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Sunday, June 1, 1997

Vision of the JAGUAR



BELIZE -- ALONG THE MANATEE RIVER, Belize - The track was definitely a jaguar's - rounded toes and a heel pad set in the mud - half hidden beneath the arching green canopy of the rain forest.

"Last night, perhaps, or the night before, he was here," said Moses, our dreadlocked Belizean guide, as we crouched over the single imprint on the narrow forest trail.

His eyes flashed, bloodshot and deep-set in his mahogany face. Behind him dense green cohune palms, thorn trees and strangler figs pressed to the edge of the trail. Somewhere in there was another pair of eyes. We could feel them.

Walking on, I kept an expectant eye to the forest, alert for the slightest motion in the underbrush. Moses said jaguars were nocturnal. Undeterred, I hoped to see one.

Since arriving for an ecotourism cruise along the coastal waters of Belize, I had been taken by the mysterious nature of country. The forests were low; mangroves grew right to the edge of the water, gradually reclaiming land from the ocean. The air was thick, humid. A white sky lay flat and vast overhead. Belize seemed to be hiding something. I wondered what lay behind the forest veil.

It was this concealing nature that drew Belize's first European settlers: pirates. In the 1600s the coastal rivers of the Yucatan Peninsula made superb hiding places for English buccaneers who raided passing Spanish galleons. Local legend says they laid the foundations for Belize City by filling the swamp with discarded rum bottles.

Eventually they turned to the more reputable timber trade, logging Belize's generous coastal forests for logwood and later mahogany. After altercations with their Spanish-speaking neighbors, the Baymen (named after the Bay of Honduras) sought protection as a British colony in 1862. For more than a century British Honduras languished as a backwater. With decolonization in 1981 came independence and a new name - Belize.

Settlers came here to get away. Spanish refugees crossed the border from Mexico. African slaves fled Caribbean islands to settle in the coastal villages. Amish-like Mennonites came from Canada and Mexico to farm the grasslands. Even a few Confederate refugees arrived after the American Civil War. Only the Mayan Indians, descendants of the great city-builders a thousand years ago, are indigenous.

Economically, the country struggled after the decline of the timber trade. Like many other countries, Belize now sees the growing ecotourism industry as an opportunity for sustainable development.

I had come to Belize for a seven-night eco-cruise along the coastal waters in the 173-foot M / V Temptress Voyager. The Costa Rica-registered ship offered an appealing combination: exploring the rain forest, barrier reef and Belizean cultures by day and sailing secure in a luxury cabin by night.

Up the river

On our first morning our Zodiac raft eased up the sinuous, coffee-colored Manatee River through forests thick with overhanging vines. We kept an eye out for birds.

Alice, an avid Audubon Society birdwatcher from New York, kept binoculars fixed to her eyes, eager for sightings to add to her life list. We passed ibises, little blue herons, a jabiru stork and snowy egrets standing still in the shallow water. A flash of scarlet flickered across the water.

"Montezuma's oropendola!" came the quick identification. Then it was gone, vanishing into the forest that held my hidden jaguar.

For the next few days we explored the coast in Zodiacs. Under a massive overhanging tree on the Sittee River we heard the ha ha hahaaaaaa of a laughing falcon, a rare find for Alice's list.

Sittee Village is a small riverbank community of gaily painted wood plank houses, yellow and green with carefully tended gardens. The smoke-filled general store served hot tea and cake (a holdover from British colonial days) and a local delicacy - gibnut, a small rodent hunted in the forest.

Afternoons we visited the cayes. Belize has the second largest barrier reef in the world, after Australia. Its coastal waters are peppered with tiny islands (cayes, pronounced "keys"), some only a few feet across.

Scuba diving, snorkeling and kayaking are superb. In a clear turquoise strait beside Snake's Caye, a sandy island with a handful of palms, I floated in mask and flippers above swaying fan coral with yellow as blue fish darted in and out.

Laughing Bird Caye National Park, a delightful palm-fronded island, had a sandy beach 30 feet wide. On the lee side, pelicans bobbed in a broad lagoon unperturbed by the splashing of snorkelers and kayakers.

In search of the jaguar

Several days later, still half-obsessed by my near-encounter with the jaguar, I spoke with David Dial, a stocky tanned American expatriate who ran river jungle tours.

"Oh I can get you a jaguar," he said.

It was all a matter of budget. With one day you could see a track, with three you could see a jaguar - if you could provide raw meat for bait. If you were a purist and preferred not to set bait, it could take several weeks, he said, but hey, if you had the budget!

Without a budget I couldn't take him up on his offer; nonetheless I was intrigued. The Cockscomb Jaguar Reserve, the world's only jaguar preserve, was only a few miles upstream. Growing up to six feet long, the jaguar is the largest wild cat in the hemisphere and once roamed freely throughout Central America. Now only 500 remain in Belize. With their feline cousins, the ocelot, margay, puma and the elusive jaguarundi, they are seldom seen.

Still, I hoped.

Besides their country's natural beauty, Belizeans are most proud of their astonishing cultural diversity. Five wildly distinct cultural groups - Garinagu, Creole, Mestizo, Mayan and Mennonite - coexist peacefully.

The Garinagu are descendants of African slaves and Caribbean Indians who fled to Belize from the Bay Islands of Honduras in the 1820s. Their Black Carib culture is known for dance and music.

At the fishing village of Hopkins, a palm-lined beachfront of wooden stilt houses, we lunched on chicken with rice and beans and Belikin beer. Rice and beans, I discovered, is a different menu item from beans and rice: one is mixed, the other not. Afterward the children danced. To the steady thrum of two hide drums, girls in swaying yellow skirts and hair ribbons, and boys in white-shirted school uniforms shuffled forward in two lines, paired off and swung back in a loop. They giggled bashfully when one us took a turn on the dance floor.

Placencia's Creoles

The Creole village of Placencia is a hundred bumpy miles south by road, but a short voyage by sea. Curved palms arch over a 21-mile long arcing sandy beach, the longest in Belize. The main street, a long wooden sidewalk raised over the sand, runs parallel to the beach.

The English-speaking Creoles are a mixed-race people also descended from African slaves, but they have maintained a distinct identity. The open-shuttered houses along the boardwalk, brightly painted yellow and blue, have a distinctly Bahamian feel. Colorful signs advertise grouper, lobster, fresh melon, lime and orange juice. In the bay lay a heap of conch shells - pink bellied spirals tossed from a restaurant.

It is a small town. Everyone does everything. A white-haired taxi-driver gave me his card: "Percival Neal - reflexologist, magnetic healer, plumber, mechanic, justice of the peace, restaurateur, taxi-driver and ex-mayor."

In the far north live several communities of Mennonites. Emigrating from Switzerland to Pennsylvania, then to Canada, they found their way to Belize in the 1950s in search of religious freedom. Some still speak Low German and, like the Amish, travel by horse and buggy. Their straw hats and plain bonnets are a gentle counterpoint to the rush of modernity - and to their New World neighbors in Belize.

In Punta Gorda, near the Guatemala border, a Mayan dance troupe came aboard to perform traditional dances. Women and girls in bright woven skirts and dark waist-length braids dipped and swirled gracefully to the plaintive tones of a string harp.

The Mayans have benefited the least from development, remaining marginalized. Mostly they farm on small plots. The Toledo Ecotourism Association hopes to empower the community by giving them direct benefit from tourism. In a unique program, 13 villages host visitors in guesthouses and offer an inside view of Mayan life: farming, cooking, weaving, music and storytelling. Over 80 percent of the revenue goes directly to the villagers for health, education and rain forest conservation.

The Monkey River

Our last river outing was on the Monkey River. Inaccessible except by sea, the river is rich in wildlife. I kept my eyes on the forest. A family of howler monkeys hooted and screeched in the treetops high above the riverbank, while nearby an arboreal porcupine lazed on a branch.

In another tree a leathery iguana warmed itself in the sun. Turtles skittered off the rocks as we passed. A ring-tailed raccoon-like coatimundi, a pet with the unlikely name of "Wes," hid shyly under the stilts of a house during a stop at the village at the mouth of the river. When we sailed from the clearing I looked back to the dense, impenetrable forest. Still it held its secrets.

Later that week a friend and I set out to explore Belize's interior. West of the Monkey River, the Maya Mountains rise to over 3,000 feet. Beyond them is the remote Chiquibul National Park and the Mayan ruins of Caracol.

Our plan was to drive to the Cayo District near Guatemala, then south to the site in a rented Isuzu Trooper. Near San Ignacio the hills became taller and the greenery lush with palms, sapodillas and papayas. Here is primeval Belize - and wildlife. That night we sat with Bart Mickler, a bearded American Bahai and owner of the Maya Mountain Lodge, and talked of ecotourism. Quiet and tranquil, the resort's rustic wooden cottages are surrounded by flowering gardens and banana plants.

At Mickler's suggestion, we visited the Mayan caves of Che Chem Ha. In a clearing at the end of a long dirt road a few thatched cottages overlooked a filigree waterfall.

Antonio Morales, who lives there, is a retired chiclero, a harvester of chicle (the sap of the sapodilla tree used to make chewing gum). He and his son stumbled upon the caves when their dog ran after a gibnut. Digging through a tiny opening, they found dozens of Mayan pots which had lain untouched for more than a thousand years.

The cave entrance was a mile away through the rain forest. A series of damp chambers led deep into the hillside. Stalactites rich in minerals dripped from the ceiling. Dozens of reddish rounded pots, ceremonial food offerings to the gods, lay on the earthen floor and high in alcoves.

To reach the inmost cavern, we lowered ourselves one-by-one down a rope chain. On the dusty cave floor stood a stela and a stone circle altar once used for sacrifice.

After the others climbed back, I sat for a minute alone in the dark and utter stillness. Again, there was a sense of presence. Deep in the heart of the earth, the ancient Mayans still lingered.

Mayan metropolis

The next morning we headed for the Mayan city of Caracol, four hours south by four-wheel drive. Only discovered in 1936, the site remains largely unexcavated.

Passing through a series of small Mayan villages, we entered the pine highlands. A bright mist diffused through the dew-laden trees. The new road cut a red swath through the forest, with occasional mud puddles and washboard ruts, then descended to a river crossing and entered the jungle.

Parrots squawked. Keel-billed toucans swooped in the trees. Until last year, the easiest way through was on horseback.

The road ended abruptly in a muddy lot. A small path led to a grassy plaza, the symbolic and physical center of the city. At the far end rose Caana, "Sky Place," the largest pyramid in Belize. Here was the abode of Mayan priests and nobles. The temple joined the earth and sky, and was the focus of Mayan ritual life.

Steep steps led to rows of ruined rooms with stone beds open to the sky. Atop a second stair were three smaller earthen pyramids, their partially excavated stone walls overgrown with vines.

The view from the summit stretched above the trees to the horizon, an endless green swathe. I stood transfixed. Only the rulers and priests saw this view, I realized. From below, the jungle was dark, secretive. From above all was open; nothing was hidden.

The Popol Vuh, an ancient Mayan text, describes the first humans modeled from yellow corn by the Sovereign Plumed Serpent. Their names are of the earth - Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, True Jaguar, Mahucutah - and show the Mayan reverence for the great cat. In their state of innocence they could see above the jungle. "Perfectly they saw, perfectly they knew everything under the sky, wherever they looked."

Perhaps I had found my jaguar.

The Mayan people had thrived here in the sixth century. Maureen Carpenter, an archaeologist from the University of Central Florida, told us their history. Curly haired, friendly and enthusiastic, she spoke personally as a citizen of Caracol.

"We were a major force in the Peten," she told us. "We conquered Tikal in 562 AD. We were the big cheese!"

The city was called Ah Witz Na, she explained, "the place of three mountains." At its height more than a quarter million people lived there.

From the central plaza, rock-lined causeways radiated two to three miles to other cities. They were only recently identified by satellite temperature readings. Cultivated fields of cassava, pumpkin, squash and many kinds of corn surrounded the town. As we stood by the ruins of a Mayan house, I asked Maureen about jaguars.

"Oh yes," she said. "They are here. Workers see them on the causeway frequently!"

Driving back through the forest, an image of the Mayan priests stayed with me. Their cities were gone, reclaimed by the forest. Perhaps some could still see clearly, like the jaguar.

The next day in the village of San Jose Succotz I visited David Magana, a Mayan potter and craftsman. He spoke earnestly and gently of his dedication to teaching his people's traditional arts.

We spoke of the difficulties the Mayan communities now face. Largely left out of the country's economic growth, they are struggling to preserve their culture. Cooperative ventures, such as a nearby Rainforest Medicine Trail, are reviving people's interest and self-esteem.

As I left, he showed me a delicately painted pottery plate with the image of a priest in an ornate feathered headdress kneeling and writing out his vision. In his hope for the future I saw the jaguar priest.

Finally, Belize had shown its heart. I had seen the eyes.

David Sanger is a travel photographer and writer based in Albany.

©Copyright 1997, San Francisco Examiner

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