Simon Worrall first traveled to Belize more than 20 years ago to do a travel guide for Fodor’s. “It was just as Belize was getting on people’s radar,” he says. “I knew it was one of those remote corners of the British Empire, and I was intrigued.” Now Worrall, who has written about Patagonia, a fatal desert exodus, and other subjects for National Geographic, has collected three stories from various trips to the country over the years in an e-book called Coppola in Belize (and Other Adventures). National Geographic spoke with Worrall about the project.
You write with great affection about the country. Why are you so fond of it?
It’s only the size of Connecticut, but it’s got the second biggest barrier reef in the world, it’s got these wonderful jungle highlands, it’s got Mayan temples, and it’s got an amazing collection of people.
I think it’s still one of the few places in the world where the color of your skin really doesn’t matter — and that includes being white. Belize is the only country that has racial harmony built into the national flag, which shows two woodcutters cutting down a mahogany tree, one of the country’s big exports. One woodcutter is black and one is white, and there they are chopping down the tree together.
In the first story in the book, “A Hike Across the Vaca Plateau,” you and your companions undergo a sweaty, strenuous hike to the ancient Mayan city of Caracol.
What made that trip wonderful and memorable was Antonio, my guide. This man had lived as a chiclero for 20 years, clambering up trees with steel spurs to go after the chicle, which they used as chewing gum. He knew the bush backwards, inside and out, and all the animals. The highlight of the story, and the highlight of the trip, was that wonderful evening we spent around the campfire when Antonio told stories about all the animals. It was as good as Kipling’s Jungle Book, it really was. He had this inimitable delivery, with this sort of Spanishified English.
The trip was a grand adventure, but it wasn’t very comfortable. It was very buggy, very hot, very tiring, and there were loads and loads of snakes.
You seem to be particularly wary of fer de lance snakes.
That’s a mean and nasty creature. It is a particularly poisonous and aggressive snake. It’s one of the few snakes (the mamba is another one) that actually chase after you.
Did you ever see one?
I never did, luckily. I didn’t really want to, either. The part of the fer de lance story that bothered me the most was that the juveniles hang in the branches of the trees and then they drop down. Every time we were under a tree, I thought any minute now it’s going to drop down the back of my shirt and I will be out of here like a bullet.
Belize is known as a center of ecotourism, but your second story, “Paradise Lost,” recounts the construction of an environmentally damaging dam.
What dam doesn’t ruin the river it blocks? It’s really as simple as that. There’s never been a good dam built. It had a hugely adverse impact on the wildlife. The area was one of the last nesting sites of the scarlet macaw.
The great irony is that it was sold as Belize’s way of developing and securing cheap electricity for the people. Previously electricity had been imported in large quantities from Mexico. Lo and behold, since the building of the dam electricity prices have gone up by two or three times in Belize. The Chalillo dam was a big disaster. It never should have happened. It was really an aberration from Belize’s well-above average environmental track record.
For the last story in the collection, you managed to spend time with Francis Ford Coppola at his Belize resort.
It was in the early days that he was down there — my early days and his early days. He was much more open than he would be now. I just happened to hit lucky. He was in a very relaxed mood. We were invited to dinner. He just sat and talked and was completely compelling and fascinating. He talked about film, he talked about Belize, and he talked, wonderfully, about cooking. And then he cooked for us.
How was it?
You know, it was just your basic pasta – spaghetti, olive oil, canned tomatoes from New Orleans. You or I could make it but he made it so it was fantastic. What I always remember was that he was standing over this big pot of pasta boiling water and waiting for that moment when it was ready. I always remember him saying, “You gotta be brave enough to take it out just before it’s done.”
Do you have any plans to go back soon?
As soon as the leaves start to fall up here in Long Island, I start thinking about going back to Belize.
This interview has been edited and condensed.