Andre picked them up at the Belize Airport. There were a dozen of them, wide-eyed, and swaying under the weight of their too-heavy packs. They were pale; North American, sun-deprived, pasty-skinned young students. Like all tourists, they stared a lot, bewildered by this new world that was so far removed from their own. It was an ordinary day, the humidity clung to your skin and the palm trees were waving in the hazy mid-afternoon wind. The smell of smoke clung to the air; the usual dry-season fires that this time of year tended to bring plagued Belize. Even when it rained, the water evaporated so quickly that it hardly dampened the flames’ hunger.
Andre eyed the students warily. They looked so young and tired. He led them to the bus and couldn’t help but notice the concealed looks of disgust as they trailed their fingers along the thick layer of dust on the seats, sitting on the very edges to avoid dirtying their clothes. Better get used to it, he thought smugly. Dust accumulates here. The students threw open the windows and started talking among themselves, munching on granola bars and swallowing their malarone prescriptions. Andre had lost his grandfather and his uncle to Malaria, a long time ago. His family hadn’t been able to afford the expensive drugs to keep the parasite at bay.
The old school bus coughed and sputtered to life.
As the vehicle rattled through Belize City’s gritty streets, Andre heard the students laughing and chattering, taking pictures of the landscape, marveling at the greenery, the palm trees, the colors… Dust, bare feet, stray dogs, garbage, fruit trees, rusty trucks, tires, vendors, fresh fruit, bus stops, goats, chickens, palm trees, hot air whistling through the windows, strange smells, dust, smoke, houses on stilts… This was his world, his everyday world, all he knew. And he loved it, of course he did. But to them, to these students, it was something otherworldly, a fleeting episode of their lives. They were only passing through. Of course they would remember it, but to them Belize would become a blur of colors imprinted in their memories. Later, when they thought of Belize, they would see something colorful. But what about all the shades of grey? Tourists hardly ever acknowledge the shades that lurk around the corners, just out of reach of the brilliant sunlight. When they catch a glimpse of the shadows, tourists usually turn away. Sunlight and beautiful colors can be deceiving. Andre knew the shades, he knew them well. One shade’s name was dengue fever. Another was called Malaria. There were many more; for all the colors of this beautiful country, there were just as many shades of grey.
They left the city and soon were on the highway. The smell of smoke became overwhelmingly strong and suddenly the students rushed to the windows. Outside, aggressive orange flames were eating up the scenery, leaving behind only blackened, scorched soil and brush. The hungry flames licked at the highway and some of the students looked shocked. Andre almost laughed, but he just smiled to himself and kept his eyes on the road. He was used to it: blackened scars amongst the green, the stark orange against a heavy, cloudy sky, dampness in the hot air and palm tree silhouettes. The professor pointed out the outline of looming mountains in the distance. “The Maya Mountains. That’s where we are heading. Straight into the heart of the Chibiquil Rainforest.” He told them that Belize is a birdwatcher’s paradise and a botanists’ dream. “With a great majority of its original forest cover left intact, it is one of the most biodiverse countries on this planet.” As the landscape flew past, the professor told them a little about what lay in front of them. Then he talked a little about Belize history. “It was colonized long ago by Spaniards and pirates…” Andre stopped listening to the professor. He had just turned onto the dirt road that marked the beginning of the long and treacherous ride upwards into the mountains. The old school bus rattled and shook as it hit the potholes, and in the rearview mirror, Andre could see the students holding onto their seats uncomfortably and grimacing. Sometimes he caught a glimpse of them flying into the air as the bus hit a particularly deep pothole, and there were gasps and laughter. As it started getting dark, the laughter fast died out. He could tell some of them were fading, closing their eyes, only to be jolted awake once again. They made painful grimaces. Soon, Andre couldn’t distinguish their faces in the rearview mirror anymore, and he focused on the road instead. He stopped briefly at a British military outpost, at the crossing of the river- they were always here, the British, for training. Andre waved at them and the young men smiled back, squinting into the headlights.
About an hour from Las Cuevas, the bus got stuck on a steep rise, sliding sideways in the mud, wheels spinning, the engine coughing up smoke. He felt the tension in the air as he turned the vehicle off and stepped outside to assess the damage. There wasn’t much he could do besides turn the bus back on and try again. The students cheered and clapped when the vehicle finally broke free of the mess, with a lurch and a bone-rattling jump. They were bumping along on the road again, headlights illuminating the narrow road, lianas hanging down in front of the windshield, scraping against the sides of the bus. Sometimes tree branches hit the windows with a loud, whip-like sound and sometimes a snap when the branches gave way. It was late when they made it to Las Cuevas. Andre sighed in relief when he finally killed the engine. His eyes were burning and his neck was sore, as was his jaw from keeping his teeth clenched together. There was a stunned silence. After the loud rattling and the growl of the engine, everything seemed suddenly, mercifully quiet. The students were eager to get off the bus, but the professor held them back: “The lawn around the research station is kept short, but there still are scorpions and tarantulas and snakes around, especially at night. Walk beside someone with a flashlight.” They filed out of the bus, carefully, slowly, staring at the ground as they walked. Andre left the bus standing near the main building. Under the cabin, some of the boys had strung their hammocks between the beams that held up the building and lit some lanterns. One of them was playing guitar, and the others sat around in lawn chairs, beer in hand. The old horse was tied to a pole, a thin rope around her skinny neck, her ears laid back, enjoying the welcome cool breeze. The insects were loud that night.
In the morning, with the first screaming of the parrots and the familiar raucous call of the Chachalaquas, Andre turned on the old yellow bus and made his way back down the mountains again.
Ten days passed. Before he knew it, Andre was back at Las Cuevas, loading up the same yellow bus with the same students he had driven up. They climbed into the bus smiling, brown and bug-bitten, their eyes bright and their minds full of stories. As they bumped down the same dusty road, he listened to their chatter.
They talked about the howler monkeys and how they had run in fright the first time they had heard them, not knowing what the terrifying sound was. They talked about the leaf-cutter and acacia ants, the chicle gum trees. They laughed in recollection of the nighttime scorpion and tarantula hunts on the lawn. They smiled when someone mentioned the gecko that visited them when they sat around late at night with beers in hand, watching the stars.
The students’ voices were full of excitement, full of enthusiasm. On the trek to Monkey Tail River, they had seen some Macaws.
Hiked to the Bird Tower to see the view, where they saw nothing human as far as the eye could see, in all directions, except for the tiny cluster of buildings that was Las Cuevas.
Their professor had showed them the caves after which the station was named.
They had seen the Mayan ruins of the lost city of Caracol, climbed the ancient temples, which were still the tallest buildings in the country. They had tasted raw, fresh papaya.
One lucky student had seen the hindquarters of a jaguar; the rest had seen only a paw print that nevertheless seemed to have made a big impression on them.
Suddenly the bus ground to a halt. A vine had snagged the side view mirror and was twisted around it, keeping the vehicle from moving forward. Andre twisted around in his drivers seat and pulled out his machete from underneath it.
He heard some of the students chuckle as he stepped outside to hack up the vine. “Only in Belize would a bus driver have a machete under his seat.” Someone commented.
When they drove on, Andre kept listening to the students talk about their experience. Someone mentioned the Eyelash Viper they had encountered, having walked past it several times during the day, without realizing that within a few inches from where they set down their feet, a deadly reptile had been waiting, watching their every move.
As they reached the rangers’ outpost, Andre noticed some commotion. He slowed the bus down just as a handful of rangers on horseback came into the station, leading a train of skinny, almost skeleton-like horses. He killed the engine and stepped outside. He knew most of the rangers who worked here. “Chiteras,” they told him when he inquired. Guatemalans, illegally crossing over the border to harvest Fishtail Palm. “There was a raid last night. These are their horses.” The horses looked in bad shape, some barely more than skin and bones, stumbling over the loose rock. Andre turned back to the bus. The students were watching curiously. He explained as best he could in his broken English. The students nodded, asked a few questions, watched the rangers lead the horses out of sight, and then they were on the road again.
The sun was rising, burning hot and there were many small brush fires along the way. The bus left a long trail of dust in its wake.
It took a long time to get back to Belize City where the students would take the plane back to their comfortable homes in North America. But as Andre dropped them off at the airport, and they all thanked him and smiled, he thought about their stories. The stories they had told on the bus, and the stories they were now taking home with them. In their voices,
Andre had discerned a new sense of respect for the jungle, of wonder and of humility. Perhaps there was a little hint of envy there too. Perhaps they were envious that the world they lived in was not as colorful as the Belize they would remember. Andre wondered, if he ever went to North America, if he too, like all tourists seemed to, would remember his trip as something colorful.