SAN ANTONIO VILLAGE, Belize – The green school bus was already full when I climbed aboard in Punta Gorda. It was market day, and all the Maya ladies with their colorful satin dresses sat amid their purchases and their children, ready to make the journey home. As my eyes sought an opening, one of the men in the back got up and approached me with a broad smile.
It was Reyes Chun, chair of the Toledo Ecotourism Association, who lives in San Antonio Village, which is why I chose to come here. “This is my wife, Jenny,” he said, pointing to a smiling woman in purple satin, her hair combed carefully into a tight knot. “She will take care of you.”
Jenny and I chatted for the 40-minute drive, most of it down rugged and rutted gravel roads through the jungle. I asked her about the coming of the Guatemala Link Road, a feeder road for the Puebla to Panama highway, which will pave the way for the Free Trade Zone of the Americas. The highway is slated to run a few miles from her village, I have been told.
I’ve read a consultant’s report warning of severe environmental and community degradation in the highway’s wake if the government doesn’t provide a plan for their protection, and San Antonio is on the list of affected communities. Jenny doesn’t know about this. She’ll be glad to get to town more quickly, and she hopes that with the highway, electricity will come to the rest of the village. For now, however, this all seems a distant mirage.
Author’s note: This is the first of a several-part series on Toledo, the so-called “Forgotten District” in the south of Belize. As for myself, I know I will never forget.
PUNTA GORDA TOWN, Toledo District, Belize – White-capped waves are slapping the shore along Front Street, sparkling in the first light of day. Rhythms with their roots in distant Africa resonate from the Catholic Church, while at the other end of town, Mayan women in their shiny satin dresses, hair pulled up in tight buns, arrange their fresh cabbage, squash and greens to the plaintive ranchero of a Guatemalan radio station from across the border.
Later, the town square will ring with the melodies of Maya marimba musicians, facing off for their annual competition; in the evening, a Garifuna punta session breaks out on the balcony of The Reef Bar, its infectious drumbeats echoing out over the waves.
It may not look like it at first, but Christopher Nesbitt has a big crew working for him here at Maya Mountain Research Farm.
There are the chickens, who recycle kitchen scraps into eggs and meat. There are the soldier flies, who recycle what the chickens don’t want into larvae for chicken food. There are the leaf-cutter ants, who aerate the compacted soil and serve as more chicken feed. And then there are the vast armies of microbes working to bring back the natural balance to what was once a stripped and sterile cattle farm.
Solastalgia – 1. A feeling of loss at demise of Earth; mourning for Gaia; profound ennui.
2. Lost connection to nature; an eco-psychological imbalance.
Antidotes: Ecological restoration
So begins Albert Bates in his introduction to permaculture – a design system whose name originated from the idea of “permanent agriculture” and evolved into a system promoting permanence in the human culture itself.
“Solastalgia is what happens when we find that we are one of the only animals that soils its own nest, and then lives in it. Then we get sad and depressed,” he says. “We ask ourselves, ‘Can we survive?’”
Bates, a founder of the Global Ecovillage Network and a prolific author and public speaker, has made his way through miles of Mayan villages and tropical forest to Maya Mountain Research Farm in southern Belize, as he does every March. It’s part of a hectic schedule that has him traveling all over the globe, from Estonia to the Holy Lands and beyond, preparing willing participants for what he calls The Great Change: a transition to a world less dependent on petroleum and other carbon-based fuels, and more in harmony with the Earth.
It’s hard to believe it was just two days ago I awoke at 2:30 a.m., had one last coffee with my new friend Homero (host of a highly recommended casa particular, more info below), and headed for the Havana airport. The trip to Belize would be a long and grueling one – there are no direct flights to Belize from Havana, and I had to pass through Mexico City, then spend the night in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
The contrast could not have been greater. The Cuban landscape is free of commercial clutter; aside from a few billboards proclaiming the values of the revolution, or lamenting the Yanqui bloqueo (embargo) or the imprisonment of the Cuban Five, there is no advertising anywhere. For a Yanqui traveler, it’s at once a shock and a relief to the eye.
From the moment I landed in Honduras, on the other hand, my eyes were assaulted with ads for cell phones, soft drinks, snack foods, cars, and any number of consumible items. Dos Molinas Guest House – also highly recommended if you find yourself in Honduras’ second city, the gateway to Roatan, Copán and many other tourist destinations – is located in a typical dusty Honduran street but just two blocks from the City Mall, a brightly lit megaplaza filled with Guess jeans, StrideRite and PayLess shoes, Starbucks coffee and the like. I thought I had stumbled into a forgotten corner of the Galleria by mistake, with blonde, scantily-clad models around every corner.
PINAR DEL RIO, CUBA — I had been warned about the many hitchhikers who congregate around the highway entrances looking for rides; public transport outside the city is scarce, slow and overcrowded, and lucky is the Cuban who owns an operational vehicle.
Still, I was taken aback by the sheer numbers of people massed under bridges and along entrance ramps, and the paucity of vehicles on the highways available to pick any of them up. Some sat on suitcases or duffel bags and simply waited; the more enterprising jumped up at each passing vehicle and waved. “Pidiendo botella,” it was called – asking for a bottle – for reasons nobody could really adequately explain.
“Picking up hitchhikers is integral to showing your goodwill in a land where on any day, tens of thousands of Cubans stand by the roadside beseeching rides,” writes Christopher Baker in the Moon Handbook to Cuba. “However, there have been many reports of robberies, and I do not endorse picking up hitchhikers.”
How to reconcile these facts? I spoke to numerous Cubans and internationals before my road trip through the Cuban countryside. Ultimately, I decided to follow my instincts, and what began as an act of solidarity ended up providing friendly companionship, lively conversation and an entrée into the everyday lives of scores of Cubans, a genuine connection that had thus far proven elusive. Never did I feel the slightest threat. What was more, I found them guiding me to my destination along roads with few signs and sometimes ambiguous directions.
Tobacco farms, curious formations called mogotes and a tranquil, timeless way of life were what I sought in the tiny colonial city of Viñales in Pinar del Rio – another stop along the Polo Montañez trail, being a favorite haunt of the beloved singer. I found all of that – and a lively nightlife, besides. Maybe a little too lively. Polo’s spirit lingers on, it seems.