Day 2: Belize: The Magic Continues

 

IMG_3664.jpg

Spaghetti Western on the widescreen in the ceiling of a palapa.

Dawn in Belize is like 4:30am. There is no daylight savings time making it two hours later than Eastern Time US during Daylight Savings. The day begins and ends early with a normal bedtime between 9 and 10 except for young adults. By 6am I am on the computer booking a day trip to Lamanai, a destination suggested by the night-before- Canadians. I book with Lamani EcoAdventures and am assured that I can take the bus that will stop for me on the highway and be dropped off right in front of LEA’s launch spot. This is a river tour to the “ruins” and eats up a good part of the day. 

The Canadians give me a ride to the main road in their filthy four wheel drive rental, barely a word spoken the few miles to the main road. A bus appears just as I alight from the car and I wave frantically as it speeds by. I think of the misery of baking on the shadeless highway for another bus as I cross the highway to the stop. The Canadians pull onto the highway then yell something inaudible out of the car window. They pull over and one jumps out to yell very loudly, “THE BUS STOPPED!” I turn and sure enough about 20 yards ahead the bus has pulled over for me.  I wave farewell to my quiet northern friends and turn south to run to the bus.

Traveling like the locals is fun! It is a slice of normal life in a foreign country that is priceless. The faces and conversations of regular folks getting on with their day. Real life. Plus it is cheap, 3 to 7 Belize dollars. A cab would cost 10 to 20 times that. Car rentals are fairly expensive as well and gas, I am told is outrageous. Not to mention the danger as Monroe Fisher pointed out the night before I left the States.

Busses in Belize are former school busses with no AC and are often packed to the gills with locals. It can get quite close in the tropical heat but makes up for any discomfort with close observation of he faces of the people riding. Belize is a salsa of ethnicities and the people of this part are mostly Creole, a mix of Brits and Africans.  They have gorgeous skin that ranges in color from caramel to a rich blue brown with dark brown almond shaped eyes and luscious black hair.

I get to my stop and go into the outfitters. It is OK but the guys are unorganized and I feel a sense of envy as I look down river to the outfitter next door, Lamanai EcoTours, with its charming palapas, neat pier and better kept boats. I am told I must wait for the next group so after a bit of debate I walk out and down the street to LET. The facilities are nicer and as I walk back to a large covered waiting area there area some guys relaxing and watching a spaghetti western on a flat screen mounted in the top right corner of the palm frond cover. “Fist Full of Dollars?” I say. They look up, beaming with delight at my film knowledge. I am in the right place.  I cancel with the first outfitter and take a tour with LET’s guide Colin and four cruise ship guests.

 

IMG_3663.JPG

Above:Waiting area at Lamanai EcoAdventures

Below: Waiting area at Lamanai EcoTours

IMG_3666.JPG

 

Colin is an outstanding guide.  He is knowledgable, funny and mixes a mean rum punch for the boat ride to Lamanai. Well timed information on local flora and fauna sprinkled with historical information between playful boat maneuvers make the ride to Lamanai most enjoyable. A luncheon of spiced chicken over beans and rice with slaw, water melon, corn chips and an onion jalapeño salsa is served under a palapa covered pavilion on real places with stainless steel cutlery. The food is excellent, homemade by the company manager’s wife. Colin guides us through the ruins which are amazing. He makes sure we are positioned to get good photos avoiding the hordes of cruise ship tourists and points out special plants and animals (including a family of howler monkeys!). This is an art I appreciate as I also give tours at a historical landmark in Charlottesville. I cut my kneed climbing up the side of a temple and think about other blood that was spilled at this very same site in the form of human sacrifice.

 

IMG_3727.JPG

Outstanding Guide, Colin, explains the purpose of this temple at Lamanai

We are deposited back at the tour company base at 2:45p. The tour group do not wish to share their ride up the highway with me so it the the bus again for me with no designated way back to the village from the highway.  It is hot as the sun beats down on the flat breezeless land. Mic has suggested I hitch a ride to the village which he assures me is totally safe. “The only people coming on that road live here,” he says. Monroe’s “Trust no one” warning pops into my head but as I become draggy from being miserably hot and sweaty on the shadeless road I gleefully accept a ride to the WS visitor center to return Derick’s field glasses. 

The barely chilled Air conditioned interior of the Samaritan’s SUV proves somewhat refreshing. My driver, his shotgun mate and I arrive at the visitor center 5 minutes later without incident.

Derick is not there so I leave the field glasses with Wilhelm, the “ranger” on duty who gives me walking directions to the Crooked Tree Lodge. “Turn at the Cemetery then turn again at the barbershop, landmarks I assume will be apparent to me. As I am being directed, two Britt’s are standing nearby. The man, who later identifies himself as Chris listens closely and starts up a conversation. “What are you doing in Belize?”, he poses. I explain about the SI field station and how I am having trouble securing a boat there. He says that he might be able to help as he lives near Dangriga and would I like to come to a gathering of friends on his organic farm at mile marker 21 on Saturday and then for a hike to an amazing waterfall on Sunday.  I am encouraged by having a new friend who might be able to assist me in my quest to get to Carrie Bow Cay. Chris scratches out his contact information on a piece of paper and I depart on my walk through the village to the lodge.

IMG_3766.JPG

Horses eat discarded cashew fruit in the village of Crooked Tree

The streets are a combination of white gravel and fine white dust that poofs a little with each step. The air is thick with the pungent odor of fallen cashew apples and sweet smelling tropical flowers. As we pass, villagers ask, “You OK?” or “Good evening”,which is the Creole way of saying hello regardless of the time of day. I make it to the lodge and get online to see if Derick or Scott from the Field Station have emailed.

Hi Mary,

I wanted to follow up with you to make sure that you received the necessary information from Ryan? Also, when do you plan to be in Belize and when are you planning to take a tour of CBC?


Thank you,
Zach

Hmmmm. How to respond.

“Ryan” has failed to respond to both of my messages, one a month ago and the other early last week, regarding “the necessary information” required to visit CBC. I am already in Belize with an itinerary that is built around getting out to CBC. It is my reason for even coming to the country in the first place so how will I get around this issue of what is essentially permission to go out there as a journalist? I rationalize that tourists are allowed out there with prior arrangement so as a tourist, I should be able to go – thus contact with Island Excursions. I am not going to lie to Zach who has been absolutely wonderful through this entire process and because lying is not in my wheelhouse since I passed the age of 12. I will however do what is easy to do via email, take a cue from my mischievous teenage years and respond to the half of the email to which I can truthfully respond. Childish, I know, but getting out there has now become a test of my luck and wits. It is a mission. If a fellow freelance writer from my town can pull off a similar coop in Panama, then I can do it in Belize.

Here is my Response to Zach who obviously does not have teenagers and was most likely one of those really lovely kids who never did anything bad:

Hey Zach,

I am in Belize already. Am planning to come out to CBC on Sunday. Not sure how yet but that is the plan. 🙂 Does that work for you?

Mary

So sly.

The next step is figuring out how I will get out there. Scott  sends me the name and phone number of a reliable boat captain. I have a few days so I focus on securing transportation to Dangriga from Placencia, my next destination. The bus is cheap but promises to be a 4 to 6 hour hot-sweaty ride. Flying is fast but rather dear. Since I ditched the rental car idea, I have some scratch for some airfare and am able to book a round trip flight for about $210 USD or 420 Belize (dollars – but no one adds the “dollars” word in Belize. You simply say, “That is 10 Belize or 5 US”, is something costs 10 Belize dollars which translates to 5 US dollars). This is expensive but it is still cheaper than a $300 US per week economy rental car. I optimistically book the return flight from Dangriga to Belize International Airport , keeping the faith that I will need to be in Dangriga at the end of my journey to reach Carrie Bow Cay.

Angie, the stunningly beautiful mistress of Crooked Tree Lodge, is a native of the village. She has smooth caramel colored skin that glows with the vibrancy of a person who is truly happy in their heart. Her features are softly African with dark brown perfectly almond shaped eyes. Though her brother, who now resides two houses down the street, was raised in the States, Angie loves this place and would not leave to be educated or otherwise. She tells me she has been picking cashew all day when I see her at the lodge in the late afternoon.  I explain how I would like to taste cashew fruit and cashew wine and she sets out to bring me some to try. 

IMG_3780.jpg

Cashew fruit growing along the village road 

Just before dinner time Angie presents a bottle of cashew wine and a bag of freshly acquired cashew apples, the formal name of the fruit of the cashew tree which more closely resembles a bell pepper than an apple. The slices the juice laden fruit and warns me and the other guests, a German couple, to avoid touching the brown “c”shaped blob at the end of the fruit which encapsulates the cashew seed. It contains a toxic resin which can cause a painful burning sensation when it connects with human body parts. The Germans are doing some birding and plan to visit Lamonai while biding their time until the May full moon which apparently signals whale sharks to swim over to Placencia for proverbial procreative flings.

We are all eager to taste cashew fruit.

It has the consistency of bread fruit while being juicer even than mango. The flavor is light like a cucumber but distinctive with notes of yellow bell pepper and pineapple. It is fantastically refreshing and I feel as though I could eat ten of them in that moment but Mic is ready to serve dinner. Mic is a master at presentation. The square white dinner plate features a deep fried whole snapper cleverly angled across the bottom right corner of the plate, a luscious looking artfully arranged, salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and mango with a cilantro vinaigrette.

Following desert of ice cream and bananas, Angie brings out three shot glasses with skull and crossbones dressed as a pirate with bandanna, eye patch and black three cornered hat on a tray with the chilled cashew wine. “It is for sipping, like port,” she explains. “It must be served very cold and sipped or you will have a terrific hangover the next day.”

I am a fan of Port. Not everyone is. So cashew wine suited me just fine. The Germans drank their glasses as well so they must have enjoyed it too.

I paid Angie for the bottle so I could take it home and share this taste sensation with my friends. She gave me some cashew fruit as well which due to its soft juiciness failed to travel even as far as the municipal airport in Belize City the following morning.

Angie offered to drive me to a meeting of the Cashew festival planning committee where I was to meet Ms. Salome Tillet and Mr. Dean Tillet who are not closely related. I remembered as being held in the storm shelter at 7:30pm. The boys piled into the SUV with us to go along for the ride. 

When we arrived at the center which is also, I think, the high school building, the lights were off and no cars in the parking lot. Hmm. While we waited to see if someone would show up, Angie drove around the high school playing field and described the layout of the vendors and events associated with the Cashew Festival. “Over here is where bands play and there is beer drinking,” she points out. Angie is a little skeptical of what the cashew festival has become. Loud music, drunk people, a Miss Cashew beauty contest that has trouble finding women who want to compete, she feels that the event has perhaps lost its heart- celebrating the gifts of the cashew tree.  She recalls the days when it was about tasting the various products, a gathering of residents who have scattered to other parts of the globe and demonstrations of the unique way the residents of Crooked Tree process cashews by hand.

No one comes to the high school. The meeting is obviously not tonight. I am sure it is my mistake. Angie takes me around to find some “cashew seed”, the local moniker for cashew nuts.

You don’t go to the store in Crooked Tree.  You go to people’s private homes to buy stuff. Being a native villager, Angie knows who is likely to have some cashew nut available.  The lights of Angie’s car, wake a mutt sleeping in the driveway. The village is home to many stray dogs which are indistinguishable from owned dogs as they are all allowed to roam collarless and freely. Horses have the same status. They are often free to roam the village and into the Wildlife Sanctuary, much to Dericks’ chagrin. “Some tourists don’t know about horses,” he says. He thinks they scare some tourists.

Angie honks the car horn and yells out of the car window in a sharp Creole. I understand only a couple of words like “cashew seed”.  We stopped at four houses but everyone had already sold their stash of cashew.

We returned to the lodge empty handed but better acquainted.

Advertisements

Travel Karma: Belize: From Cashews to Carrie Bow Cay

IMG_3615

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.

IMG_3606

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,

bunk,

at least in Crooked Tree.*

IMG_3637

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.

IMG_3648

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.

IMG_3651

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.

Blog at WordPress.com.