Belize, 1996

(mail sent on March 12, 1996, describing my visit to Belize)

I went to Belize at the start of March for 10 days. The first half was business (a conference that I helped organize and at which I was presenting a paper). Preparing the paper for presentation kept me busy (12-20 hour days, not much sleep, even less of a sense of humor, 7 days a week) for about 2-3 weeks before hand. One up side was that I didn't have any trouble sleeping during the conference (I often do when I travel). The second half of the trip was fun. Unfortunately, Malcolm decided that he didn't have the time to spare to join me.... but I still had a lot of fun.

I spent a day before the conference in Lamanai, some Mayan ruins. On the way to the ruins, we had a 1 1/2 hour boat ride up the New River (like the one in the US, it flows south to north). We got to see alot of birds -- egrets, cranes, ospreys and many birds local to Belize whose names I don't remember -- and we got to see some crocidles and an iguana (the iguana iguana as opposed to the green iguana, for what that is worth). While we were at the ruins we were approached by a group of black howler monkeys. They keep jumping from tree to tree, coming closer and closer until they were directly over our heads, and then they seemed to waiting for us to do something (maybe feed them?). It got to the point were you almost felt the need to plan an escape route, even though they couldn't have weighted more than 20-30 pounds each. They made very loud (howling) noises by drawing air across the top of a hollow bone in their throat.

The ruins were interesting too. The Mayans used to build on top of their own buildings as a way of expanding the city (it expanded upward, instead of outward). The guide pointed out how you could see the difference in the quality of construction, getting worse as the civilization got older. They think that part of that was simple pressures of supply and demand. As the society got older, it got bigger and needed more and more building supplies from an already reduced set of resources.

Belize City, where the conference was located was extremely poor and felt very threatening. The guides and the hotel staff that I spoke with said that it was safe to walk around during the day but not after dark --- but it still was nerve-racking just wandering during the day. I didn't get approached (except by beggars in the bus terminal) but the fact that I seemed to be the only fair-skinned person on the street (except for some other equally nervous-looking tourists) and that everyone watched you walk by wasn't fun. The only time that I actually felt at ease in Belize City (besides when I was inside the hotel) was during a celebration the day before I was supposed to leave to come back to the US. They were commerating the death of a benefactor (I think his name was Bliss, but I'm really loosy with names) who donated about 10 million pounds sterling to the city. The celebration had a lot of bands playing long the water front, a sailboat race and lots of families out with little kids, flying kites and playing.

I spent my vacation time down in Dangriga, a city about 35 miles south of Belize City on the coast of Belize. I went snorkeling and went to see the rain forest and generally lazed around the hotel. The rain forest was interesting, although we didn't see many (land-borne) animals. There were alot of birds (toucans, parrots, hawk, and again, lots which I can't remember the names for). The plants were really interesting too (we had a good guide). There was one very distinctive plant ("miller's stone") which he recommended for impronto TP, if needed - it was extremely soft and non-inflammatory. The flowers were neat - hot lips (which looked like lips), lots of birds of paradise (yellows, oranges, reds, all different shapes), bromeliads (the first time I've seen pineapple as a flower!), philodendron, and orchids (although we only saw one of those, at a distance).

I liked the snorkeling the best though. The fish were just amazing. You wouldn't believe the number of different types of fish or the number of colors you could find in a single fish. Besides lots of different types of fish that look like what I think of as angelfish or clown fish, we saw some rays (3 of them, 2 very close), a lobster (I would have tried to catch it, but I didn't want to lose my fingers), a pencil fish. One fish got annoyed at my approach and "charged" me -- it was only a small angelfish, but it was surprising enough that I backed up. Beau, the person that I spent the vacation time travelling with, also got to see the tail of a shark. We met a fisherman (first on the water and later on the dock) who had captured a 3-4 foot long barracuda (as well as 12-15 of what I think of as angelfish). Some friends of the fisherman told us that they had caught a barracuda that was half as long a couple of weeks before that had dragged them in their dug-out canoe all the way to the edge of the reef! Back at the dock, our guide showed us a couple of seahorses that had attached themselves to the ropes that were attached to the dock below the water line. They weren't too happy about being pulled off their perch and swam away as soon as they got free.

The coral was also amazing and beautiful -- brain coral (it looks just like the surface of a brain), elkhorn coral (it looks... you guessed), sea fans, sheet coral... Unfortunately, while snorkeling was my favorite part, it was also the part that was hardest on my skin. No permanent damage, but I cut the back of my calf up on some sheet coral. In the states, I probably would have gone to see a doctor about it (given the length of the cuts) -- but, after having seen the outsides of the hospitals down there, I really didn't want to see the inside. The wounds are closed up and, while they are still very tender, I think they're healing OK. The other damage that I did was a really serious sunburn to the backs of my legs. I did remember to put on a lot of sunscreen on, but apparently it didn't stand up well to two hours in the water, snorkeling.

I got to see the Belize zoo the morning that I left. I really wanted to see it, since I have a piece of "spoken audio" from the founder that I use as test sample for some of my audio processing. Getting to and from the zoo was a bit of an adventure. I used the public transportation for the first time on that trip (the taxis wanted $80 US, one way). My wait in the bus terminal for the bus was the only time that I was approached by panhandlers -- but, while there, they were very persistent. I almost gave one woman some money but there were so many others watching from the sidelines, that I was worried that I would be mobbed by others if I did. The bus ride took 40 minutes each way (for $1 US!). The zoo was great. The animals were all in "nature habitats", which meant that you needed to spend some time at each cage looking around for them. Fortunately, it was morning. Apparently, in the afternoon, most of them hide and sleep. I got to see most of the Belizean wild cats (the jaguar, the jaguarundi, and the ocelot but I couldn't find the cougar). I also got to see the other type of iguana (the green iguana) and some of the other native animals (the tapir -- it looks like a cross between a wild boar and an elephant, some wild boars, owls, red bracket deer, toucans). Unfortunately, I didn't have as much time as I would have liked -- next time I'll try to take an earlier bus and to leave later.

Best wishes,