Into the Belize jungle with the Undead
by: Anne-Marie Conway
If only a tiny proportion of Belize's population still practises obeah (voodoo), why, I wondered, was I bumping along the dusty Western Highway in a minibus with 12 zombies, pale, mute creatures with reddened eyes, tangled hair and crumpled garments. But then, it had been a killer journey.
It would therefore have been churlish to complain that dinner conversation lacked sparkle that first evening in Cahal Pech. Everyone was knackered - and, apart from the one married couple, no one knew anyone else.
That would surely change. Part of the attraction of Explore Worldwide's "small group exploratory holidays" was that a single traveller like myself would have other people to share the experience with. My initial reservations about being fat and fortyish among a bunch of intrepid adventurers had been partially allayed by the brochure photographs, which showed groups of all ages and body types, many wearing socks with sandals and seriously bad hats.
This was not the image I had in mind for myself. Having read the tour operator's warnings about heat, humidity and lack of laundry facilities, I had stocked up with tropical gear in "technical" fabrics guaranteed to "wick away" moisture, with enough extra-strength mosquito repellent, eco-friendly toilet paper and waterless body wash to survive a month in the jungle. If the YHA shop had sold collapsible canoes, I would have had one. Only a great effort of will - and the imagined reactions of those hunky Harrison Ford types - kept me from the pith helmets. . .
Anyway, I thought I'd probably manage to keep up - after all, the 14-day "Discover Belize" holiday, covering everything from Mayan ruins and jaguar sanctuaries to virgin rainforest and the largest living reef outside the Antipodes, was graded as one of the least demanding trips that Explore Worldwide offers. As it happened, few of my fellow adventurers were anywhere near as fit as the young marrieds - a Golden Couple who had spent the previous months perfecting their skiing - or the leggy French-Canadian who had just quit her desk job to train on a dragon boat.
In any case, this was Central America for softies. The accommodation was cleaner and more comfortable than many British b & bs I have known. We all had private bathrooms, shared only with the occasional cockroach ("What's the fuss?" muttered the porter. "It could have been a tarantula") or cute little frogs. I was glad I brought my mosquito net, though, especially when I saw the constellation of bites that sprouted overnight on my neighbour's balding head. This is a malarial area. All the strenuous activities were optional and even the "rough trails" had toilet facilities - some even had hot and cold running water.
Nobody had warned me, however, that I'd be at least 10 years older than everyone else. Or that of the 13 in the group most would be single white females, and far from outgoing. Almost all of them had been to many more exotic places than I had even dreamt of, and almost none of them had anything of interest to say about them, at least in my earshot. Lots of "adventure holidays" but precious few adventures, from the sound of it. It was the twitcher's approach to travel.
Mind you, it didn't take long for Belize to make a twitcher of me, too. The birdlife was astonishing. In a couple of days at Crooked Tree Lagoon we saw spindly legged jacanas (known as Jesus birds, for their apparent ability to walk on water), migratory flocks of roseate spoonbills, flamingos and egrets, and even the native jabiru stork, at five feet tall one of the largest - and shyest - birds in the Americas.
Ornithologists have recorded more than 300 bird species at the lagoon. Lariats of vultures swirled languidly above the river as our canoe guides pointed out herons and hawks, kingfishers and kites, and everywhere there was the trilling of the melodious blackbird. The jaguar sanctuary had darting kingfishers, trogons and tanagers flashing vibrant scarlet, toucans posing in the trees (the jaguars were sensibly keeping well out of our way).
A few days at the Tikal, high in the Guatemalan rainforest and, with its ruined city, including the Temple of the Giant Jaguar, the most impressive Mayan site we visited, offered flocks of vivid green parrots screeching through the canopy at sundown. With its balding turquoise head covered in reddish warts, multicoloured breast and variegated tail feathers, the ocellated turkey was clearly an escapee from the Star Wars creature design department. I'd have given anything for a decent camera with a zoom lens.
The tour certainly lived up to its promise to provide a "total Belize experience" - an itinerary that zigzagged across the country (no bigger than Wales), taking in the pyramids of Xunantunich (that's shoo-nan-two-nitch - many's the happy hour we spent on the bus practising our pronunciation), the marshy lagoons of Crooked Tree, the palm-fringed beaches of Placencia, the coral islands of Caye Caulker, river excursions and rainforest treks, monkey sanctuaries and medicine trails. We even managed a trip to the zoo (the only way any of us would see a jaguar).
The group braved seasickness, sunburn and serious boredom on a trip 20 miles offshore in search of whale sharks, an unscheduled expedition prompted by an article someone had read the day we left London. James, our ever helpful tour leader, found us a boat captained by a laconic Che lookalike with a black beret clamped to his head and a toothpick that never left his mouth, even in the water.
Alas, lacking the lung capacity of Philippe, "the best free-diver in Belize", we were unable even to see one of these benign 20ft creatures, let alone dive deep enough to swim among them. By the time an inquisitive dolphin started stalking the boat, few had the heart - or the stomach - to jump in.
So it wasn't as though we didn't have things to talk about. It was just that the talking would have to wait until we all got home. Everyone knew exactly what everyone else had been doing all day - even the optional trips often had a full turn-out, so there was little chance to make independent discoveries, no titbits to carry back and share with the others over dinner.
On the odd occasion when we were expected to organise our own evening meals, "the girls" all stuck together, though the young marrieds went their own way and the two men fled, probably revolted at the prospect of watching nine single women exchange polite banalities.
There was really only one day, quite early on, when we did split up. The married couple went butterfly hunting. The intrepid ones went on a caving expedition. The rest of us went to the iguana farm at the San Ignacio hotel where the Queen once ate gibnut, a small spotted rodent native to Belize ("Queen eats rat" ran the tabloid headlines) and, like the iguana, an endangered local delicacy. The cavers came back too exhausted to eat, much less discuss their experience, or ours.
But then exhaustion was the order of the day. We were almost constantly on the move. Most mornings it was up at dawn, pack and pile into the minibus for another monument or nature reserve. No wonder nobody stayed up after dinner, except for that last night in Guatemala, where we took over a small nightclub near the hotel. Somebody must have thought we looked animated - we were photographed for the local gossip columns.
The tour leader admitted that ours had been an unusual group - normally, there would be a 50:50 split between singles and couples/friends travelling together, and more men. And despite a sometimes gruelling schedule they would often go out in the evenings. Perhaps there were too many women in our group? Despite many margaritas, nobody suggested that there might be good reasons why most of this lot were travelling on their own.
At Tikal, we had shared the top of a temple with an Explore Worldwide "Indian Mexico and Yucatan" group. Seven or eight fortysomethings, laughing and joking, they had clearly bonded as a group, in contrast to our lot, who kept themselves to themselves.
Within days of our return to London, the net was buzzing with round robin emails headed "Belizean Zombies". Everyone seemed desperate to organise a reunion in London. The Canadians made their excuses, but the one Italian was going to fly over from Bologna. I had food poisoning. It seems I missed the liveliest evening the group had ever had together.
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