Tuesday, January 22, 2013


In this post, No Crowds reporter Penny asks if a person can change in just one day and describes how one Belizean family delivers a lesson in facing change with grace.

I asked Joe Martinez, poet, rancher and ecohotelier, how he felt about the dam.  The lake in which we were now floating, had been a Macal tributary rated whitewater grade 6 only a few years ago.  He had grown up here, listening to the rush of water over rock at night, fishing on its banks as a kid.  Now the reservoir was a still blue plate separating forested limestone canyons…different.  

“Everything changes,” he observed, a bit wistfully, but resolute. 

I guess there would be many ways to think about change here.  We had scrambled down to the pontoon boat over a crumbling incline on which the terraces of the Maya were still visible.  Mounds dot the property: they think some were shrines; some were remnants of a village.  So, yes, everything changes and sometimes perhaps changing to a purpose is better than cleaving to old patterns and letting one’s home slowly change itself and collapse. Read all about it in Jared Diamond’s book of that name. 

Our guide Lazaro, Joe’s brother, had also seen recent change.  His dreadlocks, now braided together into a meter or so of detached bushy hair, had been cut a few weeks before so that “people would take him more seriously in the business”.  That is, in the Central American offices to which he journeys to sort his clients’ paperwork before taking them deep into the jungles of Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua– birdwatching, rafting, hiking, riding, discovering.

We were spending the day with Lazaro,  Joe, three young blue heeler mixes that looked remarkably like the wild dogs of Africa and an indeterminate Lab mix, waterfall hopping from a pontoon boat where the Upper and West Macal spread into what is now called Vaca Lake.  Lazaro’s nephew (another Joseph) had promised a serene day seeing, hearing, and being in the water and this is what we got.      And lest you wonder whether our tour fit the no-crowds theme, we saw only five other human beings while we were there: Uncle Joe, in his 80s, ensconced on his porch; poet Joe’s wife Miriam; their daughter (and later their son), and a Swiss guest, a “professional birdwatcher,” who accompanied us down the trail to the water, but left with her binoculars as we set off.  I hope she didn’t get lost – there wasn’t going to be anyone around to ask for directions. 

Waterfall number one pooled at the bottom --  good place to wash your hair in the downpour – but it was a little cold.  Feeling a bit like Goldilocks, but unwilling to follow Lazaro in, we satisfied ourselves with a climb up the slope of the fall and looked about us.  The sap of this tree, he tells us, can be used as glue.    Tea made with the leaves of another is good for stomach upset.  Use the bark of another for dye. The seeds of that plant are good for anemics.   And there are thousands of trees, bushes, vines…he seems to know the names of them all, and each has a use. 

As we float downstream, he points out a pair of white eagles on tree limbs across the water, the kingfisher on a passing branch, the vultures circling one of the canyon ridges, the nose of a small crocodile which had made its way down the river as it had become more serene in its harness.   When we cut the motor, there is no sound at all.  No traffic noise or passing planes; no human voices, nor are there the sounds of any of their surrogates – radios,  machines.  Joe shares some of his poetry, including the one about a foreign flower that won him his German wife.  It is a good place for poetry, although somehow most human effort seems a bit beside the point in the face of the vast green, the hidden lives among the hundreds of trees – palms, mahogany, poisonwood, acacia, Caribbean pine.

The swimming hole sits atop waterfall number two. One would have to be careful not to relax too much and find oneself going over the 10 metre drop to the bottom.  This is where we eat lunch and listen to birdcalls and the soothing constant splash of water.

At waterfall number three, you can watch a leaf fossilise before your eyes.  Organic compounds from the jungle vegetation dissolve the limestone at the top, and as the water brings it down, it crystallises again over fallen leaves, turning them to sandstone.    The overhangs build up, and the course of the falls changes over time.  When Joe and Lazaro were children, the falls were over there – a meter or so to the south.  We pile in, but we are not, quite, still enough to turn to stone ourselves. 

Back at Martz Farm, there are tree-house rooms built of wood up over a jungle creek and a lodge with more accessible bathrooms and plenty of room for communal admiration of the scenery below.   As we say our goodbyes, a hen heads for the hutch with her brood.   Joe lopes away to bring in the mules he breeds from a mare he drove to Wisconsin to buy.  His young son sits comfortably on the saddle before him.  The wood stove is stoked for dinner.

Can a person change in just one day?  Maybe not.  But a memory can change the way you look at other days.  And this last day was a perfect one that I return to remotely, just before sleep (or more recently and less romantically  in a queue at the Post Office), to assure myself again that somewhere things are just that perfect, at least for one day. 

Our visit also furnished a lesson in change with grace.  The world is going to come to the Martinez’corner of Belize no matter what.  But they would like to choose how it comes, and to treat those who come as guests. Quite deliberately they play the role of hosts and custodians.  I think they are hoping that although we may bring some welcome changes, we’ll be willing to enter their world as it is, and not change it too much.  I share that hope. 

End note:  We were staying at Chaa Creek Lodge, which Kate has described here in her 2010/2011 postings.  Also a magical place: comfortable, welcoming and tasteful.

If  you would like to stay at Martz Farm, go to www.martzfarm.com, subject of much paise on TripAdvisor. 

Lazaro’s bespoke adventure tours can be reached through hideawaycampdv@yahoo.com and they are also on Facebook. 

There can be some delay in response because the farm is remote and they do not have internet access there.  They do check in St Ignacio at least every other day though. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

What about the waste?

A No Crowds traveller discovered lots of trash washing up on the beautiful beaches of Belize and wanted to know how it got there. In this post, Penny outlines the problem of cruise ship waste and proposes measures each of us can take to solve it. Please share this post with any one who loves to travel and cares about the environment. Thanks.

That’s a melodious blackbird, tuneful behind me in the mango tree.  I leave my front door and squeak down the sand to the waterline.  On the horizon, waves break on the barrier reef.  The frigates are circling a palapas on the dock, and will be disappointed that the disembarking entourage is composed of scuba enthusiasts rather than fishermen. Closer, a blue heron nudges the minnows in the sea grass.

This is paradise.  It’s an island where (if you do not want to travel by water, and depending on how fast you can ride a bike) your fastest mode of transportation is likely to be a golf cart, bobbing along the sandy single lane in back of the houses that line the shore.

Dislodged sea grass comes in every morning.  And bottle caps, pieces of plastic forks, carefully cut portions of opaque milk bottles, shreds of cellophane, a lonely ravaged flip flop.   The seagrass will melt back into the Caribbean, or it can be raked and spread on fields.  But what to do with the other items, the bottlecaps and brittle food containers?    They say it will take somewhere between 450 and 600 years for them to dissolve, though dissolve they shall, changing the chemical composition of the seas.

And to here, to paradise, the items find their way,  refuse from those floating first world metropolises, the cruise ships.

The UN and others have tried to stop the dumping.  There is a Marine Pollution protocol in place, the so-called “MARPOL”, under which the Caribbean in deemed a “Special Area” because of its fragile reefs and enclosed nature.  However, enforcement of MARPOL is through the countries under which the liner is flagged, and the flag countries tend to be far away and disinterested in enforcing UN protocols. Even flag states that sign the protocol do not have to sign up to all if its annexes, such as Annex V, the one that forbids discharge of plastics.

Efforts by poor Caribbean states force cruise lines to internalise the cost of their waste production have not met with success.  A single ship will arrive with more trash than the people of a developing country could afford to generate in months.  But when Grenada suggested a US$1.50 a head tax to defray the cost of waste disposal, Carnival Cruise Line simply stopped going there, depriving it of tourist and trinket revenue altogether.

As we get older, many of us may decide that if we want to see more of the world, it will have to be from the hassle-free deck of a cruise ship.  No packing and carting of luggage.  You know where your next meal will come from (although perhaps not where it goes).  We’re maybe not as interested in local nightlife as we once were.  Could happen – they say people don’t believe how much they will change in a decade ahead, even when they know how much they changed in the decade behind.

But if any of us no-crowdsers decide to take to the seas in this way, let’s ask what is happening to those orange juice bottles, that cellophane, the six pack ring tops, the brittle see-through food trays, not to mention all of our organic “products”.  I think it’s time that the patrons of the cruise ships insist that they are people who pick up after themselves.  That they will not toss their trash overboard where it chafes the coral and ends in the stomachs of sea turtles.  Time for those who pay that piper to start calling the tune.

If ever you book a cruise, if you have friends who travel this way, let’s all start asking, “What about the waste?  What are you doing with our trash?”  And let’s make sure we get honest answers.

Photo: Ambergris Caye, Belize
December 2112