Saturday, May 31, 2008

First day working on the kayak

Today started out sunny but quickly clouded over and by mid-morning there were sporadic showers. I was up early and since the forecast said rain later in the day I wanted to get in enough kindling to last a few days as the rain is staying for awhile I think.

Mike and I met on the road to the Garden House and he showed me where he wanted to put in a pond and where Terry and Katimavik had started a solar house in the woods back in the '80s. Terry had this idea to use earth concrete but it did not work out well, it all crumbled. They put a regular concrete wall on top of the earth concrete and when the earth concrete crumbled, parts of the concrete wall collapsed. You can still see the out roughly circular outline of the house though.

Our first task at the Garden House was to clean it up. While Mike tacked the electric wiring back onto the walls I swept and vacuumed. We mounted the kayak hull upright on two sawhorses and cleared the large table it had been sitting on as a work area. Mike made a list of all the things that were missing or needed.

We broke for a brief lunch and then drove over to Peter's place to check his barn for the missing and needed parts, a centre frame for the kayak hull, some wood flour (sawdust from a belt sander) and a drill (borrowed).

Back at the Garden House we inserted the centre frame piece into the kayak hull, now lying upright on the sawhorses. There were glue marks where it was supposed to be, Mike doesn't remember why it was removed. We wrapped 4 pieces of string around the hull, two on either side of the centre frame, and tied a knot in each string. Using two sticks of wood inserted between each pair of strings, we twisted each pair of strings together to pull the hull sides tight against the centre frame ends. When the hull was tightened snug against the frame we glued the frame onto the hull using a glue gun and craft glue. When the glue had cooled and hardened we removed the strings.

Then we laid the two centre deck panels out on top of each other on the table, so that the outer deck sides were inside facing each other and all the edges were lined up. I drilled tiny holes every six inches and about a quarter of an inch from the edge all along the centre seam side of both panels. Then more holes lined up with the first set along the outer edges of the deck panels. We then laid the two panels out as they would be on the deck, with the centre seam sides lined up and touching. We inserted small wires, about 3" long, into each pair of holes and gave them a single twist to hold. Well, Mike did, I however neglected the single twist part and when we went to lift the two wired panels onto the hull, all the wires on my side went flying. We had to put it back on the table and rewire my side, this time twisting the wires to stay put.

By this time Ruth had arrived with Mike and Ruth's son Eirin, who helped us put the centre deck panels in place on the hull. Then we laid the side strips out along the outer edges of the centre panels and Mike drilled two holes in each side strip on either side of its middle seam (all of the panels and strips making up the kayak are in two pieces epoxied together at the ends, so that there is a seam running around the hull and deck in the middle of the kayak), lined up with the two holes drilled on either side of the middle seam of the deck panels. We wired those holes, joining the side strips to the centre deck panels at the middle on either side of the kayak. We laid the strips out along the edges of the deck panels so that you could see how the kayak was going to look when it was finished. At this point it was windy and cold and wet and time to quit for day. We closed up the Garden House and went back to our respective houses in the woods.

Later I came by Mike's house to pick up a frozen gel pack from their freezer and Mike was out looking at his garden so we chatted a bit and then I headed up the path to my place but stopped to photograph some Sensitive Ferns (Onoclea sensibilis) by the side of the path.

Mike came into the woods and pointed out a couple of other plants, including a scarlet trillium with huge leaves (Trillium erectum, variously called Red or Purple Trillium, Birthroot or Wake-robin) and one he thought might be some kind of Gooseberry and I thought might be in the genus Ribes. It turns out it was Ribes cynosbati, the Prickly Gooseberry.

I am trying to relearn the plants here. I used to know them all back in the early '80s when I was working on my biology degree. But I haven't really done any botanizing since then so I've lost most of what I knew. But it is coming back fast now. I frequently remember Latin names for things but not common names, so I am trying to learn the common names as well. I gave myself a quota, three new plants a day to learn. This is such an excellent time to be here to do that! Right now I am wondering if I should up my quota to five plants a day.

Mike says it is supposed to get quite windy tonight, gusting up to 90 kph from the southwest. He says this is the kind of wind that takes down trees, I hope none come down tonight.

Mike has lived here since the mid-70s, he has learned a lot about these woods and this place. When he first came here he spent a fair bit of time with Sam Schofield, a local farmer in his 70s, and I think he learned a lot from Sam about farming and the woods. Sam used to ride his tractor back into the woods to visit Mike. I think Sam passed on a lot of what he knew to Mike. And now Mike has lived here long enough to have learned a lot himself, he has become quite an expert in his own right.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Settling in, getting started

My main reason to be here is to build a kayak. Last fall I talked to Mike about a partially built wood kayak he had and was willing to sell. I told him I would be back in the spring to build it. Mike has built kayaks in the past but doesn't anymore. I guess he quit in mid-kayak, so to speak. When I was in the Harbour on Sunday he gave me a set of instructions for completing the kayak and a shopping list of materials I would need. The main item was a gallon of epoxy.

After some searching on the internet I managed to find a source for the epoxy in Dartmouth and on Tuesday drove down to pick it up. Mike had estimated the cost at around a hundred dollars, but it came in closer to a hundred and seventy, another casualty of rising oil prices I guess.

I also had to get in firewood. It is still pretty cool here, going down to 5C or 6C at night and rising to maybe 15-18C during the day. One fire in the morning is really all I need, the house stays warm for the rest of the day and I don't mind the cold at night.

Mike cut down a dead maple on the rental property and junked it up into stove lengths and told me I could have it if I wanted. I just had to pick it up in my truck. It was supposed to rain on Wednesday so after my trip to Dartmouth to get the epoxy I hurried back to the Harbour to get the maplewood in before the rain.

Tuesday night I was moved in, with my gallon of epoxy, about a month's worth of firewood and a couple of pails of water from the spring that will be my water source. Fritz and Carolyn's house in the Harbour has electricity, but no phone, internet or running water. The toilet is an outhouse.

On Wednesday I spent the day just unpacking and wandering around in the woods looking at all the plants just starting to emerge.

Lots of ferns and sarsaparilla unfurling, elderberries with purplish flowerbuds, and clintonia and bunchberries and mayflowers with their first few flowerbuds.

I wandered around the old site of my house, now a grassy clearing in the woods. It had been surrounded by birches and everyone said it was a miracle that those birches were untouched by the fire.

But it turns out they were touched, it just took them a decade or so to die. Now only one of them remains alive, and it looks like it is on its last legs.

In the evening I went into town to have dinner with Carolyn at Paddy's and listen to the Hupman Brothers. Whew! Loud!

Afterward I drove back up the mountain and, not wanting to back into the narrow winding driveway through the woods, I parked the truck the wrong way. I turned on the inside light to get all my stuff together to walk the hundred yards to the house. Unfortunately I neglected to turn that light off and didn't notice its soft glow inside the truck on my walk back to the house. Didn't think about it again until the next day in the mid-afternoon when I wanted to turn the truck around and park it properly, and discovered that the battery was now quite dead (but that damn light was still glowing). Great.

Parked the way it was jumper cables were just not going to reach the battery, this was going to be complicated. However, when Mike got home from work he told me he had extra long cables, so using my short ones and his long ones we successfully jump started the truck. I then went on an impromptu hour-long tour of the Fundy coast to recharge my battery. At current gas prices this was a rather expensive error, hopefully it will stick in my memory!

I am so happy to be here. I almost don't want to start the kayak, I am enjoying just walking around in the woods too much. The black flies are a bit much right now, but nothing a little DEET can't handle. But on Thursday I finally sat down and read through the instructions and talked them over with Mike. Today (Friday) I have to go into town to buy yet more stuff for the kayak, so maybe I'll find a WiFi hotspot and post this blog entry.

Tomorrow Mike and I will start cleaning up the Garden House where the kayak hull now sits.

The electric wiring of the building is rather precarious, that will be the first thing to clean up. After that I guess I'll start working on the kayak deck.

At the moment this project looks daunting. I have never done anything like this, I know next to nothing about boatbuilding. Even reading the instructions was scary, they seem to assume considerably more knowledge and skill than I have.

In a way this reminds me of technical writing projects, that scary first moment when I know nothing at all about the project or what is required or where to get the information. I don't even know what questions to ask! But slowly it unfolds. For me, the trick is to get that crucial first fact that is the way in. Like finding the right strand to pull on to begin unraveling snarled yarn. A lot of just picking at it to begin with, trying to loosen it up and see some kind of pattern.

My main source of information will be Mike, when he is available. I bought a couple of books on Amazon, and I have Mike's written instructions. When I was in Dartmouth buying the epoxy, the fellow in the marine store showed me a book called Kayak Construction Manual written by a local guy. He didn't know where it was sold but I wrote down the title and author's name and will search for it on the internet. Later, talking to an old friend, I mentioned the book and its author and my friend said he used to go to school with the guy. Very small world here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

My new home in the Harbour

My blog posts are going to be somewhat sporadic now, I don't have regular internet access. But I will definitely post when I can. Since starting this blogging process I find my internal conversation chattering on as if I was mentally writing my blog. If only there was some technology for transferring those mental conversations to my blog without having to actually sit down in front of a computer and laboriously type them up and then find an internet connection to transfer them here!

I arrived in Wolfville late on Thursday night and spent the next couple of days doing not a heck of a lot. Saturday morning I went with Carolyn to the Wolfville farm market to pick out some plants for Carolyn's garden and run into folks and have coffee and some lunch. Then we went off to the local strip mall to do some more "conventional" shopping, including a women's summer clothing sale at Zeller's. We tried on various shirts and pants and I ended up buying a couple of shirts that I didn't really need (but the sale price was so good!). On Sunday we made a chicken dinner for Carolyn's sister and parents after church, although for various reasons Carolyn's parents didn't come. I missed Carolyn's parents but it was a nice chance to reconnect with her sister Heather.

Later on Sunday I went up to Baxter's Harbour to drop off most of my stuff at the house I was going to be living in for the next month or two. The previous occupant, Dennis, was moving out the last of his things when I arrived. There was a small get together of neighbours next door at Mike and Ruth's place, apparently trying out a hammock tent. After some chat and unpacking I had dinner with Mike and Ruth and then headed back down to the Valley. On Sundays Carolyn's sister Heather runs a Women's Drumming Circle at her home, I went there for a rousing session of Djembe drumming. Then Ruth and Carolyn and I headed down to Paddy's for Celtic night where Mike plays his Celtic drum.

Baxter's Harbour is located on the shore of the Bay of Fundy, on the North Mountain of the Annapolis-Cornwallis Valley. From the Harbour you can see Cape Split, the backside of Blomidon, and Parrsboro across the Bay. It was named for a Dr. Baxter who was also a sea captain who had a ship moored here. It was once a harbour for sailing ships that plied the Bay and the coast of New England. Further up the coast from Baxter's Harbour is Black Hole; there are tales of buccaneers and smugglers using Black Hole as a hidden harbour to moor their more clandestine ships.

When I first came to Baxter's Harbour in 1975 it was a small village in serious decline. Most of the residents belonged to one of three families, the Schofields, Irvings and McCullys. The Schofields and Irvings were mostly farmers, the McCullys mostly fishermen. The fishing was not so great, farming was only slightly better, growing potatoes and cabbage in thin stoney soil. Then there was us, the hippies in the woods. A small group bought about a hundred acres in the early '70s from Willy Schofield, part of his old woodlot. It had no road frontage, so he included a right-of-way across his property to the land. In 1975 we built or started 5 or 6 "houses" in those woods, to the great amusement of Willy and his brother Sam. My house burned down in 1993, Terry and Jeanie's house was abandoned, as was Peter and Beth's. They still stand but are beyond salvage.

Mike has occupied his house continuously since that summer, Fritz and Carolyn's house has not been occupied continuously but it has been kept up. More property was bought to give the land road frontage, and a couple of the original members of the group now own houses on the road. A third house was bought and rented out, with the hope that eventually that property could be used as a real road into the property. Currently they still use the old right-of-way to get onto the land. Willy and Sam are long gone, but the right-of-way is still there.

Today Baxter's Harbour is reviving, a number of people have "discovered" it as a nice little retirement spot on the Bay of Fundy. The United Church used to conduct services in the small local church building until attendance declined, and then they shut it down. The local community got together and made an offer to the Church for the buildings and land and that offer was accepted. The Church even pitched in some money to repair the old Community Hall so that it could be used for community suppers. The old cemetery is maintained by the community and funerals and burials are still conducted in the church building next to it. But there are no stores or shops in the Harbour, the nearest shops are in Canning about 15 km away, and the nearest gas station another 10 km away in Greenwich.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The road to Acadia

I left Toronto in my fully packed truck on Tuesday afternoon, headed to my brother's place in Barrie, about an hour north of Toronto. I had promised I would visit him before I left for Nova Scotia. My intention was to leave first thing in the morning, but packing for a long trip being what it is, it was almost 3pm before I finally headed out. At the end I was just throwing things in the truck, afraid I'd never get out at all! Of course on the drive to Barrie I started remembering each item I had forgotten to pack. Spring jacket, well I think I can get by without it. Goretex jacket, well I did pack a spare raincoat so I suppose I can live without that too. The roof rack... hmmm, I don't think I can get by without that. I am headed to Nova Scotia to build a kayak, and I want to bring the kayak back to Toronto with me, I really can't see how I will attach it securely to the truck without the roof rack. Damn!

By this time I am outside Toronto, and it has taken me a good 45 minutes to get out of the city. Rush hour is descending and there is just no way I want to turn around for the roof rack and then sit out rush hour so I can arrive at my brother's place still reasonably sane but late at night. Double damn!

So continuing to drive north, I mentally search for a Plan B. Go back to Toronto tomorrow. Well, this is not a pleasant prospect, but it is doable. I'll still get to Nova Scotia by the end of the week, my target date. So that is what I settle on.

I had a wonderful but brief visit with my brother and sister-in-law. Laurene's Mom Madeleine is in respite care so they are on holiday! They are really relaxed and happy. My brother and I spend some time reminiscing over our childhoods, I am so grateful to have a sibling with common experiences! I run my roof rack problem by him and he agrees that returning to Toronto is really the only option. Briefly I toy with the possibility of doing without the roof rack, but it just doesn't make sense.

So on Wednesday I return to Toronto for the roof rack (and the Goretex jacket), Isaac makes me a cup of coffee and I prepare some sandwiches for the trip. And I'm off again, this time by noon. My plan is to break the trip up into three legs, arriving in Wolfville Nova Scotia mid-afternoon on Friday. The weather is cool with sporadic rain showers, actually very cool with a risk of frost at night. But since my truck is not air conditioned this is perfect driving weather for me. And I love sleeping in the back of the truck when it is cold, all bundled up in a sleeping bag and comforter with only my nose exposed. I have built a small bed with storage space underneath in the back of the truck (the canopy), And a kind of bedside shelf with little lamp and all the things I may need in the night within easy reach. It's a cosy space, and in a pinch I can even cook a meal in there if there is heavy rain.

There is something very relaxing and enjoyable about driving all day. When I reach my first overnight spot, it seems too soon, I just don't want to stop. And remembering something my brother said about how driving through Montreal late at night is far preferable to any other time of day, I decide to just keep going, get through Montreal and start looking for a place to park overnight after that.

Montreal is a driving nightmare. I'm sure it is a wonderful city to live in, I've heard lots of good things about it, but there is just no way to get to Nova Scotia on the Canadian side of the border without passing through Montreal, and it is white knuckles all the way. Complicated highway system, heavy traffic, signs in French which I have to take time to translate (too often discovering I should have made a left turn at the sign, when I am already several hundred yards past it), constant lane changes required, and crazy French drivers who zip in and out and glare at my obviously non-Quebecois truck. Very scary. I'd rather drive through in the dark when the traffic is a little more sane and I have time to read and translate the signs. No matter how many times I do this trip I still cannot memorize the complex route through.

While driving through Montreal I pass a very large field full of snow! The snow is piled in long mountain ranges easily 30 feet in height, and is black not white. The snow is covered in dirt scraped from city streets during the winter. I wonder how long it will take to melt...

Once outside Montreal I am free on the Autoroute. It is still light out and I believe I can put a fair number of kilometres behind me before I stop to sleep. One thing Quebec has is good highway rest areas, although more and more of them are being closed. I will drive till I am tired or it is dark, whichever comes first, and then head to the nearest rest area. That turns out to be just past Quebec City. It is cold and rainy and I just transfer myself from the cab to the canopy, put up my "curtains" (old bedsheets with velcro strips that attach to matching velcro strips inside the canopy) and go to bed with earplugs, to shut out the sound of the big semis running their engines overnight. I feel safe here, surrounded as I am by half a dozen huge trucks, albeit with running engines.

I'm awake at 5.30am on Thursday morning, shades of Belize! I putter around repacking and making cereal and yogurt for breakfast. I left a window open overnight by my bed and it rained heavily so there is a big wet spot I have to dry out. My curtain helped to keep me dry, but my foam mattress is a bit wet, as is the curtain. By 7am I'm back on the highway.

I do love these road trips. I love to listen to CBC radio and daydream and watch the scenery go by. I love to see the changes. Most of the St. Laurence corridor is experiencing about the same stage of spring as Toronto, lilacs in bloom everywhere. I see the few remaining stately elm trees. And finally the huge expanse of the St. Laurence estuary, so wide I can hardly see the other side.

While listening to the radio in the truck I chanced upon a talk being given on NPR. I came in on it right in the middle so I did not catch the name of the woman speaking, I listened in rapt attention, hoping I would not lose the signal before I got the name of the speaker. It turned out to be Frances Moore Lappe, talking about her latest book. Something about Getting a Grip? It sounds excellent though. I have made a note to look for it. Its focus is democracy in the U.S., but she is talking about far broader issues, applying to the whole world. What a wonderful lucid woman!

At Riviere du Loup I turn south to New Brunswick and there is an abrupt change in the scenery. Rolling farmland suddenly gives way to rocks and spruce trees and leafless birches and poplars. Spring has not arrived here yet! It seems strange to see bare trees. Gone are the farms. Here and there the pale yellow haze of trees about to leaf out. I feel suddenly transported to northern Canada, the boreal forest of short evergreen trees and exposed granite outcrops. This is the Canadian wilderness I love, it seems odd to be driving south now.

Sometime around 11am I cross into New Brunswick. I stop at a lovely rest area by a river to make a burrito for lunch and set my clock forward an hour, as I have passed into the Atlantic time zone. I spend the rest of the day driving south through New Brunswick. Some time in the past ten years they completely redid the Trans Canada Highway through New Brunswick, I hardly recognize it. Now it bypasses most of the towns along the way, it is four lanes all the way and it has a huge fence on either side with periodic gates. There are long stretches of highway without any exits or signs of human occupation, just the forest and the fence.

I am guessing this fence is to keep wild animals off the highway. I imagine this fence system running the entire length of the province, separating forever all the non-flying animals of the province into two populations, east and west of the fence. I imagine families separated at the time the fence was built. But never once do I see any roadkill along the highway. The crows and ravens must find some other dinner source.

The old Trans Canada used to take you right into the city of Fredericton, capital of New Brunswick. In downtown Fredericton there's an Odell park, I always got a kick out of driving by that park. But now I don't see Fredericton at all. I also remember the highway out of Fredericton, a two-lane road packed with big trucks and frustrated car drivers tailgating for the chance to pass. Death Alley. This four lane highway makes it safer but more monotonous.

Periodically I catch glimpses of the Saint John River as the highway follows it almost to its mouth. In southern New Brunswick it has flooded its banks, there are long rows of large willows standing in the water. I can see the old highway running along the new shoreline, now paved in a thin layer of mud from when it too was under water.

By evening I am at the Nova Scotia border. I know it is another three hours to my destination, it makes sense to just keep driving. No matter how many times I do this, crossing that border is so exciting to me! I'm back!

Coming south, the land drops away into a huge lowland, the Tantramar Marsh. To the right you see water or the mudflats (depending on where the tide is) of the Minas Basin at the head of the Bay of Fundy. To the left the marsh extends beyond sight, eventually to the Gulf of St. Laurence. Radio and microwave towers rise from the marsh, an eerie sight. You drive across the marsh on a kind of causeway, eventually reaching a rise with the big Cead Mille Failte ("a hundred thousand welcomes") sign, the Nova Scotia border. St. Andrew's cross, blue on white, flutters over the welcome centre. Briefly, you are up on a hill overlooking the marsh, then back down you go on the other side of that little hill. An hour or so later I am in the little town of Truro, and I stop for gas there. Then for the first time in two days I get off the four lane highway and head into the back roads of Nova Scotia.

It's almost dark and this particular stretch of back roads is as complicated as Montreal, but to me it is familiar and inviting. I could stay on the highway a little longer but I really, really want off. The Rawdon Hills are what I've been waiting for since I left Toronto. Stan Rogers wrote and sang a song about this bit of country, just called The Rawdon Hills. The line that sticks in my memory is "The Rawdon Hills, once were touched by gold." A reference to a mini-gold rush that occurred here a couple of centuries ago. But the way he sings it, you can hear the affection in his voice. And I feel it too. Very twisty little back roads, up and down, back and forth. Tiny little shacks, tiny little farms, occasional nineteenth century mansions dot these roads. I have to trust to the road signs, I know that my destination on the other side is a small town called Windsor, I am simply looking for arrows pointing to Windsor. The road is terrible, potholes everywhere. And it is quite dark now, I can't see the potholes coming. If it were daylight the scenery would be wonderful, but that's OK, my memory fills in the darkness. Here, a meandering river. Over there, a limestone cliff appearing to rise out of nowhere. An ancient general store at a crossroads (the arrow tells me, Turn Right). Hayfields, forests, salt marshes and dikes along the rivers because the tide comes in this far.

Then finally, Windsor, and back on the highway again. But now, I am only a few kilometres from Wolfville and this stretch of highway will give me a wonderful vista of Blomidon in the distance, if it were daylight. I know exactly where this vista will occur, my memory fills in the darkness. When Blomidon rises over the last crest in the highway, I know I'm in the Valley.

I arrive in the small town of Wolfville just before 11pm and pull up in front of my friend Carolyn's house. I know she stays up late, no danger of waking her up. But although she knows I am arriving this week, emailing her my arrival time was one of things that fell through the cracks in my haste to get out of Toronto. Anyway, this is Thursday and I would have told her I was arriving Friday. I ring her doorbell and eventually she peers out the window at me, who can it be? Her son who has forgotten something? No, it's me!

Monday, May 19, 2008

She's leaving home...

I'm just about all packed, but it has taken the whole weekend! Can't believe how much I have to do to get ready to leave. But, it's done. Tomorrow I leave for Tim and Laurene's, spend the night there, then on to Nova Scotia.

Today is Firecracker Day, aka Victoria Day, Queen Victoria's birthday. Here in Ontario it's close to Canada Day in importance, the first long weekend of the summer, the first chance for all the little firebugs to set off firecrackers to their hearts' content. Although it is quite cold now, unseasonably so.

Now that we got all our plants in the ground we are worrying that they might freeze, even though the Victoria Day weekend is supposed to be safe. That's the second important thing about the old Queen's birthday, it's the official garden planting weekend at least here in Ontario. Supposed to be well clear of chances of frost. Huh! Hear that weatherman?

Well, so long Toronto, will miss you.

Oh I almost forgot, I wanted to post a photo of the folks I work with at the foodbank. I took this picture at the end of last week's shift. Gonna miss these guys too.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Wash, wax, dig, fence, plant

Washed the truck on Friday, waxed it on Saturday.

Dug up the garden and added some composted manure and peat moss to it on Thursday.

On Friday Isaac and I got some fencing materials for the garden.

On Saturday I helped with the fencing and gardening, Isaac did most of the fence and Gretel did most of the planting.

I planted salad greens in planters and tomatoes in Recycle bins.

We recycled the recycle bins.

Gretel planted zuchinis, carrots, beets and basil.

Tristan planted beans.

Then we all had dinner in the backyard with a neighbouring family.

And I started packing up for the trip to Nova Scotia.

So it's been busy. Well I'm glad the garden is getting planted before I leave.

Friday, May 16, 2008

An evening out, lilac dreams

Just got home from dinner out with a friend downtown.

On my way to dinner I stopped at Active Surplus to buy a gas mask. I know that sounds odd but I think I might need it for working with epoxy and I recalled seeing these masks at Active Surplus a couple of months ago for very cheap so I stopped by to get one. As a result I was late to dinner because Active Surplus is such a fascinating store to browse and I couldn't resist. Some of the handwritten signs describing the mysterious surplus parts are hilarious. A lot of it is electronics surplus, but not all. Like for instance the gas masks.

After dinner I ended up walking home, an hour and a half walk. It was such a lovely evening! And I found a route home that involved some little residential streets I'd never been on before, one street exactly one block long lined on both sides by brick row houses dating from the 1880s. For Toronto, that's old. And the lilacs are out. There is nothing sweeter than a lilac on a warm spring evening. I now fantasize about planting a lilac in our front yard.

When I got home the next door neighbours were busy digging up their front yard for planting. I asked them what they were planting and they said onions. Well, what else do you plant in your front yard? Here I am dreaming of having a lilac tree, and they are planting onions.

So now I am quite tired and ready to go to bed. I will probably not be blogging for awhile, I have a lot to do to get ready for my trip next week. Sorry to put the Belize trip on hold, but I will complete it when I have the time.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Adventures in walking

Recently I read an article about walking in shoes versus barefoot. According to this, shoes are not healthy for feet, no matter how good they are. In fact one study appears to show that expensive shoes do more damage than cheap shoes! The article then talks about footwear available for walking "barefoot".

Ironically, you can spend lots of money to regain the sensation of walking shoe-less. The idea is that you need to use your feet as they were intended to be used, but in this day and age, you also need to protect the soles of your feet from broken glass and other hazards of modern life. To this end you need something on your foot that is very very flexible but puncture-proof. The article describes a couple of shoe options now available for this purpose. I looked them up and one of these shoe options is available from Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) for $80 or $90 (cold weather version). But in thinking about it I realized that I got the same effect from wearing cheap-o Aqua Socks ($7.50 at Canadian Tire).

So for the last few days I've been experimenting with wearing cheap slippers around the house and Aqua Socks outdoors. The slippers are no big deal, I wear them anyway. They are just slip-ons with very thin flexible soles. Really all they do is protect my socks, and I wear the socks to keep my feet warm, since I have rather poor circulation there.

The Aqua Socks are another matter though. Truly, you have to walk differently wearing them. I am definitely noticing that. I am using calf and foot muscles I hardly ever used before, and my feet and calves are aching from that. But it is the kind of ache that I get from muscle use, not from pavement pounding. Because when I don't have cushioned soles, I automatically walk a lot more gently to avoid jarring myself with every step. Gently means flexing my entire foot more, and that seems to involve muscles from my knee down to my toes. In spite of the ache, it feels right, it feels like I am supposed to walk that way.

The down side of this experiment is that I am walking less distance, but using a lot more muscle power to do it, and ending up with sore feet and calves. Assuming I am right, this should be a temporary state of affairs. But I've had to add the purchase of a couple more pairs of Aqua Socks to my ever-expanding To Do list. Seems like it is growing not shrinking, I am adding items faster than I am ticking them off.

I'll just be used to the Aqua Socks when winter comes around again, and then I'll have to decide what to do about cold weather. I don't think Aqua Socks are going to carry me through the winter, not here at any rate.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

One, two, three: move your stuff!

The Brockton Triangle neighbourhood yard sale was on Saturday. We had marvelous weather for it, probably one of the nicest Saturdays in Toronto since my birthday.

At our house some neighbours, Len and Kessa, set up their own yard sale, while we put out boxes of knickknacks and clothing for free or a donation to the Parkdale Foodbank. Tristan spent Friday afternoon baking cookies at his Aunt Sarah's house (yummy chocolate oatmeal macaroons) and set up a cookie and freezie stand in front of the next door neighbour's house. On the other side the two neighbours immediately adjacent also had a lot of stuff for sale on display, so our area was a hotbed of activity. And since Gretel was one of the chief organizers of the entire event, we also displayed a Yard Sale Headquarters sign on the house.

Every time I looked out my livingroom window (upstairs, facing the street), there was a crowd seen on the road below. Kids and dogs played in the street, adults had to walk in the street to get by. And as for the cars that usually speed down our street, they were brought to an excruciating crawl. Some enjoyed it, smiling and waving as they went by. Others were clearly irritated by all that pedestrian activity in their rightful territory.

I watched as a one irate driver made a very dangerous pass of the car in front, at a crowded intersection just past our house. Our street is not a throughway, it is only two blocks long and entirely residential, yet some drivers feel it is their right to use it as speed-demon shortcut.

I wandered around the neighbourhood looking at the other yard sales on, but decidedly ours was the best place to be, with multiple sellers around for chatting, cookies and freezies for nibbling on, and hordes of customers for selling to. I am sure Tristan raked in a small fortune! And after doing a rough count, Gretel thinks we may have raised over a hundred dollars for the foodbank. I am really looking forward to going to the foodbank this week with our haul.

It was kind of funny to watch everyone's garbage get hauled out and sold to neighbours. All the old clothes and furniture and odds and ends got moved from one house to another, and bits of cash flowed in the opposite direction. Some sellers were in awe of what people would actually pay good money for!

At the end of the day a truck came around and collected everyone's leftovers and carted it away for charity. By 5pm you would almost never have known that the event had happened.

I bought an old rocking armchair and a CD writer for my ancient desktop computer (its current CD writer has long since ceased operations). Simon, who sold me the CD writer for one dollar, also said he is due to upgrade to a new computer, and will keep me in mind for passing on his old one. Which is worth even more than the CD writer!

To make room for my new chair, I had to dispose of one section of my old couch, the section that Dobbie and I each claimed as "Our" spot.

Isaac helped me move the couch section downstairs and out to the kerb and then to move the chair into the vacant space. And within half an hour some neighbours came by asking if we would mind if they took it away. Brockton Triangle musical chairs...

A steel bookcase and an old child carseat also disappeared from our kerb sometime after that.

I installed the CD writer and it appears to work fine, yay! Now I can use CDs on the desktop computer!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Birdsong at dawn

I woke up early this morning and decided not to bother trying to go back to sleep. Got dressed, made tea and toast and returned to bed to read.

Outside I could hear robins chirping. They seem to come on full bore right around dawn (sun rises around 6:00am, but it's light an hour before that), then settle down as the morning light strengthens.

Yesterday morning I heard the cardinal that has been hanging around, and later in the afternoon I heard a red-winged blackbird. There are at least two other birdsongs I cannot identify, I look for the songsters when I hear them, but I cannot see them.

In Belize the grackles were ubiquitous. They are loud, they start at the crack of dawn (same time as Toronto, but closer to sunrise), and they have a variety of cackles, whistles and whoops.

The tropical version of a crow, only a little more mellifluous.

Notice that this grackle appears to have only one leg? Actually he had two, but one was malformed so he kept it tucked in.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The "short" version: my holiday in Belize

This is the first in a series of posts about my trip to Belize, April 26 - May 5.

Follow the links below to see more detailed descriptions of each day's events...

I got home from Belize in the wee hours of May 6, and it seems to have taken me a couple of days to get back on track. Or more, I feel like I'm still working on it.

Anyway, the trip was wonderful, I enjoyed just about every minute of it. Except possibly some of the weird dreams. None I can remember but it sure seemed like there were a lot of them, mostly very weird.

Great little country, wonderful scenery, great trip, learned a lot, met lots of nice people, travelled with a nice bunch, just can't say enough good things. You can Belize it! As they say...

I took a lot of pictures. Several hundred on my digital camera and a couple dozen or so on film cameras that only got sent off for development today. Not holding my breath on those ones: one camera was a disposable underwater camera which I'm sure was fine but my underwater picture-taking skills are pretty sketchy, and the other was an ancient instamatic with almost-as-ancient ASA 400 film in it. I think the camera functioned OK, but the film, well, who knows.

Summary of trip:

(follow the links to more detailed descriptions)

April 26 - arrival and after-dark visit to Belize zoo (they have a lot of nocturnal animals, best seen after dark)

April 27 - bus trip to Dangriga and boat trip to Cocoa Plum Caye, practice our kayak exit and re-entry skills (I've done OK on this before but this time I totally panicked and flailed around; luckily my skirt was loose and all that flailing was successful), then set out on 4 km paddle to Tobacco Caye.

April 28 - kayak and snorkel around Tobacco Caye, funky little island, very fun place

April 29 - kayak and sail (our kayaks were equipped with removable sails; we could sail when the wind was up in the right direction - no keel so no sailing close to or into the wind) to Water Caye and snorkel there

April 30 - kayak to Carrie Bow Caye and visit the Smithsonian Institute Research Station there, snorkel, return to Water Caye for after-dark snorkelling

May 1 - kayak and sail first to a mangrove swamp for mangrove snorkelling, then to a sand flat in the middle of the ocean for lunch (the water was less than a foot deep) and more snorkelling, then kayak back to Cocoa Plum Caye, to stay at the luxurious Thatch Lodge

May 2 - boat back to Dangriga, bus to San Ignacio, near western border with Guatemala

May 3 - cave adventure at Mayan sacred cave: Actun Tunichil Maktun (I may have that name wrong), dinner with some Swedish women I met there

May 4 - bus to Belize City, water taxi to Caye Caulker to spend last day doing nothing at all in a very tourist-y kind of place with son Sam (well, he was in a bit of a funk so we went for a long walk in a very untourist-y swamp to hash it out; swamps are good for something ;-)

May 5 - flew to Belize City to catch flight home. Missed my Houston connection and got a late flight back to Toronto, arriving in the wee hours of May 6.

The first bus trips (April 26, 27) were in tour buses, but the rest were in public buses, an adventure in itself. Very cheap but very crowded, I was often the only white person. Nice thing about Belize though is that just about everyone speaks English, and since I don't speak Spanish, I really appreciated that. Just about the only other whites I ever saw were either tourists or Mennonites, and the ones I saw were the more traditional ones, they looked rather like Amish. The public buses are all old school buses, no doubt retired from North American school systems.

Initially had a bit of trouble with the snorkelling, my mask leaked, the first replacement our guide gave me fogged up but the second replacement worked fine. Thanks Omar! But snorkelling is so wonderful, I absolutely love it. I hear good things about scuba diving too, but for now I'll stick to the snorkelling. You get to float around in these amazing plant and animal communities and they hardly take much notice of you. They see you and they watch you, but they don't get too worried about you being there. It's kind of funny to watch the fish tip themselves sideways so they can look up at you, but they don't swim away. Imagine walking through a forest where all the animals are out wandering about paying no attention to you --- deer, foxes, rabbits, wolves, mice --- such a sense of being part of nature!

Saw the most amazing octopus on our night snorkel, he/she glided over the bottom, enveloping rocks as he went over them, changing from cream to turquoise and back to cream colour again. He was so graceful! So beautiful! So mesmerizing!

Grew new biceps with all the paddling!

Got a tiny bit of a tan, although I am pretty relentless with the sunscreen.

It was really hot, or for me it was really hot. Mostly around 30C every day, maybe 27C at night. My son pointed out that the official motto of the country is "Sub umbra floreo" (under the shade I flourish), which he translated loosely as "we do better in the shade". He said, you have to wonder about a country that takes that as their motto! It did seem very laid back. Jamaican reggae music and rasta culture is very popular there, the phrase you hear the most is "No problem!"

Culturally and ethnically Belize is quite a mix: Mayan, Mestizo (Mayan-Spanish mix), Kriole (African-European mix), Garifuna (African-Arawak-Carib mix), Chinese, Mennonite, and a few others. Our guide Omar for the kayak trip was Kriole, our guide Ben in the Mayan cave was Mestizo. Most folks speak more than one language, English is the official language (and the language of school instruction), Kriole the most common.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Adventures in seeing

I've been catching up on my internet reading.

Mostly I read other blogs, I think I have a "milk route" of about thirty blogs I like to keep up on. Besides the ones I list over on the right:

- Some are about knitting (e.g. - Mason-Dixon, Knitspot),
- Some are eco-rants (e.g. - Little Blog in the Big Woods, Archdruid Report) or political rants (Ran Prieur, Vanity Press - they're not so political really, that's just how I categorized them at the time),
- There's only one food-related blog I follow regularly (Pioneer Woman) but a couple of others I check occasionally,
- A couple of photo-blogs (daily dose, Shorpy),
- A whole lot of elder blogs (e.g. - Serene Ambition, A Little Red Hen),
- A few I haven't categorized, they're just interesting (e.g. - Mathilda's Anthropology, Rebecca's Pocket).

[this is not an exhaustive list!]

Yesterday I put my contacts on instead of my glasses. Normally I wear glasses because:

(a) I've needed glasses most of my life, and
(b) they're easier to slap on than contacts.

In my 30s and early 40s the contacts were nice, it was a revelation to see the world "unframed" and in full colour. But with the onset of later life vision changes, the contacts became more and more difficult. With glasses I could get progressive lenses that allowed me to see both close up and in the distance without difficulty. But with contacts I had to do something called "mono-vision" where one lens is adjusted for seeing close up and the other for distance vision. That worked well at first but has become progressively more problematic. And the new contact lenses are thinner and more difficult to put in.

However, for snorkelling in Belize I needed to wear the contacts because I can't wear glasses inside a snorkel mask and I don't want to invest in a prescription mask. And I was pleasantly surprised by how easily the contacts went in and how well I could see with them. So I thought I'd try to wear them more often at home.

All I can say is, snorkelling is a whole lot different from viewing the internet on a computer.

The mono-vision contact lenses rely on your brain to sort out the two different images you get from the different lenses. For distance, this works OK, but for close-up it's a bit more work. And what I am noticing is a sort of flickering effect while looking at a computer monitor, that makes reading a little harder. I can do it, but it feels like work and I am inclined not to spend too much time working at reading the screen. Which is perhaps a good thing.

It's not exactly flickering, it's hard to describe exactly, but I am guessing it is caused by my brain trying to switch rapidly back and forth between the two images it is getting. Which gives everything a kind of ephemeral, unreal feel to it. Makes "reality" seem a little less "real".

Not unlike what you see wearing those glasses they give you for viewing 3-D movies. A kind of surreal glow to things.

But I couldn't wear them for Thursday night knitting, just not good enough close up vision and by evening my eyes were starting to feel very dry and tired.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Back in Parkdale

This post is not going to be about my trip to Belize, but I will get to it soon. I do have a bunch of things I want to say about that trip.


...This is the first picture I took, at the Belize International Airport.

Welcome to the tropics!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I've been back for two days now and am just starting to get organized again. Seems like the first day was just a daze of disorientation and the second day pretty much taken up with catching up and my foodbank shift. I still haven't managed to get out to do some grocery shopping.

I did start my To Do list for getting ready to go to Nova Scotia though. My plan is to leave here around mid-month, but that's next week and my list is long so I think end of the month is more realistic. As long as it's May though.

I had fun at the foodbank, telling folks about my trip and getting caught up with goings on there. Amy is back, she was away for six weeks travelling in Central America, everywhere except Belize! When I came in she was washing the floor, something she often does on her shift.

I am caught in a bit of a dilemma about giving out food. On the one hand I am aware of how many people are lined up and trying to make the quantities of food last so everyone gets some, but on the other hand we ought to be generous to folks until the supply is gone. And often, I look at the shelves and make a mental calculation based on how much I see there, only to find out mid-shift that actually we have a whole lot more in the basement that we can use up. I never know how much of the stuff in the basement we can use now and how much is for other days of the week that the foodbank is open.

I've been leaning toward making the food last, but one patron yesterday called me "hard" and Dennis said to me that he believed we should be generous with the folks at the front of the line because they waited a long time and ought to be rewarded for that. So I'm thinking about that. It's a complicated issue, I haven't really gone into all the details, suffice to say I might try the "generous" route next time.

One guy came in and told us that he had just gotten out of jail that day, so I did load him up with food, even stuff we were reserving for families with kids. And Robert went down in the basement and dug up some special treats for him. I like that, kind of celebrating his big day.

I mentioned to Daphne, our shift team leader, that I hadn't gotten around to buying groceries yet so she insisted that I take some foodbank food. We had some stuff donated by Costco, large trays of some kind of pasta dinner, french fries, and fruit salad. But we couldn't distribute it because we didn't have containers to serve it in. I was trying to figure out how to take some of the Costco stuff since it was probably going to go to waste anyway. Dennis came up with the idea of using one plastic bag as a kind of glove/serving spoon, and another plastic bag to scoop the pasta into. So I did that for the pasta and the french fries, and Dennis did too (to take a break from cooking). Daphne found some chocolate pudding tubs for me, and I took a loaf of German rye bread (not even expired yet!!!) that was left over at the end of the shift.

It's not great food but it beats shopping and cooking when you're tired. And it makes me feel like "one of the guys" to be eating from the foodbank too. Don't make a regular thing of it because I don't want to take food that other folks need way more than I do, but don't want to be stand-offish about it either.

Changes in Phelan and Dobby

Since returning home I'm noticing a couple of amusing things here.

One is Phelan, my youngest grandson. He is at that stage (he's two) of rapidly learning to talk. And in the ten days I've been away I can hear how much his vocabulary and grasp of communication has improved. Quite impressive.

Before I left he was repeating everything you said, now he is making up with his own sentences independently.

Today he is experimenting with changing my name, from Granne to Grannie. This is a change I don't particularly want to encourage, I like Granne just fine. But he is being quite deliberate about it, as if he made a decision to improve upon my name by the addition of another syllable.

The other is Dobbie, the boxer pup. He's noticeably bigger and starting to look more doggish and less puppyish. He is also visiting me more often, now that Bunny is gone.

Before I left for Belize but after Bunny left, he would come to the foot of my stairs and wait to be called up, but now he comes up on his own. Usually for short visits, he is not inclined to stay up here even when there is no one downstairs.

Downstairs is his home and he appears to know that.

But when he comes up for an extended visit, he immediately moves into "my" spot on the couch.


Going to have to educate him on that.

That's My spot, not Yours.

The other thing he does is try to climb into my lap and lick my face when I am sitting at my computer.

Like, pay attention to Me, not that silly box.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Home again home again jiggedy-jig

I'm home. Got in around 1.30 this morning, after one of those misbegotten missed-flight-out-of-Houston scenarios. Wonderful time in Belize though.

Thought I had a doctor's appointment at 9.30 am today so I did not sleep in, and it turns out the appointment was really for 12.30 pm. So spent the day mostly unpacking in a daze.

Anyway, more later. Maybe even pictures if I ever get them downloaded (uploaded?) from the camera.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Belize trip: day 9

This is my last day in paradise. Our flight out of Belize is at 11am, we have to fly out of Caye Caulker at 8.30 to make it. No problem with 8.30am, I've been getting up at 5 or 6am ever since I arrived here. This time we have breakfast at the Happy Lobster, where the service is a little more timely. We sit by a window and fool around with my camera, taking close-up pictures of each others' eyes and mouths.

We return to Popeye's, pack up and catch a golf cart taxi out to the airport, right next to the swamp we were walking in yesterday.

It's a six-seater Tropic Air flight over the coral lagoons and mangrove islands between Caye Caulker and Belize City.

As it turns out our flight to Houston is delayed due to bad weather in Houston, so we have an extra hour to hang around the airport. Sigh. As a result, I end up missing my flight from Houston to Toronto, but fortunately Continental Airlines already has me booked on the next flight to Toronto even before I arrive in Houston.

I was dreading Customs at the Houston airport because the last time I did a trip to Belize the line-up for Customs was very long and agonizingly slow. I did make my connecting flight but I had to run for it. This time however, there was no line-up and I was through Customs in no time at all. But I did miss my flight nevertheless.

I spend a little time in the huge Houston airport with Sam before he catches his flight to Seattle, where he will meet a friend in Sam's truck to take him home to D'Arcy. I call Isaac and Gretel to let them know I will be late. My flight to Toronto is delayed, waiting for a connecting flight full of passengers for this flight. I arrive in Toronto after midnight, but Isaac is waiting for me and that is the end of my wonderful trip to Belize.

The last time I went to Belize was in 2006, I spent almost the entire trip on Lighthouse Reef at a base camp from which we went out every day to kayak and snorkel in different locations. One day we went to the famous Blue Hole, a popular scuba diving site that can be seen from orbiting satellites. I learned a lot from our guides about the natural history of the coral reefs of Belize, the fish, the corals, the many different kinds of creatures living there. We lived in plastic coated canvas tents the size of small cabanas, that were waterproof but very hot when the window coverings were closed. Also our cooks were marvellous, we ate unlimited amounts of great Belizean food, washed down with good Belikin beer. By the end of the trip though we were craving fresh water to wash in, and much appreciated our last night in a hotel to wash up and luxuriate in real beds with fresh clean sheets.

On this trip, I spent more time on mainland Belize learning about the culture and history of the country, and for the kayak and snorkelling part of the trip we were moving around to different coral islands (cayes) and staying in lodges that were, with one exception, luxurious in comparison to the Lighthouse Reef accommodations. The food was very good but not in the unlimited quantities that I experienced at Lighthouse Reef. I felt I was battling hunger for much of the trip. I didn't feel I learned quite as much about the natural history of Belize, except for the time spent at the Tropical Education Centre and the Smithsonian Institute. But that was offset by all that I learned about the history and culture of the country, and the different kayaking and snorkelling experiences.

Seeing the Mayan sacred cave was a very unique and interesting experience. Sam had to choose whether he would send me to see Mayan ruins or the cave because of the limited time I had, and in the end chose the cave because of its uniqueness. It was also interesting travelling on the public buses between Dangriga, San Ignacio and Belize City. After my trip to the cave I bought a little book of Mayan history that gave a little background to what I had seen. There are so many Mayan ruins in Belize that they actually outnumber buildings currently in use. They estimate that at the height of Mayan civilization, there were around a million people living in this country, now there is only about a quarter of a million people. So Belize was once a thriving urban centre, the landscape must have been far different from what it is today.

The peak of Mayan civilization happened several hundred years before Europeans arrived in the Americas. By the time they did, Mayan civilization had pretty much "disappeared". Not that the Mayans themselves disappeared, but many of the urban centres had been largely abandoned to jungle. The long drought of the Post-Classic period was a significant blow to that culture.

Belize itself was formed after a treaty signed between Spain and England ending the long war between them in the 1500s? 1600s? Sorry, I'm a bit weak on dates. England had employed buccaneers to harass the Spanish in the Caribbean and needed to find some new form of employment for them, they negotiated this tract of land to give to the buccaneers in hopes they would find legitimate ways of making a living. Then called British Honduras, it was a kind of retraining program. The pirates who took the government up on the offer did indeed find a lucrative living there, cutting and exporting timber from the jungle. British Honduras remained a British colony right up until the 1980s, primarily because Guatemala disputed the legitimacy of this old treaty. But eventually the right of this small country to exist independently was recognized and they took the new name of Belize to celebrate their nationhood. There are several theories about the origin of the name, but it is an old and traditional alternative to British Honduras.

Both my trips to Belize have been wonderful, and I do hope to have the opportunity to return.

Mayans still form a significant part of today's Belizean population, and of course many have intermarried with other ethnic groups to form the Mestizo population of the country. Many Mayans and Mestizo from neighbouring Guatemala are moving into Belize as well. Being close to the border, you see the difference in crafts, building styles and culture between traditional coastal Belizean and inland Mayan and Latin American culture. You don't see as many of the houses on stilts inland, but you do see a lot of Mayan textile crafts. Souvenirs are different, San Ignacio has a lot of Mayan masks and woven fabric, Dangriga and Belize City have a lot of wooden crafts made from local hardwoods. Caye Caulker has a little of everything, being much more of a tourist site.

Back to trip summary
Back to day 8

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Belize trip: day 8

Today I leave San Ignacio to go to Caye Caulker to meet Sam. I have an early breakfast of coffee and toast at Cafe Cayo and then go to the bus depot to catch a bus to Belize City. The bus travels back to Belmopan where more people are picked up and then on to Belize City. At Belize City I catch a taxi to the water taxi wharf and get a ticket to Caye Caulker. The water taxi holds some twenty odd people going to Caye Caulker and San Pedro. After just over half an hour we arrive at Caye Caulker. Sam is staying at Popeye's which is right by the wharf, in fact I see it from the water taxi before we pull into the wharf so I know exactly where I am going.

Sam was watching TV when I arrived. He had a very nice room with air conditioning and TV, and he had all the blinds drawn. He arranged for me to get the room next door, for free. It's large and airy, with a nice view and a big shower, but no TV. Not that I want to watch TV.

We walked around a bit looking for a place to have breakfast (for Sam) or lunch (for me), the place Sam liked was closed so we ended up going to the Bamboo Grill. This restaurant is facing the ocean on the leeward side of the Caye, it has no floor except the sand of the beach, and in part of the restaurant the seats are actually swings suspended from the roof. Service was really really slow. To entertain ourselves we watched the dogs wandering around and hanging out under some of the tables.

Before lunch we had gone to a bank for Sam to withdraw some money from a bank machine. There was a dog sleeping on the steps of the bank. A man pulled up in a golf cart and started petting and talking to the dog. It was not his dog but he knew the dog. He said that all the dogs around have owners but people let their dogs run free and they certainly do. The dogs that were in the restaurant were hanging out there in hopes of being fed scraps, but they did not beg and weren't particularly obnoxious.

It was amazing to see dogs everywhere, uncontrolled and unobtrusive. I don't remember seeing dog poop either.

In San Ignacio I had seen a lot of dogs as well, but they were in bad shape. Many were mangy and many of the females were obviously nursing puppies somewhere. But they also were not obnoxious. They seemed gentle and polite, just not very healthy. Most of those dogs had no owners, hence the mange and the many nursing mothers. But on Caye Caulker the dogs appeared healthy and I saw no nursing mothers.

Sam returned to his room after lunch and I wandered the streets of the Caye for a bit. They are all sandy, and the main mode of transportation was either a golf cart or a bike. Lots of taxi golf carts. May is past the main tourist season which is a good part of the reason why my room at Popeye's was free.

On the windward side of the Caye is where most of the residents live, also where the fishing boats are moored. They supply all the restaurants with fresh fish and conch. There are piles of fish traps which look like crab or lobster traps in the Maritimes of Canada.

I returned to Popeye's and dragged Sam out for another walk, this time through the mangrove swamp at the north end of the Caye. There is a trail, and we pass by several large homes, some occupied, some for sale, most likely to North Americans. Sam was not in a particularly good mood and we ended up talking about what was bugging him. Eventually we reached a point where the trail became mostly mud and water which we waded through to get back to "civilization". By that time we had pretty much hashed out Sam's irritations and life goals. Hopefully a productive talk in a rather appropriate environment, a swamp.

The houses we saw on our walk in the swamp were large, with the main floor on the second storey. The lower level was usually concrete and overhung by the main floor. So the owners or residents could see the ocean over the mangroves, and catch the breezes on hot days. Technically they all had ocean frontage, but most of it covered by mangroves.

Sam booked us a flight from Caye Caulker to Belize Airport first thing next morning. For dinner we went back to the Bamboo Grill and once again the service was painfully slow. We almost left without eating.

And that was our day in a tourist paradise! I have to say it was somewhat boring, I am not particularly a tropical beach and bar kind of person, give me a kayak or a cave any day!

Back to trip summary
Back to day 7
On to day 9...

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Belize trip: day 7

I was up early to get ready for the Mayan sacred cave tour. I had eggs, beans and fry jack at Hanna's and got packed for the trip to the cave. I met the five other women going on this tour in front of the Pacz Tours office, two Americans from Colorado and three women from Sweden. The van that we were supposed to go in wouldn't start so we waited for Pacz to find another van for us. the half hour delay proved to make a big difference.

It took almost an hour to drive to the head of the trail to the cave. Our guide Ben sat in the back with me so I got to ask him a few questions. I asked him about the different ethnic groups in Belize, what exactly was the difference between Kriole and Mestizo. He said Mestizo were handsome, like himself (Mestizo are Mayan and Spanish, Kriole are African and European, usually English). I saw a clearcut and asked Ben if they did tree planting here. Ben said that people who cut trees don't like to plant them, just as people who plant trees don't like to cut them. So no, they did not do tree planting here. At the trail head we parked and Ben handed out helmets and lunches and directed us to an outhouse before the half hour hike into the cave.

The cave is called Actun Tinichill Maktun and the tour is referred to as the ATM tour. We walked along a path through the jungle, fording several streams along the way. Ben pointed out some buttressed fig trees, which are some of the oldest trees in Belize. He said the oldest trees in Belize are around 500 years old. The soil is very thin, hardly any humus and very shallow roots, so trees are easily damaged or toppled by storms and hurricanes in the rainy season.

Eventually we arrived at a picnic spot full of people. It was Saturday, a day when schools often send students on this tour, so it was a busy day at the cave. Our half hour delay meant we were right in the thick of it now. There wasn't even room for us to sit down to eat our lunches. But some of the schoolkids moved out to give us space.

After eating lunch we donned lamps for our helmets and Ben took all our cameras and valuables to go in a drysack that he would carry for the first part of the trip into the cave. The mouth of the cave has a small river coming out of it, the only way into the cave is to swim. By Belizean standards the river water is very cold, for us it was about the temperature of a Canadian lake in the summer. We would be swimming and wading half a kilometer into the cave before we climbed up higher out of the water. Then Ben would give us our cameras. Ben was concerned about the time so he wanted us to go quickly, even passing some of the school groups ahead of us. We had to be careful about what we touched, some of the rock formations were very delicate and should not be touched.

Actun Tinichill Maktun was used by the Maya as a sacred cave in what is known as the Post-Classic period (around 1000 AD?), when Mayan civilization was going into decline. In those days there was drought and this cave was dedicated to the rain god; sacrifices were made here to the rain god to bring back the rain they needed. Before the drought the river at the mouth of the cave would have been too high to get into the cave at all, but during the drought they could and did get in. After the Mayan collapse the rain came back and for many centuries the cave was once again inaccessible, so the artifacts inside were untouched until relatively recently.

We emerged from the water into a huge cathedral-like cavern. Dotted through the cavern were the remains of large pottery urns that would have held sacrificial materials. But there were bones as well, human sacrifices to the rain god, even children. The last part of the tour in the cave we had to take our shoes off and proceed in our socks to avoid doing damage.

Artifacts were scattered on the floor of the cave, with bits of reflective tape marking them so you didn't step on them. In some places tourists had already broken artifacts and remains by stepping on them.

I asked Ben how long Mayan civilization lasted and he saluted me: "We're still here." Good point.

Pots were for the most part plain, undecorated except for a spider monkey on one pot. The pots stood right side up, sideways and upside down representing heaven, earth and the underworld, and smashed to release the spirit power of the sacrifice.

Some of the stalactite formations were like pipe organs; when you hit them they gave off different tones. ceremonies in this cave were probably accompanied by flute music and drumming.

Rock formations in the cave were black manganese rock (hard and rounded edges), white dolomite (chalky), and calcite crystalline stalactites and pillars.

At the end of the cavern we ascended a ladder into a smaller chamber containing the bones of a child and the Crystal Maiden, a female skeleton spread-eagle on the floor.

On the way back we retrieved our shoes and then had to descend a steep cliff. It seemed much harder to descend than to ascend, you didn't want to look down too much. Ben showed me where to put my hands and feet with each step, and then directed me to show the next person, and so on. We each directed the person behind us how to come down the cliff. We swam and waded back to the cave entrance and hiked out to our van. We arrived back in San Ignacio just around 5pm. The American women were staying at a lodge outside of town but the Swedish women were at a hotel just down the street from me so they invited me to have dinner with them at Cafe Cayo, across from Hanna's.

I very much enjoyed dinner with the Swedes. Another American couple from New York joined us and we compared notes about our ATM tours. They had gone on Friday and had a better tour in the sense that it was much less crowded and their guide took more time to explain things to them.

They learned that the archaeologists studying this cave allowed these tourist visits because they needed the money to continue their research, but they ran the risk of doing damage to the caves. Apparently they have secured a substantial grant to do their research so it is likely that the tours will be stopped because they won't need the money any more.

Certainly you'd never see such a tour in the US or Canada, where artifacts are left on the ground in the open and anyone can walk through, touch them, even break them. And, parts of the cave are somewhat dangerous, there are no guard rails or security measures, we North Americans would never allow such tours due to liability issues.

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