Friday, April 4, 2014


                Far from the jewel-encrusted elephants of the Raj, where Queen Victoria was styled “Empress of India,” there existed a colonial backwater where nothing of consequence occurred.  People in London who were eager to celebrate the fact that “we hold a vaster empire than has been” had ignored British Honduras, later renamed Belize, and left the people who lived there pretty much to their own devices.  A society developed in this tiny chunk of Central America comprised of shipwrecked English pirates, runaway slaves, Mexican refugees, and other assorted scalawags and miscreants, all under the protection of the British Crown, at least nominally.  I had the opportunity to spend 19 unforgettable days in Belize back in 1998.

                Starting my imports business was always “Plan B” in The Great Plan of my life.  “Plan A” was to ditch Corporate America and go back to school to get a PhD in Anthropology with a special concentration in Archaeology emphasizing the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica.  By the late 1990s I had taken the entrance exams and some classes to get me going in the right direction but I lacked any sort of field experience.  So, in the beginning of 1998 I signed up to be a volunteer at an excavation of a Classic Maya site called Blue Creek which was sponsored by a university in Texas.  I would be down “in country” for a few weeks to help on the dig and to learn everything I could about archaeology in context.  I don’t think I had been more excited about anything ever before.

                The site of Blue Creek, near the “town” of Blue Creek, is located in the northwestern corner of Belize, just a few miles from the Mexican border.  I’m hoping it hasn’t changed much, but when I was there that part of the world was pretty raw.  The area was a dense and humid jungle with intermittent clearings of green pastures and farmhouses courtesy of the Mennonites, a religious group which had moved to British Honduras in the late 1950s from the prairie provinces of Canada.  Originally from Central Europe, these straw-hatted, straw-haired people seemed out of place in the Central American jungle, speaking a form of 17th Century German and maintaining their Central European folkways.  Because of the proximity of the town to our camp, we had Mennonite cooks and a Mennonite washerwoman.  I will never forget Margaret, the bespectacled and stout bonnet-wearing cook fixing heavy German breakfasts for us daily.  Was I in Latin America?

                The expedition sometimes hired people from another local town called San Felipe to help with the digging.  The people of that town and of some of the scattered settlements in that region were descendants of refugees of the Caste War, a conflict between European Mexicans and the indigenous Maya that lasted throughout most of the latter half of the 19th Century.  The refugees were mostly ethnic Maya and spoke Spanish and some English (required in school because English is the national language of Belize).  They identified more with Mexico, listening to Mexican music, reading Mexican magazines, etc.  As an aside, of all the places in Latin America, these people are the only ones outside of New Mexico I’ve found who refer to themselves as “Spanish.”  And I include my home state of New Mexico as a part of Latin America.  As one of my sociology professors at UNM once said, “I must say in all sincerity that Latin America begins at the Río San Juan.”  So, in this area, the “Spanish” had been there the longest of any of the contemporary peoples.

                Our transportation in Belize from the camp to the dig and to the towns was in the form of old pickup trucks that took a beating on the lumpy dirt roads of the backcountry.  We would ride in the back, and I have never been so jolted in vehicles in all my life.  Our daily routine would take us to a place in the road near San Felipe to pick up a few workers.  Usually there were two younger guys, Ricky and Milardo, who were eager for work, mostly because the archaeological field work was easy compared to working for the Mennonites or cutting sugar cane all day on the plantations near Orange Walk.  Because I knew Spanish I got to know the workers pretty well and we talked at length on the road and in the field. 

Every day on the road out to the ruins we passed an overgrown compound set away from the road but visible through the jungle.  It had high walls and these walls were covered in vines and a tangle of other plants.  The place looked almost abandoned.  I asked Ricky what this place was.

“The Old German lives there,” he said.

“Who is he?” I asked.  “A Mennonite?”

“No,” Ricky said, “He moved here before the Mennonites got here.  Maybe about 10 years before the Mennonites.”

                I thought, why would a German man move to the middle of nowhere in the mid-1940s?   I wanted to find out his story so I began to ask around. 

                In our free time we would wander into “town,” and would take some of our meals at a place we nicknamed “The Taco Burger” run by a middle-aged Mennonite woman named Judy.  Next to Judy’s place was a small general store run by Judy’s younger cousin Helena.  Helena was pretty talkative and I always chatted with her when I went in there to buy things (to this day I still have cloth I used for face rags that I bought in her store).  I asked Helena about The Old German and she told me that it was not in her nature to gossip, but the man kept mostly to himself and only interacted with the townspeople on rare occasions.  She told me that the town was going to have a bake sale in the next few days and he would probably be there because he always attended such events.

The Mennonite community had the bake sale in what was considered the “core” of Blue Creek Village, a grouping of farmhouses and outbuildings which looked like a piece of rural Pennsylvania that had been dropped out of the Central American sky like Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz.  While I was disappointed that I did NOT see Pennsylvania Dutch shoo-fly pie among the baked goodies, I did catch glimpse of The Old German.

He was of average height and very fit for a man in his 70s.  He had silver/white hair parted and combed nicely.  He wore contemporary clothing and was clearly not a Mennonite.  Was I staring at him?  His brown eyes met mine and he turned away like a shy person.  I felt no desire to approach him.  I thought, whatever brought him to such a forsaken place was his own business.   As difficult as it was, I put my curiosity on the shelf and enjoyed the bake sale.

Whenever I think of the many things that happened in Belize, I always think of The Old German.  Who was he and why was he there?  Of course, in my mind, he had fled Europe because he was a Nazi and he was leaving behind a checkered past.  Was he a prison camp guard?  Was he Eva Braun’s gynecologist?  What treasures of the Third Reich were housed in his jungle compound?  For years I entertained these questions.  Perhaps, though, this man was just an ordinary citizen whose family was killed, and wanting to forget the horrible events of the war he went as far away as he could to try to escape his awful memories and build a new life.  I am thinking that now this man would be in his early 90s if he is still alive.  The Old German will always be one of my life’s big question marks.  As a curious person, it is difficult for me not to know the real story.

1 comment:

  1. You missed your calling as a writer kiddo! Having fun catching up on your exploits. A bit(to) late, but better than never. :)