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What I did on my holiday.
Belize, maybe you never heard of it, it’s a place the size of Wales tucked in under the Yucatan peninsula in Central America, it used to be called British Honduras.
A bunch of British pirates and privateers who later turned to mahogany logging kept the Spanish empire out and the poor chalky soils don’t farm easily. The Americans didn’t manage to interfere and turn it into a puppet banana republic so since independence from Britain it’s been a proper democracy and English speaking, and a pretty cool place with few social problems despite being rather poor in places. Not a single soldier or policeman in sight round the ramshackle parliament building – always a good sign. It has a mixed population of Spanish/Mayans and people from Africa, plus quite a few Europeans including Memonites, an obscure German protestant sect rather like the Amish, but they do use modern tractors to farm.
We went mainly to see the wildlife and the Mayan ruins, and had a fabulous treat of each. At Lamanai we climbed a gut churningly vertiginous pyramid which protruded above the jungle canopy and a 7 foot wingspan King Vulture obligingly performed a fly past. Giant Jabiru Storks fished in the lake, one pair had made a nest the size of a small car in a tree. Peculiar boat billed Herons like fat multicoloured penguins with big eyes nested in the jungle margins waiting for the night fishing. A big old crocodile basked on the banks of the swamp, he opened one eye and then closed it again as we passed, hey, I’m ancient, its baking hot, this mud is lovely, I think I’ll just wait for something to die of its own accord.
Then to the upland regions where we clambered and swam 600 yards into a mountain cave to see some stuff left by the Mayans about 850AD. Halfway in, we saw 2 obelisks on a rock ledge, one representing an obsidian blade and the other a stingray spine, both used for bloodletting in the Mayan religion. Then to the final chamber, a cathedral of stalactites containing 14 human sacrifices, the bones all encrusted with sparking calcite deposits – probably the most eerie sight ever in the gloom of the helmet lamps.
Then over the border into Guatemala (not such a happy place, soldiers and poverty everywhere) to see the ruins at Tikal. These consist of a whole city, largely unexcavated, with a number of soaring 250 foot pyramids in the central area. The Mayans had a vast civilisation of warring city states of perhaps 10m people and built all this without metals, wheels, or draft animals. It all went tits up around 900AD, well before the conquistadores arrived, probably through drought followed by social collapse; maybe they actually caused the drought themselves by massive deforestation. We saw the cute Coati, a sort of cross between a fox and a squirrel that likes to eat tarantulas.
The Mayans had a system of Hieroglyphic notation which anthropologists have since deciphered. It speaks mainly of dates and battles and regal lineages, unfortunately it doesn’t seem to record much in the way of myths and stories; but it all seems very calendrical. Just because some of the calendars seem to stop around now means nothing. I have a desk ornament in brass which tells me the day of the week for every day to 2045. If I aged it to verdigris in acid and then buried it I could maybe start a new end of the world movement.
Then back to the more laid back atmosphere of Belize, they have some interesting social innovations, no bicycles have brakes so everyone cycles slowly, it’s probably too hot to do otherwise anyway. If a road has insufficient potholes they put in lots of speed bumps so everyone drives slowly too, the whole country boasts only 4 sets of traffic lights. Even the poorest shacks are brightly painted and everyone seems cheerful and relaxed about everything.
We recovered from our jungle travels at Ambergris Quay where the giant Murricans come to wallow in the shallow waters inside the reef. They have to leave their guns in their northern nests to fly here so they are quite amiable and non-dangerous, but they have in many cases lost the power of locomotion on land and have to use golf carts to move anywhere.
We swam with turtles and sharks and a multitude of multicoloured fish on the reef, the stingrays were particularly inquisitive and glide past very close as you snorkel, they are okay so long as you don’t step on one whilst it’s resting on the bottom. The sharks seemed quite content with the sardines thrown in by the boatman.
Despite the fire ants (I stood on their nest whilst watching howler monkeys), the chiggers, the sandflies and the mosquitoes, it was the trip of a lifetime.
Whilst away I read Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion (not so good, review and suggested experiment to follow), and The Hydrogen Sonata by Ian Banks which is bloody brilliant, as usual.