Friday, August 22, 2008

More Furniture Completed

It’s been pretty quiet around here this week. The weather has been gorgeous but hot, so we’ve been doing lots of outside stuff, but Tom and Selwyn have managed to finish some of the furniture for the guest cabin.

They finished the jobio table a few weeks ago, and that’s now on our deck. We put the plain sapodilla table on one of the porches in the guest cabin, and this prickly yellow and sapodilla table on the other porch.

This table is inside the back guest room. The light wood is prickly yellow, but Tom isn’t sure what the dark wood is.

Tom actually put some thought into which tables should go with which rooms. Each of the beds in the guest rooms is made of a different type of hardwood, so Tom tried to mix the types of woods used on the tables and the beds so each room has the maximum amount of types of wood to see.

The pictures of the two newly finished tables are taken without the Plexiglas on top so the wood can be seen without any glare. We put Plexiglas on the table tops so they can be easily cleaned and so the grooves in the wood don’t pick up too much dirt. We thought about using real glass, which would be good because it wouldn’t scratch and fog like the Plexiglas, but in order to have the glass be relatively crack and shatterproof, it would have to be so thick that it would add 80 pounds to each table. Since we move these tables around, we didn’t want to add that much weight.

Tom and Selwyn also finished two suitcase stands. The one that is folded is made of mahogany, and the opened one is made with a variety of hardwoods. Tom shamelessly copied the design from a suitcase stand we purchased at a gift shop in San Ignacio. These stands are in lots of hotel rooms around here, and are available in all the gift shops, for good reason – they’re attractive, practical, relatively inexpensive and easy to make, and they can be used as portable tables or even seats as well as suitcase stands.

We’ve had so many inquiries about making furniture for other people that we’re going to add a Furniture page to our website. Tom is comfortable enough with the designs, the wood supply, and the assembly processes that he can figure out some sort of pricing. The only thing remaining to be investigated is the costs involved with shipping the different pieces of furniture out of Belize, although that doesn’t matter if people want the furniture for use here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sad Changes

Something happened in our community here in the beginning of July which was very significant to many people here, including us, but which we elected not to blog about at the time out of respect for the victims and their families, and because we just needed some time to think about it. A month and a half later we’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of people read this blog to see how American expats cope with life in Belize, and since this incident has made us do a lot of things differently than we did before it happened, we thought we should at least mention it.

The incident was the murder of an American expat couple in Cristo Rey, which is the town between San Antonio and Santa Elena. The couple had lived in Belize for close to twenty years, and they were universally respected and liked by both locals and expats. The wife was an excellent, well respected real estate agent. Tom and I had looked at a few houses with her and were very impressed. Her husband was working on creating a subdivision on some land they owned on the river, and employed a number of area people on that job. They were both active in area charities and in the humane society, and would take the time to help anyone they felt needed help. Donna actually taught Tom and I how to deal with beggars here. We had stopped at the Belmopan market for lunch, and a woman was begging for money for food for her children. Donna didn’t give her money, but she went to one of the market booths and bought the woman a bag of rice and a bag of beans. It seems simple, but Tom and I now take the same approach with beggars, and it’s amazing what a difference it makes in how you feel about helping when you know your money isn’t going for drugs or alcohol instead of food. And Tom and I were not the only ones in Belize who learned such valuable lessons from Donna.

On the first Saturday in July, the 15-year-old stepson of one of their employees decided that he wanted some of their things and some of their money, so he and a 17-year-old friend went to their home to rob them. The boys said that after they had taken a number of high-ticket items and a lot of cash they realized they had to kill the couple because they knew who they were. They were arrested and confessed a few days later, but the couple was already dead.

I was with my family in Vermont when Tom told me about what happened. He told me he understood if I elected not to come home, and that we could figure out whether or not we wanted to continue living in Belize. The horror was put in some perspective by friends and family in the US, where my brother told me a 12-year-old girl had been abducted, raped, and murdered less than 20 miles from his house in rural Vermont the previous week. I also found that some gentle and peace-loving friends now carry concealed pistols to protect themselves in various places they routinely go in their day-to-day lives. So, while we were still shocked, horrified, and saddened by what had happened in Belize, we realized that while Belize may not be better than other places we’ve lived as far as safety goes, it’s probably not any worse. We aren’t living in any state of worry or fear, we are just being more careful than we were when we first arrived.

To reduce the risk to us, we’ve made a few changes to how we do things here, and it’s been difficult. These people were killed basically because somebody wanted their things and their money, and it’s assumed here that all gringos have things and money, so all gringos are at risk. This isn’t to say that Belizeans don’t commit violence against fellow Belizeans, because the majority of violent crimes are Belizean to Belizean. However, the more we can minimize the visibility of our money and our things, the more we can minimize our personal risk.

So, we no longer allow people to borrow anything of any significant value. This has been an uncomfortable situation with us for a while, because we’ve learned that the Belizean borrowing ethic is a little different from what we were used to in the US. This isn’t just Belizeans borrowing from gringos; it also applies when Belizeans borrow from Belizeans, or if gringos borrow from Belizeans. First, people will ask to borrow almost anything, even things that we would never have considered asking anyone for in the US, and some of these things are things we just weren’t comfortable loaning to other people, such as our truck. We’ve had to learn to say no, because another thing with the borrowing ethic here is that the attitude is that if you’ve borrowed something, it’s yours, and you can do whatever you would do with it if it was actually yours – including letting other people use it, giving it away, trading it in for a new model (but then keeping the new model because, after all, you bought it – true story with a neighbor’s borrowed generator), using up all the consumables (like fuel and weed whacker string), taking it apart to see how it works, etc. The other thing is that very few things are returned until the owner asks, when the borrower usually says, “Oh, I didn’t know you needed it,” and people like me have to bite their tongues to avoid saying “Why do you think I have it if I don’t need it???” This little detail is further complicated because sometimes the borrowed item has been loaned to a third, fourth, or fifth party whom the owner doesn’t even know, so it gets difficult to track an item down to ask for it back when you don’t know where it is. This also happens sometimes because an item is borrowed without asking the owner. People will get all sorts of offended when you ask why they took your stuff without your permission, and they just say that since you weren't using it at the time, what’s the harm in borrowing? It’s not stealing, but it also puts the owner in a difficult position when something has been borrowed and the owner doesn’t even know who borrowed it so he can ask for it to be returned, because it won’t be returned until the owner asks.

Prior to the murders, we’d put the brakes on some of our things being borrowed because of this borrowing ethic, but after the murders we realized that by being generous and allowing some of our big-ticket items – weed whacker, camera, hair clippers, horse tack, appliances, power tools, etc. – to be borrowed, we were basically flashing our stuff to anyone who wanted to see it. We don’t know who the borrowers associate with on a day to day basis, and who might see something of ours that they’d like to have, so now we’re just saying no. Laid out like this it probably sounds easy and obvious, but we feel somewhat that we’re punishing our Belizean friends because of something a couple of truly evil people did. However, there are nothing close to seven degrees of separation in Belize – it’s probably more like two – so we are taking the advice and not letting anything of any value off the property where it may be seen.

The other big change we’ve made is that we’re no longer the bus when we head out of the Mountain Pine Ridge and in to San Ignacio or Spanish Lookout. Too many people have warned us that you never know who you pick up or what they may see in your truck, so we’re not picking up anybody unless we really know them, and then only if they’re alone. If someone we know is in a group of people, we drive right on by. This is difficult, especially since we’ve met lots of people giving them rides, and many people hear our truck coming and stand up figuring we’ll stop, and now we don’t stop. What makes us even sadder is that many people now seem to understand. I drove by a group of men on the way to Spanish Lookout a couple of weeks ago, and they all stood up and waved. I sort of cringed and shrugged, and they all waved me by and smiled, thinking, no doubt, that they wouldn’t want their wives, mothers, girlfriends, or sisters to pick up a group of hitch hiking men.

What also makes us sad, besides the fact that the lives of two good people were wasted, is that many Belizeans we talk to seem to feel guilty about the crime because they see that it was based on the idea that gringos have what Belizeans want. Most of these people would never consider, at their worst moments, doing anything bad to any other living thing, but they still feel bad and apologize (even 10 year old Wilton apologized), and talk to us about what we need to do to make ourselves safer. Then we compound the problem, at their recommendation, by no longer sharing our things or giving rides, which makes us feel bad. Everybody feels bad, sad, and uncomfortable, and there’s no telling how long it will take before this rift starts to heal.

Annual Anniversary Ride to Sapodilla Falls

Yesterday Tom and I decided to take an all day ride to Sapodilla Falls. We haven’t done that in a while, and we have a new GPS we wanted to play with, so we packed a lunch, tacked up the horses and hit the trail. Monday is our wedding anniversary, and we realized on the way there that we also rode to Sapodilla Falls for our anniversary last year, so it seems to be becoming a tradition.

Every time we go to Sapodilla Falls, we see something we haven’t seen before, and yesterday we hit the jackpot. On the way there, we saw a whole litter of baby coatis playing in some trees, racing up and down the trunks and out onto the branches, chirping at each other the whole time. We did the usual and ate our lunch, took a swim, and then headed back up the trail, but the adventure was just beginning. A group called Trek Force brings students into Belize and they do service projects in some of the more remote locations. This summer, they put in a new outhouse near the horse parking area and a little changing room down by the Falls. We decided to follow the path and check out the new outhouse, when we heard grunting. It sounded like an animal rather than a bird, so we were scanning the hillside to see if we could see any movement. Tom suddenly spotted the grunter up in a tree – it was a pretty big spider monkey, and he was watching us. We watched for a few minutes, but when we stopped moving he lost interest and headed back into the bush in the tops of the trees. We could hear at least a couple of more grunting monkeys in the trees, but couldn’t see any more. We’d left the camera near the horses so of course we missed the photo opportunity, but we were both pretty excited since that’s the first monkey we’ve actually seen in the wild here although we frequently hear the howlers.

Tom found the camera in time to get me and Recona looking for the monkeys, but no monkeys in sight.

As we were riding out on a path through the broadleaf forest, we heard the slow whumping of wings and a large shadow went overhead. We looked in a tree right off the trail, and a very large black and white raptor was perched in a tree looking at us. It had a barred tail, a white body and head, black wings, black eyes that looked like a mask, and a black crest on its head. This time we did have the camera, although the battery died (why do we even bother???) and we didn’t get any great pictures. We did, however, get enough to help us identify it when we got home, plus we had quite a while to watch it as it moved short distances twice and landed still within good range for observation, so we got to see it both perched and in flight. It’s a Black and White Hawk-Eagle, and is considered VU (Very Uncommon) in the Birds of Belize book. It’s not even listed in Les Beletsky Traveller’s Guide to Belize book because tourists and casual jungle visitors aren’t likely to spot one – so we felt very pleased that a VU bird not only let us see it, but also gave us the opportunity to get a really good look.

Then, further towards home, I happened to look down on one of the trails just in time to see a fairly large snake – maybe 1.5 inches in diameter – disappearing into the bushes on the side of the trail. So, on top of pulling out the bird and mammal books, I pulled out the snake books, where the snake I saw is identified as Red Banded Snake, Oxyrhopus Petola. I couldn’t find any un-copyrighted pictures, but this website has a good one: Red Banded Snake. Apparently this species comes in a few varieties of colors and patterns, but this was the closest to what I saw, although what I saw almost exactly matched the picture in the Belize Zoo’s snake book.

Tom and I figure Recona set it up for us to see all the different wildlife. She’s been going riding with me pretty regularly, and we were discussing whether we should stop letting her go when Selwyn takes guests out on the trail for fear she’d scare away the wildlife. Since we had more different, uncommon, and interesting sightings on this ride than we’ve had on any other, we figure we can keep letting Recona go along on the rides.

And as far as the GPS goes, we were moderately successful, although when we start using it to create maps, we’ll probably redo the ride and reset the waypoints. We also have to do a little research, because according to the GPS the round trip to Sapodilla Falls is eleven miles. However, there are many places where we don’t get the necessary satellite readings to mark the trail, and we suspect that we may have lost a little distance if the GPS extrapolates a straight line when it can’t get a reading. It also does something funky with altitude since there were points on the ride where Tom was watching it and it had us rising five to ten feet per second and we were climbing neither that far nor that fast. But, it’s still interesting to see it mark the trails so we can now see which way we’re heading on various sections of trail on the ride since we totally lose our sense of direction in many spots due to all the winding around the terrain and vegetation.

Tom is ready to hit the trail and head home, armed with the new GPS and with his faithful canine companion Recona getting a last rest.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Beautiful Afternoon for a Ride

We’ve had such beautiful weather here lately that I even managed to get Tom out on a midweek ride. Lodo is big enough now that he can go on a short trail ride, so we saddled up Nessa and Tony.

Recona was spayed on Saturday, and she has no trouble keeping up. Nessa was just starting to work again coming back from a leg that was injured before she even came here, when she had Lodo and earned another month and a half off. And Lodo is only a month and a half old, but Tony still brings up the rear as he stumbles and ambles along. At least it makes for good picture taking opportunities.

This was Tom’s second trail ride in three days because we took a long ride through the Mountain Pine Ridge on Sunday.

On that ride, we saw some coatis and a Great Tinamou. You can see the original of this picture here.

Then, back at the ranch, Tom spotted a Little Tinamou right in the yard off our porch, which looks just like the Great Tinamou but less than half the size. Read about them here. We spotted the Great Tinamou scurrying down a jungle path, and the Little Tinamou scampering through the yard, and Tom commented that both of them look like avian rats due to their gray color and the way they move along the ground.

Tom has also been walking up the road to the gate in the morning, and one morning he heard a lot of crashing in the jungle. He didn’t get a clear look at what was making the noise, but he saw a couple of large, gray animals in the bush, so he thinks they were tapirs. The tapir is the national animal of Belize, and while we’ve seen them in the Zoo, these are the first ones either of us has seen in the wild around here.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Which Turtle is This?

The activity of the afternoon was identifying a small turtle I found in Nessa and Lodo’s cage as I was delivering their hay and water. As you can see in relation to my hand, it wasn’t a large turtle.

I got these shots so I could reference the book after I released him. I then went in and got Julian C. Lee’s A Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Maya World and identified him (or perhaps her, since I didn’t see the tail which is how the sexes are differentiated), and narrowed it down to some sort of mud turtle.

However, in the Lee book, I discovered that in order to identify the specific species of mud turtle, you have to get a look at the underside, so Recona helped me find him again so I could snap this picture.

I’m still not sure, but my guess is the Scorpion Mud Turtle, which was my first guess because of the colors on the head, although it turns out that all the mud turtles can have those colors. These pictures are on page 152 of the Lee book.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Loose ends

Just to tie up a couple of loose ends:

Rosa named the baby Jim Alexander. Next time I'm over there I'll get some new pictures.

And the BDF returned the tow chain, just as they said they would.

And something horse people will appreciate - we just had the vet out here to do the annual rabies shots for the horses. For five horses, it cost $75US. Yes, $15US per horse. And we can buy the other shots at the feed store and do them ourselves, although since $75US includes the farm call to the middle of no where, I think we'll just have the vet out to do it again some time when he's in the area.

Selwyn's son Junior has decided that he will continue to go to school. He wasn't too sure until Selwyn pointed out to him that he is now on the same adult working schedule as Selwyn, and when Selwyn goes to work, Junior goes to school. All grown up, and only in kindergarten!

Not much new

Not much is new from the past couple of weeks, so I just went outside with the camera to take a few random pictures.

We’ve been watching the back pasture get greener and greener. At first we didn’t believe the farmers around here who told us the grass would be three feet high by October, but given how it’s grown so far, we do now. Selwyn has been reseeding the brown spots, and we’ve been putting in fence poles so we can divide the pasture in three and rotate the horses through it. We’re told the grass has a 21 day growing cycle, so if we keep them in each pasture for a week and continue to rotate them, we should always have green grass.

We may not have enough acreage for the number of horses we have so we may have to also rotate them into the middle pasture, which is really just a paddock where we’ll need to feed them hay, but the back pasture will definitely cut down on our hay bill - although Es and Elphie don't seem to mind the hay.

When I came home from the US, I immediately noticed that everything was greener than when I left. I think it’s become even greener since then, and I finally weeded the gardens so I don’t mind having them photographed. These are the two gardens right outside the front door. During the dry season, most of the plants looked dead, but they’ve made a good comeback.

If you look closely – or blow up the picture by clicking on it – you’ll see that this tree is loaded with tangerines. We have four tangerine trees, and last year we didn’t get any fruit from any of them. This year, they’re all loaded. They seem to like having the vines pulled from their branches and the brush cleared from around their trunks.

Here’s the obligatory picture of Lodo. Isn’t he getting huge? He’s actually starting to approach us now for rubs, although getting the halter on him is still a 2-person job. He only wants to talk to us on HIS terms.

Here’s Recona doing her job, “killing” chickens.

She’s not really killing them, she’s just chasing them out of the pasture, but when our neighbors see her chasing them, they’re sure she’s killing them.

And here she is, her job well done.

It was a tough job, so she needs a big drink. Mel liked to drink out of the horse trough too, although he didn’t have to stand on the edge to do it. And Mel always insisted that it be full to the top because he liked to rest his nose on the lip of the trough (or bowl, if that’s what he was drinking from) and just lap the water up. He didn’t like having to stick the end of his nose in the water to get a drink. Recona, obviously, doesn’t seem to mind, especially when she’s been working so hard killing chickens.