By Laura Boswell
Sunday, April 30, 2006; W14 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/25/AR2006042501604.html
She planned a mother-daughter trip all the way to Belize. What she didn't know was how far they'd be willing to go to get along
In a scarred, white minivan, we're rattling down Belize's Western Highway. The road's two thin, paved lanes ribbon through low amber wetlands; lanky palms arch beneath a brilliant blue dome of sky. Jolly packs of dogs trot through the roadside grit, and gap-toothed schoolchildren in white shirts and plaid skirts wave wildly from wooden bus stops painted with parrots and waterfalls. The surroundings are raw, real, perfect.
And knowing Mom and me, there's no pos-sible way it can last.
With some frequent-flier wizardry, I've been able to give Mom, a devout bird-watcher, a trip to possibly the world's best birding destination: Belize. This is my fourth trip to Belize, but, at 66, Mom has never traveled outside the United States. When she opened the tickets, she cried.
And, no matter what the statistics say about Americans living longer, she is getting older. I want to know that Mom will get to see a part of the world other than her back yard, and I want to be the one to take her.
But now that we've arrived, I'm more anxious than excited. As our driver, Phillip, chatters in broken English about landmarks and plant life, it's hit me that not only am I responsible for my mother in a foreign country, but the trip will last nine days.
Usually when we visit, it's only about 48 hours before we want to knock each other into next week.
The airport has barely faded behind us when Phillip stomps on the brakes and lurches us to a stop next to a small ditch steeped in ruddy-brown water.
"Jabiru! Jabiru!" he yells, pointing at the passenger-side window. Beyond some reeds and discarded soda cans, an elegant white bird as high as my shoulders is stepping along slowly on spindly black legs, nosing the water with a long black beak.
"What? Where?" my mom screeches, bobbling her binoculars, camera and sunglasses like hot rocks, not sure which to use first. She's come to Belize fully armed to document the world's finest fowl. Just not quite this soon.
The jabiru stork is one of the largest birds in the Western Hemisphere, standing some five feet tall with a wingspan of up to 10 feathery feet. It is also a highly threatened species in Belize, quite unlikely to be out for an afternoon stroll along a highway.
Phillip leans across Mom's lap and slowly rolls down her window, explaining the rare spectacle in front of her. "He come out to the road because he look for water. Dry season." Mom hunches reverently and watches. I'm thinking: Dry season?
Just then, in a fling of white wings and sparkling spray, the stork swoops up and away, its kinked legs dangling behind. But not before Mom snaps a jiggly picture. She turns to me and grins spectacularly, elated. I honestly don't think I've ever seen her so overjoyed, and I feel the same way. At that moment neither of us is the parent; we're both 12 again, as excited over a muddy bird as we'd be over a Barbie Dream House on Christmas morning.
And it's exactly what I had hoped for.
MOM WILL BE THE FIRST TO TELL YOU that we've never exactly been simpatico. I like independent films; she likes chick flicks. I don't own a watch; she is drill-sergeant disciplined. I am mercurial; she is stoic.
Although well-meaning, Mom also has a special talent for finding the one negative thread in a situation and jerking it like Quasimodo in the Notre Dame bell tower.
Your senior pictures came out well. Too bad your hair is sticking up.
Your new boyfriend is cute, but where did he get that huge nose?
I liked your newspaper article, but you know you misspelled "exasperating''?
My mother raised me, and, to some extent, my decade-older sister, on a teacher's salary, while my father, a loving but hopeless alcoholic, lost his job, his dignity and ultimately his life to the disease. I know that wasn't easy. She worked from 6 a.m. until her coaching duties ended in the evenings, then had to grade papers, call parents and still attend to me. As a result, she had little time or patience for the trials and tribulations of a Madonna-worshiping, roller-skating, sticker-collecting kid.
Straight-A report cards were waved off like junk mail, but a 98 instead of 100 was received like an IRS audit notice. If a boyfriend dumped me, her response was, Well, just don't like him anymore. If I was upset after a fight with a friend, I was "just being too sensitive."
I suppose I wouldn't have liked me much back then, either. I was known around the neighborhood as Lucy -- the "Peanuts" character -- because I was so bossy. I was constantly getting into fistfights, mangling various appendages and accepting dumb dares. I talked back, groused about the slightest task, stamped around the house.
Over the years, my mother sewed countless elf costumes and cheerleading uniforms, packed hundreds of lunches, chauffeured me to school events all over Tennessee. I wasn't openly grateful. When I wanted the Kelly green-lamé prom dress from Merry Go Round, she had me put it in layaway and save up for it, then paid off the final balance herself. When I chose a Kentucky college built before the Civil War, it was Mom who helped carry my stuff up and down four swampy flights of stairs twice a year, every year.
Still, as we begin our Belize adventure, I can feel the tension rising again. This will be our longest time alone together in more than a decade, and I'm wondering about our past: What was real? Who was right? Does it matter? And: Can we even do this? For months I've been excited, not about Belize, but about finally being able to impress Mom, to be in charge, to be, yes, the parent. To prove to both of us that we can get along, that our relationship hasn't been just a 33-year series of tears and tantrums. I know this is possible. We just have to meet each other halfway.
"WHERE THE HELL IS BELIZE?" It's the question posed on dozens of cheap T-shirts in dozens of souvenir shop windows (alongside other shirts with phrases such as "Divers Do It Deeper" and "Mosquitoes Suck"). Roughly the size of Massachusetts, Belize is tucked into Central America with the Yucatan Peninsula to the north, Guatemala to the west and south, and the Caribbean's blue mosaic bathing its eastern side.
I first began visiting Belize for its nearly incomparable diving. Its 180-mile barrier reef, the second-largest in the world after Australia's, is a living, liquid museum of nature. In the deeper waters beyond lies the Blue Hole, a perfectly circular, 400-foot-deep sinkhole studied by Jacques Cousteau, and populated by stalactites, stalagmites and hammerhead sharks.
But I loved what I saw above the surface just as much.
Here, Mayan temples rise gray and mysterious from primordial jungle while jaguars creep fern-carpeted forests swaddled in clouds. Toucans and tapirs range rain forests never penetrated by humans. Sandy cays, some just the size of a back yard, stitch the coastline, with the divine but endangered coral reef arcing around the coast.
In birding circles, Belize is considered a crown jewel. More than 500 species have been recorded here (there are only about 800 in the entire United States), their variety far superior to the sparrowy brown commoners that loiter at Mom's bird feeder back in Memphis.
What Belize doesn't have are the earmarks of insatiable, seafoam skyscraper tourism or hulking industry. Belizeans certainly welcome Western currency, but they still revere their land and water. (For now, anyway. In January, Belize began exporting oil.)
The 280,000 or so citizens form the smallest population of any Central American country, and possibly the most diverse. Mom and I are just two skinny white croutons floating around in a spicy stew of Mestizos, Maya and Creoles. Add to them Mennonites, Garifuna, Chinese, East Indian and Lebanese, and you'd hardly guess English is the primary language (for nearly a century, until 1973, Belize was British Honduras).
But smiles, of course, are universal, and there are many as we enter the Cayo District -- on young boys leaping from a low suspension bridge into the river; at an open-air market where Mayan women bustle about in rainbow-hued skirts, chicken and children scurrying beneath their feet. We buy fresh mango and fried plantain chips, and with sticky fingers, continue toward our lodge.
I'm certain Mom will love duPlooy's, owned and managed by former Marylander Judy duPlooy and family. Her husband, Ken, who died in 2001, was an ornithologist. DuPlooy's was literally made for birders, with foliage-draped wooden walkways and tiled cabanas stilted high in the jungle canopy above the Macal River.
But as we crackle up the driveway, I notice an odd haze hovering ominously over the property. When I get out of the van, the acrid scent of smoke rasps down my throat.
Something else is wrong with the landscape. When I look up, all I see are blank branches and a smoke-choked sky. There are trees, big ones, with leaves, sure, but where is the verdant, waxy ceiling of palm fronds I remember staring at while drinking Cuervo by a campfire? Where are the fat pink orchids dripping from nooks of trees, the tangerine-tinged hibiscuses entwining the trellises?
Instead, flowers are few, and everything is cast in a barky-gray blur.
And it's much too quiet. The main deck and bar are empty, no one playing cards, reading or recounting the day's adventures wrestling jaguars, bungee-jumping from cliffs or using an outhouse for the first time.
My mother's joy, however, is undaunted. She leaps from the van and sprints to a hummingbird hovering over a limp pink blossom, thrilled. For this I am glad, but I know her. Any minute now she'll point out that this place doesn't look like it did on the Web site. Aaaannny minute.
But she's already off chasing after some other blue-gold flutter of wings, her binoculars orbiting her neck.
Despite my detailed planning, apparently I have made one colossal, Mayan jaguar god-size mistake: I forgot that Belize has a "dry season," during which the Cayo heat smothers you, foliage fades, tourists are few, and random brush fires start and smolder at will. Fortunately, we have two things going for us. First, Phillip, an expert guide and birder, promises that with less foliage the birds stand out more.
Then, because of the smoke, Judy upgrades us to the Cadillac of cabanas, the Casita -- two brightly painted levels, our own rooms, king-size beds, spa tubs, a wraparound deck and a small refrigerator. When I see ice cubes, I nearly well up with tears.
At dinner, I finally begin to uncoil. With fewer guests, our waiter, Anivar, heaps us with attention. Afterward, I realize that the groggy smoke has dissipated, and I can breathe the pure night. With a margarita in my hand and a dusty dog at my feet, I sit on the deck and watch the stars sparkle, enjoying a few moments to myself as Mom sits at the bar quizzing Anivar on birds. It's 10:30 p.m. -- normally she's snoozing through Jay Leno's opening monologue by now, but here she's outlasting the teenage waitstaff.
Sated, we return to our suite for baths and reading by kerosene lamps. As I squat down to unzip my suitcase, Mom casually asks, "So when did you get that, anyway?"
I smile to myself. Let the games begin. She's finally noticed my tattoo, a blue shark on the small of my back.
"It was my birthday gift to myself," I reply crisply. But now I'm feeling just a trace of that same apprehension that used to follow, "I got a call from your teacher today . . ."
"Oh," she says absently, balling up her socks. "I figured you'd get one eventually. So, what time are we getting up?"
Who is this woman?
OVER THE NEXT THREE DAYS we find that dry season isn't all bad. Mornings are cool and pleasant. We rise to the squawks of white-fronted parrots flapping over the river and enjoy breakfast on the main deck, drinking tea and watching rambunctious chacalacas, blue-crowned motmots, collared aracaris, crimson-collared tanagers and rose-throated becards visit a feeder sloppy with watermelon and papaya. I'm also beginning to believe that Phillip, a third-generation Mayan shaman, has a mystical connection with birds and animals. Wherever he is, there they are, too, a fortune of fauna.
There was the jabiru, of course. On our way to the Mayan site Caracol, Phillip spots another rare bird, a king vulture, looping high overhead. On a night hike he earns Mom's eternal awe when he shines his light into a tree and finds the glowing orange eyes of the furtive, owl-ish northern potoo.
Even common species reveal something magical when Phillip is around. Spider eyes become emeralds in his flashlight, suspended still and glistening from invisible nighttime webs. An opossum ambling along a limb is unspectacular until Phillip shows us the three shiny-eyed babies clinging to her back. At the main deck, a family of long-tailed kinkajous slink down from a tree and eat bananas from my hands, gently grasping my index finger with tiny, polite paws.
At Caracol, Phillip spots a gray fox and not one, but two coatimundis, sort of skinny rain forest raccoons, chasing each other around a tree like living cartoon characters. Black howler monkeys, named for their earsplitting roars so incongruous with their round, earnest faces, are regulars at Caracol, but Phillip draws a troupe closer with his own howling and grunts.
He's so good at it, in fact, that the monkeys decide they don't like the mustached, khaki-wearing intruder and his pale female companions, and hustle toward us through the curtain of leaves, bellowing and pelting us with nuts, urine and chunks of monkey scat exploding everywhere with dull, wet thuds. Mom dashes off ahead of us, leaving Phillip and me to zigzag, laughing and flailing, out of the jungle as the monkeys reach a demonic pitch.
But birds are Phillip's specialty. At Caracol, he knows every bird and its call -- keel-billed toucans, warblers, orioles and the oropendulas bobbing and yodeling from their woven basket nests hanging from branches like sloppy straw pendulums.
Mom trips along behind Phillip, scribbling into her journal every species he spots. It's wonderful to see her so engrossed, so intrepid (even as she demands Phillip spell each bird's name for her as he squinches his forehead perplexedly trying to construct the correct English lettering).
But when it's time to hike to the top of the temples and survey the vast jungle below (still echoing, thanks to us, with monkey shrieks), she refuses. She's nationally ranked in the Senior Olympics long jump. Climbing the steps should be a mere mosey for her, but she won't go near them. She just stands at the bottom of the temple looking up at me from under her floppy hat, shaking her head.
I'd forgotten this chink in her armor -- heights.
"Come on! It's just like big football bleachers!" I remind her, a college athletics booster who never misses a game.
"No, at a stadium I'd have a railing to hold onto."
I demonstrate how she can scoot up backward on her bottom, crab style. This is a once-in-a-lifetime sight! When will Mom ever again get to stand where kings have trod? I'm not sure she understands its importance, its majesty.
Before I can stop myself, I whine, "But I gave you this trip!"
She sits at the bottom, with her back to me. "Just go ahead!" she snaps. I've embarrassed her in front of Phillip.
So I climb to the top and scan the wide green vista of infinite treetops, just me and my monkeys. But it's not as much fun without her.
Driving home, we pass through Phillip's village. Two boys around 6 and 8, barefoot in rolled-up jeans, are walking along the road. Phillip asks if it's okay for us to give them a ride. They get in, and he speaks to them in Mayan, then drops them off at their school a mile or so down the road. He knows them; their mother died recently in childbirth, and Phillip and his wife, who have seven kids of their own, have been giving the boys clothing. How awful it must be, I think to myself, not to have a mother.
THE NEXT MORNING, we pack our smoky clothes and are off again with Phillip to catch a puddle jumper to San Pedro Town on Ambergris Caye, the largest of Belize's islands.
Mom can tolerate jets, but she hates small planes; she's only relenting because the alternative is a two-hour, saltwater scrubbing on the water taxi. When our tiny plane wobbles up the tarmac, propellers whining, I'm expecting a full-fledged freakout.
She grips my wrist as we board, but once we zip up and over the luminous azure-green water, our plane's shadow skimming the calm surface, she is mesmerized. She even smiles for a picture, no screaming, no white knuckles, no airsick bags. We can't hear each other over the engines, but when I point at dark kelp beds on the white-sand bottom and tiny, pink-sailed boats cutting frothy white V's of wake, she gives me a thumbs up.
We are staying at Ramon's Village, a high-end resort with colorful, thatched-roof cabanas, a manicured white beach, and a scrumptious, lagoon-like pool encased in tropical flowers and palms. I think Mom's conquering the flight (and the fact that our room has air conditioning) has made her giddy. She's so eager to get into the sun, she doesn't even bother to unpack and organize all her clothes and toiletries, or call my sister to let her know we have arrived.
We change into swimsuits and flop onto beach chairs, overlooking the water lapping the docks and boats nodding under a cloudless sky. When a waitress comes by, before I can even think about what I want, Mom shoots up and grabs her arm.
"We'll take two margaritas, top shelf!"
I didn't even know my box-wine-drinking mother knew there was a top shelf.
The waitress returns with our drinks, and our bill. I fan out my Belizean currency and hand her . . .
Wait. "Thirty-two dollars? American?!?"
The waitress nods, without a hint of sheepishness.
Mom and I goggle at each other. Even in my illustrious drinking career -- staggering my way through New York, London, Paris, L.A. -- a $16 cocktail, in a plastic Dixie cup no less, is inconceivable. I've told Mom not to worry about paying for anything on this trip, but now my "fuhgeddabout it!" nonchalance evaporates.
"I'm sorry, I had no idea," she whispers, as the waitress trots away. I can tell she's worried about my reaction, but I'm not upset with her.
"Let's just drink them reaaaaally slowly," I say.
THE NEXT AFTERNOON, after we explore San Pedro's sand streets of clapboard houses, fresh fruit stands and souvenir shops pumping static-y punta music, our guide, Al, steers the Ramon's powerboat toward the waves creaming over the reef at Hol Chan ("little channel" in Mayan) Marine Reserve. Mom is about to have her first snorkeling adventure.
"Why am I so nervous about this?" she yells to me over the churn of the motors.
I understand her hesitation. She practiced using my snorkel yesterday in the calm, wade-able shallows of Ramon's and aced it. But no matter how clear the water, how many people are with you, there is still something unnatural about flinging yourself from the safe confines of a boat into dark, watery depths with only a plastic tube and fake webbed feet to help you.
"I get that way, too. Don't worry!" I yell back, patting her knee. I know that once we're in, the fireworks of fish, the soaring sea turtles and toothy green moray eels congregating in the coral will enchant her.
We tie up to a buoy and tug on our masks and flippers. Gripping the railing for balance, Mom shuffles slowly to the back of the boat to wait her turn to jump in.
At first, she's fine, treading water while adjusting her mask, mouthing her snorkel. I'm impressed. It's not that she shies from physical exertion, it's just that I can't remember the last time she let her hair get wet.
But then she begins to flail.
"I keep breathing in water!"
"You're not clearing your snorkel, remember? Blow!" I say, demonstrating.
But she continues her wet wheezing, lifting her head every few seconds for a regular breath, dog paddling. She looks miserable, her curly bangs hanging straight over her mask.
Assuming, I suppose, that this struggle is due to inadequate swimming skills, Al offers Mom an orange sort of float-ring with a rope attached, so he can tug her along. At least now she can relax, but I hate to see her be treated like a piece of feeble flotsam. I am struck for a moment by how frail she looks. Sometimes I forget she was born before World War II.
Later, we haul back up into the boat and rest as Al motors us to Shark Ray Alley, a shallow cut in the reef where nurse sharks and stingrays wriggle and wheel. But Mom is taking off her fins.
"I don't think I'm going to do the second half," she says, with a tone of frustrated finality. "You go, and I'll just wait up here."
I prod her to try anyway, but she insists that she can't breathe with her snorkel.
"Well here," I say, peeling my mask and snorkel off and handing it to her. "You use mine, and I'll use yours. Mine works fine, and I've seen all this stuff before anyway, so I don't care. I just want you to have a chance." And I sincerely mean this. I couldn't care less about the fish, and I would be heartsick if she missed another opportunity to see one of Belize's unique marvels.
Begrudgingly, she agrees. And, as it turns out, her equipment was faulty. This time, I'm the one sucking for dribbly air, trying to breathe through a snorkel whose purge valve is leaky, allowing just enough water in to be, if not dangerous, seriously annoying and uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, Mom is having the time of her life with my equipment, plunking around on her own.
"I can't believe how much better this is!" she gushes. "Now I see what you mean!"
The late-afternoon sun has ignited the sea. Purple and orange coral fans bow in the gentle current, while sharks, rays and fish of every color whirl around us. Mom is leading the way, showing me blue tangs, lobsters and puffer fish as I put my hands together in silent applause.
As we bump along the waves back to Ramon's, it doesn't escape me that this must be something of what it's like for a mother to make a sacrifice so that her child can experience something incredible. And, boy, does it feel good.
THE LAST DAY, as we plod up the steps to our plane, burdened with shopping bags, duty-free liquor and half the sand in Ambergris, I'm suddenly overcome with how fast the nine days have gone and how I'm not ready to leave. But now, crammed into coach on our way back to the real world, at least I know that we did, unbelievably, meet the most important goal: We got along.
Perhaps I've dwelt too often on qualities about my mother that aren't true or fair anymore, if they ever were. Maybe she's not the iron, unyielding superwoman I thought I knew -- maybe she's a fragile, passionate, independent gal just doing the best she can. Kind of like me.
We fasten our seat belts and veer up into the sky. She squeezes me. "I don't know what I'm going to do after this -- nothing will ever be the same after this trip!"
Possibly for the first time ever, I have to admit she's right.
there is a link on the washington post website for pics http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/25/AR2006042501604.html
click on the link by where it says "photos, the plunge"