Spring 2006 was a difficult time in the department. At first, people weren’t speaking to each other; then, the halls were simply empty. I don’t know where most of my colleagues were hiding out. I frequented the medical school cafeteria, where you could count the people not wearing scrubs on one hand -- me and four others.
The whole university was in upheaval. Top administrators were dropping like flies. I had four campus visits for other jobs and came in second for each. I spent May and June finishing proofs for a book I had translated from French to English and revisions to an article on gorillas, Dian Fossey, and excrement. A friend was told her contract in the department would not be renewed for budgetary reasons, although the official story was that no one was to be laid off. I read Jared Diamond’s Collapse and saw the Al Gore movie. Hope was fading. I applied for another job and came in third. I’m tenured, a full professor, but in this type of climate no one feels safe. Or at least, no one feels happy.
I was tired of coming up with synonyms for excrement: waste, shit, dung, the abject, poop, caca, number two. The editor of the British journal that accepted the article wrote me that foax is the singular of feces. The local school board announced that my daughter’s elementary school will close for budgetary reasons. Amazon.com informed me that it couldn't send me the books for my fall classes because my university credit card had been rejected. I scanned the job ads and then booked us on a three-week vacation to Belize. I packed two paperbacks that I already owned, Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet for a graduate course, and François Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux for an undergrad course on crime in French literature.
My husband insisted we go light -- each of us would have a backpack -- so I wore my new Keen sandals and packed three pairs of shorts, four tank tops, one long-sleeved shirt, and minimal toiletry items. I got a bikini wax, a dose of antibiotics, and a hepatitis A shot. My daughter, Lucy, settled on three small stuffies and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in the series by C.S. Lewis. My husband packed a relief map of Belize and said we should think of retiring there. Lucy breathed easy when I told her that they speak English in Belize (she had been traumatized by the French public school system while we lived there on a sabbatical). We took two planes to Cancun and a bus to Belize. I had set up an automatic e-mail reply that stated I would be back shortly before classes started and that I would not have regular access to e-mail in the interim. The Israeli-Hezbollah war began.
It was incongruous reading Bouvard et Pécuchet while riding on old American school buses in Belize. With the radio blaring two songs -- one about “de subway” and the other insisting “déme más gasolina” -- I read about the Frenchmen who were amassing a personal museum from medieval church fragments. Flaubert was mocking them. I mixed up the names, for Bouvard seemed more of a Pécuchet and vice versa. They had bought a farm to escape Paris. We passed by the Mennonite settlement of Shipyard. A very large Spiderman piñata occupied its own seat.
I plowed through B et P on the balcony of a hotel in Orange Walk at dawn, unable to sleep due to the time change. A Baptist missionary from Kentucky joined me on the balcony and talked of feeding the poor kids in town. We saw Mayan ruins and our guide talked of the destruction of Orange Walk due to crack cocaine. The hotel room was miniscule and not ventilated. Every evening the Orange Walk drum corps and baton team practiced across the street in a lot by the Shell station. We moved on to San Ignacio, in the Cayo District, and to a lodge in the village of Bullet Tree.
At Cohune Palms we had a thatched cabana for a week. The river was too flooded for swimming and canoeing, but Lucy and my husband went caving and I took her to Tikal, across the border in Guatemala. I had gotten a bladder infection in Orange Walk and had begun my antibiotics. I had also bought two rounds of Cipro over the counter for $8, just in case. Prescient of me, since the infection continued. I checked my e-mail. More fly droppings. No response from the last job I had applied for.
Bevin, from Idaho, ran the lodge with her Rastafarian husband, Mike. She was 10 years younger than me and in the “library” I found a version of Short Story Masterpieces that came out in the mid-80s and that had a completely different set of stories than the edition I had read in high school. Mine had Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress,” Saki’s “The Open Window,” and Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams,” still one of my favorites. Hers had Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” I read it in a hammock and tried not to let the wilted pages get away from each other. A fer-de-lance viper snake curled up on a chair on Bevin and Mike’s porch, inches from their daughter and mine. Workers killed it with a machete.
The only other tourist with Lucy and me on the trip to Tikal was Will, an American undergraduate at the University of Houston, in Belize to study HIV. He had taken Mythology 101 in the spring and was happy to tell Lucy the story of the Titans, again and again. He had to tell it twice at lunch and twice on the way back to Cayo. Lucy was in awe. By the second telling she was asking pointed questions and Will was inventing answers that incorporated the Mayan cosmology, laid out in the Popul Voh, which he was reading. Back at Cohune Palms I read Vance Bourjaily’s “The Amish Farmer.”
We took a bus on the Hummingbird Highway to Stann Creek, where the Garifuna population has a drum center in Hopkins. We sat outside our cabana and watched neighbors empty their trash onto the beach at sunset; papers fluttered in the wind. The hotel owner cut green coconuts with a machete and Lucy drank the juice. Trash made its way over, like fall leaves that are not bagged and make it into the neighbors’ yards. Buses always had their doors open and plastic bottles and wrappers made their way to the front and slipped out. We took a bus to Belize City and then a boat to Caye (pronounced KEY) Caulker.
Less expensive than Ambergris Caye, which we were told was built entirely on drug money, and more laid back, Caye Caulker was a small island of three main dirt roads, with golf carts instead of cars. We stayed a week in a small cabana back from the beach, rented bikes, and slept through the sizzling middle of the day. Lucy got to know the neighborhood children and five of them formed a gang: Lucy, the only girl but who is often mistaken for a boy; Kemar, an independent and unreliable Creole, also eight; Christian, a cheerful Mestizo six-year-old; Christian’s younger brother, who remained unnamed and had to be carried up and down ladders and trees; and “Fat Boy,” who insisted on being called by his nickname. They collected and ate coco plums and craboo berries, played on the rundown elementary school’s swings and slide, climbed fences and trees, and established a clubhouse in an abandoned beach shack. Lucy’s favorite moment was being chased from a yard by an old man who yelled “Git! Git!” By day three, she was determined that we would live forever on the island. She wore her McDonalds Happy Meal Pirates of the Caribbean bandana, a shark-tooth necklace, and carried a big stick. Fire ants laid claim to the gang’s bare feet and Fat Boy told her she would die from them. Christian, trying to cheer her, reminded her that her parents would die long before her. She returned to the cabana in tears.
The sun was stronger than I’d ever felt it. I read Thérèse Raquin and nodded off. I soon tired of reggae music and the Creole spoken by Rastafarians, peppered with the F-word every two seconds. The “beach” was a small bit of sand bordered by a concrete wall that had tumbled during the last hurricane. Thirst was ever present; the bottled water, rum and lime juice, and Belikins (Belizean beer) couldn’t or wouldn’t quench it. I had finished the first round of Cipro, began the second, and bought a third round, terrified of that stinging feeling in my private area while bouncing on a bus. We headed to the Zoo and Monkey Bay.
We were the only guests at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary; our accommodations included latrines, hammocks, and mosquito netting around the beds, but no fans. We continued to remind ourselves that one does not flush toilet paper anywhere in Belize, here in particular because the excrement is used, in the form of methane gas, for cooking. I was back, knee-high, in primate foax. I imagined myself as Dian Fossey, always wet, always dirty, always itchy. Our rooms opened onto a “library” filled with books about herbal remedies, Mayan culture, and sustainable ecology, as well as fiction left by former interns. I abandoned Thérèse Raquin. I knew how it would end: not with a bang, but with a whimper characterized by the moaning of wind through pine trees.
I read Phillip Gourevitch’s A Cold Case, about a murderer found many years after his crime. A theme was emerging, from “A Good Man is Hard To Find,” to “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” to Leonard Michaels’ “Murderers” and O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation,” the later of which I found in a collection of stories in Monkey Bay: criminal men (a nice contrast to would-be husband killer Thérèse), from a safe cracker to murderers and rapists. I thought of my father, also a criminal, although never a rapist or murderer. Robbery, drugs. When he could go back and forth between Miami and Cuba he was fine; once Cuba was closed off he had no outlet for urges that would put him in prison in the States. I’ve always felt odd, an academic with an uneducated and imprisoned father, a father who had joined the three branches of the military under three aliases and was once thrown off a navy ship in the middle of the sea for cheating at poker. In the end, he was found in a Dade County motel room, his gun by his side.
I found a Stephen King collection and more short stories. I had checked my e-mail at Caulker and knew it was best to dream away the rest of the summer. And then I had a very real excuse for not leaving the hammock: my left foot was the size of a football. On our second day in Monkey Bay we set out with Manolo, the camp manager, to St. Herman’s Cave and Blue Hole National Park. Finally, a trek that almost satisfied Lucy, who had imagined we would be working our way through jungle with machetes, killing off coral snakes that dropped from vines. It was wet, muddy, thick, and green. Fat orange and black centipedes crossed our tracks and hidden birds screamed above. We climbed up and then down, then up again, to get to a look-out tower after trekking through the submerged darkness of the cave. I began to step down an incline and murmured to Lucy, “Careful here, it’s slippery.” I saw my Keen sandal -- God love ‘em -- actually bend completely back as my foot slipped forward. I was astounded at the flexibility of the sole, which sprung back into place. At the same time, I vaguely realized that if the sole had bent back then so had my foot, like an accordion breathing in and out.
I crawled to the hammock on the veranda and read William Saroyan’s “Summer of the Beautiful White Horse” out loud, again and again, to Lucy. We laughed at the antics of the children and the grouchy uncle. We did a jigsaw puzzle. Rainy season finally descended and it rained bullets, night and day. Our passports curled into odd shapes on the shelf. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’s binding melted away and the pages blew over the drenched savannah. I read a chapter on Ted Bundy in a book about serial killers.
My husband discovered a bot fly larva dwelling in his inner left thigh. After Manolo told us about his own experience -- seis en la cabeza -- he prepared the ointment. If it wasn’t effective, Julio would come by and use his special fingernail. A bot fly’s lifespan is singularly short and sad: its egg is deposited by a mosquito and grows in its host’s body; after about six weeks it falls to the ground and pupates. My husband had a parasite in his thigh and an odd (and new) large patch of dark skin running from his neck to his scalp, like a map of Belize. I had 276 bites, mostly from mosquitoes, a swollen ankle, and a lingering bladder infection. Lucy had a pink fungal rash on her stomach, shoulders, and thighs. I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Poe’s “Hop-Frog.”
When we rode back through Orange Walk the town didn’t look half bad. In the States, I rushed -- as much as I could -- to prepare my syllabi. The doctor did X-rays and gave me a handicapped tag for my car. The gynecologist looked at me in disbelief and told me to get off the antibiotics and focus on something else. We watched as our bites faded with each day that passed. JonBenet’s killer had maybe been found; two serial killers had maybe been found in Phoenix. Non-parasitic administrators have replaced the bot flies and I have a line on a good job for next year. We won’t decide on retirement just yet.