Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tourists: Enjoying & Being!

We’ve had a very busy week between taking care of tourists and being tourists ourselves. We had guests the last few days of September, and are scheduled to be pretty busy now through December, so we figured we’d better take a little time to see and do some of the Belize things we haven’t done yet.

Last Sunday we picked up our guests, Shari and Nikki, mother and daughter from South Carolina, in Belmopan. They wanted to see the Inland Blue Hole, which is only about 12 miles out of Belmopan on the Hummingbird Highway, and since we’ve never seen it either we thought that would be a good diversion before heading home. Now, for all of you who know I was an English teacher and are wondering about the verb tense in the previous sentence, we’ve still never seen it.

We did, however, see the entrance to St. Herman’s Cave, have a great hike, and climb the fire tower near St. Herman’s Cave for a beautiful view of the hills around the Hummingbird Highway. We were a bit foiled by the weather, which was copious rain on that day. The park is in two parts: one has St. Herman’s Cave, another cave named Crystal Cave, the fire tower, and lots of hiking trails, and the other has the Inland Blue Hole. The Caves part of the park is closer to Belmopan, so that’s where we stopped first. We took off on the 10 minute hike to the cave, armed with headlamps, so we could go into St. Herman’s Cave. It took us longer than 10 minutes to get there because we had to wade through knee deep mud, and then when we got there we found that the path into the cave was flooded with about three feet of river water running over the path.

Undaunted, we took off for the fire tower, which the signs say is only a mile hike, but which seemed like about 5 miles given the weather conditions.

But, as we got to the tower, it cleared up and we enjoyed an incredible view from the top.

We then hiked back to the truck and went down the road to see the Blue Hole. However, even though it wasn’t officially the park’s closing time, we found the gate closed and locked; apparently we were the only visitors to the park on that rainy Sunday, and it wasn’t worth keeping the staff around for four people. We’d been told that the Blue Hole was more brown or green that day anyway, so we’re just adding that to the list of things we still have to see. And Shari and Nikki are planning on coming back to Belize, so they were great sports and are adding it to their lists too.

Driving back to the farm on the Georgeville Road, we found that it had also been raining hard there during the day, and at one point the road was washed out to the point where we had a tense couple of seconds driving Tinkerbell over what was left of the road, not sure if the washout extended under the roadbed, and with no extra space on either side of the tires.

We should have known, since this is what the Iguana Creek Bridge on the road to Spanish Lookout looked like that morning. We made it, but because of the depth of the water in the flooded creeks, we did a bit of quick replanning for Monday’s activities, which had been for Selwyn to take Nikki on a horseback ride to Big Rock Falls to be met by the rest of us with lunch before taking a driving tour of the Mountain Pine Ridge.

Instead, Tom took Nikki and Shari into San Ignacio to see the sights there and to do some shopping. They tried to go to Xunantunich, but found that the ferry was closed due to the high river, so they saw Cahal Pech instead.

Fortunately it didn’t rain much on Monday and Tuesday turned out to be a very nice day, so it worked well to switch Monday’s activities to Tuesday.

Nikki had a lot of fun on the ride, learning about the jungle flora and fauna from Selwyn and taking lots of pictures.

We met them for a picnic at Big Rock, and then I ponied the horses home while Tom, Selwyn, Shari, and Nikki visited the Rio Frio Cave and Rio On Pools – which Tom said were as high as he’s ever seen them.

On Wednesday, unfortunately, Shari and Nikki were scheduled to leave here to go spend a couple of days in Hopkins. Since Tom and I had been thinking about a few days away, we took advantage of heading towards Belmopan with Shari and Nikki and after eating a “local” lunch at the Belmopan Market – rice and beans, venison, gibnut, and tamales – we got Shari and Nikki on the bus and we headed to Jaguar Paw for a ziplining adventure.

Neither of us has ever done it before, and while we’ve heard that the Jaguar Paw course is considered a fairly short “beginner” course, we had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed flying through the trees.

The only scary part for me was rappelling down from the last platform, where they asked me if I wanted to go fast or slow. I’d had a lot of fun going fast on the ziplines – but they don’t take you freefall fast, and I let out a yelp as I kicked out off the platform and made it to the ground in about half a second. Fortunately the guides there know what they’re doing, and I landed quite softly and gracefully (at least for me!).

Tom knew what to expect so he managed to get down without yelping, and we headed for the Zoo.

Sharon has been telling us to come spend a night at the Zoo’s Tropical Education Center ever since they took the first batch of cage material last January, but we hadn’t wanted to both be away from the farm during Mellow’s last few months. We didn’t think it was fair to either Mel or Selwyn to leave Selwyn with a dog that sometimes crashed going down the stairs – and that could die at any time – so we just put trips together on hold. But, we now feel we can leave Selwyn in charge for a few days and this was a good chance to head to the TEC. The TEC is beautiful, and we had a very enjoyable evening visiting with Sharon and the TEC staff. We saw a crocodile in the pond, and lots of birds that frequent the wet savannah instead of the hills of the Mountain Pine Ridge. The TEC cooks created an absolutely delicious dinner and a wonderful breakfast the next morning, complete with fry jacks. We started talking about cooking and they discovered I love to cook, and asked if I make fry jacks. They laughed when I told them that I refuse to learn because Tom and I both love fry jacks – which are as fatty as they sound, but utterly delicious – and if I could make them, we’d eat them every meal and we’d both weigh 300 pounds.

We took a minor detour Thursday morning on the way to the water taxi to San Pedro, which was the second part of our mini-getaway. On Tuesday, I’d slipped going down our steps, wrenching my back and shoulders by catching myself on my elbows, and giving myself a bruised butt like I haven’t had since the last time I fell off a horse and landed butt-first in a pile of jumps. I was telling Sharon about my fall, mostly to make her feel better because she’s still nursing a pinched nerve in her back as a result of her fall down the same steps early last spring. Coincidentally, she was planning to visit her doctor – chiropractor, acupuncturist, and masseuse – in Belize City after dropping us at the water taxi, so she asked if we wanted her to switch her order and get me into the doctor as well. I was all set to pass, not wanting to take the time or spend the money on top of my general aversion to doctors, but Tom had been watching me limp and wince for two days, so he told Sharon that was a great idea. So, for $60BZ and an hour of time I had my muscles massaged, my bones straightened, and a few pins stuck in my back – and walked out feeling better than I’ve felt in months (and maybe years), with the exception of the bruised butt which isn’t fixable by anything but time. Tom is now looking for an excuse to go to Belize City so he can get himself realigned and get something done about some tennis elbow which has been bothering him, and when he finds the excuse I’ll go along to get whatever is aching at the time fixed!

We got the 1:30 water taxi out of Belize City to San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, arriving at about 3:00. We were immediately surprised by how civilized San Pedro is – streets, cars, shops, restaurants, resorts, apartment buildings, just like lots of other beach towns we’ve visited. We decided we had to go to San Pedro because lots of tourists have asked us about it, and we had to keep telling people we just didn’t know. We hadn’t really rushed to get out there because everyone who knows San Pedro and knows us has said that we should probably just stick to Caye Caulker because we’d like that better. But, we had to find out for ourselves, and we’re glad we did because we had a great time. Not what we expected, but lots of fun nonetheless.

We were planning to get a hotel room, go out for dinner and a few drinks, get a bottle of wine and sit on the beach, then go to bed and get up early Friday morning to go snorkeling in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley. That’s not quite how it worked out, due to synchronicity and the fact that Belize really is really small.

Shortly before we moved to Belize, we found that the son of one of our neighbors in New York has owned a condo in San Pedro for about 20 years. These neighbors are the ones who gave us our Doberman, Midge, when the husband died and didn’t want his wife to be hurt by the overly energetic dog. After the husband died, the wife sold the house to good friends of ours and moved to Virginia to help one of her sons and his wife with their B&B. We’ve kept in touch despite my dreadful correspondence habits because she’s also kept in touch with our friends who bought her house, so if I neglected to write to see what she was doing, Claire would tell me. Anyway, Claire told Betty that we were moving to Belize, and Betty just happened to be in Belize visiting her son in San Pedro. She said that if we ever got there, we needed to look him up, and he told us that she’s asked every time he’s been there if he met us yet.

So, after dumping our knapsacks in the room, we decided to wander down to Banyan Bay and see if our old neighbor’s son just happened to be there. It was sort of funny because we had the sons mixed up, and thought that the one she’d moved in with was the one with the condo. So, we walked up to the Banyan Bay reception desk, and Tom asked if the son was there. The girl looked at us sort of funny, and then pointed to the computers right behind us and said Mr. B was sitting right there. We didn’t think he looked like the son we know – no surprise now, since he isn’t – but we walked up and introduced ourselves and within a few minutes had figured out who everybody was and that we actually did know his mother…and we were the people she’s been asking him about for two years now!

After getting that straight, we went to his condo for a Belikin and to call his mother, who sounds just like she’s always sounded even though we haven’t seen her in three or four years. He had dinner engagement planned with a Belizean friend, and as Tom and I were making noise about leaving so he could get ready for his evening out, he invited us to go along. We made sure he wasn’t just being polite, and since we were having so much fun talking about Belize and people we know in the US, we went with them for a delicious seafood dinner at one of the restaurants near his condo. Then he decided that we needed to see a bit of the real San Pedro, and took us on a tour of the “backatown” bars where we were generally the only three white people in the place – but it didn’t matter at all since we’re all used to Belize, Belizeans, and life in the slow lane, not to mention seedy bars everywhere, and we ended up running into a number of people we either know or at last know of, and since Mr. B has been spending big chunks of time in San Pedro for 20 years, he’s a local anyway. At one of the bars we caught the tail end of the vice presidential debate, and the Belizeans watching were quite passionate about it. When they found that we are US citizens, they very enthusiastically encouraged us to vote for Barack Obama, and told us that we owed it to the Belizean people to cast our votes for them, for Obama.

When the bars closed at midnight or 1, we went to the all night clubs and went dancing. Apparently I need a little more work with the doctor in Belize City since this white girl had trouble loosening up her hips to satisfy the Belizean women we were dancing with, but we all laughed a lot and had tons of fun…and didn’t get back to the hotel room until 3AM. It’s been a long time since Tom and I have been out dancing that late, and we weren’t able to drag our aging butts out of bed until 10 the next morning, too late for the snorkeling trip. We spent the day wandering around, eating nachos and ice cream. I didn’t realize how much I miss good ice cream. When we go to Spanish Lookout, we always go to Western Dairies for an ice cream and it’s good. But it’s not real good, real coffee ice cream which is my favorite. In San Pedro, you even have the choice of coffee ice cream or coffee custard, which is utterly delicious. And, the woman who owns DandE’s Custard likes to make animal noises as much as I do, so she and I had fun comparing our versions of the Belizean potlicker noise, which is very distinctive. Maybe my tired body was just craving the sugar and caffeine, but it gave me enough energy to go out for an abbreviated re-do of the previous night, and even though Tom didn’t have coffee ice cream, he found the energy too. We went to another equally good restaurant for more seafood, then to the backatown bars on the north side of town. Unfortunately, I started to fade around 11, so we skipped the dancing part of the evening and went back to the hotel. Again unfortunately, the tropical depression that just ran into Mexico was at that point passing over the Yucatan Peninsula, so the constant torrential downpour and wind kept us from snorkeling on Saturday morning. But we had a great breakfast with more fry jacks at a restaurant where a friend from San Antonio works, as well as a good visit with the friend who was our waiter.

We got the water taxi out at 11:30 and got to Belize City about 2 hours later. We took a cab to the bus terminal, and then took a bus to the Zoo where we’d left Tinkerbell. Besides wanting to be able to tell people first hand about staying at the Zoo and about San Pedro, we wanted to get a little experience dealing with Belize’s public transportation system. We found that the experience was good. The cab fare from the water taxi terminal to the bus terminal was $8BZ, and the bus fare was $2BZ each – much cheaper and easier than trying to park Tinkerbell in Belize City for three days. The bus terminal is chaos, but lots of people are around to help, and since buses only leave the terminal in two directions, you’d probably really have to work to get on the wrong bus. Tom became the center of attention on the bus because one of the vendors getting on the bus to sell snacks to the passengers told him that he looks like Chuck Norris (which he hears a lot here) and then everybody on the bus had to get up and take a look at him, with a running commentary in Creole. Tom was a little embarrassed, but I thought it was hysterically funny, of course. The bus got rolling in about fifteen minutes, let us off at the Zoo, and we retrieved Tinkerbell and headed for home. Selwyn had done a great job taking care of the place and the animals, and we’ve spent the past couple of days getting back in the swing of things and getting ready for guests arriving on Thursday.

So, did we like San Pedro? You bet. It wasn’t what we expected, and we didn’t do what we’d planned to do, but we had a great time. We’re not going to go back every week or even every month – we couldn’t afford it either physically or financially! – but it was great for a change of pace and we know plenty of people who would have way more fun there than they would on the more laid back Caye Caulker. And we have to go back to do the snorkeling trips we were planning to do this time. Now we can say we know what it’s like…but we definitely need to do more research!


sandy A. said...

Sounds like you had a great time! That's what we did on our last trip--we'd never been to Ambergris Caye in all the times we've been in Belize, so had to see it for ourselves. So much hustle and bustle compared to Placencia!

Julian Foster said...

You have us beat...the only place we have been is San Pedro. We spent a lovely week at Paradise Villas and had breakfasts as Estell's Dine By The Sea and just had a wonderful time.

You need to do it again and, this time, try and get the snorkling in... it is really special!

Thanks for letting us in on your live in Belize.