|Ode to San Ignacio
Nestled in the western foothills of the Maya Mountains is a small town where early-morning clouds stick to lush mountaintops like puffy cotton balls, where May fireflies convert meandering meadows into a reflection of the perfect starlit night, and where butterflies turn into rainbows as they flutter across the landscape from one perfumed splash of colour to the next.
As a teenager, many afternoons I'd steal Mr. Duff's mahogany canoe and sail the Macal River. Eons before, on trade missions with their coastal brethren, my Mayan ancestors would slice through the same emerald waters en route to the Caribbean Sea over a hundred miles away. My trips, though less adventurous, were as close as any mortal could come to living inside a Monet.
I paddled past women with determined faces scrubbing mountains of laundry on limestone rocks in the rapids. Lined beside each other, they lifted multicoloured dresses above flowing black hair and beat down, in unison, while their children splashed in mischief on pebbled beaches.
Sinewy men in straw hats swung machetes, instead of clothes, in rolling cornfields that came right up to the water. The farmers were grateful that the Sun God smiled with ferocious generosity from February till the end of May. In June, the Rain God would feed their crops and hopes.
Stately fig trees‒sentinels of the Macal‒stood guard along the riverbanks. The spreading crowns of the Bri Bri locked arms above the water, forming a leafy canopy that, along with the sun's rays that filtered through, transformed the river into a sparkling tunnel. Everywhere, a plush blanket of greenery replete with countless asymmetrical folds covered the earth.
On overhead branches, green and orange iguanas basked in the tropical warmth, legs dangling in relaxed glory. Every now and then a keel-billed toucan would streak from one bank to the next calling for a companion. Blue-spotted dragonflies bobbed and dipped, barely breaking the surface of the water, while silvery tarpons launched themselves intermittently in deadly-precise dinnertime choreography.
The thick backdrop would occasionally yield a grey-stemmed Ceiba, a tree so gigantic and upright it could have been the leg of a Titan. It was easy to imagine why the Mayans believed it to be the Tree of Life (that grows through the center of the Universe, and that connects the Underworld and the Upper world).
Those days, I lived on the outskirts not far from a sprawling orchard whose blossom sweetened the evening air. Late summer, clusters of orange balls would overwhelm the branches, forcing the lower ones to kiss the earth. Throughout the day, boisterous flocks of white-crown and yellow-lored parrots made their way to this feast laid out in the treetops.
The Frangipanis‒white, yellow, and red‒sprinkled across peoples' yards would add their own spicy bouquet to the summer nights. The neighbours across the street preferred the brilliant crimson and yellow Flamboyant, with their rattling, foot long, sabre-shaped seedpods. But they were no match for the fragrant Frangipani at the front of my yard.
At twilight, the fading sun, before it sank into the earth, would bathe the naked horizon in shades of bashful pink. Shortly thereafter, as Hespera's blanket came to rest upon my beloved San Ignacio, the darkness would reverberate with echoing lullabies from tired cicadas. And the swallows would cede the skies to the true night fliers.
Like the parrots, these night hunters with pointy ears had a bounty of delicious choices, as most backyards were dotted with mango, guava, and citrus trees. Unable to resist the sweetness in the air, they paid early-evening visits that incited playful shrieks from many of my young neighbours.
Those evenings when God breathed over this far-off corner of the world, a gentle breeze would stir through the branches of my Frangipani. And I would lie in my hammock, dazed by this calming whistle.
Decades later, now living in a different country, those images of yore are nevertheless indelibly etched in my mind. Though they speak of a time long gone, they never fail to remind me of the land where I once walked.