T. Lawrence Shannon: Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognized the truth about herself it would destroy her.
From Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana
We would ride with London in his bus just one more time, he met us on the shores of the Macal River in San Ignacio. The bus was neatly packed and ready for us to board for the short trip to Belize City where we would stop for lunch at the zoo and a quick tour of the animals who had avoided us so successfully throughout the trip. The leopards paced in the heat of the midday sun and I realized my hangover had abated, but my Tikal Belly was still in full tilt . . . I was no longer eating and wouldn't eat another bite until Miami, which was three days away. I was living on Coca Cola and Bonine, a miraculous little pink pill meant to stave off seasickness. Nigel would finally notice I wasn't eating at dinner that evening -- we had flown to Ambergis Cay at tea time and the group was relaxed -- relieved to be in a more Touristy Setting, as the Cay catered to people who wanted a Caribbean experience, lots of hibiscus flowers, turquoise waters filled with tropical fish and reefs, majestic palms, and smiling natives. The jungle was just a distant memory now and there were umbrellas in our drinks. "You're not eating Wolfy" Nigel was sitting next to me at dinner and saw me pushing my fried plantains and steamed grouper around my plate.
"No, no I'm not Nigel."
"Why? Don't you feel better?"
"Oh, the hangover? That's been gone for hours, but seems Tikal's pool won't release me."
"You didn't swallow water in the pool at Tikal did you?"
"Afraid so Nigel. Terribly stupid of me."
"Some things can't be helped.You'll drink plenty of fluids won't you? We'll need you on the snorkeling trip tomorrow."
"Yes, Nigel, don't you worry, I'll be on the boat with bells on."
The next morning came with heavy humidity and fast moving clouds. The sea outside my salmon colored room was roiling green and it was apparent that we would be in for choppy conditions. For the first time in 15 or 16 days I opted out of the sunrise birding trip by calling Nigel's room at 5:30 am to tell him I needed to sleep more and save my guff for the snorkeling trip. I went downstairs around 8 and attempted to venture some scrambled eggs -- a no go, they just stared up at me from the plate and my stomach spoke to me - it was an ancient Mayan incantation from the priests in Temple Four, I was doomed, at least for the next forty eight hours. I returned to my room and lay on the cold tile of the bathroom floor for a spell before putting on my bathing suit and packing my gear for the snorkeling trip. I popped two Bonines, downed a Coca Cola, peered through the bottle to the bottom of the green glass and told myself that Miami was only a day or so away, and I was a good swimmer, empty stomach or no empty stomach.
We met our boatman on the dock and counted heads. We had 10 for the snorkeling trip -- a few of the gang were more experienced divers and had scheduled their own dive trips to Blue Hole. This was a maneagible group, Nigel assured me, all had snorkled before except for one; Rockbottom. The boatman helped each one of us down into his open and comfortable motorboat. There was ample seating along the sides, the boat was tidy, obviously well taken care of. We had sized everyone for flippers, masks and snorkels in the dive shop before departing and so everyone took a seat, and they struck me as little children about to embark on an adventure, gripping their colorful equipment, their tan legs all folded up as though they might have their picture taken at any moment. Rockbottom was not at ease though. She was breathing heavily and her gaze darted from the boatman to the choppy waters that nudged our boat. The engine started up and we set off for the reefs, the cool spray of salt water felt good on my cheeks, I felt more in my element on the sea, less vulnerable than I had in the rain forests, barracuda didn't bother me the way Jesus lizards and tarantulas did. Above us an albatross and clouds headed inland. The cay fell from view, we were in open water now and the reefs were apparent from the pattern of the breaking waves. The boatman explained that on better days, when there was no chop in the sea, we would be able to see the reefs through the glacine still waters, but today, we would have to descend into the depths to view the wondrous fish and coral reef formations.
Nigel and the boatman and I helped everyone on with their masks and snorkels -- they were given a brief explanation of the mechanics of the snorkel, the idea that one could dive for a period and return to the surface to clear the water from the tube by blowing it out, as though one were a whale, seemed lost on people -- we were certain this crew would remain above water and simply paddle and look, paddle and look -- best for the conditions anyway. The boatman asked me and Nigel to get in the water first and we obliged flipping over the sides backwards, knees to chests, plunging softly as we could -- next came the boatman and he expected the group to follow suit. They each had their own style and I was relieved to see they could all swim quite well once they were in the water. The Octagenerian snorkeling trip was almost set to begin except for one participant. Rockbottom -- she sat alone and hulking in the boat. She was gasping for air. Her mask was steaming up and the boat listed heavily to her side. Nigel and the boatman approached her, "Wolfy, I want you to keep watch on everyone else, keep counting snorkels." I swam backwards and away from the boat and watched as Nigel and the boatman cajoled Rockbottom over the side. It was an awful sight -- she attempted to turn and come in flippers first and the boat threatened to capsize, I saw the boatman waving madly at her to turn around, there was only one way for her to come in the water and that was to roll out with her back toward the water. I could no longer hear Nigel over the water, but I saw his lips moving, he was encouraging her like a stray farm animal, trying to get her in the pen before it lost all confidence. And then suddenly she did it, almost taking Nigel and the boatman with her as she hit the water -- in fact all three of them disappeared from sight for a moment, all I could see was great splashes and a dark arm hear and there. She came up red faced and gasping, the snorkel was no longer in her mouth, she was taking on water and grabbing for anything that might keep her afloat . . . at one point she had hold of the boatman's neck. I was certain all three of them would drown and this made me swim back to them, but Nigel waved me off, "Go! Go now, don't lose track of the others!" And as I swam away, I saw they had her level now, belly down, ass up, arms out, big legs quietly kicking, the snorkel in place, they were swimming on either side of her, holding her up -- they would swim with her like this for the next two hours, never leaving her sides. And I spent that time counting snorkels, 1 2 3 and where's? oh 4 5 6! And I made 7 and Rockbottom made 8 and the boatman and Nigel made 9 and 10 -- all were accounted for and then thankfully, it was time to go back to shore.
Rockbottom glared at me all the way back to the docks and as we stepped off the boat and onto the docks which were busy with local dive boats disembarking for lunch, Rockbottom confronted me, "You left me Wolfy!" I didn't answer her, I caught Nigel's eye as he was helping the boatman collect snorkels, he winked and waved me over to help. "Sorry Rockbottom, gotta help Nigel right now."
"Wolfy, this was the final straw. You left me to drown."
And this would be her devastating refrain in her letters to my superiors, that I gingerly swam away and left her to drown. I would spend two months defending myself and collecting eye witness accounts from others to the contrary.
That afternoon I borrowed a bicycle and rode into town to sight-see, perhaps buy myself some puca shells. It was the first time I had been alone in two weeks except for my various cabanas and hotel rooms. I rode along the rutted sandy road and tried to throw off the nausea -- I was down to two Bonines and I was hoping to save them for the final snorkeling trip to Blue Hole the next day. My legs were spindly and I was strangely euphoric from the lack of food -- subsisting on Coca-Cola made me feel more like a humming bird and less like a girl. I leaned the bike on a dive shack in San Pedro and walked the streets for a while. Reggae music beat my ears and the smell of conch fritters tempted me. I bought a small greasy paper bag full of the fritters and sat on a bench -- I took two bites and gave the rest to a big eyed dingo dog that came along. He wagged his tail and followed me back to my bicycle -- I told him he was welcome to follow me to my hotel, but the management wouldn't be as accommodating as me. He turned away as I pedaled to the edge of the village.
Somewhere half way between the village and the hotel I rode into a muddy puddle that had no bottom and the bike flipped forward and I went head first over the handle bars into the blood warm water. I stood up and found that I had cut my hands and my chin and my shins weren't quite in the shape they had been before this mishap. I stood there sick with Tikal's spirits, dripping with clay, and well, I lost it. I pulled the bike out of the hole and sat on the side of the road under a palm tree and sobbed. What the hell was I doing in this place? I obviously was some sort of idiot. I wanted to go home, that was all I wanted -- to go home.
Two days later I was sitting in a cafe in Viscaya Gardens in Miami, Florida. I had said my goodbyes to the group back at the Miami International Airport and found I had a four hour layover before my flight back to Raleigh. So I took the advice of a nice young man in a kiosk at the airport and took a taxi to Viscaya, the former winter estate of early 20th century industrialist and robber baron James Deering, who from what I could tell wanted Miami to look more like Spain. I toured the rose gardens and found somewhere beneath a replica of the Venus de Milo that the Mayan priests had vacated my innards. I headed for the cafe and ordered a BLT and a glass of beer with no guilt or fear. Christmas music was drifting over the gardens -- it was hard to believe sitting there in the Florida sun with the jungle burned into my brow, but Christmas was only three weeks away.
I pulled out my journal and began to write: They had their trip and I had mine. I suspect there will be trouble waiting for me when I get back. The final insult? We got on the plane to fly from the Cay back to Belize City and the pilot asked me to sit next to him for the flight. I declined softly on the grounds that I am a bit of a white knuckler, and Rockbottom flew at me, "Don't you dare say anything to frighten the children! You just shut up and don't say a thing!" The passengers fell silent and the taste of sulphur permeated the cabin. The two children aboard looked to their mother and began to cry. Rockbottom recoiled herself, did she know what she had done? I saw the red red fear in her face and I knew there was nothing left to do but to get home.