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.