Mass, rain, and monkeys.
This morning Zane and Lizbeth, extended family members of St. Mark’s (their son, Gavin, was baptized in our font), took us to mass at their church, St. Martin de Porres, a Catholic parish in the Lake Independence neighborhood of Belize City.
People, I have to tell you, it was amazing. This little church is like a cousin to St. Mark’s in Los Angeles. From the acoustic guitar-friendly, folk-inflected music, to the hands held during the prayers, to the simplified welcome-table-style of communion, to the “special blessings” the priest normally offers… really, it was amazing. We have a sister parish in Belize City, truly!
After church, Lizbeth’s sister, Veronica, and son, Gavin, took us on a tour of Belize City. I can’t possibly write down everything we saw. We stopped at St. John’s Cathedral, the oldest Anglican church in Central America.
From there we went to see the Swing Bridge, the Government House, and the Baron Bliss Lighthouse. My head begins to fill with the history of this small-but-mighty little country.
After awhile I begin to notice that many, if not most, of the houses are built on stilts. It takes me embarrassingly too long to understand, but eventually I get it. Belize City is at sea level. Whenever a hurricane blows in, and it floods, a house built on stilts can avoid the flooding.
We didn’t see any hurricanes today, but their little brothers, coastal thunderstorms, were here. We went to a seaside restaurant to eat lobster (be jealous, Shawn), and were initially sitting outside by the water. Then the sky, already muddy, grew angry. Lizbeth suggested we move inside. Thank goodness we did. Not five minutes later was the strongest, windiest, rainiest thunderstorm I’ve experienced in years. Granted, we live in Southern California, where it never rains, but still. After all this talk of hurricanes, a rainstorm like that one feels like just a taste of what could be much, much worse – and what has been.
The stories Veronica’s mother told us last night about Hurricane Hattie in 1961 are still vivid in our minds. The storms shape so much. The houses are built to weather them. The capitol moved from Belize City to Belmopan to avoid them. Even the priest this morning used a hurricane as the setting for a little story in his sermon.
Still, Zane told us he prefers hurricanes to the tornadoes of the Midwest or the earthquakes of California. After all, you can track hurricanes with radar for days ahead of time. “At least,” he said, “you can see them coming.”
The storms almost cancelled our afternoon plans, but then let up just in time. They leave as quickly as they arrive. And so, after lunch, the six of us packed ourselves into Zane’s jeep and headed out into the bush.
We went west on the Goldson Highway, through Burrell Boom, over creeks and rivers, past groves of coconut trees and lone towering mahoganies, alongside roosters and cows that wandered into the road, past the occasional rural basketball court (basketball tangent: After seeing so many basketball courts here, I’ve decided Belize is the new Indiana. They should film a reboot of Hoosiers and set it here. Homegrown basketball talent is coming, NBA. It’s only a matter of time.).
We stopped at a place called Flowers Bank, site of a key story in Belize’s history. This was the place where the original baymen decided to take their stand against the invading Spanish way back in 1797.
After reflecting on the history of the site, we began hear strange, loud animal noises coming from the forest. The sound is incredibly difficult to describe. Imagine a roar crossed with a scratchy croak. Zane told us we were hearing howler monkeys. “Do you want to see one up close?” Lizbeth noticed I was beginning to take my usual ridiculous number of photos. “We need to get you a photo of the monkeys.”
So we continued on to a place called Bermudian Landing, where we pulled off to the side of the road. Some boys on bicycles asked us “Do you want to see the monkeys?” And they pointed us up the road to a tiny general store where a group of men were playing cards or dominoes outside, where we were sure to find a guide who could show us the monkeys. Zane got out of the car, disappeared for a minute, and then reappeared with a man in a Bob Marley hat who hitched a ride with us back down the road and then led us into the jungle.
There was a path of sorts, and we followed it, avoiding the army ants making swirling patterns at our feet while our guide pointed out medicinal plants and yellow spiders the size of my hand. Eventually he went back and picked up one of the army ants. He showed it to us up close. It was pretty huge for an ant. “You can use it as a suture,” he said. “See?” Then he put the ant’s mandibles on his shirt, let them close, and then tore the ant’s body off of its head. “The mandibles will stay shut now; there’s no way to open them. Very useful.”
We continued on and began to hear the howler monkeys again. Our guide disappeared into the forest to get some mangoes and entice the monkeys closer. While he was gone, two monkeys leaped just over our heads, moving from tree to tree over the path. Our guide returned, and called us into the forest. And then we saw the monkeys up close, all right.
After hanging out with the monkeys, we made our way to a little refreshment stand. We’d earned it.
Many, many thanks to Zane, Lizbeth, Veronica, and Gavin for taking us around today. We had the most amazing day that we could never, ever have done on our own. So thank you all, so, so much.