efficient once infected. Besides that, it can be used for a bout of tummy aches, diarrhoea or intestinal parasites, too.
On one of the low lying branches, I spotted a cotton puff, and thought it might be a type of fungus. Julien assured me it was something much more benign – the cotton from a Ceiba tree. It’s a clever method of pollination – the seeds of the tree are nestled in the tufts of cotton, and once airborne, can travel for miles. Looking up, I caught sight of a tall tree in the distance with the silhouettes of several cotton puffs on their topmost branches, waiting to take flight.
Occasionally the greens of the forest were punctuated by bursts of colour afforded by flowers that happened to be blooming around this time of year. Julien was convinced that this was the reason why the park was named Mayflower.
Not all plants had a classical structure of its own. Those without trunks dug their roots into tree trunks, spreading out as lichen or moss, turning brown trunks a bright, mossy green. Those without roots wrapped itself around other structures, vines, or swung freely lianas. Many plants were epiphytes, choosing to live atop a bigger, stronger plant in a sort of leg-up towards the sunlight. They nestled as dwarves on the shoulders of giants.
Some epiphytes were somewhat more dominating. The strangler figs grow alongside their original tree for support, eventually surrounding it, surpassing it, and at times, even strangling it, until it stands alone in its Phyrric victory, with spaces under its elbows and knees where the tree that once gave it support had died and decayed.
There was an orchestra of sounds as we walked through the forest. Julien helped to deconstruct the melodies for us. The regular, high pitched hoots were birds, low groans were black howler monkeys, which we never saw. The syncronized hum of summer that sometimes ceased abruptly, leaving in its wake a piercing silence – cicadas. The thrumming that zipped past your ears – insects that made S, my twitchy shaman, shake his upper body violently from side to side, swipe at his hair and look around with terror in his eyes. Around us, the forest breathed out and the dried leaves on the floor crackled in anticipation.
The qigong healers believed in the quality of sound. Certain sounds vibrated at the same innate frequency as vital organs and therefore brought us into balance with ourselves. “One has only one way for inhalation,” writes Tao Hongjing, “but six ways for exhalation.”
The yogis believed this, too. The body was made out of 5 kosas, or sheaths. Like a fruit, with many layers from skin to seed. When all the layers are stripped down, at the very centre of the seed, where matter is no more, there is vibration. And beyond that, perhaps something … divine. So the vibration, they felt, was the closest one could get to this purity of being, and it is with primordial ommmmmmmm that so many yogis and monks begin their yoga practice and meditation.
Even without fully understanding my own skin, my organs, my bones, my joints, the frequencies they hold, I can feel it. Some component of the jungle fracas was causing me to come undone. Interrogating me and my intentions, it wanted to know about my deeds. It wanted me to know my thoughts. Such discomfort from the scrutiny of a jury as old as the figs that I wanted to bare my chest to escape it. I will confess! I wanted to shout. I will confess!
So many learned men and women claim to have lived here to study the jungle. How many of them would admit to being studied in return?
* * *
A palm tree is like a multipurpose toolbox for civilizations the world over. In Bali, it is so revered that houses are never built higher than a palm. The Mayans similarly found many uses for every single scrap of the palm tree, and they had a variety of species to choose from. There were pacaya palms, fishtail palms, the bog-standard palm tree from which palm oil is made from, and coconut palm, whose oil is much easier to process than the former.
Looking down at the mounds of fallen palm oil seeds, I traced a bright green trail moving across the dirt like a river of fragments. They led to several holes in the ground, which prompted Julien to crouch down and deliver his next tutorial. “These are leafcutter ants,” he begins. They bring fresh leave cuttings into their underground lair, where it is stored as a food or fertilizer for a type of fungus that they grow, which is then used to feed the baby ant larvae. “They are farmers,” he concludes, thereafter standing up and brushing off the dirt from his hands, ready to move on to the next few colonies of critters: a nest of termites and caterpillars at a conference.
Barbara Kingsolver once wrote, “… solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen.” What a wealth of life there is all around us, forming the smallest and yet more wondrous of worlds. I keep my eyes plastered to the ground for the next little while, and am rewarded with my favorite critters of the undergrowth – lizards. This beauty was actually S’s find – the basilisk lizard, or better known in Honduras where I had first seen one as the “Jesus lizard” – becuz dem walk on water.
Soon we were granted the first view of the Antelope Falls. We sat on rocks in the path of the gentle stream while the momentum of the falls made its way down in front of us. S and Julien settled down side by side at the base of a gigantic tree. “So,” Julien ventured, “How many hours does it take to get to Australia?” As we outlined the flights, transits and connections we needed to take to get between Belize, the US, and Australia, Julien shook his head in disbelief. During the ride over, S had kept up a steady narration of Australia’s unique treasures – kangaroos, koalas, and the nomadic Aborigines. Julien wanted to know more.
“I would love to go somewhere like that,” he said as he took his cap off to wipe his brow. He also confided, “The other place I would really love to visit is Israel – to the Dead Sea! I heard that there is so much salt in the water that people drift by floating on their backs, that you can even lean back and read a book! I can’t imagine being in a place such as that!” His eyes shone with a genuine curiosity that I recognised from when I was a little girl, pouring over a book called “The 7 Wonders of The World.” I read that book again and again, memorising it, dreaming of it. These days, we flick through our newsfeed, our Instagrams, pinterests, and our sense of awe waxes quickly to the next fix. We spend less time, it seems, in wonder.
Julien’s overseas experience in total to date is a trip to California. “People used to say to me, imagine all the streets in Hopkins was full of cars, and then make that number double, or TRIPLE! But you don’t really understand what that means until you’ve been there. When we were flying low into California, I could see how many houses there were, how many roads and how many cars. After we landed I looked out the window and there were 20 planes to the left, and 20 planes to the right. I couldn’t speak for 2 or 3 minutes,” and his face grew grave, as if he were deeply contemplating it even now. “So this is what they mean by busy.”
I’m humbled by his heartfelt marvel, the richness of his experience.
An old taxi driver in Cleveland once told us about his granddaughter, how she was learning ballet, and how proud he had been at her first recital. “I don’t know where she got that from, but I do remember the first play I ever been to. We went with a group at school and it was just a small production. There were these actors on the stage and they woulda been not 3 feet away from us. But it was as if we weren’t even there. I’ll never forget that.”
Both these conversations invoked the same thoughts in me. I have been to many more faraway places, and been privileged to watch many more performances than either of them, and I am half their age. What have I lost in this abundance? Novelty, perhaps. The feeling of being awestruck in the truest sense of the word. But never, I hope, never ever gratitude.
* * *
We were ready to claim our prize, a crystal pool at the top of the waterfall. The hike would got steeper just before we reached it, making the chilling dip all the sweeter. Thankfully, the heat of the day still hadn’t begun to build up and we hiked up steadily, leaving the greater challenge for the groups that would come after us in the late morning sun.
By midday, our trek had been completed and we dumped ourselves under a gazebo and tucked into the lunch pack that Julien had prepared. S asked about medicine men, or better known to the locals as obiaman. “There is an old man in one of the villages,” Julien confirmed, “but he’s getting quite old. I need to learn the cure for snake bites from him before he dies.” S listened intently as Julien talked about the man’s plant-collecting practices, the knowledge of which he imparts to his sons. He also talked about the famous naturalist, Alan Rabinowitz, and how he had needed the help of an obiaman to trap a jaguar for his research after months had gone by without a single sighting. S was as enthralled as a 6 year old being told of magical masters. As I watched him, I remembered the little obstacle course I had gone through – the entire jungle beating against my chest, rattling my reserve and demanding my unraveling – but God willing I had found a calm reserve, a gentle breath to deliver me, a clear forest pool. S might still be waiting to find the ultimate shaman to be his teacher, but in that moment I knew that my teacher was already found.