A chilly west wind, helped by the absence of high vegetation, kept the morning shiveringly cool over the prairie-sized vastness of Spanish Lookout. It was 8:00 o’clock, and my wife Freida and I were glad we chose appropriate clothing. We were in this western village (little known by the general population), to have the AC in our car repaired. I had called the day before our scheduled visit to ACRŽSS, and Henri picked up.
“Where you at, Henri?” I asked in fashionable American lingo. He gave up on verbal directions when I told him I hadn’t been to Spanish Lookout since 1980-something.
“Can you access Google maps?” he asked in current media parlance. I said yes. “Then, just look us up at ACRŽSS AC repair.” Techy guy, I thought!
“Fine,” I agreed, but out of caution asked: “Do you have a sign, or a landmark maybe?”
“Just look for a large snowflake. Right side coming in. Can’t miss it!”
“Snowflake, Henri? It’s that cold out there?” I joked.
“You’ll see,” he punted.
We had taken two folding chairs, not knowing how long the wait would be, or what seating accommodation there was.
“It’s hard to say, Mr. Tillett,” Henri had replied to my query during the call. “Depending on what we find, maybe 3 hours, could be more.”
Ten minutes after we pulled into the only vacant service bay (1 of 4), we were told it was going to be an all-day trot. “By 3:00 o’clock,” said John, the owner of the facility. He wasn’t joking.
John and Henri are Mennonite men, similar in physique and appearance. Henri has a ready, somewhat gusty, laughter; John, less so. Their speech is slightly nasal; otherwise uninflected. Their affability runs—as colored fabric in a wash.
“Are you related?” I asked. We were in the office and had established an amiable conversational platform covering family and religious linkages, work experience, a 2-line history of their 22-year old business, ID cards and the like.
“No,” replied John. “Brothers in the church, yes,” he smiled, “and good friends and neighbors.” I asked their opinions about the notion that high fences are what undergird good neighbors’ terms.
They grinned. “As you can tell,” harrumphed John, “we have no fences,” laughing at his own joke. He was good at that: subtle humor.
“You can wait in our ‘rest’ area,” he said when the laughter ended, pointing towards a walled-off section away from the workshop.
We checked the graveled “lounge.” There were two neat park-style deal tables, designed for quick lunches only. Seated at one was a family from Dangriga. I asked and they confirmed that they knew my uncle and his wife (who was a well-known teacher there, both now deceased), the children and their names.
At the other was an American couple from Sittee River. One smoked. Neither wore masks. We got out our chairs and positioned them a safe distance away!
That folk would travel that far for auto A/C service spoke tons about the ACRŽSS reputation.
I learned while chatting up the Americans that they’re Floridians, and that they didn’t know of any Andrews, Reynolds, or the other well-known family names in Sittee River—folks I got to meet when I visited the village after hurricane Hattie. I told them about that trip when I taught school at nearby Silk Grass.
“Why, that’s the year I was born,” the lady chirped, as if that explained everything!
“Couldn’t tell,” he sneered, then bragged: “We stick to first names!”
“How long you’ve been living there?” I asked. He turned to her.
“About 10 years, honey?” he quizzed and she nodded consent. “Yeah! Ten years.”
A few moments passed. Then he put on his Einstein: “If you were teaching in 1962, that would mean…” I could see him doing the math. I helped by giving my age.
“No way,” he drawled. “I had you figured much younger than me.” The guy appeared to be in his mid-60’s.
“At the least,” I whispered to ’Frieda, “we’ll have great company today!”
About half-an-hour after our arrival, John came to discuss problems, parts and price.
By mid-morning, when the mists had cleared, there were blue skies all around with only a passing cloud rack here and there. Across the road two dozen or so Holsteins grazed, accompanied by white egrets trailing them for whatever moved in the loosened soil left by the foraging style of big beef. We saw firsthand how often cattle had to lie down to rest!
About 200 yards on from where we sat, the highway turned left and began a slow rise westwards up Route 30 East, cresting the hill a half mile away. Swaying Thai fan palms lined the side of the road up there; across from them, tall, groomed ficus trees stood their ground against the morning winds. (Later when we drove up that hill we could see the village stretched out from north to south along Center Road.) Around lunch hour we had our first glimpse of motorcycle stunt riders, roaring down that hill with only the rear wheel a-ground! It was the villagers’ popular 500-speed track for riders, it seemed.
What we didn’t see were chickens. There were dogs, horses and even goats—but no poultry.
“Guess they’re all at the packing plant,” mused ’Frieda.
Earlier on, Spanish Lookout had roused to the demands of the new day. Traffic picked up and the rhythm of a thriving, energized goal-driven community was unmistakable. Eighteen- wheelers and other multi-axled-type vehicles began rolling by, into and out of this mini metropolis. A neighbor roared onto the highway gunning his chromed motorcycle, while an early morning female cyclist pedaled along the road in low gear—exercise mode. A lone taxi went by: must’ve been chartered from elsewhere, as there wasn’t any other seen while we were in the village. Couldn’t miss it, though. The doors, gas tank cover, and hood were in strawberry-red. The fender, roof, wheel rims, rear quarter panels and bumpers in dazzling white.
“If you’d like,” said John coming from the working side of the partition, “you can take our truck and drive into town.” There was hardly any talking from their side, no music and hardly any clanging and hammering. So his appearance was mildly surprising.
“Thanks, John, but we’ll wait till the car’s ready,” I said. The Americans had already taken up that offer, and we feared the lingering smell of cigarette smoke. And COVID-19. He showed us where the lavatory was located.
About that time the Dangrigans’ car was ready, and they left.
On ’Frieda’s advice I went to get our “pantry” bag from the car. It was already buried under sections of dashboard and a miscellany of the disemboweled front half of the car.
“You won’t know where to put all that stuff back,” I challenged Henri, doubled over under the hood. He stiffened, stopped what he was doing and turned, ready to give me a primer in auto A/C repair. But he saw I was joking and had a mind makeover.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Tillett,” he smiled. “All the pieces will come together again! You know—no Humpty Dumpty here!” Moral: Don’t joke with an ACRŽSS technician finagling a damaged evaporator out of a Dodge Caliber SUV.
Sometime later John was back. Our Americans had moved to the activity area nearer to the workmen, trying to engage them in banter. Their talking was loud enough for us to discern the topic was about life in Sittee River. Different from what I knew.
“If you need to go to town for lunch,” John began, “I can have someone take you to a restaurant.” His mannerism was of genuine concern, not simply formatting favor.
“We’re good, John,” I replied. I pointed to our hamper. “We came prepared.”
“There’s soft drinks in the office,” he informed us.
“You’d better get a couple,” suggested ‘Frieda. “Maybe there’s grape Fanta?” she urged.
“Is it self-service?” I asked.
“Only if you have the combination for the door,” he joked. One that said we were friends.
I went with him for the drinks.
Shortly thereafter a vagrant showed up from nowhere. He spoke Spanish, Creole and what sounded like Maya. Apparently not a known regular to the work crew. The underbelly of Center Road’s prosperity had showed itself. He wanted money, food, and a ride into “town.” He got all three, starting with lunch that must’ve come from John’s larder. As he ate he tried to get our attention, but COVID-19 makes folk wary of strangers.
After the fellow had eaten and got his ride, ’Frieda had lunch. I wasn’t ready yet, so I began decoding my Amandala crossword while taking in more of the scenery. Had to, for it was the first time I saw a 32-wheeled articulated truck in Belize—the kind used to haul cattle. It seemed to take up half of the downhill section of Route 30 East! That diesel engine coughed and sputtered vexatiously as the driver geared down. Air brakes sneezed as the Mack was prepared for the 90Ú turn into Bee Lane where we were. Such a monster could enter Belmopan but would have to remain on the Ring Road. Belize City? Not a chance!
At 11:30 John and his 4-man team left for lunch and he let us know they would not be back until 1:00 o’clock. (We later learned those were the hours here for all business places that closed for lunch.) When he returned he brought us cookies his wife had prepared. Our lucky day, as these were fresh from her Christmas batch. At the same time, he informed us the car might be ready earlier than previously estimated.
By then the Americans (still non-masked), were back—loud, loquacious and chummy. This time they had beer and soda, which they offered. We chose the latter. He had pictures of Sharpie, their pet raccoon, to share. That presented a challenge due to COVID-19 social distancing. He understood and stepped back.
Sharpie, we learned, had “passed” a while back, but they were still in mourning!
“What do you feed raccoons?” I asked out of curiosity.
“Anything,” he shot back. (Scavenger, I thought. Who’d want something like that for a pet?)
I ate, then leaned back and napped.
Another 32-wheeler sputtered down Route 30 East and woke me up. And John was back to say the car was ready! Wow! 3:15. Way to go, ACRŽSS.
We went to the office for the paperwork. That done, John asked: “Do you like hot peppers?”
“Well,” he said satisfied, “we’ve got some super-hot ones if you’d like.” We liked, and he took us to this tree loaded with purple habaneros. Along with the peppers was his recipe for a great sauce. Can’t share it here, but I’ll only say that it excludes onions!
I then asked his permission to show the “snowflake” in a FB post already swirling in my thoughts.
“I’m a writer,” I told them, “and plan to do a piece about the first class service and wholesome camaraderie you have here.” They agreed.
And the snowflake? Well it’s made from 60 empty, sky-blue Freon tank cylinders welded together to form the familiar snowflake icon! It stands some 10-ft up from the ground, and as Henri bragged, it can’t be missed.
John used my reference to writing to inform us of a community project they are involved in.
“It’s a mosaic of individually painted tiles detailing the history of Spanish Lookout,” he finished. “It begins with the first Mennonite felling a tree in the wilderness and ends with a child at a computer!” A double “Wow,” guys.
“This is your invitation to the unveiling,” he said.
“Sounds exciting,” I hurrahed. “We’ll be here.”
We drove to Center Road, did a bit of shopping, then started on the 20-minute drive back to Belmopan. In air-conditioned comfort.