Silent hunters is a relative term.
Trip Start Dec 31, 2007
12Trip End Jan 15, 2008
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We stopped by Hanna's again for breakfast. I skipped my beloved fryjacks to have toast, I'm not really sure why, since cookies and Sunny D were no problem. After breakfast, we wandered around looking for the bus station, only to arrive right back at the taxi stand we'd walked past at least four times ignoring their requests to let us help them every time. Turns out, that IS the bus station, and if we'd just talked to them, we would have figured it out sooner. As they told us numerous times, after inquiring about our precise destination and itinerary over and over.
Though we'd managed to get a lovely express bus on the way north, it was strictly chicken buses south. During the stop in Belmopan we picked up some more snacks (toast, frankly, is not very filling). Sarah got some roasted banana chips, which somehow had absolutely no banana or plantain flavor. The trip down the Hummingbird Highway to Dangriga was one of the prettiest drives in Belize, and Sarah and I both ended up with seat mates for awhile that tried to point out things of interest. Sarah's also tried to give her a lollipop, but the no candy from strangers rule was in effect. After Dangriga came the exciting part of the bus ride - where we were going to get dropped off by the side of the road and hope that it was somewhere within walking distance of where we hoped to be. Usually this works, sometimes it ends with us tromping through the jungle for three hours.
The bus attendant helpfully pointed out where we were supposed to get off, which was good, as Maya Centre village is just a couple of clusters of tiny houses with no plumbing and a community center. We walked up the road until we found Tutzil Nah Cottages, where we had a reservation, and stood uncertainly in the mud until a shirtless, barefoot man in mud-spattered pants came up to introduce himself as Gregorio and show us the cottages. As we were the only guests, we had our pick. We picked the one that looked like it might have indoor plumbing. After, that is, Gregorio hesitantly took the "lock" (a board nailing the door shut) off of the bathroom and said that he supposed we could try it, but there was the possibility the room would flood. Since even just the sink would be useful, we said we'd take the chance. Part of the reason for our adventurousness in taking the bathroom that had been nailed shut was that we'd walked past the outhouses and bath houses for the whole village on the way to the cottage, possibly contributing to the inches of mud inundating the village. The bath houses (wooden outdoor shower stalls) didn't have drainage, of course, so all that water had to go somewhere.
After the silent maids (Gregorio's relatives who lived in the village) brought us another slatted bed frame and dusty mattress, we perched uncertainly in our room for a few minutes trying to think of something nice to say to Gregorio and his family when we saw them next. After all, with running water and an actual floor, it was still nicer than most of the houses in Maya Centre, even if it did bear more than a slight resemblance to prison with bare cement and PVC piping. After deciding that "quaint" and "rustic" were patronizing and "interesting" just wouldn't cut it, we just hoped they wouldn't ask. Since they'd told us we'd have to let them know an hour in advance if we wanted to eat in the "restaurant," we decided to take a walk to the other set of cottages owned by Gregorio's brother and see if they had any food there. We trudged down the road into the Cockscomb Jaguar Sanctuary without seeing a single open store of any kind, and by the time of our arrival at the other cottages, my migraine was starting to threaten again.
Luckily, the restaurant at the other cottages, a lovely, open, completely empty building, was supposedly serving food. Or at least it would be as soon as someone ran off to find the cook. After about twenty minutes a woman walked in and announced that we could have chicken and rice and beans. We shrugged and said that would be fine. I assumed that, like Tutzil Nah, we were just getting what the rest of the family was having. Nope. She went and spent the next forty five minutes cooking. As usual, the stewed chicken was good and the rice and beans was plentiful but bland. It really is exactly the same meal all over Belize. Since it looked like this might be our only meal at Maya Centre, we ate as much as we could before we left to try to find a store to buy water and provisions for supper. Neither of the tiny stores we passed on the way was open yet (ever?), so we stopped in to browse at the Maya Centre Women's Cooperative, which had the best selection of crafts we saw the whole time in Belize. Of course, being hot and disoriented (and still mildly hungry), we didn't buy a single thing.
The way the cooperative seemed to work was that every single artist labeled her own work with her name and a price, so while the same item might be offered by three different people, one might have a lower price, or one might do more detailed etching, and you could tell whose work was whose. It was interesting. And cheaper than the shops everywhere else for better work. I'm still kicking myself for being too out of it to get anything.
After finding that our cottages had a little store that seemed to sell candy, soda, and a few other items, we picked up some homemade chocolate chip cookies and Pringles. I was skeptical, but the cookies turned out to be okay. Since there really wasn't a thing to do, we turned the fan on in the cabin (another luxury) and napped through the afternoon.
At 6:00, the point of this particular adventure began. After grabbing Fanta and more water from the store (the woman at the counter only spoke Mayan, so there was no way to explain to her she was charging me for things I'd paid for earlier), we got in a little grey car with Julian, our Mayan guide, and headed off into the sanctuary. A couple of dogs kept pace with the car for miles, and soon we saw fireflies. We got to the visitor center, Julian paid our fee and told the man which trails we'd be taking, and we armed ourselves with flashlights and headed off into the jungle. After daintily trying to not step in the mud in the lot, I realized as soon as we got on the trail that the entire jungle was just one big swath of mud and getting covered up to the ankles was going to be unavoidable.
Then we were told to turn our lights off and be as quiet as possible while we followed Julian through the jungle, following only his light. We crept along for about ten minutes before Julian pointed out a thin red snake which looked like a huge earthworm slithering across the path. We watched for about a minute before it was off in the undergrowth. "Did you see it?!" he hissed excitedly. Since the light had been trained on the snake for the full minute, we nodded excitedly. Wildlife already! We tiptoed another quarter or half mile into the jungle (it's hard to measure distance when you're in pitch black and moving that slowly) and Julian focused his light on a small, furry, rodent-looking creature crossing the road. "That's a paca! Or, as we call them in Belize, a gibnut! Did you see it! Did you?!" Once again, we nodded excitedly and whispered that we had. Since we'd been warned beforehand the chances of seeing a jaguar were very, very slim, I was just glad to be seeing anything at all.
We walked for another thirty or forty minutes, at one point turning our lights back on to clamber down a bank and cross some rocks over a stream. Though Julian was flicking his light all over the place, we weren't seeing any jaguar prints, much less a sign of the animal itself. Until we got to a spot that to us looked identical to every other spot on the trail, stopped, and Julian turned off the light. Since "turn off the light for a couple minutes and scare the tourists" is a popular attraction everywhere, I waited patiently in perfect silence.
After about five or ten minutes, I realized he wasn't going to turn it back on. Twenty minutes later I was detailing exactly what I could see in the tiny bit of moonlight that made it through the canopy and had ceased glancing around at every sound. Twenty minutes after that, I had started seeing exactly how much I could move my body without making a noise or moving my feet from where they'd sunk in the mud. Then we heard a roar from somewhere overhead to our left. This had just gotten interesting again. It all went silent for a few more minutes (or as silent as the jungle gets), and then we heard something large crashing through the canopy from the direction of the roar, only now it was much, much closer. Let me tell you - jaguars are not quiet when they move through the trees. They may be shadow-like if they are crouched on a branch, but moving around in the canopy, they crack and rustle and thump just like their other, less graceful, mammal relatives. It would have been more amusing had all of this racket not been almost directly over our heads. I felt my heart speed up and wondered what would happen if I turned on the light right then. Would it scare the jaguar into moving away, or would it scare it into attacking? As I hadn't the faintest idea, I didn't follow through on the impulse.
I didn't need to wonder much longer, though, since about a minute later Julian snapped on his light, oddly, at a spot rather removed in the canopy from where the jaguar actually sounded like it was. I still don't know if my hearing was off or his light was, since we never did see it. It was too far up in the canopy. He turned his light off, and after another ten minutes or so, the crashing progress through the canopy continued. Just when I could see Julian deciding where to point the light when he turned it on next, Sarah coughed. Loudly. It's harder than you think to remain perfectly silent and still for an hour. After that, I was sure we were done, because there was no way the jaguar would come back in our direction, but Julian had us stand there for another twenty minutes just to make sure. As I suspected though, that cat was no dummy, and was going to wait it out until we left.
We continued our glacial progress through the mud without seeing any more creatures until we came to the water hole. After shining his light around the bank, Julian excitedly whispered there was a tapir on the other side, and we all tried to scurry down a bank to see it better. Julian scurried. Sarah and I barely managed to make it down before he was shooing us back up. We stopped at a bench by the water hole, turned off the light, and sat. We could occasionally see glimmers of movement in the moonlight, and when Julian turned the light on after another thirty minutes of perfect stillness, we saw an enormous tapir, about 500 pounds, drinking and wading in the water hole. We were able to watch it for several minutes before it hid itself in the grass. Julian whirls around, "Did you see it?! Did you see the tapir?! Man, that thing was huge! Did you see it?!" We nodded, a little uncertainly. How could we possibly have missed the quarter ton animal he had been shining a light on for five minutes?
After that, we continued on the trail, now on our way out of the jungle. On the way, we passed two extremely loud groups of people, all shining their lights, going the opposite direction. Sarah and I thanked our lucky stars to be creeping along with our guide in the dark. Heading up one of the groups, muttering constantly and audibly about the mud, I could have sworn was the same elderly couple I'd seen at Caracol and Barton Creek. I have a feeling Belize was not living up to their expectations. Before we made it completely out, we saw another paca in the brush, bigger this time, and got to go through the whole "Did you see it?!" litany again. I don't know if that was just his way of sharing his excitement, or if he regularly gives tours to some of the most unobservant people on earth.
I think Julian was mildly disappointed we'd never actually gotten to see the jaguar, but we were just happy we'd gotten to see as much as we did. Not to mention we got awfully close to a jaguar sighting. I didn't even expect that. After rinsing the mud off our pants and shoes at the cabin, we turned in, expecting to get up for the 6:30 bus out of Maya Centre. Priosn-like room, public showers and all, Maya Centre was totally worth it for getting to take a tour like that.