Twenty. Tears for the Wedding

Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
The middle Tree and highest there that grew,
Sat like a Cormorant

Paradise Lost – John Milton

It was on a new continent that I pushed past the hustle and bustle of the main streets and followed the line along the shore. Further from the town piles of rejected drums lay like scattered rocks by the roadside.

The Garifuna are famous for their drumming.

A tiny island south of Mindoro and situated in amongst a cluster of other paradise islands it had its own deserted and white sandy beaches with a thriving town at one side designating the harbour.

On a boat to Caye Caulker a man had advised that the only good accommodation was three bamboo tree houses hidden away in a small bay further south; he kept repeating, “Go to the tree houses, go to the tree houses.”

It wasn’t long before we found the bay he had described. All around, trees grew up out of the water. Their roots buried deep into the sand underneath had, in their quest for moisture, popped up again; as if they realized that the water was to be found above the ground and not below. The sea was speckled with their dim brown shadows peering up out of the seabed like upturned sea slugs.

Beyond, through the palm trees were the tree houses. With heavy wooden stilts and the main trunk of a tree, each house was held up high out of the sea, like a primitive lighthouse. Planks of wood arranged in a narrow footbridge connected the beach with each house.

Lise, her boyfriend Daniel, and I took to the water’s edge and stepped barefoot, avoiding the hard gnarled roots that grew up from the sea bed. We looked in amazement at these strange and disused water houses.

The sun was setting already.

Across the water, a ribbon of metal-red light shimmered and flickered away the remains of the day. The houses silhouetted in the foreground were dark and impassive, watching and waiting for as night began to fall and at the far end of the bay, where the tide went out further, our group of lanterns swung lazily back and forth as the three of us picked our way among revealed rocks and sea urchins.

“We better find the owner,” said Lise.

It took us some time to find Oscar. In fact, it took a long walk back to the town and through several side streets that appeared in the gloom until we found him sitting at a table, the only one in a suit, and smoking an unnecessarily ostentatious cigar.

“I’d give you the biggest house but there’s a bloody Austrian in there for the last six months and I can’t get him out,” he explained. We were all sitting down, the three of us on one side of long, cracked and peeling table and him with his friends on the other.

“You know he’s marrying my friend’s daughter and he won’t even buy the beer for the wedding.” He nodded over, presumably to the father in question, and smiled grimly.

“It doesn’t create a good impression, you know these foreigners marrying our girls and treating us like this. People should be married with a big party, eh Alberto? And lots of beer and a big lechon. Are all foreign weddings like that? No beer and no party?”

He paused for us to answer, then “The man didn’t even want a party but we insisted. Maybe you can tell us what this man is like. Yes, you come to the party and tell us what he is like. You drink beer, don’t you?” he added.

Oscar flicked his ash onto the floor with a twist of his wrist, and he eyed us half smiling, half suspicious.

That night we had several beers with the owner of the tree houses, until he was all smiles and the floor was littered with cigar butts. Yes, we proved to him that foreigners, sure enough, drank beer. Whether what we were served came into that category was another matter.

Three buckets of the liquid complete with the scum of its recent fermentation was provided and we had to drink it all because we were assured that by the morning it would have gone off. I could feel it going off in my stomach right there, so I had no reason to doubt the man’s word.

With heads already drooping he explained the full story of Rudi and his fiancée.

Juana, after arriving with her family from Guatemala City, had fled to the Orange Walk bars, and it was during this five-year disappearance that she met Rudi, Five years later, and still on her own, it was then that she became fearful of being old.

Juana came to look upon Rudi as a blessing in disguise. She became his girlfriend for some six or so months even though he couldn’t handle her independent spirit.

As his reluctance to marry her merely increased her free-spirited actions, and their arguments, the compromise was for her to return with him to the cayes. This way he could keep an eye on her, and she could be restored to her family.

They moved into the largest tree house.

The arrangement was not, of course, satisfactory for either of them. She wanted marriage or nothing. Jealous of her when she talked Spanish with her friends, Rudi wanted Juana as a kept woman but without the marriage.

“Why not you speak English?” mimicked Oscar in a reasonable Germanic accent.

There was no evidence for her unfaithfulness, he added, but Rudi suspected the laughing and joking she did with her friends. There was no laughing and joking between the two of them.

Juana loved Rudi but Rudi wouldn’t make the commitment, no matter how much she would show her love. He believed that all the affection she poured onto him, she could have dished out to anyone.

Instead of making a clean break, however, they muddled around, until the sarcastic insinuations and mean squabbles required Juana to stay in their tree house at all times, in order to placate Rudi’s moods.

It was the townspeople who became sick of his behaviour, and it was they who determined to make him decide one way or the other. Juana was already in her thirties and all this waiting around was not good for her prospects.

The threat of twenty men standing at the head of the footbridge that led to their tree house had forced the issue. At once Rudi assured them that they would be married before the month was up, and with that, the threatening gang left cheerfully. Cheerfully, that is, until Rudi followed the gang along the beach and asked them what all the fuss was about.

Well, the month was nearly up, and while the townspeople made all the preparations for the wedding, Rudi did nothing. Asked to get all the relevant papers from Manila Belize City, he fudged, and said that there was plenty of time.

It was obvious that Rudi wasn’t going to go through with it. He even had the nerve to say that he didn’t want any beer at the wedding because beer makes you drunk and it is not seemly to be drunk.

“Not seemy to be drunk!” explained the owner of the tree houses. He burped on the beer and clattered a fist on the table. “There are only two days left til the wedding and still he has done nothing.”

“No wedding,” said Alberto. Alberto had been quiet in the corner all this time. We turned to face him. “No wedding for my girl,” he added.

That night they decided to cancel the wedding but decided to go along with the party seeing as they had already forced the groom to buy the pig and the soft drinks. For the party, at least, everything had been arranged.

It seemed strange to me to be so rapidly immersed in these relationships, but then everyone was pretty drunk at the time and things seemed to get personal when everyone was drunk.

Once the last of the beer had been finished, the aggrieved Alberto in his own reverie kept repeating, “No wedding, no wedding!” and he gave us a lift back to the bay to show us our house. An old woman who bore a family resemblance to Oscar came with us, and she pointed the way up the footbridge holding the lantern behind her so that we would not lose our footing.

“Wouldn’t like to do this when I’m drunk,” said Lise, holding firmly the side bannister.

“You mean you’re not?” asked Daniel from behind her.

“Well, maybe,” she replied.

Two hundred yards away we could see the shadow of the other house. A lantern in the highest room shone dimly through the bamboo slats of the wall.

“The Austrian’s in,” I pointed out, once we found stable ground and creaking floorboards. The old woman understood me and cursed.

She showed us around with her lantern. She pointed out the shower, the big room, the little room, the kitchen, the living room verandah, like she was an estate agent keen to make a sale.

One hundred pesos, Five dollars one day, and I come clean house every day,” she said.

“Fine, fine,” were the only words we could use for such a wonderful location. And how wonderful our time there was too!

The next few days we lazed and dazed on the tree house balcony, we made quick friends, locals as well as passers-through, and a Danish man who had long settled in the cayes, Hopkins Romblonupon hearing that some foreigners had settled for a while, came over to visit.

Kaeys had earned all his money in the New York Stock Exchange and when at the age of thirty-five he had accumulated enough he simply resolved to return to the place where his heart had been lost. Once he had found a wife, he settled on an island just south of Caye Caulker, building his house there and a boat and a chessboard. He was the comic foreigner, and the local boat builder, when he fancied building a boat, and the local chess fanatic.

There wasn’t a single foreigner who had visited his island who had not played him at chess, he said. Kaeys, Daniel and I played several times, alternating chess with backgammon for the sake of his wife. When I asked him whether he ever wanted to return to Denmark, he asked me why he should want to go there. The last time he had to go back, his friends were still trying to save enough so that their kids could have a new Porsche, he said. I could see his point.

The days dropped away like this without the first sign of the impending party, swinging in hammocks on the terrace, leaping off the terrace into the water, visits from Kaeys, visits to Kaeys, playing charades and a Danish drinking game. We discarded the beer and played for the local spirit and bottles of Tanduay bottles of rum instead.

One day, we were lounging around, an unusually cool evening, when who should come along but the Austrian who was the talk of the town. He had been knocking on the front door for some time before we heard him and when we eventually opened the door for me he looked around as if being spied on.

“Hello,” he said in a thick accent, a perfect replica of Oscar’s imitation.

We all burst out laughing. Then suddenly embarrassed by our collective response, we welcomed him in and offered him a glass of Tanduay One Barrel, then thought better of it; then we tendered him some coconut juice, by which time he too felt awkward enough and refused that.

“I would like to invite you to a party,” he announced. The words sounded like the embossed lettering on a formal RSVP. He was older than I thought, in his fifties, and he walked around nervously at the entrance to the verandah, with a stoop and his head bowed, his eyes peering over half-cut spectacles.

“I am going to have a party tomorrow,” he said, now stuttering the words out in embarrassment, “I live over there.”

He pointed out across the water at the main tree house.

“Thank you,” said Lise to break the silence, “We would all love to come. What time will it start?” As if she’d forgotten, or just out of politeness, Lise leant forward to offer him the coconut juice again.

“No please,” he said, “I must go back, my girlfriend will be expecting me. No, the party will be starting at seven o’clock when the sun falls out of the sky.”

“Yes, well yes,” said Lise eagerly. “Yes, we’ll be there then. Then,” and she laughed at the unintentional charm of his new English expression.

“Yes thank you,” I said.

“Thank you,” said Daniel. “Bring a bottle?” he whispered to me.

“Yes, well… We’ll see you there,” I said and we all stood up stiffly as if we needed to see him out. We waved him goodbye as if he was an old friend and then we watched as he negotiated the footbridge to the shore. I watched him step back on shore, still waving and I followed his route, his cautious walk along the line of the beach, his holding his lantern firmly out in front of him to avoid the stray tree roots.

“Are you sure?” asked Daniel.


“Are you sure he’ll be there,” he explained and we all laughed.

Kaeys came early the next day, so that we could play chess a while, before going to the party. He brought four crates of Belikin San Miguel with him as a goodwill gesture from the foreigners to the Belizeans Filipinos and he would need a hand in extending their generosity, he said. The locals, themselves were bringing their own liquor a gigantic faux pas when you considered who was supposed to be giving the party.

“Rudi was even arguing about the number of pigs he would have to buy,” said Kaeys.

After the sun had fallen out of the sky, we stumbled out of our house with a crate of beer each and with the larger bottles that Daniel and I had collected from town.

The short walk to Rudi’s tree house was lined with hastily erected lanterns casting dim pools of light in the trees. The islanders Crowds of Belizeans Filipinos had already settled into the flavour of things. They sat around the beach and the tree house with plastic plates of food and drank from large communal casks of rice wine. In the woods, a clearing was chosen for the disco. Dance or eat? Lise and Kaeys went to investigate the food and Daniel and I picked our way through the brush to find the source of the music.

The disco was already well underway. A local in the image of Clark Gable was operating the turntable and boys and girls were dancing to a rumba. Daniel and I grabbed a Belikin each and we stood shyly by the side of the dance floor.

For a moment the dancers turned around when we stepped out into the clearing, before returning to their moves. From across the dance floor, Oscar nodded at us in acknowledgment. Then when the music finished the boys escorted the girls back to their seats.

It was a strange arrangement.

A series of benches had been laid out at both ends of the floor. Boys sat at one end and girls on the other, waiting patiently for the next song; then Clark Gable shot a smile across the empty dance floor and the music started. Michael Jackson was doing Thriller and the boys all stood up from their seats, hurried over, rapid and at the same time casual, to the girls. When the music stopped each boy escorted his girl back to the girl’s bench and then returned to his own side. The process was repeated the same way for every song. It was just as well that young Clark at the far end didn’t have two turntables. They must have been between five and twenty-five, but the boys took any age they could, in the crush for attention.

“We better get into line,” said Daniel.

The first time I made it across the dance floor the girls I approached turned away, giggling with embarrassment.

“We’ve got to be more positive next time,” said Daniel as we returned to our starting blocks.

Next time one of the older boys helped me to choose a girl. My first choice had turned away as before and he intervened to lead me to another girl who wasn’t so shy. Well, either she was she, or I had picked somebody’s girlfriend. The next time I got a five-year-old and Daniel got a teenager.

And they did get used to us.

Realizing that we weren’t going to eat them, I was able to secure my own choices. Daniel proved highly successful, what with his blonde curly locks, and we got into the rhythm, starting with each song on our grid, then bolting unceremoniously towards the girls along with the other boys. The teenagers were shier than the younger ones but I danced a while with Juana’s sister and I broke with tradition by dancing three songs with her on the trot.

A local asked me if I liked Belizean girls. Daniel danced with Juana and she felt like a girl in his delicate twirling hands. Rudi didn’t like dancing, and he stood at the back with a bottle of Seven Up, eyeing Daniel’s magical motions across the dance floor.

Then Lise reappeared.

As she waltzed past me with Oscar in hand, she asked “How you doing?” winking at me slyly as I did my own waltzing with my favourite nine-year-old.

“Fine. Just fine,” I replied, winking back.

An hour later, and tired of racing to get a girl to dance with, Daniel and I went to find Kaeys. Lise stayed to talk with Juana.

The buffet had been laid out on the tree house verandah. Rice and beans, jerk chicken, plantain tamales and crackling pork lay spread over three huge tables. A queue of people were still helping themselves to roast pig. We could smell the sizzle of charcoaled meat. On another table a range of mango, soursop and breadfruit lay split open and ready for dessert.

It was there that we found Kaeys, by the water’s edge, reclining in a low-swung hammock with a bottle of Coke in his hand.

“You off the beer?” asked Daniel as we sat down. Kaeys was staring out to sea watching the moon. Not yet at its highest point, it held the last remnants of a red sun tinge. I had never seen a red moon before. Kaeys turned to us, his eye glinting with mischief. “Nope,” he said.

Beside him was a crate of soft drinks.

“You thirsty?” Daniel continued.

“Nope,” he said. Then Kaeys leant over the side of the hammock and picked out two bottles, handing them to us and adding “Drink up.”

“I’d prefer a beer,” said Daniel.

“Just drink a bit and then leave it on the table.” The table in front of us was filled with half-empty bottles. Kaeys looked at Daniel and me, and then flicked his head around as if he was pointing out something.

Behind us people were still queuing, but Rudi had taken on the role of master carver and was slicing thick slices of roast pork. He seemed to be warming up to the party.

“You’ll see,” Kaeys added and he looked back out to sea.

A local came up to Kaeys, took a bottle from the crate of soft drinks, drank a bit, put it down on the table. He giggled at Daniel and me and left. I shrugged.

“Twenty-nine,” said Kaeys.

“Are these bottles finished?” From behind us we heard Rudi’s impatience. He stood rigid like a beacon, his knife poised above us, and pointed a torch in his other hand at the table full of bottles.

“Nope,” said Kaeys.

The torch held the bottles under its spotlight. The bottles leered back.

“That torch follows him everywhere,” said Daniel, when Rudi had stormed off.

“He wants the bottles for the deposit.” Kaeys burst out laughing. “Hardly anyone was drinking them so I thought I would. Five at a time!”

Kaeys put his half-finished bottle on the table and cracked another. Lise came to join us not long after. She had another plate of food.

“You need something to help to digest that,” said Kaeys handing her a bottle from his crate. “You know Rudi’s going around with his torch so that he can find every last one of these flaming bottles.”

Sure enough, Rudi had abandoned his post at the buffet table and had begun scanning the area with his torch in the hope of finding stray bottles. The lone figure cast a thin conical beam of light across the line of the beach.

“You know I think he’s lost one,” he added.

So then we started on all the soft drinks laying each bottle out in a neat row on the table before they were finished. Lise took on the idea of drinking as many bottles at once. Taking a sip of Coke, then a sip of Pepsi, she turned to me and suggested that I try to tell the difference. I was too bloated.

The party progressed long into the night, with beer and food and dancing, Daniel and Lise and I flitting between the disco and the tree house, until nearly all the beer had been drunk and the pig was just a carcass. Kaeys minded the soft drinks, and once in a while one of us went back to help him drink some more. The locals Filipinos didn’t seem to tire of the dancing and drinking. The disco was still in full swing at the end, but by that time we were too bloated by fizzy drinks to move.

We came back to sit it out on the verandah with Kaeys.

Drunk on carbon dioxide, we were watching the children’s lanterns in the distance, watching them look for crabs now that the tide had gone out on the far side of the bay. The moon, now clear of the horizon, was a perfect white circle.

Rudi was searching for Coke bottles. Every so often he would come back to the verandah to check out the table. You could see his mind ticking as he counted the bottles and feel alarm ripple across his forehead once the calculation had been made.

“Fifty-four,” said Kaeys, leaning back and raising his eyebrows at Rudi.

“No there’s one missing.”

“Are you sure?” Kaeys mimicked his concern and sitting up, he counted them out aloud. “One, two, three…”

“Yes. One bottle is missing. There should be sixteen out of this crate but I can see only seventeen missing.”

“Oh! You’re counting the holes in the crate! Very clever.” Kaeys looked down at the crate by his side. “Oh! I think your fiancée took one just now,” he lied.

“I go find her,” said Rudi.

“Yes, you go find her.” Kaeys sighed with annoyance. The game and Rudi were getting boring.

Rudi reappeared two minutes later.

“Juana does not take one bottle,” he said.

“God!” exclaimed Kaeys, clapping his palm to his forehead. “Yes! It dropped in the sea… I dropped it, yes! Yes it dropped onto the floor and it rolled off the terrace,” he rolled his hands out in the manner of a rolling bottle, “and, sploof! it went.”

“What!” Rudi cried out. He looked exasperated. Leaning over the balcony he pointed his torch out at the sea. Maybe he would be able to catch the glints as it floated on the waves.

Kaeys turned round to us eagerly for encouragement. “Didn’t you hear a sploof! I’m sure I did.”

“Yes. Shit!” continued Kaeys in full improvisational swing and bouncing up and down with excitement in the hammock. “Sploof! That explains the noise. Sploof, it went!”

Rudi bolted through the house and clambered down the gangplank towards the shore. On the verandah, Lise and I sprang up from our deck chairs and leant over the balcony to follow his dark shadow. On the beach we could hear Rudi muttering, his feet soft-pedalling through the sand by the water’s edge. We saw a long stream of torch light stretch out, flicking across murky lapping waves.

“There it is! There it is!” said Kaeys suddenly out of the hammock and running up and down the balcony like an excited child, pointing vaguely across the water and directing the hopeless beam towards the mythical spot. “No! There, there!” Then he projected his latest bottle out over the balcony. Sploof! it went, and turning to us he added, “We might as well give him something to find!”

There was nothing for it. Rudi rolled up his trousers and levered himself gingerly into the water. He waded out until he was knee deep and holding the torch aloft. Its light skipped along the surface, it upturned then downturned and stretched again, until with the help of Kaeys’ keen eye and accurate aim it held fast the bottle in its spotlight clasp. Rudi waded out further and then Sploof! Sploof! Two more bottles. It was Lise this time.

“There’s another! and another!” she cried out before another flew out. Sploof! Rudi’s torch tried to keep up. The bottles bobbled up and down precariously on the water. At once lit up and then lost again, they ducked and squirmed out of the torch’s glare, diving, bottoms upturned, and then round again, bouncing playfully on the surface.

Sploof! Sploof! It was my turn. Around the verandah, bottles lay floating, and Rudi, waist-deep in water, following our directions, stumbled over tree roots, grabbed at the bottles and stacked them under the crook of his arm, the torch flailing around and out of control with each trip until we heard a much bigger splash, a momentary silence, water spraying up onto the verandah, still warm, a collision of bottles.

Rudi had lost his balance. When we pulled him up on to the verandah, and he was soaked through and coughing and spluttering.

We left him to recover on the bamboo floor, Juana by his side ready to calm him down, as we fished out the bottles with a large fishing net from one of the locals.

The ones we didn’t find would have to make their own way to shore, said Kaeys.

From under the water we could still see the torch. Somehow lodged between two rocks, with its beam full on and pointed up at us like some strange undersea vessel, it peered out through crowds of tiny bemused fish.

The next day the story of our little adventure spread through the town. It was, I gather, greeted by a lot of laughter and cheering.

Kaeys became even more of a local hero, and immediately after the party, Juana rather nonplussed by the whole affair, left Rudi. Rudi, now cognizant of the locals attitude towards him, would also go on to leave the island. and, from what I hear, was not heard of again.

It wasn’t a question of choice, but with Rudi no longer there to support her, Juana left for Belize City, and in a way, we felt guilty of interfering with a business that we should have left well alone.

Daniel, Lise, and I left right after we heard about their split; we said our goodbyes to Kaeys and to Oscar on the dock. Before we could step onto the boat, Alberto came speeding out of the waiting crowds and handed Daniel a litre of tuba ginger wine for the journey. For helping to break his daughter’s engagement he actually thanked us!

What was better? To continue a single life in Belize City or to marry a coconut like Rudi, suggested Lise.

I handed Oscar some photographs of us, of Kaeys, of Oscar lazing on the beach, and then we stepped onto the gangplank. Up on deck, we continued to wave. Oscar, with his oversized cigar, and Alberto and Kaeys, waved back.

It was like saying goodbye to family. I was sorry to leave and had it not been for the fact that Daniel and Lise were due back in Miami, I might have stayed longer.

It was late afternoon and the sun was still high, no breeze, the turquoise water as calm and as fluorescent as when we arrived.

For me, that image will always be there, waving at the silent people on the shore, at a perfect island lit with polaroid colour so that I had to blink at its brightness and its beauty, at the glistening white buildings, at the halo halo bamboo bars lining the harbour, with a parting gift of fermented beer ginger wine still in my hand.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I turned to Lise and her eyes were gooey like a child’s, and so were Daniel’s. Daniel clasped Lise’s hand and Lise reached out to clasp my hand too, and then I realized that all of us felt the same.

A nod to island life with photos from Caye Caulker.

تسعة عشر. Girlfriends and Sisters Another Continent. La Ruta Maya
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