WE HEARD the other day that the Central American country Belize, no longer British Honduras, is about to get its independence from Great Britian. I wish them very well indeed.But I do hope they don't celebrate at a garden party.
Late August in Washington is the time I remember the heat and the bugs of Belize best.
Twenty years ago, just before we landed in Belize, the co-pilot sprayed insecticide all over the cabin and the passengers, babies and all. It was a fair warning.
I remember well the first attack of the sand fleas. You couldn't see them because they were so small and flew so fast --- just like Capt. Kirk when he was speeded up in Star Trek.
We were having our first dinner party. I was sitting, trying to look cool and diplomatic, at the table with my husband's new chief, the American consul. All of a sudden I was assulted on all surfaces by a terrible itching --- my eyes, my legs, my ears. I felt as though I had been buried in an anthill.
I thought I personally had been visited by the plagues of Job, but a surreptitious look around showed tht everyone, as discreetly as possible, was scratching. Finally, a British colonial officer, in sympathy for what must have been a look of terror on my face, said in his best stiff-upper-lip mannr: "The jolly old sand fleas are with us this evening. Pesky cratures, what."
The demons were alternately called sand flies or sand fleas, as well as other things not quotable here.
Our first invitation for drinks at Government House, in the early evening, the sand flea hour, also brought the information that I'd have to unpack the stockings, gloves and hat I had thought to put away for the duration of our tour.
It was worse, if possible, for the men, who were expected to wear ties, suits and such in the 97-degree subtropic midday. The local men all wore heavy Scottish wollen suits, made in England.
(Toward the end of our tour, new British colonial governor Peter Stollard tried to introduce the guayabera into polite use. The guayabera is a pleated, ltunic-style shirt worn outside the trousers, much favored by the Latin American contingent. The anti-government party marched on Government House, chanting "We don't want no guayabera, we don't want no Peter Stollard.")
But anyway, at this event, many men wore suits that would cause unbearable itching without the sand fleas. I wondered if the extra layers of clothing for men and women demanded by protocol would, aside from making us feel like the inside of a Beef Wellington, be armor against the sand fleas. Instead, the sand fleas burrowed their ways into the gloves and under the hat and inside the stockings. No one paid any attention to what wa said; they just scratched sand fleas.
(Not paying attention was no great problem at a Government House do. All you had to do was go where you were led. Before the event, everyone queued up in front of the house, and at the stroke of 6 p.m., we were admitted. The governor's aide-de-camp accompanied him as he made the rounds at the party. We were strictly admonished not to address him until we were spoken to. At the end of the party, when all the tiny cubes of cheese with canned peneapple on toothpicks had been consumed, we were all herded, in order of importance, to say goodbye and shake the hand.)
I abondoned my effort at stoicism to ask what could be done. Closing the windows was the usual answer. But neither our government nor the British government saw fit to provide air conditioners for other than the top man. In the sub-tropic heat, the sea breeze, which also brought the sand fleas, was all that kept you from feeling as though you were on an outdoor grill.
The local remedy was to put DDT on the light bulbs. The sand fleas, attracted by the light, would fly through lamp shades and be ovrcome by the fumes. It's a wonder we weren't overcome by the fumes. We rigged up mosquito nets for the children, and worried about them getting tangled up.
If you went riding --- as we often did because there was nothing else to do --- there was always the dilemma: to pen the windows for the breeze and the flies (both land and sand) or to close them and have neither. My husband, Richard, used to drive around with the back door of the station wagon open to blow in the flies out the back, and blow the carbon monoxide (which seemd preferable). I still don't understand why cars in the trpics can't have window sreens.
The land or common fly was with us all day, not just at cocktail time. Only two American women and no British women shopped at the local outdoor market for that reason. The common procedure was to send the cook. This had an advantage for the cook, because she could add on her fetch-and-carry fee. For the person for whom the food was being cooked, the advantage was that you never saw the number of flies infesting the food at the market.
I bought only food that came with its own cover; bananas, mangoes, breadfruit, papaya. I never bought either meat or fish. The meat would be hung out in the open to provide a fly festival. The fish would come in from the boats early in the morning and, by the time I would shop, would be too full of wildlife.
Connie Sears, the other American who shopped in the market, was famous locally for her bravery. She bought meat, froze it and three months later, "When I've forgotten how it looked with the flies on it in the market, I cook and serve it." We ate canned Polish hams.
If the sand flies were bad, the roachers were worse. Actually, I was never bitten by a rach, but I was certainly beset. We took out the trash dozens of times a day. We scrubbed and sprayed and prayed. The city sent people around periodically to spray all houses with DDT. And still the raches marched.
The roaches were enormous, as long as a finger. We kept everything in glass jars with screw tops or in the refirgerator or the freezer, though once I found a frozen roach. While cooking I soon learned to take ingredients out one at a time and put them back as soon as I used them.
Every night we would spray the floor. We'd come back in a few minutes, and find the floor covered with dead roaches. If you couldn't stand to sweep them up that very minute --- no problem, they'd be gone soon, eaten by other roaches.
All dirty clothes had to be washed once a day --- if you left them over night, the roaches would eat them.
The roaches came up through the walls, from the open drains that ran around the streets. And, I still believe, emerged whole from spontaneous generation.
People were not always pleased to have candelight dinner parties because you could never tell when some stray roach, convinced that the lights were out and everyone was safely out of the way, would come strolling across lthe ceiling, lose its footing (roach feet are apparently not perfect suctions) and fall into the soup.
The whole time we were in Belize, Camille --- who was 2 1/2 when we came. --- seemed to be one large bug bite. For some reason, Claire, 6 months old at the beginning, was not bothered.
It's just our luck that when we lived in a tropical paradise, we had to share it with sand fleas and; roaches.