Friday, May 30, 2008

Trip To Belize: Day 7

May 19, 2008

At 6:30 AM Jobina, Jay, CeCe, Laura (one of the owner's sister) and I gathered in the main lodge for an early breakfast. Today one of the owners of Cotton Tree (Chris) is taking us on a snorkeling/fishing excursion to West Snake Caye (island) in the Port Honduras Marine Reserve. Neither Jobina or I have ever gone scuba diving before so we are pretty excited. We will leave at 7 AM and take Chris's boat 10 miles up the Moho to the ocean, swing past Punta Gorda and head out into the reserve. It's supposed to take about an hour and 45 minutes to get there.

Zooming down the Moho river to the coast was awesome. Jobina and I stayed near the front of the boat and it was quite a rush as we careened through the twists and turns on water as smooth as glass. Here's what it looks like from the front of the boat, early in the morning:

I checked our speed on my GPS - we were doing just under 50 km/h. If as a mountain biker you like fast, tight, and twisting singletrack, well, this was the river-boating equivalent. Here's me enjoying the bliss of the wind and the speed:

Our friends CeCe and Jay in the back with Chris at the wheel:

We zipped along pretty fast, occasionally almost hitting native fishermen in their dugout canoes. There is almost no other habitation on the river so it's quite pristine. Chris showed us some large mangrove trees with their huge roots hanging into the water and said that they were over 400 years old. Also we saw a settlement/village that was started by some Baptist missionaries. Chris said that the missionaries came in, build a church, organized the village, trained indigenous leaders, and then left a nicely functioning and Belizean led church/village behind. That's how to do missions! Chris said every time he misses home (the U.S.) he goes to Church there.

Eventually we made it to the mouth of the Moho and entered the Caribbean where it got much rougher. A little north up the coast we passed Punta Gorda, picked up a friend of Chris's named Wayne, and then headed out into the reserve:

Unlike the Moho river, the ocean was quite choppy and since Jobina and I were near the front of the boat we were soon being thrown around in our seats pretty good. Suddenly we'd be zipping along and we'd be ejected a couple inches off our seats! Very exciting. The Mexican style boat (I forget what it was called) has a fairly flat bottom and the seats are slats of wood. Needless to say, in waves if you are in the front the ride gets quite bumpy. We put life jackets under our butts to cushion our landings.

Finally after passing many islands, most of them choked by mangroves, we reached West Snake Caye. What a beautiful island! Beaches, coral reefs off shore, little white crabs on the shoreline; it was everything paradise is supposed to look like:

We went for a refreshing swim in the ocean. Here's my beautiful wife toweling off back a the beach:

Here's the two of us on the beach (yes, I'm squinting, it was a hot blinding sun, so sue me):

After our swim we hung out on the beach and talked to one of the rangers who was building a new station on the island to keep a look out for Guatemalans who fish illegally in the protected waters. After this it was time for some snorkeling! Jay had crept off to do some fishing on the other side of the island, so the rest of us got into the boat and tied up the boat to a buoy about 100 yards away from him and got ready to snorkel. Neither Jobina nor I had ever done this before so were both excited and a bit nervous. Chris told us to make sure we spat into our masks as a first step. "Um, how much spit?" I asked incredulously. "About this much," he said and promptly hocked a huge lougie into his mask. Riiiiight. Anyway after a few minutes we got out masks and "fins" on. Here's Jobina about to take the plunge:

Here she is again in the water:

Later I too jumped in:

Snorkeling is an amazing experience. After you figure out how to breathe (and not panic) you relax into it and begin to notice what's all around you. Such beauty! The coral, plants, and starfish are fascinating enough, but the fish were mind-boggling. So many fish! It was like Finding Nemo in real life. Even without my glasses I saw three huge fish that were almost as long as I was. Gliding quietly in the water I saw scores of multi-colored fish chasing each other around and soon I was chasing them. So much fun! I'm not sure how long we stayed out there but it was magical and over way too soon. I can see moving to the Caribbean just to be able to snorkel like that. All I can say is "Wow."

Eventually we pulled ourselves away from the fish and returned to the boat. I was surprised to find Jobina there with a case of seasickness. She seemed to feel better though when we took off for a nearby Ranger station/interpretative center on another tiny island nearby. The island was small but cute with a three story tower in the middle. Here is the welcome sign after we were given permission by the rangers to dock at the island:

This island had the most unusual urinal I have ever seen. It hangs right over the water. Here it is:

When you go inside and pop up the toilet seat lid, here is what you see: tropical water with little golden fish swimming below you. Peeing down onto the fish was quite the unique experience (and they didn't seem to mind)!

After a nice lunch underneath the Ranger Station where it was nice and cool, we took a tour of the station. Here is the view from one of the windows:

And here is a map showing the reserve with all the little islands that the rangers patrol. With precious little resources (money or supplies) these rangers do an admirable job to protect the fragile eco-system that they have been entrusted with:

Warning: Frank discussion of my bodily functions ahead, proceed at your own risk.

Soon we left the station, did some fishing from the boat, went snorkeling again, and then headed for home. As were doing our last snorkel I realized that I had to go pee. Can you pee in the ocean I thought? You can pee in lakes - but maybe not the ocean, maybe the salt in the water would hurt delicate parts of the body? Indecision ruled me. Although this makes no sense to me as I look back, I decided to hold it. The problem was when we got back into the boat my bladder starting giving me more urgent messages. Soon we were jumping across the water and Jobina and I in the front were being slammed down again and again as the boat hit the waves. Not good! I told Chris I had to go the bathroom so he actually went faster - which was even worse because the bumps were harsher. I thought my bladder was going to burst. Images of me peeing off the boat or being poisoned by my ruptured bladder tormented me. I prayed fervently. Finally (after what seemed an eternity) we neared PG where I was told that we could stop off at a dock near Wayne's apartment and I could use his facilities there. As we approached this place, suddenly Chris changed his mind and said the tide was too far out to risk going at this dock. Arghhh! So we headed for a Texaco station near the main town dock. A few minutes later as we neared the dock suddenly Wayne's hat flew off his head and into the water, a victim of the intense wind. "Noooooooooo!" I screamed internally as I felt I was near the edge of having an accident. We slowly turned around and went back for the hat but we missed it the first time, necessitating another run at it. Finally we scooped it up, wasting several minutes in the process and I began to lose all hope. Chris eventually got us to the main PG dock and I hobbled onto it and very slowly goose stepped my way to the Texaco station. "Where is the bathroom please?" I croaked to a disinterested Belizean behind the till. She motioned with her head outside. I practically crawled around the building only to find the door was locked. I grimaced and crept back to the lady? "It's locked," I whispered to her and then she pointed to the key on the counter. With my last bit of self control I grabbed it, and got outside to the bathroom and relieved myself. "That was the most beautiful moment of my life," I said honestly to the laughing boat as I returned. I love that gas station! Here's a picture of me in front of it a few days later. I'm quite fond of it actually. It will always have a special place in my heart.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Trip To Belize: Day 6

May 18, 2008

I think that today was the hottest I have ever been in my life! After a relatively cool night we had breakfast and headed out down the road 10 minutes to the nearby village of Santa Anna. The attraction: Santiago's house. The real attraction: a dry cave at the end of his property. Santiago was busy so Antonio took us there. Here's a picture of the road to Santa Anna with the Mayan Mountains in the distance (I was always cheered by this view, so different from what I see at home):

The 20 minute hike from the road through fields to the cave was punishing. We had been told to dress in pants, shoes, and socks (because of bugs which were nonexistent) and the 38 degrees Celsius (plus high humidity!) was almost unbearable. Sweat poured off of us. Imagine being completely soaked in your own sweat and using your cap to brush off the sweat pooling on your nose. Then imagine using your cap, 1 minute later, to do it again because you are sweating so much! That's how bad it was! By the time we reached the cave mouth, many of us in our party were not doing well. I almost felt faint from the heat and was looking forward to a cool cave. That's when I asked Antonio how much cooler it would be in the cave and he said "Oh, a degree or two (Fahrenheit)." Doh! Here's the entrance:

Here's me (we all had to wear headlamps and helmets - I had to wear a bike helmet which made me look like an idiot bit it did protect my head several times so I can't complain) :

None of us felt great as we explored the dry cave. Unlike the Blue Creek it was hot, cramped, and there was wildlife. Antonio explained that his dad had come to this very cave one day and found a jaguar snoozing in the entrance. How comforting! We saw several tailless scorpions (harmless), the tails of some lizards poking out of holes in the rocks, and several large spiders. At the the deepest part in the cave I was starting to feel overwhelmed by the heat and claustrophobia but then I sat down for a bit and I felt much better. We did the trick of turning out all the lights again and listened to bats moving around in the next cavern. Then we went back - nobody wanted to stay in there any longer. Too hot. Here's a picture of Jay and CeCe, and then one of us:

Needless to say, when we got back to the lodge we went swimming in the Moho again:

Then we spent some time watching and attempting to take pictures of the iguanas and lizards by the river. Here are two of my favorite shots of these funny and fast creatures:

Jobina and I also did some kayaking after it cooled off a bit. Kayaking down a jungle river is awesome - I remarked to Jobina that it seemed like such a natural a thing for us to be doing and she agreed. I could have just kept on going (and maybe never returned) but Jobina got antsy so we went back. Sadly no pictures of this excursion.

This evening was supposed to be our final night in the Honeymoon Cabana and the next day we were supposed to move into the Jungle Cabana for our final two nights at Cottonwood Lodge. Jobina wasn't sure about moving so deep into the jungle (and admittedly neither was I though perhaps for different reasons), so we toured it during the day and at night. Here's how dark it is in the jungle at night even during a full moon:
During our night tour, something VERY large crashed through the forest behind the Jungle Cabana as we were checking it out. This spooked us both quite good! Right there and then Jobina made the decision to stay in another cabana closer to the main site. Were we chicken? Partly - but the Jungle cabana is very far away and the layout and features are not nearly as luxurious as the ones at the main site. On the way back, I was attacked by ants on the walkway (ouch). I was very careful to miss the procession of leaf cutter ants and missed the fact that I was walking on a procession of smaller, meaner, angrier ants. Jobina was delighted to see me reacting to the bites - usually that is her realm alone. Last night in our beautiful Honeymoon Cabana (sniff)- but a snorkeling day trip to the Cayes awaits us tomorrow!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Trip To Belize: Day 5

May 17, 2008

It was kind of a sad start to the day as we said goodbye to our friends Dagny and Jeremy who left in the morning. Dagny told us at breakfast that Jeremy was pouting and grumbling all morning (something he readily admitted to) because his time in Belize was over. So they were sad that they were going and we were sad that they wouldn't be with us anymore. Cotton Tree is a communal kind of resort. Although there is plenty of time for someone to be alone or with their special someone in private, the resort itself is like a little village and the guests often eat together at the same table and share commonly in the daily expeditions and tours. Here's a picture of Jeremy and Dagny right before they left:

After goodbyes and a hearty breakfast (I had so many eggs I'm embarrassed to say how much), we headed into Punta Gorda (aka PG) for a quick shopping trip with CeCe and Jay. It was interesting being dropped off in a crowded market, in extreme heat, and you are the only white people within a square mile. For the first time I think I really understood what being part of a minority really feels like. We picked up some souvenirs for ourselves and our Moms but since we only had an hour we didn't get to see very much. I bought myself a machete and in a moment of out-of-the-box thinking bought a smaller "mini-machete" for Riker (If you are amazed Jobina agreed to this - so am I!). I am very excited to give it to him. Here's us at the market:

Also, we found a small Christian library/book store called "Da Wata Fountin." In this picture, even though you can't make it out I'm holding Dobson's "What Wives Wish Their Husband's Knew About Women":

I found it interesting that in PG most of the locals were wearing long pants, socks, and shoes even though it was about about 37-38 degrees Celsius and super humid! Obviously this is a local fashion thing. We raced back to the van and enjoyed the air conditioned ride out to Vincent's house at Blue Creek. We had enjoyed our last tour of the caves so much with Jeremy and Dagny that we agreed to go again with CeCe and Jay (also we wanted to get pictures this time). Before we set out on the 20 minute hike to the caves we ate at Vincent's house:

Vincent's house is made of concrete with a thatch covered palapa outside. Chickens, dogs, and other animals roam freely and would occasionally come inside the palapa and even the house! We ate outside. Ironically the first time we came here sat outside under the palapa with the chickens and ate chicken while they moved among us.

So we ate a great meal and headed out on the trail with our local guide Sylvano. Here he is pointing out an especially large iguana in the tree:

Along the way I looked up and saw a trail going up to a distant mountain. "Where does this go?" I asked. "To the top of Hokeb Ha mountain, it takes about an hour to climb it." "Let's climb it sometime!" said CeCe. Another day, trail, another day!

This trail is one of the nicest I have ever walked. Here's some of the images along the way to the cave. Flowers:

Some of the huge palm tree leaves along the way. The leaves are harvested at full moon (which is whey they are ready) and used as thatching for cabanas and palapas.

This is just a nice view of the jungle with Blue Creek in the distance:

And here's Blue Creek, which runs along side the entire trail:

Here are some of the pools of water close to the entrance, teeming with fish:

Eventually after watching carefully where you are stepping because it gets quite rocky (possibly even a little dangerous) you suddenly look up and you are in the entrance to a massive gorge that reaches to the sky. At the bottom is a large cave mouth with vines hundreds of feet long in front of the entrance. Blue Creek reaches far into the cave where after awhile only darkness can be seen. It is one of the most amazing vistas I have ever seen in person. Warning: the pictures that follow do not even come to close to capturing its majesty. Here is the cave mouth:

To navigate the cave we are given headlamps and old school life jackets. The local Mayans who rediscovered the caves figured out a way of putting life jackets around their waists so that they could easily float through the caves but have maximum mobility. Here's me in the cave striking a pose. Note my skin color. It's not a trick of the light - that's my combination farmer/student skin, gleaming like polished ivory in the cave light!

As you get further into the cave it gets darker . . . and quieter.

Here's a picture of Jobina, Jay, and CeCe before we embarked deep into the darkness:

Soon after we were floating in cool water (remember it was super hot outside) and into utter blackness. Even with the lights, the silent darkness is just kept at bay. We floated child-like deeper into the caverns, occasionally gliding up and over rocks that were just below the surface. The overall effect of the beauty, silence, and coolness is a kind of sensory joy. The first time we came in with Vincent he lead us far in and after a while we climbed up onto a rock ledge. Then we all shut out our lights. The darkness was overwhelming, intoxicating, suffocating. Eventually Jobina turned her light on first and I could understand why. Deep in the middle of the earth with no light you start to lose your equilibrium and your mind plays tricks on you.

After our cave float we headed back to Cotton Tree and since the day was so hot we decided to go swimming in the river. Until then neither Jobina and I had yet taken the plunge. Although the river is quite clean, something held us back. But today after sampling the cool water of the caves we knew that we had to try it. It was great! I have swum in lakes, the ocean, pools, and even a cave. But swimming in Moho river was the most fun:

The intriguing thing about the river is that when you dive in you first hit a fresh layer of water (which is cool) but when you go deeper you hit a salt water layer which is hot, like hot as a shower! It's unlike anything you've ever experienced before. Diving and swimming off the dock was fun, but the best part was a 30 foot rope swing. I really enjoyed it as you can see:

Here's me sitting zen-like at the end of the dock contemplating "Why didn't we try this before?"

Later on we tried some some Belikin Beer, the national beer of Belize (I don't actually like beer very much but it wasn't bad). After a fine 4 course dinner where the main course was some delicious kabobs we ended off the night playing a relaxed game of Phase 10 on our bed, safely under our mosquito net.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Trip To Belize: Day 4

May 16, 2008

We woke up early to some very loud howler monkeys, well, howling loudly. I wish I could describe the sound. It is somewhat haunting, scary, comical, and comforting all at the same time. Anyway, we went back to sleep and arose later. I was kind of being lazy in the morning and since breakfast starts at 7:00am (and the milk they serve for granola is not cold very long), Jobina left without me. As I was laying there I had one of my occasional brainwaves: I decided to surprise Jobina by shaving my beard off. Genius!

A little back story here: Jobina has not seen me without my beard very often. Actually not many people have. But every now and then I feel like a change and shave it off for awhile. What better place then the hottest place I have ever been in? The problem is that Jobina doesn't actually like the baby face very much. Check that; I think it frightens her - as in she once actually had nightmares about it. So shaving the beard has ramifications. Anyway I showed up at breakfast and shocked her good. I wish I had a picture of her reaction! Ah, isn't that what romance is - constant cute little surprises? Boy she's lucky to have me.

After breakfast we (the Westmans plus Dangy and Jeremy and our two new American friends from Florida named CeCe and Jay) went out for our tour of the day: the Mayan Ruins at Nim Li Punit. These are not the most impressive of the many ruin sites in Belize but they are notable as having the best examples of stelas. Stelas are large engraved monolith/signposts, kind of like short stone totem poles with writing on them. Nim Li Punit has a great interpretative center with some of the stelas available to look at closely. Here's us at the interpretative center (enjoy the shock of witnessing my beardlessness):

Here's a large stela:

Here's a closeup of the Stela which shows its intricate work:

After much admiration of the stelas we went outside to see the ruins. On the way Vincent showed us what the locals call the "tourist tree." Why is it called this? Because the locals are amused by the way it resembles the tourists who come, get sun burnt, and then their skin peels, just like the tree's bark does:

Here's a random gratuitous beardlessness/couple picture:

Here is a picture of the some of the ruins. There are actually many more ruins that have not yet been excavated because the government lacks the resources (money) to do it. They are quite impressive though, even these smaller ones. The whole complex was quiet and felt old and ancient. I quite liked it:

I could show you several cool "ruins pics" we have but I'm not sure the pictures capture the scale and age well enough to justify it. I will mention though that I did stand on top of the area where the King supposedly lived. Oh yes, I felt the power! Also, this place was notable in that archaeologists think that unlike other Mayan sites, people were not necessarily killed as sacrifices here. Instead, athletes competed for the honor of winning a kind of racquet-ball like game (we saw the arena) and the winner then took part in a non-lethal sacrifice. That's right, it was the winner who made a sacrifice, not the loser! What is a blood sacrifice you ask? Well, I would say that death might be better. Instead of killing the men, they instead cut a man's genitalia, let the blood flow onto some paper and then burn the paper. Those crazy Mayans!

Anyway as interesting as the ruins were, we were just as intrigued with all the fruit trees growing around and began to sample their fruits. Jobina was especially enamoured with a kind of special mangoes that grew here. In Belize mangoes are so plentiful they are free. Vincent and Jeremy climbed a huge tree and got enough for everyone.

Later on Vincent showed us a fruit bearing tree called saursop which the Belizeans especial love and even use to flavour ice cream (I tried some of this ice cream later on in PG and it was quite good). The fruit wasn't quite in season but he managed to find one fruit that looked good enough to try. CeCe, who is an extremely energetic woman starting eating it with gusto and urged everyone to try this sweet fruit. Imagine her shock (and screaming) when all of a sudden a large flying beetle jumped out of her fruit! What's amazing is how Jay captured the moment just before CeCe saw the beetle and just before it took flight. If you look closely you can see the beetle (black) in the fruit CeCe is holding:

I guess the beetle had been, um, nesting deep in the fruit and gotten concerned as CeCe had been devouring his home. After the screaming ended we got a close up picture of it. Imagine this jumping out of a fruit you were eating?

This was of course very exciting and amusing but strangely no one else had any more fruit after that. After the tour we stopped at a little balcony-top restaurant overlooking the Rio Grande river, had lunch (lovingly packed for us by Cotton Tree), and then went for a swim in the river to cool off. Here's a few pics:

After swimming we headed back and to Cottonwood Lodge and after a brief siesta headed out on a medicinal plant tour in the jungle around the lodge. Santiago who works there is not only the main "plant guy" there but is also a genuine "bush doctor." Many of the Mayans will go to these bush doctors before conventional ones, even though conventional doctors are free (like here in Canada). He took us out into the jungle and showed us all kind of plants, how they are prepared, and what they cure (everything from forgetfulness to gonorrhea to rheumatism). As an example, he showed us how the wood of a certain tree applied to insect bites stops the itching. Since many of us had mosquito bites we all tried the wood - it works! He also pointed out a boa constrictor hiding in a log. Jobina got a close up picture of it's head although it's a bit hard to make out:

Later on in the tour we got a real treat: high up in the canopy Santiago spotted a family of howler monkeys. Finally we could see what made that terrible noise! Interestingly the monkeys were not menacing at all, quite cute actually. Again they were pretty high up so it's hard to get a good picture of them:

Later on, Santiago showed us a particular kind of vine that when slashed with a machete not only produces water, but water that will help you recover your memory. Here's some pics of Jobina and I trying the water directly from the vines:

Although we hadn't done much physical today, Jobina and I felt pretty wiped from the heat and after appetizers we went and hung out in the hammock at the gazebo together, chatting about the day and enjoying each other's company. I wrote in my journal that this was the best part of my day.

I felt very blessed and very much at peace. Another great day in the jungle.