Thursday, June 28, 2007

More progress

Last Thursday we went to Belmopan to get our sixth passport stamp, which means we’ve now been in the country for five full months. The immigration officer who stamps our passports is getting to know us, and this time stamped us through until August 20. We still paid for the two months, but at least we don’t have to go to Belmopan in July when Tim and Kelli are here. After getting our passports stamped, we went to the Belmopan market, and then to Builders’ Supply, the big hardware store/home improvement center in Belmopan, which isn’t quite as big as a Lowe’s or a Home Depot, but it’s close. We’d intended to be out only for the morning, and to get the supplies we needed in Belmopan. However, one of the big items on our shopping list was screening, and we had determined that we wanted the black screen since it’s less visible than the gray or metallic screen, and Builders’ Supply didn’t have it. So, off we went to Spanish Lookout; we just don’t seem to be able to get through a week without at least one trip over there. We still had to drop off some money for Stout at their breeder’s house, but when we pulled up there and called to be let in the gate, the housekeeper told us that Lena was in Spanish Lookout for the day, which gave us another reason to go there, although in the end we never found her and I had to drive out to her place yesterday (Wednesday).
We spent the rest of the day in Spanish Lookout, getting the supplies we needed to finish the verandas, as well as groceries and feed.

Tom and Selwyn spent Friday finishing the pen for the dogs behind the house. We’ve been able to put them out and lock them up in the cat cage behind the house, but the posts and cement base were already in place a fence right out the door from our bedroom, so we decided to make that a dog yard. None of the five dogs are running away when they’re out loose at this point, but we like to keep an eye on them just in case the gate is left open and they head for the road, or if they take off after something they hear or see in the jungle. And, we’d found that usually the Jacks would go in one direction, and the puppies in another, and Tom and I were both getting tired of spending a half hour chasing dogs every time we let them out to piddle. Plus, as the pups grow, the bathroom seemed to be shrinking, and by fencing the yard, we can now leave the puppies out on the porch at night, and they can come and go as they please. Of course they frequently want in the house and they wake us up because they scratch to come in rather than out, but at least when they’re doing that we can put the pillows over our heads and go back to sleep without worrying that we’re going to get up to a big puppy pee cleanup project.

Friday night, we had our first sit-down dinner with neighbors. When Olmi had delivered the curtains, we had invited Damion, Olmi, Wilton, and Daisy over for dinner on Friday so they could see what the place looked like with the curtains adjusted. Damion had mentioned one time that they love fish, but don’t often get it because fresh fish isn’t usually available in San Antonio, and they don’t get to San Ignacio often enough to pick it up there. I think I’ve mentioned before that you don’t meet people here, you meet whole extended families. We stopped at the fish market on our way home on Thursday to see what kind of fish they had, and when the fish market guy asked us how many people we were feeding, Tom and I looked at each other and had a quick conference. We’d invited four, which would give us a total of six for dinner, but we knew that it was unlikely that Damion, Olmi, Wilton, and Daisy would get over here for dinner without at least a few of the other neighbors trailing along. So, we said we needed fish for eight or nine people. After all, I figured, if I cooked too much, I could always take it off the bones and we could eat fish tacos over the weekend. So, we ended up buying nine snappers, all of a size that one fish would be a good one person serving.

Six thirty rolled around, and the four originally invited guests showed up. Tom sat on the porch with them, drinking sour sap juice, while I stuck the fish in the oven. Then I heard another voice; Ronald had showed up to see what Wilton was doing, so we gave him a drink and set another place at the table. Then George came to see where Ronald was, so I passed another glass out the door and set another place at the table. Then Iris came over, so I squished another place in and gave her a glass. The fish was just about ready, so I called everybody in and they got settled around the table. Just as I was bringing the fish out, there was a tentative knock at the door and Lucy and Rosa looked in, curious about where everybody was. So, I pulled out two more place settings, divvied the fish up a little differently, made sure we had enough stuffed baked potatoes and salad, and sat down to eat. Fortunately, I always cook too much, and between that and the fact that I’d expected a few extras, we managed to feed eleven rather than six, and nobody went away hungry. We came up a little bit short with the ice cream for dessert because everybody here loves ice cream, but doesn’t often get it because they don’t have freezers, so when somebody offers them ice cream, they eat it until it’s gone, and a half gallon goes fast. We also plowed through a mango cream cheese pie, but a few of the girls managed to leave partially eaten pieces on their plates for me to pack up so they could take them home to their parents since they were feeling guilty about ducking out for a dinner their parents missed. The good thing with that many people is that, as Tom’s grandmother always said, many hands make light work.

Everybody carried their plates to the kitchen and stacked them neatly, and while Tom started a Jenga tournament, Rosa, Lucy, and I washed the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen, and we were back in the dining room before the first round of Jenga even finished. Ronald and Iris were the finalists in the Jenga tournament, with Ronald coming out victorious – not quite fair according to Iris, since Ronald has had more practice, but she played a good game. The winner packed the Jenga game back in its box, and when everybody went home around 10:30, all Tom and I had to do was blow out the candles and go to bed.

Tom spent Saturday working on waterline with Julio, the 7 Miles chairman who is in charge of the waterline. Back when they finished replacing the pipe sections, Julio had asked Tom if he would go up with him some weekend, taking his DeWalt cordless drill (el gringo drill) so they could install pressure relief valves. Since the waterline was “fixed,” we’ve still been going without water periodically because the pressure is now too good, and some of the older sections of pipe that they couldn’t get to have been blowing apart. So, Tom was out of the house by about 7:15 Saturday morning, picking up Elizabeth and the boys on the way so she could spend the morning with her mother. The plan was that Tom and Julio would be back around lunchtime, and when Tom drove Julio home he would get Elizabeth and the boys, and the two chickens Elizabeth’s mother wanted to give us in exchange for the chicken wire we gave her.

Of course, things never work out as planned. Tom and Julio were not back at lunch time. I took a break from working in the garden and made myself a sandwich, and then spent an hour or so with Olmi and her kids looking at pictures. Tom and Julio weren’t back at 2:00. They weren’t back at 3:00. They weren’t back at 4:00, and I was starting to get a little worried. Finally, just before 4:30, I heard the truck at the gate and they pulled in, both looking more than a little bedraggled. I went out to see if they were okay, and the first thing out of both their mouths was “I’m hungry.” So, I went back in the house and made grilled ham and cheese, and after they took a quick look at cages so Julio could figure out what he wanted for his gibnuts, they were back in the house eating grilled cheese and filling me in on their day.

I think Tom had expected to spend the morning following the pipeline and drilling holes for the pressure release valves every so often. Instead, he said they installed one valve, and then went over the cliff and down to the bottom of the mountain to see what the pressure was at the bottom of the pipeline. They went way farther than they had when they were repairing and replacing pipe, and Tom said there were many places where they were sliding down the mountain on their butts, and where it was a feet and hands job to get back up. I had thought about going, just to see the pipeline, and Tom said it was a good thing I didn’t because the long drop to the bottom of the hill was a very strenuous hike. When they got there and tested the pressure, they pegged the 200psi gauge, so there’s probably still too much pressure. Julio is going to try to get a gauge that goes higher, and then I guess he’ll make the hike again, with or without Tom. Despite the day being very physically challenging, and not at all what he expected, Tom came back feeling really good because they’d been up close and personal with nature. At one of their rest stops, they heard a racket in the tree right over their head, and looked up to see a keel billed toucan looking down at them, only about 10 feet away. Then, as they climbed by one of the pools near the waterfall, they looked over and saw an adult king vulture teaching a young king vulture how to fly. They didn’t see any other exciting wildlife, although Julio told Tom that they don’t allow people to work on that part of the pipeline alone, and that they require at least two people. Apparently one guy went in to work on it by himself, and ended up being stalked by two jaguars. He shot the jaguars so there’s no telling whether they would have actually done anything to the man, but the rule is now better safe than sorry, both for the safety of the men and so no more jaguars get shot.

Since it was now after 5:00, Julio decided to pass on cage pieces for a week or so. He and Tom got back in the truck to go back to 7 Miles and pick up Elizabeth, the boys, and the chickens. Fortunately in Belize people are used to living without phones and living with very flexible schedules, so Elizabeth wasn’t at all annoyed that “lunchtime” had turned in to 5:30, although she did confess to briefly wondering if Tom had forgotten her. But, when he finally showed up, she got in the truck with the three boys and the two chickens, a hen and a rooster, and headed home. We installed the chickens in the other side of the rabbit hutch for the night, and then put them all together the next morning. The rooster seems to prefer the hen we already had rather than the one that came with him, but we’re now turning them out in the dog cage behind the house for the day, and all three seem to get along pretty well.

When we get enough guys together to move the rather heavy hutch we’ll put the hutch in the cage I cleared as a chicken coop, and lock the chickens up every night, in the hutch in the cage, and let them out in the cage for the day. For now, we’re carrying them between the hutch and the cage nearer the house, but that’s not a good long term solution since the Jacks go crazy every time they hear the chickens scratching or clucking, which in turn makes Tom and me crazy. Out of sight, out of mind, is a good rule for chicken crazy Jack Russells.

Sunday was Graduation Day for three of the kids next door, Delmy, Iris, and Ronald. As I’ve mentioned before, the US equivalent of 8th grade is the end of what passes for public schooling here in Belize, which is partially government funded and partially church funded.

High school is relatively expensive and the students must pay to go, so for many students, their educations stop at 8th grade. Thus, the 8th grade graduation is a big deal, almost as big of a deal as high school graduation, since for many students the 8th grade graduation will be their only commencement ceremony.

The graduates all had to be at the school in the morning to get ready for the 2:00 ceremony, but the rest of the family had to get there, so shortly after 1:00, we lined our truck up with Sharyn’s and Damion’s trucks and the families piled in with the food they were providing for the refreshments after the ceremony.

It had rained Sunday morning, so the women, myself included, were all busy with damp towels scrubbing the red mud off our sandaled feet. When we got to the school in San Antonio, the trucks emptied, with the women going off to set up the refreshments, the men either taking pictures or standing around chatting, and the children playing whatever games kids play when they’re all turned loose together.

This graduation was as nice or nicer than the high school graduation we attended a couple of weeks ago. The band was better, the guest speakers were better, and Tom and I were amazed at the eloquence and public speaking abilities of the valedictorian and salutorian, who both looked like the children they are, but who both spoke like well poised adults. Belize’s chief meteorologist was the guest speaker, so the rain held off for the ceremony, which was inside, and for the refreshments and the post-graduation picture taking, which was outside.

The refreshments were “just” cupcakes and corn tortillas and cheese sauce, which the natives seemed to think was a little light, but Tom and I were quite happy with the snack because the tortillas were fresh fried corn chips, made from real ground masa with a lot of pepper – yum! People here take it for granted, but it takes snack food to a whole new level, and even though Tom and I aren’t big snackers, neither of us left a crumb on our plates.

Tom and Selwyn spent Monday and Tuesday working on screening. Even though the back yard is fenced for the dogs, Nock had already figured out that she could jump through the railings on the porch and be out in the open to chase chickens, work on her excavating projects, or torment the lizards. So, the first order of business was to screen the bottom of the back porch rail. That done, they put up the door to the front porch, and wrapped the screening around the bottom of that rail so that we could leave the cabin door open and even though the bugs could still get in, the dogs couldn’t get off the porch. On Tuesday, they had planned to work with Bol to finish clearing the big pasture, but Bol had to do something else, so after a quick replanning session, they decided to finish screening in the front porch. That took the rest of the day, but by Tuesday evening we had a fully screened porch, so we can now leave the cabin door open almost all the time and get the cool breeze without the bugs. We’re planning to turn that into our dining room, but our table is too big – and if we take it out of the cabin we won’t have any furniture in the cabin room – but we want to get a couple of square tables that we could use to seat two to four people, and push together if we want more people seated together. Every street in San Ignacio has at least one furniture store, but none of them have the tables we’re looking for since oval seems to be in right now. We talked to a couple of places about building a couple for us, and prices ranged from $175BZ to over $600BZ, so we’re deciding if we want to buy one, or if Tom just wants to make them. I guess we’ll see if we decide we really need them before he has “spare time” to build some himself.

Tom and Selwyn spent yesterday putting the ceiling in the bathroom, and today they’re framing in the shower with plycem so they have a place to put the ladder to finish the ceiling over what will be the shower. Once that’s done, we can tile the shower.

And THAT means that we can get all the construction equipment out of the bedroom, move our clothes out of the camper and into the cabin, and start living in here full time! We’ll still have a few things to do – finish screening the back porch, get the wiring done and the batteries and inverter moved to the utility room, finish the top of the dog fence,and a few cosmetic things – but we’ll be almost there. The big question is whether or not we’ll get enough water pressure for the shower. If we do, we’ll keep our water system as it is, and put a similar system in the second cabin. If we don’t, we’ll probably be taking one of the big tanks up the hill and running pipe to pump water up to the tank, and then let it gravity feed down to the cabins.

While Tom and Selwyn were working on the bathroom ceiling, I took what I planned as a quick trip to Spanish Lookout. We thought we could get away with not going there this week, until Tom fed the horses yesterday morning and realized he was scraping the bottom of the feed barrel. Wilton, the neighborhood telephone, stopped by shortly after 7:00am, so we sent him home with the news that I was going to Spanish Lookout, and if anyone wanted to go or wanted me to get anything, they had to let me know by 8:00 or so. Maria and Lucy, who had both asked to be notified when we went had unfortunately already left for San Ignacio, but Augusto came over with a pig feed order, and Ofelia and Iris decided to go along for the ride. We got on the road by about 8:30, ran out to Camelote to pay for Stout since we’d missed Lena last Thursday, and headed into Spanish Lookout. Of course we couldn’t go there just for feed, so I also had the big propane tank filled, got feed for our horses plus Augusto’s pigs and Selwyn’s rabbit, and took a pretty lengthy list to FTC. We made a quick and what was supposed to be final stop at Western Dairy to get cheese, ice cream for tomorrow’s dessert, and ice cream cones, and headed for the ferry shortly after 11:00, thinking we’d be home for lunch with unmelted ice cream.

Just as we crested the hill by the last intersection where you can decide whether or not you want to take the bridge or the ferry, we saw two elderly women standing in the road surrounded by very full feed bags. Ofelia, Iris, and I looked at each other, and decided that we couldn’t just drive by a couple of old women in the road, so we stopped and told them where we were going and asked if they wanted a ride. They said they were going to Cayo (San Ignacio), and they would appreciate a ride, but we needed to go down the road towards the bridge to pick up their sisters and their sisters’ things. They got their things in the back of the truck, jumped in after their bags, and we headed for their sisters who were working their way towards the intersection with their bags. Just as we were getting there, a taxi van pulled up, and the other sisters started putting their things in the van. The women in our truck jumped out, and said that we would take them at least to the end of the road for free. The four sisters got in an argument about whether they should go with us or the van, sort of decided on the van despite the fact that they’d have to pay the taxi man, and started getting the stuff out of our truck to put in the van. The taxi driver was losing patience; they hadn’t called him, but he’d been nice enough to stop and pick them up, and now the four women were in and out of the van, taking their stuff in and out, wandering back and forth, and arguing a mile a minute. We were just watching, with Ofelia translating the Spanish I didn’t understand, since all of this was happening very rapidly. Finally the taxi driver said something very sharply, and three of the four sisters got in the van. The oldest sister, 71 years old and very tiny and frail – she couldn’t have weighed more than 85 pounds and she had a little munchkin voice – was still on the side of the road, trying to get the bags in the van, when the van driver pulled away, open door and all.

Ofelia, Iris and I just watched, thinking he would come back, but nope, he disappeared over a rise in the road. We pulled up to the old woman, and she showed us that she had a cut on her wrist because her arm was still in the van when the driver pulled away. So there’s this little tiny old woman bleeding on the side of the road with about 250 pounds of dried produce – what could we do but load her up and take her to San Ignacio? The ice cream was melting, but Ofelia and I got out and with a lot of grunting and giggling, got her bags in the back of the truck – a couple of 50 pound bags of rice, a 100 pound bag of beans, and a few sacks of coconuts. Even though the truck was full of our groceries, we squeezed the old lady in the back of the truck, and I gave her a wipey for her arm, which was the best we could do, and we headed for the ferry.

The old woman never stopped talking. I kept hearing “Tres. Hermanas. Malas.” – three bad sisters – spoken very succinctly, and she never stopped. She told us that she is 71, she is the oldest, and that her tres hermanas malas were in big trouble when she caught up to them. We pulled into San Ignacio, and she popped out of the truck, grabbed a guy passing on the street, and told him to unload her bags. She didn’t know him, but fortunately he was a very polite man who was capable of picking the 100 pound bag of beans up and over the tailgate to get it out of the truck, along with the other bags. I’d climbed in the back of the truck, dress and all, to push the bags to the edge of the bed for him, and he asked how we got the bags in, then expressed genuine admiration for our strength when I told him that Ofelia and I had done it. The man got the bags piled by the road, I got back in the truck, and we left the old woman by the side of the road, waiting for her sisters to arrive. We didn’t stay around to watch the fireworks, and I’m sure there were a few!

At this point, we thought we’d just drive home, but as we were heading through town, Maria popped out of a store and waved us down. I probably could have pretended not to see her – not that I would have, of course – but she’s Ofelia and Iris’s grandmother, and they’re used to listening when their grandmother speaks. We slammed on the brakes in the middle of a very narrow, very busy street, and Maria asked if we could take her and Lucy home, which of course we could, no problem. They still had bags in the store, so I drove around the block while they gathered their bags so I didn’t cause a traffic jam. On pass two, they threw their bags in the truck, and then Lucy asked if I could pick up a wardrobe and dresser she’d just purchased, which I’d planned to pick up on Friday when I went into San Ignacio to the market. I told her that I didn’t have any of the ropes or packing materials with me, but she really wanted to take it home, so said she didn’t care if we just put it in the back of the truck and drove carefully. So, I said sure, figuring it would save me the hassle of doing it on Friday, and drove around the block again so she could go tell the people in the store that she was taking it right away. And then I drove around again. And again. And again. Every time, I’d stop in front of the store and try to see what they were doing, and sit until the cars piling up behind me started honking. Finally, they loaded a mattress into a pickup parked across from the store, and the pickup drove away while I was doing one of my loops. Lucy and Ofelia stood in the parking space so nobody else could park there, and then I tried to wedge Tinkerbell into the spot that was about two feet too small. I couldn’t get all the way in and leave any room for loading the furniture, but I managed to get over far enough that traffic could get by, with only the biggest trucks having to drive up on the sidewalk on the other side of the street. It took the three guys a while to get the furniture in, and then I tied it in so the pieces wouldn’t crash into each other, and then we squished everybody into the cab of the truck with all of our shopping bags, and headed out of town, only about an hour and a half after we left the old woman by the side of the road. We pulled up to Maria and Lucy’s house about 2:00, and sent Wilton, Hector, and Ronald off on their bikes to fetch Tom and Selwyn to unload the furniture. It took the two of them plus me and Ronald to get it all out of the truck and into the house, and it looked like both pieces survived the bumpy ride with only a few minor dings. I got home about 2:30, and unloaded what was by then, three and a half hours later, soft ice cream.

However, I’m not getting too wound up about the ice cream since it’s for dinner with the family next door tomorrow night. We’ve invited everybody over to see graduation pictures, since Tom seemed to be the chief photographer at the graduation last Sunday. All three graduates and some of the brothers and sisters have seen the pictures and we’ve given them CDs, but none of the parents have seen them, and they don’t have computers at home. I didn’t even try to plan to have one family at a time, and decided to invite them all at once, since at least then I’ll have a maximum number to cook for, which is better than not knowing if I’m cooking for ten or twenty-five – which is what we figure we’ll have tomorrow, not counting the babies. I found an almost 15 pound turkey in Spanish Lookout yesterday, so I’m planning to cook the equivalent of an American Thanksgiving dinner. I’m not even going to attempt anything Belizean since they all cook that food better than I do, and I figure that the American Thanksgiving menu is made to feed a crowd. Plus, they’re as curious about what Americans eat as we are about Belizean food, so even though I know they probably prefer Belizean food taste-wise, they’ll enjoy the novelty of “gringo food.”

Since it’s started raining, we’re finding a remarkable variety of frogs and toads around the property.

I started feeding the dogs one evening in the dusk, and saw what I thought was a small gut pile on the counter. When I turned on the light, I saw this little, almost translucent, tree frog. And yes, I lived with counter surfing cats long enough that I know the general outline of a mouse gut pile on the counter top.

Then Tom heard the puppies making a ruckus in their cage, and he went out and found that they’d cornered this very large toad. Beli was interested, but neither of them were planning to actually touch the toad. Tom lifted its considerable bulk and deposited it outside the dog fence.

The puppies are getting bigger every day, and currently weigh about 25 pounds, which is seven to ten pounds more than the Jacks – but they still think the Jacks are bigger.

Beli’s ears are starting to stand up. They’re a little different every day, and they never point in the same direction at the same time.

We keep yelling at Stout to get his feet out of the water, but he doesn’t seem to be able to be near the water bowl without having some part of him soaking in it. He’s learned that we don’t yell at him when he soaks an ear while he sleeps. We’re just waiting for this ear to sprout since it’s always in the water.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Another week flies by...

On Friday afternoon, Bol stopped by to see if we wanted to go explore the large hole we found on our back lot. We had found it when we were fighting the fire a few weeks ago, and couldn’t tell from the top if it went anywhere. Bol loves exploring caves – hoping, I think, that he’ll someday find a piece of priceless Mayan jade – and we had been talking about hiking back to try to find it again ever since we’d seen it. We pulled out the CamelBak and loaded it with a headlamp, the DeWalt 18v flashlight, a gallon of water, and about 100 feet of good rope and headed up the hill. We initially couldn’t decide whether to go up the feeder road and in the back line, or to hike in on the property line and go up and over what Tom had suspected – correctly, as it turns out – was some sort of Mayan mound. We decided to do the property line despite the steep up and down climb to see what Bol thought of the mound.

Tom set a pretty good pace up the hill. Right near the top, there’s a bunch of deadfall that we’ve been gradually making a path around, just by chopping through on basically the same detour every time we’re up there. When we got to the deadfall, Bol went in front because he has a lot more chopping experience, with Tom and me following. Bol got through the deadfall and back on the trail, and started darting in and out of the jungle, muttering “Ooooh, Tom. Ooooh, Marge. There’s something up here.” We had no idea what something he was talking about – animal, plant, or something inorganic – until he stopped a few feet off the trail and started hooting. Tom and I pushed through the underbrush and found Bol kneeling by a hole in the ground, about the same diameter as a 55 gallon drum, and about 2 feet deep. The hole is almost perfectly round, and goes through six or eight inches of rock, and then there appears to be a larger space under this opening. According to Bol, this is a man made hole, made by the Mayans, and is the top of a chamber they used for safekeeping of their valuables. He said that the holes are usually found in sets of three. We didn’t see any more when we briefly kicked through the underbrush, although we found a number of depressions that could be caved-in holes. We were tempted to stop and see if we could see anything in the hole, but Bol reminded us that we’d come to explore the cave, and we could always come back and poke around in the hole some other time. I didn’t think to take any pictures when we were there, but next time we’re up there I’ll try to remember to take the camera.

We started down the backside of the mound, where Bol again detoured into the underbrush with us following obediently behind, and he pointed out a few more small Mayan mounds, identifiable by the stonework facing. We didn’t investigate these, although Bol did peel a couple of Golden Cascade orchids off a couple of trees so I could carry them back and put them on trees where people will be able to see and enjoy them near the cabins. When we got about to the point where I thought I had gone into the jungle to work along the fire line, we picked three potential paths in, and set out. Tom was the furthest down hill, I was in the middle almost exactly where I had gone off the path to pursue the fire, and Bol was the highest on the hill. I quickly realized I was on the same trail I had been on before, but I’d barely had that realization when Bol started hooting again. He had made a beeline through the brush and gone right to the cave; I swear the man has some sort of cave radar. I picked my way through the brush, and got there just as he was getting back to the hole after taking a quick look around the area to see if there were any other cave openings. Tom fought his way up the hill and joined us pretty quickly, which was a good thing since he had the rope and the lights.

Bol took a light and looked into a crevice off a little ledge very near the top. He then got down on his stomach, hanging over the edge of the hole, and shined the light down into the hole and as far under the overhangs as he could see from the top – which wasn’t a lot, because the hole is probably 30 to 40 feet deep. He threw a few rocks in to make sure he wasn’t disturbing any dangerous living thing – either a snake or a big cat – and he and Tom set the rope up so Bol could rappel into the cave with Tom on one end of the rope at the top.
Just as Bol started down, there was a big rush of wings. Initially we all thought “Bat!” and cringed, then Tom thought it was an owl, but we quickly realized the bird was a brilliant blue with a very long tail. It flew a short way through the trees and perched on a limb.
The picture isn’t the best, but when we got back Nelmarie was able to identify it as a blue-crowned mot mot, chiefly because of its stripped tail and the fact that the brilliant blue can be seen even in the mediocre picture.

Bol rappelled down into the cave, stopping and looking at each ledge. When he got to the bottom, he worked his way slowly towards the back. At first he expressed disappointment because he realized that the hole is only a very large sink hole, and not a cave. Then, as he was shining the light around the bottom, he started hooting. Tom and I were afraid he’d seen a snake and wanted to know if he wanted a quick ride up, but he just yelled “No, no” and started scrabbling around at the bottom.
Suddenly he held something up, which we at first thought was just a large rock since it was difficult to see details since we were so far away, and it was pretty dark at the bottom of the hole. We shined the spotlight down, and realized he was holding a large piece of a Mayan earthenware bowl or jar. As Bol dug around a bit more, he found a seashell – like, seashell from the ocean which is about 50 miles away – as well as a very well preserved bead and a piece of crystal which is not indigenous to the area. As he stood back and looked at the bottom of the hole, he realized that the rocks were arranged roughly in a circle, probably as a fire ring, even though at first glance they looked like they had just landed in the bottom of the hole in a jumble.

Bol asked us what we wanted him to do with the things he found, and we had a quick shouted discussion about how Mayan artifacts are supposed to be treated. In some respects, we thought that they should be left as they’re found. However, we wanted a better look, so we lowered the knapsack and Bol loaded the things into it. We figured that we’re not excavating the hole and pulling out everything we find, but that it will be interesting for people to see a few of these ancient things that we’re finding on our property. Tom and I did not go down into the hole on Friday, but we figure that we’ll go back later and see what’s down there. Since it’s apparently been left untouched for over a thousand years, we don’t think there’s a big hurry.
Bol is Mayan, and we asked him how he felt about people taking these artifacts away from where they’re found so people can see them. His opinion is that we shouldn’t take them to sell them or profit from them – which is not our intention – but as long as we’re removing them so people can become more enlightened about the Mayan history and culture, it’s perfectly acceptable.

On the way back, we walked the burned property line, and Tom showed us where he and Selwyn had found some small Mayan burial mounds. Bol confirmed that this is what they are, and we found a few more pieces of pottery. Tom and I came home, and were talking about how we spent our afternoon, and realized that as adults in our mid-forties, we’re finally doing what we dreamed about and pretended to do as kids. Both of us grew up in New Jersey, which is (or was in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s) surprisingly rural. We both spent most of our childhoods running around in the woods, looking for Indian artifacts and fossils. We may have found a few arrowheads and trilobites, but that’s about it – and here we are, all grown up, finally really doing what we pretended to do as kids. Just one more thing to love about Belize…

These two pictures were taken with me standing on the same spot, just pivoting 180 degrees. The first is of the jungle on the burned side of the fire line.

The second is of the jungle on the unburned side. There’s no in between; it burned as far as the fire went, and then stopped.

This is the same field as is in the picture I took a few weeks ago, immediately after the fire. Nature recovers very quickly!

The adventure continued on Sunday, when we went to see another cave entrance. It’s on the property next to us, which coincidentally is owned by Noah, our real estate agent. Bol has known the land for years, and some years ago discovered the large cave, which he says is composed of two huge chambers filled with Mayan bones and relics. When we told him that we know the owner of the property, he had us arrange a meeting between them so Bol could get permission to take people into the cave. Noah also wanted to meet Bol, because he’d heard that there was a large cave on the property, but had never seen it and had no idea where it was, and he wasn’t too keen on bushwhacking through 78 acres of jungle to try to find it. So, Noah and his family (wife Marayla, her son Fred and her sister Mercedes) came up here on Sunday to pick up some cage panels (part of Noah’s commission for selling us the property), have a meal, and hike back to the cave.

We set off through the jungle, and found that the cave is only a short hike, and isn’t far off a trail I ride regularly on Esmerelda. It’s set into the hillside, which is sort of terraced by huge boulders, and the entrance is a large crack under one of the boulders. When we shined the flashlight into the hole, we could see that it went down about three big steps, for a total of about thirty feet. We could also see bats flying back and forth below us in the beam of the flashlight. It had been threatening to rain for most of Sunday, and started to rain just before we set out on the trail, so we didn’t even bother to take rope with us. However, we received permission from Noah and Marayla to go back to the cave with Bol and rappel down into it. We think we’ll save this adventure for when my brother Tim and his wife Kelli visit us from California in a few weeks.

The Veranda
Last week, Tom and Selwyn had framed in the deck off the front of the cabin. Tom and I had planned to get the roof up on Saturday, but Tom wasn’t feeling well and spent most of the day taking it easy (for a change). We hammered a few nails in before Noah and company arrived on Sunday, but didn’t really get back to work on it until Monday. Monday morning, Selwyn’s brother Derrick showed up and told us that Selwyn was home in bed with a crick in his neck, so Tom and I managed to get the zinc roofing panels up on our own. We attached the nailers in the morning, then waited until after four o’clock pm for the sun to move past the point where it was beating down on the roof of the cabin. We wrestled the edges of the new panels under the panels on the existing roof of the cabin, got everything straight, and Tom put a few nails in to hold things in place. Tuesday morning when Selwyn arrived, feeling better, he went up on the roof and nailed and caulked. We’re not waiting for a rain so we can see where it leaks and where more caulk is needed. It’s amazing what a difference a covered deck makes to the whole feel of the place. It no longer feels like a cabin where we’re camping; it’s starting to feel like a house. We’re going to get screening and a door when we go into Belmopan tomorrow to get our passports stamped, and when the porch is completely enclosed, we’ll move our table out there and use that room as our dining room since it’s usually five to ten degrees cooler than the cabin, especially now that the roof provides some shade.

By the way, we’ve learned that the locals distinguish between porches and verandas by whether or not they’re covered. The deck was a porch before we put the roof on, and now it’s a veranda. We’re not sure if it will change name again when we put up the screening and make it more like a room, but we expect that our neighbors will let us know.


The other thing that’s starting to make the cabin feel like home just happened last night, when Olmi delivered the curtains. I had talked to her a month or so ago, and she told me that she has a sewing machine and would be glad to make curtains if I bought some fabric. I got the fabric last week in Spanish Lookout, showed Olmi what I wanted and gave her the fabric on Sunday night, and she delivered the curtains last night. They make the cabin much homier from both the inside and the outside. I still need to get fabric for the bedroom curtains, but I’m going to wait until the bathroom construction is done. The lack of curtains had been bothering me, because in both of our other houses and the apartment we lived in when we were first married, my mother had come up shortly after we moved in to make curtains. She’d come up with her sewing machine, and we’d spend a weekend measuring windows, picking out fabric, and then Mom would make the curtains, grumbling at me the whole time about how she couldn’t understand why I was so inept at sewing and so unwilling to learn. My response was always that I didn’t learn because I didn’t have to, because she’d make the curtains for me, and she and Tom’s mom, who is also an accomplished seamstress, would sew anything that needed sewing. Between the two of them, they visited often enough to keep my mending pile at a reasonable level. Now, with my mother dead and Tom’s mom not exactly a weekend’s trip away, I have to do some of the mending myself, but I still don’t have a sewing machine, and probably wouldn’t use it even if I had it. So, it’s a huge blessing to us that Olmi lives next door, has a sewing machine, and is happy to make curtains for us!

Sour saps

We’ve harvested all the sour saps off the sour sap tree. The fruits, which are very large now, started falling off in the middle of last week. I’d check them every day and try to figure out which one was going to fall next so I could pick it, because when they fall they’re usually either smashed or the animals start munching on them before we can get to them. A few more fell, some of which were salvageable and some of which weren’t, and I decided yesterday that we should just pick the rest of them. Selwyn went as far as he could up the ladder and picked a couple, then climbed into the tree and picked a couple more. I gave a few of them away, put a few through the food mill and froze the pulp for juice, and am waiting for the last two to ripen so I can squeeze the juice out of them and put it in the freezer. They’re very large; that’s a gallon jug sitting next to them. They’re also a royal pain in the butt to process, because the skin crumbles and tries to get squashed in with the pulp rather than just coming off when you peel it, and they’re filled with large seeds. The food mill helps, but I still have to hand pick the seed out and mush things around because there are so many seeds they make the mill hard to turn. I finally figured out how to make the juice, after a few false starts. Petranela told me to mix the pulp, which is a lot like very ripe mashed bananas, with milk. I did that, and it didn’t taste like hers, so I added some sugar. It still wasn’t right. Selwyn didn’t know how to fix it, and then Nelmarie asked what kind of milk I’m using. It turns out that I’m supposed to mix the pulp with sweetened condensed milk and water – and now it’s right. It tastes sort of like a very refreshing smoothie when it’s made right, and the only problem is we all tend to drink too much because it’s good, and then we all get stomach aches. Gluttony is definitely a sit that you can pay for immediately.

The puppies are getting bigger every day. Tom says that sometimes when he goes to work outside in the morning after breakfast and then comes back for lunch, that he can see that they’ve grown just in a few hours. They’re also starting to act like big dogs, and they don’t need to be supervised every second. They both go to the door when they need to go out, and Stout will actually scratch, and sometimes rings the sleigh bells we have hanging from the door knob. That’s a little spooky, because we didn’t teach him to do that, and they only dog we’ve had that did it was our Doberman Midge, who has been dead for four or five years. The pups are both happy to sleep in the bathroom now, even when it’s not bedtime, and if I can’t find them during the day, that’s where they usually are. We frequently leave them in the cage behind the cabin for a few hours during the day so they can play without the big dogs or the people trying to make them calm down, but they’re always happy to come in and hang with us. Unfortunately, besides the bathroom, their other favorite hangout is still the kitchen floor, and two growing puppies and two Jack Russells on that floor doesn’t give me a whole lot of room to move when I’m cooking. But, my feet have pretty well developed doggie radar, and so far I haven’t been nipped for stepping on anybody’s paw or tail.
The reason all the puppy pictures are of the puppies when they’re sleeping is that they’re either ON or OFF. When they’re ON, they play like mad, and it’s really hard to get a picture because they don’t stop moving. When they’re OFF, they’re crashed, and that’s that.

We’re also making other animal related progress on the property. Tom, Selwyn, and I took down the remains of one of the cages in the back field to get panels to make a dog fence for the back yard of the cabin.
The supports are already there, and there’s a 2x4 embedded in concrete all the way around the yard because the previous owner had a fully screened yard for her house cats (so they wouldn’t be a meal for the caged wild cats), so all we have to do is get panels of the right size and put them up. Not having a fenced yard hasn’t been a big deal because Lou, Nock, and Mel are pretty happy in the house, and if they need to be out for a while we can put them in the cat cage behind the cabin, and when they just need to go out to do their business they’re pretty good about sticking around and it’s not too difficult to keep an eye on them. The pups have added a complication because they gambol off into the jungle without even realizing that they’re running away, and then when we go to retrieve them, Nock will wander off, and it’s just gotten to be a big pain to watch five dogs with four eyes. Now we’ll be able to just leave the bedroom door open, and all the dogs can go in and out as they please and we won’t have to worry about them wandering off, and we won’t have to worry about the pups spending too much time outside in the cat cage where they’re not being socialized to people.

Tom, Selwyn, and Bol have been clearing the big pasture in the back. It’s even bigger than we thought, probably three to four times as big as the other two pastures combined. And, it looks like grass was planted in it before it was deserted and the brush started growing up. They’re going to finish chopping it and make sure the fence is okay, then we’ll turn the horses loose in it while we plant the other pastures so they can eat down the grass that’s there. Then we’ll put the horses back in one of the other pastures, burn the big pasture, and replant grass to supplement what gets seeded when we burn.

We still have the single chicken living in the rabbit hutch, but that’s going to change on Saturday. I’ve been talking about getting some more chickens, and just found out that it was apparently divine intervention that kept me from doing something about it, rather than inertia or laziness. Elizabeth came over with her sisters on Monday, and told me that her mother wants to give us some chickens as payment for the chicken wire we gave her a couple of months ago. Her mother had wanted her sisters to deliver the chickens to us on Monday, but they hitched a ride with the tortilla man from their home in 7 Miles to Elizabeth and Augusto’s house, and apparently the tortilla man doesn’t accept chickens as passengers. But, Tom is going to 7 Miles on Saturday morning to pick up Julio, the 7 Miles Chairman who is in charge of the water supply, so Tom and Julio can take Tom’s gringo drill up on the pipeline and install pressure relief valves – which are much needed since we’ve been mostly without water for a week and a half because the high pressure of the newly run pipe has been blowing the pipes apart. So, Tom will pick up Elizabeth to go visit her family in 7 Miles on Saturday morning, go to 7 Miles and pick up Julio, go up and do the work on the pipeline, then stop back here to pick up some cage pieces which Julio needs to build a cage for his gibnuts (aka agoutis or Royal Rats), then take Julio and the cage pieces to 7 Miles, where he will retrieve Elizabeth and get the chickens. Things always work out when you give them time!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Mules, toucans, kids, puppies…always something

I like to exercise in the late afternoon, but if I wait too long, we end up eating dinner at 9:00pm by the time I exercise, feed the dogs and horses, shower, and cook. So, Tom and I agreed that I would try to start exercising by 4:30, or 5:00 at the latest, Selwyn would leave by around 5, and Tom would feed the horses. However, that never seems to happen. Every day, something happens about that time that usually delays me by a half hour or an hour. Sometimes it’s one of the neighbors stopping by to chat, or the kids come over and need help with the computer, or somebody wants to borrow something, or Tom and Selwyn need help finishing something so Selwyn can go home. Monday night’s diversion was unusual. I went out to feed the horses at about 4:30 so they could eat while I exercised, and a mule was standing right outside their fence. I walked down to shut the gate so it couldn’t get out in the road, and he followed me, bumping my shoulder, nibbling at my shoes, and generally trying to get me to pay attention to him. He wasn’t wearing a halter, but he looked very well cared for, with perfectly trimmed feet, shiny coat, and, unlike our horses, plenty of padding on his ribs. I gave him a good rub and shut the gate and went to see what Tom and Selwyn thought we should do, leaving the mule to continue his games with our horses, squealing and biting and kicking and bucking at each other. The girls just wanted to bite him, but Tony was offended that another male equine was getting near his girls, so he was charging the fence with his teeth out, showing more energy and ambition than he’s shown since we got him. The girls were doing their share of nipping and jumping up and down, and the mule just seemed to be enjoying playing the game.

When I found Tom and Selwyn in the house, Selwyn said that he had heard that an old Spanish widow down the road had lost her mule, which used to be her deceased husband’s, and that the mule had been running loose since the end of last week, and even though lots of people had seen him, nobody had been able to catch him. They asked if I’d tied him up, and I explained that he’d been all over me, and that I’d shut him in the pasture next to our horses, and I said I’d go back out and catch him. Everybody who has mules says they’re smart, and I now believe them, because when I went to the tack shed to get a halter and lead rope and went into the pasture to catch the mule, the previously very friendly beast didn’t want anything to do with me. He’d let me walk almost to him, and then buck away, squealing and kicking. He finally decided he’d had enough of me in the pasture, so he walked over to the gate and jumped over. Unfortunately he caught his back legs – the mule was probably about 14’2”, he was jumping from a walk, and the gate is probably 3’6” – and I thought I could walk around and catch him, but the wily creature very calmly pulled each leg out and over, and ended up with just a small skinned spot on one of his stifles. The low speed chase continued, and as I neared the road, one of the rangers who mans the Pine Ridge Forest Reserve gate was walking by on his way to work. He asked if it was our mule, and I told him that it wasn’t, he had just appeared and was hanging out with our horses. The ranger told me that the forestry officers had confiscated five mules from xote poaching Guatemalans, and one of the mules had run away into the forest. About this time, Tom and Selwyn appeared, expecting me to have tied up the very friendly mule, and instead I was still chasing him around the yard. They each took a lead rope, clipped them together, and made a lead rope corral in a corner, trapping the mule. The first time he plowed through the rope, but the second time we cornered him they managed to hold him, and once he figured that his game was up, he let me walk right up to him and put a halter on his head.

We now didn’t know what to do. It was 5:30 by this time, dusk was approaching, and if the mule didn’t belong to the woman down the road, we didn’t want to show up at her house at dusk and frighten her. So, we decided to tether the mule for the night, give him some hay and water, and Selwyn would ask the woman’s daughter, who lives in San Antonio, if her mother was still missing the mule. If the mule didn’t belong to the woman, I planned to take a drive up to the ranger office at Augustine on Tuesday morning.

That was one pissed off mule. He wanted to hang out with our horses, but he wanted to do it on his own terms, and we were afraid to put him in the pasture for fear he and Tony would have a kicking contest and somebody would get hurt. So, we tied him to a tree by a rope around his neck, and we think he spent most of the night pacing at the end of the rope, rearing and bucking, and generally putting on a big display to show his displeasure. We checked on him a few times before we went to bed, and every time, he was still bouncing around at the end of the rope like a dog on a chain when it sees something out of reach.

When Selwyn came in the morning, he said that the woman was still missing the mule, so I decided to walk him down the road to her house, which is about a mile away. I figured that even if it wasn’t her mule, a woman showing up on a sunny morning would be less frightening than a couple of guys at dusk. Fortunately, the mule did belong to the woman, and although we couldn’t understand each other too well due to my lack of Spanish and her lack of English, she made it clear that she was delighted to have her mule back. She kept smiling and patting him, and kissing him on the cheek, and he was braying like he was telling the woman and all her other animals that he had returned. We took my rope off his neck and put hers on, and she put him back where he belongs.

On Monday after school – before the mule catching incident – Wilton came over and asked if either of our computers played DVDs. I actually didn’t know, but thought that mine did, so we popped his DVD into the drive to see what happened – and it worked. It turned out that Wilton had borrowed a DVD from a friend at school, and wanted to watch it. It put me in a sort of difficult position, because I watched the beginning with him, and it was an American crash-bang-shoot-‘em-up movie, with emphasis on the shoot-‘em-up part. Wilton is 9, and his family is very involved with their church, and I had no idea if his parents knew he was watching any movie at all, and this one in particular. I didn’t have time to pursue it because the mule catching adventure started right about then, but Wilton came back with Ronald at 7:00 Tuesday morning, with an additional DVD, to see if that one would play. Ronald’s DVD was some sort of sit com in Spanish, which didn’t look too out of line for young boys, but Tom asked anyway if their parents knew they were watching these DVDs. They assured us that they did, and we haven’t yet seen either of their parents to ask, and we’re still discussing how we should handle it. Most likely, we’ll just make some comment about the boys watching DVDs at our house, and then only answer questions if they’re asked. It’s probably okay, since Wilton and Ronald are both good, honest kids who don’t try to get away with too much behind their parents’ backs, but I guess we’ll have to check, however subtly, just so our adult neighbors continue to trust us.

On Tuesday, Tom and Selwyn finished the wall and ceiling of the second room in the cabin, and we moved our bed out of the dining/living room and into the bedroom. Of course this involved Tom and Selwyn dismantling the bed frame with a saw (some of the screws had stripped so they had to be cut) but by bed time on Tuesday, the bed was set up, and Tom had even remade it. The back room is quieter because it puts another wall between us and our neighbors’ barking dogs, and darker because it looks out into the jungle rather than the cleared driveway, and cooler because there’s an insulated wall between that room and the kitchen. The downside is that most of the scorpions have evacuated the first room and taken up residence in the bedroom because it didn’t get much traffic, so now we’re going to have to watch for them in that room until they realize they need to evacuate the whole house. We found two adult ones in the ceiling and on the wall when Tom and Selwyn were putting the finishing touches on the ceiling and moving all the construction stuff, Tom and I found itty bitty baby ones when cleaning around a couple piles in the evening, and just before bed I opened the door between the rooms and went to go in, just as a big one was crawling across the doorway. All five were quickly dispatched, but it still makes us a little nervous because we don’t want Nock getting up in the night to investigate a noise and getting stung, since we’ve heard that scorpion stings make dogs very sick, and sometimes even kill them – and Nock is small enough that we don’t know how much it would take to kill her.

The other downside to the bedroom is that we’re not quite sure what to do with the puppies. They’ve grown too big for the water trough to be anything other than temporary incarceration, so we’ve been shutting them in the kitchen at night. They hang out with me in there during the day, so they’re both comfortable in there, and while there’s nothing within their reach for them to break, they can still snarfle around in the pots and pans at ground level and amuse themselves. Tuesday night we put them in the bathroom, which involved using one of the cage doors to fence off the hole in the floor that will soon be the shower. They weren’t very happy, and we don’t know if it was because they didn’t like the hole in the floor, or if they didn’t like it because there’s nothing for them to play with in that room other than the dog toys we gave them – which of course aren’t half as much fun as the things they shouldn’t have. The grand plan is to fence in the yard off that room so we can either leave the bedroom door open and they can go in and out as they please, along with the other three dogs, or if we’ll end up shutting them out of the house and on the porch, where they can go on the porch for shelter but still go into the yard when they want. The downside of that is that Nock, Lou, and Mel won’t be able to go in and out on their own at night, but I guess that’s not such a hardship since they’ve never been able to do it anyway. For the time being, the pups will just have to suck it up and sleep in the bathroom.

The other good thing with the back room being done is that we now have space in the front room. We put the table in the middle and pulled out both leaves, and Tom built the computer desk in the corner, so we can leave our computers set up and not have to break everything down every time we want to eat at the table. This will be great for the time being, although we think that once the bathroom is done and the construction supplies can be moved out of the bedroom, we’ll put the computers in the bedroom. We seem to have become the local after school and weekend rec center/internet cafĂ©/cafeteria, which is fine as long as we have the time to spend with the kids and we don’t need the computers for our own work, but we need to be able to put things away and effectively close up the shop when we don’t need extra bodies in our space or when we need to be able to get something done. The other complication that will shrink this newfound space is that after we do the last few things on the first cabin, we’ll start all-out work on the second cabin, so everything stored in that cabin will have to go someplace else. Some of it we’ll naturally unpack where we’re living and it will just be absorbed in the space, but some of it is stuff that we won’t have room to unpack until we build a real house, so we’re not sure exactly how much room we need to just store boxes. But, however you look at it, we have more space now than we’ve had for the past seven months since we left Canadice, so we’re doing okay.

Wednesday was another day spent in Spanish Lookout, and the big treat was that when we got to the crank ferry, we were the only car on our side, so we drove right on and parked in the middle of the ferry. I got yelled at because I forgot to get out and walk on, but because we were the only vehicle, Tom talked to the crank man and was allowed to crank us across the river all by himself, although he let the crank man take over just before we got to shore. I was a good girl and walked off the boat and let Tom pick me up on the road. 

The other thing we did in Spanish Lookout was try to find Hepatitis A vaccines. When we were planning our move to Belize, we checked the CDC and WHO websites, which recommended hepatitis vaccines. When I talked to our doctor, she said that hepatitis A would be sufficient, unless we were planning on having sex with the natives, in which case we would need Hep B as well. When I assured her that sex with the natives wasn’t in our plans, she gave us a prescription to go to the county to get the vaccines, which we did on October 11th of last year, shortly before we left. You’re supposed to get a booster shot between April 11th and June 11th, and our time had just run out – and we hadn’t been able to find any Hep A vaccine in this country. We tried the pharmacies, which seem to have everything else, the village health clinics, the hospitals in San Ignacio and Santa Elena, and we tried to get information on where we might be able to find it in Belmopan or Belize City. Nobody seems to know, and the problem seems to be that the vaccine needs to stay cold, and the clinics and hospitals have trouble getting any vaccine that they’re sure hasn’t been exposed to overly warm temperatures. We finally decided to check the Spanish Lookout clinic – since you can get anything in Spanish Lookout! – and sure enough, they have it. It’s $180BZ each (US$90), which is about the same as it costs if you get it privately in the US, although ours were cheaper (US$35) since we went to the county clinic. We asked the nurse why they have it when nobody else does, and she said it’s because they order it from Salvadore. We have no idea why none of the other clinics do this, but at least Tom and I are now immunized, so even if all the unvaccinated people in the rest of Belize get Hep A, we should be safe.

When we got home from Spanish Lookout, we found that Selwyn had spent a busy day out in the drizzle, and had put up some temporary fencing so we can keep the horses in the middle pasture so we can plant grass in the front pasture. That was the original plan, then we thought about removing the middle pasture, but now we’re using it again. It’s a wonder we get anything done, the way we make plans, change them, and then change them again, and never really decide what we’re doing until it’s done. But, the horses are glad to have some fresh greens to nibble and some good shade from the fruit trees, and we’re looking forward to reconditioning the front pasture. And Esmerelda is in the picture, she's just behind the tree and she's so skinny you can't see anything but a leg.

Something is ripe in the trees right over our cabin, and a pair of toucans has been regular visitors. We hear them croaking, and still being newcomers to Belize, we drop what we’re doing and run outside to see them. Unfortunately the leaves have all popped out on the trees with the rain, so we sometimes can’t see them in the tops of the trees, but if we wait a little while they usually fly away, and then we get a good view. Actually, watching toucans fly is even more intriguing than watching them sit in trees and eat because it just seems so improbable that they can keep their heads in the air with those big bills. I’ve also seen a spotted rail and a couple of white-collared seedeaters when I’ve been out in the jungle. The seedeaters are interesting, because they’re like zebra finches or parakeets – the single species comes in lots of different colors and patterns, which makes them difficult to identify from the bird book. Fortunately we have Selwyn as a resource, so he was able to point me in the right direction and get me on the right page in the book so I could find them.

We had another incident in our life without phones. Selwyn always shows up before 8:00 am, and this morning (Thursday) 8:45 rolled around and he still wasn’t here. Tom and I agreed to give him until 9:00, and then we’d go look for him. He pulled in just before 9:00, and told us that he, Nelmarie, and her friend who was going to work on the gardens with her, Shona, had been waiting for us to pick them up. Oops. We sort of remembered that Nelmarie was going to work here today, but we hadn’t thought about picking them up, but Selwyn had assumed we’d pick them up because that’s what we did last week when Hilda and Nelmarie worked here. If we had a phone, one or the other of us would have called by 8:30 and the confusion would have been cleared, but as it was, after Selwyn got here, he and Tom unloaded the hay and wood we picked up in Spanish Lookout yesterday, then I got myself together and went to get the women. So, they get to work a short day today, and we’ve already worked out the ride plan for tomorrow. What was sort of funny was that Petranela, Selwyn and Nelmarie’s mother, had guessed exactly what happened – and she was the one who finally told Selwyn to ride the bike here and help Tom unload the wood. My mother always said that mothers know everything!

Anyway, the women are working on the gardens, and Tom and Selwyn are working on the porch. By mid-next week, we should have a roof, a door, and screening, so the screened porch will become our new dining room. Then we’ll have to figure out what we’re doing for furniture in the main room of the cabin.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Graduation Time

When we moved here, we thought we were giving up the change of seasons. Even though we were enjoying the hot sunny weather here, we were both thinking a little bit longingly of what can be a beautiful Upstate New York spring. People here have been telling us that they too have seasons, they’re just different seasons at different times, and I think I’ve mentioned that instead of referring to spring, summer, winter, and fall, here the seasons are referred to as winter when it’s cold (temps can go down to the 50’s!), the hot dry season (which just passed), and the rainy season (which just started and which corresponds to the hurricane season). It started raining last week, and we discovered that the beginning of the rainy season here is as dramatic as spring in the Northeast. We didn’t realize how brown and dry it had become over the past couple of months with little to no rain. We had noticed that the citrus leaves were curling, and that many trees had lost their leaves, but it had been a gradual change of color. The change back to green has been much more dramatic. When I drove to San Ignacio last Tuesday, the road was still dusty and everything I could see from the road was either brown, or black if fields had been burned. I went back into San Ignacio on Friday, and the landscape looked like it had been drenched with green. The jungle turned from tan and brown to a brilliant green, and some of the hills that had been black from burning are now covered with bright green grass which is growing fast. The citrus leaves have uncurled and become a shiny green again, and grass is starting to sprout in the pasture even though the three horses are still wandering around in that area. All of this is without constant rain; the rain seems to come either at night, or in brief showers during the day, followed by bright sunshine which gives everything that clean, just washed feeling. It’s glorious, and feels as good as spring in New York!

I’ve even managed to get Tom out for a trail ride a few times, which says a lot about how much nicer the weather is since part of the reason he was dragging his feet about going was that it was just too hot for him. We spent all yesterday morning riding the jungle paths with me on Esmerelda and Tom on Tony, and last Thursday we took a short ride with Selwyn on Glinda. It showered a little yesterday afternoon, but that was just a good excuse to take a Sunday afternoon nap, something we haven’t done here because we like to be outside when the weather is nice. One thing we’ve noticed with this weather is that every night we see lightening. It doesn’t matter if it’s clear or cloudy – lightening is always flashing in some direction. It’s sort of cool to look up into the perfectly clear sky at all the stars we can see here, and still see flashes in the distance.

The rain has given us the incentive to get some gardens started. Selwyn’s wife, Hilda, and his sister, Nelmarie, worked all day last Wednesday and put in two beds near the deck to the cabin where we’re living. They put a few plants in one, and are looking for the right vegetation for the other, and both are built around natural rock formations. Unfortunately, having Hilda here with the three kids didn’t work too well, so she won’t be able to come back regularly – although we’ll still draw on her expertise from time to time – so Nelmarie will be on her own, working a couple days per week and getting help when she needs it. It’s great to see a little bit of landscaping beginning, and our neighbors have commented that the place is looking like somebody lives here.

Speaking of Nelmarie, we spent Saturday afternoon and evening as guests at her high school graduation. Graduations are a big deal here. The government only sponsors students until they are 14, and then they must pay for their own education. This means high school is an option – and it’s an option that many families just can’t afford, even if the kids do want to continue their educations. And, many students opt not to continue when they graduate at 14; some just don’t like school, some want or need to get a job to make money for their families, some want to do something that doesn’t require any further education so they elect to begin working right away, and some want to get more education at a trade school rather than what Americans consider a traditional high school. On top of that, the high schools are private and all seem to be associated with a church, so the school may choose not to admit a student.

Graduation ranks right up there with weddings as far as family involvement and formality go. A couple of Nelmarie’s brothers were unable to attend because of work, but the rest of the family spent Saturday getting ready for the big event. The graduation was a four o’clock, and Tom and I went to Bol and Petranela’s house at 2:30. The scene there reminded me of my family when we’re all getting ready to go somewhere formal – the men running around half dressed yelling for somebody to iron their shirts, the women running around in towels with their hair and makeup already done, and everybody looking for something. Somehow, everybody ended up in the truck by about 3:15, with the women all crammed in the front, and the men riding on benches in the bed. Tom went as fast as was safe down the road to Santa Elena, and we pulled in the parking lot in time for Nelmarie to take her place in line, and for us to get the truck parked and get back to get a seat just before the ceremony began.

The first thing Tom and I noticed was what passes for formal dress in Belize. For the men, it’s a lot less than we’re used to, and for the women, a lot more. Tom was dressed in a button up shirt and tie and Dockers. He said he was the only man there in a tie, although there were a number of men in khaki pants and button up tucked in shirts. For many men, their good jeans are their formal clothes, and most were wearing either short sleeved polo shirts or the square hemmed wear-outside-your-pants short-sleeved button up shirts – like what we call Hawaiian shirts, but in more sedate prints. For the women, there were a few in nice slacks and blouses, but there were a whole lot of filmy dresses with little straps or no straps at all, lots of sequins, more high heels than I thought existed, and wide ribbons for belts. I was wearing a sort of slinky shiny tank dress, which was perfectly appropriate, and as close as I’m going to come to what most of the Belizean women were wearing. It actually didn’t matter what Tom and I were wearing – we were two of a handful of gringos in the audience, and nobody expects us to be Belizean.

This is Nelmarie with her brother Gilroy and a friend.

However, the graduation mass and ceremony gave Tom and I a much better idea of who and what Belizeans are – and we discovered that Belize is almost as big of a melting pot as the US, but white people are a definite minority. Nelmarie’s class graduated 47 students, and the Prayers of the Faithful in the Mass were said in six different languages – Creole, Spanish, Shona, Maya, Garifuna, and English, and when the Hail Mary was recited, a few languages were added on top of that, including Irish (Gaelic?), the priest’s native tongue. Even with this wide diversity, there wasn’t a single white student in the graduating class, and, like I said, Tom and I were two of only a handful of white people among the guests. The Catholic Mass is still the Catholic Mass, however, and it was interesting to hear parts and pieces in all the different languages. One big difference from anything I’ve seen, or heard, in this case, was the music, all of which was done with a synthesizer with a background salsa beat, from Pomp and Circumstance to the Alleluia chorus. I have no idea if this is because of the Latin influence here, or if this is happening around the world, but a few times it took me a few bars to realize that I was listening to a traditional hymn or processional. Between the full Mass and the Commencement ceremony, the entire production took almost three hours. Fortunately, it was held in the Cahal Pech auditorium (a resort in San Ignacio), which is air conditioned, so the heat wasn’t too bad and nobody collapsed from the heat. After the ceremony, Bol took the whole group to Hode’s for a celebratory drink, and then we stopped for chicken barbeque on the way home. We dropped Nelmarie off at a friend’s house for the graduates’ party, and the rest of us headed back into the hills to San Antonio, arriving home around 10:00.

Back on the home front – Tom and Selwyn are making good progress on the second room of the cabin, and should finish the ceiling tomorrow – which means we may be able to move our bed into a bedroom! Then we just have to finish the bathroom, and we can work on the yard and porches. I cleaned the rest of my baking pans out of the camper this morning, so I think I’ve crammed everything I’m going to cram into this kitchen. I still have some stuff packed in boxes, but that stuff will have to wait for a real kitchen in a real house, although I have more than enough here and this kitchen is really pretty practical. The bathroom delay has turned into a good thing, because we want to put the ceiling in before we tile the shower so we’re not dropping power tools on the tile, and thanks to the fact that it started raining, we’ve found a few leaks in the roof that would otherwise have leaked into the ceiling and would have been very difficult to locate and fix.

Tom has also been going gangbusters on pasture clearing, and the front pasture is just about done. We still have a lot to do, and with the rain it seems like it grows as quickly as we chop it, but it still feels like we’re gaining on it.

The puppies are growing like weeds, and seem to be normal happy healthy pups. We weighed them yesterday, and they’re both exactly 19.2 pounds, and eating like horses – more than the horses, in fact, and double what Mel gets. Beli’s abscess finally drained, and she now just has a little hard lump that will probably go away in time. It also looks like her ears may stand up, since one is standing up part time already, and the other tends to flip back, while Stout’s ears are still droopy. Stout is in to everything, and it doesn’t seem like he ever even stops for a nap.

Beli is happy to sit with us, and she runs and plays a lot but also naps, while Stout spends nap time pulling towels off racks, chewing on the cabin, chewing on the cage top, chewing on the other dogs, chewing on our ankles, and just walking around looking for trouble. He is a good puppy though, because he’s now started to go to the door and ask to go out when he has to go. Of course we have about 15 seconds to get to the door before he can’t hold it anymore and he squats, but between us we usually manage to get there in time, so he’s really getting the hang of house training. We’re not sure about Beli, because she always goes out when he goes, so we don’t know if she would ask if he weren’t around. Either way, I’m wiping up a lot less puppy pee, and they’re now sleeping in the kitchen and able to make it almost to the alarm, so we’re making progress.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Another weekend flies by

This past weekend flew by, and we’re not even sure what we did. We got to bed late Friday night because Iris, Lucy, and Rosa from next door came over to use the computer, and then we ended up playing dominoes with Rosa while Lucy and Iris surfed. On Saturday, both Tom and I woke up with lots of plans to get things done even though we were starting a little later than usual, and while both of us were busy all day, we’re not really sure what we did. Tom continued the pasture clearing effort, made a bunch of burn piles, and burned lots of dry palm leaves and coconuts, along with other brush. The rainy season is definitely here, so it’s safe to burn again, and we’re trying to get the piles we’ve been building for the past few weeks burned before they get too wet to burn. Since the middle of last week, we’ve generally had warm sunny mornings, and then the black clouds start to build and we can hear thunder in the distance by early to mid afternoon. By 4:00 or so, the sky gets black, the wind picks up, the thunder and lightening are definitely noticeable, and then a good thunderstorm will roll through within an hour. The heavy rain lasts about an hour, and then it seems to drizzle and shower off and on for most of the night, and then we have another sunny morning. So far, the rain is a welcome change from the unrelenting dry heat. We’re catching up on inside stuff that we hadn’t wanted to do when it was so nice outside, and the cooler nights are refreshing. The flying termites haven’t been back, although we’ve been warned that they could make another appearance before the end of June. No doubt they’ll show up just about when I’ve managed to rid the house of wings from the first infestation.

I spent Saturday trying to catch up on email, without much success. I was doing that while I was doing some stuff in the kitchen, so I wasn’t moving too fast, and I just sat down to concentrate on the email task when Wilton showed up, just to visit. We chatted, and then I taught him how to play Jenga, which he loved. Tom helped Sharyn with some computer stuff, and we managed to have an early dinner and get to bed at a reasonable time.

Our Sunday morning started at 7:15, when a man and his son from 7 Miles stopped by to see if Tom could pick up and deliver some lumber for him with our truck. Tom doesn’t think he’s ever met the man before, so he isn’t sure how the man knew we were hauling lumber in here for our own project, or why the man thought to approach him to ask. In any case, Tom decided that while he’d like to be helpful, Tinkerbell doesn’t need any extra wear and tear hauling heavy loads over the rough road, so he explained this and said he couldn’t do it. He had time to finish his breakfast, and Damion and Wilton showed up with Damion’s truck. The aforementioned rough roads had broken the bracket holding Damion’s rear bumper on his Toyota pickup, and Damion needed to use some of Tom’s tools to remove the bumper. We were sitting at the table chatting before Damion went to work, and Wilton remembered that Damion had never seen the Caracol pictures from our trip there with their family in April, so we turned on the computer and did a slide show. Just as they were finishing, Ronald and George, who had also gone to Caracol with us, showed up to help Damion, so they had to see the pictures too. Then Damion and George went outside to work on the truck, and Ronald and Wilton stayed inside to look at more pictures and play Jenga.

I finished cleaning up breakfast, and Tom took off to pick up Selwyn and his family because we had planned to go with them to see some more of the resorts in the Pine Ridge. Selwyn has either worked at most of the resorts around here, or his family knows the owners and/or managers, so he’s happy to lead us around and make introductions. Everybody is so friendly that we probably don’t really need Selwyn to introduce us, but we’re still glad to have an “in.” By the time Tom returned from picking up Selwyn and his family, Damion and George had finished the truck and left, and then bellowed from their house for Ronald and Wilton to come home. Ronald and Wilton were all for ignoring the yelling and finishing their Jenga game, but I suggested that if their parents were yelling that loudly, they were probably yelling for a reason. I told them I’d leave the Jenga game on the table, but that promise ended up being broken because when Tom returned with Selwyn and Hilda’s two little boys, it took about a minute before the table was bumped and the Jenga tower collapsed. No matter, really, and after the boys played with the pups for a few minutes, we loaded up the truck and headed up the road.

Our first stop was the Pine Ridge Lodge, which is only about 3 miles up the road. We talked to Richard, their manager, and he allowed us to look at a few of their rooms and to walk around the property. Because we don’t know what’s involved in building around here, we try to look at as many buildings and landscaping projects as we can so we know what’s possible. Their cabanas are cement, some with thatched roofs and some with tile, so we didn’t get too many construction hints there, but Tom and Richard talked about how Pine Ridge provides water to all the cabins, and a few facts about dealing with water out of gravity feed tanks became clear. We’ve been researching this and trying to figure out if we’ll have enough water pressure to run through the water heaters, but have found some information that isn’t very clear, and some that’s downright contradictory. Richard made it simple, and told us what he’d found by trial and error – the pipe from the bottom of the tank must be seven feet above the shower head. We were glad to know it’s that simple, but not so glad to realize that we don’t think (from eyeballing it) that we have seven feet between tank tap and shower head. So, our problem isn’t solved, but at least we have some clear information.

Our next stop was Five Sisters resort, which is 2.5 miles down the road past Blancaneaux. We were very curious about Five Sisters because Tom’s parents are taking a Central American tour with Overseas Adventure Travel in the end of December, and the last stop on the tour is Belize, where they’ll be staying at Five Sisters. Most of the OAT adventurers will head home from Belize, but Tom’s parents will stay with us for a little while after that. But, since they’ll be spending their first couple of nights in Belize at Five Sisters, we wanted to make sure it was okay – and it is okay, very nice, in fact. They’re not very busy this time of year, and in fact the only guests they were having were from another OAT group due to arrive Sunday afternoon. They showed us a few of their rooms and cabanas, and they’re all very nice.

We took a look at the restaurant and bar, and then walked down the 300+ steps to take a dip in the river and see the Five Sisters Waterfalls – obviously where the resort gets its name, and quite beautiful. They usually have an electric tram running, but something was wrong with their electric hydro plant, so the tram wasn’t running. We walked down all the stairs, had a swim and a snack and a rest, and then headed back up.

Ali and Junior walked up all the stairs with very little help, and when we got to the top, we were heading back to the truck, walking through the beautiful gardens surrounding the cabanas. We heard a Melodious Blackbird in the garden, which has a distinctive call that always makes Tom and me think it’s saying “Look at me!” Suddenly Ali says, “That bird is saying a bad word.” “What bird, and what bad word is he saying?” asked Hilda. “That bird,” said Ali, “he’s saying fookin’ ass.” And then Ali walked along the path, chirping “Fookin’ ass, fookin’ ass, fookin’ ass.” When we stopped laughing, Hilda asked where he’d heard those words, and he looked at her like she really couldn’t get much dumber, and just said, “from the bird.” So, Diane and Bill and Pete and JB, next time you get a call that Jonah or Lilly have said a bad word, just tell the principal or whomever the offended party is that they must have learned the bad words from a bird!

We made a quick stop at Blancaneaux on our way out, where we admired the two new colts, one a few days under two weeks, and the other a few days older. The mares had been bred when Selwyn was still working at Blancaneaux, and he’d heard that they’d both had colts, and since we were driving by, we stopped to see. While we were there, we picked up Selwyn’s brother Richard, who works there, and brought him and another worker down the hill. We picked up Selwyn’s other brother, Derrick, at the family farm, and they all came to our house to pick up the legs to a rabbit hutch we’d given Selwyn and Hilda for the boys’ rabbit. We’d been hearing thunder since we left Five Sisters, and the sky was getting blacker and blacker, so we all came in the cabin, and, since we’d skipped lunch, we decided to eat. Selwyn has been talking about having Hilda come over to teach me how to make tortillas for months, and we decided that yesterday was time for the lesson.

Not to toot my own horn too much, but I’m a pretty good cook and can usually figure out how to make just about anything in the kitchen. But, I’ve been working on tortillas since I’ve been here, and I just can’t make them round and even and without any wrinkles or parts that are either too crispy or too raw. I’ve been reading cookbooks and tortilla recipes on line, and I’ve tried different recipes and different methods of stretching or rolling them, but nothing has worked. I discovered yesterday that you just have to watch somebody who’s been doing it since she was six years old, and it gets a whole lot clearer, although I’m still going to need a lot of practice. It does start with the dough, but you have to know how much to knead it, and then how to make the balls for the tortillas, which is a little more complicated than rolling it in balls. In fact, the whole thing seems to depend on making different sized bubbles with the dough, and there’s lots of pinching and crimping and bubbling involved. I watched Hilda, then she watched me and gave me a whole bunch of technique tips, and while I seem to be able to press it into something resembling a fairly even circle, I’m still having a hard time getting the raw tortilla on the griddle without wrinkling it. That, I think, will just take practice, and fortunately Tom and Selwyn both like tortillas enough that I can keep practicing, and they don’t really care if there are a few wrinkles here and there until I get it right. After all, they’ve been eating the very wrinkled crispy/raw tortillas I’ve been making, so this is an improvement. Hilda also showed me how to slice an avocado, which is so easy I should have figured it out years ago – but I guess it takes someone who’s been eating that food since she was a baby to show me the right way!

Anyway, we ended up having burritos, thrown together with a bunch of stuff from the fridge. A little of this and a little of that added up to plenty to feed a whole pack of people, and while I’m not going to plan any dinner parties until the bed is out of the dining room, it was fun to sit in the cabin and eat with a whole bunch of friends again!

On Monday, Tom and Selwyn moved the generator from under the cabin where we’re living. It’s a big generator, and it’s loud enough that Tom and I would have to almost shout our conversations if it was on and we were talking in the cabin. They dismantled the old “barn” next to the camper, and build a new generator hut out of the truck cap and some zinc roofing we found lying around the property. It’s still loud, but it’s a definite improvement, and they were going to have to move it closer to the second cabin anyway when they start working there – which, with any luck, will be very soon. In the afternoon, the three of us took a walk around the property to figure out first what needs to be done, and second, how and in what order we’re going to do it. We changed our pasture plan a bit, because we were going to keep the three pastures as they are now, and put the horses in the middle one while we grew grass for grazing in the other two. After looking at the space, we think we may eliminate the middle pasture, leaving an alley between the two pastures for when we want to move the horses, and turning the rest into a small parking area for guests,a riding area for my jumps, and a fruit grove, since there are already a number of fruit trees growing in that area. There are large mango trees, avocado trees, a number of different types of citrus trees, and a few coconut palms. There’s a dead tamarind in that area, but a number of tamarind seedlings are growing around it, so we’ll chop down the dead one and replant some of the seedlings where they’ll be able to grow.

This means we need something to do with the horses if we don’t want them in one of the growing pastures for at least part of every day, so we moved up our plans for a barn. Tom and Selwyn had discussed building a barn with a thatched roof and palmetto sticks in the big pasture, but when we started looking at the area, we realized that a mostly intact cat cage with two small concrete rooms attached is located right near the corner of the pasture. So, we’re thinking that we’ll probably turn the cage into a barn, using the poles and metal cage material as a structure to attach stall boards and roofing, and the concrete “dens” as tack and feed rooms. We paced out the space, and while it will be nothing like a conventional barn or any sort of conventional building, half of the cage should make a pretty nice four-stall barn, and when we get more horses, we could build four more stalls in the other half of the cage where some of the cage material has been removed.

On Tuesday, I left for a morning shopping trip in San Ignacio. One of the items on my list was horse feed, and I went to all three feed stores in town, and none of them had any horse feed. So, I took care of the rest of my San Ignacio to-do list, and took an unscheduled trip to Spanish Lookout. Fortunately, the feed mill had feed – which wasn’t a certainty, since it’s the feed mill that supplies all the feed stores, so I was wondering if the reason all the feed stores were out of feed was that the mill wasn’t working. But, it was, so I got my feed, plus a few other things I remembered that we needed from Spanish Lookout, and headed home. I was just in time for lunch, cooked by Selwyn – a nice treat for me! After lunch Tom and Selwyn started clearing the big pasture, with Tom wielding the weed whacker through the middle, and Selwyn working with a machete around the fence line, where we suspect some of the wire may be down. They figure it will take them two to three days to clear the pasture, and they said there’s some decent grass under the brush, so as soon as they’re done and have fixed the fence, we’ll probably move the horses to that pasture and plant grass in the front where they’ve been living. Then we’ll work on the barn, and by the time that’s done we should be able to turn the horses out during the day on the first planted pasture and keep them in at night, and then we can plant new grass in the big pasture. Of course plans will change, but that’s the plan at the moment.

Now that the rainy season has started, we need to get started on the gardens. We’ve been talking about what we want where since we’ve been here, but it’s pointless to plant when it’s so dry – but once it starts to rain, things we’ll take off, so we need to get them in the ground. Since neither Tom nor I have a lot of spare time, we’ve hired Hilda and Selwyn’s sister Nellmarie part-time to get the gardens going. I’ll help when I can, but they both know a whole lot more than I do about gardening, so I think I’ll be doing more learning than helping. The second cabin is a temporary day care center for Hilda and Selwyn’s three kids and their babysitter, so there’s activity all over the place around here.

Because the chicken now lives in the rabbit hutch, she’s safe, but she’s in a direct line for the dogs when they head out the door of the cabin. Usually we call them off as soon as they head in that direction, but I wanted to see what they’d do if we let them go near the chicken. I shouldn’t have done it, but it was pretty funny watching the three of them bouncing around under the cage, with the chicken popping up and down like popcorn. The blur immediately under the floor of the cage in this picture is Nock.

Here’s all three of them under the cage, getting ready for the next assault.

Here’s Lou where he’s happiest, resting on the pillows and watching me.

And here’s Nock, doing what she does best – standing at alert on the bed, keeping an eye out the window so she can see any intruders as they come up the driveway. The camper was in a direct line from the bottom of the driveway, so the dogs had a good view of the road, which I think they miss in the cabin. She looks pretty good for a nine year old, doesn't she?