I soon discovered that my new role as "tour guide" entailed more than merely being brilliant in the Maya ruins. Yes, as it turns out, tour guides are expected to know every bird, plant, butterfly, rock and lizard in the country. I really had to struggle with this deal since botany and zoology were never my long suit. Eventually I at least became conversant but certainly limited in my scope. I
t was about this time that I took on a group of fourteen wide-eyed citizens from the "colossus of the north" to make the rounds of a little-known Central American country which in those days was still pretty "Raggedy-Annie" in terms of transport and communication. One of the members of this party was a delightful lady in her sixties who was a real trouper, having been just about everywhere on the planet except Belize. The trouble was she wanted to know EVERYTHING! There was a continuous stream of questions from her during all her waking hours. She took copious notes and then asked more questions from her notes around the dinner table at night.
Well, by the end of the third day I'm pretty well tapped out in terms of my background in the flora and fauna. She seemed to have an almost unhealthy interest in trees and shrubs, something that has never really lighted my fire. Nonetheless I did the best I could, often asking local inhabitants the names and uses of the various plants in their community.
By the fourth day, I'm getting desperate. It was then I made the fatal mistake. I made stuff up. I had done my doctoral research on archeological sites along the south Texas coast, where the ancient inhabitants had often gathered fish and shellfish as a part of their diet. Naturally I had to learn the scientific names of these various fishes, clams, oysters, conchs and mussels that remained behind in the scattered sites along the coast, so I was familiar with quite a few of these terms. So, when this lady asked me for the thousandth time to identify this plant or that tree, I fell back on my knowledge of shellfish and replied in my most sincere voice that while I did not know the local name of this or that tree, the scientific ' name was "Pogonis cromis" (which, by the way is a Black Drum fish). She seemed delighted at this revelation so I was naturally encouraged to continue this charade. Most any tree became an "Argopecten irradians amplicostatus" (a Bay Scallop) or a "Crassotrea virginica" (Eastern Oyster).
It was in this way I got through the next three days, naming trees with every scientific term I could recall. This lady was literally filling her notebook with bogus information but it kept her off my case and gave me some peace. All was well until the last day of the tour. We were crossing the river on the little hand-propelled ferry, returning from a visit at the ruins at Xunantunich, when this dear lady came to me all excited about the huge trees that line the western bank of the river near the ferry landing. "What are those big green trees?" she cried. I, of course had no clue, and moreover I couldn't think of a single Latin name at that moment. I decided to wing it. My dear, I said, I don't know what the local name for those trees is, but the scientific name is Arboles verdes giganticus. She was filled with joy and scurried away to inscribe this tidbit in her notebook.
Just then I felt a tap on my shoulder and one of our number, a very distinguished gentlemen who had been pretty quiet during the tour, beckoned me to the opposite side of the ferry where he spoke in low tones. "Herman," he said. "I have been listening to your line of BS with this woman for a week now and I think you have finally gone too far." He then disclosed that he was Professor Emeritus of Tropical Botany at the University of Oregon and had written several books on the trees and shrubs of Central America. After making an obscene reference to his ancestry I said, "Why didn't you speak up earlier and help me out?" He replied, "And have that goofy broad on my case for a week?