Belize: Snakes, Tarantulas, Iguanas and Mayans

If you have a problem with bugs or lizards, the Belizean jungle may not be the best place to go – but we had a great time seeing these cool creatures (thanks Animal Planet). Last Friday was spent mostly at Black Rock Lodge, doing activities on their property, including a hike to the top of the hill, tubing on the river and a night hike to look at all the stuff that comes out at night.  One of those animals was one of the most venomous snakes in Belize, the “fer de lance” — luckily none of us is particularly scared of snakes, since Andrew was obsessed with snakes when he was younger and we all had to get used to them. However, Brandon is scared of spiders, and our hiking guide decided he was going to help Brandon get over his fear.  So he found a tarantula, and actually convinced Brandon to first touch it, then hold it – he was very brave! We saw a few more night creatures, including a very well camouflaged bird, scorpions, and various insects.

Brandon holds a tarantula
Brandon holds a tarantula

The next day we started out with a trip to the weekly market in San Ignacio. It was very colorful in a variety of ways.  Lots of produce, clothing and crafts.  Also, lots of people from different backgrounds, showing the diversity of Belize.  We stopped at one shop and bought a couple of items:

A stall at the market with nice crafts
A stall at the market with nice crafts

After the market, we went to the Belize Iguana Project at the San Ignacio Resort hotel – they do tours every hour, and it was a very hands on experience.  They started by showing us the larger iguanas, once they reach full size, they release them into the wild. We started with feeding them, and we could hold and touch them — one of them decided that Andrew was tasty!

Brandon and Andrew feeding iguanas
Brandon and Andrew feeding iguanas
Andrew gets a love bite from an iguana
Andrew gets a love bite from an iguana
Ouch!
Ouch!

When we went in to see the baby iguanas, they had one that had been born the day before, very tiny.  We got to hold the older ones (anywhere 3 to 10 months old) and Brandon held a bunch of them all at once!

Brandon covered in baby iguanas
Brandon covered in baby iguanas

After the iguanas, we headed to the Mayan archeological site that is just down the road from San Ignacio. My favorite guide on this part of the trip is Edgar Avila 501 624-2415 (a Belize number so you have to dial 011 from the US) – we met him at Xunantunich, where he offered to be our guide. This site has the second tallest pyramid in the Mayan world, known as El Castillo, or the castle. Edgar was very knowledgeable and helped us understand what we were seeing, including the numerology used by the Maya, the legends and why they built on high ground. We also hired him to guide us at the cave tubing which we would be doing on Monday – more on that later.

Masks on the side of the castillo
Masks on the side of the castillo
Looking at a stella
Looking at a stella
A view of the castillo
A view of the castillo

From Caye Caulker to San Ignacio, Cayo district

We left Caye Caulker this morning to head to our jungle adventure in the Cayo district near San Ignacio.  My least favorite part of this trip so far was the water taxi ride from Caye Caulker to Belize City.  They really pack people into the boats and it wasn’t particularly comfortable.  It made me very glad that we decided to fly from Belize City to San Pedro after we arrived last Friday.  I do have to say that the staff of the water taxi service were very nice and helped us out as much as possible, it’s just a very busy route.

We rented a four-wheel drive jeep in Belize City with Crystal Auto Rental, which is owned by a Texan who has run this business for 25 years.  They were very helpful with maps and driving rules, etc…Getting to San Ignacio wasn’t a problem, but once we got there it got very confusing very quickly – lots of road construction going on, but we made our way to downtown where we got some lunch for our hungry boys. I wasn’t particularly impressed with San Ignacio, but it is low season, and we were there during a big World Cup soccer match (England v. Uruguay), so maybe things are better there during the winter high season.

We are staying about 45 minutes outside of San Ignacio, mainly because Black Rock Lodge is waaaaay out from the main highway, through a farm via dirt road. However, once we got there, it’s a fabulous place. Lots of nice people to meet, hiking swimming in the Macal river, great food and drink.  We went for a swim in the river after we arrived this afternoon, and will do some early morning birding, hiking and tubing on the river tomorrow.

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Belize: Caye Caulker

Today is our only full day in Caye Caulker.  Mike and Andrew went on a SCUBA outing while Brandon and I did a snorkel trip with The Caveman — it was awesome.  We saw manatees, sea turtles, sharks, and we were even chased by a moray eel!  Even the Caveman had never seen that happen before.  He really took care of us and it was a small group, just one other couple besides me and Brandon.  They didn’t speak much English, so I ended up doing some translating — good for practicing my French. There was some excitement when a big moray eel decided to come up out of it’s hole and chase us around a bit…but it eventually went away with some discouraging kicks of the fins. Swimming with the nurse sharks was cool, saw lots of rays as well.

The Caveman!
The Caveman!
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Brandon getting ready to snorkel
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Feeding tarpon

 

 

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Tarpon waiting for some sardines – I actually fed one from my hand.
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A view of the split from the channel

We had a great time, as did Mike and Andrew.  We were all tired, and so we just headed down to the bar at the split to watch some soccer and relax.  Dinner was at Terry’s grill, which is just around the corner from our hotel. He also does BBQ across from our hotel on the beach during the day. We had lobster again – not sure when we’ll be back, and it probably won’t be lobster season.  Tomorrow we head back to Belize City and then on to the jungle around San Ignacio.

 

 

Belize – Ambergris Caye to Caye Caulker

Our trip continued with a snorkeling trip Monday morning to Mexico rocks with Searious tours – I liked these guys much better than the ones we went with to Hol Chan, we took our time and got to see tons of fish, including stingrays, a moray eel, a scorpion fish, and lots of colorful fish, small and large. We walked around town a bit more, exploring the various shops, etc…

 

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We spend most of the afternoon swimming in the pool at our condo.  Overall we had a great time in San Pedro, but I was curious about our next stop, Caye Caulker.  I had heard that it was more laid back than San Pedro.  We got up Tuesday morning and enjoyed a last breakfast at our condo – the food at Rico’s, the restaurant at Banyan Bay was good for the most part, but not great, we enj0yed some of our meals in town more.

We caught the express taxi for Caye Caulker at 11:30 am and it was very crowded, so they had to add a second boat.  Most people were heading to Belize City.  It is a 30 minute trip to Caye Caulker, and we were happy to see a taxi waiting for us at the dock.  It was a bit of a drive to our hotel, Caye Reef, which is close to the split, which is a good location, since that seems to be one of the best places to hang out and swim — we even saw some fish there.  We are in another condo, which is large, and has a better internet connection than our last place, which is why I’m able to post pictures.

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There’s a couple of vendors selling BBQ across from our condo, so we took advantage of that for lunch.  So far I like the vibe of Caye Caulker, less traffic and noise, frieIMG_1923ndly people, and cool places to hang out and watch the sunset.

 

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Mike and Andrew are doing SCUBA tomorrow and Brandon and I are doing a full day snorkel – hopefully we’ll see manatees!

From Berlin to Belize

Post has been updated with pictures! Got back from Berlin a week ago and then I headed off to Belize with my boys on Friday, June 13th, which turned out to be our lucky day, no flight delays to speak of, and smooth flying. We weren’t sure if we were going to take a plane or the water taxi to Ambergris Caye, but once we landed and checked it out, we decided to fly. It was a good decision, even though it is a short flight, it was great to see the sea from above, the water is remarkably clear and blue. We are staying at the Villas at Banyan Bay, which is south of the airport in San Pedro. The hotel is very family oriented with fully equipped condos surrounding a nice pool. We chose a pool view room, which was a little less expensive than a sea view, a good choice since our boys are spending most of their time in the pool, and we can watch them from our front porch.

Andrew and Brandon at the pool
Andrew and Brandon at the pool
Villas at Banyan Bay
Villas at Banyan Bay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This iguana is a regular at the pool in the morning.
This iguana is a regular at the pool in the morning.
Playing at the pool
Playing at the pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On our first full day, we started off with a walk into downtown. San Pedro is full of restaurants, excursion providers, etc…very much geared toward the main industry, tourism. People are friendly, and a broad mix of backgrounds. In the afternoon, we took a trip to Hol Chan, a marine reserve where Brandon and I snorkeled while Mike and Andrew tried out their newly certified SCUBA skills. I have snorkeled a few times, but this was the most amazing array of wildlife I have ever seen. Our first treat was a beautiful sea turtle who swam with us for a bit. Next I saw a few nurse sharks – they are bottom feeders and totally harmless, but one of the women in our group wasn’t as comfortable around them.

Hol Chan is a marine preserve, so we had to have a guide with us – he was great in pointing out the various types of fish, and corals, some that sting and others that are as sharp as razors. The coral isn’t colorful, but there are lots of fish of all sizes, we saw barracuda, and there was also a large eel that I couldn’t see because I’m getting near-sighted. I’m wondering if there are face masks for us near-sighted folks…although I didn’t have much trouble seeing most of the fish. We then went to a place where the sharks and rays hang out waiting for chum from the tourist boats. They swarm around the boats initially then move off once the food is gone. Brandon and I waited until they had moved off a bit, but we saw plenty of nurse sharks and a couple of big rays. One of the guides held onto a nurse shark so we could tough it. It was very docile, and didn’t seem to mind the attention. Nurse sharks are one of the only sharks that can sit on the bottom and “sleep” we saw a couple of them doing that. We all had a great time in the marine park, and may do it again before we leave, or go to a place called Mexico rocks.

The boys after snorkeling/scuba
The boys after snorkeling/scuba

For dinner, we chose a Jamaican restaurant, Jambals. The jerk chicken and pork was great, spicy but not too hot. It’s low season for tourists, but there were still lots of folks out at the bars, also watching the world cup soccer games. The strong winds have kept the temperatures very tolerable, and I haven’t noticed any mosquitos so far, although I’m still suffering from bites I got before we left Austin.

Today is Sunday, and the local electrical utility is doing some major work, so the power has been out since 6am and is supposed to be back on by 3pm. This hasn’t cramped our style at all, we are planning to rent a golf cart to drive around town, after the boys are done playing in the pool.

— We are back from our trip with the golf cart, had a great lunch at Estel’s on the beach, we had barbeque and the location was perfect. Then we took a ride in our golf cart to the southern part of the island. Looks like it was hit hard by the end of the real estate bubble, but still has lots of nice houses and condos. Mike walked through the Mayan ruin site we forgot to bring bug spray and I’m a mosquito magnet so the boys and I waited for him. Lobster fest starts tonight in San Pedro, so we will be heading up for dinner tonight to see if we can get lobster!

Andrew enjoying his meal and the view
Andrew enjoying his meal and the view

— We enjoyed a nice lobster dinner and the boys got papusas at Waruguma restaurant.  The boys enjoyed watching them make the papusas.

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Berlin Day 3: Of monuments and memory

I started rather late today, with breakfast at Schwarzes Cafe on Kantstrasse, a nice spot for eggs and hot chocolate:

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I then went for a walk through the Tiergarten on my way to the German Holocaust memorial.  The Tiergarten is a beautiful, peaceful space in the middle of a busy city. I discovered that they have refurbished several monuments that were badly damaged during the war, but you can still see bullet damage:

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Mozart, and Beethoven
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Goethe

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The next stop was at the Holocaust memorial, it’s a very large space and it was teeming with young people, as usual:

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I had heard about a new memorial to homosexuals who were also victims during the Holocaust, the monument was a little hard to find, but poignant, inside the box a video of same-sex couples kissing plays:

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I ended up at Potsdamer Platz and hung out for a bit before my conference started with a reception at the Canadian Embassy – had many interesting discussions about immigration, discrimination and the role of cities in integrating immigants. As I rode home in a taxi, I had an interesting discussion with my young Turkish driver who complained that despite his college degree he was discriminated against in Germany and that many of his friends were planning to leave Germany once they got their degrees…a story I have heard many times. Despite Germany’s history, there is little recognition of the issues of discrimination today…

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Sony Center
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Canadian Embassy
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Old friend (Simon Woolley) and new friends
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Sunset view from the top of the Circus Hotel – BBQ and brew

 

Berlin Day 2: Connecting with history

Since my first trip to France in 1986, and in particular visiting the Normandy beaches at that time, I have had a sense of the often overwhelming presence of history when visiting cities like Berlin, Paris or London.  With the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings being commemorated this weekend, the events of WWII are even more present. Germany has a particular history with the tragic and horrific discrimination which led to mass murder and genocide. It is something that can’t be avoided when walking through Berlin, but there is a much deeper history here which also needs to be understood as part of the broader context of this ever-changing city.

I started my second day in Berlin with a trip to the East…exiting the U-Bahn at Alexanderplatz and into major construction.  It has been many years since reunification, but the city is still re/building some infrastructure and the U-5 U-Bahn line is a major project that will do a better job of connecting a once-divided city.

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The skyline here is dominated by the Fernsehturm (TV tower) and also the cranes that indicate new construction.  However, I wanted to take a step into the past, and headed past the Berlin Rathaus (city hall)

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and on to the Nikolaiviertel, which is an area that was badly damaged during WW II and rebuilt in the 1980s.  The area is full of quaint shops and cafes

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The quarter is dominated by the St. Nicholas Church (Nicholaikirche) and I decided to do the tour of the interior for the first time. As I listened to the audio tour, I couldn’t help but be saddened, because the tour revealed more about what had been lost than anything else.  So many artifacts, were damaged and destroyed during the battle for Berlin, and although the restoration was admirable, it is a prime example of a historical legacy that can’t be replaced. I had a similar feeling visiting Dresden four years ago, where many of the historical buildings had only been replaced a few years earlier.

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As I walked away from the area, I happened to pass by yet another protest.  This one turned out to be a group of refugees who have been taking refuge in a school in Kreuzberg and are hoping to get their papers and avoid deportation – since this woman spoke in English I include the video here:

They are part of a group called Refugee Strike Berlin.  I found it interesting and the blocking of a street in a tourist area in the middle of the day is clearly calling for attention.  I intend to do more research into what is happening with this group. They also had speakers from the Roma community.

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Next I walked towards the Berlin Cathedral, an imposing structure that will soon be joined by the Berlin Schoss (Castle) which is being built across the street – I had seen that this area was becoming a construction site and was interested to see the new development. My understanding is that there will be a new, large space for a German history museum.

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There was some interesting art along the way, as I walked near Humboldt University and back toward the West

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I made a stop to enjoy a chai tea and look in a book shop – managed to leave with only one new book, but got lots of ideas of books I want to order when I get home, particularly on German history.  The next stop was Checkpoint Charlie, another reminder of the city’s history of division:

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I was getting tired, but saw the sign that I wasn’t far from the Topography of Terror – an outdoor exhibition in an area where many on the Nazi administration had been housed, as well as a documentation center. The focus of much of the exhibit was the impact of groups that were initially discriminated against and ultimately targeted for extermination, including Jews, Roma (gypsies), and homosexuals. The history is frightening when you realize that normal people were pulled into the evil that the Nazis perpetuated, that went well beyond the war.

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Behind the exhibits is one of the last existing parts of the Berlin wall — the place is haunting in its simplicity and impact… I expect I will write more later as I reflect on this history…the situation of the refugees I described above leaves me wondering how Germans reconcile their past with their present…