By Joshua Berman
Edited by Naturalight Productions
Suddenly, in the darkness, I forget where I am. It has been a long day of movement and miles. I know I am paddling a canoe at night, on my knees in the bow, twisting my body with each stroke, trying to make as little noise in the water as possible.
There are drums on the breeze, a faint rhythm that comes and goes.
The blue-black shapes around me are pure jungle, a dense canopy of plants and animals, close on all sides.
I pull my paddle through the water again, our boat glides forward, and, just as suddenly, I know: I'm in Belize.
The drums continue in the distance, louder with the breeze, then softer; there is Garifuna dancing in Hopkins, the beat drifting across the mangroves to our boat in Boom Creek.
My guide for the evening, Ernesto, paddles silently behind me, and my fellow traveler, Danielle, sits between us and turns on the super-powered flashlight at the slightest noise in the bush.
This morning, I woke up on the bank of the Caves Branch River and went for a morning dip as the broadleaf forest awoke around me- toucans, parrots, and breezy palm fronds. Then I packed my pack and moved out of yet another brief home, another cabana in the wild.
Danielle and I caught a ride to the highway on a tractor and missed the bus to Dangriga. During the two hours that followed, we stood on the side of the Hummingbird Highway, at the entrance to Blue Hole National Park. We passed the time kicking a rock around, singing to each other, and chatting with a passing Mayan family; we met a Belizean guide who also rock climbed and trained local fireman in rescue techniques; and we spoke with a Peace Corps Volunteer who was taking a break from teaching in the schools of Cayo to go birding with his parents, down from Texas.
The bus schedule was off because it was Boxing Day and the everyday logistics of life were temporarily interrupted by Christmas celebrations around the country-the eleven o'clock Punta Gorda bus never appeared and the Dangriga noon driver was most likely drinking bitters with his buddies.
Finally, a black pickup stopped-we climbed in the back and I banged on the side, signaling to the driver that we were ready for some wind. The sweat on my head and neck dried instantly as we flew down and out of the Maya Mountains, across the citrus groves, and then, "Mabuiga!" The entrance sign to Dangriga shouted its welcome moments before the drums appeared-the Drums of Our Fathers Monument: three massive iron models of the ceremonial dugu drums, dedicated last Settlement Day in a black-and-yellow rush of Garifuna pride.
I'm not sure if this is what I expected from Belize: this constant parade of scenery, bouncing between so many worlds in such short periods of time-and in such a tiny space! Belize is smaller than Massachusetts, but it is bursting with culture, language, and geography.
My paddle draws another oval in the black creek when I notice a musky odor hanging above the water; feral and funky.
"Smells like tigre," says Ernesto softly.
We raise our paddles and Danielle turns on the lamp, aiming it into the thick shoreline. A five-foot boa constrictor lies perfectly still at the water's edge; behind it, in the black-green bush, a branch snaps and leaves rustle-but the light reveals nothing.
Another crack from the brush. Something heavy.
"Dat him," whispers Ernesto. He had just been telling us about the jaguar he saw the night before, stalking the trees near the chickens in his yard. The property where he lives backs into this section of Boom Creek and he is certain. "Tigres smell that way to mark dey territory," he says.
We wait a few minutes longer, then paddle on.
The pickup stopped on St. Vincent Street and Danielle and I hopped out and walked around to shake the driver's hand as he got out of the car. His 8-year-old son appeared from the other side and leaned into his dad's leg. Danielle took his photograph as the father smiled on.
"Thanks, man," I said. "Are you coming from Belize City?"
"Yes," he said. "I grew up in Dangriga though. I came to show my son the Charikanari dance."
"That's why we're here too," I said. "How do we find the dancers?"
"Jes lissen for de drumming, man," he said.
We push farther up the creek, picking our way through the branches, using the light to avoid the spiders as bats flit about our heads. The drums still come and go and I paddle slowly; the jaguar excited us and we don't want to miss anything. Danielle trains the light on a splash to our left-a small, two-foot crocodile freezes, a fish in his mouth. The croc slides below the inky water, not releasing its dinner, and we continue upstream.
Around the next bend, Boom Creek opens up into lagoon, the sky black and sparkling above us. We lean back and look at the stars, black bat shadows drawing lines through the air.
Only a few hours previous, we were still in Dangriga, I think,
the sunlight golden in the hot afternoon. We walked into an Internet
café, enjoyed a cold limejuice, and asked if it was okay to dump
our packs there while we waited for our bus to Sittee. Then we
went out to find the drumming.
It didn't take long.
We spent the next two hours marching through streets, backyards, and patios with a mob of laughing Dangrigans; the cross-dressed dancers playing and dancing their comedy act, breaking from their concert/drama/ritual only to drink from black bottles of Guinness that they called "dark-and-lovelies."
Danielle and I snapped away with our cameras, the pre-dusk light rich and creamy on so many colors and costumes. We finally pulled away to climb onto the bus as the sun dropped behind the mountains; we arrived in Sittee with just enough time to check into our cabin and eat a delicious dinner-coconut curry shrimp, served to us on our screened porch.
Then we made our way to the bank of the river, introduced ourselves to Ernesto, and climbed into his canoe.
The night was young.
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography