Thursday, April 16, 2009

Back in Belize

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Now that we've decided to spend the hurricane season in the Rio Dulce, we've come back to Belize to spend some time out on the reefs diving and snorkeling and other things we just didn't get to this winter, for various reasons.

Things are still a little discombobulated with the blog. So right now I'm going to just post a bunch of photos of signs. Nobody gets excited when I take pictures of them!

And all the pictures should expand if you click on them.

We'll be away from the Internet for a couple weeks. In theory I can send posts, no pictures though, via HF radio. But in practice, like lots of this technological stuff, it's one step forward and two steps back. Maybe it will work.
(or like the missing pictures now, maybe not!




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Cocoplum Development Billboard

And, thank you for reading!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

April is the Hottest Month

Or so the Guatemalans say. Hot because it's the end of the dry season. We'll have something else to complain about shortly, probably the days of rain. If I understood the man in the fishing supply store correctly, that's what cools things down.

But right now it's 95 in the cabin, and I'm worried about food in the locker under the side deck cooking itself - eggs boiled before their time! We need to wear shoes to walk on deck.

Shade is becoming such a big priority that I'm spending my days trying to fit a more proper bimini over the cockpit, under the solar panels. This is a tedious exercise in poached frustration. I even lit a stick of incense (Zen "Soothing") on the sewing machine, then ripped the same seam out three times.
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While I'm cranking away (the machine is on the V-berth, just downwind of the blessedly wind-scooping hatch, I watch the birds.

A retinue of swallows accompanied us through the Rio Dulce gorge. Of all the nesting spots that must be available to them, none, apparently, strikes a deeper chord than the opening of a roller furler drum. They didn't care that it's moving southwest at five knots, away from their native land. It's spring, and they're obeying the swallow imperative, just as I'm obeying mine by trying to make shade.

Yesterday they began to colonize with twigs. I had to stop them - 'it's for your own good!' I told them as I stuffed the hole with a chunk of foam. Now they gather on the bow pulpit to examine this puzzle from every angle. They twitter away, arguing about what should be done (sounds like Twitter in the tech world too.) Finally they decide - nothing - and they move on to the next best thing.

While I'm trying to lash this canvas in place in the cockpit, I get to keep track of the comings and goings in this little bay. There's a small quiet marina with slips along the shore, but most of those people are flown away 'home'.

Then, a few houses around the bay, and a couple creeks entering. If you live here and want to go anywhere, you'll go on the river, lancha for the big trip to town and cayuga for the more local stuff, fishing, visiting, church, even school. On some of this riverfront land I don't think you could actually walk anywhere further than the clothesline. Anchored in the middle, we're on the road to everywhere.

I often hear the murmur of quiet conversation, the drip of water off paddles, the glissando of a cast net settling. One bay over, carpenters sawed and hammered into civil twilight, trying to get the church ready in time for Semana Santa. A troupe of boys splashed around in the water lilies, either to scare fish into their net, or out of sheer exuberance. On Palm Sunday, a woman paddled past singing about Jesus. Two young girls had pan de coco for sale, and a man came with a decent selection of fruits and vegetables laying under a palm frond in the bilge of his cayuga.

It all made me a little ashamed to be hot and grumpy in such a sweet place, so I jumped in the water and floated until I was ready to face the sewing machine again.

Monday, April 13, 2009

North of the Bridge

We spend several days moored upstream of the one and only bridge across the Rio Dulce, at Fronteras. It's been wonderful to jump off the boat at will into fresh water, and in this heat it's a remedy taken regularly!

Upstream is a fort, San Felipe, which had something to do with protecting warehouses of Spanish gold further upstream in Lake Izabel. More information is needed about that - what kind of boats could have made it up, or down the river with treasure without getting picked off?


Downstream is a modern, concrete, 85'tall bridge which carries almost all the vehicular traffic that's anywhere near the river. All the time we've been here there has been what I thought was road work in one spot near the top. There's a striped umbrella and a truck and usually a couple cars, or an 18-wheeler stopped there. (I just Googled the bridge to see if I could find out when it was actually built, and couldn't. I did learn that last year during Semana Santa (Holy Week, just passed!) which is apparently a major party time particularly on the Rio, the bridge was used for bungee jumping. I copied this photo from a travelpod user claudia favre)

We'd heard how wild and crazy things can get during this week, and by the looks of Claudia's picture, we didn't miss a thing by slipping downstream. The Rio Dulce, at least near Fronteras, is gradually becoming a destination for city Guatemalans on vacation. They build nice houses and buy Sea Rays and Silvertons and other floating palaces, then roar up and down, dragging wakes which probably haven't been equalled since the last earthquake, and aren't very kind to docks and river's edge residences.

I made a comment about the striped umbrella on the bridge to a locally-connected gringo who's been on the Rio for almost 20 years and here's what he told me.

"This bridge is a real big deal. It's the biggest bridge in the country. It took a long time and a lot of money to build, and the entire country, not just the people around here, are very proud of it. What you're seeing is a booth where people stop to look around, get their picture taken, and a food stand. Yes, it's a two-lane bridge, with lots of trucks, but people want to stop, and it's accepted. The other traffic just goes around, or it stops too!!

"Things have changed a lot. There's more electric, and cell phones, of course. Lots more outboard motors. Even fifteen years ago there was none of that. You wouldn't have believed this place. An engine in your boat, that was a big deal.

"I know a man down in Livingston. Someone had given him an old engine which he used for a while, until he got a bad batch of fuel and couldn't make it run any more. Luckily he had the sense to cover it with a tarp, but it sat there for quite some time. I was down there one day and saw it and said that maybe we could get this thing going again. So I cleaned it up, changed out a few things, and it started to run again.

"I got in my boat and came straight home. And you know, when I got back up the river to Fronteras, the first thing I heard was 'Hey, how you put the spirit back in that man's engine?"

"There was no way anyone could have come here faster, and there were no phones, no roads, nothing. So I'm still wondering, how did they put the spirit in the news?"

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sweet Water

We turned our backs to the sea and headed up the Rio Dulce through the outskirts of Livingston, admiring the houses mostly built directly on the river, some on stilts, and some only a foot or two above the water, all with boat-ports in lieu of car-ports or garages. No roads, remember? And no traffic noise.

Then I realized that we were on a highway after all, but the other vehicles were mainly cayugas, paddling or fishing under the overhanging branches. When I say cayuga, I mean dugout canoes with freeboard measured in single-digit inches. They move surprisingly fast, up the shaded edges.

Every so often a bus would roar past - lanchas loaded with people, sometimes tourists (pink!), taking the ride from Livingston to Fronteras. The lanchas are long lean outboard-powered fiberglass, up to 30 feet and they do the heavy work. They usually don't leave much wake, but nothing seems to unsettle the cayugas.

When we got to the gorge part of the river, green and sometimes cliff-walled, hills of varying hues marching off beyond, we just kept saying Wow, this is neat, or some such mundane exclamations of surprise and pleasure, bend after bend. It wound on for five or six miles, mostly deep (50') water, full of white herons and other birds.
After the cliff section, scattered houses appeared, many of them, despite their palm frond roofs, clearly not built for local residents. Sometimes the mouth of a stream,a small store, a restaurant, or pentecostal church (solid concrete).



Eventually we came to a shallower and wider 'lake', the Golfete, rimmed by mountains a bit farther off. It was absolutely still, beyond the sweet song of frogs and birds. I had the eerie sensation of having climbed to a plateau in the clouds, and can't shake the feeling that I'm not at sea level any more. But we didn't have that much current against us, and water seeks its own level, doesn't it?

It's such a different world that I can see why people (other than insurance agents) have no concern about hurricanes here. I hadn't visualized the scale of the place - our destination was still another ten miles off, and beyond that lies a 30-mile long fresh water lake, Izabel, largest in Guatemala.


When people talk about the Rio Dulce, their comments are always prefaced by "You'll love it. It's so beautiful, and the people are so nice." Spending the hurricane season here clearly won't be a hardship!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Over the Bar


As I said, we’ve come to Guatemala to look for a place to hide during hurricane season. People do stay in the Caribbean through hurricane season, keeping an eye on the weather. But I don’t want to be looking over my shoulder all the time, especially when there’s new adventure to be had inland.

The mere idea of a commodious fresh water inland highway is plenty attractive and the reality doesn’t disappoint.

But of course, for this to be a good story, there must be some struggle or danger, so let me now mention the famous bar that runs across the mouth of the Rio Dulce. Its controlling depth is about five and a half feet, and there’s a tidal range of a foot and a half. So, pick the right time and our six feet,and beyond, can come in, if of course, we also pick the right place!

There is one sea buoy, which may or may not have been moved in the last decade. There are scraps of paper handed from boat to boat listing GPS waypoints that have worked for them. But the best advice we got was not to slow down too much or we’d find pushing through the mud more difficult. And it was nice to have a boat ahead of us, even if it was shallow draft, just for scale.

So we plowed on through, dodging fish trap floats made of soda and outboard oil bottles. Wood smoke, and the smell of drying fish, scented the air, and the binocular tour revealed a pleasantly ramshackle waterfront and a small town rising up the hill. There are cars here, but not many, since there isn’t a road to Livingston and all its business (mainly fishing and tourism by the looks of it) is done by lancha and cayuga.

Here, the customs, immigration, port captain, health, etc come aboard. There’s an agent, Raoul, who organizes it all, including the boat to bring them, so it’s quite expeditious. The health officer noted that we showed no signs of fever, vomiting or diarrhea. The customs officer was busy on his cell phone, and immigration wore high heels. The boatman noted that we did not have a courtesy flag, and undertook to provide us with one, for a fee, when we went ashore to pick up our papers. His English was good because he’d worked in a New York car wash, until he got deported.