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Preface & Reader Response



From our station in thirsty solitude beneath unrelenting sun, we overlooked empty beach and luminous turquoise sea.

 


NOTES ON BARE EXISTENCE



Patterns from a Rooftop

ON THE LIP OF LANGUOR

Chapters: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

by Jerry Murley

Days before our Sunday visit to Dzibilchaltun, a side trip to the eastern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula provided us with a foretaste of the wilderness adventure to come. Outfitting ourselves with rope hammocks and mosquito netting from the market in Merida, we headed to the ruins of Tulum. From our station in thirsty solitude beneath unrelenting sun, we overlooked empty beach and luminous turquoise sea. On a lip of desiccated ground flanked by miles of barren scrub, the gorgeous craggy coast before our eyes scarcely adorned the shroud of shriveled expectations that enmeshed us. From such outposts are loners made ready for jungle.


Mike and I were camped in a stick, twine, and palm-leaf cabana on a cliff above the clear-blue Caribbean. We inspected the Mayan ruins, swam, got slightly sun burnt – again – and nearly consumed all of our food and water. The only provisions that could be bought in the area were canned sardines, beer, and soft drinks – and even those things were miles away. One could, however, if so equipped and inclined, have eaten crustaceans caught on the reef and fallen coconuts collected in the brush.

We admired the stoic dignity of the proprietor of the hut in which we pitched our hammocks. The hut consisted of three or four rooms. Half walls of tied drift wood and cane separated the rooms. The proprietor's room was adjacent to all of the rooms and each was adjacent to all of the others. There was absolutely no privacy for the residents and no shelter from the insects. Although there was no running water in the hut itself, there was a sink with running water and a toilet in a small structure closer to the beach below.


In the evenings, we sat around a campfire on the beach in conversation with fellow travelers. After the first night, all the residents but us abandoned the area because of heavy winds and a threatening storm. We welcomed the wind that kept us cool and free of mosquitoes and rocked our hammocks in the night.


On Saturday morning we headed back to Merida by bus. There we spent two more nights at the Sevilla Hotel, collected mail, sent home excess paraphernalia, such as coats, and got our finances in better order. From there, on Sunday, we also lucked upon the spring festival near Dzibilchaltun.

Monday night we left for Chetumal, where early the next day we picked up a bus – only by luck, for they ran only three times a week – for Belize, British Honduras, a creole-speaking subject of the British dominion. The roads were hardly roads. We entered the border with a group of British soldiers. One black man with a backpack and no passport was refused entry – they said because he had only $200, but I had only $140. We finally encountered real tropical jungle. There were the same thatch-roof and mud, stick, and rarely stucco, huts. But more often we saw scattered white-washed, wood-frame houses, like old Louisiana homes, lifted on high sturdy piers and with windows framed with functional wooden shutters.


Belize was a fascinating place. It is situated on the coast, and at the time resembled both a fishing town and a colonial capital. It had open sewers and impressed us with the resemblance it had to descriptions we had heard of small towns in the South in the first decades of the century and of colonial African villages. There was a bit of animosity in the atmosphere of the place, but all in all it was just like July in an underdeveloped, exclusively black neighborhood in the South in the decades around 1973. Conversations with mixed-race old timers who considered themselves superior British Belizeans were interesting: they mistrusted Spanish-speaking people, talked of a Guatemalan threat, and told about adventures of mining in Panama and Columbia at the turn of the century. We boarded with a gracious local family, got a typhoid shot that knocked us both off our feet for several hours, and applied for a visa to visit Guatemala. We left Thursday for Tikal with a reluctantly granted visa. On the road to the border, we were told of the valuable "tiger cats" (jaguar) and trees (for example, mahogany) of the area; we saw some beautiful cattle and coconut ranges, luscious fish-filled rivers, and hundreds of schoolless children who didn't seem to mind a bit the condition of their lives.


That is one lukewarm, concise way of summarizing the experience. But there was a alternative view that was informed and enthralled by heady Agee-like passion and multiplicity. The more heated and convoluted description is a better indicator of impressions of Belize at the time – and more aptly captures the place and its people, and their impact on the senses of a young American traveler.

Belize was sultry with the inescapable closeness of high humidity. The only drinkable water was imprisoned in bulging cisterns towering behind stilted houses. It was as if rain descended from the heavens was caught in free fall by these ascending appendages. The gravel streets are white and vast, as they were frequently vacant of all but a few old cars and an occasional British army truck. The streets stank of Texas bayou: disregarding human habitation, opaque black liquid or an excretion of milky-green oily sewage crept or stagnated alongside streets in open gutters, growing into ditches afloat with garbage vessels, until the foul brew was swallowed by rusty culverts with a poisonous gurgle and belched into the sea.


The houses were old, made of lumber, and often stood raised on twelve-foot piers, creating a shaded work space, patio, car lot, or playground on the slab of ground below: a place where women could wash and hang clothing and prepare messy fish; a place to store excess belongings like jetsam left by a tumultuous seas when it called in late summer. These houses were a labyrinth of windows, rooms, doors, and foyers; passageways and verandahs; back stairs, front and within, up and down stairs; secret closets and mysterious garrets. They enfolded a collection of furnishings and mementos of a marginal livelihood toiling for continuity. No flimsy, smooth sheet rock concealed their walls: though some were weathered to raw and faulted boards, many were defined by solid-wood corners and protrusions, sharp lines and angles with glossy painted borders. They were, and were of, a workshop. They appeared to be true, lasting companions to comfort their inhabitants for a lifetime, to perplex them and to keep them whole, to protect them from loneliness and savage elements: these houses shaped the residents as much as they were used by them.


The men of Belize were Creole, mestizo, or black – and the nuances of familial origins and skin tone clearly mattered to them. They wore translucent white short-sleeve shirts with straight tails always relaxed and untucked, a flag of modest ease at rest below the waist. They wore baggy trousers and straw hats. The old ones had things to talk about: adventures in Panama, in the jungle, and on the sea; of treacherous perimeters and an incredible Guatemalan threat; of the British; and, depending on their tint of color, of their relations with the imperial white race and the races below them. The young played, fought, and were lectured. For some, the daily business was to swim and fish. But now and then teenagers gathered and shouted in public places about the fetters of colonialism. One or two men even stood in the streets and preached in frenzied, hoarse, but lilting voice, saying, "You Americans, with your color and your money, hell will take you yet!"


Women of Belize cooked and washed and went to church in soft, worn cotton dresses. Newly minted ladies set upon the world of work sold ice cream or served beer all day. Young, clean girls dressed in white and blue uniforms walked to school in disciplined groups. Supple, hard-eyed females, often black and sassy, teased from the cool shadows, standing and sitting on wooden steps and porches.

* * *


Outside the city, along the powder-blinding jumpy road to Guatemala, stood a beautiful cattle ranch stocked with trophy bulls. Daisies grew among coconut tress. Unschooled country children, not attending religious orders for learning, played happily in inviting, clear wide rivers or around their homes with their brothers and sisters.

As we walked across the bridge into Guatemala, mountains leapt up and a tall, thick curtain of jungle, with enormous trees strung with tree-size vines and roots, rendered distant terrain as little more than vague presumption. The impenetrable entanglement of wild vegetation and animal life pushed Indian huts and smiling, waving denizens out of the interior and onto the dust-clouded road. There, one and all assembled an integrated reluctant band of restless refugees drifting here and yon in search of hospitable surroundings.

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