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Published: July 20th 2006
This day was our only full day in Crooked Tree. It was my favourite day of our trip (followed closely by our day snorkling at the beach) because I was able to learn so much about Joe and his family, as well as experience the real Belize. We were able to see how people live, and were able to feel the warmth, first hand, of the people who had welcommed the Biltons 20 years ago.
Sunrise & Scrambled Eggs
Much to my chagrin, Joe and Ben decided to wake up at the crack of dawn to enjoy the sunrise over the lagoon. Joe snapped numerous pictures (only 2 of which I've included). Eventually, they came back and we all went for breakfast.
Bird Sanctuary reunion
After breakfast we drove over to the only real tourist thing in Crooked Tree - the Bird Sanctuary. We spoke with Derrek, the manager at the Bird Sanctuary eventhough he hadn't grown up in CT, he introduced us to a few people who did remember the Biltons. Steve Tillett remembered Jim and went on repeatedly about how they would still be friends today because apparently, Jim mailed him $50US, 8 years ago when
Steve was married...not sure how long the friendship would last because Jim has no recollection of Steve, let alone sending him $50! We were able to show them the old pictures and find out a lot about the children (now adults) in the photos with Joe's siblings.
Ben and Joe had spotted their dad's old friend Leland "Bucks" in his canoe when we were at the Bird Sanctuary. Derrek had been shocked that we knew Leland, I guess he's not the friendliest guy around. Leland lives behind the Bird Sanctuary, so we ventured back along a well beaten path and found a confused Leland on his porch - he wasn't expecting visitors. It didn't take long for us to be welcome though, we just had to mention the name Bilton, and after a short reflective pause, "Ah! Bilton! Jim!" We met one of Leland's daughters, Susan, and her friend Claudia. We also met Anisha, Susan's little girl. The two girls were eager for us to take their photos as well as to see the old picture of Bucksy from 20 years ago!
We had a bit of difficulty understanding Bucks at first, but eventually could decifer most of
his stories (although not always understand what he actually ment though...)
We experienced true Belizian hospitality, when Bucks used a long stick to knock down a coconut for each of us. He expertly used a machete to create an opening for us to drink the coconut juice. Once we were done the delicious juice, Leland took back the coconut, cut it in half for us to eat the coconut. Personally I didn't enjoy this part, but Joe quickly ate my portion!
We got to hear some anecdotes about Jim and Bonnie during their time in Crooked Tree, and how Leland and Jim were very close friends. We all got a bit lost in the following story about how Jim's knee swelled. I will attempt to retell the version Leland told us...
When Bonnie (Joe's mom) got sick, Leland had to teach Jim the ways to survive (and take care of 9 kids!) Somehow, when Jim was washing clothes in the lagoon, Jim didn't wet his head and got hot, so his knee swelled up. Leland helped Jim with a remedy to get the swelling down in 3 days. We weren't sure how not wetting your head causes your knee to
swell, but who knows what goes on!
Leland wanted us to let Jim know that the land he had promised him 20 years ago was still available for sale - I can only imagine Jim moving back down there! He'd love it!
After our visit with Leland, we went back to the main road, and walked over to the Jex's store, which used to be where the Bilton's lived, and where Johnny was born! The house has had a few renovations, but is still about the same size. Neither Joe or Ben could believe that was where the whole family lived! Sonia was there with Marilyn, Eve Jex (Joe played with her when they were little) and two adorable little kids Marilyn takes care of - Sherwin and Tristan. Joe likened himself to Sherwin running around barefoot and sneaking candies from Marilyn!
Right next to the house - now store - stands a huge mango tree the Bilton's used to play under. The lawn (like many in Belize) is littred with rusted out cars and tractors, and apparently not much has really changed because Ben was able to find the old pickup cab he used to
play in (when we showed the pictures to Sarah (their older sister) she remembers being kissed in the truck when she was little!)
We went back to the Bird's Eye for lunch - delicious homemade break, tuna, salad and homemade cookies! YUM!
Crooked Tree Government School
Being a teacher in Canada, our afternoon trip to see the school was my absolute favourite part of the trip. The kids were so cute and it was interesting for me to see different classrooms and speak with teachers in a different country.
The trip to the school was fun for Ben too because he actually went to school there along with Becky, Sarah, Tim, Sam and Dan - Joe, Martha and Johnny were too young. At the school, we found Verla the principal and she took us around to all the classes. Verla taught Sam when he was in school. We also met George, Dan's teacher. After 20 years, George is still teaching Standard Six (gr. 8) and remembers Dan and his glasses! We got a class picture of George and his class as well as many pictures inside the school. Verla had most of the classes perform a poem or
a song for us.
I enjoyed learning first hand what it was like to teach in Belize. Each teacher has to teach 13 subjects, and didn't receive a lot of support, but it seemed to be getting better. Verla was passionate about teaching, and said even if it was hard work, she could never do anything else, mostly because it was so rewarding for her to see the progress the children make.
We decided to slow down a bit in the afternoon, and visited the small cemetery in Crooked Tree. We found most of the gravesites of people the family knew - Mr & Mrs Jex, Zoila (in Becky's class) and Clarence (in Dan's class).
After that, we tried to find Anne Wade, one of Bonnie's friends. It took us a while to find her store because every time we asked someone for directions, they seemed to be a bit different. Eventually we did find Anne. Of all the people we had the opportunity to speak with, she was the most difficult to understand because of her accent! She brought out her daughter, grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter to meet us. We chatted with them, and told them about
how all the Biltons were doing. Anne and Bonnie kept in touch for a little while when the Biltons first left, but over the last few years have lost touch. Hopefully our visit will reunite the penpals! Before we left, we were treated again to some Crooked Tree hospitality - Anne have us two large bags of cashews (the local specialty) and two jars of stewed cashews - one to bring home to Bonnie. We learned later back at the Birds Eye, that cashews are hard to come by at this time of year, so it was very generous for them to give us two bags of them! The other guests at the Lodge were grateful that we shared some with them at dinner!
So long, not good bye
On our way out of Crooked Tree the next morning, we stopped in to say good bye to Sonia. She insisted we come in and see her home. She showed us a photo album of Jonny Jex's funeral (a bit morbid) and she sent us with four jars of Guava jam.
The people of Crooked Tree were extrememly friendly and hospitiable. I know travelling with Joe and Ben gave
us a bit of an "in" with the locals (they seemed to mostly keep to themselves with other tourists) but I am most greatful for this amazing experience. I am glad we chose to go to Belize this year, and didn't wait too much longer. Many of the people who knew the Biltons 20 years ago are getting on in age, and unfortunately, nature will take it's course. By revisiting the little village, we were able to refresh peoples memories of the Canadian family with all the kids who lived there long ago, and hopefully have blazed the trail for the rest of the family to visit too!
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