Home sweet home: The Programme for Belize’s Field Camp. Taken in 2003 with a Kodak DC290.
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There’s no way around the fact that it’s an extreme environment. The temperature is terrifically hot & humid: I’ve endured Florida summers & they were nothing like this. Add to the mix fer-de-lances, scorpions, jaguars, pumas, and escoba, chichem and other hostile samples of plant life, shall I just say that this place is not for the faint-hearted.
I would normally describe myself as one of these delicate souls. My wife’s parents have been associated with the digs at PfB for many, many years, and have tried to convince me to go for a long time. Jenny was up for it (she spent a good deal of her childhood clearing soil from Mayan bones, and had been to Belize & Mexico also), but let’s just say I wasn’t. I still remember saying the night before we left "I’m doing this as a favour to your parents but I’m not going to like it". I couldn’t have been more wrong—in fact, if I were of university age again, I would instantly change my major to Mayan archæology. Not only are the sites amazing, but there’s something life-transforming about confronting fears you didn’t even realise you have (scorpions?) and coming out the other end all the stronger for the effort. I can’t give it a more ringing endorsement.
It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity
It’s an old joke, but it’s true. The temperature was usually in the uppers 80’s Fahrenheit, which isn’t anything that we’re not used to. It’s the humidity that wipes you out.
Jenny & I have only been there for periods of about eight days. That’s not really enough to get acclimated, although your body does go through an initial acclimitising process in the first 12–24 hours. You’re not so overwhelmed, but I’ll give you a tip: avoid air conditioning! It seems like a lifesaver at first, but all it does is prolong the initial unpleasantness. In 2003, we were led around various sites (La Milpa, Lamanai) in an air-conditioned van, because we had the Texas Secretary of State & a high official from the University of Texas with us. We found ourselves leaping headlong into the van because at first we felt we couldn’t breathe. Once the van was gone, our bodies started acclimatising.
From what we understand, after the first week your body gets even more acclimated, to the point where you really don’t sweat so much any more.
It’s gonna rain
The rains, mercifully, cool down the temperature, but they bring out a couple of other things: the mosquitoes & the termites, who fly around in swarms after it rains. And I found that everything — skin, clothing, what have you — felt damp after a little while. My sandals felt like they were rotting from the constant moisture. But honestly, you get used to it.
One of the great experiences is hearing the rain coming long before you ever feel it. The rain forest canopy is very thick, and the rain is caught there for a good amount of time before it soaks through. Once the canopy is saturated, then it comes crashing through.
If you’ve ever been in the US southeast, then you’ve got an inkling for what the rainy season is like. Generally speaking, you’ll get an hour or so of heavy, heavy downpour, and then the rest of the day is pretty clear. A similar principle operates in BZ, although the rains seemed to last longer. In 2004, there also seemed to be a lot of simply overcast days. On a couple of days, it would just piss down for about 1/2 hour, clear up for a couple of hours, and then piss down for a while longer.
Hope you like rice & beans: we do, and the protein this supplies is of course a staple at camp. But there’s a lot more than this: the cooks make flour tortillas by hand, and they’re fantastic! Plus, they make lots of other things throughout the week, and they periodically make treats when they have leftover ingredients, things like banana bread or rice cakes (the tasty, dessert kind, not the ghastly, diet kind). Also, there’s lots of locally-grown fruit, including plaintains & the best mangoes I’ve ever eaten.
Something I hadn’t expected was the high use of salt. It’s necessary: the salt aids in water retention, which is important when you’re out in what is euphemistically called “the field”. But you also get an ample supply of Marie Sharp’s hot sauces, one of the staples of Belizean cuisine. This stuff is just too good to pass up: we always buy a good dozen bottles for ourselves & friends on our way back to the UK.
Flora & Fauna
This is dealt with in more detail elsewhere; suffice to say that it’s one of the main attractions if you’ve not experienced a similar climate. When I lived in Florida years ago, I never truly appreciated the natural flora & fauna, which is a shame, because Florida’s got some spectacular examples of both; but unless you go to the Everglades, it’s difficult to find them in anything like a natural environment. This is the real thing, and it’s a privilege to be in it.
Again, this is discussed elsewhere, but this is the other main attraction, and for many the star attraction. For me, it’s all part of a larger package.
One thing I learned: as your body must with the humidity, your eyes must acclimatise to your surroundings. The cover is so thick that I found it initially hard to see any of the evidence of past civilisations that was all around me.
Two instances from 2003 may illustrate this. Fred Valdez was showing us around La Milpa, and he said "And over there is a sixty-foot tall temple". "Where?" I asked. "There, about 20 feet from you", Fred replied. I hadn’t seen it through the greenery: a massive mound.
A couple of days later, we were walking with Stan Walling into his site. I was helping him carry a sifter. “How far until we get into your site?” I asked. “Well, you’re in the middle of it”, he replied. “Over there is an administrative structure; this is probably a bench; those are terraces for agricultural purposes; down that way there is a ball court”. All I saw were small rises & dips in the landscape. Once your eyes acclimatise, though, you see evidence everywhere.
Basically, what I learned was that my fears, while somewhat justified, were worth casting aside in order to experience things that few might ever experience. If you’re ever inclined to take part in one of the seasons at the PfB, I can only say: you’d be crazy not to do it.