Chapter 7. Belize
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2002 All rights reserved.
(Shari) You'd think the second trip into Belize would go easier than the first one, but I am just as hot, just as frustrated and just as frazzled as I was last year. We leave the campground at 7:15 and arrive at the border 30 minutes later. However, many big trucks block the parking on the street before the border. So we park hither and dither. Bert hands me the walkie-talkie and he heads to the border on foot to meet Henry while I wait for each individual rig and tell them where to park. Sometimes I find myself in the middle of the road between our rigs and big trucks, directing traffic, wondering if I will get smashed between the wheels of the big 18-wheelers. We all get settled and our next step is to stay close to the CB's for further instructions. In spite of all the previous discussions about our crossing, people pepper me with hundreds of questions. How long do we stay here? What is the cost? What kind of questions do they ask at the border? What paperwork do I need? This year we are going across the border as a group, and Bert gathers 100 pesos from each person, their passport and their Mexican visa permit. He and Henry disappear and we wait some more for further instructions. Gwen asks about the animals, and Bert says that we will deal with that later. Later never comes, since no one asks and no one tells. We start across the border going over the bridge, heading to the lot we parked in last year. Too late for the first three of us, someone realizes that we all will not fit in that lot nor could we turn around even if we did fit. We are already in the lot and must find a way to turn around. The rest of the caravan gets special permission to enter the "gates" of Belize, get fumigated and park on the side of the road, again waiting for further instructions. Meanwhile, after unhooking our car, I leave Bert with our turning around problem, while I start the next step, stopping at each and every rig, informing them of the needed vehicle registration and passport requirements. Questions still keep coming at me like BB's shot from a gun. How much money do I exchange? How much does the insurance cost? Do I need to get insurance for both trailer and truck? Why did Lee pay less than I did? Where do we go from here? I walk a group over to the insurance office where one lone man sits in air-conditioned comfort filling out the necessary paperwork. Painfully with ballpoint pen and carbon paper he fills out duplicated forms. Each motorized vehicle needs liability insurance for the days it is driven in Belize. For some, like our motor home, insurance is needed only for day one and day fourteen. For others, like our car, insurance is needed for all fourteen days. We enter his office by twos, the rest of us standing outside getting baked in the sun. As soon as the insurance issue is settled we walk to customs, get our passports stamped and head to another line that gives us the permission to drive in Belize. Here our passports are stamped again, the same questions asked as at the insurance office, and more carbon paper put between sheets of paper. VIN numbers, plate numbers, color of vehicle, passport numbers, and the promise of our first-born are duly inscribed on an official looking form, by hand. Another sheet of paper is used to rewrite our passport number and name in a row, each person having his own row. After another official comes to initial the first official's work, we are given a piece of paper that we are told to keep in the vehicle, (the insurance paperwork is stuck to the passenger side of the front window) and we can walk out. Henry says lets go, rig inspection has been waived. So we stop at each and every rig again, informing them that we will leave as a group. I do not know if I should be happy or mad about not having an inspection. Last year, an official boarded every rig, peered into the refrigerator and said we are not allowed to take beer, dairy products, meat, fruits, eggs and vegetables into Belize. He then closed the refrigerator and left my eggs, tomatoes, hamburger, beer, etc. So this year, I got rid of all the "no, no's" and now no one looks. Go figure! So, in just over three hours, all of us cross the border. Easier than last year you ask? Yes! Less frustrating? No!
(Bert) For me, the Belize border crossing appears to be going very smoothly and rapidly. Perhaps first-timers view the experience differently. In 40 minutes, Shari and I collected 26 passports and Mexican tourist visas and had them stamped by the border official. Then, in a continuous convoy we cross the short bridge into Belize. I am halted at the Belize customs impoundment gate, blocked by trucks, and behind me stretch our vehicles past the insurance office, over the bridge, past the Mexico customs office, past the visa inspection station and into the streets of Chetumal. Here we wait while the Belize officials consider where to park our thirteen long rigs. Over the CB, Don asks me, "Do you think I should unhitch my tow car to make it easier for them." I respond, "No, let it attached. Keeping the car attached makes the problem worse, and they will have to come up with a solution." He and I both have our motorhomes nosed into the impoundment lot, but ahead of us are enormous potholes, big enough to swallow a tire to the axle, and semis are crisscrossed everywhere, leaving no room to turn around our 55-ft. articulated rigs. Time ticks away while our caravan blocks all entry into Belize. Finally, the officials allow the remaining vehicles to cross the border inspection station and park along the highway into Belize. Technically this means they allowed us to enter the country without inspection and then walk back for all the paperwork. Vehicles are pesticide sprayed, liability insurance is purchased, entry documents are prepared and inspected, passports are stamped, vehicle information is gathered, but mostly we wait in line. Nonetheless, the procedure goes smoothly, even when Woody encounters a hiccup. His passport shows an unstamped vehicle entry into Belize from last year, implying that he did not take the truck out of the country. No problem. The same vehicle is parked outside, I tell the officials that he accompanied me on last year's exit, and they do the logical thing. They stamp the passport as it should have been stamped a year ago. Having encountered the same situation in Mexico, I am impressed with Belize expediency compared to Mexican. From my perspective at least, today was a smooth 195-minute border crossing. Three hours of standing in lines, filling out paperwork and paying fees is record time.
(Shari) At 5:30AM, the world looks different. I wonder why so many people are waiting on the street for a bus to pick them up at this ungodly hour. Some are already riding bikes without lights to someplace. John, Joanne and I are in the only car on the road heading south. The humidity is so high. It is difficult to keep the steam off of the windshield and, hence, difficult to see the silhouettes of people on the road. We alternate between heat and air conditioning with the choice of seeing or being comfortable. At dawn the road becomes crowded with slow-moving sugarcane trucks that we must pass, praying no oncoming traffic is in our lane. John is taking Joanne to the airport, since she has decided to see a doctor at home. I have taken this road before, and have offered to accompany him. South of Orange Walk Town, the road traverses unpopulated savannah with few people and cars and we make good time. We comment how the people are so different from the Mexicans who waved and smiled as we passed. The Belizeans seem down trodden and sad with their existence. No smiling faces on school children waiting for buses or clerks at the stores. We feel we are imposing on them to even buy gas or a coke. No one is helpful or offers more than the shortest of answers to questions. We make good time, arriving at the airport in less than two hours and a full 2-1/2 hours before the plane's departure. Joanne buys her ticket; we look at some things at the gift shop, have a coke and say our goodbyes. I feel so sorry for Joanne, having to travel home alone, but I know she will make it okay. Our ride home goes smoothly but we do notice the shops are closed observing the national strike against crime. The people are fed up with it and are protesting to the government to do something. Henry has already warned us to not allow anyone in the campground without his business card and to put our belongings away at night. He has a 24-hour guard but the guard may not see everything. Belize's main revenue is tourism and if the tourist gets scared there goes the economy. Mexico is rich in comparison. We hear the Belize government is in trouble and has initiated gasoline rationing to police departments throughout the nation in an effort to save money. That ought to help crime. When I get home, I realize that I have forgotten my key to R-TENT. John has already been through our window to get me in and he knows the drill. We get the ladder, prop it in front of an open window and John crawls in. It is such a funny scene with only his legs sticking out, but again I miss the picture. Think he will do it for the camera sometime? I crash on the bed and do not hear a thing until Bert and the birders return from their outing three hours later. After arranging the two tours tomorrow, we join Jack, Monica, Helen, Bob, Marlene and Larry for dinner at the restaurant across the street that Henry's wife owns and operates. With this group, we can always find someone interested in eating out and we make the best of it.
(Bert) Our boat ride this morning through Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary is the best birding trip so far, according to Don. Even non-birder Marlene remarks, "This is the way to see birds." From the comfort of two boats we cruise around the lake and rivers as we pass a constant procession of birds, plus a few iguanas and a baby crocodile. A Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture glides above us; Snail Kites perch on low trees at water's edge; a Gray-necked Wood-Rail lurks in the underbrush. A half dozen cattle, very much resembling water buffalo, feed shoulder deep in the lake water. In yellow slippers, a Snowy Egret walks across their backs and they swing their horns at it, forcing the egret to fly to another back. For the most part, the birds are oblivious to our passage, allowing us ample opportunity to view them through binoculars and photograph them with long lenses. In the 3-hr. ride we encounter over 50 species, most notably led by Black-collared Hawk, Great Black-Hawk, Sungrebe, and four species of kingfishers. Tom, who earlier in the caravan trip broke the 1000-life-bird threshold with a Lovely Cotinga, today found an enigmatic bird, Prothonotary Warbler, to add to his list. Rather than the easier possibility of finding it in migration or breeding territory in his home state of Texas, Tom has traveled 2000 miles to find the intensely yellow bird in its winter home in Belize. Back on shore, some eat packed lunches, but others of us delight in a ample Belizean lunch of traditional chicken, rice, coleslaw and fried plantain, while sitting under a shaded canopy overlooking the lake sanctuary. Later at the Belize Audubon Society office we find T-shirts, caps and patches appropriated labeled to remind us of our wonderful visit to Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary.
(Bert) If by no other measure, I knew we were in the jungle by the near 100% humidity air that hung in damp curtains through the darkened forest. Had it not been for the earlier rain shower, the temperature might also have been oppressive now in early afternoon, yet it was not. We've reached the Lamanai ruins by boat that left early this morning from Orange Walk. By special arrangement, I chartered a boat for a dozen of us that would make the 1-hr. trip in a bit over 5 hrs. Boating at trolling speed, with frequent reversals, we investigated dozens of feeder creeks along the New River, first heading downstream, north, toward the rum factory and sugar cane factory, and then heading upstream toward the Mayan ruins at Lamanai. The more intense birders join me on this marathon birding day. In comfortable seats, under a canopy that shades us from the direct sun - and later the downpour - we patrol the jungle shoreline. Again, like yesterday, the birds allow close approach. We see many of the same species, but repeated views of four beautiful Black-collared Hawks and a dozen Snail Kites do not go unappreciated. Two Purple Gallinules take the prize for the most colors packed into a rounded body. John, who wasn't with us yesterday, gets his chance for an unobstructed view of a Sungrebe who crisscrosses the shoreline while we watch at close range. With so many kingfishers along the New River, I start a tabulation to see which is most abundant. The final tally is 1 Amazon, 13 Green, 15 Belted and an amazing 28 Ringed Kingfishers. Perhaps it is their giant size and Gattling gun staccato call that make the Ringed Kingfishers presence unmistakable. Disembarked, we now hike the trail through the Lamanai jungle, passing many mounded ruins completely submerged in wooded overgrowth and a few of those that have been uncovered and are in the process of restoration. Unlike other ruins, here the original facades are in place. When I photograph the masked god motif at the Mask Temple I ask Jerry to stand next to it for perspective on its large size. As the afternoon wears on - both in time and in its toll on wearied hikers - the birding improves and we find a number of new species for the trip list and life birds for many. A quick but satisfying view of the tiny Plain Xenops was special to me. We find a good variety of woodcreepers: Ruddy, Olivaceous, Ivory-billed and Streak-headed. Howler Monkeys, suspended high in the canopy, look down at our passing troupe, and later we hear their ear-shattering howl echo through the jungle, undiminished by the giant palms and hardwoods that immerse us in every direction. Dusk has arrived and we return to our boat. In a half-hour's ride we speed full-toddle downstream, half the distance to where we left the cars, stopping near the Mennonite community of Shipyard. Now darkness settles in, engulfing the shoreline trees, but a silvery light reflects from the serpentine river. At trolling speed, with high-intensity flashlights we scan the trees, shoreline and river surface, looking for fiery eyes reflecting our beam. We reveal a few Pauraques, some in flight, some perched and others calling from hidden places. But the real show does not begin until darkness tightens its chokehold on the jungle. John, scanning the shoreline to the right, finds two white lights separated by little more than an inch. Strangely, they sit only a few inches above a flattened spot under the trees. Our flashlights show a white belly beneath the eyes and a profile like a large fat frog. Not bird, nor reptile, we puzzle over the creature for several minutes, finally leaving it unidentified. A few crocodiles show a pair of eyes above the water's surface, but they extinguish quickly as the reptile slips below. Then, just before the boat containing the other half of our group catches up with us, Lee finds two red-orange eyes blazing back at us from the top of a dead limb. Like the extension of that limb, the Northern Potoo stands wooden against the dark sky. Later another profile and size seem to fit for Mottled Owl, but our distance precludes a definitive identification. Easier to identify, we see the white forecollar and cinnamon hindcollar of two Yucatan Nightjars as well as several other unidentified nightjars. At 8:15, Ronnie speeds the 200-hp outboard and without running lights he curves through the dark channel, using only moonlight reflected off the silver river as his compass, reaching the dock in another 20 minutes. Probably my most memorable birding experience last year, this year again Lamanai and the New River will go down as a great adventure.
(Shari) It is all Maggie's fault that we have so much fun. If she had not raised her hand for the long trip, there never would have been a nighttime short trip. When discussing the two trips in Bacalar, I saw Maggie raise her hand, intending to go on the long trip. I did not think she would enjoy the long trip and asked Pat to talk to her. Then I talked to a group of eight or so and Bob made the suggestion of starting later and making the short trip also a night trip. We arranged it that way, and boy oh boy did we have fun. The serious birders never would have put up with us, that is for sure, but then we do not think they laughed as much as we did. AND we still birded. We saw the Jabiru, Northern Jacana, Mangrove Shallow, and beautiful Purple Gallinule. Plus we had really nice looks at the Keel-billed Toucan and saw a Slaty-tailed Trogan, a species the other group missed. These birds are the ones worthy of my life list so I remember them. We started our trip at 11 AM from the campground. (The serious birders left at 6AM.) The twelve of us take three cars to make the hour's drive to Orange Walk. There we meet our captain and guide, Isedro and his helper George, a 16-year-old Mestico (mixed breed Mayan and Spanish) who looks 12. We sit down on cushions along the sides of a big covered boat with plenty of room for our gear among the four ice chests full of our provided snacks, drinks and dinner. The trip up the river is suppose to take only two hours but we spot so many interesting things that it takes three. In addition to the birds I listed earlier, we see a Spiny Iguana, three Long-nosed Insect Bats hanging on a burned out tree, lots of crocodiles, turtles and men fishing. We stop to chat and take pictures of one man who caught a string of catfish, all over 8 pounds. Arriving at the Lamanai ruins we eat our snack of Johnnycakes filled with canned ham and drink some water and rum punch. We do a little shopping at the gift stores lining the dock before we start our tour into the jungle. I am really interested in seeing a Howler Monkey. I heard them last year but never saw them. Today, I walk into the jungle with a mission. I set George out looking for the monkey and he does not disappoint me. He comes back and motions me to follow. I shout monkey and Monika and I set out at a fast clip following George with the rest of our group not far behind. As we are climbing a short hill, I hear a blood-curdling cry that gives me quite a start, in spite of the fact that I know it is the monkey. He is right above us; a much bigger animal than I was picturing in my mind. George says the monkeys often come to the ground to fight but today only one monkey is here at the top of the trees. He has soft fuzzy black fur and gives us a good look. Monika has the gift of communicating to others precisely where to look. She also has a colorful vocabulary in her descriptions. She exclaims about the good look we have of the private parts. Female binoculars snap up to eyes in a hurry as we all ooh and aah over the monkey. A bit after 5 PM we head back to the picnic area by the lake for our dinner. The tour company forgot to back plates for our fried chicken, rice and beans, potato salad, coleslaw, pickled onions and watermelon. We are so hungry we find some cups and eat out of them. Meanwhile poor George and Isedro are washing the plates of the group who had eaten earlier. At 6 we board the boat again and race the 17 miles to the halfway point before we slow down. By now it is dark and the river is creepy with its nighttime shadows and insect noises. Our boat creeps along and we peer out into the darkness looking for reflected eyes in the beams of our flashlights. Soon we find what we think is an owl but later confirm as one of the many nightjars on the river. We catch up to the other group who shows us a Northern Potoo. They take so long to identify birds that we decide to move ahead of them. We find more nightjars, scare up beautiful flocks of white egrets and some herons, and lots of crocodiles. One would never want to swim in this river. Bob is a great spotter but often tells us too late on what he spotted. Jack suggests we throw him overboard to mark the spot next time. Russ and Bob are sitting next to each other and both tell great stories and jokes, Russ more with a play on words and Bob with full-fledged stories. By now, to an outsider, we would look as if we had too much rum punch because we are getting silly. We make the comment that the other group is going to write a letter to the national headquarters of Audubon and have our membership cancelled. Well, we may not be serious birders but we are happy birders nonetheless and our "short" trip that started at 11 AM, ends at 9:30 PM when we return to our campsite, marking it a memorable day.
(Shari) Scheduled as a free day, today is busy with wash and shopping. I try to hang the wash outside to dry but 45 minutes after the last clothespin is snapped onto the line, the rain starts. The downpour stops in time for the second load, but starts again before the second load of clothes is dry. I give up and hang clothes inside. All over. On a line strung from wall to wall in the bedroom, over sun visors in the windshield and over chairs, damp clothes decorate R-TENT. We look like a used clothing store for the poor. Bert and I attempt to get e-mail at the local Internet. New this year, we have a hard time finding its location. No signs advertise many of the businesses in town and most are located in nondescript buildings. We pass the Internet place three times before I get out to ask where it is. Located in a building advertising DHL, the place has two computers along a sidewall. The connection is slower than molasses in winter, and some of our mail does not go out for whatever reason. Next we try to locate the butcher shop. After passing it three times also and twice asking directions from residents, we stumble into it. Like finding needles in a haystack, I feel like we are playing "Hot and cold." The butcher shop is really a shack with a beat up wooden counter and an old wood table behind it. On the table sits a bull's head, with its fur and horns still attached, eyes staring out at me, and a woman cutting off bits of meat with a large knife. I ask about lunchmeat and am told all they have is bacon and hamburger. I buy a little bacon, just to be polite and exit the building. Later in the afternoon, Maggie and Russ take me to the little grocery store that they found that sells frozen prepackaged salami and pastrami. Bert and I had tried to find it earlier also, but with no luck. Every block has some sort of 12-ft. X 12-ft. grocery store with a variety of foodstuffs on shelves. This one is the cleanest I have seen and well stocked with the basics. Along with the lunchmeat, I buy the fixings for pina coladas. We cannot have margaritas while in Belize, now can we?
(Bert) A break from constant traveling and birding, today becomes a day of rest (I sleep until the late hour of 8 AM) and catching up on errands. On my computer I gather up our daily journals for the past week or so, prepare them for e-mail delivery and we head into Corozal to the only Internet site in the small town. The first computer fails to make a web connection, via long distance phone line to Belize City, but the second computer connects. Strangely, some of my e-mail successfully sends but each time I attempt to send my journals through the e-groups web site, the message is terminated with a bad web page address. I am able to read e-mails and responded to some of them, but one of my replies also fails to send. The young lady working there simply shrugs her shoulders. So, my e-mailed journals are stacking up until I can find another opportunity.
(Bert) Until today, the farmed savannahs and forested foothills of northwestern Belize comprise an area I have not explored. To reach the area by dawn, five of us - John, Tom, Lee, Don and me - leave Corozal at 4:30 AM. Under a clear starlit sky and with little traffic, our transit is easy. Illuminated only by my headlights, the rows of white spots on a reddish pig-shaped Paca are clearly visible as the strictly nocturnal mammal wanders about the road ahead of me. Surprising to me, many workers are awake already and standing in groups in the little towns we pass, waiting for the bus that we pass. Orange Walk is quieter, but we do find two people at a bus stop who help us with directions west, out of this much larger town. Heading west and then south, Yo Creek and the even smaller villages have paved roads, but the 5-mi. stretches between population centers are hard pack, liberally sprinkled with potholes. Taken at a slower pace, the roads are easily manageable, however, in my Pathfinder and John's truck. A Gray Fox crosses our path at first light. At dawn we stop at a small wooded area and pond surrounded by vast open fields of sorghum, ripe for harvest. The birding is remarkably good and we remain at this small oasis for a couple hours, adding new birds to the list, many of which are lifers to the group. Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Azure-crowned Hummingbird and Common Tody-Flycatcher lead the list. We continue to travel through Mennonite farmlands, flat, moist and well maintained. The houses and buildings in August Pine Ridge, Trinidad, Blue Creek Village and San Felipe are more substantial and in much better repair than those we have seen in the poorer eastern villages. With less than 2% of the population, the Mennonites provide almost all of the fruits, vegetables and dairy products consumed by Belizeans. We stop at a sorghum field to walk along a farm path and hear a raucous chorus coming from the forested edge a half-mile away. Even from this distance we can see the large flock and soon they wing in our direction, a boisterous rowdy flock of about 500 White-fronted Parrots. As we head southwest toward the Guatemala border, the land rises and remnant forest patches remain. We stop to bird at the first substantial forest and are soon rewarded by a pair of Great Curassows that trot across the dirt road. Large turkey-sized and turkey-shaped birds, both the black male and the brown female sport feathered headdresses and are a prize find for us. Soon we cross through the forest remnant and come upon a field flanked by the forest edge. Here in a Moho tree (Mahawa in Spanish), we are entertained for an hour at the constant display of hummingbirds, orioles and honeycreepers feeding on the bountiful pink blossoms adorning the 25-ft. rounded tree. One hummingbird in particular consumes much of our time. We record all of the minute details of the bird because its description only matches one species, that of Sparkling-tailed Hummingbird. But this hummingbird is not listed for the country of Belize, although it is known in Guatemala. I have seen the species once before, in western Mexico, and this one is quite similar, but somewhat shorter tailed and without the white bands on the still-long tail. All other field marks fit well and I suspect I'll report it to experts to gather their opinion on our find. After lunch, we continue in the direction of the Rio Bravo Conservation Area and Chan Chich, probably the most famous birding destination in Belize. Stopping short of that remote spot, we visit the cabanas and other facilities at the Programme for Belize, making arrangements for another visit in years to come. Culminating a great birding day, we watch a King Vulture soar above us. Tom finishes the day with more lifers than any other day of the trip thus far, but he counts the experience of 500 raucous parrots as the most memorable.
(Shari) Some days it is nice to do nothing. Bert leaves with four other crazy men at 4:30AM for a birding trip. I cannot sleep and also get up at the ungodly hour of 4 but soon feel drowsy. I have the luxury of crawling back under the sheets. A "cold" front came in last night and the daytime high is a balmy 70 degrees with little humidity. I take advantage of the coolness and bake cookies, read, vacuum, read, let out the awning to dry, read and make pina coladas for the group. After our happy hour, a number of us decide to go into town for pizza. No sooner do I order my pizza when in walks Bert and Don. Over our pizza they tell us of their terrific day and we tell them of ours.
(Shari) Eight pews on either side of the aisle contain about 40 people for worship at St. Paul's Anglican Church in Corozal. The volunteer minister is away this Sunday so the prayer service is lead by a very capable woman. She leads us in song, reads lessons and gives a terrific sermon on prayer. Each person is to raise their hand with fingers extended. Each finger in turn is a symbol of whom we should offer up in prayer every day: family, church, leaders, poor and self. During announcements, visitors are asked to stand and introduce themselves. Later we are told that after service the doors and windows are locked so that all visitors have to stay and partake of coffee and dessert. That is a nice way of saying we are welcome. We do stay and have a wonderful time visiting with the congregation. We learn many interesting things about the area. 2000 Mennonites produce 90- percent of the chicken and 80 percent of the grain for Belize. Five schools exist in Corozal, all run by local churches with government support. The Anglican Church has 178 students in its K-8 school. Many children come to school hungry and the church has started a food program to feed them breakfast and lunch. The people of Belize elect a party, and the party appoints the leadership. The leadership does not seem accountable for the things it does or does not do. Over 200 North Americans have retired and call Corozal home. Last year we attended a neat blue grass concert at the Last Resort. Henry says they still do it. A man at church says the band now plays 6 miles north. At 2 PM we head north. No bluegrass! There we are told; yes indeed it is at the Last Resort. We then head to it, crossing the river by means of a quaint hand cranked ferry. We arrive at the resort, and only the drummer is there, but he is eating lunch not playing music. No one is playing music and we are told the group really does not play anymore. So much for bluegrass! After a snack of red beans, rice and fried breadfruit, we head back to attend Penny's birthday party. Penny is Gwen and Woody's Springer Spaniel and she is 8 years old today. Gwen serves us all hot dogs, tortilla chips, beans with cake and ice cream and Penny enjoys all the attention. We really do not want to break up the party, but the mosquitoes are ferocious tonight and drive us all into our rigs.
(Bert) After an absence from church services for many weeks, this morning's experience is uplifting and refreshing. We visited St. Paul's Anglican Church last year, but with only that one prior visit, today it was a bit like coming home to a familiar church. Most remarkable - and unique - to me is the diversity of people in attendance. Nowhere else have I worshiped with people of Spanish, Mayan, British, American, African and mixed heritage all on the same day. And today is even more unusual in that the pastor for this congregation is in southern Belize and the service is was led by lay people: a white man with a British accent, a black lady with a Jamaican or Creole accent and a black man with little accent at all. I love the Creole accent where vowels are substituted from our version of English and consonants are dropped. John 3 becomes "John tree." "Man" is Mon." And the sentences flow like lyric phrases set to music. From her notes penned on a yellow legal pad, Helen delivers a sermon that keeps us involved and hanging on every word. After services we stay for coffee and pastry, under penalty of them barring the doors if we leave beforehand, and we engage in many conversations with the local people. I'm sure many tourists travel through countries without talking seriously with locals, thereby missing an opportunity to see the world from their perspective. I'm not saying I gathered the whole picture in a half hour's conversation, but I definitely have a greater appreciation for the perplexities of Belizean government, business monopolies, local poverties and the dire needs of the education of children. Over and over again it is impressed on me on how blessed we are as Americans and Canadians and how simple are the needs of third-world citizens that go largely unmet.
(Shari) Disappointment seeps in when a scheduled tour of the sugar cane factory is cancelled. We see sugar cane trucks overly laden with cane stalks lumbering down the highway towards the factory. Many times on our way through Orange Walk we pass the plant, with its two towers billowing blackish smoke and see hundreds of cane trucks lined up on the road awaiting their turn to dump their monstrous load, only to return to the fields to pick up another one. Sugar cane is the major industry of Belize and we see cane fields in all stages of harvesting. The field is burnt to rid it of the under brush before men armed with sickles cut the long stalks by hand and load them onto a truck. Slowly the trucks or trailers pulled by tractors make their way to the factory, sometimes spilling cane as it traverses a tope. We remark that we can see the topes by just looking for the cane piled up on the sides of the road. (For those of you have asked, topes are manmade bumps, 4-8 inches high, consisting of cement laid across the road for the sole purpose of slowing traffic. No need for stop signs when topes do the job so well.) Many of us are curious how such an ugly dry looking stalks can produce such nice sweet white powder. Henry's father had said we should just show up at the plant, but not wanting to chance the long drive for nothing, last night I asked Henry to call ahead about a tour of the plant. At 7:30 this morning I walk to his house and am told to wait an hour or so. Soon Henry comes to R-TENT to inform us that the factory no longer gives tours. Darn! So this turns out to be another free day. Birders do you know what, Pat comes over to write an e-mail message, while I read a book.
(Bert) The day slips by with little of note to report. I finish entering a week's accumulation of bird sightings and our total now stands at 325 species, plus 15 additional subspecies. We make the final preparations for our trip south tomorrow and during Happy Hour we inform everyone of the schedule, what to take along and what to expect. We also arrange car-pooling, since all but two with the smallest rigs will be leaving their RV's here in Corozal.
(Shari) I can feel the excitement in the air as I walk beside the 9-car caravan to determine if everyone is ready to depart on our vacation within a vacation. Already before 6 AM people are gathering to leave. Water bottles and snacks are stashed in bags and clothes are put in backpacks. We arrive at our first stop, the Belize Zoo, shortly after it opens at 8:30. This is a nice little zoo, started and now maintained as a place to save native animals that cannot make it on their own in the wild. It is also a good place to bird since many wild birds come to feed on the food set out for the residents. The birders spend four hours here, but after an hour, I have had enough and head for the gift shop. I find Edie there also. After browsing we head for the parking lot to read or nap. After eating our packed lunches we leave for Guanacaste National Park. This year the weather is cooler, so I don my net mesh bug suit and join the birders on the trail. Soon, I get bored with the lack of movement and the discussions on whether the white feathers of a particular bird are on the primaries or secondaries and return to the car for another nap and a read. After the allotted 90 minutes, I honk the horn and soon the birders come dribbling out of the jungle towards their cars. We still have another two hours to ride to our resort destination in Dangriga. The scenery along this road is spectacular, especially when enjoyed in air-conditioned comfort. Neat orange groves with trees planted in pleasing rows along the hillsides, jungles and valleys and low mountains delight our eyes as we wind our way south. Our resort is on the beach with lovely grounds. Picture white sand and palm trees bending in the breeze with shrimp boats bobbing on clear turquoise water and you will have us in your mind. Meeting on the veranda for cocktails before dinner, everyone tells me how lovely the place is. By 6 PM we are starved, the dining room opens, and we parade inside after glancing at the blackboard announcing today's specials. Following a leisurely three-course meal, I think we all head to our rooms for an early night. Tomorrow is a full and early day.
(Bert) The main highways zigzag through Belize. Heading southeast, the Northern Highway, which we have now driven many times, takes us this morning toward Belize City, but we bypass the crime-ridden city using a ragged road continually under new construction. Then it is the Western Highway heading southwest through flat savannahs until we reach the Belize Zoo shortly after its 8:30 opening time. Undoubtedly one of my favorite zoos, I find as many animals inside the enclosures as outside. Specializing in the animals of Belize, we see tapir, paca, jaguar, ocelot and the other mammals that are hard to find in the wild, but nonetheless still exist. The habitat around the zoo and the natural settings of each enclosure are attractive to wild animals as well and I see an agouti and many birds in the wild. I find several Common Tody-Flycatchers, a Little Hermit, a couple female Red-capped Manakins and I photograph some bright Yellow-tailed Orioles. Others find two species I wish I'd seen: Thick-billed Seed-Finch and Green-backed Sparrow. After lunch at the picnic tables in the parking lot, we continue on the Western Highway. Strange hills pop up in the flat grasslands, sticking up abruptly with rough unnaturally sharp vertical lines. The road climbs slowly toward Belophan, the capital of Belize. We stop at Guanacaste National Park. When I pay the entry fees for the group, the attendant says he is also a birder, so Dennis serves as our guide through the small park. I especially appreciate his ability to recognize the bird songs and he identifies Yellow-billed Cacique, Squirrel Cuckoo and Green-backed Sparrow by song. The highlight is an extremely patient Rufous-tailed Jacamar that gives each of us ample opportunity to view it sitting in the deep jungle. The park is most noted for its trees, especially the gigantic Guanacaste trees that dwarf us when we gather for a group photo at its base. We see a surprising number of birds during the hottest part of the day and the inviting habitat suggests that this would be a great birding spot in early morning or late afternoon. But we have a schedule to keep, and soon are on our way, now zigzagging southeast on the Hummingbird Highway. Certainly the most beautiful highway on our Mexico-Belize trip so far, we travel through the edge of the Maya Mountains past giant trees, dramatic views and over small streams forded by single-lane bridges. Dangriga is on the Caribbean coast, a poor village of unpainted wooden 2-story buildings. Our home for the next few days is a comfortable resort on the outskirts of town and fronting the Caribbean.
(Shari) A few gather in the early morning darkness drinking coffee on the veranda before the resort opens its dining room at 6 AM for us. Our breakfast today is billed a buffet of fruits, juice, coffee, breads and cereal but even that sounds better than it is. The cereal is individual Kellogg's packages of stale corn flakes or fruit loops, the milk is evaporated and the juice tastes like Tang. Priced at $7, it is outrageous. I duly complain to the management and hope tomorrow is better. But the group is up and ready to board the bus that will take them to Cockscomb Wildlife Refuge. I follow in the car to take back to the resort those who want to make a shorter day of it after lunch. I am wearing long pants and a long sleeve shirt hoping this will not be as hot as my net bug suit. Actually the day is cooler than I expect and I attempt to walk the trails with the group. As long as I can keep walking or moving, I feel cooler and the bugs do not have a chance to bite. But you know birders. They have to stop, look and listen to every feather and tweet. So again I get antsy and after a little while head back to the shade of the picnic area to enjoy my book. I would like to hike the trails on my own but am leery about finding snakes. The warden at the visitor's center gives a good spiel about all the poisonous snakes found in the jungle and that we should always look before we walk. I decide to read. The jungle is so thick that I begin to feel one of the vines will wind its way around my ankle if I stay still for five minutes. I am happy to see the birders return for lunch. After eating, I take Maggie, Helen, Doris, and Edie back to the resort with me. Marlene, Larry and Bob also bail out of the afternoon birding. We stop at the gift shop, grocery store, bakery and fresh produce market to pick up snacks and drinks for tomorrow. I take a well-deserved nap before going downstairs to join some for cocktails car-pooling to this evening's restaurant.
(Bert) Large enough for wild animals to roam freely, jungles dense enough to give them protection, mostly untouched by human interference keeping the preserve pollution free and still native in plant life, Cockscomb Basin National Park is home to all five of the wild cats of Belize, host to the Tapir and hundreds of exotic bird species. The closest I come to a wild cat is to see the tracks of a Margay in the mud along one of the trails we hike today. But I do see other mammals. A Deppe's Squirrel scampering high in the canopy draws my attention to a sedate Slaty-tailed Trogon, her gray back turned to us. Six black Howler Monkeys rest quietly atop a high tree; young monkeys cling to the back of two adults. The giant 60-ft. fronds of a cakoon palm bounce like a trampoline from the boisterous activities of a gathering of Coati. Mostly we see only the movement of the fronds, but twice a Coati exits along the spine of a horizontal frond, giving us a good view of its lanky gray body and long upright tail. We also see a Collared Peccary before the day is done. The density, depth and height of the jungle and the intense lushness fueled by 170 inches of annual rain is a dimension that is not fully appreciated in photos or film, but only can be grasped by standing in the midst of this wild place. To someone who has spent a lifetime in the more temperate climes, each turn on the jungle path brings a new discovery, a new wonderment. No one goes away today without many additions to their life bird lists. In the dense foliage, seeking out the birds is often a challenge, but the bright colors aid in the pursuit. Or the large size! We can hardly miss seeing the Crested Guans, black and brown with red throats and distinguishing crests and big of as turkeys, making it easy to follow their passage through the tops of tall trees. Bright colors help us find White-collared Manakins, Passerini's (Scarlet-rumped) Tanagers, an Olive-backed Euphonia and several Golden-hooded Tanagers. Others are elusive and I barely get a look at Dot-winged Antwren and Dusky Antbird in the underbrush, even though we can track them by song. Great Tinnamous and Short-billed Pigeons we only identify by call or song, never finding the source. Our guide, Theodore, is a big help in that regard since he is quite familiar with the sounds of the jungle. His enthusiasm is contagious, making him fun to bird with. A long birding day but one that leaves us with the sense that we left many birds yet unfound, we tally 91 species collectively by departure time.
(Bert) Rain threatens in the early morning darkness, the patter magnified by the tin roof of our lodge. But by the time the bus arrives at 7AM, the water remains suspended in the dark clouds. While driving alongside orange orchards, Theodore tells us about the citrus industry, number three in dollar value to Belize, following sugar cane and tourism. Velencia oranges, transplanted from Florida, were the origin of the industry. Now the sweet orange juice is shipped to England and sometimes to the U.S. to sweeten the Florida crop. Migrant workers from Honduras and Guatemala, who pick the oranges, are paid by the bag and can earn US$25 if they are ambitious enough to pick 100 bags per day, but that wage is too low for Belizeans who prefer other jobs. At the boat dock we fill every available space on the sleek speedboat piloted by Nolan. Last year we took the same boat along the coast and up the lower Sittee River. But the birds we saw were mostly common coastal birds. Today we start where last year we left off. The upper part of the Sittee River is edged by tall trees, attractive to many of the same species that inhabit Cockscomb. In fact, the river flows from that preserve. Birding from a slow moving boat is a comfortable way to see wildlife. Specialties today are Red-lored Parrot, Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, and Scarlet-rumped Tanager. Equally fascinating are the many Common Iguanas sprawled across high tree limbs, Spiny-tailed Iguana, Basilk Lizard and the many flowering and fruiting trees that adorn the riverside. Shortly after we turn about and head back downstream, the dark clouds release their pregnant burdens. Out come raincoats and umbrellas, but the soft warm rain is not uncomfortable. Back on shore we eat our lunches in the open area under a gift shop built on stilts, as are most of the houses in the coastal Dangriga area. Rain and waves encourage us to take up Nolan's offer to postpone the reef snorkeling trip until tomorrow. So the bus takes us back to the resort. After the many activities of the past two days, an afternoon nap is quite welcome.
(Shari) Again this morning Theodore meets us with the bus to take us to the marina in Hopkins for our boat trip up the river. Blessedly, the day is overcast and cool and I enjoy the trip even though I am a nonbirder. Sitting on cushioned seats along the sides of the big boat, all 23 of us fit snugly. Two Red-lored Parrots peek cutely from a hole in a dead palm tree, a beautiful blue honeycreeper dazzles us with its iridescent colors, and Edie spots a Keeled-billed Toucan for us to watch. Many Americans are building nice vacation houses along the river but I wonder what the natives think. Even a modest beach house along the river is 1000% better than the average house in town. We comment that the poorest person in the United States would be one of the richest here in southern Belize. Ramshackle shacks line the streets in Dangriga and we are sure they must be abandoned, but when looking closer we see signs of living inside. We would not put our dogs in such living conditions. Yet here people are living in unpainted, unscreened, one room, falling apart, small shacks. Running, walking or riding bikes barefoot they all stare at us as we slowly drive by in our air-conditioned cars. The people do not say anything to us or make gestures but many of the women comment that they have the impression from the attitude that the Belizeans resent our presence. Maybe we are imagining it, since we are oh so wealthy in comparison. Theodore tells us that 100,000 Belizeans live in the United States and send money back to the 250,000 remaining inhabitants. Something is amiss, when it only takes 2000 Mennonites to produce 90% of the poultry and 80% of the grain of the country. The large citrus groves of the area employ Guatemalans or Hondurans to pick the crops. At 25 cents per bag, a good picker can earn $25 per day, not enough for a person of Belize though; they will not work for that. Forty-five percent of the population is under the age of 15 and soon, I predict, there will be even more poverty in the country with not enough jobs to go around. The government to trying to educate the population by requiring mandatory schooling until the age of 15. However some rural kids fall through the cracks and, like our guide in Lamanai, never go to school. Tourism, Belize's third biggest industry could become bigger with proper marketing and services but again the population will have to become educated as to its importance. Even the staff at our resort, while pleasant enough, gives the impression that it is too much trouble for them to serve us. There are exceptions to this, of course. I am digressing here, so back to the boat. Not using the power of the twin100-hp engines, we inch our way upriver, scanning the riverbanks, treetops and shoreline for bird movement. If something is spotted, Nolan cuts the engine in order to give everyone time to spot the prize. At 11AM, he turns the boat around and soon a light mist begins to fall. Mist turns to rain and by the time we reach the marina we are pretty wet. We hurry under the store built on stilts to eat our lunch and decide the weather is too bad to continue on to our snorkeling. We'll try again tomorrow. The bus returns us to the resort and we separate to enjoy our free time. Bob goes fishing and catches some tarpon in what was called Nelda's slew (because she saw birds there yesterday) but now is called Bob's lagoon. Bert goes birding; I read and nap. No scheduled time or place for dinner, Bert, a few others and I eat at the restaurant on the river. By 8:30, we are in our Pj's ready for bed. Getting up at 5 is tiring.
(Shari) Yesterday afternoon, Bert and I drove out to Marie Sharp's factory to inquire about a tour. With precise directions from Altan, at the resort desk, we found the unidentified building without any trouble but it seemed to be closed. As I got out of the car, a man drove up and said all the women have gone home for the day, but he would show us around. After our little tour, I asked his name and he told me he was David Sharp, Marie's son. Wow! He told us to come back in the morning at 10 AM for a tour. So that is what some of us do this morning. We enter the little warehouse type building at 10 AM sharp and stand around looking for someone to greet us. About ten women wearing masks and hairnets are busy stirring a vat of hot liquid, pouring liquid into jars, capping the jars and cleaning the outside of the jars. Soon a woman, who was stirring a vat of hot liquid, walks towards us, removes her mask and says, "Hello, I am Marie Sharp. Can I help you?" After my initial shock of being greeted by Marie Sharp herself, I tell her of our meeting with David yesterday. Just like a son, David forgot to tell her we were coming. She does not get flustered but takes us on a quick tour herself, explaining her processes. Today the women are making mango jam and soon will be ready to put the labels on the jars. Not much is mechanized or done with efficiency in mind, and it reminds me of a bunch of churchwomen making jam in the church kitchen to sell as a fundraiser. We also see the many vats full of pepper sauce, waiting their turn to be bottled. When the tour is complete, she leads us to a table laden with a bowel of crackers and a host of jams, coconut, mango, orange marmalade, pineapple, and mixed fruit along with chutney and a whole array of hot sauces to sample. We dig in and decide to buy some to take home for presents. Our tour may have been free, but it cost us anyway. As we wait our turn to pay for our products, I notice a small blue bound notebook with recipes hand written. I page through the book and realize these are the recipes for the various products. WOW again! Upon returning to the resort, when I pull my key out of the ignition I see only half a key. Larry thinks the other half is still in the steering column but he cannot get it out. We call a locksmith and the expression on his face does not look good as he ponders the situation. He says he does not have a tool to get the key extracted and he and Larry begin talking about removing the steering column, taking the starter apart and pushing the key out from the backside. This does not look good. He walks to his truck, returns with a skinny rod, pokes around in the starter and says he does not think the key is in there. I look around the floor of the car, in the grass outside and in between the seats and sure enough, the small tip of a key is under the seat. Whew, that was a close call. Just as I am about to return to my room, the captain of our boat arrives wondering if we still want to take the group snorkeling. Because the waves are 3-5 feet and the snorkeling place is choppy, he thinks half of us would get seasick. Disappointedly, we decide to cancel and request a refund. Darn! For me, that trip was the highlight of the whole 65 days last year. We have another free afternoon. You know what Bert does. I go to stores to gather ingredients for our lunches tomorrow and take a nap.
(Bert) "It's a shame he wasn't born with longer arms," exclaims Helen. Bob is describing the length of the fish he caught today. I would dismiss it as just another fish story, but Bob actually demonstrates his abilities. We encounter Bob while we bird along a canal north of town and I challenge him to catch a fish within three minutes. In a swirl of colored ribbon, he slings his fly line through the air and drops the fly in the center of the canal, close to where we watch. Within 90 seconds a fish snaps the bait and clears the surface as he pulls on the line. When the fish escapes, Bob tells us, "That's the long distance form of catch and release." Free to do what we please today, everyone seems to have head in different directions. Six of us return to Cockscomb Basin National Park and walk some of the same trails. We see new species Crimson-collared Tanager and Orange-billed Sparrow, and get a good look at Scaled Pigeon and Blue Ground-Dove through Tom's spotting scope. High waves preclude our boat trip to the barrier reef, a disappointment to most of us. After checking out Bob's fish, we continue to bird along the abandoned shrimp farm ponds. Lee and I spend a great deal of time investigating four dark ibises perched on a dead snag with White Ibis. Range maps in Howell's book do not show White-faced Ibis anywhere near Belize and he asterisks Glossy Ibis with the note "Other records from Belize require verification." So it is with great patience and plenty of photographs that we document the Glossy Ibises that perch before us in near breeding plumage, a sighting worthy of reporting to the authorities.
(Bert) Were it transported two thousand miles northward, Blue Hole would be a crown jewel in our U.S. National Park system. Blue Hole National Park certainly rivals ours in natural beauty and exceeds ours in preservation of the environment. The dense jungle grows over limestone mountains and an underground river. Soon after we arrive in early morning, we see a part of this river where a karst cavern has collapsed to form a deep hole, the Blue Hole, and a 150-ft. length of the river. In the deep shadows of the forest shaded hole we find a pair of Blue-crowned Motmots, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher and the every present singing Spot-breasted Wrens. Here we meet Israel, a warden of the park and our birding guide this morning. Israel displays remarkable abilities to identify all of the songs and calls of the forest birds, a skill that helps us zero in on species we might otherwise miss. We find almost a dozen species of tanagers feeding on fruiting trees around the picnic area, including Gray-headed, Crimson-collared and Passerini's. Two Blue-black Grosbeaks seem to be building a nest at the base of a tree. Finally I get many opportunities to see Short-billed Pigeon, a species I have heard repeatedly but, previously, always remained hidden from view. Panning the horizon, Don finds a pair of distant Emerald Toucanets in the process of nest building. Lee and Don set up their spotting scopes and we all get good looks at this miniature version of a toucan with an outlandish yellow and black bill. Hiking along the trail to the entrance to St. Herman's Cave, we alternate between concentrated sunlight beating down on us and intensely high humidity when the jungle wraps us in vibrant foliage. In the densest areas, the sounds of birds are everywhere, but finding them is another matter. We glimpse Plain Xenops, Dot-winged Antwren, Dusky Antbird, and Cinnamon Becard, but only hear the calls of Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher and Tawny-crowned Greenlet and the sweet song of the Nightingale Wren. Barred Antshrikes seem to follow us everywhere, changing their status in my mind from elusive to common. I can't think of a more diverse family pair, the male looking like an escaped convict in his black-and-white zebra suit and the female dramatically different in a feather dress of shades of rusty red, but both sporting a bad hairdo. By lunchtime we have seen or heard over 80 species, including life birds for everyone.
(Shari) After waving goodbye to the first group heading back toward Dangriga, birding along the way, I return to my room and make sandwiches for our group lunch. I meet Larry and Marlene at the dining room for breakfast and discover a way to beat their outrageous prices, order off the menu. I have a delicious vegetable omelet, freshly squeezed orange juice and fry bread for only $4.00. At 10, Edie and I drive up to the Blue Hole National Park to meet the rest of the group, with Marlene and Larry arriving about an hour later. Happily, I got to stay in air-conditioned comfort for an extra three hours while the rest of the group walked the trails up here. As soon as I have spread the food on the picnic table the first of the birders arrive to dig into it. They must be hungry, because peanut butter and jelly and bologna sandwiches do not deserve the rave reviews they are getting. But everyone has his or her fill and soon we head home, stopping once at the winery we saw on the way down. As soon as we alight from our cars, a man and woman greet us warmly and take us to their tasting room. Beautiful glass decanters of wine are arranged on a center table and we are told to sample whatever we want. Tasting a bit of each, we decide to buy a bottle of wine made from tamarind and also one made from sorrel, along with a tasty orange liquor reminding me of a good brandy. The gentleman then takes us outside to show us his trees. He grows all the fruit that he uses in his wine. We see cashew trees, tamarind trees, mango, grapefruit, plum and orange trees. He takes us to a shed where the wine is aged in 50-gallon water barrels, all neatly labeled with fruit and date. He does the work all himself and tells us whenever the mangos are ripe for wine, he never has time to make it. I wonder why he does not hire some help. With a little bit of marketing and a better distribution system, I think he could make a lot more money. But then he may not want to work that hard. We notice that many people tell us they used to live in the U.S. "Used to" as in past tense. They come back to Belize because the pace is slower. This may explain some of the poverty. We arrive back at the campground at 4 PM and remark that it feels good to be home.
(Shari) Edie and Tom accompany us to church this morning. A volunteer priest from the United Kingdom conducts the service. He and his wife are in Corazal for a 6-mo. stint and seem to like it. As I sit listening to an English accent giving an English slant to the parable of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, I wonder how each member of this eclectic mix of people listening are responding to the words. Sitting among us are retired Americans, black schoolteachers, and Spanish and Creole families. Everyone is dressed in their Sunday best and they seem well acquainted as they greet each other warmly during the passing of the peace. After service, a small lunch is served and the priest remarks that we should get there before all the Belizeans eat it. My jaded mind wonders if many are there for the food and not the word. But then we cannot nourish the soul if the body is hungry. At 5 PM we have another pina colada party and travel meeting for Tuesday. We have an easy group to please; just giving them drinks makes them happy campers. Just as we are breaking up the party, John comes in tooting his horn. Joanne has come back after seeing the doctor in Wisconsin, and everything is fine. You should see how happy John is to have her back home with him. Every cell in his body looks happy and he cannot stop smiling. I think that is so cute.
(Bert) Coincidentally, Arch and Ruth are arriving within days of our departure. Longtime readers of this journal, friends from our hometown in Texas, and fellow birders, Arch and Ruth are also medical missionaries for a few weeks each year in Belize. As retired doctors, they have been able to use their skills here in a country where such expertise is hard to find. This morning they arrive early enough to join us for church services at St. Paul's By-the-Sea and then for a bit of birding in the area. After lunch I drive them back to the clinic in Patchikan, only seven miles by the shortcut gravel road. At Happy Hour Shari and I discuss with the caravaners the border crossing procedures for tomorrow's return to Mexico.
(Bert) Tail pointing straight up, the coati crossing the road in front of us is quickly followed by another. I push down on the brakes and stop on the wide hardpan road; Woody pulls slightly to my left so his passengers get a view as well. More coati cross the road and Nelda begins to count, "Three, four, five " An odd animal to us, the coati have raccoon-like bodies, differing in the elongated noses, but most unusual is an upright tail that is longer than the rest of the body. Several smaller young coati join the parade. "Nine, ten, eleven ," Nelda continues. Most people call these mammals Coatimundi, but that South American term actually applies to a lone male Coati. The Belizean worker we talk to later calls them quash. Technically, it is White-nosed Coati. But this morning I'd simply call them cute. "Seventeen, eighteen " The troop are crossing from the wooded edge of one sorghum field to another. "Twenty-five, twenty-six, " My reference book says females, juveniles and males younger than two years live in stable groups of 4-65 individuals (usually 10-20). "Thirty-two, thirty-three, " I drive slowly forward, pointing my camera at the scampering coati. "Thirty-six, thirty-seven " As we near the crossing point, Number Forty hesitates at crossing, but finally joins the group on the other side. A mile down the road we again stop at the sorghum field near August Pine Ridge where we saw hundreds of White-fronted Parrots last week. Now they are spread out in smaller flocks of 10-60, but as noisy as ever. A flock of Olive-throated Parakeets careens over the tops of the tall trees beside the field, apparently chased by a large raptor. The bird stops to perch at the pinnacle of the tallest tree and we get our first look at a Gray-headed Kite. When I walk closer for a photo, the kite alights and I catch its image in full flight. Our trip to the western part of Belize is rewarded by other good sightings, including six dove species and five swallow species. Finally, after many prior attempts, I get a clear view of the yellow vent of a Green-backed Sparrow, the key field mark that differentiates it from the look-alike Olive Sparrow. Best of all, though, is on our return trip. Feeding in the broad rice fields are five storks. Having seen Wood Storks often in this trip, we count these among them and it takes us a minute or two to realize we have a much better find. These are five Jabirus in plain view, an incredible sight.
(Shari) The natives are bundled in their long pants, hats and winter jackets because a cold front came in this morning. I find the temperature perfect, even though I am a little cool wearing my shorts. Because we did not take the snorkel trip, Debbie wrote a refund check that I must cash at the bank today. Everybody in town is at the bank and all transactions seem to take forever. After waiting for 30 minutes in line for my turn at a teller, I am told my transaction will take 5 to 10 minutes. Finally after 30 more minutes, I am called and have my money. One hour to cash a check! My, oh my! I check the thermometer periodically during the drizzly day and it never gets above 65 degrees. Unable to hang wash outside, R-TENT again looks like a used clothing store. But I'd rather have it this way than as stifling hot as it was last year.
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