23 – Mayan cooking
Traveling to Benque Viejo, Belize involved a drive to Little Rock, a flight to Houston, a longer flight across the Gulf of Mexico until the the greenery of the Yucatan Peninsula came into view, and then continuing down the coast to the broad leaves and barren buildings of Belize City. I had done some traveling at this point: England, Alaska, Hawaii, other states, but nothing further south than New Orleans or Florida, and nothing jungley.
My journal for this trip is the journal of a working cook. It is full of pantry inventories and market lists, with which I will not bore the reader. The kitchen consisted of a total of three working burners on two gas stoves, a large double sink with no hot water, one household size refrigerator/freezer with no racks or shelves inside, two pots, two pans, one griddle, and no knives. I did find a concrete table outside that looked like it was meant to be used as a grill but had no wire structure to hold the meat and was holding the remains of an aged dog carcass. I found the closest store to buy some pastries and Zucaritas (Frosted Flakes) for the morning, and then set to work on cleaning the grill spot and building a grate for it out of rebar from the construction site.
The next day I found the local meat markets, chinese grocers and the vegetable stands, and produced a meal of baked beans, pork chops and fried potatoes w/ onions for dinner. I had no complaints, and I went to find my bunk. There was one dormitory for men and one for women. Both were concrete block structures with some blocks turned sideways to let air flow through the holes in the blocks. Heavy wooden doors, and no hot water as the water was whatever collected in the giant barrel at the height of the roof so gravity would pull it in when we turned a handle on a spicket. I had studied a little as usual before this trip, and discovered that the Belizean wildlife included giant ants, tarantulas, boa constrictors, panthers and mosquitoes. I didn’t sleep well the first night.
On the second day I had more time to explore the local markets, and found that the source of most good meat other than chicken breast and pork chop would have to be butchered by special request. I did, however find some round steak and peppers for fajitas, so that was dinner. Tortillas are abundant, and are freshly home made. You just have to know what house to visit for them. I was purifying water given to the troops, and drinking it myself to test it.
I slept a little better that night, from sheer exhaustion, (I’m not mentioning the getting up early to cook breakfast and then starting lunch as soon as breakfast is cleared) but I woke up in the middle of the night to pee and it was red. This gave me quite a fright until I remembered the vitamins I was taking were red. Whew! I returned to be bed and slept until I heard a SMACK on a nearby wall. Others were awakened as well, and when we investigated we discovered that one of our crew, Eric, had felt something crawling on him. He instinctively slapped at the whatever-it-was and the loud SMACK was it hitting the wall. We never found whatever it was and most of us lost any hope of further sleep along with the whatever-it-was.
The next morning the men stumbled into the dining hall after a rough night, and the women stumbled in having a had a night of frogs. But today was a tour day instead of a work day, so that was good.
That tiny little person close to the top is me. This is the main structure of Xunantunich, a Mayan Temple ruin just a ferry ride across the Mopan river from Benque Viejo. Site of human sacrifices to Mayan gods, plus an interesting game involving a ball made from the rubber from local trees, where the losing teams would be sacrificed. All in good fun.
From there we fishtailed up muddy, rocky wilderness roads in a 15 passenger commercial van to reach the Rio Frio cave and then Five Sisters Lodge. When we arrived at the cave, the same Eric previously mentioned promptly found an outhouse, opened the door and was almost knocked down by the bat coming out. Guess he should’ve knocked first. After a pleasant dinner at Five Sisters we slipped and slid back down the same path we came up (down is easier) and finally made it to bed. 4 a.m. breakfast prep time came early the next morning.
For lunch the next day we feasted on hamburgers, Thawed in rain water and cooked over a wood fire on my homemade re-bar grill where the dog carcass was. Everyone was full and happy. The morning of our departure from the camp, I rose to gather up some breakfast foods and found the tree close to the neighboring coconut grove full of the most colorful parrots I’ve ever seen – Scarlet Macaws – a tree full of them! What a sight it was.
We finished the week with a couple of days on Ambergris Caye, an island off the coast of Belize. From the mainland to the island you take a small plane that seats maybe 15, and you can watch the blues and greens of the water as you fly over at a low altitude. I even saw a school of hammerhead sharks below. San Pedro, the one town on the quiet little island, happens to be the spot Madonna sang about in La Isla Bonita. Leo DeCaprio owns one of the neighboring islands but I didn’t go there. I spent my island time on a hammock enjoying the Caribbean along with chocolate covered oreos and IBC root beer.
Finally it was time to wash off the sand and fly home to M & C. I was ready to return to family. Being away indeed makes the heart grow fonder, and home is wherever they are.