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Jungle Adventures behind the Machete

After seeing Roy Sanchez swing a machete in the back country of western Belize, I had very little doubt that he could equally handle himself when it came to paddling a canoe through the Cayo whitewater. For this was literally Roy’s backyard.

When I queried him further on his talents, Roy said, „Yes ma-an, I know’d canoe!!“ He told me that in fact if I liked he could acquire a canoe and two paddles and that he and I could head up the Macal river for the day to take in the flora and the fauna along the riverbanks. The price for the canoe rental was very reasonable, all that was left was to decide upon Roy’s wages. Seeing where there would not be much machete slashing while canoeing on the Macal, Roy and I were in new territory. After a little back and forth on Roy’s attributes with the canoe, we came to an agreement as to his wages for the day.

Roy Sanchez and I worked out a deal whereas he would lead paddle from the back of the canoe, and I would take the forward position. We agreed to go as far up river as we decided realistic. Following our discussions, Roy seemed unusually edgy as we separated that day. I asked if everything was okay and in true fashion, Roy came back, „Yes ma-an.“ We agreed to meet up the following morning just under the suspension bridge on the main road entering the town of San Ignacio near Roy’s home in western Belize.

That evening I was having a relaxing dinner in the guesthouse where I was lodged. This place specializes in homemade pizza, so people stock up every time they are in from the jungle bush. This particular night I befriended a young woman from South Africa. Her name now fails me but I do remember that she was collecting cooking recipes from all the different people she encountered on the trail as she herself travelled around the world. In the end she intended to do a book of recipes and make a fortune.

Obviously relaxed by a few Belikin beers, I proudly gave her my father’s secret recipe for fresh mountain trout, less a key ingredient or two. The young South African beauty in fact marvelled at how ingenious the recipe blended the white wine and the fresh vegetables in the broiling process. We ended up talking about restaurants and how I hated working in them and how much we both loved our mothers and our fathers.

We also ate not just one but two pizzas that night which afforded me the opportunity to convince her that she indeed had to join Roy Sanchez and me for the Macal River ‘aventura’. Before walking her home that night I walked her down to the river’s edge to show her exactly where we were scheduled to depart early the next day, just in case she would like to accept my invitation.

As the morning broke, the sky was bright and clear with early mountain air dew rising across the hilltops. It was brisk as I stumbled down the hill to grab a handful of morning chicken tacos from the Guatemalan lady who was selling them three for a dollar on the corner next to the taxi stand. Roy Sanchez was already standing there eating a taco when I arrived. He had two canoe paddles in his left hand and a chicken taco with banana slices in his right.

„Morning Roy“, I offered. Roy was already choking out a hardy „Ola mi amigo“ through his smile, while winking and pointing with a paddle over behind the Guatemalan taco lady. He was pointing to the young South African woman I had met the night before over dinner. She had decided after all to take me up on my offer to join our canoe adventure.

Caught a little by surprise that she had actually accepted the late night invitation, I introduced the young woman to Roy and asked that if he did not mind, I had invited her to canoe the Macal river with us.

Roy is one of the most accommodating persons to this day that I have had the pleasure to meet. I wish I were more like him in so many ways. He greeted the young lady warmly with his broad smile and immediately helped her with all of her belongings. I must also say that Roy Sanchez considers himself a real lady’s man and rightfully so, for the ladies of the Cayo say they chase him in and out of the barrio discos from San Ignacio to Belize City.

The woman from South Africa was all smiles too. She had a handbag as well as a small daypack and a straw hat that was the size of Texas. The three of us headed down the hill, not of course before I got stuck paying for Roy’s two tacos and a cup of coffee for our lady friend.

Though I was somewhat surprised at the size of Roy’s canoe, still it was a metal one that was certainly sturdy enough for two people. All we were trying to do was to add the lady from South Africa to the centre. Roy being in the lead, as well as the ‘guide of record’, I defaulted to him for his decision. That was when I realized something that I had truly never considered. Roy pulled me aside and told me, „Roy Sanchez never been on d’river.“ „Which river, the Macal or the Mopan?“, I fired back at Roy. Roy pulled me closer and said with even greater clarity, „Roy has never been on no river, never ma-an !!“

Of course I know the right thing at this point would have been to turn back our expedition, for safety and knowledge are key to any trek’s success. But I put one thing in front of our safety and well-being that day up in the Cayo of western Belize. I thought about how excited the lady from South Africa would be after running some whitewater rapids. I envisioned the two of us that evening sitting over a table at Mrs. Martha’s Guesthouse kitchen eating another ‘homemade’ pizza, or two.

In reflection, though we should have discussed the trip further, we foolishly all loaded up Roy’s metal canoe and pushed ourselves out into the river. Possibly because the river was with us or simply because we just happened to have pushed away from the shoreline heading in the right direction, we were for the most part canoeing the Macal River within minutes.

Quickly I gave Roy a tip or two about how to maneuver the paddle through the water. I have got to be honest, Roy soon certainly looked the part of a professional outdoor river guide, at least by Cayo standards.

The going continued to go smoother than expected for the first few miles or so up river. Roy Sanchez and I had our rhythm of stroke. We also were able in time to convince the young lady from South Africa that she needed to stay as still as possible at all times and to remain seated in the canoe no matter how much she wanted to take pictures of the birds along the way. As we paddled ever so gently along the river, I suddenly realized that none of us was wearing a lifejacket. And just as we all tried to hide what we are thinking about, the South African lady, seeming to be on the same wavelength, asked Roy Sanchez, „Do we not need lifejackets?“

Confused by the question, Roy looked forward to me and his eyes told me he absolutely had not a clue as to what the woman was talking about. Concerned, I immediately broke into a lengthy explanation about how one should never venture onto a river without a lifejacket, and that we would all be okay since we were staying close to the shoreline. I followed by assuring everyone that we would all be just fine since we all knew how to swim.

The river’s silence that day was completely shattered by the words that I will always remember, „But I don’t know how to swim.“ The words passed quickly by Roy Sanchez but not past me. For I was immediately troubled to learn that the lady from South Africa had not given us the courtesy to tell us that she was on a wild river in the boondocks of western Belize and that she could not swim.
It was at that moment that Roy Sanchez and I became one. Our thoughts merged and we became soul mates in our goal of successfully bringing the canoe into an immediate ‘about’ in order to turn back towards the village of San Ignacio at once. The only problem was that just as we realized all that confronted our wayward party, the lady from South Africa shifted one too many times in her attempts to keep her floppy hat on tight. That is when our canoe first tipped left, then flipped right, in the end tossing us all straight up into the air.

On the way back down before anyone hit the water, fortunately Roy Sanchez caught the non-swimming lady from South Africa in mid-stream. Together we managed to pull her to the safety of the shore. However, I have got to say this was Roy’s save, and the South African lady knew it.

As we gathered all that was left of our belongings over on a nearby sandbar where the licensed tour guides were witness to our calamity, we reclaimed all the paddles and were able to re-flip the canoe in the shallow water to ready ourselves for the voyage back to civilization.

For Roy Sanchez, he found his thermos of bulletproof homemade rice wine on a tree branch downstream just passed the sandbar which he claimed he was only using to nurse a lingering head. The container was surly his, but to his sadness, the contents had all spilled out.

Later that day at Mrs. Martha’s Guesthouse, Roy said, „I am not a river man. That was the first and last time Roy will ever be on the river, ma-an. Roy not a river man. Roy not a river ma-an...“

As for the lady from South Africa, over slices of pizzas and ice cold Belikins we laughed for hours about canoeing the Macal with Roy Sanchez. And though I never saw the young woman again, I have seen my friend Roy Sanchez time and time again. Roy and I have wondered if the woman from South Africa who never learned how to swim in fact ever used my father’s trout recipe?

Roy told me he was not quite sure if she would. He also said that she later wrote down his father’s recipe for caramel popcorn. That is when I asked Roy, „What do you mean later?“

Tales from on the Surface

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