Saturday, March 31, 2007

Dee bee why doe

So far no repercussions of Thursday’s scene in San Antonio between Tom and the mechanic. Tom picked up Selwyn and his family in town on Friday morning to take them to Spanish Lookout, and Selwyn had heard that Tom was in town Thursday night, but didn’t know what happened – although he had a pretty good idea since he knew what was going on with the truck. The only new news is that Tom’s Leatherman is also missing, and Tom is pretty sure it was in the truck console. The days of leaving everything in the cars with the cars unlocked and the keys in the ignition are over; we’re not in Canadice any more.

While Tom went to Spanish Lookout, I stayed home with the dogs since we thought someone should stay on the property, and because if we both go to Spanish Lookout for the day, we usually take the dogs. With Selwyn’s family in the truck, there just wasn’t room for me and the three dogs. It was really quite pleasant to just stay home by myself for the day, doing a lot of little jobs that just haven’t been done lately since the two of us are always trying to get the big stuff done. Tom’s trip to Spanish Lookout was successful, and he returned with boards and roofing so he can finish the porch and the bathrooms on the first cabin, and put a roof on what will be the tool shed. He wasn’t able to get siding boards, so he’ll be off to San Ignacio Saturday morning to get those.

The truck pulled into the driveway around 6:00 pm after the day in Spanish Lookout. It was FULL. Besides all the roofing, boards, and other hardware and supplies in the bed, the cab was carrying Tom, Selwyn, Hilda (Selwyn’s wife), Gilroy (Selwyn’s brother), Erva (Hilda’s sister), Junior, Eli, Christalee (Selwyn’s three kids), and a rabbit given to the kids by Hilda’s family. While the men unloaded the truck, Hilda and her sister and I talked and I realized that life here for the locals is very different from what we’re used to in suburban America. Hilda’s family lives outside of Spanish Lookout, probably not more than 15 or 20 miles from here, and it had been a year since Hilda had seen them. Her family had never met Christalee, and Hilda’s sister had a baby that not only had Hilda never met, but she hadn’t even known her sister was pregnant. Hilda and Selwyn have a cell phone but Hilda’s family doesn’t, and none of them have cars, so they just don’t have a way to stay in contact with each other.

While the women talked, we also tried to keep Junior and Eli amused so they’d stay out of the way of the men unloading the truck. I was very impressed with myself, because I’m starting to understand Junior and Eli. They’re four and three years old, respectively, and at home they generally speak Creole since Selwyn’s primary language is English, Hilda grew up speaking Spanish, and they’re both fluent in those two languages, plus Creole. Tom and I find that while we’d have no idea how to say something in Creole, we generally understand it when adults are speaking. However, three and four year olds speak Creole with the same finesse that three and four year old English speakers speak English, which means that adults who aren’t their parents or who don’t spend a lot of time around them might understand some of what they say – or they might not. The first few times we spent time with Selwyn’s whole family, either Selwyn or Hilda would translate for the kids when they spoke to Tom or me. Suddenly last night, I found myself understanding them, and Hilda and I laughed because Junior said to me “Dee bee why doe no lissen,” and as Hilda started to tell me what he said, I just responded with “No, that dog doesn’t listen to anybody” and Hilda realized I’d understood Junior who was telling me that Mel – the big white dog – doesn’t listen. I guess that was a sentence that was easy to understand because it’s so true!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

That Bad Taste in the Mouth

The past couple of days have been enlightening for a couple of gringos in Belize. We’ve had our first bad taste of what many bitter expats seem to like to portray as Belize and its people. However, we’re considering this a couple of bad bites in what has otherwise been a delicious first course, and we hope we’ve learned enough not to get in this position again.

The first bad bite was with our neighbor, Bol. He, among other people, has stressed the importance of clearing our boundary lines both to define our property and prevent squatters and trespassers, and to provide a fire break when the dry season hits. Bol has four sons – Selwyn is the eldest – and he’s always looking for work for all of them, so he had his next eldest son, Gilroy, take a look at our property line and come up with an estimate for clearing it. The estimate seemed reasonable – about two working weeks for four machete wielding young men to clear a ten foot swatch through a half mile of jungle. Bol said they’d work on a contract basis, so he and Gilroy came up with a number based on four guys for two weeks, and then discounted it by a few hundred bucks because he said they always work faster when they’re on a contract. We thought this sounded fair, so we agreed to it. However, it didn’t take the four guys two weeks to clear the boundary line, it took them three days. This meant that four high school and college aged guys earned about $100 a day for the days they worked instead of the $30 that’s typical for that type of work. Granted, they worked incredibly quickly, and did a really good job, but it just seems improbable to us that Gilroy and Bol’s estimate was that far off, so we felt like we’d been taken, and taken by someone we were starting to trust, which made it worse.

Tom asked Gilroy if they would have done it that quickly if they’d done it by a daily rate rather than on a contract, and he perfectly honestly said no, it would have then taken them two weeks. As you can imagine, this didn’t sit too well with Tom, so he and Bol had a heart-to-heart, and Tom explained that while we may be white and we may have been able to buy property in Belize, we’re not made of money, and if the locals think we’re going to go through our money at that rate, knowing we don’t have to, then we’re better off not doing business with the locals. Bol apologized and explained that sometimes the contractor wins on a contract and sometimes he loses – doh – and Tom responded that he understands that, having worked on a contract basis himself, but he doesn’t usually mis-estimate that badly. They agreed that in the future Bol and his crews would work on a day-by-day basis, and Tom would only hire them when he’s able to go out and work with the crew as supervisor to make sure they’re really working. And, Tom and I agreed afterwards, we’re likely to hire Guatemalans or Belizeans from other areas rather than the local crews, who apparently have already decided that we’re easily separated from our money.

The second incident was far more disturbing, because it involved blatant stealing. When Tom had to replace the fuel filter on the truck a few weeks ago, he took it in to be checked by the only diesel mechanic in San Antonio, who seemed competent and nice enough to let him take care of our truck. After the fuel filter check, Tom took the truck back for an oil/lube/filter change, and then to have the belts replaced after he noticed the alternator belt wear last week. Because the mechanic has welding equipment, Tom also arranged to drop the truck off this week to have angle iron welded to the rails of the truck bed because the auxiliary diesel tank was tearing off the bed where it was bolted. Early last week, after one of the truck’s visits to the mechanic, I had driven it into San Antonio. It died in the middle of the street, acting just like it acted when the fuel filter clogged. So, I trotted over to the mechanic and asked him to take a look at it. He listened while I tried to start it, and then asked if it was possible that it was out of gas and wanted to know if the fuel gauge works. Well, the fuel gauge doesn’t work too well on these bumpy roads, so I told him that. What I didn’t tell him was that Tom and I keep a pretty close eye on the odometer so we know roughly when we need to get fuel, plus we always have the auxiliary tank which we can use to fill the front tank on the truck. I was embarrassed – the dumb blonde gringo doesn’t even know when her truck is out of gas – but I was also a little confused because we didn’t have that many miles on the truck, and both truck tanks were empty. I talked to Tom when I got home, and we determined that it was possible he hadn’t set the odometer when he last filled up so it may have tripped over 1000 and started over, and that it’s possible that our miles per gallon number may be way lower than we think because we don’t go far, but the truck spends a fair amount of time running as we creep along the rutted roads. Next time we went out, we filled both tanks and made a point of resetting the odometer, and vowed to use the auxiliary tank only for hauling diesel home for the generator so we could get a better idea of our mileage.

Fast forward to Tuesday morning, when Tom took the truck in for the welding work. He noticed that we were leaving the truck in town with almost exactly 100 miles on the odometer, and remarked on it because 100 is such a round number and because we think it’s funny that after each of us frequently driving 100 miles a day or more in NY, we now barely cover 100 miles in a week. We worked on the property all day on Tuesday, and that evening a Belizean friend from town stopped by and asked to see what we were doing with all the lumber he’d seen coming through town in our truck that day. Tom showed him what we were doing, and corrected him – the lumber had come through town on Monday, not Tuesday, and Tom had had it delivered in the lumberyard truck because we’re trying to save wear and tear on Tinkerbell. Our friend looked at Tom like he was a little feeble-minded and explained that he had, in fact, seen our truck – with the horns on the front – going through town loaded with lumber that day.

Tom and I were a little suspicious, and decided that on Wednesday Tom would talk to Bol about the line clearing contract, and I would get the job of riding the bike into town to talk to the mechanic and tell him we’d heard this rumor. It was raining Wednesday morning, so I didn’t go until after lunch. I talked to the mechanic, and he said that whoever told us that must have been mixed up because the truck had been in his driveway since we left it there Tuesday morning. I also went in the truck to get out the cell phone charger – my “reason” for the surprise visit to town – and checked the odometer, which had 193 miles on it. I didn’t push it with the mechanic since he swore the truck hadn’t moved, but went home and double checked with Tom that he hadn’t misread the mileage when he left the truck. That evening, somebody else stopped by and asked if we had given the mechanic permission to use our truck. We rolled our eyes and said no, but we’d already been told that the truck had collected a load of lumber on Tuesday. This lead to another “oh you poor na├»ve gringos” look, and this person told us that the truck had also taken the mechanic and his wife to San Ignacio on Wednesday morning, prior to my surprise Wednesday afternoon visit – which explained how the truck could get an extra 93 miles on it, since part of my rationale for questioning Tom’s odometer reading was that it takes us a week to put 100 miles on the truck, so we didn’t see how the mechanic could do it in a day – but it was two days of use, not one.

So, Tom wound himself up and pedaled into town first thing Thursday morning, not expecting to find the truck gone since the mechanic knew at that point that there were people in town who would talk to us, but planning at least to have it out with the mechanic. The mechanic again swore up and down that he hadn’t used the truck – he’s a church going man, after all – but Tom insisted that because he was already there with the bike, he wanted the mechanic to finish the welding so Tom could drive the truck home. With this the mechanic explained to Tom that in addition to what Tom had asked to be done, the auxiliary tank seemed to have a leak where the bottom drain pipe meets the tank. Tom took a look, and said the fuel was dripping out at a pretty steady rate – steady enough that if the leak had been there when he left the truck on Tuesday, there wouldn’t be any fuel in the tank by Thursday morning. Tom bit his tongue, got to work with the mechanic – getting a nasty sunburn on his arms and neck in the process – and finally, after multiple interruptions, they finished around 1:00, since Tom found that very little had been done to the truck in the two days it had been at the shop.

As I was making dinner, Tom was cleaning out the truck so he’d have room for Selwyn and his family, who were getting a ride to Spanish Lookout with Tom on Friday. As he was digging through the console, he found an empty chip bag. This isn’t significant unless you know us, but if you know us you know that we rarely, if ever, eat chips. He also found a few of the rings off the top of soda bottles on the floor of the truck, and we don’t buy and drink soda much more than we eat chips. You also know, if you know Tom, that he keeps his vehicles very clean, despite me and the dogs and our Pigpen-like tendencies, so he knew the chip bag and soda top rings hadn’t been in the truck when he dropped it off. At this point we were stewing over the fact that we’d been lied to multiple times, knowing the truck had been used without our permission, and we were aggravated that our fuel had essentially been stolen, first through the use of the truck, and then through what dripped out of the broken pipe – which had been broken either intentionally to hide the fuel loss from use, or because the truck had been driven without the tank properly secured in the bed of the truck and the pipe broke from the bouncing.

It then occurred to me that I’d left my expensive Oakley sunglasses in the truck, so I mentioned this to Tom. He then remembered that he’d also left his in the truck, so he went out to make sure they were still there. Well, mine were still there, in their case in the glove box of the truck. Tom’s case was in the door of the truck, but the sunglasses were gone. If it was my glasses missing instead of Tom’s, we might have done some hard thinking about where else the sunglasses could be. But, because it was Tom’s missing, we’re sure they were stolen. Tom is very careful about spending money, and because Oakley sunglasses are expensive, he takes very good care of them because he doesn’t want to replace them. And, because Tom spent about 25 years of his life depending on glasses to see, he’s especially careful with expensive glasses. If his Oakleys aren’t on his face, they’re in they’re case, period, without exception. Tom resolved to take care of the problem immediately, and headed for the truck to drive into town. I turned off the stove and stowed dinner in dog proof places, and jumped in the truck to go with him, hoping that having a woman around would lessen the male aggression a bit.

It was a very ugly scene in San Antonio. Tom went to the mechanic’s house and demanded to see him. He came out after a few minutes, and Tom told him that he knew he was lying, and that he wanted either his sunglasses, or money to replace them, and while he was at it he could give Tom back what he had paid to have the truck fixed, and reimburse him for fuel and use of the truck. The mechanic played the “I’m a church going man” card again, along with the “I’m a family man, look at my beautiful wife and children” card, and when Tom was loudly insistent, the mechanic’s brother came out and was even more offensive than the mechanic, yelling at Tom and telling him he’s typical of all gringos who just want to take advantage of Belizeans. We’re not sure how them using our things without our permission, stealing fuel and sunglasses, accepting payment for fixing things they broke, and then blatantly lying to us constitute us taking advantage of them, but in the end they started hollering about having Tom arrested for trespassing on their property, so I urged Tom into the truck and we left. No sunglasses, no money, but a hard and relatively expensive lesson learned, and some concern that the men involved might feel the need for retribution, which caused Tom to sit outside with Nock until about midnight, when he gave up the watch since the only things they were scaring off were neighbors’ dogs out scrounging for garbage.

We’re not quite sure yet how we feel about all of this. We were initially very uncomfortable even with the thought that a mechanic could be that dishonest. After all, we’ve had almost 20 years of Aaron’s care in Honeoye, and besides being probably the most competent mechanic alive, Aaron is scrupulously honest. We’ve tried to be vigilant here and avoid these types of problems, but we haven’t been conditioned to remove everything of value from our vehicles when we drop them off for service, and it just didn’t occur to us. We also hesitated to accuse the mechanic based on hearsay, but between the facts that we trust the people who told us the truck was being used, the extra 93 miles, and all the other circumstantial evidence, we can’t just write this off to oversights on our part, or town politics with people who don’t like the mechanic trying to get him in trouble. What’s gone is gone, and the only thing that makes us feel marginally better is the knowledge that even though he won’t know it, the mechanic will lose in a big way in the end since if he had been honest and dealt with us fairly, he would have made a lot of money over the years taking care of our vehicles.

We don’t want family and friends to worry about our well-being here. While we don’t like to make a scene, this was a scene that had to be made so that other less-than-honest town residents won’t see us as patsies just waiting for them to take advantage of us. In the eyes of many Belizeans, Americans a) aren’t very smart or wise to the ways of the world, b) have more money than they know what to do with, and c) deserve to be swindled out of their money and to have their things stolen by Belizeans because all Americans want to do is take advantage of Belizeans. We know this isn’t the case, and all these two Americans were intending to do was to pay honest people for their services. The locals now know that if we think something isn’t right, we’ll deal with it very directly. We will be very careful to lock up our belongings and not do things like leave the dogs unattended, but this is the kind of thing that will eventually blow over, and we suspect all that will remain is the knowledge that we’re not always nice if we’re wronged. Plus, we still feel that our neighbors are completely trustworthy and very good people (even though they’re church goers too ;-) ), so if we thought we were in any type of trouble on our property, a few good yells would bring a number of people running – and people in town know that.

We’re also going to be more than a little hesitant for a while about hiring people from town. We won’t know who’s trustworthy and who isn’t, and who might be asking for a job either with a plan for revenge for the mechanic or because they want to steal from us. And, anyone we hire will be very closely supervised no matter where we find them. Despite the bad taste in our mouths from Bol’s contract on our property line, we really like Selwyn and believe that he really likes working here, so that won’t change, even though he does live in San Antonio. We probably won’t enter into another contract with Bol for more line clearing, at least not until Tom is less intent on getting the cabins habitable and has time to go work with them. And, to be honest, the badly estimated contract may not have seemed like such a big deal if we hadn’t taken the hit on the truck and sunglasses at exactly the same time. Nonetheless, despite our impatience to get things done, we won’t be spending money too quickly, and we won’t hire any more people than we can directly supervise. So, we’ll see where we go from here. I imagine it will be like saving and backing up files on your computer; you do it diligently for a while, and when nothing happens for an extended time, you get lax, and then when your computer crashes you kick yourself for not being more vigilant. We’ll be vigilant with our things for a while, and when nothing happens, we’ll get careless until something else is stolen, and then we’ll be back on guard. And this doesn’t make us feel any differently about the Belizean people in general or about the country. There are dishonest people every where, and probably the really remarkable thing in this case is that it took us this long to find one considering the number of people we have met over the past couple of months.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


A double rainbow over the pasture. It was raining at our place and to the west, and sunny to the east.

Marge clearing fence line with her machete

Tom and Selwyn in the bathroom

Tom and Selwyn on the deck

The auxiliary fuel tank is breaking the rail on the bed of the truck, so Tom had made arrangements last week to leave the truck with Eli on Tuesday to weld some angle iron around the rail for reinforcement. Tom has been trying to exercise in the morning because he’s too tired in the afternoon after working all day, plus it’s warm, so he used the truck dropoff as an opportunity to drive into San Antonio and run home for breakfast. This left us without a vehicle for the day – other than Esmerelda or the bike, of course – so it was a good chance to start to work through the pile of lumber that had been delivered on Monday. And he and Selwyn worked. They finished framing the deck and got all of the deck flooring tacked down, and they put up all the 2x6 stringers for the bathroom and some for the kitchen, which will be a kitchen only until we move into a house, and than that will become a bathroom too.

It was a pleasant dry day, so I decided to focus my horse energy on clearing the fence line rather than riding. The property has three pastures, and only one is completely fenced as far as we know, since before we bought Esmerelda she was escaping if she was in either of the others. The one that is completely fenced is the smallest, and even on her own she’s managed to eat most of what she considers edible, and because it’s been so dry, nothing new is growing. We’re actively looking for a companion for her, partly for her and partly so Tom and I can ride together, but we’d like to get at least one of the other pastures cleared and fenced so there’s enough grazing for two horses. So, I took my machete and started chopping the fence line. Most of the fence line is made of two strands of heavy wire, like we use for electric fence in NY, with a strand of barbed wire in between. I’m not a big fan of keeping horses in barbed wire, but I’m afraid that’s about the only option until we get an electrical system capable of supporting a charger. We’ve looked for a solar charger here, but haven’t found one, and most people just look at us like we’re nuts when we ask and lead us to the barbed wire section of the store. The local option if you don’t want to use barbed wire is to tie a rope around the horse’s neck and tether it in a grassy patch, but I think that’s even less desirable than barbed wire.

My Spanish lesson for the day involved learning to recognize when a word that sounds like an English word is a) a Spanish word that means something other than the English definition, e.g., “alto” which means either “stop” or “tall” in Spanish, and has nothing to do with a singing voice; b) a Spanish word that means the same thing as a similar English word, e.g., “computelora,” which means “computer;” or c) an English word. Honduran Marta had a solar panel installed over the weekend, and she couldn’t tell if it was charging her battery. So, she came over here and asked “tiene tester?” I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what “tester” meant, so I called Tom and Selwyn to help translate, and discovered that “tester” meant “tester.” Doh. It’s a good thing I can laugh at myself or I’d spend all day sitting in the camper and crying over my slow progress in learning another language.

Monday, March 26, 2007

And the construction begins

Tom was off to San Ignacio first thing in the morning to order lumber so he and Selwyn can finish the first cabin. He also had to take our stamp tax duty payment for the property to the real estate agent, so the government now knows we bought this property and it’s officially ours. While he was there, he picked up groceries and ran a few other errands, and planned to be home by lunchtime. Noon rolled around; no Tom. One o’clock; no Tom, so Selwyn and I ate lunch without him. Two o’clock; I had cleaned up lunch and was working on cleaning the camper, and Tom pulled up the driveway. He’d made one last stop in San Ignacio, trying to find my favorite yogurt, and when he got back in the truck it wouldn’t start. The owner of the store, who just happens to also be the owner of one of the properties we looked at before we bought this place, helped him try to jump start it, but it wouldn’t start, so the store owner called a taxi and had it take Tom to a reputable mechanic. The mechanic got some parts and drove Tom back to the truck, where they discovered that it wouldn’t start because the starter had become unbolted and had fallen off the truck. It was fine; it had just wiggled loose, so all the mechanic had to do was reattach it. He had Tom follow him back to the shop so he could get the bolts a little tighter, and Tinkerbell was back on the road. At this point we’re trying to limit our driving both because fuel is so expensive, and because every mile we drive on the roads around here is a mile of beating up poor Tinkerbell. We’re just waiting to see what part falls off next.

Fortunately Tom had arranged for all the lumber he bought to be delivered, so he wasn’t carting that around while they worked on the truck. But, he wasn’t home for more than about 20 minutes when we heard a truck pulling in the driveway. The lumber delivery truck was a truck very much like Tinkerbell, but without the auxiliary fuel tank in the bed, so there’s more room for loads. The truck was packed, with hardwood lumber stacked all the way up to the rail and sticking way out the back, and if it were night and the truck were using its headlights, they would have been pointing at the sky. As I’ve mentioned before, hardwood is heavy. Tom and Selwyn soon discovered that the other benefit to having the lumber delivered is that they get an extra man or two to help unload it, and even with four of them working it took almost an hour to unload the truck. Stacks of lumber are piled up both inside and outside the cabin, and Tom is pretty sure they have all the lumber they need for everything except some outside boards for the bathrooms, the walls and roof for the deck, and the inside wall and ceiling – although they do have what they need for inside framing. He’ll probably get some of that in Spanish Lookout on Friday, and then we should see a lot of progress pretty quickly with Tom and Selwyn just working on construction.

Since Tom was gone for the morning, I decided to take a long ride on Esmerelda. With Tom gone, he wouldn’t worry about me being out on the horse by myself, and I wouldn’t feel guilty that he was working on the property while I was out having fun. We did a loop, up past the vista, out to the Pine Ridge Road, then, after a short walk on the road, back on a trail that runs into the back of our property. On the way up to the vista, I heard crashing and a big racket in the jungle as a peccary ran across the trail and into the underbrush. Peccaries are wild jungle pigs, black and about the same size as a pot-bellied pig. This one wanted nothing but to get away from Esmerelda and me as quickly as possible, and Esmerelda watched his pig butt receding through the trees with pricked ears and no fear whatsoever. On the way down, I saw what I thought was a pair of turkeys. They’d been roosting in a tree, and as we approached they jumped down and ran off through the underbrush, just like wild turkeys in New York. When I returned, I asked Selwyn if they were turkeys, and he pulled out the trusty bird book and showed me that they weren’t turkeys, but a very similar bird called the crested guan.

As I got back to our property, I had the chance to use our newly cleared property line. Most people we’ve talked to here tell us that we need to keep the property line clear for two reasons. First, it’s a clear definition of the land belonging to any given lot so squatters can’t come in and build on or otherwise use a piece of land, and then claim it through squatters’ rights. Second, in the dry season, a ten-foot boundary serves as a fire break in the case of a forest fire. Because Tom and Selwyn are focusing on construction, we contracted with Bol to clear our property line. He has his other sons and some other guys working every day to clear the line, and they’re fighting their way through the jungle, up and down the hills, and leaving a ten foot swatch of nothing but dirt and a few large trees. The last little bit of my ride was on the part they’ve already cleared, and they’ve done an amazing job of beating back the jungle and creating what will be a very nice riding and walking trail when it’s done.

It was a good thing I was relaxed when I returned from my ride, because the dogs had ripped open the garbage bag and feasted on the remains of a chicken carcass that I’d cooked for Sunday’s dinner. It was mostly my fault because I knew the carcass was in the garbage and I hadn’t taken the garbage out of the camper, but I’d triple bagged it so I thought it was safe. But, chicken spoils quickly in the heat, so the dogs must have smelled it through all three bags. When I went in the camper, I certainly smelled it, and all that was left was shreds of bags and some aluminum foil that I’d used to line the pan. I worried a little about the dogs eating cooked chicken bones, but they seem none the worse from wear, and I’ve relaxed a bit about that anyway here since it seems like everybody feeds their dogs cooked chicken bones, and I haven’t heard of a dog having any problems. Anyway, the stench motivated me to give the camper a good cleaning, so I pulled out the rugs, swept, scrubbed, and mopped. The camper still stunk. I thought maybe it was Mellow’s breath from eating the garbage, but even when I threw him outside, the smell was still inside. So, I started sniff testing everything, and found that he apparently opened the bag of chicken carcass and dined on the bed, and spoiled chicken grease has soaked through all the bedding to the mattress. So, I stripped the bed and took everything over to the first cabin so I can gradually run it through the washer. I guess it’s a good thing we’re still sleeping on an air mattress, since it was pretty simple to deflate it and get it out of the camper, and since it’s rubber, it wasn’t too hard to wash. But, it was a way more thorough cleaning than I’d anticipated. I think part of the reason I don’t mind living in the camper is that housework is virtually nonexistent, so I guess I can’t complain too much about having to do a big cleaning, but I was still a little annoyed that a 20-minute sweeping out turned into a three hour scrubbing session.

Tom and I were laughing when we showered because we were comparing our hides. My poisonwood is better and I’ve managed to not get any more, but Tom now has very itchy feet and lower legs from the white poisonwood rash. I was checking myself for ticks since they crawl on me if they can when I tick spray Esmerelda, and found a few small ones that had bitten my leg. Overall, the bugs really aren’t bad right now, and it’s been a while since we’ve even seen a mosquito. These ticks aren’t a big deal because they don’t carry Lyme or any other disease that affects humans, and they’re small and seem to just bite, hang on for a few hours, and then fall off, and if you find them they’re always easy to detach. Nonetheless, if they bite they leave a mark, and the poisonwood leaves marks. We decided that if we were cows who were butchered so their hides could be used for leather products, our skins would definitely need to be sold with that disclaimer about how imperfections in the leather are signs of naturally distressed hide, not flaws in workmanship!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Mayan Rain Goddess

One of the archaeologists’ pet theories about why the Mayan people vanished, deserting multiple cities each with populations estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, is that an extended drought destroyed their ability to grow crops, depleting their food source. Many remains of human sacrifices are found in areas where the Mayans lived, and the archaeologists speculate that they were sacrificed to appease the rain god. My theory is that all those lives were sacrificed for no good reason, since all the Mayans had to do to make it rain was to bring me to Belize, get me a washing machine and no dryer, and have me pull the knob to start a load of wash. The heavens would open.

That’s what happened last week when I tried to do laundry, and that’s what happened today. It was sunny when we got up, sunny while we ate breakfast, and as soon as Tom turned on the generator and I loaded the washer, the black clouds rolled in, and by the time I walked from the cabin to the camper, it was starting to rain. Fortunately, the rain god seems to deal only in quantity of water, not in the period of time over which it falls. Last week it drizzled all day, making line drying laundry impossible, but this week it was a heavy but quick shower, and by early afternoon the blue skies were back, we had a nice breeze, and the humidity was low enough that everything was bone dry by 4:00.

All in all, it was an uneventful Sunday. We didn’t see our neighbors because today was Election Day in San Antonio, and the entire town was involved in some sort of election party. We initially thought it was strange that they hold elections on Sunday, but the logic is that most people don’t work on Sunday, so they’re able to vote without interfering with their jobs. Makes sense to me…probably more sense than the first Tuesday in November, or whatever the US Election Day rule is.

We spent the day planning and scoping. Tom came up with a materials list so he can go into San Ignacio tomorrow to order a delivery from the lumberyard that will enable him to finish the first cabin so we can move in, and start work on the second cabin for guests. Because the floor for the bathroom addition is framed, we were able to take boards the size of the sinks and toilets we plan to buy, and lay out the bathrooms so we can really see what goes where and how much room that leaves for towel racks, shelves, and cabinets. Based on what we did, we made a few minor changes in layout, although we know it may change again when we have the real fixtures. If Tom gets everything on his list tomorrow, it shouldn’t be too long before we actually start putting things together and really know what we’re doing.

We had some nice visitors late in the afternoon. Noah, our real estate agent, had been up in the Pine Ridge with his family and a friend, and they stopped by on their way home. Neither Noah nor his wife Marayla had been on the property since the day we came for our second look and made the offer, and we came up here the next day, which was about six weeks ago. We showed them what we’ve been doing, and all either of them could say was “wow.” Marayla’s sister was with them, and Marayla kept saying, “Sis, you should have seen this place the day before they got here. It was all overgown and full of trash. You couldn’t even see the buildings. The underbrush was up to here” (gesturing waist high). We know we’ve made progress, and we occasionally look at the pictures we took of the property before we made our offer, but it was really nice to have someone else confirm that we’re making a difference.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A scare

Every Saturday, I demand that Tom and I do something besides work on the property, at least for half a day. We spent the morning catching up on email and blogging – finally, and at least for now we don’t owe anybody any emails, and the blog is up to date as of yesterday including pictures. After we don’t bother to get online for a couple of days we’ll be behind again, but for now we’re on top of it and we had all Saturday afternoon to do our recreational activity.

It isn’t really recreation, and it is on the property, but we decided that it was a good time to take a hike and walk the boundary of our back 21 acres, which we hadn’t yet done. I’d ridden Esmerelda through a trail on that lot and had spotted where our property line crossed the trail, but that was as much of the lot as either of us had seen. The caretaker of a neighboring property had shown us the boundary marker after we had walked the other lot’s boundary. We were a little annoyed and had intended to ask that landowner to remove the fence, but after walking the line today, we realized that the fence is on our lot line, most likely erected by the previous owner of our property. We started with that line and walked to the top of the hill, where the fence takes a turn and Tom saw a boundary marker. I somehow missed that marker in my search for the trail I had seen crossing the horse trail, but we couldn’t find a trail so we retraced our steps back towards the feeder road. Before we hit the road, we found a path heading on to our property, so we took that until we hit the horse path. We went down that path and found property line, and hiked back towards the first line we had walked. The path hasn’t been maintained in a while, so it was rough going, and it seemed liked we hiked for a very long way. We went up and over one big mound, and were then in a valley starting up another big mound, and we decided to turn back. We retraced our steps, crossed the horse trail, and fairly quickly found our other corner marker and line. We had not been able to find where that line hit the feeder road, so we followed the line out to the road and found the boundary marker hidden behind a boulder in a place where we would never have found it looking for it from the road side. So, we’ve now hiked almost all of that lot line, and will go back when we have a spare hour or so and try to walk the line where we turned around. The 21 acres is a nice hunk of jungle with a few paths through it in addition to the boundary path around it, and at least for now all we plan to do with it is use it for hiking and riding.

We returned from our hike, exercised, and I made a pan of butterscotch brownies. When we had been hiking past our neighbors’ houses, Ofelia had come out and told us that her mother, Marta, had invited us for dinner at seven. She said there was nothing I could bring, but I’m unable to show up for a dinner empty handed. The neighbor families don’t drink alcohol, and wine is ridiculously expensive here, so our normal US contribution to a meal of a bottle of wine isn’t an option. While all of the women have ranges with ovens, they tend to mostly cook on their wood hearths, so they don’t make many baked goods, so anything sweet and baked is usually appreciated. So, showered and cleaned up, we headed off to our neighbors’ – our big weekend outing for dinner!

Dinner turned out to be a little tense. Only Marta and Julian (parents of Ofelia, Rosa, Iris, Hector, Marixa, and Zulmi) and Olmi were there. The girls, Hector, and Wilton (Olmi and Damion’s son) had gone to visit their grandmother in San Antonio, and Damion, Olmi’s husband, was on a field trip to Old Belize for guide school. Marta, Julian, and Olmi speak the least English of all the adults next door, so they were left with us without a translator. We’re all learning how to communicate with each other, so it was okay, and we actually ended up laughing about the effort to learn each others’ languages as we talked about things like the similarity of saying “tiene hambre,” which is “I have hunger/I’m hungry,” “tiene hombre” which is “I have a man,” and “tiene hombros,” which is “I have shoulders.” I think I said I have all three, but what was really funny was Tom saying he had a man. We also had a good laugh at Marixa’s expense, because the poor kid has chicken pox, which are going through the San Antonio school. She’d been sleeping, and Marta woke her up to give her more medicine, and was trying to explain to us what’s wrong with her. As soon as I saw her I said “chicken pox,” and they all said yes. I then said something about calling it “pollo pox,” which they all thought was very funny, although that’s not how they say it.

As we were eating and talking, Marta was looking more and more tense. Not only is Marixa sick, but the rest of her family was MIA. We finally understood that all the kids and Damion were supposed to have been home at 7:00, and by this time it was 8:30 or a little after. Since Damion had their car to go to school, they had no way to go out to see where everybody was, and when we finally figured out what was going on Tom offered to take Julian and drive to San Antonio to look at least for the kids. They met all of them in the back of Damion’s truck right at the San Antonio town line, and turned around and all came back together. Then the story unfolded. Damion and Marta’s elderly grandfather, who lived in Guatemala, died on Tuesday. Somehow this story got mixed up with rumors of an auto accident, and the story that got back to San Antonio was that the bus that had taken the guide school students to Old Belize had been in an accident, and Damion had been killed. Damion had returned late from his trip, but the bus was not involved in an accident, and everybody was fine; however, the family didn’t know that, and they were trying to find out what happened and trying to decide how to break the news to Damion’s wife, Olmi, and his sister, Marta, and the rest of the family still at home. When Damion finally showed up, they figured out where the wires were crossed, and started to head home, just in time to meet Tom and Julian on the way in to town. All’s well that ends well, but Tom and I headed for home and left the entire family talking quickly, loudly and a lot about the trauma of the miscommunication.

Take a look

If you read the posts from the past week and didn't see pictures, go back and take another look. I just managed to post pictures associated with those blog entries.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Life doesn't get much better than this

Framing started for deck. This side of the cabin now has two windows and a door.

A 330 lb., 12 foot cabbage bark 6x6

A 7", 15 lb. chunk of cabbage bark

One of the guys who was working on the removal of the cage bases showed up at 7:00 am, ready for another day. The other guy was called back to his job driving a bulldozer, so the guy who came back brought his son. The two of them disappeared into the cage area of the property for the entire day, and when they were done two and a half cage rings had been removed over the course of the two work days. Twelve cages were removed by the zoo, so it looks like it will be a pretty big effort to get the other nine and a half cage bases out of the ground. It’s such hard work that we’re a little afraid that word will spread and nobody will want to come do it, but enough people need work that at least a few people should be willing to work like dogs for a few weeks.

Tom and Selwyn spent the entire day working on the deck and bathroom additions to the first cabin. They finished pouring the concrete bases for the poles, and started the frame for the deck. They need to let the cement dry over the weekend before they can put up the last support pole for the deck, and then they’ll be ready to finish the frame for that. Tom is planning to run into San Ignacio on Monday morning to order the rest of the lumber he needs for both additions. The lumber yard there offered to deliver the lumber – for a fee, of course – so we’re going to go that route. It will allow us to get all the lumber we need in one shot, rather than making multiple trips and then having to unload the truck.

Hardwood is heavy! In the US, we considered mahogany to be a hardwood. Here, mahogany is the soft wood used for interiors, and hardwoods are woods like sapodilla, cabbage bark, Santa Maria, and black poisonwood – which is very expensive because it is so hard and so beautiful. The true hardwoods don’t need to be treated for termites because they’re so hard the termites won’t even eat them, and hardwood lumber can last for literally thousands of years. In doing excavations of some of the Mayan ruins around here, archeologists have found sapodilla used as door lintels. It was built into the pyramids in the BC timeframe, and it’s still hard and supporting the structures. After a three-man effort to get the sapodilla twelve-foot 6x6 out of the back of the truck, Tom took a piece of waste and brought it into the camper to measure and weigh it. A 7” piece weighed about 15 pounds, so he figured that the twelve footer weighed about 330 pounds. That’s a lot of wood!

I finally found tack that suits both Esmerelda and me better than my dressage saddle with the barely-tight small girth. Although the feed and tack store in Spanish Lookout doesn’t have any English tack, a rear girth for a Western saddle has fairly small buckles, and is the proper length to work with our endurance saddle. My jumping saddle rides a little low on her withers since she’s so thin, but the endurance saddle fits nicely, and although I expected the Western girth to rub since it isn’t at all contoured, I rode her with it on Thursday and it didn’t bother her. So, I caught her, groomed her, and tacked her up with no trouble at all; in just three days of riding and grooming, she’s become much more tractable and willing to cooperate.

Friday afternoon was exceptionally nice weather-wise, so I saddled up Esmerelda and asked Selwyn for advice on where to ride. He told me to take the feeder road that separates our two property parcels, go through the gate that blocks a neighbor’s farm, go through the corn field, and then up a path through the jungle to an overlook. I started out going past our neighbors’ houses, which are on the corner of our road and the feeder road. I had a large audience, partly because they’re all waiting to see what silly thing Tom and I are going to do next, and partly because nobody around here rides just for fun, and women don’t ride hardly at all, so a woman out on a horse just to have fun for a couple of hours is a notable event – although I’m sure they’ll get used to it with me sooner or later. I was very glad that Esmerelda is as small as she is because I had to get off to open the gate. Gates around here are made by winding vertical sticks, about 1 ½ to 2 inches in diameter, into three strands of barbed wire every two feet or so. This grid is then stretched from gate post to gate post and firmly secured at one end, with the opening end attached by loops at the top and bottom of the gate post to hold the last stick of the gate. For one woman holding a horse, getting the gate open and closed is a wrestling match. The barbed wire wants to roll up and tangle itself, the sticks get all mixed up, and getting the last stick in and out of the barbed wire loops at the top and bottom of the gate post is a task that might be easy with four hands, but it’s a little difficult with 1 ½ hands. And, I had to pay attention to keep both my parts and Esmerelda’s parts from getting tangled in the barbed wire. I was really glad I was wearing leather gloves!

We made it through the gate and set off through the jungle and up the hill to the overlook. I had one of those “I can’t believe this is my life” moments as I was riding through an especially thick and especially beautiful part of the jungle, with huge trees, cahoun palms of all different sizes, hanging vines, huge boulders and rock cliffs on one side, and singing birds. I walked along on Esmerelda with a goofy smile on my face thinking “This is my horse, and I rode from my house, and I’m in an incredibly beautiful environment only a mile from home. How much better can life get?” Of course the horse is a mountain pony and the house is a camper, but all in all life doesn’t get much better.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Estimating Effort

Bathroom additon. The nearer "bathroom" will be the kitchen while we are living in this cabin.

Two floors' worth of waste

Our early morning visitors on Thursday were two guys from San Antonio looking for work. We’ve had people showing up on and off, and mostly haven’t had anything for them to do, but these guys just picked the right day. I haven’t written about it, but part of our delay in closing was a slight difficulty with the Belize Zoo. The Zoo had come onto the property right around the time we made our offer and removed some of the cat cages. When they removed them, they just cut the welded wire off with bolt cutters, and left the spikes sticking up out of the concrete bases, making the area very dangerous to walk through. They had said they were going to come back and clean up and remove the bases, but they never did, so the real estate agent that had listed the property told us to get an estimate of what it would cost to remove the bases, let him know, and he would try to settle with the Zoo. The real estate agent had visited us on Tuesday and taken some pictures, so we hadn’t done anything until then, but since he had seen the mess and documented it, we had to figure out how to get an estimate. What better way than to let two guys see how much they can get done in two days, and then multiply that effort by the number of cages that have to be removed? These two guys just happened to show up on the right day, so by the end of the week we should know what we need to know to make a pretty good guess about how much it will cost.

Tom found an avocado in San Antonio. As I wrote the other day, I was thrilled to get mangoes and white onions in Belmopan, and wondered when the avocados would appear. The answer is, now. They’re just like the mangoes as far as cost – expensive by Belizean standards, but very reasonable by US/Wegman’s standards, at $1.50USD/avocado.

Tom and Selwyn spent the day getting the support posts set for the bathroom addition off the first cabin. They spent a lot of time measuring 2x6s, since a ten foot board can be anywhere from slightly less than 10 feet to almost 12 feet, and they want to get as much out of each board as they can. Even with doing a lot of measuring they set most of the floor framing for one of the bathrooms. We’re looking forward to more progress on Friday.

I rode Esmerelda and finished cleaning ticks out of her ears. I also wormed her, pulled her mane, and gave her a bath with the hose. A stud chain works wonders on an opinionated little mare; I didn’t go for any more drags. She’s starting to look like a horse that somebody cares about, and her behavior is getting better as she realizes she’s not running the world.

The guys who were cleaning up the cages suggested that Tom let some of the air out of the truck tires to improve the ride. Tom took everybody home to San Antonio because he had to go to the hardware store and to get more bottled water, and he found that less air pressure in tires makes for a much smoother ride. Now he just has to remember to put the air back in the next time he goes out and picks up a big load of something.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Two months already!

Gibnut. They're supposed to be good eating, a lot like pork. There's a breadnut tree on our property line, which is their food of choice, and Bol told us that if we hear a shot at night it's just him killing a gibnut, and we should prepare for a barbeque the next day.



To remain in Belize, Tom and I are required to go to the Immigration department in Belmopan and get our passports stamped every month. Since we came into the country on January 21, the 21st of each month is the day of our big outing to Belmopan. Our original plan for the day had been to meet Bol at our property in the morning, and take him to Belmopan with us because he needs a police report to renew his guide license. However, he wasn’t able to get the photo he needs for the report, so he showed up in the morning to tell us he wouldn’t be going. He had met our other neighbor, Lilly, on the road, so Lilly, Bol, and Lilly’s dog Dixie – the one our pack had tried to beat up – came up the driveway so Lilly could see what we’ve been doing. After the grand tour, as we were standing in the driveway, Bol pointed to the sapodilla tree. Apparently the kinkajous hadn’t eaten all the fruit, because a pair of coatimundi – also known as quash around here – was crawling around in the branches. Bol says they’re most closely related to raccoons, although they look more like foxes, except they climb trees. When I was out on Esmerelda the day before, I had seen a pair in the jungle. I heard them before I saw them, and thought they were peccaries (small jungle pigs) because they were grunting, but then I saw one run down a tree and through the underbrush, with its partner right behind it. We were glad to see them in the tree not only because it’s yet another exotic-to-us animal on our property, but also because until then, the only animals eating the sapodilla fruit were the kinkajous. Now that we know other animals are showing up, we’re waiting for the howler monkeys to appear, even though we know that they may keep us awake all night with their bellowing if they’re right on top of us.

We took off for Belmopan and had our passports stamped without incident. The Immigration Officer who stamped them for us asked if we planned on staying, and when we said we were, he sent us to the office where work permits are issued. The very helpful work permit officer told us exactly what we need to get work permits, and also explained how we can expect to make the transition from work permit to Permanent Residency status. It’s all a little ambiguous because in order to get a work permit as a business owner, you need to have your business registered, but in order to be running a business you’re supposed to have a work permit, and somewhere in there you have to get approval from your town council, but the work permit officer assured us that it all works out. Tom took the first step towards being a business and went to the Social Security office to get the paperwork so we can start paying into Social Security for Selwyn, so now we just have to figure out what town needs to approve us and we’ll apply to be a business.

While Tom was doing that, I went to the Belmopan market. I was thrilled to find that the first mangoes of the season are being sold. We had been eating them in Mexico, where they have them all year, but found that as soon as we crossed the Belize border they were out of season and not expected until the end of March or beginning of April. They’re still expensive by Belizean standards, $1BZ per mango, but compared to what I was paying for them at Wegman’s they’re a huge bargain. And, they’re fresh. I also found the white onions that we’d eaten in Mexico that were out of season in Belize. Hopefully, the avocados aren’t too far behind! I’ve also been looking for a new wallet, but gave up before we left the US because everything I liked was $40US or more. After getting the produce, while I was waiting for Tom, I walked through some of the market stalls that sell things other than produce and found just what I wanted. I was afraid to ask the store owner how much it cost, but finally decided that it was worth a shot, and it was – it was $15BZ. So, for the equivalent of $7.50US, I got just what I wanted for a good $35US less than what I would have paid in the US. Being a handbag and wallet snob, it’s been a long time since I carried a wallet that was that cheap, but I’m happy!

From Belmopan we headed out to Spanish Lookout to try and get everything on Tom’s materials list. We stopped at the sawmill and picked up two hardwood 6x6s, one eight feet and one twelve feet. Hardwood is way heavier than pine, and it took a big effort on the part of Tom and the sawmill attendant to get them into the truck, but the truck’s ride really smoothed out once they were loaded. Back on the road and heading towards Spanish Lookout, we saw a small pickup truck that had run off the road, down an embankment, and was sunk in the mud at the bottom. We figured we need all the good vehicle karma we can get, so Tom turned around and went back to see if the guy needed to be towed. He did, and was quite happy that Tom had come to his aid before he even had to start walking. We were laughing because Tom asked him how he ended up in the ditch, and he started spewing a story about how his brakes aren’t good, and he hit the brakes, and suddenly he was off the road and in the ditch – which was funny both because this was on a wide straight stretch of paved road where we can’t even imagine why he had to hit the brakes, and because it’s typical Belize that he’s driving a truck where the brakes are so bad that using them means a trip off the side of the road.

We spent the afternoon picking up most of the rest of the stuff on Tom’s list. Our last stop, at about 4:30 pm, was at a steel shop to get some brackets to secure the metal sheeting to the tops of the poles under the second cabin. Tom had been unable to find these brackets, so he took them to the metal shop to see if they could make them. They took a look at them, determined that all they were was sliced angle iron with holes drilled in the edges, and asked if we could wait for about 45 minutes while they made 60 of them for us. In our ongoing comparison of Belize to the US, we figured out that in the US, with the huge selections at Lowe’s and Home Depot, Tom probably could have found something that would do the job. Here, we don’t have the wide selection, but you can walk into a metal shop at 4:30 in the afternoon and they’ll offer to custom make 60 pieces of whatever it is you’re looking for in less than an hour, so you get exactly what you want. In the US, we wouldn’t have even known where to go to try to have them made, and if we found a place, we’re pretty doubtful that it could have been done so quickly. We finally decided that Belize reminds us of how the US was about 30 years ago, when if our fathers needed some piece of hardware they couldn’t find, they’d take us to Finkel’s in Lambertville, where they’d either find it or make it while you waited on a Saturday morning. That lead to another brief discussion where I reminisced about how much I hated those Saturday morning trips to Finkel’s, as Tom looked at me in amazement and told me how much he loved them. But that’s a whole other subject…

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Happy on Horseback

Yesterday’s estimate of 45 minutes to get Esmerelda tacked up was a little optimistic. Let’s try more like an hour and a half to two hours. We brought four saddles, half a dozen girths, at least six or eight bits and bridles, assorted breastplates, saddle pads, and grooming supplies. With everything we brought, I managed to find one saddle combined with one girth that was small enough to fit, and an adequate bridle and bit. Before I could even start fitting the tack, however, I had to get her tied up and groomed, which involved me chasing her around the pasture to catch her, her dragging me around the property by the lead rope, me chasing her through the underbrush after she pulled the lead rope out of my hands, and a rodeo over tick spray.

Despite all that, it was great fun and it felt even better than I anticipated to be on top of a horse again, especially a horse that will be a project where I’m sure I’ll see a lot of progress over the next few weeks. She’s three years old and green broke; she doesn’t seem to want to buck or rear or spook, and she seems like a pretty quick study, but she has no manners whatsoever, minimal response to the aids, and she sees nothing wrong with grabbing the bit and making a U-turn if she doesn’t want to go somewhere. That said, she’s the kind of horse I like – spunky and opinionated enough to be a bit of a challenge, but smart enough to be a quick learner. Her small size may almost be a benefit in training her, since I found on our ride through the jungle that if she tries to grab the bit and turn, I’m strong enough to get the outside rein in both hands and pull her nose back around to my knee. From the looks she was giving me, I don’t think anyone ever did that to her before, but after only three or four attempts to turn, I could feel when she was grabbing the bit, and all I had to do was take a good hold of the rein and it was enough to deep her heading in the right direction – with a swishy tail and her ears laid back, but still continuing forward. We bought a chain shank in Spanish Lookout yesterday, so my plan for her right now is to work on her ground manners and break her habit of pointing her head where she wants to go and dragging whoever is on the other end of the lead rope. Then, I think I’ll do a lot of flatwork and get her to unfreeze and stretch her neck and give through her body, which should also help with the leading problem. We also need to work on her standing still while I get on and off, but I think that will go quicker too when she’s accepting the bit and not bracing against anything that puts her head and neck anywhere other than where she wants it.

While I was playing with the horse, Tom and Selwyn finished hanging the doors in the first cabin. Tom sat down and wrote up a good materials list so that when we go to Spanish Lookout tomorrow, we can get everything they need to spend the rest of this week and the beginning of next working on the cabin. Someday we’ll be able to move out of the camper!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Esmerelda Has Shoes…

Selwyn put shoes on Esmerelda’s front feet today. Tom had picked up farrier supplies last week when he was in Spanish Lookout, and Selwyn found that he had almost everything he needed. We still need to get a stand to put her foot on to rasp it and clinch nails, and we need a better nail clincher and bigger nippers, but Selwyn made do with what we had and her feet now look much better. When he was done, I gave her a bath and started picking ticks out of her ears. Having to do that is incentive to make sure I keep her tick sprayed, since it’s a very icky job. She’s a very good girl, however, and stands quietly as I reach way down into her ears to pull the ticks out; I’m sure it feels good to have them gone since their bites do hurt, but I was still a little surprised how well behaved she was. She’s not so well behaved about having her belly touched either by a person or by fly spray, but I managed to avoid the cow kicks and we’ll work on that. I had intended to ride her, but by the time I got done grooming her it was 4:00, and I figured it would take me another 45 minutes to make my tack fit her and get her ready to go, so I put that off ‘til Tuesday. I still have more ticks to pull out of her ears, and I’m going to pull her mane so she doesn’t pick up so many burrs, so there’s plenty to do for my horse time. Tom, I think, is relieved that the horse is starting to look better, but is a little worried that my days of doing anything that he considers productive are gone now that I have a horse to play with and ride.

Tom started working on a detailed map of the living area of this property. He’s plotting detailed overviews of the cabin layout, and the layout of the two cabins and the other current and future buildings, and where driveways, parking lots, and walkways will be. He started it on Sunday and ended up working on it until almost midnight, and picked it up again on Monday morning. I’ll post it when it’s in a form that can be understood without a personal narrative.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Rainy Sunday in the Jungle

We woke up to rain on Sunday morning, and spent the day relaxing in the camper and getting inside stuff done. Even though we’ve had so much gorgeous weather since we’ve been here, we still feel like we MUST be out in the sunshine when it’s nice. After 25 years in upstate NY, we’re so conditioned to take advantage of every nice day, that we both find it almost impossible to work inside in the good weather. So, a rainy day is a good thing for us as far as getting things done, not to mention it helps the trees and plants grow and keeps the dust down in the road.

Tom hooked up washing machine, which meant he had to go up and down the ladder and on the metal roof that was slick from the rain in order to hook the water supply hose to the tank. He ran a PVC pipe from the drain hose into the jungle, and we figured that all we had to do was fire up the generator, plug it in, and that would be that. Well, we figured that, but knew it probably wouldn’t happen that way since nothing is that easy, and everything we start to do seems to require 10 steps we haven’t considered before we can start the intended task. We finally got water running from the roof tank hard enough to fill the washer and make it run, then had to reset the breaker on the generator. We figure this is something we are going to have to get used to when we run large appliances. Because the water pressure isn’t great the water runs pretty slowly into the washer, and we have to watch it to make sure it runs through every cycle correctly, but it sure beats washing clothes at the river on rocks or on scrub boards with a hose in the backyard, or paying a ridiculous amount of money to get the clothes washed and then having to deal with a basketful of damp clothes.

Tom also setup electric inverter, finally, after getting all the extra parts he needed to put it together. None of the instructions listed the extra parts required, so he had to start the job, figure out what was needed, then wait until a Spanish Lookout trip to get them. We can now use internet without the generator running, provided the battery connected to the inverter is charged. This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, since we can only charge the batteries through the camper connection, so getting both deep cycle batteries charged involves swapping them out on the camper. It’s a little tricky, but it works.

We also used the rainy morning to sit with our tea and have a planning session for what we anticipate our week will look like. We are getting a bit more reasonable and realistic with our goals now that we are getting the hang of how long some things take if you need supplies. We THINK we have all the supplies for the week, so it should go smoothly – we are keeping our fingers crossed. And, we have to go to Belmopan on Wednesday to get our passports stamped since we are almost through our second month in Belize, so if we find we need some supplies by mid-week, we’ll be out anyway.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Blancaneaux & Rio On Pools

Selwyn, Eli, and Junior at Rio On. Junior is "swimming."

Hilda and Crystalee at Rio On Pools

Junior and Eli freezing at Rio On Pools

Our plan on Saturday was to take a field trip with Selwyn and his family – Hilda, his wife, and their kids, Junior, Eli, and Crystalee. Junior is four, Eli is three, and Crystalee is about 4 months. Our plan was to go take a tour of Blancaneaux, Francis Ford Coppola’s jungle lodge where Selwyn used to work, and then head on up into the Pine Ridge and go to the Rio On Pools, an area where the river level changes through a series of small waterfalls and pools. We couldn’t decide if we should cancel because of the truck belt, since being up in the Pine Ridge and coming down the mountain on the twisty mountain roads didn’t seem like the best idea with three little kids in the truck. But, ever the optimists, Tom decided to drive into town and go to Eli, our new mechanic, to have the belt checked out before picking up Selwyn and his family. Eli felt that the belt would be okay for the trip, so Tom made an appointment to have it fixed Tuesday morning and picked everybody up. We’d all really been looking forward to the trip, so we were glad we didn’t have to cancel.

I stayed in the camper to make a rice and sausage salad for lunch, as well as a pan of brownies. I made the discovery that when the burners on top of the stove are lit, the oven has trouble getting enough gas to maintain the set temperature, which turned the cooking session into a juggling session as I tried to keep enough heat on top of the stove to steam the rice, and get enough heat into the oven to bake the brownies. It took lots of turning things on and off and up and down, and the rice came out a little wetter than I like and the brownies a little dryer, but everything was okay in the end. Tom gave Hilda a tour of the property so she can see what Selwyn does every day. Selwyn picked a half a dozen green coconuts so we could have coconut water with our lunch, and then we packed up and headed up the mountain.

The stables at Blancaneaux

Selwyn and family - Hilda, Junior, Eli, and Crystalee - at Rio On Falls. And yes, the picture is real, it's not a fake backdrop for photo opportunities.

We got the insiders’ Blancaneaux tour, and it’s as beautiful as everyone says. The cabanas aren’t spread over a lot of ground, but they’re very private because of how the gardens are planted and the jungle is maintained. The landscaping and building are beautifully done, with the manmade buildings and pools and walkways built in harmony with the jungle and the river. Tom took lots of pictures so we can reference them when we get done building and start landscaping here, and then we headed up to the stables. The Blancaneaux stable is filled with horses that we’d be happy to own. They have a very nice thoroughbred stallion, who’s not real big, but he’s well put together and has a great temperament. We were all in the stall with him and he was a gentleman as we looked him over and patted him. There are a few broodmares who are either in foal to him or who have had his babies, and a few of his yearling babies, and they all look very nice. George has now told us that Esmerelda was actually bred twice, and he isn’t sure if she’s in foal to the Blancaneaux stallion or a stallion from Santa Elena, which George says is an Arabian, but which Selwyn says is another thoroughbred. Having talked a lot to Selwyn about horses and having watched him in action with them, I tend to believe Selwyn more than George. But, I guess we’ll see what she has, if anything, since I’m not entirely convinced that she was even bred.

After a quick walk through the Blancaneaux organic garden, which supplies all the produce for both of FFC’s Belize lodges, we headed up to Rio On Pools. Selwyn hacked off the tops of the coconuts for drinks, and Tom, Hilda, and I got out our pooled picnic – chicken, rice and beans, rice and sausage salad, and brownies. When we arrived at the picnic area, we were the only ones there, but as we ate a couple of women from California came in with their guide and ate their box lunches, and then a whole truckload of Mennonites showed up with their picnic. When the California women showed up, Tom was hacking the coconuts for more coconut water, and the women were fascinated, especially after Tom told them that he was doing it with his wife’s machete. He asked if they’d like to try the water, but they said they didn’t like coconut. I considered telling them that I wasn’t a big fan of the coconut we get in the US, and that fresh-off-the-tree coconut water is probably nothing like anything they’ve had, but decided to save my breath and drink the water ourselves. These women seemed to know a lot about everything, and were eager to tell us, so we just listened politely and let them drink their Coke.

We played in the Rio On pools for a while, after setting up a little camp on a big rock for Crystalee. The boys were really good; I’d been worried that they’d be darting off and going over a waterfall, but they were happy to play in the pools where they could touch bottom, and never got out of grabbing distance of one of the adults. After a couple of hours of sun, we piled back in the truck and headed home. The alternator belt made the trip, and we arrived home without incident, with two sleeping babies and one pretty tired 4-year old.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Full Day

Tom and I both set out early Friday morning for San Ignacio and Spanish Lookout with a long list of people we needed to talk to and supplies we needed to get to continue the work on the property. Our first stop was CCET, the Cayo Center for Education and Training, where we needed to pick up a schedule of the tour guide courses for Selwyn, who has only a few modules to complete before he can get his guide license. From the looks of the schedule, Selwyn thinks he should be able to complete the course work by November. We then stopped at the Inglewood Camping Grounds to pay Greg for the electricity we used after we paid for our stay since we had left in a hurry and hadn’t paid the full day’s electric bill. We found that Greg had gone to their home in California, and his wife is now doing the campground duty. I sat in the truck with the dogs while Tom talked to Mrs. Castillo, and he said she’s as nice as Greg, and as nice as we would expect Greg’s wife to be. She didn’t know anything about the electric bill, but she went in the house and Skyped Greg, who told her to tell us not to worry about it since we didn’t use enough electricity in one day to make a difference.

When Tom was in Spanish Lookout earlier in the week, he had found that there is a shortage of hardwood 2x6s, which he needs to frame the bathrooms and decks he’s building off the cabins. On the way down the hill into San Ignacio, we decided to try the San Ignacio lumber yard to see if they had any hardwood 2x6s. They did, and were more than happy to sell Tom as many as we could fit in the back of the truck. Not only do they have the 2x6s, but they have all the other lumber Tom needs, and they’re about 40 minutes closer than Spanish Lookout, and are accessed by the San Antonio road, which is in much better condition than the Georgeville Road, which is the most direct route to Spanish Lookout. Plus, they deliver, so Tom thinks he’s found his new source of lumber.

With a full truck, Tom dropped me off in front of Noah’s office, where we were scheduled to meet a gentleman who owns a company specializing in alternative energy solutions. Since the property is off the grid as far as electric goes, we need an alternative solution, and this gentleman, Thomas, is not only a great source of information, but also sells all the parts needed to get us set up. Thomas advised us on how to build the system from the bottom up so we can expand if necessary, and so we can start with a minimal cash outlay and get more parts as we can afford them. We’re looking specifically at solar power, and it isn’t cheap. We did a rough estimate of the size of system we’d need, and it came to somewhere between $15K and $20KUSD, although we can reduce the initial cost by getting fewer solar panels and adding as we can afford them, using the generator, which we already have, to charge the batteries if the solar panels aren’t collecting enough juice. We can’t do anything until we have the buildings in a condition to install the system – the building where Thomas suggests we put the solar panels is currently roofless, and solar panels need to be installed on the roof – but in the meantime, we’re coming up with a detailed list of everything we can think of that needs or will need electric power so we can determine the exact size of the system we’ll need.

After this meeting, we went down to the market so I could buy some produce. Tom parked on the grass in the shade, so he stayed in the truck with the dogs while I shopped. While he was waiting, Tom decided to check fluid levels in the truck, and noticed that the alternator belt had a few chunks out of it. He called Noah, who recommended a mechanic in San Ignacio, so as soon as I finished shopping we backtracked up the hill to have the truck checked. The mechanic said that it looked like normal wear, but it needed to be replaced. We had a brief debate about whether or not we should go to Spanish Lookout, but since the mechanic said that with a diesel engine the engine will keep running without the alternator, we decided to chance it. If we heard the belt go, we’d have to get ready to dash home without everything else that uses electricity in the truck – no electric brakes, no power steering, shut windows since they couldn’t be shut after the battery runs down, and no lights.

The deciding factor on chancing it was that the top item on our Spanish Lookout list was a washing machine. As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, we’ve been quite vexed over the cost of laundry and our alternatives. The majority of women around here hand wash all of their families’ laundry with a bucket and a washboard. I’ve really resisted that because I don’t want to end up doing it forever, and if we end up having a lot of guests, all I’d be doing every day is washing linens. On top of that, it’s really hard work. I’ve washed a few things by hand, and I usually end up gimping around with a sore back and sore knees for a day, and I’ve dispensed ibuprofen to the neighbor women after they’ve done a particularly large load. So, even though they’re very expensive and there’s virtually no selection, we agreed we needed a washer. The place where we’ve been buying most of our big ticket items, and which has been very fair with us, only had one of the top of the line Maytag front loaders – but it’s a front loader that loads from the top. It’s the top of the line, and very, very expensive. So expensive, in fact, that the sales manager said it’s more washer than he’d advise anybody to buy, so he sent us down the road to the LP Gas place, which also sells appliances. We ended up with the large capacity agitator Whirlpool washer, which still has more bells and whistles than we need – we don’t even have hot water right now, so the heat sensor is a little useless for us! – and loaded it in the truck, almost $1000USD ahead of where we’d have been if we bought the toploading front loader Maytag.

We ran around Spanish Lookout getting the rest of the items on our list until the stores closed at 5:00. Then we started home. Our crossed fingers and pleas to Tinkerbell to make it all the way worked, and we had a very slow but uneventful ride, although we had to stop the truck every mile or so for Tom to reposition the lumber and tighten the straps so we didn’t leave our load of hard-to-find 2x6s in the middle of the Georgeville Road. As we were heading southwest, we were surrounded by beautiful blue skies, but we could see a roving thunderstorm ahead of us. It was a big black cloud, all by itself in the otherwise blue sky, with a sheet of grey rain between the cloud and the ground. We couldn’t hear thunder, but we could see flashes of lightening, and we could see a beautiful half rainbow coming out of the cloud and down into the mountains. The sun was setting as we arrived home, and it was very dark by the time we fed the dogs and started unloading the lumber and the washing machine. By then, the storm had circled around behind us, and although we still couldn’t hear thunder, we could see flashes of lightening in the north that looked like they were coming from the ground, and which lit up the whole sky. About an hour later, as we were eating dinner, we heard the thunder to the west. The storm had continued its circle, and soon after we heard the thunder, the rain started. It was just a quick heavy downpour, and then it cleared up. When we talked to people the next day, we found that only a narrow circular track of people had received rain; we got the rain here, but in San Antonio, less than 3 miles away, it was dry.

The only other excitement on Friday was another living in the jungle lesson. We generally hang our bath towels out on the line during the day since they stay damp if we leave them hung in the tiny camper bathroom, and if they’re hung out in the sun they’re deliciously dry and fresh. We usually bring them in before the sun goes down, but since we didn’t get home until dusk and didn’t think to bring them in until the rain was threatening, they’d been hung out for an hour or so in the dark. Tom showered while I made dinner, and all of the sudden he shouted an obscenity and started thrashing in the bathroom. I turned around just in time to see a scorpion fly out the bathroom door and land on the floor of the camper. Since I was making dinner I just happened to have a knife in my hand, so I flicked the scorpion back in the bathroom where the dogs wouldn’t be tempted to investigate, Tom took the broom handle and held it down, and I chopped it in half with my knife. As it turned out, it didn’t sting Tom, just gave him a big surprise as he went to dry off his body and ended up with a scorpion on his chest. When we mentioned the incident to our Belizean friends, we found that everyone we talked to who has been stung by a scorpion has been stung because the scorpion was in some item of clothing which they had put on after it was hung out to dry. It seems to be common knowledge that you always shake out shoes and boots before putting them on, but even Belizeans sometimes forget to shake out ALL of their clothes.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


Shortly before we went to bed on Wednesday night, Tom discovered that the reason the water was only trickling into the tank wasn’t because no water was coming out of the pipe – it was because there was a kink in the hose. He fixed it and let it run for a little while before we went to sleep, but it was obviously bothering him because he was up at 3:30am to fill tanks. The good thing about filling the tanks at that time of night is that there is enough pressure to fill the water tower directly, even though it’s about 22 feet up in the air. This was a surprise, because even when the water pressure is good, it sometimes takes quite a while to get enough water pumped up what’s probably a three to four foot rise to fill the camper’s tank. When the tank on the tower was full, Tom put the hose into the big tank to let it fill until water stopped running in the morning. So, he went back to bed at about 5:00am, and we got up around 6am.

I had made plans with Bol the day before to walk around our property and investigate a few holes that looked like they could be caves. I have no desire at all to put myself in a dark hole in the ground. The thought of what might be living in there way overpowers the temptation to see where the hole goes or what it might contain. I read somewhere that a cave hasn’t yet been discovered in Belize that doesn’t contain some Mayan artifacts, and even that isn’t enough to tempt me into exploring underground. Bol, however, has discovered a few caves, all of which have contained artifacts, and since it doesn’t bother him at all to tie a rope to a tree, drop it down a hole, and rappel as far as he needs to go to hit bottom, asked if I would show him the holes we’ve found.

While Tom was putting the finishing touches on our temporary water system and Selwyn was sanding doors, Bol and I took off into the jungle. Both the holes we’d seen were close to trails on the property – which is why we saw them – but Bol thought it would be more interesting to bushwhack. It was more interesting to bushwhack, and Bol showed me a few spot which he suspects are Mayan mounds, but even though I grew up in the woods in the northeast US, and even though I’ve spent a lot of time hiking and have stayed pretty fit, following Bol through the jungle made me feel like an oafish city slicker. Bol ducks a vine here, dodges a thorn bush there, flicks his machete a few times and makes a hole magically appear in a tangle of vines, and scurries and scampers through the underbrush with no more effort than a squirrel. I lumbered along behind, tripping on a vine here, getting scratched by a thorn bush there, and trying to get my body, which seemed to have doubled in size, through the holes Bol had cleared in the vines. And with all of that, Bol was still watching me with the eyes in the back of his head, telling me not to hurry and that even though I was behind him, I still needed to pay more attention to the ground to watch for snakes. We finally came out of the jungle on the cleared path that follows our property line, and headed up the knoll to the first hole.

Bol cleared the underbrush from around the hole, and made sure his rope had a straight shot from a good sized tree where he tied it to the hole. He threw a few sticks in the hole to wake up anything that might be in it, and listened and shone his flashlight around to hear and see if anything was moving. All was quiet, so he dropped into the hole, which went four or five feet down before it took a bend. Bol moved very slowly and carefully, but soon disappeared. In a few minutes, his head popped back up and he told me to come down. I resisted, but he assured me it was safe, so I dropped in. That hole is a cave, albeit a very small cave. After the bend there’s a chamber, which is about 10 or 12 feet in diameter and four or five feet high. The ground is dirt, and the walls are pretty limestone formations. The cave has no doubt been “discovered” before, so there was nothing in it but dirt and leaves, but it was interesting nonetheless.

We then hiked down a trail to the other hole, where Bol repeated the process. This cave, however, isn’t a cave, just a crack in the rocks. Bol slithered down on his stomach through a small opening to see if anything opened up beyond that, but nothing did, so we packed up and headed home. I made lunch for the four of us, Bol started fires in all the piles we’ve been collecting, and Tom, Selwyn, Bol, and I ate lunch. Bol informed me that I’m learning to cook like a Belizean, and that I could live with a Belizean and he’d be happy with my cooking…which I think was a compliment. I explained my “do the best you can with the ingredients on hand” philosophy of cooking, and since I’m getting my ingredients locally and cooking in Belize, it shouldn’t be too surprising that I’m learning to cook like a Belizean. My tortillas still aren’t round, my beans tend to get a little dry, and my rice is inconsistent, but if I watch enough other women make these things and taste the results, I’ll get the hang of it sooner or later.

I’m learning about cooking, and Tom is learning about carpentry in Belize. At this point, the cabins are stripped, so Tom is rebuilding one piece at a time, with Selwyn’s help. Tom told me that he was going to spend Thursday hanging the two external doors to the cabin, and after watching him hang quite a number of doors in our old farmhouses over the years, I couldn’t figure out why he was scheduling a whole day for the two doors. Over the course of the day, I found out. The doors don’t come pre-hung, and a 34” door can be anything from 33” to 35”, and the door openings into the cabins are not consistently sized. This means that Tom has to make the three pieces – the opening, the jamb, and the door – fit together, which first requires figuring out what size frame and door to buy, and then figuring out how much has to be cut off each piece, and where to do the cutting. I’m sure they could be slapped in pretty quickly if you didn’t care about gaps and making the final result look even and balanced, but you know Tom isn’t like that; each door must be symmetrical, and anyone casually staring at it after a few beers had better not notice any inconsistencies. So, it takes a day, or in this case two days, to hang two doors.

We saw the kinkajous in the sapodilla tree for the first time Thursday night. We heard squabbling and then heard the metal roof of the first cabin being pelted with sapodilla fruits, so we took the spotlight out and lit up the sapodilla tree. Sure enough, we saw little eyes blinking, then we saw more little eyes blinking, then we saw the little monkey crawling out on a branch to get the sapodilla fruit. We watched for a while, and a few of the monkeys are regular little exhibitionists, happily crawling and climbing in the light. The others hung back in the leaves, and all we saw were occasional blinking eyes. Now we know not only what has been making such a racket on the metal roof, but why Nock has been so fascinated with running in that direction.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Water Tales

The day started out full of promise, with the 1000 gallon water tank about three quarters full, and only a few more supports to add to the water tower. The water tower was finished and the tank put in its place by about 11:00 am, and Tom went to work on installing the water pump, Selwyn started sanding doors to be installed in the first cabin on Thursday, and I made lunch and then finished washing the mold off the first cabin.

Around 4:00, Tom showed up at the first cabin looking grim, and wanting to know if we had any use for about 750 gallons of water. After fitting all the plumbing pieces together and hooking the pump in, he found that the pump requires a 1 ¼ inch feeder, and the tube coming out of the tank was only ¾ inch and didn’t provide enough water for the pump to build up enough pressure to pump the water through the hose and up to the tower. The three of us brainstormed, and Tom decided that if he drove Selwyn and Bol home and stopped at the hardware store for a few more 90 degree elbows, he could build a 1 ¼ inch pipe that reached to the bottom of the tank, came up and over the edge, and then fed into the pump.

So, he drove into San Antonio, picked up the plumbing pieces and a case of beer, just in case, and got home around 6:00. He made the pipe, hooked it up, and it didn’t work. He moved the generator closer to see if providing more direct power to the pump would make a difference. Still no go. So, he drained the tank. Fortunately the tank is on a cement slab which disburses the water so it’s not pooling in a small area, and the soil in the jungle is capable of soaking up lots of water, so it didn’t make too much of a mess. The tank drained, Tom installed a 1 ¼ inch feeder pipe, and began refilling the tank…very, very slowly. On Tuesday night, water was gushing out of the pipe from the road, but Tuesday’s gush was Wednesday’s trickle. So, he packed up, left the hose running, and left the great experiment for Thursday.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

We almost have water

Tom and Selwyn finishing the water tower

We spent all day Tuesday working on the water system. I scrubbed out the two tanks, and Tom and Selwyn spent the whole day building a tower behind the first cabin so the smaller tank can gravity feed the cabin, and the camper until we move into the cabin. Getting all the plumbing supplies took two trips into San Antonio because I went in with the original list, found that even though the hardware store is pretty well stocked they didn’t have everything on the list, and gave up and decided to let Tom figure it out himself. He went back to the hardware store on the way home with Selwyn, and while he couldn’t find the stuff on his list either, he got parts that he thinks will do the job. I guess we’ll see tomorrow, and hopefully we’ll have a dependable water system by the end of Wednesday.

1000 gallon water tank. It's almost full!

200 gallon water tank, ready to be lifted to the top of the tower. Then Tom just has to hook up the pump so we can fill this tank from the big one.