I read an article about lead poisoning and fishing sinkers this week. I know I am polymentally perverse because I found an odd comfort in the cautions there. "Don't you dare put a lead sinker into your mouth!", the article frankly advised, and suddenly imaginary images of wits dulling from the rather pleasant taste of lead shot gave me a built-in excuse for four decades of under-achievement. I am no longer less than the sum of my potential, but instead an admirable survivor of a dreaded leaded scourge. I made a mental note to seek out steel sinkers and self-forgiveness.
We went to Belize once, in 1991, for the purpose of snorkeling and exploring a bit of the jungle.
We stayed in Belize City at a downtown hotel of modest comfort but incredibly good johnny-cakes at breakfast. I liked the way that every cafe did not so much have a menu as a single question "what would you like with your beans and rice?".
When we caught the motorboats out to Caye Caulker, which took one snorkeling for five dollars a head, we found ourselves swimming just above a barrier reef as amazing as the brochures suggested.
If one merely bobbed and weaved in the ocean on the two-bit motorboat, one might imagine one was just in a clear-water ordinary place. It was only when one plunged in that one discovered incredible rainbows of color and creatures beyond the wildest imagining. It was not a world free from risk--I'll never forget that really nice young man who saw--but was not threatened by--a small shark. He found that he developed an instant love for the old world, above the waterline.
Sometimes, though, one has to push forward. We do not often rent cars when we are in foreign places (Canada excepted), but we did rent a car for one day of our journey so that we could drive inland. We went to the nearby Mayan ruins, where we got the requisite sense of alien history--both so human and so remote from our experience. Yet what stays with me these years later is the sight of a little coatimundi running just ahead of us, into the jungle. He pushed forward into places we found too muddy to go, and yet within an hour we had mud all around us.
I drove us toward the next destination we sought, and found that, contrary to the map, the "highway" became a dirt road well before our destination. Dirt roads in rainy seasons in nearly-tropical environments should be read as "mud roads". There we were, in a well-used rental American sedan of a mildly vintage age. The wheels were spinning a bit in the mud.
There was nothing for it but to accelerate. I drove in the mud with forceful speed, so that we
were in no danger of getting stuck, and, as it turned out, every danger of slip-sliding away. The nearer our destination, the more we slid right to it rather than away. This disproved an old Paul Simon song and helped me crystallize an idea about hard, consistent prosaic work. It also helped me with some mental idea that one plunges in, a bit, even where there be sharks and mud.
On the other end of our journey awaited ankle-deep watery trails through which we hiked to the roar (and brief glimpse) of howler monkeys, led by a boy named Colin who had no fear of the fer-de-lances which we asked about. In a town called Orange Walk, the egg roll featured a literally rolled-up egg surrounding conch and lobster. We rolled our big American rental car back to the rental place just moments before they closed the gates.
We've never been back to Belize, and though I only drink diet drinks these days, I miss the taste of a true corn-syrup coke. I even miss the fresh, hot bread that the children took to the streets of Belize City to sell for a quarter, piping hot, though I did not in fact buy the bread. I don't miss the fellow who hectored for beer money with a half-wheedle, half-threat, nor the fellows who shouted mildly outlandish ethnic epithets at us. Yet so often life is filled with such pastiches.
People and conditions are unpredictable. Sometimes we feel so very odd and alone. But just under the surface lies incredible color, coatamundi and monkeys. There might be a little girl on the motorboat, carrying a melon back to town for her family. The beans and rice taste surprisingly good--and the best airport meal I have ever had came out of a plastic tray of creole wonder.
Life is a museum, I suppose, and a giant radio station,and a place in which I caution everyone to exercise genuine caution. Yet sometimes, without throwing anything into the wind, one plunges in, and the wind tempers itself suitably shorn-lamb-like. I love the sight of a parrotfish, swimming serenely, just above jagged coral I first see when I plunge in. Rather than some giant video game to be merely observed, it turns out that there is all this stuff to live. One need not go to the jungle to find it--it's all around. But sometimes one has to plunge in. It's not a matter of defying death--at least, no more than each breath is such a defiance--it's a matter of reaching out and taking in, absorbing and living. A strange and colorful place perhaps can be a jump-start, but every suburb has its own coral and jungle. It's just a matter of striding after coatimundi, and
finding the right caye.