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Of Howler Monkeys, Breadfruit, Brown Sugar and A Bridge Into The Rainforest — A Belize Travel Story

The ride is advertised as taking anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, but feels twice that.

The sun-worn digital clock in the center of the dashboard tells the truth; but two hours could have easily passed before the potholes, gravel, and dusty congestion of Belize City gave way to virgin asphalt, before green outgrew grey.

Our driver is a cheery native, a married man who has been unsuccessfully attempting to convince four slices of enriched white bread to call him ‘Brown Sugar’ ever since grinding the transmission into reverse in the parking lot outside the outermost pink walls of the cruise port’s sanitized and aptly named Tourist Village.
As we weave through city streets lying below sea level and canals built to alleviate flooding, the driver we’re most certainly not calling Brown Sugar is keen to describe for us the purpose of–or goods available to purchase within–every structure his early-aughts Honda Odyssey passes.

Hardware to software, soft drinks to hard drinks. (The joke doesn’t land)

Poor cellular service plans.

A stray dog over on the right, looking for scraps.

My wife and I shop here, not over there at Save-A- Lot because we didn’t save anything.

That house just sold for 40,000 USD, land and burglar fence included.

There are only so many ways to exclaim, “Oh wow, really?” and I exhausted them a few miles back.
Shortly after passing over a creek and a river, two bridges leading to the rainforest, the minivan rumbles to a stop in front of Belize’s privately owned and operated howler monkey sanctuary and we’re walked over to shake hands with Royce, our guide for today’s baboon experience.

It’s now shortly after the time lunch would be dished out from one of several buffet lines teeming with eager passengers if we were still on board the Carnival Dream, but we’re way out here instead, in the uncrowded jungle, with monkeys soon to arrive.

The max a/c has provided a fictional state of chilled bliss, but we know what it’s like outside down closer to the equator. Once in the soup of midday, the kids I cherish dearly but wish to God were more resilient than they are, aren’t going to be up for much without receiving sustenance—and soon—since Brown Sugar beckoned us towards his beige van back in Belize City before I could acquire the sundries necessary to fill the tummies of two growing girls.

Belize Travel Story breadfruit rainforest

She sits beside a 4-burner stove, behind the gift shop offering freshly squeezed watermelon and papaya juices, as well as handmade bowls, trinkets, bracelets, and other rainforest mementos. She waits back there, past the cashew tree, about twenty yards removed from where the Belize River bends, where the monkeys travel to snatch banana pieces from shaky tourist hands.

She sits, hunched slightly but with otherwise admirable posture, in a baby blue plastic lawn chair that wouldn’t have been out of place on the set of an 80’s nostalgia flick, positioned just so in the feel-good backyard BBQ scene as a Mike and the Mechanics song plays softly overhead and wine coolers are clicked in toast; a celebration of a promising first date or landing a sweet new gig in the big city.

She sits not smiling but not not smiling either. A stoic warmth, beckoning hungry visitors closer to smell and be tempted by all she’s prepared for them.

She sits there all day. Waiting.

Belize Travel Story breadfruit rainforest

In four mismatched steel pots are, from left to right: stewed black beans, red beans & rice, vegetable rice, BBQ chicken thighs and legs.

On the folding table in front of her are lidded containers of coleslaw, cooked plantains, grilled barracuda, and a tossed salad.

A heaping plate of anything you’d like–anything she’s been tending to all morning–is a steal at 10 USD.

All of Belize on white melamine resin for a tenner.

We meet her son, her only child. He’s a vegetarian too. I introduced my two daughters. We don’t say much else. I shuffle my feet awkwardly, trying to decide what combination of foods will satisfy my family while also demonstrating that I’m cool, that I’m not a tourist afraid to try local dishes.

I go for the rices, beans, salad and plantains, and usher my daughters to a high-top table receiving shade from coconut tree palms. Her son goes inside for the juice my teen ordered and an extra plate, compliments of the house, of native breadfruit slices he hopes we’ll taste.

The four of us are devouring this strange delicacy as if we hadn’t eaten in weeks, although coming from a cruise ship, the opposite is true. We’re unsure what breadfruit is, but we are feverishly dipping pieces of it into the stewed black beans.

All the while I’m quietly hoping this compound-word food isn’t actually bread but a fruit with a carbohydrated name. I gave up bread a couple of Novembers ago and this would be a bizarre setting to break my streak. The breadfruit is delicious, dry and with a slight crunch, like thin toasted slices of birthday cake. Figuring there’s no way Wegman’s sells this stuff, I make a point to savor every last bite.

We leave nothing on our plate for the resident cat to lick up. She’s white with grey spots, and is currently sprawled out on a greenish blue and yellow wooden picnic table, belly showing. She conveys a submissive comfort. This is home. And she waits too.

Belize Travel Story Howler Monkey Excursion

While the girls and their mom go inside to shop for something for which they might remember this day, I walk back over to the old woman in the chair by the stove. “We loved everything,” I said. To that she nodded and let a smile slip through the cracks. If I had let my eyes wander, to brush another mosquito from my leg or look over my shoulder at kitty–for even the briefest of moment–it would’ve meant missing her radiate a solemn pride. She knows the food is good and doesn’t require validation from me. I ask if the rice and the beans, the BBQ chicken and the coleslaw–if all of that is traditional Belize cuisine. I knew the answer, I’d already been briefed by Brown Sugar as we approached the sanctuary, but I was searching for a few words, punctuated with a meek question mark, to make a connection with this cook, this mom, this unwitting ambassador, this bridge into the rainforest.

Questions destroy mystery and I feel the need for this miniature piece of Belize, this woman whose age I could only cruelly guess so didn’t, this woman who sits behind the gift shop and past the cashew tree, to be kept alive in my mind with only these sentences remembered and jotted down a few days after we’d made the journey back to Belize City, boarded the Dream, and sailed away to someplace else.

For me, she’ll remain a tick beyond 2D: a face, two deliberate hands, and a body weathered by countless years of serving others, familiar and strange, back near where the river bends and howler monkeys come and go.

Belize Travel Story Howler Monkey Excursion

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