Aug 25, 2009

Kind Kids, Karaoke and Costa Maya (and ponies)

"Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony"
Lou Reed

We live life to the fullest and sometimes, we must admit, that doesn't include blogging regularly enough. In our defense, we would argue that we have to spend time indulging in life to the fullest to make sure we have blog content worthy of our esteemed readers. So, our advice to you is to get a drink, get comfortable and get ready for the ride - cause this blog is gonna be a doozy. There will be a bit of 'nice' and a bit of 'naughty' as we also believe in a definite life balance. To break you in gently, we'll start with the nice. So, here is a pony. Not just any pony, but a pink pony. You'll be seeing her throughout this blog journey. We think she is very nice. She belongs to Colette. If at any point you feel overwhelmed by the children in this blog, please note that there are party pictures and beautiful women in bikinis towards the end.

That sets us up nicely for Colette's Be Kind Belize Kind Kids Adventure. Colette, being a true rebel, always finds a way to work with animals and children, so this summer she rustled up sponsorship amongst friends and Belizean businesses to take a group of kids on a two day field trip to mainland Belize. We'll start with that story first.

Colette's biggest worry in the planning of this whole trip was that the kids wouldn't turn up on time. The adventure was starting on a Saturday morning and all of the children needed to be at the dock at 6:45am for the 7:00am express boat. The San Pedro - Belize Express Water Taxi Company
had generously provided free tickets for the whole group of six children, two adults (teachers) and Colette (who probably doesn't really count as a real adult). Everyone Colette had spoken to had laughed when she told them she had told the kids to be there at 6:45am. The normal response, given with a snort was 'You should have told them to be there at 6:00am. No way they'll be there on time'.

At 6:30am Colette arrived at the dock to find three children already there. By 6:45am all of the children had arrived and as far as Colette was concerned, the worst part of the trip was over. We should back pedal a bit here and explain that Colette has been organising this adventure for over six months and everyone who knows her, knows she plans things in detail. So, every child received a backpack filled with goodies upon their arrival. The backpacks were embroidered with the Be Kind Belize logo and had been donated by a lovely woman called Deborah Gagnon from Denny's in Canada. Inside the backpacks were all sorts of goodies donated by a wonderful animal loving couple, Lori and Jim Prediger and huge supporters of Be Kind Belize, Charlene and Ted Jordan. They also contained a Be Kind Belize t-shirt, which had been printed and provided for free by Gecko Graphics in San Pedro.

The kids were kitted out and ready to go. The boat trip over was uneventful with lots of nodding off and yawning going on. No one said much and the children all looked a bit worried to be leaving their island and their parents. As soon as we arrived, Karen Turner Cruz from Belize Jungle Dome was there to greet us and get us started on our journey to the Cayo District. The Jungle Dome people had been wonderful and provided all of the transportation for the Kind Kids Adventure. For those of you who have never seen the Jungle Dome or even heard of the Jungle Dome, here is a picture. It is, in fact, a dome in the jungle (and a lovely bed & breakfast).

We stuffed ourselves into the van with all of our luggage and hit the road for the first stage of our adventure. Everything seemed to be going well. Colette could hear the teachers, Daniel Jones from Holy Cross Anglican School and Tara McGregor from Island Academy, in the back entertaining the kids and she was carefully reviewing her itinerary with Karen. Suddenly, she heard a groan. It was Teacher Tara. Then there was a group 'ewwwww'. Colette turned around to see that one of the children had puked and, being of a particularly sensitive disposition, covered her own mouth to prevent a further eruption and asked Karen to pull over. All of her meticulous planning came crashing down when she discovered that she hadn't packed any napkins, paper towels or toilet paper. While children fell out of the van and everyone stood around trying not to vomit themselves, Colette thought she would make herself useful and trudged across the road to a closed restaurant, which seemed to serve as a mechanics shop during the day. She returned triumphantly 10 minutes later with a roll of toilet paper in her hands. What she had forgotten was that she was traveling with two experienced teachers, who are excellent at resolving these little problems quickly and simply and so by the time she returned, feeling heroic, the mess had been cleaned up and the children were being packed back into the van. It seemed that this would be a good time to get a proper breakfast into the kids and even though Colette wasn't the best at solving pukey problems quickly, she did have money, which had been donated by some quite marvelous people to ensure that food and travel costs were covered. Those generous people were Charlene and Ted Jordan, Bill and Becky McGhee and Marty Casado, who runs

They ended up in Amigos restaurant along the highway. You can see the children here anxiously awaiting their beans, eggs and tortillas and wait we did. The group debated whether or not the kitchen staff were growing the beans, catching the chickens or had to start a fire to cook on as the power had just gone out. While waiting, the children enjoyed the bumper stickers and signs all over the wall. As one the children started reading one of the signs to the group, teacher Tara suddenly realised that they were all very 'adult' and extremely rude. Everyone then spent the rest of the time trying to distract the children from the signs until the food arrived. Things were running behind schedule and Colette, having planned this like a military operation, hurried everyone up so that they could get on to their first destination, which was Belize Bird Rescue.

Upon our arrival Alyson Coye, one of the top cowboys in Belize and Champion bull rider, was waiting for the children with two horses. One was a four month old foal, whose mother had died from a snake bite. No one had wanted to care for the little mite and so Nikki and Jerry at Belize Bird Rescue, took him in. Alyson, also a skilled farrier, explained and demonstrated proper foot care and then showed the children a 'gentle' approach to gaining a horses trust by lying them down and stroking them.

The children also got a chance to meet one eyed Jack, who had been abandoned by the side of the road - another unwanted animal being cared for at the bird rescue. They all got a chance to handle the horses and groom them. Colette noticed that just being near the horses, touching them and interacting with them calmed them down and focused their attention.

After this Nikki and Jerry took everyone for a walk down to Roaring Creek, a beautiful clear creek that runs through their property. They have built the most incredible non mechanised water wheel there that provides an incredible amount of fresh water for free. The children were fascinated and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to take off their shoes and dip their toes into the cool, fast flowing water.

They were thrilled when little fish appeared and started nibbling their toes and everyone felt refreshed and happy as they headed back up to visit the Bird Rescue aviaries where the children got to meet some of the resident birds, who were being rehabilitated for return to the wild.

These included Red Lored Parrots, most of whom had been terribly abused, stolen from the rain forest as babies and then kept as pets by people who didn't care for them properly.

A Crested Guan, seized from people who had cut its wings in an awful manner.

A Little Tinamou, which are rather plain but rarely seen as they are such shy birds.

We also got to see a blue - headed (Mealy) Amazon Parrot, who had been released by the rescue and was living free in the surrounding forest, as he popped in for a visit.

After our visit to the aviaries, it was time for lunch, followed by a chance for the kids to show off their creative skills by making toys for the parrots.

One of the highlights of this visit was when the children were able to take the toys and put them in trees for the parrots to play with. The kids were so excited when the parrots immediately climbed down the trees to investigate.

It was onward and forward for the Kind Kids Adventure and though everyone was sad to say goodbye to Alyson, Nikki and Jerry they were looking forward to their next stop with Dr. Orlando Baptist a Belizean veterinary surgeon, who told them all about why he became a vet, what he had to achieve academically and the sort of work he does on a day to day basis. The children asked him all sorts of questions and hopefully will be inspired as Belize really does need more vets.

By this time everyone was a bit weary, but we still had one more experience for the day and Colette knew that this would most definitely wake everyone up. We headed out to see Tony Garel at the Belize Herpatorium and Aquarium Park. Tony has been working on this project for five years now and is one of the leading experts on reptiles in Belize.

Be Kind Belize got a behind the scenes tour. The children were able to see the animals that are bred for feeding reptiles, saw the herpetological collection of Belize's most deadly snakes, learned a bit about crocodiles and then were able to visit Tony's ponds, where he keeps problem crocodiles that have had to be removed from dangerous situations. These he uses for educational purposes to help people understand how important crocodiles are to the Belizean ecosystem and why they are threatened. He also gave the children a very scary demonstration of what happens when crocodiles loose their fear of humans. While feeding the crocs, one of them continually tried to attack Tony and it was only is speed and understanding of crocodile behaviour that kept him safe. If that croc was loose it would be a great danger to people.

It was time to wind down after such a fun filled first day for the Kind Kids Adventure and head off for the jungle lodge that was hosting us for the night.

Everyone was looking forward to a swim in the pool at Ian Anderson's Caves Branch and were wondering what was in store for us there. Mr. Anderson was hugely supportive of the Kind Kids Adventure and it would be impossible to express how overwhelmed everyone was by his wonderful hospitality.
One of the funniest things that evening was that one of the boys had saved $5 so that he could have a virgin pina colada. He ordered and sat at the bar and drank it. It made us all giggle.

Teacher Tara and Teacher Daniel both needed a rest after the fun filled day.

..and we got to rest in style. We got absolutely brilliant rooms at the jungle lodge, called the Tree House Suites. We were given three suites, each of which had a beautiful bed (Teacher Tara's was a two bedroom suite. She was the posh one.) and a set of bunk beds for two kids. We all thought we would be roughing it in the bunk rooms but got a wonderful surprise.

Colette's roomies and their bunks, which were literally in the trees.

We had a delicious dinner and were joined by Mr. Ian Anderson and his lovely wife Ella. They told us about the amazing Belize National Youth Chess Foundation that they have founded and why they had wanted to support the work we were doing with Be Kind Belize. They were great dinner companions and very interesting people. The children really enjoyed meeting them and felt very special.

After dinner the adults felt it was the responsible thing to hold true to tradition and tell the children ghost stories. So after scaring them all half to death we headed off for a much needed and very comfortable nights sleep.

Colette snuck up on the boys in her room and caught them fast asleep during the beginning of a massive rain storm early in the morning. It wasn't long before everyone was up and ready to start the next day.

Before breakfast everyone headed out to the river that flowed below our tree houses and then it was off for our cave tubing adventure. Colette had always thought of cave tubing as a gentle float down a slow moving river as you passed through caves and went 'ooh' and 'ahh' and that is what she expected. So, as they set off, fitting the children up with hiking boots......whoa....hiking boots. Wait a minute. This is supposed to be a gentle float isn't it?

Unfortunately there are no pictures as no one had a camera with waterproof housing, so we'll just have to tell you about it here. We all got in one of those big old USA school buses. Colette and Tara were still wearing swim suits. Tara was actually wearing a bikini with a t- shirt as she had also anticipated a gentle float in cool water. After an absolutely glorious long and very bumpy ride through the Maya Mountains with a group of increasingly excited children, we were relieved to pull over in an orange orchard. Very strange. Never mind. Our guides, Alex and Edgar proceeded to empty the back of the bus of large black inner tubes and we all set off on a hike. Eventually we could hear water running and knew it was close.

We clambered down a steep bank - actually Colette, with her immense grace and good balance, sort of slipped and fell down the bank - and were relieved to see what looked like a gently flowing river. Very shallow, but gentle.

After instruction about the correct way to use our tubes and making sure all of the children were present, accounted for and wearing their life jackets and everyone was comfortable with their head lamps, we got in the water. That is when the penny dropped. This was not going to be a gentle float down stream. No- oh no. We were paddling, with our hands, against the current, upstream.

Of course the guides, being wonderful gentlemen, assisted the weaker children but left the grown ups to fend for themselves. Eventually we arrived at the cave and turned on our lamps. It was cold, damp and quite ominous. We also had to keep paddling. Then we would get out for a while and carry our tubes while the guides would tell everyone about the geology of the caves, which were 24 million years old, made of limestone and 7 km deep (most of that has water up to the roof so is in accessible except to cave divers). It was Footprint cave, so named because explorers had found footprints of the ancient Maya in the cave. The cave had been used for Maya rituals and we were told we would soon be seeing evidence of this.

It was pretty fun, there were a few instances of panic when people fell off their tubes and then much relieved giggling when they discovered they could actually just walk as the water was so shallow. The cave was beautiful and full of crystalised formations.

We reached a point where we left our tubes and did the rest of the cave by foot. We went about 1km into the cave. Eventually we had to climb up onto a platform. There was much hilarity when Colette and Tara both balked at the possibility that in their swimsuits and feeble condition that they could possibly climb up onto the platform but everyone ignored them and they managed just fine.

This platform was the site of a stunning Maya carving of a fertility god or monkey mask. The guides told us about the way the area had been used for rituals and rites in the past, gave everyone the chance to have a really good look at some of the stone pits and carvings and then we had to get down from the platform. It took us all a second to understand what he meant when one of the guides told us to maintain five points of contact as we descended and then we realised that he meant we had to slide down on our bottoms. Certainly not very dainty when wearing a swim suit, especially a bikini. Thankfully it was dark.

We floated back out of the cave into the daylight. We had been in there a couple of hours and had lost all sense of time. One of the guides disappeared and suddenly jumped off a cliff next to the river and scared us all to death as he splashed into the water. It was an amazing trip and highly recommended. It was somewhat physically tiring, but well worth it.

The kids were in for a treat when we arrived back at the jungle lodge for lunch as they were just in time to hear a troupe of howler monkeys. If you have never heard howler monkeys, there is no way to describe the sound. The children loved it.

Karen was there to meet us and we all piled back into the Jungle Dome van to visit Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. It is an environmental education centre based in 1000 acres of forest reserve. The children were intrigued to see the bio gas unit there and learn that human waste (poop) was turned into a gas for cooking - all their cooking gas is made this way at Monkey Bay - and that the rest of the waste is turned into compost. Kids love hearing about poop. They were also told about the Green Iguana conservation programme at Monkey Bay but a bit disappointed that there were no iguanas there at the time.

Of course, children can be terribly lucky at times. Just as we were leaving, a green iguana ran out from in front of them and while Colette couldn't get the iguana in a picture, she did manage to capture the childrens' faces as they watched it run up a tree. Priceless.

We're now onto the last stretch of the journey. Glad that you are still with us. The next stop is the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Centre. What a treat. Hilario, one of the keepers, took the children on a special highlight tour of the Zoo and here you'll get a chance to see what we did.

They got to feed White Tailed Deer, which are becoming rare in Belize because of over hunting.

They got to feed the Tapir, but were told to run away quickly as the Tapir often would turn around and pee on visitors.

They got the chance to meet Junior, a young jaguar who was born at the zoo when his very sick mother was rescued.

Because Junior had to be hand reared, he can never be returned to the wild, so the Belize Zoo use him to educate people about the plight of the jaguar and have trained him to interact with visitors. The children were also lucky enough to see Sharon Matola interacting with the very rare Harpy Eagles that are being bred at the Zoo but unfortunately we were so excited, no one thought to take a picture.

They also got to feed the incredibly rare Scarlet Macaws that are part of the Zoo's breeding programme. The Belize Zoo is a truly unique conservation and education effort and we can't recommend it highly enough. They were great with the kids and the visit was extremely educational as well as exciting and interesting.

We piled everyone back into the van and Karen made sure we got to the water taxi on time to make it back to San Pedro on the very last express. The kids were thrilled that the Captain gave them permission to sit on the top deck and even had his picture taken with them.

The journey home was full of happy smiles even though everyone was tired. The children knew there was one more treat in store for them. Kakaw Artisan Chocolate, hand made in San Pedro, had donated a bag of chocolate for every child on the Kind Kids Adventure. What a journey, what an adventure, what a trip. Teacher Daniel and teacher Tara were wonderful inspirations and role models to the children. The whole event was way beyond anything Colette had planned for and she is eternally grateful to the schools, teachers, children, community members, businesses and other individuals who made the whole thing possible. The lives of these children will be touched by this experience forever.

Oh, there is that pesky pink pony again. That must indicate that we are in for a change of pace in this blog. It can't be all earnest and do gooding all the time. We need to let our hair down and have some fun every so often and that exactly what we have been doing. Oh no, but just before that - one more small piece of earnest do gooding.

As part of her work with Be Kind Belize, Colette presented a paper at the first national Belize Wildlife Conservation Network Conference at Galen University in Belmopan.

She had a great time hanging out with lots of like minded folks and she learned tons.

Don't think she didn't have fun though - she hates to say that having a group of very sweet children perform the Belize National Anthem on recorders first thing in the morning after excessive amounts of wine drinking the night before was somewhat painful.

Now, onto the real fun. We'll keep this fairly pictoral.

Maya enjoying Shaz's birthday at Lime.

Colette and Helda have fun with balloons at Shaz's birthday.

Maya is feeling lucky at the Roadkill karaoke fundraiser for a young boy who had a sudden brain aneurysm one morning while he was getting ready for school and desperately needed help with medical costs. He is doing well now.

Just so you know it isn't all play and no work, here are our favourite shots from the Costa Maya beauty pageant we were lucky enough to be able to photograph.

Miss Nicaragua was the winner and you can see why here. Cutie Patootie.

Here is a colourful group shot of some of the girls dressed for the cultural part of the evening.

Did we mention we also had to spend a day on a catamaran with the girls on a bikini shoot? Maya got a bit over excited in this shot of Miss Panama posing with a local journalist from the San Pedro Sun.

Here are all the girls and we are just posting this as a tease because our next blog will contain some fabulous photographs from the bikini shoot. Watch this space.

Finally, we wanted to post this amazing picture, given to us by our friend Tamara, of her mother's house in our neighbourhood 15 years ago. For those of you who know the area, that is where Banana Beach Hotel is now. Wow.

Our favourite pink pony wishes you a funtastic and fabulous time until we meet again.