Wednesday, June 17, 2009

April & Zack - with a little bit of Trekforce

We just finished another fun-filled week with our latest guests, April and Zack from Florida. Before coming here, they spent 10 days in Hopkins, so they were already used to the ways of Belize, and had a pretty good idea of what they wanted to do while here.

They started the week with a trip to Caracol, and a relaxing stop at Rio On Pools on the way back to the farm. We’ve learned to advise our guests to just hang out for an hour or so, because even though lots of tours stop at Rio On on the way back from Caracol, most of the resort tours have their guides limit the Rio On stop to 45 minutes or an hour. We’ve learned that our guests love waiting out the crowd, and then having the whole beautiful place to themselves until they feel like leaving. The next day they went to ATM, and were awed by both the history and geology, and really enjoyed a private tour with Gonzo.

The following day we took a trail ride to Sapodilla Falls, and again didn’t see another soul for the entire day – one of the definite advantages of visiting Belize in the off-season!

On Friday night, we were joined by three women volunteering here in Belize with Trekforce. Trekforce is a British organization that organizes groups of volunteers to do projects in developing countries around the world. The group these three women are in is on its last segment, and they are living with host families in small Cayo villages and teaching in Cayo schools. They get the weekends off, so they decided to splurge and head to Moonracer Farm for a few nights in “real” beds, hot showers, gringo food (including “a proper cup of tea”), and a trail ride to Big Rock Falls.

On Saturday morning, the three Trekforce volunteers, Lucie, Roseann, and Jo, joined April, Tom, and me on a trail ride. Zack decided to forego a second day in the saddle, so he went with Selwyn to a fishing hole in the Macal River, where they didn’t catch anything, but enjoyed the river and the jungle.

The six of us had a great ride up to Big Rock, and just as we got there around 1:00, Zack pulled into the parking lot in their car and joined us for lunch and a swim.

Everybody had a great time, jumping off the high rocks, and Zack and Tom enjoyed hanging out with the bikini babes. I left early and took the quick route home so I could get cleaned up and get dinner ready, and everybody else stayed for another swim.

On Sunday, Tom took Zack and April to Ka’ax Tun. They were as impressed with the place as Tom and I were, so we’re definitely adding this to our list of adventures for our guests.

They even climbed the rock chimney, and used the vines to rappel up and down the rock walls – something I want to do next time I go!

They had a delicious lunch of chaya soup prepared by Julio’s wife Janet, and then made it back to Moonracer Farm in time to pick up the Trekforce volunteers – who had a nice lie-in – for a trip to the Green Hills Butterfly Ranch before heading into San Ignacio so the volunteers could catch a bus and they could do a little shopping and get dinner.

April and Zack used Monday as a research day. April’s sister is getting married and is considering a honeymoon in Belize, so April and Zack visited some of the honeymoon destination lodges on the other side of the river to take pictures and collect information. This also gave them time to visit the Belize Botanical Garden at DuPlooy’s, which was a highlight of the Cayo segment of their trip since April grows orchids and Zack creates bonsai trees.

This, by the way, made our expeditions into the jungle with them very interesting, since they were spotting orchids and other vegetation that Tom and I would never have noticed, and explaining things to us – very interesting! Then, they were off bright and early on Tuesday morning to head into Guatemala for the final segment of their trip.

Jaguar Update

Tom and I thought it was odd that after George from the Forestry Department came and talked to our neighbors, we heard no more about the jaguar in the area. A few days ago, we think we found out why.

When we towed Tony up into the Mountain Pine Ridge to visit our friend George last month, we knew we had ridden past a motion sensing wildlife camera mounted on the Slate Creek Line. We suspected, but didn’t know, that it was one of Blancaneaux’s cameras which they’ve mounted in various places to collect information on cats within a 5-mile radius of the lodge. Tom was in 7 Miles a few days ago, and a friend who is working on this project at Blancaneaux asked if we’d had a good ride up the Slate Creek Line since as well as capturing pictures of cats, the camera got a good picture of us. Geraldo then asked if we saw signs of cats up there, and we told him that we’d seen many tracks. Then, he asked what we thought about the jaguar killing one of our neighbors’ pigs.

Tom corrected him and said it was a dog that was killed, and Geraldo then informed Tom that rumor has it that a pig was also killed not too long ago. So, after a brief discussion with Geraldo, Tom came to the conclusion that we’re no longer in the loop on what’s going on with the jaguar around here. Apparently when the delegation approached us to get help, the help they wanted was an assurance that the jaguar would be shot and killed. When the neighbors instead were told to protect their dogs and livestock, and to contact Forestry again if anything happened, they decided they’d deal with it their own way, and the rumor Tom heard from Geraldo is that they’re trying to get a gun so they can kill the jaguar themselves.

We find this very distressing. First, we don’t think the jaguar should be killed anyway, since we’re in its territory. Second, we think the neighbors have a way overblown sense of the danger of the jaguar, and just find it inconvenient to protect their animals. Third, even if they go out and hunt and kill a jaguar, there’s no guarantee that the jaguar they kill is the one attacking dogs and livestock. George says the only way to make sure you trap the right jaguar is to get a trap to the site of a recent kill, and put the carcass of that kill in the trap; most jaguars will return to finish their own kill, but they won’t be attracted to the carcass of a dead animal they didn’t kill. So, the neighbors are not going to deal with Forestry or tell us what’s going on because they know we won’t do what they want us to do. It’s very frustrating, and we just hope that the rumor mill continues to get the rumors back to people like Geraldo who will contact Forestry and see if they can get a trap out here – although the trap would be more likely to succeed if the neighbors would contact somebody right after an animal was killed so the carcass could be used for bait.

So Proud of Nessa!

I just have to do a separate entry to say how proud I am of our horse Nessa. April rode her on both trail rides to Sapodilla and Big Rock Falls, and Nessa was a star! This was Nessa’s first time out on the trail with anyone other than Tom or me, and it was the first time she’s gone on the really long, ten-plus mile rides. April was the perfect person to be our test rider. She’s been riding since she was a kid, she loves horses, and she has the perfect personality to let Nessa know that she wanted to work with her without being rough. Nessa responded in kind, and the two ended up loving each other.

Since very few of you have met Ness, it might be hard to understand why this is such a big deal to me. We got her from a man in San Antonio who had rescued her from a person who had inherited her and had no idea how to care for a horse, and the original owner had apparently been less than kind to his animals. The man from San Antonio had cleaned her up and fattened her up some, but she was still a bag of bones with a dull coat, scars from misuse all over her, and a front ankle twice its normal size because of a tendon injury that hadn’t been treated. She’s been pretty roughly handled, and was extremely head shy with everybody, and wanted nothing at all to do with men. Elphie was eight months old when we got her and had never been weaned, so Ness still had to tolerate the filly shadowing her constantly and trying to nurse.

We weaned the filly and turned Ness out, giving her lots of food. We’d groom her and fuss over her, and we gradually got her to the point where we could tie her and groom her without her having a complete meltdown and flying backward every time we lifted a hand with a brush because she thought we were going to hit her. Marjie fixed her feet so the injured ankle wasn’t so painful, and about seven or eight months after we got her, she was walking sound, she’d gained some weight, some of the scars had healed, and we could work around her without her being afraid of us. I decided to try to ride her one day, and found out that she’s extremely broke (I probably don’t want to know what methods were used for that), and I started to take her out for walks to get her in some sort of shape. Then, a couple of months later, we realized that Lodo was on the way, so she had another vacation while being a broodmare. When Lodo was a few months old and could be separated from her, I started working her again. I quickly realized that she’s very well trained and safe to ride (although we did have a wheel and spin incident with some birders, but I couldn’t blame her, and we weren’t with any other horses), but I didn’t think she was in good enough shape to do the long rides, and I wasn’t sure if her ankle injury would bother her. A couple of months ago we had Josh ride her to the Butterfly Ranch, but that’s only a mile away, and 10-year-old Josh wasn’t much of a load for her.

She’s now pretty fat and shiny, sound at all three gaits, and I’ve been taking her out for six or eight mile rides and she’s been doing fine. Since April was the perfect person to be her first “tourist rider,” we decided to give it a go – and she was great.

Perfectly well behaved on the trail, able to ride anywhere in the line, comfortable for some trotting and cantering on the trail, and able to do two days back to back without getting sore, lame, or even grumpy. So kudos to Nessa for making such a great comeback, and many thanks to April for making her first gig as a trail horse a good one!

License Plate Silliness

Usually when Tom and I are stymied by the way something is done here, we remind ourselves that we’re no longer living in the US, and that just because Belize doesn’t do it the same way as we’re used to, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. However, we just went through a situation where we think somebody needs to look at how things are being done and see if they could make it operate just a little more efficiently.

Tom picked up our little blue truck on December 24 of last year. As of last week, we still didn’t have license plates on the truck. We’d stop in the Ministry of Works Department of Transportation every few weeks to see if the license plates were in, and were always told no, just check back in a few weeks. It wasn’t a big deal; nobody cares if a vehicle doesn’t have plates, and the Dept. of Transportation gave us a little handwritten note attached to our registration that asked anybody who stopped us to please be courteous and understand that it wasn’t our fault the vehicle didn’t have plates (seriously!). However, the little handwritten note was only good for Belize, and we couldn’t take the truck out of the country without plates. We have a few things coming up where we may want to take the truck into Guatemala or Mexico, so we decided that we should start pushing to get the plates.

So, when Tom went in to check on plates last week, instead of smiling, saying thanks, and leaving when the woman told him they didn’t have any, he asked who he should talk to since we were about to need the plates, and we’d already waited almost six months. The woman had him talk to one of the officials, who told him that he could get the plates in Belmopan.

We tooted off to Belmopan, just to get the plates. We found the Ministry of Works there, Tom went in to get the plates, an official came out to make sure our registration matched the VIN on the truck, and Tom went in to fill out the paperwork. And, he had to pay an extra $15 because even though we’d already paid for the plates we never got in Santa Elena, issuing the plates from Belmopan required the creation of a new title, and that cost $15. Tom also found out that we never would have received plates from Santa Elena, because only one box of plates was issued this year for general Cayo registrations, and that box of plates went to Belmopan and couldn’t be split, so Santa Elena isn’t going to get any plates to issue for quite a while. All it meant to us was an extra trip to Belmopan and $15 ($7.50US), which obviously isn’t the end of the world – but it just seems silly, and is a situation which could be easily fixed. However, we now have our plates and can take off to Mexico or Guatemala whenever we want!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Tom finally managed to get the books left here by Ariana, Josh, Rachel, and Ian back in April. The books have been driven back and forth to 7 Miles on a fairly regular basis, but we always seemed to get to the school on a day that was a soccer tournament, or the teachers had closed school early to cash their paychecks, or it was a test day, or a holiday we didn't know about...some obscure reason classes weren't in session, and that people without kids in the school just didn't know about.

Now that the books are finally there, the kids are thrilled.

Jorge, the principal, was elated and said that anytime our guests leave books or school supplies, they're more than happy to use them in the school since their resources are very limited.

So now the kids can sit in their fixed chairs and read good books!

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Chair Doctors

Despite a lack of business at the moment, we are managing to keep ourselves busy. Since working on the water line shortly after we arrived in Belize and bought this property, Tom has remained in touch and become friends with Julio, the chairman of the village of 7 Miles. After working on the water line with Tom, Julio knows that Tom has his “gringo tools,” which make some repair tasks a whole lot easier. It came to Julio’s attention that many of the chairs at the government school in the village had, to put it mildly, seen better days. The chairs are ten years old, they’re wooden which makes them very susceptible to the climate here, and they’ve been used by children – enough said. Julio asked Tom if he could bring his DeWalt tools and some screws to the school to fix “a few” chairs.

Tom loaded his DeWalt tools and some screws into the little blue truck last Tuesday morning, and we left for the school. When we got there, we spoke briefly to the principal, and he said the older boys would bring out the chairs in need of attention. So the boys started bringing out chairs. And more chairs. And more chairs from another building. By the time they were done, we had 23 chairs lined up, some just needed a screw or two to fix a wiggle, some in pieces, and some missing pieces. Tom quickly realized he needed more than just the tools and some screws, so we put together a list and I drove back to the farm for scrap wood, the little generator, the DeWalt battery charger, extension cords, and some of the more high powered corded tools.

Tom and Julio took inventory while I was gone, and when I got back with the supplies we backed the truck up to a little palapa behind the school and went to work in the makeshift shop.

Some of the boys wanted to help, but only so many people can work on a chair at once, and Tom couldn’t cut pieces fast enough to keep everybody going, so Tom and Julio ended up with an audience of the boys who had carried the chairs out of the school. We think many of the chairs were the only chairs those boys had to sit on, so since their chairs were outside, they sat outside too rather than in the classroom.

We fixed most of the big chairs and broke for lunch, and didn’t get back to the school until after the kids had left for the day. The boys had taken their chairs back into the building, but had left all the broken little-kid chairs in the palapa. By this time it was after 4PM, so we loaded the chairs into the back of the pickup and brought them home so Tom could use all the tools in his shop to fix them.

Tom said he really felt like King Moonracer on the Island of Misfit Toys, fixing all the little misfit chairs. In the end, they all got new backs and enough screws to keep them from wobbling for the time being, and they went back in the truck and back to the school, ready to be used.

Ka’ax Tun

When Tom agreed to help fix the chairs, he thought “a few” chairs – not 23 – would need his attention. Julio had invited us to have lunch at his house with his family, and our plan was to fix the chairs in the morning, go to lunch at Julio’s house, and then go tour The Center with Julio. While there were more than a few chairs and we didn’t finish in the morning, we remained on the planned schedule and had a delicious lunch of escabeche and fresh corn tortillas at Julio’s, and then went to The Center.

The Center is a large plot of land in back of 7 Miles which Julio has been improving for the past 15 years or so. The land is all rock, so it’s not suitable for farming, but Julio has had the vision to turn it into an environmental education center, called Ka’ax Tun, which means Big Rock in Mayan.

Julio, with volunteer help, built this education building, along with bathrooms with flush toilets and running water. He’s planning to put in a kitchen so groups can come to stay and have their meals prepared. Groups already use the area, but currently camp and bring their own meals.

From the main building, Julio has created paths through the rocks. The rocks are huge and are covered with jungle vegetation. Small caves with Mayan artifacts are tucked under rock overhangs, and in one place a stonework altar is still in place.

The paths wind through the rocks, underneath and on top, and Julio has put in ropes, cement steps, and wooden handrails where necessary. We only walked around for a few hours, and spent a significant amount of time just sitting awestruck and staring at the rocks, but Julio says you can hike around on the trails all day.

Even after traveling in Belize and spending a lot of time outside enjoying Belize’s natural wonders, Tom and I found the physical features of the area breathtaking, and it’s an area where you can still feel the presence of the Maya. Julio says that we can offer a park tour as one of our trips, and we’re looking forward to our next guests so we can share this beautiful piece of Belize with them.