Most of the foreigners in Belize City seemed to be light-tackle fishermen, but that may have been because I was going fishing, too. A few folks said they were in Belize, formerly British Honduras, on business, and they had about them that speculator's look of rum-and-Coke complexions and tropical suits that somehow never fit right. You are certain to meet at least one Sydney Greenstreet for every hour logged in the lobby or bar of the Fort George Hotel.
Much of this city of 48,000 people consists of wooden buildings on stilts, because it lies below sea level, protected from flooding by the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. There is a crowded harbor and an interesting market where one can buy colorful cloth, ethnic items and iguanas hung up by their tails. The people are friendly and most of them speak English to visitors and Creole to each other. But in all, Belize City is hot and muggy and poor, and you will find few tourist accouterments. Those who like the place, as I did, are probably more traveler than tourist.
The country of Belize is tiny—8,866 square miles—but despite overexploitation by British colonialists in search of mahogany, it is still rich in hardwood. English timber interests clear-cut entire regions, but left a hardwood tree called zaricote, probably because they didn't know what to do with it. What the British didn't know was that they were leaving the best stuff behind.
Franklin McFoy, a gentle man with a voice like rabbit fur, showed me Belize City. His old Ford taxi had a sticky door on the passenger's side, and each time I suggested a stop during our tour, McFoy stomped on the brakes and leaped from the car right into oncoming traffic. Horns bellowed and cars veered as he spun clear, the drivers cursing, but seconds later McFoy would appear unruffled at the taxi window to haul at the stubborn door latch and bow ceremoniously to me when it finally gave.
I bought rations of light rum for our bone-fishing trip and a couple of packs of Belizean cigarettes, which are excellent, and told McFoy that before packing off to the out islands, I wanted a zaricote carving. Not a sailboat or fertility mask; it had to be a fish—maybe a tarpon or bonefish or hammerhead shark—and better work than that sold on the lawn and in the lobby of the Fort George. He said our man was Egbert Peyrefitte. McFoy, it turned out, had an eye for more than dodging traffic.
Peyrefitte's home and shop were in a clapboard building with peeling paint on Cemetery Road, where most houses have no paint at all. A hand-painted sign showed the silhouette of a whitetip shark. An arrow directed us through a maze of fenced-in dirt paths to where the wood-carver and a crowd of helpers worked. If you miss the sign and the arrow, and McFoy isn't along to guide you, just keep going to the source of the blaring calypso rock 'n' roll you'll hear.
Peyrefitte and his family, relatives and friends work outdoors because it is cooler. There was a lot of noise—sawing, scraping, sanding—and chatter, musical Creole and laughter. Roosters pecked among the wood chips. Peyrefitte was a big man with a handshake strengthened by years of swinging his machete. Before doing business with me he introduced everyone, offered a Coke or beer and slapped me heavily on the shoulder. But even when I finally got down to business, Peyrefitte didn't seem to want to sell me anything.
There was a disorder about the yard that belied the art coming out of it. Peyrefitte and his assistants had assembled two or three sailboats and carved a few masks, but mostly there were fish—dolphins, graceful whitetips, lemon sharks and hammerheads plus one handsome tarpon and a smart permit, both made for an American who, Peyrefitte was sure, would return for them late that afternoon after fishing. Yes, they were mine, if the American didn't show. No chance, I read in the look on McFoy's face.
It required no particular esthetic sense to see that zaricote was beautiful wood, even in the rough. It takes many years' experience, Peyrefitte explained, to teach a craftsman to visualize the pattern of black and ocher grain within each log that dictates what can best be made of it. "Me, I must see this log as a shark, that one as a mask, before I will go to work on it," he said. "You cannot guess and do good work."
The grain flowed the length of each Peyrefitte fish like a running, tropical tide. It was tough to decide among the carvings, but in the end I picked a hammerhead ($20) and a big dolphin ($35). Just before I left—about the third time I'd caught McFoy looking discreetly at his watch—I agonized over a fertility mask. I finally decided that the mask looked so good it might really work—not exactly what my wife and I needed at the moment—and so I passed it up.