Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas - 2011

Merry Christmas to everyone. We had a nice day, we even got out for a relaxing walk in the jungle. Our present was this "little" critter this evening in the dining room (shown next to Marge's foot).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Christmas Xate

While we have lots of pines in the Mountain Pine Ridge, none of them are Christmas tree calibre. So, we decided to decorate one of our local palms, the Xate, along with a black orchid (the Belize national flower) and a dead stick. This is the result...which we like! Our friends Erik and Rhea understand the icicles on a palm picture, but for the rest of us, it's just pretty! And we've kept the horse theme going from our life it the US.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Ponies have a Barn!

We finished our barn project in record time...less than 2 weeks from start to finish! A week ago Monday, Tom and Julio started harvesting trees and digging the holes to plant the corner posts and put up the framework. By the end of the week, they were harvesting the cohune leaf for the roof, and on Saturday we had a barnraising party with all of Julio's family and a bunch of friends from 7 Miles.

The men and boys went up on the roof framework to tie on the thatch, and the women stayed on the ground to pass the palm fronds up to the men.

Even Odaly was hauling the leaves up, and this isn't as easy as it looks. The palm is heavier than you would expect since it's not dry, and climbing up and down the ladder with an unwieldy weight isn't easy. I ended up having to put down the camera and my cooking utensils and doing this job on Monday, and I have to admit I was a little bit sore the next day.

Most of the job was done on Saturday, and by Monday lunchtime Julio and Angel were tying down the roof cap. We cheated a little and used some old zinc roofing we had taken from one of the cabins because it leaked, but we didn't think the horses would mind that their roof isn't totally authentic.

On Tuesday Tom and Julio turned the barn into four stalls with feed bowls installed on stumps in the four outside corners...and on Tuesday afternoon, the horses had their first dinner in their new home.

The individual horses haven't taken to the barn (or not taken to it, as the case may be) as I would have expected. Nessa, the oldest of the four and the mother of Elphie and Lodo, wants nothing to do with it. She won't even go in a stall. This doesn't surprise us because we know Ness doesn't like change, but it does surprise us because she's one of those horses who just likes to keep herself clean, and we thought that giving her a place to get out of the rain or sun would have made her happy. Glinda, who is basically a feral pony and who always likes to be in charge of the other horses, doesn't go into a stall on her own, but once there she's pretty happy to just chill in her own space. Elphie and Lodo, neither of whom has ever seen a barn, think it's the coolest thing ever, and we'll look out during the day and see them standing in or around the barn even when they could be out grazing with Glin and Ness. We expected them to be the ones that wanted nothing to do with it, and they both seem to like it. This isn't the first time we've guessed wrong about our horses' reactions to things, and, in fact, I think I'm almost always wrong so I don't know why I thought this time would be any different.

Cooking with Wood

I've been using the firehearth quite a bit for the past few weeks, and am finding that, as warned, I love it. Part of me loves it because I'm cheap and butane is very expensive here, and my gas range has been getting a lot less use. Wood is free; we live in the jungle.

Part of me loves it because it's a little bit of a challenge to learn to cook with wood. First, I have to figure out how to make a fire, and make it the heat I want. I'm learning things like sometimes the best way to make a fire a little bit cooler is to add another stick of wood. It's somewhat counterintuitive, but it works. I'm also learning to have a little bit of patience, which goes against my natural tendencies. I can't just twist a knob and make the stove hotter and make whatever I'm cooking get done faster. Instead, I have to fiddle with the fire to make it hotter or cooler, and then wait while the heat of the comal adjusts. This usually involves shuffling around whatever I happen to be cooking so that the stuff that should cook quicker is over a hotter part of the fire, and the stuff that should cook slower is over a cooler part. All of this works, but none of it is instantaneous. And, I'm learning that lots of stuff just cooks better over wood heat for some reason, and that even though I feel a little out of control and can't make the instant adjustments I want to make, the results are worth the wait.

I also like it for a few random reasons. For example, I almost always leave my tea kettle on the comal, so whenever I want a cup of tea, the water is already hot and I don't have to wait for it to boil. [I know, we're back at that patience issue.] I also love cooking scrambled eggs on it; they're almost creamy when they're cooked over the slow even heat. And, I like the smell of the woodsmoke. I think it makes me remember all the camping trips I've been on, throughout my life, where I always thought that food tasted better when you were camping because you were so hungry from being active all day. Now, I know that food really does taste better when cooked over a wood fire. And, while I sort of hate to admit it, I like to play with fire.

Speaking of wood fires, we're still working on the wood fired clay oven. We're using local clay, and adding it layer by layer, and it takes forever to dry and it cracks. Then we add another layer to the top, wait for it to crack and dry, and then add another. Julio tells me we're almost at the stage where we can test it out...and then I'll see what I like about baking in a wood fired clay oven as compared to my traditional oven!

I've been surprised how many people have stopped by just to see the firehearth. It's become a tourist attraction in itself. Even better, we had one of our native Belizean neighbors stop over to see what kind of rocks and clay we used, and to ask where we got the rocks and the white mal. Tom told him, and asked why he wanted to know. The answer: his wife now wants a firehearth just like mine!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Living with the Maya

We just found this yesterday in the ankle deep mud of one of our horse paddocks. [Note to NY friends: the mud here actually has a bottom!] Even though we fairly frequently find random artifacts, it's still a thrill to find something this well preserved, that you know has been lying just underground for possibly up to 1000 years.

We've heard differing opinions as to what it is. It looks like a spearhead, but it could also be some sort of farming implement. I asked a archeologist friend, and he said they just call them "bifaces," because they can't agree on what they are either.

As to the ethics of picking it up, washing it off, and bringing it in the house - we just figure that it isn't doing anybody any good lying in the mud, probably eventually to be broken when a horse steps on it as it's balanced over a rock or hard root. We understand that all artifacts are the property of Belize, and we would never try to sell it or somehow benefit from finding it. And, they're all over the place anyway. We found this yesterday, and today as I was picking up dropped avocados from under the tree, I found the butt end of a similar artifact, broken about halfway up. And we weren't even looking for either of these finds!

The 2011 project

It seems like every fall when things are quiet around here, we build something.  This year, after letting the horses run like wild things for four and a half years, the project is a small stable.  We're using the same basic design as we did for the first palapa and the kitchen/dining room palapa, but it's much smaller - just enough room for four small stalls for our four small horses.  In the US, with our big thoroughbreds and saddlebreds, I never would have considered such small stalls, but here, with the horses being ponies who live outside 99% of the time, the small stalls will be fine for bringing them in to eat, leaving them overnight if we want them to be clean in the morning, or containing one who gets hurt...although fortunately that doesn't happen much around here.  We're building the stable inside one of the pastures, so we will most likely just leave them in that pasture at night and leave the stall doors open so they can decide if they want to go in and get out of the weather...and we'll try not to let it hurt our feelings when they choose to stand outside in the rain and the mud.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The new firehearth and oven, continued

We (well, Julio) have now started building the clay oven, and I've cooked on the firehearth. The pictures tell the story.

Julio making the mold for the clay oven.

Julio mixing the clay for the clay oven. We dug the clay out
of a pit in the nearby village of 7 Miles.

Julio applying the first layer of clay.

First layer of clay on the frame. Julio wants to add another
 layer of clay, and make the mouth of the oven perfectly
 square and flat so we can block it to keep the heat in
when baking.

The lizards aren't part of the construction. They were there
 because we were digging through the pile of wood seen
 behind the oven, and we disturbed some snakes which were
looking for a snack, and these lizards didn't want to be
that snack.

First fire! Boiling a pot of water. Very exciting.

First stew cooking on the comal. It was yummy!

First attempt at baking bread. I put the hot coals on top of
the comal, put the bread in, and blocked the door. Unfortunately
 the oven wasn't hot enough and the top of the bread cooked but
 the bottom didn't, so the gibnuts had mushy bread for
breakfast today. I use the palm broom, made with green leaves
from the give-and-take tree, to sweep the hot ashes out
 of the inside before putting the bread in the "oven."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Building a firehearth

Firehearths have been used here in Central America at least since the time of the Maya and are still used in various forms throughout this region. Many of our neighbors have them but they usually build them in 55 gallon drums or up on a stand (table) made from very strong lumber.

Marge, Julio, Lea, and Ian behind the finished firehearth, front side.

The firehearth, or fogon, is made from specific local rocks and white mal (limestone clay). There is usually a U shaped area where the fire is lit and the coals rest for the cooking. A grate or flat piece of steel (the comal or plancha) is then placed over top to use as the cooking surface like a combination of a stove top and griddle; perfect for putting pots for cooking wherever the heat is best for cooking, or to lay flat tortillas – easy to place on and pull off the flat surface with no need for other cooking pans.

As the fire burns, the rocks around and beneath the fire get hot so you can get a more even heat as you take the fire out from under the comal. You can also clean out the entire area under the comal after everything is good and hot, put the fire on top of the comal, and use the inside area as an oven.

As Marge and some of the local women use the firehearth (and, yes, that is Marge, not ME – way too complicated of a way to cook for my very limited cooking abilities) we will post pictures on how the firehearth is used. At this point I will show how we built the hearth.

Steps to building a local firehearth:

1. Locate a local person that knows how to build a firehearth.
The tour guide that we use most often for our guests is Gonzo. His family has a kitchen where they feed tourists after they do the tour of Chechem Ha Cave. We have been there a number of times and are friends with Gonzo’s mother Lea. We have eaten lunch there and have loved the flavor of the food. Marge, always looking at how food is prepared, saw Lea’s firehearth a few years ago and loved the idea of cooking over a wood fire. Over the years, as we have visited, Marge has talked with Lea and Lea agreed to help us make our firehearth when we were ready.

2. Decide on the design of your firehearth and get a list of materials to prepare for construction.
Marge, Julio, Chuck (our neighbor who would like to make a fire hearth too) and I took a trip to Chechem Ha to look at Lea’s kitchen. We all talked about the size of the cooking area, height of the stove and fire areas, wind directions for the smoke, how to use the stove and oven areas, etc. We then discussed the materials for building what we designed in our heads and Lea told us that all we needed was a lot of a special kind of rock and a specific kind of mal (local limestone-based dirt). That was it!

3. Collect up the rock.
The rock specific for the firehearth is not a solid limestone like what we have in our area. There is a lighter, softer, looks-almost-porous, limestone that can be found in many areas throughout the country. Chechem Ha has a lot around their place but Julio knew that where his family lived in La Gracia had a lot of this type of rock as well, and is a bit closer. So we drove to La Gracia and picked up 4 little pickup loads of rock, driving up the rough Georgeville Road very carefully each time so we didn’t break the truck. Our bonus was we got to visit with some of his family members and have lunch with them a couple of times during this process.

4. Collect up the mal.
We don’t have the special mal that is used for the plastering around here either so when we decided on the day to begin construction, we went to pick up Lea and collect the mal at the in the same trip. There are a couple of embankments alongside the Benque Road going south towards Chechem Ha that have veins of the this material where local people go to collect up bags of it. Julio, Ian (a friend that lives here in Belize part of the year) and I picked up Lea then she showed us the best material to collect for the plastering of the firehearth.

5. Construct with the materials you have.
Some of the rocks have flat sides; some we found that way, some we cut straight using a machete and a small hand maul. We also smoothed some of the sides of the rocks after they were in place using the machete.
Four little pickup trucks of stone to start.

Lea and Julio shaping the first rocks

Lea and Tom placing the first rocks

Base filled, Lea mixing "cement" from natural limestone and some
 cement to secure the rocks.

Julio and Lea building it to height and placing the rocks
 for the fire ring. The comal that goes on top of the fire ring is behind Julio.
Comal in place, opening for the fire on the far side. Lea and
Tom are planning the platform for the oven.

Lea leveling the fill in the oven platform. Ian waiting for instructions.

Lea leveling a higher level and explaining next steps.

Lea sealing the cracks with more cement.

Oven platform to the left, stove to the right.
Oven platform ready for plaster.

Lea plastering, Marge mixing plaster.

Tom, happy to see that we are making great progress.

Oven platform plastered. Tom cleaning Lea's face because the
plaster splatters when she throws it on the wall, and she can't
wipe it off because her hands are covered with wet plaster.

Ian, Marge, Julio, and Lea all working on final plastering.

Lea putting on the finishing touches.

Lea doing the finishing touches, assisted by Ian mixing
and passing the plaster.

Tom, Marge, Julio, and Lea behind the finished fireheart, backside.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

New Life for Tinkerbell

Today was a good day/sad day. First the good – we finished the firehearth for the kitchen (to be in the next blog update). The sad – we said goodbye to Tinkerbell.

For those of you who have not followed our blog from the start, Tinkerbell was the 1991 Ford F250 that we drove from NY to here hauling all of our worldly possessions. She was a great work horse after we got here as well, lumbering over our very bad road with load after load of construction materials and supplies.

We had not renewed the registration nor the insurance for her this year since we were using her so little. In the beginning of August, a local craftsman, Oscar, that makes wood carvings stopped by wondering if we were interested in buying any figures from him. He saw Tinkerbell sitting in the side driveway and asked Julio, “is this truck for sale? I am looking for a truck to haul my carvings around.” We were thinking about selling her before she rotted away too much (or broke on the bad road) so we decided she needed a new life.

From her first days, she hauled 5th wheel trailers from NY to FL for the winter; her 2nd life was with us, making a new life in Belize; her 3rd life, will be hauling artwork around Belize. For us, the recycling of used things here in Belize can’t be beat!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Bid on a Moonracer Farm gift certificate for VT hurricane relief!

As many of you know, Tom and I have lots of friends and family in Vermont, which was recently devastated by Hurricane Irene. Because we just want to help, and because we appreciate the irony of Hurricane Belt Caribbean residents helping with hurricane relief in New England, we're offering Moonracer Farm gift certificates as auction items to two organizations we like in Vermont, the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) and the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA) - VT. You can bid online from anywhere for the NOFA gift certificate on their auction site. GMHA said they'll be putting the auction online, but we haven't seen it yet. In any case, their website is If you're interested in coming to Belize, this could be a great way to do it - you'll be helping a good cause, and you can write off the expense!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto...

I was driving home up the Georgeville Road the other day, chatting with Juana, a woman I picked up with her groceries in Georgeville, and who we frequently give rides to so she can get in and out of the bus-free Georgeville/Chiquibul/Mountain Pine Ridge Road. We saw a guy pushing a bicycle up the hill near the dump, and I asked if we should pick him up. Juana shrugged and said, “See if he needs a ride,” so I slowed down next to him and asked if he wanted to put his bike in the back of the truck and catch a ride. He looked a little puzzled, and said he was only going to the Barton Creek Outpost, and it wasn’t that much further, right? Juana and I looked at each other and in unison said, “You’ve got another four miles on this road, and then another three or four miles from the turnoff.” The guy looked a little surprised, and said that people had told him it was only five miles up the Georgeville Road. Juana and I looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and told him to put his bike in the back of the truck and hop in. He did.

Juana and I continued our chatting until Mile 3, where I dropped Juana and her groceries. We give her rides often enough that when I checked to make sure she had everything she’d put in the back seat, she told me not to worry about it and that if she forgot anything, I could just give it to her next time I saw her. As she got out, she gestured with her head for the guy in the back of the truck to get in the passenger seat she had just vacated. He looked a bit puzzled, and she barked, “We’re at Mile 3. You have a way to go. Get in!” He did.

He and I told each other our names, and he explained that he was from Germany, and on his gap year adventure before he started university. He had flown into Cancun with his bike, and was planning on biking through Central America and into South America, and seeing how far he could get in six to nine months. He had made it from Cancun to San Ignacio in five days, but then his bike broke down and he was probably going to have to order parts from the US, so he was looking for an inexpensive place to stay and had found the Barton Creek Outpost. Since it was “just” five miles up the Georgeville Road, it sounded ideal. I told him that it was a little further than that, but that I could get him at least part of the way there.

You have to understand that the Georgeville Road is in abysmal condition right now. You can’t drive more than about 10mph on it, or parts of your vehicle will start to fall off. Our truck just spent a week at the dealer having the bed welded on, since it was very loud and about to detach. People who live in 7 Miles and only have cars, not trucks, are not able to get their vehicles out to the Western Highway. It’s bad enough that I had to double check with this guy that he was pushing his bike because it was broken, not because the road was so bad that he couldn’t ride. It’s bad.

We chatted as we bounced up the road, and finally reached the Barton Creek turnoff at Mile 5. At this point, I told him that I would drive him as far as the creek, but if the creek was too high from rains in the Mountain Pine Ridge, he was going to have to do the last little bit on his own. He gave me a funny look, but shrugged and agreed. As we drove through Barton Creek, we saw a number of Mennonites, all dressed in their traditional clothing and going about their business. Joe asked if this was normal for Belize, and I shrugged and said that Belize is a pretty free thinking country, and if people want to come here, do their own thing, and live like it’s the 1800’s, that’s their choice. He lapsed into silence and looked at the scenery.

The three miles or so to the creek took a while on the unpaved, one-lane road. When we got to the creek, I stopped and took a look. Despite the rain I’d encountered on the Western Highway on my way home, the creek wasn’t too high, so I told Joe to hang on and I’d take him to the Outpost. As the tires splashed into the creek, he gave me a somewhat panicked look. “What?” I said. “You didn’t think we really had to drive through a creek?” “Um, no, I didn’t really understand what you were talking about,” he said. “I guess this isn’t really what the normal tourists see?” I chuckled. “No,” I said, “we’re just a little off the beaten path.”

As we continued down the track between the creek and the Outpost, he was looking decidedly more nervous. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m really not abducting you and taking you into the deep dark jungle for nefarious purposes.” He gave me a look like he didn’t quite believe me, but at about that time the sign for the Barton Creek Outpost came into view. “See?” I said. “We’re there.”

We pulled in, and Logan, Jim and Jacqueline’s son, greeted us. I told him that I’d brought a camper to them, and asked if his parents were home. They were. Jim took Joe to check him in and give him the Barton Creek Outpost orientation, and Jackie and I took off to catch up on everything since the last time we’d seen each other – which was quite a lot, since we’re both somewhat reclusive. We talked a blue streak for an hour or so, and then, having finished my cup of tea, I needed to get home and Jackie needed to get on with her day. We left Joe reading in the hammock in the camping cabana, with the bike chained underneath, and “good luck” wishes all around.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Moonracer Farm, Guatemala, and Caye Caulker with Margaret

Tom and I spent last week being tourists as we enjoyed a visit from our friend Margaret, who lives in Virginia. She flew in on Saturday, and we picked her up at the airport and headed to Cheers for lunch. We had thought about doing something on the way between the airport and home, but we were dealing with some vehicle issues so we decided to come home and get that worked out so we could enjoy the rest of the week and act alike real tourists…

…which we did, starting on Sunday morning with a trip to Ka’ax Tun. Julio served as our guide, and we walked, crawled, scrambled, and climbed through the rocks.

We showed Margaret Maya artifacts, climbed through caves and holes in the rocks, hiked along the edges of ravines, and generally worked up an appetite for the delicious burrito lunch Janeth served us when we came out of the jungle.

On Monday morning, we left for Guatemala. Tom and I had originally thought about trying to do it like our guests on a budget like to do, but we decided that since we live here, it wouldn’t cost us any more to drive ourselves in our personal vehicle, and it would be much cooler, quicker, and more convenient than taking the buses. The three of us crossed the border together, then Margaret and I strolled into Melchor to do a little pre-vacation shopping while Tom got the car across the border. I’d left home with only the shoes on my feet, so of course I had to buy a couple more pairs of shoes. I also wanted to pick up a couple of more bras in a style I’d found there that I liked, so I went back to the store where I’d purchased the first couple and started looking through the pile. The store attendant approached and asked if he could help, and I told him I’d purchased a couple of bras a few weeks ago, and was looking to see if they had any more. He immediately reached into the pile, said “This is what you bought, what size?” and handed completely flabbergasted me a few more in the correct size when I answered. Margaret was still tuning in her Spanish ears and hadn’t followed the whole exchange, but when I completed the purchase and explained what had just happened, we were both laughing. I guess they don’t get too many gringas buying underwear off the street, so they remember what we buy!

Tom got the car across the border and came to pick us up, and we headed into La Maquina for lunch at the restaurant owned by the mother of the guide we usually send with our guests to Tikal. We’d warned Margaret that we didn’t really expect fine dining in Guatemala, but we ordered three different things and all were delicious, exceeding our expectations. We were then back on the road and heading for Tikal, and we made the rest of the trip without incident. We checked in to the Tikal Jungle Lodge, and then spent a couple of very pleasant hours at the pool, swimming, reading, and being thoroughly entertained by a young man who was doing an exceedingly good job of amusing himself in the pool. The Jungle Lodge serves dinner from 7 to 9, and because we had to be up at 3:30AM (yes, 3:30 like in the middle of the night) in order to meet the ranger who would take us to Temple IV to see the sunrise, we were there at 7PM sharp and had another good meal, which really surprised us since the food there hadn’t been much more than mediocre the last time we were there.

We set the alarm for 3:30AM, and when it went off we managed to dress ourselves and get out the door to meet the ranger. We were with another family of the parents and their teenaged son, and the six of us followed the ranger through the very dark park, listening to the howler monkeys and other nighttime jungle noises. The ranger got us to the top of Temple IV, and left just as other groups were arriving.

We watched the sun rise, and this time actually got to see a sunrise.

Even though we live in the jungle, and even though we had done this before, it was still an amazing experience to see the sun come up, hear the jungle waking, and watch the temples appear through the mist as it gets light and the mist burns away. And, when it got light, we realized that the family we’d hiked with in the dark was the family with the very entertaining teenaged son, who turned out to be a 16-year old Colombian named David with two very nice parents.

When the sun was fully up, we spent the rest of the morning wandering through the park and seeing the rest of the site. Tom and I had only ever been there on guided tours before, so this time we saw a few things we hadn’t seen because they’re not on the guides’ track.

We saw some wildlife, including an orange breasted falcon, some coatis, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, a couple of trogans, and a few different hawks. It was a beautiful morning and it would have been a nice walk even if we weren’t in a park full of Maya ruins and amazing wildlife!

We got back to the room, got packed, and got on the road to Flores. We stopped in El Remate at a roadside stand for another good meal, although after skipping breakfast we probably would have been happy even if it was barely edible. We then stopped at the new Mundo Maya mall outside of Flores, which all of our friends and neighbors here who have been said we had to do. Unfortunately, coming from the US, it wasn’t quite as impressive to us as it was to them, although I did manage to find a pair of trainers, which I hadn’t been able to do in Belize – which brought me up to four pairs of shoes for the trip!

We pulled into the island town of Flores in the midafternoon, just as thunder was starting to rumble in the distance. Tom and I had put together a list of potential places to stay, but we had no idea how to find any of them in Flores.

And, the streets in Flores are very narrow and all one way, so we decided to park the car and find a place to stay on foot. We popped in and out of a few hotels, checking on prices and accommodations, and had narrowed the list down. We made it down to the waterfront on the west side of the island, when the distant rumbling thunder suddenly became a little more insistent, and we realized that we were about to get wet. We looked up, and the last hotel on our list was right in front of us, so we went in, and found that it was the nicest and least expensive place we had looked at, right on the lake with a balcony perfect for watching the sunset, and all for just fifty quetzals (about $8US) per person for a room with a private bath and a double and a single bed – perfect for the three of us! We checked in, waited for the rain to slow, and then ran back to move the car so we didn’t have to carry our bags so far. We got unpacked, and by then the rain had stopped, so we went out to wander around the very quaint and scenic town. Tom and I needed a few things for the lodge, so we were in and out of the little shops bargaining and pricing things like tablecloths and chair hammocks. Fortunately Margaret is a seamstress, and she grew up with our dining room table, so she was able to ensure that we got a tablecloth that fit. We also found the perfect chair hammock for our dining room, so we were quite pleased with ourselves since we bargained everything we bought down 25 to 30% from the original prices we were quoted.

We stopped for a drink on the waterfront on the way back to the hotel, and then stopped on the street – I think with everybody else in town – to watch the amazing sunset. We had another excellent dinner at an Italian restaurant right next to the hotel, where we were able to not only watch as the light completely disappeared, but also watch the restaurant’s resident cat drink from a shotglass at the bar. And, we had mojitos for 2 for 1 when the price was already low by our usual standards, so we were happy.

Having started the day at 3:30AM, we were in bed early, so we were up early the next day. After a quick breakfast in Flores – also good, but lacking a few things like tea and cream or milk for coffee – we hit the road and started back to Belize for the second leg of our trip. We got checked out of Guatemala and back into Belize without any problems, and stopped in Benque to give our friend Ian the Kindle that Margaret had kindly transported down for him. We found that he was just about to head into Guatemala to meet his son Alex, so we were glad to have caught him. We then headed to Cheers for lunch (yes, that seems to be turning into our place to eat on the Western Highway!) and on to Bravo, where we were leaving the car for its well child checkup while we vacationed on Caye Caulker. Bravo transported us to the water taxi, and we were on our way to the surf side of our vacation.

We had an uneventful ride out to Caye Caulker, and dragged our stuff down the beach to Ignacio’s Beach Cabins, a very basic but also very inexpensive place to stay that is perfectly adequate for people who aren’t spending much time in the room. We stayed in their “suite,” which is really just a larger cabin than the others that has a futon and some other furniture in a sitting room in addition to the bed – as well as a TV (which we didn’t use) and a small fridge, which was great for keeping ice and cold drinks. We hadn’t been out there in over a year, so we caught up with Reuben, and then headed into town to set up a snorkeling tour for the next day.

We bought our cocktail supplies on the way back, and had our own happy hour before heading off to the Sports Bar for dinner and Wednesday night trivia – which we won! We were QUITE pleased with ourselves about that! After the trivia, the guy who runs the contest sat down with us to see where we were from, and we started talking. We asked where he was from, and he said Quebec. We asked if he was from Montreal, and he said no, a small town outside of Montreal. We said the only small town we knew of outside of Montreal was Sutton, where we would go with our friends Del and Vicky to ski and to visit Del’s mother, since he grew up in Sutton. The guy’s eyes got really big, and he asked if we were serious. We said we were, and he started giving us a little quiz to see if we’d really been there. When we passed, he asked us who our friend was and where she lived, and it turns out that he grew up in Sutton and knows Del’s family. They weren’t best buddies or anything, but still…it’s a small, small world.

The next day we went snorkeling with Tsunami tours. Margaret had never been snorkeling, so she was a little apprehensive, but Tom and I assured her that once she started looking at the world under the water she’d forget to be nervous, and the Tsunami crew was great and fixed her up with a life jacket so she didn’t even have to worry about swimming.

We snorkeled Hol Chan, which is always amazing, stopped at Shark Ray Alley to see the sharks and the rays, as well as some turtles, stopped and watched a manatee, and then snorkeled in the Coral Gardens.

We saw a ton of cool fish and enjoyed conversation with some of the other tourists on the boat. We forgot to put on a second coating of sunscreen after being in the water so Margaret ended up with a pretty bad sunburn, and I burned enough to peel, but other than that it was a totally enjoyable day and Margaret agreed that once your face is in the water, you forget the anxiety and just enjoy looking at things you don’t think of as existing outside of aquariums and books. That night we experienced dinner at Wish Willy’s, which a number of our guests had said was a “must try” – and we agree! It’s at the end of a back street, and you eat at some picnic tables set up in a guy’s yard. Dinner is $18BZ for whatever you get, including drinks. You have choices – chicken, fish, lobster, and whatever else he feels like cooking – and all meals come with rice and sautéed veggies, which were very tasty. We had barbequed lobster tails, and while the Caribbean lobsters are smaller than the Maine ones we always at in the US, dinner included two tails each with a really yummy homemade barbeque sauce. It was pouring rain the next night so we didn’t want to walk all the way to the other end of the island again, but Wish Willy’s is definitely on our list of places to eat the next time we head to Caye Caulker.

We’d planned to take the water taxi to San Pedro to show Margaret what Belize is to a lot of people, but after a whole week of lots of physical activity and a day of too much sun on the water, none of us were moving too quickly on Friday morning. Tom and I headed off to the bakery to pick up our traditional Caye Caulker breakfast of ham/cheese/jalapeno pastries and cinnamon rolls, and left Margaret to make the coffee (the other nice thing about the suite was the coffee maker with supplies!).

When we got back, Margaret didn’t feel much like eating, or like going to San Pedro, so we spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon sitting on the cabin’s waterfront deck reading, talking to Reuben, and enjoying the quiet of the south end of the island. We wandered up to the Happy Lobster for ceviche for lunch, and then continued to relax away the rest of the afternoon on the deck. At some point Reuben appeared to inform us that a tropical storm was headed for Belize and that we might want to change our plans for diving on Saturday after seeing Margaret off to the airport, and although we’d checked the news online and seen the weather reports, it was hard to get too wound up about it as we lazed in the sun, looking at the placid Caribbean Sea. However, when we started to think about heading out for dinner around 8PM, we realized that the wind was picking up and we could see lightning and hear thunder coming from the east, and by the time we started out for dinner it was really starting to rain. We went to Rose’s, mostly because it’s at the south end of town and it was raining, and had a lovely and delicious, although expensive by Belize standards, dinner of various seafood entrees, which we shared.

We waited for a break between showers to scurry back to the cabin, and Margaret, who had already purchased a ticket to fly from Caye Caulker to the International Airport at 10:10 the next morning for her 1PM flight, got packed. I was still being a hopeful nincompoop and thinking that maybe the storm would fizzle and we could dive anyway, so I wouldn’t pack…although I then spent a mostly sleepless night, feeling the cabin tremble on its 10-foot legs every time the thunder rumbled or a gust of wind hit it, wondering if it would take any more than a tropical storm force wind to knock the thing off its legs. By morning I had decided that we probably should pack up and head home, and when we watched the Weather Channel in the restaurant while we ate breakfast and they said that the storm had been named Harvey and was heading for Belize, that was definite. The decision was confirmed as we walked back to the cabin along the beach and saw all of the residents pulling their boats onto the beach – and frequently into the streets – and boarding up their windows. We figured that if the residents thought it was worth expending the energy to prepare for a storm, it was probably a good idea for us to get out of their way.

At around 9:30, there was a break in the rain so we grabbed Margaret’s stuff and headed for the airport, which is just a short walk on a path through the mangroves from Ignacio’s. We got there and found that people were still waiting for the 9:10 flight, which was delayed because Tropic Air was about to shut down and was trying to get people off of Ambergris Caye, and they were getting all of those planes filled before heading to Caye Caulker. We tried to get Margaret onto that flight, but it was full, so we then settled in to wait for the 10:10 flight, which was also about an hour late between diversions to where more people needed to be picked up, and being grounded due to gales sweeping through. It was a somewhat tense hour because the guy at the Tropic Air desk was on the phone talking about how soon they were going to stop the island hopper flights, and we were hearing rumors that the International Airport was about to close. The guy at the desk kindly called USAirways so Margaret could talk to them, and they told her that they were still planning to send out their 1PM flight – which was partly reassuring, but partly more stress inducing because Margaret knew she had to get to International in time to make the flight, and it wasn’t at all clear that Tropic was going to be able to get her there…which would have been okay if the USAirways flight wasn’t going, but if it left without Margaret, the next USAirways flight wasn’t until the next Saturday. So, we sat and watched the Weather Channel talk about Irene, which at that point was just a tropical disturbance west of the Caribbean and didn’t even have a name yet, and looked at the unmentioned blob on the radar screen which was about to hit Belize as Tropical Storm Harvey. Tom had to keep telling me to shut up and quit bitching about the Weather Channel (“they are reporting for the US, not the entire world”), and despite the knots in our stomachs, Tom and I kept telling Margaret not to worry because things ALWAYS work out in Belize…and sure enough they did. Margaret’s plane finally took off just about an hour late, and had her to the airport before 11:30 which, although it wasn’t the recommended 2 hours before flight time, was enough time for her to get checked in and get to her plane, which took off early and was one of the last, if not the last, flight to leave before the International Airport closed for part of the afternoon.

Tom and I walked back to the cabin, called to see if the water taxi was still running – it was – and finished throwing our stuff in bags. We went to say goodbye to Reuben, and he offered us a ride “uptown” in his golfcart, since they were going out for some supplies needed for waiting for the storm. We found that the Caye Caulker Water Taxi had shut down, but the San Pedro Express was still running – which was fine with us, since we try not to use CCWT anyway since they stole our camera last time we used them. So, we got our tickets, and after a short wait we were loaded on the boat, which we were told was probably the last one out. We had a smooth if slightly breezy ride back to Belize City, and didn’t see a drop of rain. By the time we got to Belize City, the sun was actually trying to shine. We called Hiram, the service manager at Bravo, and he picked us up in our truck. We took him back to his house in Belize City, and sat for a few minutes filling out the paperwork and paying for the service – which is basically priceless with the type of customer service Bravo provides.

We then set off for home, wondering what all the big deal was about the storm since we didn’t think it was even going to hit Caye Caulker or Belize City. But, about 10 minutes outside of Belmopan, we ran into it, and even though it was just a tropical storm blowing itself out by that point, the rain was hard enough and the wind was strong enough that we couldn’t see well enough to drive and pulled off the road for a little while. Once we had a little bit of visibility again we headed into Belmopan, which we found completely flooded. We drove through the stream that’s usually Forest Drive to our favorite Chinese Fry Chicken place, and ate fried chicken and French fries until the worst of the storm passed and the water level went down a bit. We then continued home, and found that while it had rained a bit closer to San Ignacio, what we saw was probably the worst of the storm that far inland, and the hard rain and high winds were very localized. Tropical Storm Harvey was basically a non-event, even with a direct hit on Belize, and it did nothing more than give us a little drama for the end of our vacation.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Slow tourist season = Vacation time

Since this is the slow season for us, Marge and I decided it was a good time to take some vacation. Julio has a brother, Poncho, that works down in Placencia, so Julio’s family and I went down for a visit.

Julio’s wife, Janeth, had never been to Placencia and the kids had never really played in the ocean so this was a big adventure. Traveling down in our little Isuzu DMax was a little tight but we managed to get Julio, Janeth, their five kids, and I all inside for the ride down and back. Janeth got to ride shotgun for the entire trip and Julio and I took turns sitting in the back with 4 of the 5 kids, Melvor being one of them – he was small enough to sit on someone’s lap most of the way.

We got two rooms at a local hotel, one for Julio, Janeth and Melvor, and one room for Eric and me. The other two boys stayed with Pancho’s son and Odaly stayed with a cousin.

The first evening I wanted Julio and Janeth to have a nice quiet dinner with no kids since this was the first time they had ever had a chance to eat alone since Eric was born over 14 years ago.
I ventured out with the five kids plus two extras from Pancho’s family to Wendy’s, a nice family restaurant right in Placencia. We had plans to go bowling up in Maya Beach after dinner; however, BWEL was late in filling the butane tanks at the restaurant so dinner took almost 2 hours and we got out too late to bowl.

After dinner we all went back to the hotel to play some dominoes and such, then Pancho took all but Eric, Melvor and I back to his place. The three of us then prepared to go for a night walk on the beach when Julio and Janeth returned. We chatted with them and found out that they couldn’t get dinner at the restaurant that I suggested due to an electrical outage in the middle of the town so they walked all the way north on the sidewalk, then back to the southern point, before finding a nice quiet little place for dinner. So, for all the plans I had in my head for the first night, I had to just chalk it all up to a “Belizean night” – change plans as needed and be flexible! Eric, Melvor and I went for our walk and enjoyed the lapping waves on the shore; and I got to practice talking with Melvor (four years old) in Spanish the entire way.

Eric and I settled in for the night in our room and Eric was happy to be sleeping with A/C (for the first time, I think). He set it to full cold and around 2am I had to turn it down a bit since the two of us were freezing.

The next day we spent doing a bit of fishing, both for the boys

and the girls.
Melvor was fascinated with the starfish he found and actually brought it into the house to show us!

We then spent a couple of hours in the pool, me playing with Melvor in the shallow end, and also hiding coins in the pool for the boys to find.

Our second night we all went out to dinner together, happy and tired after a long day playing in the water and in the sun.

On our way out of town, we made a mandatory stop at Tutti Fruttis just in time, the day before they closed for their own one month vacation! Almost everyone had two cones since the ice cream there is just so good.