Friday, August 26, 2011

Caye Caulker and the Game of Survival In Houston/Bush Airport

The key to the Caye is their motto--"Go Slow!"  This welcome logo is the the Caye's logo, motto, mission, goal, legacy!  Of course it is pretty easy to go slow when the air temperature is 94 degrees F. and the humidity is pretty much the same.  If you walk along the ocean-side path/road the constant breeze makes the climate tolerable, even pleasant at times.  As the road continues behind a row of one and two story buildings the heat/humidity/blaring sun, comes bearing down upon even the slowest wanderer.  A hat is a necessity for me these days.  I'm not one of the Caye Caulker tanned yet.  Of course, a hat makes it hotter, but you can only get so wet from sweat, eventually you are soaked and the occasional breeze starts to cool.  Why don't the others with bare feet and bathing suits sweat?  All of this is just a temporary distraction.  More importantly the tropical scenery occupies my mind.  I'm talking about the real scenery, not the scenery walking around with skimpy coverings.  The palms and flowers remind you that you are not walking along the Lake Erie beach front now.  The Messo-American Barrier Reef, popularly know as the Great Belize Reef (second largest in the world,) lies 1 mile off-shore.  You can see the waves breaking over the corals from the island.  When the tides are low you can see the line of breakers very distinctly.  Even at high tide the tops of the breaking waves can be seen.  Beyond the breakers the deep blue color of the deep ocean stretches on past the horizon.  The color of the water between the Caye and the reef is "Caribbean Blue."  You know, the blue that swimming pools are painted.  The blue you think about when you think about tropical paradises.

The wildlife is always a highlight.  Frigatebirds--Magnificent Frigatebirds ( Fregata magnificens) to be exact, soar overhead.  the females with their white chest and the males all dark (the red throat pouch or gular sac is seen in the males only during mating season.)
Isn't it amazing how the human powers of observation have been honed--that is, when something out of the ordinary comes into view it is all you can do to look away.  As we neared the island on the water taxi the soaring Frigatebirds were the center of our attention.  These strange, exotic, huge creatures were awesome (and that is the literal meaning of awesome--AWEsome!)  Almost prehistoric in form and incredibly large, the Magnificent Frigatebird demands attention.  That is until you have seen that they are the Turkey Vulture of the Cayes.  Now Turkey Vultures (or as we call them in Ohio-- Buzzards,) are also magnificent, but when they are always soaring in the sky above your house you tend to "ignore" them.  I'm sure that this is how our minds stay receptive to change, to new 'dangers' entering our neighborhoods. But magnificent birds are still magnificent.  The same was true when I first saw a mob of kangaroos in Australia's bush, or a lounge of Marine Iguanas on Espanola Island in the Galapagos Archipelago. The number of photos in both cases is evidence of this phenomena.  First sighting--rolls and cards of photos (back when I first saw the iguanas I was using film to photograph.) Finally, after awhile, the unusual was the only thing I shot--the iguana skeleton or the Joie sticking it head out of a pouch.  The same was true here.  All of the travelers with cameras had them pointed at the sky.  Snap, click, "darn"--(They are hard to focus on as they soar above.)  Snap, snap, click!  Eventually--"oh look at the sleepy cat on the railing.  It's just what we do.  We have to to survive in the ever changing always dangerous environment of places like Caye Caulker.  None the less, the Frigatebirds soar, the palms sway and the lure of the ocean screams out its invite.  We are on a Caye, one mile from the second largest barrier reef in the world, what is a biologist to do??   Sail, Sail, relax and Sail.  

A sunset sail is always a great way to get a feel for Caulker's motto.  The sunset is earlier (by the clock,) than it is right now in Ohio.  In Ohio the sunset was about 8:35 or so on August 9th.  Here on the Caye it came about 6:20.  Of course this difference is smaller in the winter months when our sun sets in Ohio are at about 4:50 and the 'go slow' folks on Caye Caulker watch the Sun hit the horizon at about 5:30 or so.
I'm feeding a magnificent Magnificent Frigatebird
But there is more that needs to be done with the Belize Reef.  Visit it.  There are really three ways to visit this reef.  You can dive it (SCUBA,) Snorkel it, or just look at it from a small boat.  All are good.  Some easier than others.  I opted for the snorkel route.  It is shallow by nature and SCUBA might be overkill and anyways, I don't SCUBA much.  Talk about observing the world around you!!  That is the whole purpose of snorkeling.  Corals, and urchins and rays and sharks. Green Morey Eels, schools of colorful reef fish, anemones, conchs and did I mention the Frigatebirds soaring above??   What a world, what a world!!
Conch I found, photo by Judy Jones

The corals were showing signs of recovery from past hurricane damage.  The colors of the older corals looked bland.  Bleached a bit, but not as bad as corals I have seen in the Bahamas.  The new growth on the corals show great color.  It is good to see that at least some of our ocean environments are showing signs of improvement. The "dive" was divided into three distinct environments.  The first spot was a bit deeper and had more larger fish swimming in and around the corals.  The second was shallow and had a sandy/weedy bottom and featured a whole gaggle of rays and nurse sharks the came for the chum that the tour guides threw to them. Finally, the best dive was on a 'coral garden'.  This is where I saw the most coral growth and the best coral colors.  Sun, sea, fish, corals, rays and sharks.  A great place to concentrate on observations.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Finally, Caye Caulker.....

The jungle road goes on and on and on, but we finally departed the western district of Belize and made our way to the coast.  Belize is a small country, with an area of 22,963 sq km (8,866 sq. miles) slightly larger than Massachusetts, but because the roads are so bad and our van was not so roomy, it felt like it took us days to cross.  Actually, I was in the front passenger seat, so it was not too bad, with the exception of the water condensate from the air conditioner continually falling on my feet.
Roadside Resident
Our Home in the Jungle

The most amazing observation in addition to the passing villages and the Monday morning traffic (yes, even in Belize,) was the change in the ecosystems as you go east.  Belize borders the Caribbean Sea along the eastern shore of Central America just below the Yucatan Peninsula.  The western border is shared with Guatemala along the Maya Mountains.  We had just stayed for 7 days in the Maya Mountains along the Macal River.  We ventured south through a mountain plateau called the Pine Ridge Reserve when we visited the Mayan site of Caracol.  Now we were bumping along the Western Highway toward Belize City.  Belize City is not the capitol of Belize, that is Belmopan, but it is the largest city and the economic hub of the country.  About half way to Belize City the landscape flattens out and you start to see more sandy soil.  This coastal plain is dominated by red mangrove swamp.  Some of the swamp is filled in so temporary buildings can be erected.  In Belize, it seems all buildings are temporary.  Either the jungle eats them up like the Maya structures, or the hurricanes blows them down.  I think Belize is a perfect study in entropy.  Entropy, also known as the basis for the Second Law of Thermodynamics, basically refers to the energy needed to maintain the order of a system.  If energy is not continually put into a system, that system will become disordered.  My classroom used to have a sign--"Laboratory Of Entropy Studies" above the doorway.  The class was often in disarray.  Good teaching and good learning (I think,) was going on, but I worked hard to put the energies into the teaching process instead of keeping order in the classroom.  I got some heat for that over the years, but overall, good stuff happened there.  

Anyway, Belize could have the same sign at the borders I think.  "Laboratory of Entropy Studies."  Often there is not enough energy available to maintain the order of the country.  Jungle grows around it, rainstorms eat at its roads, hurricanes topple its buildings.  People try, but it almost seems like they are losing the battle.  I still think it is a great country and is filled with wonderful people, but it needs more energy.  Maybe the tourists can help bring some energy to Belize by bringing dollars.  Money helps fight this entropy thing.  I think the constant gentle push against the ensuing jungle, the eroding rains, and the occasional hurricane is worth it.  Anyway, as I watched the mangrove swamp pass us by (well, we were actually passim by, but you know, things like travel are relative,) it looked like many of the buildings were bing eaten by the swamp itself.  As we got closer to Belize City the buildings looked to be winning.  They were bigger, more permanent, more entropy resistant!  Finally we would our small Toyota van through even smaller, narrow streets right to the water taxi terminal. 

 Our journey on mainland Belize was ending and the journey to the outer Cayes and the Meso-American Barrier Reef was beginning. 

From Wikipedia--
"The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (MBRS, also simply known as the Mesoamerican reef and often abbreviated MAR) stretches over 1000 km from Isla Contoy at the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula down to theBay Islands of Honduras. The reef system includes various protected areas and parks including the Belize Barrier ReefArrecifes de Cozumel National ParkHol Chan Marine ReserveSian Ka'an biosphere reserve, and the Cayos Cochinos Marine Park. This reef structure is the largest coral reef in the Western Hemisphere and the second largest barrier reef in the world."

We stepped into a transitional world for our 45 minute wait.  It was air conditioned, not just cooled by spinning ceiling fans.  There were television sets attached to the walls (showing the tumultuous fall of the American stock market....) And there was Cheetos and Snickers.  Are we in America???   No.. Not quite.  The box of toilet paper packs that one must pick up as one enters the bathroom (not afterward as some of our group found out,) proved.  But it was a step.  I don't know if it was a step in the right direction, but it was a step.  

Onto the water taxi to Caye Caulker.  A 45 minute speedboat trip to the outer barrier reef. Actually the reef is about 1 mile off the coast of Caulker, but it is considered "on the reef."  That brings up another interesting thing about Belize.  It was still on the Standard System of measurement until December 8. 2010. The Standard system is what we use  the US.  The only other countries that use this system are Liberia, Myanmar (Burma) and in a limited sense Canada because of U.S. commerce.  Though the SI system is legal, most signs are still in the traditional English Standard units--miles, feet, etc. 

We are finally on the Caye, (pronounced 'key'. )  A Caye is an island.  Basically a sandbar.  It is 5 miles long, but 1/2 half of it is north of the 'split' that formed and cut the island in half during Hurricane Hattie in 1961.  The same hurricane devastated Belize City.  (There is that entropy again.)  It is only 1 mile wide at its widest.  A 200 minute walk basically takes you from one end to the other.  But the motto of the island tells about the culture on the island--"Go Slow".  I did not see anyone in three days disobeying this 'law'.  It is a very relaxing place to "run away to."  In fact that is what many of the residents look like they did.  Some with shoes, many without.  Some with shirts, many without.  The tourists wear hats and typically are red.  Those that ran away are tanned brown and most are smiling.  

  The last three days on Caye Caulker were slow, relaxing and yet still adventuresome.  The story of sharks and rays and moray eels will continue soon.  

Monday, August 15, 2011

Caye Caulker--The Place to Run Away To (continued...)

Morpho laying egg
The Blue Morpho seems to be one of the 'trophy butterflies' for those needing to collect the beauty of nature.  I guess I collect nature in my own way--in memories and in pictures mostly.

The next adventure found us on the road to Barton Creek Cave.  As in most of our travels, getting there is half the fun!!  The road to Barton Creek is as bad as the rest of the Belizean back roads--dusty (except when muddy,) rocky (even when muddy,) slippery (when dry or muddy,) and at all times bumpy!!  There are a few interesting sites along the way to the Cave that holds Mayan artifacts and even a skull or two.  One notable scene that we passed through is a Belize Amish community.

Amish Shed in Belize
There are both Mennonite and Amish in Belize, and both sects can be seen on the roads around the Cayo District.  The Amish are a bit more primitive than the Amish that live down the road form me.  The buggies and carts use old truck tires instead of the fine wooden wheels we see in Ohio. (A wooden wheel would last about 3 minutes on the roads of Belize, so the car and truck tires are necessary here.)  We passed the Amish farms on a Sunday morning, so there were almost no folks about.

Amish Road Grader
  The Amish do try to maintain their roads as this horse drawn road grader shows.

The lives eked out of the rainforest here do not seem to be so very different between the Amish and the 'Yankees'.  The struggle is always against the forest and the jungle.  Everyone struggles and works to survive, to raise a family and to keep their farms going and growing.  Our guide Phillip said that he never sees the Amish smiling.  They work hard and are serious all the time.  I wonder what they say about the travelers in the vans that pass?

We did not honk, but 10 'ACERS' might be nice to have!?!
The road goes over and through the rivers and streams.  Sometimes it looks like an easy wade and sometimes it is a bit worrisome.  But we plod on just the same.  Eventually we come to Barton Creek (of Barton Creek Cave fame!)  This fording of the creek asked us to choose the rickety bridge over the Creek or a nice rocky, apparently even, path under a foot or so of the creek water itself.  We chose the bridge.  I'm not sure if it was the best choice.

 A Bridge Too Far??
Barton Creek Cave is one of the big attractions in this part of Belize.  It is an awesome site combining the beauty of the jungle the wonder of the mountains, the intrigue of Mayan artifacts and ruins and the excitement of canoeing into and under the limestone caverns that formed over millions of years ago as rainwater seeped into and started to dissolve some of the limestone matrix that makes up the hills and mountains of Belize.  The results are magnificent--huge (dare I say 'cavernous,') beautifully adorned with stalactites,  limestone columns,  high ceilings and exquisite rock flows and cathedral chambers. The Maya call this the Xibalba (she-bal-ba), or 'the Underworld'.   And so it is. An added attraction are the bats, both fruit bats and insectivorous types.  We are told that even the famous Vampire Bats reside on the ceilings and walls of this underworld habitat.

Into the canoes and then we paddle through the narrow opening--is this our first test for the adventure that lies inside the mountain?  

Judy Jones--Holder of the Light!

The quietness closes around you.  I know that is a quaint saying found in cheap paperback novels, but it really does!  The beauty of the cave erupts as you paddle into the dark.  The 'Holder Of the Light', Judy Jones in my case, directs your attention.  If you try to look on your own, you see almost nothing.  The lights from the other canoes' 'light holders' helps, but it is the light from you own canoe that draws your attention.  First we see the shiny stalactites and limestone drippings.  Then Phillip pointed his light to the Mayan skull perched atop the shelf around the bend.

See the Skull in the Center

We paddle about 3/4 mile or so into the cave.  Then we turned off all the lights.  WOW!  Dark really is dark!  It is so funny when deprived of the input of light energy the eyes seem to rebel.  They open wider, it almost hurts, well, feels uncomfortable.  You strain, and search even though you know it is to no avail.  I reconnected the light to the car battery that rode in the center position in the canoe.  There, transported back to the Mayan Underworld again.  The trip only takes about an hour, but it seems like 3.  This trip to Belize has taken us to the tops of the pyramids and to the depths of the jungle.  From the treetops on the walkway at Duplooys to the underground river system that flows beneath some Belize mountains.  Kind of like the journey that the ancient Maya Shamen tell of the spiritual lives of the people of the jungle.

Out we paddle, into the sunlight and the birthday party of the son of one of the operators of this cave adventure.  "Life renewed?"   (In the picture of my high school biology teacher, Wally Hintz,  swimming in Barton Creek look for the youngster in the left background.  He was one year old that day. NO he is not really 'Walt the Water Lord' either.)

Walt the Water Lord ? 
Around the entrance to the cave system is the jungle and the colors of Belize.  As awe inspiring as the caves are, the wonders of the plant kingdom trump the exotic rock formations every time.  

The road back brought us upon a few very interesting signs in San Ignacio.  The top on our list was the "Rehab Bar and Grill".  Rehabilitation the Belizean Way!!  

The next sign should be familiar to anyone with a background in the history of evolution, or at least in the history of C. Darwin.  As is popularly written, he had major health problems throughout much of his life after returning from this five year voyage on the Beagle.  There is speculation that it might have been psychosomatic--resulting from the stress he felt while researching and writing 'On the Origin Of Species.'  A second possibility is that he contracted an insect-bourne disease called Chagas Disease.  The disease is real and this sign in San Ignacio shows that it is still present in the tropical parts of the world.  

Back to headquarters--Duplooys Jungle Lodge. The jungle journey was almost over and the week was drawing to a close.  We still had a few good observations and a few great meals left though.  When we returned we had a greeter waiting for us near the deck.  A male Basilisk Lizard--A Jesus Christ Lizard.  We have been watching this guy all week.  Of source I'm not sure if it was the same individual. To me all male Basilisk Lizards are similar in appearance if they are the same size, but it looked like the same one.  He was in a short conifer, then on the side of a bigger tree next to the deck and finally he joined us on the deck  at Dupooys tree-top walkway.  We watched him while he was watching us.  I wonder if he was as thrilled as we were?  Probably not. 

The deck is a wonderful observation tool.  A treehouse as it were.  A place to sit, to watch, to try to cool off and to be a part of the jungle that we have been walking through for the better part of a week.  It is no wonder tree houses are so popular.  Watching nature is fun, being up in it is a thrill.  This is how we spent many of our late afternoons.  In the trees, waiting for the 5:30 fly-by of the Mealy Parrots, having a Belikan and watching the Toucans and Lizards, Spiders, Bats and Snakes.  That's a week in the Belizean Jungle for you!

But we still were not on Caye Caulker like the title of this blog entry promised.  Stay tuned, that's the next stop and it is coming soon.  

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Caye Caulker--The Place to Run Away To

A typical Belizian road!
Home again, but filled with the feelings of adventure still.  The road from San Ignacio and the Macal River wove itself through Barton Creek Cave, an incredibly bad road (in the U.S. I'm not sure folks would call it a road actually,) past a settlement of Belizian Amish, through a few wonderful meals at Duplooys and into a great adventure on Caye (pronounced "Key",) Caulker.  Eventually we traversed the most dangerous part of our journey--Bush International Airport in Houston!!!!  (More about this latest 'Reality Show adventure later.)
San Ignacio and Santo Elena the twin cities is the second largest 'metropolitan' area in Belize.  It is accurately described as an 'olde west' sort of town with paved streets and a casino.  Some of the streets aren't paved, but the main roads are very passible.  Drive a few hundred yards out of town though and the dirt/rock/mud roads appear again. In fact, going to the city's main attraction (other than the Royal Palms Casino,) Cahal Pech Mayan Ruins, is a journey only 4 wheel drive or a Belizian guide would attempt--and it is really in the town itself!!

We found the same little cafe that we had eaten in two years ago and tasted some local 'color'.  A short visit after a beautiful canoe down a Central American river.

I think the highlight of the entire day was seeing a grey fox emerge from the jungle while we were visiting a local nature center.  It was not part of the center, but certainly part of nature.   The life cycle of the Blue Morpho Butterfly is a great example of evolution, natural selection and environmental adaptation.  It gets it'd defense against predators of the bird variety by eating just the right type of leaf as a caterpillar.

Male and Female Morphos
 ' The Blue Morpho is a member of the Peleides family, with a wingspan of approximately 6 inches (15 cm). It is an iridescent blue butterfly that lives in the rainforests of South and Central America, including Brazil, Costa Rica, and Venezuela. The Blue Morpho Butterfly is a species of neotropical butterfly that has brilliant blue wings (the females are are not as brilliantly colored as the males and have a brown edge with white spots surrounding the iridescent blue area). The undersides are brown with bronze-colored eyespots. Adults drink the juices of rotting fruit using their straw-like proboscis. The caterpillar of the Blue Morpho is a redish-brown with bright patches of lime-green on the back.The larvae eat the plant Erythroxylum pilchrum nocturnally.' The leaves of the plant contain cyanide and give the caterpillar its protective toxic condition.  Of course they don't eat the plant because it protects them, they eat the plant because it tastes good to them. They eat other plants as well, many from the pea family. The caterpillars are only toxic while they are eating the toxic plant.  Of course they are concentrating the cyanide because they eat lots of plant material.  The adults are not as toxic, but their lower wing coloration provides them camouflage protection from predators.

To Be Continued !!