Friday, January 30, 2009

Belize- Heading South

The third trip we took while in Belize was going south. We had a hotel room at the BellaMaya Resort in Placencia that we’d tried unsuccessfully to cancel so we decided to use it for a few of the days we were away. In Belize in order to go south, you have to first go west (along the Western Highway) to Belmopan then double back by driving the 56 mile Hummingbird Highway in order to finally head south on the Southern Highway.

Since we’d already driven the trip to Belmopan several times there wasn’t much that was interesting to see on that stretch of the drive. The Hummingbird Highway, however, was a different story. The road, while still a single lane paved highway with parts that had clearly been affected by the recent flooding, went through the most beautiful parts of Belize that we’d seen. Going through rolling hills and higher mountains, there were lots of small, poor villages but there were also areas filled with orange groves, banana trees, and the flowers and brooks in the rain forest. The air smelled rich and moist as you move into that part of the drive. As a whole this part of the drive was a pleasure.

After Dangriga, we finally got on the Southern Highway, which except for a few views of the Maya Mountains, is pretty unremarkable. Bridges were a little iffy and one had been washed out entirely and replaced by some large wooden planks. We drove on that until the turnoff for Placencia near Riversdale. There we entered a red dirt road that was full of ruts, washboard patterns, and large stones to drive the next 25 miles. We were able to go about 8 to 10 miles an hour, seeing almost nothing but shrubbery and red dirt puddles along most of the way. Toward the end of the trip, we began to see water on both sides of us, often within a few feet of the road. Every once in a while we’d also hit some patches of white beach near hotel or home constructions that were being done, though we wondered if the beach had been imported since so much of the land around it was red mud.The resort itself seemed such a contrast from the area around it. Stretching from the lagoon on one side of the peninsula to the Caribbean Sea on the other, the grounds were well kept and it looked beautiful from the road. We checked in and were led across the street to a second floor apartment—two bedrooms, two baths, a kitchen, dining area, and living room with a balcony near the pool looking out over the beach and water. There weren’t very many people there, so we were a bit puzzled, but we thought it would be a wonderful way to relax and spend a few days. We quickly changed to our swim suits and went to the pool, stopping at the bar for a drink and something to eat. And then it began to rain. The red dirt roads turned to mud. We quickly discovered that, despite the wonderful kitchen, there was nowhere nearby to buy food to prepare in it. The gift store didn’t even have snacks, much less real food. The Jacuzzi in our apartment didn’t work. There were no curtains on some windows and several others had curtains that didn’t cover the entire window so the light came in early in the morning. We decided to relax by sitting on the deck in the rain, only to discover that the beach (which looked like it had been trucked in since there was red dirt on either side of it where the resort ended) was filled with sand fleas and mosquitoes. We waded through the red mud to eat meals at the hotel restaurant, the only place to get food now that the red dirt had become sticky muddy goop that was pretty impossible to drive on. Even breakfast was mediocre. We tried to watch TV, only to discover that sitting on the couch made me itch and TV programs were hard to hear because of the echoing from the high ceilinged room By the second day we’d discovered that the snack bar at the pool, which was open despite the continuing rain, was the only way to get semi-decent food, so we lived on pizza and quesadillas from it. By then, however, we were covered with bug bites.

Two days after checking in, once the rain had let up, we headed back to Belize City. We stopped along the way at the Maya Centre, buying some small pieces of jewelry for Becca from the Maya Centre’s Women’s Group (where 10% of the sale goes to the group and the other 90% goes to the individual artist who made the piece). We also drove through a bit of the Cockscomb Basic Wildlife Sanctuary, though we’d already been in the car for a long time getting back through the muddy red dirt that stretched from Placencia to Riversdale, we still had a long way to go to get to Belize City, and we were low on gas (which isn’t as easy to find as one might expect) so we only spent a short while there. By the time we got back to Belize City and the Radisson, we were more than ready for dinner and a quiet New Year’s Eve before heading to the airport the next morning.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Belize- Western Highway Trip

The next day we got back in the truck and headed west along the second of the paved roads in Belize, the western highway. Our plan for the day was to drive the 78 miles through the Cayo District almost to within a few miles of the border of Guatemala, stopping somewhere along the way for lunch but returning back to Belize City before dark.

The initial part of the Western Highway looked a lot like that of the Northern Highway—a lot of shrub interspersed every once in a while with a house or collection of houses, most of which weren’t in great condition. We also passed lots of dogs trotting along the side of the road, looking thin but very happy. Dogs seem to be everywhere in Belize. A while more and we began to see the Maya Mountains in the distance and the countryside became more green. As we made our way toward the turn for Belmopan, the capital of Belize, orange groves and cattle pastures began to appear.

On the Western Highway, you really don’t see much of Belmopan. If we hadn’t been paying attention to find the turn off for the next day’s trip, we probably wouldn’t have known we’d gone through it. But as we got closer and closer to the sistercities of Santa Elena and San Ignacio, we began to see signs for hotels, restaurants, and spas (though none of them were visible from the road).

Once we entered Santa Elena, we started looking for the “temporary” wooden bridge that would take us across the Macal River. We missed it the first time, but eventually doubled back and found the turnoff for it.

Once we drove through San Ignatio, we started looking for the turnoff that would take us to Xunantunich. Once we found it, we pulled along the side of the road to wait our turn and cross the Mopan River.

The only way across it is a hand-cranked ferry that can carry two vehicles at a time. Once across we drove up the steep hills leading to Xunantunich.

The buildings there were a lot like those at Altun Ha, only taller. Most of them were constructed some time between 700 and 900 CE, despite the fact that the area was occupied as early as 1000 BCE. Archaeologists think that, as buildings such as Altun Ha lost people, other city-states like Xunantunich ("Stone Woman") grew to fill the void. The largest of the pyramids, the Castillo, had thirteen doorways (for the thirteen levels of heaven in Maya belief?) and seven terraces and was decorated with a stucco frieze that guidebooks said originally wentall the way around the entire temple. As we looked at what was left of the buildings, it was hard to imagine them and the courtyards covered with plaster and painted yellow, blue, or red. I found myself wishing that for a model that showed what scholars think the building must have looked like during its height.

After taking the ferry back over the Mopan, we wove our way back to Belize City.

The beginning of the return trip took us through a different part of San Ignacio because the bridge going over the Macal River on the trip east is a high suspension bridge, the Hawkesworth.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Belize - Northern Highway Trip

On our first full day in Belize, we set out to rent a small car to see some of the countryside. When we got to the rental place, they explained that, given the conditions of the roads we’d be driving if we planned to leave Belize City, we’d need to be driving an SUV (which they didn’t have available) or a small truck (which they did have).

Kathy quickly became comfortable with the latter and so that’s what we got.

Belize only has one paved road—a two lane “highway” – in each direction. We decided, since the rental place was north of Belize anyway, to take the Northern Highway and drive up, past some Maya ruins and birding areas, to Orange Walk.

The drive along most of the Northern Highway isn’t very pretty. It’s mostly brush, with lots of lower and middle class houses along the way. The poverty of the area was pretty overwhelming and there were some things that initially jarred us. We passed, for example, some houses that were very ramshackled and lacked indoor plumbing but that had large TV dishes in the backyard.

35 miles out of Belize City, we turned onto Maskall Road,a one to one-and-a-half lane dirt road that made it quickly clear to us why we needed the truck.

We bumped along past lots of brush, now and then a home or two (most of which were up on stilts because of flood seasons), and a few monkeys. It took us about 45 minutes to go the four miles to the turn off for Altun Ha, a Maya ruin in the area.

Altun Ha was at its height (with about 10000 people living at it) from around 200 to 900 CE. The parts of it that are excavated seem to suggest it was a major ceremonial center.

Its largest excavated Temple, the Temple of Masonry Altars (the building you’re seeing over Kathy’s shoulder), has a single stairway going up to the altar at its top and inside excavators found tombs with bodies of what they believe were the high priests.

Also found at Altun Ha was a 15 cm high jade head of Kinich Ahau, the Maya Sun God. As with many other Maya sites, between 900 and 1000 CE, some kind of disruption –a revolt? a regional conflict? a Mayan “church rummage sale”?--seems to have happened to cause the population to decline severely.

After Altun Ha we bumped out way back to the main highway and headed north to Orange Walk, the second largest town in Belize. As we neared the tow, the brush changed to some fields of sugar cane growing and the road became littered with cut sugar cane that had clearly fallen off trucks. When we got to Orange Town we’d hoped to find a choice of restaurants so that we could pick where we could get a late lunch, but there was no such luck. The town seemed to be laid out in a hodge podge type manner and the best that we could do was to stop at one of the “fast food” booths and grab a soda and some potato chips before turning around to head south.

On the way back, since it was getting toward sundown, we decided to stop by the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary to see if—even though we didn’t plan to go out in a boat-- we could spot any Jabiru storks, which supposedly make their homes there during December and January. The road into the sanctuary, however, was “under construction” (read—even more full of ruts than the trail to Altun Ha) and after about ½ hour driving on it and seeing no birds at all, we decided to turn around.We got back to Belize City in the dark and, after getting lost several times, finally made our way back to the Fort George Radisson, where we were staying.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Two For the Show

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a chance to see three new movies. One was well done, one was superb, and one was drawn out and depressing.

I can’t objectively critique the film Doubt since as I watched it I constantly compared it to the Broadway play. While most of the major lines seemed the same, the movie was able to “fill out” a lot of the scenes in a way that plays can’t, providing subtlety (or in some circumstances blatancy) to the unresolved questions of the main characters’ personalities and actions. Streep and Hoffman were both excellent in their parts (no surprise there!). Streep’s portrayal of Sister Aloysius has both more depth (thanks to extra scenes where we see Streep caring for another nun going blind and leading the sisters in a discussion around the dinner table) and less depth (the very last line that Aloysius utters is spoken much more emotionally—and ergo much less effectively—by Streep, who plays Aloysius as the typical stereotypical nun) than the Sister Aloysius we met when Cherry Jones portrayed her on stage. And I suppose that technically the ‘doubt’ that was left unresolved in the play about what kind of person Father Flynn really is was still unresolved in the film, though the background scenes—the reactions of the boys waiting to go into the classroom to Father Flynn, the face of Donald as he responds to Father Flynn’s comments, homilies, and comforts, and the interchanges in the gym between the boys and the priest—tip the scales more heavily in one direction than the play did. So, while I think I preferred the play to the movie, the film version was still well worth seeing.

Milk is the best biopic I’ve seen in years, or perhaps ever. While I remember a bit of the news around Harvey Milk’s election and then death—especially the Twinkie defense that we studied in law school (though I don’t remember any implications then that White himself might have been gay)—I’d never known a lot of the details about his life and role in politics. The film sets the stage for Milk’s story with actual footage of raids on gay clubs taken in the 60s and 70s works well, drawing viewers in. Sean Penn is amazing in the lead role and probably deserves an Academy Award for his portrayal. Throughout the movie, I was reminded of how much things have changed, e.g. almost all the folks speaking for gay rights then were men. But I was also painfully aware as the film proceeded that, compared with the civil rights victories of women, African-Americans, and Latinos since the 70s, there’s been hardly any movement in civil rights for gays and lesbians.

I’d wondered, each time I saw the trailers, why more of a storyline wasn’t presented for Seven Pounds. Having seen it, I now know why. Had the plot been revealed in previews or trailers, I doubt anyone would have actually gone to see it. Will Smith is his usual self, playing a typical Will Smith type role. I felt like we were seeing another more depressed, less truly heroic version of the character in I Am Legend. Fairly early in the film, when the jelly fish is set up in his hotel room, the sad direction that the story is going to go is clear and you just sit there waiting for the whole thing to happen and be over with. Even the ethical issues that I’d guess those responsible for the film were trying to raise don’t even make the wait for the end worth it. I just kept thinking “I wonder if should go to get more popcorn” so that the two hours sitting there weren’t a total waste.