Wednesday, September 4, 2002

A Day in Belize City

Today was a departure from our normal routine as we spent the day in Belize City. It started early, as all our days do, but we were on the boat headed for the city by 8:00 AM. Right before boarding the boat, Susan attempted to sit down in the hammock and missed. She fell backwards into the “sludge” that floods the palapa area each morning at high tide. It is one thing to walk through the ankle deep "stuff"—it is an entirely different experience altogether to lie on one’s back in it.

The morning was clear and beautiful. Coming into the dock area at Belize City, the brown pelicans sat like sentries on the pilings. They are such prehistoric looking birds.

Mario, our boat driver, gave us all a ride into town in the back of his truck. We piled in, one on top of the other, hanging on to whoever and whatever to keep from falling out. We joked about how physically close we have had to live with one another the last week—whether it be eating around the dining table, sleeping next to each other, or maneuvering around each other on the boat—but in the back of the truck we were literally on top of one another! We decided this closeness was nice, but it had to stop.

Our first stop was to drop our laundry at Ceci’s Laundromat. Ceci runs her laundry services in a small, dark room, in a small wooden building. There were piles and piles of clothes stacked on various washing machines and dryers when we arrived. There aren’t enough electrical outlets so Ceci had to keep plugging in and unplugging the various machines to get clothes washed and dried. When we came back to get our clothes later in the day, there were still piles and piles of clothes. Ceci has a remarkable ability though to make sense of the chaos. She knew exactly what was ours and what wasn’t even though our clothing was located in a dozen different piles. The remarkable thing was how this woman could stay so friendly and cheerful after a day of washing clothes in the hot steamy room.

Mar's Café

Our second stop was breakfast at Mar’s Café. We giggled when the waitress delivered the bucket size glasses of fresh orange and lime juice we ordered. We drained them within minutes, however, as we were so thirsty and they tasted so good.

After breakfast we said our good-byes to Pam, Ernest, and Katie. We were sad to see them go and perhaps a little envious that they would be home by day’s end.

After our good-byes we headed on foot to the bus terminal to catch a bus to the zoo that is located 25 km west of Belize City. The walk through the city was fun but hectic. After a week on the caye with no traffic, little noise, and wide-open spaces, the city was overwhelming. There are only 50 thousand people living in Belize City but it is as busy a city as any. The prevalent culture here is Creole. Creoles are descendants of the British pirates and the African slaves. These mixed race people speak English but also Creole, which is a dialect of English but sounds like a foreign language. There are also mestizos or people of mixed Central American Indian and Spanish heritage living here. They speak English and Spanish.

Belize City, built on the site of a Mayan city, is colorful, a bit ramshackle, and very alive. Much of the city is built on landfill with local legend saying it was built with mahogany chips and rum bottles left by pirates. The buildings are largely wooden two-story, colonial style structures that are not unlike what you see in New Orleans. They have balconies with ornate decorations and are brightly colored. The only difference is that here, many of them are in need of repair and new paint. Power and telephone lines run every which way and two canals cross the city. The streets are full of traffic, pedestrians and bicyclists—often times two or three to a bike.

Vendors line the streets selling everything from plastic buckets to fruits and vegetables to clothing. In all this Caribbean hustle and bustle pedestrians seem to have the right of way. Many times on our journey across the city, drivers would stop and motion us across the street in front of them.

To get to the bus terminal we had to cross the very famous Swing Bridge. The bridge, built in 1923, was a product of England’s ironworkers. It is the only working bridge of its type left in the world today. At 5:30 AM and PM every day traffic stops and the entire bridge “swings” 90 degrees to allow tall boats to pass on either side. The bridge is swung open and closed by hand. As we walked over the bridge midday, sailing ships sat outside the bridge making for a very picturesque view.

A Wild Bus Ride

What started as an uneventful bus ride turned into an exciting one shortly after leaving the station. A large dump truck passed us and suddenly stopped in front of our bus forcing our driver to stop in the middle of the highway. The truck driver was extremely angry at something our driver did—although we never knew what started the argument. The truck driver jumped out of his truck and came over to our driver’s window with a wrench in his hand yelling obscenities. We were even more surprised when our driver reached under his seat, pulled out a machete, and started waving it at the truck driver. There were two correctional officers on board our bus who were escorting a prisoner to another location. They both jumped up and came to the front of the bus. The machete and the two uniformed men were enough to scare the truck driver back into his truck.

The bus driver started the bus and began to pass the truck. The truck driver still angry, started to move forward and for a few moments we were in a game of chicken between our bus driver and the truck driver both heading down the highway, side by side. Fortunately, our bus driver stopped and pulled over to the side of the road to avoid oncoming traffic. This let the truck move on and we arrived at the zoo close to an hour later, safe and sound.

An Animal Experience

The Belize Zoo is a wonderfully unique place. It is a sanctuary for sick and wounded animals that cannot be returned to the their natural habitat for one reason or another. More though, it is an educational center with the primary goal of educating the people of Belize about the amazing animals that are native to their country. Rarely have we seen a zoo so well designed for its purpose. There were signs everywhere in Creole explaining the uniqueness of each animal and why it should be preserved in the wild. We were so impressed that we have written an entire piece on the zoo.

Unfortunately, we picked one of the hottest days to be inland where there is very little breeze. After a few hours we were desperately wishing we could do a seagrass plot! We drank a few sodas each and headed back to Belize City. This time the trip was thankfully uneventful with the bus stopping occasionally to let people off or pick up more passengers heading for the city.

Boat Rescue

Back at the Princess Dock we met Steve and Jen. They had flown into Belize separately and had not arranged to meet up with one other until we all met at the dock. However, this morning Steve was in an Internet café and noticed a young woman next to him who was working on the computer and writing in her journal. Not intending to read over her shoulder he noticed the words “researchers” and “Virtual Explorers”. He leaned over and asked, “Jen?” to which she replied, “Steve?”

At 5:00 PM we loaded the boat and headed back home. Mario informed us that first however, we would have to do an "at sea rescue" as one of his boats had run out of gasoline and was stranded out on the water. When we met up with the boat, it was being towed by another. Mario maneuvered up beside the boat, which was no small feat given the choppy water, and we passed over three-5 gallon containers of gasoline.

Glow Worms and the Milky Way

While Belize City was fun, it was great to get back to the peacefulness of the caye. Niña and Sultan were sitting on the dock to greet us like long lost friends.

It is our responsibility to teach Steve and Jen everything they need to know about living and working out here this next week. We got them settled and then sat down to a great dinner of spaghetti and focaccia bread that Mike and Krisan had prepared. Dinner conversation was pleasant with all of us retelling stories of the day. After we finished eating, Caryn asked Steve and Jen to tell us something about themselves as we had all done our first night. Then each of us took turns retelling a shorter version of our stories. Caryn asked each of us who have been here for a week to finish with a question that Jen and Steve would need to know the answer to. It was a good way to give them more information about how life is conducted out here. For example, "Why is the refrigerator door taped shut?" Or, "What does one do when one is in the water and sees a manatee?" One funny question was, “What does one do when one forgets and drops toilet paper into the toilet?”

After dinner we sat under the palapa and talked some more. The Milky Way can be seen clearly on cloudless nights. Rarely do those of us who live in or near cities get to see a night sky such as this. We were able to see what locals refer to when they compare the Milky Way to a manatee’s tail. The hazy section looks similar to what one sees when a manatee swims or dives.

Caryn pointed out the glowworms in the water. Glowworms are luminous worms that emit light somewhat like fireflies. The females let go their egg masses and these float to the water surface and glow bright green. The current thinking is that these attract the males who also emit bioluminescence. The males release gametes to fertilize the egg masses. This entire process lasts about two to three minutes but is fascinating to watch.

We retired about 10:30, tired and very glad to be back home at the research station.