Note to the reader.
This recap of our week’s activities is a week late (internet outage issues) and has been borrowed from a much larger travelogue of my experiences during this, my second field season with SCRAP. It’s not always easy to keep a running account of all the goings-on during a project like this, and yet my assortment of Rite in the Rain notebooks – curled with sweat, and smeared with all manner of dust and historical debris – managed to accumulate a small series of impressions for each and every day.
If I have succeeded at crafting an image of life on, and around this project, it is through the eyes (and the lens) of a traveller – an enthusiastic participant – trying to gain an understanding, rather than of an expert, dispensing it. It has always been my good fortune to be surrounded by companions who are experts, and without whose expertise this learning process would have been much harder.
Dave Blaine. June, 2019. Maya Center, Belize.
Day 9. Maya Center to Placencia
A nod to Shawn, who has been our constant driver on this project. He swings our bright red passenger van expertly around potholes and stray dogs, and screeches to nearly complete stops in the middle of the highway at entirely irregular intervals to climb the vehicle over the absurdly lofty speed bumps they call down here “Pedestrian Ramps”.
After a long but enjoyable day spent at the Maya Glyphs workshop in Belmopan, we decide to trade the gravitas of the capital city for the repose of the Caribbean. Mostly we spend the day seated on or near the beach at one of Meaghan and Shawn’s preferred haunts, Barefoot Beach Bar. When I first visited last year, it sported a sandwich board sign with the magnificent proclamation “Soup of the Day: Vodka”. Today however it’s a more prosaic “Live Music”, with a series of dates and times listed.
We’re soon joined by a colleague of Meaghan’s from Athabasca U; a biological anthropologist named Dr. Hugh Notman. He’s already wrapped up his field school for the season, leading students through the jungle in search of howler monkeys. He’ll be on his way back to Alberta tomorrow. The days since my arrival have been so incredibly hot that I feel a pang of envy; I’ve only been down here a week.
After dinner at Barefoot, we retire down the boardwalk – which is made of concrete now, since the last one was washed away by a hurricane – to Tutti Frutti Gelateria, which serves up what is unquestionably the best gelato anywhere. I’m told the owners divide their time between here and home in Italy. I’m grateful that our Belize season coincides with theirs.
Day 10. Alabama
Up at 5 am to kick off another week of field work. I’m nursing a dreadful sunburn from yesterday’s afternoon in Placencia. I don’t know how I always manage to forget how susceptible I am to the sun. I guess my Anglo-Saxon genome is just better suited to cloudy places.
We arrive on site at the usual time and Mr. Chiac is waiting expectantly for us. Small in stature – like most local Maya – with the leathery features of someone who has worked outdoors for most of his life; wearing a faded Athabasca University baseball cap, and a torn and sweat stained t-shirt, he’s a powerhouse of a man: robust, commanding and spry.
Today however he is agitated, and with good reason. The site, he tells us, has been vandalized. As we survey the damage, it is immediately apparent that these were looters, looking in haphazard and destructive fashion, for whatever it was that attracted us to this site. I can’t help but notice how upset our team members from the local village of Maya Mopan are over this. It is a poignant display of how invested they have become in their years working with SCRAP.
Fortunately, the damage appears to be minimal. The worst that seems to have happened is that we lost the opportunity to map several large granite blocks that make up the fall of our structures before they were moved out of context. I suppose the assumption must be that if we’re down here in the first place, it must be because there’s something valuable to find. But that assumption ignores the questions we’re asking of this site: When did people live here, how were they making a living? To answer these questions, we need to find the garbage, not the gold. I guess one person’s treasure, really is another one’s trash.
*Note: This activity occurred in the orange orchard settlement area–not the monumental core of the site, which has remained largely untouched by looters since the 1950s/60s.
Listening to my Maya companions talk amongst themselves is a curious experience. During the lunch break, we are joined by Sylvestro. After exchanging pleasantries, Sylvestro enters into a deep conversation with Mr. Chiac. What surprises me is not how much I don’t understand, but how much I do. Sylvestro seems to be constantly shifting gears from Mopan to Creole and Spanish and back as the need requires. Mostly it’s the modern words I can glean. Words like “Dive Shop”, “Training”, “Certification”, and “Saturday”, and the recognizable place-name of “Placencia” gives away at least the gist of the conversation.
Today has blessed us with the most amiable working weather of the excursion so far. With a daytime high of only 32 degrees Celsius, overcast skies to offer refuge from the blistering sun, and an almost constant breeze off the Maya Mountains, today presents itself in stark contrast to the inescapably lethargic humidity that has both steamed and smothered us during our time here.
The day starts cool and breezy, and we decide to visit Structure 1/2 in the Monumental Core where I started out with SCRAP last year. I barely recognize it from my last visit. The progress of the excavation has been steady. What was first a shallow strip taken off the sloping side of the building is now a deep trench: a swath cut right into its side. And perhaps some evidence of an earlier building slightly underneath and in front of it. As with everywhere in Alabama, excavation yields generally more questions than answers, and the architectural patterns both here and in the settlement continue to be crazy-making to decipher but unbelievably interesting.
The soil in my excavation doesn’t seem to be changing very much. It seems to be the same dark reddish brown sandy clay from the topsoil all the way down. Situated in between two rows of orchard trees, Mr. Chiac explains for me that the continuous schedule of mowing, and spraying, and harvesting would see fairly heavy farm vehicle traffic through here about every three months. And the orchard has been here since the 70s (although this particular block was only established in the 90s)! No wonder the soil is so compacted. I notice for the first time that my trowel is considerably more rounded on the one edge than when I started almost two weeks ago. I have to re-sharpen it every hour. It’s like trying to give an Easter Island statue a shave!
Overcast skies manage to hold out until midday. The steady breeze however, doesn’t abate and we enjoy another day of generally bearable conditions. This is more than I can say for Matt and his team. Without benefit of tarps and awnings, and a single, stationary site, his survey grid of a hundred or so shovel test pits keeps them exposed and sun-baked as they make their way throughout the orchard.
On our way to site we stop for gas. It seems like the rest of Stann Creek had the same idea: the lineup at the pumps almost stretches out to the road. Waiting in the queue ahead of us are two trucks as distinct from each other as is possible to be. One is a ramshackle 1-ton Ford; the other, a Lilliputian old Toyota. Both however are filled to bursting with uncovered, unsecured loads of pineapple.
It’s the Toyota that really captures my attention. From its tailgate it calls itself an OYO A. What makes the Ts erode so much faster than the rest of the letters? It looks and sounds like the Wizard of Oz’s description of the Tin Man, and is so irretrievably overburdened that the tops of its rear tires disappear past their rims under the rear fenders. I wonder what happens to the pineapples when he encounters one of those “Pedestrian Ramps”. If he can even scale them at all, do the pineapples then tumble off individually, or in groups?
From the seat behind me Matt wonders aloud whether trucks full – or rather truck-fulls – of pineapple is actually some kind of standardized unit here. I wonder: would that be a 350 of pineapple, or a four-banger?
Our last day in the field prior to the long weekend. The heat today seems particularly potent, and the morning forecast’s promise of 97 % humidity is already wringing sweat from parts of my body I couldn’t have imagined. My clothes are already completely sodden, as if I’d bathed in them. It’s only 10:30 in the morning! Next to my companion Diego – Mr. Paquiul’s son – whose shirt has yet to show the first signs of perspiration, I’m sure I look like a drowned rat.
We gather our first good sample of carbon from my excavation unit. I’m sure that as discoveries go, a bit of charcoal must seem particularly lackluster, but it is exactly the kind of find we want to make on this project, because charcoal equals dates! Dates – retrieved through carbon dating – for when people may have occupied this site, or at least, when they were present and burning things at the site.
The office attendant at our guest house in Hopkins, who is gushingly enthusiastic about the food, drink and activities at Hopkins, neglects to provide us with the remote controllers required to turn on our A/C units. It’s not the first snafu we’ve encountered with this booking – not unlike hotel websites that showcase images of rooms spectacularly more opulent than the one you’re being put up in, and amenities you can never find – and leaves us all with a distinctly sour attitude towards AirBnB. So it’s a hot and fitful sleep to kick off the first night of our long weekend.
Day 16. Hopkins Village
Saturday in Hopkins Village: hot and sticky, with offshore breezes that are less refreshing than they are like a fevered hyperventilation. Almost as if the day was coming down with something. Even the locals are balking openly at the temperatures this season.
While I don’t know it for a fact, I’m certain that today was one of the hottest days on record. It turns out that subsisting off nachos, French fries, and a selection of admittedly sumptuous flavours of barbecued chicken wings, along with a hearty sampling of Belizean rum drinks, was probably not the best strategy for coping with it.
After a preposterous game of mini-golf, which thanks to incapacity and dumb luck was characterized by quintuple bogeys and holes-in-one in equal measure, and a short lie-down on the 4th fairway, I acknowledge that I’ve reached my limit, wish my comrades a good night, and shuffle back to our guest house. Despite being hours after dark, the heat still radiating off the town’s main street is palpable, almost like I’m wading through it. I wonder if I haven’t managed the unlikely feat of getting a sunburn on my lower calves and ankles, while walking home at night…
Day 17. Hopkins Village.
The Caribbean looks like it’s had a similar night to mine. It appears distinctly greenish in the early morning sun, with sluggish waves collapsing exhausted against the sand. Back to bed, in my air conditioned guest room, for the few hours we have left before our 10:30 am checkout time.
It’s a lazy Sunday for us I think.
More next week.