I am cycling to raise money for the fantastic UK based chaity Macmillan Cancer Support. Big thanks to everyone who has sponsored me so far! Justgiving is a quick, easy and secure way to donate online. See my other fundraising page, specific to the Macmillan organized part of the trip

Monday, 11 October 2010

Creatures and characters... Jungle Belize

What a patchwork of different experiences traveling continues to be...this morning I was hand feeding banana pieces to a howler monkey in the jungle at Bermuda Landing and tonight I am in the north Belizean town of Orange Walk in a hostel run by a Taiwanese family after having ridden 50 odd miles through flat and virtuallu unpopulated wetland savannah, going miles without seeing anyone outside of the few cars and trucks. I was riding the Northern Highway so it seemed pleasantly odd that there was so little traffic, even taking into account that today is a public holiday. It is interesting how threatening the great unpopulated outdoors is to so many people. Popping into Raquel's supermarket in the last town before the long empty stretch to Catrina I overheard one older lady tutt-tutting under her breath about me cycling on my own for all those miles with no people. It seems slightly illogical to me considering when there is a threat it's most often from other human beings, but I've got to admit I was slightly spooked by her comment for the first few miles, until I got bored and uncomfortable in the saddle from all the flat-same-position riding and started shifting from one-handed-riding-left-side to one-handed-riding-right-side to temporary-no-hand-big-wobble-riding and singing Cat Steven's 'If you want to sing out sing out, if you want to be free be free' (the only lyrics of the song from the soundtrack of the absurd and hilarious film Harold and Maud that I watched at Michael's the other night) loudly and badly to myself.... next time I do a long cycle I really need to bring some music along with me, my self-entertainment is just a wee bit lame!

Perhaps the tutty old lady at Raquel's was more concerned about random attacks by the jungle animals. It had taken me a good chunk of days here in the country and a good few miles inland before I began hearing stories of the wildlife of Belize and registering on a concious level that this really is a jungle country. The first hints had come as dead tarantulas on the roadside. Just incase I had never stopped to take a close look at any of them but a few evenings later was 'helping' Lucy in her sweeping-a-tarantula-off-the-porch-so-it-wont-bite-the-new-dog-or-come-in-the-house efforts by shining a torch around and jumping at the moving shadows I created, doh! Also got to see the resident tarantula of Monkey Bay wildlife reserve and campsite, happily sat amidst a cockroach feast in the pipe chamber behind the eco-loos which separate methane from waste for cooking and odorless liquid waste for watering plants. (on the sustainable living front Marga also has there giant inverted glitterball-look-a-like discs that you can use to cook on.)

I'd seen a similar set up, minus the resident tarantula, at the Hummingbird Haven, a hostel and campsite almost ready to open about halfway along the beautiful Hummingbird Highway, run by political and environmental activist, furniture maker and psycologist amongst other skills, Michael, a fascinating and really kind man originally from the US who I came across in one of those right-place-right-time connections that you feel occur for a reason, by stopping at Palacio's looking for camping. After I'd pottered around blissfully alone and in-th-nud at the river all afternoon Michael kept me entertained in the evening with our ponderings over the 2012 predictions, peak experiences and stages of life discussions, rum and the worth a second mention Harold and Maud film (coincidentally Michael also works with voluntourism group Proworld who were the NGO I came out to Peru with in 2004, sparking my love of Latin America). He and the couple running Palacio's had a few nerve-rattling snake-scare stories, including the death of Micahael's horse, and a driver being bitten through the window of his car at 40mph on the highway... that had me leaving the next morning eyeing the grass suspiciously. Wade, biker and builder from the US, another incredibly generous man who put me up the next night (and who made me feel part of his adopted family with all the food drink and kindness he showered me with... he has 4 rescue dogs, bouncy happy cuties) even had a photo to illustrate his snake encounter, a 6 foot long fer-de-lance, the most dangerous snake in Belize, laid out in all its post-death-by-shooting headless glory along the back of his truck. Although these are very poisonous and vicious snakes, as the info at the Blue Hole points out they are nocturnal animals and shouldn't attack unless provoked, which seems to mean standing on them as they sleep... so for all the hype-inducing stories it seems unlikely that I will see one, especially as tomorrow I'll be crossing the border and heading north into Mexico, away from jungle and along the coast.

I have managed to see a few animals in my time here, mainly by going to the zoo, so technically they weren't wild, being rescued pets, or ex film stars - the zoo was set up in 1983 as a rehousing effort for animals used in the documentary film-making. I was most impressed by the pretty and twitchy little collared acary toucan, although don't think the feeling was mutual since he jumped viciously at the bars of the cage while I tried to draw him. I held a full-bellied-therefore-calm boa constrictor, the zoo-worker seeing it as a photo opportunity for me, but I was more thinking perhaps I would get over my slightly irrational fear of snakes, which I think actually comes from another snake holding experience, at the Edinburgh Zoo as a 7 year old in Mrs Lyburn's class where I remember getting a shock at how strong the snake's muscles were as it tried to move out of my hands... perhaps coupled with the not-so-subtle anti-snake propoganda of Indian Jones films. Anyway, I hekd a boa constrictor, felt slightly uncomfortable, though not afraid, satisfied the guide by getting a photo taken (really don't like theose posed shots though) and felt bad thinking that probably the snkae was so placid not just becasue it was full but becasue of being a pet before, who knows?

The zoo is an effort in education, preservation and breeding, and amongst it's roles is responsible for taking 'problem' jaguars out of the wild to avoid them being shot by communities they are harrassing by eating livestock, and transfering them to zoos around the world. Although I can see the logic in this, better the animal is being used for breeding and education than shot in revenge, but it is still sad to watch a beautiful large cat pace up and down a caged enclosure, even if that enclosure is in the natural habitat of the jungle. We are often such an interfering and arrogant species.

Some of the animals which seemed the most suited to the environment at the zoo were the ex-pet howler and spider monkeys who vhave free roam of the tree tops. This was my first sight of monkeys, yay, followed yesterday evening by seeing troops in the treetops along the roadside as I cycled towards Bermuda Landing and camping at the Baboon Sanctury, which was how I came to be hand feeding one of the mother monkeys thismorning with guide and medicine man Robert. I also came across a fascinating monkey-studying girl, Kayla, at the local bar alongside the Monkey Bay campsite. Specialising in the sexual segregation within spider monkeys Kayla is dedicating her PHD studies to following one particular troop of spider monkeys in the deep jungle, who now, after two years, are greeting her with their hello 'kissy face' as she called it, which she makes back to them. She will camp in the jungle, along for a week at a time, and has had close encounters with a Tapir (or mountain cow, a large mammal related to the horse) and a Jaguar, which ran straight in her direction one morning, leaping up the tree in front of her to catch a monkey dinner. Kayla had anxiety going back into the jungle after that one. She also regularly gets bitten by an insect that lays a larvae under the skin, the worm breathes through the hole in the skin, and holds itself in place with barbs which hurt a lot when it moves. Apparently you get rid of it by covering the breathe-hole with duct-tape (yet another use for that genius of products), suffocating the worm which you can then cut out... ugh.

That got me worried about the bites on my own legs and ankles, which Kayla reassured me weren't barbed worms, but nevertheless were becoming nasty pus-weeping open wounds. Marga of Monkey Bay was so concerned about them that she advised me to go to the Belmopan hospital, so leaving Peggy at the campsite I headed into town by bus where even though it was a Sunday and I'm a foriegner, I was seen really quickly, for free, and with very little paperwork at the public hospital by a lovely Cuban nurse Judith. I was really impressed, except for with the cost of the three prescriptions I'd been given when I took them to the pharmacy - over $ to blow a few days living costs in one go. I've got a second method of treatment now too, after meeting Robert the Creole guide from the Baboon Sanctury, who went into the jungle early this morning and was boiling up a concoction of plants (susumba, cure all and piper cowfoot, with salt) on a stick fire when I emerged from my tent this morning. Robert grew up learning the medicinal uses of plants from his grandmother and then was involved in scientific plant studies with another local, 30 year old professor Colin, although he says his one daughter has not learned the knowledge from him, nor any other youngsters in the community. His brew certainly soothed the wounds this morning and my ankles feel less swollen so more movable, although I feel the itch back now... I reckon its time to apply another dose from the 7-up bottle he gave me the remaining liquid in.

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As I'm sat writing this and not-trying-hard-enough-not-to-scratch my itchy legs I've got the chitter chatter of Chinese in the background and the tempting soy-saucy smell of Chinese food... the family who run this hostel are Taiwanese, like I said, and are sat around the reception counter eating dinner. There are mainly Chinese restraunts and fast food places out in the street, and like literally every Belizean town that I have been in the local supermarket is run by Taiwanese too. Apparently the Taiwanese use Belize as a route into the USA. Once they have residency here it is apparently easier to get the relevant visas to move north. Apparently in the process many end up enjoying Belize and settling, adding to its already rich diversity of people.

As well as the older established communities of the Garifunas, the Creoles and the Mayans, there are the Brits left over from British imperialism, who never went home after the independence on 21st September 1981 (I haven't actually met any of these, but so Wade tells me), then there are the ex-pats from the US like Michael and Wade, both guenuine 60's younsters who have chosen to settle here after becoming disatisfied with US politics. There are other expats, such as German Sybile, a lovely woman who runs the Casita de Amor Cafe at Stan Creek on the Hummingbird Highway with Belizean husband Windell, who originally came out to Belize volunteering with a HIV focused NGO. Belize apparently has the highest incidence of HIV in Central America and with a culture where men commonly have many women, lots of children and rarely use condoms, Sybile sees the situation as almost impossible to resolve. I did notice many billboard campaigns about using condoms, and about tolerance for individuals with HIV, soething I had not seen in other parts of Central America. Another ex-pat run business, this one on the Western Highway heading towards San Ignacio, is the Teakettle bookshop run by South African couple Zaneta and David, again really kind people, David gave me a cup of tea on hearing I was from the UK, and Zaneta advised me on a wierd and wonderful collection of Belize-only sweets for my onward journey and helped me choose a couple of books for me and Lucy, who had mentioned how rare it was to find a bookshop in Belize. Zaneta also spoke about sad she found the corruption in the Belize govenment, which receives financial aid from Nicaragua, the US, Venezuela and 40 million Euros annually from the European Union, but which she says you see no evidence of within the country, where there are still people so poor they have no electricity or running water, like her neighbour who bakes coconut sugar squares for the shop. She asked me had I noticed how thin the tar was on the roads, being worn down daily by the big oil trucks that go hurtling past (and shake me and Peggy in their wake), but where, she asked, is the oil money going? NOt back into the roads nor the communities.

Another group of people that live within Belize are the Menonites, a Christian sect originally from Germany, that I have to admit I had not even heard of until I met Sybile who let me read about them in her guidebook as I enjoyed the rarity of a real coffee in her cafe (incidentally Sybile also bakes her own bread... I had a great burger from her served on real wholewheat bread... good bread is so hard to find in Central America that it is notable when you do find it, and Lucy had recommended this place to me as one of those rare spots). From what I read the Menonites are such introverted communities that some of them will not even talk to a non-menonite, so I was surprised the next day when I stopped to get home-made ice-cream from a Menonite farm that all three of the folk I met there chatted to me... even the very traditional man in breeches, workboots, a big orange beard and a large hat spoke to me after I'd shared my map with him (he was puzzling over finding frineds in a nearby town). He told me he didn't really like sweet things, althouhg his teeth, which looked a bit like mine in the not-doing-so-well kind of a way made me think perhaps he used to like them too much. Anyways, I ended up chatting to Alren, the very young looking wife of the farm, who shocked me by telling me she had 6 children, I thought perhaps they just start uber young in this sect until she said she was 39. Her and her husband were originally from Canada, although had lived in the US before, and have now been in Belize 6 years, since being sent here by their church back home to join the mission here. She explained to me that they study the New Testament, taking it very literally, take their day of rest on a Sunday and try to live as simly as possible. What this actually means in practice apparently varies a lot, depending on whichwhich sub-sect of Menonites they belong to. The bearded-toothy man would be from the strictest group, using only horse and cart as transport, whereas her and her husband use a truck and have electricity. There is a third group, the progressive Menonites,. who I've also heard calle Moneynites, whose communities are apparently concentrated around Spanish Creek, and who use buggies, mobile phones, and drive expensive cars. Some common rules throughout all groups though are that the women dress in a certasin type of ankle length dress with a white cloth partially covering their hair, no one watches tv and they do not drink or smoke. Perhaps that is why Arlen looked so young. According to Wade the slow electricity-free lumber cutting method of one of the strict groups of Menonites, which involves using horses to drive a wynch, has far less waste than machine methods. I found it interesting that Robert told me there had also been inter-racial marriages between the black Creole community and the Menonites near Bermuda Landing, especially after Michael had told me that the church had had to 'ship' young German men to Belize to prevent inbreeding.

In another exciting twist to my week I got to see Lucy again (that wasn't the twist, I was headed there on purpose), this time in San Ignacio, where the taratula-porch experience occured, and on the Saturday morning go to go flying... yes flyyyyyyyyyyyyyyinnnnnnnnnnngggg! Weeehee! Lucy's boyfriend Robert is a long-time plane enthusiast and had mentioned the flying, only I hadn't really had a clue what to expect so when he opened this warehouse-sized-grey-metal hangar to reveal four open light planes (sorry, have already forgetten the proper names for them, but Air Hog was sewn on a badge under the double seats, perhaps I can get away with calling them that?) I was well excited. Added to the anticipation I got to don a neck-to-foot flightsuit, which along with Lucy's loaned owl socks made me feel uber-groovy, and a white helmet-with-visor-and-microphone to chat to Robert while in the air... and we were off. It was incredible, surprisingly relaxing rather than adrenaline-pumping... Robert pointed out that the wing absorbs any turbulence so you don't get shaken around... and when he did a circle on the wing it felt like air-ballet. Appropriate that the point I felt like I was physically relaxing into traveling was the evening on the shore of Lake NIcaragua watching the flight of the pelicans and now nearing the end of my trip I get to fly-for-the-pure-enjoyment-of-flying too. Beautiful. We were in the air an hour I'd say, and passed jungle and remote homes and towns, plenty of citrus plantations and followed the loops ofr the river, with the highlight being flying over the Mayan temple site at Cahal Pech... that is a unique first for me, an air-visit of a famous ruin.

OK so I'm about to succumb to the itching and the Chinese food smells... I'm going to head off to cake myself in ointment before hunting out some dinner, am wondering would it be wrong to eat a Chinese dinner as my last meal in Belize when I haven't even tried cowfoot soup yet? Think it might be inevitable just from sheer availability, I haven't seen even one Creole comedor in town, and I'm feeling too lazy to explore further into the centre. Tomorrow I head for the Mexican border... and hopefully will be seeing Lucy and Robert in the eveing again. New country, familiar faces, sounds good to me! New pace as well... I realised the other day my flight leaves Cancun on the 19th, a day earlier than I'd had in my head, so now there are only 7 days left for me and Peggy to make it to the airport... arrgh the pressure is on! ha ha, I do always leave things to the last minute... I'm confident I'll make it though, as long as no pesky hurricanes or exploding swollen ankles interfere!

big love from Belize and the beautiful (although aparently domesticalted) plant that I was excited to learn is called the Traveler's Palm after admiring it.

p.s. was equally chuffed to read the name of this street:


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  2. Yay! So sorry we didn't see you again in Mexico, hope everything's going ok. your feet sure look worse than when we saw them in that photo... they were probably needing the owls back. that's really a terrible photo of me by the way.... i put one of one you on my blog, i've always wondered what happens when 2 blogs meet, do they self destruct...? byee buen viaje so cool to see you here. xx