Monday, May 31, 2010

Jungle Medicine

People always ask us how the Belize medical system compares to that in the Unites States. We’ve found that it compares very favorably, and while there may be fewer high-tech diagnostic options, the level of care and the competence are as high, or sometimes higher, than in the US. In our experience, doctors have always been more than willing to spend whatever time is necessary with us, and we’ve never felt that we’re just another insurance card number. And, we’ve always found the costs of medical care to be reasonable, probably not more than we would have paid in copayments in the US system, and definitely less when you figure that we’re not paying the $500US per month premiums that we paid in the US – although we do still maintain catastrophic care coverage in the US just in case one of us has some major problem and needs to return to the US for treatment.

Over the past couple of months, we’ve had a more advanced lesson about medical care in Belize, and learned that sometimes taking matters into your own hands is a little easier to do here than we found it in the US. Way back in the winter, I had what I thought was a bite on my shoulder. It didn’t go away, and there was a little hole at the center, so I asked Tom if he thought it was a botfly. He didn’t know, and said to wait a week or so to see if it was a botfly, which we now recognize pretty readily from having the horses and dogs get them. It didn’t turn into a botfly, but over the next few weeks the hole gradually got bigger. It didn’t hurt, so I waited a few more weeks, and went to the clinic at La Loma Luz to have a doctor look at it. The doctor looked at, said he suspected leishmaniasis, but he didn’t want to treat it without a scraping sent to the lab because of the side effects of the leishmaniasis treatment. They did the scraping (which made me pass out, ‘possum that I am), sent that off to the lab, and gave me 10 days worth of antibiotics. The scraping came back negative, and the doctor told me to come back and see him if the sore didn’t get better after the 10 days of antibiotics. I finished the antibiotics and waited another week or so, and when the sore seemed to be getting bigger again, I went back to the clinic. The doctor said he wanted me to see a specialist, so he gave me the name of a dermatologist in Belize City.

Since the sore wasn’t growing that quickly, and it didn’t hurt at all, I didn’t do anything about it for a few more weeks. Finally, since we had to pass through Belize City on our way home from Caye Caulker a couple of weeks ago, I decided to make an appointment to see the dermatologist on the way through. She agreed to see me the next day, and looked at the sore, photographed and magnified it on her computer, and took a chunk out of my shoulder to send off for a more complete biopsy than the scraping they did at La Loma Luz. And charged us $850BZ. Yes, eight hundred and fifty Belize dollars. After three years of experience dealing with the medical system in Belize, Tom and I were shocked. We paid the bill, and made an appointment to come back to have the stitch from the biopsy removed and to get the results.

In the meantime, we decided that for $850 we could do a little research on our own. We started to talking to all sorts of people around here – licensed medical professionals, bush doctors, and people who have had sores like the one on my shoulder – and they all agreed that despite the fact that the scraping came back negative and the biopsy was “inconclusive,” it’s leishmaniasis, also known around here as chiclera or bay sore. We found plenty of people to talk to around here who have had it, since it’s spread by the bite of an insect commonly found in the bush around here, and it seems that most people who spend any time at all outside in the bush – which I do – seem to get it eventually.

So, we started asking people how to get rid of it. A few gave us the common bush remedies, but admitted that they don’t always work so well. No thanks. A few said to pour boiling water on the lesion. No thanks. A couple of people told us to make a visit to either BATSUB or the BDF, the British or Belizean military, and have their medics treat it, although they heard that the military treatment involves 40 injections. 40 injections??? No thanks! The majority of people advised taking a trip across the border into Guatemala and buying a medicine called Glucantime, and having somebody here administer it for me, which involves small injections around the site of the sore and then the bulk of the medication as an IM injection in my butt. Most people, including the Guatemalan pharmacist where we purchased it, said somewhere between five and ten injections should do the trick, so we purchased five vials, along with five little needles for the injections around the sore and five big needles for the posterior injections, and started doing more research.

I googled Glucantime, and found that it has some adverse side effects, and that because of these side effects it’s not approved by the FDA and can’t be used in the US or Canada – hence the reason we had to go to Guatemala to buy it, since Belize tends to mirror US standards. However, it is the worldwide treatment of choice, and while other treatments are available, this is the most effective and relatively the safest (there are some less effective treatments that are safer, but they’re less effective). Worried about the side effects since some of the warnings definitely apply to me, I shot an email off to my brother Matt, who is a Physician’s Assistant and was a medic in the Army in Iraq for a year, and thus had some exposure to leishmaniasis. He very quickly emailed back with the precautions I should take, and his recommendation for dosage and length of treatment. I then took the results of this research and went to a local nurse and asked her if she’d be willing to treat me. She said yes, and her dosage and administration jibed pretty closely with what Matt had recommended, so I felt comfortable enough to get the first injections yesterday. The only thing that differed between her advice and Matt’s was that she thinks because the sore is relatively small, I might be able to get away with having it treated with five to eight injections, one each day for the next week or so. And, if she thinks it’s okay to stop the treatment after five or seven days, and then it comes back, I’ll just start the treatments again and get more shots – ugh, but as far as I’m concerned worth the risk of trying a shorter run this time, especially since I trust the nurse’s experience since she’s treated so many people in the village.

A couple of people have asked if this is the type of thing that I might have considered going to the US for treatment. My answer is NO. I don’t think most medical professionals in the US would have any idea how to treat it since it’s rarely seen there, and the worldwide treatment of choice isn’t available there. The doctors here don’t even seem to really know how to treat it, except to advise you to go to another country, get the medication, and have somebody administer the injections. And the people who offered and who most people recommended to do that are local pharmacists and nurses who do it for their families, friends, and villagers because the doctors don’t want to deal with it, so they have more experience than doctors either here or in the US. I think if I got it again, or saw anybody with something that looked like this, I would advise them to avoid the doctors, and just talk to some medical friends or acquaintances who have actually dealt with it. I’ll check back in after a week or so and let you know if this is still how I feel – so keep your fingers crossed for me!

Melchor, or “No Whiskey Allowed”

We just learned something else about Belize the hard way, to the detriment of our wallets. We had to get a few items that we knew were more available and/or cheaper in Melchor, just across the Belize border in Guatemala. So, Janet, Julio, Tom and I decided to take the day on Friday and go shopping. We bought all the things we needed, like clothes for Janet and Julio’s kids, plus a few things, and decided on the way out to pick up a few bottles of liquor, since as far as any of us knew each person crossing the border is allowed a liter of alcohol, and most of the hard liquors are far cheaper in Guatemala than they are in Belize. So, we bought a couple of bottles of tequila, and a bottle of Jack Daniels for Marjie and Chuck.

Throughout the day, we had been putting everything any of us bought into a knapsack Tom was carrying, and as we picked up the last few items, we each just grabbed random bags. We all headed through customs together, and were shocked when the customs agent grabbed the bottle of Jack Daniels, demanded to know whose it was, and said that she was confiscating it. Tom claimed it, and she took his passport and wrote his name in a ledger. Tom asked if he was in trouble, and she said no and smiled, but when he asked if he could have the bottle back to return to the store or exchange, she said no, once customs seized it, it was theirs. Then, she turned us over to another customs agent, who proceeded to go through every bag in the knapsack – and wrote us up a bill for $40BZ in duty. We were a little surprised, to say the least, since it was also our understanding that clothes, which was what the bulk of our money was spent on and were the only items she asked about prices, were duty free. But, apparently not, and even when we explained that what Tom had was from the four of us, not just him, they didn’t care.

We’re not exactly sure what the deal was. About the Jack Daniels, they said that whiskey, beer, and soda cannot be imported from Guatemala to Belize, but there aren’t any signs anywhere explaining that and Tom couldn’t find it on the Belize Customs website. We’re also not sure why we were charged so much duty on clothes, although we suspect that our skin color may have had something to do with it, and since they thought we had money to blow on liquor, what’s a few more bucks to customs. We don’t know if the fact that it was Friday had anything to do with it, and who knows what parties were planned for the weekend. Or, maybe it was just our turn. We’ve heard horror stories from other people crossing the borders into Belize, and we’ve always been quite honest about what we have and what we’re doing, and have never been hassled until now. We’ll probably continue to be honest about what we have, but the next time we’re told that some random item is illegal, we’ll know to keep it in our own hands so we can try to get our money back from the vendor before customs seizes it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

“Tom, Stop In”

A couple of weeks ago, Tom went with Angelika (our “egg lady”) and Ralph, her husband, in our pickup to Spanish Lookout. When they got home, they realized that they were short a bag of rice and a bag of nails. Without phones or any other way to communicate out here – they don’t have email – Angelika had the brilliant idea that we or someone who would see us would drive by sooner or later, and get this message to Tom so she could ask him to look under the truck seat for the missing items. We saw the sign on our way out to Caye Caulker with Uncle Don and Company, stopped in, and got the message. When we got home, Tom checked under the seat, and sure enough, the stuff was there and was delivered the next day. You can always depend on the jungle wire!

Ari, Cara, Talia, Carin, & Mach

Our last guests were a family of five from Georgia. They took off on vacation the day after the three girls, Ari, Cara, and Talia, got out of school and headed for Belize for a surf and turf vacation. They decided to spend the first part of the trip inland, which Tom and I endorse since the “turf” part of the vacation usually requires a little more physical exertion, and it’s nice to do all the physical stuff and then relax by the seaside.

The rented a car, which provided them with a lot more flexibility and allowed them to do things like head into San Ignacio for dinner for a few of the nights they were here so they could experience a little bit more of the tastes of Belize than what you get when you’re basically stranded out here in the jungle. The first day they were here, we took them on a horseback ride from here to Big Rock Falls, with Nicole, Joe’s daughter, as our guide. Nicole shared a ton of information about the jungle and life in Belize, and it was interesting to me to go on a tour with a girl guide who had a lot more insight than most of the men about how many of the plants in the jungle were used in cooking traditional Maya and Belizean dishes. After a nice ride through the jungle and the Pine Ridge, we arrived at a very muddy Big Rock, where everybody declined the chance to swim in water that looked like coffee. We still enjoyed the scenery and lunch at the falls, before Nicole, Tom, and I ponied and rode the horses home, while Mach, Carin, and the girls took off to tour the Mountain Pine Ridge in their car which Tom had delivered to Big Rock for them.

The next day they all headed to ATM with Carlos and Selmo, with Gonzo driving since he’d broken his toe over the weekend and wasn’t able to go in the cave. It’s been raining quite a lot here lately, so we weren’t even certain they’d be able to go in the cave, but while the water was high, everybody managed to do it. We saw Carlos a few days later, and when he told us exactly how high the water was, we were very impressed that everybody was able to do the whole tour, especially Ari who is only 12 and not very big. Carlos said there were places where the water was up to his chest, which would have put it over Ari’s head, and her sisters and mother are all very slim and not overly tall, so it was an impressive feat that everybody did the whole trip.

On their final day here, they did the self guided tour of Caracol. We went over the whole routine the night before to make sure they knew about all the bends in the road, meeting the convoy, touring the site, and making the stop at Rio On Pools on the way home. Our information must have been good because they made it there and back just fine, and were glad that they had elected to do it on their own and save the amount it would have cost for five of them to go on one of the standard guided tours. We’re always a little hesitant about telling people to go without a guide because there are a few different places where it could be inconvenient or even dangerous to get confused, and while 37 miles, the distance from here to Caracol, may not seem like a long way, it’s 37 miles from here to nowhere and if you have any trouble and you’ve somehow missed the convoy, you’re on your own. Mach was diligent however, and made sure he knew exactly what to expect and what he needed to do, and we were very comfortable sending them off on their own.

The next morning they took off early to go to the Zoo before dropping the rental car in Belize City and then heading out to Caye Caulker. They took our advice on not trusting the Caye Caulker Water Taxi (or any water taxi association, for that matter) to heart, and zip-tied all of the zippers on their bags – a very good idea that we will be passing along to all of our guests and using ourselves. We hope they had a good time on the reef and didn’t let a little bit of rain get in the way of their vacation!

Frank & Kristin

Although most of our guests are in Belize on vacation, we occasionally have guests who are here for some other reason, and choose Moonracer Farm not because of our beautiful location, but because they just want to learn more about Belize. Kristin and Frank from Oregon were this type of guest. They are spending a month in Belize to see if it is a place where they would like to retire in a couple of years or so. They rented an apartment in Belize City for the month, and have been taking trips all around the country to see what areas they like, and to talk to people, like us, who have made a similar move.

They took the bus from Belize City to Georgeville, where Tom met them. Unfortunately, they didn’t get off the bus at the bus stop where Tom was waiting, but at the intersection of the Western Highway and the Georgeville Road. Tom didn’t see them get off, and he sat at the bus stop for over an hour while they sat at the corner about 25 yards away for over an hour, all waiting for each other. Finally Tom decided to wander down the road, and found them. They came back to the farm, took a walk around the property, and we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening talking. We had dinner with Marjie and Chuck because Kristin and Frank are also considering a move to Equador, which was Marjie and Chuck’s second choice after Belize.

The next day they walked into San Antonio, which was a very long and hot walk. They enjoyed San Antonio, and said it reminded them of some of the small villages they visited in Equador, where they spent three months a couple of years ago.

On Saturday morning, they hung out here for a while, and then around lunchtime I took them into San Ignacio to poke around before catching a bus back to Belize City. We stopped at Angelika’s (our egg lady) because she and her husband are German, and Frank is a German who has lived in the US for about 25 years. I was shocked how much German I still understood as they talked, although I don’t think I’m comfortable enough to say anything in German anymore, even after years and years of German in high school and college. I think I’m actually more comfortable trying to speak Spanish at this point, which isn’t actually saying much.

Kristin and Frank and Tom and I talked a lot about why we love Belize, and about how Kristin and Frank thinks it compares to Equador. Right now, they’re not certain which place they like best, although since Kristin works as a consultant about how to handle garbage, we would love it if she would move to Belize since that is a huge problem here. She told us some things like how the biodegradable packing material really isn’t such a good idea in the closed US landfills since it just turns to methane, but here in Belize, with the open dumps, it could solve a huge garbage problem. They were glad to see that it’s possible to live a sustainable life here in Belize, and that Tom and I manage our lodge with a whole lot of reuse and “recycling” (although not the put it in the blue box and send it to the recycling center recycling), and without creating much waste that needs to be disposed of in a landfill. While we don’t tend to pat ourselves on the back and push how we work and live in other people’s faces, we were delighted that somebody actually noticed things like the yogurt stored in a reused jelly jar with “Yogurt” written on the lid in Sharpie, and that they thought the cooler full of Tupperware on the front porch was a good environmental statement, not an eyesore. While most people who stay with us seem to be environmentally aware, it was quite nice to have somebody actually looking at and commenting on the details – so thanks, Kristin and Frank, and we hope you at least consider Belize when you decide to make your move!

Uncle Don, Doreen, & Lorraine

Tom and I were absolutely thrilled to have the first member of the older generation of my family come to visit us in Belize. Tom’s parents were here the first January we lived in Belize, before we even opened the lodge, and we’ve had a number of friends and family members from our generation here, but my Uncle Don was the first of the older generation in my family to brave the wilds of Belize and visit us. He came with my cousins, Doreen and Lorraine, and while they were only here for five days, we packed in a full Belize vacation for them.

Their plane didn’t land until almost 4PM on Thursday, and they gave us a good scare because they let all the college students coming to Belize for summer internships off the plane first, and they waited so they were absolutely the last people off the plane. We have had guests who have missed a connection and not arrived on the plane we expected, so it wasn’t an unheard of thing that this could happen – but we were very relieved when they walked down the steps, across the tarmac, and into the terminal. We then expected to wait quite a while for them to get through immigration and customs, so we were very pleasantly surprised when they were among the first passengers out of the terminal. The secret to their quick exit? Carry-on bags and a trip through the duty-free shop for some tequila for me, which allowed them to bypass the normal customs line. Lesson learned – to bypass the long customs lines, buy tequila for Marge!

Because of how late it was, that day we just drove them back to Moonracer Farm after a quick stop at Brodie’s in Belize City to pick up necessities such as some cough drops for Uncle Don and some wine. We had a great dinner catching up, since we hadn’t seen Uncle Don since we stopped at his home in Delaware on our drive to Belize at the end of 2006, and we hadn’t seen Doreen and Lorraine since my mom’s funeral five years ago. I also had to figure out how to store the two dozen bagels they brought, which brought huge smiles to my and Tom’s faces because these are the best bagels in the world, and when Uncle Don used to visit us for golf weekends in NY, he always brought bagels. Of course it was a little easier to store them in my huge chest freezer in NY than it was here with our very small butane fridge/freezer combo, but between cramming as many as I could into the freezer and eating them whenever we wanted them over the next week, we managed to eat all of them while they were still at least almost fresh. The fact that Uncle Don’s, Doreen’s, and Lorraine’s bags all smelled like onion and garlic bagels was well worth it!

On Friday, we took them on a marathon tour of the Mountain Pine Ridge. We left here at 8:45AM and made it to the army base to meet the convoy a little before 9:30. Only two other vehicles went to Caracol that day, and they were at the Rio Frio Cave when we got there, so the soldiers told us to start up the road on our own. We made a stop at the Guacamaya bridge to look at the Macal River, and the rest of the convoy caught up to us there. We drove the rest of the way into Caracol and spent the morning touring the site. Only Lorraine and I climbed Ca’ana, and I kept having to tell Lorraine that it was only a couple of more steps, but when we made it to the top she found the view well worth the climb and was glad I had pushed her. We came down the front of the temple doing the five point crawl – 2 hands, 2 feet, 1 butt – and rejoined the other three to tour the rest of the site. While Tom and I aren’t guides and don’t even pretend to be, we were able to point out a few things like the cojones tree, so named for obvious reasons. [cojones.jpg]

At lunch, Lorraine shared a smoke with one of the soldiers, who then posed for a picture with Lorraine and his buddy so Lorraine could tell her kids she was arrested by the Army while in Belize. We told her the kids would probably figure out the soldiers were protecting her rather than arresting her, but it would have made a good story!

Although the convoy usually leaves Caracol at 2PM, we and the passengers from the other two vehicles were ready to go a little after 1PM, so the guides talked to the soldiers who said we could all leave if somebody would give them a ride. After talking to Lorraine, and because we had an open pickup where they could ride so they could flag down the ride coming back to pick them up, the soldiers jumped in our truck and we all headed back to the base. We felt well protected with two armed guards in the back of our pickup!

After dropping off the soldiers and signing out, we took the bumpy road down to Rio Frio Cave, which all three found very impressive. We then continued north and made the obligatory stop at Rio On Pools, although we didn’t swim and just took in the very impressive scenery from the picnic area. Then, we took the long and bumpy road past Hidden Valley Inn to Thousand Foot Falls, the highest waterfall in Central America.
Uncle Don, Doreen, and Lorrain (not to mention Tom and me) were all getting a little tired and had considered missing this stop, but the waterfall is so beautiful and impressive that we were all glad we went out of our way to see it.

After a dinner with Julio, Marjie, and Chuck, we all went to bed and got up the next morning to pack for a couple of days on Caye Caulker. We stopped at the Belize Zoo, where we saw all the animals and even went in the cages with Junior Buddy the Jaguar and Charlie and Hilario the Macaws. We had great pictures, which unfortunately disappeared with the stolen camera, and we were sadder about losing these pictures than we were about losing the camera itself. We went to lunch at Cheers after our Zoo stop, and then Tom drove the other four of us to the water taxi terminal in Belize City. We had arranged to have the Isuzu’s well child checkup at Bravo, so he drove the truck back to Bravo, followed by a taxi, and then the taxi brought him back to the water taxi terminal where he met up with us before we were even ready to board.

We arrived on Caye Caulker around 5PM, and Tom took off to find a golf cart to rent. We again discovered that Belize is very small, and the golf cart company is owned by the parents of friends of ours who live here in Cayo so we had a good talk with them when we went back after delivering everybody to the hotel to show them that Tom has a driving license, which was in my bag when he went to get the cart. We had booked rooms at Barefoot Beach for Uncle Don and the girls, and Tom and I intended to head down the beach to Ignacio’s Beach Cabanas. However, Susan was kind enough to upgrade Uncle Don’s room to a suite with two beds in separate rooms, plus a kitchen, so Tom and I bunked in with Uncle Don. We went out to dinner at the Rainbow Grill where we had delicious conch and snapper, and then crashed for the night.

Sunday was a very relaxing day. In the morning, Tom took us all on a golf cart tour of the island. It was fun, but Tom and Uncle Don, who were in the front seat under the canopy, forgot that Doreen, Lorraine, and I were out in the sun on the back seat. When he turned to head down a long road towards the back side of the caye, the three of us howled and asked that the tour be ended. At least we got some color to show for our time on the reef! We did a little bit of shopping, and then spent the rest of the afternoon on Barefoot Beach’s beautiful dock, drinking rum drinks, reading, chatting, and eating take-out pizza from Joe Habaneros. That night we went to the Sports Bar for dinner and trivia night, and while we didn’t make a very impressive showing – our dinners came at the same time the trivia contest started, and we were more interested in dinner! – we had a good time.

Monday morning Uncle Don and the girls had to take the puddle jumping Tropic Air flight back to the International Airport for their flight home. We said sad goodbyes, and told them to plan more trips to Belize, and promised to get to see them the next time we get to the Northeast. Tom and I spent the rest of the rainy Monday hanging out, distributing posters we’d promised people out there, and trying to relax, although neither of us is very good at just hanging out. On Tuesday we’d intended to take the 10AM water taxi back to Belize City, but we were up and ready to go on the 8:30 taxi, so we headed home.

Hanna & Chris

Hanna and Chris are Germans living in England, and their trip to Belize was their honeymoon, delayed by six months. They had a late afternoon flight into Belize after two days of traveling, so Tom picked them up and they came directly back to Moonracer Farm. I think they may have been a little overwhelmed their first night here, since they were exhausted from traveling and Kimberly, Jeremy, Tom and I were already well acquainted and quite comfortable with each other after spending a couple of days together. However, it didn’t take them long to join the party.

The next day they took the car and did the Mountain Pine Ridge tour on their own. They visited Big Rock and Five Sisters and then returned to take a small hike around our property and visit with the horses. Chris and Lodo seemed to enjoy talking with each other for a while.

The following day they did the ATM tour with Kimberly and Jeremy, and we all met for dinner at the South Indian Restaurant in San Ignacio.

At Caracol the Montezuma Orpendalas and their nests that look like baskets hanging from the trees are a sight to see.

They then took the day trip to Caracol, which they enjoyed although they went with a guide who hadn’t done the tour for a while, and didn’t know that we always promise a stop at Rio On Pools on the way home. They didn’t think to say anything to the guide until after they were past the Pools and heading back since they didn’t know where the Pools are, so when they arrived here the guide was very upset because he thought he’d made a mistake, even though Hanna and Chris weren’t really upset. And, it all worked out for the best because that day Tom and I had been talking about taking a picnic dinner up to Rio On the following day, but we weren’t sure if Hanna and Chris would want to go there again.

The following day they went to Ka’ax Tun in the morning and had lunch in 7 Miles. While they were there with Tom, I made a white vegetable lasagna, fresh bread, salad, and some cookies and packed that up with a bottle of wine and a bottle of champagne. When they got back here, they changed into swimsuits and we loaded up the car and headed up to Rio On Pools.

We spent a couple of hours climbing on the rocks and swimming in the pools, and just as the sun began to set we went to the overlook and unpacked still warm lasagna and bread and still cold wine and champagne and had a great dinner as we watched the sun set and the stars made their appearance. We hadn’t done this before, but all four of us really enjoyed the evening in such a beautiful location, and we’ll definitely do it again – and Chris and Hanna definitely thought it was great compensation for missing the stop at Rio On Pools on the way back from Caracol, especially since by the time we got there, we had the place to ourselves and they would have had to share it with the rest of the Caracol visitors the day before.

Hanna and Chris had a stay with a few transportation glitches, all of which worked out for the best for them for a change. They missed the stop at Rio On with their Caracol trip, but ended up there for dinner the next day. They weren’t sure how they were going to get back to the coast to head out to the cayes, and had been discussing whether they wanted Tom to take them back, or whether they would take the bus from San Ignacio. After Tom discussed the Rio On issue with Gonzo, Gonzo had asked if he could borrow our car to go to Belize City on the day Hanna and Chris were scheduled to leave, and we had responded that it depended on what Hanna and Chris decided to do. What they decided to do worked out for the best for everybody, and they left with Gonzo before 6AM the next day and he dropped them at the water taxi – so Gonzo had the use of the car and Chris and Hanna had a free transfer to Belize City. And even though we woke them up at 5:30AM when Gonzo arrived, they managed to get themselves ready and be on the road by 6:00, without forgetting anything!

Kimberly & Jeremy

Our next guests were Kimberly and Jeremy from Florida. We were a little nervous about them coming to stay with us out here in the jungle because Kimberly had warned us that she has a phobia about spiders. But, we didn’t have to worry because even though a few spiders did dare to show their little spider faces while she was here, Jeremy referred to all of them as crickets and Kimberly managed her fear with all of us laughing about it in the end.

Tom picked them up at the airport, and they started their Belize vacation with lunch at Cheers and a stop at the Belize Zoo. The next day they did the Ka’ax Tun tour in the morning (no spiders, I guess they were sleeping in, only crickets) and one of Janet’s famous lunches at Julio’s house. In the afternoon they took the car up to Big Rock and managed to get in a full afternoon of waterfall viewing and swimming.

The following day they went on the all-day tour of Tikal, and returned that evening for dinner with us and our newly arrived guests, Hanna and Chris. The next day Hanna and Chris wanted to rest – they’d flown in from England and were a bit jet-lagged – so Kimberly and Jeremy went with Tom on an all day horseback ride to Sapodilla Falls. Monday all four of them went to ATM with Gonzo, and we met them in town after the tour and all of us went to dinner at the South Indian Restaurant in San Ignacio.

We had a ton of fun eating and visiting with them, and because they love to cook and eat, we spent a lot of time doing just that, and talking about food. They love wine, and shared our distress that it’s difficult to get a good bottle of wine here for a reasonable price, and have promised to come back to visit, with wine! We can’t wait!

Lesley & Juan

We had a lovely visit with Lesley and Juan, honeymooners from Texas. Tom picked them up at the airport on a mid-morning flight, so they arrived here in the early afternoon. Not wanting to waste any time in Belize they drove up to Rio On Pools, which they would have missed otherwise since a Caracol trip wasn’t in their plans. The next day they went to ATM, and were impressed as everybody always is. The following day they took a morning Ka’ax Tun tour with lunch at Julio’s house. We had expected them to use the car again to spend some more time in the Mountain Pine Ridge, but since they had seen a good cross section of inland Belize, they decided instead to get a ride to Georgeville so they could catch the bus and head for the cayes and maybe get an extra dive in during their time there.

All of our local friends loved meeting Juan and Lesley, in part because Juan grew up in the Dominican Republic. Spanish is his first language, so our Spanish speaking friends here could converse comfortably with him, and he was truly appreciative of the local meals prepared for him by Belizean women so he could relive some of the tastes of his childhood, such as plantains. When he said what he really wanted to eat while he was here was plantains, I set out to get some for Janet to cook with their lunch on the day they visited Ka’ax Tun. Julio caught me before I set out for the market, and when I told him what I was going to get, he asked if I was planning to buy the green ones or the ripe ones. This shows why I don’t even try to cook the traditional Belizean dishes for our guests – I had no idea it even mattered! I asked Juan, who said he liked them all, and Janet said she could cook either, so when I went to the market I bought a whole bunch of plantains at all stages of ripeness. Juan reported that they were excellent as Janet prepared them – no surprise, since everybody loves Janet’s lunches!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Beware Caye Caulker Water Taxi Baggage Thieves

I just put the following post on The Belize Forums, and sent a copy to the BTB, BTIA, and a travel writer we know.

We're obviously upset by the loss of our camera, especially since it had pictures of Uncle Don, Doreen, and Lorraine with Junior Buddy the Jaguar at the Belize Zoo, but we're even more upset that nobody at the Water Taxi Association seems to care, even though they admit this happens frequently. We figure we need to get the word out that tourists should beware, and we know a lot of people read this blog.

As many of you know, my husband and I run a small lodge in Cayo. When our guests want to go to the cayes, we used to recommend that they take the Caye Caulker Water Taxi. That has ended.

We traveled to Caye Caulker with some relatives, one elderly, this weekend. Because we were trying to handle all of their baggage and get them comfortable on the taxi, we did something we usually wouldn't do and stuck our camera in a zipped compartment of our knapsack and checked it. When we got to Caye Caulker and went to take the relatives' picture on the dock, the camera was gone.

Okay, our bad decision for checking the bag with the camera when the signs warn against checking anything of value...but really, you don't expect the baggage handlers to be going through every bag looking for what they can take, but that's apparently what they do.

What made it worse was that when we returned yesterday (without the relatives) we talked to security at the water taxi terminal and asked if they could look at the security tapes for the times when we know our bag was in the baggage handling area. The first response was that the security director wasn't in, but if we came back 4 hours later they could probably do it. They probably thought we were tourists on our way to catch a plane and there wasn't a chance we would show up again. However, we had some errands to run in Belize City, so we did that and went back. This time they let us talk to the security director, Andy, who informed us that, in fact, he doesn't know how to view the apparently the security cameras are just for show.

We talked to the security director, the supervisor of the baggage area, and the porter who grabs your bags as soon as you appear at the curb, and told them that we weren't tourists who were just going to disappear. We told them that we would no longer be sending business their way. And, we informed them that if the only way our guests could get to the cayes was with them, they certainly wouldn't be checking baggage and the porter and baggage handlers could kiss their tips goodbye. They all protested and told us that the signs warn about checking anything of value and they put the signs up because they know this is a problem - which bothered us even more. If they know they're employing thieves, why don't they do something about it? I'm afraid the answer is that they don't really care, and figure that the tourists just flow through and there are never any consequences. However, perhaps if they know that there will be repercussions, maybe somebody will turn in the thieves to save their own jobs and tips and hopefully help the reputation of tourism in Belize.

Our recommendation now is to go with one of the other water taxi companies, or fly with Tropic Air or Maya Island Air. The flights are more expensive, but if you're going to lose a couple of hundred dollars worth of stuff, the tickets pay for themselves. And, if you have to go with CCWTA, under no circumstances should you let them touch your bags, even if they insist.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A few nature pictures

We have a couple of baby gibnuts that were born recently, but not sure exactly when. They are hard to get a picture of since they are so shy. This is one of the little guys peeking out of one of their homes.

And this morning a keel billed toucan landed on the haliconia just off our screened porch. He was eating the fruits from just under the flowers. He didn't really like having his picture taken and you can see that I caught him as he was hopping up to higher branch to take off. By the way, toucans are not very graceful fliers.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Catching Up

So far this year we’ve been so busy with guests that I’ve neglected to write about a lot of the other things going on around here. In spite of being very busy running our lodge, we’ve had some time to do other things and we continue to learn how to live here. Some of those learning experiences have been good, while some have been a little difficult.

Death, Belizean Style
One of the difficult experiences happened a few months ago when a friend’s 20-year old brother was killed in a motorcycle accident. We’ve had to bury loved ones in the US, and basically, once the person is dead, it’s out of your hands. You contact a funeral home, and all you have to do is show up at the funeral. Not so in Belize. I think it is possible to contact a funeral home type business to take care of everything for you, but it’s expensive, and most people can’t afford it. In this case, the body of the young man was transported from the site of the accident to the hospital in a private vehicle, not an ambulance. Then, the family had to pick up the body from the hospital morgue and get it to Belize City for the post mortem, then from there to an embalmer, then to the location of the wake, funeral service, and burial. Somewhere in there somebody has to go pick up the casket, preferably sooner rather than later so the body doesn’t need to be carted around wrapped in a sheet. There are some rules; for example, a police officer needs to ride with the body between the hospital morgue and the post mortem site, and the body isn’t released for burial until the post mortem is done.

How did we learn all the details of this process? The day after the accident, friends showed up at our house, explained what happened and what needed to be done, and asked to borrow our Isuzu pickup because they didn’t have a vehicle that they trusted to do all of this driving around. Of course we didn’t mind helping, and almost felt guilty because they were reassuring us that they were going to get the casket from Melchor before they picked up the body so the body wouldn’t just be riding in the pan of the truck. The whole town ended up knowing we helped by lending them our truck because our truck was what delivered the casket to the wake in the family’s home. The thing that made us even sadder than we already were because of the young man’s death was that after the funeral, we had many people stop by or stop us when they saw us out to tell us how generous we were to let them use our truck. These people had just lost their son, brother, friend, or whatever, and they thought we were doing something above and beyond what friends and neighbors do. We couldn’t imagine saying no to the request, and were actually somewhat honored that our friend was comfortable enough with us to come and make the request. We obviously don’t yet understand the dynamics of the relationships between expats and native Belizeans yet since we just consider ourselves part of the community, just like we considered ourselves everywhere else we’ve lived.

We’re now actually official voting members of the community. While Permanent Residents can’t vote in the country’s general elections, we can vote in the municipal elections. Municipal elections are held every three years, so the last one happened shortly after we moved here when we weren’t yet Permanent Residents. We became Permanent Residents the following year, but then had to wait two years for the next municipal elections. It was quite a different experience from voting in the US, although we found that people’s reasons for voting for their candidate in local elections are pretty much the same as what we were used to from rural Upstate New York.

The actual voting process is an event. Each party sets up a tent to serve full lunches to the voters and their families. People show up with all their kids, get some food from their party of choice, and have a big picnic lunch. There’s competition between the parties to see who serves the best food, and the women in the town spend days before the election preparing food for hundreds of people. The candidates and representatives from each party mingle with the crowd, doing last minute campaigning and making sure all the voters know how to cast their votes. Then, the voters get in line, and wait. In our case, for three hours, in the hot sun. Fortunately we had a golf umbrella in the car, so we were able to create a little shade for ourselves, and the party tents provided unlimited water, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but you definitely have to really want to vote to go through the discomfort of the line. While we waited, we were continually approached by party representatives, making promises about what they’d do for us if their party won. We think everybody knew how we were going to vote, because most of these promises came from the party that we weren’t voting for, and the party we were voting for left us alone except for a little social chit chat, basically not even election related. All of this happens despite the notices at the door of the election hall prohibiting campaigning within 100 meters of the building, and the number of police in the area supervising the line and the crowd in general. We just smiled politely and didn’t promise our votes to anybody, although the people in line with us made it very clear which way they were casting their votes, and that they thought everybody should do the same.

When we finally got to the end of the long line, we entered the actual polling place, which is four tables, a chalkboard, two elections officials, and a representative from each party. The elections officials sit at one table with the voting roster listing everybody who is eligible to vote in the town. We weren’t in the roster because this was our first time voting, so we took documentation to show that we were full time town residents, and our names were written in a little notebook to be added to the roster for the next election. As each person enters the polling place, s/he displays ID to the elections officials, who either look up the name to confirm it or add it to the notebook. The elections officials then announce the name, giving the two party representatives seated at another table a chance to dispute the person’s right to vote, which they frequently do. The party representatives and the election officials then discuss each case, and decide if the person gets to vote. While we were there, we saw a few of these disputes with two of them being us, but in all cases the person was allowed to vote. Once it’s determined that you can vote, one of the elections officials gives you two pieces of paper, one green for the town chairman candidate, and the other white so you can list your selections for the town council. You then dip your index finger into a jar of ink so you can be identified as having voted. Then you walk to a third table with two chairs and little privacy screens, which is facing a chalkboard with all of the candidates’ names and numbers listed. You write down your votes by name and or number, and then put your ballot in the appropriate box, one for the chairman and one for the council, on the fourth table. You’ve cast your vote.

After going through the actual voting process, we realized why we waited in line for three hours. We felt bad for the elections officials, because the voting was officially from 10AM to 3PM, but while they closed the line at 3PM, everybody who was in line was able to vote so the voting went on until almost 6PM. As soon as the last person voted, they started counting ballots, and knew who had won the election within about an hour since only about 250 votes were cast. The results of this election were interesting, because the party that won is not the party that is in control of the national government. Tom and I were a little surprised at some of the campaign promises being made, because the nationally governing party representatives were telling everybody that they needed to vote for them because if the opposition party (the incumbent, incidentally) got in again, the national government would do nothing to help the town. Those threats obviously didn’t work, probably because the incumbent was voted in for a fourth term, so people seem to be happy with his record despite the fact that he’s part of the opposition party; as with most small elections, it seems that people voted for the person, not for the party.

The Dry Season, Again
It’s the hot and dry season here again. Temps most days are in the high 90s or low 100s, but the humidity is very low, and we almost always have a breeze. As long as you don’t try to move too fast, it’s actually pretty pleasant, at least for me, although Tom might disagree. But I say that’s because he just doesn’t slow down enough!

A few things make me love this time of year – one is mangoes, which are just coming into season and while they’re still expensive by Belize standards ($.75US/mango), they’re available in the market. Our trees get ripe late, so we won’t be picking mangoes from the property for another month and a half or so, but we can get them. I’ve also seen a few avocados at the market, but they’re not very good yet, although they’ll be fine and readily available in another couple of weeks. The other totally random thing I love about this time of year is that when I do laundry, I can hang it on the line outside, and between the heat, dryness, and breeze, it’s usually dry within an hour – less time than it would take if I put it in the dryer! This is also the time of year when the clay colored robins sing, and while I wish they’d wait at least until sunrise (5:30AM or so), their song is so beautiful that it’s worth waking up to hear it. They also sing into the dusk, and I get great pleasure sitting on our porch in the evening and listening to them, the laughing falcons, and the cicadas. Pure heaven!

One of the things I don’t like about this time of year is that our water supply becomes intermittent, at best. We’ve again pulled the 200 gallon tanks off the hill so we can put them in Tinkerbell and go somewhere else to get water. With our lack of water, our gardens are dying since we’re not going to water flowers when we and the animals need the water to live. Because we’ve had more guests this year, we bought two additional 1000 gallon tanks, so every time we get water we’re able to store 4400 gallons, which keeps us going for at least a couple of weeks, depending on how many guests we have. And, we explain our water situation to our guests, and they’ve all been understanding and very conservative, which we really appreciate. I also don’t like it that everything turns brown; it’s almost like November in NY, but without the spectacular display of colors before the trees lose their leaves.

However, most trees still have a few leaves so there’s some green, and many of the flowering trees, including the spectacular Cortes trees, flower at this time of year, which is almost as good as the fall foliage. And, after the first rain in a few weeks, the jungle will get magically green again almost overnight, and it will feel like spring! It’s a good thing that first rain gives us the green back, because it will also bring the plague of the winged termites, which come out of the ground and crawl through all the cracks in the house, depositing their wings everywhere. I even find the good in them though, because I’m using them as an excuse not to do any excessive cleaning in the next couple of weeks since I know I’ll have to pull everything apart to get rid of the wings, so I can put off that task and remain guilt free!

Belize Bird Rescue
A couple of months ago we donated some more cage material to Belize Bird Rescue and the monkey rescue program. Some of the monkeys are ready for release, and they need a pre-release enclosure where they are somewhat protected but can start to fend for themselves. Our cage material will be used for this pre-release enclosure.

We were happy to donate since Belize Bird Rescue does so much for the wild birds of Belize, as well as for animals in general and the conservation efforts here – and having Nikki and her helpers come to pick up the cage material gave us a good excuse to visit!