When you visit southern Belize for vacation, or in my case, when you come here to live and thrive, you join the lives of jungle animals and plants in this lush, vibrant habitat — where biodiversity can be seen, felt and heard every day by anyone lucky enough to come in contact with it. Close encounters with species that make this jungle paradise their home are common experiences for guests and residents of the Toledo district of southern Belize.
Five years ago I left my career in the U.S. to move to Central America and purchase an acre of land in tropical Belize (a tiny country just south of Mexico with coastline along the Caribbean Sea), where I’ve launched myself into the adventure of a lifetime building my own off grid home with the company and help of my neighbors and friends, many of whom are also ex-pats like me who share the common dream of living unconventionally and sustainably in a place where we can grow our own food year-round amidst fertile soils and a pleasant, laid back culture of beautifully diverse animals, including the people.
Whether it’s a blue morpho butterfly fluttering from tree to tree, a turtle slowly making its way across your path, or a fuzzy tarantula lumbering across the walkway, I am thrilled and fascinated every day to see and interact with teeming jungle life. I think the local Mayan villagers, who are my friends and neighbors, agree that Belize is unique for its pristine, intact natural resources.
We lucky residents of Belize are accustomed to finding enormous spiders, rodents of unusual size and frighteningly large insects taking up residence in our thatch roof homes made of wood from trees harvested locally and sustainably. Forget about hermetically sealing your home in layers of toxic paint, sheetrock and wallpaper: Here in the tropics, the houses are made of natural materials that can breathe, which means here we let the air in and by default, the animals and insects often find their way inside and share space with us. I can personally attest to this common, everyday occurrence, as I am currently in the process of building a 16 X 16 foot thatch roof hut in the middle of second-growth rainforest on the edge of a mangrove creek.
Yesterday morning I awoke to find a gargantuan spider inches from my face. The day before, I absentmindedly pulled on my leather cowgirl boots without first shaking them out, only to discover that a spider of similarly gigantic proportions had found a comfortable haven in the dark coolness of my boot, and luckily I spared her life by feeling her wriggling against my foot, swiftly removing the boot and sending her on her hopefully merry way.
Back to the spider in my bed… Since I’ve lived here for five years now, I was unfazed. (I’ve had stranger bedfellows, namely a scorpion inches from my nose)…. I greeted my eight-legged arachnid brethren with a hearty “Good morning!” and calmly proceeded to corral him into a jar, which I then sealed and carried outside, where I promptly freed this exquisite creature to continue living. Why should I kill a spider? He eats insects that could bite me. I am thankful for the intricate web of life that naturally stays in perfect balance (well… if it weren’t for the cumulative detrimental impact of humans on the natural world, but that’s another story)….
As the Manager of the Spa and Wellness Center at Cotton Tree Lodge, an eco-lodge located deep in the jungle of southern Belize, I offer therapeutic massage and unique spa services in a thatch roof spa overlooking an emerald green river as well as daily morning sunrise yoga in a charming riverside gazebo decorated with the large carved wooden faces of the Mayan ancestors, in honor of Belize’s history as an empire of the Maya heartland. While you’re visiting, you can visit the nearby Mayan temples and ruins, which I highly recommend: Here in Belize, there’s little regulation or restriction on how close you can get to the actual stones and sacred sites. Here, you can immerse yourself in the beauty and wonder of the land, the people, and the thousands of other species that share a home in the rainforest.
At 6:00 AM this morning, a pleasantly warm and refreshing breeze beckoned me to my yoga mat, and just as I entered my riverside yoga studio, I heard intermittent squeaking noises emerging from … somewhere. I searched the room and discovered that the sound was coming from a wicker basket that holds my yoga mats. When I opened the cover of the basket, out popped a rather large and frightened gray mouse with round, black beady eyes and a look of terror. She leapt out from the basket, pounced to the floor and ran away faster than my eye could see, disappearing from sight.
I can imagine how reluctant Momma Mouse was at that moment to have abandoned her brood in order to save her own life: I peered into the basket to discover the family she’d left behind. There were three newborn baby mice nestled in a mound of shredded material–some of which consisted of yoga mat bits–at the bottom of the basket. Upon closer inspection, I surmised that Momma Mouse must have spent hours diligently nibbling away at not only my yoga mats, but also the basket itself, to construct a plush and comfortable nest for her babies.
I could have let myself fall into a state of upset at the inconvenient loss of a precious yoga mat, not to mention the urgent clean-up job left to my hands, but that would not have been very yogic-like, nor could I blame Momma Mouse. I would have done the same thing if given the opportunity. I had been out of town and away from my yoga studio for four days, giving her a perfect chance to find an ideal birthing place and nest for her new family in a quiet, undisturbed place. What momma wouldn’t want that?
In anticipation of the imminent arrival of humans wanting to take my yoga class, I quickly set to work on the important task of removing the tiny bodies of three terrified baby mice from my yoga mat basket, all the while wondering where Momma Mouse had run off to, and if she would ever return to retrieve her now very vulnerable babies. I thought about the plethora of predatory snakes and vultures surrounding us, eager to find such tasty morsels for breakfast. I contemplated whether it would be compassionate (and therefore yogic-like) for me to kill them with a fatal blow beneath a heavy object, but I instantly opted to spare their lives, assuming that their mother would run back to them and carry them off to another safe nest as soon as possible. It was my hope and morning yoga intention, anyway, to give three baby rodents a chance to live.
So, I carried the yoga mat basket outside the yoga studio, tilted it on its side, and carefully reached in to extract the three squealing creatures one by one between my fingers. Their hearts were beating rapidly, their eyes still unopened, a thin layer of gray fuzz just forming over their bodies. I put the nest their mother had made for them on the ground beneath the nearest walkway (out of the sight of hungry birds) and tenderly deposited each one of them in hopes that Momma Mouse would run to their rescue as soon as I was out of the way.
My heart sank when I realized at that moment that there may have been a better way for me to have extracted the babies: Maybe I should not have handled them in my bare fingers. I remembered the time my father found a nest of baby robins that had fallen from our oak tree in a quaint New England suburb, where I was born and raised. He had donned gloves and attempted to return the nest to the tallest branch, informing me that if he touched the nest with his bare hands, the mother bird would reject her babies because of the human scent left behind.
I wondered if the baby mice would be abandoned by Momma Mouse for the same reason and berated myself for impulsively lifting their tender, fuzzy bodies in my fingers. I could have used a tool or a large leaf … but maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference. The jungle can be harsh, life isn’t fair, and babies don’t always get to grow up to become adults. Many obstacles can be found along the way. Most of them fatal.
Being a yoga teacher, I found myself softly chanting a mantra, not only to soothe the baby mice, but to honor and appreciate the precious gift of life, its vulnerability, the opportunity I have to be alive, here, right now…. I breathed deeply and listened to the baby mice squealing, imploring their mother to come for them….
I did my hour-long yoga practice, occasionally stepping outside to see if the babies had been rescued. They squealed softly the entire time, their desperate cries an ambient background noise for my morning yoga and meditation routine, which took on a new dimension in the context of this life-or-death situation: I was steadily reminded that everything is temporary, including my body and my life upon this Earth… that I can be deeply thankful for being alive in this moment, to be breathing, because it can all be taken away at any instant.
As usual, I ended my yoga routine with several minutes of seated, silent meditation. When I opened my eyes, I looked down and noticed a tiny lady-bug-like insect with a polka-dotted exoskeleton sitting at my feet, as if waiting to speak with me.
I spontaneously composed a poem:
I was born into this world tender and vulnerable
Every day of my life, yearning for the same things:
to eat, to be clothed, to be soothed, to belong
to be well fed and taken care of
to know someone is there to hold me and keep me safe
to make a soft nest and be close to the warm body of another;
Parama K. Williams is a published author with a Master of Arts in Education and fifteen years of international experience as a U.S. Licensed, Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher. Five years ago, she left her career in the U.S. to purchase an acre of fertile land in Belize, Central America, where she currently lives in an off grid, thatch roof hut. She offers yoga classes, therapeutic massage and retreats internationally.
Check out her latest published books here.
Join Parama on the next wellness retreat (March 11th, 2017) on a white sand beach overlooking the Caribbean Sea in tropical Belize!