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With one step off the jetliner, this California Golden Boy became a foreigner for the first time. Rolling green hills covered in golden poppies, fields upon fields of vegetables or fluffy white cotton, and multi-lane interstates stretching over the horizon – they do not exist here.

This was the jungle.

The Belizean air was heavy and moist. Thick, gray storm clouds gathered in the west, consuming the final rays of the setting sun.

The road forward was in darkness.  My path, however, was clear.

With my brunette bombshell at my side, I slipped behind the wheel of a golden lance. My weapon for this quest: a Trooper, sturdy and powerful, yet intractable.

Its handler offered a modern-day talisman: an emergency beacon to shine bright in the darkest shadows of this land. Foolishly, I declined, and hold up my crudely-drawn map in the day’s fading light.

My overconfidence may be my downfall.

I urged the steel beast forward. My quest began as daylight vanished.

The drops were sparse at first. Then the heavens opened up. My chariot pounded and my sight blinded, as Mother Nature conspired with her jungle offspring to thwart my journey at its start.

I realized, the road too, was my enemy. Doubt bubbled upward and a flash of fear came over me. My lover caught the minute change in my countenance – but missed the resolved look which followed.

I make her a silent promise. I will not be defeated. Not today.

My gaze intensified as our golden chariot splashed along the slickened road. Between curtains of rain, I saw twin lights, coming closer. A larger beast behind them charged by — close enough to touch! Too close on this narrow lane.

More lights ahead. No beast this time. It was a village. I slowed my pace – but not slow enough — and slammed into small barriers protecting a perpendicular pathway crossing the road. We bounce hard. Though we were shaken, our chariot rumbled on, unfazed.

Our search continued for the turn to take us dangerously deeper into this damp, darkened hell. My princess spotted it. We barreled past.

While my reactions were instant and my instincts true, I struggled to put faith in my vehicle – and every moment on the road presented a challenge.

I brought the Trooper around, backtracked, and made the turn southwest.

Minutes became an hour. Even with half of the journey complete, the rain refused to give up. My confidence had grown, and I stole a glance at my love, hoping to revive her faith in me.

She looked ill. She was holding her personal talisman — our last hope should all go wrong – and it too, was dark.

We are alone, she said with her eyes. Disconnected. Apart.

I saw worry overtaking her. I tried to reassure her. We will not fail! But I knew my actions on that hellish night would speak far louder than my voice.

We splashed through another jungle village, slowly this time. The sheets of rain had thinned. Then, another village – except there were people.

It was a town.

It was the town! We’d arrived at San Ignacio, the beating heart of the Cayo!

As if defeated, the constant downpour that’s dogged this journey subsides. The end of this quest was near! I smiled and imagined unleashing a raucous laugh at the jungle road and its accomplices as this child of the golden sun emerged from the darkness, victorious!

 The road is forked. A final challenge: One direction surely brings me success; the other, danger and even death.

Yet, something was familiar. I had foreseen this moment! A vision of a river crossed by two bridges: One tall, sturdy — a welcome sight to a road-weary traveler; the other was low and rickety, occasionally vanishing under rising floodwaters.

I guided my chariot ahead, past darkened doorsteps. A bridge came into view as a child emerged from the shadows. It was a boy. He was waving – no — gesturing. And, yelling.

A shout from my love and I turned to face the bridge. A beast roared across, bearing down on us with blazing white eyes! I begged my vehicle back, moving clear with not a second to spare.

My mistake hung there, tangible — another foolish choice. I backtracked, again, to the fork.

My path was clear.

I stopped my chariot to size up the tiny bridge and the promise of salvation on the river’s far bank.

We inched forward onto the wooden span at a snail’s pace, a mere foot to spare on either side.

Finally, we’re across!

Minutes later, we arrived at our inn, exhausted. But, victorious!

Later, reflecting upon that road less traveled, I realized when my fear subsided, it was replaced by faith. Not in my Trooper, but in myself.

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“You may pack one Nalgene, a camera, a change of underwear, and your passport—nothing more, nothing less.” We do this.

We are driven to the bus station. We wait outside while the bald man who told us what to bring disappears into the building. He returns and we are handed an envelope and a couple bus tickets. The bald man grunts and gestures toward one of the gargling buses.

We ask no questions. We’re too excited to not take this seriously. We climb up the stairs like kids pretending to search for buried treasure.

Except that the buried treasure is God. And we aren’t pretending. 96 ounces left.

I’m 19 years old. I believe in wearing white t-shirts with the same pair of blue jeans every day. I am sustained by books about spirituality and those orange Ramen packets. I have been living on a catamaran off the coast of Belize with a ragtag crew of a dozen young adults. I am learning to be a disciple, but wrestling with whether or not I believe in God. We are part of a program called Youth With A Mission.

And now, I’m on a bus with Corbin and Becky. Corbin is a high school dropout of few words. He was ordered by a court in the Midwest to either come to this program or go to jail. He has long hair, white teeth, and loves drinking Coke. Becky is an awkward and skinny girl with a voice like a smoke alarm from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.

We open the envelope.

“For the next three days, you will trust God to provide for you. You will talk with strangers, pray for the sick, and find strength in service.”

Through the window of the bus, we watch the bald man shrink. We are on our own. Becky tries to sort out a plan: where we should go, how we should get food. I shut my eyes. Corbin shuts his ears.

After two hours the bus stops. I’ve been praying—God, if you’re real… Corbin’s been sleeping. Becky’s made several lists. The town is called Orange Walk.

We leave the containment of the bus and wander to the nearest bench. We sit down with our packs and that complex feeling that all travellers experience—a freedom heavy from the weight of having nothing particular to do.

People don’t speak English here. We’re observing the locals observe us. We’re the only white people, and between the three of us we’ve had a year of high-school Spanish. 64 ounces left.

We knew how to look for God in churches, but how does one find God in the unknown?

A man wearing a purple shirt and overalls who’s got fewer teeth than a hockey player stumbles up to us. He says he’ll show us the town for some food in return. We don’t offer him food or even our change of underwear. We have nothing to give.

He leads us, nevertheless. He explains in Spanish with the occasional English—beautiful, camera, river, USA, photo—about Orange Walk. The place is gorgeous and grimy. Tattered clothing clings onto the rusted railing of a gazebo. The city’s park has become a tangle of weeds patched over by puddles of muck. Piles of trash rot by a winding river. But places were never meant to be sold on postcards.

Our purple Moses says goodbye to us by the river. He pulls brown bananas from a pocket in his overalls. We tell him no; he shoves them into our hands. We eat his sweet and slimy fruit and share our water with him. We feel gratitude and guilt. We’ve never had to take from others like this. 32 ounces left.

For the next two days, we are taken care of—not by God, but by human beings. We are treated to meals with strangers. Corbin gets a glass bottle of Coke. We do handstands with kids in the park. We say yes to everything. Our favorite phrase becomes thank you. We trust the people who have smiles that don’t go away. We learn to be brave because we have no other choice.

We discover how to be full of life while powerless and poor. We give what we can. Becky finds a woman who is sad and just wants someone to talk to. I pray with a man for his broken leg to be healed. Corbin catches us a ride to the bus station in the back of a garbage truck.

For two hours, we soar amidst bags of trash flailing in the wind, with the understanding that if we are willing to accept adventure, either by choice or by lack thereof, then the adventure will provide all that is required.

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Life after Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize

As someone who can struggle with motion sickness, a 30 minute bus ride along a muddy and bumpy road seemed like a nightmare at the start of my adventure into the jungles of Belize. In a few short hours on our return trip, that ride would seem like a pleasure cruise.

It’s amazing what a little Dramamine and some perspective can do for an outlook on life.

The bus ride was just the first of many challenges on a group trip to Actun Tunichil Muknal.  A local Belizean who ran a tour company sold my husband on what was billed as an adventure of a lifetime. It’s a sales pitch perfected over time: “It’s an easy walk!” the promised.  Sure, you’ll walk through some water, but it’s always warm: “so warm!”

They lied.

The first part of our cave adventure doesn’t start at the parking lot.  These elements are left off the tour guide’s sales pitch.  First, there are the three river crossings in murky water and a healthy hike along a trail where large cats could be lurking behind the next corner. Finally, we arrive at camp only to be told the adventure is NOW beginning.

So, we leave behind everything we’ve carried along this early part of the adventure, and walk straight into the mouth of a pitch-black cave with a river running through it.

We wear miners lights on our helmets help us see, as we walk through yet another river – the same river we crossed three times earlier. The water comes up to our waists.  Sometimes, it reached our shoulders. We squeeze through narrow openings left behind by fallen boulders and balance in soaking wet shoes on loose rocks beneath our feet.

I slip.  My knee hits a rock and I bleed.  But I’m stuck in a cave miles from daylight.  So, I keep going.

After what feels like hours, we reach a rock wall.  We climb.  From there, we’re told to take off our shoes. I’m really in no place to argue, seeing that the guide who makes the request is really my only lifeline to ever seeing blue sky again. At least we’re out of the river.

From there we walk in our wet socks towards a small opening.  We squeeze through and enter a huge cave several dozen feet tall.  Our guide tells us it’s a sanctuary once used by the Maya. It’s a place they went to hide when danger came their way.  Left behind are signs of life which include a rare clay pot left behind for centuries.  But the main attraction centers on death.

We take one last climb, this time up a creaky ladder, and our tour ends with at the Crystal Maiden.  She’s a fully intact skeleton, whose bones seem to sparkle under the light of our headlamps.  Who she is, no one knows.  Questions on how she got there will likely never be answered.  One thing I do know is the discovery of these bones and they mystery surrounding her death lead thousands of people just like me into a dark, wet cave every year to look on her skeleton and wonder about life, death and everything that comes after.


With another tour group waiting for their chance to take their turn looking at the Maiden, our group leaves this final resting place.  We head back down the rickety ladder, though the cave littered with ancient pots and put on our wet shoes.  It’s back down the rock wall and into the water for the slow walk in the river and along the rocks until finally we see the sun.

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Shortly after arriving in Belize City I discovered that the town held few charms.  Very few, to be honest.  Despite its quaint clapboard houses and tropically colonial British architecture, this city on the shores of the Caribbean was replete with unemployed young men who had little to do in life except prey on the unwary tourists who wandered its precincts.

Once again I consulted a map, obtained at the local travel office conveniently located near the swing bridge over the Belize River.  It showed the major offshore islands, of course, as well as a few uninhabited cays not so far from the coast.  Uninhabited? I asked my traveling friend.  What’s that all about?

We made discrete inquiries along the riverfront, which was lined with docks and fishing terminals, not to mention a plethora of run-down wooden sailing craft in various states of disrepair.  The smell at low tide was powerful, like that of  a strong cod liver oil potion given by Mom during the 1950s to ward off both illness and good humor.

We showed our map to a number of riverside gentlemen, most of whom shook their  heads at our notion of securing a one-way passage to a random island.  We now had one locale fixed in our minds – Goff’s Cay.  This island looked promising for a number of reasons.  It wasn’t very far away, lying only about 10 miles east of the river’s mouth, but distant enough to be outside the polluting influences of the city.  The map showed another island nearby with a lighthouse, so if we found a ride to Goff’s, we would not be too distant from civilization in the event of an unforeseen mishap.

Now, who has never thought about spending time on a deserted island?  The more we considered the concept, the more plausible and attractive the idea became.  We finally located a friendly, if somewhat peculiar character who agreed to take us to Goff’s Cay.  His price was steep,  perhaps $20 for the one way passage.  We were not prepared to spend so much money for the return trip so we told him, “Don’t bother to pick us up; we’ll hitchhike a ride back to town with a passing fishing boat or yacht.”  He thought this plan crazy, but twenty bucks was twenty bucks. We agreed to meet the next day to begin our journey.

We spent a frantic afternoon purchasing supplies.  What would we need and how long would we stay on the island?  Educated guesswork formed our answers.  We bought canned sardines, lots of rice and beans, snacks, rum, and other supplies to keep our spirits afloat during this self-imposed isolation.

Our boat driver arrived at his dock on time the next morning and we departed without incident, after giving him his fee up front.  He had a mad glint in his eyes that matched his skinny build and toothy smile.  Soon we cleared the river and left the city behind.

1) Departure downriver from Belize City

The weather was clear,  beautiful, and sunny, but the seas ran high.  Our redoubtable pilot, understanding that he was being paid by mileage and not by the hour, allowed no leisurely comforts  as we shot over eight-foot ocean swells, his entire 25 ft. plywood boat jumping clear of the water every time he powered the vessel over a wave. I began to wonder if the craft would hold together under the strain.  The pilot held his position at the outboard throttle just forward of the boat’s stern with that mad smile fixed to his face. He didn’t talk much, other than to point out our destination, which grew from a green-hued smudge on the horizon to an actual island that finally resolved into a marvelous view of coconut trees and beautiful sandy beach.

After what seemed like hours of pounding through the seas, we coasted to a stop in the shallow water on the lee shore.  Our pilot helped us unload our gear, asked again if we didn’t want to arrange a pick-up, and soon departed, leaving us to the quiet  of our private island.

Goff’s Cay encompassed about an acre of land, mostly beach with a raised hummock where a few mature coconut trees provided shade. Previous visitors, probably fishermen, had built a rude thatched structure to shelter themselves from the wind, but it lacked a roof and looked pretty rough.  So we pitched our tent under the palms and sorted our belongings.

We spent three tremendously fine days on the cay.  With plenty of books to read, water to drink, and food to eat, all our needs were met.  We had time for reflection, to lie on the beach and make sand angels,  and to gaze at the brilliant star-studded night skies free from the maddening effects of city lights, with only the sound of the wind, waves, and seabirds piercing the harmony of nature’s silence.  Occasionally a small skiff would pass close to the island, its occupants observing us with questioning looks, but we would smile and wave them away.  Our time on Goff’s Cay was special, the sort of experience a person stumbles into by accident but is never able again to repeat.


2) Our campsite on the island

On the fourth day after our arrival we had a visitor. The lighthouse keeper had seen our evening cooking fires and wondered if a yacht might have been shipwrecked near Goff’s, which is surrounded by an imposing coral reef.  He decided to hop into his runabout and come to make sure all was well. By now our food supply had dwindled, along with our cigarettes and rum.  We appreciated his offer to take us, for free, back to his lighthouse for the rest of the day and then transfer us to Belize City.  We bade goodbye to our island paradise and once again crossed the turquoise sea.

The lighthouse was a fine example of British-inspired architecture, and the keeper proudly showed us its mechanisms and lenses, along with the tiny cottage he called home.  He was a gentle soul, living by himself as a kind of hermit.  Not unlike ourselves, really, lost and far from home.  At the end of the day he returned us to the Belize River, to a dock near the one from which we had departed.  After one more night in the city we headed south, determined to find another Caribbean hideaway that would match our island discovery.  We were never quite successful, but to travel involves embarking on a quest, not reaching a destination.

I hear Goff’s Cay welcomes squadrons of cruise ships these days and has developed into a day-trip spot for hordes of fast-tripping tourists.  The place has moved on, and so have I.  Now older, I dream of the Marquesas, the Tuamotu chain, and Vanuatu.  My dreams have expanded their reach while the world continues to shrink.

When I first visited Belize City in the 1970s, the former capital of Belize possessed a certain seedy charm.


The city in 1978

I hadn’t been there in years when I revisited the country in April of this year. The Belize River, which divides the city in two, didn’t look much different.

The river’s mouth from the ferry dock. The building on the other side was, unsurprisingly, for sale

I strolled the town with my son and his friend.  Belize City has a reputation as an unsafe place. While we saw a good number of homeless men and poor people, at no time did we feel threatened in any way.

The oldest Anglican church, a Brit import

The interior, suitably lavish, one supposes, to impress the locals

The north side of town,which in the 1970s had a bad vibe to it, was now positively chic, at least by the water.

The shoreline as seen from the famous swing bridge

We stayed a night in a hotel that had seen a number of remodelings of both looks and purpose.

The Chateau Caribbean Hotel

We had fine waterfront views.

The hotel’s front porch

And the next day we departed for Cay Caulker in a small ferry that was a bit warm while sitting at the dock (it had no passenger deck space) but was breezy enough once underway.

Inside the ferry


The year is 2012 and I’ve been seeking illumination about the date of December 21. What better way to find inspiration than to visit a major Mayan site in Central America? So last month we set out for a day trip to the Maya ruins of Lamanai in northern Belize. The route we took involved driving north from Belize City toward Chetumal, Mexico and then embarking in a boat and traveling up the New River.

1) the road north – not much to see except small farms

We turned off the highway at a nondescript collection of wooden shacks. Two small outboard runabouts waited for visitors. We boarded without delay and set off through the dry forest along the river.  A baby fresh-water crocodile posed photogenically for us in the lilies near the dock.

2) Baby croc – only about a foot long: Photo by Shawn Herring

As we wound our way through narrow, snake-infested passageways, the undergrowth soon gave way to open river.  The forest contained plenty of wildlife but was hardly primeval. Still, it was a part of Belize that most tourists seem to miss, preferring instead to delve into the wonders of the rain forest further south.

3) Thick, overhanging bush

4) The river opens up: photo by Shawn Herring

We moved slowly, in order to examine the critters and their abodes.

5) Tree termite nest

The boat driver was sharp-eyed and called our attention to a variety of birds, including the hard-to-see Mangrove swallow.

6) Not rare… just difficult to spot

A large Mennonite community had a settlement on the river bank.  The woman in their old-fashioned frocks reminded us of nineteenth-century German peasants as they stood watching us from their wharf. We didn’t photograph them; the action would have been disrespectful, and it wouldn’t do to steal people’s souls with modern optical contrivances.

7) Mennonite village

At last the river widened further, into the Lamanai Lagoon, effectively a huge lake in the middle of the bush. Truly a dramatic location, it’s easy to see why the Maya picked the spot, with its commanding views and strategic advantages.

8) The lagoon

Partially excavated pyramids rose like great buttresses through the trees.  An aura of mystery and sadness hung over the landscape. Unlike its sister cities in Mesoamerica, Lamanai was never abandoned.  The complex was occupied continuously for three thousand years but devastated in the end by European disease and exploitation.   Pillaging Spanish and English slave-seekers did what the environment could not; the culture disappeared quickly and quietly after contact with the outside world.

9) Tourists atop a pyramid as seen from the lagoon: photo by Shawn Herring

We debarked from the boat and walked into the city.  A greeter flapped vigorously from his tree.

10) Toucan.  I have a nagging feeling this bird may have been someone’s pet

The Belizean authorities have done a good job at uncovering a few of the pyramids and other buildings but most of Lamanai remains buried under a 500 years of detritus and plant growth.

11) Most of the city is buried under intact dry forest: photo by Shawn Herring

We explored the site.  You could see that people had once lived here but the obvious traces were gone.

12) Basins or metates?

At one of structures the frescoes had been reconstructed.

 13) Here a face was copied in the plaster – the real version lay underneath, protected from weathering

And of course we climbed the highest pyramid, dodging rain squalls.

14) Diana looks up as we climb

15) On the way down

The ball court presented a significant anomaly.  Lamanai’s version was very small, and perhaps merely symbolic. However, in the middle of the pitch, underneath a carved circular stone, archaeologists have found a pool of pure mercury, placed there by the Maya.  Were the ancient ones skriers? Peering into the liquid metal and divining the future like their peers in medieval Europe?

16) The weird ball court. The mercury pool was found under the small stone that looks as if it’s below this woman’s purse.

We’ll never know their intent.

At the Temple of the Jaguar (a modern name and almost certainly not that of the Maya) the frescoes are original and spooky.

17) Jaguar eyes

The biggest excavated series of buildings is found here, too.

 18) Standing near Shawn and his friend, Danny

The rain poured down on us as we stood, baffled by the monumental architecture and by a culture so far removed from ours as to be unfathomable.  So what does that magical date in December hold for civilization? Mostly likely more of the same, the never-ending cycles, the ups and downs along with rebirth and destruction, as humanity blunders its way through present time. Will we be able to avoid the mistakes made by both the Maya and their eventual conquerors?  All indications point to the answer as, “No.”

And the Maya are not talking.