Travel Stories – Massage Training in the Jungles of Belize
KG Stiles, LMT, RBT, CBP, CAT
For thirty years I’ve taught massage and helped to develop a variety of massage and health related programs in a variety of settings. Each training and program is always unique and a pleasure for me. However the opportunity to train local Belizeans in the art of massage has stayed with me as one of the most memorable because of its dramatic impact in the lives of the students I taught.
In the Spring of 1995 I am invited to teach massage in the jungles of Belize, Central America, a tropical paradise. Excited to see a Mayan ruin I step off the plane. It’s hot! In minutes I’m drenched in sweat. Getting through customs is a long wait. It’s best to come to Belize with a relaxed attitude.
We drive in our air conditioned four-wheel-drive along old Northern Highway, one of two paved roads in Belize, a single lane of asphalt leading into the jungles. Tropical fruit and nut trees abound. Flowering orchids hang on tree limbs and everywhere there is a tangle of green. Playing chicken we miss occasional oncoming traffic. My destination, Pretty See Jungle Ranch, an eco-tourist resort just outside of Maskall village, population 900.
Taking the Baboon Sanctuary turn-off we pass a marker for Altun Ha ruins, one of the most powerful Maya ceremonial centers, so I am told. We’re an hour outside of Belize City. I gaze down the dirt road turn-off.
Centuries ago the Maya built lofty pyramids in these jungles. Today archaeologists work to excavate and restore many of these ancient ruins. It was at Altun Ha that Dr. David Pendergast unearthed a burial tomb in the Sun God’s Temple, containing a sculpted jade head of Kinich Ahau, the Mayan Sun God. It weighed nearly 10 pounds. The largest Maya jade carving ever found.
Life in the Belize Jungle
The Maya ruled what is now Guatemala, El Salvador, southern Mexico, Honduras and Belize. Belize is a multi-ethnic country. The people are Mestizo, descendents of Spanish and Maya marriages; Afro-Creole, descendents of African and Maya marriages; Maya; and Garifuna or Black Carib, descendents of marriages between African and Caribbean, the original inhabitants of Belize. English is the official language. Though a mixture of Spanish and African dialects with Carib has resulted in the delightful sounding Creole dialect.
Another ten miles and we’re driving through Maskall Village. I see tiny, plain faced huts with dirt floors, and square shingled houses on stilts. Barefooted children with varying tones of skin color, dressed in little, or nothing, stare as we pass by.
We roll down our windows. I feel a hot breeze. The air is saturated with strange, pleasant aromas. We pass a mango tree. In the distance I hear drums, beating.
There’s a shocking lack of techno-gadgets in a jungle village. No television, no cars, no computers. Not even basic services exist like indoor plumbing, electricity, or telephones.
My driver informs me that two modern conveniences recently arrived in Maskall. A generator and a telephone. The generator provides daily electrical service from 6 p.m. to midnight. The favorite appliance I am told is a washing machine though television runs a close second.
Villagers communally share their utility services. For instance in Maskall the villagers decided to have their one phone installed at Miss Delva’s centrally located hut. Children stop by, collect the bits of scrap paper with scribbled messages and run, delivering them around the village.
Belize Students at Pretty See Jungle Ranch
Just outside of Maskall is the eco-tourist lodge where I am to live and teach for the next several weeks. Eco-tourism helps Belize preserve its rain forest and reef ecosystem.
Driving onto the grounds of Pretty See Jungle Ranch I see a wide-open savannah, an unusual landscape for the jungles. Horses graze. A toucan, the national bird, nods its head at me. The main lodge and surrounding huts are built in a traditional style with thatched roofs of coconut palm.
My students are at the front of the main lodge eager to greet me. I meet my students – Olivia, Liz and Lenny. They’re very shy at first!
For the next several weeks we work diligently each day, getting to know one another as we laugh and learn from one another. My students are very serious about their massage training. Learning a skill they can practice at Pretty See Jungle Ranch that will pay them money is a tremendous opportunity for them. There is scant opportunity for earning money available in Maskall village.
There is only one business, as such, in Maskall Village, a centrally located house that’s been designated as the village store. A selection of the village’s locally grown organic produce and its handicrafts are sold from here to the local eco tourist trade.
As with their Maya ancestors villagers learn and practice a handicraft or service they can use for bartering. Trade is the primary means of exchanging goods and services in Maskall Village and little work opportunities exist. My new friends are delighted to learn a valuable skill that allows them to earn money for sending their children to the nearby one room school house, as well as to pay for electricity in their home.
When their massage training is finished each of the students offers me a special handmade gift and a huge smile, along with tears of gratitude for what they’ve learned. They’ve been taught a valuable trade which gives them the freedom to earn a livelihood!
During my stay in Maskall I explore the area. On one of my excursions I am scheduled for a boat ride with William, a fifteen year-old Belizean river guide. First I must take him a spark plug. His outboard motor won’t start.
We drive in our air conditioned four-wheel-drive down the dirt road between Bomba, William’s village, and Maskall. It is a series of cavernous ruts. Barely passable! We have two flats on our way. It takes two hours to drive five miles. Wild hysterical laughter resounds all around us. Look, up in the tree tops. Monkeys are laughing at us! Torrential rains during the rainy season sometimes cause severe road wash outs. Making boats a far easier mode of transportation.
William shows me his home, a waterfront hut on stilts. In Belize it’s not unusual for a teenage boy to build his own home with the help of family and friends. William’s family gave him the land. Property is inherited, typically never bought or sold among locals.
The Maya frown upon any material show of wealth. They believe it causes envy. The idea of Cargo, or community service, is especially dear to them. Cargo is an acceptable way for a person to spend excess wealth.
After replacing the spark plug William’s small motorboat starts easily. Leaving Bomba Village behind we cruise down the peaceful Northern River towards the Caribbean Sea. Water lilies float serenely in the brown waters of the river and silver beams of light occasionally break through the overhead canopy of verdant green. The air is sweet and softly caresses my bare arms.
After a two hour cruise down the Northern River we arrive at its mouth to the Caribbean Sea. Braving choppy waters for a short distance we are finally greeted by a little open faced hut by the sea. We relax, lounging on the crooked little pier that juts out into the sea and in the hammocks hung from the surrounding coconut trees, as we eat ripe and juicy mango fruit. It’s a delicious afternoon!
My day of adventure leaves me feeling hungry and tired. Back at Pretty See Jungle Ranch I enjoy a tasty Caribbean meal of grilled ocean bass, rice, beans and salad with a slice of Carla’s coconut pie for dessert. Carla is the Belizean cook at Pretty See Jungle Ranch. All day long Carla sings the songs of her village ancestors and shares with me many stories about her culture and way of life.
Every evening Pedro, the night watchman, walks by my hut, whistling. He’s letting me know it’s time for lights out. He’ll soon switch off the ranch generator. Pedro patrols the Pretty See Jungle Ranch grounds each night with his loaded shot gun and a head lamp, perched atop his head, for seeing into the shadows of the dark night. Pedro keeps us safe from wild animals like the jaguar. In the morning Pedro will whistle again as he passes by my thatch roofed hut, delivering a pot of freshly brewed Belizean coffee with a side of brown sugar and rich cream. A new day in paradise will have dawned at Pretty See Jungle Ranch.