Monday, May 29, 2006

Fox News
A fox has been scampering through our yard these past few mornings. Unfortunately, our cat takes off after him to give chase. Our cat came back the other night with blood in his ear - he had a nasty cut. Listen cat, stay away from the fox.

Tropical Shots
Here are the completed photo galleries of our trip to Belize.
The photos are divided into these galleries:

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Belize: Part II
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Actun Tunichil Muknal. The Cave of the Stone Sepulcher. We traveled by van to a remote valley that was cultivated by the ancient Maya over 1000 years ago. From the parking lot, we hiked 45 minutes alongside a river (crossing it 3 times) to arrive at the entrance to the cave. A leap of faith was required, as it were - a pool of deep water guarded the entrance. We had to swim into the gateway in order to proceed further. (Real Indiana Jones type stuff here). Once inside, we traveled in an underground river whose depths varied from ankle deep, to knee deep, to waist deep and even chest deep waterlines. Through wide tunnels and narrow channels were crept deeper into the cave and darkness (the wall illuminated by our headlamps). At a point, our guide told us to climb up a large stone - it was from here that we would leave the river and instead scale upwards into the chambers where the Maya offered their sacrifices to Chak - God of Water.

Actun Tunichil Muknal served as a gateway to Xibalba - the underworld. It was here in caves that the Maya got closer to their gods - they traveled into their realm. A drought plagued the Maya. They ventured into the cave in order to make offerings of food to appease Chak and beseech him to bring on the rains. As the drought progressed, the Maya ventured ever deeper into the cave - and indulged in stronger sacrifices - this time performing ritual bloodletting. Indeed, Chak was not so forgiving; the drought continued. It was after this that the Maya ventured deeper into Xibalba and performed the ultimate sacrifice - human. The deep recesses of the cave chamber revealed numerous pottery vessels and human bones. Skulls showed signs of blunt force trauma - the participants (willing for the most part) were struck with a stone in the sacrificial ceremony. Our guide illuminated the cave with his flashlight. Huge stalactites and flowstone formations adorned the cave ceiling and walls. Pottery, skulls and bones remained frozen in place within the flowstone. Some low ceilings were stained with soot - a remnant from the fires that the Maya used to illuminate their rituals. I cannot describe with full justice what we saw and how we felt as we progressed through Actun Tunichil Muknal. It is a place like no other.

We had some interesting talks with our various guides and drivers. Freddy, our driver to the ATM cave (he from Guatemala and now a Belize citizen - with a Belizean wife) told us the ins and outs of the Belize lotto game. We also compared prices for groceries (they win on price for fish and seafood). Sevino, an outspoken critic of Belize politics and our driver to the international airport told us about Belizean's love of the NBA, Shaq, and Michael Jordan. Then there is Hugh, our guide at the Mayan ruins of Caracol. He pointed out virtually every bit of flora and fauna along the road, discussed the positive contributions of the US military (help build roads, schools, medical clinics in rural Belize), and mentioned that his age is 22 if measured by the relationship of the US/Belize exchange rate (US$1 = BZE$2)

Our Inn had some interesting guests stay the first night we arrived. They were the Travel Society of Orlando. We learned from Elmer, our host at the inn, that their bar tab on the 1st night was BZE $400. 2nd night it climbed to BZE $800. 3rd night they elevated their drinking to the tune of BZE $1200 and the night we saw them in action they racked up a BZE $1600 bar tab. They hiked to a waterfall earlier that day and radioed to the management to have 2 cases of beer delivered to them at the waterfall by the inn staff. About 10 members made up the society. Man, I can think of easier to get to and cheaper places to get hammered at. I have no idea what the Society gains by their yearly trips. I suppose its a world tour for their livers...

An example of how Belize is different from its neighbors: I went on an early morning birding expedition with Rick, the Inn's in-house birding expert. As we walked amongst the coffee groves another birder asked Rick if he was Mayan. His answer: Yes, my ancestors came from Mexico. Here's what the Spanish did to us. They'd go to the mestizos and say "Hey, the Maya don't like you". Then they'd go to the Maya and say to them "Hey, the mestizos don't like you". So when the shooting started between the Maya and the mestizos the Spanish would jump in and shoot both. My ancestors fled to Belize. There, the British said to them "Here, take guns. Go kill as many Spanish as you like". So you see, we like the British

I couldn't help but get the sense that whatever the problems Belize had, they were nowhere near as grave as those in Guatemala and Mexico. You don't know how many times we heard from guides and drivers how different Guatemala was - and not for the better. Being in the western part of the country, many of our guides and drivers were Mayan in heritage. They all seemed to give the impression that they were glad to be on this side of the border. Perhaps it is easier to be Mayan in Belize than elsewhere.

The last 4 days of our week was spent at the ocean. We flew by small prop plane to the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye. This is where most tourists who come to Belize go. We stayed at a comfortable condo type accommodation. Quiet. No bar and no restaurant. The place was perhaps half full. We had our own private beach ringed with palms and hammocks. We befriended a newlywed couple from North Carolina. The guy had spiky hair and seemed comfortably southern. She was classy and expertly groomed. We could not imagine how these two met. But it was clear that they got along real well. He caught her a fish supper from the hotel's fishing pier. I'm not sure how much she liked the barracuda. We ended up eating fish with them for lunch the next day. The barracuda had a lot of tiny bones in it. I'll pass the next time barracuda is offered.

San Pedro is an interesting place. Its a real town - not just a tourist bubble. The school basketball court is right in the center of things and turns out a lot of the locals. Kids went by during the day wearing their school uniforms. The preferred method of locomotion among the town's streets was by golf cart. It was chaos, yet it was nice to see the locals not yet jaded or turned off to foreign tourism. I didn't see signs of the parasitic relationship you see in the more built up tourist hot spots of the Caribbean. Go to places like Punta Cana, Cancun, Jamaica, and you're trapped in some cocoon. Venture outside the gates and you're preyed upon by vultures. You don't care (and learn nothing) about the country you're visiting and the locals see you as nothing more than a dollar sign. Not a good thing I'd say. Those places have little appeal to me.

We had a great time snorkeling in the Hol Chan Marine Preserve. Our guide, Alphonse was a wealth of knowledge. Mrs. Rants especially liked how he snorkeled along with us and did not hesitate to point out the various fish and marine life we spied upon. Oftentimes you go snorkeling and you name fish by "pretty colors blue" or "crazy shaped fins fish". Alphonse gave names to the flippers. We then cruised over to Shark Ray Alley - basically a place to swim with the stingrays and grab on to the nurse sharks. All of this takes place at the barrier reef, which sits about 3/4 of a mile off the coast from Ambergris Caye. Its the 2nd longest in the world. The snorkeling we did was some of the best we've ever encountered (we've snorkeled Hawaii and St. John USVI). The boat ride back was priceless - one of those sun-going-down, out-on-the-Caribbean-waters moments that you don't forget. You hold on to it and cherish it. It helps you deal with those days when sitting at the office is a drag.

I think it's impossible to keep a Caribbean kitchen free of ants - no matter how well sealed the doors are.

They love Fanta in Belize. I like it too. The Orange and Red Fantas were tasty. Lots of the soda is served in glass bottles. Man, how cool is that? Keeps the stuff cold and the fizziness lasts longer. Do you wanna Fanta?

We ended up overindulging in the national hot sauce - Marie Sharp's. We had it on our eggs in the morning, tortillas, evening meals, etc. Everyone ate this stuff.

I'll relate our last excursion. We traveled by boat from San Pedro back to Belize City (an hour). Two different groups were heading out for daytrips - one to go tubing through caves, the other group (us included) to go travel upriver to the Mayan city of Lamanai. We lucked out though. There was some aging hippie loudmouth going on the cave tubing trip. He spent the boat ride taunting the guides - asking them which neighborhoods in Belize did you go to needing to carry a machete. Once wharfside, we took advantage of a hotel's bathroom accommodations before boarding respective vans to head out to our daytrips. I happened to hear the hippie guy release some gas and say "Muchos Grande". You could see everyone on that trip rolling their eyes just waiting to find out what was in store for them.

Anyways, we went by van up the Northern Highway for an hour and then parked at the shores of the New River. Here we boarded a speedboat for a fast paced (and quick turning) boat ride upriver (35 miles) to reach the ruins of Lamanai. Along the way we spotted silver monkeys in a tree. Further on we boated past a large Mennonite farm. Very Germanic looking kids huddled at the banks of the river wearing denim overalls and colorful button-up shirts. The Mennonites have been in Belize for about 100+ years. Apparently they grow something like 60% of the total agricultural output of the country. Anyways, further past them we arrived at Lamanai and enjoyed a local lunch of beans&rice, stewed chicken, and some habanero/onion dressing. Good stuff. I ate pretty well that lunch and then proceeded to walk around the ruins and climb the stone temples. We spent about an hour or so there and then reversed our trip - boatride back past the Amish to the vans. Van ride back to Belize City. Pick up the others from their trip and board the boat ride for San Pedro. Funny thing was, we ended up passing by a stranded water taxi that was loaded to the gills with schoolkids. We pulled up alongside the marooned boat and the aged hippie shouted, "Where's your father??. I swear, the guy was good for a laugh at the very least. We ended up doing the right thing and roping the boat to ours. We pulled them back to the harbor in Belize City and then turned around and fired the engines to make up for lost time. Good thing the captain brought plenty of coolers full of beer and rum punch. The boat ride back was pretty enjoyable. Again, one of those moments out on the aquamarine Caribbean with the breezes blowing and the setting sun in your face

By any measure, we had a great time. We saw a lot, did a lot, and the accommodation choices we made were excellent. I would go back to Belize - if for no other reason but to pick up some Fanta and hot sauce....

Monday, May 08, 2006

Belize: Part 1
I was able to score some internet time at our hotel Hidden Valley Inn. Man, what an awesome time so far. Everyday has been full of adventure and discovery.

First of all, it began with the flight down from Logan. We landed in Miami airport. Man, what a dump. The airport wanders around in hallways similar to my high school. Just aimless and purposeless with dust and broken ceiling tile. Once in a while you come across an actual boarding gate. I was not impressed.

The flight around Cuba was interesting. You could see the coastline and the utter lack of development. Just fields and dirt tracks. You could not see any boats or telltale boatwake in the water. The place probably looks the same as when Columbus sailed around.

Flying in to Belize - you go over the barrier reef (2nd longest in the world) and see how shallow the sea is. Small cayes sticking out from the blue sea. The international airport is out in the middle of nowhere - just surrounded by palms and scrubbrush. Our transfer to the hotel was an adventure. The GMC that our guide drove was afflicted with problems. First the engine wouldn't start. The driver tried to turn it over, but failed. He called a friend over from a neighboring touring company. He climbed under and successfully hotwired the vehicle. He said it was good training he received from his time living in the States. While driving from the airport the jimmy decided that 3rd gear was as high as it was going to go. We were taking bets as to when the transmission was going to crap out. Every minute or so the guy would speed up with the engine wailing and then have to ease off on the gas. We'd coast for a few seconds (in silence) before wailing her up again. Then while this was happening the hazard light decided to join in and blink away. The driver could not turn it off.

We stopped off at the Belize Zoo while on the way to our hotel. The zoo was very good. The paddocks were constructed of simple fencing material, but the animals seemed to be in good spirits. We saw all sorts of wildlife, howler monkeys, coatimundi, tapirs, macaws. The jaguar was cool. He had me fooled though. He was pacing the fence. I thought I had him figured out and went to catch him on the way around (so I could take a photo of him). He declined to match my expectations. I headed back along the path and stopped (I saw a wood carving of a jaguar next to the trail that for a second had me thinking it was the real thing). Next I turn around back to the fence and the jaguar pounced from the underbrush. He had me dead to rights. Had not the electric fence been there I would be cat food.

The drive along the western highway (one of the few paved roads in the country) was interesting. One of those times you thank god for the creation of seatbelts. The driver had arranged for a new car to be delivered to us while we were at the zoo. He asked if we wanted him to go fast. We said yes. I guess fast in Central America means breakneck. He'd slow down for the speedbumps that they put in the road in the middle of the roadside villages. In between he'd go 100. Or something like that. It was insane.

Paved roads are really a luxury. The last 20 miles or so to the Inn was on rutted dirt track. I think the shocks and suspension people make a pretty good business in this country. The Inn is situated on top of a pine forested plateau roughly 3000 feet up from sea level. You wouldn't know it - its still hot even at higher elevation. A pine beattle deforested the area several years ago. Its pretty wide open right now - looks like the serengeti or the outback. You wouldn't think you were in Central America. The sunset from the Inn's pooldeck was enchanting. A hot sun decending over the Maya Mountains that mark the border with Guatemala. Wildlife goes nuts at sundown. You hear birds and tree frogs and cicadas and all sort of insanity stike up a conversation. You wouldn't believe the sounds. Its like stuff coming from a Brian Eno keyboard.

Sunday was good. We took advantage of the Inn's 1000 acres of property. Went for a long hike to one of their signature waterfalls. The Inn makes sure not to send its guests to the same places - so you're pretty much guaranteed to have a waterfall to yourself. We went to Butterfly Falls. The place was better than the picture on the brochure. Yeah, and there were butterflies too. Its nice when a place actually lives up to its namesake sometimes.

We hiked on. Went past more falls, coffee groves (the Inn grows their own), macadamia nut groves. Their food is spectacular. Its really fantastic. I can't wait for the meals. Lots of hot sauce and Belizean spiced dishes. They have pork tenderloin too, but I can have that when I get home.

Took the bikes out to the 1000' Falls - the highest in Central America. Showed up at a government run site where the caretaker was nowhere to be found and a huge rotweiler was going nuts (chained up). The caretakers son was sweeping the walkways. The caretaker showed up and we paid our fare. $2 US. Or maybe it was $1 Belizean. I don't know. The exchange rate is easy. It made for a joke too. Our guide for the drive out to Caracol (huge Mayan city currently being excavated) said that for American tourists it was nicer for him to say that his age was 22 instead of 44. I guess the exchange rate works in his favor when you think about it in those terms.

The Mayan city of Caracol. A magnificent place. Right up next to the border with Guatemala. 35 miles out on a dirttrack in the middle of nowhere. We went there for a sunset visit. You walk around the place with no other visitors. The main temple is still the largest manmade structure in Belize. We saw parrots flying around. One lady got stung by ants on her foot. Our guide was skilled in knowledge of medicinal plants. He grabbed a few leaves off an allspice tree in the plaza. She rubbed her foot with the leaves and was provided a slight numbing sensation. Her pain and discomfort was eased considerably. We hiked to the top of the main temple - just in time for sundown. The fire red orb descended over the Maya Mountains. Howler monkeys roared in the distance. A terrible sound - you can hear it for miles. We heard it come from all around us. Again, amazing. You can see for miles. Caracol was one of the most dominant cities in the Mayan world. Today only 11% has been uncovered. You can't imagine what it would be like to see the rest.

Tomorrow is another full day of adventure. This one will be quite unique. We descend underground into Actun Tunichil Muknal, a sacred cave system of the Maya. They used the inner chamber for human sacrifice. Entry into the cave requires wading into chest deep water in order to reach the inner passages. Once there, you see the remains of those same sacrifices just mentioned. I guess one can tell how these people were ritualistically killed. One man's skull is cracked wide open. It is said the Mayan people believed in the afterlife and that to die in sacrifice was an honor and a privilege. I hope our presence is an honor to him.

Well, hope to write more soon. More could be written about, but it is best to save some for memory.