Clarissa Falls

At Home in Belize

Tammie Painter

© Copyright 2009 by Tammie Painter

Photo of a rural scene in Belize.

Sometimes going nowhere is the best way to go places.

A strange man greets my husband and me at the two-room airport bearing a simple sign with my name on it.  It’s Central America and I wonder if we should be getting into a rickety car with someone whose only identifying symbol is a cardboard placard.  But before our plane-numbed minds can go too far along the road of suspicion he’s tossing our bags into the jalopy and we follow where our luggage is heading.

The roads are terrible with ruts deeper than a giant’s footprint.  The state of the car and the maniacal driving doesn’t ease my sense of doubt that we’ll make it to our destination.   It’s February and night falls too quickly as we rattle down the barely asphalted roads through villages whose annual income is probably less than what we’ll spend for a two-week vacation.   A swerve and jerk and suddenly we’re stopped.  Our driver gets out, leaving us as another man comes up the car and we feel it being rocked.  Only after realizing he’s filling the tank while our driver empties his do I tell myself how ridiculous my fear is.

Back on the road all sense of time is gone.  Although the time difference is only two hours ahead of home, the feeling of being in an entirely different world and traveling for the past fourteen hours makes time lose all logic.  After a stretch of comparably smooth pavement the driver warns us to be prepared – the road that leads to our home for the next week is rough.  He’s simplifying the matter.  The road we turn down makes the previous bumps and ruts seem like floating on cloud.  This a mile-long dirt road that suffers a little bit more each time it rains as it is doing now.  As we make our way along at a bone-shaking five miles an hour there are no lights except the headlights and the rain is so heavy they do little but illuminate the sheet of water ahead of us.  The car tilts and rumbles through puddles large enough to lose a small child in and then abruptly we’re stuck.

“We have to wait a bit,” he says and points through the windshield.

What?  What does he see?  Has a tree blocked the road?  Are the Guatemalans invading?  Is it banditos?

“Cows,” he says to our silence.  “They’re not moving.  I’ll get them going.”  He inches the car along blasting the horn and then there they are: huge mounds of tan hided beef cattle.  He continues crawling the car through honking as if he’s practicing to be a New York cabby stuck in traffic.  But this traffic could stampede and I don’t think the tin can of a car could handle it.  With the persistence of the horn and the car’s nudging we make it through and after a few more bumps we’re at our destination: Clarissa Falls in the Cayo district of Belize.

It’s too dark and I’m too dazed from the long journey to take in much.  A friendly woman asks if we’re hungry and before we can answer tells us to settle in and then come back for some food.  I realize then we’re standing in the dining room – an open-air platform with tables, chairs, and a couple dogs lazing at the edge.  A younger man winds up something and puts it in my husband’s hand, “Here, I just fixed it.  Follow me.”  We’re led down a pitch-black path to a little hut, shown how to work the lock and lights and again told to take our time settling in then come back up for some food.  I worry we won’t be able to make it back in the dark.

My brain and body ache from traveling, but I quickly appreciate the place.  I’d found Clarissa Falls online and it sounded too good to be true.  A beautiful, family run lodge situated at the edge of a 900-acre cattle ranch that’s been in the family for over ninety years.  My fear, as it always is when booking online, is the real thing won’t live up to the lush photos and promising descriptions on the web site.  But the not so little cottage hut is beyond my expectations.  The room is huge with space for a queen bed, two twin beds on the opposite wall, and plenty of floor space so you aren’t in constant fear of bashing your toe on the bed frame.  Our American privacy needs rejoice at the large ensuite bathroom with shower.  So far so good, until we stepped out – the jungle is dark.  The unbelievable darkness engulfed us once we closed the door.  It was fascinating and scary.  We were in the land of jaguars and fer-de-lance vipers and we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces.  My husband flicked on the wind up toy he’d been handed and used the narrow beam of the flashlight to guide us to dinner as I clutched his shirt to keep from being left in the night.

Clarissa Falls became to us an amazing home that was nearly all for us.  The only other people were a group of doctors on sabbatical.  They were up and off on their daylong chores or tours before we woke, and didn’t return until late in the evening.  One other long term resident was a Canadian woman volunteering at the lodge and local school for several months.  A few other guests stayed the night here and there, but for the most part we had hundreds of acres of Belizean land and charming hosts all to ourselves.  Within only a week we came to feel part of the family.

Too often our vacations are a mad collection of rushing from site to site trying to take in as much as possible in the short time we are allotted to relax.  We rarely relax and come back more exhausted than when we left.  Gone are the days where people resided for weeks at a time in one locale getting to know the people and the customs.  Now we hop on buses with the countryside whirring by to take in the Tower of London and the Louvre in a single day, two if we’re taking it slow.  The family at Clarissa Falls – Chena, her son Mark and his wife and daughter, and Chena’s mother – seemed at first bewildered at our lack of desire to spend each day rushing from one end of the country to the other.  Mark described us as “good tourists” because we didn’t “act like tourists.”

Each morning Chena – possible fearing we were bored – quizzed us on what we might want to do and offering up tours to the jungle several hours in one direction or visiting ruins several hours in the other.  Our declines were met strangely at first, but she began to understand we were perfectly content exploring the variety of things to do in the vicinity of the ranch.  It’s not to say we lazed around all day in the hammocks, although they got plenty of use especially in the middle of the day when the humidity made moving around the last thing we wanted to do.  Plenty of time was spent feeding crackers to the fish in the Mopan River as we dangled our feet off the dock and marveling at plants growing up to eye-level that struggled as six-inch houseplants at home.  Watching the cows, being chased by angry geese, and sighting yet another iguana became enjoyable daily events.

Two miles from Clarissa Falls are the grounds to the Mayan ruin of Xunantunich.  After a morning meal of fresh milk and eggs, local fruit, and homemade tortillas and Johnny cakes we began the trek.  The walk passes along the river, but getting from the lodge to the path required directions.  “Just pass through this field into the neighboring field and then follow the river.”  Passing through the field meant making our way through a herd of cattle sending my husband’s city heart into a panic.  The obvious fear of an animal ten times our size that could crush us was reasonable I’ll admit, but David halted.  Then crouched, stared at them, and walked a ways.  Then repeated.  The cows were eyeing us and I realized what was going on.  “David, acting like a predator isn’t helping the matter.”  I took the lead and walked upright at a reasonable pace until we made it to the next gate into the neighboring field that was thankfully devoid of cows.

At the end of two miles of keeping the river to our right we came to the hand-cranked ferry that seemed like something straight out of a travel video.  Two women in a Jeep drove aboard and one burly man cranked us all across.  Then the hard part began.  The road to Xunantunich is a long stretch of intense incline and we were thankful of Chena’s insistence on packing extra water.  Sweaty and hot we reached the top to the mile-square grounds with its twenty-six structures to explore and climb.  For most of the time we were only two of maybe ten people in the whole site.  The lack of crowds was appreciated, but the situation grew disconcerting when armed men in fatigues began patrolling the grounds.

Belize and Guatemala are in a constant tiff over Guatemala claiming Belize as Guatemalan territory.  As would be expected, Belizeans don’t agree and the problem of asserting their opinion has become difficult since the British, and their army, left the country after Belize gained its independence in 1981.  Clarissa Falls lies only six miles from the Guatemalan border and soldiers were nightly dinner guests stopping in after making a patrol of the ranch.  But the sight of men carrying large rifles stalking through a tourist attraction sent the hairs on our necks rising.  We continued to explore the stone palaces and friezes all the while sensing the soldiers’ presence, not knowing if they were friend or foe or whether it would make a difference when they realized we were Americans.  The entire mood lightened though when we caught them laughing and flirting with a group of teenage girls.  The laughter echoed through the ancient site and all nervousness dropped away.  These were just young men, possibly ones we’d dined with one night.

And the girls?  They best represented the effusive friendliness of the Belizeans.  The main structure of Xunantunich is El Castillo.  With narrow steps and no guardrails you can climb to the top, 130 feet above the ground.  I made it halfway up before my fear of heights took over.  Along came one of the girls telling me I have to go to the top.

“No, I’m fine here.”

“No, you have to go, come on I’ll help you.”

So, caving into peer pressure, I let her guide me up.  I should say she ran up and would come back to check on me as I crawled my way along keeping as far to the inside of the two foot wide staircases as possible.  Some of the passageways have no exterior walls and the view of how far you will fall doesn’t help.  But, with her goading and guiding I made it, clutching the side with a death grip.

“Aren’t you glad you’re up here?”

“Um, no not really, but thanks.”

“Okay, now we have to go back down.”

“Do you do this every day or something?”

“No, it’s my first time here,” she giggled through her lilting accent.  I groaned at her bravery and scooted down the structure like a dog with a bad case of worms.

Upon returning to Clarissa Falls it was time for a late lunch.  Meals at the lodge are wonderful and simple.  Most of us have forgotten how delicious fresh food can taste and only sample it with a garden tomato or zucchini.  Here, the cows in the field provide the milk for cheese and butter and meat, the chickens dole out eggs, honey is local, tortillas are warm and handmade, and the fruit comes from nearby.  There are no fancy sauces or presentation platters because the food speaks for itself.  Stuffed squash, the ever-present rice and beans with chicken or pork, enchiladas, soups, and other home-style cooking tastes better than anything from a five-star resort restaurant.  While the beverages – fresh fruit juices, coffee, and Belikin beer – are all delicious in the humidity, possibly the most exquisite item is the vanilla shake.  Made from fresh cow’s milk and locally grown vanilla the shake’s unequalled taste prevented us from enjoying American vanilla ice cream for months.

The freshness and personal attention make each meal feel like you’re sitting down with family.  Chena asks you how your day was and what you did with all the interest of a mom, and if you’ve truly made an impression, Mark will let you partake in the family’s homemade blackberry wine.  There are no set meal times, just show up to the kitchen and ask for what you want.  If thirst or hunger strike when the kitchen is closed you are encouraged to help yourself and mark what you’ve taken on your tab.  The only money exchanged is when you leave.

Being lazy on land needs to be complemented by being lazy on the water and tubing down the Mopan is the simplest way.  While being dropped in a river with a small chunk of rubber and the advice to not drag my butt over the rocks isn’t typically my idea of fun, I figured I’d give it a try.  The Mopan is dotted with “falls” – what we would call rapids – along its length.  Some are small and some are bigger.  The biggest and last one on our journey would be Clarissa Falls just down the path from the dining area of the lodge.  Standing on shore it looks small but sounds rough with water churning over boulders, but we were told it was easy enough.  Mark drove us to a point in the river near the Xunantunich ferry and told us to hop in.  There’s no graceful way to do this.  I plunked down and immediately was seized by little fish pecking at my legs.  Yes, I screamed.

“They’re just curious,” Mark called from shore while laughing.

The trip was pretty and refreshing and most of the falls were quickly over and done, barely enough to raise the heart rate.  Until I got stuck at the next to last one.  Trapped in circling current I became pinned against the rock and pushing off with my feet only sent me back around.  Finally with one good kick I freed myself, but I didn’t want to experience the next one, the roughest one – Clarissa Falls.  In a spot that looked familiar from our trek to Xunantunich I dragged myself out.  Muddy, wet, and lugging my inner tube I plodded through the cows back to the lodge where I waited and waited for David to come hurtling over the falls.  He made it look easy. Afterwards he admitted he thought about getting out before the drop, but was too caught up in the current to get to shore.  Sometimes adventure is forced on us.  Mark teased me saying I was required to go over the falls, but I dropped the inner tube in the shed and kept my backside dry the rest of our stay.

A short ride away from the lodge is the town of San Ignacio.  We decided we should go see the big city and walked up the dirt road to the highway.  Seeing the craters and washouts in the road I still couldn’t believe the driver’s car made it through.  To catch a ride into town you can either wait for a bus or a cab.  The bus system is supposed to be quite good for Central America, but a cab arrived first so we hopped in for the ten-minute ride into the town center.  After the near solitude of Clarissa Falls, San Ignacio was a cacophony of people and cars.  The town’s population is less than 20,000 but it felt like we were in the middle of L.A.

Shops and restaurants in San Ignacio are inexpensive with a wide variety of choices for eating – Indian, Chinese, burgers.  While debating about where to have lunch we were approached by a scrawny, smoking man with a mass of dreads on his head.  I first thought he was going to ask for money or be yet another cab driver asking us if we wanted to go somewhere.  Instead, he revealed his tour guide card required by law and asked if we wanted to schedule a horseback ride.  Truthfully we were able to say I had already made plans to go the next day and tried to walk off.

“Oh, you must be Chena’s people,” a huge nicotine-stained smile engulfed his face.  “Are you Tammie?”

“Yes,” I couldn’t help but smile at his enthusiasm.

“I’m Ali.  I’m taking you out tomorrow.” Belize is a small world.

The morning of my ride nerves set in.  I hadn’t been on a horse in years and I hoped Ali’s animals would be gentle beasts.  Across the cattle fields I saw him riding with a perfectly-sized black horse following.  This was Jungle Queen and she looked peaceful enough, but Ali told me – mid-way through our ride – that she likes to run.  I exerted my limited authority over her and amazingly kept her to a walk or trot.  Ali, wiry as it turned out, not scrawny, was a terrific riding companion (David stayed at the lodge with his inexhaustible fear of getting on a horse).

Ali raced for twenty-six years and was one of Belize’s top jockeys for over half that time.  Now he led tours and asked me for advice on how best to approach people on the street with his services.  He smoked his way along the river path showing me coffee, allspice, and offering me a snack of termites telling me they tasted like carrots.  I declined as he popped a few in his mouth.

We wandered along the river and he urged me to try running the horse.  Why do I tend to give into these crazy suggestions?  Jungle Queen indeed loved to run and regardless of my “whoa”s and rein pulls she wouldn’t stop until Ali realized I was fearing for my life and got her to stop.  My run lasted about fifteen seconds.  Heading back to the lodge we traversed through the ranch and winded our way through the bulls that kept an eye on their cows and us.  Back at the lodge we lingered over a few Belikins with Mark and I asked why they ate the green iguanas but not the brown ones that were as common as squirrels in any U.S. neighborhood.

“Don’t know, we just don’t.”

After awhile Ali took off riding Jungle Queen and she finally got her run.

Other simple pleasures at Clarissa Falls are Chena’s rescue animals.  One, a toucan, still comes to visit her and if you’re lucky, like I was one morning, he’ll eat out of your hand gently taking a papaya piece with his enormous bill.  In the cottages there is no TV, but the thatched roof provides its own entertainment: the Gecko Channel.  It’s a little unnerving at first seeing them up there and hoping they won’t drop on you, but once you get used to it they’re fun little creatures to watch as they scurry along keeping the insect population down.  Sleep comes easy in the absolute darkness of the lodge and your alarm clock is the parrots and toucans calling out the day.

The inviting friendliness and wonderful location made it hard to pack up and leave on the last morning.  Despite being “good tourists” we were still tourists and needed to go.  Embraces were exchanged with offers that, if we didn’t like where we were headed next, our cottage would be there if we wanted to come back.  After we stocked up on a stash of fresh tortillas and tropical fruit salad, the driver from day one rattled us away from a beautiful place and special people.

Tammie Painter is an aspiring writer whose work has been accepted by Oregon Coast Magazine, I Love Cats, Outdoors NW, and powderroomgraffitti,com among others.  She still craves the Clarissa Falls vanilla shakes.

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