I have a friend and neighbor named “Hill” who is one of the world’s genuinely nice guys. In addition to being an artisan, which I didn’t know until an encounter I’ll tell you about, Hill is a land scout who gets a commission helping real estate agents and other people sell properties.
You should know that “Hill” is his nickname and that nine out of 10 men in Belize get tagged with nicknames early in life and the names stick like glue. I know a young man in town whose name is “Dry,” and I once met an elderly gent in northern Belize whose goes by the name (no kidding) “Wet.”
Hill (I forget his real name) is 63. I tease him about being a kid since I’ve got two years on him in age. But Hill can run circles around me; he must pump his bike 50 miles a day around these steep hills of San Ignacio and Santa Elena.
Remember when you were a child and could ride your bike at about 50 miles per hour all day long and never get tired or winded or break out in a sweat? Kids make bike riding look thoroughly effortless.
My friend Hill, on the other hand, looks like he’s pumping around in slow motion on his old-fashioned bike that, like my bike, has two speeds–the right leg and left leg.
But I marvel at how effortlessly “Hill” can get a quarter-way up a killer hill before he has to dismount and effortlessly walk the bike up to the top, never gasping for air and never breaking a sweat in this hot-tropic town.
I can pump about 10 yards up one of these hills before I have to dismount and shake the sweat off and suck up about five minutes’ worth of oxygen–and I always ride after 5 or 6 when the sun is fading and the merciful evening breeze is kicking in.
So anyway . . . the other day I’m riding up a hill in the air-conditioned comfort of my pickup truck and who’s on the top of the hill but “Hill,” who’s standing in front of a nearly completed semi-mansion of a house being built by a prominent Belizean family.
I parked the truck and asked Hill what he was doing and it turned out he was marveling at the beauty of the big house on the hill–and it’s going to be a beauty, with a great, hilltop view of the twin towns below.
So we chatted a while and then Hill said he’d also come up to deliver something he made for the owner of the house and was waiting for him. With that, he pulled out a gorgeous, hand-carved likeness of a Mayan king from a soft bag that he handed over to me as if it were the crown jewels and said, “You like it, Paul?”
Now, I ask you, dear reader, what’s not to like about something as beautifully crafted as the Mayan figure you see in the pictures here.
I never knew that Hill, when he’s not pumping his bike in Zen-like motion around the twin towns, puts in hours carving out mahogany-wood beauties like this.
I told him that I really admire people who have the talent to take a piece of something like a chunk of a mahogany tree and carve it into a wonder to behold.
“I wish I could do this,” I told him. “How you’d learn to carve like this?”
“Well I’ll tell you the truth, Paul–I was in prison when I was young,” he said. “I learned it from a cell mate. I learned to do it by watching him do it.”
Of course, out of my compulsive need to know everybody’s story, I had to pump Hill for more and he said:
“I was so stupid when I was young, Paul. I went to jail because I got caught with ‘mary-juana’ in my possession. I wasn’t smoking it and didn’t sell it but I had a lot of it. Then I tried to skip out of jail and that got me into more problems. I was in prison almost two years. I was so stupid because I was so young and you just don’t know anything when you’re young. You think you know everything and you don’t know anything.
“I was in a prison that’s not even open anymore. It wasn’t all that bad. I mean, it was prison and it was bad, but we had some freedom to walk around and do stuff and it was kind of a pretty place with lots of fruit trees down in Stann Creek (one of Belize’s seven “districts,” similar to U.S. states). It wasn’t like Hattieville (Belize’s only drab, hot-oven of a prison compound now) where they lock up everybody now.
“I wish I had never been so stupid, but that’s how young people learn.”
So that’s my young buddy Hill’s story in a nutshell. He’s turned out to be a pretty good kid and a skilled wood sculptor in spite of some youthful indiscretions.
I, on the other hand, was young and stoopid once (and by the grace of God never landed in prison) and can’t even carve a turkey.