A puzzled look came over the travel agent's face, and he asked me if I would please repeat. "Certainly," I said. "My wife and I are looking for a place where nobody goes and we can catch a little sun and a few fish and it doesn't take forever to get there—and nobody goes there!"
"Yes," the travel agent said, "I see. Hmmmmm. That shouldn't be too hard. Hmmmmmmm. Let me see. Ah, ha! I've got it! Alabama!"
"We've been to Alabama."
"Well, then," the agent said, pulling out a map. "Let's try something dramatic. How about Oaxaca? No? San Jose? Oh, I see. Grenada? You've been there, too? Let's see.... How about British Honduras?"
"How about where?"
"British Honduras, also known as Belize. Look here at the map. It's that little spot just south of Mexico. Just east of Guatemala. On the western edge of the Caribbean."
"Tell me about it."
"I don't know anything about it. I don't think anybody knows anything about it. I don't have a single brochure on the place."
I looked at Su and Su looked at me. Eureka! We had found it.
You can get to Belize (the country's once and future name) or British Honduras (its unfashionable official name) via a tiny Salvadorian airline called Taca, which you should not call Taco unless you are looking for a chili pepper in the eyeball. Taca flies pocket-sized BAC One-Eleven jets and older propeller planes and conducts itself in a refreshingly direct and candid manner. For example, a Taca agent once telephoned me and said, "Our Thursday flight will be leaving Friday owing to the need of our plane to get a license, we hope." But once Taca gets you into the air, you are likely to have a safe and enjoyable journey, Salvadorian style, which means you will be quickly fed and watered and then left alone, an increasing rarity in air travel.
As expected, things went smoothly on our six a.m. flight out of New Orleans to Belize City. We flew for two hours over the Gulf of Mexico and the Yucatan jungles, and then the pilot skillfully slipped us down between towering clouds of cumulonimbus and painted the plane on the strip at Belize City. We looked out on a low-profile countryside of dark swamps and black water canals and thick, green vegetation. Inside a small steamy building that could have been mistaken for a sauna a jovial black customs inspector spotted my typewriter and smiled broadly when he learned I was a writer. "Welcome!" he said. "More than welcome! We are so hoppy to see writers. Please tell about us. We're the country that nobody knows."
"Count your blessings," I said.
A BBC producer came to Belize (pronounced Ba-LEEZ) in 1954 and dubbed it "the empty land," and Doubleday's Encyclopedia of World Travel described it as "distinguished by two things: emptiness and forests." Emptiness, however, is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly there are no Broadway Joe force-feeding shops in the slowly emerging nation of Belize, nor are there Wimpy joints or neoned used-car lots or air pollution or drive-ins. But there are some 8,800 square miles of jungles and savannas and forests and bays and rivers, and they are brimming with tarpon and jaguars and howler monkeys and vermilion flycatchers and wild orchids and all sorts of things that go bump in the night. If you believe the natives, there are also man-sized creatures called sesemis that roam the jungle backward on one foot, beautiful topless women called lloronas (criers) who sit by the riverside and entice concupiscent males to their deaths and three-foot-high forest leprechauns called duendes that jump atop horses and ride away through walls and over rivers, like Clark Kent and Papillon. It is said that if you are captured by a duende two things happen: you go bananas and you achieve instant mastery of the musical instrument of your choice.
"Duendes are no joke, sir," says Philip Andrewin, a Belize City businessman and master angler. "I know a victim in my hometown of Gales Point. He has been a little strange ever since the duendes took him away as a child. But can he play guitar!" There are also spooks called Jackie Lanterns who steer seamen onto the rocks and ghosts called Ashi di Pompy, spirits that live in the ashes of burned houses, not to mention clay Mayan statues that steal back to their mounds in the jungles if you have the temerity to take one home. And there is an equally bizarre national treasure called Jackie Vasquez, a 47-year-old mixed-breed hunting guide and jungle genius and father of 22 or 43 children, depending on who is telling the story. "Jackie's been up for murder three times, and his white horse has come through the walls and saved him each time," a taxi driver says with awe. "He's in league with the devil, but he's a good fellow all the same. You must meet him. But—don't look into his eyes or he will steal your soul."
The Spanish discoverers of Central America were terrified by the forbidding Belizean interior and took little interest in the place. The British were only too glad to take over the sweltering country, rich in mahogany and logwood, in 1862. They sent magistrates and soldiers and engineers, who laid out Belize City's odorous system of sewage disposal ("open drains openly arrived at," as Sidney Joseph Perelman described a similar system). No matter what unkind remarks are made about the British in Belize City these days, it cannot be denied that they brought the city law and ordure.
There are 140,000 citizens of Belize, almost all of them black, brown or café an lait, descendants of slaves and Indians, living in places like Baking Pot, Gallon Jug, Orange Walk, Crooked Tree, Monkey River Town, Boom and Double Head Cabbage. Income is low; the average Belizean makes $300 to $400 a year, mostly from primitive forms of agriculture like slash and burn. Morality, by strict puritanical standards, is relaxed, and so are race relations. "We're very slow to criticize our fellow citizens," says Chief Information Officer Rudolph Castillo, "and we almost never curse each other, for a very simple reason: you may be cursing your brother. Or your father. Who knows? You can never be sure."
The Belizeans are especially fond of Americans, whom they hope to embrace more openly (and financially) when the country achieves full independence sometime in the next few years. "Our only remaining ties with Britain are constitutional," a government official explains, almost apologetically, "and the British have always been in the unfortunate position of being our masters and reading us the riot act from time to time." Of all the British colonies, past and present, Belize is the least Britannic to the naked eye. Dress styles are wildly informal, ranging from miniskirts and African robes to the loose white sportshirt usually worn by Premier George Price on his daily trips about the country in a mud-spattered Land Rover. The British custodial officials have long since become accustomed to the sight of local political delegations in open-throated shirts and khaki shorts and sandals. "We just don't have time to dress in the stiff British manner," says a Belizean politician. "There's too much to do. We can't spend our time tying bloody bow ties, can we?"
"Bloody" is one of the few Anglicisms one hears. The national language is not British English, as one might suppose, but a working tongue called Creole, which represents the superimposition of clipped African speech rhythms and expressions of conventional English. "Guddeh!" the Belizean says when he means "Go there." Trucks and buses are named phonetically, as in "Big Birta," and the highest compliment one can pay a woman is to say, "You are only hard," pronounced "you on'y hod," a compliment which has caused several Peace Corpswomen to slap a few puzzled faces.
The natives cherish Creole solecisms that date back hundreds of years and sum up whole philosophies. "It take you educated people three hours to say what we say in a few Creole words," says a Stann Creek fisherman in his peculiarly clipped English. He rattles out an old saying in Creole and then translates: "Same place pelican want go, sea breeze blow 'm," nine words that effectively sum up Kant's arguments for free will and Spinoza's arguments against. The fisherman recites, "When fish come from rivuh buttom and tell you alligatuh got 'm bellyache, you believe 'm!" an allegory on behalf of paying attention to experts. "Well," he says, giving us a final handshake, "as full belly tell empty belly, 'Take heart, brudda!' "
One hesitates to hang the label "carefree" on such people, both because it has become an easy cliché about impoverished populations, and thus a way of ignoring their problems, and also because some Belizeans are anything but carefree. Many are terribly poor, still suffering from the effects of hurricanes that periodically lay the country waste (Hurricane Hattie took 262 lives in 1961), and many are ridden with gastroenteritis, a national scourge that remains long after yellow fever and malaria and smallpox have been wiped out. The typical Belizean lives in a frail stilted shack roofed with galvanized metal or palm fronds and overcrowded with relatives, babies, pets, rats and lizards. But there persists a carefree, easygoing, almost rambunctious attitude toward life in Belize despite the lack of creature comforts.
"Of course we're happy here," says Rudolph Castillo in his own carefree manner. "How can anybody be unhappy in a country where rum is 7¢ a shot?" Lately a locally brewed beer called Belikin has become popular (DRINK BELIKIN! BE BELIZEAN! a sign says) and is even served in a milk shake invented by local chef Felix Nunez, who recites his recipe with relaxed imprecision: "To make de Belikin milk shake for four people, two beer is quite sufficient. No, three beer. No, four beer. Yes, four beer. Den you get evaporated milk and condensed milk for to sweeten and a little nutmeg, and den you mix together, and dot's de way Ah makes it. A good drink for children, too. Makes de sick children sleep or be unconscious." Nunez was only too happy to oblige with other local recipes, but I found it difficult to retain my interest in recipes that began, "First buy one fat pig's tail" or "Take a plump curassow."
For those who are too poor to indulge in the inexpensive Belikin beer or rum at 7¢ a shot, there is always home brew, which the local people make from blackberries or from the fruit of the cashew tree or from just about anything that will exude alcohol. There is a traditional drink consisting of alcohol garnished with exactly nine live "wee wees," the energetic umbrella ants of the Central American jungles. The drink is supposed to turn lazy people into working fools just like wee wees, but the claim has not been scientifically validated. There is less and less consumption of the wee wee drink these days now that everyone is looking toward independence and less need for the wee wee's inspiration, and indeed one can spot a disturbing trend toward temperance among the populace. Once Belize City was a carnival of hard-drinking, hard-brawling Caribbean roustabouts and mahogany loggers and thirsty natives who made every Saturday night an insane Mardi Gras. But one day the revelers awoke to find Methodists in their madness, dedicated Wesleyan missionaries who preach the gospel of Christianity and moderation.
Nowadays Belize is much less raucously wild, but this is not to say that the visiting roisterer need go thirsty or lonely on a Saturday night. Women of practically instant virtue can be found (indeed can scarcely be avoided) at the seedy Hotel Continental, where the locals are quick to advise that these painted creatures come from El Salvador, Mexico and "Spanish Honduras," never from Belize itself. Liquor supplies are more than adequate at bars like the Bamboo Bay, hangout of the local British garrison, and the Fort George Hotel, the city's only hostelry good enough to be classed second-rate. There are infrequent fights late at night, and on a recent evening in Belize City a cabinetmaker dispatched his competitor with a saw, a homicide which had the town buzzing on our arrival.
Despite such overreactions, Belizeans still have so little major crime that they are titillated by it, unlike urban North Americans who have had to learn to take rape and murder and robbery with their breakfast coffee. A single heinous offense fuels weeks of gossip over Belize City's fading fences and open trenches, and one reads inexplicable items in the Belize Times, e.g., "Masvidal's case has been adjourned again. This time for Monday, January 17th. But even then his case will not be heard until the following morning, which is the 18th." No need for a foreigner to try to understand; the Belize Times is for the Belizeans, and they already know about Masvidal.
The classic case in the history of Belizean law enforcement happened many years ago, but it is still the subject of daily discussion. When Nora Parham became disenchanted with her common-law husband, she waited until he was comfortably seated in the outhouse and then jammed the door closed. She sloshed gasoline through the half-moon opening and threw in a match, effectively solving her marital problems once and for all. Rumor has it that Nora Parham was utterly bored by her punishment; it is said that she repeated the Belizean national phrase, "It's no big deal, mon," before striking a resounding blow for Women's Lib by becoming the first (and only) woman ever to be hanged in the colony.
Nor did the case of Ms. Parham deter other embattled housewives, who could not fail to recognize a useful technique for handling husbandly oppression. Soon after the Parham case a woman killed her mate in exactly the same fashion, but the English authorities let her off when it was firmly established that her husband had been an absolute bounder. Then a third woman attempted an outhouse incineration, but in her haste used a bucket of water instead of gasoline, chilling her husband and scaring him half to death. As she was led off to jail she was heard to mutter disconsolately, "One little mistake."
The only other Belizean crime problem of any import involves the Boledo, the national lottery, a pastime which has become a public craze like the Tiercé in France and football pools in the U.K. Frequent enthusiastic attempts are made to cheat the Boledo, to "pass the post," with indifferent success. Years ago the daily number used to come by wireless from Panama, but a local Nicely-Nicely Johnson intercepted the number, quickly got his bets down and cleaned out some local ticket sellers. To combat such practices the government took over the lottery and instituted a public drawing each night, with two numbered balls being selected in front of a noisy crowd. At first a couple of insiders rigged the public drawing by putting two balls on ice during the day and then picking them out by feel. There are frequent other attempts to beat the house odds (the payoff is 73 to 1, but the odds against are 99 to 1, giving the government a comfortable vigorish), and such an attempt was described in a recent Belize Times:
"Three lottery books were stolen from the grocery shop of Councillor Adolfo Lizarraga on Sunday morning. The culprit whom Mr. Lizarraga suspected to be have been a woman walked out his shop with the books, and after the winning number in the National Lottery was drawn she sent a little boy to collect 10 out of 15 pieces Mr. Lizarraga asked the boy to bring his grandmother so that he could discuss her winnings but she failed to appear."
To the trickle of tourists who find their way into Belize, the country's main appeal is most likely to lie in its jungles and rivers and offshore fishing holes, where normal North American descriptive references simply become useless. How is one to describe the panic of an American fisherman who is lazily trolling in a narrow canal when a 500-pound jewfish hits his lure? How is one to describe the flycaster who puts his Mickey Finn streamer squarely between a pair of mangrove fronds and hooks a 95-pound black snapper on a 6X leader? How is one to describe the bird hunter who sits at his stand in the middle of the forest and tries not to breathe as a 700-pound tapir rumbles by followed by several hundred wild hogs, all of them with built-in Wilkinson blades? How is one to describe the hunter who steps on a fer-de-lance?
"American sportsmen are just not prepared for what they find down here," says Fred Keller, an automotive executive who bought a sport fishing business in Belize and swears he will never return to the executive rat race. "I've been here four years, and I'm still being surprised three times a day. I'll give you an example: bonefish. They're prize fish for a lot of sportsmen, right? When I lived up North, I always thought that a fisherman who went out and caught one or two bones had had a pretty successful day, something to brag about. Well, down here you'd be thoroughly ashamed of yourself if you only caught a few bones in a day. You'd slink around and keep your mouth shut, and your guide would swear you to secrecy. The bone-fishing around here just never quits! I don't know who caught the most in the shortest time, but Tom McNally once took 59 in 6½ hours, and nobody even thought it was anything special. There's a physicist from Union Carbide, Dr. John Frye, who comes down here year after year and fishes for bones 10 hours a day with four-pound-test spinning line, and he thinks nothing of landing 30 or 40 a day. And releasing them, of course. We stress release of all fish, tarpon, bone-fish, whatever, and as a result our schools offish never seem to diminish."
The whole shoreline of Belize is protected by the world's second-largest barrier reef, 175 miles long, and by hundreds of little islands or keys, where several hundred species offish can be taken. The feeding competitions over the reef are so violent that fishing there can be a nerve-rattling experience, as when one gets into a school of blackfin tuna just ahead of the barracuda and sharks. "You'll be drifting along," says the country's most famous fisherman, Philip Andrewin, "and suddenly you'll be in the middle of a pot of boiling water, maybe a quarter of a mile long and 100 yards wide full of feeding blackfins, 10, 15, 20 pounds apiece. You bring in a few, and then all at once you start catching damaged fish, then half-fish, then just bloody heads. I've been told that the blackfin lets out a cry when he's hooked, and this draws the barracuda and the sharks, and sometimes they get so excited they come swimming right next to the boat, and we reach over and gaff them on the fly. American fishermen can't believe their own eyes!"
Occasionally an intrepid visitor will want to climb over the side and wade the reef at low tide, but Andrewin does not recommend the practice. "The big cudas sit out there in the deep water and wait for their prey to show up on the reef," he says. "When you're walking in shallow water, and you lift your foot, there's a flash of white, and the barracuda may mistake this for a small food fish. I know a man whose Achilles' tendon was nipped in two by a barracuda on the reef. That man's a cripple for life."
Hunting in Belize can be no less dangerous and far more chaotic than the fishing. There are serious weather problems. For about four months in late winter and spring, no rain falls at all, and hunting guides nurse stagnant water supplies stored in vats at their camps. If one wants a shower one usually jumps in a canal or a swamp, carefully avoiding the snakes and crocodiles. But for the six months starting in June the rain falls almost constantly, and jeeps can disappear completely in the mud. There are parts of Belize that measure as much as 170 inches of rain per year, almost all of it in the rainy season, and it is not unknown for hunters to spend four or five days perched on high hummocks, eating Cadbury's chocolate bars and waiting for the waters to recede
None of this fazes the natives, who continue a year-round style of hunting that can only be described as loosey-goosey. "Unfortunately, anything goes," says Mrs. Dora Weyer, an American naturalist who has lived in Belize for six years and who is widely respected for her numerous campaigns on behalf of wildlife. "The Belizeans consider all living things to be fair game, and as a result we're having a terrible time saving the breeding grounds of the ibis, and I think we've lost the roseate spoonbill. The jabiru stork, the largest stork in the Americas, is close to extinction. He has a wingspan of eight feet, and that's a lot of meat for a hungry family. The local people even shoot at the king vulture, the third largest American vulture after the Andean and California condors, and they have been known to shoot at the great white hawk, one of the most beautiful birds of the world."
For a long time Mrs. Weyer was heartsick about the jaguar, which had almost been eliminated in the rest of South and Central America but which remains abundant in Belize and parts of neighboring Guatemala. "The sale of jaguar hides was fierce and the pressure was enormous," the crusading naturalist explains. "As a result it's doubtful if there's even a breeding population of jaguars left in places like Costa Rica and Colombia and Venezuela, where they were once common. The same thing might have happened here, but we're blessed by some very intelligent officials. I'm so proud of our little Belize. We've cut down on the export of all wild animal hides, and by 1974 it will be illegal to export a single pelt."
One can only hope that Mrs. Weyer's optimism is well founded. For the moment, game laws in Belize are uniformly ignored. Jacklighting is common, and local hunters extoll the practice openly. "Why, when you turn on that searchlight at night you can see the eyes of everything from margays to jaguars," says one. "It's very effective." Laws against jacklighting are being pushed through, but the enforcement will remain spotty in a country that can barely afford local police, let alone game wardens.
The saving factor for the country's diminishing game population is the wild-ness and menace of the interior. No tenderfeet need attempt a typical Belizean hunt. Says Charles Payne, who guides in the northern part of the country, "We walk and climb and wade and work, and I mean work! If you hunt with me you don't sit in a Land Rover listening to Radio Belize. You move! Otherwise you better stay in the Fort George Hotel and bathe your skin. I tell every hunter, "Now, I won't nurse you along! If you don't like it, go home! Get a cheap guide! Get lost!' "
The would-be big-game hunter might also be advised that the jaguar is not a big docile pussycat like the Rocky Mountain puma, which more often seems to bear no malice toward the world. Dora Weyer tells of a Belizean guide who began his season with 20 expensive hounds and lost half on his first hunt. A jaguar that does not tree (and larger specimens seldom do) will lurk behind a rock and pick off the dogs one by one, killing them with tooth and claw in a matter of seconds, or circle around and approach the strung-out dogs from the rear, dropping them silently. Jaguars are much less dangerous to humans, but the sight of a newly caged specimen can be frightening. Philip Andrewin remembers, "A man had live-trapped a jaguar, and he brought it into town to show the schoolchildren. Every time a child got within 10 feet of the cage, that cat would throw himself at the steel bars, till finally he'd torn all the fur off his front body and his muzzle was bleeding and red, like raw meat, and his claws were ripped off, and still he was coming. They finally had to throw a canopy over the box to quiet him down."
For a few years that Belizean officialdom would rather forget, certain jaguar guides in Belize engaged in a shoddy campaign against the noble cats. "Great white hunters" from the U.S. were enticed into "guaranteed jaguar hunts" for fees ranging up to $3,000, and more often than not they wound up shooting tame jaguars without even knowing it. "It was a vicious circle," says a member of the Belize Audubon Society. "First, the Belizeans would export baby jaguars to the United States, where they'd be sold as pets for up to $500. Well, you take your pet jaguar home and by the time he's four months old you're beginning to wonder about your judgment, and by the time he's eight months old you know you made a dreadful error. So you look for a way out, and you find that the zoos won't take him because the zoos are full of them. But lo and behold, the same kindly pet shop owner takes the grown animal off your hands for $150, and your problem's solved. Then he turns around and sells the pet jaguar to a hunting guide in Belize who takes it out and releases it just ahead of a great white hunter and a pack of dogs. Surprise, surprise, the hunter gets his jaguar, and then he can go back to the States and tell everybody how brave he is."
"I don't care whom you've talked to or what they've told you," the government official said. "You won't know a bloody thing about Belizean hunting till you've talked to Jackie Vasquez. In this part of the world, Jackie Vasquez is the hunter."
"That's not all he is," I said. "I've been to his dilapidated old shack about 14 times this week, and each time I've been told he'll be right back, but I can't seem to catch him. I've had three taxi drivers on his trail, and they can't find him either. I seriously doubt that he exists. I think you've made him up."
"Oh, ho, ho, my dear chap," the official said, his checks jiggling with laughter. "You'll find out he's no spook. He'll turn up, just you wait and see. And when you least expect him." Exactly.
On our last night in Belize City my wife and I sat up late, pouring alcohol on the festering bites of sand flies to pass the time. Around midnight the phone rang. "This is Jackie Vasquez," a reedy voice said. "I've come to talk to you."
I dressed and dashed down to the deserted lobby and found a dough-faced middle-aged man of about 5½ feet, a beautiful black nymphet at his side. "I'm Jackie Vasquez," he said, shaking my hand. He didn't introduce the girl. Instead he said, "Look at her. Isn't she nice? She's a sweet little baby. Just 16, she is. She stays in my house."
As we were repairing to an upstairs hallway for our talk I remembered some of the tales I had heard about the nondescript-looking Vasquez. Mrs. Fred Keller had told me, "When we first came here, I was going to hunt with him, and all the Belizeans who work at our lodge became hysterical. They told me, 'Don't go, Mrs. Keller! Don't go! That man will steal your soul.' One of the girls told me that if I went hunting with Jackie Vasquez I'd never be seen again."
Philip Andrewin had told me, "They say a lot of weird things about him, and some of it is folklore, but for sure he's not your typical person. Once you look at him you'll realize right now this is a superhuman being. He's different! Some claim he's the devil himself."
Rudolph Castillo, a calm, intelligible, reasonable man, had become no less excitable on the subject. "That Jackie's a wild one!" Castillo had said. "He talks to jaguars. He calls them right out of the bush. He does the same with crocodiles! He's been up for murder three times. He has a family, 43 kids, scattered all over. No, he's never been married. He's our swinging bachelor type. He's also a snake man. He's been bitten by rattlesnakes, fer-de-lance, coral snakes, all our poisonous snakes, and he just shrugs it off."
Vasquez and I took seats in a darkened hall, and it was too late at night to play with words. "Well," I said, "what about it? Are you in league with the devil? Do you talk to jaguars? Do you have 43 kids?"
The guide laughed. "I have 22 kids, I think," he said, "but I only have to take care of the little ones. No, I'm not in league with any devils, but I do call jaguars. I have a gourd with a deerskin top on it and a horsehair stretched tight. I pull up and down on the horsehair and it vibrates the skin, and it makes the same sound that a jaguar makes when he's out calling other jaguars at night—sort of a panting, quick noise, like an owl out of breath, ooh! ooh! ooh! It scares hunters when they hear me do it."
"Do the cats ever come close?"
"Not long ago I called a jaguar for a doctor from Beaumont, Texas, and that bugger came 25 yards away. The doctor shot and missed, so we went farther into the bush and I called another one, this time a big male, and he walked up so close that the doctor was too scared to pull the trigger. So the jaguar ran away and I called him back again, and you could feel the vibrations from his answering calls, real quick and anxious, getting faster till he was almost on top of us, and he was going ooh-ooh-ooh all together, in quick bursts. One of my men shot him for the doc."
"It must be frightening," I said.
"To the hunters, yes," Vasquez said, "but not to me. Not after 30 years of doing it. One night I called a cat for a guy, and the cat got closer and closer, answering me, and then pretty soon we heard the same sound from the opposite direction. There were jaguars coming at us from both sides! The man dropped his gun and ran to my Land Rover and drove off and left me there. Never saw him again. Another time I called a jaguar in too close, and he jumped at me, and I fell flat, and the cat went right over my head. I could smell his breath. Thank God he kept going. So did I."
"I hear you're a snake man," I said, "and you have magic powers."
"You hear a lot of things," Vasquez said in that same reedy voice. "I use certain medicines, herbs, to keep the blood from clotting after a bite, and I have a suction tube that connects to my manifold and sucks poison from the wound, but that's not snake magic, that's just common sense. The things I do, they only appear to be magic. I can tell you all kinds of things about the jungle and the forest, but it's not magic."
"Then what is it?" I asked.
"It's simple intelligence and lots of practice and knowing how to put things together. Suppose you and I go deep into the jungle and we can't even see the sun and we have no compass. Well, we just look at the vines! The first turn on a vine will always be east, because a vine is a sun-searching plant, and the first turn is always in the morning direction of the sun.
"If there are no vines we look at the pines. The trade winds have leaned them to the southwest. Or if you have no pine trees and no vines, then you check the spiders. All spider webs in the jungle go in the same direction because the spiders don't want the silhouette of their webs to be seen, or else they'll never catch a fly. So you plot the direction of one web when you start hunting, and the rest of the day you can tell direction by the others. Is that magic? No, it's just common sense."
I changed the subject sharply, perhaps too sharply, as it developed. "What's this about your being charged with murder three times and a white horse rescuing you?" I asked.
Jackie Vasquez waved his hand airily, as though this was beneath discussion, and turned to his companion. "Would you like a Guinness, baby?" he said.
"Well, what I don't understand is how you got a nationwide reputation as a spook," I blurted out with my usual tactfulness. "People say you steal souls."
"Look at me!" he said, his reedy voice lifting sharply. "Ami stealing your soul? What is a soul anyway? This is ignorance, these stories about me."
"Everybody says you have magic powers over people."
"Well, it's true that I'm always trying to develop my willpower and my mind, and I honestly do believe that I can control the average man by looking at him, studying him, by using my willpower to combat his. But it's not magic. I look very intently at people, not to steal their souls but just to practice my willpower. And another thing I do that confuses people—I walk down the road and close my eyes and try to keep them closed till I get where I'm going. Now the average person can't do this—he lacks willpower, and he's afraid he'll bump into something, so he quickly opens his eyes. But I keep mine closed for blocks and blocks, and I never fall. But this isn't magic, either. This is practice, self-control, willpower."
By now it was two a.m., and I was more than satisfied that I had not run into Beelzebub incarnate but simply a man with a high I.Q. and overdeveloped personal skills, a man who inevitably would be misunderstood in a country where phantoms and duendes continue to obsess the mind. We said goodnight, and as he walked ahead of his lovely young companion I could see that he kept his eyes shut down the flight of stairs and out into the night. Just before he faded into the shadows he turned and looked back inside and opened his eyes, and I could swear he winked. I wonder what he meant by that?
The next morning we waited in the customs and emigration line at the Belize City airport. "Good morning, sar," said our old friend the customs inspector. "How did you like our unspoiled country?"
"It has many wonders," I said.
"Tell me," he said, "do you think your countrymen would like it here?"
I thought back on a vermilion flycatcher I'd seen flashing through the unpolluted sky like a spark from a fire, and a slinky jaguarundi crossing the road in her party furs to get to the other side. I remembered beer milk shakes and 7¢ rum and the final mystery of Jackie Vasquez and the bare-breasted lloronas that beckon from the mangroves. The inspector was waiting for an honest answer, so I gave him one.
"With a little bit of luck," I said, "my countrymen'll stay the hell home." The man just stood there grinning. I think he understood.