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

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.

18/11/2008

CHill-i-pedia 4 – Even more CHilli Sauce

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,CHill-i-pedia,Mexico,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 05:49 pm

Racoons
Conor and I have been running some workshops and the venue is the Belize Institute of Management. A pair of iguanas lives under the concrete pathway surrounding the buildings, the male twice the size of the female. Providing you don’t move too fast, they are quite comfortable with the people around and about. They bask in the sun, and will happily accept scraps of food thrown in their direction. Occasionally the male will go further afield, ambling slowly but surely in his wide-based gait across the perimeter of the grounds. They are part and parcel of the venue.

As we finished up last Friday afternoon, with just one participant left as we cleared away, I looked up and to my amazement saw a racoon with her three cubs. This is a venue in the city, surrounded by buildings, and a most unexpected visitor to our eyes. She had the typical superb ‘mask’ on her face, and everything about her appeared sharp: her nose, her coal black shiny eyes, her prominent teeth and her claws. She was definitely foraging, and was coming towards us but very wary at the same time. She was super alert, and if you stamped your foot would no doubt have attacked rather than run. She seemed truly wild, and both awe-inspiring and a bit intimidating at the same time. Her cubs were like all small creatures, both sweet and entertaining as they bumbled and frolicked – but definitely wild. We discovered that the night-watchman feeds them so they approach humans, and that the building was erected on their habitat, the mangrove swamp. They were quite a treat. (There are some photos of them to come.)

The female was about the size of a medium sized fox but with more of a cat’s shape, and with a bear quality, running on flat feet with a humped spine. Her long pointed tail was banded with grey and black, and the overall effect is very striking. It would be good to see her again when we next use the venue, but they only come when there is hardly anyone about.

According to Wikipedia, they are part of the Procyonidae family, and closely related to bears. Other members of this group of mammals are the coatis that we saw from the canoe in Crooked Tree, and the kinkajou that walked in front of us in Tikal. Very much creatures of the Americas.

Sea temperature
The sea is very much colder after all the rains throughout October. We had a swim in the sea last weekend, and were totally surprised by the difference. It had been almost unpleasantly warm in late September, and this time you had to give yourself a little nudge to get under. Once in, it was delightful, and still totally different to the North Sea!

Culture Vultures
With the advent of Garifuna Settlement Day, on November 19 (Conor’s birthday), there have been lots of activities and events over the last two weeks. The Garifuna are the people who were expelled from St Vincent (one of the eastern Caribbean islands). Originally, people from South America, called Kalipuna or Kwaib, subdued the local Arawak Indians on St. Vincent. Their descendants were intermingled with African blood when two slave ships were wrecked off the coast in 1635. Initially very hostile to each other, they eventually formed the Black Caribs. Throughout the eighteenth century, they were constantly squabbling with the British who could not countenance free blacks alongside the slave-owning settlers. Around 1796 they were deported to islands off Honduras, where they were almost decimated by disease. By the early 1800s they had established themselves in Stann Creek (now called Dangriga) and refused to be pushed out by the British. Garifuna people can be found throughout the coast line between Belize and Nicaragua, but they are nevertheless well established as a fundamental part of Belizean society. They received their settlement in 1941, and this is what will be celebrated on Wednesday.

Meanwhile lots of interesting things have been happening. Last Thursday we went to an exhibition opening at the Institute of Mexico (keen on promoting the arts here) of ‘Pen’ Cayetano, a Garifuna artist married to a German woman and living in Germany. We arrived early, but were hugely entertained by the drummers and dancers as we waited for the official opening. The Turtle Shell Band was the original band that Pen had been part of a few decades ago. Since then he has been receiving international acclaim and also promoting the Garifuna culture. The opening was free, and had free eats and booze too, as well as fabulous music and dance – and even so one felt that it was only the cognoscenti who were present. Such a shame. The exhibition was fabulous. There were a number of paintings that we thought that we could live with, but in spite of all sorts of people placing little green dots on a number of paintings, the best we could come up with was a few very nice postcards! Pen didn’t look like the sort of person that I could swap a few hours of therapy with, the way that I have managed to acquire my best art works yet!

The following day we went to the Bliss Centre to see a film called Punta Soul, about the whole musical movement which has arisen from the Garifuna people. There is a ‘low’ and ‘high’ art form – my words – the low being the dance floor and super sexy type movements between two people; the ‘high’ is more an expression of drumming, vocals and guitar of peoples and their culture over the last few centuries. The film described the development of both, and of how the late Andy Palacio had been so influential in its development.

Six days later we were in the House of Culture – or rather, in the garden of the House of the Culture, under our fifth full moon in Belize – listening to Xalapa. They were fabulous! Serious musicians from Mexico, their creative novelty was a pleasure to behold. Six men performed various expressions of percussion: the spoons, which would have put most Cockneys to shame; two marimbas, which they played as if making love to a woman; followed by more traditional Cuban and African drumming. They were captivating!

And then on the Saturday, again as part of the build up to Garifuna Day, we had tickets to Umalali. Umalali is a collective of Garifuna artists from Belize and Honduras who have international acclaim now, particularly from festivals like WOMAD. I had read an article in the local paper referring to acapello singing by women so I personally was a bit disappointed that I did not hear that echo of more traditional culture that I was anticipating – much as one can hear in Ireland or on the West coast of Scotland. Nevertheless, we had good sense of the songs and style of the people, and the audience was very appreciative. Conor and I will make our way – by bus – down south to witness Garifuna Independence Day on Wednesday 19 November and will let you know what happens! After a dearth of artistic activity for 5 months it is suddenly every where! And very nice too…

16/11/2008

No.31 Trekking and Stopping

Filed under: "the river",Adventures in Belize,Guatemala,Rainy Season — Clare Hill @ 08:46 pm

After a couple of weekends in wet BC, the prospect of a slightly drier weekend over Halloween and The Day of the Dead encouraged us to catch a bus up towards Succotz and the Guatemalan border. (Succotz is the village a couple of miles south of the border town of Benque, where we caught the wire and ratchet ferry over to the Xunantunich pyramids.) The towns with a Spanish and/or Mexican influence celebrate the Day of the Dead, not just Halloween, (ie All Saints not All Souls) and in particular the souls of dead children. More remote traditional places have very special ceremonies, but these tend to be well into Mexico and too far for us. So we decided just to head west and see what we see.

Thus to a bus on a Friday evening! Once more ensconced on the Western Highway, we were heading for Trek Stop, on the eastern edge of Succotz, and with an interesting write up in the guide book: an eco-centre, complete with wooden cabañas, kitchens, bio-degradable composting toilets and a butterfly farm. After nearly three hours on a busy commuter bus, the bus driver deposited us in the dark. Seeing our look of “EH?” he pooped his horn and made a hand gesture to show us in which direction to look. Through the darkness we saw a billboard on the other side of the road proudly announcing Trek Stop. As the bus drew away and we crossed the road, we saw a torch light and a friendly voice coming towards us. “I saw the bus pull up. You said you would be here about 8pm.” A charming young Spanish sounding man met us and with two large torches guided us up the slope to the centre. The ground was firm but damp underfoot, and we asked him if they had been OK in the recent floods. This area is in the reaches of the large tributaries of the Belize River, where much of the damage from floods had occurred. (The river was on the near side of the road when we got off the bus.) He explained that the lower lying ground near the road had been under water; but the centre itself had not been affected, other than the increase in mosquitoes and other insects which had been  noticeable everywhere, including our generally insect–free zone in the flat. We were guided through some light vegetation to a series of cabanas and one or two larger wooden buildings, including a communal kitchen with facilities for (free) tea and real coffee, Scrabble and other board games, and an interesting collection of spear heads, fossils and stones. We passed the showers, with water heated by solar panels, and the loos. I could see immediately that I was going to have a problem. I have a very sensitive digestive tract – not just because of my more recent dramas with diverticulitis, but throughout my life. It is supposed to be typical of those born under the sign of Cancer, and my mother says my grandmother (of the horses sweat statement for any regular readers) also had to take great care about what she did and did not eat, and she too is a Cancerian. Any upset in my life at all, and I immediately get a funny tummy or chronic constipation.

Many years ago, about 1971, my friend Caroline and I were at a Sufi camp on the side of a mountain above Chamonix, in the French Alps. There were a lot of us, and it was the hippy era so we all tended to have long hair and flowing robes. As we were about 50 in number, three holes in the ground were dug, with wooden planks around them, with a stunning view over the valley to Mont Blanc. At sunrise the sun glowed on the snows on one side of the peak, and in the evening cast long rosy shadows on the other. It was midsummer, so the days were long, and being in large tents, it got hot soon after sunrise. But try as I may, I just could not ‘perform’ squatting over a hole in the ground with two companions, even if we were looking at one of the most famous profiles in the world. So it was with a sense of resignation I noted that the next few hours would not be the most relieving that I had ever had. Despite the fine eco-notion of composting toilets, the long drop into a cavernous hole, not quite knowing if anything might rise to greet you, is still something I have yet to struggle with.

Nevertheless the wooden cabanas, though simple were perfectly adequate, and very soundly constructed. Because of the rains I had wondered whether our Trek Stop might have had the company of every snake and scorpion looking for dry ground, but I needn’t have worried. The insect screens and all joints were tightly sealed, and the worst I saw was a little spider. We settled in and made our way through the village to Benny’s Kitchen, which had been recommended as a good watering hole. It was Halloween, and there were children and adults in occasional houses and yards, doing what people do with masks and pumpkins, creating a congenial sense of ‘family’ in the pleasant evening.

We awoke to the early morning dawn chorus, being on the edge of the rain forest, and to my delight we heard a parrot or parakeet just above us. By the time I got out of bed it had gone! But in the day light, we could appreciate the centre and its setting. Small cabanas were dotted around, with shingle paths linking up the various buildings. They were all interspersed with beautiful trees, with their gorgeous barks, and large and small shrubs, some in flower and some with fabulous foliage. One green leaf has a lacy creamy white border to it, whilst another looks as if Jackson Pollock has had a go. The various rubber plants and other indoor plants we see in the UK all grow wild and free here, delighting the eye with their vigour and variety.   Towards the back of the area is a ‘proper’ wooden house on stilts where the family live.

Navigating the ablutions without mishap, we wandered down to the eating area for breakfast – it had been closed the evening before. A party of tourists sat at the table beside us, two from Australia, two from Ireland and one from Canada. They had just arrived from Cancun and were going on to the Mayan site of Tikal, unable to visit the local sites because of the flooding making some roads impassable. We pondered over how very different their experience of the country was to ours. For the first time ever I indulged in banana pancakes and to my amazement two huge ones appeared on both Conor and my plates. We struggled gamely through, and they were quite delicious! An enormous bottle of maple syrup was passed liberally from table to table.

Before leaving, we decided to have a look at the small exhibition centre and butterfly farm behind the breakfasting area. The farm area was a vast netted-in piece of the rain forest, with particular plants for the caterpillars to feed off, or to camouflage a certain species. Because at this point the weather was just beginning to change from the few weeks of rain to a ‘cold’ front, and still a little overcast, not many of the butterflies were flying. A small boy, about seven years old, wandered in, and began to delight in finding the names of the butterflies for us (in Latin, Spanish and English!) shaking a branch here to disturb a particular butterfly, pointing out the chrysalises pinned up in a special box there. He was such good company that we gave him a couple of dollars for being such an excellent tour guide. At this he seemed to think that he had not really earned his wage yet, for he stopped us from leaving, seemed to pause a moment, then turned us back to show us how one butterfly was perfectly camouflaged on the bark of a tree trunk, and two large rust coloured caterpillars (he called them worms) were stationary on another trunk looking completely like the twigs around them. Clever.  At this point he seemed satisfied that his job had been well done, and let us go, each of us with a contented smile on our faces.

The sky was clearing, and the conditions perfect for walking: temperatures in the upper 60’sF, about 27C, and NO humidity! We had decided to just follow our noses, and began the walk through the village. We had noticed a sign about a local artist as we wandered through the previous evening, and had decided to look inside before moving on. As we approached the series of three simple buildings, we immediately noticed the details in the stone work steps, the careful positioning of plants, and a sense of welcoming peace. The middle of the three rooms was an open studio area with a typical potter’s room behind, complete with clay and wheels. A small Mayan man (most of the villagers in Succotz are of Mayan origin) probably about 60 years old, was sitting painting some pottery. His work immediately caught our attention. A variety of shapes and sizes but all most delicately painted. He uses local clays, and is currently developing more traditional glazes. The ones we saw were painted in acrylic, so will not be dishwasher proof, and will mark if scratched, but the art work was exquisite. Being limited by weight as we travel home, we purchased a couple of small pieces for gifts, depicting scenes from the Mayan cosmology. We stayed chatting to this gentle man, who told us about his work over the years, teaching women and children how to use the clay, and creating financial independence for the women. This has been a big issue within the Mayan culture as for aeons women were considered to be the property of their men folk, and any sign of independence seen as an insult to the family’s – and in particular the husband’s –  honour. He and his wife have been social activists for the last thirty years, and it was so good to talk with him and feel such hope for society that in every nook and cranny there are people like him quietly making changes and working towards a fairer world.

Usually we wilt after walking about two miles, so we were relishing the clear sunshine and fresh air, striding along the swollen river banks towards Benque with not even a hat on our heads! The high water marks were very evident, well up over the road, and though still a fast and vigorous volume of water speeding by, it was considerably lower than a week ago. As Succotz and Benque sit higher on the side of the valley, very few people’s homes were affected, fortunately. Meanwhile, all sorts of water birds, kingfishers, small herons, limpkins and waders were taking advantage of the waters. People too, were gathering to wash their clothes and themselves, or to dunk their pickneys (children) into tubs of water, pouring water over their screwed up faces. 

Keeping to the river bank, we avoided the main road up to the Guatemalan border and Immigration, and meandered through some leafy lanes, enjoying the sense of village life. The usual accompaniment of stray dogs and scrawny cats followed us, as we picked our way forward. While standing debating whether to keep going along a narrowing track, a red pick-up truck with a family in it stopped beside us, asking us where we were going. The man advised us that down that lane and into the undergrowth we were yards from the border, a notorious area for illegal immigrants and not very safe. Decision made, we thanked the man and turned back!

Still enjoying ourselves enormously, we decided to keep walking towards Succotz and San Ignacio until a communal taxi came along – which it duly did! The San Ignacio Saturday market was our first port of call, its abundance of fruit and vegetables sorely diminished from the last time we saw it. The whole market area had been under water, and thousands of acres of agricultural land ruined for this growing season. This will have a huge impact on the rural people, who have a subsistence-farming lifestyle, selling any extra produce in the markets of villages and towns. We were heading towards Bullet Tree, which had been flooded but was now passable, and which had some cabanas beside the falls according to the guidebook. It is the spot where the Macal and Mopan tributaries become the mighty Belize River. Suddenly the truth of Belize being a small country hit us, and everyone knowing everyone else. Waiting to cross the road to an ATM, we were hailed loudly and turned to see our ‘first day man’ hanging out of a front passenger window waving frantically! It was a taxi, with a couple of tourists looking at us curiously from the back. He had got himself a good deal there as a guide. Good for him, he knows his stuff.

In the queue for the ATM, a man who had attended a training day a week or so ago, based in San Ignacio, grabbed our hands. He had been very involved in the assessment of some of the flood damage, and told us a tale or two. He reassured us that we should be able to get to Bullet Tree. And whilst chatting to him, who else should come along but Ernesto! He greeted us warmly and it was good to see him. We hadn’t seen him for well over a month, and he looked scrubbed, with clean clothes and shoes on his feet. As we walked towards the market to get a local bus to Bullet Tree, we saw him loading some things onto the back of a stall holder’s lorry, so hopefully he had some work and was doing better for himself.

The road to Bullet Tree was indeed clear, and the taxi man – no local buses at that time of day – dropped us off near the river. He was gone before we had time to take in the scene……Both banks had the flattened vegetation left after water has receded, and on the far side, the restaurant and cabañas were soggy-looking and draped with mats and other bits and pieces out to dry. The so-called falls were completely covered with a raging mass of water, nothing particularly beautiful or picturesque, but at least no one was harmed.  Disappointed, we had no alternatives to make our way back to San Ignacio. Another communal taxi passed – great scheme that, we should do it in the UK – and we were soon back in the market place. Scouring our guide book, we suddenly recalled that one of the ones listed was recommended by the man from Fyffes bananas who gave us a lift up to San Antonio a few weeks ago. It was full, as a big concert was happening at the Cahal Pech site that evening, and the owner recommended another near by. Soon we had a room, very different to our Trek Stop the evening before.

The following day dawned brightly too. We had had a pleasant afternoon and evening roaming the town and its side streets, enjoying the names of drinking holes such as ‘Fiya Wata’, and despite odd bursts of noise, were not too disturbed by the concert overnight. We decided to take advantage of the perfect walking weather, and head off towards Belize City, and just pick up a bus when we had had too much. Eight glorious miles of trekking through the countryside, enjoying the space, the hills and forests, the flats and marshes, and all the wild life and cattle along the way, we eventually came to Georgeville and the bus stop. A small shop provided deliciously cold liquid, and then we had a very long wait as full bus after full bus went by. Beginning to know how the buses work, we decided to start walking again, and to stop somewhere where we could be easily seen and where we were alone. If too many people are waiting at a stop and the bus is very full, the driver does not stop. But for the odd one or two, he may. And he did! The people we were sitting with were not on the bus when we eventually got on.

We arrived back in BC very contented after a weekend of perfect walking weather in very pleasant countryside. I was golden, Conor lobster pink!

30/10/2008

Weather

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Rainy Season — Clare Hill @ 02:59 pm

We continue to have ‘weather’! For more or less the whole of October, the clouds have been on and off in the sky, and the tropical waves of thunderstorms have flown over one after the other from Honduras and the south east Caribbean. The heat was still intense, and the humidity level – having dropped immediately after a deluge – would soon begin to build up again as the hot sun evaporated the moisture fast. Then two weeks ago, the clouds intensified, with a marginal overall drop in temperature, and the rains began in earnest. After a few days, folk were saying that it was unusual to have quite so much at once and one of my work colleagues reassured me that we would see some sun before leaving in the beginning of December. And the rains still fell, 20 inches in three days at one point. The new pavement which has been under construction on either side of Albert St and taking aeons, holding up the final tarring of the road for even longer, had covered over the storm drains. The workmen have made the drain pipes from the alleyway to our flat and to the Women’s Dept on the other side of the road level with the top of the pavement, not the bottom of the alley, so we had to place planks of wood or broken bricks strategically to avoid  the 2 -3 inches of sitting water. As one would expect, the water soon became a rich mix of the dust and general detritus of the drains, the rubbish from the street, and the vegetation which began falling in the intense precipitation.

When coming back from a meeting after one exceedingly intense shower, the whole street was flooded. I turned down various streets and kept coming to impassable sections. At least, impassable to me – some people waded through with their bare feet up to their knees, but there was no guarantee that there was no sewage in them. I caught a taxi in the end.

And then two days later, there were anxious reports about the amount of water coming down the rivers. The whole of western Belize is mountainous, and indeed the two main tributaries of the Belize River, the Mopan and the Macal, bring waters from even further west: the Mopan from the Peten region of Guatemala (where Tikal and Flores are) and the Macal from the Pine Mountain Ridge (with the Rio On Pools). By last Tuesday the whole of the San Ignacio region around the rivers was flooded, Stann Creek area near Dangriga (which is often flooded), and concerns about the lower Belize River basin were expressed. On Wednesday, the three branches of the Ministry of Human Development – one of which is the Women’s Dept – were deployed to put the hurricane emergency plan into action, only this time it was for flooding. The WDOs in the Women’s Dept had responsibility for assessing the need for and distributing food.

I didn’t see some of them for days at a time, and now the stories are emerging. The 3 mile road into Crooked Tree was under water after one mile from the northern highway. Many in the village were flooded. The lagoons around Birds Isle are vulnerable because the waters come into the lagoon from the north from the Orange Walk region, and start the flood process. Then the Black Creek, a tributary of the Belize River which we canoed one morning, back-floods from the south, further flooding the region.

One colleague was in a boat up the rivers near Burrell Boom with the coast guard, wearing a life jacket, and sometimes wading chest-high through waters. She said they were keeping an eye out for snakes and crocs, both of which would not be too keen on the flood waters. She herself is not a good swimmer, so felt a little worried at times. Most of the farmed produce in the river basin has been flattened and ruined, and a lot of the animals will need to be killed. Fortunately there have been only 7 casualties, which given the volume of water and degree of flooding was pretty remarkable.

Despite more rain forecast for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it fortunately did not come, averting what could have been an even worse situation. If it had continued Belize City would have been the next target and there were serious concerns about the City’s ability to withstand the volume of water coming towards it, and coinciding with a high tide. The sewage system is precarious as it is.

Nevertheless, more rain has fallen than has ever been recorded in October. By now, Wednesday, the waters are receding. A member of a group this afternoon, who lives near the sea south of Belize, said that the volume of water emptying from the rivers caused much higher tides and some flooding from the sea in their region too. Over the last few days she has seen a snake each day in her garden as they search for some dry land.

A cold front was forecast and duly came in on Monday. Although not officially over till the end of November (some of the most memorable have been in November) a cold front often means the end of the hurricane season. Certainly there is a freshness in the more north easterly air, almost a familiar autumnal smell, and no humidity which is such a joy. The wind – for it is more than a breeze – is gusty and if not cold, is less balmy than we have been used to. Unfortunately the biting things have had a field-day in the wet, but the temperature being in the mid- to late 60sF, about 20C, has been most pleasant. But it is interesting to see how relative ‘cold’ is. After weeks and weeks of temperatures in the 90sF, well over 30C, many people are obviously cold. Women are wearing tights, covering their shoulders or even wearing long sleeves. Children are wearing denim jackets over their school uniforms in the early morning. I even saw one wee laddie with a red woollen hat pulled down over his ears as I walked to the bus station yesterday morning! Last night I awoke a little chilled, the sheet right up around my shoulders instead of vaguely covering me in places, and got out of bed to place a quilt over my toes. Who knows, I may even wear my jammies yet!

And I read today that there is lots of snow back home in Scotland – cold really is relative! And that is early, making for a long winter. Poor things, after a summer which was a wash-out, starting with a cold snap now is truly tough.

22/10/2008

Chetumal, Mexico (October 11-13)

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Chetumal,Mexico — Clare Hill @ 04:42 pm

Last weekend was another long weekend, celebrating Independence Day, and the feeling of obligation to ‘use it well’ came up. But being near the end of our 6 months we are pretty strapped dosh-wise so wondered what to do as cheaply as possible. A friend had told us how easy it was to catch the bus north to Chetumal, just over the Mexican border, so last Saturday found us on an express bus, comfy seats and air con, for the princely sum of £3.50 each. It was surprisingly uncomplicated to pass through the customs and immigration, and quite extraordinary to witness the volume of traffic moving back and forth all the time. There is a large ‘no man’s land’ between the borders, full of local businesses and merchandise, and people from both countries apparently flock there to pick up clothing and cheap electrical goods.

We immediately noticed a big difference to Belize – the roads were tarmaced, and there was an obviously developed infrastructure of masts and cables, road ‘furniture’, plus lots of the other trappings of twenty first century life. The cars were more modern and in good condition, and a lot more of them. This neck of Mexico is part of Maya Caribbean, and obviously much more developed than some of the other regions of Mexico, such as we had witnessed surrounding San Miguel Allende a couple of summers ago.

The town of Chetumal is 20 minutes down the road from the border, the most south-easterly corner of the Yucatan Peninsula. Cancun, now a big tourist attraction, is due north for 382 km (217 miles) to the top of the peninsula. It was fun to be in a Spanish speaking country again, though we foolishly left our dictionary and phrase book in BC. The bus terminates at ‘el Mercado Nuevo’, and we caught a taxi to ‘el Mercado Viejo’, where the museo and other more touristy bits are. The second hotel we found was cheap, clean and comfortable (relatively!) and had friendly staff. We relished the different style of what we had become accustomed to in BC. Everything seemed hugely modern – we wondered how it would compare with the UK; would that be different again when we return?  The streets were wide, paved, clean, with no Albert St. dust coating all the produce.  The walk down to the ‘esplanada’ was spacious and felt safe. The coastline was much the same as Belize – cayes and reefs breaking the horizon, and a sticky mud coating the sea bottom after numerous hurricanes, making most of it unavailable for swimming from the mainland. Our hospitable hosts advised us that after the museo – which was both informative and well laid out – we could catch a sort of mix between bus and communal taxi out to Bacalar.

The next day found us waiting patiently in a very hot vehicle for the necessary 4 passengers before the driver was willing to take us on the 40 minute ride. Bacalar is situated on the edge of the Laguna de los Siete Colores (Lagoon of Seven Colors) in the state of Quintana Roo, and according to the guide books “provides a wealth of history and magic. This town cultivates the memories of its ancestors: fishermen, merchants, warriors and poets.”  We were set down in a small but charming plaza, next to the wide and as we were rightly told, variegated colours of the Laguna. As we walked towards an old fortress and some cabanas beside the water just beyond, we were very politely approached by a guide. His manner was so courteous (“Yes, the beach is down there; and when you return maybe I can show you around the fortress? I am a very knowledgeable guide, and I have educated myself in order to be able to inform others well.”) that we almost succumbed. He was obviously not getting much business at this time of year – but it was not on our agenda. We wanted a swim!

A dirt road led to a track down to a small area with a long wooden jetty going into the lagoon. We had to pay a few pesos to walk down it. It had a bar and restaurant area – all in gaily painted concrete – and was fringed by about 10 round concrete tables and ‘stools’ covered by a thick palm thatch.  We found an empty one, and whilst currently in warm sunshine we could see large clouds on the horizon so determined to get on with the business just in case… A few wriggles and pulls later (changing never seems to get any easier) we submerged ourselves into the warm, clear turquoise blue water. Gorgeous. Sometimes we have found the sea almost uncomfortably warm, but this was just right! It was an interesting texture too, salt free of course, and slightly chalky. The texture of the bottom was a peculiar mix of chalk and clay – or at least that is what it felt like.

We eventually made our way back to our table, only to be accosted again by the man on the track. I protested that we had paid, but he pointed to the thatch and said ‘Más pesos.’ More pesos for use of the table and shade, but not too astronomical. The dark clouds were coming closer and quite a squall was building up on the water, small white horses dotted across the surface. On the far shore we had a spectacular show of lightening amidst the falling rain. More wriggles and squirms got us out of wet cossies, ready to run for shelter when necessary. An archetypal young art student came round with a jointed wooden display board with some very pretty earrings, not a million miles from the style of some that Gemma used to make. Being in Mexico they were so much cheaper than anything in Belize, so to her delight we bought some. By this time the clouds had by-passed us, but we decided to grab a little lunch at the café we had noticed between the track and the fortress.

As we entered the small café right on the water’s edge, there were only two other rather unsavoury looking men drinking beer at a nearby table. After a bit they got up and left, and a young and very dour waiter came over to see what we wanted. We decided to share a small creviche, a salad made with prawns, and having made the order wondered if we had made a silly mistake. An empty restaurant? Shell fish? Hmmm. After a bit a fishy smell wafted across our noses, and I turned to see an elderly lady standing with a small cooking pot and shelling a huge pile of fresh prawns. Shortly these ended up on our table in a very good salad indeed!

Trying to avoid disappointing the guide, we decided to walk into the centre of the village by a different route. A long dirt track took us up the small hill, and past a typical assortment of wooden and concrete houses of various sizes, shapes and states of being, only with a Mexican rather than Belizean flavour to them. We came out to the main road leading to the plaza, only to be hailed warmly from behind by our tour guide approaching from the other side of the village. He cheerily informed us that he had just had his lunch, and was now going back to his post, being an excellent tour guide, and that he would see us later no doubt. All said in almost perfect English in a gentle and respectful way. Oh dear!

We sat gratefully on a bench in the plaza, awaiting a communal taxi which we had been reassured would be about 3pm. Half an hour later there was still no sign of a taxi  – in fact almost no sign of any traffic at all. We managed to communicate our concerns to a shop keeper, who informed us that the taxis were around the corner. They turned out to be regular taxis, so we were mightily surprised that the cost was the same as the other taxi-bus. Then one driver said for an extra 10 pesos he would take us on to where our hotel was. We agreed, sat in, and then noticed the roars of laughter from the gaggle of drivers congregated on the pavement under the shade of a large tree. We felt it had something to do with us but were not sure what. After a while of nothing happening we began to stare questioningly at the driver, who came over and held up 4 fingers. Quatro persona. We realised that the price was the same because this was the same – a communal taxi. Two more folk came along surprisingly quickly, and he sped us speedily and safely down the – excellent – highway into Chetumal. He dropped the 2 other people off, got out quickly to talk to the taxi drivers at his ‘depot’, and then started the car up to take us to our hotel. Within a minute I saw what the joke was….he drove us round the block! The cool of the evening found us having another long walk around the esplanada feeling quite safe amongst the parents and children strolling along too. A very pleasant and cheap weekend in Mexico.

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