The Long Trip, Part 1
One of my earliest clear memories is riding on my father's back, as we tracked through the Belizean jungle, the musty smell of his long dreadlocks filling my nose, and their rough texture tickling my cheek. I can see a blur of silver as the blade of his machete flies diagonally across his body while he whips it through the thick dense brush with every step. Behind me are my mother, her alabaster skin flushed pink with heat and exhaustion, and my older sister Sarah Jane, her face in a determined scowl as she makes her way through the newly cut yet still treacherous terrain.
I have the best seat in the house, perched on my father’s back, but the long day of travel from Detroit to Belize City, then to the jungle has taken a toll on my small body. I am tired, hungry and a little hesitant of what lies ahead. After the arduous mile hike, we reach our destination, a small 15' by 15' house on stilts, sitting among the colossal trees of the rain forest. The house, which my father built by hand, is simply made of planks of wood nailed together with windows on two of the walls and doors on the other two. The planks did not fit perfectly together, so there were gaps, some of them several centimeters wide along all the walls and the floor. The roof is made of sheets of zinc overlapping and nailed together. The posts of the house are made from the trunks of a gumbo- limbo tree, which are known for taking root and growing even after being cut down and chopped into logs. Our posts had done just that and were sprouting small branches and leaves.
This is now our home, not just the tiny house, but also all the land surrounding the diminutive shack. "Here we are, my sweetness’s!" my father exclaims in his Belizean Criol accent.
He gently lowers me to the ground, and I quickly scramble over to my mother, who scoops me up so swiftly it gives the impression of a reflex.
"I'll have it ready for you swiftly," he says excitedly as he disappears behind the house and reappears with a crowbar.
The doors of the house have a large wooden board nailed across them, to prevent them from opening. He goes to work on removing the wooden board at a rapid pace, and is done fast. Despite his strong muscular frame, my father is not particularly fond of physical work, in fact he detests it. This type of job, habitually, would be accompanied by a vast amount of cursing, but he is in high spirits today, because he finally has his family back.
We entered the house as one unit, my mother still carrying me and my sister attached to her leg. My father has not told us to come in yet, but the sun has set and the heavy darkness that blankets the jungle at night is taking over. There may have been a few more scorpions, snakes and tarantulas for him to kill inside, but at least we had walls around us.
"Do you remember this house?" my mother whispers gleefully to Sarah Jane and me.
We do remember, Sarah Jane more so than me, because of my young age, but both of us can recall the joys and terrors of this place.
The first few days are tough and thorny. Sarah Jane and I have to adjust to a different diet and different activities; the rainforest itself has to adjust to our presence. We were the intruders, not the snakes and monkeys. We have hiked away from society and into the wilds of Belize. The nights are hard to adapt to; the jungle becomes alive with sound. The monkeys howl and birds caw, the cockroaches search for food while the scorpions search for cockroaches. Sarah Jane and I sleep close as we can to our mother, hoping nothing crawls our way in the dark of night.
I remember my bedtime routine in Michigan, before we had left for the jungle: Sitting on my cozy twin bed in my grandparents' house, having been freshly plucked out of the sudsy warmth of the bathtub and towel dried. The smell of the Johnsons baby shampoo still fragrant in my damp hair. As my mother stuffed me into a pink fleece onesie, I began asking for my most precious item: my bummy. Bummy was my name for my book of Mother Goose rhymes, no one knows why I chose that name, but since I could speak, I had been demanding my bummy, I am told it was one of my first words. Sarah Jane and my mother would begin their nightly search for my bummy - under the bed, behind the toy chest, in the closet. Each of them scurrying around fast and franticly, as my demands for the book grew louder and louder. Once found, all three of us would pile in my twin bed and begin to read, I knew each poem by heart, and would soon drift to sleep with the gentle rhymes floating in my dreamy mind.
Now, in Belize, bedtime is different, our entire house is not much bigger than the room Sarah and I shared at my grandparents. We cannot take a bath at night, because all our bathing is either done in Cacao creek, the heavily canopied river just about 100 yards in front of our house or with water hauled from the river in a bucket. Whichever way, bathing is done during the heat of the day and even then, the cool water would cause goose bumps to spring up on our brown little backs. For bedtime, we are dressed in sleeveless nightgowns as we listen to the howler monkeys and the crickets chatter outside. As Sarah Jane and I roll out the large piece of foam we use for a mattress, our mother gets my bummy out. One nice thing about such a small house, we never have to search for my bummy. While our father sits outside listening to the radio and smoking a joint, the three of us pile into bed, and begin to read the comforting words of Mother Goose. Sarah Jane knows the rhymes by heart too, and will sometimes say a few of them, with her sweet, soothing voice coating my ears; I drift into safe happy dreams.
He was a natural born entertainer, so our father will always find ways to make Sarah Jane and I laugh. Singing songs he simply makes up as he goes or telling us action packed fairytales of Anansi the spider. Our favorite form of entertainment is what we call the "noodle dance," Stark naked; he dances wildly and shakes about the house, laughing at himself with every ridiculous movement. We cannot contain ourselves, within just a few seconds of the dance, we are belly laughing, rolling around on the rigid wooden floor, barely able to breathe. Our mother tries to maintain composure as long as she can but before long, she is on the floor laughing just as hard as us. We solicit him for a story or song or the noodle dance almost every night, but if the mood was not right, he remains outside, smoking and grumbling about "no peace and quiet with girls" and "too much rass," pretending not to hear us. Rass is the Belizean word for BS, and one of my father’s all-time favorites.
Except for the few pineapple plants and banana trees, there are not much grows on our land, so our father goes to Punta Gorda town to get food and supplies once every two weeks. They want to live off the land, he and my mother, but as of yet the only action towards this goal has been planting a few fruit trees and hibiscus bushes around the property. He is usually in a bad mood when it is time to go to town, firstly due to arguments about money. The money we have is what our mother was able to save during our last stay in Michigan. Secondly, because the trip to town is long and straining. After he hikes the mile out of the jungle, which takes anywhere from 30 minutes to and an hour, depending on what the jungle has in store for him, he waits on the side on the dirt road, sun beating down on him, for a truck to come by so he can "hail a ride." If he is lucky, this kind stranger will take him all the way to PG town, but sometimes the driver is headed to another town like Dangrigia, or Orangewalk, and can only take him part of the way. Once dropped off, he must again wait on the side of the dusty road, grime sticking to his now sweat-coated clothes, for another willing driver to help him finish the journey.
Once in town, things drastically improve. Everyone in town knows "Congo Charlie" and is thrilled to have him back among them. He uses his natural charisma to enchant the locals with harrowing, sometimes tall tales of jungle life. Everywhere he turns he hears "Charlie! Charlie, I have smoke for you" or "Charlie! Have a drink with me!" Although the journey to town and back can be done in one day, he almost always stays longer. The free pot to smoke, beer and rum to drink, and an open invitation to stay at the local brothel tend to draw him in for a few days, but he will always come back to us.
Finally, he returns, getting dropped off by his ride, whomever he was able to find this time, on the dirt road, then making the mile hike back to his family. We can hear him calling to us from far away, and all of us come running, standing at the edge of the thick brush, waiting for him to appear in his straw hat. Our mother is as excited as she can be.
"It’s him, I can hear him! Your father is back!" she exclaims, like a teenage girl about to meet her idol.
As soon as he sees us, he drops all his bags and runs over.
"Sweetness’s! Daddy's heartstrings!" he declares, and he lifts both Sarah Jane and me up and twirls us around.
He smells of marijuana and stale booze, a musk he wears so often, it brings me comfort, it is the smell of my daddy. From his journey he always comes back with gossip about what was going on in town, large bags of rice and beans, a chicken which is just starting to thaw after the long journey, plus a new supply of marijuana and a bottle of rum, which will keep him content until his next trip.
The money does not last long. This means supply trips to town get less frequent, which means more time together and less food, which means more fighting. More fighting means more crying and more mood swings for our mother. During the really ghastly fights, Sarah Jane and I stay outside. In front of the house we distract ourselves by playing with our rag dolls and the happy apple, a plastic apple with a smiley face that rocked back and forth and played out-of-tune music. Our father storms out of the house, and heads towards the path out of the jungle, without so much as a glance at us girls. Grumbling words like "that honkey white bitch" and "fuckin' rass" under his breath, he plunges into the jungle, machete twirling in front of him. As soon as he leaves, our mother's mental stability begins to deteriorate.