Friday, June 1, 2007

Fire, Flying Termites, and the Rainy Season Begins

Tom and I have had another super busy week, making some progress as planned, and handling a bunch of stuff that wasn’t in the plan. After I last blogged, Tom, Selwyn and I took Thursday morning last week to go for a trail ride. Part of Selwyn’s job when he worked at Blancaneaux was not only taking tourists on trail rides, but also maintaining the horse trails in the Mountain Pine Ridge. So, Tom and I were in good hands as Selwyn led us on a trail ride, taking some of the trails I’ve ridden with Esmerelda and a few new ones, which were paths that I wouldn’t have even attempted to use if I was on my own since they were pretty overgrown in places. Tony is everything we expected him to be; we rode for three hours, through all sorts of terrain, at all gaits, and Tony just went along. He’s not going to break any land speed records, and Tom was tired when we were done from kicking him to make him keep up with the girls, but nothing fazed him (Tom or Tony). Selwyn rode Glinda, who was a witch. After listening to Tom describe his attempt to ride her, Selwyn went home Wednesday night and made a hackamore for her, which he fitted with a set of draw reins. When he first got up, she started to bow her back and get really light on her feet, so Selwyn just pulled her chin to her chest, and she was completely unable to buck or rear. The only thing he allowed her to do for the entire ride was go forward, and while she was still a little jiggy at the end of the ride, she was much better behaved. Selwyn made her lead the whole ride, and while she tried to refuse a number of things – stream crossings, downed trees where she needed to pick her way through, and things like that – he just kept at her to go forward, and she only needed a lead from Esmerelda once, through a very mucky, quick-sandy stream crossing. Esmerelda was Esmerelda, happy to go and do whatever we were doing.

Selwyn was pretty happy to be spending working hours working on a horse, and Tom and I were glad to give him the opportunity not only because we’d promised him that part of his job is doing horse things, but because he’s a really good horseman and we’re glad we have him around to handle some of the sticky training issues. He also made the ride very educational for us, pointing out different trees and explaining their uses, and finding birds in the trees that we would never even notice on our own. We saw a couple of Crested Quan birds, which are about the size and shape of wild turkeys, but they live in the tops of the trees in the broadleaf jungle, and fly around up there. The other thing Tom found fascinating on the ride, and which I’ve been commenting on since I started taking Esmerelda on long rides up and down the hills, is the fact that as you change elevation, the type of forest changes dramatically, from broadleaf jungle in the lower areas, to pine forest as you go higher on the hills. In places it’s almost as if the pine is growing in a field that was cleared up to the jungle, but Selwyn says those dramatic breaks occur naturally.


On Friday, I headed to Spanish Lookout because the horses were almost out of hay, and because we always need something from Spanish Lookout. Unfortunately, I went with very little cash, and the place where we usually get cash was closed, so instead of getting a bunch of stuff and making the trip worth my time, I found that I had only $20BZ ($10 US), which I used for hay. The fortunate thing was that the place where we’ve been getting hay was out, so that farmer sent me to a neighboring farmer, who has more hay, more types of hay, and his quantity discounts are a little better. And, the new (for us) hay farmer is a little more talkative, so I learned a bit more about the types of hay available here, which are different from the types of hay in NY. These farmers have never heard of timothy or alfalfa; they sell blue stem, stargrass, various mixes of the two, plus a few other types of hay that everybody says horses won’t eat. While I was discussing hay with the farmer, a Mennonite from Barton Creek showed up looking to buy some hay, and we recognized each other because both of us had put in purchase offers on the place that we tried to buy just before buying this property. David the Mennonite’s offer hadn’t been accepted either, and we agreed that the seller doesn’t really want to sell. David ended up getting a ride home with me since he had taken the early bus and didn’t want to wait for the later bus to get home, and he knows Tony, the horse we just bought, and confirmed everything that the seller had told us – he was just too slow to work in a multi-horse hitch. As we were hading south on the Georgeville Road, David pointed out the clouds building in the south, and told me that everyone was telling him that those clouds heralded the rainy season, and they were just waiting to build up so the rain could start. At the time, I sort of pooh-poohed the idea, but it turns out that David may have been correct.


Tom and I spent Saturday trying to get more moved in to the cabin. On Friday afternoon, Tom and Selwyn had put shelves in my kitchen, and Tom finished the job on Saturday so I started moving everything from the camper, and everything I could fit from the boxes packed in the second cabin. It’s amazing how much fits in a small kitchen when every inch of wall space is used. Pots and pans and their lids are hung on the walls without shelves, and all the shelves are filled. This is what I wanted in a kitchen here – everything out in the open, with no dark spaces for the creepy crawlies to hide in and surprise me. And it’s so much easier to cook, when I don’t have to root around for a pan or utensil; the kitchen is so small, and everything is so accessible, that I don’t think I have to take more than a step or two in any direction and I have what I want in my hands. But, since I don’t have any appliances on the counter since we don’t have any electricity to run them, I think I have almost as much counter space as I did in Canadice – and that was a big kitchen. Of course, the downside of this efficiency kitchen will be that this is definitely a one-person kitchen, so when I’m trying to cook for a group I won’t be able to have much help, but I’m planning to put a counter on the big room side of the window, so somebody else could chop or mix or just get things organized while I’m at the stove. I guess time will tell how this works.


Late Saturday afternoon, just as Tom and I were starting to think about getting cleaned up and getting ready for dinner, Reuben, the adult son of the caretaker of the property behind our two lots, came up the driveway. He came to tell us that our property was on fire. Reuben and his family had planted some corn on the land that they care for, and somehow the cornfield had been overtaken by fire, although it’s still unclear to Tom and I how this happened. Reuben didn’t act like it was too big of a deal; he said that the fire wasn’t moving too quickly and he expected it to burn itself out by the time the dew settled, but he thought we should know. Tom decided to take a walk up to that part of our property with Reuben to see what was happening, and I decided to exercise. I was 36 minutes into my 40 minute workout when Tom came jogging up the driveway, told me to quit exercising and put on some long pants and boots, and to grab my machete because we had some fire to fight. There are no fire departments here in the sticks; you fight fires on your own land – if you want to, or try to enlist help from your family and friends. Tom had seen that the fire had spread into our back lot, and he was afraid that it had moved the other way out of the cornfield and that it was possibly burning on our front lot, which is where the cabins and pastures are located. So, we hotfooted it – literally – up our back property line to see if the fire was anywhere near the cabins. It turned out that it wasn’t, although the smoke smell was pretty strong as soon as we got to the top of the hill behind the cabins. We went over that hill, and then up and over the second hill on our property line, with me leaving Tom in the dust on the uphill since Tom had just returned from about a 2 mile jog in jeans and hiking boots and spent 20 minutes fighting a fire with a machete. As we came down the second hill – where Tom caught up since downhill is much harder on my knees than uphill, and Tom uses the downhill with leaves like a ski slope – we approached what had been a cornfield, dusk was falling and the scene was positively spooky.

We had ridden through the field on our ride on Thursday, and everything had been green. Now, everything was black, with small fires still blazing in spots, where ever there was anything that would continue burning longer than some relatively dry corn stalks. We could see that the fire had spread into the jungle on all sides of the cornfield, and the blackness and small hot spots were spreading. The field is in a sort of a valley, and smoke hung over the entire valley. Fortunately the fire had not spread to our front lot as Tom had feared, although it had spread into the jungle not too far from our property line, and it had burned in and out of our sight on the back lot. As we walked down the hill and out of the jungle into the burnt field, we could hear some pretty pissed off howler monkeys roaring their displeasure from not too far away. As we got down to where the corn had been planted, Reuben came out of the jungle from our property, where he had been walking the fire line with a water tank, trying to spray down the edge of the fire. He had to stop, he said, because it was getting dark and it was getting very difficult to see in the jungle. Reuben pointed out the same clouds that David the Mennonite had pointed out to me on Friday, with the same prediction that those clouds were the beginning of the rainy season, and with any luck they’d soon be over us.

With nothing else to do, we went home. We spent Sunday continuing the effort to get moved in, until about 4:00 when Tom decided that we should go take a look and see how much of our land the fire had burned. We walked the property line of our back lot, and everything looked good until we went up and over a big hill (possibly a Mayan Ruin, we’re not sure) approaching the back line, and saw a small fire in the path. As we looked in the jungle, we realized that there were lots of small fires, and that they were all on the edge of a single fire line which was working its way through our property. The fire had not gone out Saturday night, and while it hadn’t spread onto our front lot, it had continued to make its way through the leaves and underbrush, covering probably eight to ten of the 21 acres in that lot. It wasn’t a forest fire like we saw on TV’s Wild Kingdom when we were kids; it was just a brush fire, creeping through the underbrush, damaging very few big trees, but spreading relentlessly because of the very dry leaves on the ground. Not knowing what else to do, Tom went one direction and I went the other, and we started tamping out the small fires with our machetes, and where there was something big burning, we did the best we could to clear the dry leaves and underbrush away from it so the fire wouldn’t spread.

It was very clear why Bol had advised us to clear our property line in March; the fire just ran through the leaves, and where it came to a stump or downed tree, it would just start burning along the deadwood, torching everything in contact with the dry wood. Because some of the underbrush was alive, the fire was pretty smoky, and because of all the dead stuff burning quickly, it was pretty hot. Neither Tom nor I tried to be heroes; we would step in and tamp out the fire, or clear leaves away from whatever direction it was heading, but as soon as we got too hot or it got even a little difficult to breathe because of the smoke, we would step back. We kept at it, and most of the small fires along the line stayed out after we passed, although a few flared up again. We worked our way almost to our perpendicular boundary line, and started hearing thunder in the distance. Finally, it started to rain just as it was getting dark, and while there was still some fire burning, we couldn’t do much more in the dark, and figured that the rain would at least slow it down.

On Monday, we didn’t go back to check the fire because we helped our neighbor, Sharyn, go to the Port in Belize City to pick up some stuff they had shipped from the US on their last trip. Just before she came back to Belize a few weeks ago, they had packed a container with a loaded pickup truck and horse trailer, and some other large things such as three refrigerators, a big griddle, and some other large boxes. As I’ve mentioned before, her husband Jim is doing a job in Alaska, so Sharyn was on her own as far as getting this stuff from the Port back to the resort they’re building. The packed truck and trailer just had to be driven back to their property, but the other things needed to be hauled. Sharyn’s original plan had been to use their bus towing their flatbed trailer, but the transmission on the bus isn’t working, so we helped by driving our pickup truck out, while Sharyn and Damion, who works for Sharyn and Jim, took their small Toyota pickup, and Damion’s wife Olmi went along for the ride. While the trip was basically uneventful, it made Tom and I really really glad that we’d elected to come to Belize with just what we could fit in our pickup and camper, since Sharyn not only had the hassle of getting all the stuff home and unpacked, but between duty, the custom broker’s fee, other import fees, tips, and gas, Sharyn wrote a lot of checks, which really made us appreciate how simple our entry into Belize was in January.

On Tuesday, while I went to Spanish Lookout for all the things I had planned to get on Friday, Tom and Selwyn went out to see what was happening with the fire. It had gone out, and hadn’t burned much more than what Tom and I had seen on Sunday. As they were hiking back to the feeder road, Selwyn noticed some odd mounds not too far off the property line trail. He said they looked like Mayan mounds, and went over and started kicking through them. Sure enough, he started turning up pieces of ancient broken pottery. Selwyn says they’re probably ancient burial mounds, and while we don’t plan to dig in them, we still find it amazing that we can just kick around in the dirt and find pieces of pottery that have been just sitting there in the jungle for 1300 years or so. Even more surprising, once Tom was keyed in to what to look for, he started kicking around in the ash near the cohune palm we’re burning right off our back deck, and found a part of the top of a rim pot.

We don’t know if there are any mounds in the area of the cabins, but because this entire area was part of the Pacbitun settlement, it’s not unlikely that Mayan artifacts could turn up anywhere around here. When we were fighting the fire, we also found another deep hole in the ground, probably about eight feet around and going down about 30 feet or so. It looks like there may be a cave entrance at the bottom, so we’ll see if we can find it again with Bol and he’ll investigate to see if it’s a cave, or just another sinkhole.

A funny thing happened...

A funny thing happened to me on my way to Spanish Lookout. Universal Hardware was my first stop, so I decided to take the ferry across the river rather than driving down the Western Highway and over the bridge. For some reason there was a line of cars waiting to cross to Spanish Lookout, which is unusual at 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning. I pulled into the line, turned off the engine, and pulled my lengthy list out of my pocketbook to plan my shopping strategy, which is always a good idea in Spanish Lookout if you want to try to get everything on your list. Some places close for lunch at noon, some at 11:30, some reopen at 12:30, some at 1:00, and some at 1:30, some places don’t close at all, some places you’re more likely to find someone to help you at lunchtime, some places will require you to go and then stop back no matter when you get there so it’s easier to do the first visit early in the day,…none of it is ever a sure thing, but you learn the patterns after a few months.

In any case, I was behind a very nice Toyota Hiace, which is a large van, and a pickup driven by a white guy was two cars in front of me. The guy from the pickup got out to talk to the Hiace driver about the van, and I was sort of listening because Tom and I also like the Hiaces. The road to the ferry is dirt, and the line forms at the river just around a blind curve. Anyone who ever drives that way knows to go slowly because there’s no telling where the ferry line ends, and there have been fatal accidents where somebody crashes into the end of the line and sends cars on the ferry and the riverbank into the river. Suddenly the two guys talking in the road in front of me pricked their ears, and then I pricked mine, because we could all hear a car coming towards us, going way faster than was safe. I decided the truck was the safest place to be, and put on my seatbelt, and I was watching the two guys talking in the road, wondering if they’d be out of the way if the oncoming car rear ended me. Fortunately the car slowed a little just before reaching the curve, and was going slow enough that he didn’t skid into the line when he saw the tail end of my truck and slammed on his brakes. He pulled in behind me, to glares from me, the two guys in the road, and from the three or four cars at the front of the line whose drivers had their heads out the windows waiting to see what happened.

So, the possible crash fortunately turned into a non-event, but it was enough that the guy from the pickup truck seemed to feel we’d all shared an experience, so he came up to my truck to introduce himself. His opening line was, “You’re not a Mennonite, and you’re not a tourist. What’s your gig, girl?” I figured he could tell I wasn’t a Mennonite because they dress in plain dresses and wear caps, and I was in a knit tank dress, and capless of course – even though many of the Mennonite women are tall and thin and blond. I wasn’t quite so sure how he could tell I wasn’t a tourist, but I guess Tinkerbell with her Belize license plates might have been a clue, or maybe the fact that I put on my seatbelt when I heard the car coming too fast so he knew it wasn’t my first time on the ferry. What was freaky was that when I told him my name was Marge and that my husband and I lived on a piece of property in the Pine Ridge, he said he’d heard of us. Yikes! He lives in Bullet Tree, which is on the other side of San Ignacio, and I have no idea what he heard, but I guess Belize is a small country with a small expat community when random people you meet on the ferry say they’ve heard of you.


It looks like David the Mennonite and Reuben were right. On Wednesday, the Rainy Season started with a vengeance. We had a little bit of rain Sunday night, and a little more Monday night, and then as I was driving around on Tuesday I could see scattered showers in the distance although I never saw any rain. Then, on Wednesday, we woke up to clouds, which got thicker and thicker as the day progressed. By the time we ate lunch and I went in the kitchen to wash up the lunch dishes, it was so dark that I had to light a kerosene lamp, and Selwyn commented that it isn’t that dark at 7:00 at night. Around 2:00, the sky was black, the wind was blowing, the thunder was rumbling, and then the lightening started to strike and the thunder boomed louder, and it started to pour. The rain was a torrential downpour for well over an hour, and then a steady shower until dark, and it rained off and on all night. Yesterday (Thursday) was cloudy, and today was cloudy in the morning, but the afternoon has turned out to be hot and sunny again. We really need the rain, not only to quell the fire hazard, but to put some leaves back on the trees and let the fruit get ripe. The leaves on all the citrus trees have dried and curled over the past few weeks, and the mangoes and avocados haven’t been growing much because there just isn’t any water. We’re told that now that it’s raining, everything will get green again and the fruit will start to grow and ripen.

The bad part of this dramatic opening of the rainy season is the flying termites. As I was exercising in the second cabin around 5:00, a bunch of bugs started flying into the cabin. I called Tom, and he came out with the bug spray, which stopped them for about 2 minutes, and then they started again. These flying bugs were coming in swarms through the rain and into the cabin, and when they reached the cabin, they would lose their wings and start crawling around. The wings stick to everything, and were everywhere. The bugs themselves don’t do much – no biting or stinging or even buzzing – but they crawl everywhere and they’re really annoying, and the wings are quite aggravating because they’re on and in everything. Selwyn and Bol say that they fly in, shed their wings, and crawl into cracks in the wood, where they’re eaten by ants, so they won’t do any damage to the buildings, but even though the initial swarm only lasted an hour or so, I’m still, two days later, cleaning up wings which seem to keep blowing out of the walls. According to everybody around here, it’s the arrival of the flying termites that marks the beginning of the rainy season as much as the fact that it rained.

This and That

We’re still making progress on the property and the cabins. We have a bunch of shelves up in the room of the cabin where we’re living, the kitchen is done except for some formica on the counter, the bathroom sink now works, and all the drains are hooked up and emptying into the soak away. To “finish” the first cabin, we need the walls and ceiling in the room that will be our bedroom, we need to put in the shower, and all the electric wires must be run.

As far as day to day life goes, we’re finding it very easy to live without electric from the grid – surprisingly easy, really. Before we moved into the cabin, we had to run the generator every day to charge the camper battery so we could pump water out of the camper tank and use the camper lights. While we’re still showering in the camper, we’re not using that battery for anything other than the pump, so it lasts at least two or three days without being charged. In the cabin, we don’t need electricity for anything other than the satellite. The water gravity feeds from the 200 tank above the roof, and we’ve been using candles and kerosene lamps for light. The fridge and the stove both run on gas, so we’ve been running the generator for a few hours every two or three days to charge batteries for the camper, Tom’s power tools, the computers, and the battery hooked to the inverter for electricity in the cabin, which is basically only for the satellite and the stereo. The stereo doesn’t seem to take much juice. Tom and Selwyn listen to music when they work, and the stereo will play for a couple of days off a fully charged battery. The satellite uses more energy, but we’ve been turning it on just every other day or so for a half hour or so, downloading email, and then processing it off line so we’re only using the computers’ batteries. We need to run the generator if we use the washing machine, or if Tom and Selwyn are using a lot of power tools and the DeWalt batteries run down, but other than that it’s blissfully quiet around here. We haven’t even had to use the generator for the water pump because we’ve had good enough pressure out of the pipe in the evenings to fill all the tanks, even the gravity feed tank, directly from a hose from the pipe. We’re still planning to wire the cabins for electric, and we’ll get a solar system eventually with a whole bank of batteries so we can use electric lights and run some appliances. I guess I miss my Cuisinart a little, but since I don’t have to go to work, I have plenty of time to chop my veggies by hand. When you don’t need electricity for heat and water, life gets a whole lot simpler.

The outside is starting to look a little better too. Selwyn went to work on the front pasture, and then Tom jumped in and it’s looking more like a park than a pasture. We’re going to move the horses to the next pasture soon and plant grass, which will make it look even more park-like. Tom has also been clearing on the other side of the driveway, and it’s amazing how much the place opens up when the brush is removed. Tom is even planning a croquette court! He wants to put it where the lone chicken is living in a rabbit hutch, and he’s going to call it “Chicken croquette.”

The dogs are all doing fine, although Beli has a fat head. We think one of the other dogs bit her when they were playing, and the puncture is infected. It doesn’t seem to bother her, but it looks like she has half a golf ball under the skin on her skull. The pups are both in the process of being house trained, although Stout doesn’t seem to understand that he’s supposed to poop AND pee outside. He tells us he has to go out to poop by squatting in front of us and peeing on the floor. Mel, who house trained in a matter of hours as a puppy, is seriously offended, and let me know yesterday when he walked up to me in the cabin, and then started walking and peeing across the area where Stout seems to have most of his accidents. I didn’t hit Mel because I’m afraid I’d hurt him – and he does have a point since he can’t understand why the pups pee in the house – but I had a long shouting monologue at him as I dragged him out of the cabin and into the yard. I’m hoping the neighbors don’t know too many English obscenities, or they may think a little less of me.

We tried two new foods this week. One is a fruit called a pitahaia, although I’m not sure of the spelling. It’s a fruit from a cactus, and it looks a little like a very small, very pink pineapple. Selwyn took off the outermost spikes – like a pineapple’s spikes – and then sliced it, and we ate everything inside the skin. The texture is a lot like a kiwi, and it’s very juicy and has a pleasant but not overly strong or sweet flavor. As you can see, it’s a brilliant pink color.

We also tried the flowers from the tree near our driveway, which is El Salvadore’s national flower, the Flor de Izote. Our neighbor Maria, the matriarch of the family next door, came over to help me get an infected splinter out of my hand, saw the flowers, and asked if she could take them to cook them. Selwyn cut them down for her, and that night we had two flower dishes. One was the flowers fried with reccado, a red spice sort of like paprika that is used a lot here, and the other had them coated in an egg batter and fried. Tom and I agreed that the taste and texture are a lot like artichokes, and the egg batter dish could have passed for Artichoke French. Yum! We felt bad because we let a few of the flowers dry on the tree, not knowing how good they are when cooked. People had told us that they could be cooked and eaten, but we just weren’t sure how good a cooked flower could be.

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