AFAR chose a destination at random and sent the poet Beth Ann Fennelly with 24-hours’ notice to a Central American paradise.
CAN YOU GUYS help me find a dildo?” This from a cute blonde who’d flagged down our golf cart.
We’d been laughing, but this question stunned us into delighted silence.
“It’s an emergency,” she added.
And with that we were whooping again. “Sure, hop in,” said the driver, when she could snag a breath, and I slid over on the bench seat.
Perhaps I should back up a bit.
Courtesy of the luckiest possible finger jab on the spinning globe, I’d found myself in Belize for six days with no reservations, no expectations, no friends, no husband, and none of my three precious children. In short, I was in paradise. I immediately headed for Ambergris Caye, an island in the Caribbean that is home to the second-largest coral reef in the world. Here I found the bliss promised by postcards: the sea was a color normally seen in sports energy drinks. I spent the day on the beach, where hammocks cradling tourists cradling piña coladas were strung next to thatched-roof palapas.
The next day, I joined a snorkel tour of Shark Ray Alley, the shallow stretch of water where fishermen clean their catch, luring nurse sharks and stingrays to chomp on the entrails cast overboard. The sharks and rays are harmless, or so I was promised. I followed two other women down the boat’s ladder and into the sea as the guide tossed chum into the water, which in seconds was seething with fins.
Just 48 hours prior, I’d been scrambling to grade my college students’ finals, and now I was buoyant in warm swells, stroking the curious rubber-velvet skin of a stingray held out for me by my guide. It was a cleansing immersion in another world entirely, a healing sealed by the sun once we clambered back aboard, feeling like the margaritas we began drinking—strong and rimmed with salt.
When the morning is spent chasing sharks, and the afternoon spent chasing margaritas with more tequila chasers, a group bonds pretty quickly. Which is perhaps why my two tour companions and I crammed into a golf cart after reaching shore. The woman driving the cart wanted to find the coffee factory, which she’d been told was next to a bigger factory that made sausage, and we’d pledged to help her. Now, enter one dildo-seeking blonde. She was staying on nearby Caye Caulker, and her friend’s bachelorette party was mere hours away. But her smaller island didn’t have a sex shop, so we careened around Ambergris asking alternately for the sausage factory and the dildo store. Success on both counts. About the dildo: It cost $125 in local currency, but the thing that gave my new friend pause was that, well, it was a little, um, uncircumcised. “Oh my God,” she exhaled. “A turtle-necker!” She turned to the shopkeeper, a Creole woman of perhaps 60. “Does it work well?” The shopkeeper glanced up from her newspaper. “Oh, yes,” she deadpanned. “It’s un-Belize-able.”
It’s hard not to be sold on the whole country, actually. Belize is easy for Americans: The jet lag is minimal or nil, English is the national language, and both Belize and US dollars are accepted everywhere. The country is the size of Massachusetts, with a population that fits in a single phone book. Yet it holds around 600 bird species and 304 native orchids. Located beneath Mexico, Belize leans one shoulder into the Caribbean, bathing in warm-watered, flip-flopped, “yah mon” breezes. Its other shoulder is shaded by jungle, growing denser as one approaches Guatemala.
For Pook’s Hill, the lodge in the mainland Cayo District that I’d randomly plucked from a guidebook en route to Belize for part two of the journey, I thank the travel karma gods. A driver fetched me from the water taxi and drove me two hours west. I arrived in time for happy hour, and the good folks of Pook’s Hill filled me with salsa and recommendations, one of which was to visit Xunantunich, the haunting ancient Mayan city. I booked a tour for the following day with Héctor, a Maya, as my guide. As we climbed the hundreds of stone steps of El Castillo pyramid—at the top, you can see Guatemala—he described Belizeans’ racial diversity. Close to 50 percent are Mestizo (mixed Hispanic-Amerindian), 25 percent Creole (descended from African slaves imported to work in the colonial mahogany industry), 10 percent Maya, 6 percent Garifuna (mixed African-Amerindian), and the rest “other.” Héctor alternated historical facts with corny jokes (“Héctor gives a ‘hec’ of a tour”). So of course I booked him for the next day, this time to explore Actun Tunichil Muknal, one of the world’s Top 10 Sacred Caves according to National Geographic. The site is also, I’ve since learned, a brass ring grabbed by adventure travelers. At the time, I only knew it sounded cool, but how challenging would it be, exactly?
“You can hike, you can swim, you’ll be fine,” Héctor shrugged. “As long as you’re not scared of the dark. Or tight places. Or bats. Or spiders. Or human sacrifice.”
Just to get to the cave, we hiked 45 minutes and forded three rivers. Then we swam into the cave’s dark maw, wearing miner’s helmets fitted with lights. The next few hours we hiked, swam, and scrambled through stone passages, sometimes large chambers dripping with stalactites, sometimes crevices so narrow that to hoist ourselves through felt like playing high-stakes Twister. At the end, on a tall rock ledge we reached by ladder, we found pottery shards and human skulls from sacrifices carried out around 700–900 C.E. In the United States, of course, such remains would be behind alarm-rigged glass panels. Here, they are demarcated by orange tape. At the farthest corner of the ledge, an entire skeleton, calcified, glittered eerily under the beam of our headlamps.
Back at Pook’s Hill, in a low-slung chair in the clearing, I marveled at a country that offers both the walking-on-water Jesus lizard and the swinging-through-the-jungle howler monkey, its cry so prehistoric-sounding that it was used for dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. As the fruit bats dived for mosquitoes, I was fretting over how to cram everything I’d experienced into my word count for this article. But I had only one day left, a day to be occupied by heading back to the Belize City airport. Surely that would be uneventful.
About midway between Pook’s Hill and the airport, we passed Belize’s sole prison. Although I normally don’t brake for shopping malls or correctional facilities, the sign announcing PRISON GIFT SHOP prompted me to ask my driver to pull over. Out of the car, we walked past the prison’s waiting area filled with families to the tiny, shelf-lined store. The cashier rose from his stool to walk beside me, identifying the wooden tapirs, scorpions, and toucans that had been whittled by inmates, polishing the carvings against his orange prisoner shirt as he showed them to me. In truth, I didn’t want any, but he was so earnest, and my purchase would support the prisoners, so I decided on a scorpion and a butter knife. The total came to 37 Belize dollars, and I handed him a 50.
“Do you have anything smaller?” he asked.
“No, but I have an American twenty.”
He didn’t have the change for that, either, and seemed upset.
“That’s OK,” I said. “I’ll donate the change to the prisoners.”
He studied me soberly. “No one has ever done that before.”
Unsure how to respond, I shrugged. “You must be,” he stepped closer, “a Christian?”
Again, I was unsure. I am, but it’s not usually my opening gambit. At last, I nodded. “I knew it.” He smiled as he wrote my receipt and handed it to me. “May I ask you for a verse?”
I’d have given anything for a memorized Bible verse. I’d have touched a real scorpion, instead of the mahogany one in his mahogany-colored fingers. “I’m sorry,” I said. And then, “Do you have one for me?”
“Ah.” he said. “Yes. Let me think . . . Ephesians 6:10–18?” I nodded dumbly. He lifted his shoulders and began: “Put on the whole armor of God,” he recited, “that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world.”
When he finished, silence filtered into the room, the churning of the trucks on the western highway fading away.
“That was beautiful,” I said.
“Let me check accuracy.” He pulled from his shirt pocket a Bible as small as a deck of cards. He read it to himself and was satisfied.
“Thank you,” I said, still a little stunned. “Ephesians, chapter 6, verse 10–18,” he said. “I won’t forget it.”
He nodded. “My name is Matthew.” He lifted his hand in farewell.
“I won’t forget it,” I said again, and I don’t believe I will.