More crocodiles…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day of the Scorpion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It felt a real gift to see them.

CHill-i-pedia 5. Less Sauce, more Relish!

More about the floods.

Here are a couple of transcripts of the local TV news which came out last week. The second is an extract from the parliament.

Recovery from the big flood of 08 continues in Cayo, the Belize River Valley, and parts of the Orange Walk District. And new figures released from the National Emergency Management Organization show that the recovery will be lengthy and costly. More than sixteen thousand persons from one-hundred and thirteen villages were affected. 9,200 of them have received two weeks of food supplies while two- hundred and sixteen remain in shelters. Eight thousand, two-hundred persons have received medical attention for flood related illnesses. That has so far cost $1 million.

And while that’s the human toll, the flood wiped out one thousand head of cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry amounting to a million dollars. Forty-six miles of road were damaged and it’s going to cost 10 million dollars to fix them. Eight thousand six hundred acres of crop valued at twelve point nine million dollars were also wiped out.

We note that the entire village of Douglas in the Orange Walk District is still quarantined while the Crooked Tree Causeway is still underwater.

“They have no home to go back to. We are talking about 1,110 homes went under water. Some of these homes are still under water. Whatever is in those homes will never be of any value to them people and I need to reiterate here Mr. Speaker that we need to grasp the enormity of it because no hurricane has ever in our living memory, because I was around for Hattie also, has impacted on the lives and the homes of so many people. We’re telling you, we’re informing this nation and this Honourable House that 1,110 homes went under water, suffered serious water damages. And what we are doing right now Mr. Speaker, before I continue with the rest of the information, what we have done and are doing, we have a team that has gone to every single village in the Cayo District, went to every household under water, we have photographed every single household, we have spoken to the members, we have gotten their names, we have itemized every single item that has been lost in their homes, we have identified whatever physical structure damage has been done to their homes, and each and every one of them as I will say categorically here will be assisted, those who got hurt in the disaster.”


The other day Conor and I were walking past the car park beside the Courthouse when we heard someone hailing us. Our ‘first-day-Belikin’ man was striding towards us, carrying his car washing buckets in one hand and reaching into his pocket with the other.

“Here” he said, “I owe you this”. He handed Conor a couple of dollars.

You may recall that a few weeks ago he asked us straight one day if we could spare him a bit as it had been a bad day. It was in the middle of the heavy rains, when there were zilch tourists about for him to earn his wages as street performer cum tour guide, and the rains remove the terrible dust so few cars needed washing.

He must have seen the expression on our faces because he added “I always pay back my debts. There is a shopkeeper I ask when I need to, and he always says I don’t have to repay him, but I do. Then I can always ask again.”

We had no choice but to graciously receive. It was a special moment.

It was also an example of what I will call personal power. So many of us fall into a victim mentality, of being somehow less than others, and that often comes with a ‘you owe me’ attitude. There has never been any sense of diminishment with this man, from the first day we met him. He ‘earns’ his handouts – and once he openly begged.  Not cap in hand, but a genuine expression of need, a favour from one human to another, not a handout from a ‘have’ to a ‘have not’. That sense of inner worth is everyone’s birthright, and whether or not you have it shows, whether king or pauper. Some kings wear power as a mantle – and empty vessels make most noise. Some nobles live on the streets.

Mental health and homelessness.

I discovered the other day that because of an incident a few years ago when someone in a psychotic episode attacked someone in one of the homes for the homeless, it is rare for anyone with mental health issues to be given a bed. There are sound reasons for this – lack of in-house medical care, need for medication, protection of other residents, etc. It is also relatively rare for someone in psychosis to be that violent, but invariably makes the headlines, whatever the country. Such episodes merely serve to enforce the sane’s fear of extreme and altered state. The policy explains why such a huge proportion of the people on the streets appear to have mental health issues here.

One man – at least 50 years old – who looks ahead as if blind, sits on a patch of grass beside the river and swing bridge, knees up in the air, feet on the ground, pulling constantly at the grass on either side of him with his hands. He seems to do this for hours at a time, which makes me wonder if he is on the autistic spectrum, too. Let’s hope that the debate with the school children a few weeks ago will bring on a generation who are less in awe of such processes; and that the revenue from the newly discovered oil in Belize (once the Mexicans have taken their toll for transporting it through Mexico, and the oil giants their penny-worth for processing it) will finance a new era for Belizeans.

Goodbye Crooked Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHill-i-pedia 4 – Even more CHilli Sauce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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