Walking in the heat of the day down the central sidewalk that meanders through the bustling beachside tourist Mecca of Placencia, sweat pours from our pores, flowing like the summer rains that traditionally arrive here in Belize in early June. As the final days of April wind down here on the peninsula, the heat ratchets to a degree that conjures up the fabled heat of my fathers youth. Stories of his high school football two-a-days in southern Indiana, mid-August, ninety degrees with ninety percent humidity. Running hills until enough players quit, thereby whittling down the participants to match the number of helmets and shoulder pads awaiting to be dusted off in the equipment shed. The same can be said about the gringo population that is slowly winding down as we approach the start of hurricane season. Whereas my da and his teammates ingested salt tabs as a cure to their thirst, we swim in the warm Caribbean salt water trying to alive the symptoms of this moisture usurping post card perfect tropical blue, Palm fringed oven.
It’s the type of heat that forces a daily break from activity, typically from one until three, gorging on a large Belizean lunch of rice and beans (insert stew pork, stew beef, or fried chicken entree), washed down by copious amounts of water. Following up with a digestive period, a hard earned hammock siesta, preferably in a breezy, shady spot when available. The real difficulty of the day arises when trying to regain enough energy to climb out of said shady hammock and trudge out under the now waning, yet still burning sun and accomplishing a third of the work that was seemingly effortless in the now distant cool morning hours. As I type I now sit like a village council chairman on our shaded, breezy second story veranda overlooking the rooftops that block our view of the sea, feeling fortunate of the endless ice water supply just steps away in the chilly bin. Marlie is peacefully napping, leaving me to ponder on the previous weeks work deep in the jungle infested Belize River Valley…
Volunteering is a commendable activity, volunteering to help install a fence to keep the feral horses out of the property, thereby keeping the owners half feral herd from their wild cousins and their wild mustang leader, had a noble ring to it. Yet, volunteering to hack/”clear” 400 meters of fence line into the thick of the jungle, is now merely yet another mark of my foolery. Raised along the pine strewn Rocky Mountain front in South Eastern Montana, in no way prepares one for jungle insect warfare. Clumsily wielding a machete in this sweat inducing environ, does not even begin to register on OSHA noncompliance richter scale.
After one full morning of attempting to learn the intricacies of machete handling, I’d managed to accidentally tomahawk the blade into the deep bush, twice. Both times adverting the disaster of impaling the local help by being just far enough ahead, facing the opposite direction, and loosening the sword, luckily, nowhere in the vicinity of my bushmen helpers. Having toiled for four hours with a team of three, making around 100 yards of headway into the thicket was difficult, but not impossible work. Then came the sun, which brought the heat and signaled to the locals that it was time for the mid day break, signaling me only by sitting back and calmly commenting to go slow, less I burn myself out. I later learned that this point is essentially the last point in the day at which any gainful progress would be made. We trudged through the heat back to the main property, parting ways; me to to the local food stand that has only recently arisen from the dusty roadside and reopened for one off, Belizean dishes served directly out of the pot until it’s empty, when they close for the day, them to grab some rum, smokes and shade.
I awoke from my hammock dreaming, startled by the shouts of my fellow bushwhacker Giovanni (not Italian, but Black Carib with a stylish flat top), calling me to service for the afternoon push back into the jungle. As we reached the frontline, it became clear that with our diminished energy levels, combined with bushman Curtiss fondness for rolling bush smokes, would only combine for slow progress. We managed another 25 yards before the boys progress completely halted, palm frawn chairs were cut and laid out, the boys kicked back for the remaining hours of sunlight and the natural light dimmed low enough on the horizon that it was no longer safe to work in the now shaded jungle. Meaning they could hike back home, past the boss, and call it a day. Little did I know that that moment of hiking out into the sunset would be last time we’d have a team effort in our, err now my quest to clear the fence line all the way down the property to the distant crocodile infested river.
After waiting a cool hour on the local bushcraftsman to not show, I had the handyman, my best man Mike, file the blade of my now dirt hacked dull machete, back to its deadly weapon glory. I laced up my boots, pulled my socks high, said my last goodbye to my dear Marlie, had a last look at the partially civilized world and headed deep into the wild bush. The feeling of being so far out of my element, 125 yards into the jungle, without a local jungle insect/snake expert, is both terrifying and lonely. I fired up my warm blanket of a podcast, put my head down, and lost in my own thoughts, hacked deeper and deeper towards the now seemingly imaginary river. Careful to never stand in one spot too long as the devil lives on the floor of this rainforest in the form of tiny red ants, which swarm liquid like a leak in a fire hydrant, instantly covering the ground and any slow foot standing in their wake. Crawling up said slow foot like steeping into a pot of molten lava, at least the lava would burn to third degree, eviscerating any nerves along with any perceptable pain. These little red fellas leave itchy bites that love to remind the owner of their fierceness anytime the sweat for at minimum the next three days, not minding the pus filled blisters that sometimes form days later.
Twenty five yards at a time, I cut through thickets of bamboo, over fallen palms, and into mighty itchy bushes, in my quest to prove myself to the locals that never did show. After making these advancements I’d take pride in hacking my blade into a tree, hiking back to retrieve my water, gulp, then turn back and rake the detritus that I had fell off to the side. Partially clearing the root floored ground and leaving a semi cleared trail in my wake. leaving one to wonder how in the hell somebody, hopefully not I, is going to dig post holes in this likely deep rooted labyrinth.
After three complete days of toil, I found my stride with the art of daintily swinging the machete, never mastering or becoming one with the tool, but never impaling myself and becoming one with the blade. Cool mornings hacking, slashing and raking straight into and beyond the heat of the day, repetitively moving deeper into the jungle listening to podcasts, sweating it out like I’d never hope to have the opportunity again. in those moments of labor, I found myself thinking back on the many thousand lawns I’d mowed and the work therapy that sweat labor provides, an always rewarding opportunity to share time with ones self.
On the fifth and final day of bushwhacking I’d reached the riverbank. A wall of spiked bamboo as thick as a woven reed mat ultimately ended my foray into local Belizean volunteer day labour. This wall I feared as it reminded me of the previous day’s work when I managed to fell a large over hanging roof of spiked bamboo poles, like a deadfall straight out of the movie Robin Hood, becoming hopelessly entangled, and only emerging from the needle point trap with a few (roughly ten) spikes and a lacerations. Miraculously I have only a few (hundred) insect bites that itch incessantly, some minor bamboo spike lacerations and a few unknown poison ivy like rashes to show for my efforts. The Stallion is still free to pillage our herd of mares, and they are still working their way to becoming the wild feral pack that they seemly yearn to become. Free to roam and reproduce, without the mythical fence that seems to me, just another few years of local bushman labor to completion.
Getting back to this should heal up my ant bite itchiness.