I’m sitting next to an electric fireplace in a cabin in snowy Vail, Colorado. Things could not be more different from where I was barely more than a week ago. At this time in the morning I’d have finished breakfast already, and be waiting through that frustrating gap between waking and finally suiting up to snorkeling. Maybe I’d be hanging out with my fellow students in lawn chairs by the warm ocean, or outside the kitchen petting Stardust the cat. I certainly wouldn’t be wearing socks. I would be excited to see a squirrel on a tree not because it’s the only animal I’ve seen all day but because they’re rarer in Belize.
Re-entry is always the hardest part of an amazing trip. The only thing that really helps is just doing it again. I’m getting a little better at engaging with my “normal” life again once I’m back, but there’s always a space of time when I feel like I’m floating and it’s hard to believe I ever went and it’s hard to believe I ever came back.
We all kept journals for the course, which I am so grateful for now. It reminds me of all the things I might otherwise have forgotten. Though sharing entries with other students makes me realize that unless you spend your whole day writing, you will never capture everything. So here are some highlights…
(Note: Entries are in order but some combine different days, much is omitted, and everything is largely unedited because it’s just too darn long)
Today’s intro to Belize made me so excited for the trip. This half-block of prep seems like a good idea. I’d been feeling a little nervous remembering all the things that were so uncomfortable or frightening about Costa Rica—the heat rash, the constant bug bites, the cultural barriers, the aggressive terciopelo (fer-de-lance snake) we found an hour and a half into the forest at night, the close calls with bullet ants, the stories of poachers or bandits with guns, and the strange force of the jungle itself that always felt so distinctly hostile. But after the class I remembered all the things I loved and all that I still want to learn and see. There is no other ecosystem on earth like the tropical rainforest, and there is no better place to form questions about the complex interactions between living (and nonliving) things. I also can’t wait to explore the world of coral reef ecology. It’s going to be a bit of a challenge because I still have to figure out how I’m going to see with my mask on, and I’m not a strong swimmer.
I’m also excited to see what I’ve retained from Costa Rica. When I’m in the field, will I still have a good spot image for lizards? Will I remember what a toucan sounds like? Will I recognize a peccary if I smell one? Maybe I was wrong when at the end of two months in the field I felt like tropical ecology wasn’t going to work for me after all. We read an incredible book for class called Jaguar (see my previous post) by the researcher Alan Rabinowitz who established Cockscomb Wildlife Basin and Jaguar Preserve where we’re going for the first part of the course. I don’t think Alan ever really found the jungle a welcoming place either—the excitement of the life it supports and the importance of the projects he worked on were enough.
Despite my excitement about the trip, it’s harder than I thought it would be to get back into school. I feel like it gets harder after every single break now; half my time is spent daydreaming about what comes next. I just want to get out there and do all the amazing things I’ve read about. Maybe this is a good time in my life to go somewhere wild and really think about nature and the questions I want to work with in my life.
The main focus of the course is the creation and maintenance of biodiversity in the tropics. We’re presenting on different theories in class and I’m having fun analyzing them and thinking about which ones seem most applicable and which are contradictory. We also have species lists of birds and fish to learn, and I’m excited to try to find them all when we get there.
I tried out contacts in class today. I need to get used to them so I can wear them when we go snorkeling, but I haven’t worn contacts in probably six years. I already blink too much and they just make it worse. I hope I don’t blink them out. I really want them to work for snorkeling; I’ll need to see the fish.
This is the final day before we leave for Belize. I’m almost all ready to go and I’m ready to just be there. This is the third year in a row that this time of year has marked my departure for a new country. I wonder what Belize will give me, I feel like I’ve received so much from every other place I’ve visited. I’m also interested to see how apparent the biodiversity theories we’ve been learning about will be in reality. In some ways Diversity is an abstract concept, and I’m excited to meet the challenge of thinking more abstractly when looking at physical interactions.
I am completely exhausted. We had to wake up way too early to get to the bus for our flight. Thayer grabbed the wrong passport and had to run home to get the right one, which made me really paranoid that I’d forgotten something important. I don’t like the Colorado Springs airport, I’m not used to going through it. They made me go through security twice because I’d forgotten to drink the tiny, maybe half inch of water in my water bottle. I hate airport security, it’s so dumb. I mostly just slept on the flights, I barely remember anything.
As we flew into Belize City, it was clear we were going somewhere completely different. It was just trees, rivers, and swamps for miles. The sun was above us and it reflected off of the water on the ground, revealing hidden bogs and pools of water glittering beneath the trees. It’s clearly a wet country. Belize City and the airport abruptly popped out of the greenery, and I realized that this country was much more rural than I had been thinking it would be.
When we got off the plane, we immediately felt the heat and humidity and started shedding layers. There was a live band playing music as we went through customs, which was such a wonderful greeting. As we waited for our bus, we heard the first of the birds on our list: the great-tailed grackle. Another surreal moment was listening to a group of American tourists playing a funky traveling guitar outside the airport and singing, “take a load off Fanny” to the completely wrong tune. We met our bus driver Ron, loaded into the big white school bus, and headed off to Cockscomb. My first realization was that this country is very different from Costa Rica. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly the differences, but a lot of the places we drove through were very different landscapes than I’d seen before. We watched a beautiful sunset over a scraggly pine savannah and distinctive limestone karst mountains. The people all look very different too, it seems like there’s more Caribbean influences and more native Maya left.
We had dinner with the Saquís in Maya Center. It was really neat to meet them because their family was mentioned in the Jaguar. The food was amazing, I think we were all hungry and in need of a bathroom by then. Brian and Marc were concerned because the driver had been telling them about a new highway that was being built from that region to Guatemala, which could really impact poaching and environmental destruction. Ignacio also seemed worried about it, and he said the Belizeans weren’t in favor of it, but there wasn’t anything they could do. It was upsetting to see the threats to the area looming as soon as we arrived.
We’re staying in wooden bunk beds in screened-in dorm rooms. The bathroom is down the hall and actually a pretty nice facility compared to what I’d been expecting. The boys found a scorpion in their room almost as soon as we got here. One of the caretakers caught it, pinched the stinger off, and handed it to us. We shone a black light on it and watched it glow bright blue as it crawled over our hands. It was neat to hold one after I’ve always been so scared of them, but I felt bad about its stinger.
After our very first jungle hike our bird species list is already in the 40’s. It’s amazing how many creatures we can identify as a group. We saw jaguar and tapir prints in the mud; It’s amazing to think that I was standing in the same spot where that illusive, powerful predator was out prowling just hours before.
I was a little disappointed at our first night hike. Usually in Costa Rica we saw a lot of reptiles and amphibians after dark, but we saw very few here. What we did see was very special, however. As we walked, we all used our flashlights to look for eye shine. Most of them were large spiders on the side of the paths, but when we got to the clearing with the Molly Apple tree (they called them water apples in Costa Rica, and apparently their proper name is Malay Apple, Syzgium malaccense), we immediately saw large eye shine from the top of the crown. As soon as we approached we realized the tree was full of bats eating the fruit. As we peered into the branches, we caught sight of an opposum, and then a kinkajou. I was especially excited at the latter, since they’re one of my favorite animals. After that we didn’t see anything besides a tiny coffee snake until the very end when we came across an owl. Brian works with owls (see previous flam posts), and was ecstatic. I think we decided it was a vermiculated screech owl. It had gorgeous large yellow eyes, and was so small and funny, I couldn’t believe how long it sat there and how close it let us get.
There’s a decent soccer field in front of the dorms, with wooden poles for goals. We decided to play yesterday (“the blue tang clan” versus “the fer-de-lances”), and of course it started raining. We all got soaked and (shocker) nothing is dry, and probably never will be for that matter. Just my luck that I was playing in all my clothes that weren’t quick dry. I hope they do dry though; I only packed two t-shirts.
(It took a week for most of it to “dry off,” or rather, become about as damp as everything else was).
On our morning birding we stopped by the Molly Apple tree again (our constant winner) and saw an aracari. They’re such beautiful birds, the pattern on their beaks is a striking zigzag of color, like a zipper. We also saw two gray foxes calmly trotting out of the clearing. They’re surprisingly beautiful; their faces are so light and they have dark markings that look almost design-like. They range all the way to Colorado, and it’s interesting to think how they’ve adapted to such different places. A lot of the birds do the same, and we’ve seen a lot of neotropical migrants here.
As part of the course, we each have to present on different animals as well as lead a paper critique. So far I really like the presentations. Erica did hers on leaf-cutter ants and we got to sit by a nest while she explained about them. They have such intricate and efficient construction practices and social rules, they’re fascinating creatures. It’s easy to overlook insects, but they play a hugely important role as herbivores here.
Tonight we all split up for night hikes. I decided to go on my own and sit under the Molly Apple tree since it was pretty much the only place we saw anything the first time we went out at night. I had a really nice time. It was so intense to stand under the tree with all lights off and feel the bats flying by, rustling my shirt and brushing by my hands. I got much closer to the kinkajous this time, and it was so fun to watch them eat apples—they eat them just like people do. I also saw opossums, but they were much more cautious, and I had to be really patient to get close. When I took a walk around the clearing, I saw a distinctive purple eye shine and crept close enough to get a good look at a paraque. At the end of the night, some of the others joined me and we got a very brief glimpse of a paca.
This was our last full day in Cockscomb and it was a fun one. We went to the Molly Apple tree in the morning as usual and saw some toucans, woodpeckers, beautiful songbirds, and a lovely cotinga (a very aptly named bird that’s blue with colorful legs and shines iridescently in direct light). It’s amazing how much activity is concentrated around that tree. It gives me a new appreciation of fruiting events in the tropics. Since fruit trees are a patchy resource and can fruit at any time of the year (though they usually do so more frequently during the wet season), they really draw animals in when they’ve got a crop. Last night I realized that there’s a second Molly Apple tree in the same clearing, but that one isn’t nearly as busy; I never saw any mammals in it and only occasional tanagers. I think it could be because it’s smaller, or because it’s farther away from other trees. The bigger one has another tree with a partially interlocking crown that connects it to the rest of the forest.
After lunch we took a climb up above the jungle to Ben’s Bluff. I was soaked in sweat by the time we got to the top, but we had a nice view of Victoria’s peak. It was interesting to get to a very different environment with a relatively small elevation gain. Then we went down and swam in the waterfall, but the water was so frigid and I was already chilly from sweating so much and then sitting around that I was too cold to actually swim.
Our last night, Aurora Saquí came to talk with us. Her uncle was probably the most famous Maya healer when he was alive, and she learned from him. Aurora is an impressively charismatic, kind, powerful woman. She came from a family with lots of sisters, which was usually seen as bad luck in Maya society, but her father raised her to be tough and demand respect. She told us how he taught her to use a gun and shoot cigars off of a clothesline. At first she said she just wanted to record her Uncle’s knowledge so that it wouldn’t be lost when he died; women aren’t usually healers in her society and she wasn’t interested. However, he wanted her to take over, and when he died, she finally did. She’s writing books about the various uses of plants in the jungle and takes students. She’s going to start teaching children at the Maya Center so that the knowledge isn’t lost. She also works for women’s rights in the village. She runs a crafts center and makes sandstone carvings with the women at Maya Center, which helps them gain respect in the village. She said that the end of the Maya Calendar was a very special time because it signals a new era of equality between men and women. I’m usually pretty skeptical about alternative medicine practices, especially when someone talks about imbuing objects with positive energy, but at least with the herbal remedies that have been passed down for generations, I would imagine that at least some of them are more effective than a placebo. And Aurora herself is an inspirational figure—she walks a careful balance between cultural values and progressive ideas that challenge traditional beliefs. Regardless of whether I believe that crystal balls can make the metal inside my wristwatch bring me good luck, I still consider it an honor to have someone like Aurora take a moment to wish me well regardless of my spiritual beliefs.
Today was a very packed day. We woke up before 6 a.m. so we could take one last walk to the Molly Apple tree and try to see some peccaries. We didn’t find any, but it was nice to get one last look at Cockscomb’s guans, hummingbirds, toucans, woodpeckers, orioles, tanagers, and chachalacas. Thayer, David, and I took a little walk down the path and saw what we think now was a crane hawk. It had striking red eyes. Then we loaded back into the big white bus, said hello to our driver Ron again, and headed out for Blue Creek.
On the way we made a detour to Red Bank to look for Scarlet Macaws. It’s a Maya village, and while we stopped for Marc and Brian to pay an entrance fee to the chief, children and women trying to sell crafts immediately surrounded the bus. As we drove in past tall living fence posts surrounding citrus trees, we saw toucans flying across the road. We took a long hike up a road that was too muddy for the bus, past a field with a scarecrow, then up a steep jungle trail to a lookout on the top of the mountain. Shortly after we got there, we heard the scarlet macaw’s raucous calls from the other side of the slope. We rushed around and saw one sitting far out on a tree, a large patch of red and yellow, brightly contrasted against the green. Over the next few minutes we saw more and more, soaring over the treetops. Then, just as we were going up to see if they had flown around the other side, a few of the students in back hurriedly called us back. Instead of flying over, they had circled back and landed almost directly next to us. They were chattering loudly and after a few minutes they flew away. They’re iconic birds for a reason—their long tails are flowing and bright, and the colors are stunning. I do wonder how they get way with standing out so much, they have predators that likely take advantage of that (besides humans I suppose). It is interesting that they re so rare here in Belize while there are places in Costa Rica where you’re guaranteed to see one.
After the hike we drove to Blue Creek. It was obvious how well Marc especially has a connection to this community since he’s been coming here for 17 years. Despite the forewarnings, it was a little overwhelming when we first got off the bus and were immediately swarmed by children asking to carry our bags. It was a mile into where we were staying, so I paid one man to take mine, but I did feel bad for him since it’s so heavy and awkwardly shaped. He wasn’t very talkative, but he said his brother Ramón works here and told me a little about what it was like when a hurricane hit the area ten years ago. When we got here, he asked me, “Have you ever dreamed of some place so beautiful?”
Blue Creek is gorgeous. The river that’s also the town’s namesake runs right in front of where we’re staying, and it is an intense, almost milky blue, with tons of tiny fish. It’s wide and calm, perfect for swimming. As soon as we were settled in, we all headed for the water. I was a little cold already because it’d been raining, but I managed to slowly walk my way in. The fish nibbled at my fingers and I really wanted to see what it would feel like to catch and hold one, but they were too fast. The shower water comes from the creek anyways, so we just do all our washing in the water (everyone brought Doctor Braunners with them). I think we’re going to have a very good time here, and it’ll be a good transition to being in the water more.