Monday, January 28, 2008

Belize Zoo (Days 12-15)

We had a fantastic 3 night stay at The Belize Zoo. Actually, we stayed at the Tropical Education Center (and research center) located across the street. They have dorms and a number of single cabins. Our cabin was spacious with a fridge and microwave, bathroom with shower, and a huge screened-in porch. We were in the midst of woods. It was a great place to sit and watch birds with our binoculars or just read.

The lodging included breakfast and dinner in a dining hall. We really enjoyed eating and talking with a number of people staying there. We also met Stephen Lamaute, a college intern from SUNY Cortland. He had just started the previous week. He started doing odds and ends at the zoo but when we left was starting to work on the marketing for the zoo. He was very personable and articulate. Here he is getting the boa out of its cage to show everyone and Sandy with the boa.

The Belize Zoo was started when, in the 1980's, the people who had captured and used Belize wild animals in a documentary didn't know what to do with them. The person they had hired to care for them during the filming agreed to provide a sanctuary for them. This led to The Belize Zoo. She only takes injured animals or wild animals that people have found to be too much to handle. This basically includes all the animals native to Belize. Instead of cold factual signs each enclosure has a poem written about the animal(s).

We loved all the animals. We could get very close to them and they've provided lots of room for them. Here are the toucan, scarlet macaw, harpy eagle (with funny head feathers that are sticking up), and jabiru stork (the one we only saw from afar in Crooked Tree).

The cats were especially cool to watch: ocelet, cougar (in the woods), 11 month old jaguar, and a sleeping jaguar.

One night we took a Night Tour of the zoo with a few other people. That was really interesting. The guide brought food for all the nocturnal animals so we got to see them eat too. Here are the black spotted jaguar and margay cat.

One day we took the bus once again to the Guanacaste National Park down the road about 20 minutes away. It was like a botanical garden and was bordered by the Belize River . They even had swept the path! It was especially refreshing since it was quite warm that day and it was much cooler among the tall trees. Here's the cohune palm from which everyone makes their thatched roofs and some pictures from the park.

We needed to get something for lunch so walked across the street to a wholesale produce "swap" for small farmers. There was a family there offering rice and beans and chicken and also something (that starts with a "p") made with corn meal. All were really tasty. In fact, we've started to really like spicier foods. And every table has a bottle of hot sauce on it, either Marie Sharp's or Hot Mama's. We sat down to eat and had a nice conversation with the manager who had come to Belize from Guatemala during the revolution of the 1970's.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Belize-Tikal, Caves, Plants (Days 5-12) Part 1

January 22-29. Roy Gentle, manager of the Kumquat Cottage which we had rented for a week, picked us up in Crooked Tree and drove us down the Northern Highway to the Western Highway to San Ignacio in the west. Once we got to the Western Highway we started to see the mountains to the south.

Lodging: The Kumquat Cottage is owned by some people in Minnesota we found online. It's a very artistic, one-of-a-kind house. It was a great location, just a 5 minute walk into the center of town and a nicely landscaped yard complete with fruit trees. (Unfortunately there is no fruit in season now.) It was really nice to have a house to stay in instead of just a room and cook our food. We also had access to a laptop and the internet (and a TV to watch CNN and movies at night). We did have some issues with it like the lack of good lighting and the lack of hot water in the kitchen and the bathroom sinks. Notice the seats on the roof and the typical cistern to catch rainwater.

Food: The food which we bought at a store and the farmer's market was quite inexpensive. We didn't eat out at all except two tours included lunch (rice/beans and chicken and sometimes potato salad.) The only bread the stores had was squishy white bread. We survived. We loved the sweet bananas and the papaya. Saturday's farmer's market sold a little bit of everything, even some used books and used clothing.

Town: The downtown has a little park and a roundabout as well as a bigger park with playground equipment and two soccer fields. We were surprised with the condition of the downtown. Some of our observations: In front of some stores there were sidewalks. There was an open gutter. People are selling food everywhere from tables or stands (and we later learned that they have to pass certain health standards just like here). Doors to the stores are open. Cars drove very close to each other. Litter is a problem even though we saw signs about not littering. Other things to note: 1) There was a beautiful African Tulip tree in the park, just like the ones we saw in Hawaii. 2) The ATM worked at the Belize Bank and didn't run out of money. (But it did cost us $10 for every withdrawal!) 3) We had delicious, refreshing frozen bananas dipped in chocolate for only 25 cents each. 4) They buy and keep using the US's old school buses for their children. One bus was from Wilson County, one from a town in NJ. Other school buses were the highway buses for only about 50 cents for 5-6 miles. 5) We got a load of laundry done by a woman in what looked like a laundromat but it wasn't self-serve. (I added a picture of the typical Belikin Beer sign so we don't forget its name.)

Tours: 1) Barton Creek Cave and Big Rock Falls. David Simpson, owner of David's Adventure Tours, was recommended as a nature guide. We put the canoe in the Macal River at Barton Creek Outpost, a camping area with a little restaurant run by a family. (Here we saw some green parrots that came to a pole because they feed them.) The cave was used as a burial ground for Mayans wanting to be reincarnated as jaguar. It was a beautiful cave with so many beautiful formations and a few bats hanging from the ceiling. (We were lucky it wasn't the rainy season as the water level rises so much that you can't go very far in.)

On the ride to the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve we saw a stand of mahogany trees (taller ones) in front of teak trees. The pine beetle has done a real job on the pine trees. We also went by Francis Ford Coppola's lodge "Blancaneaux" and his landing strip. We had a bit of a hike down to Big Rock Falls but they were very pretty and we were the only ones there. We ate lunch and Sandy took a swim. It was a lovely day.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Belize-Birds & Mayan Ruins (Days 1-5)

We really had a great time in Belize. We first became intrigued with this country in about 1990 when Scott did a report on it for school. After further research we decided to spend time there because of its tropical wilderness, 2nd longest coral reef, its ancient Mayan cities and nearby Tikal in Guatemala, and they speak English. We met some wonderful people, saw beautiful flora and fauna and interesting Mayan ruins, and had a fabulous time playing in the beautiful waters of the reef. What we weren't prepared for was the much lower standard of living. I guess because it had been a British colony we assumed the standards would be higher with paved roads, sidewalks in all the towns, seemingly basic things. Once we accepted these things we could really enjoy the uniqueness of the country. For example, 40% of the land area is preserved.

Until 1981 it was known as British Honduras and is about the size of New Hampshire with only 300,000 people. It wasn't easy to plan but we didn't want 3 weeks of tours. The decent lodging was expensive and it seemed like everything required a tour guide, even hiking (because of the poorly marked trails). We ended up doing very little hiking. But we learned later from others that we could have gone hiking had we rented a car for about $75 a day and had been willing to drive on pothole-ridden roads. There are also some resorts that have hiking trails. (I also expected to see lots of flowers and orchids. I didn't know they won't be out until March or April.)

January 18-22. We arrived on time in Belize City and were happy to see a man with a sign with our name on it. He drove us on the Northern Highway to Sam Tillet's Hotel in Crooked Tree, northwest of Belize City. He talked about politics since a new prime minister will be elected on Feb. 7 and there were signs all over the telephone poles. He called it "politricks." Apparently there is a lot of corruption here. Taxes get paid but not too much gets done with it except for a few months before the elections (every 5 years). Many of the roads are poor with some sections paved and some not. The side roads are sand and limestone and are rarely graded. There are lots of potholes, some huge.

We saw elementary schools, all pretty much alike. The kids wore uniforms. Most are sponsored by the churches in the town. The government gives them a certain percentage of the money needed. The children have to be bussed to the high school in Belize City. Our cook had one daughter in H.S. and it costs her $500 a semester and $35 a month for supplies. Here's a typical school playground.

We saw a number of unfinished homes. People here don't take out loans. They save up and then build what they can and stop. Then they save up again and build some more. Gas is $5 a gallon. Most people have British accents which we found a little hard to understand at first.

Lodging: Our first room was in a thatched roof building - very basic. One thing we had to get used to was putting our toilet paper in a waste basket. Their septic system can't handle paper. The last night was at the much larger Bird's Eye View Lodge, a step above the first hotel but didn't look as cool. It was right on the lagoon. The first night Sandy had a surprise. He felt something on his bed. He jumped up, turned on the light and saw a gecko. It had fallen from the thatched roof!

There were 3 women staying at Sam Tillet's: Marcy (Prescott Valley, AZ), Pat (Houston) and her mother, Helena (Prescott, AZ). We did 2 days of tours with them and had a wonderful time together. They let us know that Sam had died a few months ago at 47. He was a noted tour guide so it was a real loss. Fortunately he trained a number of people who will carry on for him. We had Alvin as a guide who was excellent. The women also had Reuben whom they also had high praise for. Sam's daughter, Natasha, runs the place now. She was very nice and efficient.

Food: Sliced fried breadfruit for a snack which tasted a bit like french fries. Rice and beans in some form for lunch and dinner accompanied by chicken or beef. Orange juice, papaya, tamales, bread and cheese or pancakes for breakfast. Banana cake or pumpkin pie for dessert. All meals were pretty tasty. Here we are with the Tillet's cook (on an abnormally cool night).

Village surroundings: The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary was a real disappointment. It has a wonderful location next to the Northern Lagoon with trails but they weren't well marked and there was lot of trash along side them. We saw this termite nest in a tree which are pretty common. We also came upon a man who had just come out of the lagoon where he had speared 6 fish! He said he fishes every day. Some he eats and some he sells. Here's the termite nest and typical dugout out canoe used by many fisherman we saw.

The homes were either wood or cinder block. Some were on stilts, some not. Few had any kind of bush or flowers in their yard. There were numerous animals rooming the streets: chickens, ducks, dogs, cows, and horses. We were a bit surprised at the last two. The dogs we encountered were quite docile and never even came up to us to say hello. They also have a casual attitude towards trash. We saw some wire trash bins where they burn it but there was garbage and broken things everywhere. Some homes are vacation (weekend homes). This white house had a double car garage bigger than many of the homes.

The village just got a road over the lagoon in 1982. Before that you had to use a boat to get to Belize City, now 45 minutes away. Then when they got electricity the wives all asked for washing machines.

Here's a typical grocery store with fruits, vegetables, canned goods as well as chips, cereal, and granola bars from the US.

Like other third world countries, they reuse, reuse, reuse. I asked Alvin what people do if they have a broken refrigerator. He said, "We fix them." "And if you can't fix them?" "We use them for something else." (Obviously, some of the broken things we saw in the village couldn't be fixed or used. A sad sight for us.)

Crooked Tree is the home of the cashew tree. They have a big party in May after they've been harvested. They eat the nuts and use the fruit for wine and jam. One night we had cashew wine. It was fruity tasting but that's the one adjective I can use for it. I don't know the taste of wines well enough to say it tastes similar to something.

We found the people here very friendly. Most said hello to us as we passed them on the street. One 7 year old chatted away on her way back to school (after lunch at home).

Birds: One of the reasons we went to Crooked Tree was to see lots of Belizean birds. Within 2 days, with the help of Alvin from the hotel and Amir Reyes on the New River tour to Lamanai, we saw 29 species, as well as iguanas and a Moelet's cocodile. We even saw the jabiru stork which stands 5 feet from tip of beak. This stork is native to this area and they're not common to see. The 4-5 foot green iguanas sit in trees to warm up in the morning. The females are green, the males kind of orange. We added 36 more species on our early morning boat ride on the lagoon. Here are pictures of just a few of the amazing wildlife:

Mayan ruins: We visited the ancient village of Lamanai, accessed only by boat on the New River. There were numerous of howler monkeys here. (Yes, there howls can be heard miles away!) Mayans lived here from about 1500 BC to 1500 AD with a population of about 1 million at its height. The downfall began about the 10th century when there was a drought followed by peasant revolt. Greed on the part of the rulers also played a part. The temples were built on top and around the temples built by the previous king for it was bad luck to have him "watching" you. The Mayans were the first ethnic group to have hierarchy in society. You could not go up or down. Today there are three main Maya groups living in villages. Each feels their group is superior to the others. Pictures show the Mask Temple and the Jaguar Temple where Sandy and I are sitting on the sacrificial altar.

On the way to Altun Ha we saw a man with an anteater as well as numerous snakes which he showed off to us for a small fee. We also passed an old-fashioned Mennonite community (3000 pop.) on the New River which is noted for being hard-working and producing great fruits and vegetables.

We had been told that we could drink the water. However, when we arrived at Crooked Tree they said we shouldn't and pointed us in the direction of a little store where we could buy bottled water.

I forgot to mention all the books we're enjoying reading and the cribbage we play everyday. (We're been sharing Lee Child books, among others. They're excellent!) So far there's no clear winner in cribbage. We're pretty much neck and neck, much to Sandy's chagrin since he taught me how to play.