Winter has arrived

I just got back from two weeks in Ontario, during which I renewed my Wilderness Advanced First Aid certification, and spent a little time with family and friends. I don’t know what possessed me to go to Ontario in November! After spending a whole summer of heat and humidity in San Carlos, I finally arranged to go north and take the course.

I was lucky. The weather was unseasonably warm for the most part, but I did manage to see snow, sleet, rain, and the cloudy, windy days typical of November. But I also had warm sunny days too, especially when I was in the south, taking my first aid course.

On my way back I flew directly from Toronto to Phoenix. I expected to have to peel layers off when I got there, but it was surprisingly cool: barely warmer than Toronto.

Back in San Carlos, the days are quite warm and the nights deliciously cool. Sea temperatures have dropped. Today the sea off the shore of San Carlos was 68F (20C). Just three weeks ago the sea was closer to 80F (27C). Although that doesn’t seem a big difference, when you consider that water steals heat from the body 25 times faster than air of the same temperature, it amounts to the difference between a leisurely snorkel and a brisk dip.

The temperature change comes not from the lower sun and cooler days of autumn, but from a shift in the wind pattern. The Summer Monsoon is a Southeast wind that blows warm, tropical surface water into the Gulf. Sea temperatures get high enough to allow one to snorkel for hours without getting chilled. As soon as the monsoon breaks, usually in October, the Northwest winds blow all that lovely, warm water back out to the Pacific, and it is immediately replaced with cooler sub-surface water. The cool water was here all along, just a little deeper than snorkeling depth.

With the cooler water comes the winter fish: sierra mackerel, bonito (a small tuna) and yellowtail (a jack) are all here chasing the schools of herring. Also after the herring are blue-footed boobies, brown pelicans (both year-round residents) and large rafts of the ever-cute eared grebe.

Now that the air is cooler and much drier, it is time to hike the canyons and hill-tops of the Sierra el Aguaje. This is a great time to live here in San Carlos.

 

 

Yahoo News Reaches New Low in Journalism: move over National Enquirer

In a modern world, we get our news from a wide variety of sources. I admit it: I am both lazy and cheap. I don’t pay for any high quality news sources, or even any moderate quality news sources. I mostly read the news items on Yahoo Canada News. and sure, it is full of celebrity crap, and other topics of which I don’t care, but hey, I just skip over them. The point is that I believe what I read, and trust the editors of Yahoo News to be telling the truth to the best of their abilities.

But this morning I was surprised to see the headline:

Edward Snowden: Aliens Are Trying To Contact Planet Earth

In case you don’t recognise the name, Edward Snowden is the man who copied thousands of secret NSA documents and revealed some of those documents showing that the US government has been illegally spying on innocent civilians on a massive scale. Snowden has been interviewed before. I found him to be intelligent and quite reasonable. but there are always rumours about what secret files he has kept. The internet is swarming with conspiracy theories, and some strange people out there have been posting stories about how the CIA has known about aliens, and Snowden has seen their secret files. But there has never been a shred of evidence offered in support of these claims. And there was never any evidence that Snowden himself has made such claims. So when i saw the above headline in Yahoo News, I thought that maybe he has been saying something about aliens. So I read the article. The quote in the article, taken from the podcast is as follows:

“So when we think about everything that we’re hearing through our satellites or everything that they’re hearing from our civilisation (if there are indeed aliens out there), all of their communications are encrypted by default.

So what we are hearing, that’s actually an alien television show or you know a phone call… is indistinguishable to us from cosmic microwave background radiation.”

Note that Snowden himself expresses the caveat : “(if there are indeed aliens out there)”. The quote from the Yahoo article wasn’t very convincing in support of the headline.  So I looked up the podcast and listened to it. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who conducted the interview, is a justly famous astro-physicist, and explains to his audience that he is not a journalist, and so would like to have a discussion with Snowden, geek-to-geek. He keeps it light, and, in the discussion of the theories of encrypted communication, it is Tyson himself who brings up the hypothetical question of alien communications. Snowden plays along, which leads to the quote cited above. At no time does Snowden make any claim that aliens are actually trying to communicate with us. Instead, he talks about the internal communications of a hypothetically advanced civilisation, and postulates that such communications, if intercepted by earth-bound listening devices, would be indistinguishable from background radio noise.

The Yahoo News headline is a bald-faced lie, in the tradition of the worst of tabloid journalism. Shame on you Yahoo News. And shame on the idiot who put this article together. From now on I’ll be more careful of what I read: you have lost my trust.

Desert Rains

The still night air is hot and humid.  Heavy cloud obscures the stars but it is not dark. The sky is illuminated by a nearly continuous pulsing of lightning flashes, like the cameras at some red carpet event. Lightning is coming from all points of the compass, and yet none is near enough to allow me to hear the thunder.

I await the heavy deluge that never comes. This is the frustration of desert rains.

At mid-latitudes, rain follows frontal systems. It is fairly easy to predict. But here, in the Horse Latitudes, rain comes, mostly during the Summer Monsoon, in the form of random squalls and larger storms, called chubascos.

Because the monsoon is associated with heavy rain, these are often called monsoon rains. But the monsoon is not the rain. The word monsoon is of Arabic origin, meaning season. It refers to the seasonal pattern of winds found in certain regions of the world. At latitudes,between 30 and 60 degrees, the prevailing winds are from the west and are, not surprisingly, called the Westerlies.  In the tropics, the prevailing winds are from the East and are called the Trade Winds. In between those two bands, lie the Horse Latitudes an area of nearly continuous high pressure, with dry, descending air. This is where the Sonoran Desert lies, and it is why you can paddle in to shore in the Gulf of California and tie your boat to a cactus.

During the summer, the air over the vast deserts of southwest North America is heated by the high sun. This hot air rises and draws air in to replace it. The Trade Winds are deflected by this pressure difference and bring warm, moisture-laden air from the tropical Pacific, along the West coast of Mexico.  As this air passes overland, it is heated over bare desert and rises, becoming unstable. This unstable air creates the heavy showers and fantastic electrical storms that we call the monsoon rains.

Storms tend to follow specific paths. The chubascos of the summer monsoon tend to run up the middle of the Gulf of California, or on a parallel track a few km inland. San Carlos is located at the western edge of an east-west section of the coast, which means the storms usually pass just to the east or west of us. When a storm passes, we feel the wind, and hear the thunder but rarely get any of the precious rainfall. Our summer rain is more often associated with the tropical cyclones: hurricanes and tropical storms. A tropical cyclone hundreds of kms away will throw a wall of clouds that bring heavy rains. It also sends huge swells up the gulf to bash our shores.

This summer is a busy one for tropical cyclones. As yet they have all head out to sea, heading NW, but soon the approaching autumn will push the westerlies zone farther south, and cyclones caught in this westerly flow will be pushed ashore, bringing unwanted destruction and badly needed rain.  Meanwhile we listen to the passing chubascos, and wait for the big rains that will replenish the desert, and make it bloom again.

A little explanation

My latest post was a bit of a rant. Perhaps I should describe the events that led to my latest screed.

My season ended on the 11th of May. I had just finished a very special trip with a group of students from various Ontario universities, taking a Field Biology course from Graeme Taylor, of the University of Western Ontario. My plan was to return to Belize City on the boat, and then catch the bus to Chetumal. I had already bought a flight to Mexico City the morning of the 12th, where I would be reunited with my beloved Lorena.

The Ocean Beauty arrived a bit late at Half Moon Caye. We could see something was wrong, as the boat lingered in the lagoon about a mile off, for half an hour before it reached the dock. When we tried to depart, the boat would head out a hundred metres or so, the return to the dock. Then a crewman would go down into the engine compartment for a while, and they would make another attempt to leave. We discovered that there was a problem with one of the rudders. After about an hour, they got it fixed and we were underway.

The ride in was as normal, except the boat stopped, briefly, a couple of times on the way in. When we got past the barrier reef, the boat stopped again, and this time the engines were shut down. No explanation was forthcoming for quite a while, but eventually the captain came down and told us that another boat was coming to take us off. We were only a few miles from Belize City at that time.

It was a lovely evening, with a light breeze blowing and only a slight chop. The sun hung low, colouring a partly cloudy sky; a perfect evening for a cruise. After we waited an hour, the second boat showed up. It was tied tightly alongside, but instead of transferring people and luggage, we sat tight as we were driven in.

As I watched the time go ticking past, I came to realise that there was no way that I was going to make the last bus to Chetumal. So I resolved to remain overnight at the Biltmore Hotel, along with our departing guests. I got a room and enjoyed a proper shower and joined the group at the Sahara, a Lebanese restaurant across the street.

That night I re-booked my flight for the following morning, at triple the cost of my first flight purchase. Then I got a good night’s sleep in a fancy bed.

The next morning, I joined my friends for breakfast and bade them farewell. About mid-day, I caught the bus for Chetumal. When I got to the border, I went in to Immigration, to pay my exit fee and get my passport stamped. The officer behind the counter looked at my passport and declared, “You’re a day late. That’s a thousand dollar fine!”

My first thought was “Why should she care? I am leaving the country anyway. It is not like I am trying to live here illegally.”

My next thought was, “How dare you treat visitors so shabbily! Don’t you know how dependent you are on the money we spend down here? Would you even have a job if it weren’t for all the visitors?”

What I said, however, was something a little calmer and more reasonable. “Look,” I began, “I tried, in good faith, to leave on time. In fact I had a flight from Chetumal booked and paid for, which left without me this morning. I had to buy a new ticket, and stayed an extra night in a hotel. So please, don’t make this any worse.”

The officer frowned and stamped my passport. I sighed deeply and left, to get back on my bus.

The rest of my trip was pleasant and without incident. Many people are afraid to travel in Mexico. There may be dangerous places, but at least the officials you meet are polite, professional and reasonable.

i will repeat myself: Belize is a wonderful place to visit, to explore, to just spend time in. But the Immigration Department really needs a readjustment of its priorities. It is possible to protect the country from unwanted immigration while making legitimate visitors feel warmly welcomed, the way the rest of the population does so well.

ps

Thank you Prof. Graeme Taylor, for buying me my meals and adding a little something to offset my extra costs. And thanks also, for bringing your students to our little camp at Half Moon Caye. I enjoyed working with you, and especially with Susan, your TA. You both made my job easier and fun

Dear Government of Belize: Please get your shit together

Ah Belize..waves crashing on the beach..soft trade winds cooling your skin.

Ahh Belize…The tropical sun nourishing body and soul.

Ahhh Belize…where everyone smiles and says welcome. Except the first person you meet and the last: Immigration.

Tourism is the lifeblood of the Belizian economy. More people come to Belize to visit than live here. And it is not surprising to anyone who has been here. For such a small country it is packed with things to do and see. You can hang with the crowds in San Pedro and Placencia, or visit places where you are the only one around. The people are warm and friendly, and eager to share their unique knowledge of their beloved homeland.

In a country that relies so heavily on tourism, you would expect that the people who greet you would make you feel welcome, not eye you suspiciously like they suspect you are smuggling drugs or t-shirts.

One month, less a day: that is how long you are welcome in Belize. As a tourist, you can renew your visa up to five times, losing a day each month, for a maximum stay of 5 moths, three weeks. That is, of you renew on the exact day your visa ends. If it ends on a weekend, you can go in Monday, but they will back-date it so you get no advantage. If you go in a couple of days early, because you might be busy touring around, or on some island where there is no immigration office, you will get one month, less a day, from the day you renew. In other words you lose a couple of days. By the way, each time you renew, you pay $50bz.

When your lovely trip is over, and I do mean lovely – Belize is a wonderful place to visit – you had better get out before your visa expires. If you are one day late, they just might threaten you with a little jail time until you can see a magistrate and pay a $1000bz fine and be deported. Because that is why we travel: to be treated like criminals by petty bureaucrats.

Thank you Belize. Thank you for being such a great place to visit. Thank you for protecting your natural areas. Thank you for your people, who are friendly and caring. But to the Government of Belize, I beg you: get your shit together and train your immigration officers to be welcoming to the visitors who come and support your economy. And please train them to distinguish between a tardy traveller and an illegal immigrant.

Riding the Wild Caribbean and a Strange Shark Encounter

The breeze was blowing hard from the East, and the waves on the seaward side of the island were higher than a paddler’s head, so a small group of us went out to challenge and play in the waves.

The route around the island takes us along the shallow, sheltered side of the island first. Exposure to the open sea is a gradual process, as we emerge from the shelter of the island, and then from the protection of the reef crest. Once we pass the rock-pile known as Mitch island, we gradually enter the unprotected waters of the wild Caribbean Sea. The waves grow ever higher and farther apart as we edge out and away from the reef. Riding abreast of each other, we can see each other’s kayak disappear behind the crests of waves and emerge on top again. It was not too wild, as the waves were not breaking over us, much. But it is often a first experience for our travelling companions, and leaves a lasting impression.

We had another lasting impression that day. As we approached the end of our circumnavigation, I passed over a sleeping nurse shark. Nurse sharks are quite common at Lighthouse Reef; we see them nearly every snorkel. And the sharks often patrol around the lagoon, hoping someone will be cleaning fish and will leave the offal in the water. When we are cleaning fish, we can have as many as seven sharks pushing right into the shallows, until their dorsal fins and backs are out of the water.

Nurse sharks are not generally aggressive. They have fine teeth, not the large, triangular daggers one associates with the requiem sharks, like blacktip, reef and bull sharks. Or Jaws, for that matter. By the way, great white sharks are not generally found in tropical waters. That’s why Jaws took place on the New England coast. But I digress.

As I passed over the shark, I called out to my paddling companions who were right behind me in a double kayak. The shark started swimming, and turned to cross my bow. The water was about 2m deep, so there was no need for the shark to move, nor any need to expect what happened next.

As soon as the shark crossed my bow I forget about it until, a few seconds later, my kayak was suddenly pulled to a halt, and I heard a noise of something very large, rolling on the surface. I looked back to see my nurse shark rolling over, its tail and pectoral fin coming right out of the water before it released my boat and dove beneath the surface.

I was so glad to have witnesses to this event as I doubted anyone would believe me. A nurse shark attack a kayak rudder? Unheard of as far as I knew.

When we go to the beach I inspected the rudder. I expected to find that it was missing paint. The silvery glint of the aluminum rudder might be enough to fool a fish into thinking a wounded fish was closely following my boat. But in this case, the rudder was fairly new, and except for a long scratch in the black paint, it appeared unlike any wounded fish I have ever seen. I still don’t know why that shark decided to bite my rudder, but it hasn’t made me afraid to swim with these mysterious and beautiful creatures. I’ll be ready next time I pass over one though, with a camera in one hand. This time I want evidence I can share.

Being there

“Tropical paradise” is a cliche because it so aptly fits the coral reefs and sandy islands of Belize. Most people never get to see such a wonderful place, rich with colourful marine life. For those of us lucky enough, we want to cherish the memories, and share our experiences with our friends. And maybe brag a bit at the office. So we bring our waterproof digital camera and take as many pictures as we can.

We sometimes forget that photography is an activity in itself. While we are busy chasing photos of every brightly-coloured fish or sublimely beautiful coral or sponge, we surrender something vital to the experience: being there. We see the underwater world through the viewfinder: a narrow and myopic view at best. Afterwards, when we review our shots, it is hard to remember at which location we took them. Our attention was so focused on the camera that we failed to see the big picture. We lose the sense of here and now, when we are bent on capturing a glimpse for viewing later.

The same thing often happens when we are paddling to a distant island. People tend to be goal-oriented. We have to be, to get anything done in our daily lives. But we carry that perspective with us on vacation, when the only goal should be to relax and have a good time. If your idea of a good time is an active holiday, rather than sitting on a beach working on your tan, you are probably very goal-oriented, and that is why you are here, with Island Expeditions, in Belize.

The four-mile paddle-sail to Long Caye is a popular activity. You can see Long Caye hanging on the horizon from the moment you leave Half Moon Caye. It is good to have a destination, but the problem is that, for many and purely out of habit, the destination becomes the purpose of the excursion. As we sail away, the island never seems to get any closer. Then suddenly it seems we are almost there. And again it seems we are not getting any closer.

We forget that the purpose is the journey, not the destination. Instead of staring at the horizon, willing it closer, our time – our vacation – would be better spent closer in. Feel the water lift and drop the boat as we ride with the waves. See the subtle changes in colour as we glide over white sand, green sea grass, or the darker patch reefs. Play with trimming the sail, to try to squeeze a little more speed out of your kayak.

To put it as a witty traveller recently said, we should commune, not commute.

This is why my stories rarely have pictures. I don’t take many, because it takes away from the experience of Being There.

But here is a picture anyway, taken by one of our friends from the Sun City Kayak Club.

sunsetforest

Cheers

Jack

Adventures in Belize Part II: Arrested at the border

My visa in Belize gets renewed every month, minus a day, at the cost of $50bz ($25us). The timing of renewal is tricky. If I am scheduled to be out on the cayes when my visa comes due, I have to go into the immigration office and renew it ahead of time. Which means that however many days I am early, those are days that I lose.

I was scheduled to have a mid-season break, and my departure day was the day my visa was to expire, so lucky me. Then I was asked to stay out another week, as a big group was coming in and they wanted me to stay with them and make sure everything went smoothly. So the day the trip ended I was a week overdue. I figured it might be a problem, but not a big one. I was leaving anyway; what could they do?

I caught the bus in Belize City that would take me all the way to the Cancun Airport. I was scheduled to arrive a scant few hours before my plane was to take off, and this was the only bus that could get me there on time.  As I left Belize City, I remembered that I was supposed to hand in a document at Mexican Immigration (INM) that I had filled out when I left Mexico two months earlier. I hoped that wouldn’t cause a problem. My immediate concern was getting out of Belize without a hassle.

The ride to the border seemed to take hours (it usually does but not the kind you put in italics), and my anxiety slowly crept up as we neared the crossing. We finally got there, I paid my departure ransom, and went to the immigration desk. The agent noticed the discrepancy immediately.

“You’re a week late!” he loudly proclaimed. “You are illegally in the country.” I shifted on my feet and gave him my most sheepish grin. “Sorry,” I replied.  Just got off the cays today, and couldn’t get to an immigration office to renew.”

He went on. “Here’s the deal. You will spend the weekend in jail. Then, on Monday, you will stand before a magistrate, and the magistrate will convict you. You have no defense as it is written here in your passport. You will be made to pay a $1,000 (bz) dollar fine, then will be deported back to Canada.” I was thinking it would be cheaper for all concerned to let me continue, as I was leaving anyway. That way they wouldn’t have to feed me for the weekend and go to the trouble and expense of court time. I didn’t say what I was thinking.

What I did say was “Let me get my stuff off the bus before it leaves without me.” So I ran out and grabbed my pack, and walked considerably more slowly back into the immigration building. When I returned to the counter he asked me to follow him to his office.

We sat in his office staring at each other for a couple of minutes. He really didn’t want to send me to jail, but he did sweat it out of me for a while (not too much) and eventually he let me go, poorer but wiser. So now I had a new predicament: catching up with the bus.

I trotted over to a casino, conveniently perched between border crossings, and hailed a Mexican taxi. I told him I had to catch my bus, and we immediately fell in behind a car that was crossing the bridge as if he was delivering nitroglycerin in a car with square wheels. Finally we got past the explosives delivery vehicle, and pulled up to Mexican Immigration. The bus was not there. I went in and gave the agent my passport. He asked for my departure document , the one I didn’t have, and I told him, well, you already know.

He informed me that without this document, he couldn’t give me an entry stamp. My mind flashed to Tom Hanks in the movie “The Airport” where he plays a man who is unable to enter the US, and cannot be returned to his homeland, and so spends an eternity haunting the purgatory of an airport lounge in his pyjamas.  Except, instead of a modern airport lounge, I had a lovely swamp and a brushy riverbank to haunt.

Then he looks up at me and says, “Go ahead.”, and shoos me out the door. “Ok,” I thought, “that wasn’t so bad. Now to catch the bus.”  I knew that the ticket I bought only gets you to the town of Bacalar, where it stops for at least a half hour while the passengers all file into the tiny bus station and pay the rest of their journey. Bacalar was only about forty minutes drive north of the border. So I asked the taxi driver how much to take me to Bacalar. “Three hundred pesos”, he responds. Ok, not a bad deal, so I agree.

As soon as we pull around the corner we see the bus. It is parked in front of Aduana, the Federal Customs Agency. So I gave the driver a hundred pesos – a good fare for such a short trip – and jumped out of the cab.  I got a green light, meaning they wouldn’t have to search through my luggage. The rest was a long, but uneventful trip to Cancun Airport and home.

Adventures in Belize: Emergency Landing

So far my season in Belize has been anything but uneventful. Let’s start with my arrival. Without boring you with the details of all my flights, buses and taxi rides, I will take you to the last stage of my journey to Dangriga: a flight from Belize City.

The Municipal Airport is located at the water’s edge: in fact the airstrip was built on the water. The Airport Authority is upgrading the airstrip, roughly doubling its length. When I was there, the 18th of November, they hadn’t done any construction yet. But they did leave a pile of rocks at the west end, which turned out to be a lifesaver of sorts.

The strip runs east-west, presumably to take advantage of the easterly trade winds that predominate here. Taking off into the wind gives an advantage of lift, especially on a rather short runway. This day, however, the wind was from the NNW. The plane was full: I only got on because a passenger failed to show on time. Lucky me. So we taxied to the E end of the runway and spun around. This is a Cessna Caravan, a single-engine plane with seats for about twelve passengers, and a big belly for luggage and cargo. Turns out it holds a lot of cargo.

As we started down the runway, the pilot had to dodge a couple of potholes before letting the throttle fly. We bounced down the runway, gathering speed, but I remember there seemed to be precious little runway remaining and we still hadn’t lifted off the ground. Finally, just as we ran out of road, the plane lifted steeply, so steeply that it seemed more like we were intending to head into space, rather than merely fly away. At that moment there was a loud crash as the tail of the plane collided with a pile of rocks, left at the end of the runway. The impact levelled us out and we just cleared the mangroves and began to gain altitude at a less alarming angle.

Instead of flying on to Dangriga, we went straight to the International Airport, just outside of town and made an emergency landing. The tail was not sufficiently damaged to affect the plane’s ability to fly, but I presume they needed to land it somewhere they could have it checked and repaired before taking off again. I say presume, because no one said a word to us about the whole affair. We were taken off the plane, along with all of our luggage and a lot of cardboard boxes, and made to wait outside, in the shade while they got another plane and another pilot. Once that was arranged, they loaded our luggage aboard and left all the boxes behind. A wise move, I thought. Other than that, my trip to Belize was uneventful.

The Nacapule Canyon

The Sierra el Aguaje is the result of roughly 100 million years of volcanic activity, covering the earth with layers of ash and lava, then squeezing it together, twisting, folding and pushing up this range of low mountains. Deposition was followed by erosion. Flowing water gradually carved deep canyons separating the mountains. Some water soaked into the ground, following and filling the layers of porous ash, between layers of impervious lava.

In times more recent past this region was much wetter than it is now and was blanketed in a tropical deciduous forest. As the climate changed, rainfall diminished and the forest receded southward to be replaced with desert vegetation. Despite the desert climate, a few refuges remain. Deep canyons, shaded most of the day and cut so deep as to expose the groundwater can still be found. Here the floor is choked with a great variety of trees and shrubs and draped in vines. Outside of these canyons, such a forest is to be found hundreds of kilometres to the south.

The Nacapule Canyon, near San Carlos, Sonora, is the most famous of these pockets of tropical deciduous forest. Under the protection of CEDES, the Sonoran Commission of Ecology and Sustainable Development, the canyon is now a tourist attraction. It is easily accessible by automobile, and has clean, well-kept trails. Much of the original vegetation is gone now, but more due to the scouring effects of Hurricane Jimena than from the tramplings of visitors. It still is a stunning sight, with vertical cliffs and strangely eroded rocks. The fig tree, from which the canyon gets its name is still there, though some of it was swept away by the hurricane’s floodwaters.

As you hike up the canyon it splits in two. Both routes are worth following. The path to the right follows a small stream past pools of clear water shaded by palms and rock cliffs, and ends in an impressive cave. You can hike out further, which will take you right out of the canyon to a view of the surrounding hills across a broad valley.

The left (or more straight-ahead) route takes you up a rope ladder to a series of pools. Careful searching will yield a glimpse of a frog found nowhere else. Imagine the improbability of finding a frog in the middle of the desert. This route ends for most people in a vertical (usually dry) waterfall above a pool of dark water. The more nimble among us may want to continue, up and out of the canyon to more views of the surrounding desert.

This is not a big hike, but is definitely worth the time to get there, and the twenty peso entry fee. Be sure to bring water and expect to take out with you everything you bring in, and maybe a bit more.