Fumbled attempts at building my off-grid homestead in Belize

5-armando-mr-bo-and-me-holding-claySince moving to Central America five years ago, I’ve learned that paying the local men to do meaningful, productive work other than trying to marry me or get me pregnant can be met with cultural resistance: Here in the third world, I get the impression that most of the men are unaccustomed to having young, single women tell them what to do and for how much money. (I’m not talking about sex, though that’s an important topic worthy of discussion, not including the two photographed men). I’m talking about an equally important topic: building my own house and growing my own food, both of which I’m attempting, with fumbled trial and error, to accomplish here in the third world country of Belize as a solo woman.

The indigenous Belizeans, many of whom I have managed to turn into trusted friends, have commented about my unique situation: “La chica tiene huevos,” commented one astute observer in Spanish slang. (“The woman has balls”)…. And another observation by a Christian missionary friend of mine: “When you don’t have a husband, you have to wear the pants.” (No comment…. Well, okay, one comment: I wear pants whenever the hell I want to. It’s much more practical than a skirt most of the time).

Parama harvesting bamboo copyIf I had it my way, I wouldn’t have to pay skilled workers to do a job that I would much prefer to do myself. However, since I’ve hammered a nail into a piece of wood only a couple times in my life, I am obliged (for now) to hire my friends and coworkers–indigenous Mayan men–who’ve been building houses with materials straight out of the surrounding jungle since they were old enough to walk.

Mr. Bo, a Mayan elder and respected member of his community, lives in a tiny village within miles of where we work together at an ecolodge deep in the jungle of southern Belize. Over a year ago, I hired him to build my off-grid house, a humble 16×16 foot hut made from locally harvested wood with a rooftop made from the leaves of a local palm tree. I envisioned a structure that is somewhat different from what the Mayan people are accustomed to building. If you visit any of the Mayan villages in Belize, you will notice a homogeneous quality to the houses.

Being a nonconformist, I insisted that we try something new and different: I sketched a blueprint of exactly what I wanted and handed it to Mr. Bo. He puzzled over it for a few moments, placed my sketch on the table in front of us, rubbed his strong, weather-beaten hands together and said, “Okay, ma’am, you’re the boss. Whatever you want to do, we can do it.”

I thanked him for his vote of confidence. And for giving me the satisfaction of being called “boss” for the first — and hopefully last time in my life.

Parama's houseAll I knew was that I wanted my house to be built at least nine feet off the ground with a wrap-around porch from which to enjoy the view of the surrounding jungle. The height serves a threefold purpose: (1) to keep me away from the pesky sand flies that would otherwise bite the hell out of me, leaving itchy, swollen, red welts that last for days; (2) to catch a nice breeze off the nearby Caribbean Sea; and (3) to give me some sense of security while I sleep at night as high off the ground as possible, with a ladder that I can pull up into the house, rendering it difficult for anyone to enter from down below.

I don’t know; maybe I’m paranoid. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a single woman in a third world country where most men treat women like mere objects to be bossed around and/or baby factories. Mostly the latter. In Belize, most women have at least three kids. And not all from the same man. The locals are … prolific. Biologically speaking.

Here, I am an anomaly. Not only am I single at forty years of age, but I do not have kids. The local people, especially the women, frequently ask me why I don’t have kids. I am always reluctant to explain fully why I’ve carefully, purposely and conscientiously chosen not to be a breeder in my lifetime. It is a combination of philosophical, environmental, biological and spiritual reasons that I care not to expound on in this blog entry. My point is that being an anomaly within a homogenous culture that expects women to fulfill certain societal roles leaves me feeling at a loss for how to proceed here as a single woman. I find few role models worthy of my respect and admiration in this department. If you have suggestions, kindly share your thoughts in the comments.

A little more than three-thousand US dollars after hiring Mr. Bo and his talented crew, a lot of work still needs to be done. I have an unoccupied house lacking in infrastructure that would make it reasonably habitable: There is a frame but no walls, floorboards that still need to be nailed down, and a beautiful thatch roof that my neighbors, also off-grid homesteaders, attest is well-done. I wouldn’t know the difference.

A great segue to my next point: I am an intrepid, determined woman in charge of a job that I know little to nothing about. I have entrusted my hard-earned money and vision of a habitable home in the jungle to Mr. Bo and his chosen crew of workers, mostly his own sons and personal friends, who I can only assume must know what they’re doing. I know that I don’t know what I’m doing, other than what seems to be a good idea.

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My house is fully self-funded with money that I have earned through work done by my own two hands as a massage therapist rubbing tourists on vacation in Belize. I live frugally and simply here, so I find it easy to save money and invest in things that I think matter most, like having my own house and a small garden of vegetables and fruit trees on my one-acre property.

I wish that at the end of the day I could bask in the satisfaction of having gotten my hands dirty by doing the work myself. But the honest-to-God’s truth is that I pay people to do it for me. I mostly stand by and watch or get busy chatting with people on Facebook while the boys’ foreheads drip with sweat and their heartbeats quicken from the physical effort. My heart is still broken. Abandoned by my partner and most of my family members who would agree that I must have lost my mind, I am without a companion to share in the adventure. At least for now, I carry on with staunch self-reliance.

I go to bed clutching my pillow to my breast, dreaming of a day when I can rest, nestled in the arms and warmth of kindred spirits who are as passionate and dedicated as I must be about living life of service to the calling in our hearts. For me, it’s been a lonely endeavor, as it is for most people who choose to follow their own path instead of the one laid out for them by the mainstream.

Since I was a child, I’ve been a misfit. I spent most of my teenage years, thankfully before the age of Internet and Google, with my nose buried in books, including the gargantuan set of Britannica encyclopedias that my father bought and shelved in my bedroom. “These are for you,” he told me, and whenever I had a question about anything in the world, he told me, “Go look it up. Tell me what you learn.”

I learned from my brilliant father to not only be stubborn and self-reliant, but to love books and book learning (Thanks, Dad. I know you’re reading this. Thank you)…. I graduated valedictorian of my high school class and had the nerve-racking privilege of rehearsing and delivering my valedictory speech, in which I quoted the transcendentalists, encouraging my classmates to lead a life of nonconformity.

I didn’t know at the time that my radical views would take me to such faraway places on a journey motivated by ideals that I had only begun to formulate in my young mind, influenced by poets and philosophers who I imagine also suffered from the same torturous sense of isolation that I’ve felt every day of my adult life, as I fail to find many people with whom to share my radicalism. Yes, they’re out there, but usually, they are too focused on their own missions to bother with mine.

Today I had planned for Mr. Bo and his workers to go nail down my floorboards, deliver more topsoil for the garden that is now drying up, and to spray a toxic poison to kill the relentless termites that would otherwise chew up my house and turn it into a collapsing deck of playing cards within weeks, if left unsprayed.

I was looking forward to having a house with an actual floor where I might be able to walk around, do yoga, … hell, maybe invite a friend or two…. So, I called Mr. Bo on his cell phone. (Yes, poor Mayan villagers use cell phones … in remote jungles, no less. And Internet. In remote jungles). “Yes, ma’am?” he answered. “Where are you?” I asked him. He snickered. “I’m out in a di bush,” he replied in a Belizean Kriol accent. (This means that he was out working in the jungle). With excellent cell phone reception. “Are you going to work on my house today?” I asked him.

I interrupt here to inform you, dear reader (Hey, thanks for reading!) that this conversation with Mr. Bo was the inspiration for writing today’s blog entry with the title, “Fumbled attempts at building my off-grid homestead in Belize”. Incidentally, as I look below my writing desk just now, a fuzzy tarantula is slowly crawling beside my feet. I should put a leash on him, give him a name and tie him up next to my bed at night to protect me…. (But that’s no way to treat your man).

Let’s get back to my cell phone conversation with Mr. Bo: “Are you going to work on my house today?” to which Mr. Bo replied, “Not today, ma’am.”

“Not today? … When?” I asked him, suddenly feeling an uncomfortable feeling of frustration and (as usual)… isolation.

He went on to explain that he had gone to work on his farm instead. I put the phone down and thought about it for a few minutes before … reacting. Mr. Bo is a skilled tradesman in high demand for his excellent work and trustworthiness. He works hard at low-paying jobs five to six days per week with precious little time off. He also supports a wife and eight children who depend on him to not only bring home fiat currency but also to cultivate and harvest corn, rice, beans and vegetables from their family farm.

Today was probably the first day in weeks that Mr. Bo had available to take advantage of the dry, cool weather: ideal time here in Belize to work in the field. A magnificently beautiful country where only 20% of the land base is inhabited by humans, the Belizean government issues land to all Belizean residents, most of whom still know how to work the land, grow their own food and live sustainably with minimal carbon footprint. The Belizeans are blessed with fertile land, bountiful natural resources and a warm climate that makes growing food year-round possible, if you can handle sweating profusely in the sometimes debilitating heat.

So, I took all of this into account and forgave Mr. Bo for working on his farm instead of on my house. I reflected on it all day and took it as a lesson that if I am not willing or able to do the work myself, I just have to be patient and wait till somebody can do it for me. Or pick up a hammer and start slamming nails in myself. But I always seem to have excuses, like, “I have to work” … or… “I have to go check my emails…” or…. (the latest one) “I have to write my novel”. Maybe the latter is a reasonably good excuse. Few people can write novels. I happen to be able to. People like Mr. Bo happen to be good at other things, like building houses. So I pay him.

I only pretend to be an off-grid homesteader. The reality is that I’m a poser. (Really, I do lots of yoga). I own an acre of land and I pay people like Mr. Bo to work for me (while I do yoga). I have a long way to go before I can honestly claim to know anything useful about maintaining a productive homestead or a garden. I would like to believe that someday I can get there….

In the meantime, I offer therapeutic massage and spa services as well as daily yoga classes at a charming ecolodge in southern Belize, a forty-five minute ride south of the nearest town where my house sits, waiting for me to call it home.

“Myth” by Delerium

It’s a weird game
I’m lonely without skin
No end to begin and only
your mind to hide in
I nudge life
like an unborn child

A dream inside but now I live behind your eyes
I’m uninvited

I’m only a memory that comes through

I’m living in your dreams
I’m where you cannot be
I’m way out of your reach

I’m living in your dreams
I’m where you cannot see

Is it you or is it me?

I can’t protect what you can’t forget
but now I live behind your eyes
You recognize me as only a memory
that comes through

I’m living in your dreams
I’m where you cannot go
beyond everything you know
I’m living in your dreams
You won’t find me anywhere
I’ve vanished in the air

Discovering a nest of baby mice in my yoga mat

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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.

house-from-inside-copyWhether 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.

turtle-in-road-copy

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)….

Parama hugging tree at Palenque copyAs 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.

img_0907At 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.

img_0906I 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.

img_0905So, 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.

img_0913I 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.

img_0910Deep breaths. Deep belly breaths….

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;

To love.

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***

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!