Chapter 5. Northwestern Belize
(Shari) It is going to be a scorcher today. All but four of the group left this morning at 5:30 for our side trip to La Milpa Field Station. I wake up as Bert bounds down the motor home steps anxious to start his day. I have a leisurely morning packing and checking things so as not to forget something. By 9:30 we four late risers leave camp for the 2-hr. drive and I am delighted to be in an air-conditioned car. We stop at a pharmacy to buy powdered sulfur. Cindy and Joanie recommend it to prevent chigger bites by putting the yellow powder in an old sock and then tapped it on socks and legs. We catch up with our group at the Mennonite store in Blue Creek Village. Everyone is having the most delicious ice cream I have ever tasted. It must be 100% cream. We arrive at our lodging just in time for a delicious lunch of chicken, rice, salad and watermelon. Then it is time for a short nap before Ramon gives his orientation talk. The sky has clouded up and the temperature has dropped to a level I think I can manage. I don my “sexy” see-through bug suit of nylon mesh and join the birders on the road. I see Collared Araçari and a black hummingbird that whizzes across the road. Mark claims that it is his 1000th bird. I tease him that he must have a Viewmaster in his binoculars because I just cannot believe he could see what that bird was. I am outnumbered and others in the group agree with Mark. They tell me I need new binoculars, but I think I need new eyes. Leonard only gets five lifers today because he says he had to take extra time to help me see the birds through his scope. Before long I cannot stand all this birding fun and head back to my room. My binoculars steam up just looking through them and sweat is running down my face.
It is cooler under the palapa where I find Tailgunner Bob and Arleen birding from their chairs. Now this is my kind of birding. We watch a hummingbird, a White-collared Seedeater, a flock of Ocellated Turkeys and a Blue Bunting before the birding group returns for dinner. Leonard asks what the birds are on my shirt. Since they are two embroidered owls sitting in a tree I tell him they are my “hooters.” After dinner, seven go out in the truck for their night tour. I admire Chuck’s netting that fits nicely over his hat. I show Penny the hood on my bug jacket and she says, “It just gets sexier and sexier.” Bert forgot his flashlight and I have to lead the way back to our room in the darkness with my new light. It fastens with a strap to my head and can show two types of white light and a red light with a push of a button. I find the red light is great for nighttime use. Tailgunner Bob says I am trying to drum up business and Bert just says that he is following Rudolph home. This group is a barrel of laughs.
(Bert) At dawn we are on the dirt road between San Lazaro and August Pine Ridge in the Mennonite farming area. The noisy traffic of people heading to work distracts from birding, so I lead the group down a quiet farm road. Fresh rains have filled the ditches and made the habitat attractive to birds. The first two good birds are overhead, however. An out-of-place Magnificent Frigatebird glides by, a long distance from the coast. Then a Crane Hawk makes a brief appearance. The best find is one we hear, the two-note whistle we learned a week ago. We search the distant shrubbery and tree line for the Striped Cuckoo and Jim starts to describe a far off bird. We zero in on it and then align the scopes. That’s the bird, although poorly seen in its hiding place. We move 100 yd. down the road and hear it again. This time we get a much closer look. When Cindy plays its call it flies over our heads and lands at several spots. This is the first time I’ve seen this species so clearly. In the same trees we get a colorful display of orioles: Black-cowled, Orchard, Hooded, Altamira and, best of all, three Yellow-tailed.
Back on the main dirt road, an oversized stork flies across, right in front of my SUV, and when I stop to put my binoculars on it I see the expected red throat band of the Jabiru, an impressive bird in flight with its nearly 12-ft. wingspan. Imagine that stretched out across your living room! Driving beside grasslands now, a Northern Harrier flies low, hunting for prey. The elevation smoothly declines a few more feet to its lowest point in the flood plain of the Rio Bravo, now converted to extensive rice fields. We turn down one of the dike roads in search of flooded fields. I stop when I see a Peregrine Falcon perched in a small wooded area beside the fields. The falcon stands awkwardly, much like a forest-falcon and seems to have a humped back. Ahead of us on the road lies a pile of white feathers and on closer inspection we see the freshly dissected remnants of gut, yellow-slippered feet and bright yellow lores on the head of a Snowy Egret, the edible balance of the bird now undoubtedly being digested by the Peregrine. The scattered feathers are fancifully split into finely divided plumes and it is easy to see why women favored these for hats in the nineteenth century, to the point of near extermination of the egret family. Continuing through the rice fields we see a hundred egrets and even more Killdeer, plus one lone Jabiru in the distance. Along a dike runs a deep canal and floating towards us is a drowning Indigo Bunting, wings splayed on the surface, head held high, but tail drooping deeply. We wonder how to save it, not being able to reach mid stream, when it is held up by a thin cable ensnarled with flotsam. We see the bunting no more until somehow it appears in an adjacent small bush, drying its soaked feathers. When I attempt a close-up photo, it flies away unharmed.
More birds await us down the road and at the river where we see a perched Gray-headed Kite and Joanie studies a swallow she believes is Cliff, although the species should not appear in Belize in winter. The morning is filled with bird sightings and by 12:30 we finally reach La Milpa in time for lunch. Manager Ramon gives us a fascinating oral account of how Programme for Belize came about, from its origins as a Mayan cornfield (La Milpa), later to become a chiclayo camp, logging in the early 1900s, the purchase by Barry Bowen of a 260 000 acre tract from the British government and its division into 110 000 acres repurchased by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Gallon Jug property that includes Chan Chich. In our afternoon birding, the highlight for Mark is his 1000th bird, a White-necked Jacobin, an attractive hummingbird decked out in vivid green and white with a pretty blue head. Birding is good and we add Tropical Gnatcatcher, Black-faced Grosbeak and five parrot species to the list. While we were birding at La Milpa, Cindy & Bob spent more time at Tres Leguas near the Mexico border. At dinner, I hear of their unusual sighting of a Gull-billed Tern, certainly unexpected so far from the coast. At 7 PM, some go night birding on the truck; I go to sleep early, exhausted from a full day of birding. Later I hear they saw a Mottled Owl, an enviable Vermiculated Screech-Owl, and a roosting Ocellated Turkey.
(Shari) “We promise not to look at plants if you promise not to look at
birds,” I hear Bearded Bob say to the group leaving with Ramon on their
medicinal plants walk through the jungle. Bearded Bob is joining Bladimir and
those going birding yet again after lunch. The schedule today looks like this:
6 AM Birding
7 AM Breakfast
8:30 AM Birding
12 PM Lunch
2:30 PM Birding or Medicinal walk
6 PM Dinner
7 PM Night birding
The schedule was similar yesterday, will be similar tomorrow and the day after that. You really better like to bird to be on this trip! I am surprised at the number of people that do like to bird. In fact, I think this is the birdiest group with whom we have traveled in the 13 caravans we have led so far. Some very intense people have specific birds to find and they have the patience to look and look and look. I also think the group is mixing well. At least I see different people paired up with different people at varying times. That is good and we are not forming cliques. I think everyone tolerates me, since I don’t bird, and I enjoy the people that do bird. Tailgunner Bob and I are the only ones left under the palapa as the two groups depart. Bob claims the hammock and I return to my room to write this, read, and continue my knitting project. The day is blissfully cool - the coolest I can remember at La Milpa. Hurrah! This morning my hands were actually cold.
I spoke too soon. When I go back to the dining palapa, Mark, Leonard, Ray and Nancy are already there. I am surprised by all the birders that came back 2 hr. before the last dog has to be hung to meet supper time scheduling. I must have put a guilt trip on Leonard, since he goes out again and I don’t see him come back until 6 PM, along with Judy and Bert. We start dinner without Chuck and I notice I am eating very fast and not enjoying the fish and vegetables. I worry about Chuck, but Penny says she will not worry until it gets dark. I wait impatiently until it is completely dark and finally he comes back and we all give a cheer. He says, “I lost track of the time.” He told me not to worry but I do anyway. After dinner we vote on our departure time in the morning. The majority wants to leave at 5 AM instead of the 5:30 we chose to leave last year. Only one car wants to leave even later, so I am outvoted again. I say we will leave with the group because it is a lonely road to Chan Chich and I am uncomfortable going with only one car. I tell the group I will be crabby so early in the morning and I tell Leonard not to talk to me. I cannot find him since he ducks his head under the table to miss my “wrath”, I guess. So here I am at 7:19 PM writing this. To get my needed 8-1/2 hr. sleep I only have 11 min. to fall asleep. Good night!
(Bert) Mark says I should photograph today’s agenda, posted on the white board, as it’s his type of schedule: bird, eat, bird, eat, bird, eat, bird, night birding. Our post breakfast birding is at the Mayan site, the third largest in Belize. Except for clearing the brushy understory in the main plaza, ground spread with a blanket of Wandering Jew, the city is unexcavated. A pair of short mounds marks the ball court and several tall hills bury the main temples. One stele, still erect, marks the date November 30, 780 A.D. in Mayan hieroglyphics. Our birding is mostly heard-only birds: two Tody Motmots tooting at different locations that we could not coax into the open, two Black-throated Shrike-Tanagers calling “Teacher” repeatedly and finally one of them making a showing, and the Green Shrike-Vireo conversation between my iPod and the real thing – the short crisply articulated 3-note phrase, “Where are you?”, followed by an iPod “In a box”, and the curt response, “Let me see.” Although the conversation ensues for many minutes, the shrike-vireo characteristically refuses to descend from the canopy.
Afternoon birding is highlighted by a Barred Forest-Falcon that calls and twice flies over our heads. The second pass gives me a sharp view of its short wings, splayed at the primary tips, a Sharp-shinned Hawk type of profile. Along a dark forest path, I hear a Ruddy Quail-Dove and play back a recording for verification. Joanie marks it down as her 1000th life bird, a heard-only record. We come upon a small troop of Central American Spider Monkeys that give us a good canopy show. Nearby we have been hearing the distinctive call of a Black-faced Antthrush and we play a recording to see if it will come closer. It does not and we almost give up hope when another antthrush calls from a different direction. It only calls a few times. We wait patiently and then Glenn sees the small bird slowly walking in our direction. It deviates slightly and now heads directly towards Cindy who was 30 ft. back along the trail. Before it reaches her feet it chooses an alternate route across the path. What a fantastic experience!
Choosing a different hiking trail, Ramon led some of the group on a medicinal plant tour. Now when we cross paths, I hear that Stan found a Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, confirmed by Ramon. I’m envious, since that would have been a life bird for me, one of the few opportunities left for me in Belize. We next head to the garbage pit, a deep hole in the ground, surrounded by dark forest. Judy is already there, sitting patiently on her three-legged stool. At the pit seven White-nosed Coatis feed, scampering in and out, occasionally spooked and excitedly running up a tree trunk. Knowing the shade exceeds the snapshot capabilities of my camera, I switch to film mode and record several minutes of their playful antics. While the others drive back to the cabanas, Judy and Leonard walk back with me through the forest. In route we come upon a Rufous Piha, a life bird for the two of them. Earlier today, Chuck came upon a family grouping of them and gave an excellent description. Although not unexpected, this is the first visit to La Milpa that I have found these shy birds. This time, I go out with the night birders and we find a Mottled Owl, a briefly seen Kinkajou – a raccoon relative - and a well-seen Common Opossum, which differs from the Virginia Opossum we see in the states in its tail length and color. We end the day with 105 bird species and six mammal species.
(Shari) 5 AM. “Good Morning Shari,” 21 people shout in unison as I enter the room to pick up my pancakes for breakfast. The sound is deafening and my head feels like I have a hang over. Thankfully I am left alone to eat my breakfast in silence. Many of you readers know that I do not do mornings gracefully.
5:30. We are on the road in darkness traveling the 31 mi. to Chan Chich. Over the next hour and 45 min. we count 49 Ocellated Turkeys, 6 Great Curassows and 14 White-tailed Deer, and the last two cars add a couple of Crested Guans to the list. Chan Chich is a world-renowned birding lodge and quite expensive for my budget. We are just going to spend the day.
7 AM. I walk the mile to the river and listen to the White-collared Manakins click their wings, but I cannot find their lek. Bearded Bob said to walk about 20 yd. down the path. I walk 40 yd. down two paths and all I get is muddy white shoes. I wonder if I should wait for the group. It is getting hot and I no longer hear the clicks so I decide to walk back. I meet the group while they are watching a spider monkey with a baby on its back. Leonard has it in the scope for me to watch. How cute!
8:30 I read a bit in the car.
9:30 coffee in the dining room.
10:30 chatting at the pool with Bob and Arleen.
11:30 lunch of barbequed chicken. I hear that Leonard has seen his 1000th bird. You think he would have picked something exotic like a Lovely Cotinga or a Squirrel Cuckoo but, no, he picks a cowbird for that milestone.
1:00 swimming in the pool.
2:00 pay the bill for the group, taxes and tip.
2:15 more swimming in the pool.
3:30 time to leave. We decide to stop at a coffee farm and Judy accuses me of being a coffee pimp since I tease her that I intend to charge her a $5 extra pickup and delivery charge if I buy her some coffee. We never find a store but do see the shade grown coffee plantation. On our way back we see more Ocellated Turkeys and gobs of deer, plus Nancy spots a King Vulture. Actually, we stop and get great looks at three of them in a tree.
6:00 arrive back at La Milpa just in time for dinner. Everyone is exhausted. After a relaxing day, I feel great and tell them when I get back from the night ride I intend to knock on everyone’s door to say goodnight.
7:00 Take a night ride and see 5 deer, 2 Mottled Owls and, most importantly,
a Vermiculated Screech-Owl. I now have a life bird on Bert. He has not seen this
bird. Hee, hee! It tickles me to death. I go back to our cabana and tell him
about it and he just groans. He says it will be a long time before he sees one.
I may be able to tease him all year on this one. It does not matter if he has a
life list of 100 or 1000 birds. All I need is one bird on my list: the bird that
he has not seen.
(Bert) Now that the sun has risen, the Ocellated Turkeys, Great Curassows and White-tailed Deer are out in good numbers on the grassy border between the gravel road and the deep forest. We’ve been driving for an hour in darkness and first light and now the remainder after sunrise. We reach the suspension bridge at Chan Chich, meeting Bob, Cindy, Mark and Joanie, who left an hour earlier. They tell me they saw a Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher – twice now I’ve not been present for one of the few species missing from my Belize life list.
We begin our birding along the paved entrance road almost completely arched by the forest canopy. I hear forest doves which both my recordings and Bladimir confirm as Gray-fronted (alias Gray-headed) Dove. Not far down the road we see two of these drab pigeons feeding in the leaf debris. Parrots call and two Red-lored Parrots pose on a dead limb, catching the soft hues of morning sun. Aligning my spotting scope and then my camera on the lens I get my best ever photos of these colorful birds, one perched slightly higher than the other and in a different posture, both offset by a blue sky background. Looping through trails in the woods, we come upon a Black-cheeked Woodpecker busily excavating a nest hole and Central American Spider Monkeys, including one carrying a baby on its back, ambling through the tree canopy as easily as we walk on level ground.
Behind the main lodge we see a dozen Montezuma Oropendolas attending their freshly built 3-ft. long woven oriole nests. Knowing that the parasitic Giant Cowbirds are often present also, I search for them; Bladimir finds them first. A friendly banter ensues about whether Leonard should attempt to see this bird. While he has an impressive 700+ ABA life list, he has not birded south of the border, and so he has been adding lifebirds daily, sometimes as many as 10-20 per day. He’s now at the magic number of 999 and we question whether he should the make a cowbird the 1000th? He does, and gets razed at not holding off that honorable position for the 10 min. it takes him to find another lifer, the showy Blue-crowned Motmot or minutes later, number 1002, the Strong-billed Woodcreeper with a more imposing sounding name. The woodcreeper show, in fact, is most impressive today and we tally sightings of all possibilities: Tawny-winged, Ruddy, Wedge-billed (Judy only), Olivaceous, Barred, Ivory-billed, Strong-billed and probably Streak-headed, although we debate the identity of this last one.
Bladimir’s great success at finding us elusive birds has prompted some to make special requests. Nancy has been pestering him for a Royal Flycatcher and now gets her chance. Bladimir hears one and makes a sudden dash in its direction. He whistles an imitation call and the bird immediately jets past us to an equally hidden perch on the opposite side of the trail. He tries twice more, the bird responding and moving, but not to a location where he can align the scope on it. One more try and this time the flycatcher comes into range, perching in a perfectly visible opening through the trees. The success brings smiles to Nancy’s face and she is satisfied to let others put their challenges before Bladimir.
We continue to get good looks at elusive birds, including Eye-ringed Flatbill only a few minutes later. Definitely one of the highlights of the day, however, is the Barred Forest-Falcon that perches only 20 ft. from the path, remaining almost motionless while all binoculars and two spotting scopes train on its vividly barred undersides, gray back and striking red-orange facial markings. I’m trilled with the digiscope photos I get, even though the setting is dark. Just when you’d think birding can’t get much better, Bladimir hears a Scaly-throated Leaftosser. His ears are uncanny and his memory bank of local bird songs is complete. After he points it out, I recognize the song from my two previous occasions of hearing it and my many efforts at playing its recording. The furnarid is one of my heard-only lifers, birds that I put on my list yet with only a feeling of half success. Penny asks about its odd name and I confirm her suspicion that the bird tosses leaves like a towhee does. The goal is, though, to see this in action. Finding a nearby setting where leaf litter is ample and the understory minimized of interfering leaves and branches, I play the recording for 5 sec., getting an instant response. During the next 15 min. we watch the bird perched low at several convenient branches and then get to watch it feeding in the liter. Leaves toss left and right, often giving us more of a view of flying debris than bird, an immensely satisfying nature experience, a National Geographic film in real time.
We’ve been hearing a Great Tinamou calling and now one seems nearby. Single file along the narrow trail, only Bladimir and Penny see it cross the path. Penny describes the rotund bird with diminutive head as a ball rolling into the forest. It’s time to leave Chan Chich, with reluctance after such a great birding day. On our way out, passing through the farmlands of Gallon Jug, we chance upon a half dozen Black Vultures on the ground. What’s odd is the cockfight underway. Two Black Vultures are viciously attaching each other, with a crowd of onlookers that sometimes get into the scuffle as well. The show continues long enough for me to pop out of the car and record a minute or so on video. While this is happening, Ray and Nancy are drawn to a much larger bird. It disappears, but from their description I say it must be a King Vulture. Minutes later they spot three Kings among a flock of Blacks in a tall sparsely leafed tree. One of the King Vultures is a subadult, not fully decked out in white and black feathers.
A long drive back to La Milpa, a full dinner after a long birding day of hiking, I now lie in bed with so many new songs loosely imprinted in my brain, stirred in with those I’m trying to remember from last year, yielding the muddled cacophony of a orchestra warming up and lulling me to sleep.
(Shari) I wake up with a smile on my face remembering my bird of last night. At breakfast I ask if Bert saw any interesting birds this morning, like an owl perhaps. Then I can’t contain my giggles. Am I mean or what? Bearded Bob tells me to put some of my good humor in a paper bag since he knows I will need it come some early morning departure. Bladimir has been accused by the group of being a home wrecker and he tells me to go easy on Bert. The group too feels sorry for Bert. Why, I wonder. Other groups relished in showing me birds that Bert has not seen and then even set him up at count off. It may have something to do with the make up of this group. Every group has its own personality and this one is extremely empathetic and caring for each other. I do not have to worry about anyone being left out or someone not seeing a bird. They help each other whether it is in identifying birds or doing chores. It is always nice to see groups gel like this. I can be more relaxed and the job does not seem like so much work. Many in the group have given Bladimir specific birds that they have wanted to see. Bladimir has not disappointed anyone and comes through with all sorts of hard-to-find birds. Nancy got the Royal Flycatcher and Cindy got her owl. Bladimir is amazing and everyone loves him. He’s not too shabby to look at either. When everyone returns for lunch they are hot and I think birded out. Poor Bert cannot find anyone that wants to go to a new birding site to check it out. So we make our way home over the 2 hr. of bad road and arrive at camp close to 3 PM. Before unpacking, the generators and air conditioners are the first things that get turned on. Never to miss a social time, Bert and I sit outside at 5 and are joined by a few of our neighbors to rehash our pleasant trip to La Milpa. The atmosphere is unique and not many people are able to experience the peace of the jungle. Did I say peace? We hear Howler monkeys at night and last night I heard the growling of a big cat in heat. Was it a jaguar? Who knows, but Arleen said she got up to lock her door. It is always sad to end this special side trip in the jungle, but we have more places to visit.
(Bert) Our last morning at La Milpa, we decide to hike a trail we’ve not visited before. Our goal is two species that Bladimir has seen there before and are on the wish list of many of the birders in our group. In route to the Bajo Trail, we walk along the gravel road, watching the many White-bellied Emeralds feeding on the Moho blossoms. Joanie notices a different hummingbird and we focus on the spot she describes. In a couple of minutes the hummer reappears and Bladimir and I get a quick look at it. That is enough for Bladimir to get excited, since he is quite sure he has not seen the bird before, a remarkable statement since as a guide he has seen 291 species at La Milpa alone. The bird does not reappear, so a mad shuffle through bird books ensues. Bladimir quickly deduces the hummingbird is not in Jones’s book, Birds of Belize. Cindy returns to her car for a copy of a North American field guide. We now have a strong suspicion the bird is a female Broad-billed Hummingbird. We wait impatiently for the bird to return, being diverted repeatedly by the similar looking White-bellied Emeralds. Finally it makes a showing and all binoculars are focused on the fast moving hummer feeding on the Moho. We announce field marks, confirming our suspicions. I quickly switch on my camera and start snapping in the direction of the flowers, hoping some of the dozen photos will include the blurring image of the bird.
On the Bajo trail I use the iPod at the several spots suggested by Bladimir. We get a responding song of the Gray-throated Chat. The small warbler has an uncanny ability to stay hidden in foliage just below the canopy. Although we can clearly hear that the bird is close and occasionally moving its perch, no one sees it for 15 min. Finally, I get an excellent view of the gray bird with the red breast and undertail coverts, even catching the white supercilium bisecting the gray head. Although not a lifer, it is a first for Belize. I quickly point out its location, but almost immediately it flies to another hidden perch. Mark sees it again and Joanie misses it again, a constant refrain of the times this couple have found the species. After we leave the spot, Cindy stays longer and patiently waits to add it to her life list also. We are on to the next target bird, a Rose-throated Tanager. This one gives us an easier time, responding immediately to our call and staying in close enough for most in the group to get a look at another lifer.
Our return trip to Orange Walk Town is mostly uneventful, except for the covey of Black-throated Bobwhites that cross the road shortly after passing the La Milpa gate. Back to R-Tent-III, I download my photos and search for a hummingbird in the maze of Moho flowers. I find clearly recognizable images on at least three of the photos and bringing Mark, Joanie and Cindy into our rig, I show these to them. We are now quite sure we’ve seen Broad-billed Hummingbird, which would be a first record for the country of Belize and far from its central and western Mexico range. Later, alone, I wonder if we might have overlooked another species and I study the photos again. This time I notice rectrice R5 – the outermost tail feather - shows a dark band separating two white zones and now I believe we saw a female Canivet’s Emerald instead. We just lost our claim to fame in the birding world.
(Bert) We need a day to catch up on errands. After writing journals for the past few days, I wash the SUV using Bearded Bob’s pressure washer to remove the half-inch of mud surface on the body and the three-inch thick caked accumulation on the underbody. My license plates are now visible again. In the afternoon I meet Mr. Carballo, the school superintendent for the Orange Walk District. Previously I met him along with the assistant education director for the country and we discussed arrangements for donating children’s books to the schools. Today, Mr. Carballo is accompanied by a Peace Core volunteer from Utah and two school principals. Their car leads our string of four vehicles to San Ramon Rio Hondo. We turn off the main highway and drive six miles on a dirt road through cane fields. When we cross the Rio Hondo we are on an island and in a village that feels like it is on the outskirts of civilization. Since the Rio Hondo is the Mexico-Belize border, I ask what country we are in. I’m told the river splits, forming an island and that we are in Belize but only a 10 min. walk from Mexico. Shortly after our entourage pulls on the grassy field adjacent to the two school buildings, the kids pour out like ants and form rigid military lines. I’m introduced to the principal of the Roman Catholic school – most schools in the country are parochial, getting a portion of their funding from the country and the balance from the supporting church – and then the school children treat us to singing their national anthem in front of the Belize flag. Mr. Carballo addresses the children and staff and then asks me to tell why we have come to Belize and what we are bringing for them. This year we again have carried children’s reading books – the Winnie-the-Pooh and Dr. Seuss type – as well as several encyclopedia sets and various teacher aids and school supplies. Most years we bring about 1000 books, but this year have 1650 to contribute, collected from our children, grandchildren, libraries and, in my case, my brother and sister-in-law and a Lutheran school in Butler, Wisconsin, where the 5th grade class collected 550 books during last school year. A newswoman, Dalial Ical, interviews me while a cameraman records the event for the Orange Walk TV3 7 o’clock news. We tour the four classrooms and then the 105-year-old church, watch the 100 school children in action and unload the cases of books. The three principals will then divide the books among their respective schools. They express great appreciation as they have almost no books in their library and the Peace Core worker is obviously excited about the profusion of source material now available, a need she clearly saw soon after her arrival in Belize.
Back at camp and after our margarita party and travel meeting we switch on
the TV, hearing only Spanish shows on Channel 3, broadcast from Mexico. At 7 PM
it switches to English for the news and I see Dalial on the screen. News
segments are quite long by American standards. About the third story into the
newscast comes the report “Bird Watchers Contribute Books.” I’ve been
interviewed for TV before, but this is the first time the show has more than a 5
sec. sound bite and also is presented as it happened and not as the reporter
thinks it should have happened. I’m impressed. The segment runs for 6 min. and I
record sound and photography on my digital camera. About an hour later the
transcript of the story appears on the TV station’s web site at
(Shari) Our campground looks like a tenement settlement. Everyone is doing wash and hanging it outside. I go around taking pictures of the group doing chores before I eat lunch. At 1, the superintendent of Orange Walk education district comes to lead us to the town of San Ramon Rio Hondo. Accompanying him in his truck are two school principals and a Peace Corp volunteer from Utah. He takes us on roads that we have never driven and we wonder if we will see civilization again. For about 30 min. we drive on a bumpy gravel road with nary a building or another person in sight. It looks like we are going straight for Mexico. We cross a big river and Cindy says we just crossed into Mexico. Ah, oh! Are we being held up for ransom? Bert says as long as they take the books too. We are tired of carrying them. Finally I see buildings and signs written in English. We are not in Mexico after all, but later learn we are on an island in the river Hondo. We easily could enter into Mexico by crossing the other side of the river by foot or boat or swim. If I could get an avocado there I would do it but apparently only beer and cigarettes are readily available for smuggling into Belize. We drive between the fence posts in front of the Roman Catholic school. The kids all march outside and stand in rows to sing their national anthem. It is just so cute. They all say in unison, “Welcome to Belize” before Bert tells them why we are here. Our group has gathered over 1650 books for their library. Bert’s brother had about 300 for us and the Lutheran school in Butler, Wisconsin had a class project where the kids got over 500 books for us to take. While touring the classrooms, I notice these 1650 books will become their library, since they have none. In fact, the books will be divided between three schools and my-oh-my are they appreciated. The superintendent even got the Orange Walk television station to come out to interview us. We get a tour of the classrooms and I snap pictures galore. The children are all well behaved and some are shy and others excited. When the bell rings for recess they descend on us saying “I too” to indicated they want their picture taken also. Sometimes in their excitement they forget to speak English and I have to remind them to speak to me in that language or I won’t know what they are saying. One little boy tells me he was speaking English. Great! We are told that at 7 PM the segment will be televised. At our margarita party tonight we tell everyone that we will honk the horn if we see ourselves on TV, so that others can join us in R-Tent-III to watch the show. Sure enough the horn goes off at 7 PM and Bert tries to video our TV screen with his camera. It is a good segment and later he prints the script out from the station’s web site. This is the first year in all these years of collecting these books that I have felt we have made a difference. In hindsight, I see that we have made a huge difference. Thank you all for your help in this project.
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