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…

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

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.

See ya latah, Halligatah!

As I sit at my computer, we have just eaten our supper on a Monday evening, having heard the midnight (your time) Radio 4 news, and listening to the ‘Listen Again’ version of Just a Minute! Julian Clarey and Paul Merton on top form, and a nice touch of Old Blighty…as the fan blasts against the sticky evening, and a little gecko sneaks up the window frame.

Last Friday evening, we got off our bus (the conductor selling top-up phone cards this time; cashew nuts a few weeks ago…) unlocked the door, turned on the light and brought the bags in from the verandah. As I turned round, a movement caught my eye, and I saw two black eyes and a wide Kermit-style grin of the tree-frog. We had found him behind the back door when we locked up the previous Monday morning, and when we tried to put him out he leapt 4 feet across the room and used his suckered webbed toes to cling to the wall. Since we had to get the 6.15am bus, we left him to it – he could go out the way he came in. He is very sweet, and we watched as he hid himself behind the wooden sofa that Conor was sitting on.

After we had eaten, we were both sitting quietly reading our books, when I saw a brown movement by the front screen door. At first I thought it was another cockroach, but as I looked more closely, I saw that it was low against the ground, longer, slimmer, with elegant arching claws and raised tail – a scorpion!!! Large! My feet immediately shot up into the air, at the same time as Kermit decided that this was interesting, putting his concern about us to one side and leaping towards the raised tail. To our amazement, as he approached, the scorpion moved fast towards the screen and (alarmingly) squeezed out between the wooden frame and side of the door….Good old Mr Kermit Frog – he definitely has a permanent place in Beisle Cottage! I checked with Leonardo the next day, and he was as surprised as we were. If the frog had actually approached the scorpion directly, there is no doubt which would have come off worst. Fortunately, although the scorpion’s sting would have been pretty sore, and have swollen, they aren’t fatal in Belize.

We had invited 4 of the young volunteers and interns to join us over the w/e – two staying in Birds Eye View Lodge, one in our spare room, and the fourth in the hammock – slung above the cockroaches and scorpion! They were going up to Lamanai, a large Mayan site reached by a boat trip from Orange Walk, north of us on the Northern Highway, and catching the bus down late on Saturday afternoon. With no buses over the weekend from the highway into Crooked Tree other than the 11a.m. from Belize, everyone coming and going either has independent transport, walks or sticks out a thumb. About 4.30pm, a ring on Conor’s mobile was followed by that tired and weary sound of 4 hot and sweaty folk at the end of a good day! They were in the full glare of the sun – the 3 kilometres are without protection from sun or rain – and hoping for a lift. Half an hour later we rang them, and they were still walking, still flagging, all the vehicles too full as they past – and one stopped for them while Conor was on the phone! Dropped off at the crossroads, in single file 4 people slowly walked the last sweltering five minutes up to the shade and gentle breeze of Beisle Cottage verandah, where a large jug of cold juice awaited them. It was the first time I have cooked for any more than 3 since we arrived, and doing it on two burners and small pans was a challenge! Despite the fisherman not having enough spare fish (again) we found avocados, peppers, tomatoes, cashews and mangoes galore on the island, and managed to have a good evening together, washed down with bottles of Belikin beer and the local berry wine.

At 6.45 the following morning we all congregated outside the Lodge and got into 3 canoes. The previous w/e Conor and I had crossed the lagoon, and paddled down Black Creek, but hadn’t started till 9.30am. By 11.30 am I was feeling faint in the middle of the lagoon, despite sunhat and a covered body. So we started soon after sun rise, and it was an exquisite flat calm, shimmering softly, birds calling, little fishes nibbling, still cool. I had been a little concerned that 4 young people (22 -36) might be bored by the charm of canoeing through a creek with not much else in it, but I needn’t have worried. And we had some fun moments – in the narrows, it takes a bit of practice to use the back paddle as a rudder and slowly nudge your way round the overhanging prickly bits, or the mimosa shoots sticking up out of the water. If you try to paddle out of the predicament you end up head first in the thorns and spiders webs, and poor old Kate had war wounds to prove it. At one point a plaintive “It’s not fair” could be heard from within a bush! We saw the black-collared hawk again down by the big tree, and a large ringed kingfisher kindly sat on a branch for us. The snail kite – the lagoon is full of snails – was swooping past too, with its distinctive very hooked beak, perfect for pulling the snail from its shell.

Two hours later and yet another very hot day, we were glad to stretch our limbs on terra firma, and make our way round for a late breakfast. The water level was still receding fast, and unfortunately the lovely variety of waders and ducks that we normally see in the swampy bits were no where to be seen, no doubt moved on to where they can rely on the water and a source of food. After breakfast we decided to walk the Limpkin Trail, now accessible because of the low water, and fantastically shaded with a beautiful variety of palms and vines. As we had decided to give up the cottage (our month’s rental is finished and September is the month of carnival in Belize City, so we will be spending weekends there) it was our last chance to see a croc before we left. The trail was beautiful, and as we stood watching a large lizard on a tree, we suddenly saw a long, slim, silvery green snake slither over the lizard’s tail and into the water, getting away from us. A parrot snake apparently. Towards the end, back near the lodge, I thought for a moment we had at last seen the top of a croc moving through the water; but as I looked excitedly, the top moved shape, and we laughed as we saw a gaggle of tightly packed baby ducks paddling full steam ahead! There must have been at least a dozen of them!

Lunch over, the four hitched a lift back over the causeway to catch the bus to BC, and we started our final pack up and clean of the little cottage which has given us so much pleasure over the last few weeks. As we left early this morning, with some clouds in the sky, a large beautiful rainbow arched over the cottage in a wave of farewell.

Good looking!

There are so many different things I could say about our weekends at Crooked Tree, it is hard to know where to start. We did eventually find the starting place for the 5.05pm direct bus, and we are now recognising the faces, anticipating who will be on till Birds Isle, who will get off beforehand. There are the grandparents who go all the way up the northern highway almost to our turnoff, who have a sprinkling of grandchildren with them. The grandfather has a special connection with a wee boy, about 4 years old, who sits on his knee and they chatter together all the time; except, that is, when the man sees someone he knows along the way, when he invariably stands and calls something out the open window. “Good car there” or “How d’ya doin?” “Hey, man!”

Our bus conductor suddenly appears on the bus on the outskirts of the city. On Mondays we get the bus at 5.45 a.m., and it meanders around picking everyone up, and then sets off across the causeway about 6.15am. Having done it a few times, I now notice that he gets off the bus at the same place too. He carries the leather pouch which all the conductors use, taking the fares with him off the bus in the morning, and back on in the evening returning to CT. Our man is quite dapper. First of all I thought that unlike any other conductor I’ve seen here, he has his own version of a uniform: smart beige polo shirt and matching beige slacks with a leather belt. Most conductors wear jeans, or the baggy long shorts hanging off the hips with a tee shirt. Then the penny dropped – it is a uniform for the place he works in.

Travelling with him feels a bit like being a guest in his domain. He is very courteous to all his passengers, helping women and children on and off, passing out parcels, bags, even delivering things en route. He always checks with you first, standing quietly beside you with a small smile tucked into a cheek: “Would you like a hand with your bags?” “Shall I do that for you?” A bus conductor version of a “maitre d’”.

When we arrive on a Friday night, it is just getting dark, and by the time we have settled in and started cooking, night has fallen. But on Saturday and Sunday evenings, it is lovely to walk in the evening cool, and sit on the verandah catching the breeze. As the light fades tiny fairy lights begin to twinkle momentarily here and there across the grass, and amongst the undergrowth over the lane. Fire flies! They don’t last for long, and my understanding is that it is the same as the phosphorescence that the plankton glow with when you sail in the sea at night. As far as I can find out (Wikipedia) it works by organisms absorbing light and then releasing it at a slower rate.

We have got cockroaches here in CT, grandfather bull versions of them: not a lot but enough to make me wary. Conor brought up some special little contraptions – two layers of 2” by 4” about ¼” apart, with four wide entrances and some poison in the middle. We thought this was preferable to some ghastly spray that most folk seem to use. Trouble is, the two very large ones – one the standard Americanus version, the other more like an elongated pebble – have such sumo shoulders that we suspect that they won’t be able to reach the poison. Judging by the corpses, some can though. Conor managed to sweep one of the mega-roaches out the backdoor, but there is at least the other giant pebble, and one Americanus which is about 4”, an inch less than the other two. Maybe we will resort to the spray after all.

Corletta ambled over the road towards our gate the other day, and we welcomed her in. She came onto the verandah as we were tackling some of the mangoes (end of the season so not so good – bruised or damaged by insects) so we found her a chair and offered some of our fruit. She tucked in with relish, proving that there is no easy way to eat mangoes – just enjoy and mop up afterwards. She had an electricity bill for us, but we used the occasion to talk about all sorts of things. Conor found that she reflected his memories of an Irish childhood – she sat easily with us, talked touchingly about her recently dead husband while gazing out across the ‘yard’ (garden to you) and then when we had exhausted our conversation, quietly got up and took her leave, taking some mangoes for her extensive family with her.

It was very hot yesterday afternoon (it has been very hot everyday for the last two weeks) so we thought we would try again to see the croc that occasionally basks on the bank behind Bird Isle Lodge. We saw a very pretty blue heron, and a bird that we can’t decide whether it’s a rail or one of the small dumpy herons you get in these parts, but not a sign of the croc. The water level has gone down by about 8 feet from when we first ever came across the lagoon, and we guessed that we would probably be able to reach the board walk which is there for the birders in the winter and spring bird migrating season. It was glorious to be in there in the shade, dappled water underneath in parts, the mimosa and mangroves and flowering vines all around, the open lagoon a few feet to the right, the swampy – potential croc – pond to the left. But nothing larger than the heron and a few whistling ducks in sight. Plenty of small fish, frogs croaking, the occasional butterfly or damsel fly but not even an iguana. The cool was lovely though, and we went back to the start and just sat on the boards enjoying the soft breeze in the shade. We saw our fisherman and one of his sons start an outboard motor and set off across the lagoon. He was bailing out all the way, so we hoped the boat was safe! Before reaching the other side the boat stopped, and we trained our bins onto them. The son was setting the fishing nets – they must have repaired them since the HaligaTAHs got them.

Eventually we ventured out into the sun again, crossed in front of the Lodge and ambled up to the table and benches with a nice big wooden shelter on them. Christina was there chatting to the fisherman’s lads – Sons? Grandsons? We greeted them, and then I struck up a jokey bit with them, saying that I thought that it was just a story that there are crocs (HaligaTAHS) in the lagoon, to get people like us to come again and again looking for them. They enjoyed the banter, and we heard again how in the dry season, you can see them with out trying. (In fact this morning, Leonardo said you can see coatis and lots more really easily because the animals go to the narrow channel for water. Just have to come back in April!)  Christina said that she thought that the croc had moved out of the pond because a canoeist had gone in a couple of weeks ago when the water was higher. “I saw it yesterday” the elder boy said quickly, “on the hill”. At which point the younger raised his eyes heavenwards and said “You is just no good lookin”…..

Laughing All The Way Home

I was out early (back in Maya Mountain Lodge but doing it cheap-skate this time, taking advantage of their kind discount to volunteers) exploring the rainforest and trying to find the motmot, or at least a trogon or toucan, when I heard a huge din coming from quite high up above and slightly behind me on the hillside. I had just had a conversation with a member of staff that I nearly walked into as I walked backwards with my monocular against my eye, who told me that the trogons and toucans usually go to the top of those trees about 2pm when it’s very hot, singing noisily. Could this be them eight hours early, I wondered. Excitedly, I followed the noise. It was truly loud, and was obviously two, not quite calling and responding, rather being a demi-semi-quaver out from each other. And raucous! Repeated sounds again and again and again. 

I clambered up the path, convinced that I should see them any moment it was so loud, but all the time the noise led me further on and up. The thick tangle of trees and vines revealed neither parrot nor parakeet, toucan nor trogon. At least, not yet….The mantra drew me on, till I reached a clearing near the brow of the slope, and still I could hear it further away from me. I looked across to where the trees started again, and suddenly saw two very large birds sitting facing outwards, one above the other, on the bare exposed stumpy limbs of two dead branches in a tree. They were still a good two hundred yards away, and still raucous! Using my monocular, I could see they were each about 2 feet long, yellow and black markings, and I wondered if they were parrots. My stupid glasses could not give me a good enough resolution on the head parts, but they seemed beaky.

(I am learning fast that you need the resolution because to identify birds accurately, you need to check out the relevant bits. Thus, to identify a parrot accurately would be to clock the beak, head shape and the tail. The black collared hawk of the other weekend was its tail length being the same as its wings, and so forth. There is also another fascinating thing called ‘the giss’ – the overall shape, flight pattern and feeling tone of a bird. For example, and these are easy because they also look very different, a duck’s flight is different to a heron’s, or a flock of starlings move very differently to the fractal pattern of lapwings.)

I watched entranced, and then the birds quietened as suddenly as they had started. I went into the Lodge’s dining area where I knew they had a bird book (ours was in Crooked Tree) and began the second round – the fun of identifying the ‘find’. I scoured the parrots, the parakeets and the trogons. None was quite so big, none was yellow and black. Hmmm. I went further afield, and suddenly saw the exact yellow and black markings – yellow head and breast, black back, yellow and black barred tail. I read the details – forested area, in pairs, 22 inches, diet of snakes and small lizards to supplement…guess what its name was? Unforgettable! The Laughing Falcon!!! The description of the call, and the slightly out of sync duet meant that they were unmistakable, and never to be forgotten! The falcons’ hooky beak which my silly monocular didn’t clarify enough would be suitably blurrily similar to have mistaken for a parrot.  By this time Conor had joined me, and I lead him back up and through the trees so he could see them too, sitting serenely on their perches like a pair of Grecian vases.

Anyway, to the point of it all. When we had first come to the Lodge, on my birthday weekend, we had met a woman who told us about someone called Rosita Arvigo who had adopted, or been adopted by, a local traditional healer or shaman. We didn’t pay too much attention, but then Conor found a book by Rosita in a local store. He was fascinated, and decided that he would like to pay Don Elijio’s successors a visit.  We discovered that they lived in San Antonio, a village near the Lodge, and decided to do a quick sprint up on the Saturday and down on the Sunday. Conor wondered if some traditional herbs may help his overall health and well-being.

We arrived about 10.30am, good old buses, and enjoyed mooching around the fabulous market, burgeoning with produce. We are still finding fruits and veg that are completely new to us, and enjoying the tasting! Knowing our way, we wandered up the short cut over the hill to the Lodge, and settled back into the Parrot Perch. The charm of the place was still potent, and different flowers were blooming everywhere as the rainy season unfolds. We had intended to visit the Rainforest Medicine Trail, but it was an exceedingly hot day (it’s been a very un-rainy two weeks) and because of the high canopy of trees, darkness descends much earlier than sunset in the wooded areas. The most helpful Emily agreed with our decision to wait till Sunday, and told us about Xunantunich, about 1 mile from the Guatemalan border, and 15 minutes in the bus from San Ignacio. We walked back to the market, picked up some bananas (10 for 25p) and cashews for lunch, and set off. The bus stops right by the hand-winched cable ferry across the Mopan River – one of Belize River’s two tributaries – which moves broadly and shallowly and pretty fast down through the mountains and out to sea in Belize City. Once over to the other bank, we had a 2 mile walk up to the site on a well paved road through less dense rainforest, full of loads of dancing moths and butterflies. They seemed particularly fond of some chamomile-like flowers growing beside the road. Being very hot, we were grateful for any shade as we made our way uphill. Conor noticed a movement beside us, and then a greyish brown shape became clearer as it snuffled through the grassy verge. As it got closer, apparently oblivious to or unconcerned about us, we saw the pattern of rings on its tough back plating, long thin tail, long piggy snout and relatively big ears – an armadillo!

Xunantunich – pronounced ‘Shun…’ – is a most impressive site, with huge pyramids and friezes, mostly active between 600-1000AD. (There are some good photos.) It was also a fantastic way to get a panoramic view of the region – Guatemala, Cayo and the Pine Mountain Ridge. Because of the never-ending border disputes between Belize and Guatemala, the site is also guarded by both police and soldiers sporting M16 rifles. Not Kalashnikovs, one told us ruefully! They enjoyed being at the top of the highest pyramid too – great look out! As we sat under the shade of some trees, we realised they were dripping in avocados, so initiated ourselves in the art of avocado scrumping…

Once more we were entranced as this fascinating country revealed its treasures, whether flora or fauna, landscape or architecture.

Later that evening we were perplexed as to what to do. Emily had told us a. that the Medicine Trail was no longer kept properly and really wasn’t very interesting, and b. indicated that in order to get there up-river by canoe and pay for tickets etc., it would cost an astronomical US$ 75 each. We had come all this way to make contact with Ix Chel, and it seemed that the Trail was not where it was at. We went back to both Rosita’s book and the Guide book, and were wondering whether to visit San Antonio directly. A bit irritable because the pilgrimage wasn’t working, we were approached by a gentle member of staff asking about the next day’s tour. We explained that we were not going to do it after all, but will probably go to San Antonio. We asked if buses ran there on Sundays, and as we suspected, he said no. But, he explained, he lived there and everyone hitches rides with the local passing traffic, all of whom give lifts in their pick-ups if they have room. “Is it safe?” we asked anxiously. He reassured us that it was completely safe, and we recalled how the same thing is done at Crooked Tree across the causeway on a Sunday. He said you can offer BZ$3 but most do it for free. Conor mentioned why we were going, and this young man said that his father was one of the apprentices who took over the healing practices when Don Elijio Panti died aged 103. Then we knew we were on the right track!

After our meeting with the laughing falcon and a great breakfast, despite our grey hair we stuck out our thumbs along the stony unpaved road. A couple of pickups passed, full, and then a big blue 4×4 came by. He passed, stopped, and asked us where we going. Ok, he said. As we got in I remarked that he sounded like a Brit, to which he replied “So do you!” About 35 years, he manages Fyffe’s banana export business down south in Independence. He has a house in Basingstoke, and was here for 3 years, and had just returned for 3 months to help out for a bit. He was on a jolly, just exploring, and once he was confident that he had enough gas in his tank (petrol to you!) he took us all the way to San Antonio. Although only about 15 miles from the Lodge, it is a relatively slow and pot-holey ride through a deeply rain-forested area, past the village of Christo Rey and on to San Antonio which is nestled in a wide and lovely natural basin. The main area of the reserve, full of trees and mountains, is ahead of you as you approach. Both San Antonio and Christo Rey were spick and span little places, full of the usual range and style of houses, but both with a feeling of being well-cared for even if a very simple wooden thatched house. We knew roughly where to go from Eric’s description the evening before, and made our way up towards the school and some thatched houses. Getting final directions, we approached a wooden house on a hillside. Jerome Coc came out to see us, a short man of typical Mayan features, and said that he did indeed do healing, and yes it was fine to do such things on a Sunday.

He led us into a small wooden room which had a door and one window. It had a simple dirt floor, a couple of wooden shelves and also the typical 3 legged stool of these parts. It was very clean and tidy. A curtain hung over a doorway into the larger part of the wooden building. A tattered photo of Don Elijio was hanging from a nail on the wall behind us, and on the opposite wall was a drawn replica of the Mayan God of the Rainforest. Conor and I sat on stools as Jerome stood up directly in front of Conor and asked him lots of questions. He didn’t take his eyes off him, which were smiley and still at the same time. Then Jerome disappeared into his main house and came back with the leaves of wild coffee, explaining to Conor how to make an infusion, and how to take it both internally and externally. He then burnt some copal incense in a small pan, wafting the smoke over Conor and also over the leaves, the whole time intoning a prayer to the spirits in Spanish. I could hear that bits of it incorporated the Catholic liturgy, as the Mayans have been able to modify their deities to fit the catholic ‘spirits’, thus managing to hold onto some of their older beliefs and customs without alienating the Spanish Catholics when they took over their lands.

And then it was all over. Conor had a donation for the spirits, we shook hands and said goodbye, and managed to get two lifts in the back of pick-ups to Christo Rey and San Ignacio. We leaped up and into the trucks with finesse, and chuckled to ourselves about being two grey-haired grandparents squatting on spare tyres in the back of pick-ups in a jungle, surrounded by the shy, curious smiles of Mayan children!