Day 1 - Saturday - March 7th, 2009
Hanover - Belize
Our trip starts out with a bit of a logistical puzzle. Our flight is out of Logan Airport in Boston, at 6:00 AM. Since we are bound internationally, they would like us to be there at 4:00 AM. We toyed with the idea of driving down to Boston Friday evening and getting a hotel room close to the airport, but the times to do that are all very strange. Working backward from 4:00 AM, this means checking out of a hotel at 3:30, waking up at 3:00, going to bed at 7:00-9:00 PM Friday night. Leaving Hanover at 4:00-5:00 Friday afternoon. And there there is dinner. On top of this Will had planned a band practice Friday evening and Robin has an indoor soccer game. So this solution, with waking up at 3:00AM, really isn't a solution.
Instead, like a judo master, we must use the forces which are thrust toward us, just redirect them in a useful directions. To our teenagers, the hour of 4:00 AM is closer to the evening before then the day after. We will stay up all night.
Kristina and I napped in the evening and then at midnight the whole family started our packing. We are traveling light to a place where we do not intend to wear a lot of clothing, so we easily accomplish this. By 1:15 we start to load the car and at 1:30 AM we are headed south out of Hanover.
It seems like it wasn't too long ago - about twenty-five hours - that I was driving north on this same stretch of road, after fetching Kristina from the Manchester Airport. She has just returned from Alaska. While we wind down the interstate past the Sunapee lakes and mountain, into the Merrimack Valley and on into the flatlands of greater Boston, this might be a good time to explain why we are headed to Belize now. The Dartmouth winter term is quite over, some one is giving my exam for me - but lectures are done. The high school is also still in session. But our path is guided by celestial objects. That is to say that we are here because of the approaching of the full moon.
Kristina's can only launch her rocket in Alaska when they can see an active aurora. When there is a full moon, you can not see the aurora because it is washed out by the moon light. I think none of us thought that tying our trip to the phase of the moon was odd, but Robin had had a difficult time explaining this to his some of his teachers. I don't think they doubted him, I just think they were curious. It is not the type of absence excuse you hear every day.
So here we are at 3:30 at night, coming over the new suspension bridge into Boston. Maybe we are not powered by moonlight - but we are driven by it.
I am not certain if I have been in all of the tunnels of Boston's "Big Dig", but I think we inspected a number of subterranean miles of Beantown before we resurfaced at Logan.
The Continental Airline counter opens at 4:00 AM, and already there is a line of anxious customers all trying to get an early start on a long day of traveling. After check-in and security we have a wait and then we are on a plane for a short hope to Newark.
In Newark it is time for breakfast. Traveling with teenagers doesn't just mean that the clock is shifted back a few hours, the hours are also renamed and re-purposed. Most of the truly important hours of the day are named after meals, or snacks, or some other nutrient break which will tide us over to the next named hour. "Fica" for example.
And now on south to Belize. In four hours and one minute we will step out of the plane and into a land which knows little about ice and wouldn't recognize a snowshoe if it washed up on the beach.
After flying down the east coast and crossing Florida, we are flying above the blue Caribbean when out plane banks to the right. I find this curious. Why wouldn't the plane just make a straight flight across the Caribbean? When I consulted the map in the back of the in-flight magazine I realized that Cuba lay in our path, and so I think that this flight corrections is meant to avoid their air-space. I might be wrong, but I have a map and compass and so I chart a course. If I am right we should turn to 190-deg (just west of south) in about twenty minutes. I think I could be a flight navigator as the plane banked and turned on my prediction and locked onto my compass bearing.
Belize has a population of about 320,000, quarter of the population of New Hampshire, but about the same land area. Belize City's airport looks like it handles half a dozen jets each day, but then also a continuous stream of small propeller planes. That is where we found ourselves on the way to Placenia.
This small plane could carry eight or ten people, and our family is over half the passengers today. The pilot welcomed us to Maya Island Airways, told us a few safety things, then turned forward in his seat and off we flew! It is only a 30-40 minute flight to Placenia. The runway in Placenia is a strip of pavement a bit wider then the wheels of our plane. When we landed and taxied the wings of the plane extended beyond the runway to be over grass and brush.
It was a dramatic change from New Hampshire to step off that plane. Remember, last weekend we had been snowshoeing up Mount Moosilauke, and Robin and sunk in snow up to his armpits. Today was like the most pleasant of July days in Hanover. Soon a van from the Inn picked us up and drove us the last two miles on a bumpy dirt road and by 4:00 PM we had arrived at "The Inn at Robert's Grove".
The Inn has a main building with a restaurant, three pools, a beach, a pier with a gazebo on the end, and half a dozen building with rooms. We are in room #30, a suit; two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchenette and two bathrooms, as well as a porch overlooking the Caribbean. A very nice place!
Tonight there is a barbecue dinner served by one of the pools. It is breeze, but the band played on. Will had already gone to bed.
Day 2 - Sunday - March 8th, 2009
Robert's Grove, Placenia, Belize
We have five full days in Belize, and on our master plan we two two major excursions planed for Monday and Wednesdays. Today's prime objective is to do nothing. That is something which some of us failed at.
For me that day started with a pot of coffee on the front porch. It is windy, but it is a warm wind and I sat out there is my bathrobe for as long as the coffee lasted. I can make coffee last a long time if the rest of the family is asleep. We are in a two story building with four suits - or apartments. Ours is on the second floor, on the north side. As I set palms brush up against the rail of the porch. I watch the sun reflecting on the waves, and the grounds crew raking the beach. They tell me that there is a lot of flotsam and jetsam because of the east wind.
When Robin and Kristina got up the three of us went down to breakfast. We have prepaid for all the food while we are here. So we can order anything you want, and then on the receipt we just sign our names and write in the room number. We use #30 a lot.
Remember this is a day when we are not going to do anything.
So Robin and I signed out a Hobby Cat and went sailing. The wind is strong and the waves are a bit big for this fourteen foot cat. If you wanted to say dry - you should stay ashore. But the weather is warm and we don't mind crashing through waves and the continuous spray.
After lunch Robin and I cycled down that bumpy dirt road past the airport. I had wanted to go all the way to the harbor at Plancenia, but Robin was to be back for a game of tennis with Kristina.
Later Robin and I tried sailboarding. Neither of us had even done this, but the wind, the water and the board was available, and so we thought we would take the opportunity. But it was beyond our ability to get on the board, get the sail up out of the water, steady it and start sailing before A wave would wipe us out. We are floundering around in 12-18 inch swells. For an hour we battled the wind and waves, and (of course) the waves won. Robin had two successful rides of about 5 meters each, but we also has 65 (or so we said) plunges into the salt water. Still, Robin is optimistic, and it is a long week with many more chances.
There is a hot-tub on our roof, and this is a good place to watch the sun go down - and to find the rest of the family at the end of the day. We have also learned about getting a platter of nachos at this hour, just something to hold body and spirit together until dinner.
This evening we walked across the island to the lagoon side where the Inn has a second restaurant. This one specializes in Mexican food. After being in the wind all day on the shore, the lagoon seems so very placid, clam and quite.
A long day of doing nothing.
Day 3 - Monday - March 9th, 2009
Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve, Belize
Today we have an excursion with a guide planned. We are headed into the jungle. I think the boys are looking forward to this since I heard no murmuring when we realized that we needed to get up at 7:00. We were all to breakfast at 7:30 and to the Inn's dive shop, on the lagoon's side of the island by 8:00.
I think it is a sign of hard times that they took our family of four on the trip, despite the Inn's literature which explained that no trip would happen with less then six people. The Inn is only a third full and this is near high season, and I think the guide staff is desperate to take anybody.
Our guide for the day is Cirilo. I think he is Mayan, with a sturdy body and straight black hair tied in a pony tail. I always think of Mayans as people out of pre-Columbian history, but they are a very real and present people here today. Cirilo tells us he has been a guide or hunter since at least the 1980's. I think he could be my age.
We climb aboard a boat piloted by Cirilo which takes us across the lagoon to Mango Creek. He tells us that the older kids from Placencia will take the school boat to Mango Creek/Independence to high school. At the boat dock in Mango Creek the Inn keeps a van for mainland trips.
The towns of Mango Creek and Independence have grown into each other and the line between them is invisible. These towns are very poor by US standards, but they are also very alive. Everybody seems to be out on the streets. Kids are riding bikes and playing games. Shops are open with fronts pulled back so you can see all their colorful merchandise from the road. People are working - or standing and talking by the road. It is so different from a place like Hanover, it is so alive and full of people. We are the only white people I see in the whole town. It seems like everyone but everyone is out on the streets!
After driving through town we get on the highway. Cirilo tells us that Belize traffic is controlled by "sleeping policemen". These are massive speed bump which could seriously damage your car or truck if you ignore them.
We head north for a forty minutes, driving past banana groves as well as grapefruit and orange orchards. Cirilo tells us about the growth of the banana tree. What you see is only a year or two old and it will produce only one bunch of banana. These bunches are huge. But then the whole thing is cut back to the roots and it starts growing again.
We stop in the town of Maya Center and buy our tickets for the "Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve". The preserve is in the Cockscomb Basin, ringer by the Cockscomb Mountains, which curiously enough look somewhat like a cockscomb. Where we buy the tickets is a store which also sells Mayan art and is run by a Mayan women's group. Then back into the van and onto a bumpy, rutted dirt road into the basin.
We park at the preserver's central headquarters and Cirilo takes us for a walk through the jungle. He tells us that this is jungle because it is so thick. The rain-forest is farther inland and there the canopy is much thicker and there is far less underbrush.
We see rubber trees and Cirilo feeds us nuts which look and taste a lot like miniature coconuts. He names a great many trees. I really should take notes. We see termites and their nest. Great nest half a meter across and meter off the ground which engulfing a living tree. Termite will chew up dead wood, but leave their host tree undisturbed.
We saw "leaf-cutter ants", who have created a road through the forest as a continuous stream of them marched back and forth. They are wearing a path, an ant highway, across the jungle floor.
Cirilo told us that in the 1980's he use to hunt jaguars in this area, but then he was employed by Dr. Alan Rabinowitz to help study them. He told us that originally they would trap jaguars and cage them for a few days before releasing them. But these jaguars all died young, apparently because they had broken their teeth on the steel bars of the cage. Rabinowitz's work is what eventually lead to the establishment of the preserve - and the dislocation of people like Cirilo. But he says that it was a good thing in the end. The preserve is now run by the Audubon Society.
After our walk we had a picnic put together by the kitchen of our Inn. Hot rice and beans, barbecued chicken, pineapple, melon, mangos, pasta salad, orange juice and cookies. We can not eat it all!
We now gathered up inner-tubes from behind the ranger's office and walked off through the jungle on a jeep trail. We went about a kilometer west until we came to the banks of the river. The float down the river was very pleasant - perhaps the high point of the whole day. It reminded me of delightful days floating on the rivers of New Hampshire, but with much warmer water. I told Will about one time, when he was about four years old, he and I were canoeing up the Isinglass River, a branch of the Cocheco in Dover. We were playing on a sun bathed sandbar in the middle of the stream, and I let him float down the stream for awhile in his lifejacket.
Kristina is having a hard time. She often finds that the current is pushing her into the river bank, or logs or pricker bushes, and she resents the fact that this doesn't seem to happen to the rest of us. I think she view the rest of us as being passive in our floating. In reality I am constantly paddling with my hands and feet. You can make a big difference in you course with a few gentle maneuvers, if they are done at the right moment.
Cirilo spots a pair of Scarlet Macaws in the top of a tree we are floating under. He says that they are very rarer here, and that they are usually more often inland. And on we float.
Eventually there is a rope stretched across the river to mark the takeout point. We walked through the jungle for five minutes, and then left our inner-tubes next to the trail and took a side trip to "Ben's Bluff", to swim under a waterfalls. On route Ciliro found a tarantula's lair. He poked a stick down it until the tarantula came out. It is a giant hairy spider, maybe 10 centimeters, 4 inches across. It is both beautiful and ugly at the same time. If that fur was on a mouse or a cat it would pretty, but a spider is hard to love.
Once we arrived at the waterfalls, Robin and I swam across the plunge pool and stood under the falls for awhile. letting the water massage us. But it is cool water and we didn't stay very long.
A twenty-five minute walk brought to our tubes and the ranger station, and it is time to head home. We gave rides to three young women from Munich, Germany, down to the highway and bus stop in Maya Center. Then we retraced our route to Independence, Mango Creek, the boat and Robert's Grove.
Looking at the Scarlet Macaw
Mango Creek Dock
Day 4 - Tuesday - March 10th, 2009
Robert's Grove, Placencia, Belize
This is one of our "kicked-back" days.
I was enjoying my coffee on the porch when Robin came out. He was surprised to find that he was the second one up. Since no one else was near stirring we wandered off to breakfast. I had "Huevos Rancheros". They can never be as good as when my father introduced huevos rancheros to me in Albuquerque in 1987, but the Belize variation was respectable.
After breakfast Robin and I went sailing on the Hobie Cat. The day is still windy and there was a chop on the sea, but that is no problems to old salts like Captain "Jack" Robin and myself. Later I found a sheltered and shaded spot to read in a gazebo behind the Inn. It was in a palm grove and exceedingly peaceful.
Conch Fritters for lunch - what can be more Caribbean then that? The take conch, chopped, rolled into a dough and fried (yes, that is what a fritter always is), and then serve it with spicy cream sauce!
I then borrowed a bike from the Inn and rode into the town of Placencia. It is about 6-7 kilometers from the Inn. It is a hodge-podge of building, roads, sheds, lanes and alleys. The main street is paved for about 2 kilometers and it is lined with tourist accommodations. It is much different then Independence. But a great many places were closed this year.
The bike I have is really too small for me, I can never straighten out my leg as I ride. It is a good thing the trip is not longer. Also most of the way is dirt. But the Belize bike is built for that. One gear (no hills on these island), and wide soft tires.
When I got to town I sat by the harbor for a while. A man, I think a tourist, brought a boat in to the beach. I think he must have rented it, because he seemed ready to just turn the keys over to a white bearded black man who was waiting for him. But the owner stopped him from landing and instructed him meticulous on how to moor the boat, stern in, stem out to a float which was off shore. He instructed as you might instruct a very young child. I think the renter/tourist was a bit embarrassed, but in the end, after a few trys, he managed to moor to the owners satisfaction. It took him down a bit. But I, on my too small bicycle, did not fell too grand either.
As I headed out of town I, I was pushing my bike down the main street, when I became engulfed in a sea of knee-high children. A dozen first- and second-graders had just got out of school. All of them were dressed in a school uniform, crisp blue shirts and black shorts, all with sharp creases. And all very happy! How come our kids never look so sharp? They also all had backpack - which maybe is part of the universal school uniform.
On my way out of town I had planned to stop at the "Belgium Cafe". Coffee is the one thing that they are not very good at at our Inn. But I stopped at the cafe at 3:37, only to find that it closed at 3:30. Oh well, if I head straight back I can get there in time for the family nacho platter and a swim to wash off road dust before dinner.
Again we went to the "Harbanero", the Mexican restaurant on the lagoon side of Robert's Grove, for dinner. Mexican buffet tonight. Afterward, Kristina and I walked down by some boats moored in the lagoon. The moon is nearly full, and there is no chance of a visible aurora.
Day 5 - Wednesday - March 11th, 2009
Laughing Bird Caye, Belize
This morning our boat leaves at 8:30, so I make my coffee and drink it in leisure on the front deck before I get the rest of the family up at 7:30. My coffee is better then the what they brew in the restaurant. I expect that it is the same grinds, Belize grown "Caye Coffee", but I brew mine thicker and hotter. Especially hotter. If you don't drink your own coffee, you might not know.
We are snorkeling today, so after breakfast we walk over to the Inn's dive shop on the lagoon's side of the island and get our equipment; mask, snorkel and flippers. We also have a disposable underwater camera which Will and Robin will use.
Our boat's captain is Thomas. He introduced us to the other guess, Jill, who is going scuba diving. The boat's crew has two other guides, one for scuba diving, and Stephen, our snorkeling guide. We soon cast off and were headed south down the lagoon for a few kilometers. After passing Placencia we turned to the port, to the east and headed out into open waters.
The sea is full of dozens of cayes that we pass as we head twenty kilometers out. The wind is still up and there are still swells on the water. The reason we are going out to Laughing Bird Caye instead of the Barrie Reef is that with these waves snorkeling would be poor out in the more exposed waters. At Laughing Bird we will be sheltered by the caye.
The boat is speeding along at full throttle, bouncing and crashing over waves. We are all riding on the upper deck, which tends to extenuate each jerk and thump, and I personally am ready to stop after an hour when we reach Laughing Bird.
Laughing Bird Caye is named after the Laughing Gulls which use to dominate it. It is now the center of a national park, established for snorkeling and diving. It looks like a postcard of what a Caribbean island should look like. It is about 150 meters long and 10 meters wide, with white sands and a few dozen palm trees. It has two buildings, a picnic shelter which is thatched with palms, and a cabin for the ranger, his wife and his three year old daughter.
After dropping us off on the caye, the boat continued off shore about half a kilometer for the divers. Stephen and the rest of us put on our mask, snorkel and flippers. I am also wearing my nylon long sleeve shirt because I think floating on my stomach all day is a good way of burning my back. It is a quick drying shirt which has been soaked every time Robin and I have sailed or windsurfed.
We are swimming in waters 3-5 meters deep above a mixture of coral and sand. At first the submerged world is curious, but only that. As we move out, it becomes spectacular. A Barracuda watches us cautiously. A Sargent Major fish sports the strips which give it its name. Angle fish of different colors. Stephen dove down and came back with one of the more homely of creatures - the Sea Cucumber. We are warned against touch any coral - but especial the fire coral, I gather it is the submariner equivalent of poison ivy. Christmas Tree worms come out of their rock and delight us. At one point Stephen dove down and probed a hole in the coral until a spiny lobster came out.
We made two dives, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Each dive was for about an hour. When I think of the dives I still can fell that constant motion, the bobbing up and down on the waves.
At noon the boat came back in with the scuba divers and or picnic lunch. Egg salad, bread, and like our picnic in the jungle, lots and lots of fruit. As we ate we watched pelicans roost in the palm trees. It seems like their feet and those limbs wouldn't match - but I have yet to see a pelican fall out of a tree.
Laughing Bird Caye seems like a popular spot, with half a dozen boats and parties of swimmers there. But I think their are ready for more, both on less choppy days, and when economic times are better.
We had a second dive after lunch. Stephen continued to name fish, but I only caught and remembered a few of them. The "Four-eyed"...something, the Damsel Fish, Grouper. The "Cow Fish" is clearly a Holstein. The snake like Trumpet Fish darts about, the Sand Diver, and the Parrot Fish of many colors.
By the time we finally come out of the water I am cooled and ready to just bask in the sun for a while. But soon the boat came back for us and we headed back toward the mainland. I guess the Inn and Placencia is on an island, a caye, but it seems to be more part of the mainland life then these outer cayes.
As the boat raced west its engine foaled. Apparently the water jets had sucked in a plastic bag which had clogged them. Thomas, the captain, said this would happen with a east wind then all the garbage on the Caribbean would end up drifting to Belize. While he cleaned out the jets a dolphins came bay and entertained us, and Frigate birds circled over
Back at the Inn Robin and I tried windsurfing again. I managed to stay up for half a dozen meters, but the waves are still too much for us.
A beautiful day!
Sargent Major Fish
Blue Angle Fish
Grey Angle Fish
Christmas Tree Worm
Day 6 - Thursday - March 12th, 2009
Robert's Grove, Placencia, Belize
It is our last full day at Robert's Grove and Belize, but I don't feel like there is a long list of things which I meant to do that I have not accomplished. This is also a kicked-back day.
Another leisurely hour with coffee and sunrise on the front porch and then breakfast. Robin and I again went sailing in the Hobie Cat. This time we headed north along the shore, past the village of Seine Bight. We run up the coast for about 3-4 kilometers, to the furtherest point you can see from Robert's Grove. Robin tells me that when we signed out the boat we had agreed to go no further then this point.
In the afternoon I wandered over to the lagoon side and and poked around the mangrove swamp. The water really is just a hands breadth deep, but it is covered with acres and acres of wandering limbs and leaves.
Later I borrowed a bike and rode north to Seine Bight. This is a very poor community which I hardly realized was here a half a kilometers north of Robert's Grove. It is a lively place with a large mound of dirt which the kids were playing on. Somebody had hauled a can on to the mound and was drumming out a rhythm, and most of the kids were bouncing and dancing to the beat. I cycled past the soccer field and was captured by Wayne. Right away I knew that Wayne would ask for money - his friendliness was a bit artificial. I do hate being seen as a sucker. But I had only two Belize dollar to offer (the equivalent of one US dollar), and so since I had a reply ready I let him show Lola's art studio and place where a local dance master was teaching kids to dance. I really enjoys watching the kids dance. When Wayne asked me for money I told him what I had. I do not think he believed me, but stormed off. I am sorry that happened, since I think I would have like Seine Bight otherwise, the beat of the can and the kids dancing made it a very alive place. I then cycled back to the Inn.
For our last dinner Kristina and I both had Lobster claws, shrimp and fish!
Day 7 - Friday - March 13th, 2009
Placencia, Belize - Hanover, NH
Packing to go home is so much easier then packing to go to someplace. It is not as if you have less, in fact usually you have more, but rather there are no decisions to be made. If it is yours, you pack it.
I got up at daybreak and had coffee one last time on the front porch, watching the sun rise. It is still windy and I watched the sun reflect on the waves, and the palms continue to last the rail of the porch.
At 7:30 I woke the family and we all packed and then had breakfast together. I got talking with a Canadian couple. There were from Annapolis, Nova Scotia. They were amazed that not only did we know of the place, it is where Longfellow's poem "Evangeline" starts, but we had actually be through there town. It is on the Bay f Fundy side of the province, about half way down the coast.
We left the Inn for the airport at 8:30 and were on the plane and flying at 9:15. These flights on Mayan Island Air are so simple. With one pilot, nine passages and no security check, they are so simple.
At the Belize City Airport we did go through security and scanners and passport checks, but eventually we got on our flight to Houston.
In Houston I noticed that after after snaking our way through a very long line at immigrations, after they certified our passports, they turned to us and said "Welcome Home", and nice, even if institutionalized, touch. But Houston was a but crazy. For we have only an hour to switch flight. So there was a long lines at immigration, a quick line at customs, another slow line for scanning and security, and then a mono rail shuttle to the other end of the terminal. Our flight was boarding and we were the last to arrive.
It was here that we said our farewells to Kristina. She is catching a flight later in the afternoon to Seattle and then on to Alaska.
After all that rush, and being the last to board the plane, we then realized that it was the same flight crew as we saw coming up from Belize. In fact it is the same airplane and we are sitting in exactly the same seats!
The flight to Boston was eventless. As soon as we collected our luggage in Logan I switched into long pants, for it is 32-degrees in Boston , and probably colder in Hanover. After leaving the airport the boys and I stop for subs, and then continued north arriving at home just before midnight.
It was a great trip! But as always that is that list of things we didn't do, our we did, but didn't make it into the above journal.