Returning to what has been one of my favorite places on earth since I was a young girl for my first extended stay in years, I found Belize's Cayo hardly changed. Me? I have to admit that, back in Belize at last, I was a little harder to recognize.
I came to Cayo for the first time almost 30 years ago. I had seen little else of the rest of the world by that time, but I recognized something in this part of Belize that I appreciated immediately--a big-time potential for adventure and discovery.
"This is what's great about Cayo," I told my 14-year-old son Jackson as he, his father, and I drove around lost in the dark on the unpaved, unmarked, unlit jungle roads our first night in the country trying to find our lodge.
"You can always count on having an adventure."
On my first visit to this part of the world three decades ago, my first friend in Belize, Mick Fleming, wondered just how much adventure I was up for.
Sitting next to me at the wooden bar of his Chaa Creek jungle lodge, Mick turned and asked, "Do you want to go on a guided tour of the Mayan ruins...or would you be up for a real Belize experience?"
Being 22-years-old, how could I resist an opportunity for a real Belize experience, even though I had no idea what that might mean.
Mick had one of his staff drive me deeper into the jungle, to the two-room thatched-roofed home of a Mayan family. Alongside their little house, Mick had helped them to build a second, smaller place, a single room that they rented out to tourists. I've always wondered if any other tourist actually ever stayed in the place. This tourist has remembered my night there ever since.
Mick's man dropped me off and said he'd be back for me the next morning. It was just past lunchtime. The family I now found myself the guest of consisted of a mother, a father, and three children. The oldest child, a 13-year-old boy, spoke English. He asked what I'd like to do and then suggested a hike to a nearby cave. I smiled agreement.
I followed the boy up the side of the nearby mountain, through the bush. When it began to rain, the trail became slick, but the boy continued on, so I did, too. He used his machete to cut branches and growth from the trail we followed. Finally, he pointed with his machete toward the ground. I followed the machete's point and saw a small hole in the muddy earth. "The cave," the boy said. "Do you want to go inside?"
The boy lay down on the ground, on his stomach, then reached into the hole with his two hands, then his arms, and then he pulled himself through the mud and was gone.
I stood on the side of the hill, in the rain, in the mud, and considered my options. Really, I had only one. I got down on the ground the way I'd seen the boy do and slithered hands and arms first through the hole.
On the other side was a cavern with ledges along both sides. Up ahead was the boy, waiting for me. A little farther inside the cave, I was able to stand up. The boy, now upright, too, led me on, from the first cavern to a second one and then a third. All along the sides were ledges littered with clay pots, most in pieces but some whole. I confirmed with Mick later that these pots were Mayan artifacts.
"The country is lousy with them," he told me. "The Smithsonian and others come down and catalog as many as they can, but there are just too many. They're everywhere in the caves."
In the third room, the biggest, the ceiling of the cavern reached cathedral height. In the center of the circular area was a big, round, table-shaped rock. The boy and I stood in silence staring up and all around, then he said we should go before it got too late.
I followed him back to the first cavern and then watched as he hoisted himself up and pulled himself through the small opening. If he can do it, I guess I can do it, I thought to myself and hoisted and pulled until my arms were through and then the boy helped drag through the rest of me.
Back out above ground, the rain had stopped, but the hillside was wet and slippery. We slid and scrambled back down toward the boy's family's home, just in time for dinner.
The boy's family was seated around a handmade wooden table situated outside, alongside the door to the house. The mother was serving when we approached but stopped when she saw me. I was head to toe red mud. The lady went inside her house and returned with a small bar of soap. She handed the soap to me and pointed down the hill in the direction of the river.
I walked down the hill to the river and waded in to my knees. I bent over and splashed water on my arms and legs then used the soap to scrub off the worst of it. Rinsed and a little more presentable, I returned to the family dinner table.
After dinner, the boy walked me to the room next-door and said good night. I slept on the floor, on a straw mat, with the windows open to the breeze and the night sounds. I was immediately asleep. The next morning, after breakfast, Mick's man returned to take me back to Chaa Creek.
That was my introduction to this country.
Arriving in Belize City for my recent visit all these years later, Lief, Jack, and I walked out from the international airport and headed in the direction of the one-room rental car shop on the other side of the parking lot. As we approached, a friendly lady walked toward us extending her hand in greeting.
"Hello, I'm Marilyn. This is my husband Eddie."
I looked over to Lief for help. Had this couple been sent by local friends to greet us? Were we supposed to give them a ride somewhere? Who were Marilyn and Eddie?
"Here, let me help load your bags into the back of the SUV," Eddie offered.
"Then you can come inside with me to fill out the paperwork," Marilyn added.
Ah, these were the rental car agents. They'd been standing in the parking lot with our rental car waiting for us to show...even though our plane had been two hours delayed. Marilyn and Eddie had walked across the parking lot to check in with TACA to confirm our arrival time...then they'd brought the car out front and hung out around it until we appeared on the scene.
Welcome to Belize.
"I wonder if they stand out in the parking lot waiting to greet every customer," I said to Lief later.
"Maybe. Best I could tell from their website, I think their rental fleet consists of a half-dozen cars," he said.
We set out from the airport along one of the country's three paved highways. When the paving ran out, we bumped and jostled over a rutted thoroughfare of exposed limestone that I think takes the prize for the worst road I've ever traveled.
Turns out, our lodge wasn't at the end of that road, as Lief had thought. So we got to drive the worst road I've ever seen twice that night, 30 minutes in and then 30 minutes back out to the main highway.
Going in and then coming back out, we had to cross a plank bridge.
"Do you think that bridge can accommodate this vehicle?" I asked the first time we approached it.
"Where's your spirit of adventure?" Lief replied.
He had a point.
Belize is Belize. A land for the intrepid. I spent the next two weeks remembering and rediscovering that. In return, Belize helped me to reconnect with my own intrepid soul.