Tuesday, December 24, 2013

2013 Community Activities Catchup

In addition to working on the business and hosting weddings during our blog hiatus, we continued to work on some community projects, with the help of our guests.  What we think was the most important of these was helping to get the Community Internet Center set up in the Village of 7 Miles.  The village had received a grant for the purchase and set up of a Hughesnet satellite system and the solar system necessary to run the satellite, some computers, and lights in the building in a village without electricity.  The village then had to provide a suitable space, the computers, and the monthly internet subscription.

Front view of old library before internet center started

Old library collection of books before internet center started
When the project started, Julio was still the chairman of the village, so we were fully aware of the obstacles and difficulties in getting this project moving, even with the generous donation of the satellite and solar.  Julio and the village council decided to use half of the existing library for the internet center.  However, before the organization donating the satellite and solar would start installing any of the equipment, they wanted the building to be secure.  This happened right around this time last year, and we were explaining the difficulty to our guests, a family from California.  After they left, we were surprised by a very generous check arriving in the mail, with the funds earmarked for security bars for the windows.  We turned the check over to the town, who ordered the bars, which were made to order fairly quickly.  The bars were picked up and installed, and the satellite and solar equipment were delivered and installed in the spring.
Inside old library, back wall before cleanup
The public still couldn't use the internet center because the town did not have the funds to purchase computers.  The specs for the computers ended up being fairly specific; laptops were needed rather than desktops because of the power issues with the solar system, but tablets wouldn't work because the machines needed to be connected via cables rather than wifi because limited bandwidth made wifi impractical because use needs to be strictly controlled in the center.  Again, we shared these frustrations with a couple of our guests, and in fairly short order after the guests went home, they contacted us and asked if they could donate old laptops.  The answer they received was of course an enthusiastic "Yes!" and we arranged the logistics of getting the laptops to Belize, which involved having guests we hadn't even met yet take delivery in the US and carry them to Belize when they arrived on their vacations.  Hooray for our guests!

Inside view of side door of old library before cleanup

Inside view of front door of old library before cleanup
Julio and Tom built tables and desks for the center, then Tom cleaned up the laptops and collected a couple of others, one of our old ones and one some friends who left Belize had left with us in case we found anybody who could use it, and the internet center had four laptops.  The next hurdle was to get the Hughesnet service turned on, which turned out to be more complicated than expected.  The monthly fee offered by the company who had installed everything was considerably higher than what we pay for the same plan at Moonracer Farm, so Tom did some investigating and found that not only are the new plans more expensive, but they are based on newer equipment, and what was installed in the Internet Center is the older equipment, the same as what we have at Moonracer.  Tom then discovered that current subscriptions could be transferred, and with the help of Harry from the Computer Ranch, we were able to transfer the subscription of a customer in Belmopan who was changing to BTL's DSL.  The plan matched the equipment, and  was about $40US a month less than the original proposed plan.

The next step was to make sure everything worked together, and open the center.  Although this doesn't sound tremendously complicated, consider that this internet center was being opened in a village that doesn't even have electricity, so very few people have any computer experience, or experience in running this type of business, which, although it is a service for the village, still needs to be run like a business to make enough money each month to pay Hughesnet and do maintenance.  And, because of how long it had taken to get all the pieces put together, the opening wasn't happening until summer when the kids were out of school, and students were supposed to be the major customers.  Tom went to lots of meetings to figure out how to manage and staff the center, mostly because he has the experience to help get this sort of effort up and running, but also because the Hughesnet monthly bill has to be paid with a US credit card...which we have, unlike the Belizean citizens of the village, so it behooved us to make sure the center at least made enough money to pay the monthly bill.

Inside El Progresso Internet Center

While I would like to say that the internet center opened and the villagers flocked in to use it, that hasn't been the case.  The people who are using it love it, and it is giving villagers who didn't have access to computers an opportunity to use and learn about computers and the internet.  When school started again in September, students found it useful.  However, it has been difficult to find enough qualified people willing to staff it, so opening hours have been limited, and many villagers gave up trying to figure out when it was open and when it was closed, and didn't even try to go.  Then something happened with the electrical system and blew out the inverter, and it took time to get that fixed, and whatever momentum it had thudded to a stop.  We're now in the middle of the Christmas holiday break for students, so they don't need it for their schoolwork, so it is getting very little use.  The monthly bill is still being paid from village funds, but neither the village nor we have unlimited funds to continue to pay for something that isn't being used, so at this point it's possible that it will just be shut down if business doesn't pick up when the students are back in school.

Front view of El Progresso Internet Center
We find this very discouraging on a number of levels.  Many individuals and organizations contributed a lot of both effort and money to get this project off the ground.  And, the village needs it, both for the students and to give everybody an opportunity to improve their computer skills.  We don't understand why qualified people in the village don't step up and volunteer to staff it, since it would get more use if it was open more than three evenings a week...if the staff shows up on the posted opening hours.  We understand that people are busy, and many are intimidated by the technology, and that although we see this as a very beneficial thing for the village, many of the villagers understandably just don't see the value; they've never needed it before, so why is it a "need" now?  Perhaps the most discouraging thing is that we can't figure out how to get the project moving since the village has to want it, and it appears that most people just don't see it as a priority.  Perhaps, this is just another case of our first world values not applying in a developing country...but how can the country develop if the people can't or won't use the tools given to them to advance?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

During our blog break...

...a few special things happened at Moonracer Farm.

Perhaps the most special was the reception for the wedding of our friends Angel and Lorena.  Angel is the caretaker for our neighbors, Aspen, Tatiana, and Todd.  He is also a good friend of Julio, and has become our good friend too.  He and Lorena decided to get married near the beginning of the year, but weren't sure when they could afford to hold the wedding, and they wanted to have a nice wedding and reception for their families and friends.  Here, it is usually up to the bridal couple to host the reception, and they don't depend on their parents to do it for them.  Tom, Julio, and I put our heads together and brainstormed on ways we could help Angel and Lorena.

Tom, Alex, and Ramon, Angel's father, string up the broilers.
Our first decision was whether or not we could host the reception.  It depended on a few things, including whether or not we still owned the property, whether or not we had guests booked on the day of the wedding, and whether or not we could get help getting the place ready, holding the party, and cleaning up.  The wedding was in the beginning of May and we didn't start planning until March, so we just decided that if we got an offer for the property, we wouldn't close until after the wedding, and if we had any inquiries for guests, we would just say we were booked for the day of the wedding and a couple of days on either side.  No problem!
Everybody worked together and we butchered and dressed 60 chickens.

It was also  no problem to get all the help we needed.  Both Angel and Lorena have big families and lots of friends, and everybody helped.  We raised 60 broilers for the wedding feast, and a couple of days before the wedding, a whole truckload of people pulled in to butcher the chickens.

We plugged a small chest freezer into Todd and Tatiana's solar wired house, and chilled the chickens for a couple of days before the wedding.

The day before the wedding, half the town of 7 Miles showed up to decorate, and plenty of people came back the morning of the wedding for the final touches, including setting up the cake and gift tables.

Ramon decorates the palapa, with Janeth's supervision.
Tom and Angel take a break so Tom can explain how the wedding toast should be done.

Assistant chefs in the kitchen making tubs of coleslaw.

Edwin, the chef, cooking on the fogon.

Angel's brother, a chef at the Coppola resorts, put together a cooking team, and they moved into the Moonracer kitchen to prepare the wedding feast while Tom and I, who were honored to be Angel and Lorena's padrinos, went to the wedding in the village.  Some other friends put together the sound system, and a group formed to man the bar, serving soft drinks from coolers in the yard.

Angel and his father, taking a break before heading to the wedding.
The wedding party and family were served in our dining area in the palapa, and all of the guests ate on benches set up around the grounds, which looked lovely.  Angel's brother said they served over 300 dinners, and everybody had a good time.  The party didn't break up until well after dark.
Finishing touches on the cake, with Angel and Julio in the background.

Benches set up so everybody can find a place to sit and eat.

Aspen and Tatiana delivering Lorena to the church.

Angel waiting in the church for Lorena's arrival.

Tom holding the mic for Angel to say his vows.

Listening attentively to the pastor after Lorena and Angel have "tied the knot."

We all had to sign the license.  Tom and I were padrinos, or godparents, who witnessed the marriage.

The wedding party outside the church after the wedding.

Lorena and Angel entering the reception under the arch.  Tom and Ramon helped release the confetti.

Tom, Lorena, Angel, Marge

Happy groom!

The next day, most of the male members of Angel's and Lorena's family were at our house by 9AM, and by noon, everything was cleaned up, and besides having the grounds look a little neater than usual, it was difficult to tell that we'd even had a party.

Angel and Lorena now both live next door to Moonracer Farm, and sometimes join Julio and Janeth and our guests for dinner.  If you meet them while at Moonracer, make sure to tell them you saw some of their wedding pictures!

Friday, December 13, 2013

It's been a while...

...in fact, just under a year, since we last posted on this blog.  We have a number of excuses, but basically one very good reason.  Let me explain...

When Tom and I returned from our three-month trip to the US last fall, our good friends who own a very large tract of land in the Mountain Pine Ridge offered us the job of managing their conservation project.  For us, this was the dream job, doing something meaningful for the environment and for the future.  The only unfortunate thing with the job offer was that we realized right up front that we would not be able to continue to put the same amount of effort into running Moonracer Farm as we had so successfully been doing for the past five or so years.

Our first plan was to put the whole kit and kaboodle, property and business, up for sale, and to continue to run the inn until it sold, and then move on to the conservation project.  When we didn't have any good sale prospects in six months, we decided that it was time to move on to Plan B.  Plan B was to train Julio and Janeth to run the business, which was a very agreeable prospect for them since they both always really enjoyed interacting with our guests, and Janeth is a great cook.  So, we planned to move to the new job in August, and we spent the early part of the summer training Julio and Janeth to take over the operation at Moonracer, while Tom and I planned to continue with the administrative side, handling reservations and finances.

Tom and I did in fact move to the new job in August, and Julio and Janeth and their family have been running Moonracer Farm with enormous guest approval ratings, as can be seen on our TripAdvisor page, where the excellent reviews have continued since the transition.  Tom and I miss interacting with our guests in person beyond a meal or a transfer, but our guests love interacting with Belizeans who can give them a firsthand account of what it is like to grow up and live and work and go to school in Belize...and they get REAL and delicious Belizean food from Janeth!

This transitional phase has been working well enough for everybody that when our year-long FSBO ads on the internet expired about six weeks ago, we thought long and hard about just taking the property and business off the market and running it like we have been since this summer.  It works for our guests, because they love staying with the Ruanos as their hosts.  It works for Julio and Janeth and their family, because they are doing work that they like, meeting a lot of people that they like, making a good living, and getting great job experience, no matter what happens in the future.  It works for us because we are still involved with our guests and the business, and the business is supporting itself, plus some, which is a bonus for us.  However, the Ruanos have not yet worked through a high season, when we know that we usually have long runs of work without a break, sometimes almost two months, and we are not sure of the impact this will have on the Ruano family and their family, church, and social obligations in town.  Right now, we can fill in for them if we need to, but we can't do that indefinitely.  And, as this conservation project becomes more absorbing, we're not sure if we can continue to put the same amount of time and energy into the inn business.  We are probably good for a year or two, but we know that things change, and we're not sure we can commit to the long haul.

So, instead of splitting our non-conservation project energy on running Moonracer Farm and selling Moonracer Farm, we have decided to let a professional handle the sale while we focus on continuing to run the business.  The good thing for potential guests and potential buyers is that we are planning to sell the whole package, and Julio and Janeth are willing to continue to manage the lodge for new owners.  So, if you are considering booking a stay at Moonracer but are worried that we will sell and you will lose your reservation, rest assured because we are sure that anybody willing to pay for the property and the business - which is all that we will accept at this point since everything is running so well - will want to continue to run the business as it is going.  And, if you are interested in buying the business, you will not be cast loose in a sea of confusion, but will have experienced managers on site, and we have enough invested in the business that we will continue to make ourselves available since we are living only a few miles up the road.

A whole lot of thought, effort, and decision have just been condensed into a few paragraphs.  If you have questions, for us or the Ruanos, please feel free to contact us through our Moonracer Farm business website's Contact Us page.  We will be happy to talk to you!