Thursday, November 22

Happy Thanksgiving!

Ocellated Turkey
Early one morning in November I set up my tripod and camera in an area that I knew was frequented by turkeys. Sure enough a proud tom and his hens came in to feed, also a white-tailed deer herd with a young four-point buck. As the sun stretched above the horizon its rays highlight beautiful tones of copper and green on the turkeys' feathers. I imagine deer hunters clad in blaze orange back in Minnesota are enjoying a similar scene, as they drink coffee from a thermos and watch their breathe drift away like a cloud of smoke. I feel right at home yet things seem out of place. I'm still in Belize, where the grass is green, it's 80-something degrees, I'm trying to remain still as mosquitoes swarm around me, and the turkey I speak of is not the familiar Wild Turkey of North America, but the Ocellated Turkey.

Last weekend I went to San Pedro and took a course in Open Water Diving; breathing under water felt very strange the first time. We explored the barrier reef and an underwater canyon, which were full of marine biodiversity. I was really excited to see a green sea turtle. I heard about a fishing tournament and stopped by for the weigh-in at the end of the day. It's raining and a large crowd surrounds the scale so I can't get a decent picture of the large marlin; two boys pose for me with barracudas. At night a karaoke DJ belts out Johnny Cash tunes and the bar (mostly Belizeans) sings along.

In the Belize City I walk by a store downtown, the usual crowd of homeless people wait with their hands out, now they're competing with a bell ringer from Salvation Army for a few shillings. More cruise ships are coming in and the streets by my office are full of tourists. I pass by the tourist village to pick up lunch and hear a local band singing in their best country accent, "Hey good lookin', Whatcha got cookin?" followed by Bob Marley.

After work I stop at a grocery store and find the shelves are well stocked with Thanksgiving essentials, such as pumpkin pie mix and cranberry sauce. While it is not a holiday in Belize, the hype from American television is enough to put Belizeans into the turkey-eating spirit. But I'm sure they still prefer their version of football (soccer) over American football.

So today I'll raise a glass of pineapple wine and say that I am thankful for everything I have in Belize, even though it's a little out of the ordinary. Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, October 4

Last night I dreamt of San Pedro

Overlooking the Caribbean Sea is San Pedro, located on the beautiful island called Ambergris Caye. The beachfront of Belize's most popular tourist destination sat empty. The only vacationers walking on the white coral sand had flown in from the Arctic tundra.

The Sanderling is a medium sized sandpiper that chases receding waves and probes for invertebrates in the wet sand before running away from the incoming surf. In their winter plumage Sanderlings are pale gray above and pure white below. The name sanderling comes from the Icelandic, "sanderla," which alludes to the birds' sandy habitat according to the Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds.

Running on the beach next to the Sanderling is the smallest shorebird in the world. The Least Sandpiper is distinguished from other "peeps" by its yellowish legs. Peep is a term for various tiny sandpipers that are smaller than the Sanderling.

Ruddy Turnstones, like the Sanderling are residents of the Arctic. As their name suggests, they turn over stones and other objects on the shore in search of food. To follow the arrival of neo-tropical migrants in Belize visit the Wildtracks project.

Meanwhile the residents of San Pedro are busy with construction and other preparations for the high tourist season, which runs November through March.

"Tropical the island breeze
All of nature wild and free
This is where I long to be
La isla bonita"

Lyrics from La Isla Bonita by Madonna

The reason for my visit to San Pedro, not vacation but work. North of town on Ambergris Caye is Bacalar Chico National Park and Marine Reserve. I assisted another Volunteer and the Fisheries Dept. with their pre-season Queen Conch survey. Conch are large marine snails. A spent a few days snorkeling transects over the sea grass beds, diving for conch, and taking their measurements. The conch population in the preservation zone appeared much healthier than the general use area, which is open to fishing. But regular enforcement is difficult, I found several broken shells while surveying the preservation zone.

News from Half Moon Caye is that Bob Marley was caught with undersized conch, not sure if they were within the park boundaries (most likely yes). This is the 3rd or 4th incident I've heard of involving Bob Marley. See last year's archives for "Conch-fiscated".

Thursday, September 27

A September to Remember

Hurricane Dean When I returned to Belize in August it was just in time for Hurricane Dean. I was safe in Belmopan when it made landfall as a category 5 hurricane with winds of 165 mph. While the full force of Hurricane Dean did not hit Belize, the Northern Districts (Corozal and Orange Walk) and the Cayes (Ambergris and Caye Caulker) experienced strong winds damaging roofs, uprooting trees and affecting power lines, water supply and telecommunications. The storm severely affected papaya and sugarcane crops. At Peace Corps' consolidation point we experienced heavy rains and 60 mph winds. Through Belize Red Cross, I helped distribute rations in the village of Chunox a few weeks after (pictured below).

Hurricane Felix gave Belize another scare, as it was expected to hit the country directly. During last week's Carnival parade a truck displayed a banner that read, "Let us celebrate and Thank God for sparing us from Hurricane DEAN and FELIX."

Despite the weather, there was much celebration in Belize throughout September, including Battle of St. George's Caye Day (Sept. 10), Independence Day (Sept. 21), and Carnival. This year's September Celebrations theme was “Independent, Strong and Free, Belize fi all ah We.” I enjoyed fireworks, parades, food, music and dancing.

Celebrating 26 years of Independence Carnival is highly anticipated in Belize. From July, I heard drum cadences echoing from the King's Park neighborhood in Belize City. Masqueraders practice their dance routines and work on their costumes during the late hours of the night. The question I ask is, Why is Belize celebrating Carnival in September?

It all started with a group of women who wanted to liven things up on the tenth day of September. They danced around the streets of Belize City in costumes and the rest is history. Today neighborhood bands compete in the road march to see who's best in show.

This year's Carnival Road March, with eleven bands and over a thousand dancers lasted for more than five hours. My favorites were the Succotz Festival Drum Corps and Pantempters Steel Drum Band. The judges chose Mother Nature's Creation as the number one senior band and Black Pearl in the junior section. For more Carnival photos visit my Flickr album.

Now I feel as if things are returning back to normal.

Tuesday, August 7

A Break in the Road

July was the month of summer camps. First I teamed up with 4-H to put on a week-long environmental camp on Caye Caulker. I led a beach scavenger hunt, bird watching, mangrove/forest walk, and lots of other fun games and activities.

We learned first aid from the Belize Red Cross and thankfully none of our campers got hurt; we picked up garbage around public areas as a community service project; Ellen McRae, a resident of Caye Caulker, gave lectures on the reef ecosystem and environmental issues; and recreational activities included swimming, sea kayaking, fishing, basketball, soccer, or whatever games the kids invented. The most memorable experience for many of the 4-Hers was snorkeling the Belize Barrier Reef.

When I returned to Belize Audubon Society I stayed in summer camp mode. A school bus full of excited kids departed from Belize City to jaguar camp. At Maya Center, the gateway to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, we were greeted by the Maya Center Women's Group. With the Women's Group we danced to marimba music, learned the art of slate carving, and enjoyed tamales for lunch.

Park director Nicacio Coc gave an overview of Cockcomb before embarking on a rigorous hike to one of the park's spectacular waterfalls. Swimming in the cool water was a revitalizing experience. Aside from the campers, a news team from Channel 5 Belize tagged along. Their coverage of the jaguar camp can be found in the link below.

City kids experience wild outdoors in jaguar camp

After the reporters left we had much more fun. We roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over a fire hearth, shared jokes, ghost stories, and sang. In Kriol the jaguar is called tiger (pronounced taigah). I adapted the well-known "tiger hunt song" into Kriol and the result was hilarious. My Kriol grammar is perfect and pronunciation is good but still has a hint of Minnesotan.

The following day we woke up early to discover the bird life of Cockscomb. While I was giving an introduction to bird watching, two Crested Guans (large turkey-like birds) flew into plain view. Birding in the tropical forest with beginners is a challenge because so many of the birds remain out of sight, so it was a real treat to see these birds up close.

Audubon's second summer camp was held at St. Herman's Blue Hole National Park. It was an action packed day camp. We hiked trails, watched wildlife, explored St. Herman's cave, and swam in the Blue Hole.

After the summer camps were finished I had another big event
to look forward to. I have stayed in Belize for over a year now, halfway through my Peace Corps servies, and it was right time to take a break and visit home. Time to see my family again, reconnect with friends, and attend a wedding.

In the morning, August 2, I went to the office because my flight was scheduled for the afternoon and I had an offer from a coworker to take me to the airport. I prepared my instant coffee and sat down to check e-mail. To my surprise and disbelief Minneapolis was the top story in the news with the collapse of 35W over the Mississippi. After reading thid news I remembered the countless times I had crossed the very same bridge and exited on University Avenue at the end of a hard day's work. And the times I went running along the banks of the Mississippi below the bridge.

I reached Minneapolis late and stayed overnight at a friend's place on University Ave, only 2 1/2 blocks from the scene. Close enough for him to feel the vibrations of the bridge going down from his apartment. On Friday morning I saw everything I had been seeing and hearing about on the news.

Friday, June 15


June marks the beginning of rainy season in Belize and this year the storm clouds came right on schedule. The first week of June it rained almost every night; days are typically sunny, hot, and humid. The lingering clouds have produced some beautiful sunsets. The constant rainfall also brings about pothole season.

In rainy season some people speak of crab season. I notice many blue land crabs peeking out of their mud holes as I walk around my neighborhood. Belize offers a lot of good seafood, but I think I'll pass on the land crabs.

June 15th is the beginning of lobster season. In the off season the fishermen were busy repairing their traps. Belize is home to the Spiny Lobster (Panuirus argus), which has no claws. Fishing communities such as Placencia and San Pedro celebrate Lobster Fest in June. Speaking of Placencia, I caught a whale shark on camera; have another look at the previous post.

In Belize's Cayo District is an amazing wet cave system called Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Stone Sepulchre). Inside the cave are many artifacts such as clay pottery, tools, and human remains. Because hundreds of water vessels were found in the cave it is believed that Actun was most used for ceremonies pertaining to the Rain God, Chac. The ancient Mayas also sacrificed humans in the hopes of appeasing the gods and bringing rain.

Once dry, ephemeral ponds are now full of water and life. A noisy chorus of frogs can be heard during the night or on a rainy day. I visited Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary to work on an environmental education project and with some free time went looking for Red-eyed Treefrogs. I saw many other frogs jumping around in the grass and surrounding trees, thick like grasshoppers in summer, but not the one I was looking for.

Finally, rainy season is the beginning of hurricane season, which is no cause for celebration. This popular Kriol rhyme traces the progression of the season:

June tu soon
Julai stan by
Aagas luk out yu mos
Septemba memba
Aktoaba aal oava.