Friday, January 2 2015
location: Orchid Garden Resort Ecolodge, Hattieville, Belize
Today was another day that Gretchen and I did something different from the rest of the family. In the morning, while all the others were off at a butterfly farm, Gretchen and I rode with Pedro (the driver who speaks little English) in a separate vehicle to a place called Blue Hole to possibly go swimming. There are at least two Blue Holes in Belize, and both formed the same way. They are water-filled holes formed by the collapse of the roofs of limestone caves. The bigger and more famous of these is off the coast on an atoll fifty miles east of Belize City, while the one we would be going to is on dry land about fifteen miles southeast of the capital city of Belmopan. On the way, Gretchen and Pedro kept up a lively discussion in Spanish. Despite my inferior comprehension skills in that language, I was mostly able to follow along.
At Blue Hole National Park, Gretchen paid our $8/each Belizian ($8/each American) admission because Pedro didn't have small enough bills and the guy at the gate didn't have accurate change. He also didn't think the hole itself would be all that good for swimming, but we went to see for ourselves.
The hole was about thirty feet across and not exactly blue. Recent rains had made it more of a teaish brown and had also (judging by flooded steps and vegetation) raised its level. Though the water was cold, it wasn't quite as cold as I expected. Gretchen went ahead and dived in as is her way. My way is to gradually, tortuously wade in a little at a time. It's more unpleasant to do it this way, but I have trouble psyching myself up to dive into bodies of water due to my weak swimming skills. But today we'd brought along goggles and a snorkels, so when I eventually flopped into the water, I was free to paddle about without fear of depth. As Gretchen was the first to discover, the water flowing from the hole developed such a strong current a little ways downstream that the best her upstream swimming could do was keep her in a stationary position. Lacking other safe options, she was forced to leave that downstream position by climbing a second staircase. The alternative was to disappear with the water into another cave from which it might not have been possible to escape. That's right: water from the Blue Hole was emerging from a drowned cave on the side of the hole itself, flowing no more than about 80 feet, and then disappearing again into another mostly-drowned cave. Had the Blue Hole been in the United States, there would have been cautionary signs and ropes and perhaps a ban on swimming, but this being the Third World, the admission for risking being sucked into the underworld was a mere $8 Belizian.
We spent more time swimming and wading in the tea-colored water than we'd expected to, occasionally giving swimming advice to other tourists (all of them Americans) as they happened by. But nobody else jumped in.
After our swim, we had a little time to kill, so we took a walk on a swampy lowland trail that was mostly unremarkable save for a species of bean with pods the size of small bananas. We were attacked by mosquitoes on this walk, though we only saw a few of the offending flies. (Unpleasant though it was, I've experienced much worse back home in our yard in Hurley.)
Pedro initially drove us to Guanacaste National Park on the Western Highway to await a rendezvous with the others, and Gretchen chatted awhile with a bored park ranger about a feral black cat that yowled relentlessly but could not be approached. There was a tiny species of wasp with a nest in one of the concrete blocks of the park headquarters, and dozens of the wasps flew in a cloud just outside a long narrow access spout they'd built. Though they looked like mosquito-sized wasps, the ranger insisted they were "honey bees" and waved his hand through the cloud to demonstrate that they were utterly harmless.
Eventually the plan changed and Pedro drove us to the restaurant where our lunch was to be, and that was where we rendezvoused with the others from the butterfly farm. The place was called Amigos, and as we parked in its driveway, we were disappointed to see the many ways in which it was trying to impersonate one of those corporate American chain restaurants that attempt to impersonate the quirky charms of a one-of-a-kind restaurant. So here we were, in the middle of rural Belize, at a rundown restaurant that was trying to give the impression that it might actually be a Chili's. The parking lot was full of wacky signs that said things like "Parking for Old Farts." The spot we parked in had a sign that read, "If You Think Shit Happens Park Here."
Gretchen and I went straight for the big roofed outdoor seating area, which was a very pleasant place except during the minute or so that a drizzly rain blew in. Gretchen and I immediately ordered Belikin beers and fries and, looking at our menus, were delighted to see that we'd be able to cobble together interesting vegan meals from the large menu. This delight was tempered somewhat by the obnoxious tone of the menu, which seemed tailored to the most idiotic of Americans. Its Mexican section, for example, was entitled "South of the Border." I ordered a vegetarian burrito with no cheese or sour cream, ordering extra beans to compensate for the absence of dairy. It proved to be the best Belizian meal I'd had so far. There was even homemade habañero hot sauce on the table, the first homemade hot sauce I'd yet encountered in this evidently habañero-loving country. While I ate my meal, a couple adorable puppies frolicked in the field behind the restaurant. Aside from the Coke-drinking American tourists, the only apparent locals there for lunch were a couple of overly dolled-up young women who were either prostitutes or there for "the business women's special."
In the afternoon, Alvero drove us to the Belize Zoo, which is more of a wildlife sanctuary than an actual zoo. The only animals it has are native Belizian creatures, the bulk of whom have been rescued from some traumatic former life. (If it had been a more typical third world zoo, Gretchen would have wanted another swimming opportunity instead.)
Belize has enough interesting animals to make for a diverse zoological experience, though today's tour began with a yawn: an exhibit of White-tailed Deer. The male had been castrated, and (according to one of the fellow tourists from Orchid Garden) this was the cause of the purple cancerous-seeming growths all over his antlers. He said that intact bucks use their antlers aggressively, clearing such growths away. [Apparently, though, the story is a bit more complicated.]
Next, though, were several large pens containing tapirs, the largish animal of Belize. These were the size of ponies and, being relatives thereof, walked about on whimsical three-toed feet. While the females were friendly and enjoyed getting their faces and big soft noses scratched, the males were likely to turn around and accurately spray urine backwards from their smallish penises, which are attached much further back than they are on a horse.
Across from the tapirs was a large pen containing a fair number of Spider Monkeys. While we were there, they peformed effortless tricks, fluidly moving from branch to branch and then halting completely to look out from the height of a tree.
There were turtles, snakes, two species of peccaries in great numbers (they both smelled terrible, though the fragrances were different), a good diversity of owls (including one species only slightly larger than an English Sparrow). The Spectacled Owl took a keen interest in us as we watched him, though it would have been more pleasant had he not been bobbing and dipping his head with a dead baby chick half way down his throat. (The zoo feeds a lot of dead chicks to its birds of prey, suggesting that it has an arrangement with a hatchery.) There were also two large crocodiles that remained motionless save for occasional movements of their eyes. The diversity of cat species drew mental comparisons to cats back at home. A Mountain Lion approached from behind us on the trail along the edge of its pen and did so with such silence that its sudden appearance walking away from us was startling. There was a Margay Cat that was about the size of a house cat but with paws as big as a German Shepherd's.
Gretchen was particularly excited to see the exhibit of Black Howler Monkeys, even though we'd seen them in the wild twice on this trip already. We stood on a platform near their cage, watching their antics for a good while. There was a baby among them, and Gretchen kept gushing about how cute they all were. She even said at one point, "If I could be sure I'd give birth to one of those, I'd want to get pregnant." Her father, a former medical doctor, was there at the time and, referring to the state of her nearly-44-year-old ovaries, replied, "If you did now, you just might!"
The most charismatic species at the Belize Zoo is the Jaguar, and there are at least four kept in several different enclosures. Alvero told me that several years ago a large tree blew down in one of the Jaguar pens and a big cat managed to escape. In the process of retrieving that Jaguar, it somehow killed one of the zookeepers. Today, though, there wasn't quite so much drama. But there was a little, so keep reading.
The first Jaguar we saw lay sleepily on a raised log in a place positioned for optimal viewing by visitors, who snapped numerous pictures and mostly ignored the enormous crocodile nearby in another pen. More interesting for us was a large black Jaguar kept by himself in a separate pen. Watching him walk through the undergrowth, his yellow eyes sparkling almost disembodied in the shadows was something I won't soon forget. His story is that he was found nearly starved to death in a Mexican hacienda, the possession of some would-be gente grande. The woman who owns and operates the zoo (a wiry woman with a vaguely Aspergery comportment) arrived while we were near his cage, and, hearing her jokingly say that he must not be around, the black Jaguar came out of the shadows and presented himself. She then proceeded to hand him chunks of chicken through the wire mesh of his enclosure and he gently plucked them from her hand with his teeth. Other Jaguars (much smaller, spotted ones) appeared in an adjacent enclosure, and, not to leave them out, the zookeeper tossed them chunks as well. They caught them right out of the air as if they were dogs.
After the zookeeper got out of the way, Gretchen got up close to the wire mesh and stared the big black Jaguar in the eyes, marveling at his calm charisma. But then suddenly, in an instant, he lunged towards her, pressing his face and one of his baseball-mitt-sized paws against the mesh, bowing it almost to Gretchen's face. She jump back reflexively, delivering the response the big cat had evidently planned to provoke. He then went back into calm charisma mode.
Speaking of calm charisma, we were also at the Harpy Eagle cages when the zookeeper came by to feed them. There was both a male and a much larger female, and, like the Jaguars, it was fun just watching them breathe.
The malignant appearance of deer antlers when the male is castrated. Photo by Gretchen's father.
A tapir at the Belize Zoo today.
Gretchen pets a tapir's nose. Photo by her father.
A Jaguar resting on a log. Photo by Gretchen's father.
A Spectacled Owl with a dead baby chick. Photo by Gretchen's father.
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