Diving in Placencia

12 07 2010

This week’s epic escape from Belize City saw me travel about 100 miles south, to the idyllic Placencia Peninsula, a skinny 16 mile long finger of palm fringed beach pointing southward from the mainland into the Caribbean Sea. Placencia village, at the southern tip of the peninsula, is traditionally home to Creole fishing families, but now hosts an ever-encroaching tourist industry as well. Placencia has to be one of the most chill places ever – a real barefoot mindset. I flew down because I was diving early the next morning and logistically it was easier than dealing with the unreliable bus system, which may or may not get me there. Plus, after all the aerial surveys I did last summer, I was looking forward to the incredible photo opps that only a bird’s eye view provides.

Some local cayes from the air

My friend, yes FRIEND (I know, so exciting, right?), Armeid organized the diving with a friend of hers who owns a local dive shop. Armeid works for Healthy Reefs and, while an anthropologist by training, she has also morphed into an incredible fish and coral ID-er and is one of Belize’s top conservation crusaders. She is also a dive freak, so we’re pretty much, like, BFFs (unless, of course, she reads this blog…). We were supposed to do a whale shark dive, as these gentle giants grace the waters around Placencia each spring/early summer to feed on the spawn of Mutton, Dog & Cubera snappers. But, alas, the stars were not aligned and no whale sharks were spotted this moon. Instead, whale sharks were substituted with a three tank dive in Belize’s largest marine reserve, Southwater Caye. After several failed attempts to dive the Hol Chan marine reserve from Caye Caulker, due to inclement weather, I was FINALLY getting underwater! Took a little over an hour getting to the dive site, slicing through turquoise waters and navigating submerged patches of reef. The dives were fantastic – I had forgotten what a gorgonian garden the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is, with brightly coloured sea fans and sea whips covering the reef wall, gently swaying in the current. Saw tons as well: spotted eagle rays, nurse sharks, HUGE spiny lobsters, spotted morays, barracuda, Nassau groupers and tons of vibrantly coloured parrotfish and wrasses. AMAZING. I feel there is a very close relationship between number of dives and my happiness. Some people feel claustrophobic when underwater but to me, it is so liberating, it represents my ultimate freedom.

Diving paradise

To celebrate our day of diving, that night Armeid and I bought a bottle of rum (obvi) and headed over to the dive shop to drink with Anne-Marie (entrepreneur extraordinaire, owner of the Avadon Diveshop) and her staff. As the night wore on, the mixers seemingly changed with the music -from coke to sprite to grapefruit juice to coconut water. And the discussion became more and more intense, particularly surrounding the parceling out of Belize’s offshore waters to oil companies for exploration. We couldn’t have been a more different bunch – Anne-Marie, a blue eyed Jamaican; Armeid, a braided Belizean raised in the States; Lisa, a Californian with a Creole identity crisis – but you know, sitting around that table, looking around at the like-minded, passionate misfits around me, everything seemed to fit. For the first time in Belize, I felt I belonged. And I liked that feeling.


Lobstafest/Hurricane Par-tay!

12 07 2010

One thing I’ve learned in my time here is that Belizeans love to party.  And they will use any occasion as an excuse to drink.  This weekend the celebration was centred on the opening of the lobster season, after a three month closure (which is supposedly timed to cover peak spawning season…but this is not the venue to discuss flawed management measures).  Lobsterfest, as you can well imagine, is an epic party equipped with rum, music, dancing and even a Miss Lobsterfest Pageant. And, as per the name, all the lobster you can handle.  These 10 legged crustaceans are certainly worth the hype, providing thousands of people with direct employment not to mention significant foreign exchange earnings for Belize (to the tune of about USD 6.5 million/year).

Enjoying some grilled lobsta

Big decisions had to be made, as two simultaneous “Lobsterfests” were taking place – one on a small island called Caye Caulker and one further south in the beach town of Placencia.  After much deliberation, I decided on Caye Caulker, namely because it is the original lobster fishing community in Belize and site of Belize’s first fishing cooperative.  Also, I was meeting up with my English med student pals from San Ignacio – the prospect of friends 2 weekends in a row was simply too good to pass up.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different kind of party in mind.

Like an unwanted guest, Tropical Storm Alex showed up relatively unannounced and crashed our lobsta party in a major way.   Now it must be pointed out that Caye Caulker is nothing more than a small sandy blip, a freckle on the reef if you will – one can circumnavigate the whole thing in less than an hour – so definitely not the ideal place to weather out a potential hurricane.  Not that Belize City, being 2 feet below sea level, is much better…

I quickly became acquainted with storm season vernacular, words such as “low pressure system”, “tropical depression”, “tropical wave”, “storm surge” and the dreaded “hurricane”.  Never have I ever watched the news with such intensity.   Not that it made much difference because 1) weather people are terrible at making predictions and 2) Belize, being outside U.S. borders, is not worthy of any meaningful coverage (life lesson: when experiencing severe storm events in the future, be sure to check weather updates regularly, then promptly ignore everything)…So, armed with too little information telling us too many different things, and after a few too many happy hour rum punches, Team England and I had were locked in a “should-I-stay-or-should-I-go” debate.  And, after a few more rums, we decided to stay.

Stormy weather courtesy of TS Alex

Needless to say, our mindsets quickly changed from lobster party to hurricane party, as bikinis were reluctantly replaced with rain gear.  And by rain gear I mean awful Easter-esque pastel coloured $2 ponchos sported by Team England (being Canadian, I obviously was prepared and brought Goretex, duh…).  We stocked up on rations, including several litres of water each, several cans of Pringles each, a collective jar of peanut butter and, of course, a bottle of Caribbean Gold.

As the wind howled and the rain poured, while coconut palms were swaying precariously and waves were thunderously crashing against the reef, 8 of us took refuge in a single hotel room (we’d befriended 3 California girls by that point).  There was a slight tension in the air at first as none of us really knew what to expect of Mother Nature’s wrath, but our worries were quickly subdued with rum and girltalk.  We gorged on pizza (and uncooked ramen noodles for some…damn vegans) and proceeded to laugh the night away.  So, first hurricane party under my belt and I consider it to be a great success…high fiiiiiiiive.

The next morning, Team England was up bright and early to witness their football team get shitkicked by Germany.  Disinterested (I’m a Ghana girl…), I decided to go walk to beach to survey the storm damage.  All in all, other than a few damaged lobster traps and copious amounts of seaweed debris, it didn’t look so bad.  Phew.

The rest of the day was spent doing all things tropical, you know, fishing off the pier with local kids (mostly red snapper), tanning, drinking fruity cocktails and dancing to Garifuna drummers and island music.  Caye Caulker was back to island paradise status and you’d never know the day before, the Peace Corps evacuated all their personnel (thanks Canadian consulate, I’m glad you were so worried about me…).

Lobsterfest/Hurricanefest – either way, a great party!

Cayo: Caves n Curry

24 06 2010

Last weekend, I decided once again to head inland, to San Ignacio, or “Cayo”.  San Ignacio is the major town in western Belize, nestled in the midst of tropical forest, not far from the Guatemalan border.  The area is an ideal getaway – carefree vibe coupled with the natural beauty of the Maya Mountains, the Macal and Mopan Rivers, as well as several ancient Mayan archaeological sites.  Not to mention the cattle, citrus and peanut farms that abound; bucolic, as my mom would say.

I arrived with no real plan, as usual.  But the town is small and I quickly found cheap accommodation. US$12.50 per night, which is UNHEARD of in Belize. Relative to its Central American neighbours, Guatemala and Honduras, Belize is obscenely expensive, from accommodation to food to transportation.  That being said, it is still fairly cheap when compared to North America.

Anyway, Saturday morning I joined a tour to Actun Tunichil Muknal, or “ATM”, for an exciting day of caving.  The cave is located in the Tapir Mountain nature reserve and is actually a notable archaeological site, sacred to the Maya as a gateway to the underworld.  Getting to the entrance involves an easy 45 minute hike through dense forest, including 3 crossings of crystal clear rivers.  Note to self: work on your balance.

The cave system is about 3 miles long and includes a crazy river passage, which sometimes was as deep as our necks!  Our guide, Martin, was phenomenal.  It was truly amazing to witness his connection to the cave and surrounding jungle, I guess because I have never known that kind of intimacy with a place.  At one point, when we were far enough into the cave that no natural light remained, he got us to turn off our headlamps and grab the shoulder of the person in front of us.  Then he led us blindly through a long passage, while chanting in the Mayan language, with his echoes reverberating through the cave and sending chills up my spine.  It was an extremely powerful experience for me, one of those rare moments where everything is in its right place and the world seems to make sense…

We swam and waded through the river, weaved through rocks and squeezed our way through narrow crevices, about a half mile into the cave, to the upper passage known as the “Cathedral”.  It was spectacular, with shimmering stalactites hanging from the ceiling like icicles and stalagmites rising from the floor.

Spectacular Stalactites

The site featured pottery and stoneware left by the Maya centuries ago, as well as human remains.   All in all, 14 human sacrifices were performed in the cave, the most famous of which is known as the “Crystal Maiden”, the skeleton of a teenage girl sacrificed as an ultimate gift to the gods. Her bones have been completely calcified, giving them a crystallized appearance, which sparkled as Martin shone his spotlight on her.

The Crystal Maiden - a 16 year old human sacrifice

I can’t quite explain how very humbling it was to be in so sacred a spot and how lucky I feel to have been able to bear witness to this ancient world.  It literally is a living museum.  And a must do for any travelers to Belize!

Another highlight of the tour is that I made friends – three lovely med students from England, who are doing a placement in the hospital at Belmopan.  Yay!!! We had a perfect end to a perfect day, going out for an incredible Indian meal prepared totally from scratch.  One of the most delicious curries I have ever had! If anyone ever travels to San Ignacio, make sure to hit up the South Indian restaurant, it is truly a gem.

The next day was chilled out to the max.  After a slight sleep in (9am), I took a $2 cab to nearby Bullet Tree village.  I set up camp near a set of rapids in the river and proceeded to nap, read, swim and eat mangos all day. Needless to say, I nearly cried when it was time to head back to the city…

Mission Infiltration

23 06 2010

Seeing as I have no friends or social life to speak of in Belize City, I decided that I should put some of my multitudes of spare time to good use and be a better global citizen by volunteering.  I contacted pretty much every marine conservation NGO working in Belize, enthusiastically offering my services.  Surprise surprise, after 2 weeks, the grand tally of my responses was ZERO.  Being deterred simply was not an option, considering the alternative – more time to myself locked away in Casa Gnoma.  Although I suppose I could always join a street gang…

Hence, “mission infiltration” was born.  Goal: to weasel the Winterbottom into the heart of Belize’s marine NGO community.

I attended a forum against offshore drilling in Belize (don’t even get me started…GAH) and there I met my target: an unsuspecting scientist by the name of Melanie McField, who heads up an initiative called “Healthy Reefs for Healthy People”.  Well, that sounds nice to me, I like health. After the presentations, I stalked her like a cheetah would a springbok in the African savannah, except without the whole chase and blood n guts thing.  [Can you tell I am on Planet Earth overload?].  The point is I emerged victorious, with business card in hand and shit eating grin on my face.  Step one…completed!

After momentarily struggling with how long I should wait before I make contact, I decided the answer was immediately.  You can’t afford to play it cool when you’re desperate.  So contact I made and a meeting was granted.  High fiiiiiives people.  And yada yada yada…you are now reading the blog of Healthy Reefs for Healthy People’s newest volunteer!

The initiative is actually super cool.  It is a collaborative effort between the likes of World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society & Conservation International, among others, to measure the health of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef ecosystem using a series of indicators they developed.  I will be helping out with their “Report Card”, which seeks to provide and disseminate information on the condition of the reef resources and the degree of success in managing them.  There were also allusions to fieldwork, helping start up a coral nursery on one of the local cayes.

Woo hoo – lobsters AND reef health – who needs friends???

Crooked Tree

15 06 2010

Only 2 weeks in and already falling behind on my blog. Poor form, Winterbottom. Not that I have much of a readership anyway…thanks for reading, Mom.

So this past weekend I ventured inland, to the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, about 80 clicks northwest of Belize City. It’s actually a two-in-one prize, because in addition to the mosaic of lagoons and swamps comprising the protected area, there is also a sleepy Creole village with about 700 inhabitants. It was originally settled in the mid-1700s as part of the trade in indigo dyes, and is considered the oldest inland European settlement in Belize.

I stayed at a family run lodge, hosted by three generations of the wonderful Tillett family. Their existence truly is a cross between serenity and chaos: with mangy dogs and kittens sunning themselves in the front yard, chickens wandering aimlessly pecking at will, horses lazily munching on mangos and grandkids running circles around each other squealing in delight. I instantly bonded with Ms. Gloria, or Granny, a real firecracker with sparkly eyes and an incredibly kind smile that instantly reminded me of my own Baba. Lived in Crooked Tree 52 years, where she and her husband raised a family of 11, ELEVEN, kids. A combination of wow and ouch.

The village happens to be situated on a goldmine, not literally, just in my opinion. Its dusty clay roads are lined with cashew and mango trees. Two of my most favourite things…SCORE!Cashew harvesting is the major source of income and holy what a work intensive process. I thought there were only nuts, but oh no, there are cashew APPLES as well, from which the nut dangles. So in addition to the nuts you get stewed cashews (very sweet, definitely a dessert option), cashew wines, cashew jam…I am never going to look at a cashew the same again.

Vermillion Flycatcher @ Crooked Tree

Besides cashew and mangoes, the major draw to Crooked Tree is the bird life. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, I missed the prime birding season, which held promises of Jabiru storks – the largest flying bird in the Western Hemisphere. D’oh. I was still treated to a birding extravaganza: olivaceous comorants, Muscovy ducks, limpkins, jacanas, black & turkey vultures, ringed kingfishers, rufous hummingbirds, grey hawks, acorn woodpeckers, vermillion & social flycatchers, seedeaters, white fronted parrots, tropical kingbirds, kiskadees, bat falcons, and blue-grey tanagers to name but a few. Was pleased to see familiar faces from home in the form of red-winged blackbirds and Northern cardinals. The continuous symphony of bird songs provided a nice lullaby ambience, with the exception of the obnoxious squawking of the parrots.

I hired a guide, Ruben, to acquaint me with all things natural. This guy, when in his element, is literally a human encyclopedia. His knowledge of birds was mind blowing – he could see a shadow of a bird like 50 m away and ID it without hesitation. His knowledge extends well beyond all things avian and I got the rundown of local botanical features, especially those used in “bush medicine”, a historical overview of the area and some keen insight into Belize’s current day socio-political issues. A real gem that fella.

As it is rainy season, I experienced some pretty epic thunderstorms while out there. Was lucky enough to even get caught in one. My makeshift raincoat made of leaves did not serve me well, but did get me covered in ants. You win this round, rain. I was thankful for the opportunity the rain provided to finally relax, catch up on reading and write in my journal. I feel like everything’s been so hectic and GO-GO-GO lately. It’s a good way to start the week: rested, relaxed and rejuvenated.

First Impressions

15 06 2010

Casa Gnoma

So it’s coming up on my one week anniversary in Belize City and I didn’t get robbed! Woo hoo! Mission accomplished.

I feel it is an appropriate time to share some of my first impressions of my new town. Of all the disadvantages of the place – and there are not few – I must say it does possess a certain charm.Sort of. It has that languid colonial sea port kinda feel, but in a really rundown, ramshackle kinda way.

It is literally built in a swamp, at the mouth of the Belize River (as evidenced by the multitude of mud crabs making their homes in people’s front lawns and the armies of itch-inducing bugs that have waged war on its poor residents). Mosquitos and sand fleas have ravaged my legs and driven me to the brink of insanity. Drainage canals filled with stagnant water and sewage line the streets which, depending on which way the wind’s blowing, can give off pungent aromas of rotting and decay. Wooden houses slump on their stilts, slowly succumbing to gravity with a defeated – almost desperate – air.

Perched on the coast, Belize City is extremely vulnerable to the wrath of hurricanes and is prone to severe bouts of flooding. Conveniently enough, my internship overlaps directly with “hurricane season”, which meteorologists are predicting to be one of the worst on record. Good thing I brought a raincoat!

Buccaneering and piracy have been hallmarks of Belize’s history dating back to the early seventeenth century, and appear to be alive and well today, though in slightly different forms. I had been warned, re-warned and warned again about the thievery and violence that have come to characterize Belize City. Gangs and drugs are becoming increasingly prevalent, resulting in a real culture of fear amongst the city’s residents. I am learning that there is a fine balance between heeding caution and living in a state of paranoia – however I have yet to find it, leaning more towards the latter. I am learning to live with maxed out cortisol levels and a neck tired from endless shoulder checks! Haha, no I exaggerate. But, unless accompanied by Vin Diesel, I generally do not venture out after sunset, preferring to lock myself away in the [relative] safety of my gnome house. This does not bode well for meeting people and I worry that my entire social sphere will consist of middle aged men, David Attenborough and, worst of all, myself.

One thing to celebrate is the ethnic diversity here, unlike any I’ve seen in other parts of Central America. A real smorgasbord: from Creoles to Mestizos to Garifuna to Maya…to the sunburned tourists and expats. While English is the main language here, Spanish is widespread. As is the mellifluous Creole language, which while apparently based on English, I find completely unintelligible. Pretty much everyone I have come across has been incredibly friendly, helpful and hospitable – my landlord even brought me mangoes when delivering my receipt for the rent. Mmmm mangoes.

In addition to ethnic diversity, I have been totally impressed with the biodiversity within city limits. While taking coffee breaks on the pier behind my office, I am treated to magnificent frigatebirds and brown pelicans soaring overhead (though the turds floating by somewhat detract from the majesty of the experience). Herons, kiskadees and hawks, as well as saltwater alligators, frequent the mangroves by my house. And I even saw a dead, and very bloated, manatee (which was a traumatizing first encounter with such a beautiful animal). So, if this is any indication of what’s in store, I can’t wait to get my geek on in the “wilder” parts of the country.

Anyway, enough of this blogging. After having achieved my milestone 7 days with no incident, I am treating myself to a weekend on Caye Caulker to relax, dive and, hopefully, finally interact with others in my age bracket. Peace out sea trouts.

On Arrival

15 06 2010

This kicks off my blog about my (mis)adventures in Belize, where I am interning with the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism. Spiny lobsters, or Panulirus argus as they are known in the geek-world, will be the apple of my eye and centre of my existence for the next 6 months. Giddy up!

The journey actually starts with a whirlwind 4 day trip to Halifax, learning to be an “interculturally effective person” by day and a mean karaoke singer by night. Cultural awareness training was full of gems; without it, I would have been grossly underprepared to “decode cultural icebergs” and “build communication bridges” and who knows where I would have ended up – phew!

Bright and early Saturday morning, well actually not so bright seeing as it was 4 am, I left for the airport. Well tried to leave anyway – two taxi drivers showed up to take Danielle (a fellow Uruguay bound intern) and me to the airport and got into a screaming match outside our hotel (yes, at 4 am). It involved racial slurs, an awkward tug of war with my backpack and, ultimately, Danielle’s suitcase being held hostage until these two buffoons sorted their shit out. Good omen I think. At the airport there were further hiccups, namely in the form of the Continental check in person/dragon lady who told me I had too many carry-ons and that one of my bags was 5 kg overweight. So I unpacked my bag, put it on the scale to appease her and, when she busy with other customers, repacked all my belongings into the same bag and sent it on its way. Haha – point for Marina! Small victories, friends, small victories.

I would like to take a separate paragraph to bring up the issue of how Continental is now CHARGING for “in flight entertainment”. WHAT IS THIS WORLD COMING TO? That’s right folks, they give you a little teaser preview to hook you and then ask what you’re planning on doing for the rest of the flight. For the cheap price of $6.99 you just swipe your credit card and unlock a portal to a world of entertainment delights. Bullshit.

Anyway, in Belize City I was greeted by the Director of Finance and Administration for CRFM, one Mr. Delmar Lanza. Things were very proper (at first) – firm handshake, polite small talk etc. – but deteriorated quickly at the mention of beer. Off we went to a dilapidated bar, situated in a prime mosquito breeding zone at the edge of the swamp, and began a beer-off. We were joined by Mr. Delmar’s best friend, Ramon, who looks like an exact hybrid of Vin Diesel and the Rock, with a Creole twist. He sports a sexy winged-horse-against-backdrop-of-moon tattoo on his right bicep and some sort of aggressive-feline-on-steroids roaring on his left forearm. Amazing!

The next day they took me apartment hunting. After viewing many miserable options (including 2 with cockroaches scuttling across the floor and 1 possible murder scene), I found my match. It’s a little gnome house (like servant’s quarters) right by the University of Belize and about 50 m from the ocean. Though direct access to the water is not possible due to the presence of a large garbage filled swamp in between. You can’t win em all.

My office is about a half hour walk from gnome-house. It’s situated right on the ocean and everyone has gorgeous sweeping panorama views of the sea. Except me, of course. My office happens to be everyone else’s lunch room. But hey, at least I am close to the coffee (which, by the way, is instant…shudder). Everyone is extremely friendly and I have a feeling it’s going to be a great 6 months!