Although my father was a mild-mannered accountant when I left for the colony of British Honduras (in those days, the capital was Belize—not Belize City, just Belize), he got into a lot of scrapes as a kid. One of them involved an older half brother and a fishhook. The particulars of what took place are fuzzy, but at the end, my father had a fishhook lodged in his ear. He went through the rest of his life with a punctured eardrum.
The experience of living in another country at an early age (I turned 21 in the rainforest) affected me emotionally and intellectually. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever been to a country where few people speak your language. They don’t eat the same foods you do, either, and half the time you don’t even recognize what you’re eating. Your choices are, one: you eat foods you’re familiar with, even if they come in tinned cans that can only be bought at a store and cost more than your clothes do. One archeologist I met there years later would eat nothing except frozen hamburgers. On those occasions when he wanted a beer with dinner, he drove to the nearest (local) Kriol restaurant and got fried chicken served with French fries. Two: you chow down the local food, even if you don’t know what it is and it gives you the runs.
The poorer the country, the more intense is this sense of dislocation, this feeling of not belonging. Add having to use an outhouse—or the great outdoors— instead of a toilet and you get bonus points. Add that your house is, by modern standards, primitive—dirt floor, thatched roof, no electricity or running water, cooking over a wood fire—more bonus points. Add a few more factors—the people around you in no way resemble you ethnically, culturally, and/or religiously, and you’re not visiting, you just moved here—welcome to culture shock.
The best advice I got about how to make myself in comfortable living in Rio Blanco came from the British-born AmerIndian Development Officer who befriended my husband and me. He said, “Don’t think of this in any way as temporary, or like camping out. Put your things around you—familiar things, that you like—and decide you’re going to live here.” His familiar things included tea and teacups—and he still, like the Englishman he is—has “tea and biscuits” around 4 o’clock every afternoon. (This is why expats of every nationality cling to familiar rituals, whether it’s their own music, or their own holidays, or anything that reminds them of home.) My only “familiar thing” was an enormous purple ashtray somebody had given me as a high school graduation present, but I had already accumulated a few items that I took pleasure in. I gathered them into a sort of display, where I would see them when I looked up from my typewriter. And it worked.
The best advice I got about living among the Maya came from Lucia Bah, oneof my Kekchi neighbors, who taught me how to cook the way the Maya did. Eventually, the food no longer tasted strange. But I still can’t stand beans.
Flash forward about 45 years. My book about living in Rio Blanco, How to Cook a Tapir: A Memoir of Belize had just been published by the University of Nebraska Press. A young but worldly videotographer wanted to interview me. I’m not sure why she ever picked this area of the high desert to live in—she was clearly a city girl—but she had gotten a grant to film a documentary about why people had moved here (as opposed to the ones who had been born and raised here and never left). She knew the basic facts about my life—born in New Jersey, did my undergraduate work in Ann Arbor, Michigan, lived and worked in New York City, New Hampshire, and various cities and towns in southern California—and that I’m a horse owner and a writer of horse books. She seemed intrigued by Belize and the advice my English friend had given me, because her last question was, “Where is home to you?” Without even stopping to think, I answered, “Wherever I happen to be.” That answer got me a part in her video.
What I didn’t tell her—it wasn’t relevant—was that when I went back to Belize four years earlier, it had been culture shock all over again. Maybe it’s harder to adapt after we reach a certain age. But mostly it was because the pictures in my head didn’t match the pictures I was looking at. The people I had known were old—white hair, no teeth—or dead. The jungle wasn’t the same. I wasn’t the same. “Sometimes it’s a mistake to go back,” my English friend told me one afternoon—now retired and living in Big Falls—while he was drinking his tea and I was feeling glum and homesick.
And for the first time in years, I thought about my father and that fishhook that put a hole in his eardrum. My fishhook is British Honduras, and it left a hole in my heart that Belize can’t heal.
The blogger is going on vacation and will return in a few weeks.