Coveralls, kerosene, coconut blights, antisocial mutts, greasy chains, Belize, drumming schools, civilized states of humanity, Johnny Paycheck & the Garifuna.
I went into town on an old bike, in a search for coffee, and the black dog followed me. There is something especially annoying about being angry at something innocent, because you really have no excuse. I tried to get him to stay, but he followed me anyway. He wasn’t mine, so he didn’t listen. I don’t think he understood the concept of staying in one spot. He trailed me up the driveway, past the cemetery and the statue of the black Jesus, down the dirt path and onto the pavement. The dog was the same mongrel Lab sort as my favorite dog as a kid.
That trip into town brought back a lot of my childhood. Some places make me remember so much that they can’t exist on their own, because there is too much about them that is similar to my own past. I never would have thought that a small seaside town in Belize would jog so many memories.
I had to run a gauntlet with the mutt. The other dogs attacked him, but left me alone. It felt like that as a child, when I didn’t go to school. My brothers and sister and I didn’t wear shoes except to go to town, and when we walked to the store sometimes other kids would harass us. We rode our bikes up and down the road, old bikes with greasy chains that fell off several times a day. An old man named Oscar Burley lived across the street from us, and he had a talent for fixing things. He had polio when he was young, so he walked with an awkward gait, one shoulder hunched down farther than the other. He wore coveralls and combed his hair with tonic, like a greaser. With simple tools he worked miracles on our old bikes, fixing chains, putting new seats on them, keeping us on the road. His house was built in the 1700s and had no running water or electricity. He had an outhouse, a hand-pump well and lit the interior with a glass kerosene lamp. If it was quiet enough, you could hear a tiny whump when it lit, and it filled a dark room with the light of sunrise. In his kitchen the floorboards creaked with every step. One evening his house burned down and he moved away. We missed him. The house smelled like a campfire doused with water, a shell with a charcoal interior. As I rode the bike into town that morning in Belize, I could hear Oscar in the creak of the spokes. The rickety chain, covered in old grease and in constant danger of falling off, reminded me so much of the old bicycles he used to fix for us that it felt like I was on one again.
A dreadlocked man smashed coconuts into a spike stuck into the sand, then ripped them apart.
Hopkins, Belize, is populated by the Garifuna. They are the descendants of African slaves, Caribbean tribes and some runaway European sailors. They originally hail from the island of Saint Vincent. The slaves ran away to the tribes here and there; over time, the people looked more African in appearance, but their language remained Caribbean. European sailors mixed in enough for occasional blue eyes to appear. They caused the British so much trouble during a rebellion that the Redcoats shipped them all to the island of Roatán off the Honduran coast in the late 1700s. From there the Garifuna colonized the coast as far as Belize, filling in places where the Spanish had long ago killed off the original inhabitants. They still celebrate the date they were marooned on Roatán as their national heritage day.
The folks in town reminded me of some of the nicer people I have met from Minnesota or Wisconsin, who are so genuinely kind that at first it seems that they are messing with you. About a quarter of the people in Hopkins said hello or good morning as I walked by, and when I bought some matches (there was a power outage at the Guest House), the kid behind the counter almost didn’t let me leave, he had so much to talk about. He asked me where I was from, what I thought of Hopkins, what I thought of Belize and whatever came to his mind. I felt guilty as I backed my way out, still talking.
In addition to Garifuna, the people in Hopkins grow up speaking a Caribbean Creole. Although a dialect of English, it is close to impossible for me to follow. In school they learn standard English. A lot of them also know passable Spanish. In some conversations among each other they will mash them all together. It is very bizarre to hear. In a restaurant I asked one waitress how she made the shrimp and she said, “Correctamente.” They also love to play country music and sing along to Johnny Cash or Johnny Paycheck with the same gusto as they sing along to Bob Marley. One lady in a restaurant sang “Take This Job and Shove It” at the top of her range while she was wiping down tables.
The dogs in Hopkins mind what people say, at least on the street, but if I were to go to someone’s door, they would probably tear off my calf and eat it in the shade of a coconut palm.
I ran into an American from New Hampshire, who had been wintering down there. He said that at first he thought they were messing with him too, but he never saw any indication that they weren’t just seriously nice people. He liked it so much that he was buying a house. Living in a small town is the most civilized state of humanity, in overall decency to one another. Hopkins is a case in point.
The dog followed me as I searched for coffee. Hopkins doesn’t get up early. In Guatemala most of the towns have gone haywire by dawn, but not here. An old man, standing in the street, told me in a nearly unintelligible accent that if I went one house up and two houses down, and asked for a lady named Martinez, she might brew me a cup of coffee. “That is one house up, two houses down, Martinez,” he said and laughed and told me to have a nice day and a few other things that I couldn’t decipher. I laughed, thanked him, then smiled and waved, which caused me to nearly spill my bicycle. When I got to the house the shutters were closed. I didn’t have the guts to walk down Mrs. Martinez’s driveway and wake her up, so I moved along and the dog followed.
Most people own a dog in Hopkins. Some have several. They group together in small packs, each with their own turf. These mutts were as anti-social as the people were friendly. The poor dog with me was attacked several times during the course of the morning. He was only four months old, so usually he just lay down until they went away, but at one point a whole gang of them pounced on him and I had to drive them off with loud noises and fierce gestures. The fleshy thuds of fighting, the froth of anger and dominance, reminded me of the dogs we had as a kid. They, too, were mutts, and if they ever followed us too far down the road there would be trouble with other dogs somewhere along the way. The dogs in Hopkins mind what people say, at least on the street, but if I were to go to someone’s door, they would probably tear off my calf and eat it in the shade of a coconut palm.
One evening his house burned down and he moved away. We missed him.
I walked up and down the silent streets between seven and nine in the morning before I found a cup of coffee, and that was at a drumming school run by a Canadian hippy lady right next to the Kismet Inn, where I was staying. I drank the cup sitting at a table on the sand, while the day made a lazy transition from warm to hot. A breeze came off the ocean, lightly rustling leaves overhead. A dreadlocked man smashed coconuts into a spike stuck into the sand, then ripped them apart. The woman told me that they used to have coconut trees everywhere in town but blight killed them. She told me that they used the coconut for all sorts of purposes, depending upon how ripe they were. Green husks were used for certain things, hard shells for others. They kept the milk and the meat. Since it was such a useful plant, the blight hit the coast hard.
The guy husking coconuts was her boyfriend. This seemed to be a pattern in Hopkins. The woman who owned the Inn also had a local man living with her; his name was Elvis. I stopped at a windsurfing place the day before, where two young Germans ran the shop with their Garifuna girlfriends. A German woman at dinner told us her daughter had married a local man and started a family. Just like on Saint Vincent, the Garifuna were still bringing in outsiders and making them their own.
For the last part of the walk home, I positioned myself between the dog and any trouble. To my surprise the other dogs respected this, and, with the exception of one especially bloodthirsty gang, I got him through town and back without incident and he went to sit in the shade near an unfinished wooden boat, keeled over on the beach in front of the Inn. The wood had one small spot of dry rot; other than that, she looked seaworthy. The deck was done, and the hull as well; just the final stage of finishing was left. It was painted two colors of blue: one a royal shade, the other a Caribbean pastel. Across the transom was painted dark blue in a strange flowery script:
CLAIM TO FAME
An American named Andrew worked at the Kismet Inn. The boat, he told me, was called Claim to Fame. An old Garifuna man in his eighties had built it, gotten her almost done and then died before she was launched. He built her with hand tools, all by himself, just wood, screws, nails and paint. A trail of cotton caulking peeked out from between the planks and wafted in the wind, soft and clean above the sand. I thought of my early childhood again in New Jersey, where we had boats in varying stages of disrepair. There was a wooden skiff near the house, with a big Mercury motor that never moved, and a houseboat sunk in front of the dock, sixty feet long and tilted at an angle with half the wheelhouse submerged. In Maine, my brother had a wooden hull in the front yard; the framing was done and so was most of the outer hull, but she sat there until trees grew up out of her between the rail and the keel. This boat in Belize was an embodiment of similar frustration, sitting yards from the water. Likely she won’t ever set sail, because no one at the Inn knows how to finish her. In the bright morning sunshine, with the waves rolling in, palms nearby and a little dog jogging around on the warm sand, she was perfect and waiting for someone to take her. No one would, because the generation that knew how to get her ready for the sea was gone, as vanished as glass kerosene lamps, hand-pump wells and polio survivors.
Franklin H. Price is an underwater archaeologist and diving safety officer at the Florida Department of State. In addition to academic journals, his writing has appeared in Diver, Sea History and Scuba Diver Life and has been translated into Russian in Yuri Senkevich Traveler’s Club. His undersea photos and images have been featured in Dive Training, Atlanta and U.S. Airways Magazine. In his spare time, he trains in and coaches grappling, kickboxing and mixed martial arts at Train Fight Win MMA and Fitness in Tallahassee, Florida.
Lead image: Murucutu