Conor

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

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

·        excised in May 2005 – a TURP

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

·        irradiated almost to extinction in November and December 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birthday Treat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The River”

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

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

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

Belmopan, Hummingbird Highway and St. Herman’s Cave and the Blue Hole

Yesterday we caught the bus from the terminal which was heading towards Benque at the Guatemalan border, due west. While waiting a young man, Creole, nice face, bare-foot and dusty, approached a man in a row in front, and opened a wooden cigar box to show him a portrait he had painted. When he saw me looking he pointed at me, came over and sat on the bench in front, and proceeded to draw me. I was his target all along! He had a well-rehearsed patter, and a similar philosophical bent as the chap on the first day, who told us the origin of the word Belize. Conor asked him if we had to pay him as he was drawing me, and he replied only if you want to. He had about 10 minutes and we decided that the eyes weren’t too bad, but overall he made me chuckle – I was never a dolly bird and when I said he should add 30 years to it, he said that he had the eyes of an artist! And the gift of the gab! We gave him a few Belizean cents – and bumped into him, still dusty and barefoot, sitting on a curb side today. Different clothes, but still the same nice face and cheery smile. He waved as we went by, and we smiled and waved back. “The artist”, he called to our backs…

One of the problems here is that you want to bail everyone out, and it doesn’t work. I am already approaching various agencies in the U.K. to get selling outlets for some of the poverty stricken women learning how to do craft work…we shall see if anything comes of it. But this is an articulate and moderately gifted young man, capable of so much more in his life. He is not obviously high on anything. Why is he on the streets?

Anyway, we boarded our bus, passed the now familiar Belize Zoo, and on to Belmopan. Belmopan is the official capital of Belize, and claims to be the smallest capital in the world. It moved there after the infamous Hurricane Hattie – after which Hattieville is named. The land from the zoo onwards was climbing gently but steadily all the way to Belmopan, the jungle around us becoming denser all the time. An hour and a half later, BZ $12 poorer (i.e. it cost each of us £1.50 to travel 50 miles) we entered the outskirts of Belmopan. Immediately we felt a sense of relief. Small, well tiny really – a square, bus station, taxi stand, market place, a couple of shops and restaurants and then a smattering of different embassies and other government buildings. And relatively clean, ordered, a sense of a town dealing with itself, with a purpose. It seems to me the Hurricane Hattie and the subsequent flooding of Belize City was a fabulous excuse for the foreign ambassadors to live in houses in a beautiful part of the country!

As we got off the bus, the usual clamour of folk was at the doorway, most waiting to get in, and the few looking at us and hustling… “Taxi? Taxi?” A large man – Alberto we were to discover – with the uniform small towel on his shoulder to wipe off the sweat, was persistent.
“Where are you guys going? Bus to Dangriga? Just missed it. Won’t get another for two hours. You going all the way to Dangriga? The roads are bad ‘cos of the rains a few days ago. That’s why the buses are late. Just to St. Herman’s Cave? Eighteen miles down the road. I’ll take you there for $25. No, US. BZ$50. That’s what it costs. Return? No, one way. But I’ll wait and not charge you for waiting. OK, you think about it.”

We wondered round the market for a bit, trying to decide whether to pay the astronomical taxi fare or wait two hours. He pounced again, and we stalled.
“OK, get something to eat here first. That restaurant is good. Try the chicken tamales. How long you be? OK, I’ll come for you in twenty minutes.”

As we ate, we realised that in his insistence we had never double-checked his story. We decided to see if a bus came in at 1pm, just an hour after we arrived, after all. Then who should come bursting into the restaurant but the taxi man!
“Just taken someone and come back for you. You ready yet?”

We told him of our decision, so he left. We paid up, and joined many other folk in the queue to Dangriga. We were becoming increasingly optimistic when the taxi man came up again. This time his tack was it probably won’t be on time and we won’t have much time there before having to return back to Belmopan in order to catch the last bus back to Belize City. Now, we had read our guidebook, and new the times of the last bus, so were once again a bit more decisive.
“OK, here’s my name and number (Alberto) and when the bus doesn’t turn up ring my cell phone. And if you are stuck at the cave, ring me.”

Full marks for trying, I say; and it’s quite amazing how plausible some folk can be. Alberto was never nasty; just ebullient, insistent, and needing to make a living in the off-peak season. And ten minutes later we began to travel the Hummingbird Highway to St. Herman’s Cave – for BZ$2 each!

The Hummingbird Highway lived up to its guidebook reputation of being the most scenic road in Belize. Ridges of small steep sided hills gave way to higher and higher ones behind, leading eventually to the Maya mountains. These limestone hills are well eroded over the centuries, causing fascinating rock formations. But from the bus all we could see was trees – beautiful broad leaved trees, palms, vines, all shapes and sizes, ridge after ridge.

Occasionally there would be a flat plain, tilled, or covered in citrus trees. A Mennonite man had boarded a bus in Belmopan, recognisable by his braces, his beard and his wide rimmed straw hat. He alighted by a sign saying Springfield, and further proclaiming a farm four miles down the track with over 40 different types of produce. (A client last week described her childhood farm on the Mexican border as producing everything you would need but salt. It seemed a novel and charming way to describe abundance.) On our way back to Belmopan later that day, we saw a small two horse-drawn cart with a shaded top returning to the farm. A typical Mennonite pair was in it, the man as before, and the woman, somewhat to my horror in the Belizean heat, had a blue cloth bonnet over her entire head and fastened under her chin; it looked close fitting, and hot, but maybe acted well as a sun hat. She also had a heavy blue cloth cape around her. Whew!

The bus driver went at a fair lick, mainly downhill as it made its way back to the coast at Dangriga. (Dangriga is about 70 miles down the coast south of Belize City.) Some of the corners were taken a bit too wide for my piece of mind, but it was easy to get distracted by the view! We passed through one sizeable village, Armenia, which again had the effect of reassuring us about people’s capacity to live well, to make the best of things even when you have little or nothing. There were quite a lot of houses in the village, mostly wooden, some not much bigger than our garden shed, some with a few rooms, or on stilts. One or two concrete houses, mainly bungalows, though some two storey houses too. The houses were scattered in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, yet none was too close to the other. Henny-pennies were scratching, crops were growing, fruit trees fruiting, even a cow or two. The whole place had an ambience about it which was tranquil, yet productive.

A couple of miles later, we were told we were at our destination – St. Herman’s Cave and the Blue Hole. We entered a small area with 3 wooden huts – tickets, tourist trap (shop), and toilets. The ticket hut had a cheerful pair who explained the routes we could take to the cave (high ground or low ground and we knew which one we were going to do in that heat) and then through the jungle for 45 minutes to the Blue Hole. We set off with enthusiasm for the 10 minutes to the cave, our first venture into thicker jungle. It was very soggy underfoot, which meant you had a tendency to watch your feet rather than look around, but nevertheless the sheer variety and splendour of the growth was stunning. The jungle we have seen here so far has been very varied in the shapes and heights of the foliage, which creates such a fantastic effect not a million miles from the illustrations in Where the Wild Things are, but with all the layers superimposed on one another. Huge red dragonflies were playing over the soggy ground as we turned a corner, and saw a sheer rock face in front of us, festooned in nooks and crannies sprouting ferns and big drips positioned perfectly to drop down your neck!

We climbed a few steps, only to see the cave entrance open up in front of us, with a series of steps descending down and round. There was a sturdy wire handrail on the left, preventing anyone from slipping on the wet mud down into the underground river coursing through the cave. It took a bit of time for our eyes to adjust to the darkness, even though we each had a small torch with us. Gradually, we saw how clear the water was, and marvelled at the stalactites and stalagmites, mighty pillars ascending and descending in nature’s cathedral. At times it opened out from about ten feet wide and twenty feet high to a vast cavern, with many ledges in the sides from the natural contours. If we weren’t so miserly, we could have paid for a guide to take us even further into the cave system, following the river passed Mayan artefacts which have never seen the light of day for at least two centuries. You eventually emerge from another entrance into the cave. The guidebook says that the steps down into the cave were initially cut by the Maya too.

We turned round, and made our way back, suddenly turning a bend into a glorious sight. The large fern fringed mouth of the cave let light in onto the water which then reflected gently off the roof, highlighting all the shapes and contours as it did so. It was quite magical. The gentle light illuminates way back into the cave when facing this direction, and it was easy to see how our ancestors would have lived in such places. What was surprising was how humid it was. We both emerged quite sticky.

As we made our way back to the huts, we jumped as a loud crack-crack came from our right. We heard it again a few times before we reached the hut, and asked the ticket man what is was – a white-collared manakin. This bird apparently cracks its wings as it hops in a circle, clearing a space on the jungle floor from leaves, as part of its display to the females. It is a small bird, but the crack made us jump when we first heard it! There are apparently 3 of the 5 indigenous wild cats in the area (jaguar, ocelots, and jaguarundi) and I was quite ready to half-believe it was one stalking us! What a weed!

We then walked 1.5 kilometres through the jungle to the Blue Hole. The Blue Hole is a collapsed karst cavern much as the St. Herman’s cave we had just been in. But we had some jungle to traverse first. Again it was pretty uneven along the trail so you have to keep looking down, but nevertheless we got our first proper taste! Many of the plants were ones which we might find growing a house plants in the U.K., indeed one which we have just wound around some banisters in the stables at Ellemford! But the ones we saw on Saturday were winding themselves around the trunks of trees, and heading skywards! Suddenly the scent of jasmine will waft over you, and then you would see the delicate tendrils hanging from a branch. Skinny stalks of trunks, great fat bruisers, with dried up leaves like huge spent gloves tossed across the path. Lots of little frogs, medium sized frogs, brown frogs, red frogs, speckled frogs; many birds at different levels (we are learning more about that) and good pictures along the way indicating who was what. Oh, and the mosquitoes! The hotter and sweatier we got, the denser the cloud. To our amazement the Deet worked – despite alighting on us they left hardly a mark. Just one or two tender places where there was no repellent, such as eyebrows.

The mossies got so bad we were glad to emerge into a clearing. We could hear the sound of people laughing – the promise of a swim in the Blue Hole was so relieving. We descended steps not unlike the ones into the cave, only this time the roof has collapsed, exposing the underground river for about 50meters before it disappears underground again. It is apparently a beautiful clear blue – except in the rainy season! It was opaque, but very clean and inviting. The river bubbles up in a central pool, before flowing in a narrower river for a short distance. It struck me as a bit daft as I removed my wringing wet clothes to don my costume! It was delicious, and good fun too as you let the river drift you downstream for a bit. Rocks were around the edge but the middle was a smooth, fine, gravely bottom. We frolicked and cooled, and enjoyed watching a church group frolicking and cooling too!

We had to make sure we caught the 4.30pm bus back to Belmopan, to catch the bus to Belize City, and had been warned that it is ‘Belize time’ and that the bus may be there just gone 4pm. We were ready and waiting and got talking to a very chatty group of Mestizos who were guides at the Ian Anderson centre by the bus stop. The centre provides some of the most highly regarded tours, climbs, kayaking, birding and trekking. They even take the British Army out to train them in rappelling – descending 90 meters or so in a sink hole from the jungle canopy. They even started to give us a bird guide as we waited. We had seen some pretty little black and white birds clinging to grasses and leaning forward to peck at others – Seedeaters! There were two types of woodpecker in the trees beside us, and tree creepers too. It turned out that they lived in Armenia, the village which had caught our attention on the way in. Nice people.

Rainy Season

The rainy season. I thought that I knew what that meant, but one of the joys of travelling is that it opens one’s eyes to how little you know in practice! The rains here are not the sort that build up over a hot morning, gathering at midday and then depositing themselves over you in a torrential downpour in the afternoon – only to evaporate almost as fast as they fell, thus starting the cycle again for the next day. No, the rainy season here is very different to that.

It gets blisteringly hot for a few days. People get nervous, saying that this is what hurricanes feed off. The odd cloud might appear in the sky, and there may even be a short rain shower. The clouds may build up more, or it may clear completely for a day or two. Currently, only two weeks in so too soon to be sure this is typical, the build up of clouds is predominantly, but not only, in the evenings. First of all I notice that I suddenly come out in a sweat. I start raining before the sky does!

(It reminds me of my grandparents who lived by the sea. They used to hang a long piece of wide brown sea weed outside their back door. My grandfather, known to everyone as Jeff which was an abbreviation of his surname Jeffkins, my grandfather Jeff would go out and check his sea weed. He used it as a barometer. When it was damp he would assure me that rain was on the way, and he was invariably right. Or rather, the sea weed was!)

So, my body barometer gets damp like the sea weed, really damp and sticky, and then the sound of thunder or the flash of lightening will appear. The pattern seems most typically to be an initial shower, lasting 1-5 minutes and then whoosh! It is as if someone has turned a power shower onto full out of the blue. The noise level is quite phenomenal. In our bedroom at night, it falls onto the sloping roof above us, which like all roofs round here is corrugated. When I just listen, it reminds me of the symbols in a drum kit, just creating a vibration between them. Or a very fast drum roll, the sticks leaving barely any space between them. It is relatively high pitched, and behind that is a deeper drone made by the fallen water cascading through gutters and storm drains. The thunder has been most usually single peals, followed by lightening.

(When I was little my father taught me to count the seconds between the thunder and lightening. Every 5 seconds is a mile away. I still do it, though it tends to be pretty obvious if the storm is overhead! But dad was a sailor through and through, and was wanting to see how the thunder was circling – which he said it always did – so that he was facing the right way in his boat! Always put the bows into the wind in a storm.)

Last night I was enjoying again the sound of the downpour, when suddenly the thunder came again. Only this time, the thunder came from here, then there, then somewhere else, as if ricocheting off the clouds or the gods playing squash! As I listened, fascinated, I suddenly saw Keith Moon, the legendary drummer in The Who, doing his fantastic drumming, arms and sticks flying from one drum to the other, to the next and back again.

Today I was talking with someone about the rain. (This person has elected himself as my educator about things Belizean, for which I am most grateful. Today he told me that when I buy mangoes in the market, I have to ask for mango 11, as they are particularly sweet. When I said that they could give me mango 24 and I wouldn’t know, he replied that it is the only one mango with a number. He also said that blue mangos are especially good too, but not blue in colour! I am still uncertain how I would know the difference, but no doubt the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.) Anyway, this man explained that a tropical wind with rain was expected today, most probably this evening – it is threatening to rain now – and from there we got talking about the noise on my bedroom ceiling at night. He asked me if it was the same in the UK, and I tried to explain how we get 3 hot days then a thunderstorm, which is then all over till next summer but he seemed bemused. He asked me if I had ever heard the thunder drumming and I got very excited and told him what I had heard last night. He said that sometimes it goes round like that right overhead with lightening, and is unbelievably loud. I smiled as I thought of sitting under the drum kit as Keith Moon was really going for it. And I wonder what direction dad would point the boat in when it is going round as fast as that. He could get quite dizzy…

These rains could fall as one 15 minute episode, or last for a few hours or even days. Then there could be two weeks of really dry hot weather before the smaller rains followed by a few days of rains again. Or so I believe!