Herman's Cave, Belize

The Philosophy of
Monkey River Town

Travel notes from the tiny settlement of Monkey River Town in Southern Belize.

Everything is going just fine. We have made it to this small dot of a country in the underarm of the Yucatan Peninsula, on the Caribbean coast. We are leaving the small Garifuna fishing village where we spent the night hidden in tents in the underbrush of a beach.

But Vance starts screaming. You know, not the scream of anguish - the scream of the willies. The monkey scream. Pulls off his shoe, and this giant spider crawls out - you know, a furry half-dollar that starts running all over the truck.

"I felt this pulsing in my shoe. Something tapping," Vance said. Then he yells. Not the yell of the willies, but the yell of the creeps. "The spider was just trying to get out of my shoe."

The spider crawls under the floor mat, underneath the dashboard, and we can't find him. This would mean the bugger would be creeping under the floor mat for the duration of our route to Monkey River, Belize.

There is a lesson with this spider. It is the first rule of tropical camping. Don't leave your shoes out at night. That goes along with the second rule. Always keep your tent zipper closed. The third rule is probably this: cover your body in deet. We had acquired a large amount of ninety-percent deet. A potion of mosquito repellent that is so powerful it stains your clothes and swells your skin into rash.

Malaria, yellow fever, Dengue fever and cholera are not fatal if treated appropriately, but they are also avoidable with a healthy lathering of deet. The real bugger you have to watch for in the Caribbean lowlands of Central America, however, is the fer-de-lance. This pit-viper has a bone in its body that vibrates proportionately to the amount of weight of a nearby animal, allowing it the sense to estimate how much venom to inject you with to send you to your grave based on a calculation of your weight. The fer-de-lance, approximating the weight of a horse-bound jungle traveler and his horse, has been noted to slash the horse with an amount of venom based on both the horse and the rider.

This lends credence to sticking to the trail. Nobody walks outside of trails in the dense riverine jungles of Central America. Even the Mayans who inhabited this region built paths and roads. Too dense to walk, too dangerous to consider.

Hopkins Town, Belize

Palms near our campsite in Hopkins Town, on the way to Monkey River, Belize.

The botfly infests Southern Belize, where we are headed. This fellow makes a clean round incision on your skin, uses a poison to numb your senses so you cannot feel him placing larvae under your skin. The larva incubates, sticks a little snorkel out of your skin to breathe, and then hatches and flys away.

With all of this goodness in store, I figured this would be the perfect place to answer that unanswerable question. "Do you think that we'll find the answer to life here?" I asked Vance.

Small places have a way of having large voices. Singapore, for its rules, Gibraltar, for being British, Israel, for its violence, and Tonga, for its overeating. But Belize has little voice in the world. Belize is not much bigger than Israel, but Belize is no barking rat-dog. The Caribbean lowlands are a place of historical turbulence; left-wing insurgencies, right-wing executioners, drug cartels, murderous Spaniards, barbarous Pirates. In all of this, Belize's short modern history is one of inventive politics and an uncommon culture, in complete ambivalence to the rest of Central America.

We met Doug Singh at his home just north of Belize City. Mr. Singh, Chairperson of the opposition party, the United Democratic Party, is running against the Senator from his district. "Will you win?" I ask.

"I don't know. You know, the other guy is very popular. But the current government has promised a lot of things they can't deliver. They promised jobs and lower taxes. They delivered on neither. They've promised more domestic development and construction jobs, but all the building materials are imported, so you still have more money leaving Belize than staying in-country."

Doug and his wife, like many other couples in Belize, are part of the complex ethnic mix of the country. He explains about the Garifuna, a mix of former black slaves and Carib Indians, who escaped to Southern Belize. He talks about the Creoles; a mix of black and European. He mentions the Mennonites from Austria, who drive around in buggies. And the Lebanese, and the Chinese, who retreated from Northern China when the Japanese began their slaughtering. He talks about the difference between Latinos and Ladinos. The former being a straight up mix between Spanish and Mayan. The Ladino's ethnicity is so mixed, it's pretty much a wrap-together phrase for 'I've got it all.' The Mayans themselves, the only natives of Belize, often speak everybody else's language as well as their own.

Doug himself is East Indian. When Belize was British Honduras, the Indian's farming expertise was needed on the banana plantations. His wife is Puerto Rican. There are a lot of shades of pink and brown in Belize. Too many, perhaps, for anyone to get too worked up about it.

Huge buttressed trees in the Cockscomb Basin are host to a variety of bromeliads and orchids.

We drive south on the one highway that cuts through the Maya Mountains to Belize's southern border, ending up at the Cockscomb Basin, a mountain jungle sanctuary for the jaguar, where there are more jaguars than anywhere in the world. The Cockscomb is both hot and humid; even at night, beads of sweat drip down around your eyebrows. Hot, humid, and noisy; here there are tree frogs croaking, and a thousand birds squawking. Conversation pauses for the occasional overzealous crooning bird to finish a skit.

Vicente, the night warden of the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve, joins us over beer at our campsite under a moonless night.

"I am from Red Bank," he says, "in Toledo District. I was a banana farmer, but since the hurricane I needed to find new work. So I come here."

"Red Bank is a Mayan town?" I ask.

"Yes, I am Kekchi. We are the people from the south. We have a different language than the Mopan and Yucatec, but we like to think of all the Mayans as one people."

"And that's your native language?"

"Yes, Kekchi. I learn English and Spanish and Creole because those are the languages of Belize, but I was born first speaking Kekchi. "I am trying to pay for high school for my kids. But it is expensive. Almost four hundred dollars to get to the next level."

Vicente, like anyone in any country who is not trying to sell you anything, is genuinely interested both in telling the story of his world - Toledo - and asking about ours.

There are four of us in the jungle. Pierre, a Frenchman, is traveling from Houston to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America, by car. Pierre was one of those guys who always gave up his job for travel. He had driven Africa north to south. He recently drove to Costa Rica to meet a friend. "Its funny," he said, "there was some kind of civil war in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, but the only place I couldn't get to was Panama, because the U.S. had just attacked Noriega."

I asked Vance and Pierre if they would like to go into the jungle to look for jaguars. It was, after all, a moonless night. Jaguars rely on complete darkness to hunt. They smell, they see well. They pounce. They go for monkeys and turtles and turkeys. They like the smell of flesh.

I am the kind of person who jumps at the sight of a spider, gets the creepy-crawlies from bugs, and howls at snakes. So to walk into the jungle on a moonless night gives me the willies. Three miles in, with the Frenchman yapping about the things that French people yap about, I ask if either of them have the willies. Both assure me otherwise. I find this odd; in our walks in the jungle during the day, there is a constant sense of encroachment; of snakes under the brush, of malarial mosquitoes, of getting lost. At night, and yes I certainly have the willies, the jungle seems comfortable, and relaxing. Here, too deep even for the sound of the birds, the shrub layer is biological silence. Everything moves, grows, eats and kills in quiet.

Pierre points out that all those blue specks of light are the eyes of spiders catching our headlamps; thousands of them on the edge of the trail. And then we find this highway of ants, these are the ones called leaf-cutters, that carry leaves fifty times their weight down a network of trees and branches and logs. Millions of them collaborate to lay these leaves into a honeycomb structure deep underground. They cultivate the leaves to grow a fungus, which they eat.

The queen, she has wings. The worker ants, who go out and do the dirty work, are prey to a fly which hatches its eggs on the ant's neck. When hatched, the flys eat through the ant's brain. So in response to this, the leaf-cutters came up with a subspecies called soldier ants. These are really tiny ants that hang out on the worker ant's neck. When the flies come to nest, the soldier ants fight them off with their pincers.

Getting to sleep in the jungle requires a lot of beer. So, after an unsuccessful look for jaguars, that is what we do; drink ourselves silly until we can lie on the hot, moist canvas of our tents and pass out.

We decide that in morning, while still dark, each would wake and look for the jaguar on our own. The few remaining jaguars have been so hunted by man, that they have evolved quickly to learn to avoid humans. Three is overbearing in noise and smell. I wake in a sweat, and leave in a random direction, with my headlamp glaring through the fog and fireflies. In morning, the ocellated turkeys - the sole domesticated farm animal of the Mayans - are babbling in an uproar, enough for a troop of Kinkajou - a type of rainforest raccoon, to miss my presence.

When they finally do see me, their escape is a racket, which pisses the turkeys off, and then one of the kinkajou jumps on a branch that cracks and breaks. The branch goes down a cliff and crashes into a swamp. The kinkajou jumps to the next tree, and the turkeys flip out. And then I step on a snake. He's pissed too. And now I am. By now the turkeys have slipped through the canopy and put a whole mess of tanagers and mluk-mluks into an uproar. And then I wonder, where am I? And why did I forget my water and deet?

I theorize that perhaps I had stepped off the trail, and onto the route to Victoria Peak - a three day hike best suited to a guided expedition. I don't want to turn around - to face that snake. I decide not to sweat it, and just kind of walk slowly and listen for the jaguar.

The jungle is not green - the jungle is green from above the canopies, where nobody can see anyway. The jungle is the colors of the shadow of green - yellowish and black, gray and brown and blue. It is dark, and wet, but most of all it is labyrinthine. It is complex, like the human mind - unregulated, twisting. A jungle is free thought on caffeine, and looking through a maze of trees and vines, I cannot help but make the jungle an allegory for life - it seems complicated, like everything that goes through our minds and the actions we take because of them. But life and desires are simple, no matter how hard we make our lives - you know; insurance, gossip, marital affairs, back-talk, scams - we yearn always for just the basics; love, good food, comfort and accomplishment. But getting there is a labyrinthine process, labored with the foibles that make the world interesting.

When I return to camp, I notice Vance's back; a constellation of bites, still fresh with droplets of blood. It's Vance's turn to drive, which means I have to deal with that giant spider under the floor mat. We take off for Placencia, my feet crossed over the dashboard.

Vance proposes, "What if the answer to life is just living a series of pleasure gathering events? And why not, right? What if we're all just pleasure-gatherers hurtling towards paradise?" Pierre, who seemed to see life as a series of sights and investigations would say; 'the pygmys in Cameroon are quite fascinating!', and might indeed live life this way. Was he living the answer to life?

The jungle road to Placencia quickly turns to coastal savannah; a place of hawks and foxes, oddly shaped trees, and a massive lizard which runs about on its hind legs. Because it can run across water, it is called the Jesus Lizard.

Cockscomb Jungle in Belize, filled with hundreds of tree species.

We stopped at a small banana plantation town, with a gas pump and an inn, with a restaurant. The restaurant hangs on a beach over the blue Caribbean. We are served by Diane. I asked her about her accent. "I am Dutch. I was down in Belize a year ago, and I got really sick," she said. "And then Frank rescued me and nursed me to health. It's a West Indies love story, because I decided to come back and start this Inn with Frank. We've been open five weeks."

We hang out here for some time. Isamelda, the bartender, was from Guatemala.
"There's a huge dead scorpion in the women's bathroom," Vance says.
"I know, I killed it this morning," she says.

"With my feet."
"You have no shoes!"

"It's easy, just get the tail with your heel and mash. At least I am good for something," she says.

"We just opened. There are just four of us. Its Frank and Dian, me, and Pablo. Pablo doesn't like to come indoors. He is always outside." We look outside. Pablo is there. We wave. He waves back. We drink some beer, Belikin, the beer of Belize. It is good.

Placencia, the southernmost town on the Peninsula, is known to have Belize's best beach, which isn't saying much, considering most of Belize's shoreline is mangrove and dirty brown sand. We cross a marshland of egrets, herons and vultures, and vine cactus' strangling the marsh trees. In Placencia, we walk the beach, which is filled with Creoles - families and drinkers by the thousands. Everybody is gathered on the beach. Some sort of festival had just started. Soca is blasting from the bar. A woman's beer drinking contest had just begun. By the time the small women had finished their first beer, one extra-large one had downed three. They were stumbling. An announcer blared in Creole that it was time for arm-wrestling.

Waterfall in Belize

The roads went unpaved, we hobble across the potholes, around the cattle. We pick up hitchhikers and bring them to their homes, or their places of work. We decide that we would give anybody a ride who looked friendly. Needless to say, they are all female, or under the age of fifteen. Some are just kids. Some are grandmas. They all say that God should bless us. One group's average age is eleven years old. They had taken a boat from Toledo District to sell jewelry and trinkets.

Toledo is the Mayan sector of Belize, with an average wage of eight-hundred dollars a year. We tell them that is where we are headed, and we need to learn the language. I ask them to teach me Mayan. They laugh when they say those Mayan words, as if they knew I thought these words were funny. Chang Xuacil. Pim. Che. Ch'op. Pish. These were jungle words. Mayan sounds like the sounds of the canopies.

They are traveling long distances at age eleven, unguided, expected to make a profit, to hitchhike with people of unknown integrity, to be able to pay for their boat back home. They are inquisitive, polite, and comfortable in the company of adults.

We continue south and then take the road to the coast. Passing orange groves and banana farms, we drive on until giant trees and strange-looking birds overtake the agriculture. The road ends at a simple lot, filled with broken cars and junk, on the coast of the Caribbean, and along the edge of the Monkey River.

Monkey River Town was settled as a backwater banana industry community in 1892. It was at one time a bustling place of two-thousand and five hundred. But blight killed the bananas, the Belizean Government revoked the rice subsidies, and local hunters killed off the crocodile skin business by outright destroying the crocodile population. And then Hurricane Hattie came along in 1961, wiping out what was almost already gone.

Then, Hurricane Iris came along just last year, ripping almost every building off its foundation. The monkeys that had not died from a yellow fever epidemic were ripped from their trees and into the wind. The bare, broken mangrove jungle, once alive with human enterprise, is now just a sandy backwater, with the smell of raw cement.

We flag a fisherman to take us across the river into town, and settle in at Alice's. Alice's Restaurant has no sign. Nor working lights or windows. In fact, there is no electricity in Monkey River Town. We tell Alice we are hungry for lunch. Alice says "Have a seat, I goween fiss you up." Without discussion of entrée, price, or menu, she brings us heaping plates of rice, beans and chicken. I ask for a beer. Alice calls a friend to run across town to get me one. I asked for another, and then a third. By this time, the friend was sweating.

The children of Monkey River Town are involved in some sort of war. The older kids are perched on the river bank, hurling water-filled plastic bottles at the younger children, who are mostly girls. The young ones in turn hurl the bottles back. It is a back-and-forth that goes on like a fireworks display, with water flying all over. One bottle hits a younger girl in the head. She stumbles for a bit, her knees go weak, and then she picks up the bottle and hurls it back.

The adults adorn the edge of the unbuilt bar, playing dominos. Dominos is serious business in Monkey River Town, it appears; like intense bottle tossing.

We commission Winsley Garbutt, a Garifuna lobster fisherman, to boat us as far as the river will go; the end of the Bladen and Swasey rivershed tributaries.

We board his launch and motor upriver. In the dry season, passage is slow and laborious; the river is shallow as a hand's breadth.

We sit there in the launch, watching the bare-throated tiger herons and the amazon kingfishers dispersing from their nests. We pass under branches filled with bats. Sometimes, our motor would cut out, and we would drift into the bamboos, scaring a giant iguana, sunning on a stump. The trees - cohune palms and sapodilla trees and the giant Ceiba tree, surviving against strangler figs. These are shady tree infestations which take over the tree itself, wrestle it to death and eventually send it tumbling into the river. Its rotting corpse becomes the nests of crocodiles, who vie with the Jaguar for the Paca and the River turtle.

I asked Winsley about the monkeys after the hurricane.

"I guess you could really say that the monkeys really had a really rough time aftah da hurricane. You really see them doing all sorts of things. He swim across the river, he fall out of the tree. You know I gotta really say, he really get blown outta da tree during the hurricane. He really lose his life."

"Do they ever lose their grip?" I asked.

"Yeah, you know, I really gotta say, the monkey really fall out of the tree sometime. He steps on a bad branch, or the branch isn't enough to hold him. I've seen 'em fall into the river and come climbing back up the branch all wet. He really fall down, but usually doesn't really lose his life."

Winsley spent most of the year building lobster traps, placing them as deep as ninety feet under water, and bringing them to market in Belize City. I was familiar with the horrible deaths that occur from Belize to Nicaragua, by lobster fishermen diving for lobster. Untrained, they rise too fast and die of the bends. "Scuba or air compressor?" I ask.

"No, no. I free-dive."

When the water drew to three inches or less, we shifted our weight, skimming over the sandy bars with a raised motor, sputtering water. Shallower yet, we jumped ship and pushed the launch through the thin, yellow water. Into dusk, pushing through branches infested with sleeping bats.

By evening, we had approached a simple sandy bank, surrounded by impenetrable green, and the flow of tributaries. Winsley rammed into the shore, helping us with our bags, and then left. We sat there on the beach, sharing a can of beans and jelly sandwiches, sitting on the sand filled with crocodile tracks. "What if the answer," I said, coughing on habanero sauce, "has nothing to do with, say, people and relationships. Like it's an internal thing. An internal purpose, like the Buddhists and their meditation."


A view of the Monkey River from our campsite.  The trees on the opposite side of the river were filled with Howler Monkeys.

View from our campsite on the Monkey River in Belize.

We hear a great howl. A roar, almost a cough. An echoing with the intensity of George Lucas' ti-fighter screech. Vance gave me this look.

"Big cats," he said.
"Wild pigs," I replied.
"Jaguar," he said.
"Does a jaguar roar?" I said, "I think it's the wild pigs."

The roar becomes louder. And finally we can determine this the howl of the howler monkey. The giant Ceiba tree on the other side of the river is filled with a small troop. A monkey family, one baby. They just kind of sit there, chewing leaves, occasionally looking down at us.

"Is this the answer to life, to sit around and eat and sleep?" Vance asks.

I look at his back. Holy Jesus Lizard.

The guy's back is bleeding. Better him than me. I can see the botfly's sucking his blood. I can see the blood dripping down his back, the incisions. The monkeys howl some more. Actually, they are not going to stop until morning. "I am not sure about your whole idea that the answer is internal.

What about Tom Hanks in Castaway? His isolation was meaningless. The only thing that mattered was the people in his life. Right?" I answered, "So what if life isn't about serving the greater good. What if it is just serving your closest family and friends, of doing your best to make your woman happy, and to protect your family? To work hard for what you want."

"I guess you don't really need anything more than that. Right? I mean, its almost like you are doing good deeds, but on a manageable scale. How often are humanitarians bad family folks?"

Night comes, and the conversation turns to this, "what if Winsley decides not to pick us up?"

"That would be bad," I said.
"We could make it back."
"Swim...?...We don't have enough food," I said. "It'll all be bad by tomorrow."
"Actually," Vance said, "we have enough for a week."

I didn't consider canned beans and four bottles of Belizean habanero sauce to be food.

"But water?"
"Yeah, that's a problem."

I guess that is the point where things come into place, as perhaps it did for us. Vance says the next morning, "You know, I expected Monkey River Town to be this hopeless place. I imagined a dying town. It's the opposite. These are the people that hung on. They stayed. They are rebuilding their town. The smell of raw cement, I thought. "Life is holding on, not stopping, working for what you want, making it happen, despite the barriers," Vance said, "like the people who stayed here in Monkey River Town to rebuild their dream."

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