Belize was terrific. One of my sisters wondered out loud why anyone would ever want to go to such a hot, humid place, ever, but I loved it. I love being in a place where houses don't need windows, where birdsong pours into your bedroom when it's time to arise, and where you know exactly what to wear for the day because the temperature/humidity in your bedroom is exactly the same as it is outdoors. Also, because it's warm in winter and I can go outside, hike, and sketch any time I want to!
That's me, emerging from a tomb in a Mayan ruin. Only a little sweaty.

Since the last blog was about packing, first I need to put closure on how things I packed and took with me worked, so you people who are interested in the packing and use of the packed items won't have to wade through my blog to get to the details:

Tripbook: I make tripbooks containing all my important paperwork to use when I travel. This tripbook contains:

1. pertinent pages from a purchased and downloaded Lonely Planet book on Belize, printed out on my office computer.
2. printed copies of online confirmations and reservations I made.
3. copy of my round-trip airline itinerary
4. internet gleanings about sights and sites to see in Belize
5. TripAdvisor reviews about lodgings I had reservations at, so I could make sure I did or avoided doing things they mentioned
6. general advice on traveling in Belize
7. directions on how to get to my lodgings from the airport and point-to-point in the country, including taxi and bus information and advice.
I took the loose pages to a printshop where they punched and rolled a plastic spiral onto them for $1.80.
Tripbooks keep all your papers in order and are an invaluable travel aid. I referred to it regularly. It tucked nicely into the side of my fanny pack, alongside my re-built spiral-bound bird guide (discussed in the previous blog).

Travel Gear: I was able to tuck my fleece blankie (which came in VERY handy at night in the mountains of Belize, by the way) into my pack, but I wanted the neck pillow to be more available while I was traveling. Two carabiners (the metal D-shaped things attached to the corners of the pillow in the photo) made it easy to clip the pillow to my pack or fanny pack when I wasn't using it. You can find carabiners in camping goods stores or Walmart. They are useful for things around the house, as well, being practically indestructible.

Pills: When you're traveling, you need to keep any pills you take handy, and I was using the plastic box shown at right. The little sliders pull out so you can dump the pills into your hand, but it only holds a 14-day supply for me (I take quite a few vitamins). So for the pills I couldn't cram into the box I used a long skinny plastic bag, put in a day's supply of pills, partitioned it off with a rubber band, put in the next day's supply, etc. (see photo).

As it turned out, the plastic bag was a far better solution in the 100% humidity of Belize. The pills in the box, which isn't airtight, got moist and were almost impossible to get out (they stuck to the sliders!). They may also have become degraded from the moisture. The pills in the bag stayed dry and easy to extricate. Next time I'll just use a plastic bag.

Things I Carried Around On My Person in Belize: In addition to the camera, I carried a sun hat, which tended to pull at my throat when it wasn't on my head. Half-way through the trip I discovered the tiny clip on the strap that let me clip it to my shirt so the string wouldn't chafe my throat. This hat shades the neck and is extremely light-weight at 2½ ounces.

I never went out without my binoculars, smallish ones, but decent quality. I think, though, that I need to replace them with waterproof ones if I plan to do more travel in the tropics. I really worried about them getting moldy!

And I never wandered out onto the beach or into the jungle without my sketching kit, shown here at right. It contains my sketchbook, binoculars, eyeglasses, ballpoint pen for sketching, and watercolor pencils (sometimes). It also has a tiny bottle of pain relievers, an energy bar, a pencil sharpener, and clipped via carabiner to the zipper tab, my sitting pad which I cut from a ½" foam camping pad.
At left is the sitting pad opened out on a hard rock. Sometimes I don't even disconnect it from the sketching kit ~ I just doff the kit onto the ground beside me, spread out the pad and sit. The attached strip of white ribbon with red polkadots helps me find it if I walk off without it (don't laugh ~ it happens!).

Camera: I had been saving for some time to replace my old camera gear, which weighed slightly over a pound. When you are tired or have a headache, this is difficult to carry. I was finally able to afford a little point-and-shoot the size of a deck of cards, which comes with a dedicated battery and charger. I ordered two extra batteries so I could always have a charged one in my camera bag and one in the charger back at my lodging.

In the photo above is all my camera stuff, and a nylon "id packet" I got once at a convention. It is about 5"x6" and hangs from a nylon cord. It has a large pocket which the camera fits into, a zipper pocket that holds a battery and photo card, and a place to slip in a business card in case you lose it. Fully packed with the camera, an extra battery and an extra photo card, it weighs only seven ounces. The photo at right shows the case packed, with the charger beside it. At seven ounces, I sometimes don't even remember I'm carrying it, and have to pat myself down to locate it. I'm wearing it in the opening photo. The business card is essential ~ I lost my camera bag in Kauai last year, and it arrived in the mail a month later from some kindly fellow who picked it up in a parking lot!

Dry-bag: I planned to do an inner tube trip on the Macal River, so I took along a dry-bag, available in a camping goods store (or Walmart) to put my camera into between photos. I could have used a slightly bigger one and put in my sketchbook, too, but I seriously didn't want to get that sketchbook wet. The camera can be replaced ~ the sketchbook can't!
The other essential part of this set-up was the 4' length of nylon cord I always carry along. One end tied to the dry-bag, the other end was tied around the innertube. I was really glad for this when I went over a riffle in the river and it fell overboard. It bobbed along beside me until I could snatch it up again. If you fold the dry-bag over the wrong direction, it will leak, but I experimented beforehand and had no problems. In retrospect, I think a large dry-bag might be nice for keeping clothes dry in a humid climate. Hmmmmm.....

So that's the report on gear. I've beebled on so long that I'm going to have to hold off on the trip details until tomorrow.

I sent out a letter to my family and selected friends when I returned, briefly outlining my trip and the high points. I told them I was going to just put that letter up with some nice photos on my blog, but when I started looking through the photos I found so much I wanted to share that I simply can't limit myself.

Tune in tomorrow or so for the next installation. If you leave your email moniker in the little box in the right column of this page, you'll be notified when I blog and you can come read it. Those are my toes, by the way, pointing to the Ak'Bol Yoga platform on Ambergris Caye, Belize, my first stop in Belize.

So, 'til next time...

Nature Journaling in Belize

Yesterday I blogged about how my gear worked in Belize here, so today I'll tell you about the actual trip itself.

The journey from Oregon to Belize was something of an epic trek, taking 32 hours from the time I left home til the time I checked into my room at Ak'Bol Barracks Yoga Retreat. Of course, that wasn't all air time since I did have to travel from the airport to the water taxi depot, then take a launch for a couple of hours to get to Ambergris Caye. There was a 9-hour overnight layover in Miami, however, in which I was trying to sleep on the floor. I think I've finally decided to act my age next time, and bust out of the airport to rent a room with a real bed for the night. My bones didn't LIKE that floor!

But it wasn't just a matter of "like" or "not like" ~ the big problem was that I was so tired I was either sleeping in my room (cool room, by the way, with bathroom down the stairs for $35/night!) or half asleep for the next two days of my four-day stay on the beach!!! Ouch! Lesson learned!

But once I revived somewhat, I had a great time, renting a bike to ride into the little town of San Pedro and explore, beach-combing along the crushed-coral beach in front of Ak'Bol, and admiring the roseate spoonbill, wood stork, ibis and herons that fished in the lagoon.

The name Ak'Bol means "heart of the village" and the people there were warm and friendly. To help me regain my poise, I signed up for the best massage of my life from Milio. He and Kirsten, who teaches yoga out in that little thatched place at the end of the pier in the image at right, own and run the place.

There were lots of things to enjoy, including the warm, moist breeze (heaven to this cold, chapped face from wintery Oregon), the huge orange conch (say "konk") shells washed up on the beach and used for decoration everywhere, the marvelous Wish Willy lizards ~ close kin to iguanas, kayaking in the mangroves which enclose the lagoons in the center of the Caye (say "key"), and other pleasures such as sitting in the little open-air restaurant drinking piña coladas.

If you were following my blog from Kauai you will have read about my panic attack whilst snorkeling there and understand why I might not have gone snorkeling in this amazing snorkel heaven on the barrier reef just off Ambergris Caye. If I had been in tip-top condition, instead of tired and a bit run-down, I might have gone for it. But.....trying again while I was tired and not truly in top condition would have been pushing my luck. Next time, maybe.

Alas, before I had enough time to explore everything it was time to catch the cross-country bus from Belize City to the Maya Mountains in the western part of the country, about 70 miles to the west. The bus passed through the mangrove lagoons of the flatlands on the coastal side, with moist 93° breezes streaming through the open windows and between the packed passengers, and finally started climbing into the cooler hills. It took a little over two hours, but at about $3, who could possibly complain! I was hesitant to photograph unsuspecting folks, so I only took this one picture of a big-eyed child on the bus.

At about three that afternoon, I was met by Ron at San Ignacio and driven the seven miles to Macaw Bank Jungle Lodge, an ecofriendly retreat nestled in a dense jungle which Ron and Al have created in the jungle. EXACTLY what I had hoped for!

Ron, Al, Angel and Henri looked after me royally for eleven days while I roamed the banks of the Macal River and the mysterious jungle paths, most of them trimmed 4'-6' wide to make getting lost impossible and to make the jungle accessible and, for many people, not too scary.

I definitely was not scared, content to spend hours wandering just a few yards, with cool things to see and explore. Atta (leaf cutter) ants, for instance, whose diligent trooping back and forth from a "victim tree" to the nest with their booty wore 6" wide paths across the trails.

Here's one ant on a leaf down by the Macal River making its arching cut across the leaf, and then you see a stream of them marching stolidly across the trail with leaf, bud, or flower held high overhead. Be sure to look at these images close up!

I spent Christmas Day exploring dark jungle trails, about as excited and pleased as it is possible to be. When I returned to my cabana, hot, dirty, tired and supremely content, with a handful of purple blossoms yet to sketch, I found a bowl of exquisitely ripe starfruit and oranges waiting for me on my deck railing. What a delightful and unexpected treat! I think both Ron and Al were a bit worried that I would get bored during my eleven day stay, but I knew there wasn't much possibility of THAT.

Okay, I'm going to sign off here, but I'll add more tomorrow, probably, since there are quite a few more adventures to be shared (with Mayan Ruins, an innertube trip down the Macal River, and some incredible flowers, butterflies, iguanas and mushrooms to show you). See you then!

Nature Journaling in Belize 2

The jungle is a fascinating place if you keep your eyes open and don't jump at every crackle or strange noise. This lovely passionflower was glowing right beside the trail on one of my forays.

But there were lots of crackles and strange noises, most of which could be attributed to birds, squirrels or just the breeze rustling the fronds of a papery palm leaf. There were probably eyes watching me at all times, ones I had no idea of, but hey, that's part of what makes people watch horror movies ~ that desire to be living on the edge of excitement. So I welcomed in all of the strange things (well, not the ticks!) and had a great time.

Ron warned me about ticks. Only one other guest, he said, had ever gotten ticks, and that was because they were crawling about in the greenery looking for insects. Hmmm..... "But," he said, "while they do itch, they don't carry Lyme Disease."

So since I planned to be poking around in the shrubbery, I decided to take my chances. I got a few, but they were teensy things and easily plucked off. I get ticks all the time around my house in Oregon, anyway, so it was no big deal, and worth the adventures.

I mean, look at that curious mantis staring (guiltily?) back over its shoulder at me. It looks like someone "caught in the act," doesn't it? I met that little fellow off-trail.

And I was totally entranced with this amazing Clearwing Butterfly. You can see right through its wings. Butterflies are normally not my forte, but Belizean butterflies seemed to be tamer and less likely to fly than most butterflies I've tried to photograph before, and this picture was taken from about two inches away.

I fell in love with the Macal River, which flows past the end of the trail from the lodge. Cattle egrets swooped in every night to roost in these trees, spangling the darkening riverbank with sparkles of white. Kingfishers clacked up and down its length, diving for the small silvery fish that flashed in its shallows.

I spent a lot of time down there sketching, and actually spotted a crocodile species which hadn't been known to spend any time in the immediate vicinity. That was a Morelet's Crocodile, a small, docile creature which has, on occasion, dined on a cat or other small creature, but wouldn't THINK of bothering big folk like me. Or you.

And look at this colorful king vulture that landed in a big tree just across the river from me. Imagine a vulture being so winsome as that.

Well, as you can see, I was having the time of my life.

Every night, Ron and Al cooked delicious dinners, and we chatted afterward by the light of kerosene lamps. I really enjoyed those evenings. The lodge has electricity, but only kerosene lamps are used for lighting in the thatch-roofed open-air restaurant, which gives meals a charming intimate air.

There was always hot coffee and toast ready for me at breakfast time (I eat a small breakfast ~ I think Ron was distressed at my deficient appetite because he delights in creating delicious breakfast fare and toast doesn't quite cut the mustard). When other guests were there Ron spent this time helping them figure out how to spend their day, how to get to interesting places, and connecting them up with their tour guides if they were off to see the sights.

I was having such fun (and I was on a limited budget, too) so I only did one outside tour during my stay, a visit to Caracol, an ancient Mayan ruin, for about $85. This ruin complex measures 12 miles across and once had a population of more than 140,000 people. We just visited a tiny part of it, but it was amazing.

There are still a lot of undiscovered or unexcavated ruins in Central America, and many of them just look like hills. You can see from this partially excavated ruin at Caracol how you might mistake the tree-covered hump of a ruin for a hill! Henri took me to see some ruins near the Jungle Lodge, which are totally unexcavated, and if I hadn't been told they were ruins, I'd never have guessed.

Once they're excavated and restored, however, they can be MOST imposing. Here's the main (so far) ruin uncovered at Caracol. It is much bigger than it looks here (there are people in that photo).

The Mayan people still live all around this area. Both of the young men on the Macaw Bank Jungle Lodge staff, Henri and Angel, have Mayan roots.

I'm still learning how to do scenery, so sketching the ruin was a real challenge for me. I wanted to show some of the glyphs, too, so I did a detail to show them up close, then an arrow points to where they were on the ruin. You may have to squint at it to get the full effect of the glyph!

Some people go out every day on a new sight-seeing tour, but I was glad I had set my sights on Seeing One Little Part Of The Jungle Well.

I had daily adventures just a few feet from my door ~ watching a "hand" of bananas mature over the deck of my cabana, for instance. Discovering several colonies of brilliant red mushrooms. Finding trees covered with huge thorns.
EVERY time I went out, I discovered wonders that left me saying "Wow! and "OMG!" ("Omg" is really hard to say, y'know! Try it! )

Anyway, more wonders tomorrow!
See you then!

Nature Journaling in Belize 3

I tried out two cabanas while at Macaw Bank Jungle Lodge. This one is Butterfly, and it had a desk that would make a better drawing table than the one I was using in Macaw Cabana. Henri graciously helped me move, about halfway through my stay.

Mostly I only used the desk in the evenings, to add color to my drawings. If it rained during the daytime ~ and it did occasionally rain, 'cause this is the jungle and rain (and heat) are what MAKE it a jungle ~ I sometimes sat in my open doorway and drew from there. For the most part, though, the warm, mostly misty rain was nice to be out in and I just hooked an umbrella to my belt with a carabiner if rain looked eminent.

[BTW: I was using watercolor pencils to add color to my drawings, and discovered, on about the fifth day in the jungle with 100% humidity, that when I'd try to make a mark with the pencil the the pigment point would BEND! As a workaround, I dabbed color off the end of the pencil with the paintbrush ~ this works fine, by the way, but it's not how one expects to use watercolor pencils. As they absorbed moisture, the "leads" got limper daily, soon becoming about the consistency of lipstick. Then, to my dismay, the softening, swelling pigments actually split their wooden pencil casings!

Since my return to Oregon (and, roughly, 30-45% humidity), they've returned to their former hardness and the split pencils have regained their usual shape. So be forewarned ~ if you plan to use watercolor pencils in a humid place, either store them in a drybag or use regular watercolor pigments instead.]

Sketching en pleine air, a fancy way of saying "outdoors," isn't always feasible, and sometimes I took photos with the intent of drawing from the camera later. This is really easy with the newer digital cameras with large viewing screens.

For instance, Tallulah, the resident coati, moved like quicksilver as she zipped up and down trees searching for insects under loose bark or attached to the undersides of leaves and stems. Even the camera sometimes only caught a blur. So sketching would have been a losing prospect as I scrambled through tangled undergrowth trying to keep her in sight. But I did manage to get a couple of photos from which I could make this sketch.

Other subjects also posed difficulty. Butterflies, of course, would NEVER alight long enough for a good sketch, the cinnamon-red bracket fungus was on a steep hillside in a pile of branches and sticks, and the wasp nest attached to the underside of a thorny palm really didn't lend itself to a close inspection, much less a lengthy drawing session! Frequently, bullhorn acacias, inhabited by nasty, hot-headed ants which apparently craved an armed encounter with me, kept me from getting close to some other subjects. No, sometimes drawing conditions were not ideal, by any means.

Other times I got lucky. One day I discovered huge, 5" tall contribo flowers, with their 12" tails, hanging over a trail. I found this spent flower lying in the path, so I carried it along and sat on the riverbank for a couple of hours sketching and coloring it. Despite its lovely aspect, the contribo is a really smelly carnivorous plant, and uses a pitfall system similar to that of pitcher plants, trapping and disassembling insects in a pool of digestive fluid. But it was great fun to draw. Its specific name is Aristolochia trilobata.

Since I had a new camera, I spent some time playing with one of the really neat features, the panorama button.

On the bank overlooking the river was an ancient Ceiba tree which was estimated by a visiting botanist to have been a sapling when the Mayans were building their temples. It was fun trying to encompass its entire height in one picture, but even so I couldn't back up far enough to include the amazing width of the buttresses in their totality.

Buttresses (long, skinny above-ground root-like fins) prop up many species of really old jungle trees. Jungle soil gets so much rain that it washes away and never builds up a deep loam on the ground. Trees are consequently anchored in a thin layer of soil and could be easily blown down in a hurricane without their buttresses.

I sketched this magnificent 20' buttress that anchors one of the other old trees near the river.

Alas, my eleven days at Macaw River Jungle Lodge were nearly ended. One warm, humid day I carried a big black innertube upriver, passing through a wide savannah to put in upstream of the lodge. Then I spent a couple of dreamy hours slip-sliding down the Macal River past huge trees draped with hanging lianas and decorated with hanging ant nests.

A couple of rapids added excitement ~ but not too much, since I was on my own and not really seeking high adventure ~ and several huge orange iguanas sneered down at me from their high roosts above the water as I passed beneath.

On my last afternoon, walking in a melancholy Eeorish manner along a river path, ("Oh dear, my last day. I'll probably never see this tree again. I'll never walk this path again. Oh dear!!") I was rewarded with the appearance of this delicate lacy-skirted mushroom called a Veiled Lady. Definitely cheered up, I drew it on the last page of my journal.

So. We have traveled together, dear friend, through the seventeen days of my sojourn on Belizean beach and in Belizean jungle.

There are 24 pages in my sketch journal, and I invite you ~ in a couple of months ~ to visit my website to download a copy if you are still interested.

Thanks for coming by! Leave a message if you have enjoyed this, so I'll know whether I should bother to blog the next journey I make. I'm considering one to South Africa........