Junglepixiebelize - Recollections of a Gringa Pioneer
Nancy R Koerner - Copyright@2023 - All Rights Reserved
As young gringo couples, newly arrived in the mid-70’s, we had little knowledge of each other’s presence until we began to meet each other at Saturday morning market in Cayo. In those days, “market” was a euphemism. It meant two or three pickup trucks parked across from Kalim Habet’s store, selling bananas, plantains, and coco yams from the back of their trucks. A couple of young Mennonite men in a horse-drawn wagon carrying flats of brown eggs. Four or five local women seated on low stools in the shade of Kalim’s storefront. A ground cloth with cabbages stacked in small artistic pyramids, eggplant and okra laid out in rows, a few limes in a basket, and red ripe tomatoes in white pigtail buckets.
With the exception of a few British soldiers, Mennonites, and the occasional missionary, white faces were rare. So, we fellow gringos easily recognized each other for what we were — part of the great diaspora — a growing clan of colorful, back-to-the-land, ex-pat American hippies, each looking to secure their own little piece of Eden. Some of us lived upstream on the Macal, some in Pilgrimage Valley, or the Mountain Pine Ridge, and some in Upper Barton Creek Valley, near the awe-inspiring water cave that local Maya referred to as “Nohoch Sayab,” meaning “big spring.”
The truth was that – to one degree or another – we all had stars-in-our-eyes. (Yep, naive “dumb gringos.”) Why had we come to Belize? Some of us had been influenced by a particular issue of National Geographic magazine, released in the early ‘70’s. Some had been leaning towards joining the Peace Corp, but then decided the organization was too regimented, and sought autonomy. As for myself — well, I had watched too many Tarzan movies – even sharing the same birthdate with actor, Johnny Weissmuller. Each gringo couple had some kind of rather magical idea about how, and where, they would build their little dream house. They could imagine it, perfectly positioned so as to overlook some wondrous natural feature, or get a unique view or perspective of the cave, the river, or verdant valley.
If you’ve ever visited the great cave at Barton Creek, its memory will stay with you forever. The river pours forth from a seventy-foot triangular fissure at the base of the mountain. The western barrier wall ascends at near-90 degrees, and the creek runs along the wall from south to north. The flat fertile valley to the east extends about three-quarters of a mile wide, and perhaps two or three miles north to south. The dry season level of the creek is only about ten feet below the eastern bank, so when the floodwaters reach the point of spill-over, the entire valley is soaked in an wealth of nutrients and nitrogen-rich bat guano.
Pat Cartwright lived in a truly magnificent dwelling, perhaps the finest natural bush construction I’ve ever seen. Built in 1974, the house was mounted on eight-inch diameter vertical posts, its smooth hardwood floor about seven feet off the ground. The lady-finger thatch overhead was a work of art – the bay-leaf having been cut in the new moon, and lashed overhead to exceptionally long straight three-inch poles. Correctly done, the bay-leaf thatching would last up to fifteen or twenty years – even surviving a hurricane or two. But, the most amazing feature of Pat’s house was that it had no walls. The pitch of the thatched roof angled sharply downward, extending a full five feet beyond where a typical thatch roof-line would end, giving it superior protection from the driving tropical downpours. But it also meant less protection from wild animals. There was actually nothing to stop wild jungle cats, great and small, from executing one great leap right into the house – which Pat said had happened on more than one occasion.
Jim and Annie had a different take on where and how to build. They picked out a spot on the western wall, and determined to build a little fantasy dwelling – a sort of combination-cliffside-tree-house design, perched high above the creek. The back of the house would be anchored to live trees growing parallel to, or even naturally embedded in, the rock wall. The front of the house would extend out over the creek, and solidly connect to heavy vertical posts which would be sunken deeply into the creek bed.
Dry season was the only time to build, and local workers were hired to cut trees of varying lengths and diameters, appropriate to the design. Palm leaf was cut for the thatch, but instead of long-lasting bay-leaf, they used long fronds of the American oil palm, locally known as cohune. Each leaf was split longitudinally, the ribs packed tightly, side-by-side, tucked right up to the ridge poles. It would not last nearly as long as bay-leaf construction – maybe four or five years – and then need to be replaced.
When the house was finished, it was, indeed, quite charming and utterly unique. But something was off; the construction and design had been forced. Jim and Annie had thought like gringos, didn’t listen to the advice of the locals, and had remained unfamiliar with materials and designs more in keeping with the forces of nature. Attempting to drill giant post holes, driving deep into a flowing waterway, without being able to fully divert the watercourse had been nominal, at best. Tall natural trees, in situ, had, indeed, created solid vertical anchorage at the back of the house. But, the front, with the its extended veranda, was secured only to the uprights — which were constantly standing in ten to fifteen inches of flowing water. Jim had rigged a pulley system for hauling provisions, but otherwise the only ingress was to climb a ladder secured between the rock wall and the house.
And then the wet season came. The rains began. The dry ground quickly drank in all the moisture it could hold, and then could hold no more.
It must be remembered that the great cave at Nohoch Sayab had not been born of the air and empty space that occupied the towering apex above its opening. It had been created by the unimaginable flow of floodwaters that had pushed, and dissolved, and carved the seventy-foot triangular cleft in the rockface of the mountain for millions of years. Now, all the rains from the Mountain Pine Ridge filtered down through the earth. From a thousand rivulets and streams, and underground waterways, they coalesced and converged into floodwaters so massive, it was as though Mother Earth was bringing forth the birthwaters of all creation.
And the waters rose. And rose. By feet, not by inches.
Jim and Annie awoke to the sound of the driving, pummeling rain, punching its way through the cohune leaf thatch, and the ever-increasing roar of the water-beast upstream. In an hour, the deluge was halfway up the posts, and house had begun to rock. Within another twenty minutes, the whole tree house began to sway. And when the flood had reached only inches below their floorboards, they made the impossible decision that would save their lives. They grabbed a few meager possessions, and a flashlight, and escaped out the back, climbing a short distance up the wet slippery cliff. Shivering in the rain, they listened to the monstrous rending, screeching, tearing and roaring of the inundation. They found refuge in a shallow cave, where they spent a sleepless night, listening to the sound of their dream house being swept away. And, as dawn changed to sunrise, there was nothing to be seen except the gentle morning light, innocently reflecting on the chocolate-brown floodwaters, already starting to recede.