Talking Location With author Charlotte Rixon – Newcastle
Talking Location With author Remy Salters – Belize
14th April 2018
#TalkingLocationWith…. author Remy Salters, sharing his trip to the BELIZE jungle, the setting for his novel Butterfly Ranch.
On a hot, humid day some years ago, I landed in Belize City and rented a beat-up Suzuki with no air con. Next to me sat the woman I love, hiding a jet lag behind a pair of enormous sunglasses. Little did I know that this had the makings of my first novel.
Neither of us had travelled in Central America before and we didn’t know what to expect. We came mainly intending to dive off Caye Caulker. Why not catch some jungle on the side, we thought, and brought ponchos and industrial-strength mosquito repellent with the price tag still on.
Nothing can prepare you for the first time you enter tropical rainforest. The life and decay, the moistness, the permanent taunt of unseen animals, the altering weight of the forest after nightfall. Neither do photos do it any justice. The musical score is half the experience. There’s a strident, all-encompassing hum. On top of it, individual creatures yawp and bleat and croak. Once in a while, there’s a chilling cry or a monkey roar. The darker the sky the higher the hum moves up the scale, like an orchestra tuning up, but there seems to be no end to the scale.
After our first foray into jungle, our travel plans changed instantly. More time in the Cockscomb hoping for jaguar, and hacking a trail up the Maya Mountains in the Toledo region. There we spent our days spotting harpy eagles and howler monkeys, and nights with a guide scanning the forest canopy for kinkajous with a torch, or sitting near riverside beaches in wait for thirsty mammals to pass by.
It’s on the way back from the forgotten city of Caracol, driving along a red dirt road in the middle of absolutely nowhere, that we saw a For Sale sign hanging on a wonky gate to a steep patch of jungle. Without hesitation we squeezed through and walked up a hairpin path to the hilltop. The view that greeted me took my breath away. To the west the setting sun was blasting the rainforest canopy a rich orange for miles around, leaving pockets of black where the hills dipped into steep depressions. To the north I could make out some of the spiked ridge of Victoria Peak, barely sticking out of the green mass smothering its flanks.
For a few days I planned how I would sell up in London and buy this hill. I never did buy it. The next best thing was to use Belize’s forests as a setting.
I’d planned to write a book which was, in essence, a psychological mystery about a pair of doomed lovers. Once I decided to set it in the remote southern Toledo region, all sorts of unexpected things happened to my story. Next to the lovers, who’d fled to live as hermits in a forest lodge, there appeared first an old Kriol police constable by the name of Altamont Stanbury. He turns out to be a tragicomic character, a bumbler who’s eventually tested to his limits by the mystery at hand. He’s modelled on a real Kriol policeman, a gentleman who took off his shoes and rolled up his uniform trousers to show me how to heal the mosquito bites on my legs by wading into salty mangrove waters.
Next to Altamont grew a swathe of secondary characters from the Mayan community, local farmers eking out a living from cocoa plantations not far from the exiled lovers’ jungle retreat. One of them, Emiliana Cho, works as housekeeper at the forest lodge. From a humble beginning in the book, she grows to be central to its final twist. She’s modelled on a real Mayan old lady I met on a deserted jungle trail deep in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. She appeared out of nowhere, from behind a giant buttress root, humming and wielding a machete as if it was a toothpick. I pinched myself to make sure she was real. Nonplussed, she unfastened her shoulder sack and sold me a home-made bead bracelet and a stale bun, then she went on her way.
The jungle of the Maya mountains turned into the gilded cage in which the main tragedy of Butterfly Ranch unfolds. The mosaic of local people, Maya, Kriol, mestizo, Garifuna, Mennonite, starting as mere extras on the set, revealed new depths to the story. Unplanned, little by little, the world of Belize became much more than a setting.
Thank you so much to Remy for his wonderful depiction of life in the jungle!
You can buy Remy’s novel through the TripFiction Database
Do come and join team TripFiction on Social Media:
For more books set in BELIZE, just access trawl through our titles here.