Tuesday, December 25, 2012

2012 - Merry Christmas

We wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Our world down here in Belize did not end on December 21, 2012; quite the opposite, we are still loving our life in the jungle.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cayo, Belize to Heathrow, FL, via Guatemala and Mexico

This entry covers our whole trip from our home in Cayo, Belize, to Tom’s parents’ home in Heathrow, FL.  I wrote the blog posts as we traveled, so you may have to keep track of what day “today” is when I mention it…but it will make you feel like you are really there.  Tom is working on another blog post detailing mileage, tolls, and other travel details, but this will give you the nitty-gritty on the trip.  Please email us if you are thinking of making this trip and have any questions.  Overall, we hope people get the message that as far as we are concerned, all of the horror stories about traveling through Mexico are just that – stories.  We had no problems whatsoever, and in fact found everybody to be very nice and helpful.  It probably helps that we are both able to speak some Spanish, which saved a lot of confusion, and that we were just traveling as tourists without any extra baggage, but we didn’t have one scary moment and thoroughly enjoyed our trip off the beaten path.

Day 1:  Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Cayo, Belize to El Ceibo, Guatemala

Ready to go!  In our driveway at home in Belize
This morning we started our 2012 Summer Adventure, a round trip from our home in Belize through Guatemala and Mexico, into the USA and on to Florida, where we plan to begin a month plus drive up the East Coast to visit family and friends, many of whom we haven’t seen since we moved to Belize over five years ago.  We’ve been planning this trip for months, doing all the research and paperwork so things will go as smoothly as possible.  We have insurance for the vehicle in Mexico and the US, all sorts of spare parts in case of a breakdown on the truck, Tom got extra pages in his passport, and we have all the papers we need so Jalis and Nock can freely cross the borders.  We have lots and lots of copies of everything, and we’ve done enough research and asked enough questions that we think we know what to expect as we head north.

Getting off the ferry, leaving Spanish Lookout...on the road!
This morning started smoothly enough.  We were full last night, so we got up and made breakfast for our guests.  We had done all of our packing yesterday, so this morning all we had to do for ourselves was eat, shower, and load the car.  We said goodbye to our guests, and were in the car at 9:57AM, three minutes ahead of our planned departure.  Tom, Julio, and I were all shaking our heads because Jalis, who never goes in the car because it’s too hot here, jumped right in like he knew he was part of the adventure.  Julio made him get out to say goodbye and pose for pictures, and as soon as he let him go, he jumped back in.  Nock, knowing the drill, was ready to get in and go. We had only one minor hitch, which we discovered yesterday; Tom found that one of the spare car parts was wrong, so instead of heading straight for the border, we took a small detour to Spanish Lookout to exchange the part.  That done, we headed back to the Western Highway, and figured that detour only set us back an hour.

We hit the Guatemala border almost exactly at noon.  Tom had obtained a 90-day vehicle permit when he took Julio and his family to Tikal a few weeks ago, so with that already done, we got ourselves, the car, and the dogs across the border in less than 30 minutes.  Why, you may be asking, are we going to Guatemala?  When we started talking to people about our drive, a few different people mentioned that there is a “new” border crossing between Guatemala and Mexico.  By taking this crossing, instead of doing the usual route of going east to Belize City then north to Corozol/Chetumal, then west and south through Mexico before finally heading north, we could head due west and then start to head north immediately in Mexico.  This crossing, called El Ceibo, was opened in 2009, and we couldn’t find much information about it online.  It’s not on most of the maps, and even the supposedly up-to-date Google Map and MapQuest maps don’t show it, unless you start asking for directions from town to town along the way; a simple “Flores to El Ceibo” query doesn’t do it.  But, living as close as we do to the Guatemala border, we started asking people we know who travel in Guatemala about it, and we found a number of people who have done it, and all recommended it.  We got the town-to-town directions from local people, and entered Guatemala without a map, only knowing which series of towns we were supposed to go through.

We’ve done the route from Melchor to Flores a number of times, so that was no problem.  Once we headed out the south side of San Benito, things got a little less clear.  There were signs to La Libertad before Santa Elena/Flores, but once we got into Santa Elena and San Benito, there were only a few signs, and they were very vague.  So, we just followed traffic, and when the traffic started to thin out we stopped and Tom asked if we were on the right road.  We weren’t; Tom was told to backtrack and take the next exit off a circle we had just passed.  We took the next exit, still weren’t sure we were right, and stopped and asked again.  Sure enough, we had to take the next “next exit,” which then put us on the right road.  We made it through San Francisco, then took another wrong turn before getting to La Libertad, which was corrected by again asking directions.  At this point I noticed that Tom seems to have a knack for asking directions at the right time, before we get too far off track.  The turn to El Naranjo was pretty clearly marked, but just to make sure, Tom stopped and checked; that time we were right.  To further complicate things, torrential rain started just as we got out of San Benito, so we were driving unfamiliar roads in terrible conditions.  I was very glad that Tom had decided to get new tires for the car before we left!

Countryside in western Peten, Guatemala between La Libertad and El Naranjo
It took us about an hour and a half to get from Melchor to Flores, and then another hour to get to La Libertad and on the road to El Naranjo.  At La Libertad, Tom asked how far to El Naranjo and was told about three and a half hours.  With the bad driving conditions, we weren’t sure we would even do it that quickly, and Tom was getting a little worried about not getting to a good stopping point in either Guatemala or Mexico before dark.  I told him not to worry since there was no point to it, and we had no way to tell how far along the route we were.  I wasn’t too worried, since despite the rain I was enjoying the incredible scenery; the western part of Guatemala’s Peten region is stunning, with lots of hills and limestone formations, and with the rain it is very, very green.

Almost to El Naranjo, sign for the road to the El Ceibo border
We finally hit a military road block, where they asked for our documentation and wanted to see what we had packed.  We showed them everything they wanted to see, and they sent us on our way, telling us that the border was only about 20 minutes away, which meant we’d hit the border right around 5PM.  We had been told the border was open until 6PM, so we entertained brief hopes of getting into Mexico, but when we got there, just before 5, we found that while the Guatemala side was open, the Mexico side closed at 5. 

Track to the hotel where we stayed at the El Ceibo border
We changed some money so we don’t have to do that tomorrow, and the guys at the border sent us to a small hotel, coincidentally called El Ceibo, just a short distance from the border.  For $150Q we have a very large room with two beds, the owner is making us dinner, and the dogs are welcome. 

El Ceibo hotel.  7 units, electricity only provided by generator in the evening - just like home!
The electricity was supposed to be turned on at 6, and at 6:40 it’s still not on, but it’s not completely dark yet.  And if we don’t get electricity, we have water, food, a bathroom, and beds to sleep in, so we are fine. 

El Ceibo shanty town on the Guatemala side
The guys at the border said the Guatemala side opens at 6AM and the Mexico side at 7AM, but the people here at the hotel say it’s really 8AM in Guatemala and 9AM in Mexico…so we’re planning to head up there some time fairly early in the morning and cross as soon as possible.  We’re told Villahermosa is only about three and a half hours from here, so by crossing Guatemala, we figure we will have saved about five hours of driving by doing this route rather than going through Chetumal, Mexico at Belize’s northern border.

Day 2:  Thursday, July 19, 2012:
El Ceibo, Guatemala/Tabasco, Mexico to Cosamaloapan, Mexico

Approaching the gate to the free zone on the Guatemala side
Thursday morning we were awakened early by the roosters, guinea hens, dogs, and pigs vocally prowling the shanty border town.  We showered, dressed, ate, repacked the car, and loaded up the dogs right around 7:30AM and headed to the border so we could be near the front of the line to cross into Mexico when the border opened at 8AM.  Fortunately, it had stopped raining overnight so packing wasn’t too difficult.  We were near the front of the line.  In fact, we were the first car in line, in a line of one.  Nobody else was there to cross the border when the gate was opened at 8AM.

In the free zone on the Guatemala side.  Immigration buildings to the left.
The border on the Guatemala side is a bunch of trailers and sheds.  Tom found one that said something about Immigration, so he got out with our passports and all of our papers to find out what we had to do to exit Guatemala.  He was a little worried, because when he had mentioned what we were doing to the guys at the gate the evening before, they had told him that he would be required to turn in our vehicle permit to exit the country, which we didn’t want to do because it’s supposed to be good until the middle of October, and we were planning to use it to drive back through Guatemala on our way home.  But we needn’t have worried; the man who checked Tom out told him where to go to make sure the vehicle was okay to exit, and while the people at this western border crossing hadn’t seen one of the 90 day permits before, they were happy with its authenticity (which is good, since it’s real) and allowed Tom to take the vehicle.  All of this took about a half hour, and then I had to go get my passport stamped out of Guatemala.  When I went in, the official was standing on the steps chatting, and he greeted me with “Buenos dias, Margarita.”  I figured he and Tom had been chatting, but I didn’t know Tom told him my name, although when I went in and found out how chatty and friendly the man was, I wasn’t surprised it took Tom as long as it did.  When we exit Guatemala at Melchor, we hand our passports to the official, the official finds the page where we were checked in, and stamps us out; the whole procedure takes about 30 seconds.  This man looked through my passport, chatted and smiled, offered me a cup of coffee, and when I declined saying I preferred tea, he told me about his favorite kind of Guatemalan tea and gave me two teabags for later.  Then we chatted some more, and he leafed through my passport, scanned it a few times, fiddled with his stamp. stamped the passport, leafed through it a few more times,  chatted some more, and finally handed it back and told me to have a nice trip.  All told, it took me about 15 minutes to get my passport stamped, and in the whole 45 minutes that it took Tom and me to check out of Guatemala, two big trucks went through.  So much for the long line, and most of the time was spent visiting with the apparently lonely border officials.

Heading into the Mexico side of the free zone
We drove through the gate to the Mexican side of the border and pulled over in front of the Immigration building where they spray cars entering the country.  The Immigration buildings on the Mexican side are one trailer near the road for checking people through, and a large concrete building for everything else, and lots of pavement and sidewalks – much fancier than the Guatemala side. 

Immigration on the Mexico side
A woman came to the curb to meet us, and Tom got out with his folder of documents.  She had me roll up the window and had Tom step away from the vehicle so they could spray it, and then she started talking to Tom about what we were doing.  She saw the dogs and asked for their papers, which we had.  However, she also wanted a record of their worming, which I never write down.  Fortunately I have a pack of their pills for August with “August 15” written in Sharpey on the back, and when I gave her those and explained that I had just given them their July pills on the 15th, and had these for the next month, she was happy – but, she still wanted me to put their worming record in their health folders, and then she sent the updated folders with their Belize vet certificate and the vaccination certificates off to the big building with another official, who printed out official Mexican papers for them.

While I was updating their books, she spied my saddle bag containing my good Stubben jumping saddle that I am bringing to the US in hopes of getting it repaired.  She had Tom get it out of the car and out of its bag, and then she had the man fumigate it, which involves hosing it down with bug spray.  I hadn’t been paying attention while I was doing the dog papers, and I was horrified when I looked over my shoulder and saw my saddle sitting on the pavement being hosed with insecticide.  Tom said the man really didn’t want to spray it, but the woman insisted, so he had no choice.  And, once I realized what was happening, I decided to be philosophical about it, since the saddle was filthy from sitting in my tack room for about two years since it broke, and I figure if the saddle repairer tells me the leather is in bad shape, I can blame the Mexican fumigation rather than my lack of care.  Plus, the saddle completely self-destructed, so I’m not even sure it can be repaired, and in any case it was already done when I realized what was happening so I couldn’t do anything anyway.

How Jalis rides, with his head in my lap, although he later claimed the back seat where he had more room.
When the dogs, the car, and my saddle were done, Tom and I had to go sit down with the immigration official.  Like the man on the Guatemala side, this gentleman chatted with us, practiced pronouncing our names, talked to us about the scenery, and took his time flipping through and scanning and stamping our passports before giving us our passports, our 180 day visas, and one piece of paper with our exit tax on it, which he told us we had to take to a bank to pay before trying to leave the country.  While we were in his office, we looked at a clock, which was an hour ahead of our watches.  We asked if that was the correct time, and the man explained that it was since Mexico observes Daylight Savings Time, which Guatemala and Belize don’t, which explains why the Mexican border opens an hour later than Guatemala…it’s really the same time, but the clocks are an hour different.  We then drove to the big building, where I sat in the car with Nock and Jalis while Tom went in to get a permit to drive the vehicle in Mexico.  This took about another half hour while Tom talked to the man who handles vehicles and got all the details on that.  He ended up giving the vehicle a 180 day permit as well, so that is good for both the north- and the southbound trips.  This cost $49US for the permit, plus $400US cash duty bond so we don’t sell the truck in Mexico.  We could have paid this with a credit card, but we had been told this crossing didn’t have a credit card machine, so we were prepared with the cash.  Tom also found out that this gentleman, Luis, is the only official who handles vehicles, and he doesn’t work on Mondays.  So, we now know that we shouldn’t try to cross out of Mexico on a Monday on our return trip, because we won’t be able to turn in our permit and get our $400US back.  While Tom was taking care of the vehicle, I was in it with our hysterical dogs, who were having a fit because our vehicle was sniffed by a drug dog.  It did no good whatsoever for me to explain to them that they shouldn’t bark at that dog, who actually had a useful skill and a job, unlike the two of them.

Heading out of the free zone and into Tabasco, Mexico
When Tom came out with the vehicle permit, we thought we were ready to get on the road, but we drove about a half mile into Mexico and were stopped at a military checkpoint where we had to get us and the dogs out of the car so the soldiers could search the car.  We had sort of wondered why that hadn’t happened at the border, but then realized that they do this as people are driving away.  We pulled away from the checkpoint at 11:15AM, two and a quarter hours after entering the free zone to stamp out of Guatemala.  It took this long despite being easy and trouble free mostly, we think, because this border is so little used that the officials on both sides just like the company, and like to make sure they do their jobs thoroughly and correctly. 
Everybody was extremely nice and helpful, and we drove into Mexico with 180 day visas for us and the vehicle, official documents for the dogs, a fumigated vehicle and saddle, and two extra Guatemalan teabags to try next time I can get some boiling water.

Beautiful countryside in Tabasco, Mexico
We spent the rest of the day driving.  The landscape in Mexico’s state of Tabasco is beautiful, with dramatic hills, green fields, and lots of livestock.  Until Villahermosa, most of the roads are two lane country highways, so that, combined with numerous checkpoints (all of which where we were briefly questioned and then waved through) and sporadic road construction made for slow going.  Plus, we stopped for lunch south of Villahermosa at a roadside place where a lot of work trucks were parked, figuring the food must be good with all the workmen there.  The food was good, and perhaps even better than good, but it took over an hour for us to order, eat, and get out of there.  We were the only white people in the place and I was the only woman, and as near as we can figure, we think most of the men were on the road construction crews, and they were just taking a long lunch break with lots of Sol beer, staying out of the sun for the hot part of the day.

We hit Villahermosa around 4:30, almost exactly at the 3.5 hour mark as we had been told, and felt like we were back in civilization:  4 lane highway, lots of cars, stores, gas stations, and people everywhere.  When we had originally talked about the drive, we had hoped to get over the border early and get at least close to Veracruz on our second day of driving.  However, with our 11:15 border departure time, we knew we weren’t going to make it to Veracruz.  But, we also realized that with the time change and the fact that we were moving northwest, we were going to have a later sunset, so we decided to try to get a few more hours of driving in during the daylight, with firm instructions to ourselves to follow our own rules and get off the road by dark.  We made it to the next large town, Acayucan, around 6PM, when it was still quite light, so we decided to keep going.  Our decision was helped by the fact that at this point we were on the cuota, or toll, roads, which are very well traveled 4-lane highways with more limited access than the “libre” roads, although it’s still not limited access by US standards.  The next exit, Cosamaloapan, was a good distance away, and we began to get a little nervous as it started getting dark, but we’d made our choice and kept at it.  We were also racing a very large rain cloud, flickering with lightening, and since we had spent part of the afternoon again driving through torrential rain, we really wanted to avoid that at dusk.  Around 8PM, with the sun down and dusk settling quickly, we saw the signs for the exit and decided to get off – still just ahead of the storm.  We stopped at a hotel right on the highway, but they didn’t take dogs.  They directed us into the town, which we found wasn’t much of a town, but we did find a motel that took dogs.  It was one of those “no-tell-motels,” with a garage with a curtain next to the room so customers can drive in and their cars can’t be seen.  Despite that, the room was fairly nice and clean, not to mentioned air conditioned.  We also liked the garage because it didn’t matter if it rained for getting our stuff in and out of the room, and we could back the tailgate of the truck right up to the wall so nobody could get into our barrels at night.  And, the manager called out to the local taco place for us, and showed up at our room with a bag of tacos and a few beers for us, so we were happy.  So, despite the rubber pad on the bed, the bed sized mirror at the foot of the bed, and the sheets that didn’t quite fit, we slept quite well.

Day 3:  Friday, July 20, 2012
Cosamaloapan, Mexico to Tampico, Mexico

The next morning Tom, worrying about the drive, was awake at 4AM and decided we should get up and get on the road.  I don’t move too quickly in the morning, so by the time I claimed my 10 more minutes of sleep and we were both washed, packed, snacked and ready to go out the door, it was shortly after 5AM.  We then found that we were locked in, which was reassuring for the night, but which caused me to think less than charitable thoughts about Tom for making me get up and then sit in the car and wait for the manager to arrive to open the gate.  Tom was convinced that the manager had to be on the premises, so he tooted the horn, hoping it would wake the manager if he was there, and not the other guests.  Fortunately for Tom, it worked, and the manager came out of one of the rooms and unlocked the gate for us at about 5:15.  We made our way back to the cuota road, went through the toll, and got stopped at a gamma scan which took another 10 minutes before all the big trucks, which were the only other vehicles on the road at that time, got through and we were on our way to Veracruz.

While we didn’t want to drive on secondary roads at night, driving on the cuota in the pre-dawn was actually pleasant – no traffic, no construction, no road blocks (after the gamma ray block) – so we made really good time and we cruised through Veracruz around 7AM.  After Veracruz, the good driving ended. 

Gulf of Mexico from secondary highway 180 north of Veracruz
With no more cuota roads, we were on the secondary highway that makes its way up the Costa Esmeralda, through lots of small towns with lots of traffic, construction, and checkpoint stops.  When we pulled out of Veracruz, we thought that if we pushed it, took only a short lunch stop, and just kept driving it might be possible to make the Texas border at Brownsville by dark, or close enough to dark that we wouldn’t be putting ourselves in any danger. 

Bridge into Tampico
However, after lots of slow driving, we pulled into Tampico at about 2:30, and realized we had to get to the bank to pay our exit fees so we could get out of Mexico since we weren’t sure if there was a bank at the border, and we were told we had to pay prior to leaving Mexico.  We jumped off the road running through Tampico and headed for downtown, looking for a bank.  After stopping to ask directions a couple of times (again, always at the most opportune time when the next corner was the turn we wanted), we finally found a bank.  Tom parked somewhat illegally – it was a yellow curb but there were other vehicles there with their flashers on, and we weren’t blocking traffic – and jumped out to run in the bank while I waited with the dogs and the vehicle.  And waited, and waited, and waited, for about 45 minutes.  Banks in Tampico are just like banks anywhere else late on a Friday afternoon, and everybody was trying to get their banking done before the weekend.  Tom also took some time to explain, in Spanish, why we only had one piece of paper for two exit fees, since the very nice man at the Guatemala/Mexico border was apparently supposed to provide one for each of us even though he’d made a point of telling us that we only needed one and all we had to do was tell the bank teller we wanted to pay for two.  It all worked out in the end, and Tom paid both of our exit fees and got two receipts, so we figured we were all set to exit Mexico.

Before we could exit Mexico, we had to figure out how to get out of Tampico, which turned out to be very tricky.  We followed the first directions we got, and ended up looking at the wrong end of a one way road, and by the time we turned and turned again, and again, to try to get back to where we thought we knew where we were, we were lost.  Tom finally asked a delivery man how to get out, and he gave fairly decent directions that got us to the waterfront, which we followed for a while until we didn’t feel like we were going in the right direction any more.  At a light, Tom rolled down his window and asked how to get on the northbound road out of the city, and once again timed it perfectly as the directions were to turn and follow the road at the intersection where we were waiting.  We got ourselves heading in the right direction on that road, and after a few more questionable turns, finally ended up on a road that was heading out of town, and that we both recognized from when we drove to Belize five and a half years ago. 

How Nock spent most of the five days in the car
At this point it was after 5PM, so we abandoned the plan to head for the border and decided to find a place to stay in Tampico.  We remembered a Holiday Inn we had noticed on our last trip, so after a few false starts and turn arounds, we made it to the parking lot, only to find that they don’t take dogs.  Tom told them where we were going and they very firmly said that we shouldn’t plan on doing that stretch of road and getting to the border at night.  After getting that advice not only from other people who do this drive, but also from locals, we were really glad we had decided to stop for the night.  The nice people at the Holiday Inn even called another hotel down the road and found that they would take dogs, so we only had to go about a mile back towards Tampico to the other hotel that turned out to be perfectly fine for the night.  We also found that it was the revamped place where we had pulled in and camped on our way to Belize in January 2007, although they’ve apparently condemned the hotel building they were using at that time, and have fenced off both the hotel and the yard where we parked when we camped.  They’ve now pulled in a bunch of pre-fab metal units, which were just regular hotel rooms on the inside, and were a lot nicer than we expected from the outside.  They also had a nice grass yard where Jalis and Nock could stretch their legs, a diner with decent food, and a grocery store across the road where we could get a bottle of wine to go with dinner.  In addition, they had WiFi, so we were able to check email and post a Facebook note telling everybody we were alive and well after two days of being out of touch in Guatemala and Mexico.  We again went to bed early since Tom decided he liked getting up and driving at 5AM, and after a very long and sometimes stressful day on the road, we zonked out and didn’t move until the 4:15AM alarm.

Day 4:  Saturday, July 21, 2012
Tampico, Mexico to Sulphur, LA, USA

Sunrise north of Tampico.  Much better roads than the day before!
We were up and out, and even gassed up, at a little after 5:30AM.  We were upset with Bank of America because two of our Visa cards wouldn’t work at the Pemex although we had called ahead to get the cards approved for use in Mexico, but upon calling Bank of America, Tom found out that the cards are approved, so for some reason the Pemex in Tampico just wouldn’t take them.  Fortunately we had enough pesos, so it was only a minor annoyance and not much of a delay.  After driving around the night before while looking for a hotel, we knew how to get on the road we wanted heading towards Matamoros, and for the first day since we were on the road we made it almost to our destination without having to ask for directions.  We had been dreading the drive because the stretch of highway we had to travel was marked as a secondary road, just like the road up the Costa Esmeralda, and while the map said 7 hours and people we talked to in Tampico said six hours, we weren’t sure how long it would really take.  Plus, we remembered it as something of a goat path.  As it turned out, this stretch of road is in excellent condition with only a few minor construction detours, and we were only waved through one military checkpoint between Tampico and the south side of Matamoros, and we hit the Matamoros town line in just a little over five hours, at about 10:45AM.

Matamoros is a fairly large city, and we were waved through another checkpoint just as we went into the town.  Tom figured they saw our Belize plates, figured we were heading for the border, and if we were carrying anything illegal, we would be caught there.  It took us a while to get through town, and once more for Tom to ask directions at the most opportune time, but the way to the Puerte Internacional (International Bridge) is clearly marked, so we got to the border without undue delay.

At the border, we stopped at the Mexican Immigration office to see what we had to do to get out.  As it turns out, we didn’t have to do anything.  Because our visas are good for 180 days and we are US citizens crossing between the US and Mexico, we can come and go in Mexico as much as we want using the US border, which means we didn’t have to stop and pay in Tampico, not only because we didn’t have to pay to exit to the US, but also because there’s a bank at the immigration office where we could have paid today.  (Note:  when US citizens are southbound, they DO have to pay the Mexican exit fee when going into Belize or Guatemala even if they plan to return to Mexico within 180 days, and will then have to pay it again when returning to the US).  We also found out that the 180 day permit for the vehicle is good to go in and out, so although it took about 20 minutes to get all of that information, all we really had to do to exit Mexico to the US was drive across the bridge to the US customs and immigration booths, where we waited in line for a good hour.  (Note 2:  The car permit is good for 180 days, no matter which border crossing you use, although you have to turn it in at the end of the trip or within 180 days to get your duty bond back, plus if you don’t turn in the permit, you can never bring another vehicle into Mexico until you turn in the permit or pay full duty for the vehicle.  Re the Guatemala permit, we got ours at Melchor and they’d never heard of them at the El Ceibo border, so unless they figure it out, you probably can’t get the 90 day permit for Guatemala there.  Plus, we don’t know if they’ll issue those permits to US cars, or only to cars from neighboring countries.) 

Of course we picked the slow line with the immigration officer who sent every other car he interviewed off to be searched, and of course, with our Belize plates, we had to join the line to be searched.  Everybody was very pleasant, however, and since we know the rules and weren’t carrying anything to cause any questions, the searching didn’t take any more time than the search at the military checkpoint as we entered Mexico.  In the end, getting into the US was way simpler than going into Mexico or Guatemala.  They didn’t want any documentation for the dogs or the vehicle, and since we’re US citizens, they just scanned our passports and didn’t even need to stamp them.  We’re now free to travel in the US for as long as we want, and when we go back to Mexico we should be able to just drive across the border since our visas will still be good, our vehicle’s permit is still good, and Jalis and Nock still have their Mexican travel permits, and we can turn all of that in and pay our exit fees and get back the $400US duty bond on the truck when we exit Mexico to go into Guatemala.  Of course we may have complicated our lives a little by deciding to take two additional dogs back to Belize with us, but that’s another story and we shouldn’t have any problems with them since we know what documentation the dogs need, and these two will have all of it so they can be imported into Belize.  Our total border crossing time from Mexico to the US was about two hours, just like our Guatemala/Mexico crossing, although instead of spending most of the time chatting pleasantly with the officials, we spent most of the time waiting in lines…so much fun to return to civilization.

We got into Brownsville feeling somewhat like we had stepped into another world.  I haven’t been to the US in four years, and while Tom visits once a year, the transition from the Belize jungle to Brownsville, TX, USA is a little shocking, and Mexico wasn’t different enough from Belize to help me acclimate.  We left the border crossing and got on a highway, with wall to wall mall on both sides, with all sorts of stores and restaurants and gas stations and cars and traffic and traffic lights and one way streets and…chaos.  However, we remembered our civilization skills enough to get off the highway, get some much needed lunch and a potty break (which improved my mood remarkably), and to get a prepaid chip for a cell phone, since of course we can’t be proper Americans without having a cell number.  We’re now heading towards Houston, and hope to make it to the Louisana border tonight…and then, on to Florida.

Day 5:  Sunday, July 22, 2012
Sulphur, LA to Heathrow, FL

We made it to Sulphur, LA Saturday night, and then covered 850 miles from Sulphur to Heathrow, FL, on Sunday, arriving just after midnight.  It’s possible to cover way more miles on the US Interstate system than it is on Mexican roads, and Tom and I remembered how we always used to travel as we would fill up the car, take a potty break, walk the dogs, get something to eat, and then drive until we needed to fill up again, which was between four and five hours with our diesel Isuzu D-Max.  We’d been worried about our 3rd world vehicle being too slow on the US highways, and while Tom had it floored most of the time and we weren’t zipping by other vehicles in the next lane like we used to, we weren’t going dangerously slowly and were even able to occasionally pass another vehicle.  But we didn’t have to worry about getting a ticket!

We’re now visiting with Tom’s parents, and we will be here until Sunday, when we will head to GA to visit more family – both the real kind, and the kind that you make when you’re friends for years and years.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Interested in buying in Belize?

We have some friends in the nearby town of Bullet Tree who need to sell their property and return to the US.  We've visited, and it's as nice, or probably nicer, than it looks in the pictures.  So, if you're interested in buying property in Belize, check it out! 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

We're appreciated!

Last Friday was the primary school graduation at the government school in 7 Miles/El Progresso.  We went because we were invited, and we thought the invitation was because one of Julio's sons was graduating.  We were surprised when we got there and were escorted to seats in the front row...with our names on them!  We were even more surprised when, as part of the ceremony, the principal, Mr. Cano, started giving out Thank You Awards, and called Tom up to the podium.  Tom has done a lot to help the school, from fixing chairs to building a wall so the principal could have an office, but he thought the profusive thanks he always gets when he finishes a project was enough.  But Mr. Cano, the teachers, the students, and the school officials thought otherwise, and thought that Tom, along with other people, should be publicly thanked for his contributions. 

We were even more surprised we were called again to receive another Certificate of Appreciation.  This one was for what our business, Moonracer Farm Lodging & Tours, Ltd., contributes to the school, and it was really a gesture of appreciation for all of our guests who have made very generous contributions to the school, from clothing and uniforms to school supplies to books to shelves to money to be used as needed.  Mr. Cano was a little choked up, and said he is overwhelmed with the generosity of people who mostly haven't even been in the school or met many of the children.  So we, along with the school in 7 Miles, thank all of our guests, who probably don't even realize how much their gifts are appreciated.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, my bestest buddy Louie died. He was 16, which is plenty of years in dog years, but after living with Louie for about a third of my life and probably spending more time with Lou than with Tom over those years, I am heartbroken and have a giant hole in my heart. I didn’t think it would be this difficult; I thought I was ready because he’s been failing for the past couple of years, and I’d thought about having him put to sleep over the past few months, but he was never in pain and he always seemed happy following me throughout my day and napping when he wasn’t with me. And, typical of Louie, he seemed to plan his death when it was most convenient for me, just after a visit from a much loved friend, and before we started a long string of guests…almost as if he didn’t want to ruin the visit with our friend, but also didn’t want to affect our work. And, he just died, and is the first dog Tom and I have ever had that just naturally died of old age and we didn’t have to make the decision for that last trip to the vet.
I think part of my difficulty with this is that in January 2007 we came here with three dogs, Nock, Lou, and Mel. Mel died of old age in the July 2008, and now Lou is gone. We have Jalis to keep Nock company, but Nock, who is now 14, is our last remaining tie to our old life in the US. And, at 14, she probably has a few more years, but Lou’s death has made us realize that she is old and won’t last forever. We now consider Belize home and love it here, but thinking about all the things we (and I, more than Tom) did with Lou when we lived in NY has made me feel sort of homesick, as well as feeling the grief associated with losing an old friend.

From the day we picked Louie up, he was my dog, although he was originally supposed to be Tom’s. He was a little over a year old, and was a sort-of Rescue Russell in that Catherine, his breeder, was leading Russell Rescue at the time but had taken Lou back after he didn’t work out at his first home because he killed a lot of chickens one day. She thought she’d keep him and do something with him, but then he scaled a kennel fence and bred an imported bitch, resulting in Nock’s litter. Catherine decided she didn’t need this much trouble in her life at that time, so when I contacted Russell Rescue, she decided that we could “rescue” Lou. He was supposed to be Tom’s because Mel and I were pretty attached to each other, and Tom wanted his own dog. Lou, however, had other ideas, and after riding home from Catherine’s on my lap, he stuck to me as I was making lunch, and when the other dogs we had at the time wanted to smell him, he jumped into my arms and that was that – he was glued to me for the rest of his life.  It's hard not to love something that makes you its whole world.
At home, Lou was always with me. I would take him to work sometimes, especially if I was working on the weekend. And, he ALWAYS went to horse trials with me. I would take a small crate and put him in the crate next to my stall when I went to ride. People used to complain that he whined a lot, but I didn’t really believe them until one time at a horse trial when Bruce Davidson’s group was stabled behind Karin’s group. I put Lou in the crate and went off for my ride, and when I came back Bruce was sitting in the aisle in front of my stall with Lou in his lap, crooning to him that everything was okay and his mother would be back soon. I was, of course, mortified, but Bruce kindly explained that the little guy really missed me and he was trying to make him feel better…but then I knew that the whining must be really bad if Bruce could take the time away from his multiple rides, his students he was coaching, and all the other stuff that a BNR has to do at a horse trial.
Lou also went to Florida with Karin and Tilly and me in the winters. Lou loved Tilly, Karin’s dog, and he loved camping with Karin and Tilly, whether it was in Florida or just at a weekend-away horse trial. Whenever he saw us putting the camper on the truck and hooking up the trailer, he’d prowl around until he found the truck door open, and then jump into the truck and refuse to get out. Lou and Tilly would walk the cross country courses with us - and all their other dog friends - and the two of them were always happy to play in the water jumps so we could see how deep it was. They were also happy to play in the cow fields and roll in the cow manure where we stayed in Florida, and I can still picture them galloping back to us when we called them, stinking to high heaven of really nasty cow poop – but oh so happy with themselves. Tilly died the year before Lou, so I’m sure the two of them are on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge rolling in something really stinky and having a grand time.

I don’t think I realized how much a part of me Lou was until he died and I put a posting on Facebook about it. The post received over 70 comments from people from all aspects of my life: people, both guests and friends, who met Lou here in Belize, family who knew Lou because he always traveled with us, work friends, horse friends, dog friends, and pretty much everybody I know, because he was always with me. I was shocked when I went into 7 Miles the week after he died because a bunch of people there made a point of telling me how sorry they were to hear that “el Viejito” (the little old one) had died; people here don’t generally consider a dog to be part of the family and when their dogs die they frequently just throw the carcass in the bushes, but they knew he meant a lot to me and they liked him, and I really appreciated them making the effort to tell me. He’s been gone over two weeks, and I still look down to make sure I don’t step on him if I’ve been standing in one spot in the kitchen and want to move, because he was always right under my feet – if he wasn’t in my lap or my bed.

I know the grief is normal, and I’m thankful that Lou was a part of my life for so long and that he and I had such a good time together that it hurts this much, and I know it will get better with time – but for now I still just miss him.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Vaca Dam

Back in September 2011 Lea, Gonzo’s mother (Gonzo owns/runs/guides River Rat Tours, the tour company we use for most of our guests) built a firehearth for our kitchen.You can go back in the blog to check out that project.When she was done creating it we asked how much she would like to get paid for her 2 days of hard work here.  She responded that she didn’t want anything, she likes to help her friends and pass on some of her traditional knowledge to keep some of the old ways alive. However, while she was here we noticed that she loved Marge’s island table in the kitchen.So, Julio and I made one for her, a little shorter than Marge’s and we put drawers on either end so she has some extra storage space.

We completed the table in October while we were still very slow with guests and delivered it in early November.

Lea's kitchen work table

Lea's kitchen work table

When Julio and I delivered the table we looked out over the Macal River gorge at the Vaca Dam, a hydro dam that was completed recently. The dam is on Lea and her husband Antonio’s land. I asked Antonio if we could go down to see the dam and he said sure, let’s go get permission and we can check it out. What surprised me was the fact that Antonio had never gone down to check out the dam prior to that day.

We drove down to the guard compound, found the boss, Antonio asked for permission and down we went into the river gorge in our little truck.

Here are a couple of pictures from January 2005 that Marge and I took of this same location when we were here in Belize for the first time on vacation. We came to this exact location with River Rat Tours to kayak down the Macal River for the day. We put in just below where the dam is and took these pictures as the workers were putting in the first test holes for the foundation.
2005 view from where Lea's house currently sits.  Notice little shack on right 1/2 way down the mountain.

Another 2005 view from about where Lea's house is now.

2005 - working on footer holes.

2005 - In the riverbed just below where the dam is now getting ready to go kayaking.

2005 - Paddling upriver about where the dam was built.

2005 - This is the bottom of where the resevoir is now.

2005 - This magical stream is now completely under water.  Karen Cruz on the left, Marge on the right.

2005 - This is underwater now in the resevoir.

This is what the site looked like in November 2011.
Vaca Dam from Lea's house

Down river from dam

Looking down river from near the dam

Front of dam from riverbed

River channel just down from turbine station

Overhead crane for turbine station

At the dam with Julio and Antonio

At the dam with Julio and Antonio

Julio looking across top of dam.

Reservoir up river from dam.

From top of dam looking down river.  Turbine building in center.

Looking across top of dam

Looking down from top of dam

Current day Maya (cement) steps

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Shop projects - shelves and coffins!

Between guests, Julio and I have been busy with some community projects. One project that Julio came up with was a result of last year's Hurricane Richard (October 2010). A very large cedar tree fell down in the storm in the back of Ka'ax Tun and was laying over top of some of the gorges in the jungle. Cedar is a beautiful wood, easy to work with and kind of light (so easy to move furniture you build).

We have had some occasions in the past when people have died near here and the family has needed a coffin. Usually a trip is made to Melchor, Guatemala to buy an inexpensive coffin. Then the coffin has to be transported back to Belize and then everything else can procede with the funeral etc. So, since Julio is the town chairman and many people look to him for help on these occasions, Julio thought it would be good to have some coffins here ready to be used when needed.

The first step was to cut up the tree. In August 2011 we hired a local guy to help with that. It was a challenge but we managed to cut up the tree into mostly 1"x12"x12 foot long boards.
Cutting over the gorge
Supporting so everything doesn't fall!
Jungle engineering
Cross your fingers and hope all goes to plan!
Whew, bad luck if we dropped the whole works in the hole.
Some of the smaller boards
Jungle milling - very accurate with the proper operator.
Yup, I was there (on the right)!
Boards to haul out.
More boards to haul out.

We then had to carry the boards about one mile through the jungle to our truck. Julio's kids helped with this.
About 1 mile to go.
How many trips?

Then, as we need more boards to work with, we transport them to a lumber yard, about 6 at a time due to the weight and the bad roads, to get them planed. This is the first coffin we have made.
Finished coffin.
Coffin in the shade.
Belize custom is a window for viewing.
Testing the fit on Marge at 5 foot 10 inches (taller than most people here).
Yup, the window works!  Hi Marge!!!
Julio and Tom, buen carpentaros.

During this project we also had a request from the public school principal in 7-Mile for bookshelves. A couple from Vermont, Neidi and Kevin, that visited us in February made a donation to the school so we purchased screws, 2x4s, fuel for the generator, and Julio his kids and I spent 3 work days making 6 sets of shelves for the school.   Thanks so much Neidi and Kevin for helping the school with your donation!