up the New River
Thursday, January 1 2015
location: Orchid Garden Resort Ecolodge, Hattieville, Belize
This morning, Alvero drove us north to the city of Orange Walk. It was a long drive, and I kept thinking that any moment we'd be at the Mexican border. I was in the front seat and Alvero and I weren't talking, so it gave me a rare opportunity to just zone out, stare out the window, and be alone with my thoughts completely undistracted by the others in our eight-person family contingent. There's something about tropical nature, particularly in its more degraded forms, that makes me think holistically about the entirety of the biosphere in both time and space. Having just visited the Mayan ruins had me thinking about what the world would be like after human society collapsed from its present globalized highly-industrial state. While it's likely that a lot of information and complexity will be lost in such a collapse, some of the knowledge gains by humanity will be toothpaste that cannot be put back in the tube. While it's possible that centuries or even millions of years might pass without anyone creating a new transistor or LCD display, fundamental gains like Newtonian Physics, the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, and even Einstein's Theory of General Theory of Relativity will probably survive in some form. And humans themselves are just too adaptable to go completely extinct. It's likely, for example, that some would even survive a K-T level extinction event. So the other plants and animals are going to have to adapt in order to survive along with us. My thoughts on the drive today led me to conclude that now that self-aware intelligence is here on Planet Earth to stay, there will be adaptive pressure on other species to develop it as well. They'll need additional intelligence in order to cope with the resulting complexities and rapid-paced environmental changes.
Orange Walk is where the antivirus magnate John McAfee has a house and was once suspected of the murder of a neighbor. I wouldn't bother mentioning any of this except that it was brought up by both Alvero and the guide who would be taking a large group of us up the New River from a pier located only a couple hundred feet from McAfee's house.
At the dock where we loaded onto a speed boat, we befriended another docile dock dog with large nipples. She behaved a lot like the dog we'd met yesterday on Caye Caulker, though she had a prettier roan coat and gentle facial features. When we boarded, Gretchen and I again made a beeline for the back of the boat, though the water of the river was calm and there wasn't much gained by sitting in the back. Indeed, more was lost than gained, as the view wasn't as good back there and we were closer to the noise and pollution of the two engines.
The New River is a fairly large river that varies enormously in width. In some places its banks are swampy and in others it has multiple channels, so it's hard to say along any portion how wide it is with any precision. Our guide piloted our boat quickly southward (upstream), occasionally making sharp turns to take channels that seemed counterintuitive. The boat ride had been billed as a way for us to learn more about Belizian nature, but our guide admitted that so late in the morning with so many other passing boats is a bad time to see anything interesting. We did see several Jacanas walking on lily pads, multiple birds of prey (including several species of kite), and a strange epiphytic species of cactus looking like snakes in the tree branches above the water. We passed almost no evidence of human settlement except for one large Mennonite farm. Our guide told us that the Mennonites produce 70% of Belize's food and that they are "very rich" as a result. He sounded somewhat resentful as he said this.
Our destination was the Mayan ruins of Lamanai, which lies on the west bank of an extremely wide part of the New River (a lagoon that forms the largest body of fresh water in Belize). Unfortunately, our crowded boat represented just a small fraction of the people who had decided New Years 2015 was a good day to see the famous ruins. After landing and being given an opportunity to use the public restroom (where there was a line even for the men), our guide led us to the first set of ruins, which represented the remains of a house belonging to a king, and it had been built atop remains of another house belonging to another king. The rooms were small and the whole thing wasn't much bigger than the floorplan of conventional McMansion, but of course in those days everything had to be built stone by hand-chiseled stone. As we hurried from one room to the next, our guide quickly mentioned the collapse of the Mayan civilization. He said that they'd overpopulated the entire region and that Belize, which is now home to only a third of a million people, had once contained six million Maya. He then said that during a two hundred year period around the time of the Mayan collapse there were only two hurricanes while now Belize normally gets several each year. The implication was that overpopulation and deforestation had resulted in a general climatic malaise, one of whose symptoms was the absence of hurricanes. I found that a little hard to believe, and so did an outspoken Texan who sounded like someone who might be skeptical of human-caused climate change generally. He said "I'll have to Google that." [The results of such Googling seem to belie the whole premise; in fact the hurricanes appear never to have ceased.]
It was not a great tour to be on if one harbored conservative dogma and hoped never to confront it. Our guide moved on to a description of Mayan society that compelled direct comparisons to the one present in the modern United States of America. Our guide explained that in Mayan society, five percent of the people were elites who grew tall (five and half feet on average), lived long, and presumably exploited the remaining 95%. The miserable 95%, by contrast, had short lives, grew to height of only four and a half feet, and were controlled by a religion that promised rewards after death. In the United States, of course, the distribution is warped even more towards the top even if our elite aren't necessarily taller. And one has to wilfully curtail one's critical thinking not realize that the reason Christianity has fared so well in competition with other religions is the promise it offers that it doesn't have to fulfill.
As we hurried to another structure, our guide found a hole in the ground and managed to tease a massive tarantula out of it by wiggling a thin twig in its entrance. My little eight-year-old niece was delighted, stooping in low with her camera to take a picture. Her fascination with animals of all descriptions reminds me of the stories of Gretchen when she was little. (There's a picture of a very young Gretchen smiling broadly as a snake crawls across her shoulders from one arm to the other.)
Our guide hurriedly showed us the old Mayan ball court where contestants used to try to defeat their opponent so that they could also symbolically defeat the Mayan devil (and, in real life, be killed as the prize). Our guide failed to tell us about the vessel of liquid mercury that had been found beneath the stone placed in the center of the court. Evidently the Maya knew how to extract this liquid metal from cinnabar. It must have been a mind-blowing substance to them, and their lives were already so brutish and short that exposure presented little downside.
Eventually we got a chance to climb Lamanai's tallest pyramid, a journey facilitated by a wooden staircase that carried us nearly to the top. We had to climb the final twenty or so feet via steeply-stepped side of the pyramid itself. As with every other place at Lamanai, the pyramid was crowded, particularly at the summit, but a brief shower of rain managed to scare away everyone but Gretchen and me. For a whole minute or two we were the only humans on the room-sized peak. The view from there was gorgeous, particularly looking across the wide swath of the New River to the east.
Later our guide led us back to the main tourist area of the site and provided us with a lunch he and a colleague had brought in a cooler all the way from Orange Walk. It consisted of several massive trays of food, each big enough to feed all thirty or so people who had crammed into the New River speedboat. In one was the ubiquitous chicken I was now used to seeing. In another was the also-ubiquitous rice & beans (that is, dry rice with a trace of refried beans). In a third was cole slaw, also ubiquitous. The fourth tray, however, was smaller and contained something I'd never seen before: a shredded mixture of onions, hot peppers, possibly green peppers, and perhaps other vegetables. The guide proudly said that all of the food had been prepared by his mother. I found that the rice & beans, mixed with that oniony pepper stuff, was a delicious combination. I think I ate three courses of the stuff. There was plenty of rice & beans, since everyone else was going for the chicken, but I was surprised that the oniony pepper stuff was almost completely eaten. Along with my food, I drank a Coca Cola for the first time in many years. I actually only had about half of the twelve ounce bottle; Gretchen drank the rest. It had been bottled in Belize and tasted better than I remember Coke tasting. Gretchen's parents had brought bread, fake lunch meat, and Chao vegan cheese, and so some of my continent had sandwiches instead of the same old same old Belize vegan option.
After lunch, Gretchen and I checked out a nearby understaffed museum, marveling at shards of pottery, obsidian blades, and various chunks of carved stone. There was also a recreated thatch-roofed hut seemingly designed for the 95% of Maya who were four and a half feet tall.
Just before boarding our speedboat, the guide for another party drew our attention to a number of Black Howler Monkeys in the trees nearby. There were three or four of them, including a small one. Any day that Gretchen sees a live monkey is a good one.
The boat ride back to Orange Walk was less eventful that the ride from it had been. Our guide hoped to show us some wildlife, but there wasn't much except for cormorants, kites, and white egrets. Eventually he found us a three foot long crocodile lying on a horizontal section of tree trunk, but it was hard to see from the boat and might easily have been a rubber croc he keeps there for days like this one. Similarly, a number of bats sleeping upside down at the base of a tree only merits a mention because of how little else there was to see.
The friendly roan dog was there at the dock in Orange Walk when we arrived, joined now by a male version of herself who was either a son or a husband. The two played enthusiastically on our approach, suggesting that they might be getting scraps and leftovers from our picnic and Lamanai.
At dinner back at Orchid Garden, I decided to add vodka instead of the usual rum to my fruit beverage. That proved to be something of a mistake, because it imparted a weird chemical flavor to the mixture. The vodka was that 160 proof Devil Springs, and I'd brought it in a three ounce rubber TSA-approved container, and I suspected the alcohol had somehow leached chemicals out of the rubber. But what the hell, I drank it anyway.
Unlike Gretchen and me (whose preferred socializing is freeform chit chat), her brother's family from Pittsburgh seem to have a fondness for structured socializing, the kind that happens when one is playing a game, performing a ritual, singing or playing musical instruments, or otherwise putting on some sort of performance. Generally we try to avoid such things, but every now and then we do what we need to for the good of the family. Tonight, for example, our eleven year old nephew wanted us to go back with his family to their room to participate in "improv games." Improv games are structured activities (taken, it seems, from a collection published in a book) designed to help would-be improv performers develop their craft. Now while Gretchen's brother once was part of an improv group, Gretchen and I have little patience for the pursuit. Don't get me wrong, we realize a great deal of brilliance has come out of the improv community (Stephen Colbert's whole career being just one example), but actual improv theatre is just not our thing. Still, our nephew really seems to love it, so this evening after dinner we went back to their place and played improv games. And I have to say, they really seem to have a good effect on my little nephew. He's normally shy and anxious, but given the structure of an improv game, he comes out of his shell, goes into character (to the extent that an eleven year old can) and seems to blossom as a human being. We played three or four different games, including ones where the audience knows something that the performers do not (and which is revealed by an improvisational dialog), another where a story is told one sentence at a time by three separate performers, and one where a short but complete play is acted through a series of different dramatic styles (including, in the example this evening, Romance and Bollywood).
Gretchen and me atop the tallest Lamanai pyramid today.
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