En Route: Xunantunich

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I awoke feeling claustrophobic. During the night, the heat in my narrow room, unmitigated by a squeaky fan, made me restless.

The night before Xunantunich, I had a dream that I had to escape a jungle maze. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t get out, I kept making the same mistakes over and over again. When I was a lobsterman I used to have the same kind of vivid dreams, during which the house was sinking and water rushed in under the door to my room. I had them numerous times and always woke up confused. This night,I kept waking up in that small room with the fan buzzing and ticking, the walls pressing in, wondering where in the world I was, feeling like I was far away from everything good and no one had my back. Each time it took almost a minute for me to remember I was in San Ignacio, Belize, in a cramped wooden room on the third floor.

The ruins at Xunantunich are a quick bus ride from San Ignacio. The town across from the ruins, called San Jose Succotz, isn’t very big, the jumping-off point for the free ferry that shuttles visitors across the river to the ruins themselves. I walked the length of the town’s main street before having breakfast at Benny’s. The streets were deserted: hot, and deathly quiet. I felt uneasy. The instant coffee was weak, but coffee is good even on a hot day.

The ferryman cranked us across the narrow river by hand, using a rusty pulley system. The small ferry, just big enough for a single car, felt like it was made in the nineteenth century. We bumped into the opposite shore, a paved road that led through the jungle. Iguanas scampered through the dry underbrush, their splayed feet sending leaves flying. I walked along the road, noticing the odd mix of the mundane and the exotic in the jungle growth, until I arrived at the ruins a couple of miles down the road.

I spent the day there, drawing the ruins and dozing in the shady spots of the temple’s architecture. I spent two hours at the top of the biggest temple, watching the massive forest spread out as far as I could see.

Out of the corner of my eye an old man came up the steps.

He had a dress shirt on with a pen in the front pocket and made strange noises, whistles and clucks, as if he were unaware other people could hear him. He had liver spots and thin shiny skin, and looked in his seventies or eighties. He had that sort of permanent mild smile on his face that elderly people get. He spoke with a thick German accent even though he was born in Mexico. He was a Mennonite, but he and his wife left the colony. One day, another Mennonite said that the colony needed to keep doing things the old way even if it were wrong. He thought that statement over: Keep doing things the old way even if it was wrong. It didn’t make any sense to him, so he left.

He told me he had been in the United States for a little bit, and lived in Canada for a little while too, but liked it better in Belize. His first time in the States, he said, was on a long train ride and he didn’t speak any English. He couldn’t even say in English that he couldn’t speak English. No one could understand anything he tried to say and it was terribly frustrating. By the end of the trip, he said, he could at least say “I don’t speak English.”

When I had been in Korea, at first I could only say Hello and Thank you. I ate the same pork dish several times because I knew how to order it from a small restaurant on my street. The frustration and confusion of trying to communicate wore on me. I read and practiced in spurts, sometimes for weeks on end, but then I would have to give my brain a break, the relentless grind like an engine low on oil.


Back at the top of the temple, in the shade of the roof comb, I talked to the old Mennonite for about half an hour. When he left, I fell into a dreamless nap, no mazes, no water rushing under the doorway, just things that made sense, warm stone to my back and a forest in front of me reaching out to the horizon.

Featured photo by Zhu.


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