Ducking and Diving

(27 July)
A couple of weekends ago after meeting up with Mr. S. at Crooked Tree, and negotiating to take on the little house, we decided to try out some snorkeling on the barrier reef the next day before we were committed to spending each weekend at CT for the next month at least. (I am a bit behind with this – out of sequence!)

The most northerly part of the barrier reef lies very close to the island of San Pedro, which if you look at a map you can see is actually really close to the main land of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. As you move further down the Belizean coast, the reef and the atolls and cayes are further from the mainland. This means that the more developed touristy bits are to the north, close to human habitation, and the marine reserves and more remote cayes are further away from the coast to the south and east. Since both Conor and I have the self-deceptive trait of not identifying as tourists as we travel around (!) we have decided that we are not even going to try San Pedro. So it was back to the Caye Caulker Water Taxi Terminal on Sunday morning, aiming for Caye Caulker, which is a little further south than San Pedro, and yet still with the barrier reef not so very far off shore as to make snorkeling expensive.

We arrived at 10am, and wandered down the lane, looking at what was on offer. At 10.30, there was a boat to the reef, 3 stops, and one with sting rays. The man behind the counter rang to see if we were too late or if it were full, and we got the OK. He fitted us out with flippers and snorkels, and we wandered out to meet Harry. Harry was a delight. Very athletic, with a good male version of the interesting hair I was writing about earlier! Most if it is in tight twists about 3 inches long, with the bottom 2 centimeters of his hair line cut short. The last half centimeter of each twist is died blond, and the effect is very stylish!

Harry has a great job! He takes folk like us out each morning and afternoon in a small motor craft equipped with an essential sun canopy, and guides them through the corals, pointing out the wild life. What a joy. He led about 12 of us onto the boat with an exclamatory “It is far too hot today to do anything but go in the sea” – and than motored towards the line of gentle surf we have been able to see breaking on the horizon everywhere we looked at the Caribbean from Belize. When in Belize City it is way out on the far horizon, white surf with the occasional palm tree or two sticking up. Here at Caye Caulker we joined about 4 other similar crafts moored on the lee side of the reef within about seven minutes. The white sand and clear sea were inviting, especially as the heat grew more intense. The 12 of us were a mixed bunch. Conor and I were the oldest there, with two other couples in their forties, all properly equipped for the task. They had diving boots, underwater cameras, harpoons, and the rest. The others were young back-packers and holiday makers. One Flemish couple had just arrived from Cancun in the Yucatan, and were on their way to Honduras.  When we were asked during one break whether we were on holiday too, and explained we lived here, we got some surprised glances from the younger ones. I mentioned the term ‘grey gap year’, and there was some laughter!

Harry secured the boat to a small buoy, checked whether everyone could swim, and whether anyone needed a life jacket. This was followed by a little homily about ecology: the rules for snorkeling and diving are no touching, no breaking, no standing. He then asked if everyone could snorkel. Conor has had difficulty trusting the snorkel in the past – his chronic rhinitis has led him to panic in the water, and he has had to re-educate himself to trust he can breathe each time we have had a snorkeling episode over the last few years. But he has always got there. So we kept quiet and hoped he would be OK this time too. Harry encouraged us to put our gear on and go overboard. We all lathered ourselves in sun protection, and some folk also wore tee shirts and baseball caps with a neck guard too.

As usual the warm sea was a joy to be in. We swam around the boat as folk gathered, and then he told us to follow him. I lingered, waiting to see how Conor would do, and after a minute or two of spluttering, he said that he would stay around the boat for this leg, just getting more confident again before swimming out a bit. Reluctantly I left him behind, but also sensed it was the right decision.

The shoal of large flippery fish followed our guide through the underwater garden of the coral reef. Harry would point something out – sea urchin, species of fish, type of coral, and then surface and call its name. One can hear quite well when snorkeling like that. The varieties were astonishing. Elks head corals, delicate fan coral, some corals with the most intricate, repeating patterns as if off a Byzantine temple or an Islamic mosque, with corals of every colour imaginable. Harry would suddenly dive down, then come up with something for us to hold and pass round to one another: a pink – and harmless – sea urchin; a spiny black star fish; or a sea grape, which is an algae. There were myriads of fish – big ones, small ones, solitary fish and fish in clusters. One tiny fish massed in clouds, and looked like a swarm of Scottish midges on a damp day. They were called something like thousands! The corals are full of nooks and crannies, and as you hover and watch more and more fish reveal themselves to you with a flutter of a fin here or flash of colour there.

Some were familiar after Gemma’s exploits with tropical fish tanks in her childhood, and some more mysterious, but a fish shyly coming round a corner on a coral reef is vastly different to peering through the murky sides of an algae-stained fish tank on a damp Scottish day! It is truly a world of its own, and just as the bejewelled damsel flies and dragonflies danced through the air in the creek, so too, the shimmering colourful scales of the fish did not fail to entrance.

At one point, Harry pointed to a large fish in the distance, and said “Barracuda”. I kept my distance from the pale silver form, about 3 feet long and with sharp teeth, eyeing us up from quite near the surface of the water.  Fortunately it seemed as wary of us as I was of it!

Eventually we made our way back to Conor and the boat. He was looking a lot happier, and ready to join in the next lap. Up the steps we trooped, and Harry very kindly made a supportive comment to Conor about being terrified in the air but confident in the sea. Conor decided he was too old to be embarrassed about lack of competence in snorkeling! We cast off from the mooring, and moved further down the reef for a few minutes. Here the sand was flat and the sea shallow, no obvious coral around. Suddenly Harry began throwing pieces of fish into the sea that he had been chopping with a machete (pronounced ‘mashet’ here, and everyone carries them like one would a pen knife at home). Within seconds, there were about 10 sting rays swimming very fast around the boat. Apparently some years ago, the fishermen used to clean their catch in this area, and the sting rays learned to go to the boats. As tourism grew, it was useful to keep the practice up! Harry got into the waist-high water, and was happily holding the rays, encouraging us to, too. Again I was a wimp and kept my distance! Nevertheless they were swimming fast around and between all of our legs. I could see that he was completely confident in handling the fish, and they did not seem to be disturbed. The rays’ bodies are fairly thin, and are like one enormous roast plate of rippling muscle. The back bone is very strong, extending through its whole body, the large and sharp three inch sting protruding out about 2/3 of the tail’s length. The round mouth is on the underside, and by feeding one a piece of fish still held in his hand, Harry held a ray up to show us that it really was not dangerous. He was hugely cynical about Steve Irwin who was killed by a ray, claiming that the man just did not know how to handle them. The only time they would be likely to attack under normal circumstances was if you were to tread on one when it was basking in the sand. (Conor said later that Steve Irwin was notoriously a bit gung-ho about wild creatures, so maybe the animal kingdom had a lesson to teach him.)

Encouraging us to stay in the water for a bit longer, playing with them, Harry climbed aboard and did some more chopping. He suddenly pointed just beyond the rays and said that there was a large barracuda – about 6 or 7 feet long – coming for a feed too. That was enough for me and as fast as decorum would have it I clambered aboard! In dribs and drabs, others came up for the relief of the canopy, and also to enjoy the fruits that we discovered that Harry had been chopping for us. As we were eating I asked Harry if he thought the barracuda were dangerous. He said that they would generally leave you alone, unless you were swimming towards a part of the coral where they were trapped, or where they had young. Then they would come for you. I told the boat how a friend of my parents had been bitten on the leg by a barracuda, and then died of a heart attack. A ripple of laughter went round!

It was at this stage that some of us began to realise that Harry’s words about it being a hot day were accurate, and despite our protective unguents, various lobsters were proving to be aboard too. Shaded, fruited, and watered, we moved on to our third and final stop. This was closer to the reef again but not such deep water as the first dive. This was a free swim, and after being reminded again not to touch, break or stand on the reef, we set off. Conor was perfectly happy now, ducking and diving with the best of us, and we spent a most enjoyable forty five minutes gazing down at the world beneath us.

It was a very contented crew that was dropped back at the jetty two and a half hours later. We made our way over to a little café for some lunch, and began to meander up to the swimming place at the top of the island. I was beginning to be more acutely aware that the whole of my back and neck, upper arms, and unbelievably, also my upper thighs despite being underwater most of the time, had actually had quite a roasting. As we passed one woman on a stall, she stretched her limbs and exclaimed about how oppressive the heat was that day. And as we approached the swimming area, Conor declared that he thought he had some sun stroke, and sat propped up under the shade of a palm tree. I had a short swim, but also felt that probably enough was enough. I reflected that because there had not been much rain recently, it was less humid, and I had been mistaking having more energy as being less hot – wrongly! It was blisteringly hot and very dry – what the locals call ‘hurricane fuel’. We enjoyed the laziness of the palm tree, and then made our way back to the water taxi, Conor still feeling a little wan but not too bad.

The following day we were acutely aware of our intense pink bits, parts of my thighs I am not usually aware of at all. Conor felt a lot better after a sleep and lots of water, but when I got into work, I discovered that another volunteer on his second weekend here had also been at Caye Caulker for the whole weekend. He had been a bit blasé about the need for sun protection, thinking that he never burned, and ended up with a very severe dose of sun stroke on Saturday night: fever, sickness, headaches, the works. He looked a terrible brown /red colour on Monday morning, and was so sore that he could not bend down or move quickly for three days. It was horrible to witness how badly he was burnt, the effects of which lasted a good week.

Crocodile Hunting

4 August

On Sunday we did hire a canoe from the Lodge, as we couldn’t wait any longer for a boat. Apart from the torrential shower that fell just after we got into the lagoon (we went ashore again and waited for 25 minutes till it passed) we spent the most magical of hours drifting quietly along the creek.

Try to imagine:
Picture yourself
On a boat
On a river
With tangerine trees
And marmalade skies
Suddenly something is standing before you
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes…

Well, it wasn’t Lucy, or LSD for that matter, but it was magical!

No doubt in the dry season, this is a sandy pathway running for a couple of miles along the edge of the mud/sand flats. But right now, it is a creek. We are seated in a canoe, still ever-hopeful to see a croc or at least a turtle, both of which need to sun themselves to keep their reptilian bodies happy. The sudden torrential downpour which has just ceased will probably scupper that, but we are ever hopeful!

The quality of stillness is hard to describe. The creek runs for about 3 miles parallel with the main body of the lagoon, and the banks – well, not banks because it all emerges out of the water – are lined with mangroves and mimosa, all interwoven with flowering plants and creepers. The lagoon frequently has a prevailing east wind straight off the Caribbean, which is about 20 miles away as the crow flies. From Birds Eye Lodge, you paddle south for about ¼ mile, passing a bay with some of the horses that roam everywhere standing knee high in the water. Then, carefully navigating some old rotting bits of mimosa bush poking out of the water, you enter the mouth of the creek. Almost immediately the waterway is sheltered from the wind. One of the loveliest things about canoes is their silence and manoeuvrability. Partly because we were hoping to surprise a basking croc upon the sprawls of dead wood dotted everywhere, and partly just because of the place itself, we settled into a rhythm of silent paddling together. I am in the front, paddling either to the right or left, and Conor’s in the back, more of a cull position, steering us round. Some of the overhanging branches had some webs, spiders more or less visible, more or less large, and on those occasions when we were nearer than I wished, the paddle came in useful as a stick to push the offending bits well and truly out of my way! (I am my daughter’s mother, yes I admit to being not too fond of spiders either!) The creek was varying from about 7 feet to 15 feet in width, though with occasional mimosa strands poking up in front of you. Damsel flies and dragon flies abound, every colour of the rainbow, dancing so delicately around you, around the bushes, occasionally alighting upon a foot or side of the canoe. Brilliant sapphire blue, deep ruby red, emerald green, azure, and ochre – the jewels shimmered and soared. Lucy was in the sky with her diamonds.

Every now and then one or other of us would point hopefully at a piece of gnarled wood protruding above the water, perfectly mimicking a croc’s eye, but alas none was to be seen! Even the bird life was pretty silent in there – it was about 3pm which is the hottest part of the day and not the best for birding. We saw nothing new – at least as far as we were aware – but we enjoyed every minute. Keeping an eye on the time – our hire was for an hour – we turned round and made our way through a thinner part of the mangrove, ducking and pushing branches out of the way as we went into the main lagoon. Conor spotted a blue jay (Uniform Jay) just as we emerged out, a brilliant blue scuttling into the undergrowth, and a little later we saw a large green iguana going for a swim on the end of a branch suspended just above the water.

The sheer absence of anything but the channel of water, vegetation and the occasional drip from the recent rain, accompanied by the near silent swish of the paddle, created an atmosphere that was irresistible. We did hope that Uriah will find us a boat.

11 August

A week later found us in the same creek… As I said, irresistible, and we still hadn’t found a croc or turtle. This time it was a little more windy, and we had the canoe for up to 2 hours, ever hopeful! We made our way through the waterway, navigating the rogue branches, dodging the webs, and continuing the pas des deux with the damselflies and dragon flies. We went further down the channel, aiming towards some of the large broad leaved trees we could see in the distance, guessing that they must be on terra firma. No wet roots holding up those big beauties. We resumed our teamwork with the paddles, and our silent gesturing at ghosts! Slowly we meandered into new territory, parts of the channel becoming quite broad with less dense foliage between us and the lagoon. Still the broadleaves beckoned, so we paddled on. The channel narrowed, with the taller trees and shrubs towering over us. A crackle caught our attention, and to my great excitement I saw about a 2 foot long, quite thick tail with a curl in its end moving down a tree trunk. I couldn’t see any more, but Conor could see its body too. He describes it as about the size of a dog, but with the bottom of a cat rather than a monkey. There are dark brown /black howler monkeys here, but in our guide books it refers to coatis being on the reserve. We looked up both – good old Google – and the coatis fits the bill! Related to the racoon, it’s about the size of a dog, right colouring, and thick tail. How very exciting!

We were close to the big trees now, branches spreading high above us, and the creek becoming just a few inches shallow at this point, before deepening again. Suddenly we saw a flash of chestnut, large, fly out from the left, low, swoop up a bit, and into the foliage further down the same side. Eyes glued, we paddled on, hoping to get a better view. Out it swooped again, and we managed to get a good look before it disappeared into the canopy. It had wide chestnut wings and a short tail. We reckoned an eagle or hawk. Our bird book confirmed the Black-collared hawk, and the guide book also said that this is one of the animals alongside the coatis, howler monkeys and crocodiles one might see in the reserve! Two down, two to go…

Jumpers and Biters

Mr. S kindly gave us a lift back to the bus stop in Ladyville, and we had a great conversation about living in foreign lands, world health, poverty, and much more. When we remarked on how much racial tolerance we perceived, he said that there had to be as there had been so much intermarriage between the different ethnic groups over the centuries. As parents you were never quite sure what features your children would have. It made me feel hopeful for countries like the US and the UK, where such intermingling is relatively young compared to a country like Belize.

On Monday he phoned us to say that his wife agreed the rent and conditions he had made with us, and then dropped the keys off the following day. Conor jiggled a few clients around, and caught the market bus out at 11 am on Wednesday, starting to take some things out to the cottage. He chuckled about the bus journey, full of women and fruit and veg., laughing and chatting together like a Works Outing. When they got to the village, the driver suddenly turned off the sandy lane and drove over a field right up to a woman’s house. “What’s she got that we haven’t? VIP treatment!” ricocheted around the bus!

Conor arranged with Corletta for the standard 5 gallons bottle of water to be dropped off on Friday, checked out the bed for comfort, and reported back on whether we had towels and bed linen provided, and the state of the lemon trees! The overall verdict was good! By 5.30pm on Friday we were standing at the bus stop at the Belcan Bridge.There are 3 main bridges over the River Belize: the swing bridge at the mouth of the river, where the fishermen are moored and the Caye Caulker Water Taxi terminal is; then the Belchina Bridge – Belize/China; and the main artery north via the Belcan Bridge – Belize/Canada. Both China and Canada have supported Belize’s economy and infrastructure in a variety of ways. Most of the volunteer projects and NGOs I have come across seem to include Canadian involvement. We wonder if this is particularly because of Commonwealth connections.

Anyway, there we were, anxiously waiting for a bus marked Crooked Tree, with a small wheelie case, two folding garden chairs as we decided we needed something a bit softer to sit on than wood, whether inside or on the verandah, and each with a backpack full of provisions (olive oil, S&P, herbs and spices, loo rolls, the essential rubber gloves, rice, kidney beans, tins of coconut milk…etc!). Various buses came and went for points north – Orange Walk, the next biggest town in Belize, and Cozumal on the Mexican border. We were beginning to wonder whether the bus didn’t go via this stop after all, when a young man, about 22, wandered over from a group of friends and sat on the bench near us. He caught my eye, and asked whether we were going to Crooked Tree. When I said yes he smiled warmly and said he was our neighbour! When I asked whether he was Corletta’s son (assuming he had seen us the previous w/e) he said her grandson. He assured us the bus would come, and told us they are marked with ‘Jex’ not Crooked Tree, which is the name of the bus company. When the bus eventually arrived, he heaved the case onto the back for us, entering with all the other young bloods through the back door, whilst we in our dotage got on the front of the bus, armed with backpacks and chairs! (Both Conor and I are referred to as Mama and Papa here in Belize, a respectful term for elders, but it’s a bit unnerving! A bit of a reality check!)

Since the majority were bound for Crooked Tree (CT from now on) there was again an easy familiarity between folk, with chatting going on, children falling asleep whilst their heads were supported by their neighbour’s shoulders, and the now familiar diversity of shades and features. There was also a lot of variety in the way people were attired, too. People in the more professional classes over here tend to dress relatively formally for work, rarely jeans or anything more exposing than a short or ¾ length sleeved top, whatever the weather. The exception to that seems to be in organisations like PAHO (the Pan American branch of the WHO) when those Americanised folk have smart jeans and polo tops. Others looked more in the shop assistant league, whilst others again manual labourers. But regardless of how they earned their living, the majority would have known each other from time immemorial, with a smattering of in-comers like ourselves who soon get known by default.

The bus stopped right outside our and Corletta’s houses, and we struggled off the bus with all our stuff, and came inside! The light is just going at 6.30pm in the Tropics, so we had about half an hour to acquaint ourselves with everything before full darkness fell. After about ten minutes, all the toes on both my feet went red, slightly swollen and itchy. I thought that perhaps I had brushed against a poisonous grass as I walked across the garden into the house. And then I remembered that many called some of the ants ‘fire ants’.  Now I knew why – my toes were on fire! Fortunately it didn’t last too long – I think they must have been relatively small ones – and I resisted the urge to scratch.

I was the jumpy one that first night. As a child the story of my mother’s first night in a married quarter in Aden was vividly etched into my brain. My father was in hospital with a severe dose of hepatitis, and mum awoke to find her bed, pillow and every surface in the room heaving with cockroaches. They disappeared as soon as she turned on the light, which she left on, of course! So whenever I am in an unknown ‘hot’ place, I am partially awaiting for the hoards all night. Truth be told, it is a fine, watertight and insect-proof little place and the worst I saw in 3 nights was 1 small beetle and 2 small spiders – far less than I live with quite amicably in Ellemford! But I didn’t sleep well that w/e, and ended up with a trapped nerve in my back by Monday morning. Fortunately it was not serious and as soon as I had some painkillers and lay down flat, it began to loosen up and was fine by Tuesday.

On Saturday, we did a recce of the village to discover what is available there, and what we need to bring out from BC. There are about 3 shops, each selling a smattering of basics. The one nearest to us, between us and Birds Isle Lodge, sits in the centre of a large field. The fence has barbed wire to keep out the horses and cows which roam freely through the village. One section has no barbed wire, just two wooden crossbars through which you clamber! We took a photo…Carmen, a most helpful woman who has the shop, told us it’s open most of the time except only 7-9am on Sundays, but if you holler (pronounced halLAH with a rising intonation) she will come downstairs for you. She also sells some fresh produce from the farm behind the shop, whatever may be in season. When we asked who to contact to arrange for some fresh fish each w/e, she told us to follow two lads down a track opposite.

A lot of folk seem to have a small holding and to be growing fruit and veg., and to supplement their diet with a daily catch. The track led us into a surprisingly well-inhabited area of houses dotted through the fields, trees and shrubs and vegetable plots. Some were wooden on stilts like ours, surrounded by lines of clothing blowing in the wind, some concrete blocks, one or two mobile homes, and one larger building at the bottom complete with a fence, animals and some fierce sounding dogs. We hoped it wasn’t there. We saw the white T-shirt on a shoulder sitting in a mobile home – which we had been told to look for. As we approached, a tall, older man with an affable smile wandered over to his gate. What followed was such a pleasure…somehow he captured a lot of what is just glorious about the place. I thought that Leonardo had amble and stop as his speeds because he was a birder. But no, everyone moves like that! And speaks like that. You ask something, and they chew the cud of your words, digesting them and thinking about it. And then a few minutes later they refer back to it with some comment or two. The complete antithesis of Alberto the taxi driver in Belmopan! The long and the short of it was

Yes he could possibly supply us with some fish.

And that he would probably charge us BZ$2.

There again, he may even have a couple of fish he could give us for today.

He would fillet them and send them up with one of the boys later. 

Conor ventured that we were wondering if he knew who we could ask to hire a boat for exploring the water ways, as Bird Isle lodge was expensive.

He nodded sagely and slowly repeated that Birds Isle Lodge was expensive.

(He reminds me of folk you meet in the Highlands. That was the Creole equivalent of a long ‘Aye’.)

After a bit he said that he had a boat moored by the water (pronounced wahTAH).

It needs a second seat put into it.

He’ll let us know.

Money was exchanged, and later that morning we received a bag of two delicious large filleted fish for the princely sum of 50p. Oh, and his name is Uriah.

In the afternoon we decided to walk a bit further out into the northern bit of the island, to find what is called Cashew Products on the tourist map. It was blisteringly hot, as there had been no rain in our area for about 10 days (though huge storms in Dangriga and further south. A bridge across the Stann Creek on Hummingbird Highway had been washed away.) We wandered out along the sandy lanes, still marvelling at the huge girth of some of the trees and tree roots, and the serendipitous nature of the shapes and styles and smartness and decrepitude of the houses. We thought that we ought to have arrived at one of them by now, and when we happened across 3 vehicles and assorted mechanics and aids outside of a house, we asked if we were close. A good natured confident young man picked up our map, telling us that there were two places selling cashew products, and this was the other one! And the better one as here you could get the cashew seeds (not called nuts) as well as the wine. He proudly announced that Henry was the chief agent for all the cashews in the island. Everyone sold them to him.

As he spoke, he led us up to a shy man in his late thirties, and if he doesn’t have some Irish blood in him I’ll eat my hat! Henry was in the middle of shaving one of the boy’s heads, seated on a wooden stool between a truck and some large barrels. The principle of living outside and sleeping inside was very evident here, with the children playing around, the barber’s post, car repairs, all life really. Henry showed us the cashews he sold for BZ$20 – £5, quite expensive we thought. No wonder it’s a cash crop. He then told us about his wine: cashew and black berry – which is like an elder berry, at BZ$6 a bottle. As cheap as the cashews are expensive. He let us taste the cashew wine, which is 5 years old and fortified like a port or sherry. Good but not for guzzling. He then led us to his still –beside us 8 huge blue barrels were covered with corrugated iron sheets (to run the rain off) and each tightly covered with thick plastic. He uncovered one, took out a little of the rich red liquor, and let us quaff it. It was much lighter and fruitier and very pleasant. He took great care to fix the plastic tightly down again – the insects would have a field day! We ordered a bottle of each for the next day.

Oh, and we have found that one of the ponds, near the pigs, is a favourite haunt for some of the more interesting waders. On both Saturday and Sunday we saw goodies there, including a Roseate Spoonbill in flight against the green foliage as we startled it – quite stunning; the Bare-throated Tiger Heron (again!) and a Spotted Water Rail. There is an interesting little bird that sits on the wire by our verandah which can’t confidently identify yet, too.

Biters? – Well, after the canoe trip my feet were covered. Obviously not enough Deet on.

Crooked Tree continued

Crooked Tree is a beautiful place. It is an island in the middle of 4 natural fresh water lagoons.  We drove over the causeway with water lapping right up to the side. The rainy season. It is all part of a 12 square mile reserve, and is home to 2/3 of the species of birds found in Belize. (The Motmot needs jungle!) After the rains stop, the lagoon begins to dry out, till in March through to May it is a narrow channel about 2 inches deep, with hundreds of fish crammed into a small space. The whole of the rest of the mud flat is apparently covered with thousands and thousands of migrating birds. Birders come from all over the world sporting £2,000-worth of bins and telescopes – puts ours to shame!

Before the causeway was built, in the 1980s, you could only get there by boat. People tended to use wooden dugout canoes. It has a Mayan ruin recently discovered on the western mainland shore, but from more recent times it was the first inland dwelling of the loggers. There are wonderful old, huge trees on the island, and in particular one species which has wide crooked limbs. The loggers were told to go round the lagoon until they saw the large Crooked Tree. That was the place to alight your craft, and thus became the place name!

The pace is slow, the people very friendly and welcoming, and home to about 900. The island itself is a reserve and all visitors pay BZ$8. Half goes to the village and half to the government. In 1984 it became a Wildlife Sanctuary, and then in 1998 it was declared Belize’s first Ramsar site based on the wetland’s significance, especially as a waterfowl habitat. Currently it protects some endangered species, such as the Central American River Turtle (Hickatee), Morelet’s Crocodile, the Mexican Black Howler monkey, West Indian Manatee, and Yellow- Headed Parrot. We saw none of them!

Cashew nuts are the main crop (despite mango trees over 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide and dripping with fruit; the driver said that people didn’t know what to do with them, and it reminded me of our bumper crops of apples at Ellemford). He told us a fun story. Cashews have their nut on the outside bottom of a small pear-shaped globe, and are called the Devil’s Nut locally. God had made all the wonderful fruits and nuts, and the devil thought that he could do it, too. He made the cashew, and showed it to God, who just laughed and asked how will it reproduce? In a fit of pique the devil stuck the nut onto the outside.

We passed a sweet little wader, yellow legs, brown wings, and yellow underside of its wings in flight. Its local name is the Jesus Christ bird because it is so light it can walk on the lily pads. Its official title is Northern Jacana, and it makes a raspy creaky noise. Our driver then paused outside a dilapidated wooden building, typical style of being on stilts (there’s a photo somewhere!) with the sign Police Station painted on a wooden board across its middle.  He told us that it used to be the police station but now the local bobby uses his own house, including keeping prisoners there. It was abandoned after the last prisoner in the building crawled out of a hole in the floor early in the morning, went to the shop to buy himself some food, and then crawled back in again!

We slowly moved along the dirt road, passed a painted concrete house here, an adapted container for a truck there (metal, which must be unbelievably hot to live in – temperatures in April /May can between 95 – 105 F and still humid), a neat little wooden one on stilts, with another falling apart close by, and all around beautiful big broadleaf trees and little ponds, pigs up to their hunkers in mud, horses standing in the cool of the water, roaming free, cows and henny- pennies. We rounded a corner and saw the lagoon in front of us with Birds Eye View Lodge on the left and a smart new three storey building on the right. We later discovered that this was the owners’ house, who had recently had it built and returned from NY City in 2004 to retire. The Lodge was about three feet from the waters edge – in the rainy season! – and run almost single-handed by Christina. A couple of young American backpackers were checking out as we arrived, so we were the only people there. We got the cheapest room, which was still spacious and looking onto the lagoon, air con and fans, and bothered the obliging Christina for a sandwich Belizean style! We had not been sure what we were going to do when we set out – return to BC that evening or stay over – and had had a rather longer trip than we had anticipated. The lunch was most welcome. We also arranged to take a guided bird walk at 6.30am the next morning. They were a bit apologetic about how early ithe start was, and I held back from saying that if you want to do the dawn chorus in Scotland in the midsummer, you need to start your walk at 4am latest! (The boat trip was US$100 per person which was unbelievable. But the following morning our guide, Leonardo, told us that you don’t need to go at this time of year because the warblers and waders aren’t here anyway.)

We grabbed our bins, or at least, Conor did – I use a monocular cos I never seem to be able to get bins into focus, and end up squinting through one lens anyway. As soon as we went outside, we saw two black vultures (they have grey heads) beside a dead fish at the water’s edge. We disturbed them and they flew off. We turned away, and then they swooped back, picked up their catch and were away. They were watched by a Black Duck which kept sentry duty on a post by the boat jetty. The lagoon, about ¼ mile wide to the mainland here, was rippling in the welcome breeze.

We began to walk around, and even we were beginning to be able to recognise some of the more common birds. The Vermillion Flycatcher is unmistakable. The male in particular is a brilliant pillar box red, with a black back and wings. Stunning. Lots of Mockingbirds (greys and whites with a black band across the bottom of its tail feathers) fly all around, and we could hear the familiar song of the Brown Robin – the birding equivalent of a cover version of our native robin’s song in the UK! The Melodious Blackbird is, as its name suggests, easy to recognise too. The Tropical King Bird is dead common (!) and very pretty, as are the little Seedeaters that we first spotted outside the Blue Hole. Tiny Hummingbirds occasionally swooped by, the size of your little finger, hunting from one hibiscus to another, flashing green or gold or red or blue. The afternoon was hot and balmy, and we sauntered happily through the lanes, absorbing the atmosphere and sense of tranquillity that exuded everywhere. One tree had a pair of Spiny Iguanas, the male considerably bigger than the female, and both with clear bands and raised spiny backs. They were still there the following morning when Leonardo told us that they are officially now called Black Iguanas. We all agreed that ‘spiny’ is a better name. Though the local name for iguanas is Wish Willy! As we made our way around to the causeway we saw a Green Iguana crossing back and forth across the road, and it was considerably larger. The following morning Leonardo told us that they can be up to 7 feet long, (Wish Willy!) and both types shed their tails like lizards. He also said they go into the water rather than up a tree when hassled, which surprised me. A large red-headed Turkey Vulture wobbled on a telephone wire, while the Whistling Ducks (they do whistle in flight) kept the Northern Jacanas company around the pond by the Lodge. Despite looking hard we didn’t see any turtles anywhere. Later on we saw the self-same Whistling Ducks incongruously dotted around the open branches of a very large tree. Tree ducks!

Christina prepared us a lovely supper and we then sat in the dark up on a verandah (covered in Deet!) enjoying the full moon on the water. The cicadas were increasing their vibrato by the minute, with the low drone of the frogs holding the base notes. The geckoes meanwhile were feasting off the insects attracted to the lights around the building. And as usual we collapsed early to bed. Can’t seem to do late in this heat – but then doing early is a treat when you get up in the pleasant cool of the morning.

After a banana and coffee to keep us fortified before breakfast, Leonardo came to guide us on or bird walk. He is a tall man with a strong frame,  about 35 years old, whose two speeds are amble and stop. His whole body is like an extension of his ears and eyes, constantly alert. He had a well-thumbed bird book with him to show us what we could hear, or just see through the foliage, and a small sack on his back with butterfly charts in it. We didn’t cover a lot of territory in our hour and half, just a couple of fields, but we saw loads and loads of birds we didn’t know about at all. We explained to him that we are complete amateurs but really enjoy it! It didn’t seem to faze him.

There was a lovely line of black martins on the electricity wire outside the Lodge, swooping and dodging and lining up again, interspersed with the Long-billed Gnat Wren and Toady Flycatcher. The more familiar birds of yesterday were there of course, plus the following:

Green heron

Roadside hawk

Black Swift

Pale vented Pigeon


Ruddy Groundel

Groove-billed Ani….

Black Cowled Oriel

Golden fronted Woodpecker

Rufus Sabrewing (like a hummingbird)

Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Great Kiskadee

Rose-throated Becard

Lovely Cotinga

Red-winged Blackbird

Greyish Saltator.

We could hear at least 2 Trogons but unfortunately they were too well camouflaged to see them.

(Who names these things? And it was almost as much fun finding them again on the plates of the bird book as I checked on the spelling! )

Leonardo also showed us the magnificent Bullet tree, the patron tree of  Puerto Rico, and how the fence posts are made from Log wood which is incredibly hard, doesn’t rot in the wet and humidity, and is resistant to termites. (Mr. Amir said that the wooden houses in BC, despite looking a shambles, are very strong. Maybe the same wood?)

Long-tailed Grackles abound everywhere here, as in Mexico, and look like scrawny blackbirds, very slightly longer in both body and fanlike tail feathers. Their name is onomatopoeic, and they are often sitting at the top of trees. Suddenly Leonardo said “Look up in that tree.” The grackles were as usual in the foliage on the right, but on a bare branch on the left was a beautifully silhouetted green White-fronted Parrot. It had a red flash on the side of its head and was very exciting.

I am reminded of a quote from a book which caught me in the early eighties, which I had on my kitchen wall for a few years. I cannot remember the words exactly, nor who wrote it, but the gist of it was:

“Those who love the tizzy of seeing a bird for the first time, should remember that the tizzy does not belong to the bird; they should ever be beginning things…”

At lunch time, I thought I was about to make a “I think I saw the Loch Ness Monster” – type comment to the owner of the lodge. I had been sitting gazing at the lagoon when I realised something had broken the surface of the water out in the middle. I told her I was wondering whether it was a large fish, a turtle or a crocodile. She asked me what I had seen, and I said the surface broke over about 9 inches or a foot, and then whatever it was submerged again. Definitely a crocodile she said!  And that at night you can see their eyes shining in the water.

We were told that turtles and crocs (Halligatas in Creole) sun themselves on the islands in the bird pond behind the Lodge that we had spent so much time gazing at. A drenching rain cloud had recently been over, so despite our quick scurry over there before we departed, none was to be seen.

Leonardo was our driver back over the causeway to the Northern Highway to catch our bus back to BC. And wowee, just as we were setting off we had two more treats. I had seen a large white bird fly over the Lodge earlier in the afternoon, and wondered if it was some sort of heron. As we sat in the car, about to drive off, the same bird flew in low overhead from the right, a large fish in the osprey’s talons. It swooped down and round a big tree about 20 yards away, flew back towards us, and to our amazement landed on a bit of dead branch right above and beside where we were sitting. Golly!  Feeling very lucky, we set off and rounded a corner as Leonardo made an excited “Look” again. In a swampy pond was a large Bare-throated Tiger Heron, a bigger, greeny brown version of our common grey heron with a white throat. Leonardo told us that he had hunted for one of these with an American birder for 3 hours in a boat a couple of weeks ago, and not found one.

We left Crooked Tree feeling very replete.

Belize Zoo

Our trip this past weekend was to take a local bus to the Zoo. Belize Zoo is world renowned apparently, for its policy for nurturing local endangered species. It came highly recommended by a number of folk. So we made our way past the infamous market to the bus terminal, and caught a bus destined to Dangrida. Belize City is a nipple of land about one third of the way down the coast line, which is predominantly swampy mangroves and salt marsh and a haven for wild life. There are 3 roads out – Northern Highway towards Orange Walk and Mexico; Western Highway towards Belmopan – the official capital city – and Guatemala; and a branch off Western Highway to the south, to Dangrida and Honduras. Each stop is called Mile 1, 7 etc. The zoo is Mile 28. The fare for both of us was BZ$4 one way, £1, cheaper than my bus fare into central Edinburgh from the flat!

Once again, we rediscovered in a multitude of ways the openheartedness we experienced on first arriving. It is so easy to get caught up in the issues surrounding us in a very small part of the city, and loose contact with the bigger picture. Inner cities are inner cities, wherever you live. This part of the Western Highway passes through land that is predominantly the same as around Belize City….scrub land, swamps, occasional fields, some agricultural merchandise and machinery, very few villages but more often clusters of houses. Some of these are on stilts, some free standing. Apparently you need the stilts in swampy land cos it stops your house from tilting if the stilts are sunk deep enough. Otherwise the ground level shifts too much with the dry periods or the rains.

Gradually we approached the lumpy limestone outcrops we had seen in the distance, covered in dense green foliage, and the conductor told us we were there. Once more the heat hit us as we got out of the bus and began to walk up the track into the zoo. We had all our gear – sun hats, sun cream, mozzie guard, water – and once more lamented the one thing we left behind. Some years ago Steve and Fi gave us an insulated holder for water (actually it’s a posh thing for wine on picnics, but we have used it for water in a number of places – Mexico, Greece, Malta) and found it a wonderful accompaniment to a walk. I left it in a bag on a hook in the back pantry, and that bag must be about the only thing in our house that did not get moved in our preparations to leave the house in spick and span order for holiday rentals. Bother.
So, we also had warm water with us!

The zoo is set within the jungle. It is large, spacious and created in such a way that apart from obvious fences etc., it blends into the canopy. This bit of jungle isn’t dense, but rather a sun-speckled medley of foliage – large trees, shorter ones, mixed deciduous and evergreen, all interspersed with the variegated orange, white, green and red leaves we associate with house plants in the UK. There are occasional lilies breaking through the ground, morning glory, and vines trailing from one tree to another. There is also a thick carpet of crunchy dried leaves…

….As I write the evening intense stickiness has broken and the rains have come. Such an atmospheric relief. The same happened yesterday evening and overnight – the sound of a bucket of water being dropped onto your roof, and then abruptly stopping…

The zoo. The paths are stony – and much better kept than Albert Street – and each animal has its name, photo and a few details clearly marked. Actually, each animal had 3 names: Latin, English and Creole. Thus the tapir is also known as the mountain cow. The zoo has a fun style of writing a short poem about each animal, geared predominantly for kids, explaining how each is an essential part of the Belizean heritage, and how they need to be carefully looked after and husbanded back into the wild.

There were fabulous creatures there – animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, those that inhabit the trees, 2 and 4 legged land creatures, and then the watery types – crocs, turtles, and beautiful storks. I forget its name and it’s not in my bird book, but something like Jashira.

Over and over again we became entranced. The spider monkeys, so called because of the way they use their very long tail so that they appear to have 5 limbs, and can just hang from any. One seemed to love to perform for us. He would bend in two, patting his chest as if taking a bow, before playing with some ropes and branches checking to watch us watching him. Another walked passed like a little old man on an evening stroll before climbing into the trees and immediately becoming infinitely more agile.

A beautiful mountain lion lay under the shade of a bush, yet like any cat would become alert the moment a gecko made its soft-shoe-scuttle somewhere in its vicinity. They had a fabulous collection of cats, including the mountain cat or ocelot, big leopards, black jaguars and spotted ones. The black jaguar looked just like a larger version of our big, black, sleek, handsome boy cat. (Now I understand why Jaguar cars were called Jaguar!)

The harpy eagle was marvellous! Huge, and almost extinct, it has a grey head with tufty eyebrows standing upright like a kingly crown, darker grey back, and sturdy legs like a Sumo wrestler. It has thighs big enough to feed a family barbecue, and thick yellow talons as big as a bear’s paw. The underside of the wings and the thighs are white speckled with dark grey- black, which gives the sense of ermine; again reinforcing the nobility of this largest member of the eagle kingdom. Its wing span is over six feet, and we discovered that if we jiggled the green water hose passing through its cage it held it down with its massive talons and spread its wings – quite magnificent!

There were so many more – smelly old Belizean version of boar; grey mountain fox; some relation to the otter that I had never heard of, with eyes on the side of its flat face a bit like a frog. They also have a rehabilitation programme. Because the jaguars’ natural prey are hunted almost to extinction, they are beginning to prey upon domestic animals or even people, which makes folk want to kill them. So now the ‘nuisance jaguars’ are brought to the zoo and rehabilitated so they only attack the ‘right’ things. It is apparently working very well.

We made our way around and out to our bus back. We had been recommended to stop off at Old Belize – 7 miles outside of the city – to see the marina, false beach area with water shoots and other water play, plus a good restaurant. The marina was full of very posh ‘gin palaces’ as Dad would say, as well as the tourist ferry boats, all docked for this rainy/hurricane season. We asked one of the men looking after the boats what they did with them in hurricane warnings. He said that the marina was at Latitude 17.5, so if the warning was coming in at 17.4 or 17.6, he left them there. If 17.5, a bevy of lads took them 90 miles south as quick as they could! The sea was a little clearer there than at Belize City, though the sediment from the Belize River (or worse) still seemed apparent to me and put me off a swim. We had a surprisingly good pizza, and enjoyed seeing all the local families eating together, or children frolicking in the water. It was good to remember the rest of the world outside of the few inner city streets.