THE STORY BEHIND WRITING 'IN THE TREES'

EXTRACTS FROM MY TRAVEL JOURNAL

Monday
Feb132012

RANDOM POSTS 1: GRAVEYARDS IN CAYE CAULKER

Up early for sunrise off the end of the dock.  Then cycling back along a new path and finding the most incredible graveyard suddenly opening out in front of me, overseen by an osprey nesting on a telegraph pole. 

Walking between sand-covered graves, the words ‘let the dead bury their dead’ come into my head.  Not that that’s what’s happened here. The sand may have blown over these graves, but they're strangely all about life.  I walk all the way round a huge, concrete-slabbed tomb covered in a mural of sky and sea, stars and humming-birds. The colours couldn't be more dynamic if they tried. On one side I find the tomb decorated with hibiscuses, on another white ibixes and, on a a third, a big black bird with a single staring eye. 

Later Luciana tells me the black bird is a hawk,  and that the grave - which is surrounded by bone-white conch shells - is a Rasta one. The next grave along couldn't be more different, but it's equally memorable. I stare at a simple wooden cross bearing dates against the words ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Sunset’.  Birth and death recorded in a single passing of the sun.  An old man, full of years is the epitaph.  There’s a profound sense of dignity about this grave. 

I look around and notice some graves with messages in Spanish.  One includes a painting of a brightly coloured Jesus comforting a dead girl called Isabella.  Beyond the two of them are what at first I take to be a row of compost piles, dead wreaths heaped up on them. But these are graves too. It's just that they don't have any stones.  New graves, I guess.  Here in the heat it doesn't take long for wreaths to die.  

My bike has a puncture, so I have to push it home.  It's good to slow down, to see things at a more leisurely pace.  There's so much here that I mightn't otherwise notice.  My first iguana for example – an enormous creature lumbering down sombody’s beach-hut steps.  

My day's spent mostly out and about, and Idris's is mostly spent indoors.  We meet for supper though in a little restaurant next to Caye Caulker's other cemetery.  It's been a day of death in so many ways.  I can see white crosses between the palms and a worn path leading through the sand.  A young man came along it, shuffling slowly, head down.  He's bare-chested, with deep brown skin and little flecks of sand stuck on his back.  He sits at the table next to us.  His hair is bleached-blond, curly and knotted.  When he orders a drink his posh English accent comes as a surprise.  At one point he turns and stares through us as if he doesn’t even know anyone but him is here.  He finally gets up to go, his body moving like a wind-up toy finally winding down.  Slowly he disappears between the white crosses.  It's dark now.  I can hardly see them or him. How far will he get before he collapses? Crack cocaine.  Like I said, it’s been a day for death.    

Tuesday
Oct112011

GOODBYE SOUTHERN TEAM 

In my hammock again.  So tired I don’t know how to write about what I’ve done and seen.  The amazing richness of the forest and the pride and excitement of a group of young people, mostly English, one Norwegian, stuck in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, miles out in the jungle on an impossible project to protect the rainforest from destruction.

I won’t ever forget them.  They were amazing.  They were giving it their all – and more – and I came away feeling that in the writing of my book I had to do the same.  Nothing less would do.  I owed it to them.

The journey back to Gold Mine, where I am now [in my hammock, never wanting to get out again], was horrendously hard-going.  Ever since arriving at Rio Blanco I’d been cherishing the possibility of returning over those ghastly hills by mule, but the mule train had left ahead of us and we had to walk back over the Devil’s Backbone the way we’d walked in.

It was an incredible experience.  As near, in fact, as I’ve ever come to a spiritual experience.  Not that I was expecting, or looking for, a spiritual experience but hauling my weary, asthmatic body over those torrid hills I was overwhelmed with a sense of spiritual odyssey. Phrases from Sunday School days and snippets from the more well-known Bible passages kept coming into my head [‘Those who trust in the Lord shall soar on eagles’ wings’; ‘who is it that overcomes the world? He who trusts in the Lord’ etc.] and seemed to push me on when I felt as if I couldn’t take another step.  I didn’t ask for these words, but they were there as if they’d been planted from childhood onwards for just this occasion.

The journey back to Gold Mine took an hour longer than the outward journey had done to Rio Blanco.  I think the fact of the hardest hill coming first, before I’d had time to get into the swing of trekking again, made it all the more of a struggle.  On the way in, the hardest hill came after having pushed myself for days and being primed for it.  This time, though, I’d been sitting around in camp talking to people and bathing in the river, and I wasn’t primed for anything.

There really were moments when I wondered if I’d make it.  What I was doing was difficult and dangerous, and my body was being pushed to the limit. I only had to see the pity in Idris’s eyes every time I called a halt, in order to know that.  And yet as I pressed on, an incredible sense of purpose came upon me.  I wasn’t here for my own entertainment - that wasn’t what I’d come for, and I definitely wasn’t getting that. But I’d come here for a reason, and a reason that mattered, and I could trust that reason to bring me out.  I’d been privileged to see things that most people don’t ever see – the beauty of the rainforest; the terrible destruction that’s taking place in it; the hard work and dedication of young people whose lives were being changed by their determination to make a difference – and the need to share what I’d seen drove me on, step after step. 

Maybe I was just a dot on the face of the planet, but in that vast, extraordinary jungle - which could so easily have swallowed me up –the strongest feeling came to me that I wasn’t alone.  Struggling uphill with my weighed-down, exhausted body felt like a metaphor for life itself.  But every step of the way I felt a greater sense of presence.  Here’s the spiritual bit. God felt with me in that forest. I could have felt abandoned, but I felt loved instead.  

I’m afraid that when I return to England and read this back, it’ll all sound incredibly trite.  The words I’m writing, in any other circumstance, could sound like platitudes.  But that’s not how it feels lying in my hammock looking back over everything that’s happened today. The things I’ve experienced go beyond platitudes. On those terrible hills, when everything in my life was stripped away – family, status, money, nice clothes, comfort, good food, cheery  company, health, dignity etc – it really did feel as if the only thing still there for me was God. Me and God, that’s how it felt – the two of us on that bloody hill, and the man in front and the man behind, Greg and Idris, were in another world.  My reality – the only reality, or so it felt – was the next step ahead.  I dared not look any further, and I didn’t need to. And, step by step, impossible though it may sometimes have felt, I’ve made it here to Gold Mine and the safety of my hammock.

You see what I mean about a spiritual experience! I still feel bathed in its glory as I write now.  But no glory can disguise my total exhaustion.  Beyond the mountain-top experiences of our lives are the mundane, day-to-day ones - and how I’m going to get up tomorrow morning and face the mud of the next leg of our journey, I just don’t know…    

Monday
Oct102011

"MY FAVOURITE THING ABOUT THE EARTH" - Final Reflections from Rio Blanco

 


I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning.  What have I picked up? More than I can say, but it’s the little things I want to get down here – the things I’ve noticed, or people have said that might come in useful in my book but I’ll forget them if I don’t record them

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