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.

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