Belize, Thanksgiving Week 2016, Part II

Red Hut Inn veranda.

(As before, blue links are informational and I receive zero financial benefit from them. Any pictures which aren’t The CEO’s are linked to their sources, and please don’t steal his.)

Monday, Nov. 21 – We’re up early and breakfasting on the veranda in the open air before we take our beach things to the rental car and head downtown to Belize City. Bookworm successfully navigates us through the one-way streets (and one intersection where the stoplights are nonfunctional) to the Museum of Belize. Louis pooh-poohed this institution last night, but he doesn’t know us.

You know how some people love the beach so much that they go every vacation? And how some people make the trip to Disneyland every few years? (Actually, I have a college friend who loves Disney World so much that she and her family go every year… and now she’s a travel consultant for Disney. I haven’t used her services, but if you’re thinking of visiting any Disney facility anywhere in the world, I know Holly would arrange something awesome for you: Holly’s Holidays.) Then there are people who vacation somewhere new each time, people who only go skiing, people who visit the same resort in the Poconos every year.

Us? We’re Museum People. Wherever we go, we find the museum(s).

museumbelizeSo this morning, we park Big Red on a city street across from the museum and right near the Baptist church school, having on the way passed the Catholic school, the Apostolic Pentecostal school, the Methodist mission school, and the Assembly of God school; the windows are open and we can hear what’s going on in class. (Gaze and Taz are missing two days of school this week, and they’re not sorry!) As we walk to the entrance, we see a sign that states the museum’s hours… and they’re closed on Monday.

The security guard hears us wondering what we’re going to do, and motions to us. “Come on in,” he says. Really? Apparently so. The guy at the front desk tells us that we’re welcome. The CEO asks about the jade head from Altun Ha, and the desk guy explains that it’s kept in a vault within a vault within a vault in the central bank building behind the museum, which itself used to be a prison, and is not available for viewing. “They got it out for people to see it for half a day in 2012, you know, when the Mayan calendar was supposed to end. But bang, put it right back away safe.”

Mayan jade ear flares.

The museum is small, built of stone, and you can clearly see where the cells used to be. There’s an exhibit of Belizean stamps, and a small exhibit of glass and ceramic containers from Colonial times. There is an intense exhibit on slavery in Belize, during the days when it was British Honduras and shipped fine mahogany all over the world. Upstairs, there is a display of Mayan jade ear ornaments and necklaces, and a case containing the skeleton of the elderly man found in a tomb at Altun Ha with the jade head. Here, the head is clearly a replica and not nearly as well done as the replica in the exhibit at Altun Ha; I hope that the skeleton is a replica as well and the real bones have been buried with dignity. There are some really beautiful examples of Mayan pottery as well. All in all, the small museum our host dismissed as not worth the time keeps us engaged for just under two hours.

gtb-belize-brown-sugarThen we grab our beach bags from Big Red and walk past two more schools (Anglican and another Catholic) toward the water taxi. The ferry ride takes 45 minutes to Caye Caulker, and although the sky is clouding up, we walk down the island hoping to see if we can find a place to eat the sandwiches we brought. It begins to rain just as we’re passing one of the businesses that advertise snorkeling tours, and we step in to inquire, grateful for the shelter. It’s after noon, and the tour for the day left at 10:30, but they have slots for Tuesday.

We have a tour lined up for Tuesday, to visit the Mayan ruins at Lamanai. Wednesday, then? Wednesday. We take the contact information for Hicaco Tours and walk on.

Photo by Marc Veraart at Flickr, some rights reserved.
Photo by Marc Veraart at Flickr, some rights reserved. Click through to follow link.

The rain stops, though everything is still very wet. Behind a sandwich shop that seems to be closed (we’re here at the very end of hurricane season, before the high vacation season starts in December), we find a picnic table and devour our lunch. Gradually the sun comes out and we walk on toward “the split,” the place where a hurricane washed away part of the island in the early 1960s, leaving those who lived or owned property on the northern bit without a good way to reach the southern bit, where the water taxi docks. “They thought about building a bridge,” the guy at the boat tour place told us, “but they figured that another hurricane would just wipe it out again.” I would have thought that a pontoon bridge might be sensible, since the area to be bridged is not large, but apparently the idea has been dismissed.

At the split, we visit the only public restrooms on the island. They’re hard to find and cramped, poorly lit. (This seems like a terribly tourist-unfriendly idea to me: Waikiki has public restrooms. Virginia Beach, Nags Head, Daytona: all have public-access buildings with showers and toilets and stalls where visitors not staying in hotels right near the beach might change into their swimsuits. True, those are all American beaches, but Bondi and Manly, near Sydney, also have public loos.)

The main street on Caye Caulker.
The main street on Caye Caulker.

The sun finally comes out, and it’s a beautiful day again. We keep seeing open-air kitchens and restaurants with odd hours along the two streets. Whatever they’re cooking (I’m guessing grilled chicken? seafood and plantains?) smells fabulous, but we can’t eat dinner here because the last ferry leaves at 5.

Bookworm and The CEO discover a low-tide area where empty conch shells are strewn about; they pick up three. One of them is a peculiarly greenish color outside, but its inside lip is a gorgeous pinky-orange, like sunset. Hardly anyone is on the beach here, just a few people sunbathing. We find a section of beach and put down our towels; I find several tiny spiral shells, perfect, and some scallop shells so pure and white they could be ceramic. The water is cold, and the sand is so fine it feels like mud underfoot. Farther out there are patches of seagrass. I’m not digging it. I avoid swimming in lakes for just this reason, gross stuff underfoot! We find some grass-free zones and swim around for an hour or two, before we get tired and decide to trudge back up to the split to change out of our suits.

At the ferry terminal, there’s a feisty little chihuahua wearing a nametag that says “Leo,” who amuses himself by sniffing everyone’s bags and shoes before returning to his repeated attempts to eviscerate his stuffed platypus. My feet hurt from walking around in flip-flops, and I’m definitely not well-hydrated, which is my fault for not buying enough water bottles.

Gaze leans against the bulkhead and falls asleep. Bookworm leans on her knees and does the same. Taz produces a paperback book from his backpack (good lord, the child can read anywhere), and The CEO reviews the pictures he took on the beach. Back in Belize City, we’re starving and stunned that all the restaurants near the water taxi entrance are closed now. You’d think they’d stay open and catch tourists taking the last ferry of the day back to the mainland.

Photo by Connie Ma at Flickr, some rights reserved. I'm surprised at how common it is here to have a metal fence around your yard.
Photo by Connie Ma at Flickr, some rights reserved. (Click through to follow link.)
I’m surprised at how common it is here to have a metal fence around your yard.

We drive around the city looking for an open restaurant, but all the little mom-and-pop “fast food” shops doing brisk business selling garnaches and plates of stew chicken with rice and beans have closed up. It’s 6:30 pm, and the only option we find is a Chinese restaurant. We introduce the boys to the (American, probably) Chinese-restaurant custom of ordering several dishes to share, by asking for Chicken and Broccoli, Pepper Steak, Sweet and Sour Pork, and Vegetable Fried Rice. With it, we get Fantas and Coke and Sprite.

Fanta is everywhere here, in flavors we don’t get at home (pineapple, fruit punch, a weird root beer that tastes like licorice), which reminds me of my childhood. Taz has become fond of red Fantas. The other thing I notice is that the soft drinks are all made with real sugar, and they don’t have that weird whangy aftertaste that ruins nondiet sodas for me nowadays.

Tuesday, Nov. 20 – Lamanai day! The CEO has been thrilled about this jaunt since he booked it last week: an hourlong drive north from Belize City to the boat location in Orange Walk, then an hourlong boat trip through “crocodile-infested waters” to Lamanai and a tour, lunch included, then the boat trip and drive back to our guest house.

We start early. Ian the tour guide is a careful driver; we have to pause several times for uniformed students to exit school buses. There are government schools, Ian says, but most everyone sends their children to the church-run ones. On the way, we marvel at the various colors people have painted their houses here — mostly pastels, some vivid sherbety colors. It would look silly in Virginia, we agree, but in the tropics it’s delightful. Ian stops once, to buy plantain chips for the monkey we’ll get to feed on the trip, and we see a farm truck hauling Brahma-cross cattle. “For market in Guatemala,” Ian tells us. “We mostly eat chicken and seafood here, some pork, some beef.”

When we get to the boat dock at Lamanai Belize Tours, it’s cool under the trees, but we sunscreen up and bug-spray ourselves anyway. Our boat includes the five of us, a couple from Louisiana, and Ian, and we’re ready! We go a little ways upriver to see the spider monkey that hangs around (literally) in the same spot most of the time, and about half of us choose to feed him plantain chips. He poses for pictures.

Then we’re speeding back down the Rio Nuevo, which is particularly funny to us since the river we live near in Virginia is also called the New River. (Generally considered by geologists to be one of the five oldest rivers in the world, its name is contrary.) The vegetation ranges from small trees at the edge of the water to bushes to water lilies, and we see many waterbirds.

At Lamanai, “Submerged Crocodile,” we have to hurry the start of our tour because, Ian says, we’re attempting to get through before the cruise ship tours start. Our tour, with no set time to be back at the ship before it leaves port, will be more extensive than the one the cruisers get, but we’d better get going.

Jaguar Temple, Lamanai. Taz in red shirt, Gaze in blue, Bookworm in orange, and the jaguar at bottom left. Photo by The CEO.
Jaguar Temple, Lamanai. Gaze is in blue shirt, Taz in red, Bookworm in orange, and the jaguar is at bottom left. Photo by The CEO.

Ian tells us that this site was discovered when the people who lived near it started to wonder why there were hills there, when most of the land nearby is very flat. They started to dig, found stone, and realized it was an ancient Mayan site. This one was occupied for over 2000 years and, at its largest, held over 35,000 inhabitants. The site is not fully excavated, but clearly covers a much larger area than Altun Ha.

We first visit the Jaguar Temple, and then living quarters that once housed royalty or high-level religious officiants. We make our way past the smaller Stele Temple, with its beautifully carved standing stone, through the Ball Court, and then on to the High Temple, which is indeed really high. I get dizzy 3/4 of the way up, and refuse to go up any farther. Visibility is wonderful from this high up, but it makes me nervous.

The High Temple, Lamanai. Crane your neck to see the top... a bit further... yeah, that's high. Photo by The CEO.
The High Temple, Lamanai. Crane your neck to see the top… a bit further… yeah, that’s high. Photo by The CEO.

Then we spend a few moments on a gravel path to the Mask Temple, so-called because of its depiction of a deity wearing a crocodile headdress. The masks here are fiberglass replicas too, which seems quite sensible to me in protecting the original from exposure to weather (and careless people). Here we run into not one, but two cruise-ship tours, full of loud people who spend a lot of time taking selfies. I actually hear two people refer to the temple as “Inca.” Eye roll.

(I dunno. I’ve said we’re Museum People and history geeks, and that’s true. We don’t go on vacation with thoughts of tropical rum drinks and tanning on the beach. We’re weird, and we like it that way.)

After the Mask Temple, we’re making our way along the tree-shaded, graveled path back to the entrance when we hear them: howler monkeys. We go to the picnic shelter for our lunch, of traditional Belizean stew chicken seasoned with annatto, rice and beans, fried plantains, cole slaw, pico de gallo, and soft drinks. It’s delicious.

Then we’re back on the boat, breeze blowing our shirts. Taz rests his head on my thigh and goes to sleep. We round a curve and six white herons rise on flapping wings into the air, lifting, lifting — and then we’re around the next curve and they’re gone. The CEO mutters to me, “They told me these were crocodile-infested waters. I feel cheated.”

We’re almost back to the boat dock when we see it: a roiling in the water, something being dragged down. I’m thinking, Ooh finally! a crocodile just grabbed lunch!, when Ian slows the boat to get a closer look, and it turns out to be…

Crocodile. Actually, EX-crocodile. Photo by The CEO.
Crocodile. Actually, EX-crocodile. Photo by The CEO.

… a tail-less crocodile, certainly dead, floating in the water. Ian speculates that either it had been killed by poachers and its tail taken, or it had been hit by a boat and something else, perhaps another crocodile, had eaten its tail. It was definitely moving when we saw it, though we decide that at that point, another crocodile must have been moving it, trying to drag it away to be lunch. The CEO goes back through his photos and finds one showing movement. SEE IT LOOKED ALIVE SEE SEEEEEE?? THERE WAS SPLASHING AND EVERYTHING.

I nearly drift off during the trip back to Belize City, while Ian and The CEO talk about the possibility that someone might come in and buy a bunch of the land that is just sitting idle here, and start an agricultural enterprise. There were once sugar plantations, after the mahogany had been thinned out, but people don’t really farm around here, other than a few private vegetable gardens, and those cattle we saw earlier. We see lots of little roadside stands selling fresh coconuts, but nobody really raises coconut trees; they find the trees and harvest the nuts to sell.

Dinner is at the Sahara Grille, five minutes’ walk for Mediterranean food. Picky Taz is nonetheless satisfied with chicken kebabs (and red Fanta, of course). The CEO can’t remember whether he likes falafel or not (I remember, and the answer is NOT), so he orders kefte, which he has a vague memory of liking. It’s all good, and although we have to dodge the potholes in the road with care, it’s nice to walk after dinner.

I’m still not wearing any perfume, by the by: too many mosquitoes, too big a chance of Zika virus and other nasty tropical illnesses. Better safe than sorry, though I could really dig a spritz of Tommy Girl at this point.

Tomorrow we snorkel!


Belize, Thanksgiving Week 2016, Part I

It may take me three posts to get through the Belize travelogue! We had a wonderful time.

FYI, there are lots of informational links in this series of posts about our vacation to Belize. If you want to read more about something, go ahead and click a link in blue text without worrying that you’ll be directed to a site that wants your money. 🙂

Friday, Nov. 18 – Doing the hurry-scurry gotta-pack-gotta-go dance, making sure we have dog care covered and vehicle ready to make the 4-hour drive to The CEO’s sister’s house near Dulles. I kinda hate this part of a trip. Did I unplug everything, did we turn the heat down, did we get the trash out, did I leave something I will need? Ugh.

Bookworm keeps calling to tell us that she’s stuck in Friday-evening traffic in and around NYC. Poor baby, she really hates traffic, and she’s already tired. She doesn’t get in until after 11 pm.

Saturday, Nov. 19 – Up at 4 am to make a 6:30 flight, double ugh. Security is pretty fast at this time of day, and there are no issues with the first leg of our flight. It’s cold and windy in Chicago (duh!), but we manage to grab some breakfast and make our next flight, direct to Belize City.

belize-airport-signIt’s warm here. Sort of tropical, but not in the same carefree island way that Hawai’i is tropical. The car rental guys, Ashton and Fitzgerald, are super nice. They give us “Big Red,” a good-sized SUV, help us load our suitcases, and even draw us a map for the Red Hut Inn. It starts to rain, and we manage to get sorta lost on the short 15-minute drive — not because the directions are bad, but because there are no street signs, I mean absolutely zero signs, and also because I am distracted by all the houses and buildings that would probably be condemned as unhabitable here in the US. A road crew is working on the main road from the airport to downtown Belize City, and it’s kind of scary: potholes, narrow places, no shoulder, river on one side, plus people in orange vests with shovels of gravel. The speed limit on this highway is 40 mph, but we get passed by six vehicles, all going well over 40. I don’t know how.

I’m thinking maybe this was not the best idea we ever had, especially when we hit yet another pothole on the street that should be where our guest house is. At least everybody speaks English, I remind myself.

red-hut-innWhen we find the guest house (it’s a Thanksgiving miracle! no sign out front), it’s in a residential neighborhood on a street that goes almost down to the water. The hosts are welcoming, and our rooms are nice. They’re on the third floor; The CEO and I are in a small double-bed room, and the kids are in a room at the other end of the balcony, with a twin bed and a bunk-bed. We’re dying from the humidity until we turn on the AC. (Thank you, Lord for AC.) It happens to be a holiday here, and there are few businesses open. We know we’ll need groceries for lunch tomorrow, so we go to the Asian grocery the hosts recommend and pick up some staples. Then a lovely grilled-chicken dinner cooked by Louis, and then, oh yes, bedtime.

Sunday, Nov. 20 – Adventure time! Our host told us last night that we could certainly manage a three-item tour today, and because The CEO loves a challenge, we’re going for it: Mayan ruins site Altun Ha, the baboon sanctuary, and the Belize Zoo.

We eat peanut butter sandwiches and raisins for breakfast and drink juice boxes. We’ve been advised that the water is safe to drink here, but because Bookworm is very concerned (“I cannot get sick. There are only three weeks of class left and I have a substantial research paper to finish and FroCo duties and my chem research lab stuff and then there are exams and I. CANNOT. GET. SICK.“), we have planned to drink bottled liquids.

We drive north on the same  highway we traveled yesterday; past the airport turnoff construction ceases and the road is pretty decent. We’re in the parking lot for Altun Ha about 45 minutes after leaving Belize City, and we are sunscreening and bug-spraying ourselves for all we’re worth, when a man walks up to us and asks if we would like a tour of the ruins. “How much?” we ask.

“Special price,” he tells us. “$5 American for each of you. At least an hour tour, and I’ve been through the training as a tour guide. You can ask me anything.” His name is Frederick, and although his tour doubles the cost of the entrance fee, it turns out to be absolutely worth it. He outlines the history of the city, explains the general layout and the reason why some of the temples are left unexcavated (they are mostly constructed of limestone, and since limestone is porous, removing the tree roots that have grown into the buildings over time would cause the structures to crumble), as well as giving us a thorough overview of the site and Mayan history in general. He answers all our questions, which are many and vary from, “So why are some of the temple steps white and some of them natural stone?” to “So they think this area off to the right was, what, the priest’s house?”

Altun Ha plaza. Photo by The CEO.
Altun Ha plaza. Photo by The CEO.

Altun Ha is a relatively small site, one of the later trading posts of the Mayans, and has several excavated/partially-restored temples as well as two central plazas. One of the most exciting finds from the excavation here was the tomb of an elderly man, either royalty or high-ranking priest, who was buried with exquisite pottery and heavy jade and shell jewelry. Resting near his right hand was a carved piece of jade depicting the head of the sun god Kinich Ahau. This jade head weighed nearly ten pounds and is the single largest piece of Mayan carved jade ever found. It now rests in the Central Bank in Belize City, and a picture of it is on all Belizean currency.

Frederick explains to us that Belize’s population is about a third Mestizo (people of Spanish and Maya descent), about a third Kriol (people of African and English/Scottish descent), about 10% Maya, about 6% Garifuna (people of African and Amerindian descent), and the remaining 12-14% people from elsewhere in the world. A fair number of these are Chinese, he says, which would explain the Chinese grocery we saw.

On the way out, we stop by the souvenir stall that Frederick and his girlfriend keep. They’re selling beautifully made and polished wooden items – bowls, and decorative items like the toucan. We buy The CEO’s sister a gorgeous bowl and a natural wood toucan for ourselves.

Then, with Bookworm reading the map we got at the airport (maps: not ma thang), we find the road going to the baboon sanctuary. Which is not, I discover, for baboons, but for native howler monkeys.

This cracks me up, and you’d have to know my dad to understand, but any time my brother, sister, or I were crying and he was trying to jolly us out of it, he’d call us howler monkeys. He kept that up with his grandchildren, so that when I hear “howler monkey,” I can hear my dad’s voice saying it in my head. It’s an eye roll, but a sweet one.

We find a place advertising itself like this: “Your exciting eco-tour starts here!” We pull in. There are restrooms and a picnic table, plus a small building that looks like a restaurant — or, let’s be honest here, a beer place that serves food, like most of the rest of the places we’ve seen on the side of the road here. But nobody’s around, except a mother dog so tired she just flicks an ear at us and goes back to sleep. We eat lunch (more PB&J sandwiches, more juice boxes), reapply bug spray, and head down the trail.

Howler monkey
Howler monkey

There are monkeys right there. Before we’ve gone three minutes’ walk, there are two males, a female, and a baby in the trees overhead, and we carefully step across a long line of large ants carrying pieces of leaf. The male howlers are making their weirdly loud booming noises (clearly we are threats), and The CEO gets several good pictures. Insects are flying around, and this is making Bookworm nervous, and we’re all hot, so we decide that the car’s AC sounds good, and we don’t want to miss the zoo hours, so we leave.

Bookworm navigates us back to Belize City down a different road, and we hit the Belize Zoo parking lot with plenty of time to see everything. The zoo tries to replicate natural habitats as much as possible for its animals, which are all native species and are all either rescued, orphaned, zoo-born or rehabilitated (i.e., nobody went out and captured animals in the wild to display here). Taz is excited about the tapir (“mountain cow” in Belize), and Gaze likes the colorful birds. But it’s a big thrill for us to run across an enclosure for two pumas, AKA cougars, AKA mountain lions, AKA panthers. Puma concolor is long gone from eastern North America, but it once lived here in the mountains of southwest Virginia, and of course our high school mascot is the cougar. (Although the last authenticated report of a cougar in our state was in 1884 in Washington County, my grandfather, born in 1912 in neighboring Lee Co., swore that he’d heard a cougar — a “painter” in local parlance — in the woods as a child. “Sounded just like a woman screaming,” he said.) A zoo employee happens to be standing by with a covered pail, and the larger puma stops near the enclosure fence to watch him. He keeps showing the puma something in the bucket, and the puma makes a sound very like a cat’s meow.

Cougar, intent on the treat in the keeper's bucket. Believe it or not, this photo was not zoomed and cropped; he really was that close! Pic by The CEO.
Cougar, intent on the treat in the keeper’s bucket. Pic by The CEO.

I suppose that the keeper is intentionally keeping the animal near the fence for our benefit, and Bookworm tells me that these cats are more like house cats genetically and behaviorally than they are like big cats such as lions or tigers. The smaller puma sneaks up and playfully pounces on the larger one, and there’s a yowl and a pursuit through the vegetation that would look very familiar to anyone who’s ever owned cats.

By the time we’ve made it back to the zoo entrance and someone suggests checking out the reptile cages, I am about done. I have bug bites despite the bug spray, and I’m desperately thirsty, and you can keep the snakes, thank you, even if they’re behind glass.

Louis makes us dinner again, snapper with a delicious savory sauce. Yum. We mention to him that we’re thinking of visiting the Cultural and History Museum, and he snorts. “It’s crap. There’s nothing to see there, don’t waste your time.” Bedtime is very welcome.