forty foot slippery slide
Saturday, January 3 2015
location: Orchid Garden Resort Ecolodge, Hattieville, Belize
Gretchen's brother and nephew decided to take the day off of their vacation today, instead choosing to stay back at Orchid Garden to do something else. This made me envious; by now I too was weary of the endless driving and relentless structured enjoyment of Belize. But it was our last full day in the country and the things scheduled for today looked to be relaxing.
Our first destination was a "baboon sanctuary," "baboon" being a local term used to describe the native Black Howler Monkey (which actually looks more like a tiny long-tailed gorilla). A early-morning bird watching excursion (which Gretchen and I would have slept through in any case) had been rained out, so Alvero kept an eye out for birds, stopping along the road here and there so we could look and take pictures. We saw several of what looked to be smallish Accipiter hawks, several species of dove, grackles, what appeared to be a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and even a Vermillion Flycatcher. Meanwhile our eight year old niece was, as always, cooing about the cuteness of various dogs spotted along the way whether they were actually cute or not. She and her peers back in Pittsburgh use a cutesy patois of inappropriate pronouns and dropped articles (for example, "Me want chocolate bar!") that had been grating on Gretchen since early in the trip. By now Gretchen was refusing to engage with her niece unless she formulated proper English sentences. At some point during our slow drive, our niece showed us a book of drawings she'd made freehand (not traced) based on other drawings, and it struck me that she has some innate graphical talent.
Our guide at the baboon sanctuary was our first guide to be a Caribbean kriol (that is, having mostly African heritage). We joined his tour a little late, but before he'd found any monkeys. He led us through a somewhat swampy trash-strewn jungle behind a semi-rural community that included a small church and more than a few people hanging out on their back porches. As he walked, the guide called out to the monkeys, wherever they were, in what I took to be kriol. "Hey! Kummonbwa!" Initially they were reluctant to make an appearance, so our guide pointed out a number of plants along the way, including one that produced a sickly-orange sap that he convinced the women in our group to apply as lipstick. He also identified a plant with electric orange sap that he claimed was useful for fighting ringworm. I immediately applied some to a nascent case of Athlete's Foot developing between my toes.
Eventually our guide led us out of the jungle, across someone's yard, and then up the road back towards the sanctuary headquarters. It seemed that the tour had been a failure. It sucked, but that must happen from time to time when you're dealing with wild animals. That was when another guide hollered to tell our guide that the monkeys had been found. We'd missed them before because they'd been down near the ground. Soon enough, we were standing in front of the overgrown ruins of a school (with old styrofoam to-go containers at our feet) as genuine monkeys approached. They were completely unafraid of us, and the guide managed to get one to clutch onto a low stick at chest level only a foot or two away from some of us, providing a great opportunity for touristy photography. I couldn't see what was in it for the monkey, since, though the guide had a banana with him, he didn't give it to her for her trouble. By this point, though, the guide had moved on to the other monkeys, trying to get a mother with a six week old baby to come close. Before long, she and the tiny baby clutching her back were hanging from a tree at eye level only a few feet away. At some point the mother decided to come down even lower in the tree, and as she did so she took Gretchen's hand, holding it for a good twenty seconds. You can imagine Gretchen's delight! The tiny baby wasn't actually as cute as everyone seemed to think. It was skinny, not too hairy, looked a little too human (that is, its appearance lay somewhere in the uncanny valley), and it had two disgusting carbuncles on its back and rear where botflies had lived and later emerged (or, if the mother had basic medical skills, were squeezed out). As we walked away, Gretchen proclaimed, "I can die now." She wasn't dying, but her feet were aflame from the stings of several Fire Ants on whose nest she'd been standing during the monkey encounter. On the way back to the headquarters, are guided taught us a few phrases in krio, including "Tank yu."
Our next destination was an artificial beach near Belize City. This required us to go back south, and then east past Orchid Garden. Near the Hattieville circle (where the Burrell Boom Cut and the Western Highway meet) is the national Belize prison, where, strangely, there is a gift shop. We stopped there to see what that was all about. Past the visitors waiting for their scheduled time with individual prisoners (most of them somewhat overweight women), the gift shop was a room staffed by a single prisoner in an orange prison outfit and the merchandise consisted entirely of products of its wood shop. There were chairs and elaborately-carved doors (the latter selling for nearly $1000 American), as well as cutting boards, wildly misproportioned statuary, and even wooden knives (which would have served nicely as prison shanks). Gretchen talked at length to the prisoner staffer, who seemed like a helpful, informative young man. He explained that prisoners in the wood shop earn a small fixed salary, half of which goes into immediately commissary money and half of which goes into a fund to help them restart their lives after prison. Gretchen ended up buying a couple wooden knives, mostly because of how easy they'd be to get through airport security. They were only $3.50 American each.
The artificial beach just west of Belize City was part of a complex that included a small harbor for boats and a largish restaurant catering, again, to Americans douchebags. The restaurant was named "TGI Crazy Gringo," suggesting it had been named by someone with a fondness for American corporate chain restaurants who speaks Cantonese as his or her first language. As I had yesterday, I ordered a Belikin Stout with lunch (it cost only $0.25 American more than a bottle of Coke) and somehow managed to assemble a tasty vegan meal by ordering a "quesadilla without cheese" with "extra refried beans." I put lots of habañero hot sauce on my food (it wasn't homemade here), startling even our driver Alvero. He was eating what he always eats: rice & beans with saucy chicken.
From our table in the semi-outdoors, we had a good view of the artificial beach. It consisted of an squircular saltwater pond about an acre in size (17.471364N, 88.248461W) and a huge four story slippery slide. Though it had a perfect mix of beach furniture, shade palms, sand, and water, for some reason absolutely nobody was there. Alvero had already bought Gretchen and me the wristbands that would grant us access (the others planned to take a van-based tour of Belize City).
Gretchen and I departed lunch early and set up on the furniture beneath the palm trees. Before long, Gretchen had climbed to the top of that forty foot slide and slid down, screaming most of the way. On her second time down the slide, Gretchen had towed me out into the middle of the pond on an inner tube and I was reading an article about hoarders in the New Yorker while waiting for my sunscreen to "set" before getting wet.
It wasn't long before the others in our family contingent decided to get wristbands and hang out on the beach with us. Our young niece had a particularly good time, making "sand bombs" (spheres of sand), throwing them out into the water, and then doing a little ritualized circular dance where the bomb exploded in a temporary cloud of suspended sand. She also made a small sea turtle out of sand and bits of plant matter.
Normally I'm not the sort of person who does thrilling things in water, but I checked out the water beneath the forty foot slide and determined it wasn't too deep to overwhelm me should I get dumped into it. So I climbed to the top of the slide, threw caution to the wind, and slid down. It was a fun and somewhat terrifying ride. The speed with which I hit the water gave me a good kick in the pants, but it wasn't painful enough to keep me from doing the slide two more times. [I didn't know it at the time, but the slide had bruised my tailbone and I'd still be feeling it five days later.] There was also a platform with a rope swing that I tried a few times, though the way it dropped me into the water tended to force water uncomfortably up my nose.
The beach closed down at 4:00pm, so after that Alvero gave us all a van tour of Belize City. I didn't pay close attention. There were fancy parts and some moderately-bad slums, lots of pedestrians, almost as many dogs, and even
a funeral (a coffin was being encased in wet concrete above the surface of the ground, as Belize is too low for burying anything in the ground).
Back at Orchid Garden, we had yet another meal of soup, noodles, and seemingly endless courses of delicious (if greasy) vegetables. We haven't always reliably gotten much protein with our meals, but at least this meal had tofu. And those mushrooms that I love. But there's a flavor, and I can't quite put my finger on it (coconut milk perhaps?), that pervades all of Christine's food, and after a week Gretchen and I were pretty sick of it. Even when we weren't eating, it was a smell that reached out and grabbed us well before we'd made it to the dining hall. Sometimes, though, the smell of disinfectant from the bathroom we had to pass on our way to the dining hall momentarily blocked it out.
That gets to an important point about designing a resort. It's easy to overlook little flaws when it's your resort and you know it too well. What Christine should do is spend $1500 (or $2500), fly someone in with resort design skills, and have them make some recommendations. Maybe the huge satellite dish that dominates the otherwise-lush outdoor space between two of the rooms could be moved somewhere else, perhaps out of sight to the top of a roof. Maybe natural soaps could be used to clean the bathroom near the dining hall, or else a different route to the dining hall could be designed. And, most important of all, Orchid Garden would be about five times better if it only had a swimming pool. All it needs is a small one. And maybe a hot tub, but that can wait.
The Pittsburgh branch of the family invited us over to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens on their teevee (because they're a family of four, they'd been given a suite with a kitchenette and a television), so Gretchen and I did that for about twenty minutes even though watching football for us is a little like watching paint peel.
I'd brought so much vodka with me that tonight I tried to make a little dent in it. I didn't have a good mixer for it, so I just used water (I had to use something; you cannot drink 160 proof vodka straight). But it still had that weirdly unpleasant chemical taste and drinking it wasn't much of a pleasure.
I woke up in the middle of the night with intestinal complaints that turned into a prolonged ordeal involving multiple trips to the bathroom. On the plus side, I managed to catch up on a lot of internet reading while waiting for each wave of pain to turn into a series of explosions. Every time, there'd come a point where I thought it was all finally over, so I'd flush the toilet. But because it was a crappy third world toilet attached to a crappy third world sewer system, it wouldn't always flush the first time. And because the crappy toilet had a crappy third world tank with a crappy third world refill mechanism, it took about ten minutes for it to be ready to flush again. So then I'd have to take the lid off the tank and use a plastic cup to carry water from the sink and speed the refill process along. By the fourth return to the crapper, I was concerned that perhaps my assplosions would continue into tomorrow's travel. I'd never had the experience of having diarrhea on an airplane, and I wasn't eager to find out what that is like.
The mother Black Howler Monkey (or "baboon") with her baby. You can see one of the botfly carbuncles on the baby's rump.
The mother monkey holds Gretchen's hand. That's the back of our niece's head. Photo by Gretchen's father.
The sand turtle made by my eight year old niece.
Me coming down the four story slippery slide.
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