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A Narrow Escape in the Belizean Jungle

“It was one of those situations where you have no other choice but to succeed or face massive unacceptable consequences.”

You never know when these situations will arise. They’re the type that force action, challenge your response and lay hauntingly in the thick of human probability. Allow me to explain.

The sky had been dropping thick angry rain all night and into the day throughout the Belizean jungle. I was yelling lectures in my small thatch classroom so my students could hear my voice over the storm. When I got back after teaching I found Shella, another Peace Corps Volunteer, in my bed shivering violently. Her face was tight and pale. She had covered herself with piles of my clothes and could barely speak.

“I’m cold, Jeff. I’m so fucking cold, I don’t know what to do.”

Malaria. The word hung in the air, but I didn’t want to say it aloud at the chance I might scare her. Shella lives in a thatch hut on the other side of this small Maya village. The wooden boards on her house have 2 inch cracks in them allowing for any of the hundred disease-carrying insects to become residents. A few cases of malaria had been reported recently in a neighboring village and the likelihood of this being a serious situation was quite clear.

Shella could only groan and mutter slow responses. I stuck an electronic thermometer in her mouth and it beeped shortly after at 103.4. Tearing a notebook out from under my mattress I began writing down all the essential information any doctor would need to know. What have you eaten today? What medicine have you taken? And so on. After finishing the list I checked her temperature again and it had risen above 104. It was time to get her to the nearest hospital – 25 miles across floods and mud I couldn’t imagine. I needed a vehicle. Walking outside the rain soaked my clothing immediately. After a quick negotiation with the richest man in my village and promises of money I didn’t have, I was behind the wheel of an old beaten Land Rover punished by a life in the jungle.

One of my biggest fears was quickly becoming a reality. This village is the passageway to all the others in the southern edge of Belize and has a low bridge that floods during these storms. With the river flooding over the bridge could have been trapped in the village with out access to medicine for several days. I helped Shella into the truck and grabbed whatever it was I thought we would need.

I hadn’t been behind a wheel in about six months nor had I ever driven a U.K.-style car with the steering wheel on the right. Nonetheless, we were off. Shella laid down in the back seat as I fiddled with the dashboard trying to clear the fog away from the windshield. We made it to the bridge in just ten minutes and I was happy to see the water was only rising but had yet flood.

The road itself remained almost invisible against the rain and fog inside the car. Just outside the border of our village water began to fill the road. At first it was just a foot deep and lasting for a hundred yards or so. Then we came across lower land. Floodwater sprayed out of our wheel wells in great arcing surges. Shella laid motionless in the back seat. I tried not to describe our situation to her assuming it would only break her spirits. My forearm tensed as I fought the steering wheel’s attempts to run us off the road. Struggling for every pound of momentum I tried to maintain traction shifting to lower gears as the water dragged and laughed against our tires. Rounding a corner we saw about four hundred yards all of it flooded with water up to two and a half feet high and moving sideways across the road. Two buses and several other trucks had been forced to stop and sat waiting for the water to go down.

Maintaining momentum we pushed pass a stopped bus with children peering from out of their windows. When the water began to come over the hood and appeared to only be getting deeper I slowed to a stop. I got out of the tired vehicle pushing water away with the door and stepped into at least three feet of water. A group of farmers had unloaded from the back of a truck to wait on top of a rock for the water to recede. One recognized me and instantly started to joke.

“Jeff, what do you think you’re driving a boat?” he chuckled and the others all laughed in kind. I smiled, pretending I wasn’t worried about a sick girl quickly being absorbed by a rising flood. I explained the situation and they said I could try it to pass but none were willing to put their reputations on the line and guarantee that I’d be able to reach higher ground.

With not much for choices I thanked them and got back into the car to check on Shella. She was lying down not talking. I knew the wait would be more torture than the struggle of trying to get out so I started the truck and wiped fog from the windshield with my hand. I can only remember times during my childhood when I felt this type of pure primal exhilaration – getting lost in the woods after dark, falling through ice on a frozen lake or getting caught in a fight on the playground. I know to some it might sound a bit sick to have been enjoying this but it was one of those situations where you have no other choice but to succeed or face massive unacceptable consequences and as a result you feel a powerful unifying sense of energy, focus and accuracy. So there we were, surrounded by a rising flood in the middle of the Belizean jungle with a sick friend in desperate need of medicine.

Letting out the clutch the machine ached forward setting out a ripple in all directions. I wanted to just maintain motion, not speed, just traction and consistency. In the backseat Shella had stopped responding to my questions and seemed to almost be asleep. She shivered occasionally and had turned completely pale. The windshield had clouded over and I took off my shirt to clean it every few minutes. The water got deeper before it got shallower and after an hour crawling through water and battling with a possessed vehicle the water started to give way to higher road.

We reached the paved road and fifth gear just as Shella’s temperature peaked 104.2. The rain was still coming in heavy typhoon waves that made our voices useless. Shella was mumbling something but I wrote it off as the delirium which is a symptom of malaria and began reacquainting myself with the delicate techniques of high speed driving. I know nothing special about the mechanics on a mid-eighties Land Rover, but I do know that on an all-wheel drive system you can almost always deter a skid by keeping your foot on the accelerator as you jerk the steering wheel through the turn. Luckily for Shella’s health and my international drivers licence, Belizean traffic law is almost completely non-existent. Belizeans use the entire road passing on all sides – even passing those who are passing if necessary. We arrived in Punta Gorda in hardly any time at all and set several local checkpoint records for which I am still receiving local acclaim.

An American nurse contracted on the side to take special care of Peace Corps volunteers answered her phone on the second ring. Cell phone service begins ten feet inside the district town of Punta Gorda and so I called ahead to tell her we were moments away. Parking near the door I helped Shella out of the car and into the house. She moved as though any touch would shatter the skin.

After only a few minutes the nurse suggested that Shella had caught either Dengue Fever or Malaria. She dismissed me and I went back out to the car feeling as though I had suddenly been dropped back into the flood.

When I arrived back in Blue Creek later that evening the river was flooded far up into the village. I parked the Land Rover next to the river and waited for about seven hours for the river to subside. The Peace Corps allowed me to reimburse my neighbor to the tune of $100.00 for the use of his truck, the estimated price of gas and unforeseen damages.

A week later Shella was allowed to return to her village where she is working on several community development projects, one of which is the building of a new taller bridge.