Carol Gill begins the story of her Belizean childhood not with a placid tale of playing on her family’s beach (yes, that would be “Gill’s Beach,” a stretch of sand four miles from the heart of Belize City, awarded to her grandfather for military service back in the 1950s), but with her account of surviving Hurricane Hattie.
“Everybody else was headed for higher ground,” she says, stewing her syllables in a Caribbean accent that slow-cooks its vowel sounds, giving them a distinct rounded flavor. “But our family stayed put. And then the water started rising. My uncle starts to break the door down so we can float out of our house on top of it! Thank God a boat come and pick us up off the roof!”
Perhaps it’s our hurried transit that has prompted Carol to open with this thrilling episode – we’ve just escaped the Friday evening rush hour out of Chicago. Now in the cool of her suburban apartment, I wait in her handsomely-furnished living room while she does some last-minute primping before our girls night.
The tropics have infiltrated her living space: mahogany and other fine hardwoods gleam all around me amid scents of vanilla and of the exotic blooms in a lavish arrangement on the dining room table. Wall art blazes in colors appropriate to the jungle, its ostentation tempered by a menagerie of glass frames containing photos of Carol’s extended family back in Belize: golden faces and easygoing smiles.
Carol reappears wearing a different dress and affixing a pair of earrings. Here in the comfort of her own environment, she takes up a chair draped in the Belizean flag to shed some light on the pleasant commonplaces of growing up in Belize during the 1950s: sleeping in the porch hammock, leaving the door wide open, crab-catching on the coast, walking everywhere (“and then you got a bicycle for Christmas, and then you rode everywhere”), and of course, countless barefoot hours spent in the sand and tides.
“From the time I know myself, I’ve been going to the beach,” says Carol. After a sun-splashed youth on mangrove-lined beaches then barren of development, she bid goodbye to her beachgoing days forever at the age of 22, when she became a permanent resident of the US. It was a bit of a transition.
“I never own a coat in my life until I get here,” Carol sighs. Back in Belize, there had scarcely been occasion for more than a sweater or raincoat. Chicago’s harsh winters were as alien to her as the fast-paced lifestyle to which she quickly acclimated out of necessity. But the simple pleasures of growing up in Central America are memories that resonate more enduringly than the life that has followed, as evinced by Carol’s home, décor, and demeanor.
Signaling that it’s time to go, she closes the book that lay open on the coffee table displaying a full-page color image of a toucan mid-flight. I fill my nostrils with the scent of tropical flowers before following Carol out the door.
At our dinner with Carol’s Panamanian-born best friend, Judith McKinnon, we share an incongruously Chinese meal and some classic girls night fun. A half-century younger than both of these women, I nonetheless include myself in the conversation with little difficulty – all I have to do is gasp, coo, and laugh at their tales alternately astonishing, awe-inspiring, and hilarious.
Not to be one-upped by her girlfriend, Judith relates a flood narrative from her childhood in Panama’s Chiriqui province, known for its lush cloud forests and mist-veiled mountains. At the tail end of an especially-rainy rainy season in 1953, the rivers rose so high that the local aristocrat (the man behind the Carta Vieja empire) nearly lost all his livestock. Judith recalls with a gleeful giggle the sight of his animals floating down the river, looking very disgruntled to find themselves careening among the rapids. A group of impetuous teenagers (only a few years older than Judith at the time) jumped into the river to find themselves moored on an impromptu island: a lone tree poking out of the rapidly rising waters. It took members of the local community a full eight hours to find a way to get dumb youth back onto dry land and to recover Mr. Carta Vieja’s livestock.
“When you’re young, it’s fun to live through these ‘natural disasters,’” says Judith.
Of the waters in Central America, Judith and Carol are in singular agreement: there are none more beautiful on earth. They gush over the waterfalls and streams, attempt to communicate in words the wholesome aspect of a youth spent swimming in the pure waters of inland lagoons, and share fond remembrances of magical encounters with dolphins, whales, and rays in the ocean.
For travelers to Panama’s Chiriqui province, Judith recommends seeing one river above all others — La Rio Piedra. She bases this on 18 years of life split between Puerto Armuelles and David, exploring the Chiriqui countryside at a child’s wandering pace.
“The rivers of Chiriqui are green and clear – you see clear to the bottom, to the fishes, more beautiful than any river you ever see in your life.”
Although she is equally captivated by Central America’s eminent natural beauty, which in many places has little changed since the days of her girlhood, Carol most acutely misses the culture of her homeland. She’ll often fix favorite Belizean dishes in her modern kitchen, and I can’t help salivating at the mention of her home-cooked stew chicken with rice and beans, though my hunger has for the moment been sated by chow mein.
Carol hopes to make a long-overdue return to Belize in the next year or so, especially if she can swing it during the 10-day celebrations that take place every September: a series of parades, festivals, and the crowning of “Miss Belize” to bring together the diverse people who call Belize home.
Her friend Judith has been so fortunate as to visit her birthplace almost annually, and is headed there on July 24, to coincide with my own first visit to Panama. As Judith and I begin to discuss our travel plans, Carol makes no effort to conceal her envy.
“Ooh, I don’t like you anymore,” she says through a grin.
I thought that Judith’s excitement to visit Panama might be somewhat dulled by her countless visits to the country over the years, but am quickly convinced otherwise: she’s already packed.
“And in November, I’m going down to Belize!” says Judith. For Carol, this is too much.
“I don’t blame you,” says Carol, “but I’m gonna kill you.”