Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Mike & Stacie

We just had an incredibly eventful week with Mike and Stacie from Santa Clara, California. They spent the first part of their Belize vacation diving from Caye Caulker, then spent a night at the Belize Zoo where they pronounced the night tour “awesome” but delivered the sad news that Ellen, the black jaguar, had just died of cancer. From the Belize Zoo they went cave tubing at Jaguar Paw, and Tom picked them up there in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. They met the very tired, muddy, and happy CheChem Ha adventurers in San Ignacio, and then we all returned to the farm for dinner. On Christmas, everybody went to Rio Frio Cave, Rio On Pools, and Big Rock, and then came back for our traditional standing rib roast prime rib dinner with twice baked potatoes.

On Friday (Boxing Day here), Mike, Stacie, Dave, and Tom all went to Actun Tunichil Muknal, aka the ATM Cave, and spent a good day exploring the Mayan underworld with Gonzo. Saturday we saddled up Tony, Es, and Glin, and Stacie, Mike, and I packed a lunch and went on a trail ride to Sapodilla Falls. We had the usual pleasant ride through the jungle, and then arrived at the falls to find, for the first time in my experience, two other horses already tethered in the “parking lot” at the top of the falls. The horses were from Blancaneaux, and as we were hiking down the trail, the Blancaneaux guide and his guest were hiking out, so we had the falls all to ourselves for lunch and a swim. As we were getting ready to leave, a group of local people came in and were sitting downstream for us. We waved and said hi as we walked by, and didn’t think any more of it until we were almost at the top of the trail when I heard “Mrs. Tom, Mrs. Tom” behind me. It turns out one of the men in the group was Antonio Mai, the chairman of San Antonio’s water board and warden of the Elijio Panti National Park. He worked with Tom on the water line up in the hills near Hidden Valley in March 2007, and when one of the men with him told him that I was “the girl from Chac Mool [the previous name for our property], Mr. Tom’s wife,” Antonio ran up the hill behind us to meet us. He told us all sorts of things about the park and its history, invited us to ride with him sometime to a cave in the park, and taught us a little bit of the Mayan language – how to say “white man” (Mike), “white girl” (me), and, when Mike pointed out that Stacie is Chinese and not white, “yellow girl” (Stacie). He also told us a few myths of the jungle about beings who lure people into the jungle for various mischievous reasons, and we spent a half hour laughing together.

Early – and I mean early – Tom dropped Mike and Stacie off in San Ignacio and they left for an overnight tour to Tikal, Guatemala, where they had a good time exploring the park and archeological site. They took a zip line tour Monday morning, did some shopping, and we met them in San Ignacio Monday evening. We all went to dinner at Benny’s, a restaurant that serves Belizean food in the town of Succotz. We had empanadas, tostadas, garnaches, and salbutes as an appetizer, and then sampled each other’s dinners. Mike ordered chilmole, a black soup with chicken and a boiled egg, Stacie had cow foot soup, and I had pibil, which is a sort of pulled pork. All were delicious. Tom, not being an overly adventurous eater, ordered fried fish, so he got to eat his dinner without having to share!

On Tuesday we headed down the Hummingbird Highway to Caves Branch, where we’d signed up to do the Black Hole Drop. The four of us had signed up, but Stacie woke up in the middle of the night with a strong feeling that she shouldn’t do it, so it ended up that they went to the Inland Blue Hole and St. Herman’s Cave while Tom and I did the Black Hole Drop on our own, mostly because we hadn’t done it before and thought we should do it so we can advise our guests. Stacie was very wise to trust her instincts, because it was an awesome trip, but difficult for a few different reasons. The hike to the Black Hole, which is a 300+ foot sinkhole in the middle of the jungle, was tough. It takes over an hour in good conditions because the terrain is very hilly and rocky, and the hike is mostly up hill. On Tuesday, it was raining off and on, so the hike was made even more difficult because the trail was very muddy, and very, very slippery with lots of steep drop offs at the edge of the trail. It reminded Tom of working on the water pipeline, and he was glad all he had to carry was a day pack with water and rappelling gear and he had two hands to climb up some of the steeper portions of the trail. Not counting guides, there were nine people in the party, and by the time we got back to the bus at the end of the day, five of the nine had fallen on the trail and were covered in mud. Tom and I were luckily not among the fallers, but we were also pretty muddy because doing the drop itself meant sliding backwards off a mud-covered limestone overhang. After getting buckled into the rappelling gear and clipped to the ropes, my stomach was in my mouth and I was shaking despite my pep talks to myself about how people much less athletic than I am had done this. I informed the guide that I was NOT going to look down, and he just said, “That’s fine, now lean back, push off the rock, and feed the rope up.” I did as instructed, swung down below the overhang, spun a 180 on the rope, and forgot all about being nervous. It was an incredible experience to be hanging out in space, basically at ground level, looking up in one direction at the jungle rising above me, and looking down at the top of the canopy below me. I slid slowly down through the canopy to the bottom of the sinkhole, not because I was afraid to go fast, but because I wanted time to absorb what I was seeing as I dropped from one world to another. Tom had descended on another rope at the same time – although a little more quickly – so we landed almost together at the bottom of the sinkhole. We joined those already down and watched the rest of our party descend, with everybody, without exception, awed by the experience. The guides fed us a great lunch, and then we hiked around the bottom of the sinkhole, climbed up the side where it was a little shallower – but still a very tough climb which included a very rickety ladder – and hiked down the muddy hill and back to the point where we met the bus to take us back to the Caves Branch Jungle Lodge. Click here to see a description of this trip – sorry, but we forgot our camera, so we can’t wait for more guests who want to do this so we can go again and remember the camera!

By the time we got back to Caves Branch, Mike and Stacie had caught a ride to Belize City, where they were going to catch the water taxi to go back to Caye Caulker for a couple more days of diving and snorkeling. Stacie had completed her diving certification before they headed inland, but the certification dives focused more on skills than on seeing fish and the beautiful coral formations on the reef off the coast of Belize, so they wanted to try to get a couple of more days of reef time before they had to head home. We’re sure Mike and Stacie will be back to visit Belize!

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