Friday, 13 April 2012

Doing the Tarantula Walk

It’s been a long day.  The bus finally pulls in to San Ignacio.  Hot and thirsty, I tumble out to be met by my taxi.  He’s expecting me. He looks dodgy, but then all the taxi drivers do and I’m ushered into another unlikely piece of machinery –  there are no shiny cars here. By this time I want to kick the dogs that plague your every step, skeletal or not.  We head for the hills.

I have arrived in Belize - my very first holiday all alone. Why Belize? It's got rain forests and ancient ruins, and they all speak English. After I'd booked my ticket for two whole weeks, someone asked me where Belize was, so I looked it up.

I'm here now, driving 10K on a bumpy dirt road right up into Mountain Pine Ridge, a tropical forest reserve right on the Guatemalan border overlooking the broad Macal River, The camp is exquisitely rustic. Little wooden casitas charmingly hidden in the jungle, with multi-coloured keel-billed toucans casually swooping between the trees.

I’m the only guest at the Chaa Creek Jungle Camp, but there's a swish spa complex out of sight over the headland - a sanctuary for rich Americans.  This afternoon Dossia, my local host, has coaxed a nocturnal tarantula out of its hole near the path with a stick.  Fat with downy legs, it’s almost charming, all sleepy and shy.  But now it’s midnight and I’m in the depths of the darkest jungle night.  Your eyes don't get used to it, it is solid black ink.  The camp is crawling with by now very wide-awake tarantulas.....and I need to pee.

The gas-lamp is out and there are no matches. A slow dread begins to envelop me. With a jolt I remember something.  I am arachnaphobic.  With no lights and only the vaguest memory of the path back up, I know I have to busk it. Nearly breaking my neck on the steps, I gingerly feel my way, and I just go next to my hut.  I leap back into my camp bed, my heart pounding. It’s my first night away  - and I’ve got the horrors.

Next day, bravado restored, I befriend an American honeymoon couple. They come from Oregon and invite me to visit. When there’s nobody else, it’s just so easy to make friends!  We eat and chat through the warm evening in the open-sided palapa.  It feels benign as gheckos scuttle around the rafters in the lamp light; a frog even lands on my foot - but I’m not spooked.  I’m relaxed, I’m with Americans.  I’m a cool independent English traveller.  We swap stories and Dossia chuckles as he remembers being stung by a black scorpion in the woodpile and had to be rushed to hospital. Hearing I don’t have a torch, the friendly American kindly gives me his little penlight.

Night two: I wake up again, and now I’m not entirely alone in the depths of the darkest jungle night.  My new friends are in the hut right next door. There's no way out. I am going to have to do the tarantuala walk.  

My shoes are next to the bed, so I feel for the penlight and shine my way. My insides turn to stone as the narrow silvery light catches a solitary leather glove in the middle of the floor, the size of a man' hand. Eight fat fingers and poised as if to strike.  It’s no glove. It’s a Wolf Spider. 

Time has stopped - this moment suspended forever in the tiny shaft of light. A discordant chord slowly fades in my consciousness. I'm paralysed and I can’t breathe.......

I need a break.  I'll finish this story next time. Let's talk food.  For a country that seems on the breadline, the food in Belize is really very good.  In every restaurant, on every single table there is a bottle of Marie Sharp's Chilli Sauce.  Eaten with everything it is a signature of Belize, and their habanero chillies.  There are a couple of recipes around, all more or less the same, except for the amount of chillies you put in.  Known in this country as scotch bonnet, they are very, very, very hot. After trying seven different shops, I finally found some. Bright shiny red, I bought two little bags, and set about. Some of us used gloves to de-seed, some of us didn't.

First tranche used 10 chillies, as one recipe suggested.  Easy and fun, but after a teeny taste, I very quickly made another lot using just 4. This I recommend, and also the gloves - even though I avoided the seeds, it was days before I could get my lenses anywhere near my eyes.

So here it is:  Belizean Hot chilli sauce:
Fry a finely chopped white onion in some oil.  Add 2 cloves of chopped garlic, and two or three chopped carrots.  Then some water, say a half cup and 3 Tbs of white wine vinegar plus the chopped chillies  Boil gently till carrots are tender.  Add 3 Tbs of lime juice, a tsp of salt - and whizz till very smooth.  Add a little more water if it is a bit thick. Pour into sterilized bottles or jars, and keep in the fridge.  Sheesh!