They all went to bed early, all of them and every night. Ida warned me of this, you know Ida, my girl back at ICO, the one who was always threatening to kick my skinny ass? Yeah that Ida. Well Ida went to Belize and Guatemala on the very same trip two years previous to my trip and she gave me a pretty good recon report—she advised me on food to eat, “Anything burned to a crisp. No fresh fruit. Drink beer and Coca Cola in a bottle that YOU opened. Don’t drink anything with ice cubes, stay away from salads. You can eat bananas that you peel yourself. And for god’s sake keep your mouth shut when you take a shower!” I would follow her rules scrupulously and still end up sick. She also told me about traveling with the Senior Set, “Look, they are a piece of cake, they get up early, they bird watch, talk amongst themselves, and they go to bed at 8:30. You’ll eat dinner with them and then they are gone gone gone. Then you can stay up and have some fun!”
Ida was right, none of them stayed up past 8 or 9 pm. And then I stayed up with Nigel and London and we'd throw back a few beers, play backgammon, and plan the next day’s activities. They key here is that while we looked like we were partying it up at the bar, we were still working. Out came the maps and London confirmed our road route to the next destination . . . we stayed in some places on the trip for as little as one night, it was a luxury to remain in any of our destinations for two nights. This made for very tired travelers and lots of bags coming off the bus and then being returned to the bus the next day. Heavy bags too! These people did not know the meaning of Traveling Light. We got to a place and they all paraded off the bus to get to the nearest bathroom, something I can relate to now at the age of 45, but back then, bathrooms didn’t figure so prominently in my travel itinerary. And then London and Nigel and I hauled all those bags into the hotel. We checked everyone in and then carried their bags to their rooms. I don’t know who they thought got their bags on and off the bus, but they surely didn’t know I was doing it, until one bag went missing. . . but that’s for later.
The evening that we got to Chan Chich, everyone filed off the bus and headed for the main lodge to relieve their bruised and battered bladders. When that bus wasn’t breaking down, it was rattling your fillings from your teeth, punching your kidneys, compressing your spine, and tossing you from side to side with its mule like G-forces. I am certain that I started that trip at a good five foot four and returned to the States at five foot three.
So while everyone was peeing and washing the dust off their faces, we started unloading those suitcases. It was after dark, so the expat couple who ran the place agreed to get everyone into the dining room for their dinners and complimentary wine while we got the cabana’s set up. When we were done, we headed up to the main lodge and dinner was half over. We walked into the dining room and Eloise Rockbottom met us at the door. She set her gaze on me like an Aztec priestess ready to cut out my heart and present it to a golden eagle as an offering, “I suppose you have been in the bar.” I looked at Nigel and then at London, yes, we three had beers in our hands, compliments of the lodge management for helping with the cabanas, but I hadn’t even tasted mine yet. Nigel shook his head at me, he telegraphed, “Be a duck, let it roll off yer back, don’t let her get under yer skin Girl.” So I bit my lip and replied, “What can I help you with Mizz Rockbottom?”
“I have a rash.” She stated this fact loudly enough for the whole dining room to hear. She held out her meaty arms and yes, there was a rash. Then she pulled up her pants leg and amazingly, balanced on one leg, and raised a rather big and shapeless ankle toward me to reveal more of the rash. I was sort of happy she had a rash, it suited her. But I feigned intense concern while at the same time remembering her proclamation that came in my trip packet . . . wasn’t I supposed to do NOTHING?
“Mizz Rockbottom, that is indeed a terrible rash. What do you think caused it?” Of course I was ready to take the blame for the rash. I was ready to take the blame for everything by now and we were only two days into the trip!
“I’m not the only one with the rash. Jeanne has the rash and so do the Rittles.” Mr. and Mrs. Rittles hailed from upstate New York, he worked for Kodak and we had found our common ground on the first day when we talked about film. I figured if I stuck to talking about film with him for the entire trip I would be okay.
“Oh dear.” I was not happy that the rash was an epidemic. This was going to tax my First Aid kit.
“Can you DO something about this Miss Wolfy?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I can. I have various cortizone cremes in my First Aid kit. I will bring them to your cabanas after dinner.”
“Dinner is over now. Please come to my cabin immediately.” So I handed my beer to London and ran to get my First Aid Kit. I spent the next hour dispensing cortizone creme and listening to various complaints regarding The Rash. I had to see the rash on everyone. It was hideous. And being young, I was embarrassed by everyone’s willingness to show me their rashes. I was especially surprised by Miss Rockbottom’s penchant for exhibitionism—it seemed to fly in the face of the very roots of Christian Science. And the presence of the First Aid Kit seemed to anoint me as the one to receive confessions regarding other ailments, constipation, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, ingrown toenails and the list went on; it occurred to me that getting old was something I was not interested in. I became temporarily popular when they discovered that I had a bag full of drugs, suddenly everyone was suffering from this disorder and that disorder.
Finally, they were all put to bed—soothed by salves of various kinds. And I headed back to the main lodge to eat a cold plate of Argentine steak and a baked potato. London saved me a beer and a few games of backgammon. But there was work to do, Nigel put the next day’s itinerary out on the bar and we made the game plan. I would accompany the group that wanted to go for the Rain Forest Horseback Riding trip, naturally! And Nigel would lead the other half of the group on an exploration of Chan Chich’s Mayan ruins, most of which looked like overgrown caves and grassy mounds. The really big ruins were coming later in the trip.
We spent some time talking with the lodge owners and I learned that they were a British couple. She looked like Joni Mitchell and he looked like Michael Caine back in the day when he starred in Alfie. They were a fabulous couple and they were expats extraordinaire. He first came to Belize as a mahogany trader, then when the mahogany dried up, he flew airplanes around the country. I got the feeling that it wasn’t just tourists he carried on those planes, and that was something I began to notice about many of the expats that I met in Belize. There was something slightly off-course about them. They were loaded with money and slightly irreverant. I suspected that none of them could return home very easily. They all seemed to be fugitives from something. But we never stayed in one place long enough on that trip for me to really get to know these people, I would get a snapshot of them and then WHOOSH, back on the bus! And little did I know that a year later I would be offered the opportunity to be an expat myself—my short experience in Belize certainly helped me make the decision to live in a foreign land, everyone should be an expat, even if its for just a little while.
So before I turned in for the night, Nigel tells me not to be concerned about the noise in my cabana. “What noise in my cabana?” I ask him.
“Well, the thatched roof . . . you’ll hear rustling around up there, just some anole lizards, maybe some tree frogs. Nothing to worry about.”
“Oh, okay. Anyway, Nigel, I’m so tired tonight that an alligator on the roof wouldn’t wake me up. See you in the morning.” And with that I trundled off to my cabana. It was a beautiful room. I felt sad when I walked in and realized I would only be there for one night. It was luxuriously jungle like. Mahogany furniture and an enormous bed with copious linens that would feel extremely lonely without my husband, who was only my boyfriend back then. I sat on the end of the bed and looked up. A ceiling fan slowly whirred over me whuff whuff whuff and yes, there was some rustling around up there. I heard the peeping of tree frogs and saw a deep green anole lizard slumbering in the space between the thatch and a beam. I breathed deeply and thought, “I like the rustling in my thatch roof. Not a thing wrong with that at all.” I changed into my pajamas and nested into my enormous soft bed. Lights out.
Sometime later I woke up, slightly disoriented, and overwhelmed by the pitch jungle night. I quickly remembered where I was and I lay there half asleep and half awake and emptying my head of anything that might keep me from dozing off again. I heard the rustling in the thatch above me, and I noticed that the tree frogs had gone quiet . . . whatever, tree frogs have to sleep too, don’t they? The rustling got louder and almost frenzied, it was right over my bed now. I considered turning on the light, but I thought, no, just go back to sleep. Nigel told you not to worry, so don’t worry. And the moment I thought that, there was a clamor and then a THUD at the end of my bed. Something had dropped from the ceiling and was now on my bed. Something that was making a whistling wheezing sound. This made me turn on my light. With the click of the bedside lamp came the illumination of the character that had dropped in on me for the night. Standing on his hind legs on the end of my bed was a JESUS LIZARD. Have you ever seen a Jesus Lizard? Well, I had never seen one up until that very moment in my life and I nearly died of fright. He balanced there on his hind legs and used his long tail as a further prop. He raised his little forearms at me in a menacing way and his gargoyle like countenance was framed by an almost opaque fan of skin that seemed to flutter open and closed like an umbrella as he hissed at me.
I brought my knees to my chin. I considered putting the covers over my head, but the thought of him being OUT there and me being IN here was too much to bear. I was frozen. I thought if I move, he’ll pounce on me and then what? He was a good foot tall, but he might as well have been ten feet tall. I decided I needed to get out of the bed. I sidled toward the edge of the bed and the lizard jumped UP and then came down slightly closer to me. This sent me into waves of fear that I had only felt once before, that one and only time that I ate some psilocybin. I tore from the bed and ran out the door of my cabana. My feet were not even touching the ground as I ran through the night to the main lodge. There was a light on at the bar. Two of the Mayan indians who worked at the lodge were on night duty. I was hysterical and barely able to catch my breath, and I was in my short nightie and barefooted. I stood there in front of them breathing somewhat like the Jesus Lizard I had just left. “There’s a lizard in my bed!” They looked at eachother and then at me. Oh dear, I realized, they don’t speak English. So I faked it, “Lizard esta cabana!” They smiled broadly. “Por favor, come with me!” And I motioned for them to follow me. They grabbed a large broom and followed me back to the cabana. I got the feeling I wasn’t the first guest to come up to the lodge in the middle of the night with complaints of wild animals in their quarters.
I cowered on the veranda as they went into my room and had a short battle with the Jesus Lizard. I heard the broom whisking this way and that and I heard my little gargoyle protest. A few moments later they emerged and told me it was, “Okay Okay!" That was the extent of their English. How could it be okay? They didn’t come out with him in a cage! Where did he go? They stepped off the porch and saw me looking at them with fear in my eyes, they motioned at me, somewhat like they must have motioned to the lizard, “Okay, Okay!” and so I went back in the cabana and looked all around. No lizard. But was he back UP THERE? In the thatch? Wasn't he? I got in bed and remained in the fetal position with the light on til morning came with the opera of the howler monkeys. The sun came piercing through the thatch like lasers and the jungle was alive with the sound of all those birds I needed to check off on my list before we packed the bus and left for the next destination. I showered and headed for breakfast.
I arrived at the dining room early, many of our troops were not there yet. I seated myself down at a nice little table and in walked Nigel and London. They smiled and asked if they could join me? "Of course" I said. Nigel began to laugh and London did too. “What’s so funny?” I asked.
“We heard you had quite a night!” Nigel unfolded his napkin and placed it on his lap. He took his binoculars from their case and neatly stacked them on top of his two bird books. London continued to giggle.
“I’m glad you guys think its so funny. I didn’t get any sleep. Dammit.” Something caught my eye as I lifted my glass of orange juice with no ice, there were no less than four Mayan indian boys standing in the kitchen doorway leering at me, yes leering. One of them came over and gave me a spectacular flower, a jungle flower that was luridly pink. I accepted the flower and the boy ran back to the kitchen, the other boys slapped his shoulder as though he had just made a goal. The waiter came over and he too was leering at me. I tried to ignore the attention and asked for scrambled eggs. The room began to fill up with our rash-infected crew, more of them had developed the rash over night, so of course, I had to see the rash as I waited for my breakfast and tried to fend off the eyes of the Mayan indian boys. Finally my eggs came and everyone had gone to their tables and the sounds of breakfast were overtaking the sounds of the howler monkeys out in the forest. The waiter took my plate after I was finished and left a flower in its stead. This was a hibiscus flower, and I decided not to touch it. I let it sit there in front of me on the white table cloth. I looked at Nigel and London. They were almost in tears they were laughing so hard. I couldn’t take it anymore, “Okay guys, what’s this all about?”
“The Mayans believe that a woman who is visited by a Jesus Lizard in the night has special, well, special . . .” Nigel hesitated.
“Out with it Nigel. Special what?”
“Special sexual powers. It means she is very fertile and hmmm, how shall I put this?”
“Promiscuous?” I ventured.
“That’s it! That’s the word I was looking for.” London collapsed in laughter.
“Oh great. That’s just great. Can we please go birding now?”