Belize Awareness Trip Belize 2011
To read the complete BLOG written by Ridgetown Campus, University of Guelph students on the awareness trip to Belize 2011 visit http://www.ridgetowncampus.blogspot.com/
“No words truly describe what we saw or felt today. We are very fortunate to be able to sell milk, livestock, and crops and have the luxuries such as hydro, a working bathroom, and running water. I am very honoured to be able to live in Canada and have all these luxuries after seeing the conditions others have to face to survive and just live in Belize.”
Experts from the student blogs:
After meeting a former SHARE scholarship student: “It is amazing to see how a student can go from having next to nothing to having a good job with the University of Belize all because of the help of an organization like SHARE, who made it possible for him to attend high school.”
After spending an afternoon on 2 farms supported by SHARE: “The farms we visited did not have any hydro and were located 20 minutes driving down a very long bumpy, rocky dirt road - we thought at some points we would not be able to get up or down the hills without sliding. These farms really seemed to be at the end of the road, and you could see how much SHARE’s commitment to them really helped to make a huge difference in their lives, to help them to better themselves.
The first farmer and his wife have a large family with 11 children and 15 grandchildren so far. Three of the children are still on the farm and one son helps with the cows. The farmer first came to Belize from Guatemala where he scouted out the land and the country, found this property that no one was residing on and brought his family over to join him. He liked Belize because elementary school is free and required by the government. SHARE sponsors one of his children to high school on a scholarship.
He was given 3 cows from SHARE and has grown his herd up to 30, but then sold a few cows and now has 12 cows and is currently milking 4 of them, once a day by hand. The cows are Brahma (for the weather and pasture hardiness and they are a cross between a beef cow and a dairy cow) crossed with Brown Swiss (for the milking aspect). He had a larger herd but sold some of his cows because he needed a surgery. There are 5 pastures he rotates the cows on and he cut all the brush down by hand, with a machete and planted the grass by hand. The milk they produce is used to feed their large family and they make cheese as well. They grow white corn and will harvest it for the family’s consumption and make tortillas out of them. He will then save some of the seed and use it to plant his corn crop for the next year. They also had lots of fresh fruit trees around the house that they eat and use as juice. It was interesting that these farmers actually use de-wormers such as Ivomec to deworm all their cows, as we would do at home. His son works at a pharmacy and is able to bring home the Ivomec to his father.
Also surprising was the living condition of this family. His housing facilities have improved but it was nowhere near a typical Canadian house or even Belizean house we have seen. It was more of a shack on the ground with an open side for a living room, trees cut down at a young age as the walls and a tin roof. It was an eye-opener to see how this family is living compared to all of our luxuries at home.
The second farmer lived back up this dirt road and down an even farther side road. This family consisted of a grandfather and four grandchildren living on the farm.
SHARE gave this family 3 cows to start with and the herd grew to 116 cattle, but the eldest son sold a bunch of cows so the herd consists of 60 animals now. These cows were mostly straight Brahma breed. He had just dewormed his cattle with a pour on Ivomec. He had just finished building a chute to have a better handling system for his cows. He has 5 large pastures he rotates his cows through and two smaller ones that he uses to keep the cows closer to the house at night. He uses the milk only for his family and does not sell any at this time of year, as this isn’t their peak production time as the cows are later in lactation. This farmer has one full grown bull and has three he traded another farmer for and is going to grow them up to help change up the genetics of his herd. The oldest granddaughter is in grade 6 and is responsible for cooking and taking care of her siblings, as her mother has left them with their grandfather.
Both farms have to milk by hand and have no hydro. The milk they get from their cows needs to be consumed right away because they don’t have refrigeration to keep it fresh. They both have problems with predators on their farms with such animals like jaguar and cougars. The second farmer said he lost 7 animals from his herd in 4 months to a cougar.”
Students develop an understanding of agriculture in a tropical, developing country and traditional methods of agriculture in the Mayan culture as well as have many opportunities to meet the people of the country, learn the history and culture. In their travels the Canadian students visit some SHARE supported agriculture projects and meet SHARE high school scholarship students.
Before the Trip - We are Preparing to Leave on an International Study Tour of Belize, Central America – Katie Savage
Hi, I’m Katie Savage, the instructor of the Belize International Study Tour, at the University of Guelph, Ridgetown Campus. We have an exciting new international learning opportunity for a group of our students at Ridgetown Campus to learn about agriculture, horticulture and international development in Belize – while earning course credit to go towards their diploma.
This first year, there will be a group of 10 going to Belize, eight diploma students from the Agriculture and Horticulture diploma programs, our tour coordinator and guide, Les Frayne, and myself.
Our group will be guided by Les Frayne, a semi-retired farmer, who has previously taken University of Guelph, Guelph Campus students to Belize on study tours. Les is also a committed, long-time volunteer with the SHARE Ag Foundation which has projects in Belize. The SHARE Agriculture Foundation provides funding, guidance, and expertise to community-based agricultural projects in developing countries around the world but with a particular focus on Central and South America.
I am coordinating the academic course for students at Ridgetown Campus and participated in a similar course as a student at the University of Guelph.
We will see some SHARE development projects, botanical gardens, as well as various types of agricultural production, including citrus, banana and livestock, while travelling the small country.
We will be departing on our study tour this Saturday December 12th and return 8 days later on Sunday December 20th.
Throughout our travels, I will be updating the blog site, with pictures and postings written by the student participants about our daily tour stops and experiences – so please follow our journey!
I hope to be able to add their postings or updates daily – but it will be as internet access is available – so please be patient if we miss a posting one day – we will update our blogs as soon as we can get to an internet cafe!
Please feel free to leave us comments on our blog as we go! I will be sure to pass them along to all of my fellow travelers!
Saturday, Belize Bound!
Our group of 10 excitedly left behind the snow and cold in Toronto to leave for Belize bright and early this morning! A busy day of travel --- snow in Toronto, heavy fog in Houston, and then sunshine in Belize -- but after a day of travelling we have safely arrived at our hotel in San Ignacio!
We had a scenic drive and looked out the windows in awe of the lush green vegetation along the drive. The two hour drive from the airport gave everyone the opportunity to see some of the houses, animals and towns along the way. Our tour guide and trusty driver Les even took us for a quick scenic stop on route to the hotel - we visited a wooden rope bridge that overlooks the Roaring Creek.
After a long day of travel everyone was glad to arrive at the hotel and enjoy their first taste of Belizean cuisine!
Off to bed for the evening so that we can try to be up in time to see the birds - with the highlight being all the migrating birds that are passing through Belize during this season. The toucans have also arrived earlier than in other years - so we hope to see many Belizean birds as well!
In the morning it's off to Xunantunich the Mayan ruin - we will let you know how it goes!
Day 1 - Sunday - Many Hands Make Light Work! - Kayla
Day one was an introduction to the Belizean life style. From narrow, curvy, winding roads to humongous speed bumps, our big white van made its way around the San Ignacio, Belmopan and Los Flores area. When traveling in Belize you have to remember that you’re on Belizean time.
Our morning started off by many of us getting up for a refreshing swim in the pool at 6:00am, while watching the migrating and local birds in the trees above. We all enjoyed a delicious Belizean breakfast buffet at the hotel, and were able to sit on the patio and see the toucans fly through.
At 8:30am we decided to embrace our day and headed off on our travels. Our first stop was a guided tour of Xunantunich Mayan Ruins. The name Xunantunich came from the Mayan people and means Stone Maiden. To get to the archaeological site, we had to drive the van onto a wooden ferry and ride the ferry across the river. There was a gentleman that propelled the ferry by a crank system. Cruise was our very knowledgeable tour guide for the morning and had lots of interesting history and information to share with us. We toured the foundations of the remains of what were once buildings. We climbed up to the top of El Castillo – the huge impressive building in what once was a Mayan city. A little unsure we climbed up the steep, slippery steps to the top of the foundations where we had spectacular views of the rest of the site and surrounding area, we are able to see the Guatemalan border in the distance. With the ledge overlooking a 130 feet drop off many of us held on tight to the wall behind us only being 3-4 feet from the edge. We also saw the ball court area, where the Mayans used to play a ball game, similar to as what we call soccer today. We learned so much about the Mayan culture and their history at Xunantunich.
After touring Xunantunich and feeling like we were melting in the heat, a few of us were worried that the rest of the trip would be a disappointment, we soon found out that the all their was to learn and see on the trip was only just beginning!
We headed off to a community chicken barbeque in Los Flores. The community that we had lunch in was a small community just outside of Belmopan, many of the people in the community were refugees from El Salvador. At the park we were able to meet some of the local community members and Eloy Waight, who is the SHARE contact in Belize. We also met Nectaly, Denver, and Isaiah, 3 students who SHARE gave scholarships to so that they could go on for further education. The education system in Belize is much different than what we are used to in Canada, the government pays for students to attend elementary or primary school, but students must pay tuition to attend high school. SHARE sponsors some students that are unable to afford tuition for high school so that they have the opportunity to continue studying.
After the delicious lunch, Les donated a sewing machine and fabric on behalf of SHARE, to a local group of women. The sewing machine will give these women the opportunity to sew items for themselves, but also to sew items that they can sell to make an income to provide for their families. There were also some soccer balls that were given to some of the children in the community.
After the barbeque, we headed off to dairy farms that are sponsored by SHARE Agriculture Foundation in Armenia. Eloy explained to us how some of the farmers in Belize do everything by hand. The land that these farmers are turning into pasture is full of lush vegetation. There is no way that you can walk straight into one of these plots of land before they are cleared and expect to be able to find your way out. The farmers use a machete to cut down trees, branches etc to clear a path through the lush forest. The fencing that the farmers have put up in preparation for the cows that SHARE will be donating to them, consisted of tree lines and barbwire in rows 5 high. They made sections out of their land which they would turn into pastures and later will need to get a water source for their pasture fields. Many of the farmers in Belize live in the towns and then have their farm land elsewhere.
The farmers that we met that took us to their plots of land that they were clearing each had 15 acres of land, there were 5 different farmers, but they all worked together in clearing off the land to prepare for their cows to come. It was amazing to see the work that goes into clearing the land, and how they contribute to help and work with their fellow farmers. Many of the farmers, like the ones we met, are very hard working and smart people, that until they have people and organizations like SHARE to help give them a hand up, they don’t have the resources themselves to establish their farmland and purchase their own cows. SHARE helping and believing in these farmers will help to give them the resources to be successful in their enterprises. We made a fast departure from the fields to the bus after looking at the cows – none of us wanted to get caught in a Belizean rainstorm! The generous farmers insisted that we drink as much coconut milk as possible – cutting them off of the trees and handing many coconuts through the window for our enjoyment. With this being said Samantha, Les, and Ben thoroughly enjoyed the taste of coconut milk, as the rest us found it very amusing watching them. Samantha, had a hard time getting out those last drops of coconut milk, but luckily Lorraine came to her rescue with straws to get the final drops!
Traveling down the Belizean equivalent of the 401 in Ontario, is very interesting with many amazing sights. You never know what you may come across or see on the roads! As we were driving down the roads sometimes we will see random horses or cows tied to a tree on a long lead, where they are put to eat for the day. Also there are chickens crossing the roads in front of the van as we drive through some of the small communities and stray very skinny dogs. Belizean people are always biking everywhere or walking and they don’t worry about sharing the roads with cars, or hurrying to cross the road when you’re coming towards them. Some people like to carpool, but in Belize there is no need to ride in the front of the vehicle, many of them seem to drive pickup trucks and have their boxes full of people. Belize is a very colourful country, made up of colourful houses with beautiful trees, foliage and a variety of flowers. The country is in full bloom with lots of growth and vegetation.
We finished our day off with a fantastic meal at the Cahal Pech hotel, another hotel quite close to ours. We enjoyed another wonderful Belizean meal and all came back with very full stomachs! Today was a great way to start off our trip. It was interesting to see what the landscape and structures that were here many years ago and the way the Mayan people lived. Today we got to see a clear demonstration that many hands make light work. To me this is what Belize is all about and how some of their farmers become successful. The community came together to host a barbeque to raise money to provide another scholarship for another student in the community to have the opportunity to go on to high school. I soon began to realize that with a heart and dream, you have nowhere to go but forward; and to me this is what this country is doing.
As exhaustion hit me from a big day and amazement, I lay awake only wondering what tomorrow may bring!
Day 2 - Tuesday, Farming 101 - Samantha
In Belize, we are on Belizean time. Today, we learned that things move at a much more relaxed and laid back pace. Many of us got up to swim and bird watch once again before it started to rain. We all had another fantastic Belizean breakfast that we picked off the menu rather than buffet style which we enjoyed yesterday. We have all enjoyed the many different fresh juices in Belize with many of our meals, including lime, cantaloupe, watermelon, orange and pineapple! At breakfast we met Jorge who was a past SHARE sponsored scholarship student, who now attends post-secondary school in San Ignacio and he travelled with us for the day. During breakfast it started to rain again, so Les said we wouldn’t be leaving at soon as we originally had planned, so after packing up for the day and taking our packed lunch made by the hotel, we headed out to start our day.
Our first stop of the day was Running W Ranch, a stop that I was looking very forward to. While Les found our tour guide, the head cowboy at the ranch, we toured the meat shop and after converting the prices, we discovered that much of the meat was much less expensive than what we are used to at home. The meat products that they sold were beef, pork and lamb. Some items that we thought were unusual included cow hooves, butt bacon (which we later discovered was back bacon) and there was no pepperettes, which was something that many of us were looking for. Shortly after, we were well on our way out to the pasture while our guide explained to us that we would be learning about the breeding and feeding program. We took a quick look at the feed mixer and learned that Running W Ranch uses a mixture of molasses and urea. The molasses comes from Orange Walk and is a by-product at the sugar mill. Eight buckets of molasses and twenty pounds of urea is mixed together and given to the steers to help them gain more weight. Right now, molasses is five cents per pound but the supply is short because the factory is currently closed for renovations – it will be reopening again in less than a week.
The herd consists of Nelore which is a Brazilian Brahma breed, a breed of Brahma and Angus. They started using crosses to improve marbling and quality in their meat. Since this a relatively new change, the Belizean people have not experienced the new improved quality meat as it goes straight to the restaurant at the San Ignacio Hotel which we are staying at – many of us have already eaten steaks from the restaurant there. At the age of one and a half years, the cattle are slaughtered. The farm is managed very well; only three cowboys work on the ranch, compared to much smaller ranches having around ten cowboys. Running W Ranch feels it is unnecessary to have that many cowboys as they have a great system setup and very well trained workers. Cattle are rotated through pastures every seven days and within that time frame, the pasture grows back on a 21 day cycle. The grass that they use in their pastures is a very fast growing grass. Two hundred cattle are pastured on eighty acres at a time. The Running W Ranch consists of approximately one thousand cattle. We had the opportunity to watch one of the cowboys herd a group of cattle to move to the next pasture.
After asking many questions about the ranch, we headed to the back of the ranch to see the sheep. The flock consists of Barbado Black Bellies (hair sheep) crossed with a Dorper (wool breed). The flock is about two hundred head. They sell at a live weight of approximately $2.50 per pound and a ready to eat price of $6.00 per pound all of which are Belizean dollars. They use many of the same medications and vaccinations as we do in Canada. The sheep are fed a long grass, elephant grass, chopped up mixed with minerals. Unlike Canada, there is no specific market or demand for them at Christmas and Easter. Usually every five months the sheep are ready for market or slaughter. The sheep barn is cleaned out once a month and the slats are removed and underneath is cleaned. This system works well as it keeps the sheep clean and fewer illnesses and diseases are spread.
After seeing some very successful farm operations that are run very differently than what we are used to seeing and taking note of some ideas and practices that may work for our own animals, we thanked Running W Ranch for the tour and their time.
Next, we travelled to the Spanish Lookout. We took another water ferry across the Belize River in order to continue the drive to Spanish Lookout, a Mennonite community. Many of the Mennonite farmers in Belize actually originally lived in Manitoba! It was like we had entered a whole new world. The buildings were much more modern, the land was much cleaner and houses were more consistently spread out. It reminded many of us of home and driving into the Elora or St Jacobs area.
Being that we were still on Belize time, we headed to the school first to make sure we wouldn’t miss them during lunch. The school was called Los Tombos Public School. It contained form one to six, they are almost equivalent to our grades in Canada. The teachers had all the students come out to the pavilion like structure, with a thatched roof, while it was explained to them who we were, where we were from and why we were there. We had brought a large variety of school supplies, soccer and volleyballs, games and other sports equipment. The look on the faces of the students was so heartwarming. It was nothing like any of us had ever experienced. It was a great feeling to bring them items that we take for granted that they were so appreciative of. It was a good reminder to us to be thankful for what we have. After the kids settled down from excitement, we had the chance to meet them and learn about their education system. After this schooling, many of the children will not have any more education. We learned that the students all came from large families some from families of about fourteen. The younger students have not learned English yet so the older students had to translate what was being said. The students took the soccer and volleyballs and put them to use right away. They really enjoy soccer and a group of the older students recently won a soccer tournament.
After saying goodbye to the students, we loaded back in the van and headed back into town. We made a pit stop before heading to Frank and Bertha Bartman’s house; they moved from Manitoba and graciously welcomed us to eat our lunches at their home. We were very thankful that they opened up their home as it kept us out of the rain while we ate the lunch prepared by the hotel. We learned that they have seven kids that live all over Canada, the US and Belize. Two live in Alymer and St Jacobs, once again, the world is proven to be small! Bertha showed us pictures of their family. She shared with us lots of insight to their farm. They have a TV monitor in their kitchen and a video camera in their barn so that they can see and hear if there are any problems in the chicken barn. They told us stories of wild animals getting into their chicken barn in the past, but now that they have the screen in the house they don’t have to go out to the broiler barn to check every night. They have about eighty cattle all which are out a short drive from their house. We had a nice visit with the Bartman’s before heading back out for an afternoon full of many more agricultural businesses and sites that reminded us of home.
Tuesday - From the farm to the fork - Lorraine
In the afternoon of our second day in Belize we were in Spanish Lookout. We arrived at Reimers Feed Mill after our lunch with the Bartman family. While we were waiting for our guide at the feed mill tour we enjoyed looking through their store. They had many different supplies, similar to the ones we use at home, for horses and dogs. They also have medications and cereal, which we all thought was pretty interesting. When our tour guide Frank Friesen arrived (always freezing never frozen, as Frank told us). He has worked at the mill for 10 years and is also the vet for Spanish Lookout. He is also an Artificial Insemination (A.I.) technician and teaches A.I. to the people in the area who are interested in learning how to use A.I. on their own farms. Artificial insemination has not been used too much in Spanish Lookout, until fairly recently, because it was against the Mennonite beliefs, but some of them are changing their views.
Frank showed us into the mill which has been there for over 50 years. In the first years the feed would be mixed by hand, using shovels. There would be two men, one right handed and one left handed and they would each shovel into the middle where it would be mixed and then shoveled into the bags. Now they use an auger to transfer the corn and soybean meal into the mixer after being weighed. Molasses is added using high pressure hoses and mineral concentrate is dumped in by hand. The concentrate is stored in a bin off to the side and is filled using a forklift. The forklift has a cart on it that the concentrate is poured into using an auger, the forklift lifts up the cart and then a worker shovels it in by hand at the top of the bin. It was interesting to watch since it is something that we wouldn’t see happening at home. After the feed is mixed it is bagged and there are three men that work together to complete this task. One places the bags under the spout to be filled, one brings them through to get stitched, with the appropriate tag on them and the last man stacks the bags into piles.
Frank was very proud to tell us that all of the corn, soybeans and molasses are all grown locally in Belize. The only part of the feed that is not native to the country is the mineral concentrate, this is brought in from Sanford feed company in Florida. The mill is also very self-sufficient, it produces its own hydro using diesel power. Using their own power source is an expensive but worthwhile investment because they are supporting the Belizean people instead of Mexico, where their power would come from otherwise. Frank is very committed to using Belizean grown feed to help support the local farmers. The only feed that is not grown and processed in Belize is all of their paper bag feed which includes dog, rabbit and parrot food. The mill not only grows locally, but it sells locally as well. The majority of the feed that is sold in bulk is to farmers that live within a 5 mile radius. Another interesting fact that Frank shared with us was that of all of the broilers grown in Belize the mill supplies 65% of their feed, and of that percentage 98% is to the Mennonite farmers.
We then left the mill with Frank to go to some Mennonite farms. The first one we went to was a layer barn. This barn was open on all sides, with chicken wire all around. The birds were fed in a trough on the outside lengths of the barn. The floors that the layers were on sloped into the middle of the barn where there was a path for the farmer to collect the eggs. The barn was built on stilts, raised up 5 or 6 feet so all of the manure would fall on the ground below the barn. We were all very interested to see the set up of that barn but could not stay long as we had another farm stop to get to. This farm was a broiler and dairy farm. We met Noah, a hired hand on the farm, the first barn he showed us was the broiler barn. It was an open barn with chicken wire around the side walls. It had a dirt floor and metal feeders that are filled by hand, and nipple drinkers for water. To cool the barn on days that the temperature reaches over 100 degrees F, there are two large fans and a misting system. The high temperatures are usually only a big concern for the last few weeks of the chickens 5 months, 3 day life span. Next we were taken to the dairy parlour where Noah milks 35 cows. It was in a shed that was open on two ends. On one side there was the milk room where the bulk tank is stored. On the other side are the stalls of their milking parlour. There was a ramp that the cows would walk up then they would turn into one of the four wooden stalls in a line. There are slats at the back of the stalls for the manure to fall into for cleanliness and a feeder for the cows to eat out of when they are getting milked. The feed ration that they are on is part corn silage and part citrus pulp and they are also on pasture. The citrus pulp is the remnants of the oranges after they have been squeezed for juice. The farmer is paid to take these remnants away from the plant. It is very good for the cows because it is high in energy and has a lot of water in it so the cows do not need to drink as much water. The average production for the cows is typically 35 lbs of milk per day and the milk is picked up 3 times per week by western dairy, where it is processed into milk, cheese and ice cream. We thanked Noah for showing us around the farm and then we got back on the road to drop off Frank back at the feed mill.
We were all excited for our next stop – Western Dairy. The dairy is where the milk is processed in Spanish Lookout, they sell a variety of dairy products – but the highlight for our group was the much anticipated ice cream! The ice cream was made from the real cream produced in Spanish lookout and it only cost us $2 Belize for two scoops (which is $1 US).
On our travel back to the hotel we looked at the oil wells which are a fairly new thing in Belize. We returned to the hotel and decided to have a quick swim to cool off after a long day! After our swim we met Edgar, a past SHARE sponsored scholarship student and walked down the steep hill to Ervas. Here we enjoyed some of the best pizza you can find in Belize and even drank pop out of glass bottles. We had an enjoyable time talking with Edgar and George, a scholarship student that was with us all day, about their education and culture. It was then time to say goodbye to Edgar as we marched back up the hill for a good night’s rest.
Wednesday - Belizean Survivor 101 - Leanne
Today was a bit of a change from agriculture to plants and animals that can be found in the local rainforests of Belize. We ventured on an iguana tour, a tour of the Belize Botanic Gardens and a walk through the Belizean zoo. The theme for the day seemed to be geared toward how to survive if lost in a Belizean rainforest. Our tour guides for the day informed us of the many uses that plants had in the past and some of their uses today as well.
Our first guided tour of the day took us on a trail behind the hotel to visit the resident iguanas. As we made our way along the wet slippery path, our guide stopped beside a tree with a rather large growth on one of the branches. This growth happens to be the home of thousands of termites which we were told would provide lots of nourishment and protein. Ben, Margaret and Brandi were the only brave souls to put these small wiggling creatures into their mouth to have a taste and claimed that the flavour could be described as minty carrots. Our tour guide assures us that not all kinds of termites taste the same but we will just have to take his word for it as these seemed to be the only termites in the immediate area. We were also informed that we could light the termite nest on fire and that the smoke would become a natural insect repellent.
Continuing on the path we finally make it to the area where the iguanas are kept. There are two cages, one for the older iguanas and one for the babies. In the adult cage we met an orange-brown coloured male iguana named Gomez and a smaller green coloured female named Roxie. Each of us got a chance to touch the iguanas. They felt very scaly and their skin moved around easily under the pressure of our fingers. We learned that if termites don’t fill you up when you are lost in a rainforest, you can always eat an iguana. Iguanas are considered to be a delicacy by some people and in Belize they are also called bumble chicken.
In the cage containing the babies, our tour guide piled us up with iguanas. Some of us had as many as four iguanas sitting on our arms and shoulders while one member of the group stood outside the cage silently watching the proceedings but unwilling to get any closer to the wiggling reptiles. We also got to feel what it would be like to have an iguana tail whip us. Tail whipping is an aggressive defence this animal has against predators. Luckily we only tested this defensive action with the baby reptiles as the adult’s tail can deliver quite the sting. After some time had passed we had to say goodbye to the iguanas and head back up the path to the hotel to get ready for the next adventure.
Shortly past nine o’clock we were all piled in the van on our way to the Belize Botanic Gardens (BBG). To get there, we first had to drive down an incredibly bumpy dirt road complete with many potholes and even a few speed bumps, in case we weren’t already having a great time bouncing up and down. Luckily we made it to our destination in one piece and were ready to walk around and explore. As we waited for our tour guide Freddy to be ready to go, we checked out the gift shop and restaurant, and then walked along a raised boardwalk to a lookout point where some bats were just hanging around. Some of the more tired members of the group got a quick snooze in the hammocks or in some chairs that resembled miniature Adirondacks. Our rest didn’t last too long and before we knew it we were following Freddy down one of the paths littered with small wood chips. The tour consisted of many different trees both native to Belize and some that were imported from other countries. We learned many interesting facts about the uses of several of them such as for dyes, dugout canoes, rubber, soaps, colognes and various medicinal purposes to name a few. One of the medicinal plants was the Jackass Bitter that can be used for mosquito bites, infected wounds, rashes, or stomach problems such as parasites.
Next on the tour we were able to enter a replica of a Mayan hut complete with a thatched roof and limestone plastered floor and walls. There were also some bowls and containers made out of a fire-hardened fruit called Kalabash which is similar looking to a gourd. Fireplaces were often inside the huts to cook on as well as to smoke out any bugs, snakes our scorpions trying to make a living in the thatch of the roof. Males slept in hammocks and the females slept in beds with the babies. After the Mayan hut we headed uphill to a lookout tower where we could view the spectacular scenery of the surrounding rainforest. Then on to the Native Orchid house where to our disappointment there were no orchids blooming as most of them do their blooming in Belize’s dry season and we are visiting the country just at the end of the wet season.
As we headed back to where we started the tour we passed a fan palm which we learned stores a lot of rain water in the stems of the leaves and the trunk. As our tour ended we said good-bye to Freddy then headed back to BBG’s restaurant for some delicious Duplooy’s Quesadillas for lunch. After we were finished eating, some of us went to make some purchases in the gift shop while the others returned to the van and had a rocking good time listening to Christmas carols.
Our next destination was the Belizean zoo where wild animals that are abandoned or hurt are given a home. We wandered along the winding pathways looking at the pacing ocelots and pumas, the silent black howler monkeys, and the flapping, restless birds. We weren’t able to stand in any one place too long or the ants would find us and start biting our feet and legs. We made a quick stop at the gift shop on our way out to look around and buy some ice cream before we got back on the highway for the long drive back to the hotel. Throughout our short stay in Belize we have seen some crazy driving and quite a mixture of vehicles travelling the roads but today we actually had to pass a house on wheels. A Belizean motor home perhaps?
We made it back to the hotel in time to have a swim before supper. Tonight we stayed at the hotel to eat and enjoyed sitting around afterwards, relaxing and feeling grateful that should we ever get lost in a rainforest we are now better prepared.
Thursday - A Change of Scenery - Bailey
After four days in the beautiful San Ignacio Resort Hotel, it was time to say goodbye to the luxuries we were quickly growing accustomed to and move on to new adventures in the south of Belize. We were sad to leave our pool, fancy restaurant and amazing view of the forest, but excited to see what awaited us today. We finished another wonderful buffet breakfast and packed up our big van to head south on the Hummingbird Highway toward Punta Gorda, to stay at the Sea Front Inn for the night.
Today was a day of many short stops and a lot of driving. It started with a stop at the Blue Hole National Park. We took a short walk through the forest area just off of the road and down a flight of stairs into a deep, cave like area, where we were greeted by the brilliant blue water that gives the park its name. The water is shallow all around the edges and then suddenly drops deep underground, running through the mountains, making it seem bottomless toward the middle. Echo’s bounced off of the cave walls as we talked and took pictures, one’s that will never do this park justice.
We then stopped farther up the road at Kropf’s Bakery, which is supposedly famous for their delicious cinnamon buns that Les had gotten us all excited about last night. When we got there we found out that they were closing down for the holiday season and that there was no more cinnamon buns left...so we settled for some oatmeal cookies, which were still really good. Back on the road we pulled over a few more times to get some pictures. We stopped briefly to see a lime kiln, where they were bagging powdered lime to be used for construction. It seemed like a very small operation, in a lean-to type shack, covered in scrap metal, but they had a large number of bags of lime sitting in the small space, so they must be doing pretty well. We also made a quick stop to toss a soccer ball to some school children who were playing outside, because I’m starting to think Les is Santa with his never ending bag of toys, but it is wonderful to see how happy this makes the children.
The Hummingbird and Southern Highways that we travelled on today were lined, mile after mile, with orange trees, all lined up in perfect rows, some on flat ground and some contouring the hillside. We passed a citrus pelleting plant, where they are processing the excess pulp from the juice factories to be used for animal feed on farms around here. We also passed a plant where they squeeze the citrus fruits to make concentrated juice. The smell of citrus filled the entire van, even with the windows up.
Around 10:30 we arrived at Marie Sharp’s Hot Sauce Factory where we were given a short tour of the plant. Here they produce hot sauces, jams and concentrated juice mixes from scratch in a small, but very efficient, factory. After the tour we proceeded to the store front, where we grabbed as many items as our hands could hold, until they finally brought us bags so that we could grab more. We sampled some of the items and then bought those too. Every one of us left with a shopping bag full, amazingly not spending more than around $10.00US. While we were waiting to pay, I spoke to Marie Sharp herself. I found out that she had started this business in 1981 in her kitchen and ran it that way for three years. She then built a small factory, which now serves as the office after they expanded to the size that they are today. This expansion happened in 1996 and they are currently working on expanding again. She has made quite a name for herself, with her products being served all around Belize, and she has even expanded her market to include distribution in Georgia, Texas and Idaho.
Taste testing at Marie Sharp’s made us all hungry, so we stopped off at a road side restaurant for lunch. We had purchased box lunches from our hotel this morning but we had no where to eat them, so, for the price of a bottle of pop each, we were allowed to sit in their tiki hut style picnic area, with its thatched roof and wooden tables. After lunch we drove up to the Mayan King Inc. banana packaging area where they were harvesting and bagging bananas for export. We were able to take a look around at the banana plantation, take some pictures and hear a few things about production from our trusty tour guide Les.
We still had four hours of driving ahead of us until we reached our stop for the night, and what started as a bathroom break, turned into a unique shopping experience at the village of Maya Center. The women’s center was full of crafts, purses, jewelery, carvings and masks, all for sale. Each item was tagged with the name of the woman who made it and most of us found something that we just had to buy.
Back on the road and four hours later we finally arrived at the Sea Front Inn. A cottage like, four story Inn, with all the rooms named after animals, which sits just across the road from the ocean. We settled into our rooms while some of us went into town to look around. At 7:00pm we met a woman by the name of Joanne at a restaurant down the road. Joanne is a teacher from south western Ontario who has been living and working in Belize for the past eight years. We also met the principal of the school that we are going to be visiting tomorrow. We sat out on the patio of the restaurant and had dinner before returning to our hotel to get some sleep after a long day of travel.
Thursday - How do the Mayans do it? - Margaret
We started off the afternoon in the village of San Miguel and got to have a wonderful tour of the nearby farmland. The farmers that we toured with have 30 acres of farmland leased from the government. Vicente and Marcos Ack (two of the local farmers) proceeded to take us in two groups for a tour of their land and to show us how they do their Milpa farming. Each group took a different route to the farmland, in from the road. The first was on 4 ½”-5” posts positioned as a bridge 5’-6’ long to cross from one bank to the other. The way the other group past through the creek was a low point in the stream with a solid stone path 6’ long, with water flowing over top it. To start our venture the possible dangers were immediately visible as we discovered Jaguar prints no more than a day old. Courtesy of the rain from the night before, we had a slippery, mucky hike ahead of us.
Natural remedies can literally be found in a different plant for every step taken. It may be a tea, mash or ointment that is made, but recovery or relief is almost always guaranteed. As Marcos described the various plants and uses, we came upon the cohune palm tree. He then cut down a large, full branch to demonstrate how they make the thatch roofs on the houses. There are leaves on both sides of the branch, so they must split the branch into two pieces. The leaves on the branches are long, with a v shape to them, therefore the branches must be laid so that the cup catches and drains the water away. On every branch the leaves are aimed on a certain angle not perpendicular to the branch, so they must be overlapped with the leaves criss-crossing for the best cover possible. Each roof can vary in how long they last, but if done correctly and not under trees, the roofs should last 8-10 years. The leaves that they use must be dry, before they can be tied onto a roof so the most common time of year for roof building is during the dry season. The practice of making a roof for thatched roof houses is often passed down from father to son within the community.
After we escaped from a more dense jungle area we made it onto a path almost similar to what we would use as a four-wheeling trail to continue onto the fields. On the path and surrounding area there were huge amounts of vegetation covering the ground. To properly understand their obstacles you need to first picture the land they have to work with and from. The soil is predominately clay with a good amount of organic matter, and plenty of moisture, and excellent sunlight exposure. The most important thing to remember the area is not tractor-friendly! The area could be described as rolling hills, but each every one of those hills is a part of a steep mountain, with absolutely no flat parts. For planting the workers use sticks 2” in diameter that can vary in height with a sharpened point for digging/carving holes into the dirt. Depending on the crop being planted, the seed amounts can vary for each hole, but the current corn and bean seeding rates are 4 per hole. Another difference is that they deliberately leave the holes open after planting.
The farmers’ method of weed control and maintenance is using a machete. Marcos told us that when the workers are clearing new land they can only use machetes, as a burn down cannot be stopped, because there is simply too much plant matter that is too dry. Using the machetes for weed control, they are also fertilizing by leaving plant matter to rot, giving back nutrients to the soil. Another fertilizing method for the corn, to add nitrogen, is by planting beans, and allowing the plant matter to be fertilizer for the corn. The Macona beans are high producing, contain lots of seeds, are easy to harvest and to clear. The two primary types of corn grown are for feed, and white corn for tortillas. On other sections of land, the farmers grow all the vegetables the community needs to feed their families. Marcos has 4 acres himself that is done completely by hand. Of the 30 acres rented they only grow 15 at time, rotating biannually.
Once we were done our tour we went back to our guesthouse to relax with some cold treats, before our cooking lessons. Once again our group was broke into smaller groups to go to individual households for our lessons and supper. In our house there were three of us trying to make tortillas, with what ended up being a great success. The dough was already made for us, containing corn and water. On small pieces of plastic we pounded small balls of dough into thin, round tortillas to bake on their stoves. We reaped the reward of work by tasting it for supper, with a huge layout of food. As we ate, we were treated to the dancing of our host Maria’s grandson Edgar, preparing for his part in the evenings entertainment, the school’s Christmas concert.
The anticipation was growing throughout the community as time got closer and closer to the seven o’clock start time. As a group we went up to the community centre, listening to the festive music, and the sounds of happy, excited children. As we approached the building, the mood continued to grow with time, kids running around trying to get their very own treat be it a sucker, popcorn or juice. Once we paid our $1 in Belize dollars we took our seats in the warm, pale room with a lit and Christmas decorated stage. Even on Belize time the community continued to flood in family by family, and person by person. The pride, enthusiasm, and excitement throughout the room were almost overwhelming, not an empty seat in the house, and barely standing room. Finally, came what we were all waiting for, the children and their talent. We were expecting to see a variety of Christmas skits and carols like what we were accustom to at home.
While there were strong similarities, there were the obvious differences as well. The program consisted of a large amount of singing and dancing with poems and stories interspersed throughout. In particular we were exposed to a part of their tradition, the Mayan Marimba dance. There are two variations to the Marimba dance, Ketchi and the Mopan which we were treated to. In between every act of the students Christmas music played loudly, the traditional songs we are used to with an upbeat island sound. Every student had their opportunity to shine on stage, and they all grabbed it and sparkled. When it came to talking the microphone, the kids literally couldn’t hold back, the words were hard to understand as they shouted into the mike with huge smiles, but the message was clear. The entire community came together to enjoy a night of entertainment, but more importantly support and nurture the future, their children.
Once our long day was done came the experience of sleeping in the guest house. The guest house is a wood plank building with a thatched roof, divided into rooms with 4 beds in each. The beds are 2 to a layer with sheets or netting for each mattress to prevent mosquitoes from snacking on us. Once we were ready to sleep then came the task of falling asleep! In the dark we could still hear the celebrations, of singing and fireworks intermingled with nature, crickets, frogs and other lively things awake in the evening. Even with the various noises, exhaustion took over and rest prevailed.
We were welcomed into not only a community, but a giant family. We were given the opportunity to learn, to watch, and to join in. That is how memories are made.
Friday - A New Way of Life - Brandi
Six days have passed and still Christmas does not feel like Christmas as we awake to the sun shining and a beautiful view of the ocean, enjoying our amazing breakfast of pancakes, beans, and eggs. We said our goodbyes to the luxuries we had, as we all knew it would be a day or so before we would have a flushing toilet and a bug free environment. We loaded up the van and hit the dusty trail to our first short stop at Texaco for a full tank of gas and some clean, cold water to enjoy over the next few days and loaded up the big white van yet again to reach the next destination.
Our second destination for the morning was around the narrow, curvy, winding road - we entered to what appeared from the outside to be a decent looking school, the Julian Cho Technical High School. As we entered and started our tour we could see from the inside of the classrooms that things weren’t as we had thought when looking at the school from a distance. This school offered a range of programs from agricultural science, construction technology, mechanics and science. Eight years ago when the school opened there were 100 students but now they have 625 students, graduating 60 on average a year. We were lucky enough to get a tour of the computer labs and library. The labs looked similar to a warehouse room, 4 bare concrete walls, with desks filled full of computers. There are 40 computers in this lab with on average a day of 12 to 20 working. These computers were passed down three times, the teachers acted as the technicians and loaded Windows XP, Pastel and Word 2003 on to each computer; they also made all necessary repairs. Just imagine an old 2003 bulky old computer that has been used by numerous people for numerous years, they are not in the best condition and repairs are constantly needing to be done – and can be a challenge at times when there aren’t sufficient parts to fix them with. Our last pit stop at the school was the library; it was a square concrete wall with book shelving with minimal books filling the shelves and only one working computer. As you can see the learning environment is not at all what we are used to seeing with only 12 to 20 working computers and an average class size of 30. Our reason for visiting the school was to see the atmosphere and look at what the schools needs were. Currently SHARE is working on a project with this school (and another in Punta Gorda) and plans to send a shipment of computer supplies, with keyboards and monitors to help these students to earn an education they deserve.
Back into the big white van we go and along the dusty, windy, hilly road, to enter the village of San Miguel to live like the Mayans. We entered to the luscious green rolling hills of corn, papaya trees, plantations and many more necessities in our ’new’ life. So here we arrived to our new hotel in which we all thought we were “roughing” if but in reality it was just the normal life in San Miguel. We pulled up to the picture perfect thatched roof hutch that had boarded siding with a porch out front with a hammock swaying in the breeze with bunk beds inside with mosquito nets draped over the outside of our bed. Outside there were pigs, chickens, cows and horses just strolling along enjoying the hot sunshine. As we became comfortable with the village we went for a tour down the hill to the river, where the ladies did the washing and both genders bathed. Back up the hill and around the corner we viewed the corn milling building where all the women would go daily to crush the corn for their tortillas, a staple in most of their diets.
The village is a community of 560 people and is very self sufficient, with a welcoming atmosphere. Back down the hill to our little hut we all waited anxiously for the members of the community to come and get us for lunch. We were split up into groups of 2 to 3 and off we went with smiles on our faces to a new adventure. I had the pleasure along with 2 other ladies of being welcomed into Christina’s house, where she fed us a delicious all natural chicken soup and the famous tortillas. The lady we eat with basically fed us and left, as she was getting ready to go in to town to work at a store called Maya Bags – where she along with other women from different villages make bags and baskets in the traditional Mayan style, to be sold in tourist shops around the country. Inside looked clean as can be everything had its place and nothing had been moved. This house along with a building on the side held 5 people. Hammocks were strung and a bed sat in the back corner. To one side was a fire place or traditional stove with three different holes all serving their own purpose. One was covered with an iron pan to fry the tortillas, one was small to put a small frying pan over and the last was larger where she could prepare food in a large pot. To the other side of the fire pit was a wooden desk where the ladies got food ready for their meals and stored some of their cooking supplies. In the middle were wooden stools that to us looked like children stools and a small round table, all being able to be removed and placed elsewhere while not being in use, for the kitchen table.
After we enjoyed the well prepared meal we relaxed on the balcony as some of the ladies brought over their handmade crafts for us to purchase. We were impressed by some of the materials that were used to create beautiful handmade carvings of Mayan gods or jaguars with every detail possible made from calabash, (a round or oval fruit that grows on a tree – it is not eaten but is hollowed out and dried and used for carvings or for bowls) the woven baskets were made from jippy japa, (what looks like one of the many palm trees). We all purchased something big or small to show our appreciation for hosting us and said our farewells as we prepared for our next adventure.
Sunday - Nearing the Conclusion - Ben
This morning I never actually woke up, but that’s because I never really fell asleep. My indication that morning had arrived was when the evening soundtrack of wild animals and a distant Christmas concert faded, only to be replaced by the sound of free range livestock and the morning traffic struggling up the near-vertical gravel slope just outside our thatched roof accommodations. Despite the isolation and old-world feel of San Miguel, the noise never stops. Once I had finally shaken off the debris that had fallen from my mosquito net, I put my feet on the ground and readied myself for another day of adventure in paradise.
Breakfast in itself was an adventure, our third and final meal with the locals of San Miguel. I followed a host named Marcos to his home, a home that from the outside didn’t look unlike the small hut I had spent the night in. Inside was standard affair for the community, a concrete floor with a short wooden table surrounded by three shorter stools and a litter of young kids from the extended family. The kids were harassing a skinny dog and drawing pictures in the dirt with stones, something I’d seen more than once since arriving. The scene was clouded by smoke billowing from the small corn-fuelled stove that his daughter was tending to in the corner, of course with corn tortillas cooking on the hot metal surface. I was on my own this morning, separate from the group. My conversation with Marcos over breakfast revealed many of the similarities of home that weren’t apparent upon visual inspection of the surroundings. Rising cost of feed, particularly for his pigs and cattle in addition to environmental concerns surrounding the local rivers sounded similar to the issues we talk about in Ridgetown and with regards to water, where I live near Stouffville. The most significant difference was the impact these issues had on Marco’s life. Unlike home, availability of financing for farm projects or alternative sources of fish and water are non-existent in San Miguel. This changed my understanding of isolation. While it would be easy to say that Marcos lives an isolated life, our isolation from the serious problems that the world at large is facing is far greater. For us there always seems to be a way out, while for the residents of San Miguel every tiny environmental change can have profound impacts on their lifestyle. Despite all of this, Marcos is as proud and happy a man as I have ever met. With a big (very big), healthy family living under a roof he constructed himself he grins with optimism at the mention of the school located up the hill and the things they are doing there. Unsure of how many of his grandchildren attend the school there, I am confident that if they can stretch their education nearly as far as Marcos has taken what he has to work with the results will be incredible. Immediately after thanking Marcos for his hospitality and packing my bag, we jumped into the big white van for the final serious drive of our trip.
Not long after San Miguel had disappeared out of the rear-view mirror, the chaos of Belize City started to shape up on the horizon. The transition didn’t quite happen so smoothly however, as the two places are actually separated by a 5 hour journey. That said, it didn’t seem so as I caught up on the lack of sleep from last night.
There was a feeling of urgency trying to get into the city as we had set a goal to reach the water-taxi terminal to Caye Cauker by 1:30. Naturally, as soon as such a goal is established every slow-going truck in Belize decides to hit the road. By the time we had reached the car rental depot we had lost hope for our goal. An unusual place, the Crystal Auto Rental drop off depot was similar to many other Belizean enterprises as the owner’s home was on the same property as the facilities, for those who don’t go afar to fetch a living. Uncharacteristic of Belize, the owner’s home was made up of two shiny new RV trailers parked under a permanent canopy and the enterprise happened to sell and operate a fleet of relatively new vehicles freshly imported from the United States. The mint condition of these cars and trucks made them unlike just about anything else we’d seen on the roads.
From there an employee of the company drove us through town in a very, ahem, ‘Belizean’ manner of driving. For those who were still groggy, they were jolted to awareness by his abrupt driving habits. By the time we reached the terminal we had witnessed about all of Belize City that we could stand to absorb and had a new appreciation for Les’s more refrained road manner. If Belizean countryside is like a fresh glass of orange juice, Belize City is like drinking the concentrate. The density of traffic, storefronts and people felt like it was ten times anything we had seen in any of the other villages. The only thing that was missing was green space and animal life. Feeling over-exposed to the pandemonium we scurried into the water taxi terminal, approximately half an hour after our target. For the duration of our hour wait none of us dared to step back onto the sidewalks of the city, so I used the opportunity to email home from an ‘internet cafe’ in a corner of the waiting area. Finally, the boat was ready to board.
By now the group is tired of my Al Pacino imagery, but in my mind the boat we boarded looked fit for the odd jaunt from Colombia to the US with unspecified cargo. The boat was heftier than your average pleasure craft but much faster looking than any water taxi I’ve seen. Les assured me the vessel was in tip top shape as we heard grinding from the bellows and we lurched from the dock. Only five minutes from shore, Les proved to be wrong for the first time since we’ve met. The old diesel inboard that roared from beneath the bench I was sitting on made a powerful revving noise before releasing a loud bang that was cause for some concern. Enough concern for the captain to shut down and investigate the problem while we went adrift in the open water for some time. It must be a common break down, the hose that it was, and thankfully so as the crew seemed to have just the part required handy on board. Before long we were motoring along at all the same pace we had been before, maybe faster. After having had enough time to contemplate all the ‘what-ifs’ that accompany an off-shore break down in unfamiliar waters (about 45 minutes), the colours of Caye Cauker appeared before us.
Unlike the rest of Belize, this island is better known by the tourists, and unlike other tourist destinations Caye Cauker isn’t overly-commercialized or exploited for what it is. For those who know it, think of the homes on Toronto Island in a tropical setting. For those who don’t, imagine a collection of small cottages, many of which are rentals or “resorts” (unlike Toronto Island, but there are permanent residences as well), people travelling by bicycle so slow you think they’ll tip over and the big business in town is ‘taking it easy, mon’. Barefoot and open beers, asphalt is almost non-existent and if there is any traffic to fear, it takes the shape of a golf cart and a blind corner.
Belize has taught me not to think of the potential to make Caye Cauker like Miami, or to make a Milpa farm resemble the large-scale and mechanized style of agriculture we practice at home. Perhaps I have learned that a country run without personal lines of credit or regular bank lending learns to build what the rest of us couldn’t do even if we had all the money in the world, they learn to built for what their needs really are. We don’t need six swimming pools and a water ski to have a good time, a brand new pickup truck to bring the feed home for the cows or a sweet new pair of kicks (shoes) to put on our feet when rubber boots will probably get us there in the same time, at the same level of comfort.
Contemplating this, I reflected on what Eloy told us earlier in the week; that people come to Belize to have their big dreams shrunk down to size. While it sounded cynical at the time, everything from the fall of the once great Mayan empire to the contentedness of a well fed farmer living in a hut started coming together. Belize is a small country that houses great contrast, but if you have the chance to visit prepare yourself not to be amazed. If you can set conventional expectations aside you might find yourself better astonished than if you were to visit the biggest, greatest and most ‘advanced’ country of all time.