January 18: Red Bank, Scarlet Macaws, Gray Skies
My last nature trip in Belize was a good one, very strange
and jungly. We (Godfrey the guide, a couple from Las Vegas and
me) started out from Dangriga a little before 6:00 am to drive
to Red Bank, a Mayan/Indian village south of here so we could
get there while the Scarlet Macaws were “findable”
during their morning feeding time. Scarlet Macaws are apparently
entirely predictable in their patterns. When the fruit of a certain
tree is ripe, whatever flock of 20 to 75 or so birds has staked
out that territory will feed there from dawn until exactly 9:00
am every morning and then they go somewhere else to rest for
the day. There are a dozen or so of these trees in the area around
Red Bank, some quite easily accessible (a quarter mile walk and
a short climb), others further away from the village. What is
not entirely predictable is the ripening of the fruit.
When we got to the village, we parked and were stared at for
a while and the village mayor (?) was fetched from wherever he
was and he and Godfrey had a talk. Eventually it came out that
though he was embarrassed, the Scarlet Macaws were not feeding
at any of the three or four trees nearby because the fruit wasn’t ripe
yet. The birds had done a fly-by earlier in the week, he said,
but didn’t land at all. However, there were some more trees down
by the river that more than likely had ripe fruit. But we’d have
to walk some and also he advised us to have a local guide. We
followed in the car as another man on a bicycle rode up the road
a ways to the home of the guide, who was available and was willing
to take us.
Then ensued some interesting negotiations. Not about the money
(which was very reasonable at BZ $30 for a half-day), but about
the fact that this guide was not licensed. Since Godfrey is the
President of the Tour Guides Association and also on the licensing
board, he was reluctant to have a non-licensed guide. Also he
didn’t want them saying they had a guide if he wasn’t licensed.
Back for a consultation among Godfrey, the mayor, the go-between
and the “guide,” a Mopan Mayan about 35 years old named
Anthonasio, called “Tonno.”
A short aside about Mayan names. Surnames are really short.
Here are some common ones – Cal, Coc, Shal, Chee, Choc, Sho
(the equivalent of Smith), Teul, Mas, Pop. This seems very strange
to me for a culture which has a very complex language and complicated
names for concepts, space and time, for example. Just another
mystery to be explored some other time.
Anyway, the upshot of the negotiations was Tonno showed some
of his certificates and agreed to apply for a Site-Specific guide
status and Godfrey agreed to give him his field test on our trek
and also pay him for guiding – a generous offer, I gather.
My favorite of Tonno’s certificates was one for Avitourism Expertise.
But they weren’t kidding. This guy knew waaaay more about birds
than the books. Before I tell about the trek through the jungle,
I’ll tell you some about the village of Red Bank.
The village has a population of about 500. It’s a farming
community that is also working to develop their proximity to
the Macaw-attracting trees and the other resources of the rainforest
into a small eco-tourism destination. The plan had a set-back
three years ago when the farmers’ land clearing”slash and
burn” technique got away from them and burned a lot of the
surrounding countryside and a large hunk of the jungle. Never
fear, the cohune palm is fire-resistant and everything else grows
really fast. Second-growth in this part of the world is 20 feet
high in three years.
The villagers mostly get around by bicycle and horse and the
paths through the fields and jungles are just wide enough. They
have electricity, there’s one telephone in the village and two
vehicles. They grow almost everything they need. Tonno told us
proudly that his parents bought only two things – salt and
clothes. Besides what you normally think of – chickens, pigs,
corn for animals and people, vegetable garden, fruit trees etc.
– they had coffee plants, sugar cane, peppers for flavoring,
all kinds of plants for medicinal purposes. He said if anyone
had told them you could get salt by allowing sea water to evaporate
they would have been even happier.
Some people in the village
still live like this, but as I said, they are trying to bring
in some actual money from tourists. These efforts are necessarily
cooperative. It’s kind of like socialism. It’s a lot like socialism.
Tonno and another guy have been chosen to be the guides because
they already knew a lot about birds and plants, someone is the
bookkeeper, everyone works on building and clearing up, etc.
of the common resources. I gather you give some time every week
to the common projects. Tonno said he was supposed to work on
the cabana that morning, but since we came and he was acting
as a guide, he would have to do it later. I don’t know if he
gets to keep the guide money or not.
They have built (and are constantly improving) a cabana on
the side of the hill above a nice little creek, sort of tucked
into the forest about a quarter mile from the village. It has
running water, screens, beds, etc. – all things the villagers
do without. There’s also a little common room building that is
the kitchen, restaurant and living room. They plan to build more
cabanas if this one makes any money. I think it would be a wonderful
place to spend a day or two, sleeping beside the creek and wandering
through the fields and forests. As Tonno said “Once you
get here, you’re absolutely safe.”
Speaking of wandering through the fields and forests, we started
off on our “walk” by trailing along a track with fields
on one side and rainforest on the other. For the first bit,
we hiked along at a pretty good clip. When we came to the next
tree where there also were no ripe fruits and no Scarlet Macaws,
I guess Tonno fell back to Plan B, because then we started to
stop and look at birds, butterflies and plants. By then we were
into jungle, no fields anymore.
Tonno gave me and Rosa Mayan
tattoos, done by pressing a coiled fern leaf against your skin.
It leaves its design in white powder. Very pretty, but it washes
off in the rain. Oh yes, this is the rainforest where they get
140 inches of rain a year. And we got about two inches of it that
day. When it got too heavy, we sheltered under a palm tree, or
sometimes we picked big leaves and used them as umbrellas. Neither
one of these techniques is particularly effective. I had a rain
jacket, which was soaked through in no time; the others only
had hats. Tonno had a large garbage bag, which he was then forced
to share around. But it’s warm so it doesn’t really matter if
it’s not coming down so heavily that you can’t see where you’re
So we wandered through the forest/jungle for about three miles
and didn’t see any macaws. The path didn’t really go to the river,
so we had to sort of crash through the underbrush, but there
were no macaws there either. I felt bad for the Nevadans who
had timed their trip especially to see the Scarlet Macaws, but
we saw at least 40 species of birds, and plenty of them exotic
– trogons, toucans, beautiful long-tailed woodpeckers. Plus
dozens of hummingbirds, many of whom buzzed us for being where
we apparently shouldn’t have been.
We rested at the river for
awhile and admired a nice little falls and a very picturesque
stretch of rapids. Then tromped back through the jungle, again
looking at birds and plants and getting rained on. Of course,
we all know that the rainforest produces many, many useful plants
and Tonno was also most knowledgeable about them. Actually I
think he was showing off a bit for Godfrey’s “field test”
challenge. But their little competition made for a very interesting
trip and Godfrey was gracious and told Tonno that he had learned
a lot too.
A most satisfactory, if tiring, day. We finally got lunch
about 3:00. It had been a long, long time since breakfast. We
discovered the coast in the clutches of a severe “norther”
with high winds and high seas and lots of rain. The storm went
on all night and things are still pretty unsettled. So I’ll not
be coming home with that tan I was going to work on these last
few days. My tan now is (and will remain) pretty funny -
feet and ankles, hands and arms up to the T-shirt sleeves, face
and back of the neck (but not the part that used to be covered
by hair). Just exactly the “old lady tan” that I remember
swearing I would never have when I was about 25. Oh well.
I get another “last fling” tomorrow, a day trip
to Belize City to do the tourist thing around the British colonial
buildings and maybe pick up a few souvenirs. I won’t have time
to write about that before I come back though. Everyone send
warm thoughts on Friday night and Saturday to help with my re-entry
into the cold Northwest. TIA (geekspeak for thanks in advance).