Bible Bangers and Tummy Troubles

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

One of the missionaries had followed me into the store.

“Are you from here?” he asked.

Do I look like I’m from here? I thought, but responded no.

“Do you have a few minutes to hear God’s holy word?”

No,” I said firmly. “I’m busy buying mouse glue.  Besides, I’m Jewish.”

He pulled back as though I had said, “I drink the blood of Christian children,” which in his mind was likely synonymous with “Jewish.”

“Well, Christ bless you and have a blessed day,” he said as he handed me this card and hurried off to save other souls.

The back has more judgmental drivel, and their contact info, but I’m not going to share that.  This kind of thing really pisses me off.  Aren’t there any sinners to save in Iowa?  Sure there are, but Iowa is cold, so here they were, probably with all their expenses paid by their congregation, proselytizing in the sunshine.

I walked around the neighborhoods of Havana and Harlem.  This is a typical street scene.

There were churches on every corner, so again, why the need for missionaries from the US?  Here is Epworth Methodist.

The housing stock varied from run-down shacks that seemed inhabitable, to perfectly-maintained villas.

I loved the name of this restaurant, “Always Hungry.” I wasn’t sure if I would want to eat there, but it was good to know they had a pay phone outside in case I needed one.

There were a number of “fast food” restaurants; this is Wen Quan Chen Fast Foods:

And another Chinese restaurant, Fu We Kitchen:

I liked this combination of services—Frank’s banisters and tombstones:

I wonder how much longer this place will stay in business now that we are making it so difficult for anyone to enter the US:

Our group rendezvoused at the van and drove back to the spot where we had watched birds, but after much searching we couldn’t find Trudy’s shoe.

We stopped to get gas and a man was sitting between the pumps ladling something out of a 10-gallon plastic drum into empty glass bottles.  Other customers were snapping up the bottles so I called out the window, “Whatcha got there?”

“It’s Irish mess!” he answered enthusiastically.  “It’s a mess o’ seaweed and spices.  Very refreshing, and only 50 cents.”

Mark pulled a handful of coins out of his pocket and I said in a low voice, “Think about the water.”  He slipped the coins back in his pocket.  We had all started having tummy troubles.

“I don’t understand it,” said Mark.  Jeanie supplied drinking water in a five-gallon jug in the lodge for $1 per liter. We had all assumed it was purified.

I thought about it and asked Mark, “Have you ever seen a truck delivering new bottles of water?”

He paused thoughtfully. “No, now that you mention it.”

“So they just refill the same five-gallon jug from the tap in the kitchen, I’m guessing.  We might as well fill our bottles directly from the tap.  That’d be free.”

After lunch, we were off to Cockscomb Basin.  As we drove down the long entry driveway, something big and black slithered quickly across the road.  When we arrived at the preserve, which had a well-funded interpretive center, we immediately identified the critter as a Jaguarundi. This was promising; we were all excited about what else we might see here.

In the office, Mark was having a hard time convincing the guy at the desk to let us in because we didn’t have a reservation or a local guide.  I think the contents of the jar were meant as a warning of what could go wrong if we wandered through on our own.

I’m not sure how Mark got us in and I don’t need to know, but we were soon hiking through the jungle on our way to Victoria Peak—at 3,675 feet the second-highest mountain in Belize.  Doyle’s Peak is the highest, but it only beats Victoria by 13 feet.  I had no sense of how high 3,675 feet was and I’m glad I didn’t or I might have skipped it.

Shoeless in Dandriga

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

Our last full day in Belize.  The plan was, as the itinerary stated, to “Visit the famed Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve for a guided tour of the jungle. Run by the Belize Audubon Society, the Cockscomb Basin is one of the last refuges for the Jaguar, as well as many other species of birds and animals.”

But first, Mark wanted to go to the nearest large town to get cash, since Jeanie had informed us there was no ATM in Hopkins.  Trudy, Stan, Mark and I went along for the ride to Dandriga, which was half an hour north on very smooth, new roads.

We passed Mennonites in horse-drawn buggies.  They had established farms along the route, and I feel bad saying this but their houses were perfectly tidy, without a board out of place nor a rusty awning in sight.  By contrast, the other houses all appeared to be in advanced states of decay.  Siding was missing, windows were boarded up, anything metal was rusty.  Was this due to the Mennonites having more money? The Mennonites came voluntarily, whereas other Belizeans were brought as slaves or at the very best, subjugated.  Did the Mennonites have some sort of uber pioneer protestant work ethic?

I was about to write “natives” vs. Mennonites, then realized the current Mennonites are just as “native” as anyone else, since their forebears emigrated from Holland in the 17th Century.

We pulled over on the side of the road to watch flocks of birds in the wetlands.  Trudy kicked off her shoes and squashed through the mud.

In Dandriga, Mark reminded us to get $40.00 cash for the airport exit fee.  Mike had some trouble using his card and went inside.

“The teller said we could have gone to their Hopkins branch,” he said when he emerged.  “It’s in a place called Trinnie’s that rents kayaks.”

We decided to wander around Dandriga for an hour. Trudy went back to the van to get her shoes and returned, frantically pointing at her feet.  Without Emily, we had no way of knowing what was wrong.  Mark dug a notepad and pen out of the glovebox.

“One of my shoes is gone!”  Trudy wrote.

“It must have fallen out of the van when we stopped,” Stan suggested.

So Trudy sat in the van.

The first thing you would notice about Dandriga, unless you were Trudy, were the missionaries on the main corner with megaphones, shouting that we are all going to hell if we drank alcohol or fornicated.

Once I heard them pronounce “out” and “about,” I knew they were American, not Canadian.  They were blond and plump and extremely sun burned. If someone did this on my street, I would be seriously annoyed and demand that the police shut them down.  But no one in Dandriga seemed to mind, they just smiled and nodded and kept walking.

All the shops were Chinese owned, with the exception of one Indian place called Jai.

I went into a store called The Price is Right, bought a bag of pecans labeled “For Sale at Costco Only,” and munched on them while I looked around.

There was a large section of glucose products.  Was it cheaper and easier to consume glucose than real food?  The thought made me queasy.

Belizeans apparently inherited a love of beans from their days as a British colony.  These were one-gallon cans.

And in case you spilled beans on yourself, there was a large selection of bleaches.

The prices were marked by hand. Couldn’t they afford one of those price label makers?  I wondered where Koleston Hair Color came from.  The name sounded too close to colon for me.

My favorite item was the Mouse Glue. So many questions….can you also use it to catch elephants?  How does it “kill rat & mouse without poison”?  Do you have to dispatch the poor rodent yourself once it’s helplessly mired in the glue?  What is mocosity and just how strong is it?  How would I avoid stepping in this goo myself in the middle of the night?  And where do dragon hunters fit into the picture?

Elder, Kickin’ It

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

In the real world, there is more bad news in addition to all the shenanigans in Washington.  Every day there are reports about all the people overdosing on Carfentanil, a synthetic opioid 10,000 times more potent than morphine.  The anniversary of Prince’s death just passed; he overdosed on a similar drug, Fentanyl.  Carfentanil was developed as a large animal anesthetic.  Really?  Who takes drugs like that?

Sadly, my dad did.  It was his birthday recently; he would have been 81 if he hadn’t overdosed in a Wisconsin motel room nearly 50 years ago, aged 32.  He died of a lethal combination of alcohol and Paraldehyde, which used to be prescribed to treat alcoholism.  Paraldehyde is classified as a “hypnotic” and has mostly been replaced by safer drugs. Was it an accident or intentional?  I’ll never know.  What I do notice is how little emotion I feel about it anymore.  That’s taken a long time and a lot of work.  He loved to travel, so I like to think he would be happy about my adventures.

After our snorkeling day, we were herded onto the van by Mark to attend a Garifuna drumming performance at the Hopkins Cultural Center.  It took an hour for us to drive the mile distance as the crow flies.  It was a very dark night. Thank goodness there were potholes the size of bathtubs full of water, which reflected the light from the three streetlights in town.

Eventually we were ushered into a large thatched-roof hut where we waited for our supper.  A woman about my age was the cook, and she was obviously working her ass off. She had been summoned on five minutes notice to produce food for 20 people, and after an hour her young adult children served up bowls of hudutu and fry bread.  Again, it was full of bones, but we were so hungry we had no complaints.

A 30-something man in a dashiki jumped up on the stage and started shouting into the mic.  “Let’s give a hand to Elder Elspeth for the wonderful meal!”

Elder?  If she was an elder, that made me one too.

The guy, whose name was Myron, launched into a long, disconnected rant about Garifuna culture.  I had read about it in the guide books, and he seemed to be making stuff up.  Garifuna is a language and a culture brought by mixed-race slaves from the Caribbean to Honduras, Nicaragua, and British Honduras—as Belize was then called—in the early 19th Century.  I asked a question; I don’t recall what it was because he angrily yelled, “No!” at me and resumed his animated monologue.  He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder.  He was very muscular—maybe he had ‘roid rage.

Myron went on for half an hour, then two other men joined him and they began drumming and singing manically in the Garifuna language.  It reminded me of a pow wow, where the first song is really cool, the second one is good, and then they all sound alike.

Despite it being ear-splittingly loud, I was trying hard not to nod off, as were the other snorkelers. Mercifully the trio only played five songs.  Then they jumped off the stage and started selling CDs and passing a hat for tips.  It was clear they couldn’t wait for us to get out of there.

Midnight.  One hundred Fahrenheit with 99% humidity.  I lay in my bed in the middle of the room, between Trudy and Emily.  Our table and chairs had disappeared while we were gone but we were beyond curious about why things came and went.

My Restless Legs Syndrome is always worse when it’s humid.  It sounds like a silly condition, but it’s ruined more nights of sleep than any worry or noise or excess of caffeine or alcohol.  Just as I’m falling asleep, I get a creeping feeling around my knees and have an overpowering urge to Move My Legs.

Then music started up in the distance, a low throbbing beat.  This would last for hours, I thought, as I kick, kick, kicked to the beat.


This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

We sat in the sand under a shade tree enjoying our lunch break before more snorkeling.

Here’s something I never knew about snorkeling: it is very dehydrating.  There are lots of articles about it; it’s something about the lack of gravity when you’re in the water, apparently.  Whatever the case, the public toilet on the island was half a mile off, so we all started pretending we couldn’t get enough of the water, wading in and saying things like, “Ooh, I just can’t stay away from of this beautiful water!”  What else could we do?

Emily and I had become pals.  We had both lived and worked or gone to school in other countries. We lived in the same neighborhood now.  And we had both been observing the martyrdom, endless list of food restrictions, and other “interesting” behavior of our fellow tour members.

“Do you have any gluten-free options?” asked Joan as the pulled-pork sandwiches were being handed out.  Lincoln, our boat captain, smiled and shook his head no.  Joan sat back in the shade, her arm still in a makeshift sling from her fall the first day.  She didn’t say, “I’ll just go hungry then,” but she didn’t need to; it was all in her body language.  Neither she nor Liz had gone in the water. This wasn’t surprising about Joan, who was stick-thin and sickly looking and had fibromyalgia.  But Liz was in good shape.

“Ah just didn’t feel lahk it,” she drawled.  If she was hoping we would ask her to explain why, she was disappointed.

The rest of us really couldn’t wait to get back in. As we were putt-putting out to the reef area, I spoke with Vanessa, our guide.

Vanessa had finished two years of college to become an English teacher.  Then she got this summer job as a snorkeling guide and she never went back.  I can’t say I blame her.  When she said she missed writing, I suggested she could write a blog about snorkeling and she liked that idea.  I hope she does it.

We approached a boat where fishermen were cleaning their catch of conches and throwing the leftover scraps into the sea.

We jumped in, and almost immediately I said into my mask, “That looks like a turtle!” only it sounded like, “Flaploogglaga blurpple!”

And it was a turtle, an old Loggerhead about five feet from snout to tail.  This is not “our” turtle but it’ll give you an idea of what she looked like.

She reminded me of my son’s ancient dinosaur-like dog, Willie, without the purple bandana.

Then there were the rays—Eagle rays and Spotted Rays—also as long as I was tall, also prehistoric looking, also a photo stolen off the web.

I wish I could say I took these photos, but as you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I take terrible photos above water, never mind below water.

But other people in my group had Go-Pros and water proof cameras.

Here I am, looking like a scene out of Jaws:

Lincoln and Vanessa kept calling out, “Over here!  There’s a lobster / Garfish / Lionfish / Clownfish!  Everyone would swim after them to have a look.  Everyone but me. I reached an area where the sea floor must have been 30 feet below me but the water was so clear it felt like I was suspended in air.  Suddenly I felt panic that I would plummet to the bottom.  That passed and I just floated meditatively.  Doing nothing, going nowhere.  No To-Do list.  I caught myself thinking, “I can’t wait to do this again!” then laughed at myself and focused on the fact that I was there, in heaven, right now.

The meditative mood stayed with me for the rest of the evening.  Walking back to Jeanie’s, we were passed by a teenage boy on a tuk tuk—a motor scooter—with a fat baby balanced on the handle bars.  The baby was laughing with delight as the scooter bucked up and down over the potholes.  I vowed to be more like a baby—unafraid, in the moment, joyful.


This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

The gang returned from watching Scarlet Macaws.  None had been exsanguinated by crocodile syndrome.  That was good.  Much as some of them irritated me, I wouldn’t want anyone to go that way.

I was sitting in the lodge having a beer when they pulled up in the van.

“Hey there, good lookin’!” shouted Mike.  This was how he was.  From the first day when he sat next to me in the van and read every sign out loud, he had touched my arm, or nudged me, and said things like, “Lucky me, I get to sit next to a pretty lady!” and “Look at that bird, baby!”

I had chosen to ignore him rather than say anything.  Joan, his wife, rolled her eyes at me when he said these things.

He wasn’t a creeper, he was just a clueless, harmless dork.

They ordered drinks and sat around talking about their day.  They had seen lots of birds, including Scarlet Macaws.  The sun set and it was time to head to a local restaurant for dinner.  Mark drove the van while most of us walked so we wouldn’t have our digestive systems jostled.

The restaurant was called Innie’s.  Innie, the proprietor, was what we used to call a “full-figured” woman.  She was around 65, and she explained, “I’ve got seven daughters, and they’ve all got names that rhyme with mine—Ginnie, Winnie, Minnie, Vinnie—for Vincenza—and they all run businesses.  Ginnie’s got herself a hair salon, Minnie does taxes, Skinnie rents scooters, two of them run another restaurant.”

The specialty of the house was hudutu, a fish stew made with coconut milk which sounded delicious but which took an hour to appear and had so many bones you couldn’t really appreciate it.   It was served with the bread that came with every meal—something like Native American fry bread.  It was okay.

Walking back to Jungle Jeanie’s, Mike pointed at a grove of tall slender plants and wondered what they were.

“I think it’s sugar cane,” I said.

“No, it’s not, he said.

Ugh.  Whatever.

We returned to our respective huts.  In ours, a twin bed had appeared in the middle of the room on the first level.

“I don’t care who gets it,” said Liz.

I wasn’t going to play the “I don’t care but I really do” game.

“Good!”  I said, “then I will.”

Snorkeling was the agenda for the whole Day Six.  I wasn’t really up for it; I get claustrophobic and I don’t know how to swim.  I seriously considered having another day of nothing on the beach.

But I went, and it was the best day yet.  Maybe the best day of my life.

Our guide suggested I wear a life preserver around my waist so I wouldn’t have to even think about staying afloat.  I had no pride around that; it was a great idea.  I donned the snorkel and mask, sat on the sand in the shallow water, and tried to put my face underwater.  Once, twice, three times—I couldn’t do it.

This felt like a matter of pride.  I was going to at least get my face underwater once.  I finally did, and was instantly hooked.

How to describe it?  I floated near the water’s surface and gazed at hundreds of species of fish and coral.  All colors, all shapes, large and small.  The water was warm and clear as air.  It was like flying, like flying in a dream.  I couldn’t help exclaiming, “Wow! I see a clown fish!” except it sounded like “Waaaahhhh, aslubbba blabba blish!”  Then I laughed, which also sounded funny and made me laugh more.  No one could hear me.  It was one of the rare times in my life that I felt childlike wonder and playful joy.

We snorkeled for hours, then they rounded us up for lunch on a small island with million dollar homes.  We sat on the beach and munched on our pulled pork sandwiches.  Emily, being married to a Muslim, didn’t eat pork either, so the guides gave us their BBQ chicken sandwiches and we were all happy.

A Long Night

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

The first night at Jungle Jeanie’s was a long one.  It was hot and humid.  Because our hut was in the jungle and not on the shore, there was no breeze.  My hair turned into a giant fuzzball.  My skin felt soft as a baby’s bottom, but there was no one to appreciate it.

This was also the night that Liz started to fart.  The first time, she did the thing that middle-aged women do—“Oops, sorry! Tee hee hee,” like they are embarrassed.  But then she kept farting and stopped apologizing or even acknowledging it.  I was sharing a small, stuffy loft with her.

I climbed over her and down the ladder to the bathroom all four of us would share for the next four nights.  I sat on the toilet trying to figure out where I could go to get some shut eye.  The hammocks on the beach looked tempting but what about the mosquitos?  Then I heard a thump, thump, thumping and Trudy pounded on the door.  It was no use, I couldn’t say, “I’ll be out in a minute,” since she couldn’t hear me.

I handed the loo over to her and sat in the dark at the table in the center of the room.  Except that it wasn’t dark.  “I’m watching Game of Thrones,” explained Emily from her bed, from which emanated the bright glow of her phone.

“I can’t believe how noisy Trudy is,” I remarked, listening to her clunking around in the bathroom.

“Oh yeah,” said Emily.  “People think deaf households are quiet, but they’re actually noisier than most because they aren’t getting feedback.  They’re always slamming doors, throwing things on the floor, and yelling.”  And farting with impunity, I thought.

She put down her phone and sat up.  We talked for a while, about how she went to Tanzania for college, met her future husband on the first day, and got engaged two days later.  “We’ve been married for 20 years and have four kids, so we had pretty good instincts.  Or we just got lucky.”  She and her family lived a few blocks from me in St. Paul.  They went back to Tanzania to visit his family every year.

Trudy came out of the bathroom and started signing.

“She’s pissed off about the bed,” Emily translated.  “It’s lumpy.  But she’s always pissed off or crabby about something.”

“Are you friends?” I asked.

“No!  We just met in Belize.  Wilderness Inquiry taps a pool of interpreters for these trips, and my number came up.  With Trudy it’s her way or the highway.  I don’t think I’d want to interpret for her on a regular basis.  Of course, she probably had to be hard and demanding to get anything in life.”

Trudy was sitting on the edge of her bed moaning and groaning, which I took to mean that her back hurt.  Liz was snoring up in the loft.

“She was put a home for deaf children in the 50s, when she was five,” Emily continued.   She signed to Trudy that she was telling me this.

Five.  How heartbreaking.

Trudy nodded and added in sign, “Yes, it wasn’t a nice place.  They were assholes to me.”

And yet, she had attended college, had a career, married, and had four children.  Her husband had also been an asshole.  She’d divorced five years earlier and had been traveling ever since.

After talking for an hour, I reluctantly climbed back up to the loft.  Finally, around 2am, we all settled down and slept.

Until 5am.  Today was a field trip to the Mayan village of Red Bank to see Scarlet Macaws.  It would involve kayaking and hiking and a picnic lunch by the river.

I waved as they all drove off.  “Watch out for crocodiles,” I whispered sweetly.

I was going to have a Day Off.  I was going to be alone!  I lay in a hammock and read a book, “The Trip to Echo Spring: On writing and drinking,” by an English journalist.  I took a bumpy ride on one of Jeanie’s broken down bicycles with no helmet, brakes, or gears, then napped.

Jungle Jeanie’s

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

On the way to our next resort, we passed roadside wetlands with flocks of egrets, king fishers, sand pipers, and a half dozen other birds I didn’t know the names of.  Mark would pull over so Stan, our bird man, could check them out with his binoculars and add any new names to his running list.

No one minded the frequent stops.  We had been in Belize now for four days and were finally decompressing. This is about average, I have found. The first few days of a holiday you are excited to be there, meeting new people, weighing all the optional activities, adjusting to the heat, food, culture, and then—phoooooooph—like a balloon losing air, you collapse.  In a good way.

We arrived in the little town of Hopkins.  I’ve described how bad the roads are in Belize, the one road in Hopkins was worse than the worst of them. It took us 20 minutes to go one mile, and by the time arrived at our destination I had full-blown heartburn.  This is a shot of the road at night.

It was worth it.  We arrived at Jungle Jeanie’s which is—as the sign says, “By the Sea”—the Caribbean Sea.

We hung out in the lodge, which had indoor and outdoor dining areas and a bar.  In a few minutes Jeanie appeared.  She and her husband had moved from western Canada to Belize 20 years earlier.  He had died about five years ago.  She appeared to be about 85, frail and tottering but with a game smile that told you she loved what she did.  She spoke haltingly, welcoming us and assigning us to our huts, telling us the house rules (joke—there were none except relax and have fun) and offering us a welcome drink of fresh mango juice.

Jeanie had a staff of Belizean cooks and bookkeepers and handy men who had been with her for many years.  “We’re like a big family,” she said.

“And there’s yoga every morning at 9:00, although this week it’s only on Tuesday and Thursday at 9:30.”

At Jeanie’s I would not be sharing a room with Liz.  I would be sharing a room with Liz and Trudy, our deaf companion, and her interpreter Emily.  I made a beeline for our hut but Trudy and Emily had gotten there first and staked out their beds.

If you have any physical handicap, Jeanie’s would not be the place for you. First you walked across uneven paving stones set in shifting sand to get to the hut.  Then there was a set of stairs to get to the first floor.  If you got stuck up in loft as I did, that required climbing a very steeply pitched ladder and heaving yourself over a low wall.  I realize this is far from the worst “problem” in the world.  However, I immediately imagined myself falling backwards off the ladder in the dark.

Liz and I would be sharing the loft, a low, slant-ceilinged space with two mattresses on the floor that was hot as hell.  Liz had snagged the mattress near the ladder and I refused to play the game of “I don’t mind which one I sleep on.”  I would have to crawl over her to climb down to the bathroom.

Others among us were unhappy with the arrangements.  Inga and Jesse had been assigned to share a romantic one-bedroom cottage on the beach with Mark, our leader. He had a cot on the porch and would have to walk through their bedroom to get to the bathroom.  Stan and Stacy, who were married but not to each other, had been assigned to a one-room cottage with two twin beds.

Words were said in private. Perhaps some money exchanged hands.  The beach cottage dwellers were reassigned but Liz and I were stuck in the loft.

This is one reason why I tag my posts with “Budget Travel”

Liz and I shrugged and laughed and agreed it would be an incentive to spend as much time outdoors as possible.

Night had fallen.  There was a full moon.  Life was good.