Monday, January 31, 2005

Belize: Day 2, Part 1 - Belize City

What a wonderful sight to wake up to on our first full day in Belize. This is the view from our upstairs room at the far end of one of the wings of the Radisson Fort George Hotel.

Both last night and this morning we noticed the birds gliding along the shoreline outside our hotel. You could hardly miss them. Not only were they big, but they had a sense of "otherness." "You are no longer at home," they seemed to say. They were exotic. Which is a little weird on the one hand, because of the two most prominent birds, one was a brown pelican. We have them in Oregon along the coast, and that's only 10 miles from where I live. The thing was, these were flying CLOSE. You could see more than faint shape. The more exotic bird was the frigate, found only in the tropics. The frigate bird above is from the NOAA web site. Actually, the bird in this photo looks less strange than they can appear. The forked tail is one aspect I remember, but the other is the pointed "elbows." It depends on the angle. Frigates are unique in a number of respects. (Much of the following info is paraphrased from Wikipedia.) Being sea birds, you'd think they might dive or swim, but they do neither. They don't have enough oil in their feathes to keep them afloat. They have a unique structure to their bones which allows them to glide on the warm updrafts over tropical oceans where they can signal changing weather patterns along the fronts. Besides being unable to swim, frigate birds cannot take off from a flat surface. Having the largest wingspan to body weight ratio of any bird, they are able to stay aloft for more than a week, landing only to roost or breed on trees or cliffs. They are light weight, and have the highest ratio of wing area to body mass, and the lowest wing loading of any bird.

This is again outside our hotel along a broad stretch of road that skirts the waterfront in Belize City.

Below is the beautiful currency of Belize, depicting local animals. Belizean artists often used these animals in their compositions, and we would see the tapir, toucan, and flowering plant together like this on many a piece of slate carved for tourists.

Belize: Day 2, Part 2 - Leaving Town on The Western Highway

Belize City is not only on the water, it's nearly surrounded by water. Today we would leave the small capital and take the red road going southwest, otherwise known as the Western Highway. Driving time from one side of the country nearly to the other side is only about an hour and a half. This map shows only the beginning of the drive. Note the Belize Zoo at the left side of the map. This was a clear destination for us - in fact, I'd worked with Sharon online for a number of years and you could say it was more of a dream come true than a tourist destination. What curiosity I had about the place! And, not the least of my excitement . . . here I would see tapirs! If I were really lucky, I'd also see Sharon, but she can be more elusive than a tapir in the wild. We had made contact by phone with vague plans to meet somewhere, some way, before our trip was over.

Leaving Belize City: a circle of international Central American flags at the top, and a typical street scene below. How to get out of town? You head for the traffic circle and keep on going (kind of like Astoria, but we have a sculpture of an Indian and no flags).

This is a typical Belizean cemetery, mentioned by Bruce Barcott in his book, The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw. The graves are raised above ground level.

Although the first leg of our trip was not a long drive, it was fun to watch the scenery shift from low and swampy, to scrubby vegetation, then taller vegetation and soon a glimpse of mountains in the distance with the vegetation drier and less jungle-like.

I take a lot of pictures from moving vehicles - not because Lee won't pull off to the side of the road (he will), but because I'm such a "capture the image and all of the nuances" addict that I'd be stopping every few seconds unless the mood is not there, which is pretty rare. During this trip we still had the camera with the shutter delay and without low light stabilization, so there are a lot of blurry road scenes. Still, I'd rather have them than not.

Belize: Day 2, Part 3 - The Belize Zoo and April the Tapir

There it was! The Belize Zoo, at Milepost 29 on the Western Highway. I'd seen the web site. I'd worked with the zoo's director. I'd heard a lot about April the Tapir. Just being here was like seeing a movie star. The place was shrouded in drizzle and grey light when we arrived. Click on the image to see the sign as we did.

The zoo's entrance would be found some distance from the main road. That I had not envisioned. A little further along there was a sign that read, "The Belize Zoo. Chill out zone."

As soon as we had determined that Sharon Matola was not on the grounds and we wouldn't be able to see her today, we entered the zoo. Our inquiries tuned up Humberto Wohlers (below), the zoo's General Curator and one of my colleagues in the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group. He was warm, gracious, and knowledgeable, and he took us immediately to the tapirs. Little Ceibo, above, was friendly and curious. There is nothing like having your hand nuzzled by one of these animals. My day was made . . .

. . . but it was not over. More famous sights awaited, such as Sharon's hand-painted signs and of course, the "very famous April the Tapir," known and mentioned (as we would learn) throughout the country.

The animals are not the only attractions at the zoo. The plants were lush and beautiful. I was particularly charmed by the attractive plant-shrouded stairs and walkway below.

Humberto took us to see the harpy eagle and a jaguar, and then he ducked into the overhanging brush in April's enclosure to find her and coax her to visit.

Amazing. I had started working with Sharon in 1996 as a new member of the Tapir Specialist Group, and she had invited me to be her Deputy Chair. I'd learned about April, and in an unexpected way, my past and Sharon's present had collided through April. When April was a tiny baby, she'd been found abandoned and injured in the jungle. A screw worm had gotten inside of her through a gaping wound, and it took everything Sharon had to nurse April back to health. In the process of learning what to do with a sick baby tapir, Sharon had contacted Russell Mittermeier, who had a copy of a self-published booklet my first husband and I had produced back in the 1970s. Russ sent it to Sharon, and Sharon was kind enough to tell me it had helped. Long story short, she had heard of me by the time I approached her to join the Specialist Group. My way had been paved. Those were interesting times, and now I was meeting April. Like a star-struck groupie meeting a legend, I couldn't wait to send Kate a postcard to tell her where I was and who I had met.

By the time we left the zoo, the rain had gone and the day had become steamy and bright.

Belize: Day 2, Part 4 - The Western Highway to San Ignacio

We thought we might stay in the small town of San Ignacio near Belize's border with Guatemala. So, after leaving the zoo, we headed west on the highway. It was hot. The jungle foliage was fascinating, and we kept thinking, "There have to be tapirs out there somewhere." It boggled the senses to see (below) people steadfastly riding bikes along the highway between towns, between the small hovels of houses that lined the road. The heat from the asphalt must have been excruciating, or so I imagined. I am not a hot-weather person. I used to be, but something changed internally in my late 30s. As a child growing up in Southern California, I had not minded the 100-plus degree days at all.

Buildings with any degree of variety, shape, color, construction, texture, or artful design interest me immensely. As an artist, one would think I'd read art history, but didn't. I read about architecture through the ages (actually, that was the name of a book I liked). Pretty much the only buildings I don't enjoy looking at are the ugly institutional-looking things and the ranch style tract houses built in California (and other places) in the 1950s or so. In my youth I saw too many. I had found them hateful and boring, and they wasted land that had been havens for plants and small animals I had played among. I was intolerant, and I still find the style depressing. Anything else seems to be fair game for the camera, I've noticed. The concrete boxes looming into the skyline (below) in Belize were at least different from construction I was used to. I took a photo.

Many, many of the dwellings we passed were nothing more than board shacks. The poverty, mile after hot mile, was astonishing.

Brahma cattle in the distance, lovely green grass and blue sky.

We passed through the microscopic town of Santa Elena, where we had hoped to find lunch. Everything was closed except for the counter at the gas station selling chips and things of that sort. A little further along was San Ignacio (above). Based on the map, we thought it might be our evening destination, but here we were in the middle of the day, I was hot, there was no air conditioning in sight, and instead we looked for lunch.

The mayor's office, San Ignacio.

This lunch spot seemed an oasis. While not exactly cool, a huge fan kept it tolerable for me. The people were nice, and there were birds and flowers to look at. And ice, and ice cream. We had a tasty lunch. I had discovered that capsules of bovine colostrum (Symbiotics brand seems to work best if you're planning to try it) can almost tame the heat for at least short periods of time. Although it's supposed to boost the immune system, it could sometimes produce near miracles for me. I have no idea how hot weather can do what it does to me, but in the wrong circumstances, it has been devastating. So I have no idea why colostrum could help. In any event, I've been able to go places I'd never imagined and do much more than I could have thought. But the conditions and my reactions are unpredictable. Sadly, I'd had to leave the zoo when the sun got too hot, although I would have enjoyed staying longer. The good news for me is that, as I write this in 2008, the symptoms are improving on their own. At any rate, on that day in Belize, colostrum aside, after a relaxing lunch we decided to move on down the road and head for the beach. You can get an idea of the size of the country when you realize that meant leaving the ocean (east) in the morning, driving southwest nearly to the western border, and then driving southeast back to the ocean quite far south of Belize City to find a place for the night.

Belize: Day 2, Part 5 - West to the Beach

What a treat it was to see the beautiful tall jungle foliage as we left the Western Highway and took the Hummingbird Highway toward the coast. There were fewer buildings and more wild land. As much as buildings interest me, wild land rejuvenates.

At some point, we left the Hummingbird Highway, and took the Southern Highway. It seems the few highways in Belize are usually named for where they take you away from Belize City.

I loved the colors in the building and the plants; they made a harmonious picture.

There were a few small bridges crossing tiny creeks. I didn't have much luck taking photos of the water, and we didn't stop to try, now thinking more about our destination, not knowing if we would arrive before nightfall, and not sure where we would end up or quite how far it was. The map indicated that at some point the road would become less reliable, and we hoped to have some daylight to find our spot for the night, or more likely a base for the next few days.

This building struck me with its uncharacteristic double-peaked roof line. The colors and the patterns formed by the wood also caught my attention. I think this was the only building of its type we saw. I wish the photo had come out better and were more complete, but it was hard to stop on the narrow road. You never knew what was coming around the next curve or if the road would be wide enough.

The scene opened out. Seemingly great wealth among the poverty.

Another style house, church, or place of gathering. It was hard to tell.

Banana trees. Apparently the blue plastic helps them ripen.

After awhile, the landscape changed dramatically. The banana plantations and the jungle forest ended. We went through an armed checkpoint. No big deal, but as Americans we're not used to it, and we wondered if something had happened locally. As it turns out, or at least from my reading later, I understand that Belize is always at the ready to some degree because of mistrust between claims of who owns the country - Belize or Guatemala. It's a long-standing disagreement, but the effects have come right down to recent history. Check out the history online or in Bruce Barcott's very readable Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw. The woods became pines, the dirt turned red. We decided not to take the turnoff to Dangriga, but kept on south, expecting to reach Placencia any time. I put down the camera, as it was turning to dusk and there was no way to stabilize the photos in poor light.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Belize: Day 1 - Belize City

There is nothing quite like the clouds over the tropics when seen from an airplane. They are tall like ragged mushroom clouds or spotty like spilled cotton balls. Either way, you know you're not in Oregon any more. We were flying in to Belize City, and I had not much concept of what to expect, as I had been busy with work and had not even cracked a guidebook. Our trip (Lee's and mine) began on January 30, 2005, the date I'm using for this post. But as I upload the photos and begin to write, the date is actually March 18, 2008.

I just received my copy of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird by Bruce Barcott. That "one woman" is Sharon Matola. Because I have a passion for tapirs (also victims of the dam); because I have worked with Sharon for tapir conservation; because I admire her so much for her amazing contributions to the preservation of wildlife; because I have met Sharon in person both in the US and in Belize; because we have shared so many e-mails, some struggles and some good laughs; because I wanted to revisit the images and sensations of Lee's and my trip; and maybe more than anything, because I was anxious to know the full story behind the cause to which my Tapir Preservation Fund and its donors had contributed, I knew I had to read this book. I could tell from the reviews, the subject, and the initial brief quote I'd seen online that it would be fascinating. It occurred to me to add, if nothing else, a few photos to the experience of the book. I'll leave the big descriptions alone and will steal (with credit) a few words to guide the pictures. Looking back at the photos helps me visualize the descriptions in the book. But I won't give anything away - you do have to read it!

Under the clouds - beautiful!

Landing in Belize City. The thick jungle gave way to sparser and lower vegetation near the coast.

Coming down across the Belize River. We began to see white herons and wondered if there were any tapirs between us and the horizon.

Finally eye-level with Belize. This is the airport. I had expected the trees to look more like jungle vegetation.

Our first view of the city was also not as imagined. Bike racers streaked past, looking very purple though the darkened windows of the cab.

The white building near the center is where Bruce Barcott stayed - the Chateau Caribbean. Click through to the larger picture and you may be able to make out the name. Read the book for an interesting description of the park and the hotel. This is the place whose name no one seemed to recognize in the book, although it was a stone's throw from the Radisson. When we were there they were having a concert and political speeches in the park. It was colorful, peaceful, and warm bordering on hot.

Everyone recognized the Radisson, "the only business-class hotel in Belize City" according to Barcott. This is where we stayed. The corridors were long, and thankfully at least some of the hotel was air-conditioned. It was worn, cozy, and lazily cosmopolitan. It felt patrician, like an English compound in a far-flung outpost. Guests seemed to recognize one another with surprising regularity.

A less travel-brochure-looking view of the Radisson, which was right on the beach. Upscale, it even had guards and attendants.

This is the road along the waterfront just outside the Radisson. Barcott notes that although Belizeans exclaim their love for the Caribbean, not much is made of the city's proximity to the water. Below, there are a few picturesque docks for tourist boats, but we didn't have much time to learn about Belize City, where the asphalt meets the sea.

After barely unpacking, we took advantage of what light was left to stroll through the old Colonial quarter near our hotel. This is Lee. I was hoarding the camera, taking quick photos on the move, and wondering at culture that seemed so mixed and unexpected.

Only paces away, even the Chinese Embassy - the representation of how many millions of people - was unassuming, apparently unguarded, worn out, and empty. It was like walking up to your grandmother's house. There was no fanfare except for the gold number on the post and a flag still flying.

The colorful city hall. Again, no fanfare, it was . . . just there. The red lettering in the upper right of the photo indicates a small cultural center where Belizean handcrafts and souvenirs are sold. We found it open after our trip through the country as we passed through the city again before leaving. Here I found one of the few really touristy-looking tapirs of the trip.

Sunset in Belize City.