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

18/10/2008

CHill-i-pedia 3 – More Chilli Sauce!

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,CHill-i-pedia — Clare Hill @ 04:19 pm

‘Weather’!
When there is predominantly one climate all year round, with the occasional addition of rain, or a few less degrees of heat, the need to discriminate between a gust of wind, gentle breeze, ‘guy’ windy or blowing a gale diminishes. Equally, if there is either no rain or a blooming deluge, then such terms as a light drizzle, steady downpour or spitting cats and dogs are equally redundant.

Thus, I have been relishing what to my ear are delightful ways of describing things. At present, we are having ‘weather’, i.e. a tropical storm which is a series of thunder storms, complete with Technicolor sound and light show and full-on power shower rain dropping vertically from the sky. (Rain is an inadequate word to describe this.) When we don’t have ‘weather’, but the status quo sun, heat, humidity and trade wind, then any velocity of air is called ‘the breeze’. Hence, “The breeze is stronger today”. Wind it seems is either ‘the breeze’, or ‘weather’ when it combines with rain, and can be anything from a tropical storm to a degree of hurricane force. And such ‘weather’ pays a heavy toll on roads and bridges, whether urban or rural. School and work life goes in a stop-start manner, with temporary flooding and less temporary demolishing of bridges. As we were driving to the prison yesterday, between cloud bursts, Mr Juan pointed out the high water on either side of the road, and said that this bit often flooded. He lamented that such stretches need a pole with feet marked on them at the side of the road so that drivers can get an idea of the depth of the water before venturing through. I suggested he keep a few alongside a sledge hammer in the back of his pick-up, but he didn’t take to the idea. I don’t think he has got used to my sense of humour yet.

Another expression I like is “The air con is turned up too loud”.

Fi wi.
I have been puzzling for a few weeks about a slogan on the side of a van transporting chickens. Chickens are probably the next common staple to rice and beans in Belize, and typically accompany them on a plate. The slogan says: dah deh fi wi chickin. I could not work out what the ‘fi wi’ meant. Conor and I said it aloud to one another because that is usually a quick way of understanding Creole (Kriol).

If a car is not available, returning from one work place means a lift from one of the two taxis who do a shuttle to the bus stop.  The wait for a bus between 11.45 and 12.45 is usually interminable. Unlike any other time of day, when the buses pass about every half an hour, a full bus will sometimes pass after ¾ hour, so you then have to wait for the next one. The bus shelter (essential – from either sun or rain) is in front of a little roadside café, selling the usual selection of foodstuffs to go into one of the polystyrene trays: chicken rice and beans, stew chicken, tamales, etc. A couple of fridges have a plentiful supply of water and other liquids, and various types of crisps which can be recognised the world over. Over the weeks I have come to recognise the different people who saunter over for their lunches, and to watch with curiosity the people who traipse to and from the bus joining me in the bus shelter, and inevitably turning to the shop counter for a ‘dallah waTAH’ or some crisps when boredom or thirst set in.

This waiting time coincides with the delivery of a huge plastic bag full of chicken, and each week I puzzle over the slogan. Last Tuesday I could bear it no longer, and asked the woman sitting on the wooden bench beside me (everything in Belize is either lovely hard wood or concrete) what it meant. She opened her arms in a wide gesture and said with great dramatic emphasis “Fi WI” ..I got it! I had heard people saying “for she” (meaning her or hers) a lot, but it never occurred to me that that would be the way ‘for’ was spelt!

Last night, at a (delicious!) fund-raising dinner put on by the Mental Health Association, an American woman from Miami married to a Belizean man, both speakers of Spanish too, was saying how Kriol is the best language to express your emotions in. Having just had my “Fi WI” experience, I could see what she meant.

14/10/2008

The State, the individual, the person with mental health issues, the homeless and free choice

Filed under: Adventures in Belize — Clare Hill @ 11:31 am

Mental Health Week, Mental Health Day 10.10.08

Many years ago, 1989 or 1990 to be a little more precise, I was privileged to attend a meeting of heads of departments in the Mental Health Unit of the Lothians Health Board in Edinburgh. At the time I was head of the Speech and Language Therapy Department providing a service to those with learning disabilities – mental health and learning disability all came under one umbrella at that time. It was the beginning of the movement for the dismantling of all the residential hospitals, regardless of whether their residents were labelled ‘mad’ or ‘stupid’. I never have forgotten that meeting because there were senior members of the psychiatric service, probably about 65 years, a bit older than me now, who remembered the days before residential hospitals existed as they did at the end of the 1980s. One or two of them made an impassioned plea: “Please, some of our population need constant care, and we are in danger of returning to the conditions of earlier in the 20th century in the UK, with many of those with more chronic conditions living as paupers in the streets. The goal of achieving ‘independence’ does not apply to everyone. What will happen to those who are dependent upon our constant care?”

These men’s concern was palpable, and moving. They were reassured that transferring into a small residential unit did not necessarily mean that an individual’s care needs would be jettisoned. And now, twenty odd years on in the UK, by and large it has been a wonderful improvement in many people’s life experience. Levels of care have been identified, and funds have also been made available to individuals to determine how best to budget for their care package.

In Belize, I have often remembered those psychiatrists’ impassioned pleas. Here on Albert St., where I both live and work, I see the ‘simple’ and the ‘insane’ in a state of slow decay. I see the scene the UK psychiatrists had already witnessed, and that they were anxious to avoid going back to. One man often catches my attention: he almost invariably wears a green velour top (hot!) and a pair of grey flannel trousers. He is occasionally seen scrounging a light for a fag, but more often he lies listlessly on the steps outside one of the shoe shops, with an expression on his face that tells me he is very far away and probably depressed. I asked Byron about this man, the taxi driver we phone when we need an escort somewhere because it is dark. He knew exactly who I was talking about. He told me that he was ex-US army “who threw him out when he was burnt up and no more use to them”. (Same as the UK, I hasten to add!) I talked to the Women’s Development Officer, the name of social workers in the Women’s Department, hard working, dedicated and ever-available women, about homes and refuges for these people. She replied that a couple of refuges were there, but many homeless people did not wish to comply with the regulations about no smoking, no booze, curfews, etc.

Maybe I should list what I have witnessed. In Edinburgh, I have seen many folk on the streets. Most recently they look as if they have originated in Eastern Europe, not speaking much English and attired in a more traditional dress.  But even these folk are usually more or less clean and clothed. A decade or so ago the travellers and drug-addicts would decorate street corners. One or two over the years stand out for their appearance and indomitable spirit. One more elderly man with African blood in him would walk around with a portly belly covered by scraps of jackets and trousers. As the top one became too worn, he would don a new (old) one, only for that to fall apart and be covered up by yet another. Thus a patchwork of flesh and cloth would emerge, topped by grey dreadlocks and grey beard, accompanied by a determined walk as he strode through the vennels and alleys of Edinburgh Old Town. He was familiar, and somehow belonged to the landscape.

Here in Albert St., we have our fair share. I have mentioned the woman with Tourettes Syndrome who entertains the queues waiting for their $5 on a Thursday and/or Friday. Conor has his chap that he feeds every Monday with a loaf of bread and a tin of luncheon meat. He looks as if in a different environment, he could do quite well for himself thank you very much. Ernesto disappears and reappears from time to time. Where does he go, what does he do, I wonder? There is a skinny man outside of Brodies, the supermarket, that I think cannot speak, who shakes a plastic cup for a few cents, and twice a week when the papers are published has a few copies to sell. There are various men who are adorn corners and steps, wizened and crushed by years on the streets. One man has hair that is so matted with mud all you could do is shave him and start again. There are some who live in a parallel universe, chatting away to their ghosts and memories with scant regard for those of us who take the time to notice. Some stand, statue like, and some resemble Old Father Time himself. One very tall man has some old trainers bound with twine to stop the soles from flapping too badly. He can be seen on various corners. One of the Ancient Mariners sits outside of the fishermen’s congregating place, and holds up a finger saying ‘1’ in a simple manner that usually makes Conor succumb. (Conor gets a lot more hassle than I do.) Some men are more assertive, more demanding, almost intimidating, but not many. We noticed that on Sundays, there is invariably a line of dusty grey men seated in a row on the long steps outside some of the shops, echoing the row of grey pigeons lined along the roof top above them, each row as still and as impassive as the other. Conor’s Monday man explained that a man hands out a dollar to each of the homeless waiting there each Sunday. Trying to be resourceful, a few folk come round selling anything – palm trees carved out of coconut husks, or an old ceramic cream pot found in some midden or other, that we are reassured is ‘very old’. We frequently see the chap who told us about the origins of the word Belize on our first day here, always with an eye out for the new tourists, and he greets us like old friends. One day he asked straight – “Been a bad day – can you spare a dollar or two?” But he is neither homeless, mad or with learning difficulties. There are very few women that I have witnessed either begging or living rough. Maybe another expression of sexism? And where are they?

So it was with not a little curiosity that I received an invitation a few weeks ago to be one of the judges in a school’s debate on whether or not there should be mandatory removal of the homeless and those with mental health issues from the streets. Last week was World Mental Health Week, and last Friday 10 October was Mental Health Day. The Mental Health Association wanted to involve young people in thinking about the issues, and so cooked up the creative idea for there to be a debating competition, the subject of which would be homelessness and mental health. As one of the women who is central to the MHA said to me, young people listen to each other before they listen to those older than them! By having the whole topic of mental health and homelessness being discussed by young people for young people, there would be an inevitable raising of awareness of the issues involved. Two of the local schools had applied for the debate, St John’s College and St Catherine’s Academy, which was to be held in the Bliss Centre. (And as I found out almost at the end of the debate itself, it was also broadcast live on the local radio!)

I ran it past the head of the Women’s Department, who said that if I was being asked as me, then it was OK, but as a volunteer I could not represent the Women’s Department. It was me they wanted, given the topic, and I was only too happy to oblige!

Conor came with me to the Bliss Centre for the Cultural Arts, which is a good looking modern theatre situated on the sea front near the swing bridge, behind the Courts. It is one of the few modern buildings which stands out as you approach the city from the cayes, and is 6 minutes walk from both our apartment and the Women’s Department. We arrived at about 12.50, and I was taken to meet the Moderator, currently the CO of the Ministry of Education, and a fellow judge, one of the key people in the running of University of West Indies. (There are 2 universities here, the other being the University of Belize.) We had each been emailed a sheet describing the protocol of the debate, plus some guidelines as to what we were supposed to be assessing them on. The three of us got into a huddle, each professing to be uncertain as to exactly what we should be doing, and none of us ever having done such a thing before. One of the organisers turned up, and reassured us that the points system that was suggested was probably too complex and not that relevant…Feeling a little more confident, my fellow judge, the moderator and I sat at a table in front of the stage as pupils, teachers and parents, plus other members of the MHA gathered behind us. The tension was palpable, as much from the teachers and parents as the four brave debaters!

The charming newsreader from TV Channel 5 News, Marleni Cuellar, was the MC, and first of all she welcomed the head of the MHA.  Jennifer Lovell introduced the debate, the moderator and the judges, and of course the two teams. One of the three psychiatrists in Belize gave a great introductory speech, identifying some of the issues in mental health disorders, people’s care, and homelessness. She said that there had been great strides forward with drugs, but there was still a need for more individual interventions in the form of counselling.

We judges had to decide both which team should win, and which individual debater should receive a prize. The individual debater may not necessarily be from the winning team. We were asked to consider:
– The Argument – convincing, with materials presented. (Our own knowledge and views had to be put aside; judged on their performance not whether they said what we thought to be right!)
– Resources – scientific, varied, recent.
– Format – was it followed? Could they argue well? Did they produce new arguments in the rebuttal? Keep to time?
– Personal presentation skills – eye contact, good speaking voice, etc. (I had been a little concerned beforehand that if they broke into broad Creole I may not be able to follow it all, but I needn’t have worried!)

The form they had to follow was very precise:
– First affirmative construction – 7 minutes
– Cross-examination by the negative – 3 minutes
– First negative construction – 8 minutes
 -Cross-examination by the affirmative – 3 minutes
– First Affirmative rebuttal – 4 minutes
– Negative rebuttal – 7 minutes
– Second affirmative rebuttal – 4 minutes

My fellow judge and I were almost as nervous as the contestants!

Marleni invited the two lassies from St. Catherine’s and the two lads from St. John’s onto the stage. Both teams had had to prepare an argument both for and against the debate, and then whoever won the toss could choose which side to take. St John’s won, and they chose to speak against the motion:
There should be mandatory removal of the homeless and mentally ill from the streets.

They were off to a flying start. The initial speaker came in strong and clear, with excellent engagement with her audience. Her argument was sound but there were few statistics to back it up. One of the boys parried with good questions, though he was a little hesitant at first. Then it was their turn to deliver the negative construction. Their case was very well prepared, with excellent use of statistics from a political, sociological and personal perspective. The delivery at this point was poor, though, with the lads’ arguments being more read than discussed. The girls’ cross-examination let them down…there was just not enough of it, and they had been unable to note down points to raise with the degree of precision shown by the boys.

In the rebuttal stages, the girls were again unable to really support their case, whereas the boys were going from strength to strength, both revealing their capacity to argue their points and to develop their position. Then the floor was open to questions, and after each answer, the schools would cheer loudly. It was good fun!

During a short film presentation on mental health issues, we judges slipped out to make our decisions. Fortunately we were in total agreement about both the winning team, and the individual speaker – whew! We were asked to go up on the stage, and before announcing who had won, we gave feedback to each team.

St John’s College:
– Argument excellent
– Format good
– Presentation – started weak but got stronger
– Resources – statistics good, scientific and varied

St. Catherine’s Academy:
– Great start, with a substantial argument but no statistics to support it.
– Format was good.
– Presentation started very well indeed but weakened under argument
– Resources were weak but improved.

Winning team: St John’s College.

Based on our observations of each stage of the debate, and the enthusiastic and engaging way he warmed to his subject, we declared Chris Hulse from St. John’s College the overall winner. No doubt a politician, diplomat or lawyer in the making!

Oh, and the negative argument got my vote for content too! Developing personal individual interventions for the relatively small number of folk here in Belize is preferable to mandatory removal from the streets. The argument the kids liked the best went along the lines of:
How can you justify removing the homeless and mentally ill from the streets when most young people stay on them till three in the morning!

And a little aside – those of you who have followed this blog will know my view that to make secondary education free here would be a swift way to radically change the poverty trap that so many are in. I double-checked with my fellow judge that the Moderator was the CO for Education, and would this be a good time to venture my opinion: “Never miss an opportunity” was her rely – so I didn’t! Judging from his body language, I think he agreed with me, but is unable to implement it because of the financial restraints of the country. Apparently education is currently subsidised to 45%, but the government is looking at the cost of raising it to 60%. Here’s hoping…

05/10/2008

CHill-i-pedia Volume 2 AKA ‘CHilli Sauce’!!

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

Trade Wind
One of the reasons for the constant breeze coming in off the sea for at least a few yards, I have discovered, on even the hottest of days, is because of the old Trade Wind. Suddenly a term from sea-faring literature and from geography lessons takes on more meaning: winds from both hemispheres blow along the equator in an easterly direction. The term ‘trade’ comes from the old German meaning ‘path’ – the route that the ships took around the world. The trade wind also garners the hurricanes into an easterly direction. The place where the easterlies from the two hemispheres meet on the equator is ‘the doldrums’.

Apparently the surface winds flow towards the equator, and the higher altitudes flow towards the poles. About 50-60o N and S the higher altitude winds drop, and winds get pushed in a westerly direction, which we are very familiar with in the UK.

With the bulk of the hurricanes having moved through now, we are in a different weather phase. The extreme heat (high 90F, over 30C) and excessive humidity – which is the result of the hurricanes scooping up all the precipitation in an area – has passed since Ike moved away. The last 2 weeks have been up to 20F cooler, with the occasional rain shower. And yesterday it rained all day – the first time in 4 months. Today started showery, and actually felt cold at about 70F/24C, would you believe? But it has been more or less clear, and the temperature pleasant enough for us to have a five mile walk along the shoreline and back. Sometimes walking half a mile in the heat feels too much, so it was a nice treat.

I am not sure why, but I like the Trade Wind. I like the gentle – most of the time – warmth of it and I like all the stories from my childhood which have ridden on the back of the wind.

Swing Bridge
The swing bridge over the Belize River at the bottom of Albert St is one of the things written about in any literature about BC. It is turned manually to allow any large craft up or down river. We have only seen it being turned once in our 4 months, about 5.45pm so there was a lot of traffic and pedestrians around. We were walking back towards Albert St. by the Caye Caulker Water Taxi terminal, when we found a chain across the entrance to the bridge. Some men were right in the middle, and had some large metal poles attached to a crank. Slowly the old metal bridge began to slide to our right, gradually moving until only the end of the pedestrian path was buttressed up against the pavement and sides of the mainland approach to the bridge. And then it stopped! There was much heaving and pushing, and jovial comments about the men not being strong enough, but it was not budging! Someone went into the river, and discovered that an old bit of brick had got jammed in the mechanism, and that it would take a bit of time to repair. What to do?! Cars were already making their way round to one of the two other bridges over the water, but crowds of folk were waiting on either side. Whilst you could enter the pedestrian path at one end, it was hanging over the river at the other.

People became impatient, and adventurous: at first a few, with many of us watching,  then all of us at both ends began to enter the pedestrian paths, clamber over or round the buttress end of the ‘road’ area, and then climb over or squeeze round onto the pedestrian path on the other side, before safely stepping off the bridge! Sometimes a conveyor system was created, with someone standing and lifting over bike after bike, or helping elderly people, or managing the various loads that people carry about their daily business. It was quite fun!

The next time morning the bridge was back in its proper place, and we have never seen it on the move again.

Scorpions again!
Last weekend we caught the bus up to Belmopan to visit the brother of one of Niamh’s friends who has been living here for about 3 years. He lives with his delightful Hispanic girlfriend in a house on the edge of the town. It was such a joy to be in a private house, and to discuss such ordinary things as gardening. Apparently the leaf-cutter ants decimate seedlings in the same way slugs and snails may do overnight in the UK! They pointed out the holes in ground– tarantulas…..But they are shy and keep well out of your way, unlike their reputation in the movies. And so we moved on to other creepy-crawlies. Having told someone a few days before that he never shook out his trousers before putting them on, and that he thought it was a bit of a myth, a sudden sting as he moved downstairs one morning caught his immediate attention. Thinking it was an ant, he walloped it hard with his hand – at which point the scorpion really set to and stung him at least 4 more times! With everyone roaring with laughter as he took his trousers off rather fast, the offending creature made a hasty retreat. But the purpose of his tale was to reassure us that although painful, the stings swelled but were not deadly.

As an architect, he has witnessed many ventures start and fail here, and informed us of a local saying: to gain a small fortune in Belize, you need to start with a large one! Since there are currently no building restrictions, it has been a wonderful opportunity for an architect. And as he says, the country is littered with unfinished houses and hotels….

28/09/2008

Tikal and Flores

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Guatemala,Tikal and Flores — Clare Hill @ 11:19 am

“Tikal”. The word kept appearing long before we arrived here in Central America. The Rough Guide to Belize includes a special chapter on Tikal and Flores; various friends who have travelled in this part of the world all said it was a must-do; reading about the Mayan culture invariably makes reference to it. So when we learned that Monday 22 September was a public holiday (September 21 is Independence Day in Belize) creating a three day weekend, we thought “Now or never”.

 

Tikal is in Guatemala, a two hour drive once over the border into the more remote eastern region of the country. It is a vast site; I quote the guidebook: “As you approach the entrance to Tikal National Park, a protected area of some 370 square kilometres that surrounds the archaeological site, the sheer scale of Tikal as it rises above the forest canopy becomes overwhelming, and the atmosphere spell-binding. Dominating the ruins are 5 enormous temples: steep sided pyramids that rise up to 60 meters from the forest floor, and around which lie literally thousands of other structures, many of which still lie underneath mounds of earth and covered in jungle.”

 

Having risked hiring a car for one day the previous weekend, and also seeing how tiring driving on unpaved roads can be, we plucked up our courage and planned to hire the car for 48 hours, driving from 11am on the Saturday and returning by 11am the following Monday. We hoped to persuade other volunteers to join us and cut down the costs of the car hire. Unfortunately two were leaving the following week, and despite that they would have loved to have come, because we were so last minute in our proposal they had already committed to a barbecue held in their honour by the woman in whose house they had been lodging. Another had a friend arriving that weekend from the UK, and yet another insisted that things Mayan were not interesting to her. So Conor and I ended up with just Sean to accompany us, a delightful young Canadian man who was as intrigued and excited about the prospect as we were.

 

I made a deal with Conor that I would drive in Belize on relatively good roads, and he would do the Guatemalan stretch. With exactly the same car that we had had the previous Saturday, we set off complete with picnics and loads of water. We reached the border crossing in a couple of hours, and since we had read alarming things about armed robberies after changing money at the border, we ignored the many touts anxious to exchange $US and $Belizean for quetzals (Q). Money did get a bit confusing in Guatemala as we ended up thinking in 4 currencies. Q3 = 1 $BZ. 4 BZ$ = 2 $US = £1. 7Q = 1US$. Etc. I found the easiest way to deal with it was 140Q = 20US$ =£10. And money was important because we had also been told that the costs of Mayan and traditional goods over there were considerably cheaper than Belize (which is expensive) and we hoped – and indeed managed – to purchase most of our Christmas presies over there.

 

Knowing the Western Highway like troopers by now, I confidently drove all the way to the border without a hitch. The immigration was the usual mix of bureaucracy, efficiency, inefficiency, chaos, queues, and officials more interested in maintaining their conversation between themselves than addressing you. The Belizean side was true to its ex-colonial heritage and definitely had the organisational edge as we passed from Belize into Guatemala, and into a mild sense of confusion: moving from one queue for people entering the country, another for the car, another for paying into a bank window, queue-jumping as a guard in what appeared to be a black and red conquistador-like uniform took our papers up to the window, toting a huge rifle from his belt. Once back in our car, we then also had to pay a toll over the bridge into the border town of Melchor de Menchos. We were pleased to see that the road, though rough and unpaved for the first 8 kilometres, was no where near as bad as Pine Ridge Reserve the previous weekend. A few vast potholes littered the surface in parts throughout the length of it, and Conor did masterly avoidance manoeuvres!  There were a few stretching the width of the road that were unavoidable….

 

The terrain was a little different to the Belizean side; still lots of small hills, and many trees, but less dense and seemingly fewer of the very large fruiting broadleaf varieties. There was far more agricultural land: fields with crops, and pastures with the handsome cows such as we saw in Mexico – much less beefy than the ones we see in the UK, with a large hump on their backs and a heavy flap of skin beneath their jaw, called a dewlap. Their floppy rabbit-like ears frame their pretty soft features, and are topped by long curved horns. They populate this area generally, and are apparently a mix between the Indian Brahman cow and European breeds, as the Brahmans are particularly tolerant to high temperatures. (They sweat better than most cows, apparently; that does sound rather familiar…)

 

These fields and pastures, dotted with trees, are interspersed with small villages. The people are predominantly small and slight, with golden brown skins and strong frames. Many were on horse back, and horses – some very thin and mangy – were also tethered at the road side or roaming fields. Bicycles were the other main form of transport, followed by scooters and mopeds, often with a driver and passenger with one or two small children squashed in between. Everything was pretty basic, but there was far less plastic and other rubbish than in Belize. People in the villages often sat at the roadside, and I even saw a young woman suckling her child in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, calmly sitting at the side of the road. Unfortunately most of the agricultural land has been reclaimed from the rainforest, but there are regulations now about how and when this can be done.

 

Sean had a guidebook about the whole of Central America, and it was interesting to read that the civil war in Guatemala stopped only 9 years ago. It explained how the whole region was having a civil war in one country only to be replaced by another as it quietened down. And guess which country’s money was invariably involved? The US! They would support one regime here, insurgents there, as the paranoia about communist or fascist domination influenced their political affiliations. Belize has many immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and the Yucatan as internecine strife predominated in their homelands. We also read that Guatemala is currently owned by about 6 families.

 

It took us two hours to the border, and just over two hours further to our destination, with one hour in immigration. A tropical deluge which reduced visibility to zilch at various times made the driving interesting, but Conor enjoyed the challenge! As we approached Flores, we passed the pretty lagoon, nestling beneath the forested range which housed Tikal, our destination on the Sunday. Flores is a tiny island with a causeway approach, much like Crooked Tree but even smaller, in the middle of a ‘foot’ at the bottom of the large lagoon – Lago Peten Itza. It had been recommended to stay in, an attractive series of aging houses and cobbled streets surrounding a church and plaza. And it is also cheaper than Tikal for buying presies! There are two modern suburbs on the mainland by the causeway, but they fail to have the faded charm of Flores, more the bustling commercialism of Central American towns. We entered through the island’s portal at about 4.30pm, and making our way on the one way system around the tiny place, we ended up exactly outside the cheap and cheerful place the guidebook recommended.

 

Flores is a sort of Guatemalan Venice with a Mexican-esque feel to it…higgledy-piggledy houses, a few streets criss-crossing one another, and glorious water all around. All the shades of terracotta cover the walls, which sport attractive wrought iron shutters and verandahs. Traditional pots and containers decorate most surfaces, and yet it still feels very much lived in, people’s home. No doubt in the height of the tourist season – January to March – it would feel a bit different. The evening light was directly facing us on the west, under the odd distant rain cloud in a wide sky. The heavily wooded shores of the northern mainland in front of us were illuminated, showing the houses between the trees and the boats littered along the shoreline.

 

A bit of history: Flores was the ancient capital of the Mayan kingdom of Peten, and was the last local region to resist the Spanish until 1697. Guatemala became part of Mexico, a Spanish colony in the sixteenth century, which was dissolved in the early 1800s. Together with other Central American countries it became part of a Mexican Empire for two years, before separating to form the United Provinces of Central America. That too dissolved in a civil war between 1838 to 1840, and even since independence Guatemala has ricocheted from one leader to another, with the church, US and large landowners never too far away. Deep in the heavily forested north-eastern region of Guatemala, the region of Peten has up until the 1960s had closer connections with Belize than with Guatemala City.

 

Having found our rooms (120Q or less than £8.50 for a double room) we went to explore Flores before the light went completely, and immediately became enchanted with the dozens of shops literally crammed full of goodies. The quality was fabulous, and at first I felt so guilty at being able to purchase so much – things which would be 3 or 4 times the price in Belize, and even more at home. (Belizean prices range from the sublime to the ridiculous and I can never quite work out why sometimes.) Then I realised that actually these shop owners need people like me to be so captivated, and that it was a healthy symbiosis. It was intriguing to see how one shop had many things I could chose from, and another, equally full and varied, just was not my taste. But that is the same the world over, whatever you are buying. As someone who is normally shop-adverse, and has a very low tolerance threshold for such things, I was like a kid in a sweetie shop with her Saturday pocket money clutched gleefully in her palm, delighting in how she could spend every penny! Gauging the current size of various grandchildren was the hardest part….

 

Wandering on round, a restaurant caught our eye, and a bit later the three of us were sitting at a table in the open sided dining area, enjoying the lovely cool of the evening – the best time in this climate. The storms of earlier had gone and the lights were reflecting off the still black water. A charming waiter welcomed us in, and my fish from the lagoon was delicious. Incidentally, Guatemala produces very good coffee. Strolling on, we made our way to the central plaza, and delighted in seeing all the different age groups playing ball, climbing railings, courting, families congregating, having a beer or licking an ice cream, all hanging out in the pleasant  evening in the plaza-centred way of Mexico and other Spanish speaking countries. 

 

What is Tikal? Tikal is believed to have been at the centre of the Mayan culture between 300BC and 900AD, known as the Pre-Classic and Classic periods, though there is evidence of people having been there from at least 900BC. The site is the pinnacle of Mayan architecture, with some of its most impressive pyramids being built around 700AD, which was towards the culmination of the Mayan culture. (Lowland Mayan culture began to ‘fade’ around 900AD.) Other significant cities in that period include Corozal to the east, near the Rio On Pools in Belize, Teotihuacán just north of Mexico, and Kaminaljuyu in modern day Guatemala City. Like any great city at any time, it was a leader in terms of culture, the arts and religion. It was also a warrior nation. I have written elsewhere here about how their shamanic traditions were integrated into Christianity, and how the culture is not too far away when you talk to modern folk, who readily refer to the use of ‘bush medicine’.

 

Setting out about 9am, we made our way back around to the east of the lagoon, and then went north climbing gently all the time deeper into rainforest. There is a barrier at the entrance to the national park, with a fee to pay in exchange for a piece of paper with the time on it. The road was wide and very well surfaced, and the lovely light was dappling through the trees. Every now and then we would pass the Tikal equivalent of our local deer sign, warning motorists about animals which maybe crossing the road. These included: a jaguar; a coatis; a monkey; a snake; an armadillo; a paca or rather large guinea pig; and a peccary or wild pig! 15k down this road we came to a large site complete with a parking lot, full scale model, over-priced ‘tipica’ and cafes, a museum and a booth full of rather over-zealous tour guides. Before we could get in to park, another man asked to see the ticket which we had been given. He looked at his watch, wrote down the time, and then very sternly in funny half–Spanish told Conor off for coming through the park too fast – a speed limit of 25 k an hour. Ooops!

 

While acquainting ourselves with the model, comparing it to the map in the book, and noticing the orientation of the main pyramids was on an east west- north south axis (the Mayans were superb astronomers) Sean excitedly called us over. One of the stall holders had asked him if he wanted to see a crocodile, and there in a swampy lake just behind the tourist facilities was a small 3-4 foot croc basking in the sun at the water’s edge with a turtle breaking the surface just behind it! At last!!! Sean had been with us at Crooked Tree and witnessed our many attempts to track one down, and was as pleased as punch to lead us to this trophy!

 

We set off, scanning the ‘You are Here’ map conveniently placed at the first cross roads, and began what felt like a pilgrimage as we ambled slowly along the forest path. Only about 10am, the sun was already hot and high in the sky, but the wide paths and verdant trees created constant, welcome, dappled shade. This was some of the most beautiful rainforest I have ever experienced. Even without the architecture, it was worth the journey and was balm for the soul. A deep sense of peace pervaded everywhere, accompanied by the loud silence of the natural world – birds and insects providing the drone of life’s heart beat in our ears. The forest is a curious paradox – all is in superabundance, and yet there is always a feeling of there being space for each and everything. None of the squash of a planted forest, or the lack of light; more the gentle placing of everything in just the right corner – low enough here, broad enough there, sinewing round or towering above – it reminds me of TS Eliot’s description of each word being perfect and in the right place. The sense of the garden bully, or the bracken which would take over the hills, things out of balance, does not seem to exist here, yet without a doubt the forest as a whole would take over any space it could and very quickly, too.

 

(There are some photos in this blog showing the tangle of vines or the huge girth of some of the trees, but they do not do it justice.)

 

The city, like the jungle, is vast. Though much is still not excavated, and all but the most central plazas have been taken over by the jungle, the sheer number, size and magnificence of the steep sided pyramids cannot fail to impress. Once magnificently decorated, the many friezes and stellae are in various states of preservation. Some adorn platforms, some lie at the base of pyramids and some are in the museum back at the Visitor Centre. Despite the heat you haul yourself up to the top of the ones you are allowed to climb, and as well as enjoying the increased breeze, the view of the pyramids breaking above the canopy is wonderful.

 

Slowly we made our way around, making sure that we got to both Temples 5 and 4.  We had seen from the scale model that they towered above the others, and couldn’t miss that. Heading towards Temple 5, a deep, loud, repetitive ‘Hoar, hoar, hoar’ could be heard from the tree tops some distance away. Howler monkeys, and this one was either displaying to its troop or not very happy! A quick bend of a branch caught our eye, and looking up we saw a spider monkey just above our heads, leaping agilely from tree to tree, hanging from its tail gracefully.  Rounding a corner, Temple 5 suddenly soared above us. It is surprising that such a vast structure cannot be seen until you fall over it, but the trees are so dense that until the pyramid breaks your immediate horizon they are superbly camouflaged. (In the city’s heyday the area would have been cleared of course, and the magnificence of the city as a whole would have been more than apparent.)

 

Boy oh boy, straight up! Narrow, steep sided and awe-inspiring! The original steps were roped off, but a series of wooden ladders moved up the left hand side, much like a ship’s ladder. Up the right, down the left. A cabana provided shade for those too young, old or just plain scared to make the climb. Occasionally cheers and clapping would break out as a friend or relative reached the top. Now, I get vertigo, but I really, really, really wanted to get to the top. Sean and Conor were hugely kind and promised to stay both in front and behind in case my knees went, and also promised not to go near the edge at the top which can alarm me as much as anything else. Despite how ramshackle the wooden structure seemed it was actually easy to climb, and because your face was constantly only a foot away from the side of the pyramid, there was no opportunity for an accidental glance down. For those of you unfamiliar with vertigo, the difficult moments are those of transition. Despite solid ground beneath your feet, you only seem to notice the lack of solidity all around you. The sensation is a bit ‘Alice down the rabbit-hole-ish’, but creates anxiety because if your knees do buckle or you do faint, the consequences are not insignificant. Clinging to the side of the pyramid like a limpet, I inched my way across to a narrow ledge and sat down. After a bit, my body relaxed enough to be able to look out (not down!) at the most stunning panorama. The pyramids in the central plaza broke through the canopy in front of us, and all around a mass of tree tops for as far as the eye could see. As you watched, a fast-moving branch would reveal the whereabouts of a troop of monkeys, and black vultures soared on the up-drafts.

 

Never completely relaxed but so pleased to have made it to the top, the slither along the ledge to the ladder was achieved, and once more the descent with one’s nose against a strong wall immediately in front of you was remarkably and surprisingly reassuring!

 

Still following the roar of the howler monkey, we sauntered on to Temple 4, the highest of them all. Spider monkeys graced us with their dancing, and at one point a furry brown kinkajoo, related to the coatis, ambled across the ground about 15 feet in front of us, totally un-phased by the ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ following it. Temple 4 is the most northerly pyramid in the city, rising 60 meters in the air, but climbed much more easily in a series of graded steps. The structure is wider, vaster, less phallic than the previous one, and there is a sense of space on it. The top has many steps and ledges, and does not create the feeling of imminent demise. Slowly one’s eyes adjust to the vastness of scale, beginning to see more details, notice ranges of hills, orientate oneself to the skies. No wonder they were fabulous astronomers.

 

By now pretty tired, thirsty and hungry, we mistakenly took the long way back! A fabulous large butterfly fluttered past, and while we stopped to photograph it, two toucans moved out from the branches just above us. Eventually we made our weary way back to the car park, only to find that I had foolishly left food in the car. Barbecued bananas in their skins, baked ‘raw’ carrots and shrivelled lettuce!

22/09/2008

Barton Creek and the Pine Ridge Mountain Reserve (13 Sept)

Filed under: Adventures in Belize,Barton Creek,wildlife — Clare Hill @ 11:18 am

When looking for a flat we could rent in the Cayo region, Conor found a place for sale very near Barton Creek and the famous cave series. He had an urge to go and see it, as we have had a half-thought about setting up some sort of charity over here that we could come and check on every now and then. Though goodness only knows how we could decide where to focus as so many different areas catch our attention, from a half-way house for the women leaving prison, to some sort of place for those with mental health issues on the streets, and much in between. Since we had bumped into the cave mappers in Maya Mountain Lodge on my birthday weekend, we had Barton Creek Caves down as a ‘must do’, so we decided to hire a car for 24 hours, see the property, do the caves, and mosey on into the Reserve. We had been on the edge of the Reserve when we had made our way up to San Antonio to visit the healer, so we knew what to expect in terms of unpaved roads and the time it takes to traverse relatively short distances.

Actually driving a car on these roads, and particularly in BC, was a bit daunting. Picture this: Cemetery Road is the main one-way street in from the Western Highway, which includes the route to Old Belize, the zoo, Belmopan (where you pick up the Hummingbird Highway and routes south), to San Ignacio and the Guatemalan border at Benque de Viejo – very near where we visited Xunantunich.  It comes through Lord’s (Lards) Ridge cemetery, and down into town, getting narrower and narrower and busier and busier. Whilst Albert St is supposed to be the main commercial area, with all the banks and courts, as well as shops, this road feels more like the South Bridges and Newington areas of Edinburgh. Lots of small businesses, tortilla factories, shop fronts, tailors, and the inevitable shoe shops. (Conor bought a pair of Velcro strapped sandals here, for BZ$20 and within 2 weeks they had fallen to bits. Many of these people can hardly afford a pair of shoes, and to have to replace them every two weeks is shocking. Somebody should set up a quality control or such like.)

When this street is full of people, there is a jostling both along and beside the pavements and storm drains, folk crossing the roads, bicyclists and the bicycle vendors, roadside stalls, and cars that come out of side roads and butt into the main stream of traffic whenever they feel like it. Or so it seems. No doubt to a local there is a code, much as in Paris or Mumbai or any other chaotic city street. Conor drove in Paris like a Parisian: point in the right direction and put your foot on the accelerator to make sure you get into the space in front of you before the next vehicle, whilst I just closed my eyes and tried to remember to breathe. To make matters worse, our navigator was usually our dear friend who lives in Paris and has notoriously bad eye sight and doesn’t drive. As Conor did a wheelie around a corner, hastily asking which way as 5 options loomed ahead, she would peer and flutter her hand vaguely saying somewhere that way – and somehow between the two of them we would reach our destination. But the road I am describing here in BC is much more like Mumbai than Paris. Once out of the city, there is relatively little traffic on the highways, and even less on the unpaved roads.

So we were quite relieved when Romillo from the car hire company came for us about 7.30am. Romillo was charming – originally from Guatemala, he came over when he was three, and said he wouldn’t return because unemployment is so high.  He drove us out to the car hire office on the Northern Highway to fill in our paperwork, almost 4 miles out of the city near Haulover Bridge. Haulover Bridge is so named because the mighty Belize River was used for logging all the wonderful mahogany, indigo and other hard woods for centuries.

The car hire firm was in an upstairs office of a rather unusual set up: a ware house type structure had a lovely selection of plants at its entrance, with wind charms sounding in the offshore breeze (the Northern Highway runs along side the coast at this stage before turning inland just after the bridge). There were antiques and bric a brac everywhere in front of us, old glass cabinets full of things, which were interspersed with sofas and tables and chairs. We weren’t certain if we were entering a private home, a café, or what. There were a few Spanish looking people there, but they could have been Mayan, Guatemalan or Mexican or both – Mestizos – complete with a little Chihuahua. We went up the stairs into the office, and it was a pleasure to be in a room that was tastefully decorated with some Mayan masks, some old embroidered ponchos, and other crafty bits and pieces. Two smiling and helpful men took us through the paperwork, inspected the car for dents etc, and then we were off.

Except we weren’t – Conor discovered it was an automatic, despite asking for a standard gear stick, and when they saw him looking puzzled, they realised and swapped us for another car – more inspections, more paperwork, but this time we really were off. And even better, we could cut across from the Northern to the Western Highway by going north a little and then turning past Burrell Boom (another logging town) thus completely avoided driving in BC at all.

We had an uneventful drive past Old Belize, the zoo, past the turning to Belmopan, through Tea Kettle (yes, that is its name: there are also Two Head Cabbage, Cotton Tree and many more!) and on to Georgeville. We passed a bunch of cyclists on the way – all terribly smart and slick and un-Belizean in their lycra, helmets and goggles – who held us up as their marshall successfully blocked our passage! 

At Georgeville we turned left onto an unpaved road towards the Reserve which is also an alternative, more easterly route to San Antonio, commonly called the Chiquibal road. It was unpaved, and after a bit we followed our instructions and turned off through a large wrought iron gate with cement walls on either side, into Shady Orchards. This is acres and acres of very well maintained orange groves, neat, uniform, tidy, American! We had been told to make our way through this and Upper Barton Creek, a Mennonite Village, and we passed a horse drawn carriage on the way with two women, two men and a couple of teenagers in the very back. They slowed down to let us past, and were the first group of smiling, friendly Mennonites we have seen since coming here. And still clothed in very heavy clothing!

We were surprised by the Mennonite village – it was much smaller than we expected, and less wealthy. The Mennonites provide a huge percentage of the national produce, and their cheeses and yoghurts are the same as or more expensive than the imported brands from the US. So I had expected their houses to be a cut above the regular clapperboard that you see everywhere. But no, true to their ethos of simplicity, I suppose, they had simple houses with huge verandahs and a scattering of boys sporting braces and Panamas and girls with Dutch-like headdresses and long blue worsted dresses.

As our instructions predicted, we found the sign to the Barton Creek Caves to the right, and a track to the left, which led us down to two handsome wooden houses, one much larger than the other. They are constructed out of cabbage bark, a beautiful deep chestnutty hard wood, and each room is spacious though not many of them. Their office has every mod computer con you could imagine! The 50 acres includes a citrus orchard with the original clapperboard house and very large solar panels and shed full of batteries to store the electricity. Two tropical rain forested mountain sides sport the usual varieties of fruiting trees (ackee, mango, bread fruit, custard apple, avocado and many more) and they had some interesting varieties of banana palms, including a red banana. They had different bananas fruiting throughout the whole year.

The new houses are in a dip beside the very beautiful Barton Creek, a clear river emerging out of the ground through the cave system a mile or so away. The rivers tend to be so beautiful here, slow-moving, clear with gravely bottoms, with gorgeous trees lining either side, vines hanging off them and into the water. There is one tree, an inedible type of fig, which has the most gorgeous base, its roots beginning to fan out about 2 feet above the ground in a sensuous series of soft folds much as a curtain might fall. The bark is relatively smooth, and the whole appearance is so gracious. These seem to like being beside water, I notice. But the place was not for us – just as Ellemford is a space which is open to the world, this was concave, insular and not suitable for our natures. Quite apart from the fact that it was all a bit pie in the sky anyway!

We moved on to Barton Creek Outpost, and for the second time today came across somewhere which was tastefully decorated: a little café and river swimming pool that had lovely jungle flowers and leaves everywhere. (It might be fun to do a garden here!) After an ice cold drink, we got in our car to move a couple of hundred yards round to the Barton Creek Cave system. The car wouldn’t start! As we had forded the creek to reach the cave system, we hoped that it was just a question of drying out. We decided to walk round to the cave entrance and do the tour, and with a bit of luck it would start later….

Fording a second stream, we passed two young backpackers, one of whom hailed from Penicuik near us in the Scottish Borders! He was making his way round the world. The other, a New Zealander, had met someone from his town earlier that day. Small world. They had just done the tour, and chuckled that their Mayan-Spanish (Mestizos) guide was called Boris! (Names in this country can be fantastic, or obviously Spanish, and here in Belize, often have British or Irish roots. Very common surnames are Flowers, Acuillar, Martinez and Mackeson. Forenames are equally varied.) 

Once more, we entered an attractive open cabana, with tables for refreshments and lots of woodwork for sale laid out on tables. We bought our tickets from our guide and walked down a stone path leading up to the canoes. A playful spider monkey wearing a collar and lead which was threaded onto a long wire running the length of the grass caught our attention. She was enchanting! She would use her tail as a fifth limb, to reach for her favourite grasses which were beyond her hands or feet, or to pull down the wire as she reached to walk along as if suspended from a wire bridge. Apparently the monkeys in the tropics are the only ones which will hang from trees solely by their tails.

Boris introduced himself to us, and led us to our canoe. I sat in the front, Conor in the middle, and Boris in the back with a paddle. We each had a large spotlight and battery, and strict instructions not to shine it in the eyes of any canoes that may be coming out of the caves, and Conor had to be careful not to shine it onto me because it would be very hot!

The jungle-fringed entrance to the cave was immediately across the clear green river in front of us. Clever vines had dropped twenty feet from the rocks above, and produced a root system as they floated in the water, creating a breathtaking portal. We both immediately liked Boris, a slight gentle man, who most obviously had an affinity with both the caves and the Mayans who had peopled it. He started by telling us that this cave system and its river were the most important to the Mayans of the many caves in Belize, and that it lead to ‘Xibalba’ (Chib….) literally ‘the place of fright’, the underworld. He reiterated the story we heard from the man on the street on our first day here. The Mayan cosmology had the nine levels of the underworld, and it was people by nine fierce gods. You have to go through this layer after death to your place of rest. The middle layer is what we call ‘earth’.  The heavens have 13 layers, each with its own god. The cieba tree with its wide up- spreading limbs sprouting from the top of the trunk bridges the heavens, earth and the underworld.

With the gentle paddling of the canoe, we traversed the magical threshold, with light behind and darkness in front. As your eyes become accustomed to the darkness, and passing the spotlights over the surfaces of the limestone, we began to take in our environment. The stalactites and stalagmites were everywhere, and with as many different shapes and formations as the corals we had seen on the reef. Some were thin, like spires, some massive pillars. Many had met one another over the centuries, and I felt once more as I had when visiting other cave systems in the Pyrenees, that there are almost archetypal shapes and patterns that can be seen in these ancient rocks, which are then picked up and repeated in myriad different ways – flower, trees, sculpture and architecture, Islamic design, and not least the corals.

Occasional dark streaks of manganese coloured the surfaces, or a line of powdery white crystals forming on calcium material. Overall the hues were all shades of ochre, from rust through to a pale creamy hue. The size of the caverns varies enormously, from vast cathedral spaces to having to crouch and bend to navigate overhanging rock formations. The system is many miles long, but we just paddled for one mile as you need diving equipment further in to move from one cave to another. In the spotlights we could see bats for at least a quarter of a mile along the river, and everywhere droplets of moisture hanging in the air, accompanied by tiny flying insects. The occasional fish also broke the surface of the water, and Boris said that they had found cat fish way further into the caves than they thought they would be. After heavy rains, the water level changes radically, and we could see a high water mark at least six feet above us. Where the tunnel is very low, water runs in parallel levels above the one we were in. In many sections the roof was pot-marked with perfectly formed round bowl shapes. Boris informed us that they did not know what made them. Bats roost in them, but they have been found in areas in which there are no bats. Later as we drove over the terrible road, I thought of the word ‘pot-hole’ and wondered whether there is some ancient connection.

(Incidentally, bats are abundant in the tropics, and there are over seventy bat species in Belize, the most diverse mammal species. Apparently some are tiny insectivores, and some large carnivores with a wing span of over a metre. Glad they weren’t in our cave!)

Slowly we approached a bridge, known as the Mayan bridge, which was the remnant of one of the two parallel tunnels after the ceiling had fallen in. The river was about six feet across here, and the bridge was two feet wide. Boris steadied the canoe and shone his spotlight to a broken Mayan pot perched on a shelf to our right, and as he did so, noticed a whip scorpion on the rock face. It was more like a large spindly harvest spider, white of course because of the darkness, and apparently has no sting. It hardly moves, waiting for insects to pass it and catching them with its claws. He was quite excited because it was rare to see one. I was glad I was in the canoe nevertheless!

Shining his light over to our left, we saw a small skull near to a sunken area. Boris explained that there was a period of severe draught, and the Mayans believed they had to appease the god Chaac, the god of rain and fertility. He was one of the fierce gods of the underworld, and he needed a blood sacrifice of virgins. Archaeologists had found the bones of at least 18 young boys and girls in the sunken area by the skull. Boris told us about the rituals that the priests would go through, together with their ‘sacrificial lambs’ to purify and prepare before the rituals.

(There is one school of thought that one of the main reasons for the demise of the Mayan culture is that the human sacrifice got out of hand – any problem needed a death to amend it, and more and more and more to effect change. It is also interesting to see how the lineage of the concept of appeasing the gods by killing progeny runs through both the Old and New Testaments too.)

Eventually we turned round and slowly made our way back to the entrance. As in St. Herman’s Cave on the Hummingbird Highway, there is something so special about the quality of light nearing the entrance of a cave; a half light, calm and unreflective, framed by the dark rocks, with strands of foliage hanging down. 

Navigating our way round the large rock at the entrance and the trailing vines, the heat and bright sunshine revealed the 4 other guides sitting beside their canoes, enjoying the river. Conor had mentioned to Boris that we thought we had water in the engine, and asked him if he had some WD40. Boris approached one of his fellow guides, a ‘cheeky chappy’ with a broad grin. “Where you from?” “Scotland.” “Oh I can make some money out of you then!” We formed a line – our mechanic, Boris and one of the other guides – and followed our leader along the river’s edge to the Outpost where the car was parked. We explained to the owner why we were traipsing through his land, and he followed us up to the car park, too. Our mechanical friend bantered with Conor about how he would make it work immediately, how competent he was, whilst Boris and I were more into wondering whether the god Chaac was playing water tricks on us. He asked us if we spoke Spanish, and we explained that we have been looking for a teacher in BC but couldn’t find one. He told us that there is an easy way – just kiss the tongue of a Spanish speaking boy or girl! Conor tried to turn the engine on first, still hoping that it would have dried out in the baking sun, but it was as dead as a dodo. The mechanic looked under the bonnet, and then got in, and it immediately started! We all collapsed with laughter. He explained that there is a safety mechanism on these cars, of depressing the clutch in order to start the engine. Pity the car hire firm forgot to tell us, and thank goodness we had someone to bail us out when it happened.

We risked a very steep water gouged hillside track, using the four wheel function, and made our way into the Pine Ridge Reserve.  We hoped to get to Rio On Pools, have a swim and be back on the Western Highway by dark. Half way there we wondered if we had made a big mistake….the road was very bad in parts, very slow, and it was taking us forever. Many of the pines have been killed by a fungus too, so it was not that attractive either. But we pressed on, sure it could not be much further, and they were indeed very lovely. A series of descending pools and water falls meandering down the mountain side, rocky sides and sandy bottoms full of clear river water. The swim was welcome, and now refreshed we made our way back to the Western Highway as speedily as possible. We did not want to be on that road in the dark! We made it, and with dusk closing in, Conor drove the last hour and a bit safely back to Belize City, managing to avoid the cyclists without lights, the cyclists driving towards you on your side of the road, the groups of villagers congregating on the roadside enjoying one another’s company in the cool of the evening, and the raggedy tarmac edge. We were exhausted, but it was a good day.

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