Tobacco Caye-Making Beads The Old Fashioned Way

March 23, 2010 in Belize, North America, Travelogue


Portrait taken by Tracy Place, a NYC portrait photographer we befriended.

A cold north wind blew in across the sea all through the night, shaking the old bones of coconut trees so hard that they dropped their nuts with loud thuds in the darkness.  Rain clattered across the rusty tin roof and we laughed over late coffee and tea until the generator gave out and plunged the island into Atlantic darkness, whipped to an indigo pearl by the wind whirled clouds crossing the face of the moon.  It howled all night and I lay awake listening to the ancient lament being sung by the universe.



Lana & Evan, our hosts, the morning of their 60th wedding anniversary

Morning dawned grey and the wind was still blowing hard from the north.  Lana emerged to serve breakfast wrapped from head to toe in blue velour and topped with a knit stocking cap.  It was not a morning for diving, so we settled around a table under a plumeria tree for lessons in shell bead making.  Juliette is staying upstairs.  She’s been eating meals at our table and snorkeling with the children and sitting with me in the hammocks and visiting for long hours of an afternoon.  She’s from New Mexico and is full of interesting things to talk about.  She’s teaching us to make shell beads, the old fashioned way; the REALLY old fashioned way.  She told us of an archeological discovery of a cache of beads found in Africa that scientists believe are 80,000 years old.  They weren’t strung, but rather were left as offerings to some unknown deity, as forgotten as the people who shaped the beads.  She’s learned to make them in much the same way as those old beads were fashioned; drilling the holes with flint chipped sharp with an antler, and sanding the edges with sandstone wet in the sea.  The children were instantly intrigued and a happy hour was spent sifting through the coral sand by the dock in search of suitable chips of shell, presented for Juliette’s approval before being tucked into a plastic bag for later use.




We were all completely taken with the process, even Tracy, our brassy, red headed New Yorker of a neighbour.  We sat for the entire morning, chipping flint, boring tiny holes and sanding the sharp edges off of shell scraps formed beneath the waves crashing on the beach in the background.  Ezra broke three shells in a row before he finally bored a tiny hole in a yellow shell, then I broke that one trying to make the hole a little bigger.  We all got lessons in perseverance and discussed with amazement the communities of people who began this process before recorded history began.  Juliette creates her beads as a meditative exercise and to cultivate gratefulness.  She gives them as gifts to people who teach her important things and leaves them as offerings in the forest.  For her, taking an irregular shell shard and grinding it to the tiniest perfectly round shape possible is perfection; the more effort required, the better the offering.  We had less noble intentions for our beads.  The children decided to make necklaces, borrowing waxed cord from Eric, the fellow who fills the dive tanks at the end of our dock.  I made four beads in iridescent pink and created an anklet to remind me of Juliette, of this place, and of all I have to be thankful for.  I sanded a long while on a pearly black shard of shell, honing the shape carefully and drilling a tiny hole with flint.  In that bead I invested the gratefulness I have for my brother’s impending child and created the tiniest little ankle bracelet to welcome him (or her) into the family.  I hope the baby likes it.



Elisha with the fish we caught

The wind laid off in the afternoon.  The two big catamarans moored off the end of our dock launched kayaks and their owners paddled the circumference of the island.  We have boat envy.  Tony took Tracy and the kids snorkeling one last time, out as deep as they could stand at the precipice between reef and deep blue.  Ezra proudly made a ten foot dive, bringing up a little shell from the bottom and blowing hard to clear his snorkel, “I’m doing real good Mom, I’m not scared at all!”  He’s made peace with the “terrifying fish,” although he does still give them a wide berth when they peek out from beneath a big head of brain coral and train that big red eye on him.



The kids with Mr. Boo... they passed!

Hannah and Gabe have triumphantly passed their PADI SCUBA certification and posed to have their picture made with their instructor, Mr. Boo, this morning.  They’re dead tired from the effort, but full of stories of sea turtles and dolphins, eels and serpent starfish.  We’re happy to have checked another important piece of their educations off the list.



Another family portrait by Tracy Place

This morning dawned perfectly calm.  Our bags are packed.  The children are sprinkled around the island playing and creating a last few shell bracelets for their friends at home.  Tony showed Juliette how to open a coconut with a machete and used the knife my Dad made him to pop the thick white meat out of the shell for her.  She was at least as impressed with the knife as the nut.  With a little luck Doggie, our hit and miss boatman, will turn up after lunch to ferry us back across the blue to Dangriga.  Tony is hoping to find our van where we left it, “with the wheels still on it, preferably.”