Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Toucans & Bananas

We saw our first “real” toucan, the keel billed toucan, this morning. Toucans have a very distinctive call, almost like a croaking frog. Selwyn heard the croaking, and started looking in that direction to see if he could spot the toucan. Sure enough, he spied him sitting in the top of a big tree across the road. We watched for a few minutes as he croaked a little more, then he flew away. We’re still waiting for a real toucan to show up in the custard apple tree.

A banana tree is growing right outside the camper. We’re told it’s a majunche tree (although I’m not sure if that’s spelled correctly, and it’s not in the Spanish/English dictionary). We’re told the fruits are like bananas, but smaller and sweeter. Right now, it has three bunches in three different stages of growth. The fruits start as a huge flower that comes up out of the center of the branch. The flower appears to be heavy, and it grows up and then flops over and hangs down. The sprout continues to grow, so the flower hangs closer and closer to the ground. As it opens, the petals are crimson and very big. As the flower’s stem gets longer and the petals drop off, the baby bananas are visible above the flower – which is really below it on the stem, but since the bloom droops towards the ground, the bananas appear above it. Over a week or so, the stem gets longer as the shoot grows, the flower gets smaller as the petals drop, and the bananas get bigger. We told to watch them closely when they’re almost ripe because the birds love them, and if we let them go too long on the banana tree, the birds will peck holes in them to eat the bananas.

Tom and Selwyn made very visible progress today. In the morning, Selwyn walked through the horse pasture marking trees that should be saved. Tom followed with the weed whacker and took down all the scrub, then made a few burn piles and hauled all the brush to the piles. Some of the women from next door stopped by and remarked on how much brighter and cleaner the property looks, and the pasture is really starting to look like a pasture, although there are still a few fence lines to be cleared before we attempt to confine Esmerelda or try to turn out another horse with her. While Tom was doing that, Selwyn took his machete and cleaned around the first cabin and took the chicken wire down from the pen off the back, so that area too is starting to look brighter and more used. We’re amazed at how much we’re finding to do that requires little or no expense, but makes a huge difference in making the property look like somebody lives here.

After dinner, we took the carrot cake next door to eat with Marta and Julian’s family. The school kids were doing their homework, and the girls were playing with each other’s hair. Hector handed me his multiplication table, and asked me to drill him. They have to memorize up to 12 x 12, and Hector can spit back all the right answers. He hesitated a little over some of the 12x series, so Tom put on his math tutor hat and took over, and showed Hector how to figure out the problems. He had been French braiding the girls’ hair, so I think he was relieved to find an excuse to get out of that job! We all talked, and drilled each other in English and Spanish, with Tom and I trying to learn Spanish, and the rest of them working on their English. Everything we do involves a lot of laughing, like when they were telling us how to wake somebody up by saying “Levitate, levitate, levitate,” and then telling me how to ask for my ten more minutes. We were also laughing because I had been trying to hurry Tom into doing something, and I’d said “Chop, chop,” and made the hurry up chopping gesture with my hands. In Spanish, they make the same gesture, but say “Aporate, aporate, aporate.” We were all walking around chopping with our hands and saying “Aporate, aporate, aporate, chop, chop,” and laughing. We also discussed how the dictionary doesn’t really give accurate translations, because you still have to know the connotations of the words. However, that works both ways, and we all understand that. The only example I can think of right now is that most Belizeans use the word “molest” when they’re speaking English and telling somebody to leave something alone. “The tarantula won’t hurt you if you don’t molest him,” “Don’t molest your little brother,” and sentences like these are very common, and the Belizeans are entirely unaware that the word has completely different connotations to an English speaking American. But, we all know what’s meant, and we’re all making lots of those mistakes in both English and Spanish, so we’re just trying to learn and work through it. I’m still waiting for the light to come on so that I’ll be able to put sentences together in Spanish without parsing them in my head and then getting all anxious about being wrong, but I’m hopeful that sooner or later it will click.

Even with all the talking, we did sit down and eat the carrot cake. The frosting had soaked into the cake on top, but it was delicious, and the ten of us managed to polish off well over half the cake.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Boundary Lines

Since I returned from San Ignacio armed with property maps, we decided to take a look at our property boundaries. We hadn’t really looked at anything besides the ten or so acres that had been cleared when the property was the cat farm, and we were curious about what we were buying. One side of the property is jagged, and we thought that would be the easy side since the boundary markers are closer together. However, Selwyn and Bol know the long straight line, and that line had been cleared before the property was deserted, so that’s where we started. The property has about 250 meters of road frontage on the curve. The jagged side goes around neighbors’ yards and fields, and the straight side just runs straight back 833 meters to a feeder road, then continues for another 384 meters in a straight line on the other side of the feeder road. We started clearing the straight line from the road, with Tom manning the weed whacker, Selwyn in front blazing the trail with a machete, and me in the rear trimming away the overhead branches and vines with my very own machete. We found a post which we think is halfway on the long line, although it’s not shown on the map, and then the going got rough. The land is beautiful, and the property line will make a great trail, but it’s not easy walking when it’s grown over as much as it is. To the marker, it was a gradual climb. After the marker, it went straight up a pile of rock, then down the other side, and then up and down another slightly smaller rock knoll. It’s rough going, but it’s incredibly beautiful, and we found at least one cave entrance and a couple of trails to explore. We think we’ll eventually clear out the underbrush for a great view of the Maya Mountains from the first knoll, and put a lean to up there for camping and looking at the stars. From the midway property marker, we gave up trying to clear, and just walked the rest of the long boundary to the feeder road. We decided to leave the lot on the other side of the road and the other side of the lot line we’d been following for another morning’s clearing effort.

Ofelia and I had delayed our carrot cake baking until Tuesday night, so I threw a chicken in the oven and had dinner ready so we could eat and be cleaned up before Ofelia came at seven to bake. This chicken, by the way, actually had two feet, as well as a variety of other organs. The mystery of the one-legged chicken was solved by Sharyn, who said she noticed the same thing and asked, and was told that all the “slop” goes in one bucket, and after the chicken processors finish cleaning and processing a chicken, they just take a handful of the slop and stuff it in the cavity before packaging the chicken. They don’t take to time to make sure every chicken has its own organs, which is why we get one-legged chickens, or chickens with four gizzards and no hearts. Mystery solved.

Ofelia showed up as planned with Iris and Lucy, her aunt. They came with a bag of tamarind seeds because Tom and I didn’t know what they were, so before we started baking we had to sample tamarinds. Tamarind trees are in the mimosa family, and the seeds are in long brown pods. When you open the pods, each seed is coated with a sweet, sticky covering, which is the tamarind fruit. The fruit is tasty, sort of like a fig, and we’re told it makes great juice, although we haven’t yet tried it. That done, we had Tom fire up the generator so we could use the food processor, and we started making the carrot cake. Ofelia, Lucy, and Iris peeled carrots while I finished cleaning up dinner, and then we used the food processor to grate the carrots. The three women had never used such a big food processor, and they really appreciated how easy it was to chop nuts and grate a lot of carrots in a very short time. We also mixed up the cake batter in the food processor, and the cream cheese frosting. I have the feeling that now that they know I have it and they know what it can do, the local cooks may come up with some interesting uses for the Cuisinart.

While the cake was baking, we talked about food. Lucy commented that she had tried to make some things out of American cookbooks, but they didn’t come out because she didn’t know what some of the base ingredients were. The example she gave was minestrone, which asked for chicken stock, but never explained what chicken stock is. I explained, then laughed and whipped out a Belizean cookbook I bought in Belize on our first trip here, and went through it and showed her the recipes that I couldn’t make because I didn’t know what the ingredients were. We spent a very quick hour while the cake cooked and cooled a little leafing through cookbooks and asking each other questions. One of my questions was about the difference between corn masa and corn meal, and they laughed, because they said that the meal just comes in a bag like flour, but you have to grind the masa from real corn. They all think I’m a strange animal with my use of the Nordic Track, and Ofelia said with a smile that she’d let me know when they were going to make masa, and I could come and get my exercise grinding their corn.

The cake came out of the oven, remarkably well baked considering it was in the camper oven, although I’m sure the fact that we cooked it in my favorite $50 Longaberger baking dish helped. (Tom thinks I say things like that just to justify spending $50 on a baking pan, but I really do think it makes sheet cakes cook more evenly!) We let the cake cool a little bit, then poured on the cream cheese frosting, which is much closer to a liquid than a spread when it’s made in the tropics in a small camper where the oven has been on for about three hours. Between the cake being warm and the frosting being liquid, I think the frosting will probably soak into the cake, but we won’t find out until tomorrow evening when we’ve planned to take the cake next door and have a neighborhood dessert – and while soaked in frosting isn’t normal for a carrot cake, I’m sure it will be good!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Banks & Poisonwood

On Monday morning we decided that it was my turn to do what usually turns into an all day trip into San Ignacio. I left Tom instructions for lunch, just in case I wasn’t back, with both of us knowing full well that there was no way I was going to be back anything close to lunchtime. I picked up Honduran Marta, Giovanni, Eduard, and Thelma, whom Marta had kept home from school to go to San Ignacio with her because both boys were sick, and she was worried about taking care of both of them and not being able to communicate with me since she knows very little English and I know very little Spanish. We picked up some people from the San Antonio bus stop and gave them a free ride to San Ignacio, although I’m not sure they thought it was worth it by the time we got there. As I think I’ve mentioned, they’ve graded the road between San Antonio and San Ignacio, but it’s still pretty bumpy. The truckload of people riding in the back of the pickup on a very bumpy, very dusty road must have been pretty gritty and rattled by the time we reached San Ignacio, but nonetheless they enthusiastically thanked me and offered to pay me when we got there. I said de nada, and we went our separate ways. I would never pick people up and let them ride any distance in the back of a pickup in the US, but here it’s just part of how people get around. If I did pick people up and they had to ride in these bumpy, dirty conditions, they’d probably sue me when we got to where ever we were going, but here I get big smiles and thank-you’s.

After parking and agreeing to meet Marta and the kids back at the truck at noon, my first stop was Noah’s, where there was no new news regarding the closing. They’re still expecting that we should be able to do it by the end of this week or the beginning of next, depending on when the signed papers arrive back from England. Noah and Frank gave me copies of the survey map for the property so we could walk the property lines. This first stop, which would have been 15 minutes in NY, was over an hour by the time we chit-chatted, messed with the printer which, like all electronic things in the tropics, is a little temperamental, and figured out the scanning program so Frank could make a big copy of the survey map. I then went to the bank, where we’re trying to open an account so we have quick access to our money in Belize. Unlike US banks, which are more than happy to take your money, Belize banks require two letters of reference from banks where you’ve previously had accounts, and a reference from a Belizean. Since Noah knew we were good for $5K cash in a half hour as the good faith deposit when we made our offer on the property, he consented to be the co-signing Belizean, but the letters of reference are more difficult. They can’t be emailed or faxed, they must be original, signed-in-ink hardcopies. To send a request for the referral from the Belize bank to the US bank, the Belize bank charges $20USD. Then, when and if they allow us to open an account, there are all sorts of restrictions on how much money we can take out at any given time and when we have access to our money. If we didn’t really need quick access to more cash than we’re comfortable having on hand, we’d just say forget it, but since we’re going to spend a lot of money once we close here, we don’t see any way around it.

I then went on a search for sheet metal to finish capping the supports for both cabins, and angle iron to better secure the diesel tank in the bed of the truck. The sheet metal wasn’t too hard to find, but the angle iron involved multiple stops, and I finally found it at Art’s, the welding shop we had discovered in our first couple of days in San Ignacio. I had to drive to Art’s from where I’d parked the truck, which meant I had to go back to where I’d originally parked so Marta wouldn’t think I’d deserted her if she showed up and the truck wasn’t there. I went to the produce market to get fruits and vegetables for a few days, and stopped at the meat market to get something fresh for dinner, and something frozen to help keep the fridge cold and to defrost for the next night’s dinner.

From there I went to the pharmacy, looking for Benedryl. I’m apparently pretty allergic to poisonwood, and without even knowing where I contacted it, it’s all over the backs of my hands and between and on my fingers, with other random blisters on my arms and lower legs. Hydrocortisone cream helps a little for a very short time, but since the itching was keeping me awake at night, I decided to take an antihistamine before bed. Belizean pharmacies are not like US pharmacies. While many drugs that require prescriptions in the US are over the counter in Belize, everything is over the counter, and you can’t just walk down the analgesic aisle and pick up a bottle of ibuprofen, you have to talk to the pharmacist and ask for it. The pharmacist doesn’t just take your order and give you a bottle of pills, she talks to you about why you want the drug and counsels you on what to take and what other treatments might be necessary. This is great individual service, but it means you have to wait in line. So, I waited my turn in line, and asked for Benedryl or whatever the generic version is. She said they didn’t have Benedryl, asked me why I wanted it, and looked at my hands. After a lot of clucking and questions, she gave me five days worth of clorfeniramine and told me to take it three times a day, not just at bedtime, and said that from the looks of my hands I had about five more days of discomfort. She then told me more than I wanted to know about poisonwood, like how it’s basically a steroid that gets in your system, which is why you need to take an antihistamine rather than just using topical treatments to make it feel better. She said the myth about it spreading from point to point on your body by breaking the blisters is just a myth, as it is for poison ivy, and that what really happens is that the reaction to the steroid is worse where you’ve been in contact with the sap, but that when it erupts in other spots, it’s because the steroid is traveling through your system. I’m not sure if that’s true for poison ivy as well, but it makes sense with the poisonwood since it’s worst on my hands, where I could have picked it up from the dogs, but I also have blisters on my ankles, and I’ve pretty much lived in long pants and hiking boots since I’ve been here so I don’t know when I would have been in contact with it there. I explained all of this to Tom since he has a little bit of it too, and his reply was a snort and the comment that he can see why the Red Cross won’t take your blood if you’ve been to Central America within a year. The other big difference between doing business with a Belizean pharmacy and an American pharmacy is the price. My total for five days worth of pills was $3.75BZ, or a little less than two American dollars. How would the American pharmacies deal with that when you have a $10 co-pay prescription plan?

Marta and the kids met me back at the truck, which I’d managed to park only a few spaces away from where it had been originally. We went to Erva’s for the great burritos for lunch, went over the bridge into Santa Elena to get beer and water from the distributor, then back to the big grocery store before heading home with another truckload of people hitching a ride from Santa Elena to San Antonio. We stopped to use the internet in San Antonio, which I thought would be a quick stop to download email and upload blog entries, but I decided to send Tom’s parents the pictures of Marta and her family. BIG mistake on a satellite. I knew the satellite upload time was slow, but when you bog it down with eight or ten photos at once, it’s really slow. It took almost 45 minutes. The only saving grace was that as we headed out of San Antonio, we found that the road had been graded almost halfway to the junction. The graded half was the half that didn’t have the really big holes, but it was still a help.

When I got back to the property, Tom and Selwyn were quite happy with their day’s work. They had cleared all the brush away from the second cabin and its fenced yard, and had removed the mangled chicken wire that made up the fence. We plan to leave fenced yards attached to both cabins for people traveling with pets, but we’re going to replace the chicken wire with the heavier cage material. They worked on the second cabin because the first still smells like insecticide. Tom says the smell doesn’t really bother him, but when he took me into the building to show me the ten dead scorpions on the floor on Sunday, I got a headache that didn’t seem to want to go away, and I figured if I had that reaction, it probably wasn’t good for anybody to be in the building. They didn’t do any work in the first cabin, but still had to check it out, which I know because Tom reported that the ten dead scorpions had disappeared. We’re now wondering what wanders around in the night dining on dead scorpions. We don’t think we want to meet it, especially since whatever it is, it’s probably damaged from the insecticide.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Waste Management

First, I have to apologize to everyone whose name I’ve spelled wrong. I’m not going to go through every entry and update what’s already been posted, but I’ll try to use correct spellings from here on out. Thanks to Sharyn for filling me in on the names I didn’t know how to spell, including her own.

Sunday was a continuation of Saturday. We took pictures of Marta’s family to email to Tom’s parents, then headed up to Jim and Sharyn’s so Tom could trim the windows with Jim’s table saw, and Sharyn and I could indulge ourselves with a game of Scrabble. Jim and Tom successfully trimmed the windows, and while Sharyn and I had a grand time talking and soaking up the morning sun on their porch, we’ve both played better games of Scrabble. Since we’re both overachieving perfectionists, we were disappointed that neither of us could get combinations of letters that allowed us to get either high point words, or “good” words that have some merit for word lovers because they’re long, obscure, or somehow elegant. If you’re not a word lover, this sounds totally nuts, but if you are a word lover, you know exactly what I mean. In any case, as we were sitting there relaxing, I remarked that this is how normal people spend Sunday mornings, relaxing and doing something enjoyable. We almost never made the time to do that in New York, and we’re going to have to make sure we continue to make the time to do it here. I think it will be easier here, because our “work” during the week is to work on the property, so we can take a break on the weekends and do something else. In NY, we worked at our jobs during the week, so any work on the property had to be done on the weekends, and that was our down time rather than doing something that the general public might consider recreational.

We came back to the camper for lunch, and the down time was over as we decided that our afternoon task was to deal with waste material. What this meant for Tom was that he had all the neighbors put their garbage in front of their houses, and he loaded up our truck with our stuff, then picked up all of theirs, then headed seven miles down the road to the Georgeville dump. Belizeans don’t have the same attitude towards garbage as most Americans we know, and the Belizeans think nothing of tossing a wrapper out a car window, dumping household garbage in a pit in the backyard or on the side of the road, or burning old tires or plastics. We decided that if we want the area cleaned up so it looks nicer for our guests, we have to do something about it, so we’re hoping that offering garbage service will make it easier for our neighbors to keep their garbage out of sight and dispose of it in what we consider a responsible way – even though we know that with their culture this seems totally silly.

My task on the waste detail was to empty our blackwater tank. I probably could have pretended to be an ineffective woman and hoisted that task off on Tom, but while it’s a very icky task, there’s no reason I couldn’t do it myself, and Tom knew I had lots of practice dealing with camper sewage from my trips to Florida with Karin and the horses. Karin and I dubbed ourselves Wenches with Wrenches and said we were going to go into business with the tagline “We shower in shit so you don’t have to” because we spent so much time spraying ourselves with camper sewage as we emptied our tanks. Before Tom left for the dump, he made sure the sewer hose was securely fastened to the tank, made sure the septic tank lid on the property was removable, and found a bucket that we thought was okay for carrying sewage between the camper and the septic tank. The job was as nasty as it was expected to be, and as I was filling the second bucket with the hose leaking all over the place, Ofelia and Maricsa came up the driveway. I grumbled and we chatted, and then, because we had talked about making a carrot cake over the weekend, Ofelia said, “So, I guess you don’t want to make the carrot cake right now.” Mmmmm….that would be correct.

As I read over what we posted earlier in the week, I realized we had a few loose ends to clean up.

1. The upside down toucan-like birds were correctly identified by Tom’s Aunt Patricia as aracaris. About the time she was looking it up on the internet, Tom and I were looking at a neighbor’s bird book, and we all came to the same conclusion. We’ve since confirmed it with Selwyn.
2. Blackie’s nose is healing, and doesn’t look half as bad as we expected. His droopy eye looks okay, and there’s no sign of infection. Elizabeth’s kerosene treatment seems to have done the trick.
3. Esmerelda’s big bug bite seems to have healed, and she hasn’t had any more overnight bites from vampire bats.

And now for Belize, Week 6…

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pine Ridge is becoming home

We’re really hoping that the closing on this property comes through quickly and goes smoothly. After working on the property all week, we’d expected an unscheduled weekend where we would wander around and just take stock on what we have to do. Instead, by 9:00 on Saturday morning, we had all of Saturday and most of Sunday booked with neighbors. Our neighbor up the road, Bol, has a cave on his property. It’s a Mayan storage cave that Bol discovered, and he has it set up as Bol’s Museum Cave where he and his family give tours. It’s four or five chambers, and Bol has left everything that he found in each chamber, although he’s organized it and moved it out of the paths through the cave so it isn’t damaged. To get to the cave, you have to walk on a trail to the Sheila Re View (on the top of Bol’s mountain), which allows you to see all the way to Guatemala. Anyway, we were having a drink with Bol, his wife, and Selwyn on Friday evening, and Bol invited us to tour his cave at 10:00 Saturday morning. Around 8:30 Saturday morning, our neighbor Jim stopped by because Tom is going to use some of his tools and we’re going to work together on a few things that we need to talk about, so Jim came down the hill to see if we could do that Sunday morning. Tom told Jim about our cave tour, so Jim and Sharon decided to come with us. Jim went home to get Sharon, and the family from next door stopped by – Marta, who I had previously identified as Salvadorian Marta, but who in fact is Honduran Marta, along with her five children, Thelma, Cindy, Heidi, Giovanni, and Eduard. They wanted to know if we were going to San Antonio so they could come with us to get a phone card to call their husband/father, who is in Orlando, FL. As we were talking to them, we had a brainstorm and offered to take their picture with our digital camera and email it to Tom’s parents who live near Orlando, who we volunteered to print out the picture and somehow get it to Marta’s husband. They wanted to look better for the picture, so we told them that we would pick them up to go to town in the late afternoon, and we would take their picture then. We knew we had to do this in the late afternoon because we’d already arranged with Damion from next door to come over and spray the first cabin for termites. So, suddenly, our entire Saturday was booked.

We toured Bol’s cave, which is now a must-do for anyone who visits us, had a quick lunch, talked to George and Ronnie for a bit because George came by to charge his iPod and chat, we chopped vines and jungle creepers for a while with our machetes, then Damion came to spray, then we went to pick up Marta’s family. We had a minor change in plans there because we got there later than expected and Marta was cooking and 10 month old Eduard was asleep, so we just took Thelma, Cindy, Heidi, and Giovanni to town with us so we could get email and post on the blog and they could pick up the phone card and a few other things.

Bol explaining some of the artifacts found in his cave

On the way out of town, we decided to stop at the San Antonio fair, since we had heard that they had some cultural shows. Unfortunately nothing cultural was happening when we got there, but we ran into Jim and Sharon on the way in, so Jim and Sharon, the four kids, and Tom and I wandered around the fair for a little while and watched Giovanni take a ride. We left there, and had to drop of some plates at the church, which we had picked up for our neighbor Elizabeth after she waved us down on our way to town and requested that we get the plates and drop them off at the church. Elizabeth and the rest of the family were just pulling into the church as we were pulling out, so Tom told her who took the plates, we waved, and we headed home.

We dropped off the kids, fed the dogs, and saw a flashlight coming up the driveway. It was Thelma, Heidi, and Giovanni, who had come to see if we wanted to have dinner with them. Marta had been home making escabeche while we were shopping, so instead of working out and then cooking dinner, we had a great meal with Marta and the five kids. We then looked at their photo album, which was worth a few giggles as we saw 12-year old Thelma as a pudgy baby, Giovanni in cool shades, a few pictures of Heidi, LOTS of pictures of Cindy, some pictures of Eduard, pictures of Marta and her husband, and other pictures of family events. On top of that, Thelma was holding Eduard behind me as I sat in a chair to see the pictures, and he farted a big one right in my ear. I think he figured out what he had done to make us all so hysterical, because Marta took him and started bouncing him on the table, and he started farting and laughing. Kids are kids no matter where they grow up!

Anyway, it felt just like a Saturday at home, as we talked to and visited the neighbors, dropped things off and picked things up, shared rides to town, and shared a meal. We already have plans to take the postponed picture of Marta’s family tomorrow at 9:00, and then we’re heading over to Jim and Sharon’s so Tom and Jim can work in the shop and Sharon and I can play Scrabble, which we’ve both missed since my Scrabble board is still packed and Sharon hasn’t found anyone else around here who likes to play. Everyone around here is incredibly kind and generous and willing to accept us into the neighborhood, and if anything falls through with this property, I think we’ll just have to look for something else for sale right around here!

We really do miss our friends and neighbors back in the States but we are making a home out here in the jungle. It seems that good people live everywhere and we are really lucky to keep living near people that can become part of our family of friends. We can’t wait for everyone to come down to not only visit with us but also to meet our new friends.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Yet another creepie-crawlie

Tom and Selwyn uncovered this furry creature (our first tarantula) as they were moving a pile of scrap lumber from the ground into the truck. After taking his picture, we left him alone, and at some point he disappeared into the jungle.

Selwyn found a big stick and knocked down a coconut for each of us, then hacked the tops off with his machete so we could have fresh coconut water, right out of the coconut, for lunch. After posing for these pictures, I poured the coconut water into a mug and mixed it with fresh squeezed sour orange juice.

Tom and Selwyn finished clearing around the first cabin in preparation for Damion to spray for termites on Saturday. Between scrap wood and brush from around the cabin, they had enough to light two burn piles. Tom and Selwyn did an incredible amount of work on the place this week, with relatively little expenditure, so we plan to hire Selwyn full time when we close. He knows a lot about the jungle and living in the jungle, he’s a hard and fast worker, if he doesn’t know something he’s eager and quick to learn, and he knows about keeping horses in this climate. He said he would be happy to work here full time, since we let him go home every night; most of the resorts around here have their employees stay for the stretches they work rather than going home every day, so for Selwyn working here would allow him to live with his family full time.

From Tom:
I stopped by Jim and Sharon’s house this afternoon to see if I could “rent” time at Jim’s shop since he has a couple of machines that would make it possible to fit our new “custom” but made too big windows into Cabin 1. As I was walking along I was doing what Eagle Boy Scouts are trained to do, picking up garbage along the road. Here in Belize, throwing garbage out your car window is not really considered bad, people just do it, and it really irks me. So, I will do my part and pick it up when I am walking along, and hopefully I will start a new trend. Well, my hands were getting a bit full after a couple hundred yards and I was getting selective on what I was picking up. Luckily, when I got to the corner there was a small bag like a horse feed bag that I decided was sent there “from above” so that I could put all this garbage in it. So, I put the garbage I had in the small bag, and down the road I go, picking up more stuff.

“Hey Tum, hey Tum” - shouts I hear as I am ambling along. I was in front of our neighbors’ houses and the little kids are running out, shouting for me and darting back into their yards, behind trees, and into houses. I am chuckling to myself, “these kids are laughing at this new gringo doing something really wacky – picking up the garbage.” At least this is what I thought. So, some of the brave ones come out to see what I am actually doing. A couple of the kids know some English, the others, only Spanish. Trying to explain to kids about garbage in broken Spanish phrases and asking 5 year olds how to say things like “take it to the dump” can really be a challenge. Well, they finally understood what I was doing.

So off I go, “voy a mi casa con basura” (I go to my house with garbage), then “buenas noches” (good night), up the road to our house. And along come about 8 kids, picking up garbage along the road and putting it into my overflowing bag (remember, I was doing selective pickup at this point, the bag is SMALL).

We all get back to our driveway and they follow me up to our first cabin. This cabin has no roof at this point but Selwyn and I have picked up all the garbage and debris from within as of this morning. One of the little girls pulls a wooden top out of her pocket, wraps a string around it and proceeds to roll it out on the cement floor on its side. I see this and think “I know how this works” so I have her rewind the string and hand it to me. I set the top down on the floor in front of where I am sitting, put the top under my finger and pull the string. It spins for about 15 seconds and falls, and the kids are laughing. Then one of the bigger kids comes forward, wraps up the top again, and side-armed flings it into the middle of the floor. The top spins for about a minute. So, here I am, a mid 40 year old garbage collecting gringo in the jungle that doesn’t even know the best way to get a child’s toy to work. What did I even go to college for in the first place?

Then the parents walk in the gate. I have asked our neighbor, Damion, about spraying the cabin that Selwyn and I have been working on for bugs, termites, and everything else that crawls and/or slithers. So we wander up to the cabin with all the kids, since none of the kids or adults had really seen the cabins on the property. The kids ran around, ran out the back into the dog cage (chicken wire enclosure), race back into the cabin, then take off out the door heading towards the third cabin where Marge is on her Nordic Track for her 40 minutes of “gerbiling” (like a hamster on a running wheel).

Marge now has an audience of about 8 kids and 2 adults that are just amazed at what these gringos are doing. Whoever heard of exercising on a machine (that they have no idea what it resembles), carrying on a conversation, and reading in the light of a DeWalt flashlight, in a cabin that has no steps onto the porch. Marge tells them, 15 more minutes, and they all stand there to watch her like an animal in a cage at the zoo. Boy, do Marge and I have a lot to learn about how to fit in out here in the bush! I would like to stress that we are not thinking “boy, what a lot the locals have to learn about how to do things our way to stay fit.”

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Tom & Selwyn 1, Fer-de-lance 0

And we expect to maintain the shutout status on the fer-de-lance population around here. Tom and Selwyn were clearing the jungle away from some of the cages behind the second cabin, and Tom spotted a small snake in the path around one of the cages. They had just walked past a sinkhole and Selwyn had jokingly said that the cave was where the fer-de-lances live, and Tom spotted the snake, which was only about a foot long and about a half inch in diameter. Neither of them was carrying a machete, so Selwyn told Tom to keep an eye on it and not let it get away, and he ran back to the cabin in search of a snake dispatching tool. Tom wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to do to prevent the snake from leaving, but fortunately it didn’t move in the time it took Selwyn to grab the digging bar, which he used to chop off the snake’s head. I was in San Antonio when this happened, and as soon as I pulled in the driveway and said hello, they had to lead me into the jungle to show me the carcass, so now I too know what a fer-de-lance looks like. Selwyn was surprised that Tom spotted it because their colors are great camouflage for the leaves, but we suspect that Tom is more likely to see them than non-colorblind people since his eye spots shapes and patterns that are out of place rather than focusing on color.

When they weren’t killing venomous snakes, Tom and Selwyn continued the effort to rid the first cabin of termites and make it so they won’t move back in after it’s sprayed. Tom talked to our neighbor, Damion, who will spray the cabin sometime this weekend, so before that’s done, Tom and Selwyn removed a few of the non-hardwood boards from the cabin, and worked underneath to jack the cabin off each of its supports and insert a thin piece of zinc between the support and the cabin floor. This meant the better part of the day crawling around under the cabin, which is three to four feet off the ground, with Selwyn unbolting the brackets and jacking the cabin up, then Tom would insert the zinc, nail it down, lower the cabin, and reattach the bolts. This system worked until Selwyn got a little ahead of Tom with the unbolting part of the process, and when Tom went to insert a piece of zinc, the whole cabin shifted a little. Tom actually had to tell Selwyn to slow down, and it was Tom who was exhausted at the end of the day, falling asleep at the table when it was my turn to deal in our nightly cribbage game. I reminded Tom that he’s exactly twice as old as Selwyn, which he said he’d already realized. In fact, he pointed out that Selwyn will have learned exactly what to do so Tom doesn’t have to crawl under the second cabin, which is even is lower than the first.

After a week of gorgeous weather, it was raining in the morning, of course – we had a week and a half of bright sunshine and perfect 80 degree days, so it had to rain on the day when we needed to hang laundry. It cleared up by late morning though, so I managed to get a week and a half’s worth of laundry hung up around the camper and on the porch of the second cabin. It was still a little damp in the evening, but since Friday is supposed to be a nice day, it should be dry and ready to fold by lunchtime.

Because we spent so long in Spanish Lookout on Wednesday, the beer and water distributor was closed when we went by on our way home. We’ve found that the small village of San Antonio seems to have almost everything we need, so after lunch I loaded up the laptop to update the blog and check email at the internet café, the empty case of Belikin bottles, the empty 5 gallon water jug, a sample nail so I could get 5 pounds of nails at the hardware store, and Ofelia and Rosa, who wanted to go into San Antonio to work on the computer. As I was pulling away from the corner after picking them up, we saw a man in a uniform walking down the road from San Antonio towards the corner. Rosa and Ofelia quickly filled me in on who he was – the policeman from San Antonio, who is their Uncle George’s cousin. They waved to him, and he waved us to stop and talk to him. Ofelia and Rosa chatted with him in Spanish for a minute, then looked at me with big eyes and told me that he wanted to talk to me. He walked around to my side of the truck and asked me to confirm what the girls told him, that we were buying the cat farm. I confirmed this, and gave him my name and birth date. We discussed what was happening with the cages the Zoo had removed from the property, and he informed me that his commanding officer in San Ignacio had told him to check on the status of the case, so he had walked the three miles from San Antonio to the corner. I told him what I knew, and told him that Tom was working on the property and would probably be happy to talk to him. The policeman wished us a good day, and wandered up the road in search of Tom, who told him the same thing I had told him.

Rosa, Ofelia, and I went into San Antonio and did our computer business, then went in search of a case of Belikin stout. Selwyn had told me that the main store in town did not sell beer, but he told me where to get it. The store that sells beer is just the bottom floor of a house converted into a small grocery/clothes/shoes/housewares/decorations/beer store. It was a good thing Ofelia and Rosa were with me, because I would never have found the store since it’s at the end of a long driveway off the main road through town, and isn’t marked in any way. The owner also doesn’t speak much English, so it was nice to have Ofelia and Rosa along to tell her what I wanted. She did not have a case of stout, only lager, and since Tom really likes the stout she directed us to a bar a few blocks away. Like the store, the bar isn’t marked, but Ofelia also knew where the bar is, so she led me on a shortcut through people’s yards to get to the bar. As we were walking in the bar’s gate, some men on a stoop across the street yelled to us that the man wasn’t there, but that they thought he might be at home. We did an about face and went back through the yards past the store to the man’s house. He wasn’t there, but his wife thought she knew where to find him, and she wandered off up a street on the other side of the main road. About ten minutes later she returned with her husband, who confirmed that he did indeed have a case of stout in the bar, so he walked with us back to the store where we’d left the case and Rosa. He picked up the case to refill it, and Ofelia told me that we were to sit on the benches outside the store and wait for him to return. He was back a few minutes later with the full case, which he loaded into the truck. When I asked him how much, it was about $15BZE more than what we pay for a case at one of the stores in San Ignacio, and about $20BZE more than what we pay at the distributor. But, after all the hiking back and forth, I didn’t have the heart to say I didn’t want it, so I coughed up the money and bought the beer. When I returned, Tom and Selwyn were outraged that I’d paid as much as I had, but we finally decided that the best course of action is just for Tom to get it at the distributor when he goes to San Ignacio.

We think we’ve figured out the mail system here. There’s no rural delivery, and the small post office in San Antonio doesn’t even have PO boxes, but if anybody needs to send us anything, send it to us, General Delivery, San Antonio, Cayo District, Belize, Central America. It’s important that you specify Cayo District, since there are San Antonios in other districts in Belize, and write out “Central America” because people tell us they’ve had mail floating around in California for months when someone sends something from the US with the “CA” abbreviation. If you send us anything, please give us a heads up via email so we know to go in and ask for it, since we probably won’t be checking regularly unless we’re expecting something. And, if you send us anything new (and we may be requesting that a few people send us things), please take it out of the package and label it as “used” on the customs forms so we don’t pay more for customs than for whatever item we’re getting.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

We're good for another month

Wednesday’s breakfast was very exciting, and we’re really glad we cleaned out the nose of the camper since we now eat and look out the windows at the property. The single toucan-like bird we saw in the tree on Tuesday brought seven of his friends, so the custard apple tree was full of upside down birds eating away at the custard apples. Tom got a few pictures, which are a little blurry, but you’ll get the idea. We also watched what we think was an agouti stroll across the driveway. The agouti is a funny little animal, about raccoon size, but with long legs. It looks like the archetypal picture of an animal – what you would get if you just asked a kid to draw a generic animal. It has a sort of roundish body, with a round head attached to the body by a short neck, little round ears, a short tail, and long sticklike legs.

Since we came into Belize on January 22, February 21 was the day we had to go to Belmopan to get our passports stamped and renew our 30 day visas. While we’ve been trying to leave one of us on or close to the property, we haven’t had any trouble, and we’ve been talking regularly to all the neighbors, so we figured it was safe for both of us to leave for the day so we could not only get our passports stamped, but take care of a whole list of other errands in San Ignacio, Belmopan, and Spanish Lookout. Bol stopped by as we were getting ready to go to see if he could borrow the bike for the day. He knew we didn’t need it since he knew our plans because Tom had told Selwin that he didn’t need help on Wednesday because we had to go to Belmopan. So, when Bol showed up, we said that of course he could take the bike, if he could keep a little bit of an eye on the property during the day while we were gone.

We loaded the truck and headed into San Ignacio. We’ve been trying to catch up with Greg, the Inglewood Campground owner, to pay him for the electricity we used between when we paid for the campsite and when we left. As we were driving through the narrow streets in town, Greg turned in front of us. We know he has a shop in town, but don’t know where it is, so we decided to follow him. That was difficult but possible, until we got to the top of a hill where two cars were parked on the shoulders, and a Toyota pickup was stopped with the door open facing us in our lane. Greg’s VW was able to get through, but no way was Tinkerbell slender enough to squeeze through the gap. We sat for a few minutes, figuring it was just somebody dropping something off at the hospital. We sat for a few more minutes, and shut off the truck. We sat for a few more minutes, and finally a man came out of the little restaurant across from the hospital with his two kids, whom he loaded into the Toyota. He got in and shut the door, tried to start it, and then opened the door and started pushing with his foot. He motioned us to back up, and we realized why he’d been parked like that – the truck has to be push started, so he’d just left it right at the crest of the hill so he could get back in and get it rolling down the hill so it would start. We backed up into the hospital driveway so he could get rolling, he got the truck going, gave us a wave, and was gone. We’d lost Greg and didn’t see his car in any of the driveways we passed, so we headed back into town to drop off the laundry and go talk to Noah.

After leaving the laundry, Tom tried to park the truck on the street at the end of Noah’s street. San Ignacio is full of open concrete drains, which have been making me nervous about parking, but every time I say “Watch the ditch,” Tom would assure me that he knew it was there, so I shut up. There was a huge drain – about three feet wide by three feet deep where he was parking, so I figured he saw it. Nope. He drove the front wheel right over the edge, and Tinkerbell clunked down to her axle. Since there wasn’t much to do about it, he got out to talk to Noah, and I stayed in the truck with the dogs – until the truck started shifting deeper in the drain. I unloaded me and the dogs out the driver’s side, since I had about a five foot drop to the bottom of the drain on my side, and went in pursuit of Tom, who hadn’t yet told Noah and Frank that the truck was in the drain. It turned out to be no big deal; Noah said it happens all the time, so he did what he always does and got in his truck and pulled Tinkerbell out, so there was no harm done and it caused a delay of only about five minutes. We talked to Noah about when the closing might happen, and were told it will probably take another week or so. Although the corporation that took over the property to sell it is based in Belize, only one of the people who has to sign is in Belize, and the others are in the US and England, so the paperwork had to be mailed to them, and they have to sign it and send it back, so we’re now waiting on the not so speedy mail system. We’re still being assured that everything is fine, but we’re still going to wait on the big purchases like water and electrical system supplies.

With that we took off for Belmopan, and got our passports stamped. We went to the Belmopan market for produce, and then headed in to Spanish Lookout. Of course we arrived in Spanish Lookout right at lunchtime, when everything is closed, so we went to the Western Dairy planning to get pizza for lunch, but they were out of pizza. So, we had mango and butterscotch ice cream, and mango and mango/guava yogurt for lunch, which was fine with me. We then did a gazillion little errands in Spanish Lookout which took most of the day, but we came home with enough groceries to get us through at least four or five days, windowsills and doors for the first cabin, a new wheelbarrow, a fuel filter for the generator, a truck full of diesel, and a can for diesel so we only have to pump diesel out of the tank in the bed of the truck every other day or so instead of every morning. The diesel can seemed to take most of the time in Spanish Lookout. Tom wanted a yellow can for diesel so we could keep plain gas in the red, but Belize seems to be out of yellow cans. Tom finally caved and got a red one, but said he’s going to continue to look for a yellow one.

We took the ferry across the river, picked up our laundry, and pulled in the driveway around 6:00. Bol was patiently waiting for us, and told us that the day had been uneventful. Since it was getting dark, Tom told him to ride the bike home rather than walk, and let Selwin bring it back in the morning.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


We saw our first toucan in the custard apple tree this morning, although we later found out that it’s not a toucan. Selwin told us the name, and it is in the toucan family, but it’s smaller than the keel billed toucan or the emerald toucan. The keel billed toucan is the one you think of from the Fruit Loops box, the emerald toucan is smaller and very green, and this one is even smaller than the emerald toucan, but more colorful, with a yellow belly and red stripes. It’s very entertaining to watch them eat the custard apples, because they turn their heads upside down so the fruit falls into the top of their beaks, which are bigger than the bottom. Then they turn right side up and make a big mess as they chew. Ripe custard apples are a big draw for many birds. We watched the tree with Selwin at lunch, and he identified two types of woodpeckers, a couple of different types of orioles, finches, tanagers, cat birds, and probably a few I’m forgetting.

In addition to birds, we talked about Belizean food and cooking with Selwin at lunch. We went through a Belizean cookbook I bought on my first trip to Belize, and Selwin pointed out the “have to try” recipes. I’ve had the cookbook for a couple of years, but have made very little out of it because many of the uniquely Belizean recipes use Belizean ingredients that are difficult to get in the US, even at Wegmans. Cassava, for example, is becoming one of our favorites. It’s a root which can be used like a potato, but it’s long and sort of brown and shaggy, so it looks dirty; Tom calls it the dog poop vegetable, if that helps, although that description is based solely on looks. The thing with cassava is that it spoils within a few days of being dug out of the ground, so it’s just not practical to ship it to the northern US. It’s widely used down here because it can be used just like potatoes, plus it can be used to make a bread which Selwin says is delicious, and it can be used in soups and stews to make them thick and creamy. It makes the most wonderful creamy mashed “potatoes,” and when it’s baked or fried, it gets a nice crisp outside and it’s light and airy inside. I looked it up, and found that it’s also called yucca or manioc, and tapioca is made from cassava. Anyway, next time I get a cassava, I’m going to try making cassava bread, which takes a few days since the cassava needs to be grated and dried. I’m planning to follow the recipe (very unlike me) and not try any shortcuts!

We also learned a little about caring for horses in the jungle – Esmerelda has a spot on her stomach which looks like a girth rub, but Selwin told us it’s a reaction to some bug bite. It’s a hard welt about two inches in diameter, which sticks out from her skin by a good half inch. She also had a cut on her poll, which could be from hitting a tree, but Selwin said it could also be a bite from a vampire bite. He said it’s not harmful to the horses unless the bat has rabies, and horses should be immunized. We have to check with George since we don’t know if she’s had shots, although Selwin said the shots are inexpensive and you don’t need a vet to get them, so he said that most people do immunize their horses. In any case, we got out the hose and the betadine and cleaned her up, and sprayed her stomach with some Scarlex we brought with us. We told everybody we saw later in the day to tell George what we did so he wouldn’t see the red smear on his mare’s belly and think she was bleeding; we’ll have to get some of the blue stuff so we don’t scare people when we spray the horses, since it looks like they’ll probably be getting lots of spraying with all the bugs around here.

In the afternoon, I was on the porch of the second cabin cleaning my tack, which was dirty and moldy since it was packed three months ago in a less than perfectly clean state, and it was just unpacked in the past few days. It’s cleaning up just fine, and is oh-so-easy to oil since it’s about 85 degrees in the sun, so the oil I rub into it is nice and soft. Anyway, as I was doing that, Marta, Olmi (we found out how to spell her name correctly), and Elizabeth showed up with their machetes and asked if they could collect dead wood for their cook fires. Of course we said yes, and they went into the woods and started pulling out dead sticks and logs. They were going to drag them home a few pieces at a time, when it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be any trouble to have them throw the wood in the back of the truck, and I could drive the truck to their houses to unload it. They loaded the truck, and we took off. We pulled into Olmi’s driveway first, and I got out of the truck to help. They started to giggle and look at each other, and Elizabeth, the only one who speaks much English, told me I couldn’t help them. I insisted I could, thinking they just didn’t want to take advantage of me, but then Elizabeth and Marta also stepped back to let Olmi unload on her own, and Elizabeth explained that each of them knew which sticks were theirs, and they were only going to take their own sticks out of the truck to pile by their houses. I couldn’t really argue with that, so I let Olmi unload HER wood. We then drove to Marta’s house, and she unloaded her wood. Elizabeth was the lucky one because her house is the farthest from ours, so when we got there I could help since I knew all the wood that was left was hers. We all ended up laughing because a few trucks with British soldiers were parked at the intersection, and the soldiers had watched this whole unloading process. They managed to stay out of the way until I began to back out of Elizabeth’s driveway, which is very rutted. Finally they couldn’t stand it any more, so they blocked traffic for me, and one stood behind the truck directing my wheels around the biggest holes, and telling me when it was safe to back up. All of this was totally unnecessary because there wasn’t any traffic to block, and I’d pulled straight in through the holes and was perfectly capable of pulling straight out back through the same holes, but I guess the men had to feel useful.

While I was watching Marta unload her wood, Ofelia and Rosa (her daughters) came out of the house and asked if Tom and I would like to go to their house for dinner at seven. They had asked the previous evening, but I already had dinner in the oven, so I figured since they had asked twice they really meant it. I made some coleslaw, and we went over for dinner. Elizabeth’s and Salvadorian Marta’s families were not there, but Marta, her husband Julian, Olmi, and her husband Damion were there, with their kids. Tom had the kids take a head count, and there were 13 for dinner, including the two of us. They get their power from a couple of batteries which they usually charge either in San Antonio or at Jim and Sharon’s, where Damion works, but the batteries had gone dead, so the house was lighted with kerosene lamps. Rosa, Ofelia, and Marta did the cooking, and made a delicious dinner of empanadas, mashed potatoes, and chicken, rice, and beans. We all ate around a huge round table, and it felt really good for Tom and me to be out of the cramped camper. I think they were a little surprised that we appreciated what they had, because they think we have a lot of nice stuff (Americans are made of money, after all), but although their houses are simple, everything they have is well cared for and nice. After dinner they showed us their photographs, which included a few of the cat farm when it was a cat farm. We didn’t even recognize it, because what’s now underbrush used to be mowed lawn and pasture; we obviously have a lot to do.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A great worker, and horse crazy to boot!

Although Noah has no new news on the closing, we’re still trying to move ahead on the property without spending much money. We ran into Bol near his house in San Antonio on Sunday, and asked if his son would be willing to put in a few days of work, even though we haven’t closed and had previously said we weren’t going to do this until after closing. He said sure, and his 22-year old son Selwin showed up bright and early Monday morning. We weren’t sure what to expect, since this was the son that Bol had said had lost his previous job because he stayed out late partying and didn’t show up for work on time. We were very pleasantly surprised, since Selwin jumped right into the work and worked with Tom for the entire day. They took down all the drywall on the ceiling in the first cabin, took down the termite-infested eaves, took that mess to the dump which is seven miles/45 minutes down the Georgeville Road, then started clearing the roof and gutters of the jungle that has started to grow up there in the past two years.

Selwin worked hard all day, and Tom said he works as fast as he does, which isn’t blindingly speedy, but is steady and consistent and a lot gets done. The other reason we hadn’t been sure what to expect is because the Belizean man who worked at the campground where we had been staying outside of San Ignacio worked steadily, but very, very slowly, and we didn’t know if that was the standard Belizean work speed. His name is Armando, but we had given him the nickname Slo-Mo, or Slow-Mow, since watching him amble along behind the lawnmower as he cut the grass was almost painful because he walked so slowly. Selwin isn’t like that; in one day, he and Tom finished what Tom had thought would take two days. Plus, Selwin, having been trained as a guide, is very knowledgeable about the Belizean flora and fauna, and things like scorpions dropping out of the ceiling didn’t really bother him because, as he explained to Tom, although their sting is very painful, there are no lasting ill effects. The girls next door had been right that the sting is worse when the scorpion is laying eggs, but it’s still only a matter of degree. Unless a person is allergic, they will recover from a scorpion sting.

Selwin also told us that the lizards are poisonous, which we had questioned since we’ve done a lot of reading about Belize, and we’d never read anything about poisonous lizards. Like the scorpions, they’re not deadly, but if they sting with their tails, it hurts more than a scorpion sting. Tom thinks he may have earned a little respect from Selwin, because at one point as Selwin pulled down a piece of drywall, a snake fell down. Selwin yelled “Snake!” and Tom grabbed his machete. Then Tom saw that it was a black snake, did a quick check with Selwin that black snakes are good because they eat the poisonous snakes, and rather than killing it he just steered it out the door. Tom has been feeling a little bit bad because he killed a red and black snake in the driveway the other day thinking it was a coral snake, but later found out that it was a fake coral snake. The woman up the road who runs a small bar told us the rhyme all Belizean kids learn in school: “Red and black, friendly jack; red, black and yellow, kill a fellow,” which is how the kids learn to recognize the very dangerous coral snake which won’t bite unless threatened, but if it bites a person, the person will probably die because no anti-venom is available in Belize. Selwin did warn us, however, that it’s likely we will come across the dangerous fer-de-lance on the property because the property has been empty so long. He said that once we clear the jungle away from the buildings and start getting more traffic, they’ll stay away, but we need to be cautious right now. We’re not looking forward to seeing the first fer-de-lance.

The only problem Tom had with Selwin was that he is as horse-crazy as I am. They stopped for lunch, and the three of us sat outside the camper watching the many birds in the custard apple tree, with Selwin telling us their names and how to identify them. At some point in the conversation one of us asked Selwin what he wants to do long-term, and he confessed that the reason he knows so much about nature in Belize is because he wants to get involved with a horse ranch, working with the horses and taking people on long rides, where he’ll have to be knowledgeable enough to answer all their questions. That opened the door to a lengthy horse discussion, where Selwin and I started talking about every horse we’ve ever owned, their good and bad points, how to care for horses in this climate, our various horse injuries, that fact that both of our mothers hate/hated the fact that we wouldn’t give up horses despite the fact that the mothers see them as dangerous, and how our dream jobs would be taking care of horses. At the end of the lunch hour, Tom had to basically tell us to shut up so Selwin could get back to work – but not before I found out that the job Selwin lost had been taking people on rides through the jungle, and that he would be willing to take Tom and I out for as long as we want to go when we get horses. And, since both Selwin and George now know what we want and are keeping their eyes open for us, we should be able to find a few horses we like relatively quickly after we close. As I said to Tom, we have a lot of work to do around here, but we have to relax a little, and it might as well be on horseback.

Despite the concerns with lizards, scorpions, and snakes, ants are quickly becoming our least favorite pest. They come in all shapes and sizes here, they’re everywhere, and they’re all annoying. If you stop to talk to somebody, you have to make sure you’re not standing in a fire ant nest because they’ll crawl up your legs, get in your pants, and bite. If you leave any type of food out for even a few minutes, they’re in the food. They’re crawling on trees, along the ground, in the bushes and leaves, and in every building. As Tom and Selwin were pulling down the ceiling, they found tons of big black ants. Selwin says these ants go into the termite nests and eat the termites, which is good, but what’s bad is that if they do this in a house that’s lived in, when the termites are gone they get in your clothes, and then they bite. Ant bites really burn, and although they’re not incredibly painful and don’t cause any long term damage, they’re so prevalent that it’s hard to get through an hour anywhere without getting bit.

Besides the ants, the only other struggle we’re having is with water and electric. Selwin says the reason we don’t get enough water pressure during the day is that the farmers down the line are opening their valves to irrigate their fields. We turn the hose on and stick it in the camper’s water tank first thing in the morning, and it usually runs for a few minutes while it bleeds out the pressure from the previous night, then stops until lunchtime when it runs for an hour or so, then it stops again until after dark. We manage to fill the tank every day, but it requires more time and attention than we’re used to having to spend on water. We’re also having trouble with our camper’s electricity. We run the generator for a few hours every day, which should be enough to charge the deep cycle battery, but by the time we go to bed the battery is usually so dead that the lights are dim and we can’t run the water pump and have light at the same time. We’ve solved the problem by running the generator while we shower and I make dinner, then I wash all the pots and pans before we eat, then we shut down the generator, turn off the lights and the pump, and spend the rest of the evening in candlelight, which is very romantic but not so convenient as flipping a switch and having light. Fortunately, unpacking the front of the camper allowed me to dig out the candles and candle sticks, as well as a few other necessities like the juicer, a rolling pin, and my small pizza stone for the oven – funny what we’ve decided we “need” to unpack. Both of these problems are easily solved, but we don’t want to spend the money on tanks and a pump for the water and a battery bank and inverter for the power until we close, so for now we’re making do.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Dewalt Power Tools Rule!

We’ve about run out of things to do around here that won’t cost much, so today was a day of investigation and brainstorming. While Tom was doing some work on the computer this morning, I decided to play with coconuts. I picked up three brown coconuts from the ground, testing to make sure they were good by shaking them and listening for water inside. As I was looking for coconuts to test, I was amazed by how quickly they sprout. The brown ones fall out of the tree, and it seemed like coconuts I had kicked around a week ago now had six inches of roots coming out one end, and a three or four inch green spout out the other. They’re so big they look like alien seed pods. I finally found three that weren’t sprouting and that made the right noise when shaken, and carted them back to the camper. I then took my fruit picker and went in search of green coconuts in the trees that I could reach. I found a tree that had coconuts that were low enough for me to bang, and that had a bunch that were ripe enough that they would fall off when I banged them, so I knocked down three of them and took them back to the camper.

The girls had told me that the green ones were good for the water, and the brown ones were good for the meat used to make coconut milk, which we had made for the coconut rice last week. Being modern and brilliant, I wanted to see if there was an easier way to get the milk than the thoroughly manual scrape, wash, hand grate, and rinse method Ofelia, Rosa, and Iris had shown me. The answer is no. Tom split the coconuts with his machete, then I sat outside the camper and picked the meat out of the three brown coconuts. I took it inside and rinsed it, then, since the generator was running, I dug out my Cuisinart, put the coconut meat in, and let it rip. I then added some water, and strained it into a bowl, just like we did the other night after hand grating it. The results were awful. The “milk” was sort of grayish brown, and the fat had congealed into tiny particles that stuck to everything, which left just the grayish brown water; think of how the kitchen sink looks after you wash a roasting pan and then let the water go down the drain. I think part of the problem is that when it’s hand grated, only the white part is grated, but I threw everything into the food processor, so the thin layer of brown that comes off on the meat from the shell was also pulverized, which changed the color. When you eat the coconut in pieces, you don’t even know the brown is there, but it seems to ruin the milk. I also think the speed of the food processor probably separated the liquid and the fat, which is why two distinctly different icky substances poured off the pulverized coconut. I dumped the results, and I’ll try one coconut at a time and do it the right way next time. One thing I did discover from this experiment is that after a whole lifetime of hating coconut, the coconut that comes right out of the shell is pretty good. It’s crunchy and moist and has a really nice flavor – like, errr, coconut. The shredded stuff that we buy in bags and that people put in and on food is basically the dried waste after the good stuff is strained out.

The other thing I found out is that there IS a good use for Tom’s 18v DeWalt cordless drill. It’s the nuts for drilling two holes in the top of a green coconut so the coconut water can be poured into a glass. The fresh coconut water is almost clear and doesn’t have a strong flavor; it’s like rich water, if that’s something you can imagine. Three coconuts made two big (probably 16 oz. each) glasses of coconut water, to which I added a splash of citrus concentrate, and Tom and I had a nice mid-morning refresher. It would be great with a splash of rum, but we didn’t have any, and Sunday morning isn’t the time to get it around here.

The other fun thing that happened today was that we both rode Esmerelda. We went into San Antonio with Thelma, one of the daughters of Salvadorian Marta, and her little brother Giovanni, and when we dropped them off back at their house, a very clean little grey horse was grazing in their yard. Tom and I both looked twice, and checked the white feet and markings to make sure it was Esmerelda, because she was clean and all the burrs and been pulled out of her mane and tail. We were barely back in the driveway and we heard hoofbeats on the road, and George came in riding the mare. I was like a little kid at the fair, just about jumping up and down saying, “Can I ride her? Can I ride her? I can ride, really. Really, I can ride.” George looked at me and said he didn’t have a saddle, I of course didn’t care, and my excitement must have overpowered George’s good sense in not wanting some stranger to jump on his greenbroke horse just because she says she can ride. I’ve been in George’s shoes and have usually regretted letting the self proclaimed “rider” on my horses, especially after said “rider” usually ends up on their butt in the grass. But George gave in, I hopped on, and clamped on my legs. After years of listening to Karin say “more leg,” I automatically get on and wrap my legs around, and Esmerelda isn’t used to that. She crow hopped a few times, George told me stop kicking her, and I just gave her a little squeeze and we went up the driveway and wandered around for a few minutes. She is certainly not a warmblood. I think my feet are about a foot from the ground when I’m on her, and she’s as skinny or skinnier than Patrick, but she carries herself well and is very balanced, and I feel less like my weight might unbalance her than I do on Patrick. Then I let Tom have a turn, and then we turned her loose and showed George and Ronnie, his brother, some of our horse pictures so he knew we had really had horses and really have ridden. We told him to keep his ears open for any more, preferably bigger, horses for sale, so we’re expecting a parade of sale horses in the next week or so.

Random pictures

The first cabin with the panelling stripped

The second cabin before we started working on it

One of the many beautiful flowers on the property

Saturday, February 17, 2007


Today is a day for celebration! We finished moving boxes out of the front of the camper, and from over the top of the bed. We now feel like we’re living in a mansion, and we can sit at a table to eat or type or play cards, rather than slouching in the camp chairs and using our laps as tables. We also moved everything out of the first cabin, so all we have to do there is rip down the drywall ceiling and we’re ready to spray for termites. We decided to break our rule and get some help with that job, so we’re asking around for someone willing to do a few days of messy work, and finding that it’s hard to find people willing to even think about work on the weekends. Manana…

We had pretty heavy rain for most of the night last night, so Tom’s big task for the day was to attempt to dump the water pools in the tarp over the camper without dumping the water on top of the camper, where we know it would drip inside. He ended up being soaked, but the camper remained dry. Another task for tomorrow is to figure out a way to rig up the tarp so the water won’t pool, and won’t get on the camper roof.

We took part of the afternoon walking around and visiting neighbors. We met a woman who lives up the road and runs a bar with her husband (who was out shopping), then went over to see Jim and Sharon’s place. They’re planning to open their lodge in November, and while what they have is a work in progress, it’s going to be beautiful. They’re looking for a completely different clientele than what we have in mind, so neither of us is threatened by the other as competitors. Instead, we’re looking forward to pooling what we all know and find out to make this area in general even more attractive to visitors.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Expat jerks: This is not a test

We decided that even if something falls through and we don’t end up owning this property, we need more room. We’ve been living in the trailer with it still packed, which means the entire nose and table area is floor to ceiling boxes, and we have about 2 ½ feet over our bed and then the shelf to the ceiling is filled with boxes of clothes. If it’s too cold or wet or buggy to eat outside, we put our little camp chairs in the aisle of the camper and eat off a little square end table with our knees around our chins and our drinks perched on the edge of the counter. We’ve stripped the paneling out of both cabins, so we have plenty of room for storage, so we’re just going to suck it up and unload and cross our fingers that we don’t have to repack and move. Today we started emptying the nose of the trailer. We got to the seven and a half foot high birdcage, which is full of small, last minute things that we stuffed through the doors as we were packing to leave Canadice. Then Ofelia showed up because she and Tom had planned to go to San Ignacio to see the circus, so she and Tom left for San Ignacio and I got a couple of laundry baskets out of the pile and emptied the birdcage. The promise of more room is way more exciting than it should be, even though we’ll have to finish tomorrow when we’re both here in the light!

Tom went to San Ignacio with Ofelia, only to find out that the circus animals had been moved out of town the day before. So, they went to the market and then went out to lunch. Tom came back spitting mad, because they went to a little hole in the wall diner called Pop’s (which has great breakfasts and lunches as a good diner should), and as they were eating three American expats started talking to him and asking what he was doing in Belize. When he told them we were buying property on the Pine Ridge, they immediately started trash talking Belize and the Belizeans. One old guy has been here 15 years and he kept saying he loves the weather here but hates the people. The other 2 women live in Blackman Eddie and have been robbed numerous times and have had dogs killed. They said they sleep with tazers and machetes at their bedsides, and that a serial killer who chopped 14 people was just picked up in their town. The two women are missionaries – I guess God doesn’t protect all people all the time, or maybe there are just stupid missionaries, just like there are stupid people in every other line of work.

This conversation made Tom mad for a couple of reasons. The big one was that he was eating lunch with Ofelia, who is obviously a Belizean. Perhaps they thought she didn’t speak English, or maybe that she was just too stupid to know what they were talking about, or, as a gringa neighbor here suggested later, that she was Tom’s little chicky (the neighbor’s words) who would do anything to be paired with a rich American, so it just didn’t matter that they were being so rude. Tom said that as the people said things about how the Belizeans couldn’t be trusted, and how they would stab you in the back and steal and lie and kill your dogs, he kept turning to Ofelia and asking if her family does any of those things. She played along, and Tom told the people that perhaps they should just make better choices about who their friends and neighbors are. They acted as if he were utterly naïve, and sooner or later he would discover the truth in their words.

The other reason this conversation bothered him is that there seems to be this pervasive idea here that most Americans aren’t equipped to live here, and it’s a test to see if they can come and stay for a year or longer. When people find out that we’ve just moved here, they assume that we never visited before, and that we heard about Belize being paradise and bought property over the internet, and that we’re now here planning to live on next to nothing amid some happy but stupid natives. Expats who have been here for a few years shake their heads when we tell them what we’re doing, emanating sympathy for the hard knocks they know we’re going to blithely walk into as we try to live here, and saying that they’d like to talk to us in a year to see how we feel then, if we’re still here. We may be totally off base, but we don’t think moving here is a decision we made lightly. We’ve visited four times in the past two years, in four different seasons, and Tom spent two months living here in the spring. We spent over a year planning for the move, and figuring out what we wanted to do when we got here. We made an offer on a property relatively quickly, but we looked at close to 20 properties, researched costs for improvements, and we feel that our accepted offer was a fair price for the property we’re buying.

And, we don’t consider moving here to be a test. If it turns out that we don’t like it here, we’ll pack up, head back to the states, and go back to professional jobs without feeling like we’ve failed. Failure, in our minds, would be not trying to do something different and exciting. We also recognize that Belize isn’t perfect. There are evil people here who do bad things, just like every other place in the world. We could have been robbed driving through Mexico, and we could be robbed here, and there are definite dangers for our dogs between venomous snakes and jerks who think it’s funny to chop a dog with a machete, but we do what we can to minimize those risks by not leaving our stuff out to be stolen, and by keeping the dogs contained or very close to us if they’re out for exercise. I’m sure we’ll end up spending most of our savings on improvements to the property, banking on making a go of the B&B and making money, but even if we spend every cent we have and never have a guest, we can return to the US, get jobs, and probably still be less in debt than most Americans – and we’ll have had a great experience in the meantime. We know we’re living in a different culture here, but that’s part of what’s exciting and rewarding about this move. It would be easy to live in the US and have our 9 to 5 jobs and know we can always go to The Olive Garden for a good meal, but it seems like more fun to us to work to understand how other people live, and to learn to adjust to fit into their culture and way of life – not to make them conform to ours, which seems to be what most of the unhappy expats want. We’re making mistakes every day, but we’re learning from them, and the problem solving part of our life here is a big part of the reason we’re having fun and looking forward to every day as an opportunity to learn.

The other thing Tom did while he was out was pick up windows he had ordered in Spanish Lookout. We decided to jump the gun just a little, and order windows so that as soon as we close we can spray the first cabin for termites and then close it up to store our stuff and to allow us to move out of the camper. Even if this falls through, we can either resell the windows which are made to stock sizes for the Mennonite houses, or save them and build a place for us around the windows. Once we close, the first thing we’re going to buy is a couple of water tanks. The property has water piped in from the road, but it’s not very dependable. Sometimes the pressure is good and the water is clean, and sometimes nothing more than a muddy drip comes out of the pipe when the valve is opened. With the camper, our daily strategy has been to check to make sure the water is clean and flowing, then to fill the camper tank, which gives us more than enough water for cooking, washing, and showering for the day (at this point we buy drinking water in 5 gallon jugs). When we move into one of the cabins, we’ll probably need more water for “normal” showers, so we’ll need more of a reserve, and this need will only grow as we finish guest cabins and have more people on the property. We’re learning how to tell when the water supply will be good, since it seems to depend on what chores the people are doing down line. On the weekend, especially if it’s a little overcast, the water supply is pretty good. Sunny days during the week are when we get the muddy drip, and my theory is that everybody down line is doing their laundry and cleaning. One of the things we’re learning is how to manage water needs when you live at the end of the water line.

We heard the howler monkeys this afternoon for the first time since we’ve been here. Neighbors say they move in and out of the neighborhood, and they’re happy that the monkeys are still pretty far from here, since when they’re around they’re noisy all day and night. Neighbors have also asked if we’ve seen the toucans; we haven’t, yet, but we’re keeping a close eye on the trees that bear fruits that we know attract toucans. There are plenty of loudmouthed parrots around, and bunches of birds we don’t recognize, so there’s always something new to see.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The wonders of Splenda

On Wednesday, Tom drove Salvadorian Marta and her two pre-school sons, Eduardo and Giovanni, into San Ignacio. He parked the truck, and Marta and the boys went off to do their errands, and Tom did what he had to do. He talked to the real estate agent who had gone with us to look at the properties in Dangriga, and told her that we had an accepted offer on another property. He stopped at Noah’s office, and found that Noah was in Belize City doing the legwork for our purchase, which is expected to go through in the next week to ten days, although Noah isn’t sure since Century 21, the seller’s agent, is doing most of the paperwork. He bought some produce at the San Ignacio market, went to the Coke/Belikin/Crystal distributor for beer and water, and took Marta and the boys out to lunch at Maxim’s Chinese restaurant, which has a $4BZ ($2US) special of fried chicken and French fries (big spender!).

While Tom was out, I started stripping the paneling out of the second cabin. I found a few more lizards, which I didn’t kill because they weren’t threatening me, and Tom said the termite spray will either kill them or drive them out. I also pulled one panel down, and found what looked like a deflated bag attached to the inside of the siding, with the mouth of the bag pushed out between two of the outside boards. I noticed small bees buzzing around it, so I went to the other cabin, got the wasp and hornet killer, and gave them a good zap. I gave them a few minutes to either calm down or die, and went back to pulling the paneling. As I slammed the head of the crowbar into the next panel to pull it down, the hole and the crowbar started dripping with honey. The little bees had filled the entire space between two of the studs with a big dripping honeycomb. I was really bummed that I’d zapped them with poison, although when Tom came home he pointed out that I would have no idea how to get the honey out of the comb without either getting stung or ruining it anyway.

I pulled down another wall and a half, and stopped for my lunch break, which was a bowl of rice and beans the neighbors had brought over the evening before. Just as I was finishing the rice and beans, Ofelia came walking up the driveway with a plate full of fresh fry jacks. Since we didn’t have any beans, I grabbed a jar of jelly, and Ofelia and I sat in the shade drinking sour orangeade and eating fry jacks. Ofelia and I had planned to bake on Friday, but since she was out of work early, we decided to make lemon bars. As we were picking the lemons, her mother, the other Marta, came up the driveway with 2 ½ year old Sulmi. The four of us went in the camper and started making the lemon bars just as Tom got home. He passed in the groceries and went to finish stripping the paneling out of the cabin, and remarked later that he can tell we’re going to stay here, because it’s just like home – my kitchen is already becoming a social center, and the neighbors have already decided that I’m far too thin, and are doing their best to put some meat on me by bringing me food and getting me to cook yummy fattening things!

The whole issue about weight here is interesting. Between being physically active cleaning up around here and eating lots and lots of produce with less meat, starch, and alcohol than we did in NY, Tom and I are both losing a little weight and are looking and feeling pretty fit. The Belizean people seem to tend to move a little slower than we do, and their diets consist of lots of rice and flour tortillas, so while none of the people around here are obese by any means and we see far fewer overweight people here than in the US, most seem to have a very healthy layer of padding. They bring me food to make me gain weight, and then ask how I stay so thin. Ofelia, who is 18, very attractive, and a very healthy weight, told me she wants a flat stomach like mine. I told her that her weight was healthier than my weight, and that my doctor had told me to try not to lose weight, but she has still somehow decided that she wants what I thought was only the American ideal of super-thin. She and Marta (her mother) and I were talking about how people diet in the US, and I jumped on my soapbox and whipped out my bag of Splenda, which I use because it dissolves better than sugar in drinks (especially lemon, lime, and sour orange ades!), and explained how – in my opinion – Americans spend too much money on things like Splenda, thinking that if they use that instead of sugar when they bake, they’ll automatically get skinny even though their baked goods are still full of butter, eggs, and flour. They were fascinated with the Splenda because it looked and tasted like sugar, but the bulk equivalent to a five pound bag of sugar weighs less than 10 ounces. Since they don’t have television and aren’t overexposed to the American media, they’d never even heard of it, much less seen it. Fortunately we’d already mixed up the lemon bars with real sugar, so I didn’t have to do any more soapbox stomping about not using Splenda in the lemon bars.

After Marta, Sulmi, and Ofelia left with the still cooling lemon bars, I went into the second cabin to help Tom finish stripping out the paneling. Only one small section remained on one wall, so I decided to show Tom my technique of ramming the hooked end of the crowbar into the paneling and pulling it off, popping the nails like snaps. It worked great, and he was very impressed, especially because as I yanked the piece down, it game down faster than expected and the edge whacked me in the face. I now have a skinned forehead and look like I’ve been shot between the eyes, although luckily it was a little high so my nose wasn’t broken, and I didn’t end up with any black eyes or need stitches. I’m not even going to try to explain to anybody what happened.

Talking with Ofelia, I found out a few more details on Esmerelda, the resident horse. They’re not entirely sure she’s in foal, because the breeding was a little bit dodgy. It seems that one of the neighboring resorts has a thoroughbred stallion that George likes. So, one day when the guides from the resort had a group out for a trail ride, George got on the grey mare (who now can be ridden, it seems), joined up with the ride, and followed the horses home. Somehow he managed to get the mare turned out with the stallion. Ofelia wasn’t sure when this happened, but her story was enough to tell me that I don’t want to march up to the resort and ask to see the stallion because I’m thinking about buying a mare who is in foal to him. Ofelia and Marta say the stallion is very big, although I’m not sure what the standards for “big horse” are around here. In any case, if the mare is in foal to a TB, it makes her that much more attractive to us, since we’d actually talked about finding a Belizean mare that we like and getting some TB semen shipped to us so we could do an AI breeding. From what we’ve heard, first generation TBs don’t tend to do too well here, but if they’re bred to a Belizean horse, the offspring do fine. We may go look at the horses at the resort anyway, and we’ll definitely go to a few of the other stables around here and see what’s available. George wants more than the $400BZ we know we need to spend, but if she really is in foal to a nice TB, his $700BZ price tag isn’t too unreasonable – and Tom, ever the wheeler-dealer, is talking about giving him $400BZ upfront for the mare, and the other $300BZ when the foal is on the ground, which would be very fair for both of us, we think.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

No snow! Yippee!

Wednesday started with voices at our gate yelling for “March.” I was making breakfast and still in my bare feet, so Tom ran out to see what was happening. Elizabeth and Ulni where there, with Elizabeth’s dog Blackie. Apparently a worker had been heading up the trail next to her house, and when Blackie barked at him, he chopped Blackie’s nose with a machete. Blackie had what looked like a big bite taken out of the side of his nose, with blood still spurting out. I didn’t know what to do, besides dump some hydrogen peroxide on it to clean it out, and to tell them to try to keep the flies away. It’s a pretty nasty cut, and his eye is drooping like some of the muscles in his face have been cut. He’s a really good dog, and he never snapped or even really cried while we fussed over him. Tom and I went to see how he was doing after lunch, and found that Elizabeth had very wisely hobbled his front feet together so he couldn’t scratch at it so the bleeding would stop. She had also poured a little bit of kerosene on the wound both to disinfect it and to keep the bugs away, which would never have occurred to me, but which makes sense given the situation. Blackie was very calmly sitting in the shade, and again let us fuss over him without any complaints. Hopefully the wound won’t get infected.

I spent the morning updating this blog, while Tom cleared more land. He has a good start on a burn pile, although he assures me that we’ll just burn it and not delay the burning until we have a party. Plans for the rest of the day are to go to San Antonio to post this and to buy a hose, since the camper is now too far away from the faucet for the hose we already have to reach. Tom may run into San Ignacio tomorrow if we need anything, and if not we may just work around the property for another day. Noah had said that it’s possible we’ll close by the end of the week, but we don’t know what’s up with that since we haven’t talked to him in a couple of days, although we assume that if there were any major problems either he or the selling agent would drive out here to tell us. So, that’s all the news for now, and I’ll post again when something interesting happens and we can get on line.

And for all of you who are wondering, yes, we’ve checked the upstate NY weather reports. And yes, we’re very glad we’re here, and you’re welcome to curse us since we’re feeling no pain in 80 degrees and sunshine! Life is MUCH easier when it’s warm and sunny.