Travel is unpredictable, it’s what many people like about taking a trip. This surprise was a small one, but it stuck with me because of the peaceful magic that still resides in my beating pulse.
Very early one morning the guide drove us, a group of seven birders, to the end of a one-lane road. We trekked to this remote Belizean forest mountaintop to see the rare orange-breasted falcon, but the fog was prohibitively thick. It was too cold for the falcon to be hunting and too foggy to see the waterfall; but we decided to wait it out, the fog would probably lift soon.
Our group was a patient one, and this was a peaceful place. We walked down the 50 or so mossy, stone steps to the waterfall look-out deck where the falcon was known to nest. We were standing in a cloud, but we passed the time, waited, marveled at the sound of the invisible waterfall, waited some more, told stories, then walked back up. When we got back to the van we noticed an old Mayan woman displaying crafts outside her small gray shack. It was a curious sight because we were in the middle of nowhere in a cloud, and this shack look abandoned. On the little porch she was joined by a small boy. He held a lime green toy phone and kept pressing a button to hear it ring, a bizarre mechanical ringing sound in these misty whistling pines. We walked to the edge of the cliff, looked for birds, listened for the falcon, observed big dewy spider webs, forest ground cover, and other plants.
After about 15 minutes the group kind of split up for awhile, all wandering our own ways but unable to go too far with the precipitous cliffs. My partner and I meandered over to the “souvenir stand” and approached the old woman. She greeted us in English and all her items were now neatly displayed. She opened her arm and presented her wares, a Mayan version of Vanna White.
Mayan Woman with Guide
We both scanned the stuff and saw that there wasn’t really anything here that we wanted. What we wanted was the falcon, but the fog was still thick, so we settled in to this sweet scene. The table was a piece of plywood only about two or three feet off the ground, and some of the souvenirs were things we could buy anywhere in the country, but some were homemade crafts she had made.
We two Americans and this Mayan woman stood at this table in front of her dwelling and that’s when the magic began. The boy stayed quiet at the threshold, staring intently at us as his grandmother did her job. She gently picked up an item in her short, thick fingers, held it out in her palm and described it to us in full detail. For the next five minutes she went from one item to the next, slowly and methodically, and in her steady, calm voice described each of the 30 or so items with pride and propriety.
“And dis is a hot from a nut.” It was a tree nut, polished and carved into the shape of a heart on a black leather string, a necklace. Even though we were standing right there and didn’t really need a description, we were transfixed by her placid voice.
After each table item had been addressed, she moved on to the embroidery hanging on the clothesline behind her. Bright Caribbean colors dominate the landscape of Belize, and her embroidery was no different. The fabric was thin, inexpensive, and there were some dirt spots on many items, but the designs were invitingly lively and bright, especially on this dreary day. I asked about the price of the Mealy Parrot piece; a 14×20” thin, white cloth with three bright green parrots in a tree of neon orange flowers. Still lulled by the presentation, we had been willing to overlook the dirt spots, didn’t really care that there wasn’t a place in our home for this. I justified it would be a sweet reminder of our mealy parrot sighting. When she gave the price, however, we both hesitated, for it was not a cheap price.
Instinctively, we both knew it would be disrespectful to make a counter-offer. There are places for that, like in Mexican marketplaces where they expect it, in a flurry of noise and bustle. But this was not that. This was a peaceful mountain scene at the front door of this Mayan woman’s home. She had made these items in that hut without electricity and had just lovingly itemized each little treasure for us. Slowly unclipping the wooden clothespin, she took the piece down. “Look at dis” she calmly instructed as she turned the fabric over.
“Oh my God” I said, almost in a whisper. It was so quiet here, whispering was not inappropriate. And as we both leaned forward to examine her work, we saw that the stitching was flawless. I’m not an embroidery person, but my Grandma embroidered and sewed a lot. I knew enough to see she had a respectable variety of stitches and both the front and back of this piece were impeccable; this was exquisite craftsmanship. We admired her work with genuine appreciation, bought four or five modest items that would fit easily into the suitcase, but still ensure that she and her family would enjoy many robust meals. And then, as quickly as we had descended into this alluring presentation, the intimacy and magic dissipated. Our guide and the group came over and the toy phone started back up. My partner snapped this photo. Then the fog lifted and we went back to the look-out deck where we were rewarded with good views of the falcon.
I still think about that woman on the mountaintop every day. There were many more people in the back room of their home, my curious writer’s eyes had caught a glimpse. All those people in that tiny hovel. How did they get their food? Did they have a garden? And what about water? Had any of them ever seen a mealy parrot? Did they know they had this rare falcon living in their midst? Did they care?
Travel is like that—unexplained events, magical moments, people or creatures who touch your life for five minutes, then you never see them again. What is it that keeps us trekking? It is reverence. Reverence for others and faith that there are people, plants, and creatures in this world who radiate with goodness and beauty wherever you are.