Tuesday, January 22, 2013


In this post, No Crowds reporter Penny asks if a person can change in just one day and describes how one Belizean family delivers a lesson in facing change with grace.

I asked Joe Martinez, poet, rancher and ecohotelier, how he felt about the dam.  The lake in which we were now floating, had been a Macal tributary rated whitewater grade 6 only a few years ago.  He had grown up here, listening to the rush of water over rock at night, fishing on its banks as a kid.  Now the reservoir was a still blue plate separating forested limestone canyons…different.  

“Everything changes,” he observed, a bit wistfully, but resolute. 

I guess there would be many ways to think about change here.  We had scrambled down to the pontoon boat over a crumbling incline on which the terraces of the Maya were still visible.  Mounds dot the property: they think some were shrines; some were remnants of a village.  So, yes, everything changes and sometimes perhaps changing to a purpose is better than cleaving to old patterns and letting one’s home slowly change itself and collapse. Read all about it in Jared Diamond’s book of that name. 

Our guide Lazaro, Joe’s brother, had also seen recent change.  His dreadlocks, now braided together into a meter or so of detached bushy hair, had been cut a few weeks before so that “people would take him more seriously in the business”.  That is, in the Central American offices to which he journeys to sort his clients’ paperwork before taking them deep into the jungles of Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua– birdwatching, rafting, hiking, riding, discovering.

We were spending the day with Lazaro,  Joe, three young blue heeler mixes that looked remarkably like the wild dogs of Africa and an indeterminate Lab mix, waterfall hopping from a pontoon boat where the Upper and West Macal spread into what is now called Vaca Lake.  Lazaro’s nephew (another Joseph) had promised a serene day seeing, hearing, and being in the water and this is what we got.      And lest you wonder whether our tour fit the no-crowds theme, we saw only five other human beings while we were there: Uncle Joe, in his 80s, ensconced on his porch; poet Joe’s wife Miriam; their daughter (and later their son), and a Swiss guest, a “professional birdwatcher,” who accompanied us down the trail to the water, but left with her binoculars as we set off.  I hope she didn’t get lost – there wasn’t going to be anyone around to ask for directions. 

Waterfall number one pooled at the bottom --  good place to wash your hair in the downpour – but it was a little cold.  Feeling a bit like Goldilocks, but unwilling to follow Lazaro in, we satisfied ourselves with a climb up the slope of the fall and looked about us.  The sap of this tree, he tells us, can be used as glue.    Tea made with the leaves of another is good for stomach upset.  Use the bark of another for dye. The seeds of that plant are good for anemics.   And there are thousands of trees, bushes, vines…he seems to know the names of them all, and each has a use. 

As we float downstream, he points out a pair of white eagles on tree limbs across the water, the kingfisher on a passing branch, the vultures circling one of the canyon ridges, the nose of a small crocodile which had made its way down the river as it had become more serene in its harness.   When we cut the motor, there is no sound at all.  No traffic noise or passing planes; no human voices, nor are there the sounds of any of their surrogates – radios,  machines.  Joe shares some of his poetry, including the one about a foreign flower that won him his German wife.  It is a good place for poetry, although somehow most human effort seems a bit beside the point in the face of the vast green, the hidden lives among the hundreds of trees – palms, mahogany, poisonwood, acacia, Caribbean pine.

The swimming hole sits atop waterfall number two. One would have to be careful not to relax too much and find oneself going over the 10 metre drop to the bottom.  This is where we eat lunch and listen to birdcalls and the soothing constant splash of water.

At waterfall number three, you can watch a leaf fossilise before your eyes.  Organic compounds from the jungle vegetation dissolve the limestone at the top, and as the water brings it down, it crystallises again over fallen leaves, turning them to sandstone.    The overhangs build up, and the course of the falls changes over time.  When Joe and Lazaro were children, the falls were over there – a meter or so to the south.  We pile in, but we are not, quite, still enough to turn to stone ourselves. 

Back at Martz Farm, there are tree-house rooms built of wood up over a jungle creek and a lodge with more accessible bathrooms and plenty of room for communal admiration of the scenery below.   As we say our goodbyes, a hen heads for the hutch with her brood.   Joe lopes away to bring in the mules he breeds from a mare he drove to Wisconsin to buy.  His young son sits comfortably on the saddle before him.  The wood stove is stoked for dinner.

Can a person change in just one day?  Maybe not.  But a memory can change the way you look at other days.  And this last day was a perfect one that I return to remotely, just before sleep (or more recently and less romantically  in a queue at the Post Office), to assure myself again that somewhere things are just that perfect, at least for one day. 

Our visit also furnished a lesson in change with grace.  The world is going to come to the Martinez’corner of Belize no matter what.  But they would like to choose how it comes, and to treat those who come as guests. Quite deliberately they play the role of hosts and custodians.  I think they are hoping that although we may bring some welcome changes, we’ll be willing to enter their world as it is, and not change it too much.  I share that hope. 

End note:  We were staying at Chaa Creek Lodge, which Kate has described here in her 2010/2011 postings.  Also a magical place: comfortable, welcoming and tasteful.

If  you would like to stay at Martz Farm, go to www.martzfarm.com, subject of much paise on TripAdvisor. 

Lazaro’s bespoke adventure tours can be reached through hideawaycampdv@yahoo.com and they are also on Facebook. 

There can be some delay in response because the farm is remote and they do not have internet access there.  They do check in St Ignacio at least every other day though. 


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