Tuesday, March 21, 2017

I Have Found the Garden of Eden. Its Name is “Belize”

Our ship docked on Harvest Caye (pronounced 'key') - a private island that belongs to our cruise line, Norwegian. We walked the long pier to the island, in a melty hot early morning. The sea was calm, and the mangrove forest was unperturbed, hovering over the Caribbean Sea as if afraid to touch it. Only the tippy toes of the roots were barely scratching the crystal blue waters. Pelicans floated lazily in the cove and there was no wind, really. Just a calm, warm air, and quiet. The promise of a hot day. 

Pelican along mangrove forest, on the Caribbean Sea 

We walked around the small island, while we waited for our (smaller) boat to take us to the Belize mainland. Everything around us was pristinely green and tellingly tropical. The smell in the air was of blooms and perfume. Palm trees of all sorts of species and banana trees lined the narrow alleys in the park of Harvest Caye. The vegetation was robust and lush green. It was like a tropical or a rain forest – just green and exuding steam.

The thatch roofed bars and souvenir stores were elegant and clean. No sign of 'cheese' really, in Belize. All the touristy stuff is subdued and elegant. Never too much of anything, never anything too loud. The land and the forest rein supreme. Everything else is built within it, where it fits. There is a sense of peace and non-intrusion of the man made construction because of this layout.

Our boat took a while to come, so we waited patiently while listening to island music and rock and roll. We boarded and chose to be on the upper deck. Little did we know that we had the craziest toothless captain there is. He drove that thing, with 100+ tourists on board like a maniac, jumping waves 10 feet in the air, or so it seemed, with us rolling from one end of the benches to another trying to stay on the deck and not be flinged into the ocean. I was afraid for my life on that thing and how I did not throw up, with all the seasickness I usually feel, I have no clue. I think only sheer fear kept me surviving and wishing for another day on land. The only thing that rested my fears were all the other staff: they were laughing and were calm and composed, enjoying the ride as they were bouncing left and right and up and down on the boat. I figured, they knew the captain knew what he was doing and this was “business as usual.”

Once we reached the land, more thatched roof cabins and gazebos welcomed us. And more flowers. Flowers like I have never seen before – just growing everything like weeds.

We boarded a bus next, which was going to take us to a spice farm which is also a botanical garden. Our guide, Raf (short for Rafael), was a funny and intense man, who told us that there is no “yes” in Belize. The proper way to agree with someone was “Ya, mon.” Sounded a little Jamaican to me, but I could not argue with the guy who told us he is Mayan, and still believes in human sacrifice. So, 'Ya, mon!' it was.

Belize is an English speaking country, a former colony, so everything you see is in English. Belizean English sounds similar to Jamaican English. Just like the staff on the boat, all people we met were calm and always smiling. They have a laissez-faire attitude about everything. Nothing is ever a rush, nothing is ever a panic. It's a lull of a life, seemingly, all under an understanding smile.

Our bus trip took us through a rural area, very small villages, and lots of banana plantations. Raf told us it's mango season, so some people were selling mangoes on the side of the road, from thatch-covered tables transformed into ad-hoc booths. The roads were surprisingly great, nothing like the potholes we muddled through in Honduras. There are road signs, too, in Belize, and speed limits, too, unlike Honduras, as well. 

Banana plantation

The homes we passed looked very poor. Just simple abodes, and very rundown and old. The houses were made of brick and most of them were covered in stucco. Some were made of wood and the roofs were made of straw or palm leaves. Although it was a week day, there were lots of people just sitting around, looking at traffic and talking to each other. Mostly women and kids, and some older men, too. 
Through the villages of Belize

The banana plantations were interesting – they cover the bananas in bags, to make them grow faster, Raf said.

We arrived at the spice farm at around 11 AM or so. The heat wave was just about to hit. We felt like we were dropped in the rain forest – the vegetation was thick and sweating, wrapping us up in a blanket of warmth and dew. And the smell … oh, my word! I have never been in any place on the planet where the air smells just like when you bury your face in a bouquet of lilies or freesia, or any other flowers with a strong aroma. You did not have to look for a bloom to smell this. It was out there, in the open. With every breath, you inhaled perfume.

The Visitors' Center was a wooden construction – think log home meets mahogany island architecture. They had a few things for sale, but again, not overwhelming and not 'in your face' touristy kind of sales. People were quiet, subdued, welcoming and very happy looking. 

Beautiful Belizean wood carving in Harvest Caye park 

They boarded us again, this time on an open air tram, to take us through the spice farm. Our guide explained all the vegetation that we were seeing and how most of the farm was especially laid out, and how some of the plants and trees were not native of Belize. The American owners of the farm (from West Virginia) brought all sorts of spices and fruit trees from the Pacific islands, and India, and they planted them alongside local tropical fare. The tour through the farm was not only incredibly picturesque because of the beautiful vegetation, but it was educational, too, as the guide explained to us how certain plants grow and how they pollinate and how much work is really involved in extracting the spices from these plants.

We learned, for instance that the vanilla blooms are hermaphroditic – they contain both male and female parts – but they are incapable of self-pollinating. So, the farm hands have to uncover the female parts of the flowers with a toothpick and touch the male parts to the female parts, in order for the pollination to happen. This must happen within the first 24 hours of when the flower blooms, because after 24 hours, the flower dies. This ensures that a vanilla pod is created and the pod is the only part of the plant from which the vanilla extract is produced. No wonder that vanilla is the second most expensive spice (second to saffron). 

Vanilla bloom and pods

He picked a cocoa fruit for us and I was surprised to see that it looks much like a coconut. My husband tasted the pulp inside it (which is white) and he said it's a bit bitter but it does not taste like cocoa. It always amazes me how things we know and love today came to be: what made people think for the first time that which part of what fruit or plant is consumable? Just amazing. 

Cocoa fruit 

There were tons of trees that didn't produce but after so many years. Others that produced for 4-5 years and they were done after that. So much patience, so much effort, so much know-how to extract such coveted goodness. This is why it's doubly important that we do not destroy what is left of our green planet! It takes a long time to regenerate!

We learned that the pepper plant is much like kudzu: it's a vine, and the pepper grows in bunches, like grapes, on this vine. The white and black pepper come from the same plant – the difference in color comes from the different ways of handling the peppercorn: one leaves the ripe, outer layer on (the black) and one removes it (the white). 

Belize's many blooms 

We also found the black orchid, which is the national flower of Belize. This is by far the smallest and most delicate orchid I have ever seen in my life. I never knew before, but orchids grow on trees, much like a lichen, or a parasite plant. My brain still has trouble using the word “parasite” and the word “orchid” in the same sentence, but there you go. The black orchid is easily the most delicate bloom I have ever seen. The color is a deep purple, or … black.

In the rows where they didn't have fruit or spice trees and plants, they planted bushes and flowers “just for beautification”, they said. Just to make it “pleasant”: hundreds of rows of bougainvillea, azaleas, wisterias, lilacs, water lilies and lotuses. There was no corner without a bloom! The place was called “spice farm and botanical garden”, but being in the middle of many other forests, it seemed like part of the country and the natural landscape. It did not feel like something designed by man. It was a true garden of Eden, just wild and gorgeous. 

One of the many rows of bougainvillea 

My only complaint about the spice farm was that we did not get to spend a whole day there. After a couple of hours and right after our tram tour, we had to board the bus again for our return trip to our smaller boat which would take us to our ship. I could have gotten lost in the rows and rows of trees and plants and taken pictures till my camera card would have run out of space. It was a sad 'good bye' for sure. 

The sacred lotus flower 

On the way back, Raf thanked us for visiting his country. He spoke about the history of the country, about what makes them unique in Central America, about how they are a 'free country and free to do whatever they want'. He encouraged us to come retire there, where the retirement age is 55, taxes are low and everything is beautiful. He also told us that only Americans come and buy land in Belize. His family, who is Mayan, they don't believe in buying land, because we don't 'own' the land. It belongs to the earth, and we're just 'renting' from it. So they live on it, borrowing it, but they don't sell it, they share it with their families for generations. He pointed to the Mayan mountains in the horizon, and he said “the land between here and the mountains is all Mayan land, it belongs to the people.” There was an air of confidentiality in his tone, as if we were just let in a big secret.

We had very little time when we came back to the boat to do much of anything else. We were so exhausted from hopping so many means of transportation that day. But it was all worth it. To experience another land, so different than ours, and so mysterious and painfully beautiful and raw was humbling. To be so privileged to do it in peace and to be welcomed with respect by another nation is something we always take for granted when we travel abroad but something that we should always be grateful for. If we had gone to Belize 500 years ago today, I am sure things would have been significantly different.

 The national flower of Belize: the black orchid.
Click the picture for the whole album of this trip


No comments: