Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A week with Stephanie and Matt

We picked Stephanie and Matt up at the airport as planned on Friday. Like Tim and Kelli, they were through immigration and customs in a flash. It seems that our family and friends look like the typical Belizean tourists from America, so officials don’t even look twice, not that they have any reason to anyway. Coming from the East Coast, Steph and Matt were two hours ahead of us, so when we met their noon arrival, it was already 2:00 to them, and they were starving. We stopped at Amigos for lunch and Belikin beer, and then backtracked a little bit to the zoo. Although we’re a little peeved with the zoo for taking the cages from the property without permission, we have to admit it’s still a nice zoo. The animals are all seem happy and make themselves visible to the zoo visitors. Like us on our first visit to the zoo when we first came to Belize, Steph and Matt were interested to see what kinds of animals live in this environment. Tom and I were as fascinated with the animals as we were on our first visit because we can now say that we’ve seen many of them in the wild, but at the zoo we get a chance to get an up-close view of what may have been only a tail disappearing into the jungle. We were also interested to see what the zoo is doing with the cage material that they acquired from this property – building an over-the-walkway jaguar run as they attach two cages together to give the jaguars a little more room. Tom, claiming he recognized the material, stopped to see what they were doing, and the workmen were happy to explain the project to Tom. I kept his ear firmly pinched between my thumb and finger, and gave a little squeeze whenever he drifted too close to antagonism with the workers, who probably had nothing to do with acquiring the cage material.

On Saturday, Tom, Steph, and Matt went up to Caracol, Rio Frio Cave, and Rio On Pools. They all enjoyed themselves, and Steph said she especially liked the cave, which was a good thing since they’ve visited a few different caves around here. Nobody was too badly hurt in the pools – Matt just fell on his butt on the slippery rocks, and they returned around 5:00, tired and sunburned from their fist full day in Belize. I think Steph managed to stay awake until we finished dinner around 8:30.

On Sunday, we went to the horse races. The Peter August Stadium race track is in Santa Elena, and while we comment on the sign almost every time we drive by, which is at least once a week, we’ve never been. The races only happen every three months or so, and while they’ve happened a few times since we’ve been here, we’ve always had something else to do. We decided that this time, especially since Steph and Matt are here and Steph is a horse person, we’d make the effort to go. As we talked about it a few days ahead of time, we got a lot of taxi reservations for the truck. George and Ronald from next door wanted to go, as did Selwyn and his family, as well as his brothers Gilroy and Richard and his sister Shirley.

Hector and Wilton wanted to go, but couldn’t do it since their parents had no interest in going, and they didn’t think that turning two boys loose at the race track all afternoon was a good idea, and Tom and I had to agree, especially after we caught Junior relaxing at the races.

Ronald had a flyer for the races which said they started at 12:00. We know everything happens late in Belize, so we got to the gate around 12:15. The gate attendant told us the races wouldn’t be starting until 1:30 or 2:00, so we headed for Hode’s in San Ignacio for lunch. We got back to the track around 2:00, and it was still virtually deserted, of both people and horses. We walked around looking at the horses that were already there and talking to their trainers, and watched the other horses coming in. This was our first clue that Belize horse racing is done a little differently than horse racing in the US.

The horses came in open trailers, usually pulled by small pickup trucks, with one person standing on the trailer with the horse, and a few others watching from the bed of the pickup in case there was any trouble. As the horses arrived, people started to arrive, and we took our place in the stands, right at the finish line. The first race still didn’t happen until after 3:00, and by that time there were more people there, but still not the packed crowd you’d see at a track in the US. When the first race finally happened, the Americans in our group were a little surprised. First, the horses apparently don’t seem to have to be thoroughbreds, or any breed for that matter. If a horse will run, it can race, and all the horses in the first race looked like ponies.

Second, the tack…wasn’t. The boys who were riding the horses had bridles on over the halters, and most didn’t have any saddles. When they started racing, they just tucked their feet up behind the horses’ shoulders, and rode. And, I do mean their feet, since they weren’t wearing any boots. Or any shirts. I think their pants may have been jockeys’ pants, but they may also have been silk long underwear.

Nevertheless, the horses ran, the winner came back for his trophy, and the races started. There were five races, and each race was for progressively higher stakes.

At some point the horses started appearing with jockey saddles, and after one race where a jockey was rubbed off between two jostling horses and trampled in the track by the horses following him, helmets and goggles even appeared. The accident was interesting, because it happened in pretty good view of the stands, and when the horses passed and everybody in the stands could see that the jockey didn’t get up, the stands emptied as all the spectators ran to see what happened. A few from our group even joined the throng, although Steph and Matt and Tom and I remained in the stands. The benefit of having eyewitnesses to the accident in our group was that we knew almost immediately that the jockey had a good gash on his hand where it was stepped on, but other than that he seemed to be okay. The races ended and we left for the trek home, although many of the spectators stayed to continue the party at the track, which looked more like a fair ground with fast food stands and the necessary set of giant speakers belting out reggae loud enough to make your clothes vibrate. The next “big” races are at Burrell Boom, a town near Belize City, in September and at New Year’s, and the buzz has already started to convince Tom and me that we want to go.

On Monday, Selwyn led Steph, Matt, and Tom on a trail ride to Sapodilla Falls, which they discovered is called Tree Basin Falls on the map. They had the same experience as Tim, Kelli and I, riding for the whole day and swimming at the falls and never seeing another soul until the ride back on the road. Steph rode Es, and declared her the perfect horse since she’s perfectly happy to walk along the trail in any position in the line, but when you ask her to go, she really goes, jumping over streams and ditches and running just for the fun of it. Of course she added the same caveat as I always add – she’d be perfect if she were a foot taller. But, she’s not, so we’ll take what we’ve got, and be happy that she’s plenty strong enough to carry us and our stuff. Matt had never been on a horse before, but he survived the day on Burrito without too many bruises and sore spots. Tom rode Tony, and was probably the most tired of the four of them since he had to constantly kick him to make him keep up.

Tuesday was ATM day for Steph, Matt, and Tom. We met Gonzo in Santa Elena, and they joined a friend of Gonzo’s and two kids from San Ignacio on the tour.

Because they were all pretty fit, they took a slightly different route into the cave, and when they were done, took a hike through the jungle to another cave with Mayan artifacts and Mayan handprints on the wall.

Steph and Matt were impressed, as everybody is, and we had plenty to talk about at dinner that night. I had a less than pleasant day, since I had to take the truck to Spanish Lookout for some brake work. I had been assured that all I had to do was show up at the mechanic’s shop and they’d fix the truck, but of course it wasn’t that simple. They didn’t have the parts, and told me that I had to go to the parts store to pick them up. Tom had ordered the parts and the parts store assured Tom they would be in by Monday. When I went to the parts store, I was told that the parts hadn’t been ordered, although the guy in the parts store sort of remembered talking to somebody about it. I went back to the mechanic to have him write down what needed to be ordered, went back to the parts place, and found that one of the parts was in stock anyway and one could be delivered from Belmopan by early afternoon. So, I took the in-stock part and went to the mechanic to see if they could do that, but by that time they’d already started something else, but said if I came back after lunch with both parts they could do it. I went back to San Ignacio to do the rest of my errands, and got back to the parts store in Spanish Lookout just after lunch. The part wasn’t in; it would be in at 2:00. So, I went to tell the mechanic, who said maybe he could install what I had. That took about an hour, which meant it was after 2:00, so I went back to the parts shop, and was told that the part was on its way. I waited in the truck until the delivery guy came about 2:30, where they delivered it to me right in my truck, and then I went back to the mechanic, who took a look at it, and then decided, around 3:00, that he’d better not start fixing it then in case something else broke and they wouldn’t have time to put it back together. I left with the part and instructions for Tom to call a couple of days in advance to set up an appointment to get the part installed.

My original plan had been to get the truck fixed, get my errands done, and spend a few hours at home before picking the crew up in San Ignacio at 5:00. Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen since about the time I got home would be the time I had to leave for San Ignacio, so I headed for the ferry and decided to wait in San Ignacio. Fortunately, Stephanie had delivered the new Harry Potter book, so I didn’t mind the half hour wait for the ferry since I could sit and read, and by the time I got into San Ignacio around 4:00, I decided to just sit on the riverbank, watch the low-lying bridge for Gonzo’s van, and read Harry Potter. I didn’t see the van go by, so at 5:00 I went back to the truck to go to where I’d meet the ATM crew. Steph and Matt were already sitting in the bed of the truck; somehow they’d managed to get over the bridge without me seeing them, which isn’t all that surprising since my nose was in the book. They hadn’t seen me either, so Tom had gone into town to look for me despite Stephanie’s suggestion that I was probably sitting and reading somewhere, but he was back within about 10 minutes and we went to pay Gonzo and head home.

On Wednesday we headed to Barton Creek to canoe up the creek in the cave and take a swim in the Barton Creek Outpost’s swimming hole. Tom and I had missed the Barton Creek trip with Tim and Kelli because we took Tom to the hospital for his fever, so we were excited to be doing the tour. The Barton Creek Cave is beautiful, with the creek navigable for about 800 yards through the cave. We saw lots of cave formations, some Mayan artifacts, bats, and catfish. We all really enjoyed it, although when we talked to Steph and Matt later, we realized that in the future if our guests want to do both Barton Creek and ATM, they should do Barton Creek first since it seems tame after ATM, where you swim and climb up the river rather than gently canoeing, and you see many more Mayan artifacts. After the canoe ride, we took a swim and played on the rope swing and sat on the Outpost’s deck. Selwyn and I were sitting and chatting, when suddenly a dog that looked just like Beli bombed up the stairs. Then she barked, and she barked just like Beli. We checked with Jim, the owner of the place, and confirmed that his dog is the other bitch from Beli’s litter, although they look so similar we had no doubts.

On Thursday Selwyn led Steph, Matt, and Tom on another horse back ride through the jungle to Big Rock. I met them there with lunch, and we all had a swim under the waterfall, with the men jumping off the high rocks. It was quite a contrast to Sapodilla Falls, since we were sharing the falls with a group of about 20 girls from England who were on a five day trek through the jungle, lead by Selwyn’s brother Gilroy. Gilroy seemed pretty pleased with the job, and I don’t think any of the men minded watching the British bathing beauties sunning themselves on the rocks. After drying off, we packed up the remains of the lunch and headed back up the hill, where I got in the truck to head home and everybody else came home by horseback.

On Friday we took a trip down to Hopkins so Steph and Matt could take a dip in the Caribbean. Hopkins is a beautiful drive down the Hummingbird Highway, which was made even more beautiful than usual because we were driving in and out of thunderstorms, so we saw the mountains both in the sunshine, and with the impressive backdrop of mist, thunder, and lightening. We pulled into Hopkins right about noon, and the clouds went away and never came back. We ate lunch at one of the local dives, and were a little frustrated because we all wanted to hit the beach, but the service was extremely slow, and we never did get everything we ordered. But, our stomachs were temporarily satisfied, and we went swimming in the very warm Caribbean Sea and floated up and down on the waves. Tom and I were a little distressed because the beach was filthy, with all sorts of garbage washed up with the seaweed at the tide line. However, once we were in the water, the bottom was all sand, and it’s shallow enough to walk out a good 25 to 50 yards. We dried off by taking a walk up the beach, where we ran into Gonzo’s friend who had been on the ATM tour – Belize is a small country! – and made a quick stop at Hamanasi, a resort that specializes in dive trips, to get prices and information on diving with them if we don’t stay there. They offer very reasonable dive-only packages, so Tom and I are planning a few dive trips so we can be comfortable in the water next spring when the whale sharks migrate through Belizean waters; we really want to see these friendly giants up close, and everyone we’ve talked to who’s done it says it’s really awesome. Even though we’re not working, we still have to have goals!

Saturday was Steph and Matt’s last day, so we spent the day in San Ignacio so they could get the feel of the town. We stopped at Sak Tunich on our way out, which is an artists’ gallery and gift shop run by a local Mayan family. They do art work in clay, slate, and limestone, attempting to duplicate the methods of the Mayans in producing their art. The gallery and the methods of producing the art have been passed down through the generations, with the current generation learning from their father and grandfather, and they’re teaching their children. Steph and Matt bought a carved slate Mayan calendar, just as Tim and Kelli did. We then headed into San Ignacio, where we wandered around the produce market, which is more of a flea market on Saturdays. I actually prefer to shop at the market during the week when it isn’t so crowded, but it’s worth the experience for visitors to put it on their Saturday trip itinerary. We went to Erva’s for our standard burrito lunch, walked through town a little more, and then headed out to Xunantunich to see the ruins. To get to the ruins, vehicles need to cross the river on a ferry, which is worth the experience in itself, although the Xunantunich ferry cranker is a little more cranky than the Spanish Lookout crankers. We wandered around for an hour or so, then headed out with a stop at Three Flags for Marie Sharpe’s hot sauce for Steph and Matt to take home, and then headed home for an early dinner.

All week, we’d been thinking that Steph and Matt were flying out on the return trip of the flight they came in on. Fortunately, Steph took a look at their tickets on Saturday morning, and realized that their flight was at 8:00am on Sunday. So, we had an early night, and were up and on the road at 4:00am to get to the airport by 6:00. It had started raining while we were eating Saturday night, and continued to rain through the night.

We left here in the rain and crawled down the Georgeville Road, very glad that Tinkerbell has her new “mudder” tires.

We don’t think the old tires, which were new when we left the US, would have made it down the muddy road. Tom was hoping that the rain was confined to the hills and that it would disappear when we hit the Western Highway, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case and we drove most of the way to the airport through torrential downpours which really limited visibility, especially on the dark roads without any lines. The only good thing was that at 5:00am, the roads don’t have the foot, bike, and horse traffic that they have earlier in the evening that make driving Belizean roads at night difficult under any circumstances, so we only had to worry about driving off the road, not about hitting something. Despite the adverse conditions, we made it to the airport at 6:00am on the dot, said a sad goodbye to Steph and Matt since we didn’t want them to leave any more than they wanted to leave, and headed home. It was still raining, but visibility was somewhat improved with the day light. We stopped alongside the road to call Tom’s parents in Florida since we had cell reception, and made it home around 8:30 – just in time for Augusto’s delivery of a pork roast from the second butchered pig from next door. We then had breakfast and decided that since it was still raining, our best course of action was a nap – and that’s been our Sunday.

Selwyn is taking his first week of vacation this next week, so Tom and I are planning to regroup after a fairly solid month of visitors, which meant we were on vacation too. We have a list of things we need to do to get the first cabin “finished,” and we’re going to take a couple of trips to Spanish Lookout to get the building materials we need to work on the small house by the road – which will be a shop/utility house - and the second cabin when Selwyn is back from his vacation. Somewhere around the time Steph and Matt arrived, we finally hooked up an on-demand water heater, and we’re still working on getting it set at the right temperature so we can shower with hot water without being scalded. Although the rainy season was supposed to start in June, we’ve really had very little rain, and we’re actually hoping for more rain so that things will grow more quickly. Tom is back to normal with no residual effects from his two-week fever, so with the plans Tom has for construction, they only have to do a few things outside like getting framing done and roofs up, and then they’ll be able to go full steam ahead regardless of the weather.

The herd grows
One of the other things we have to do this week is go pick up our two new horses. Selwyn showed up early one morning last week, and asked to talk to us. A friend of his has a mare and her eight-month old filly, and about a year ago the mare badly injured her fetlock and hasn’t been sound since. The filly is blind in one eye because some kids were sling-shooting rocks at her, and Selwyn’s friend decided that he just wanted to find a good home for the two of them, with the payment being one foal out of the mare sometime in the future. Selwyn can’t take two horses at his house in town, so he asked if we would be interested. We’re not named Moonracer Farm for nothing, so Tom and I said we’d take the two horses. (Our farm is named after King Moonracer, the King of the Island of Misfit Toys in the Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas special. We chose that name when we moved to Canadice about 10 years ago because at the time all of our dogs and horses were misfits for one reason or another – orphans, chicken killers, track rejects, behavior rehab cases, or some combination.) We figure the mare will just be overhead, but we’ll be able to break the filly in a year or so and have another riding horse. And, if we like the mare’s babies, we can use her as a brood mare and breed another horse for ourselves in a couple of years. We have to come up with a couple of more witch names for the two of them, but we figure we’ll wait til we meet them and see what fits.

And in the category of too much information –
we think we have a new slogan for the Belize Tourism Board: “Belize: A Boon to your Bowels.” Although we shouldn’t have been surprised, since all conversations around here seem to eventually devolve to the scatological, Tom and I were a little surprised one night when Tim and Kelli were here, and Tim announced at dinner that he’s never pooped better in his life. We were even more surprised when one night while Matt and Steph were here, Matt made a similar announcement at dinner. The only thing that kept us from being really surprised is that sometime over the past few months Tom has made a similar observation about himself. I’m sure that lots of fresh produce, beans, and lots of fresh air which keeps us thirsty and drinking water has something to do with it, but it just seemed odd that along with Tom, our first two guests here have seen fit to make the same comment!

Of course, we also get plenty of exercise, or at least we try. I’ve learned that the dogs need to be shut off the porch if I try to do situps or any other floor exercise.

They think it’s great that I’m down at their level to play with them!

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