21 June 2014

Shortcomings

"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can.  Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson


When I exited Belize Zoo I had more time on my hands than anticipated so I decided to diverge from my original itinerary. First, I stopped at Cheers, an open-air restaurante/bar, where signed T-shirts from colleges around the globe hung from the rafters.  Coincidentally, I happened to choose a table under a dingy white shirt from my alma mater.  Next, instead of  driving directly to San Ignacio as planned, I wanted to brave the infamous Chiquibul (pronounced "cheek-ee-bool") Road in search of Five Sisters Falls, Big Rock Falls & Rio On Pools -- connected rock, swimming holes.
As I drove into Cayo District, the horizon was broken up by dark green hilltops, though the land immediately surrounding the Western Highway was flat & clearly agricultural.  I read on a TripAdvisor forum that Chiquibul Road -- a ring road -- was in appalling condition as it curved south from Georgeville.  I turned left onto la carreterra a.k.a. country backroad & passed a few Mennonites in addition to small farmhouses with chickens in the yard.  Stray dogs & cattle roamed freely.  Soon the civilized town dissolved in my rear view mirror, as did the smooth road.  Now, walls of forest lined la carretera & it was transmogrified into a rutted, unpaved mess.  My hire car banged and flexed with every pothole, and swerving to avoid them became pointless because I would only veer into another, equally perilous crater.

Terrified of busting an axle & being stranded (not to mention the repair costs) on a remote road, I slowed the Hyundai Elantra to 15 miles per hour.  My boyfriend was more worried that guerillas were about to jump out of the jungle to ransack the car.  Unfortunately, I can't say he was being arbitrary because further south on Chiquibul Road, tour busses en route to the Mayan ruins at Caracol have been stopped by bandits.  At every bend I hoped to see just a small patch of la carretera that wasn't completely destroyed, but that never happened.

Over one, anxious hour later, near the village of San Antonio, I seriously debated abandoning the mission & turning around.  With the retarded progress, there was sadly no way I would ever make it to Five Sisters Falls, Big Rock Falls nor Rio On Pools before dusk.  Yet, having come this far I was not foregoing Green Hills Butterfly Farm.  Although there wasn't much to the "tour" (other than observing butterflies in each stage of their lives) it was quite exciting to see so many pretty animals and insects flitting around.

Each butterfly was beautifully patterned, such as the Tiger Heliconian.  The Mexican Bluewing's body equaled Belize's vivid blue waters.  The wings of Belize's iconic Blue Morpho were a metallic turquoise, but when closed, ameliorated into faux eyes which really made the "Halloween" butterfly named for its black body & orange pumpkin-line dots) stand out.  Instead of two, big eyes like the Blue Morpho, the Owl Butterfly had one, large eye with a dilated pupil.  An unidentified brown butterfly had a muted rainbow spread across its body & another's wings resembled the guiding lights on a runway.
The lepidoptera that weren't brilliantly colored had valuable camouflage.  A prime example was the Gray Cracker!  The green on the Malachite's wings almost perfectly matched the flora surrounding it.  The Swallowtail's wings had an atypical butterfly shape & looked more like an airplane's.  However, my favorite butterfly in Belize surprisingly lacked all color.  It was the unique Glass-wings that remained disguised thanks to their transparency.
The following morning, my boyfriend left for breakfast & returned to the hotel room declaring "I have bad news and I have bad news."  First, the moronic front desk employee at Casa Blanca who instructed me to "just park it on the street" neglected to realize and inform me that it was the eve of -- what I would call -- switch day.  One day, the businesses on the right side of Burns Avenue in San Ignacio complained that vehicles parking alongside the road deterred customers since their signs were obstructed.  Likewise, businesses on the left side of the road did not want to inherit this same problem.  In a compromise, the 15th & 30th of every month, car owners flipped which side of the street they parked on at midnight.  This would be a laudable solution except that it creates quite a fiasco for the visitors to [the tourist-packed city of] San Ignacio.  On the Elantra's windshield was a bright yellow ticket for $100 Belizean dollars a.k.a. $50 USD.  Although this did make for a hilarious retelling from a Canadian couple who sat outside Casa Blanca all morning & watched the debacle.  According to them, all the traffic moved fluidly until a single, silver car blocked everything, causing just about every driver to honk and/or yell.
The second -- and worse -- problem that arose overnight was the deluge that cancelled my excursion to Actun Tunichil Muknal a.k.a. Xibalba .  I was devastated that it could not be rescheduled since I only had one remaining day in Belize!  Actun Tunichil Muknal was the country's epitome of caves and a global highlight with its carved altars & many calcified, human skeletons. In the Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre many Mayan sacrifices took place and archaeologists discovered a "monkey pot" -- only one of four ever unearthed in Central America.  Xibalba could only be accessed by furiously swimming across a swift river, clambering through its numerous chambers & eventually squeezing through the exit.  Per my tour company, the cave typically only closed five times a year from flooding, but, unfortunately, this happened to be one of those days.

10 June 2014

Cats

"He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beast."
-- Samuel Coleridge  [Rime Of The Ancient Mariner]


Driving in Belize continued to be an experience, as proven on the early morning haul from Orange Walk to Hattiesville. Aside from the omnipresent, unmarked speed bumps, I encountered fog, children on the side of la autopista a.k.a. the highway dancing like Michael Jackson as vehicles whooshed by, blockades of cattle, mopeds & people waiting for the bus.  Unknowingly, my car was spit onto the Western Highway & ended up at the Belize Zoo twenty minutes prior to its opening.
When traveling, I always arrive early -- first -- to avoid the hordes of people.  Tuesday through Thursday, cruise ships dock in Belize City, sending thousands of pushy tourists to the country's best attractions (i.e. the Mayan ruins, snorkeling & the Belize Zoo). Moreover, in a tropical climate the animals are most active when it is cooler outside & I wanted to wake up with them.  Since Belize Zoo is an open-air facility, I walked right up to the counter & played dumb.  The sweet, middle-aged American lady working the register informed me the grounds would not be open for another 25 minutes.  However, when the employee left me unattended with paths beckoning me into the sanctuary, I refused to stay put.
A performing Scarlet Macaw greeted visitors at the entrance, along with bickering White-Fronted Parrots and masked Red-Lored Parrots.  Other bird life included the ghastly, enormous vultures, the iridescent Blue Crown Mot Mot, some species of owl, "punk rock chickens" a.k.a. Currasows & the Harpy Eagle -- the largest eagle in the world -- whose cold gaze & size had me spooked.
Of its two hallmark animals-- as evidenced on the "1,000 Places To See Before You Die" calendar -- Belize's toucans were the harmless species. These droll foul showcased every color of the rainbow: blood red on the tip of their beaks and tails; bright yellow faces and chests; tropical orange on their over-sized beak; lime green around their eyes; and neon blue feet.  The Keel-billed Toucans hopped, kangaroo-like across branches.  Next door, were their lesser-known family members, the Collared Aracari Toucans.  The Aracaris -- with muted, woodsy colors -- were certainly shown up by the gorgeous Keel-billeds, the national bird.

Belize Zoo was tiny in comparison to other facilities its size.  Mathematically, it was more on level with a petting zoo or family farm.  However, every square inch of this place was packed with foreign wildlife such as the Central American deer.  There was a Morelet's Crocodile so long it wouldn't fit into frame & made me thankful our boat to Lamanai never capsized!  I finally saw a Tapir a.k.a. Mountain Cow -- an animal I had only read about in children's stories until now.  The most charismatic animal in the zoo was one Ocelot in particular who purred & stroked the fence for so long, tempting me to stroke it, but I refrained for many reasons.  The Ocelots were smaller versions of leopards but had more of a house-cat's face. 
I appreciated that Belize Zoo proactively tried to protect each species by identifying its habitat, diet & environmental threats. The laudable thing about the park was that it functioned more like a sanctuary.  There would be no giraffes nor elephants nor anything not endemic to Central America.  Furthermore, the species here were not bred for this life. Instead, they were rescues or -- in the case of Junior the Jaguar -- abandoned by their parents.

 Despite its resemblance to swine, the White-lipped Peccaries proved to be quite aggressive.  Only after my boyfriend nearly lost his GoPro & had his hand snipped off, did we notice the sign about the Peccaries' irritability.  I spotted a Puma in the brush with a sleek, tan coat whose soft "meow" made it seem much more innocuous than it probably was.  However, the animal that stole my heart was a Tayra a.k.a. Bush Dog.  With beady eyes, a pronounced underbite & looking like a transmogrified Ferret, I admit the Tayra was unsightly... but that's why I adored it!  Two bear-like ears stuck out from its fuzzy head & its physique reminded me of another cute animal: the red panda.

It was over an hour before I saw any other human life inside Belize Zoo  The fog dissipated with the rising sun & the Howler Monkeys remained silent in their trees.  The scene was so serene that the Kinkajous slumbered the entire time, in an inextricable ball of fur & limbs.  Therefore, you can imagine my terror when suddenly, a brown something darted out of the bushes cutting off the path ahead.  Only later, after seeing an Agouti a.k.a. Bush Rabbit enclosure, was I able to confirm that was the escaped animal I saw previously on the walking trails... or maybe it was a healthy Agouti visiting its imprisoned brethren? 
As the fauna awoke, the megacats patrolled their perimeter to smell the changes that occurred overnight while they were locked up.  Like how parents come home from a vacation & survey for any item out of place, so did the Jaguarundi & other Jaguars.  It was evident the Coatimundis (both Quash & the rare, Albino variety) had been up for awhile wreaking havoc.  As Junior the Jaguar lazily rolled in the grass, next door the rambunctious Coatis picked fights, smelled buttholes, wrestled, squeezed through every hole & assaulted my camera.  In fact, a travelmate saw my videos & freaked out because so many volunteers at her organization had been injured by them.  At 08:30 there was more action in the Coati enclosure than throughout the entire park combined.

However, the zoo's tranquility was shattered by an ear-splitting bark that sounded like the gears of a massive machine grinding.  I assumed the cautionary sound was a generator or air-conditioner malfunctioning as I recorded the Howler Monkeys, but no, this was the mighty call of a cantankerous Black Jaguar.  There was only one Black Jaguar at Belize Zoo, and Lucky (so named because he was a rescue) was significantly bigger than Junior, a typical Jaguar.  If you were lost in the rainforest it actually would be a good sign to hear Lucky's call because it meant you could discern where he was.  For when Lucky was in search of food he became disturbingly silent.  Out of the flora -- though I could barely see him -- skulked Lucky to do rounds on his territory.  His onyx fur glossed in the sunlight but assured he blended in well with the forest.  Now, if you were lost in the rainforest at night, I guarantee you would never see nor hear this gigantic predator coming.  Though Lucky was a beautiful beast, his deadpan stare & hollow green eyes reminded me of the killer he was destined to be.  In Belize, Jaguars are kings of the jungle and the country's second icon.



The other reason for showing up at Belize Zoo in advance was to purchase the "Jaguar Experience" since only four were offered daily (there are other animal "experiences" too). I enthusiastically recorded in my journal "best $25 [USD] ever spent!" Although there were balloons & celebratory banners still posted around the park for Junior the Jaguar's sixth birthday, these were only distractions to the apprehension I felt invading Junior's home. I was warned multiple times to duck underneath the electric wire (the gatekeeper joked it was the most dangerous part of the Jaguar Experience), but I swear as soon as I set one foot into that cage I was unnerved.  My eyes kept flitting from one corner to the next, especially when the trainer fumbled with the keys to my cage!

Inside the human-sized crate I exhaled & felt safe at last.  A few minutes later Junior emerged, smelling every inch of the structure & marking it.  Although Belize Zoo housed 15 Jaguars, only four were rehabilitated enough to be in the public's eye.  Junior was a lifer at the sanctuary because his wild mother had rejected him. Yet, this was a blessing in disguise because most captive Jaguars live for over twenty years.  Roaming free in the country, Jaguars are murdered for their coat or by farmers so Belize Zoo actively tries to trap them to save them from death.  Junior displayed his domestic side by begging & growling for treats.  Junior leapt atop the crate in one smooth, effortless move -- the same way he crushed the pollo a.k.a. chicken parts he was rewarded with for somersaulting & licking the top of my boyfriend's head. 


Junior was a beautiful beast with his leopard pattern spattering every inch of his body except his snout.  His fur was soft as was his lengthy, bushy tail.  Junior's teeth were long, pointed & durable enough to slice through the real treats: birds, Agoutis, iguanas & Armadillos.  He used his spotted, over-sized paw like a hand to push the pollo into his mouth, but underneath all the padding & fur were [trimmed] sharp nails.  While Lucky's eyes were terrifying and pale with tiny, black pupils, Junior's eyes were hazel with rings of tan, brown & green and dilated pupils.  Despite years at the Belize Zoo, Junior's eyes still hinted at an irrevocable wildness when I looked into them.