On the idea of “making landfall”—while riding out one hell of a storm on the Mayan Apocalypse in Belize’s Turneffe Atoll.
There we were, bodies and souls packed into a Belize mess hall on the last night of our lives. Huddled in a structure convulsing on sticks above the Caribbean Sea. Rain drove sideways and wind slammed our remote beach in bursts. Across from me my family sat, plates of whitefish supper untouched. Our thumbs lay latched on the table’s edge, our ears tuned to the storm’s advance, our brows beading from humidity and strain.
It was the winter solstice, December 21, 2012. It was also the Mayan Apocalypse, the world’s end as the ancients foretold it, a cataclysm forecast for centuries. Seers differed on the force and form the catastrophe would take. Solar flares, an asteroid hitting Earth, a reversal of global rotation might all befall. If you credited those who foretold the Mayan Apocalypse, if you believed them, the coastlines of the planet’s largest water bodies were apt to see tsunamis sweep in. Big waves would crash, would make landfall. And when they did, woe betide the puny humans who had chosen to take shelter there.
The worst hurt would be sure to occur where the Maya people lived. The flat land of coastal Belize, its lack of vertical relief, exposes it, as does its absence of rivers. The region’s susceptibility to cataclysm was legendary. My mind’s eye ratified the dire claims I’d read. For all we knew, the projected planetary apocalypse might even take the shape of a smoldering norovirus. The only certainty was that we were feeling nauseous.
To worsen our numerological timing in Belize, we had arrived on the 12th day of the 12th month of 2012. After touring the mainland, we clambered aboard a deep-draft diesel craft in Belize City. Our destination: a string of coral islets to the east, on the outer limits of Belize, part of a Caribbean storm belt where 16 hurricanes have felled thousands of people since the 1930s. In an image out of horror schtick, I envisioned the bones of human casualties stacked and gathering sand on that ring of former coral, that skeletal heap of marine invertebrates, that remote Turneffe Atoll where we were eating.
Truth to tell, I have never relished travel. I agree to international outings to please my spouse. Mine is a tender gesture, a token of devotion, no matter how white-knuckled I might be. After all, everyone loves to travel. Whole industries are dedicated to travel’s propagation. And marriage, like politics, is the art of constant compromise. Even so, my nerves begin to jangle like a car door left ajar whenever Karen packs us up to go abroad.
Underwater volcanoes called seamounts begin the lives of atolls. Pimply volcanic fissures or hotspots leak and lift from the seafloor. Corals thrive around them, both above and below sea level. As primal coral colonies die, new ones grow on their ancestors’ remains, even when bleached by climate variability and trashed by hurricanes today. Trapping sand, fostering vegetation, reef-built atolls foster shaky habitat for indigenous marine creatures and people. Like lava sizzling out to sea, dead coral generates new land.
But atolls can be vulnerable places in anything but tender weather, and Belize has three of the only four atolls in the Western hemisphere. Turneffe, the largest, measures ten by 30 miles in size. For a December week in that New World—as Shakespeare and his contemporaries named the Americas—we booked resort time to snorkel and explore.
On our way out to that easternmost seaboard of Belize, lines from Shakespeare’s 1611 play The Tempest bobbed to the surface of my awareness. Only Shakespeare could have crafted notable poetry out of drowning. Only he could have fashioned earworms out of verse. The lines are from a song by Ariel, that servant-spirit who flits about the heads of shipwreck victims in the play. Ariel sings or whispers truth or nonsense in their ears:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those were pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
The wise wizard Prospero, marooned on the tropical island with others, releases Ariel from witchy bondage in a tree. We see that magic imbues our earliest English literature in the New World. Shakespeare’s title, The Tempest, denotes a violent windstorm. The word hurricano or hurricane, for a storm specific to the West Indies, had yet to come in play.
Charles Darwin wrote about atolls. In his Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, Darwin defined atolls as “circular groups of coral islets.” Turneffe Atoll he named “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies.” Only the Great Barrier Reef of Australia exceeds it in size. Darwin’s word “islet,” for a tiny island, suggests a certain shakiness, even a transience. What hurricanes build by killing coral, hurricanes also can destroy.
Turneffe’s human population is sparse. Four resorts, a research center, and several fishing camps comprise the only permanent structures. Even the word permanent need be applied advisedly, enclosed in scare quotes. When windstorms barrel across atolls, palms topple, bird nests crumble, human occupants cringe. The worst storms suffocate coral. Legends on our maps ought to caution visitors to abide at their own risk. Script beside a hurricane icon might read, Here be high winds and little of terra firma to obstruct them.
Decades before Darwin, Alexander Hamilton underwent a Caribbean cataclysm. The future coauthor of The Federalist Papers worked as a clerk in 1772 for a mercantile firm on the island of St. Croix. He was homesick, only 17 years of age, when a tsunamic hurricane unnerved him. In such a meteorological event, thunder and lightning and great waves combine. His tsunami heaved ships far inland, some of them hundreds of yards. Their masts shattered, gunwales crumpled, hulls turned upside down. Hamilton wrote about the ordeal in a letter to his father who read it from an outpost farther south in the Caribbean. The namesake musical immortalizes that period of the young man’s life.
Massive waves flowed inland at St. Croix, leveling plantations and homes. Upland soil liquefied, flowed seaward, much like a volcanic lahar. I would have felt less frazzled had I read Hamilton’s famous letter only after we got home. His description of the tsunamic hurricane weighed on me, compounded my misgivings. It echoed the ancients who had prophesied, with numerical certitude, the date and nature of the Mayan Apocalypse. “In a word,” Hamilton wrote, “misery in all its most hideous shapes spread over the whole face of the country.” The word tsunami translates from the Japanese for “harbor wave.”
The key song from the musical Hamilton is titled “Hurricane.” Its refrain line is “I wrote my way out.” Lin Manuel-Miranda asserts that Hamilton wrote his way into history and back stateside with his forceful letter. “When I was 17, a hurricane / destroyed my town,” the musical’s lyrics say. “I didn’t drown / I couldn’t seem to die / I wrote my way out.” Miranda sees Hamilton as a forerunner of hip-hop artists who pull themselves up from obscurity and poverty today to gain great accomplishment and acclaim. Miranda, coincidentally, is the name of the wizard Prospero’s daughter in the Shakespeare play.
Hamilton’s mentor in St. Croix, Presbyterian minister Hugh Knox, asked him to send his letter to the local paper, the Royal Danish American Gazette. The florid letter offered a “divine rebuke for human vanity and pomposity,” in the words of biographer Ron Chernow. Readers seemed to have been eager for a spiritual scolding, though. The eloquence and piety so impressed the locals in St. Croix they initiated a “subscription” to pack away the future U.S. Treasury secretary to New York to start his formal education.
In his letter Hamilton recalled, “The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels.” Such natural phenomena as hurricanes and tsunamis continue to inspire devotional writings today. Petitioners on social media implored their families and friends in 2017 to “Pray for Houston” in the fatal aftershock of Hurricane Harvey.
Like the adage “there are no atheists in foxholes,” terrors stirred by conflagrations in the clouds condition believers to find fresh errors to confess. “The scenes of horror exhibited around us,” Hamilton wrote, “naturally awakened such ideas in every thinking breast, and aggravated the deformity of every failing of our lives.” Evangelical preachers and alt-right firebrands today interpret damaging cataclysms in the Gulf of Mexico as unpaid debts come due, as the just desserts of humankind. Environmentalists sometimes fall into kindred pits of recrimination, bombastically identifying every atmospheric catastrophe as the product of our industrial extravagance, the fruit of our unwisdom and our greed.
In the decades since Hamilton and Darwin wrote, though, climate change has made coastlines more susceptible. Cataclysmic storms devastate in greater proportions than before. Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Sandy in 2012, and Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017 offer fresh reminders. Some deniers insist that there’s no need for alarm, that such storms are “500-year events,” even “1,000-year events.” Never mind the seeming fluke that five such storms should have made landfall in a space of 12 years. Dozens of unfortunates perished in Sandy, hundreds in Harvey, thousands in Katrina and Maria. The needy always get hit the hardest. The poor have always taken it on the chin.
The film Beasts of the Southern Wild allegorizes Hurricane Gustav’s impact on subsistence-level families outside New Orleans. Six-year-old Hush Puppy and her daddy wade indoor swamps as dreary as those outside. I watched the film in the company of two academic scholars with whom I’m friendly. They rejected it for its squalor. Had I felt like quarreling, I’d have said the squalor in the movie is the purpose and point. The grotesque beasts that tusk across Louisiana’s flooded landscape personify our dearth of ecological forethought and our social systems’ flaws. The Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico are living laboratories. Insurance firms are watching them closely as weather extremities trend north.
Our sojourn on Turneffe Flats was the last visit my family and I would make in Central America before we flew back home to the states. Those aptly named flats on the slender tip of a north-facing isthmus expose occupants to violent weather on all sides.
In our mess hall, I sat silent with my spouse and our two boys. The whitefish dish before us, hot fats congealing, seemed to wink at us. I dabbed my brow. When windstorms make landfall, the terrain can fall. It can fail. The soil can slump, become a slurry, slip to sea, we hopeful sojourners sometimes with it.
My gut and fancy confirmed those agitated facts. If, as the old myths say, gods still regulate the region’s weather, then the original inhabitants of Belize might at last achieve some retribution after centuries of conquest.
Belize became a Crown colony named “British Honduras” in 1862. A century later, as the last U.K. protectorate in the Americas, it gained a modicum of independence. Renamed Belize in 1973, it became a Commonwealth realm in 1981, Queen Elizabeth as its head of state. Most residents are mestizos, mixed Spanish and Maya. African and European Creoles speak varied dialects of English; the Garifuna people descend mostly from Carib Indians and Africans. Belize is a Bangladesh in miniature, one whose luckless geography has set up the nation for disaster. Both countries feature flat and low-lying land, massed populations, widespread poverty, and a dearth of defensive infrastructures.
North Americans are buying up Belize for investments, retirements, and escape. Some are building tourist attractions, carving out condos, throwing up second homes, or winging in to revel as if there’s no mañana. Ecological ethics try to guide us to do what’s right, and we harbor hopes that wisdom will prevail, but those hopes fade when we come to expect jets, planes, taxis, vans, golf carts, and boats on the go. When foodstuffs have to be flown in to meet expectations of privileged clients. Sustainable travel is an oxymoron.
My family is an arguable part of the problem. Enticed by natural wonders of the world, we swimmers and eco-tourists had grown fascinated by the nation. We yearned to experience its barrier reef; longed to chance it, even if we should teeter on that Central American isthmus, even if the weather endeavored to shrug us off. Storms might huff, puff, and crack their cheeks in greeting, challenge our nerves, shudder our very structures.
Around the dining table at Turneffe Flats resort, the Mayan Apocalypse loomed large in mind. Our fellow travelers, their faces blanching, did not seem to feel like eating any more than we did. Maybe a pestilence had descended. Chairs were pulling away from the table as if spun by a centrifuge; our chance companions were scattering back to their separate cabins, their rustic holiday cocoons. On the table’s edge our eight thumbs rested like so many skate deterrents bolted to a stairway or a bench. As if by force of will we could deter the storm from coming, thwart the queasiness from stripping us of our fun.
Maybe too much sun had afflicted our companions. They had been scuba diving or casting lines from open boat decks most of that hot day, hoping to hook tarpon, permit, or bonefish on the tide flats. This part of the world is a major destination for fishing enthusiasts. Sunlight had refracted and inflamed their faces, had peeled their skin in strips. They looked fried. Waves had churned them. Maybe their digestive systems were shaky from the deep-water dives, maybe the resort cuisine was tainted, maybe a clever shipboard virus had stowed away. Or maybe—superstition hissed and whispered—the indigenous gods were bending from above to pluck the flimsy tinsel from our wings.
Walking to the mess hall after dark, we saw bats droop like furry fruit. Had we read them better, we’d have picked up on the weather. They knew the storm was coming. Under palm fronds they bunched and huddled against the advancing wind and rain. Karen and I were also huddling, worried we had imperiled our kids. One son 12, the other 15, they were growing jaundiced right beside us. Chase had gamed his way across Belize on a handheld computer, mindful of little else besides its pulsing screen. His older brother Reed had taken scuba lessons back home with me to ready for our tropical stay.
A branch cracked, whacked the shell of the building, and sweat slicked the crown of my head. Karen never gets sick. She fancies travel all the time—from dusty Western towns to Mediterranean watering holes. Despite a cast-iron gullet and basketball-player frame, she was also growing pale. She shot glances at me above the heads of our kids. Her image shimmered. It was as if we had entered some fantasy by Poe. Unseen forces were having their way, were taking charge. The known world had turned topsy-turvy.
In crisis times the faces of the afflicted and the frightened gleam less green, as clichés have it, than pallid, pasty, sagging, drained. Ruddy blood empties the extremities, pools in the trunk. How, I wondered, might medical science explain such transformation? At the end of a cycle foretold by prophets of antiquity for a millennium, my family’s facial features were drooping and caving in like jack-o-lanterns left outdoors too long.
Before Columbus made landfall, blood was thought to nourish the indigenous gods. Parched in a salty land, buffeted raw by windstorms, Belizean deities demanded propitiation. Sacrifice took many forms, but only high-born prisoners could make high grade. Some had their hearts torn out on altars. Others underwent decapitation. Prisoners of war were apt to get swallowed alive by the sinkholes the Spaniards called cenotes. Those cenotes also often served as burial chambers for the people. We saw skulls on ledges far inside caves when locals in paddle crafts guided us with powerful spotlights.
The Spanish conquest of Yucatán and other regions south of Mexico began in 1527. Maya warriors wielded bows and arrows, hurled stones and flint-tipped spears. Their cotton armor did little to repel Spanish lances, rapiers, and crossbows. The Maya patron of war, Pax, displayed jaguar paws above the ears and a dislocated lower jaw. Unlike the same-named Roman goddess of peace, this Pax vomited blood in hectic rites.
Caricatures of indigenous folk-art peeped out wherever we went, horologists and mathematicians having been reduced to knick-knacks and gewgaws, diminished to icons to be imprinted on our eyeballs, used as brands to lure us to purchase them as keepsakes and take them home. On airport walls in bas-relief, in museums rank with mold, on T-shirts and nylon caps, comic drawings reminded us that English has become the national tongue and that imperialism often debases indigenous folks. We saw them at their work. They labored as maids, cooks, grounds crews, and silent skimmers of swimming pools.
On the mainland, guides and drivers toted us to snorkeling hotspots and temples. Gracias por sus propinas, their longhand signs entreated, encouraging us to give them tips. Boys split coconuts so we could sip the milk and eat the flesh. Wearing a brave face, I endeavored to enjoy it all. In the shadow of the Mayan Apocalypse, liberal guilt held me in its stern grip. First-world privilege was tainting every sip and bite of paradise I tried.
A lanky teenager, Eduardo, lived near our rental on the mainland. Dogs bellowed at us from the beach house his family occupied. He guided us, no mention of donations or tips, to secret habitations to see birds and fish. He pointed out hidden lizards we walked by. Under his guidance, our introverted younger offspring unglued his eyes from his tiny screen to take in the tropical world. Eduardo seemed lonesome. He behaved as if by some cultural osmosis he might be able to transcend his circumstances in Belize. His quick gift was to split coconuts with a machete. We winced to see him grasp the nut and whack it.
A fringe theory holds that the Mayans and Aztecs have returned from the dead, from their defunct former lives. Reincarnated, they’ve adapted to modern ways. Some of them hawk pieces of the past, real or invented, if only to get by. In nearby Chiapas, the Zapatista manufacture murals and woodcuts. They practice a revolutionary solidarity.
U.S. neocolonialism is the third cultural tsunami to siege Belize, a third wave to make landfall following onslaughts by Spanish invaders and occupation by the British. With luck, our U.S. presence might only alter indigenous lifeways and not destroy them. U.S. imperialist ambitions have shifted from acquiring territories to influencing governments now to aid our economic and strategic interests. Worse, our first-world industrial vapors also cause atmospheric commotion. If you credit the stunned majority of climate scientists, that is, if you believe we humans are contributing to a changing global climate. The U.S., as a major contributor of atmospheric carbon, bears the lion’s share of credit. The owners of Turneffe Flats, U.S. businessmen, opened the resort as encore enterprises for themselves.
When Hurricane Mitch blew by Belize in 1998, it sustained winds of 180 miles an hour. Keith followed it in 2000, Earl in 2016. Bits of atoll dislodged and slumped. White-sand beaches vanished, crocodile-nesting sites suffocated under tons of sudden silt, coral gardens expired and bleached dead white in time. Manatees in mangrove forests survived, though. We saw them lolling, those bewhiskered mermaids of chaos and old night. Their undersea adaptability proved fortuitous. Their blobby shapes offered nothing we humans craved.
The owners of Turneffe Flats chose to rebuild again and again. Or, one might say, their insurance policies afforded rebuilds that raised their already high client rates. After Mitch made landfall in 1998, the island was a mess, they admitted: boat dock destroyed, imported beach sand sucked out to sea. Again in 2016 the on-shore dock, the dock-house, and the fueling station all went down, as did twin seawalls and 20 large palm trees. Sixty tons of lumber had to be hauled in that year, 25 yards of concrete poured.
Entrepreneurs like to call such atolls “islands.” In doing so, they are enacting PR and offsetting some of the looming likelihood of liability. Even the major maps tend to disagree on whether Turneffe is an atoll or an actual ring of islands. Nowadays, activist agendas are prompting resort owners to shift toward a form of public relations known as issues management. Risky business, that is, generates issues needing to be managed, doctored by U.S.-minted MBAs. As Darwin noted so long ago, atolls are unstable islets, a loan word from the French to express a diminutive kind of island. A less-steady kind.
When we visited in 2012, a non-governmental organization’s lobbying campaign was wrapping up. All 131,000 hectares had come under protection as the Turneffe Atoll Marine Reserve. Victory for the forces of sustainability!
Within three years, though, a fresh business venture violated all guidelines agreed upon to solidify the reserve. It also breached all applicable national laws. North American speculators, before anyone could sound an alarm or slow them, had deforested five acres of those stubby and salt-loving mangrove trees. Contractors went in and dredged a harbor, carved out a seaport, redistributed the dredged rock and sand and shells and coral to elevate the middle of the site and ready it for building. After the illegal excavation, mud and silt plumed out to sea.
A nonprofit land trust filed suit against the developers and the relevant agencies. The Belizean ambassador to the United States returned no emails or phone calls seeking information on the status of the spat; I had no legal traction from afar. Legal proceedings also take ages when they entail such low priorities as land use. Then, too, damage to the ecosystem had already been done. The property came back to market and no doubt it will sell, no matter how it is encumbered. In 2018 it was being advertised online as a prime site for a fishing resort, a potential competitor to Turneffe Flats where we stayed.
Speculators need to prevail only once; ecologists must win sustainability battles time after time. Indigenous Belizeans are survivors; venture capitalists can be relentless.
It is a human construction, this making landfall. In past centuries, we used the term to denote the solace of terra firma after arduous seafaring. Sailors welcomed solid land after weeks at sea. Sighing relief, they equated soil with respite and salvation. Poet Ann Stanford spoke at a 1986 conference about landfalls in the colonial mind as prototypes of earthly hope. Today the phrase takes on sinister connotations. Storms, not people, make landfall now.
Hurricanes—those juggernauts of wind, those counterclockwise velocidromes—we assign them people’s names. Female names till 1978, male names at last today. We anthropomorphize or humanize big storms. If the old salts prayed for landfalls to arrive, residents of tropical shorelines nowadays are praying for the hurricanes to stay away.
The semantic range of making landfall has broadened to indict the natural world. Those incubators of wind, the seven seas, decline to be compliant highways for pleasure craft and commerce. A bumper sticker reminds us, or informs those who never knew, that “Nature bats last.” Marine ecologies used to warrant submission and respect. That respect is evaporating rapidly within the tourist industry. We think we’re sacrosanct. Technical hubris now places at risk wild species, boaters, tourists, and indigenous locals on atolls.
As I tumble through unfamiliar lands, a relentless out-of-placeness often afflicts me. A reflexive ache or disorder overtakes. In a facade of innocence, I interrogate myself at times. I ask exactly what I am doing abroad. In Belize in 2012, I was being dined on a remote atoll. Salt-encrusted, sapped from snorkeling a dead coral garden, my brave face bending at the edges, the swim gear I’d spread to dry outside now getting drenched.
In a fever dream that stormy evening, I tied my family high on palm trees so they might outlive the atmospheric onslaught, survive the nasty weather. Odysseus, longing to wallow in the Sirens’ sonic splendor, asked to be lashed to his own mainmast. Nauseous me, I’d have urged those singers to all lie quiet, the Caribbean surf to suspend its surge.
Cocooned in our cabin built on stilts, we suffered no cataclysm after all. My body clock had sounded a false alarm. I felt like a dope to have gone so gullible. The Mayan millennium broke, welcome light arrived, and the structures that housed us all held up.
For the time being, the Turneffe Atoll in Belize remains accessible and viable commercially. If you decide to go, you will pay a pretty farthing for the privilege. You will gaze to the northwest, toward Jamaica, the quarter from which big windstorms drive.
Read “The Trumpets of Solitude,” an essay by Paul Lindholdt appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo of the Turneffe Atoll by Ethan Daniels, courtesy Shutterstock.