Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers
Lucy Fleming, 62, and her husband Mick own the Lodge at Chaa Creek, Belize’s first jungle resort, which opened its doors in 1981. Chaa Creek has been consistently ranked as the best eco resort in the Caribbean for years by the likes of Conde Nast and National Geographic Adventure Magazine. I came away from a stay there awed by the energy and vibrancy of the jungle—and the Flemings.
It is hard to imagine an environment that is more vividly alive than the jungle—lush, teeming, unfurling, changing, challenging, chaotic, diverse, primal, unpredictable, light, dark, and, most certainly, inspiring and instructive.
Belize presented stunning lessons in the duality of life. While at Chaa Creek, we observed the lifecycle of a “Belizean Blue” at the lodge’s butterfly farm. We were taught about the natural healing—and hazardous—properties of plants along the rain forest medicine trail. We learned about the rise and fall of the Mayan civilization.
In the words of Deborah Chaskin, “Just like the butterfly, I too will awaken in my own time.” We hope you enjoy this conversation with Lucy Fleming, as she describes her ongoing awakening and the dream that is Chaa Creek. www.chaacreek.com
Meg: Tell me about the first time you traveled alone.
Lucy: My first really alone travel was the summer before college, going across the country with the JJ Rider Circus. Once on board, I soon realized that this traveling circus was its own traveling world and as a mere lackey it was going to be hard rote being accepted by this fascinating and eclectic group of new colleagues. This was 1967 and the circuses and carnivals of the day still endorsed freak shows which meant that we had our fat and bearded ladies, midget families, extra tall, tattooed and pierced men, and a wide assortment of the human oddities of the day. Fire-eater and sword swallower thrill acts joined the more accomplished acrobatic, horse prancing and knife throwing shows.
I’ll never forget the excitement of everyone pitching in to put up the tents in a new venue; the constant training for the various acts and the wild energy that ran through this tight knit circus family that held generations of nomadic history. I was called upon where needed and helped out with starting up and taking down, and everything in between from cooking to costumes repair, feeding the animals and repairing equipment, tallying receipts, and child minding, you name it, I did it. I guess that because I was a college kid, I was especially put through my paces by some, but then truly embraced by others. All in all I did manage to win my way to acceptance before leaving the group. I still consider this one of my favorite accomplishments.
Meg: Have you ever had an experience where you took a wrong turn, literally or figuratively, and found something that you wouldn’t have wanted to miss?
Lucy: I disembarked in Athens off an ocean liner in 1974 during the time of the Cyprus War to find myself in the midst of military tanks and throngs of screaming and running civilians. I shouldered my small backpack and was being pushed along by the crowd when I happened upon a girl being trampled in the street. I gathered her up and forced my way over to a building doorway. I told her I was there to help her and we managed to make our way to her home. I rang her door bell while supporting her and was greeted by a General in full regalia who as it turned out, happened to be her father.
This is a rather long story but as it unfolded, I was hired by the General and many of his friends as a newly accredited English teacher for their children. During the two years that I worked for them I had a bird’s eye view of an incredible change unfolding as these good Generals eventually toppled the ruling military junta and brought back democracy to Greece, along with PM Constantine Karamanlis.
Meg: Can you tell me about your journey to becoming a Belizean?
Lucy: After two years of teaching in Greece, I returned to England for the fall to go apple picking in Kent and met my future husband Mick who had just returned from Africa. We decided to travel together to the new world. We arrived in the British colony of Belize with little capital, an eagerness to explore, and a charming friend who resided here as the wheelchair-bound livestock advisor to the crown—and the same person who had inspired Mick to travel to Africa. The inspiration was to try our hand at something new, with no idea what that something may be, and the catalyst was the wonderful Mr. Clifford.
Our early journey in Belize led us to many colorful encounters with an eccentric array of characters, one being Jack Garden, a group captain in the RAF V Bomber Squadron. Jack had purchased a downtrodden farm, but perhaps more correctly put, a piece of secondary bush on the Macal River, that he hoped this young couple might like to farm for him. There were no roads in so we traveled the six miles upstream by canoe, and again overland by horse to take stock of the place. We had a total of 300 pounds sterling between us and took on a lease with an option to buy. We toiled by day, cooked with firewood, and illuminated the night with kerosene lanterns.
Our machetes cut paths in unaccustomed hands to hilltop vistas that could see the winding river Macal. New discoveries followed every twisting trail and the birds welcomed us with the curious chatter of new neighbors. The ancient Maya had also entered the Macal River Valley to use it’s rich alluvial soil to plant their crops and transport them via canoes on their river causeways. No less than 70 Maya house mounds and three important ceremonial centers called Chaa Creek their home, a gateway to the rich waterway that ran to the sea.
Our small cabin was our home and workshop and after bathing in the river, we pulled out our sleeping mats and listened to the BBC world service on the radio at night. It was an existence of calloused hands, aching muscles, and an unrelenting determination to survive. Within six months we were selling vegetables and eggs in the early morning market, using our meager earnings to buy provisions and heading back by horseback or canoe as night fell. The struggles were hard and many and the rewards–our first horse, Taboo, our milk cow Molly, a gasoline water pump, a dugout and outboard motor–were like manna from the gods. We felt and still feel blessed.
Meg: Was settling down—in the jungle no less–a culture shock?
Lucy: I guess that my travels along the way prepared me for Belize and somewhat for life back-a-bush. We entered our new lives with two small suitcases and little more aside from lots of optimism and a keen willingness for new exploration. There really wasn’t any culture shock per se but living in isolation requires a very strong self and exceptionally good mate. In this I was doubly blessed.
Meg: Clearly you had quite a lot of challenges in the early days. Did you ever question that you were doing the right thing, and, if so, what convinced you that you were?
Lucy: The land that is now called Chaa Creek has always had a magical feeling for us as it may have had for the countless number of Maya who inhabited it one thousand year ago. When we first laid foot upon its tangled array of disorganized growth we truly felt that we were God’s privileged creatures.
I must say that there were tough times, when my spirit had to dig deep to find a viable vein of hope to access a well of faith. Having few options was certainly an invaluable asset. Both Mick and I were on the move for so long before coming together and settling in Belize that we did not have an easy entry to another port of call. Ultimately building an enterprise from the ground up with blood, sweat and tears affords an ownership and history that can never be matched. It is these accomplishments along the way that give one an identity that cannot be duplicated, and hopefully never abandoned.
Meg: What were your primary motivations, and aspirations, during your early days in Belize?
Lucy: Our principal motivations were really very primal and centered on learning to live within a natural habitat and to coax that habitat into supporting our needs for food, shelter, and growth. We were energized by the small successes that come from learning new tasks; the early morning market sale of our first crop of vegetables in San Ignacio Town, and evening return in our dugout canoe with our financial exchange of outback provisions and a quart of 1 Barrel Rum.
Meg: What are your motivations and aspirations today?
Lucy: I continue to be motivated by the wonderment of change and the essential ingredient of growth that spurs it on. Although the stakes are now higher and the goals have changed to include more sophisticated challenges like finishing the swimming pool for last Christmas season, and marketing to a large global audience in the hope of keeping our 125 staff employed, somehow the ethos for motivation has remained the same. A trust in nature to prevail as Chaa Creek’s ultimate provider coupled by faith in the ability of sound stewardship to protect this abundant resource has remained the same over the years.
The vision has continued to grow with the inclusion of the Natural History Centre and Butterfly Farm, Maya Medicinal Trail and Rainforest Spa, but also comes back to its initial roots with the Maya Organic Farm, and Macal River Camp. But the true vision that creates sustainable growth draws upon the wide lens of input by the many who make up the spirit of what Chaa Creek is all about.
Meg: Can you think of a particular moment or experience that made you realize you were “home” at Chaa Creek and in Belize?
Lucy: I was asked to give the key note speech at the graduation ceremony of Sacred Heart Primary School when our son Piers was graduating. I read the poem IF by Rudyard Kipling and upon glancing at all the smiling Belizean faces in the crowd thought, Yes this is my home. Many, many years later one of the young boys in the audience and now a university student found our website on the internet and wrote to ask me for a copy of the poem as some of the lines had stuck in his mind, and continued to have a profound impact on him: and so I wrote:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired of waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk to wise.
Meg: What about Belize inspires awe in you?
Lucy: To live in a country where the people are as diverse and colorful as the unique environments they inhabit is truly inspirational. I am awed by the spirit of a people who are able to create such a homogenized society configured by so many assorted heritages–Belize is home to eight distinct cultures.
The indigenous Maya trace their ancestry in Belize back to 2000BC in what was then the heartland of the Maya Empire. The Garifuna are descendants of Carib, Arawak and African people who came by dugout to Belize after the British expelled them from the Bay Islands in 1802. They still maintain their vibrant language and customs along the southern coastline.
The Arab community is made up of Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians who arrived in the late 19th century and remain stalwarts of the merchant class. The Creole, descendents of African slaves and British settlers from the early colonial period, are peppered throughout the nation, and have traditionally held government seats. The East Indians were brought to Belize in the early 1800s as indentured servants to work on sugar plantations. They were emancipated in 1838 and have proliferated in the northern and southern business communities. The Mestizo, descendants of Maya and Spanish settlers, immigrated to Belize during the Caste Wars of the Yucatan, and live predominately in the northern and western districts and lead in the agricultural community. The Chinese first began to arrive in Belize in the 1940’s to escape the Japanese invasion of China just before World War II, and work primarily in the restaurant and business trade. The Mennonites, originally of German descent, began arriving in Belize in 1958 from Canada and Mexico. They are prolific dairy and poultry farmers and talented furniture makers, who contribute significantly to the overall economy in Belize.
All of these fascinating cultures come together to create a kaleidoscope of inspirational richness and a potpourri of colorful vibrancy that dots the landscape in a tiny nation the size of Massachusetts with a total of just over 300,000 inhabitants.
Meg: What would you say have been the primary lessons life at Chaa Creek has taught you?
Lucy: Chaa Creek had enticed me in such a way that after years of traveling, my quest for discovery was answered on a small parcel of jungle that has taught me more than all of my other journeys put together. It has taught me to stay put and to learn life lessons from the great master of nature. It has taught me that striving for excellence may begin with making a good fire, that life’s rewards come more from doing than getting, and that love is in your heart and the heart of everything that reaches for life. It has given me the opportunity to excel and to fail, and to treat both as equal partners. It has sustained the lives of my children and husband and for this I am eternally grateful.
Meg: Could you describe a powerful “aha moment?”
Lucy: A moment that will stand apart forever took place in the Belize City hospital room of a teenage girl in a diabetic coma. I had been visiting the niece of our maintenance manager, Fey Ann Madrid, and relieving her weary relatives for a number of weeks as her status deteriorated and her brain damage diagnose became ever grimmer. There was now talk of removing her from life support.
On the Saturday of her 15th birthday my husband and I were visiting before returning to Cayo and once again relieving her mom. I was talking to Fey and felt especially charged this day as I talked about her birthday, her last visit to the butterfly farm and how we needed her to come back to us so that we could cut her cake. As I spoke I felt more and more energized as if an invisible yet tangible connection was forming. It felt as if I was physically hauling a very heavy weight up, by a rope, from a deep, deep well. After a time not known to time pieces, Fey Ann began to unfold, interestingly rather like a butterfly. She strengthened her grip on my hand and nearly pulled me off my feet. She was back! After several months of therapy she remains in high school and continues to do well.
Meg: Can you describe an experience where a stranger made a difference in your day?
Lucy: A visiting pathologist and his wife were visiting Chaa Creek in the early back-a-bush days. Our three year old daughter was running about and happened to place her hand on the knee of the doctor’s wife. She noted that Bryony’s hand was deformed and called the attention of her husband. The doctor asked about the surgeries the child had had and asked what the cause of the deformity was. I stated that we were really unclear although she had had multiple corrective surgeries, and we were anxious to know the cause as we wanted more children. The doctor later advised us that he was the world’s leading authority on this particular non-genetic deformity and had written the book on Streeter’s Dyspasia. Our son Piers was born one year later.
Meg: Can you describe an instance or experience in which you felt self-doubt or fear, and how you dealt with that?
Lucy: I was hitch hiking up to the North Shore and was picked up by a nice gentleman in a suit who looked a very safe choice. After traveling for a short time I was shocked to note that where his suit jacket ended and his trousers should be, were a pair of shapely legs in fish net stockings and high heeled shoes. I decided not to mention anything and carried on conversing and all in all had a really nice trip!
Meg: A lot of people question their “inner voice,” or intuition, fearing it is just wishful thinking. Has that been an issue for you, and, if so, how have you dealt with it?
Lucy: I do not question my inner voice but rather try to train my inner ear to listen to it. I know from experience that not listening and not reacting can sometime spell disaster or at the very least herald missed opportunities.
Meg: You have had some fascinating experiences and encounters, many of which seem to involve an uncanny degree of synchronicity. How much of that do you chalk up to serendipity, and how much would you attribute to being open to whatever is presented to you?
Lucy: My generation was blessed with the Peace and Love theme that permeated our teen years, and as flower children we tended to see the world through rose coloured lenses. Albeit non prescription, the prescription was a search for goodness in a world plagued by an unacceptable war, and blessed with a good economy. Many of us set to and traveled forth where the presumed virtue of our youthful values could be played out in a greater landscape.
I left the US, continued my studies in England and backpacked around Europe and North Africa. It was fascinating to me to be a solo traveler and also afforded me an opportunity to be invited into many happenings and soirees that couples and groups may not have accessed. I flew on the wings of youthful invincibility and managed to keep my parents in a constant state of fearful anxiety until settling into a teaching job in Athens.
Certainly fortune smiles upon youth and the key to serendipity is wrapped in a keen willingness to explore new horizons, in a longing of the tender spirit to learn, and in the tenacity of a youthful invincibility that a favorable lack of experience offers. With the inevitable familiarity that age brings comes a new game plan that somehow seems less engaged to the unexpected and more wedded to the comforts of sharing the known, a continuing journey but with a more timid respect.
Meg: You have clearly had many powerful experiences connecting with others, and also refer to living in the isolation of the jungle as requiring a strong sense of self. I can sometimes see my own world also as being a “jungle out there” and have come to appreciate the value of having that same sense of my own identity. Could you elaborate on how your strong sense of self came about, and its value to you?
Lucy: That’s the curious thing about a strong sense of self. The strong are bound to sometimes cause more waves than doldrums, and hence can oft feel more battered and alone.
It is those times when one is sailing solo into the wind and doubt is forming great and looming thunder heads, that the course must be studied again. But once the course is guided by soul searching and tracked with earnestness, the journey will find fair skies of understanding. Trust must always be the mainstay, especially in these turbulent times, and where faith supplies the guidelines, and hope underlines the ultimate goal, love and understanding will ultimately prevail.
The culmination of these difficult times will eventually add up to a stronger self but not without the emotional balance sheet coming to recognize the red and black entries as equal impostors.
Meg: What is a spiritual practice you engage in?
Meg: That seems to just vibrate from your answers. Could you speak to that generally, in the context of all of your rich experiences?
Lucy: One of the nice things about growing older is the length and breadth of life’s rich tapestry that surrounds one. It is woven by the many, many people who have enriched and indeed sometimes compromised one’s life. It is colored by the eclectic experiences that have supplied the brilliant hues and dark contrasts. If good fortune supplies the warp and faith the weft, it should be heavy enough to warm a chill of sadness in the spirit, yet light enough to not add burden to the soul.
It seems that as long as we search, our lives will be willing to dish out new experiences. It’s always fascinating how life seems bent on creating change and it is that constant that stokes our senses and keeps our intellect guessing. There are also those special times that add an exceptional brilliance to the traditional landscape of living and I have then wondered, Am I a spiritual being having a human experience or a human being having a spiritual experience, are they per chance the same or are they different?
Meg: What do you want your legacy to be?
Lucy: That my family and friends when reflecting on my life may wish to think that I was a good person who lived her life well, who gave without being asked, who dared to challenge the norm, and who reached for stars that did not glitter.