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.
The old school bus coughed and sputtered to life. The biology professor took the seat right behind him. Andre already knew him from previous field trips; he was a man of few words and a practical attitude; so Andre didn’t mind his company.
As the bus 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 wide-eyed 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? 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. He was only driving this bus for the students because his father couldn’t. His father was in bed; sick because the water he drank had gone bad. This shade’s name was dengue fever. Another was called Malaria. 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.
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 Chachalacas, Andre got up and made his way across the lawn to the main building that housed the kitchen. The smell of fried beans wafted across the camp, mingling with the rich, fruity scent of the jungle. The sun was just reaching the tip of the trees, illuminating the short, faded lawn in a golden glow. Andre walked slowly, savoring the moment. Morning was his favorite time of day. The sun was warm but not scorching, the air cool and damp as opposed to the oppressive heat of midday. He had always thought that morning belonged to the intrepid adventurers and the avid explorers.
He climbed the wooden steps up to the main building slowly, thinking about the day ahead. He had to go back to San Ignacio, return the yellow bus and then head home to take care of his brothers and sisters… He reached the top of the stairs, lifted his head, only to come face to face with a blond-haired young woman. One of the students. She was sitting at the top of the stairs. She looked as startled as he was, her green eyes wide in surprise. “Good Morning.“ She muttered clumsily. Andre just nodded, to tired and startled to respond properly. He was about to walk past her, but then he saw the binoculars hanging around her neck. “You like birds?” He asked awkwardly in his hesitant English. She smiled, suddenly looking more relaxed. “Yeah. I love birds. That’s why I came here.”
“You know many birds?” Andre sat on the steps beside her.
She shrugged. “I know the ones from home. I don’t know any from here.”
Andre smiled. He remembered when, as a child, his uncle had taught him to recognize birds by their vivid plumage and their songs. Some birds were more raucous than others, like the Chachalacas. This was his favorite bird, the first one he had learnt to recognize.
“Chachalaca. They cry their name. You hear?”
Her face broke into a smile. “Yes. What do they look like?”
Andre laughed. “No pretty bird. Bit like a chicken.”
She asked him his name, told him hers was Lily and that she was a student from Canada. He told her how he would like to study conservation biology to help protect the birds but didn’t have any money. She looked a little sad, almost sorry for him, but he told her it didn’t matter. He would still enjoy the birds even if he had to spend the rest of his days as a bus driver. She laughed. Then the other students came out of their rooms for breakfast and she said she had to go.
Andre grabbed his breakfast, a plate of roasted beans, some bread and scrambled eggs, from the kitchen and sat on the steps alone, gazing into the jungle. After he ate he left Las Cuevas with his yellow bus.
Ten days passed. Sometimes Andre wondered about the blond-haired girl, he wondered if she was enjoying seeing all the colorful birds Belize had to offer. Soon, 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. Lily smiled at him when she climbed aboard. Her face was darker, her hair blonder and her green eyes were full of sunlight. She sat right behind the drivers seat. Andre asked her about her time in Belize. As the bus bumped down the same dusty road, he listened to her talk. She told him about the howler monkeys and how she and two other students had run in fright the first time they had heard them, not knowing what the terrifying sound was. She talked about the leaf-cutter and acacia ants, the chicle gum trees.
Andre laughed at her recollection of the nighttime scorpion and tarantula hunts on the lawn. He remembered doing this with his brothers and sisters. He smiled when she mentioned the gecko that visited them when they sat around late at night with beers in hand, watching the stars. Her voice was 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; Lily had seen only a paw print that nevertheless seemed to have made a big impression on her.
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, he asked Lily some more questions. She 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. Then she grew silent and stared out the window, seemingly lost in her own thoughts.
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. They 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.
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 Lily and the rest of the students would take the plane back to their comfortable homes in North America. When Andre pulled into the Belize airport, the bus was quiet and there was a solemn sadness to all the faces. As they filed out, thanking him politely, Lily hung back, looking out the window, watching a plane take off into the azure sky. When the last few students stepped onto the pavement, she grabbed her bags. “I have something for you.” She told Andre, reaching into her pocket. She pulled out a feather. It was a beautiful feather, shimmering in the light, striped and speckled, black and rusty red. “It’s from a bird from my home country. A Ruffed Grouse. Not a pretty bird. A bit like a chicken.”
Andre didn’t know what to say. He took the feather, twirled it between his thumb and index finger. “Beautiful.” He told her, “Thank you.” She smiled and with that she was gone, dragging her bags with her, jogging to catch up to the other students.
Andre sat in the bus for a while. He thought about the stories she had told him, the stories she was now taking home with her. In her voice, 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 she was envious that the world she lived in was not as colorful as the Belize she would remember. Andre held the feather she had given him and wondered, if he ever went to North America, if he too, like all tourists seemed to, would remember his trip as something colorful.