The guide was of indeterminate age, lean from years of handling boats, fish, fishermen, tourists, birdwatchers and sightseers, and bronze from both his Central American heritage and having spent most of his adult life under a sizzling Belizean sun. His wardrobe was standard dock attire: T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. He could easily have been working at the Kenlake Marina dock.
Introductions were made and handshakes exchanged. The guide’s English was practiced and tuned for tourists. Still, I had to twice ask him to repeat his name, and when I failed to grasp it after the second telling, I handed him my notebook and asked if he would please give me his name. He wrote slowly in block letters: DIONICIO GUADALUPE ALONZO.
Five boats, ranging from an African Queen-like hand-me-down to a sleek 19-foot runabout inboard that would have been at home on Cumberland, Green, Taylorsville or Barkley lakes, were nosed into the mud bank. We climbed into a wide-beamed, wooden-hulled 20-footer, solid and seaworthy but otherwise unadorned. I took the stern seat, near where Dionicio stood at the wheel.
After a short side trip to show his passengers a spider monkey—a critter so tame it seemed to mug for the visitors while accepting a banana, which it peeled and ate while being recorded by a half-dozen cellphone cameras—Dionicio turned the boat up the New River.
He leaned forward.
“What is your home?”
“Kentucky. United States.”
“Kentucky,” he said, leaving me unsure whether I had been asked something or told something.
“Yes. Kentucky,” I confirmed.
The New River is the longest in Belize and remains one of the primary arteries into the rain forest, where ruins from a Mayan culture established before the time of Christ still stand. Forty miles downriver is Corozal Town, a scruffy seaside village not found on most tourist destination maps.
We chugged along at a little more than leisurely pace. The day was hot, the sky cloudless. I asked Dionicio about the fishing.
“Here, tarpon,” he said. “Further up, peacock bass and tilapia.
“Fifty-nine species of snakes,” he added, in what I assumed was part of the typical tourist speech. “Nine poison. Crocodiles, yes. No alligators, no.”
The river contracted and expanded with the gently rolling countryside. We passed a sprawling farm that Dionicio said had been established by a Mennonite family in the 1950s. “Good people,” he said with notable admiration.
We rounded a bend, and Dionicio idled the boat. Near shore, a man sat in a dugout canoe. A younger man stood shoulder deep in the river holding a spear. For no reason whatsoever, I assumed they were father and son.
“Fishing?” I asked.
Dionicio spoke and the man in the boat lifted a rope that held a half dozen or so peacock bass. The young man in the water remained focused on the job at hand, apparently oblivious to his audience.
We watched silently for several seconds, the boat rocking gently from the idling outboard that held the boat steady against the gentle current from the tea-colored New River, which for thousands of years had been the only route into the otherwise nearly impenetrable forest.
“Fish in Kentucky? Yes?” Dionicio asked. I was unsure if he wanted to know if I fish in Kentucky, if there are fish in Kentucky or if everyone fishes in Kentucky.
I thought about casting jigs for crappie in the Blood River arm of Kentucky Lake and trolling bucktail jigs for stripers on Lake Cumberland, canoeing the bar below Rainbow Run in the Cumberland tailwater for trout, and wading upstream from the Garden Hole on Elkhorn Creek for smallmouth bass. The closest I’d come to what these men were doing was noodling Mississippi River backwaters for catfish, sans a potential encounter with a crocodile.
The younger man, obviously experienced with hand-to-hand subsistence fishing, suddenly thrust his spear with such speed and efficiency the splash was barely noticeable.
He came up empty. Moved a couple of feet and resumed his coiled poise.
“Yes,” I replied. “Fish in Kentucky. Yes. But not like this.”
We returned to the dock, sunburned, windburned and enlightened. We gathered our gear. I stepped onto the dock. Gratuities were offered and accepted. Dionicio extended his hand.
“Thank you for being my guest,” he said with surprising formality.
“You’re welcome. I enjoyed it. Thank you for taking us.”
“Home is Kentucky?”
He hesitated. There was more.
“Basketball.” he said. “Fishing and basketball.”
“Yes,” I acknowledged. “Fishing and basketball.”