Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cortes blossoms

Fall is here again for us.  This is the time of year that the trees shed their leaves and go dormant during the dry season.  However, many trees blossom this time of year and show their brilliant colors, if only for a few short days.  This is the Cortes tree that towers over our house.  The Cortes is a VERY hard wood, fires can't even burn them down.  We have one that has been laying in the horse pasture for the four years that we have been here, probably at least another 4 before we got here, and it has about 1/4 inch of rot on it and still weighs a ton.  Any other tree would be almost gone by now.

The Cortes blooms once per year and can be seen from miles around.  We can spot our particular tree from about 2 miles down the road.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Adventures of Flat Ariana!


Hi friends, I am Flat Ariana and this is a story about my travels to the country of Belize. My hosts were Marge and Tom Gallagher, friends of my parents who moved to Belize in January 2007. They offered to host me so that I could see parts of the world that I have never seen and bring back some of my travel experiences to share with all of you.

Traveling envelope

I posted myself on February 5, 2011 in Webster, NY. Prior to sealing my envelope I stuffed myself with pancakes and tortillas, nice flat food so that I wouldn’t make the envelope too fat. I traveled air mail (par avion) for a total one way ticket of US$.98 and since I didn’t have any luggage to claim I got there without delay. I landed at the Philip Goldson International Airport, located in Ladyville, just north of Belize City around February 10 and then traveled 75 miles by truck to San Ignacio, a town near the border of Guatemala.

Welcome to Belize
I waited a few days for Tom to come to his post office box to get me. He doesn’t come to town too much but it was a good time to rest and get used to the heat. When Tom got me, he was happily surprised and had me meet the postmaster. It felt really good to get out of the cramped box and finally stretch my legs!

Post Office box

Post Office in San Ignacio

Since Tom was in town, we went to the market to get some fruits and vegetables. The market here is different than going to Wegmans. First off, we go out of the truck and walked up to this nice cement booth that had some Spanish women in it. There were no walls or windows, it was just out in the open! Tom spoke in Spanish with Lucy, the vendor and friend that helps him pick out just the right papayas, pineapples, chochos, starfruit, and macal. There are so many different things to find here, I didn’t know what many of the things were.

Lucy at the market

We went back to Marge and Tom’s place which is a little spot in the middle of the jungle for tourists to visit. I wasn’t sure what to expect since they don’t have electric and they are in the middle of the jungle. The house they live in is kind of small, about 22 feet wide by 30 feet long. It has only two rooms, one is like a family room and the other is their bedroom. They also have two bathrooms and two porches that have screens to keep the bugs out. Their back door is open all the time so their dogs can go in and out but there is a tall strong fence around the dog yard so the jaguars don’t eat the dogs at night.

The house for the guests is just the same, only there are 2 bedrooms, one in the front, and one in the back of the house and there is no dog yard. The louvered windows are open all the time; they never shut them, and they leave the doors open all the time too – what a nice change from the cold winter we have been having.

Guest house

Guest bed – sapodilla wood (from the chicle – gum tree)

Hanging out in my hammock

Since Marge and Tom are kind of busy this time of year I got to go out touring with the guests. Marge and Tom have been on all the tours so they know all about them but they stay home to work at their place or go out to run errands most days. (I am so glad they have guests, it would be kind of boring just watching them work every day).

My first day of touring was with Lauren and Scott, a wonderful young couple living in California. We went canoeing on the Macal River, where we had lots of jungle on both sides of the river. We saw huge iguanas, insect eating bats, and even a tayra.

Canoeing in the Macal River
 We then went to the Xunantunich (Stone Lady in Mayan) archeological site, used from 650AD to 1000AD, which is right on the border of Guatemala. The Maya civilization flourished from Mexico all the way down to Costa Rica from 1,000BC to 1,500AD. There are many pyramids and Maya buildings all throughout Belize and Central America but only some have been reconstructed.

Welcome to Xunantunich

We climbed up to the top of El Castillo (The Castle), the largest temple at this site, and could see for miles around. There were all sorts of carvings that the Maya people made to decorate the temples. I couldn’t believe they did all the stone work over 1000 years ago without any power tools and there is no evidence that they even used the wheel to move things around!

Face of El Castillo

View from on top of El Castillo

I was very hungry after so much canoeing, climbing, and just looking around and I had to have something to eat so we went out for a bite to eat. I had a big burrito which is a tortilla filled with refried beans, chicken, salsa, covered in cheese and sour cream – yum, so much better than a Big Mac!

Eating burrito

Lauren and Scott took me horseback riding with them through the jungle one day. We rode through thick jungle and got to learn about the medicinal uses of the plants and trees, which trees were good for lumber (like the sapodilla tree, the sap was used for making chicle gum and the wood is great for lumber, like my bed). Joe, our guide grew up in the jungle and learned how to live here from his ancestors, using everything in the jungle to survive.

We stopped for lunch at Big Rock, a waterfall in the middle of the jungle, for a swim and got to jump off the big rocks into the deep pools to get cooled off.

Big Rock

We then went to another old Maya site called Caracol (snail). This is the largest Maya site excavated in Belize. The stairs on the temples are very high and narrow so you have to watch your step and be careful not to slip since there are no hand rails (I had to be extra careful not to slip into some of the cracks in the floor). I felt so honored to be able to climb the pyramids since back in the Mayan times only the rulers and priests were allowed in these areas, and the common people had to work in the fields to produce food for the ruling class. Back in those days there were about 1 million people living in Belize and most of the jungle was cleared farmland (hard to believe since a lot is now high jungle). Currently there are about 300,000 people living in Belize, and most of them are living in towns or cities.

View from Ca’ana

There were some interesting carvings in the fronts of these temples too; serpents, deer, jaguar faces, bats, and birds, all animals sacred to the Maya and each had their own meaning. For example the jaguar is a sign of power and wealth so the rulers would wear garments made from the hide of a jaguar and have the head of the jaguar on top of their head, kind of like the American Indians used to do with deer and bear pelts.

Carvings in front of temple

We got to go for a dip at Rio On Pools at the end of the day, a perfect way to cool off and relax before heading home.

Rio On Pools

Marge cooked dinner for me most nights in her kitchen that is not attached to her house. Since it is hot most of the time here in the jungle (Tom and Marge have not had the temperature go below 50 in the past 4 years) it is nice to have the hot cooking in a nice open building. Tom’s friends made them this palapa for cooking and eating and it stays nice and cool.

Palapa restaurant

Marge also likes it since the birds can fly in any time they wish to visit while she is cooking. (Oh, and as you can see, sometimes Marge is a little grumpy in the morning, but when she wakes up after her morning tea, homemade granola and yogurt, she gets more fun to be around).

Marge cooking

Nicole, a 10-year old from Utah, came while I was in Belize and I got to go to Green Hills Butterfly Ranch with her. We learned all about the different stages of butterflies. We watched them come out of the cocoons early in the morning and they hung out for hours drying and stretching their wings until they could fly.

Butterflies drying their wings

Butterflies usually live three to four months before they die. During that time, they lay their eggs on leaves that the little caterpillars will like to eat (like banana leaves) so that when the eggs hatch they can start eating right away.

Butterflies on flowers

Nicole and I then went canoeing into Barton Creek Cave. It was very dark and hard to take good pictures since our camera didn’t work well when we used the spotlight on the formations that were in the distance.

Barton Creek Entrance

We did get up close to some curtain formations and Nicole’s dad, Zef, held me up to get a good close look at them. The formations in the caves develop from water that drips from the ground over our heads and the minerals in the water are left behind to make the stalagmites (spikes sticking up from the ground), stalactites (like icicles from the ceiling), columns (when the stalagmites and stalactites join together), curtains (since they look like they are made from fabric), and many others. It takes about 100 years for 1 centimeter of the formations to grow.

Barton Creek curtains

It was nice to be heading out back into the sunshine at the end of the tour.
Barton Creek exit

One day I went traveling around with Tom and his guests, Lindsay and Julian, to do some errands and we went to a town called Spanish Lookout. To get there we had to cross a river that only had a hand crank ferry. Only three cars can cross at one time and there is a man who cranks the ferry back and forth all day long when people and cars want to cross.

Ferry to Spanish Lookout

Ferry crank

Another day, Tom had to visit with a friend of his and he happened to be working with a crew of men building a house. When houses are built here, they are not very big and complicated like in the United States since it never really gets cold. There is no snow or ice and most people spend a lot of their days outside.

Building local house

I got to hammer a few nails into a sapodilla post, remember the ones for my bed? The wood is so hard we had to drill holes into the post prior to driving the nails, and once I started a nail I could not pull it out even if I bent it. If I bent the nail, I had to cut it off and start a new one!

Driving nails

One of the favorite tours that I got to go on was to a Maya ceremonial cave called Actun Tunichil Muknal. We hiked about 2 miles to the mouth of the cave, swam into the beginning and then waded in the river with our helmets on in the dark. We turned out all the headlights at one point to see how dark complete darkeness was. I couldn’t even see my hand right in front of my face!

ATM going in

There were all sorts of neat formations, some like in Barton Creek Cave. I was really glad I had my laminated dress on so that I didn’t get wet!

ATM formation

We then climbed out of the river and up onto the rocks to see where the Mayas did their ceremonies inside the caves.

ATM climbing out of river

We saw some really cool pots that were used to bring offerings to the gods; this was to help the crops grow, make it rain, cure people from sicknesses, and all the other things that the gods controlled.

ATM pot

 There are also human sacrifices in the caves so there are skulls and bones. I got a really nice close look at this guy!

ATM skull

 One skeleton was almost all intact. It is covered over in a limestone coating that has helped preserve it in place.

ATM maiden

One set of guests took me over to Guatemala to visit an archeological site called Tikal. This site was really big the temples were very tall, much taller than the temples in Belize, but not as big at the bases. In one area the archeologists have rebuilt a plaza and put some thatch huts up like in the old days.

Tikal plaza

Tikal tall temple

A visit to the Belize Zoo was also a lot of fun. We got to see a lot of the animals that are in the wild here in Belize. This zoo is a little different than a zoo in the United States. You have to be careful not to put your hands and fingers in the cages since the cages are very close to the walkways. Here are some of the animals we got to see.

Boa constrictor

Tapir (the national animal)

Crocodile (wild, not in a cage)

Aracari (small toucan)

White lipped Peccaries (they smell nasty and are vicious!)

Puma (also known as red lion, cougar, mountain lion)

Howler Monkey (we heard these at night at Moonracer Farm, they sound like dinosaurs)

Jaguar (his name is Jr. Buddy and we got to be very close friends. The books are about Junior Buddy and the Zoo.)

Crocodile (this one is in a cage – boy he has big teeth!)

Harpy Eagle (he wanted to eat me)

Red-Lored Parrot (we saw these a lot in the jungle flying overhead in large flocks)

Scarlet Macaw

At the end of my stay in Belize, Tom took me to the nearest town, the village of 7 Mile, to meet Bernel Ruano, the son of Tom’s good friend Julio. Julio and Tom work together a lot building things like the kitchen palapa. Bernel took me to school with him and he made a Flat Bernel to help me get to know the other kids in the class.

Bernel in class
Bernel in class

I also got to talk with the teacher. She was very nice.

Bernel and teacher

All classes are taught in English so I could understand everything. One of the biggest differences between our schools is there is no electricity at all. Also the doors all open out into a courtyard and there are no halls. The windows had to be open all the time so we could read and write. We walked to school in the morning, home again for lunch, then back to school for afternoon classes, then home again at the end of the day. It took about 10 minutes on the dirt road each way. Some kids had bikes to go back and forth but there were no buses.

School with logo and bikes

School courtyard

I got to meet Bernel’s brothers and sister. They were very nice and liked meeting me. They all smiled and thought I was on a great adventure.

Last year’s picture of Bernel’s brothers and sister. Bernel is on the right
 Bernel’s youngest brother Melver was fun to play with too. He only speaks Spanish but I am sure he will pick up English very fast since everyone else in his family can speak English.


My final adventure was with Bernel to a park called Ka’ax Tun, or Rocky Mountain in Mayan. His father has worked very hard over the past 10 years to make this park to help educate school kids like me about ecology and how to take good care of the earth. We went out on the trails and then climbed on the vines. Bernel was a pro as you can see in the photos.

Bernel coming down vines

At one place Bernel jumped out off the rocks, caught a vine, swung around a couple of times and then came down. Tom was there to catch him in case he missed but he was fine. I can’t wait to come back to Ka’ax Tun to go in more of the caves and crevices!

Bernel vine jumping

I am so sad I have to leave Belize. Since it was a long, lonely journey to get here, Bernel asked if he could help keep me company on the trip home. I told him about only eating flat foods while we travel and he said he was fine with that, so Tom packaged us both up and sent us back to Mrs. Topping’s 3rd Grade Class.

Thanks For Choosing Belize!

Hopefully my classmates can help Bernel have some adventures with me when I return and then Tom can show Bernel and his class some of what we do up in New York State!

Adios Amigos!!! Good bye friends – I am off on my adventure home!!!!