by Dick Springgate on "Okanagan"

I feel mud oozing down into the socks of my low cut hiking boots as I stand knee deep in the mangrove swamp jungle alongside the Sarstún River on the Belize-Guatemala border. Hefting my newly sharpened machete, I pull the twelve foot "confra" frond down with my left hand and with the exuberance of the beginner I am, rear back and lay into the inch and a half thick stem with a vengeance. The long knife slices through the plant so effortlessly I hardly feel the resistance and it whistles around in a fast semi-circle, slips out of my fingers and disappears somewhere into the verdant growth near my left hand.

"Muy fuerte, Ricardo" says my new friend Antonio, "but perhaps you should save some of your strength for later. You only need take a short, easy swing and let the weight of the machete do the work." I notice a bit of nervousness in his eyes, as he stations himself well to my right where an errant swing would give him the greatest chance of survival.

"Also Ricardo, cut the stem close to the first leaf. It is very important, for if you cut it long, the frond becomes a fifteen pound spear plummeting toward your body." Frond cutting, simple as it seems, has a few nuances that make me more appreciative of the people who do it daily!

I had first met Antonio when Sue and I had had sailed Okanagan across the Golfete to anchor in a small cove on its eastern end. Antonio had agreed to be our guide so we clambered into his cayuco one morning for a daylong adventure up several jungle rivers and a hike to a Mayan village. The climax to the day was a lengthy hike to the summit of his hilltop "milpa" (cornfield) where we saw the arriving pairs pairs of green and yellow parrots at precisely 5:45 in the afternoon, right on the schedule which Antonio had promised. The panoramic view, beautiful sunset and the parrots chattering capped a memorable day.

On the hike down Antonio said, "Ricardo, soon my workers and I are going to the Sarstún River in the big cayuco to cut confra for the roof of our new kitchen. Would you like to come with us? I'll pick you up at 4:30 that morning and we should be back by dusk. It's about four hours each way."

An adventure, I thought!

"I would love to come, but only if I can help. I've a brand new machete I bought in a souvenir shop in Mexico that I would like to try." From the corner of my eye I caught the dubious look on his face as he agreed to my help.

Two weeks later we return to our favorite cove to accept his invitation. When he picks me up the next morning the stars are on glittering display and the Milky way is a pastel smear across the sky. We head down the river in the unstable, forty foot long cayuco without running or any other type of lights. I, a cruiser of the twentieth century, am very nervous as I hear the sound of other equally unlit cayucos passing. Antonio's younger eyes seem to find the quarter moon's light enough to navigate through the early morning traffic. My light windbreaker is far from adequate in the pre-dawn breeze.

The sun is just burning the mist off the river when we pass Livingston and head left along the coast towards Belize. Two hours later we cross the bar at the Sarstún's entrance. Deep jungle borders both sides of the wide river and we work our way northwest for twenty minutes, then nose the cayuco into a small opening in the mangroves and beach it on the muddy, Guatemalan shore.

The water appears to be very shallow, so I jump over the side to help unload the gear and promptly sink up to my hips in the underlying mud, much to the enjoyment of the five others who have obviously been here before! Finally we find a dry spot and sit down to a quick breakfast of still hot tortillas, rice, beans and hot sauce prepared early this morning by Antonio's wife, Noemi.

The verdant jungle surrounding us recalls to mind my philodendron, palm and fern house-plants, but on a much grander scale. Here in scattered clumps are huge ceiba trees and philodendron-like plants well over thirty feet high. Hanging vines are profuse and parasitic bromeliads crowd the branches awaiting April's warmth before bursting into bloom. Orchids are just beginning to come to life in whatever spaces they can claim. Birds rustled in the lower shrubs and called from higher trees. Interspersed in this tangle are the hundreds of confra palms we had come to cut.

Breakfast over and having listened to Antonio's instructions after my first swing, I bend to retrieve my "flying machete". Straightening up, I look for nearby trees thinking I might be lucky enough to cut my quota of fifty five fronds close to the cayuco and thus avoid the tedious hauling of the heavy twelve foot fronds through the viscous swamp all around. But my fellow workers have long ago figured this one out and I am forced to move deeper into the jungle, cutting fronds and trying to remember where they fall. Dodging the "killer fronds" an instant after slashing them free, I give inward thanks to Antonio for the timely advice earlier to cut the stems short.

This part of the jungle seems to be covered with mud and standing water and, as I free another frond, thoughts of snakes, spiders, fire ants, and other undesirables briefly cross my mind. "No hay," and a shrug of the shoulders is the answer to my question about the possibility of such horrors, but that seemed almost too casual to believe and small comfort as I feel my boots fill with everything the swampy jungle has to offer.

At last my fifty five fronds are cut. Somehow I find them all, turn them so they all point in the same direction and laboriously drag them to the ever growing piles along the shore by the cayuco. Several times I sink into mud well over my knees and feel my boot coming off as I try to pull free. My headband now drips in an almost steady stream and I am shirtless as we finally load the last of the huge fronds into the boat. There is barely room enough for the six of us to climb aboard after we push the heavily laden cayuco out of the mud.

An hour and a half later we are standing by a back street bar in Livingston downing well earned, frosty cervezas, courtesy of the "rich gringo". Up river, Noemi will still be standing by the fire, slapping tortillas between her hands, cooking them and tucking them into a cloth covered basket, ready for the return of her men.


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November 9, 2012
© 1997-2012 Phillip Landmeier