I have often said to myself and others that I am the luckiest girl on the planet. Now that I am over a certain age, that phrase must be changed to luckiest “woman” on the planet because I have grown-up enough to venture international travel on my own. While I have traveled semi-on my own to Mexico City, Barcelona and Baja California, Mexico, those travels always included meeting with someone I knew once arriving at the destination and having a mapped out agenda that included those contacts. This time, I am completely on my own in Belize without knowing a soul.
Traveling alone as a middle-aged gringa in a third world country without a guide or travel company babysitting me is a little scary but also liberating. And honestly the worst part of this journey so far has been the night before I left when I made the mistake of answering the telephone call of one Julian Monroe Fisher, an explorer and anthropologist who was offered up as a Belize contact by John Boy of the “John Boy and Billy The Big Show” (which is apparently a nationally syndicated radio program that I had never heard of until meeting JB at a memorial event for my dear friend, Eric Moore, in Charlotte, NC two days before I left for Belize). Monroe splits his time between the relatively untouched jungles of Punta Gorda, Belize and Uganda. He is building some adventure lodge in the wilds in PG and knows his stuff according to JB. Monroe’s jumpy monolog about the dangers of being a white woman alone in Belize and how a woman of my age was just killed a few weeks ago while driving about in a rental car so scared the bejesus out of my less than 12 hours prior to departure that I cancelled my Avis reservation the second I got off the phone with him as Monroe’s last emphatic words to me echoed in my head, “Trust No One!!”. This act left me the interesting chore of solving transportation problems once on the ground in a country which hadn’t the faintest notion how to navigate.
But I believe in travel magic. And like clapping your hands because you believe in fairies to save Tinkerbell from the jaws of death, having faith that everything will turn out just fine has invoked some of the best travel magic karma one could dream up.
To be fair, I must confess that Monroe’s warning coupled with the muffled brain resulting from about four hours of sleep and a Yellow Cab that showed up almost 30 minutes late in the wee hours of a Charlottesville morning had me nearly wishing that I would miss the plane and save myself the expense and hassle of getting around during this half-baked adventure. Then I started to laugh with the TSA crew of 4 at CHO when they insisted on a pat-down because the electronic scanning system altered at sensing dampness from my wet hair on my clothing. There was one other person in the entire TSA area. I was wearing yoga clothes so they could clearly see the outline of my body but they went through with the cursory pat-down anyway. The female TSA agent doing the dirty job and I both started laughing because it was all so ridiculous. Once the three TSA guys present started to chuckle, I knew everything would be alright.
Both flights were perfectly normal and I made it to Belize City International Airport without incident and without knowing how I would get to Crooked Tree, the tiny village about 33 miles northwest.
While standing in the line for customs, I began chatting with a man who had been on the same flight from Atlanta. Turns out he works for the Nature Conservancy and had rented a car so he could stay at the Black Orchid Inn, an idyllic hideaway about 15 minutes outside of Belize City. He was hoping to get out to see some of the nature of the area and since my first stop was to meet with Derick Hendy, the site manager of the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary to do a little birdwatching we could made a beneficial deal. I invited him to come along to my visit with Derick if he would give me a ride. Pay Dirt!
Robby was great company! We swapped stories in rapid fire and ate the snacks that Loretta the lovely Belizian woman who sat next to me on the plane gave me as we barreled along the rough highway in his rented economy car to Crooked Tree after dropping off his bags at the Black Orchid.
Derick Hendy is a charming young man who has an enviable passion for his work. Dedicated to preserving the wildlife of his homeland while finding ways to best serve the economy of Crooked Tree is his primary goal in life. I adored him instantly as he began to demonstrate on a map at the Sanctuary’s visitor center how a causeway constructed in the 1980’s has adversely affected the area’s natural habitat.
Derick Hendy & Robby as we set out to look for birds in Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary
He apologized for the low number of birds we might see during the middle of the day as we took a walk through the forest at 2:30 or so. Robby diligently typed the names of birds we spotted as we strolled along a designated pathway resulting in no less than 27 birds when we were done about 45 minutes later. Derrick is amazing at identifying birds. He would say things like, “Did you see the red ring around it’s neck?” as a blur of a bird whizzed past a few feet in front of us. Besides his obvious love of nature and his homeland, Derick really, really, really wants the people of Crooked Tree to understand the value of he nature around them and to change hold habits for the long term benefit of preserving this incredible habitat. “We must think in the long-term,”he says very seriously. “Instead of just what people want right now.”
On a brief stop at the Visitor’s Center to pick up Robby’s rental car to drive to another locale, I meet Chris, a Brit expat who has an organic farm near Dangriga. He invites me to a party at his home Saturday night and offers help in getting out to Carrie Bow Cay, the reason I came to Belize in the first place and a trip that is looking more tenuous by the hour. Carrie Bow Cay is an island that is less than an acre in size yet boasts a Smithsonian Institute Field Station where scientists come from all over the world to research things associated with climate and marine life. I learned about it from a man who lives in Charlottesville whose volunteer job is to go out there 4 or 5 times a year to maintain equipment and give tours to visitors. Thinking that this is the coolest volunteer job IN THE WORLD, I checked the place out and decided I had to go there and write a piece about it, preferably for Smithsonian. A writer buddy sent me travel editor’s email and I started pitching because writers have to get permission from SI to interview scientists associated with them and there was only a few weeks of time. Airfare was super cheap on Delta – only $438 US to fly round trip to Belize from Charlottesville, Virginia but I had to act quickly to get that fare. I booked it without a “go” from the editor, SI or any means of getting there. I looked for other interesting story ideas like the cashew economy and festival in Crooked Tree, the bird watching there and other sundry ideas and started sending out pitches to any magazine I could think of. The departure date grew closer and…
Zip. Nada. Nothing.
I contacted the CBC station manager to work the angle that way. Permission still needed. I emailed and followed up the the guy who was to grant permission. No response. I found Island Expeditions, a tour company that takes groups out to the field station and tried that angle. There was a chance I could jump on a tour and stay at one of there camps for a night. Yes! I just needed to sort out details when I arrived in Belize. Good enough. So despite exhaustion, fear and inconvenience I came to Belize.
Derick guided Robby through a maze of white gravel and dust roads to the Crooked Tree Lodge, my home for the next two nights. We said our goodbyes as Derick insisted I hold on to his field glasses for better bird viewing the next morning. I thought about how kind everyone had been so far, so trusting and generous and decided that Monroe’s advice was,
at least in Crooked Tree.*
The Crooked Tree Lodge is located on the lagoon and features un-airconditioned cabana style living quarters for birders who come to CT from all over the world. Apparently CTWS is one of the best places in all of the Americas to spot birds. Judging from the success of my mid-day excursion I would say this is feasible. There is a large hall there where there is a wide screen TV and dining area, where guests check-in and have access to wi-fi plus a bunch of guide and bird books. When I arrive, I am greeted by a couple of the resident canines including 5 of 7 frolicking black puppies. Corey, the eldest son of owners, Mic and Angie, is watching the big TV as I enter the hall. Things are laid back in Belize. There is little fuss over anything. Mic pops out and shakes hands with Derick and meets Robby who is in awe of my idyllically rustic choice of accommodations.
I bid my new friends farewell and am escorted past a clever outdoor tiki bar to my cabana. Travel magic karma kicks in as Mic explains I have been upgraded to a larger cabana since it is available. It is a cute little space with a double bed, two Adirondack chairs draped with fluffy sheep skins with a coffee style table situated in between. There is a private bath area with open shower. I ask about scorpions and Mic says there aren’t any because he keeps he grass cut short. I don’t know how the two things relate but trust that that is a good answer. “There are tarantulas,” Mic explains. “But you won’t see any unless you really go looking for them under rocks and such.” Cool.
There are no screens in the windows at CTL so mosquitoes may be a concern though the relatively constant breeze from the lagoon keeps them away. I think I heard two buzz by my ear over the two nights I was there and left with only one bite welt without wearing any bug spray but in all fairness, mosquitoes generally avoid me. There is a variety of sunscreen and bug spray available in the lodge hall for those who want it.
CTL is a birder’s paradise. I laid out in one of the hammocks and saw at least a dozen different types of birds with zero effort. An easy day trip is to the Lamanai Mayan village to see the remains of a once powerful presence in this area.
I slept like a baby following a dinner of baked fish and massive salad with the three Canadian guests who had come to Belize to do some scuba diving. The chirp of a resident gecko for a lullaby, bird songs to wake me at dawn to witness the warmth of a rosie sunrise- I am more relaxed than I have been in weeks.
*Please know that Belize can be quite dangerous, particularly for white women traveling alone. Monroe’s warning was made from the heart and from knowledge of the area. A double murder had just been reported when I spoke with Monroe, white tourists in rental car. I also have a friend whose brother-in-law was murdered in Belize several years ago. I only went places with people with whom I had some connection aka: Robby, another tourist, and I know some of the same people in Northern Virginia. Other people I connected with on this trip were recommended by people I trust.