Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mel is 12!

It seems like just last month I was writing a Happy Birthday blog for Mel when he turned eleven, and doubting that I’d have the opportunity to do it again. Well, as with so many things, Mel just had to prove me wrong, and he turned 12 over the weekend. He celebrated his birthday by creating a five-dog fracas in the dining room. He likes to stalk the puppies, who usually just get up and move when they see him coming since he doesn’t move too fast any more. Somehow, he managed to get to Stout and bite him. Somewhere along the line Stout has realized that he’s as big as Mel and he doesn’t have to take any more abuse, so he jumped up and pinned Mel to the floor. Beli and Lou joined Stout in trying to whomp Mel, and Nock saw that as a great opportunity to go after Beli. Fortunately for Mel, Beli and Stout’s breeding is holding true, and instead of tearing out his throat or guts, they just held him down and made a lot of noise. Lou isn’t so controlled, and the only mark on Mel from the whole melee was a little puncture on his nose where Lou bit him. Fortunately for Beli Nock was wearing her muzzle, so the whole thing ended with a minimal amount of blood. I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved that Mel was okay, since he’s pretty frail, or if I should just kill him myself. I decided “relieved that he’s okay” was the easier course. So, I now really doubt that I’ll be doing this again in a year, but we’re really glad Mel made it this far and has adapted so well to Belize.

Mountain Pine Ridge Tour

On Sunday, Tom and I decided to act like tourists and go see some of the Mountain Pine Ridge sights. We really wanted to see 1000 Foot Falls because people frequently ask us if it’s worth the drive, and until Sunday, we had to admit that we didn’t know because we’d never been there. We can now say that it is worth the drive, as long as the weather is nice and the driving conditions are good. It’s about 45 minutes from here on narrow dirt roads, which are very muddy in the rain, and very dusty when it’s dry. It’s been very dry, so we arrived at the Falls with Tinkerbell, Tom, and me all coated with red dust. Unfortunately, you can’t get too close to the Falls so we couldn’t rinse off, but the view of the Falls is spectacular, and the viewing site is at the top of a mountain, so the view from all sides is pretty impressive.

The falls are actually closer to 1600 feet than 1000 feet, and are supposedly the highest waterfalls in Central America. We had to laugh when we got there because Pedro, the caretaker, came out to meet us, and, assuming we were tourists, asked us where we lived. His son-in-law was sitting on the porch carving a piece of slate, and before we could even answer the question, he looked up and said “Chac Mool,” which was the name of our property before we bought it. Neither Tom nor I recognized the son-in-law, but after talking for a bit we discovered that he lives in San Antonio, so he recognized either us or our truck. Everyone thinks that Tom looks like Chuck Norris, and I’m taller and blonder than most women around here, so when people see Chuck Norris and the tall blonde, they know we’re the gringos who bought Chac Mool. And Tinkerbell is pretty unforgettable too!

When we left 1000 Foot Falls, we decided to stop at the Hidden Valley Resort, where Rosa and Ofelia from next door work. The managers had invited us to stop and see the facility, and Rosa and Ofelia have both asked us to come see where they worked, so since we were driving right by, we stopped. Elmer, the desk manager, gave us a tour through part of their very beautiful property, and then turned us over to Ofelia, who showed us the rooms. Elmer stopped us on the way out to talk horses, since he is training for an endurance ride. He sometimes gives Rosa and Ofelia rides to or from work, so he’s seen our horses in the pasture, and told us that we should start training. We’ll add that to our list of things to do! Actually, the endurance rides are one of the few horse sports that are competitive here, and since we have a couple of Arab cross mares and lots of trails for training, we may actually think about it. I mentioned Esmerelda to Elmer, and he said she would probably do, but told us that he really likes Glinda.

When we left Hidden Valley, we realized we were almost to the turnoff for Big Rock, so we decided to go take a dip and wash off the red dust. Despite the fact that it was almost four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, we met a few people we know walking up the path from the falls, and they all asked if we’d ridden the horses to the Falls. We told them we’d driven, and that they’d see the very dirty Tinkerbell in the parking area. When we got down to the Falls, it was only us and an American gentleman from New Jersey and his guide. We hung out, swam, sat on the rocks, and talked to them for an hour or so, long enough to wash off the dust and cool down. By the time we got out of the water the sun was sinking behind the mountains, but it felt so good to lounge on the warm rocks that I remarked that I must have been a lizard in a previous life – which explains why we’re here in Belize, since cold blooded lizards do not like the north!

Dog Food Review

The jury is still out on the Spanish Lookout mill’s dog food. Besides being much less expensive than the pre-packaged kibble, the dogs absolutely love it. I like it because I can add a fair amount of water to it to make it the right consistency for them to eat, and with the heat here I think getting more water in their systems is a good thing. They also seem to poop less, which probably means it’s more digestable since they’re getting the same amount weightwise as they had with the kibble. However, their poop is a little runnier which makes it a pain to clean up, and I’m not sure if they’d be better off if it was more solid. The other thing I wonder about is the amount of corn in the food. I can see the ground corn both in what goes in their bowls, and what comes out the other end. But, their weights are all good, and they look and act healthy, so we’re going to stick with this food for a while. Plus, I know there’s corn in the kibble dog foods, it’s just ground finer, not to mention our dogs have always had a pretty high grain intake since they’re all horse feed junkies.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

This must be real…

Tom and I must really be doing this. Now that we have a finished sign, we must have a real business, huh? Now we have to wait for the people to just come pouring into our driveway.

We’re not just sitting back and waiting, though. One of our errands yesterday was to get color printouts of this poster. Next time we’re out and about we’ll be armed with tape and thumbtacks, and we’ll be sticking these signs up where ever we can.

After posting the last blog entry, I was standing in the driveway in front of the guest cabin telling Tom what I wrote, and that I didn’t have a lot of good wildlife sightings to report for the week. Just as I was finishing what I was saying, Tom pointed under the cabin to ask if that was what I was looking for – and we saw a very graceful gray fox casually walking under the cabin towards the treeline. We’ve heard the foxes around recently, but haven’t seen any until now. Selwyn predicts that we’ll be seeing fewer and fewer of the neighbors’ chickens if the fox is feeling self confident enough to be strolling around before it’s dark. Tom took this picture of a gray fox sleeping in a tree at the Belize Zoo. Unlike gray foxes in the north, these foxes apparently spend as much of their time in trees as they do on the ground.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Devil’s in the Details

We’ve continued to work for the past week on all the things that we didn’t want to worry about until we had the rooms in good shape. I think we’d convinced ourselves that all these things would just automatically be done – poof! – when we were ready, but we’re finding that they take a lot more time than we’d expect.

We’ve all continued to work on the sign. Tom and Selwyn JUST finished building the “Moonracer Farm” sign, and I’ve been working on painting Plexiglas to add the words that Tom doesn’t want to make out of wood. After “FARM” it will say “Lodging & Tours,” we have a bunch of promotional stuff to go with “ROOMS” – Private Baths, Hot Showers, etc. – and we have “& BAR For Guests Only” to clarify the “FOOD” deal.

Those will be hung tomorrow when the paint has one more day to dry since we painted on both sides of the Plexiglas to give the letters some depth so they match the wood letters.

We’ve also started our landscaping effort. When our neighbors dug up the slab for their house during their rebuilding effort, they pulled out a bunch of big rocks which had been used to take up room when the original slab had been poured. Tom went over and scarfed up the rocks, and we’ve outlined the gardens that we’re going to put around the cabins. Selwyn dug up the dirt while we were in Belmopan getting our passports stamped last week, and as soon as we get some rain we’ll start planting. Tom and I went to a baby shower last weekend, and our reward for playing (& winning!) some of the party games was a couple of plants from Jackie’s nursery, so they’ll be planted with some of the things we’ve already started in bags. And, we’ll probably be making a few trips to Jackie’s nursery to see what else will work around the cabins.

I spent a lot of time last week working on our web page. While we still have a few things to add, and a few things aren’t quite how I’d like them yet, it’s up and working and contains all the information we want to convey. The link is on the right side of this page, and if that doesn’t work, you can look at it at www.moonracerfarm.com. Poor Tom and Selwyn have had to tolerate Snarly Marge since putting the webpage together involves all on-line work, and it is frustratingly slow. I don’t know how I ever managed to sit at a desk and do computer stuff for the past umpteen years until we moved here, because it sure puts me in an ugly mood now when I’d much rather be outside enjoying beautiful Belize. I also put together a flyer to hang anywhere we’re allowed to hang it, which was much more satisfying because I could whip it out in a hurry.

One thing is happening more quickly than we expected. When we went to get our passports stamped last week, we checked with immigration to make sure everything was still on track for our Permanent Residency interviews. The immigration officer looked us up, and then asked if we’d like to come in two weeks earlier – so we’re now scheduled for April 30 instead of May 14. It’s only two weeks, but if that two weeks keeps us from spending another $200 for getting our passports stamped again, then it will be a good thing in the long run.

With Tom stuck in the shop and me stuck on the computer, we haven’t had many exciting wildlife sightings this week. Tom finally saw the Montezuma’s Oropendola we’ve been hearing. See this website for some good pictures and audio files of its very unique call: http://www.mangoverde.com/birdsound/spec/spec204-84.html. Selwyn also saw the blue crested mot mot we’ve been hearing from across the road. And, one day as Tom was walking in for lunch, I heard him call me to come look at the white birds. A whole flock of cattle egrets had decided to hang out with our horses. They spent a few days here, and then took off. We figure they decided it wasn’t relaxing enough to stay in a place where a flock of squawking flapping chickens being chased by a Jack Russell named Louie frequently blew through the pasture, even though the egrets’ slow ascension into the trees when that happened made the chickens look even more frantic and frazzled!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

More Things Learned

Tom pointed out to me that in last week’s blog entry, I neglected to mention the most important thing he learned that week – Belikin Beer will be delivered right to our door, a whole truckload if we want it. We’ve been buying beer and water at the distributor ever since we arrived in Belize. Last week, Tom was working out by the road and the Belikin delivery truck drove by, and the driver apparently recognized Tom as someone who buys cases of beer at the distributor. He stopped, and asked Tom if he knew he could have it delivered. Tom explained that he usually only gets a case every couple of weeks, and that he goes to the distributor because that’s where it’s the cheapest. The driver said it didn’t matter, because a case is the same price off the truck as it is from the distributor, and they don’t really care if they stop to drop off one case or 50 cases. So, despite the fact that we’re out in the sticks, we’re on the route to the big lodges up the road, so we now have our beer delivered right to the door, and soda too if we want. All we have to do is put the empty cases out by the road so the driver knows to stop, and the empty cases become full. How cool is that?

The other irony of technology in the wilderness we’ve found is that our vet in San Ignacio will diagnose and prescribe treatments for the animals via email. We can’t make an appointment because we can’t use the phone, so we’ve been trying to catch him every time we go to town. However, he’s been going to Belize City to be treated for a back injury, so we haven’t managed to find him. Tom finally suggested that I email him our questions with pictures, and see what he said. Stout has had a little lump on his foot, and we bought ivermectin for Beli that I wasn’t sure was the right stuff, so I sent him questions about those two things, and within 24 hours he’d responded with a very detailed answer, and a prescribed treatment for Stout. We think the vet should start his own website and he’d probably get rich.

Over the past year, we’ve had a number of people ask if they can hunt on our property because we have a few trees that attract gibnuts, also known as pacas, also known as the Royal Rodent because, we were told, the meat is so good that when Queen Elizabeth visited Belize, she was served gibnut. We’ve told everybody who asked to hunt that it was fine with us, as long as we could sample the meat if they got anything. Either nobody has actually shot a gibnut on our property, or they shoot them and eat them before we get any meat, but in any case we had not tried the meat. We buy our meat at Running W on the Western Highway, and one day when we were there Tom asked the guy who runs the store if they ever sell gibnut. Dennis said no, but the next time we were in he told us that he’d talked to his boss, and was going to get us some. When we went in this week, we were told that while they didn’t have a fresh one yet, they’d found some in the freezer and had smoked them, so Dennis and Escandar, the owner, gave us a half a smoked gibnut. Escandar told me to cook it just like a ham. I didn’t really believe him – how could a rodent be like a pig? – but he’s right, smoked gibnut is just like a ham, from the taste and texture of the meat right down to the skin and the fat under the skin, which is delicious if you live by the “pork fat rules” saying, and probably somewhat nauseating if you don’t like fat.

There’s a lot of meat on a gibnut; the half we had weighed almost six pounds and the bones are fairly small. Tom and I ate the hind leg for dinner one night, then we all worked on the ribs for lunch for two or three days, and as I write this the shoulder and front leg are in a pot cooking into a lentil curry soup. Escandar says we should use the cages we have here to raise gibnuts for meat, and we’re actually thinking about it even though we know that if we’d ever told anybody we were going to move to Belize to raise gibnuts, we’d have been told that were nuts – which may in fact be the case, but I guess we’ll see.

This week’s big project on the property has been the sign. In keeping with our wood motif, we’re hanging out boards with wooden letters, similar to park signs in the US. Since each board takes a while to put together since we’re making all the letters for both sides out of wood, we’re doing them one piece at a time, and we started with “ROOMS.” On Tuesday, Tom finished one side and hung the sign out to see how it looks from the road. He left it there for a couple of hours while he made the letters for the other side, and then went out and took it in to finish. As we ate lunch, we were joking that the tourists are now going to start pouring in because we have a sign. As we were finishing lunch, the woman who is working on a property down the road pulled in and asked if we had rooms available because she had some friends coming in from San Pedro and they needed a place to stay. So, despite our joking, the sign did pull in some guests, who stayed for two nights. The morning they were leaving, I took the boy who was with them out for a ride on Tony. As we were coming back up the road, he looked at the sign and asked “Is Rooms the name of your business?” A logical question for a kid, I guess, but we’re trying to hurry to get the rest of it done and hung by the road.

The other completed project is a people gate next to the vehicle gate across the driveway. We’ve had a gap there since we moved the big gate away from the road, but we wanted it blocked in case horses get loose. The hibiscus is already growing in along the barbed wire, and it’s actually starting to look inviting.

I never posted a picture of the second completed guest room. Tom and Selwyn finished the second bed for that room last week. The far bed in this picture is made out of milady wood, and the closer one is made of jobio.

The jobio wood is beautiful, as you can see in this closeup. All I can think when I look at it is that it makes me hungry; it looks like a chocolate caramel vanilla swirl ice cream!

These beautiful Shower of Gold orchids are growing in the sapodilla tree off the porch of Tom’s shop. We’re not sure if they were put there by the original owners of the property, or if they’ve just grown wild there.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

We’re Still Learning

This has been a week of suddenly figuring out things we’d heard about over the past 15 months, but hadn’t really understood. The first thing, which made us wonder how much money we’ve thrown away, or, more accurately, dumped in the dogs’ stomachs, is that we found that the local feed mill makes its own dog food as well as its own horse feed and feed for other livestock. We knew to ask about the horse feed since most mills in the US make horse feed, but it never occurred to us that a mill would make its own local dog food. I dimly remember somebody mentioning it to us when we first got here, but I was on a mission to find dog food that was as similar as possible to what we fed in the US. We did, to the tune of $53BZ for a 40-pound bag, which wasn’t too much more than we were paying in the US. Last week we ate lunch with Frank from the real estate office, who also has four big dogs. We were lamenting how much big dogs can eat since we now have two more big dogs than we did when we came here, and Frank told us he would have gone broke by now if he hadn’t discovered the local dog food. I was a little more ready to listen since we go through the 40-pound bags at an alarming rate, so when we went to Spanish Lookout last week, I asked how much the local dog food cost, and how it compared nutritionally with the bagged stuff.

Nutritionally, it’s very close, and perhaps even a little better. It’s about the same protein and fat levels, and lower fiber. And, the thing that really convinced us that we should at least try it is that it’s $10.45BZ for a 25-pound bag, so for $21BZ we get 10 pounds more than we’ve been paying $53BZ for in the imported bag. However, it’s not kibble, it looks just like horse feed, which I guess is what kibble looks like before its kibbelized. I weighed it so I could figure out how much to give the dogs, and it weighs the same as the kibble cup for cup. We’re not sure how well they’ll like it, but I guess we’ll start mixing it in with their kibble and hope for the best. We’ll probably start giving them biscuits again so they have something to crunch, although I’m not sure that really matters since we always mix the kibble with water and it gets mushy anyway. We’ll let you know how well this latest Belize experiment works in a restaurant review by Louie in a couple of weeks.

The other thing we learned was a just-in-time lesson about the Belize timber industry and logging regulations. We knew loggers needed permits to harvest most of the hardwoods. What we didn’t know was that it’s illegal to even have in your possession hardwood that has not been harvested legally – sort of like having an untagged deer in your freezer in NY. We’d learned a little about this a couple of months ago when our Minnesota neighbor Mark from down the road had a mahogany tree and a cedar tree cut down on his property when the crew was clearing to put in the electric poles. We sort of got in the middle of a tussle between Mark’s caretaker and Mark’s neighbor about who was going to take the lumber, and neither of them was even considering Mark. When we realized what was going on we talked to Mark and to the two of them, and resolved that both the neighbor and the caretaker could have some wood, but that Mark also wanted some lumber so he could have some furniture made from wood harvested from his land. The neighbor ended up overseeing the collection, milling, and distribution of the wood, and showed up here one night with a list of the wood milled for Mark, along with a bill for the milling and, presumably, Mark’s share of the permit fee. Tom went to Mark’s and picked up Mark’s share of the wood, and we have it stored in our shop so it won’t disappear from Mark’s property before he gets to use it.

Yesterday Tom and Selwyn and a couple of other guys were working at Mark’s to finish clearing his front property line. They’d done most of it a month or so ago, but had to give the cut wood time to dry so they could burn it, and they had a few more burn piles to make. They spent most of the day there, and Tom brought them all back here to pay them for the day’s work. As they were getting ready to leave so Tom could take the guys to San Antonio, a Ministry of Natural Resources truck pulled into our driveway. I was out for a ride, but Tom said the officer made small talk with him for a few minutes, then asked to walk away from the truck, and then started asking Tom what he knows about the timber laws in Belize. Tom gave him a quick outline of what he knew, which was pretty quick because it wasn’t much. At this point Tom started to figure out that he wasn’t here just for a visit and wanted to talk to him about something specific, so he explained that he had to take the guys to town and asked if they could talk some other time since the officer didn’t want to talk in front of the work crew. The officer said he would wait while Tom did the trip. Just about this time I rode into the yard, so Tom had a whispered conference with me, told me the officer was going to wait, and that I should talk to him in the meantime.

I untacked Tony and turned him out, and sat on the porch with the officer, whose name is Lizandro. We discussed life in Belize, life in rural areas in general, what it takes to acclimate to Belize’s climate after forty-some years in the cold, and things like that. When Tom returned, the real reason for the visit came out as Lizandro gave us a pretty detailed rundown of Belize’s timber laws – in a nutshell, if any downed hardwood is used for anything, the Forestry Department of the Ministry of Natural Resources must issue a permit and stamp each piece of rough-cut lumber, and you are in violation of the law if you have any unstamped rough-cut in your possession. Tom and I realized where this was going, and mentioned that we had a pile of rough-cut in our shop from the property down the road, and asked Lizandro if he could show us the stamp since we had been told that a permit was issued for this lumber, but neither of us could recall seeing a stamp.

Well, that was because the lumber wasn’t stamped, which we suspect Lizandro already knew. Despite everybody and their grandmothers hearing about these two infamous trees, and despite the fact that the Forestry Department had in fact stamped at least some of the lumber from those trees, the boards in our shop were not legal and the Forestry Department had never issued a permit for their use. Tom mentioned that he had been going to take them to one of the mills to have them planed, and asked what would have happened. Lizandro explained that if a Forestry Department officer finds somebody transporting illegal lumber, the officer may seize the lumber, impound the vehicle, and arrest the driver, no search warrants required. Tom asked about the mills he uses, and asked if they would be looking for a stamp. Although Lizandro said that the mills Tom uses are fairly reputable, they probably wouldn’t bother to check on wood that was quickly in and out of their shop, so the biggest risk to us would have been in transporting the lumber.

We’re not quite sure how word got to the Forestry Department that we were harboring illegal lumber that we didn’t even know was illegal, but we’re really glad that we’re honest and not only didn’t try to hide the lumber, but asked if Lizandro wanted to see it before he even had time to inquire. We're also really glad he showed up here before Tom tried to take it to the mill, because I'd hate to be writing a blog entry about my experience learning how to get Tom out of a Belizean jail. We then asked if it was a problem that we had it now, and he said now that we’d told the story of how we got it, and showed it to him, and discussed it, it would be okay, and he’ll stop by sometime soon and stamp each board so Tom can truck them to the mill. The kicker is it isn’t even our lumber, but that doesn’t matter if it’s in our possession. What you don’t know can hurt you here, and we’re really glad we were investigated before we got ourselves in trouble.