The Mayan woman dog-trotted over the two miles we had just traveled by air conditioned bus. Her bare feet padded through muck, instinctively searching the driest ground. She looked neither left nor right but drilled steadily uphill at a ground-eating pace.
Behind her was a man riding a rusty bicycle (her husband?) . A shotgun was hanging over his left shoulder. The front wheel of the bike was almost touching the back of her legs. If she were to stop suddenly, he would have plowed right into her back. It did not matter whether they were going up or down a hill or how deep the mud was, they maintained their pace like a heartbeat.
Our guide, Robert, saw me watching them from the corner of the bus.
“They are going to hunt food for their family,” he informed me. “The woman is often the better shot than the man, so she goes too.”
They were headed in the direction we had just come from, a direct path toward the river and the copse of trees favored by THE BIRD we had traveled to Belize to see, the Scarlet Macaw. At one time, it would have been those birds that were hunted as food to feed the Mayan village of Red Bank, but several years ago, the village agreed there was a better future if they embraced the birders instead. The villagers were paid for their knowledge of where to find the magnificent parrots by hiring guides like Pablo, who delivered us on cue that morning to a display we had never seen before.
We all knew what Scarlet Macaws looked like. We’ve seen them in color plates in the guide books. And who hasn’t seen the bird-on-a-stick at Disney world or a zoo or (horrors) someone’s “private collection?” There are few left in the wild. Red Bank hosts a small population.
We hiked up hill, grateful for walking sticks to balance our steps through heaving sloughs of mud. The morning sun pressed down. Walk down one hill, climb up another. Pablo pointed out mahogany saplings he had planted. They would be mature trees in about 50 years, a promise and a hope a future. Corn struggled through the soil in a field to the right, planted by Pablo for his family.
“There it is!” Pablo called. “That is the sound of the Scarlet Macaw! Watch over there!”
As he pointed, a streak of scarlet and sapphire shot over our heads. We could see the massive bill and featherless white face. The bird’s wings claimed the blue from the sky itself. A narrow shawl of bright yellow traced a horizontal path across each side, as if grazed by the sun in mid-flight. The male Macaw flew steadily, with strong, shallow wing beats out to the tree canopy on the horizon. His long, pointed tail flamed behind its body.
“Watch! Here comes more!” Pablo cried.
A pair of birds burst from the trees behind us. Another pair, and another and another. They flew in unison, one slightly behind the other, their wing beats in perfect synchrony. We heard them first, then the sky seemed to burst with a rainbow of flight. Blue, ruby and gold were no longer just colors but living, breathing, flying spirals of air and water, darkness and light.
I wiped the tears from my eyes.