A Very Good Place to Disappear
By Dan Koeppel
The jungles of Belize conceal ruins, renegades, and wildcats—and the secrets of one family's past
When a man decides to vanish into the jungle, it's usually for a good reason. And if you go to find him—if you find him—you may discover there's nothing romantic about it.
But a few years ago, standing in my father's study, looking at a 50-year-old picture—a man in a military uniform, with a sharp nose and a scar sliced into his face, glowering at the camera—the whole idea seemed thrilling, mysterious.
"That's my uncle David," my dad said. "He lives—or lived—in Belize."
Belize? I thought Koeppels were supposed to reside in Queens (or Brooklyn, for the adventurous ones). What was an uncle doing in Central America?
"He's crazy," my father said.
An insane, scarred, pissed-off, jungle-hiding dead relation? How could my dad be so blasé? Who was this Uncle David? I pressed my father, and he tried to fill in the blanks.
I already knew the background: My ancestors were German-speaking Jews who lived in what is now Poland. Most of them emigrated to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. The world was splendidly lousy with Koeppels (and Köppels and Kopels) in those days.
It turned out that my grandfather grew up in an extended family of seven siblings and a slew of cousins; David was one of the youngest members of the household.
After the Nazis rose to power, that web of relational intimacy was destroyed. Some Koeppels escaped. Many didn't, including David's parents.
David was serving in the Polish Army and attending medical school when World War II started. He decided to stay in Europe and fight. When Poland was overrun, he escaped and enlisted with the British Army.
The war gave David a taste for adventure. After it ended, he fought alongside Zionist partisans who wanted to create the modern state of Israel, then began traveling the world as part of Britain's Royal Army Medical Corps.
He'd stay at a remote posting for a few years, help build a hospital or two, shack up, have a few kids—illegitimately—then bolt. Sometime in the 1950s, he arrived in Belize (then British Honduras). After my grandfather passed away in 1970, my family lost the scant contact it had with David.
"He'd be at least 80 by now," my dad said. "He's got to be dead."
But he wasn't certain. I wanted to find out, but I couldn't seem to work a Belize trip into my schedule.
Then, recently, I landed a magazine assignment to write an article about the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize's southern jungle. I planned an extended stay. I'd bring my mountain bike. Do a little exploring. Maybe find my uncle.
Belize has always been Central America's gringo oddball. It was one of the last outposts of the British Empire, having gained independence late, in 1981.
Before the English, there were the Maya, who covered the region in palaces and pyramids, many of which lie in jungle so deep few people have ever visited them. The country is the size of Massachusetts but with just 250,000 people.
Belize is an unpaved nation. There are more rivers than roads and just five traffic lights (only three actually work). The jungle starts at the beaches and spreads, more or less uninterrupted, to the hills along the western and northern borders.
Hemming the country's shores is the largest coral reef in the Caribbean, along with dozens of tropical islands and deep blue holes. Belize is a good place for eco-yuppies, scuba enthusiasts, and Margaritaville tramps.
* * * *
Since the country is so small—and since my uncle was a doctor there at a time when the country had very little in the way of medical care—there was a good chance that many people knew of him.
"Never heard of the man," said Mick Fleming as he poured me a drink and lit a cigarette. "And I bloody well know everyone in this country!"
Fleming came to Belize from Britain in the late 1970s with his wife, Lucy. In a Belize City bar, a man offered to sell them some land in the Cayo district, Belize's remote central quarters.
Sounds good, they said, then learned that the only way to reach the new homestead was by canoe. That was no problem, Mick recalled. "We were young."
In the decades since, their once inaccessible spread—now reached by a dirt road—has become an elaborate retreat, The Lodge at Chaa Creek, with cabanas, a tent camp (where I stayed), and an outdoor bar where Fleming is cheerily loose with the Cuba Libres.
Fleming wasn't terribly optimistic about my finding David, even though a government official I had met a couple of days earlier at the airport had an instant recollection: "Oh, yes. He was a very famous doctor."
As the official and I drove through Belize City, we stopped at an old house on a street of tattered, sun-bleached colonial buildings. "His office was here," the official said. "He must have delivered half of the babies in this country."
The place was abandoned.
"Do you know where he is now?"
"No," the official said. "I'm sorry." In 1978, he explained, Hurricane Greta hit, severely damaging Belize City. Records were lost. People vanished. "A lot of things changed after that," he added. "I haven't heard of him in 20 years."
Get the full story in the April 2002 issue of Adventure. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0204/story.html#story_4