December 18, 2010
Maddie stepped through the metal detector, picked up her backpack off the conveyor belt and trotted over to the others.
“Are we all ready?” Tom said.
The team members nodded assent. Tom hefted his carryon and strode down the corridor at Miami International Airport. Maddie watched her professor lead his team of three students and two fellow faculty members.
The team hiked through the airport to a distant gate downstairs from the main terminal. The seats were all full at the crowded gate so the team members perched on the edge of the large planter behind the escalator. Maddie sat at the end of the group, next to Ben. Like Maddie, Ben wore the student uniform of jeans and t-shirt. He unsnapped the front of his high school letter jacket and flapped it to cool off.
“Hey, Maddie, do you feel strange, going to a foreign country to work over winter break?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s pretty weird. I’ve never been away from home for Christmas. I mean, we don’t go to church or anything but I’ll miss presents and Christmas dinner. I’ll miss my family.”
Ben nudged her with his elbow. “Don’t you think we’ve known each other long enough to count as family?”
She shrugged. “Since you were seven and I was six. I’m not really that attached to Florida anyway.” She fidgeted with the zipper on her backpack. “My parents aren’t too happy about this trip, though. I had to tell them over and over that it wouldn’t cost them anything before they would let me go. I think my mom has something against Central America because of, um, family history.” Ben opened his mouth to inquire but Maddie cut him off short. “My passport and the gear for the trip wiped out my bank account. I had to talk Mom and Dad into giving me cash instead of Christmas presents so I could afford to come. I mean, I’m nineteen so technically they can’t stop me but I like to be on speaking terms with them.”
Colin Wensley leaned over toward Maddie. “My parents are happy to have me traveling and learning new things.” He flicked a speck of dust off his Ralph Lauren trousers and smoothed his Egyptian cotton dress shirt. “Too bad your parents don’t feel the same way. It’s money well spent.”
“My parents don’t have it to spare, Colin.”
“Then how can you afford to go to college?”
She counted on her fingers. “I’ve got the Bright Futures scholarship for tuition, a National Merit scholarship that covers my dorm fees and my dad’s Rotary Club is paying for my meal plan. I save money from my weekend job at Wal-Mart to buy my books each semester.”
Colin shook his head. “Pretty pitiful. Well, I guess you’d better keep your grades up or you won’t be able to afford to graduate.” He offered a movie-star-white grin. “Of course, you must be in tight with Dr. Davies to be on this team. You’re only a sophomore.”
She edged away. “I have straight A’s and I did the St. Augustine Field School last summer. Dr. Davies says I’m a dedicated student and I’ll make a great archaeologist.”
“I’ll bet he does.” Colin leered at her.
Maddie narrowed her eyes at him and opened her mouth to retaliate. Ben put his hand on her arm.
“They’re starting to board. We’d better go.”
The passengers crowded into the Boeing 727 and searched for their seats. Maddie stuffed her backpack under the seat in front of her and sat down by the window. Dr. Pete Galloway squeezed in next to her, followed by Colin. Ben was seated at the window in front of Maddie with Tom next to him and Dr. Joan Lancaster on the aisle.
They settled down for the two-hour flight. Once the plane was up to its cruising altitude and the flight attendants had finished their exposé of the emergency procedures Maddie clicked her seat back a notch and closed her eyes.
“Do you like to fly?”
She opened her eyes to find Pete leaning over her. A hank of limp brown hair hung across his forehead. She could smell stale coffee on his breath. She shifted in her seat to get out from under him then pulled her tray table down as a defense.
“I don’t mind it,” she said. She fished an airline magazine out of the pocket on the back of the seat in front of her and flipped the pages, feigning interest in the articles.
“Well, I’m not crazy about it myself.” Pete’s long sausages of fingers drummed on the armrest between their seats. Maddie looked up at him. Her face reflected in the thick lenses of his tortoiseshell glasses.
“Why don’t you try reading?” she suggested, pointing to the magazine in the seat pocket in front of him.
“Oh, reading will just give me motion sickness,” he said, making a face as if he were about to vomit.
Maddie turned to look out the window.
He tapped her on the shoulder. “Hey,” he said. “Hey.”
Maddie blew out a breath. “Yes?” Please, someone save me.
“Doesn’t looking out the window make you airsick?”
Ben turned around in his seat and got up on his knees so he could talk to Maddie over the seat back.
“Hey, Maddie, I’ve been doing some reading about the Maya and I found something you might be interested in. It’s about your name.”
Maddie sighed in relief. “Madeleine isn’t a Maya name.”
“No, but your last name is just like the quetzal, Miss Phoenix,” said Ben. “The phoenix is from European mythology and the quetzal is from the Maya but they’re the same basic archetype. Each one represents the glory and hope of its civilization. It dies in flames and rises again from its own ashes. It’s a never-ending cycle.”
“Like all those people who say the world is going to end when the Maya calendar ends in a few years? Then a new world will rise from the ashes. Or something like that.”
Tom popped up over his seat back. “There are lots of crazy theories, Maddie, written by people who want to make a buck selling books. Some of them don’t even believe in what they’re writing, and the ones that do . . .I question their intelligence.”
She pulled a stack of papers out of her backpack. “But I thought there really will be the end of some big chunk of the Maya calendar. The year 2012, isn’t it?” She pointed to a copy of a web page she had printed out. The title, 2012 AD – The Year of Cosmogenesis, splashed across the top of the page.
Tom explained, “It’s like a century or a millennium ending. What happens in the population at large when we get to the end of a century or a millennium in our calendar?”
“People go nuts,” said Maddie. “They think something special, or something horrible, is going to happen just because the system we use to count time happens to be rolling over to a new segment.”
“So you really think the Maya calendar is the same thing?”
“Look at it this way. People tend to influence the world according to their own expectations. If thousands of people think something terrible is going to happen then something terrible will eventually happen. The paranoia will cause it.”
“And the bigger the time period that’s ending, the worse it is?” Ben offered.
“That’s right,” said Tom. “In 1900 people went a little crazy but in 2000 it almost blew sky-high and that Y2K mess that we created for ourselves didn’t help any.”
“All right,” said Maddie. She scowled at the papers in her hand. “At least I know the quetzal is like the phoenix. That’s pretty cool.”
“Hey, Maddie,” said Ben, “I guess that makes you Maya royalty.”
“No,” said Tom, “the quetzal represented the priesthood. The lords wore quetzal feathers to associate themselves with the priests. We can have a look at some representations of quetzal feather headdresses when we get to the site, if you like. The real thing must have been pretty spectacular.”
“Besides,” said Colin, “Maddie can’t afford to be royalty.” Maddie narrowed her eyes at him. She opened her mouth to respond but he interrupted her. “Too bad we can’t go back to the way they did archaeology in Victorian times.”
Ben nodded. “More sites left to discover. More adventure.”
“But don’t you see,” said Tom, “the science of archaeology and our practical methods have advanced so much in the last century. It’s really amazing.”
Colin shook his head. “What I mean is, back then, if you discovered something you got to keep it. It didn’t go to some museum somewhere.”
Tom’s face darkened. “Artifacts belong to the people of the country they’re found in, Colin. That’s why there are international laws forbidding archaeologists from taking objects found at dig sites. We dig to find out about other civilizations, to learn from them, not to make a profit on the black market.”
Colin rolled his eyes. “We’re going to Central America, Dr. Davies. Belize is a third-world country. They didn’t even become independent from Britain until 1981. Pretty backward, wouldn’t you say?”
“Listen, in Belize the people are educated and the water is safe to drink,” Tom growled, “so don’t talk to me about Third World countries. These are not stupid people and I’d better not hear any more comments in that vein – understood?”
Colin glared at Tom but said nothing.
Maddie settled back in her seat and began reading The End of the World According to the Mayan Calendar. Three pages into the website printout she realized Ben was watching her.
“That isn’t exactly mainstream, you know,” he said softly.
“I know. But it came up when I did an online search and I wanted to read it for myself.” She squinted at the page. “It’s like there’s a puzzle piece missing.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, just keeping track of wars and kings doesn’t require any mathematical precision to speak of, so they must have been trying to figure out more than just the dates of their rulers.”
“Lots of ancient civilizations had accurate calendars, Maddie.”
“Yeah, but the Maya independently developed the concepts of zero and infinity while the rest of the world, except maybe India, was still practically counting on their fingers. Did you know the Maya calculated the length of the solar year so accurately that their numbers are off from ours by only seventeen seconds?”
“Really. And they did that without ever using fractions.” She screwed up her face. “Why on earth did they need such incredible precision?”
“Maybe it was something religious. Their whole society was run by priests. Maybe they thought the gods wanted them to do all those calculations. People have done stranger things because they thought a deity demanded it.”
Maddie shook the page in her hand. “This guy, John Major Jenkins, thinks the Maya calendar counts backward.” Ben gave her a puzzled look. “I mean, instead of counting forward from an arbitrary date, their calendar was designed to end on a specific date.”
“And that date is?”
“Winter solstice 2012.”
“So the Maya thought something important was going to happen then and they designed their whole calendar just so it would end on that date?”
“It doesn’t end, exactly. It’s kind of like a car odometer. When it gets to 99,999 it all turns over to zero. But that doesn’t mean the car has zero miles on it.”
Ben nodded. “So this segment of their calendar runs out and it starts back over again at zero.”
“Yes. But I still don’t understand all this information about the Maya sacred tree and the astronomical center of the universe.”
“Be careful who you go spouting this stuff to.”
Maddie sighed. “It does sound crazy, I know, but so did subatomic particles until just a few years ago.”
“Now quantum physics is practically a religion. But you’d better stick to mainstream textbooks if you want to get into grad school.”
The rest of the plane ride was quiet except for the gentle clatter of lunch being served. Maddie pressed her nose to the window as they flew near Cuba. The island, though tiny on every map she had ever seen, loomed large beneath them. Shortly after Cuba disappeared from sight the flight attendants came around with customs forms for everyone to fill out.
“What on earth is this and what do I write on it?” Maddie asked, embarrassed.
Pete leaned against her to explain the form. She scooted toward the window to get away from him and filled out her form, declaring that she was bringing no valuables and less than $400 cash into the country.
They landed at Belize International Airport and made their way down the aluminum staircase onto the tarmac. Maddie and the rest of the team followed the stream of travelers into the stuffy, glass-enclosed customs station.
“Everyone get out your passports,” said Tom.
They all queued up behind him as the line inched along. Joan stood in front of Maddie, staring straight ahead. She reminded Maddie of the female figure in the painting American Gothic, all the way down to the long face, dead-serious expression and dishwater blonde hair done up in a tight bun. Her plain white blouse and navy slacks enhanced the severe look.
Maddie’s face was beaded with sweat by the time she reached the baggage claim area even though she had taken her denim jacket off as soon as they touched down. There was no baggage carousel so Maddie fumbled through piles of luggage where airport personnel had dumped them on the concrete floor. She found her battered American Tourister suitcase and lugged it off to one side. She stood and waited until everyone else found their bags. Joan pushed a luggage trolley over to the group and everyone put their bags on it. Maddie noticed that, while her own suitcase was not significantly shabbier than most of the others, Colin’s clothes were packed in brand-new matching black ballistic cloth luggage, the kind you pull on wheels.
Tom pushed the loaded trolley and they all followed him into the main terminal, a large warehouse building lined on one side with airline ticket counters and on the other side with a snack shop, a Belize Bank booth and several small stores selling local crafts.
“OK, troops,” said Tom, “change your money at the bank booth over there. Some places here will take U.S. dollars but a lot won’t. Either spend it all or don’t change it all because they’ll charge you an arm and a leg to change it back. It’s a fixed rate of two Belizean dollars to one American dollar so it’s easy to compute.”
Maddie stood in line with the others. She watched as Colin changed U.S. $350 into Belizean currency.
Maddie stepped up to the bank window and changed her U.S. $50 into $100 Belizean. As they completed their transactions the team members gathered at the airport’s main doorway. When they were all finished they followed Tom outside to the parking lot. Waves of heat rose from the asphalt in the midday sun.
Tom found them a taxi van, old and worn but apparently functional. The cheerful black driver helped them load their luggage.
“Are you Creole?” Tom asked the driver as the two men hefted suitcases into the back of the van.
The man nodded. “An’ proud of it, too,” he said with a smile.
Joan gave Tom a puzzled look so he explained. “The Creoles are the main social group in Belize. They descended from British settlers, called Baymen because they lived and trafficked on the bay, and black slaves who were brought to work the sugar plantations. You’ll find the Creole people have their own culture and English dialect that gives this country quite a unique flavor.”
The van buzzed and rattled south along the Northern Highway toward Belize City, a trek of just under ten miles. Their driver gave his passengers colorful commentary as they passed landmarks and points of interest.
“Whoops!” he exclaimed as the elderly van rattled over a speed bump. “You folk prob’ly call that a speed bump but roun’ here we call it a sleepin’ policeman!”
Several varieties of palm trees dotted the roadside. Maddie spotted coconuts growing on some of them.
As they entered the edge of Belize City the farms that punctuated the rural landscape gave way to tightly-clustered clapboard houses with tin roofs, each with a large cistern in the yard to collect rainwater as it ran off the roof.
The driver turned to Tom. “Did you say you was goin’ to the Mopan?”
“That’s right,” said Tom with a smile.
The van turned right and slowed down as the driver narrated.
“There’s the farmer’s market. See all them folk sellin’ they produce? They’s another market by the Swing Bridge down the creek, too.”
Maddie looked out her window as they crossed the Belcan Bridge.
“Is that the Belize River?” she asked.
“Haulover Creek,” said the driver. “Upstream it’s the Belize River but once it gets to the city it’s Haulover Creek.”
Maddie pressed her nose to the window as she looked at the rows of little houses, some painted bright colors, all with tin roofs and many in need of repair. She had never seen so much laundry hung out to dry all in one place.
Ben pointed to a collection of light blue shirts, burgundy pants and burgundy skirts hung on a line. “All those clothes look alike but they’re different sizes,” he said.
“School uniforms,” said Tom.
Colin peered out the window. “I wouldn’t think people who live in a house like that could afford private school.”
Tom shook his head. “There are private schools here but even the public schools have uniforms. The Belizeans take great pride in their educational system.”
The driver nodded enthusiastically. “I can read an’ write. All my chil’ren can read an’ write.”
The van turned left on Cemetery Road and drove past more rows of houses. Some were built of unpainted concrete block, surrounded by concrete block walls that had broken glass set into the top as a security measure. The van trundled across a narrow bridge over a canal and continued on through the press of beat-up cars, bicycles and pedestrians.
“Does everyone here drive this slowly?” Colin whined.
The driver caught his eye in the rear-view mirror. “Hurry hurry get there tomorrow, take time get there today,” he grinned.
They crossed a second, smaller canal and in a couple blocks they turned right onto Regent Street. The driver pulled the van up to the curb in front of a white two-story building with big screened-in front porches. Maddie spotted the “Hotel Mopan” sign, half hidden behind the lushest row of rose bushes she had ever seen. They were taller than she was.
Everyone got up from their seats and began collecting their bags. Tom paid the driver, including a generous tip for the ‘tour.’ He led the way through an arbor covered with blooming pink bougainvillea and up a wide set of stairs to the hotel entrance. He pushed open the door and held it while the others filed in. A young Creole woman greeted them with a warm smile.
“Can I help you?”
Tom returned the smile. “Tom Davies and the group from the University of Florida.”
“Yes,” replied the young woman. “We’ve got you upstairs where you’ll have a nice view of the bay.” She handed Tom three room keys. “Go out back and up the stairs to the second floor. You’re in the last three rooms on the balcony.”
“Thanks,” said Tom. “Come on, everyone. Follow me.”
He hefted his suitcase and turned toward the back of the lobby, then stopped and stood there, his suitcase in his hand.
Joan scowled. “Tom, shall we go?”
He ran his hand through his hair. “I’m sorry.” He peered at the back of the room then shook his head. He walked toward the door at the back of the lobby and looked through, leaning forward to see down the hall in both directions. “I guess I’m tired. Seeing things.”
Maddie caught a whiff of lavender mingled with patchouli as she lifted her bag to follow Tom. The team trailed him through the door, up a flight of concrete steps and onto a wide balcony.
Tom handed out the keys. “Joan, here’s one for you and Maddie – this one on the end. Next room is Ben and Colin.” Colin narrowed his eyes as Tom handed the key to Ben. Tom turned to Pete. “You and I will be in this room. OK, everyone, time to freshen up and rest a bit while we have the chance.”
Joan opened their door and Maddie followed her in. Maddie chose the bed toward the back of the room and let Joan have the one by the window. Maddie set her suitcase down and flopped on the bed. Joan laughed.
“Travelling with all these men wears you out too, I see. Shall I let in some air?” She pushed the window open and clicked the ceiling fan on. The room was furnished simply with two beds, a nightstand, a table and two chairs. The floor was neatly painted concrete and the bathroom was tiled in cheery yellow.
Joan sat on her bed and rifled through her attaché. She got out a folder, leaned back against the head of the bed and leafed through the papers. She looked over at Maddie who was lying on her back, staring at the ceiling.
“Maddie, I understand you’ve joined the AFA.”
Maddie crawled back up out of her stupor to think. “Association of Feminist Anthropologists. Yes, I joined a couple months ago.”
Joan nodded. “A wise choice in this male-dominated field. The AFA can help you find graduate programs and, later on, jobs. You know I’m a founding member.”
Maddie sat up. “No, I didn’t know that.”
Joan flashed her a prim smile. “In 1988, the year before I finished my Ph.D., a number of concerned female students at Berkeley formed the association. It’s one of the most useful things I’ve ever done.”
“Wow. I had no idea. I bet I could learn a lot from you.”
“I’ll be happy to help, Maddie. This dig will give you some valuable experience. If you have questions at any point along the way, just ask.”
“I’ll probably have lots of questions, Dr. Lancaster. This is my first real dig.”
“You have to start somewhere, Maddie. You’ll be a pro in no time.”
Maddie sighed. “I sure hope so.”
Joan took her laptop out of its compartment in her attaché then she took out an object Maddie could not identify – a long rectangle with a power cord attached.
“What is that?” she asked Joan.
“A solar power pack for my laptop. I can use it to run the computer if I want to sit in the sun while I do my typing or I can use it to recharge the batteries.”
Maddie examined the little solar cells on the unit. “Wow, that’s smart. You can take it anywhere and you don’t need electricity.”
Joan packed the pieces back up, satisfied that they had made the journey intact. “Maddie, men have made such a mess of this world – tearing it up and trashing it, like male dogs that scratch and pee on everything. I feel it’s my duty as a woman to show others how we can help correct the wrongs that have been committed. We have to set a good example. Be activists, in our own way.”
Maddie couldn’t think of anything to say so she just nodded.
Joan continued, “At least Tom Davies has the intelligence to realize how valuable I am on a dig. The idiots who run the Panama Field School seem to think that an archaeologist with my credentials isn’t worth having. One of the men even had the audacity to call me confrontational because I dare to speak my mind. What a sad commentary on the state of the male ego.”
“There are plenty of male egos around, aren’t there? Dr. Galloway, for instance.”
“Be careful who you say these things to, Maddie. A student who criticizes a professor in her department can make trouble for herself.”
“I’ve already taken the required course he teaches. I’m not planning on taking any more of his classes.”
“There is such a thing as being politic, Maddie, though I don’t enjoy it myself. I understand there are those who do.” She made a face. “Of course, it’s even worse in countries where women’s rights are questionable.” She tilted her head toward the window to signify their current location.
“I thought women in Belize could vote and everything.”
“They can, Maddie, but there are lots of rural villages where life is still painfully traditional, and you’ll find many backward values in the cities as well. That includes women being kept in their place, in spite of laws to the contrary.” She narrowed her eyes. “Someone should do something about that.”
Maddie was relieved to hear a knock on the door. Joan opened the door and stepped back to let Tom in.
“Ladies, I thought we might all gather on the front porch before dinner.”
“The front porch?” Maddie raised her eyebrows.
“Go back out the way we came in,” said Tom, “and when you get to the lobby, turn left. It’s a marvelous big screened-in porch right in front of the bar which happens, by the way, to be open.” He beamed.
“Where are we having dinner?” asked Joan.
“A nice little place near the lighthouse,” said Tom. “No need to dress up. See you on the porch in a few minutes.”
He bowed out of the room. In a moment they heard him knocking on Ben and Colin’s door.
“Well,” said Joan, “I guess we’d better head up to the porch. The men will expect us to primp first, of course.” She fidgeted with an earring. The delicate pearl stud earrings that she wore served to emphasize, rather than soften, the severity of her features.
Maddie welcomed the chance to get out of her sweaty jeans. She changed into clean khaki shorts and a fresh t-shirt while Joan combed her hair and rebuilt her trademark librarian’s bun. When it was her turn at the mirror, Maddie brushed her hair and put it back in her customary ponytail. She added some little gold hoop earrings then turned to Joan.
“Am I primped enough?” she asked, laughing.
Joan adjusted her watch – it hung large and loose on her bony wrist – and looked Maddie up and down.
“Very practical. You’ve packed well for your first dig.”
Joan pocketed the room key and they walked out onto the balcony. Pete came out of his room and waved to them.
“Going to the front porch, I presume?” he said with his best salesman’s smile. “Allow me to escort you two lovely ladies.”
Maddie and Joan descended the stairs behind him. Maddie looked sideways at Joan, who rolled her eyes. Maddie made a gagging gesture with her finger and Joan snorted.
They walked through the lobby to the wide screened porch. It faced east and was blissfully shady in the warm afternoon. Tom pointed out the bar and noted that soft drinks were available in addition to the sort of beverage he was enjoying. The two women went into the bar and returned moments later, Maddie with a Coke in a sixteen-ounce glass bottle and Joan with a plastic half-liter bottle of water.
“Well, everyone,” said Tom, “are you ready to explore Belize?”
“Actually,” said Ben, leaning back in his chair, “this is pretty nice right here.”
Tom let out a sigh. “Isn’t it?” He took a swallow of scotch and soda.
“Very quaint,” said Colin, pursing his lips. “But aren’t there any real hotels here? A Hilton or something? With air conditioning and a restaurant?”
Tom turned to look at him. “There’s the Radisson Fort George, for one. It’s a cookie-cutter big hotel but the money it brings in doesn’t stay in Belize. It goes out to Radisson international headquarters. I prefer to patronize Belize-owned establishments.”
“That’s mighty philanthropic of you, helping an undeveloped country,” said Colin.
“Well, my young capitalist, in addition to the ethical concerns of supporting a developing country that’s letting us dig up its dead ancestors, I have also discovered that I get more enthusiastic help from the local people if I support their businesses rather than foreign interests.”
“But you’re really doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” Colin said, his voice cold.
“Essentially, yes. Do you have a problem with that?”
Colin lapsed into moody silence. No one else commented. A truck rumbled past on the street outside. They all sipped their drinks and watched the people go by on foot and on bicycles.
Tom blew out a breath. “Well, we made it, gang. A totally uneventful trip so far. Here’s to the rest of our little expedition being as easy and snag-free as this first part.”
He raised his glass in a toast. The others raised assorted glasses and bottles.
“Here, here,” said Pete and took a swallow of his rum and Coke.
“Dr. Davies, are we going straight to the site in the morning?” asked Ben.
“As straight as possible, which isn’t very. We’re taking a couple trucks to haul our equipment.”
“What equipment?” said Maddie. She looked around as if she expected to find trowels, shovels and gloves piled on the front porch.
Pete cleared his throat and announced in a grand voice, “In accordance with Tom’s wishes I shipped two crates of excavation equipment ahead of time. Our proprietors here have done us the service of storing our things for the past few days. We will transport them to Lamanai tomorrow morning.” He leaned back in his chair and bolted the remainder of his drink.
“As I was saying,” said Tom, “we’ll be leaving right after breakfast. We’ll drive up to Orange Walk and take a boat down the New River to Lamanai. We should be there by noon. Tomorrow afternoon is setup time. We’ll unpack our gear, stake out our target area and set up a small field station next to it. The permanent lab at the site is a good hike from our dig area so we’ll want a full setup right on the spot.”
“We’ll all be working on setup,” Joan explained. “That includes you three,” she said to the students. “An efficient setup will make the rest of the dig go much more smoothly.”
Colin harrumphed. “We’re wasting so much time. We won’t even be there until noon tomorrow then we won’t start to dig until the next day.”
Tom took a deep breath. “Colin, believe me, if I could get us there any faster, I would. You should know from the other dig sites you’ve worked on that a well-planned setup can make or break a project.”
“And you’ve been here before so you know what you’re doing.”
They sat in silence for a few more minutes. Joan finished her water and walked to the bar to dispose of the bottle. Maddie heard her muttering about the lack of a recycling bin. Joan came back and stood in the doorway, waiting.
“Anyone care to stretch their legs?” said Tom.
They all mumbled affirmative answers and rose from their seats, stretching and yawning. Ben and Maddie put their empty soft drink bottles in the crate on the corner of the porch. The team followed Tom out the hotel’s front door and down the steps to the street. Tom turned right and the others ambled after him in the warm afternoon air. Maddie smelled saltwater and watched a frigatebird soar over them, its red throat puffed out against its sleek black body. They clung to the edge of the street since there were no sidewalks. In a couple blocks they stopped and Tom happily played tour guide.
“This is St. John’s,” he said, gesturing toward a brick building that stood grandly behind a bright green lawn. “It’s the oldest Anglican church in Central America.”
Joan sat on the low stone wall that edged the sidewalk and surveyed the site. “It’s well kept up, I see. But no stained glass – just tall windows with fan-arch tops.”
Ben brushed his hair back out of the film of sweat that coated his forehead. “If I lived here I’d want windows that open.”
The others agreed. Pete walked past the double iron gates that opened onto the church’s front walkway. He stopped under a large tree and stroked his hand down its trunk.
“I do believe this is a sea almond,” he said in admiration.
“A what?” the others asked in unison.
“A sea almond tree. The nuts are edible and taste something like almonds. This one must be old – maybe a couple hundred years.” He nodded and smiled, his gaze sweeping across the expanse of gnarled branches. “I am a botanist, if you will recall.”
“Come on folks,” said Tom. “Let’s have a look at Government House.”
He crossed the street and stepped up onto a narrow strip of grass outside a white picket fence.
“Look out for the sewer,” he warned, pointing to the wide gutter that edged the street. It was half-full of dark water with a greasy iridescent scum on top.
“The what?” said Maddie. She stopped and stared at it while the others gingerly crossed.
“Open sewers,” snorted Colin. “And I’m not supposed to make comments about this being a Third World country.”
“OK,” said Ben, “it’s my turn to show off from the reading I did for this trip. The sewers are only in the old part of the city and they’re actually a couple hundred years old. They were very high-tech for their time. They all run together to openings along the shoreline. When the tide comes in it floods the sewers. When it goes out it flushes the sewers out into the Caribbean. Quite ingenious, really.”
Joan wrinkled her nose. “Remind me not to go swimming here.”
They all stood along the fence and looked across the shady lawn at Government House. Its turquoise shutters matched its brightly painted roof, in cool contrast to the white clapboard siding on the large two-story structure. Multiple porches and porticoes built onto the House at varying times in its history gave the impression of a child’s dollhouse. Past the House they could see the silver glint of sun on water.
“This is where the colonial government was headquartered,” said Ben.
“Did you read that, too?” asked Colin. Ben glared at him.
“Ben is right,” said Tom.
“But I thought the capital of Belize was Belmopan,” said Maddie.
“It is,” said Tom. “They moved the capital about fifty miles inland after Belize City was wiped out by hurricanes a few too many times. But the original capital is here and a lot of diehard government officials still live here and commute to Belmopan every day.”
Maddie pointed across the lawn at the palm trees that shaded Government House and the adjacent bandstand.
“Why are the bottoms of the trees all painted white?” she asked.
Indeed, all the trees on the property – coconut palms, a few sea almonds and some spreading cypresses – were whitewashed from the ground up to the three-foot level.
“It’s a common practice in tropical areas,” Pete answered. “The locals insist that the glare of the sun reflected on the white paint repels termites and other insects. I’m not sure how true that is but the paint does reflect heat so the trees don’t get sunscald.”
They stood in the gentle afternoon shade for several minutes, looking. Finally Maddie broke the silence.
“Is that the Caribbean over there, past the House?” she asked.
Tom smiled. “You’re all questions today, aren’t you? Just like in class.” Maddie blushed. “Yes, that’s the Caribbean. If you’d care to have a closer look, follow me.”
Tom retraced his steps toward the Mopan then turned right down Rectory Lane, just across the street from the hotel. The Cathedral Bookshop occupied the corner but Tom didn’t stop to go in. The entourage strolled after him in the sleepy late afternoon. They encountered one small dog sniffing at the sewers and two boys on well-worn bicycles in the one-block walk to the Southern Foreshore. The team stood and watched as the seawater lapped at the concrete curb that edged the street. The curb was pierced at intervals with rectangular holes that allowed the water to flow up into the sewers at high tide, just as Ben had described. There was no railing, just the street, the curb and the sea. Joan stepped back as the water ran toward her.
A seagull cried out and they all looked up at the carnival of seabirds – gulls, frigatebirds and boat-tailed grackles – wheeling and diving in the air above them. Though the afternoon was warm, the breeze off the water was quite cool. Maddie shivered. The team members stood facing east, looking out over the water. The houses that edged the street cast long shadows that stretched toward the sea as the sun sank behind them.
Ben pointed toward a small, bright light over the water, near the horizon.
“Check out that star. It’s really bright. I bet it’s Venus.”
Tom shook his head. “Nope. It’s the lighthouse on the point. Venus always stays close to the sun, which is behind us.”
“Rats. I thought I had spotted something relevant to the Maya.”
“You’ve got the right idea, Ben, even though that’s only a lighthouse. Maya mythology is based on astronomy. Each myth tells the story of part of the sky, including Venus.”
“That’s right,” said Maddie. “They called Venus the Little Sun.”
“I’m glad to know you actually read the books on the list,” said Tom. “Like I said, Venus always stays close to the sun. Sometimes it’s the evening star and sometimes it’s the morning star and sometimes it can’t be seen at all. If you live in Belize where the sun rises over the Caribbean every morning,” he pointed out over the water, “what you see is a cycle of appearance and disappearance. Venus is the morning star that appears just after sunrise for about 260 days then it disappears for a week or so. It reappears for another 260 days as the evening star that shines just before sunset, then no Venus again for about 50 days.”
“Wow,” said Ben. “So it’s like the sun burns it up.”
“Yes,” said Tom, “in a fiery cataclysm at sunset.”
Maddie gasped. “Like the phoenix.”
Tom nodded. “But Venus returns at the beginning of the next cycle and does the whole thing over again. And,” he added with a conspiratorial air, “its long-term motion draws a pentagram in the sky.”
Joan looked at her watch.
“It’s 5:30 already,” she said. “We’d better get moving if we want dinner tonight.”
She strode back down Rectory Lane toward the hotel. The others straggled behind her. Tom and Maddie stood at the waterfront for a slow moment. He took a step closer to her.
“Maddie, I’ve chosen a nice restaurant for dinner tonight. They’re not too fancy but they have really good food.”
“Sounds great,” she said, watching a frigatebird float motionless in the dimming sky.
“The thing is,” said Tom, “dinner will probably cost twenty-five or thirty dollars Belizean. I don’t want this to be a hardship for you.”
“Thirty dollars?” she repeated, mentally counting her cash. A hundred dollars Belizean, minus thirty for her exit visa in a week and a half, minus thirty for dinner, left forty dollars for all other expenses including food and souvenirs on her free day.
“Maddie.” He touched her arm. “Maddie, I’d like to buy you dinner tonight.”
She stiffened and turned away from him. She started after the others who were already far ahead down the street.
“Come on, Dr. Davies. They’re leaving us.”
He trotted after her in vexed silence.
* * *
A taxi pulled up to the curb in front of the hotel. It turned out to be the same van the team had ridden from the airport earlier in the day, with the same cheerful driver. They all piled in.
The driver deftly executed a U-turn in the narrow road and headed north along Regent Street. He slowed down and pointed to the bustling area on the right.
“There’s the market. It’s Saturday so’s real busy. Will be till it’s dark out.”
Local people crowded around stalls and stands on the asphalt, buying everything from fruit to meat to shoes and t-shirts. The crowds also streamed in and out of a warehouse building full of even more vendors. The van turned right across the Swing Bridge.
“We missed it, didn’t we?” said Ben, disappointed.
“You missed it,” said the driver. “The bridge swing open ever day at five thirty in the mornin’ an five thirty in the evenin’. It’s a nice bridge, don’ you think?”
At the far side of the bridge they encountered a traffic light and stopped, waiting for it to turn green.
“Is this the only traffic light in this country?” said Colin.
The driver flashed a scowl then resumed his usual cheerful form.
“You’ll fine mostly traffic circles here ‘cause they’s easier. No ee-lectricity.” He emphasized the first syllable of the word. “But they’s several traffic lights in the city now and more poppin’ up every day.”
The light clicked to green and the van turned right onto North Front Street. They passed the post office and the fire station and turned right onto Fort Street. The van rattled to a stop along the left-hand side of the road. The others got out as Tom paid the driver.
“Can you pick us up in an hour and a half?” Maddie heard him say to the driver before he shut the door. The van made another precarious U-turn in the street and went on its way. The team went up the walk to the Fort Street Guest House, a pearl-gray Victorian home with wide, curving porches.
“You all wait here,” said Tom. “I’ll see about a table. It may be busy – it’s Saturday night, even if it’s not tourist season.”
They stood and waited while Tom went in. There were two rocking chairs and a few ladderback chairs near the front door but the rest of the porch was occupied by tables full of diners. Tom returned in a minute and motioned them all to follow him in. They entered a spacious, high-ceilinged room in the center of which two tables had been moved together to create seating for their party. The hostess’ footsteps echoed on the wooden floor as she led them to the table.
“We were lucky,” he said. “Everyone else wanted to eat on the porch so we didn’t have to wait.”
“Nice menu,” said Colin in surprise. “Is the food well-prepared?”
“Always,” said Tom. “The fish is local and very fresh. The beef comes from the Mennonite settlements up in the Orange Walk District and is first-rate. And they know how to cook it right, believe me.”
They all perused their menus. The waitress took their drink orders and disappeared toward the kitchen. Tom looked down the table at Maddie. He cleared his throat and spoke loudly.
“Well, Maddie, since you won our bet about getting here without a hitch, I owe you dinner. I’ll pay up tonight if that’s OK with you.”
Maddie’s face flushed bright red. She even felt her ears redden. “Sure,” she murmured, lowering her head to study her menu.
She didn’t much care for fish and the beef dishes were the most expensive on the menu. In the end she chose a chicken dish with a moderate price.
Halfway through her meal Maddie gathered up the courage to speak. “Dr. Davies, can I ask you something about the Maya?”
“Of course. If I can’t answer your question I probably know someone who can.”
She toyed with a bite of potato. “The Maya had those big temples so there must have been all kinds of priests and priestesses who did rituals there, right?” Tom nodded. “Do we know what any of these people looked like? I mean, what kind of clothes they wore and that sort of thing?” She looked down at her plate, wishing her voice had sounded more casual.
Tom rubbed his chin. “We know a good bit, Maddie. There are some drawings in the codices plus representations carved in stone and modeled in pottery. Basically, the women wore huipils – those fancy embroidered skirts that a lot of them still wear today. They generally went topless. And the male priests wore jaguar-skin skirts, knee-length or so.”
Maddie gulped. “How interesting. So that’s what the priests and priestesses always wore?”
“As far as we can tell at this point, though there are some odd figures in a few of the carvings. A couple scholars have suggested that they represent priestesses but that’s doubtful. They’re much too fanciful.”
“What do they look like?”
“They’re usually called were-jaguars. They look sort of like jaguars walking upright but they have women’s heads and human breasts.”
Maddie dropped her fork and it rattled on her plate. “So they think these figures may be priestesses of some sort?”
“It’s a faint possibility. Maybe they used body paint for the spots. But the figures have long claws, much longer than human fingernails grow, so that makes it much more likely that these are just symbolic, mythic figures of some sort.”
“But why jaguar spots?”
“Remember, Maddie, the Maya based their whole mythos on astronomy. To them, the night sky held all the secrets of the universe. And the jaguar was sacred to the Maya because its spotted pelt reminded them of the stars in the sky.”
“Is that why they wore jaguar skins for their ceremonies?”
“So they could become a part of that magical cosmos, yes.”
“Kind of gives a new meaning to animal-print shirts, doesn’t it?” she said, forcing a laugh.
They all had dessert – Maddie at Tom’s insistence – and lingered over coffee while they divvied up the bill. No one commented about Tom paying for Maddie’s meal.
Tom collected the money and paid the waitress then they all went out on the porch. Pete slouched in a rocking chair and Tom leaned against the wall. The others chose dining chairs or leaned on the porch railing. Maddie shivered as a cool breeze blew. They stood there, enjoying full bellies and the gentle nightnoise that graced the darkness year-round in the tropical climate. Their taxi pulled up and honked.
Maddie looked at her watch. “Right on time.”
They filed down the sidewalk and got into the van. Colin took the seat behind Maddie and leaned forward to whisper in her ear.
“Gee, Maddie, I guess you’re all upset that you didn’t get a romantic dinner for two for winning that bet. Too bad.”
She whipped around to offer a retort but Ben slid into the seat next to Colin.
“What’s going on?” asked Ben.
“Nothing,” said Maddie. She slunk down in her seat and sat in silence all the way back to the Mopan.
Stay tuned for Part Three next week!