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

04/12/2008

Endings

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 12:16 pm

On the Sunday (Nov 30), having decided to go for a final swim, Conor persuaded me that we should head for San Pedro rather than Caye Caulker. San Pedro is the main tourist resort in Belize, on Ambergris Caye, a peninsula hanging down from the Yucatan. I had been determined that it was too touristy, aznd expensive, and just not worth going to. Some of the other interns had said it was better than Caye Caulker because it was bigger, and that there was more going on. (I interpreted that as meaning more tourist attractions, and had been adamant that it was not the place for us.)

Anyway, on our last Sunday I gave in, and instead of alighting at Caye Caulker, we went on a wee bit further. San Pedro is a tourist resort on the eastern side of a pendulous promontory off the end of the Mexican Yucatan.  It is one of the main places that tourists head for, and was indeed a larger, more ‘with it’ version of Caye Caulker. I have to admit that it wasn’t as bad as I feared, and I began to understand what one of the interns said – there was more to do. One eco village overlooking the ocean and reef (one of the attractions is that the barrier reef is closer to the main land here in San Pedro than anywhere else along its length – gradually moving more to the east) had a substantial wooden jetty from which we could swim. It ended up being quite the best swim I had had in the whole six months – perfect for our last week end! We then found some good jazz being played on the beach beside a bar, and enjoyed the ambience enormously!

As the Caye Caulker Water Taxi firm sped us homeward, a perfect orange disc was setting slowly on the horizon, symbolising the end of our stay.

Monday was full of domesticity, various bits and pieces in preparation for our return. Tuesday, our last day, was all ours, and we had decided to have a last walk in the jungle. We caught an early bus to the edge of Belmopan, to Guanecasta National Park. It was on Roaring Creek, which we had been reading about in a novel set in Belize in the mid 1800s, and wanted to make its acquaintance. We quickly realised why it was called Roaring Creek. Walking round to a spot above the creek, near to where it flows into the Belize River, and ideal for observing birds, we could see the grey silt marks of the recent floods at least 30 feet up from the water level. The gorge is relatively narrow – perhaps 35 feet wide – and was obviously channelling a vast amount of water. The walk around the park was lovely, and with great excitement I could hear both a parrot and a motmot near the Belize River – but I was still no good lookin’! When we got back to the rangers’ office, they asked us what we had seen, and to write it in their log book. The guinea pig-like animal is a paca, and very common in Guanecasta. When I tried to copy the bird sounds I had heard, they told us very authoritatively that yes that was both a motmot and a green parakeet! Even more frustratingly, they said 2 motmots had been on a branch outside the rangers’ office, their tails ticking like a pendulum clock, about 4pm the previous evening. Oh well, near is closer than far away.

Being a lovely day, we did our usual return walk along the bus route until we felt ready to catch the bus back to BC. And lovely it was – warm sun, not too hot, very little traffic, another vermilion flycatcher accompanying us much as it had done in Crooked Tree on the start of our epic.

And thus we ended our journey. Lunch, packing, cleaning the apartment, handing some bits and pieces on (having a card stolen but fortunately realising it and able to stop it before any money was taken) purchasing some last minute Christmas books for grandchildren, and meeting up with the other volunteers and interns for a final drink at the Radisson.

Our journey in Belize was over. A beautiful country, interesting people, difficult politics, and a young country in many ways. Many thanks to all who made it possible. Our odyssey was over, and we were grateful for the opportunity.

02/12/2008

Goodbye Hummingbird Highway

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 12:14 pm

On Saturday (November 29) we decided to make the most of the perfect walking weather, and catch a bus up to the Blue Hole – one of our first ever jaunts – have a swim and walk till we tired, and catch the bus home again. And who knows, we may even see a motmot. Setting off good and early, we suddenly realised that in no way could we walk without our hats because it was heating up, and that we had left them at the Radisson. I don’t think we have spoken much about that, but the Radisson is the better of the two main tourist hotels here, and has a particular table on a verandah overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, a few huge royal palms blowing in the wind like shamans’ headdresses, which Conor and I might stop in at after a day’s training or whatever. The staff are congenial and always welcome us (most of their customers are transient tourists or businessmen) and since our apartment offers no opportunity to savour the balmy cool evenings, it has become a favourite of ours. On Friday afternoon there had been a big rally and march about domestic violence and HIV/AIDS with local politicians, dignitaries and school children which had been organised by the Women’s Dept. It finished about 6pm a few yards away from the Radisson, so we popped in for a beer before making our way homewards. It had been a hot afternoon – cooler now – so we both had had our hats with us, and duly left them beside the table.

Charging around the following morning to retrieve our hats and managing to catch the next bus, we zoomed up the Western Highway to Belmopan, and turned down the Hummingbird Highway towards the south. We passed through Armenia, as attractive as ever, and on through the stunning rolling ranges of hills bordered by the heavily forested purple tops of the Maya Mountain Range. The sheer variety of shapes and sizes of the tropical rain forest never ceases to delight and surprise me. Stopping at the Blue Hole, where we intended to swim, my addiction to coffee in the morning set in. The Caves Branch Jungle Lodge is immediately opposite, and Kate and Andrew, two other CWW volunteers doing a three month stint when we came over, had spent a very enjoyable w/e there. I suggested to Conor that we called in, as there was no doubt a restaurant and, since catering to tourists, it probably did a good coffee brew.

The track – about ½ mile – was lovely. It went straight into the rainforest, and despite the grey flood silt evident over much of the ground foliage, it still sported the twists of vines, the enormous plumes of palms, the gigantic hands of five fingered leaves, and the delicate fronds of jasmine that make the biodiversity so magnificent. It was a hot morning with the bird life being relatively quiet, but the greenery provided a welcome dappled shade. A bang, bang, bang could be heard more and more clearly, and then we came across a lot of feverish building work going on. Asking a man whether there was a restaurant, he showed us the way round the piles of sand, saying that the recent floods had delayed the new buildings, and meant that they were not quite as ready as they had hoped – December is the beginning of the tourist season. A big and rather good looking visitor centre was under construction.

The restaurant was sited on a picturesque bend of the Caves Branch River – a tributary of the Sibun River – and named after the caves along its banks. Many have Mayan artefacts still inside, and one of the attractions of the Centre is excursions into these caves inside tyre tubes, called ‘tubing’. The restaurant has a typical palm thatch, wooden pillars and sides open to the landscape, providing welcome shelter from both sun and rain. As we sat drinking our (free!) coffee and green tea, we watched the hummingbirds – blue, green and gold – gathering nectar from the various hibiscus or bougainvillaea blossoms in front of us, their bodies quivering in the constant elliptical motion which keeps them hovering in front of the flowers. Captivated, we breathed deeply, taking in the beauty around us.

Changing our plans, responding to the chance invitation to feel free to take a look around, we began wading up-river, our all-weather walking sandals dealing perfectly with the slightly slippery surface of the stony river bed. The temperature was still benign, and we marvelled anew at the banks of stones, no doubt drastically changed during the recent floods. We found ourselves remembering the Whiteadder Water, our river at Ellemford, and how its ever-changing profile reminded us of the spirit of the river: a constant shift and metamorphosis, as the shingle responds to the powers of the flood waters – a channel here, an expanding island there, only to change again in the next spate. Shallow banks suddenly dropped to reveal deep pools of blue water, silver fish of varying sizes shimmering below the surface. The large Amazon kingfisher flew up and down the river, calling loudly, and the egret and blue heron stood fishing quietly further up stream. We made our way to some dappled shade on a shingle bank, and prepared for a swim.

Sitting quietly, watching Conor enjoying splashing through the clear waters, feeling the atmosphere of the rainforest, the warm sunshine, I found myself musing how nature is nature….whether a river in a Belizean rainforest, a singing burn in the Scottish Borders, or a mountain stream in Japan, nature is miraculous. No landscape is better or worse at heart; when melding with the spirit of a place, any place, the spirit itself nourishes the soul; the bounty presents itself as a banquet, each course unique, laced with that particular ambience.

True to form, Conor began foraging along the banks, and found a ford a bit further upstream. We explored further, and to his delight came across a large orange plantation – perfect for scrumping! Slowly making our way back downstream to a deep meander sporting a path up into the cabañas, suddenly a large blue–green parrot alighted on a branch in front of us. Quickly opening up our camera, we got a poor photo of its profile before it flew off!

Back on the road, we began the walk back towards Belmopan, happy to keep going until weariness and a homeward bound bus coincided, a perfect ending to another fantastic day’s walking.

29/11/2008

More crocodiles…?

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Rainy Season,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 09:06 pm

The weather is still perfect – blue skies, very little humidity, warm but not swelteringly hot. Wanting to do more walking last Sunday (23/11) we browsed the guidebook, and decided to bus out on the Northern Highway, and get off at the junction that leads to Burrell Boom and round to Hattieville, on the Western Highway. At Burrell Boom there is a road heading due west into the hills which we thought could be nice. The book described various sanctuaries and villages out there. Being a Sunday we knew that there would be no chance of a local bus, but we were happy to make a picnic and see what happened.

Perfect walking weather, we started out along the road, thoroughly enjoying every step. We were still in the swampy mangrove area, but there were more and more trees as we progressed, and it was just lovely to get into your stride, feel your body move, the sun on your skin, smell the air and witness the countryside. The flat swampy plain behind BC and along the coast from Dangriga to the northern border is like a wet scrub land. Palms, mangroves and mimosas abound interspersed with the occasional broad leaf tree. In drier areas, houses are built or fields worked. The marshes are full of fish, water birds, and plants. It is common to see roadside ditches and vast swampy areas full of lilies and other watery flowers.  We both noticed a large estate sign on our left, and wondered about its origin.

After a few miles, we reached the turning to Burrell Boom. As its name suggests, it was the site of a large chain across a bend in the Belize River, called a boom, which was used to hold the mahogany logs as they floated down river. It is an attractive place. A rough road leads into a tree lined village, with many comparatively large and affluent properties. The very lovely river is beside the road, and the vegetation begins to be more rain-foresty and less swampy. The grass verges were covered in dry beige silt, and we remembered that this whole area had been underwater not so very long ago. Noticing a potential watering hole, a restaurant part of a tourist ‘eco’ hotel, we wandered in. The restaurant had a nice open sitting area in the shade, complete with bug screens, and overlooking the river.

The mighty Belize River – as the national anthem says – is indeed a magnificent river. It never ceases to impress, whether glimpsed through the trees on the bus, standing on Haulover Bridge or just walked beside. It is at least 50 feet wide, and an old lady of a river. Leafy banks adorn its length and the birds their branches.  As described elsewhere, it is a source of food, a washing machine, a bath tub and a play ground. It has a strong and constant flow;  but being so huge – even when in full flood as it has been – it manages to do so without an undue sense of rush or loss of dignity. The lower Belize River Valley being predominantly a salt marsh, it has also been fascinating to see how long it has taken for all the waters to slowly seep back into the river, which it continues to absorb it in its stride. It is a river that is comfortable in its own skin, and which knows itself well. It could handle anything. It is easy to see how it has been the main thoroughfare for mankind for aeons and aeons, whether the Mayans, the loggers, countless slaves working for nothing in the jungle hunting the mahogany trees, or current day tourists and refugees.

As we sipped our juices, the silty flood line was evident on the trees on the opposite bank. If the silt was on the road outside, then the area where we were sitting must have been covered….we began to look around, and could just see a darker line on the wooden wall up to the height of about 18 inches. The swimming pool, sparklingly blue in the sunshine, must have been filled with the muddy waters….When the shy young waitress past by, she confirmed that the whole area was indeed flooded, and that they had spent three weeks cleaning up the kitchens and restaurant areas. She produced some photos – milky tea-like water everywhere.

Sneaking our sandwiches out and munching them alongside our juice, our limbs enjoyed the break. It had been about 6 miles, and since we would have to walk back the way we came, we decided to walk through the length of the village, and then turn round and head back to the Highway. In one garden we saw an extraordinarily large green globe – about the size of a cantaloupe melon – hanging like an oversized bauble from a four foot high shrub, which had comparatively small foliage – not unlike a small laurel leaf. I am still trying to work out what it was. And we found a sapodilla tree – a large tree sporting masses of fruits. Charleen had told us about them before we left the UK, and the following day Conor found one in the market. It was delicious – a pear texture but with a flavour which is a novel blend of sweet and spicy, almost a touch of nutmeg and cinnamon.

Still no clouds in the sky, the return had as much of a skip and a bounce as the beginning. Suddenly, a car pulled up just passed us, then backed up. With a look of amazement on her face, our landlady said “What are you doing here?” We began the now familiar litany of how we enjoy walking, have found it too hot until the last 6 weeks, have been taking advantage of the buses, how Burrell Boom sounded interesting……etc. “Come and see my house now you’re here. Pop in. I’ll run you back to the Highway later”.

The car moved a couple of miles down the road towards Burrell Boom – and then turned into the driveway of the estate that had caught our eye earlier! The next couple of hours were lovely, and only the second time we have been in a private house in nigh on 6 months!

We wandered around the farm, seeing the newly planted palms and trees and vegetables – many of which were ruined by the floods; we drank fresh coconut juice and scraped the delicious soft cream off the inside of a young coconut; we saw the hand-raised parrot belonging to one of the farm workers, and admired a pond. “Do you see that black bit in the middle?” We did. “It’s a crocodile”…as the black bit submerged and never resurfaced! It transpired that the family used to swim in the pond every Sunday, until one day as they were passing in the car, they noticed something huge. Much as she did with us, our landlady backed the car up and saw a very large crocodile! Later as we wandered further in, an old quarry which floods some of the year also sports some crocs, only did we see one? Did we heck!

We were dropped as promised at the bus stop on the highway, and together with 3 others were still waiting over an hour later. A pick-up truck pulled up, and a young man had a word with the driver, and 3 three piled over the back. “Can we climb in too?” For the second time in 6 months, these two grey haired oldies bounced along on their bum bones midst the dust and rubble of the roads! We both felt that it had been a great day.

28/11/2008

Day of the Scorpion

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 10:54 pm

November 19 was both Conor’s birthday and a public holiday, (as well as the astrological sign of Scorpio) celebrating the anniversary of Garifuna Settlement Day. As I wrote recently, the Garifuna have a rich cultural heritage, and on November 19 there is a re-enactment of the arrival from the sea of the people from Honduras, and then a procession of drumming and traditional dancing through the streets. Dangriga, south of Belize City, is the heart of the Garifuna people, but the coastal village of Hopkins a few miles further south is also Garifuna, and does all the celebrations too. Since Hopkins is on a huge curve of a sandy bay, with a good reputation for swimming, whilst Dangriga is more of a town, not a particularly inviting beach, and very full of people celebrating the day, we decided to catch the bus on Tuesday evening to Hopkins. Using our now very well thumbed guidebook, we phoned a place mentioned that was reasonably priced, booked a room and set off.

The bus journey was both reliable and predictable: from BC to Belmopan, then down the Hummingbird Highway towards Dangriga. We had been given a number of a taxi to phone as we approached the crossroads where the southern highway continues south towards Toledo, rather than going straight ahead to Dangriga. But the Maya Mountain Range was behind us and affecting the signal on Conor’s phone, leaving us uncertain as to whether or not the message had been received. Alighting from the bus at the gas station, we asked the woman behind the counter about how far away Hopkins was, and whether she knew of another taxi. Still waiting just in case  the one we phoned was on its way, two Hispanic women from inside the garage approached us and offered to taxi us there themselves. They started off asking a ridiculous amount of US dollars, but we managed to agree a reasonable price. These two had a large bag with them, and explained that they had just come from Hopkins were they had been selling clothes. After about ten minutes, we turned east off the Southern Highway and headed for the lights in the distance.

Hopkins is a series of three parallel roads running alongside the sandy beach lined with palms, mangroves, cashew and sea grape trees, and many more. The gentle slap and swish of the waves could be heard against the cicadas and the rumble of drums here and there as the local people were beginning their annual celebration. Making our way through a restaurant area, we were directed a few yards further to the north and mounted a flight of wooden steps into a time warp from the seventies. A woman about our age introduced herself, and the other younger backpackers staying there: two UK medical students who had just finished two months’ elective  in Belmopan; one intrepid traveller from Switzerland who managed to go for months with just a very small pack; and two social workers from Germany travelling through Central America. They were a very nice group of young women.

Our host showed us down into our room, a wooden cabana looking directly onto the shore, and left us for few minutes. It had been decorated in a random, free style, with some painting on wood here, a conch shell there, mosquito net decorated with shiny shapes, or flotsam and jetsam artistically placed on wall or shelf. As I looked around the rustic wooden place, I spotted a small scorpion resting motionless on the concrete wall. As the owner entered the room, I pointed out that we had an extra resident. She lifted her flip-flop and gave it a resounding thwack followed by a scrape along the wall. Job done, she reassured us that that was a small one, and they invariably are alone, and that they are looking for the dry places after all the recent rains. I refrained from saying that we had heard that they are usually found in twos especially in the mating season. And being a wee one, I suspected that the two adults would be somewhere. Hmm.

Feeling resolute, we settled in and then walked the few yards back along the sands to the restaurant, and had a delicious meal of the local fish of the day accompanied by the drums and dancing of local people. After a day’s work and the long bus ride, we were ready for bed but it was obvious that others had a long night ahead! Our host had informed us that the re-enactment from the sea would be about 6a.m. (Belizean time!) and that we could either get up or just watch out of the screens from our bed! We suspected we knew which one we were going to do….

Somewhat to my surprise, given the thorough inspection of every nook and cranny before turning in, I slept soundly. The following morning announced itself by the sound of dim drums in the distance. I peered towards the sea, but fell back into a sleep fairly quickly. An hour or so later, warm sun rays came through the open windows onto the bed, enticing us to begin the day, Conor’s 61st birthday. Still treading very cautiously, I began to dress myself, and reaching for my linen shirt noticed a large scorpion on the wall immediately above and behind the shirt. UGH! Shaking everything even more diligently than before, when I turned back it was nowhere to be seen. Which is worse? One you can see close by, or one that has disappeared? I am not sure.

Returning to the restaurant for some breakfast, we were surprised to see the same crew that had been serving the night before. Asking them when they had got to bed, they said 5.30am, but some of the folk the previous night had said they would return for breakfast. They hadn’t, but it was to our advantage as we had a delicious omelette with tomatoes and avocados, the last of the season. One of the cooks came out to wish Conor a happy birthday – it had transpired the previous evening that she and Conor shared the same day. Conor always says you can tell the nature of the boss by how contented the staff is.

Before I go on, let me set the scene. A sandy beach, part of a huge bay fringed with mangroves, palms and other vegetation. Early morning sun rays warming the atmosphere, and a restaurant with tables and chairs under strategically placed palm-thatched shades. Here and there, boats and dug-out canoes are pulled up onto the beach, patiently waiting till the next voyage. Some have been waiting a long time, and have had others inhabit them meanwhile: seaweed here, termites there, and the intrepid bromeliads. The backdrop of the gentle Caribbean creates a pleasant chorus against other conversations. The grackle squawks, the Kiskadee cries, the cicadas drone. People occasionally pass back and forth from their homes to their workplaces or to their friends and companions.  Two young teenagers can be seen carefully plaiting one another’s hair under the shade of a rubber tree.

Conor and I sat on the beach drinking coffee and green tea, our chair and table legs sunk into the sand, and having a long chat with the owner. Canadian, he had only recently completely moved to Hopkins. He had been going back and forth for about 5 years. Our conversation ranged far and wide, and he was very interesting. At one point, a staff member came up to ask him something, and we were told how this man had the only car that was not submerged in the recent floods in the village of Sittee River. Sittee River is just a couple of miles to the south, on the river, and as Hispanic as Hopkins is Garifuna. Apparently there was a flash flood when a seven foot bore tore down stream. The member of staff had just pulled away in his car when he saw it coming and drove straight to the one place of high ground in the village. There was no time to warn anybody – the wall of water came down with extraordinary speed. (We later met a taxi man with an unusual vehicle, and he explained that his original taxi had been ruined in the flood. When asked if it had been insured, he gestured wide and said that you only get third party insurance in Belize. “You give them money all the time but they never give it to you.”)

The restaurant owner gave us a bit of local history. He explained that the two villages, despite clear cultural differences, had lived compatibly for donkeys’ years. The road only came to the area 15 years ago, and until then everyone was entirely dependent on boats: boats to Dangriga, to Sittee, to BC and beyond. At least once a week there was a large market boat when people would load their surplus produce to take to BC or Dangriga. Whilst Sittee people were farmers, the men of Hopkins were fishermen. Therefore the men’s working patterns were traditionally very different: farmers work with the light; fishermen work hard for 3-4 hours a day. With the advent of the car, life-styles had been rudely challenged over the fifteen years, and many were still adjusting. The age group of 25 – 35 year olds were least in existence in Hopkins because of lack of work, but that is beginning to change. Tourism creates job opportunities. Tourism can also ruin that which it is trying to sell – though there is a strong eco-tourism movement here in Belize. On the northernmost edge of the bay, near Dangriga, is a deep water jetty used for shipping the orange and grapefruit pulp for juice. There is apparently a plan to divert some of the tourist ships there rather than to BC. It is well situated for exploring the hinterland, close to Hopkins too, has access to some of the cayes, and very much more pleasant an experience than BC. The restaurateur also informed us that 80% of Hopkins’ population is under 12 years of age. That will transform the village in a few years time.

Our long leisurely breakfast came to an end, and we made our way back to our room – only to find our house guest back in its spot on the wall. Reluctantly I went upstairs and fetched the spray…a quick squirt and the scorpion contracted – which I assume was claws in, sting over – and then disappeared again. Looking around, we thought it had fallen behind the shelf. A while later, our business over, Conor opened the screen door, only to find our friend stretched out full length under the door jam. Wow – it must have shot across the length of the room with the speed of light, and I am so glad my feet were not in the way. It was not quite dead, and could arch and sting but not walk. We scooped it up onto a dustpan and brush, took a few fascinated but cautious pictures, allowed the other backpacker residents the opportunity to inspect, and handed it over to the woman with the excellent flip-flop technique!

We had also discussed the possibility of moving to less rustic quarters with the restaurateur, but in the end decided to move upstairs to another room which had become available, and which was more in the main body of the house. Nevertheless, I had a jumpy night full of insectitous. I slept lightly and with caution, hearing every nnnnn of a mossie, sensing every swish of a possible scorpion upon a nearby surface. Waking with the sun, we and three other backpackers caught the 7am bus to Belmopan and BC, ready for a new day’s work.

A post-script – the day of roaming the beach, spotting different varieties of waders, swimming, listening to the children practising their drumming and dancing, following the Garifuna Settlement Day floats and processions, seeing everyone dressed in their Garifuna clothing, mainly black, yellow and white, was lovely. And in the dusk, having moved our things upstairs, and sitting quietly on the communal balcony staring at the sea and chatting to the Swiss woman, I wondered if I was seeing waves starting to break or was it fish? And then we realised it was manatees! (A pod –shoal – family? Just looked it up: because they are cows, bulls and calves, it’s a herd, of course!)

What is a manatee you ask? Or at least, I did when we first came to Belize. The manatees are one of the water based attractions that tempt the tourists here, and these dears presented themselves to us. Manatees are a protected species of fully aquatic mammals. They are also called sea cows, hence the ‘herd’. They are very round, like seals, but with large round soft faces with a dark patch on the top of their head, and two front limbs. Their tail is a flat paddle shape. Apparently they come up for air every 20 minutes. They eat sea grass, mangrove leaves and some algae, swimming in the warm shallow waters of the Caribbean and up to Florida. Some species are freshwater (Amazon) and some can handle different degrees of salinity, moving between the sea, the brackish swamps, and into freshwater rivers fed by a warm spring in the winter. Tests have revealed that they are intelligent like dolphins, and good at memory tests – which is interesting because apparently they evolved millions of years ago and their nearest relative is the elephant – who also never forgets.

It felt a real gift to see them.

23/11/2008

Goodbye Crooked Tree

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Crooked Tree,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 05:14 pm

On Saturday 15 November, we decided to catch the 11a.m post-market bus to Crooked Tree. (The bus leaves the village at 7a.m .and returns from BC at 11a.m., giving folk time to purchase their wares from the market, or dusty old Albert St., etc.) Knowing by now exactly where the bus leaves at any time of day, we found it parked next to the canal, and full of both familiar and new faces. We started chatting to a woman sitting on the seat in front of us, only to find that she was married to someone from the Grenadier Guards, had lived in London and been posted to various other places in the world, and had returned to Crooked Tree for the last eight years. She said that her husband – from Peckham, south London – loved Belize, except that he still couldn’t really speak Creole! I do understand. She told us that her husband was Chair of the Crooked Tree Committee, and that if the coastguards were not running a return ferry service in the afternoon, she would make sure that we could catch a boat back to the mainland.

The bus started the journey along the northern highway, and once passed Ladyville, we could immediately see the lingering effects of the flooding. Many houses were still under water, and the brackish marshes were covering much larger areas than usual. The bus trundled on up the highway, and turned into the left-handed side road towards the causeway. We knew from colleagues in the Women’s Dept. that at its height, the floods had extended to one mile in from the highway (it is 3 miles to the causeway) and so we watched to see how far we would manage in the bus. Soon a row of cars parked on the left-hand side came into view. About half a mile from the eastern end of the causeway, we saw the channel with two flat bottomed boats with Belize Coastguard emblazoned clearly along each side. The bus load disembarked: men, women and children, young and very old, a bit helpless like refuges. We climbed the wooden jetty, and jumped up into the coastguards’ boat. It was pretty basic: a well near the wheel tower, some life jackets lined up along the length each side, and the bows. We were asked to sit in the body of the boat, rather than on the sides, and once started it was evident why: just as Kate had been entangled in the shrubs when we all went canoeing together, so too anyone sitting on the side of the vessel would be attacked by the thorny mimosa which propels itself upwards and over wherever it may.

The view was staggering. (There are some photos.) The whole of the causeway was under water except for the bushes on either side. We passed at least two other boats ferrying folk back to the mainland. The lagoon was one vast expanse of water, and as we approached Crooked Tree – not the normal bit at the causeway but further to the north beside the Baptist Church and the house that the young woman with the very premature baby lives in – we could see many houses were still deep in lagoon water. On the other hand, as we approached the new docking area, there was great excitement. Four or five different types of boats were moored to a temporary jetty of planks of wood placed strategically next to one another – another coastguard vessel, a rubber dinghy and some other boats with outboard motors; people waiting for a lift out were patiently sitting together with their various belongings. Throngs, no packs, or posses even, of children were entranced by the comings and goings, quite the most exciting thing forever! The bigger ones were trying to help here, carry there, and tinies were waddling after them, precariously making their way across uneven planks.

Having disembarked, we began to make our way round to Stephanie and Birds Eye View Lodge. People explained to us how at first even the mooring area had been much further out, but the waters were beginning to recede. We made our way past our little cottage, passed Corletta’s house and the tree with the pair of iguanas, and on round passed the pool with the pigs, the bare-throated green heron and roseate spoonbill – none of which were to be seen. Suddenly we could go no further. In the distance over an expanse of water down the lane (I am hopeless at judging distances, but between 100-150 yards I would think) we could see both the Lodge and to the right, the owners’ house. The water is currently about one and a half feet above the ground, but we could clearly see a grey water line just above the bottom of the windows – at least 3 feet up the wall. Poor things, no doubt at its height the water had penetrated the entire bottom floor. With so much water still lying around the buildings the clean-up process will not be able to be started. A few weeks ago Stephanie was telling us that November was the start of the ‘proper’ tourist season and was already well booked up. What a set back.

Aware that if we were to get back to BC that night we needed to catch a boat between 2-3p.m. so started our return journey. We were delighted to see that Corletta was abroad as we passed, and said our goodbyes and appreciation of her help and support during our stay in the Isle. She assured us that unlike some folk nearer the water, her well water was OK. Those with contaminated water needed to have their wells drained and treated with fluoride – quite something for people with no access to taps and mains. I noticed that her accent seemed far less ‘foreign’ to me now than it did in the month of August, ten weeks ago. As we approached the makeshift jetty, the woman we had spoken to on the bus walked out of a nearby house. Thinking that she was going to reassure us that despite the coastguards going to have their lunch for at least an hour she would make sure that a boat was going to get us back over the lagoon, we were most surprised when she said that her sister – long afflicted with diabetes which is pretty endemic in this culture – had died seconds after she had entered the house off the bus. She had been very ill for a long time, so her death was greeted with a mixture of sadness and relief. A boat needed to go over and back because she was a tall woman with a large frame, and a coffin needed to be brought in. As we had approached the Isle, a helicopter had been overhead, and we began to put two and two together: the doctor who had been called in, and who had eventually signed the death certificate. So our new acquaintance from the bus that morning, discussing experiences of travel around parts of the globe and across flooded lagoons, continued to discuss another sort of travel by members of her family…

Eventually we had a ride in a speedy outboard motorised boat together with another passenger and 5 empty gas cylinders used for cooking in these parts. Our fellow passenger gave us a lift in his car to the highway, where we caught a bus back to BC. It was good to have witnessed the Isle after all their difficulties, and very good to have said our goodbyes to that place which gave us much solace through the month of August.

And guess what! As we were pulling away from the landing stage in the car, a small turtle trundled across the road. And we still haven’t see a croc there!

A footnote. The waters in a village near Orange Walk have still not receded. The whole village has been evacuated for some weeks, and is considered to be a contaminated zone, with a danger of typhoid and other water-born diseases from stagnant waters. The government is considering dredging the mouth of the Belize River to help the drainage process. With the possible onset of climate change and a raising of sea levels, countries like Belize with a vast salt marsh just below sea level through the length of its eastern sea board would be very vulnerable. Furthermore, vast areas of agricultural land have been flattened by these floods. Produce grows during the rainy season; folk live off their produce, and the excess is sold in local markets. The effects of the extraordinary volume of rain here in October are going to be felt for some months to come. Equally in Scotland, the volume of rain this summer has been phenomenal. We do need to take climate change seriously.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress