clare-hill.com The story of Clare Hill's voluntary work adventure in Belize

21/07/2008

Crooked Tree continued

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Crooked Tree,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 10:45 pm

Crooked Tree is a beautiful place. It is an island in the middle of 4 natural fresh water lagoons.  We drove over the causeway with water lapping right up to the side. The rainy season. It is all part of a 12 square mile reserve, and is home to 2/3 of the species of birds found in Belize. (The Motmot needs jungle!) After the rains stop, the lagoon begins to dry out, till in March through to May it is a narrow channel about 2 inches deep, with hundreds of fish crammed into a small space. The whole of the rest of the mud flat is apparently covered with thousands and thousands of migrating birds. Birders come from all over the world sporting £2,000-worth of bins and telescopes – puts ours to shame!

Before the causeway was built, in the 1980s, you could only get there by boat. People tended to use wooden dugout canoes. It has a Mayan ruin recently discovered on the western mainland shore, but from more recent times it was the first inland dwelling of the loggers. There are wonderful old, huge trees on the island, and in particular one species which has wide crooked limbs. The loggers were told to go round the lagoon until they saw the large Crooked Tree. That was the place to alight your craft, and thus became the place name!

The pace is slow, the people very friendly and welcoming, and home to about 900. The island itself is a reserve and all visitors pay BZ$8. Half goes to the village and half to the government. In 1984 it became a Wildlife Sanctuary, and then in 1998 it was declared Belize’s first Ramsar site based on the wetland’s significance, especially as a waterfowl habitat. Currently it protects some endangered species, such as the Central American River Turtle (Hickatee), Morelet’s Crocodile, the Mexican Black Howler monkey, West Indian Manatee, and Yellow- Headed Parrot. We saw none of them!

Cashew nuts are the main crop (despite mango trees over 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide and dripping with fruit; the driver said that people didn’t know what to do with them, and it reminded me of our bumper crops of apples at Ellemford). He told us a fun story. Cashews have their nut on the outside bottom of a small pear-shaped globe, and are called the Devil’s Nut locally. God had made all the wonderful fruits and nuts, and the devil thought that he could do it, too. He made the cashew, and showed it to God, who just laughed and asked how will it reproduce? In a fit of pique the devil stuck the nut onto the outside.

We passed a sweet little wader, yellow legs, brown wings, and yellow underside of its wings in flight. Its local name is the Jesus Christ bird because it is so light it can walk on the lily pads. Its official title is Northern Jacana, and it makes a raspy creaky noise. Our driver then paused outside a dilapidated wooden building, typical style of being on stilts (there’s a photo somewhere!) with the sign Police Station painted on a wooden board across its middle.  He told us that it used to be the police station but now the local bobby uses his own house, including keeping prisoners there. It was abandoned after the last prisoner in the building crawled out of a hole in the floor early in the morning, went to the shop to buy himself some food, and then crawled back in again!

We slowly moved along the dirt road, passed a painted concrete house here, an adapted container for a truck there (metal, which must be unbelievably hot to live in – temperatures in April /May can between 95 – 105 F and still humid), a neat little wooden one on stilts, with another falling apart close by, and all around beautiful big broadleaf trees and little ponds, pigs up to their hunkers in mud, horses standing in the cool of the water, roaming free, cows and henny- pennies. We rounded a corner and saw the lagoon in front of us with Birds Eye View Lodge on the left and a smart new three storey building on the right. We later discovered that this was the owners’ house, who had recently had it built and returned from NY City in 2004 to retire. The Lodge was about three feet from the waters edge – in the rainy season! – and run almost single-handed by Christina. A couple of young American backpackers were checking out as we arrived, so we were the only people there. We got the cheapest room, which was still spacious and looking onto the lagoon, air con and fans, and bothered the obliging Christina for a sandwich Belizean style! We had not been sure what we were going to do when we set out – return to BC that evening or stay over – and had had a rather longer trip than we had anticipated. The lunch was most welcome. We also arranged to take a guided bird walk at 6.30am the next morning. They were a bit apologetic about how early ithe start was, and I held back from saying that if you want to do the dawn chorus in Scotland in the midsummer, you need to start your walk at 4am latest! (The boat trip was US$100 per person which was unbelievable. But the following morning our guide, Leonardo, told us that you don’t need to go at this time of year because the warblers and waders aren’t here anyway.)

We grabbed our bins, or at least, Conor did – I use a monocular cos I never seem to be able to get bins into focus, and end up squinting through one lens anyway. As soon as we went outside, we saw two black vultures (they have grey heads) beside a dead fish at the water’s edge. We disturbed them and they flew off. We turned away, and then they swooped back, picked up their catch and were away. They were watched by a Black Duck which kept sentry duty on a post by the boat jetty. The lagoon, about ¼ mile wide to the mainland here, was rippling in the welcome breeze.

We began to walk around, and even we were beginning to be able to recognise some of the more common birds. The Vermillion Flycatcher is unmistakable. The male in particular is a brilliant pillar box red, with a black back and wings. Stunning. Lots of Mockingbirds (greys and whites with a black band across the bottom of its tail feathers) fly all around, and we could hear the familiar song of the Brown Robin – the birding equivalent of a cover version of our native robin’s song in the UK! The Melodious Blackbird is, as its name suggests, easy to recognise too. The Tropical King Bird is dead common (!) and very pretty, as are the little Seedeaters that we first spotted outside the Blue Hole. Tiny Hummingbirds occasionally swooped by, the size of your little finger, hunting from one hibiscus to another, flashing green or gold or red or blue. The afternoon was hot and balmy, and we sauntered happily through the lanes, absorbing the atmosphere and sense of tranquillity that exuded everywhere. One tree had a pair of Spiny Iguanas, the male considerably bigger than the female, and both with clear bands and raised spiny backs. They were still there the following morning when Leonardo told us that they are officially now called Black Iguanas. We all agreed that ‘spiny’ is a better name. Though the local name for iguanas is Wish Willy! As we made our way around to the causeway we saw a Green Iguana crossing back and forth across the road, and it was considerably larger. The following morning Leonardo told us that they can be up to 7 feet long, (Wish Willy!) and both types shed their tails like lizards. He also said they go into the water rather than up a tree when hassled, which surprised me. A large red-headed Turkey Vulture wobbled on a telephone wire, while the Whistling Ducks (they do whistle in flight) kept the Northern Jacanas company around the pond by the Lodge. Despite looking hard we didn’t see any turtles anywhere. Later on we saw the self-same Whistling Ducks incongruously dotted around the open branches of a very large tree. Tree ducks!

Christina prepared us a lovely supper and we then sat in the dark up on a verandah (covered in Deet!) enjoying the full moon on the water. The cicadas were increasing their vibrato by the minute, with the low drone of the frogs holding the base notes. The geckoes meanwhile were feasting off the insects attracted to the lights around the building. And as usual we collapsed early to bed. Can’t seem to do late in this heat – but then doing early is a treat when you get up in the pleasant cool of the morning.

After a banana and coffee to keep us fortified before breakfast, Leonardo came to guide us on or bird walk. He is a tall man with a strong frame,  about 35 years old, whose two speeds are amble and stop. His whole body is like an extension of his ears and eyes, constantly alert. He had a well-thumbed bird book with him to show us what we could hear, or just see through the foliage, and a small sack on his back with butterfly charts in it. We didn’t cover a lot of territory in our hour and half, just a couple of fields, but we saw loads and loads of birds we didn’t know about at all. We explained to him that we are complete amateurs but really enjoy it! It didn’t seem to faze him.

There was a lovely line of black martins on the electricity wire outside the Lodge, swooping and dodging and lining up again, interspersed with the Long-billed Gnat Wren and Toady Flycatcher. The more familiar birds of yesterday were there of course, plus the following:

Green heron

Roadside hawk

Black Swift

Pale vented Pigeon

Swallow

Ruddy Groundel

Groove-billed Ani….

Black Cowled Oriel

Golden fronted Woodpecker

Rufus Sabrewing (like a hummingbird)

Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Great Kiskadee

Rose-throated Becard

Lovely Cotinga

Red-winged Blackbird

Greyish Saltator.

We could hear at least 2 Trogons but unfortunately they were too well camouflaged to see them.

(Who names these things? And it was almost as much fun finding them again on the plates of the bird book as I checked on the spelling! )

Leonardo also showed us the magnificent Bullet tree, the patron tree of  Puerto Rico, and how the fence posts are made from Log wood which is incredibly hard, doesn’t rot in the wet and humidity, and is resistant to termites. (Mr. Amir said that the wooden houses in BC, despite looking a shambles, are very strong. Maybe the same wood?)

Long-tailed Grackles abound everywhere here, as in Mexico, and look like scrawny blackbirds, very slightly longer in both body and fanlike tail feathers. Their name is onomatopoeic, and they are often sitting at the top of trees. Suddenly Leonardo said “Look up in that tree.” The grackles were as usual in the foliage on the right, but on a bare branch on the left was a beautifully silhouetted green White-fronted Parrot. It had a red flash on the side of its head and was very exciting.

I am reminded of a quote from a book which caught me in the early eighties, which I had on my kitchen wall for a few years. I cannot remember the words exactly, nor who wrote it, but the gist of it was:

“Those who love the tizzy of seeing a bird for the first time, should remember that the tizzy does not belong to the bird; they should ever be beginning things…”

At lunch time, I thought I was about to make a “I think I saw the Loch Ness Monster” – type comment to the owner of the lodge. I had been sitting gazing at the lagoon when I realised something had broken the surface of the water out in the middle. I told her I was wondering whether it was a large fish, a turtle or a crocodile. She asked me what I had seen, and I said the surface broke over about 9 inches or a foot, and then whatever it was submerged again. Definitely a crocodile she said!  And that at night you can see their eyes shining in the water.

We were told that turtles and crocs (Halligatas in Creole) sun themselves on the islands in the bird pond behind the Lodge that we had spent so much time gazing at. A drenching rain cloud had recently been over, so despite our quick scurry over there before we departed, none was to be seen.

Leonardo was our driver back over the causeway to the Northern Highway to catch our bus back to BC. And wowee, just as we were setting off we had two more treats. I had seen a large white bird fly over the Lodge earlier in the afternoon, and wondered if it was some sort of heron. As we sat in the car, about to drive off, the same bird flew in low overhead from the right, a large fish in the osprey’s talons. It swooped down and round a big tree about 20 yards away, flew back towards us, and to our amazement landed on a bit of dead branch right above and beside where we were sitting. Golly!  Feeling very lucky, we set off and rounded a corner as Leonardo made an excited “Look” again. In a swampy pond was a large Bare-throated Tiger Heron, a bigger, greeny brown version of our common grey heron with a white throat. Leonardo told us that he had hunted for one of these with an American birder for 3 hours in a boat a couple of weeks ago, and not found one.

We left Crooked Tree feeling very replete.

20/07/2008

On the way to Crooked Tree

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Crooked Tree — Clare Hill @ 10:42 pm

Our need to renew our batteries outside of the city was keen, and we made a plan to catch the bus the following morning, going up the Northern Highway this time and travel about 50 miles to the turning to Crooked Tree. We didn’t want to make the mistake of the previous weekend and do too much walking or sitting in buses and aggravate Conor’s prostate, so we had decided to just go there, and either bus back again  that night or find a cheap B&B. The bus we caught eventually terminated at Chetumal, on the Mexican Border, and travelled through Orange Walk – the second biggest town in Belize – and Corozal. So there were lots of people coming and going on the bus, more stops than on the Western Highway.

Just before we got to our alighting point, we saw what I thought maybe pink flamingos in a swamp, but I later learned that they were roseate spoonbills. Of course – they had wide ends to their beaks. And loads of white egrets stand throughout the swamp lands. Then the skies opened and torrential rain fell in bucket loads. I noticed that not only was the visibility almost zilch, but also the driver’s wiper didn’t work across the inevitably cracked windscreen. I also noticed that there was no appreciable change in his speed! Time not to look too hard…

There’s etiquette in the buses. As soon as any rain comes, all windows get firmly shut because even the tiniest opening causes showers of water over people as the speed and pressure of the falling rain is so great. It eased, and then the conductor told us we were there. As it was still raining slightly, we joined the others who had got off the bus and entered the shelter. We were quite a crowd: 3 women of predominantly Mestizos origin, who had about 7 children of various ages between them, and a young Creole woman who had two tinies and an infant wrapped in blankets. The rain descended again so we all huddled together in the far corner of the shelter avoiding the slanting cascade outside. I asked if they knew when the next bus up to Crooked Tree was due, about 3 miles along an unpaved road. The bus which left BC an hour after us would go there, but they said they got the earlier one because sometimes folk going up in their cars are willing to take passengers. So we knew we had up to an hour to wait, till about 12 noon. The rain eased again, and the party spread out. The children and adults were all sitting around the walls of the shelter and looked a treat. I asked them if I could take a photo – have a look! And the children loved looking at themselves in the viewer once it was taken, too.

The younger of the new mum’s two little girls was the type that enjoyed riling her older sister, and her mother was not very patient. In fact, people here are generally pretty impatient with children, a bit like the 1960s in the UK, when a harsh word or clip round the ear would accompany a child slow to put her flip-flops back onto her feet. I started a conversation with the young mother, and discovered that her baby had only come out of hospital on the Thursday. He was a month old, and had been born by a C-section as his mother had had high blood pressure. He had weighed one and a half pounds. That explained why the babe was bundled up with a hat and a blanket in the sticky heat. She tenderly opened the bundle, and there was the tiniest baby I have ever seen. His face was about the size of my fist, with barely any flesh on it at all. She said that she wanted to get the baby in out of the rain, and was returning to her home in Crooked Tree to collect her things. Her next words were all too familiar. She explained that the children’s father was not behaving as well as he should, and when she gave him money on Thursday to buy especially rich babies’ milk, he took it for liquor, and pushed her while she was holding the baby. She had left for her mother’s in BC, but now needed to collect some things.

Time moved slowly, and acutely aware of our privileges in the face of the people’s lives that we were sharing so intimately, we checked our guidebook for a B&B, took out our mobile phone, arranged for a bed for the night and a pick up. We asked the driver if we could give the woman and her little ones a lift up too, to which he gave no objection. I got in the back first, and she handed the tiny thing to me before lifting up the girls. As I held him I could feel his wheezy breathing vibrating against my palm. I hope that that little family is OK.

13/07/2008

Conor

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,BBC,Conor,Lord Ashcroft — Clare Hill @ 10:28 pm

Well, this is a good way to start my day! I am having my breakfast and listening to Radio 4 – not the Today programme – but the World at One – it is  Gardener’s Question Time your time, so I have gone to Listen Again for the latest news. Sean Ley’s familiar tones are in my ears. Good old BBC!

I am going to say a bit about how Conor has been faring over here. As many of you know, he had had a lot of pain and discomfort ever since his ‘minor’ op in early April. The pain was thought of as ‘normal’ for 6 weeks, but when it didn’t show any signs of letting up, and as we approached our departure date, we were getting increasingly concerned. Much ping-ponging between his GP and the consultant’s secretary in the Western General Hospital led to an appointment a week before we left. Thankfully it was with a consultant who had been one of the few medics who was not fazed by Conor’s bladder’s extreme sensitivity reaction post-operatively in April – and knew what to do to stop the spasming. I felt a sense of relief as soon as I saw him. He very quickly went straight to the source – “Ouch, yes that’s it” – and diagnosed chronic inflammatory prostatitis. He thought that it was most unusual, particularly since the beast has been:

·        excised in May 2005 – a TURP

·        grown back to block the urethra 24 hours before radiotherapy was to start in November 2005, when they cut through it again

·        irradiated almost to extinction in November and December 2005

·        found to have regenerated again when they worked on Conor’s remaining sphincter this April, when in effect he had a prostatectomy. (“Lot’s of prostate tissue in there.”) Something tells me that some things just won’t be killed!

(Trouble with prostates is very common in men, but being blokes and to do with willies and things they just don’t seem to talk to one another about it. So as a woman I feel doubly ignorant, and have been on a big learning curve. Not just the cancer, but learning about the difference between ‘ageing’, symptoms of enlarged prostate, typical prostatitis, the cancer, and now this.)

Anyway, this nano-prostate has reared its head again and certainly succeeded in making its presence felt! The consultant reassured us that good old ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic we really should have shares in, would do the trick if taken continuously for 6 weeks – 3 months. So, 3 months’ worth was added to our suitcases – 2 of which were entirely devoted to Conor’s ‘paraphernalia’ as my mother calls it!

Apparently chronic inflammatory prostatitis is different to the other sort of prostatitis in that it is inflammatory. This means that anything which disturbs it can cause an increase in the symptoms. So being here and doing things at the weekends has been challenging to Conor in many ways. More steep and somewhat uncomfortable learning curves.

(‘Normal’ prostatitis is also a chronic condition, is very uncomfortable, highly resistant to antibiotics, very hard to get rid of, and causes a lot of men a lot of trouble.)

For those of us unfamiliar with the little beast, whether because we have a perfectly functioning one or none at all, they are situated around the urethra, and lie against the large bowel. That is why the easiest way to determine what is wrong is by a finger examination exerted about 2 centimetres up the anus. When the area is tender, lots of things cause problems: bowel movements; sitting for any length of time; sitting on hard surfaces or too much exercise such as walking. Another problem is that when it is agitated for any length of time, like all pain, the surrounding area can tense up too, especially the buttocks. There is also referred pain – or is it called deferred pain? I must check. It is when the nervous system in an area gets agitated, so that the pain appears to locate itself anywhere in the region.

Those of you who have ploughed your way through this journal may remember that we went to Caye Caulker on our very first Sunday here. Conor in particular enjoyed being in the sea. After travelling for 24 hours, acclimatising ourselves, jet lag, finding all the bits and pieces we need in Belize, his hind quarters were most uncomfortable. He found that the natural buoyancy of the water relieved the pressure around the pelvic floor, and he frolicked and swam with gusto. Later that night I awoke to the light on and the sound of Conor in the bathroom and drinking loads of water. I went through and there was blood everywhere! He had awoken feeling that his external catheter was blocked and saw a large blood clot. Fortunately it managed to pass, making a big mess in the process, followed by a lot of clotty blood. We knew from previous events that the important thing with clots is to dilute them so that they don’t block the catheter, so that explained the drinking water noise that awoke me. It gave us a big fright, and we did wonder if we were going to have to turn straight round and come home. But after about half an hour things appeared to be OK, and we managed to sleep again.

Since then, which was one week into his ciprofloxacin regime, things have got steadily but minisculey better. It’s an upward graph over all, but with ups and downs along the way. Any time we have done anything ‘too much’ – walking, walking in excessively sticky heat, long bus journeys on very hard seats, oh, and swimming – there has been a set back. Yesterday we got it badly wrong – we bused and walked to a place in the guidebook which had closed down. That led to a bit of an abortive day, following our noses rather unsuccessfully until we turned round and caught the bus for a 3 hour journey home. More often we get it about right now, and by and large it is at last improving. It looks like it will be the three months not six weeks course, but there is hope! And we are both clear that his health comes first and if we need to, we just catch a plane back.

Meanwhile, during the week Conor is successfully working with folk in the UK and other parts of Europe, using Skype. He has purchased a VPN gizmo, which apparently tunnels and fragments the phone signals via the US, which has, as promised, been undetectable by the Belize telemonopoly. They would block it when they spotted it, so I only use Skype on Conor’s computer. Incidentally, it is owned by Lord Ashcroft, the deputy head of the Conservative Party, who is really doing some pretty awful things over here. I am investigating with some other Brits how we can publicise the things more in the UK as this man ought to be more accountable if he is a Member of the House of Lords. It is quite intriguing to discover what the UK is doing in its Commonwealth countries without a by your leave.

04/07/2008

Birthday Treat

Filed under: Adventures in Belize — Clare Hill @ 06:21 pm

Oh my God! I looked up as I heard Conor mutter “What on earth’s that car doing, the one in front of the next one?” and saw a blue pick-up truck literally weaving from one side of the road to the other and back again. We were on the 5pm Express (non-stop) bus to Belmopan and San Ignacio, to stay in an eco-lodge recommended to us by Manda and Sara, the friends who bought our cottage, and who holidayed in Belize about 5 years ago. But at this point, somewhere in the region of the straight stretch of road between the Zoo and Belmopan, all eyes in the bus became transfixed on the drama unfolding in front of us. For about twenty minutes, our bus kept a wary distance as we watched, heart in mouth, as the drunk headed straight towards oncoming traffic. One large white pick-up was forced off onto the verge as they realised what was happening, spinning slightly as his tyre came back towards the tarmac, and temporarily heading towards our bus. A low “Oooh” could be heard throughout. Taxis have green number plates, and government vehicles have blue ones. (The Department’s pick-up has a blue one.) A red pick-up with a blue number plate had overtaken the bus, taking the place of the other vehicle between us and the drunk which had turned off the road. The driver had a passenger and a lad in the open back, and his hazard lights flashing. The lad and the passenger were waving their arms, trying to alert oncoming traffic to the danger in front of them. It was both mesmerising and terrible to watch, and it seemed inevitable that the drunk would kill himself and his passenger, or at least some others. We were all tense, oohing and ahhing at each narrow escape, and watching the red truck driver trying to both keep a safe distance and bring the car into the side of the road. Suddenly the red truck began to indicate a left turn (Belize drives on the right) and as it began to turn, to our horror the blue truck started turning left too, immediately in front of the red one. And then to our great relief, the blue truck moved into the side of the road once it had turned off, and the red truck pulled in front of him just as our bus driver put his foot on the accelerator and once more galloped along the road at his usual pace. We never saw any more, but oh it was exhausting to be awaiting at least drama if not death for such an endless period of time. (Later that w/e someone told us they never travel in their car on a Saturday evening because they had experienced too many drunks on the road – both in cars and lying in the middle of the highway!)

But to the real reason for our jaunt – my birthday weekend treat! We stopped briefly in Belmopan as the light was going, and could only make out the shapes of the hills as we proceeded to San Ignacio in the darkness. Suddenly we came across a sprawl of houses – San Elena – and then crossed the bridge over the Macal River into the town centre. A neat, bustling town, which had a totally different feel to both BC and Belmopan. Perched on a hillside, we could see the streets and houses spreading out from the centre. We had arranged with Maya Mountain Lodge that we would pick up something to eat, and as we got out of the bus and looked around, a man passing asked us if we wanted a taxi! We quickly said “No, a restaurant” and without changing his pace or direction, he said “Follow me, no charge!” whilst taking us to the Eagle’s Landed. It was a clean, simple, local eatery, where Conor enjoyed some fish and chips and I had a burrito made from a delicious soft homemade tortilla, accompanied by a delightful large glass of watermelon juice. (Wine is imported and very expensive here, plus in the heat alcohol is not very attractive – and the fresh juices made from the local fruits are far more appealing.)

Forty minutes later, after our meal and short taxi ride, we got out into the warm night air laden with scent and the sounds of cicadas. The now familiar jungle shapes were silhouetted by the lights coming from the open sided dining room and office. A petite Mayan woman greeted us warmly, and showed us to the Parrot Perch. We passed some cabanas – small dwellings with palm thatch roofs – set back in the grounds and up to a larger wooden building on stilts. A path wound round and up to the wooden slatted verandah, with some hardwood chairs and tables and a couple of striped hammocks swinging gently in the evening breeze. Conor asked if there were scorpions, and she reassured us they were only under the eaves of the cabanas – glad we had the cheap option! She said that the windows had good insect screens – against ‘bugs’ as all insects seem to be called, and that if we saw or heard anything at night it would only be the security guard with his torch. As she opened the door she laughingly said that some guests call out loudly “It’s a spider” and the security guard comes, and then squealed loudly as a relatively small one scuttled out from the shower room. We all fell about as Conor caught and removed it and she admitted that some of the locals weren’t too keen on spiders either!

The details in this small, clean room more than made up for our three weeks of squalor in Belize City. Sprays of leaves and flowers were beside the basin, on top of the cistern, on the head of the bed, and on the chest of drawers. Each was artfully arranged as one might see in Japan or Thailand, and was a sweet combination of lacey leaves, straight variegated red and green leaves, and the strong red flowers of the jungle in the rainy season. We climbed into our bed, and slept soundly until being woken by the grackles and the great kiskadees and many, many more birds in the trees.

Everything about the place was delightful: even the swimming pool – which was a glorified paddling pool really – was a joy when hot and sticky at the end of the day. Little humming birds – some golden, some sapphire blue with streaks of rust on the underbelly – swooped around us low over the water as they made their way from one hibiscus to another. You could kneel in it with your head above water, and Conor decided it was the perfect way to say the rosary in a sticky climate! (He often remarks that as a child the only thing he was expected to do was attend school, and come in to say the rosary at 8.30pm every evening. I think he was probably more successful at the latter than the former…)

The meals were all home-made and delicious, and a spirit of graciousness and generosity seemed everywhere. In conversation we later discovered the owners of the place were Ba’hais and that they give a 50% discount to volunteers in the country in the off season (winter is high tourist season because the rains are over and it is less sticky). We pricked up our ears as it would make it possibly affordable to come again without the excuse of a birthday.

We wandered – as we tend to do! – down the hillside, through a short track, and saw more clearly the town set across the relatively steep hillside opposite, with the strong, deep Macal river between us and it. The Mopan, the other tributary of the Belize River, converges with the Macal just south of San Ignacio. The original Spanish settlers called it El Cayo, or island, the same word as ‘cayes’ that the entire offshore islands are called. Now the whole region is called Cayo, and the locals still refer to the town as Cayo, too. We crossed a small, steel suspension bridge and entered the town proper. There was a bustling market spread out over a newly paved area. Some laid their produce on the ground, others on trestles, and all under large blue tarpaulins. They were needed either for the sun or the rain! The produce was of a much better quality than that in BC, and more varied too. I was disappointed that we just had a small case and couldn’t stock up with fruit and veg .to take back on the bus with us! There were some Mennonite men selling their wares, with some small boy clones sitting on a trestle stand nearby. None of them smiled or looked enthusiastic, playful or even angry. Just nothing. The adults weren’t much better. There are still some fruits and vegetables that I have never seen before, and when I asked what one very handsome pink thing was called, I got a Spanish name! It is about the size of an avocado yet more global in shape, with elegant peach pink petals/leaves tinged with pale lemon-gold (a bit like an artichoke but curling outwards like a fleur de lys). No idea whether it is fruit of veg, whether you eat the leafy bits like an artichoke, peel it ….whatever! I should have bought one anyway.

Cahal Pech is a Mayan site about 30 minutes walk up a steep hill – so we got a taxi and walked back! It was our first taste of the sites here in Belize, and is one of the smaller and less grand ones. Like many, it has only relatively recently been excavated, and has a central square courtyard, with large tiered pyramidal structures around the edges. Sections around it are for royal quarters, the inevitable ball park, royal burial chambers and no doubt much more besides. The hills in that region have been occupied since 1500BC, with much evidence of arrow heads, very sophisticated pottery, dwellings, clearings, agriculture…The pyramid here probably dates from 800AD – our Dark Age. As in Mexico, the Mayan culture had blood sacrifice at its heart – to appease the gods. They had a hugely sophisticated understanding of astronomy and time, and had predicted forwards about ½ million years to within half a minute of current reckoning. They say the world is going to end in October 2012. For some mysterious reason, Mayans from all over Mexico, Belize, Guatamala and San Salvador dropped everything and walked into the jungle, virtually ending the civilisation.

We climbed up to the top, wondering about why here as in the Toltec pyramids in Mexico, the stepped sides are larger than is a comfortable step, particularly when the Mayans tend to be a short people. At the top, I sat and rested, observing the whole scene, marvelling at how it was built buttressing right to the side of a steep drop. And then once more, just as on top of the Toltec Moon pyramid, and Conor’s experience in a stone temple carved into a mountainside in India, I suddenly felt not on top of the world but rather that this stone structure took me deep down into the stoney heart of the earth beneath us. It was unexpected but very centring, surprisingly relaxing.

Our time there included meeting interesting guests who were professional mappers of caves. They had recently gone into one cave system in near perfect conditions – rains not too high, oxygen levels not too low – found a new arm, with water flowing in it, and saw a skeleton perfectly preserved under the water. As there were 4 femurs, they realised it was in fact two bodies. A large metal knife was lying a few feet away. They have already had one bone carbon dated, and it comes from about 1500AD. They had been unable to enter that deeply into the cave this time round, but were nevertheless going to keep trying. This couple are responsible for mapping all the major cave systems in Belize.

All too quickly our weekend was over – we caught the bus back into BC at 7.15am, and made our way to our apartment before showering and starting another week in the Women’s Dept.! While I was on the bus, I mused that I was disappointed that I hadn’t spotted a motmot there. Motmots are beautiful blue birds with an elegant long tail feather or two with an ‘eye’ at the end much like a peacock but much smaller. I found myself playing with the word in my head – ‘motmot’ ‘motmot’ – and then before I knew it my 8 year old self had produced a scatological rhyme which made me giggle out loud in the bus, and still does! Conor on the other hand is not amused.

Motmot’s
Bot-bot
Pooh-poohs
A lot lot!

03/07/2008

“The River”

Filed under: "the river",Adventures in Belize — Clare Hill @ 09:18 pm

Last Saturday, after the visit to St. Herman’s Cave, we had been invited to join one of the Women’s Dept Officers (a social worker responsible for seeing folk who drop in, taking people to the Family Court to prepare restraining orders and such like, helping battered women to find secure accommodation, etc) for her sister’s 16th birthday and graduation party. It was held in the local YWCA, and when we arrived there was a disco going, tables covered with coloured cloths, candles and glitter, and various friends, relatives and the birthday girl’s school chums, all arriving in dribs and drabs. After two weeks of hearing dire stories about the break down of relationships it was heartening to see the extended family and friends. There were young nephews and nieces who did ‘turns’ at the front, cousins who loved to sing, and others to dance. The boogying was impressive, whether 3, 13, 33 or 63! It was also a chance to taste homemade local cuisine too! We didn’t stay too late as Conor had pushed himself with his infection still lingering with the jungle trek that afternoon, and needed to rest. But we thoroughly enjoyed the homeliness of it. I could see clones of our 4- 12- 18- year old family members!

On the Sunday the clouds were lowering, with strong downpours and lightening and thunder so we decided to check out the other big hotel – called Princess – a little further around the northern coastline from the Radisson. Well, to not put too fine a point on it, it was gross in parts, good in parts. Large, air conditioned, typical tourist hotel, open foyer, big glass windows looking out onto the sea (it was fun to watch the waves of storm come in squalls, the visibility go, and wait to see where the lightening will be) and a restaurant that looked as if it had a good deal for a 3 course meal at BZ$23 plus tax per person. That’s the plus part. The down side was a pair of glittery doors which opened onto the hugest gambling hall – one armed bandits, gaming machines, poker, roulette tables….We walked through corridors following the signs to the swimming pool – which we wanted to check out to use another time – when we realised that we had to traverse a vast amusement area for children and families. The walls were lined with computer games and loads of kids racing cars here, banging guns there, with the occasional bored parent sitting at a table waiting. There was a bowling alley which actually had a couple of families playing together, and all of it topped with canned music and flashing lights. If I ever want to go to hell I know where to go! (Later we saw two dads join up with two mums who were sitting in the foyer, trailing 4 kids between them. The children all had that starry-eyed, sunken-sockets look of too much screen gazing.) The swimming pool, which we eventually found, was 3 times the size of the one at the Radisson, but we knew which one we were going to use! We remembered that Mark had said that he preferred the Radisson too, and we could see why. As we left, we also spotted a two screen cinema, which Conor decided mightn’t be so bad after all!

After work on Monday, Conor and I realised we have the Belizean equivalent of ‘just checking out the river’s still there’ (when we would go and gaze at the river at Ellemford, seeing the fish jumping, hoping for a glimpse of the heron or kingfisher, and feeling the direction, temperature and strength of the wind). Our apartment (UK2, BZ3) faces the sea. The great thing is that being a taller building and facing east the sea breeze comes straight into our windows – as well as the dust and rain of course, but the wind is precious. When we are standing we can see the sea as it’s only 2 blocks away, with nothing too large between us and it except a few palms and some broad leaved trees. A local told me they are common and easy to propagate but didn’t know its name. And guess what! We go and walk to the sea wall and sit and chat most evenings before going to Brodies for a few bits and pieces. And while we were sitting there Ernesto – the young street artist – came ambling up, drawing Conor this time! We chatted to him for a good forty minutes, and gained further the impression of a nice young man.

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