Eco Tourism Pioneer Lucy Fleming on Belize & Life as a Spiritual Practice

Co-Founder of Chaa Creek Lodge was One of World's Earliest Proponents of Sustainable Tourism

In 1977, Lucy Fleming and her husband Mick arrived in Belize after years of backpacking through Europe and Africa. Through a chance encounter, they soon moved to an overgrown 140-acre farm on the Macal River in the Cayo District, which has been their home since. In their early years they lived a hand-to-mouth existence on subsistence farming. In 1981, the Flemings built a hut by hand for the occasional guest, founding the precursor to what today is the Lodge at Chaa Creek.

Lucy and MIck are pioneers of the sustainable travel movement that got its start in the late 1970s and became a prevalent travel concept in the late 1980s. Chaa Creek is the forerunner of the country’s inland eco-tourism industry, providing a unique place to stay for a range of visitors including birdwatchers, Mayanists, researchers and adventurous tourists. The Flemings' endeavor has indeed been sustainable--in 2017, Chaa Creek received National Geographic's World Legacy Award for engaging communities in recognition of the Chaa Creek's direct and tangible economic and social benefits that improve local livelihoods, including training and capacity.

I came away from a visit to Chaa Creek awed by the energy and vibrancy of the jungle—and the Flemings. The jungle is one of the most vividly alive environments on the planet—lush, teeming, unfurling, changing, challenging, chaotic, diverse, primal, unpredictable, light, dark, and, most certainly, inspiring and instructive. It is hard to imagine anyone who has a better grasp on the attitude that is needed to adapt to and be in harmony with this kind of full-on, in-your-face life force than Lucy Fleming. Let her tell you about her ongoing adventure!

Developing Ecotourism in Belize

Meg: Before you settled in Belize, you traveled extensively. Tell me about the first time you traveled alone.

Lucy: My first really alone travel was the summer before college, going across the country with the JJ Rider Circus. Once on board, I soon realized that this traveling circus was its own traveling world and as a mere lackey it was going to be hard rote being accepted by this fascinating and eclectic group of new colleagues. This was 1967 and the circuses and carnivals of the day still endorsed freak shows which meant that we had our fat and bearded ladies, midget families, extra tall, tattooed and pierced men, and a wide assortment of the human oddities of the day. Fire-eater and sword swallower thrill acts joined the more accomplished acrobatic, horse prancing and knife throwing shows.

I’ll never forget the excitement of everyone pitching in to put up the tents in a new venue; the constant training for the various acts and the wild energy that ran through this tight knit circus family that held generations of nomadic history. I was called upon where needed and helped out with starting up and taking down, and  everything in between from cooking  to costumes repair, feeding the animals and repairing equipment, tallying receipts, and child minding, you name it, I did it. I guess that because I was a college kid, I was especially put through my paces by some, but then truly embraced by others. All in all I did manage to win my way to acceptance before leaving the group. I still consider this one of my favorite accomplishments.

Meg: Have you ever had an experience where you took a wrong turn, literally or figuratively, and found something that you wouldn’t have wanted to miss?

Lucy: I disembarked in Athens off an ocean liner in 1974 during the time of the Cyprus War to find myself in the midst of military tanks and throngs of screaming and running civilians.  I shouldered my small backpack and was being pushed along by the crowd when I happened upon a girl being trampled in the street. I gathered her up and forced my way over to a building doorway. I told her I was there to help her and we managed to make our way to her home.  I rang her door bell while supporting her and was greeted by a General in full regalia who as it turned out, happened to be her father.

This is a rather long story but as it unfolded, I was hired by the General and many of his friends as a newly accredited English teacher for their children. During the two years that I worked for them I had a bird’s eye view of an incredible change unfolding as these good Generals eventually toppled the ruling military junta and brought back democracy to Greece, along with PM Constantine Karamanlis.

The Journey to Becoming a Belizean

Meg: Can you tell me about your journey to becoming a Belizean?

Lucy: After two years of teaching in Greece, I returned to England for the fall to go apple picking in Kent and met my future husband Mick who had just returned from Africa. We decided to travel together to the new world. We arrived in the British colony of Belize with little capital, an eagerness to explore, and a charming friend who resided here as the wheelchair-bound livestock advisor to the crown—and the same person who had inspired Mick to travel to Africa. The inspiration was to try our hand at something new, with no idea what that something may be, and the catalyst was the wonderful Mr. Clifford.

Meg: You moved to Belize in 1977. What was your first impression of Belize's culture in that moment in time, and can you share a few specific experiences that illustrate what shaped your perception during those early years?

Lucy: The moment we climbed down the rickety staircase of TACA’s airbus and onto the steamy tarmac of Belize’s tiny “International Airport” I knew we had come upon somewhere beyond unique. The smell of musky vegetation mingling within the confines of thick salty air engendered a sultry sense of drama and that was even before we met the dozy immigration crew with their tarnished epaulets and gleaming white teeth.

It was a sleepy Sunday and we soon discovered that there would be no public transport to our desired destination far west of the nation’s capital. Somehow we managed to catch a lift in a government land rover where we were happily jostled along the 76 mile, partially paved, dirt track that served as the main artery between Belize City and San Ignacio Town in the Cayo district. We were dispatched at the inaptly named Government Rest house at Central Farm, the British experimental agricultural centre, and awaited the return of Hugh Clifford, Mick’s old friend from Uganda and Kenya.

 San Ignacio in 1960s. Photo: Chaa Creek

San Ignacio in 1960s. Photo: Chaa Creek

A cursory trip to San Ignacio the next morning revealed a busy colonial outpost replete with the colourful potpourri of Belizean cultures that includes every variety of skin colour known to man, oft times in the very same large family. It was obvious that the English had gathered around them the African, East Indian, Chinese and Lebanese workforce in this curiously Latin, Caribbean colony that the Maya and Mestizo cultures originally called home.  And this is when we became mesmerised with the fascinating cultures and kind people we would come to call our neighbours over the next 4 decades. 

Certainly, Belize stands out as a most peculiar English speaking British ex-colony surrounded as it is on all sides by Spanish speaking nations - all remnants of Spanish colonial dominance. The difference is clear beyond the terms of British speech and schooling though, and resonates through the law courts and government administrative structures, road systems and ordinance maps and the commonwealth society of which Belize is a proud member. Of course, the queen of England remains the official head of state with her head on every paper dollar and coin.

One of the biggest differences between Belize and her neighbours is the fact that there has never been a civil war in Belize or really any national strife requiring military intervention.

Fascinating, when you think of all the cultures coming together in the mid eighteen hundreds to facilitate a colony that eventually segued into a nation. Maybe these layers of immigration, albeit indentured, assist in the ultimate strength of a community that must manage a way to come together in the school and business place yet still remain culturally dedicated at home.

Our early journey in Belize led us to many colorful encounters with an eccentric array of characters, one being Jack Garden, a group captain in the RAF V Bomber Squadron. Jack had purchased a downtrodden farm, but perhaps more correctly put, a piece of secondary bush on the Macal River, that he hoped this young couple might like to farm for him. There were no roads in so we traveled the six miles upstream by canoe, and again overland by horse to take stock of the place. We had a total of 300 pounds sterling between us and took on a lease with an option to buy. We toiled by day, cooked with firewood, and illuminated the night with kerosene lanterns.

Our machetes cut paths in unaccustomed hands to hilltop vistas that could see the winding river Macal. New discoveries followed every twisting trail and the birds welcomed us with the curious chatter of new neighbors. The ancient Maya had also entered the Macal River Valley to use it’s rich alluvial soil to plant their crops and transport them via canoes on their river causeways. No less than 70 Maya house mounds and three important ceremonial centers called Chaa Creek their home, a gateway to the rich waterway that ran to the sea.

Cayo: Heartland of Mesoamerican Maya

Meg: Belize has a rich Mayan heritage. Can you share some of your earliest personal experiences of the Mayan culture?

Lucy: The Cayo district has been called the heartland of the Mesoamerican Maya where it is neigh impossible to walk more than 10 miles in any direction without treading upon someone’s ancient home or immortal remains. The Maya-mestizo were our earliest mentors when we settled in the Macal River Valley and began the process of subsistence farming in 1977 on our government land-leased farm. They taught us how to plant crops according to the phases of the moon and build our houses out of poles and sticks and palm leaves. We learned how to make faux cement floors out of white marl and corn-soaked water.

 The early Chaa Creek community. Photo: Chaa Creek

The early Chaa Creek community. Photo: Chaa Creek

When we made our entry into tourism with our home-made cottage in 1981, it was the Maya-Mestizo who joined our forces to help wash our two sets of sheets and towels in the Macal River. As we grew so did our working relationship with the Maya where we trained the indigenous from the south in all aspects of hotel business. Imagine training a person who never slept in a bed how to change one, who was accustomed to cooking on a fire hearth on the floor how to make bread in an oven, and how to wear shoes on feet with callused soles as thick as leather.

When UCLA asked to map Chaa Creek for an archaeological site review in 1992, we were not surprised that they uncovered more than 70 sites including five major administrative centres that alluded to the laterally discovered fact that Chaa Creek was indeed a gateway to the Macal River Valley - Maya trade and transportation system that lead to the Caribbean Sea.

Meg: The Spanish conquest of the Maya was a long and brutal campaign, and the 50-year Caste War had a major impact on Belize. Can you describe what you know of these passages...and offer your perspective on how these periods of history influence the culture of Belize today? Can you think of any personal encounters you've had where you sensed that history as still reverberating?

Lucy: The Maya-Mestizo arrived in Belize in 1847 after fleeing the Yucatan from the Caste War. Originally settling in the north they practiced agriculture and became the nation’s first sugar cane farmers and also are responsible for introducing corn as a staple into the Belizean diet.

These hard working people also worked in the logwood, mahogany, and chicle camp proving themselves to be excellent bushmen. They now make up 48% of Belize’s population.

 Mahogany was the main export of Belize for more than 150 years. Photo: Chaa Creek Lodge

Mahogany was the main export of Belize for more than 150 years. Photo: Chaa Creek Lodge

As all Mestizo meals are composed of and/or accompanied by corn, I would say that the introduction of corn may have been their most notable contribution to the Belizean identity. Their hard working ethos has sustained and grown their cultural characteristics into an enviable multi-cultural mix of society.

Meg: Was settling down—in the jungle no less–a culture shock?

Lucy: I guess that my travels along the way prepared me for Belize and somewhat for life back-a-bush.  We entered our new lives with two small suitcases and little more aside from lots of optimism and a keen willingness for new exploration. There really wasn’t any culture shock per se but living in isolation requires a very strong self and exceptionally good mate. In this I was doubly blessed.

Our small cabin was our home and workshop and after bathing in the river, we pulled out our sleeping mats and listened to the BBC world service on the radio at night. It was an existence of calloused hands, aching muscles, and an unrelenting determination to survive. Within six months we were selling vegetables and eggs in the early morning market, using our meager earnings to buy provisions and heading back by horseback or canoe as night fell. The struggles were hard and many and the rewards–our first horse, Taboo, our milk cow Molly, a gasoline water pump, a dugout and outboard motor–were like manna from the gods. We felt and still feel blessed.

Meg: Clearly you had quite a lot of challenges in the early days.  Did you ever question that you were doing the right thing, and, if so, what convinced you that you were?

Lucy: The land that is now called Chaa Creek has always had a magical feeling for us as it may have had for the countless number of Maya who inhabited it one thousand year ago. When we first laid foot upon its tangled array of disorganized growth we truly felt that we were God’s privileged creatures.

 Caracol is the largest Maya site in Belize covering about 75 square miles. Photo: Chaa Creek

Caracol is the largest Maya site in Belize covering about 75 square miles. Photo: Chaa Creek

I must say that there were tough times, when my spirit had to dig deep to find a viable vein of hope to access a well of faith.  Having few options was certainly an invaluable asset.  Both Mick and I were on the move for so long before coming together and settling in Belize that we did not have an easy entry to another port of call. Ultimately building an enterprise from the ground up with blood, sweat and tears affords an ownership and history that can never be matched. It is these accomplishments along the way that give one an identity that cannot be duplicated, and hopefully never abandoned.

Meg: What were your primary motivations, and aspirations, during your early days in Belize?

Lucy: Our principal motivations were really very primal and centered on learning to live within a natural habitat and to coax that habitat into supporting our needs for food, shelter, and growth. We were energized by the small successes that come from learning new tasks; the early morning market sale of our first crop of vegetables in San Ignacio Town, and evening return in our dugout canoe with our financial exchange of outback provisions and a quart of 1 Barrel Rum

 Mick & Lucy in the early days, taking a well-deserved break! Photo: Chaa Creek

Mick & Lucy in the early days, taking a well-deserved break! Photo: Chaa Creek

Motivation: Sound Stewardship to Protect Abundant Resource

Meg: What are your motivations and aspirations today?

Lucy: I continue to be motivated by the wonderment of change and the essential ingredient of growth that spurs it on. Although the stakes are now higher and the goals have changed to include more sophisticated challenges like finishing the swimming pool for last Christmas season, and marketing to a large global audience in the hope of keeping our 125 staff employed, somehow the ethos for motivation has remained the same. A trust in nature to prevail as Chaa Creek’s ultimate provider coupled by faith in the ability of sound stewardship to protect this abundant resource has remained the same over the years.

The vision has continued to grow with the inclusion of the Natural History Centre and Butterfly Farm, Maya Medicinal Trail and Rainforest Spa, but also comes back to its initial roots with the Maya Organic Farm, and Macal River Camp. But the true vision that creates sustainable growth draws upon the wide lens of input by the many who make up the spirit of what Chaa Creek is all about.

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Meg: Can you think of a particular moment or experience that made you realize you were “home” at Chaa Creek and in Belize?

Lucy: I was asked to give the key note speech at the graduation ceremony of Sacred Heart Primary School when our son Piers was graduating. I read the poem IF by Rudyard Kipling and upon glancing at all the smiling Belizean faces in the crowd thought, Yes this is my home.  Many, many years later one of the young boys in the audience and now a university student found our website on the internet and wrote to ask me for a copy of the poem as some of the lines had stuck in his mind, and continued to have a profound impact on him: and so I wrote:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired of waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk to wise.

If ……

Meg: What about Belize inspires awe in you?

Lucy: To live in a country where the people are as diverse and colorful as the unique environments they inhabit is truly inspirational. I am awed by the spirit of a people who are able to create such a homogenized society configured by so many assorted heritages–Belize is home to eight distinct cultures.

The indigenous Maya trace their ancestry in Belize back to 2000BC in what was then the heartland of the Maya Empire.  The Garifuna are descendants of Carib, Arawak and African people who came by dugout to Belize after the British expelled them from the Bay Islands in 1802. They still maintain their vibrant language and customs along the southern coastline.

The Arab community is made up of Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians who arrived in the late 19th century and remain stalwarts of the merchant class.  The Creole, descendents of African slaves and British settlers from the early colonial period, are peppered throughout the nation, and have traditionally held government seats.  The East Indians were brought to Belize in the early 1800s as indentured servants to work on sugar plantations. They were emancipated in 1838 and have proliferated in the northern and southern business communities.  The Mestizo, descendants of Maya and Spanish settlers, immigrated to Belize during the Caste Wars of the Yucatan, and live predominately in the northern and western districts and lead in the agricultural community. The Chinese first began to arrive in Belize in the 1940’s to escape the Japanese invasion of China just before World War II, and work primarily in the restaurant and business trade.  The Mennonites, originally of German descent, began arriving in Belize in 1958 from Canada and Mexico.  They are prolific dairy and poultry farmers and talented furniture makers, who contribute significantly to the overall economy in Belize.

All of these fascinating cultures come together to create a kaleidoscope of inspirational richness and a potpourri of colorful vibrancy that  dots  the landscape in a tiny nation the size of Massachusetts with a total of just over  300,000 inhabitants.

 Belizean Blue Butterfly. Photo: Chaa Creek

Belizean Blue Butterfly. Photo: Chaa Creek

Meg: What would you say have been the primary lessons life at Chaa Creek has taught you?

Lucy: Chaa Creek had enticed me in such a way that after years of traveling, my quest for discovery was answered on a small parcel of jungle that has taught me more than all of my other journeys put together. It has taught me to stay put and to learn life lessons from the great master of nature. It has taught me that striving for excellence may begin with making a good fire, that life’s rewards come more from doing than getting, and that love is in your heart and the heart of everything that reaches for life. It has given me the opportunity to excel and to fail, and to treat both as equal partners. It has sustained the lives of my children and husband and for this I am eternally grateful.

Meg: Could you describe a powerful “aha moment?”

Lucy: A moment that will stand apart forever took place in the Belize City hospital room of a teenage girl in a diabetic coma. I had been visiting the niece of our maintenance manager, Fey Ann Madrid, and relieving her weary relatives for a number of weeks as her status deteriorated and her brain damage diagnose became ever grimmer. There was now talk of removing her from life support.

On the Saturday of her 15th birthday my husband and I were visiting before returning to Cayo and once again relieving her mom. I was talking to Fey and felt especially charged this day as I talked about her birthday, her last visit to the butterfly farm and how we needed her to come back to us so that we could cut her cake. As I spoke I felt more and more energized as if an invisible yet tangible connection was forming. It felt as if I was physically hauling a very heavy weight up, by a rope, from a deep, deep well. After a time not known to time pieces, Fey Ann began to unfold, interestingly rather like a butterfly. She strengthened her grip on my hand and nearly pulled me off my feet. She was back! After several months of therapy she remains in high school and continues to do well.

 Lucy & Bryony

Lucy & Bryony

Meg: Can you describe an experience where a stranger made a difference in your day?

Lucy: A visiting pathologist and his wife were visiting Chaa Creek in the early back-a-bush days. Our three year old daughter was running about and happened to place her hand on the knee of the doctor’s wife. She noted that Bryony’s hand was deformed and called the attention of her husband. The doctor asked about the surgeries the child had had and asked what the cause of the deformity was. I stated that we were really unclear although she had had multiple corrective surgeries, and we were anxious to know the cause as we wanted more children. The doctor later advised us that he was the world’s leading authority on this particular non-genetic deformity and had written the book on Streeter’s Dyspasia. Our son Piers was born one year later.

Meg: Can you describe an instance or experience in which you felt self-doubt or fear, and how you dealt with that?

Lucy: I was hitch hiking up to the North Shore and was picked up by a nice gentleman in a suit who looked a very safe choice. After traveling for a short time I was shocked to note that where his suit jacket ended and his trousers should be, were a pair of shapely legs in fish net stockings and high heeled shoes. I decided not to mention anything and carried on conversing and all in all had a really nice trip!

 A tranquil moment at Chaa Creek. Photo: Meg Pier

A tranquil moment at Chaa Creek. Photo: Meg Pier

Meg: A lot of people question their “inner voice,” or intuition, fearing it is just wishful thinking.  Has that been an issue for you, and, if so, how have you dealt with it?

Lucy: I do not question my inner voice but rather try to train my inner ear to listen to it. I know from experience that not listening and not reacting can sometime spell disaster or at the very least herald missed opportunities.

Meg: You have had some fascinating experiences and encounters, many of which seem to involve an uncanny degree of synchronicity.  How much of that do you chalk up to serendipity, and how much would you attribute to being open to whatever is presented to you?

Lucy: My generation was blessed with the Peace and Love theme that permeated our teen years, and as flower children we tended to see the world through rose coloured lenses. Albeit non prescription, the prescription was a search for goodness in a world plagued by an unacceptable war, and blessed with a good economy. Many of us set to and traveled forth where the presumed virtue of our youthful values could be played out in a greater landscape.

I left the US, continued my studies in England and backpacked around Europe and North Africa. It was fascinating to me to be a solo traveler and also afforded me an opportunity to be invited into many happenings and soirees that couples and groups may not have accessed. I flew on the wings of youthful invincibility and managed to keep my parents in a constant state of fearful anxiety until settling into a teaching job in Athens.

Certainly fortune smiles upon youth and the key to serendipity is wrapped in a keen willingness to explore new horizons, in a longing of the tender spirit to learn, and in the tenacity of a youthful invincibility that a favorable lack of experience offers. With the inevitable familiarity that age brings comes a new game plan that somehow seems less engaged to the unexpected and more wedded to the comforts of sharing the known, a continuing journey but with a more timid respect.

Meg: You have clearly had many powerful experiences connecting with others, and also refer to living in the isolation of the jungle as requiring a strong sense of self.  I can sometimes see my own world also as being a “jungle out there” and have come to appreciate the value of having that same sense of my own identity.  Could you elaborate on how your strong sense of self came about, and its value to you?

Lucy: That’s the curious thing about a strong sense of self. The strong are bound to sometimes cause more waves than doldrums, and hence can oft feel more battered and alone.  It is those times when one is sailing solo into the wind and doubt is forming great and looming thunder heads, that the course must be studied again. But once the course is guided by soul searching and tracked with earnestness, the journey will find fair skies of understanding. Trust must always be the mainstay, especially in these turbulent times, and where faith supplies the guidelines, and hope underlines the ultimate goal, love and understanding will ultimately prevail.

The culmination of these difficult times will eventually add up to a stronger self but not without the emotional balance sheet coming to recognize the red and black entries as equal impostors.

Meg: What is a spiritual practice you engage in?

Lucy: Life

Meg: That seems to just vibrate from your answers. Could you speak to that generally, in the context of all of your rich experiences?

Lucy: One of the nice things about growing older is the length and breadth of life’s rich tapestry that surrounds one.  It is woven by the many, many people who have enriched and indeed sometimes compromised one’s life. It is colored by the eclectic experiences that have supplied the brilliant hues and dark contrasts.  If good fortune supplies the warp and faith the weft, it should be heavy enough to warm a chill of sadness in the spirit, yet light enough to not add burden to the soul.

 A Belizean sunset. Photo: Chaa Creek Lodge

A Belizean sunset. Photo: Chaa Creek Lodge

It seems that as long as we search, our lives will be willing to dish out new experiences. It’s always fascinating how life seems bent on creating change and it is that constant that stokes our senses and keeps our intellect guessing. There are also those special times that add an exceptional brilliance to the traditional landscape of living and I have then wondered, Am I a spiritual being having a human experience or a human being having a spiritual experience, are they per chance the same or are they different?

Meg: What do you want your legacy to be?

Lucy: That my family and friends when reflecting on my life may wish to think that I was a good person who lived her life well, who gave without being asked, who dared to challenge the norm, and who reached for stars that did not glitter.