Seriously Old School

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Imagine large families where everyone works hard, contributes
and there are no surly teenagers. Every meal is made from scratch, the milk,
cream and butter are fresh and all the vegetables are grown by you or your
neighbors. Those vegetables are canned at harvest time (in mason jars), stored
in the basement and brought up to the kitchen (complete with a wood burning
stove) as needed. Sometimes a couple of families get together and slaughter a
cow, divide it up and they “can” that too. Meals are events where everyone eats
together, talks about their day and shares stories and laughter. The family
cart (buggy) is drawn by the horses that also pull the plow and any other heavy
thing that needs pulling like the trees used to make the lumber for your house.
If a neighbor is in need the people come together and meet the need, maybe help
build a house or assist with the crops. Most births happen at home with the
help of a midwife from the community. Of course there is no television or video
games and the home is well lit by bright kerosene lanterns in the brief period
between darkness and bed time. There is no alcoholism, drug addiction or divorce
and most everyone is prosperous.  Where and when is this place? Is Andy Griffith the sheriff?

I live next to a community of Mennonites in Upper Barton  Creek here in Belize and what I’ve described is an accurate picture of their  life. We have a close relationship with the two families that live nearest to  us and we know many other families in their community of about 250. I have  spent a considerable amount of time with them in many different circumstances  and they are intelligent, open, friendly and quick to laugh.  They have helped me get my truck unstuck (more  than once), build a cabana, tend to our horses, build 2 outhouses, haul  supplies, clear trees after a storm, work in our orchard and more.  During the harvest they sell us their  excellent produce at wholesale prices and through the years we have bought many  things from them including chickens, eggs, cows, whole milk, cream, butter,  pies, cakes, muffins, chocolate, honey, fruit, granola, bread, lumber, kerosene,  lanterns, umbrellas, knives and more. Like any good neighbor they are always
there if we need to borrow an item or two and like good neighbors they never
ask us to borrow anything (though I have rushed a few to the hospital).

There are several sects of Mennonites here in Belize, they are all Christian and believe the Bible is the word of God. Some are far more conservative than others and their beliefs about the use of technology vary widely. For example there is another community nearby that drive vehicles, use giant John Deer combines and quite a few of them have motorcycles. After seeing a group of motorcycle riding Mennonites my daughter remarked that she didn’t know Mennonites were allowed to be cool. I think they are not allowed to strive for cool, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be cool. What all the sects have in common is that they work hard, do what they do very well and it is generally accepted that when doing business with them you’ll get a superior product at a fair price.

The history of the Mennonites dates back to the time of the church reformation when they split with other reformists primarily on the issue of pacifism. Despite the violent persecution those Christians were subjected to they believed that the scriptures taught they were not to resist or retaliate. This is another character they all share today, they do not resist or retaliate. They will not fight or go to court. Because of this belief they are often
preyed upon & bullied by the scourge of society, it happens right here in
our valley, often.

Unlike some of the Amish in the US there is no situation here where the youth go off into “the world” for a year for a taste of wild living. Young Mennonite people here socialize some evenings at “Youth Sings” at their church. They choose for themselves who they will marry and only do so when they are well established with a home and a working farm and everything it takes to equip both. There is no set age for them to wed and most of them wait longer than I did. If a young man is interested in a young lady he will inform his
parents, they will inform her parents who will inform her. She will relay her interest, or lack of, back through the same process. The courting process is then slow and supervised and weddings are a large affair attended by everyone in the community.

The boys and young men sometimes show up at our place during flooding and ride the swollen and violent creek on inner tubes. I once jumped into a large and dangerous whirlpool created by our flooding creek to help my neighbor wrangle a couple of giant wayward logs. He had previously cut them upstream and had been waiting for a flood to float them down to their hydro powered sawmill. The flood came and the logs were swept down but were trapped in the whirlpool with other debris carried along by the now giant creek. Swirling around in the churning water alongside thousands of pounds of debris it took us the better part of an hour to get ropes on these giants and drag them over to
more reasonable water. We lashed these two 12 foot long monsters together and were about to send them on their way downstream when my wife said, “You guys should ride them down.” It seemed entirely unreasonable given the violent state of the flooded creek but since I am a former Hooyah Navy Deep Sea Diver and he was a strapping 22 year old farm boy (who I once saw kill a large steer with a single blow of a sledgehammer) we grabbed a couple of canoe paddles and rode that contraption until we were thrown from it. After delivering the Huck Finn raft on steroids to the mill we went further upstream to retrieve other logs he had dropped.

Recently I spent 4 or 5 hours in the jungle, at night, with some Mennonite men trying to locate lost hikers. Two young ladies had gone hiking and lost their way, as darkness was setting in I approached my neighbors and asked for three of the younger men to help me try to find them. Some of the young men were at a meeting and a few others were off hunting so we put together a more senior delegation of mostly graying men. About 8 of us set off and were soon joined by 5 of the others who had been hunting and received word
of the search. We split up into two groups, penetrated into the dark jungle and
eventually found the girls about a hundred yards off the trail. They were, of course, relieved to see us and quite surprised to see a dozen Mennonite men in the jungle searching for them. Not only were my neighbors ready and willing to help, but they were able as well. They were all very competent in the jungle.

Last year I asked my neighbor if he would be willing to come and speak to a group of university students we brought in to do some community service work.  He is a leader in the community and brought another leader with him. They spoke of their history,
where they were from, how they came to Belize and why they live the way they do. Why they live they way they do, this is not a question I had ever asked before and I was interested to hear him explain it.

These gentlemen told us that they are not caught up with the concerns of the rest of the world. Their lives are focused on what they believe to be important, a relationship with God, raising their families and living in peace. They do not necessarily view technology as evil, it is more of a distraction that takes the focus away from what is important. While a large farm tractor, for example, might enable them to farm more land they are not
interested in the additional pressure of purchasing and maintaining such a device. How much more would a family have to produce to have things which would enable them to produce more?  They have what they need. Working the land the way they do is hard work but it is simple and pure. It provides for them nicely and they do it as a family. Parents work side by side with their children in the fields and at home. They raise their children and do not turn them over to others to be raised. There is no pursuit of things. The lifestyle itself is the reward. Working hard, loving your family and worshiping God with your life.

It was a powerful message delivered by impressive men who made sense. Many of the students were visibly touched and some told me afterwards how it had provoked them to
consider their own lives. In a materialistic world of broken homes and an unwinnable rat race the ideals these men discussed seemed reasonable to young university students, as they did to me.

I meet a lot of environmentally conscious young people here at Barton Creek Outpost.  People wanting to live “green” and “sustainably” but the 500 or so Mennonites here in my area are the real deal. They are truly old school and it is not a passing fad. I suspect all of them put together generate the carbon footprint of an 8 year old boy in the suburbs of North America. I admire many things about the people in this community and the fact that they are committed to a lifestyle that takes little and gives much is something we can all learn from. I don’t know that I could live that life but I have great respect for those that do and I see things in the way they live their lives that make me want to be a better man.

Posted in Belize, San Ignacio, Belize, Travel Belize, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

Cowboys & Indians vs. The Belizean Jungle

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4 July, 2011. Barton Creek Outpost, Belize. A friend told me that in 2 days he was going on a three day expedition into one of the most remote areas of Belize and asked if I
wanted to come along. My wife chimed in, “You should go!” I should? I did.

The Plan:

  1. Find a way down 1300 feet from the Baldy Beacon area of Belize’s Mountain Pine Ridge to the Roaring River.
  2. Deploy inflatable kayaks into Roaring River’s white water.
  3. Find the tributary that comes from Belize’s famous 1,000 Foot Falls and hike up to the falls, then back to the kayaks.
  4. Ride the whitewater out of the mountains and back to relative civilization extracting near the Achtun Tunichil Muknal cave.

The Team:

  • Arran Bevis, Mountain Equestrian Trails . Age: 32 Experienced jungle & river guide, Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), Cowboy (Texan)
  • Ajinder Garcha (AJ), Seakunga Adventure Center , Placencia. Age: 50’ish Experienced kayaking guide with extensive jungle experience, Indian (Punjabi)
  • Tony Hovis. Rosa’s Hotel . Age: 41 Extensive canoeing experience. Neither cowboy nor Indian.
  • Me, Age: 46 Questionable background and unverified experiences.

Day One

After driving an hour past anything I recognized in Belize’s Mountain Pine Ridge we parked the truck and started the hike into possibly the most dangerous and exhausting day of my life.  Arran had scouted the beginning of the route from the mountain top the
day before and we set off with good maps, a good plan and full of confidence. We
each had packs on our backs slightly differing in weight but mine weighed about
60 lbs. Two Belizean “porters” had been hired to carry  the two deflated kayaks down
the mountain to the river. The kayaks weighed about 60 lbs each.

After the beautiful mountaintop scenery and carefree hiking of the 1st hour we got to hike into some eyeball high grass, lovely. We then found ourselves descending in head high grass down a slippery 45 degree slope. Tony and I agreed to count the number of times we fell on our butt, however, after we found that it was often easier to simply slide down the hill, like sliding into third base, we quit counting. The grass started getting taller than us about the time we decided that we needed to move laterally across the face of this
slippery mountain for about 2000 yards. While taking a breather (and by
“breather” I mean “I’m swirling around the drain, I need to lie down”) in the
middle of this wonderful activity I learned two things.

  1. We were all nearly out of water and still far away from the river below that would supply us with more.
  2. The porters could not hang. They were too tired and quitting, going back. Reneging on the deal and leaving us with another 120 lbs of gear.

Oh, happy day!

We took our 5 minute break there and then we started moving,
I immediately realized that 5 wasn’t nearly enough so I collapsed and took 15
more, valiantly fighting off the vomit that was threatening to further
embarrass me.

Revived and reasonably sure I would live for another leg of the trek we moved out and sure enough found the “spine” we had been looking for that would take us further downward to our doom, I mean, the river. Walking down the spine of a mountain is like walking down the spine of a cat. It is not ideal but it beats what is to the left and right of you. Around us we saw other spines on other mountains that went from “spine” status to “600 foot cliff”
status in a hurry. We were hoping for a good spine all the way down to the river so that
there would be no more traversing across the face of the mountain or, God forbid, having to go back uphill some distance to find another route. We climbed and slid down the slippery spine, making our way from tree to tree which was the only thing that kept us from uncontrolled slides down the rain soaked grass & mud surface. The extra weight of the kayaks we were now hauling along was more of a nuisance than a real hindrance and we got pretty efficient in the tree to tree method sometimes making use of the ropes for the more difficult areas. Arran had done a good job of getting us on a descendible spine and we finally made it to the bottom. There was never a doubt in my mind.

Laying out the kayaks, our intention was to inflate them, paddle down the most dangerous water I’d ever been in and find a spot to camp. We immediately learned two things.

  1. The kayak pump had been broken on the trek down the mountain.
  2. The water was rising at an alarming rate.

As Tony put it, “I’ll camp here until our provisions run out and then die of starvation before I climb back up that mountain!” Like the ancient Greeks, who burned their boats upon reaching an enemy’s shore, turning back was not an option so while Arran proceeded to blow the kayaks up by lung power we tore the pump apart to see if it could be fixed. Tony has a great, analytical mind for this type of thing and identified the problem and a workable solution which of course involved duct tape. I love duct tape! By the time we got the boats pumped up and gear strapped down the river had risen a foot or so. We briefly discussed camping where we were but instead got into the big water in the interest of further progress and a better camping spot.

Within 30 minutes or so Arran and I had been tossed from the kayak twice and the second time I found myseIf in a bit of a pickle. While Arran was swept clear of the swirling, foaming, vortex of death I had been kept in it. I found out this is known as a “keeper”.   I learned a couple things while in The Keeper.

  1. My heavy boots that had served me so well on the treacherous hike down were not the same asset in a keeper. They were threatening to pull me to my demise.
  2. If you’re planning on being in a keeper, keep the boat with you and hang onto it with all that your worth. It can save your life.

I am 46 years old, have seen my better years physically but I’m still pretty active and I’m born to the water. Sitting here now considering it I’d say there is no way I could drown
in that situation. The Keeper, however, reminded me of how fragile life is. Thank you Lord for allowing me to see another day and thank you for reminding me how much I love my life. I am grateful.

We pulled in a short while later and settled for a spot in the jungle that Arran hacked out. We strung our Hennessy Hammocks, Arran chopped firewood, made a fire and an amazing meal, his “Cowboy Dinner”. The night before he had taken about 6 pounds of ground beef and mixed it with sliced potatoes, onions, green pepper, cho-cho ( a local vegetable) and seasoning. He divided it in four parcels, wrapped it in aluminum foil and froze it overnight. The packages were now set on the hot coals of our fire, cooked and then consumed by 4 hungry adventurers.  Delicious. He credits his mother with the dish, she used to pack it for him when he was but a wee cowboy, adventuring on his own.

After eating we climbed into our hammocks to recover from one of the most physically exhausting days I have ever had. The much anticipated arrival of the sandman was delayed, however, when Arran announced from his hammock, “I’m covered with ticks.” In the cocoon of our hammocks we all started our self inspection to discover that small “seed ticks” had attached themselves to each of us by the hundreds.  Arran and I stumbled through the night jungle and down to the river to see if we could wash them off. No such luck. As soon as I was back in my hammock I’d discover another hundred on me and was back out again to trying to rid myself of those little cusses.  Arran, Tony and I were covered
but AJ, inexplicably , claimed to have none. As I lie in my hammock picking ticks, listening to Tony cuss and Arran giggle I finally drifted off to dream about The Keeper and being eaten alive by small ticks.

Day Two

After a terrible night’s sleep I awoke in the misty jungle to greet another day. We had granola and milk with coffee and paddled off to find the tributary that comes from 1,000 Foot Falls. Arran and I adjusted the weight in our kayak a bit and found we were more maneuverable and handled the river much better.  After a couple hours on the most beautiful river I’ve ever seen Arran identified the tributary we sought. We pulled in, consolidated some gear and started hiking.  Still wearing our helmets & life jackets we
carried climbing gear & our lunch all in one pack weighing about 60lbs.

The terrain was difficult, uphill, with lots of climbing and we were in & out of the tributary’s waters (mostly in) constantly. We were always aware of the hazard of even a small injury becoming a very large issue so we proceeded carefully. Out exit plan for the injured was to pack the individual to the kayaks and battle the river back to civilization, 2 days away. Not a pleasant picture.

Deep, crystal clear pools nestled in dark rock formations became so commonplace that I had to remind myself to try and appreciate each one. The pristine surrounding jungle lent a quality to the whole situation that I can only, feebly say, “Reminds me of a movie”.  Arran efficiently led the way as we tried to find the easiest path up and over large and small waterfalls and deeper into the jungle, looking for the base of 1000 Foot Falls. Three hours in, and after climbing a number of increasingly large waterfalls, we found the most beautiful jungle pool I have ever seen. It was surrounded by towering, granite cliffs and fed by the giant waterfall, still a short distance up the mountains. The water was emerald green and the mist from the falls, jungle and rain gave it a dream-like quality. I wanted to climb down and bask in it but at that point we made the determination to turn back, resisting the urge to push higher up the falls. The rain, the late hour and our provisions dictated that we turn back despite AJ’s joking recommendation, “Let’s ignore everything we know and push for the summit!” He was referring to the numerous deaths on many expeditions that are attributed to “summit fever”, ignoring what you know to be the safest course of action to make the summit.

On the hike out we jumped off many of the same falls we had painstaking climbed on the way in. When possible, we floated down the creek that we had powered our way up and we appreciated the overall downhill attitude of the land. It only took us half the time to get out and Tony the Mule humped the heavy pack the whole way back. We reached the kayaks in about 90 minutes, reloaded and shoved off.

After an hour and a half of river time we chose a picturesque rock & beach camp. Dinner was pasta with tomato sauce, coffee, nuts and raisins. Cuban cigars, man-talk and ape-like grooming followed as we spent a couple hours picking hundreds more small seed ticks off ourselves & one another.  I found that the 80 grit sandpaper from the kayak repair kit took off the most ticks at one time. Duct tape is effective as well unless they are burrowed deep in your skin. I think AJ might have had 30 ticks, I had several hundred on me with Arran and Tony hosting a few hundred as well.  Sleep was a welcome relief yet once again
accompanied by at least 100 of my tiny traveling companions. I should start a tick circus, I have seen several jump.

Day Three

Awakened to the smell of campfire coffee prepared by Arran,  we had oatmeal, nuts and raisins. We loaded our gear and prepared a full day in kayaks. Day three promised to be a long, tiring day with plenty of challenges but nothing compared to the difficult hiking and big waters of day one & two. I was looking forward to it.

I have spent a lot of time in canoes, I live on a popular canoeing creek and have owned probably 15 canoes in the last 10 years. I have paddled in the La Ruta Maya, a 170 mile, 4 day canoe race twice. Arran is an accomplished kayak guide and La Ruta Maya veteran. It was a pleasure to share a kayak for three days with this young man that I have great
respect for and is like my brother. Tony, my other brother from another mother, is a veteran of three La Ruta Maya races and knows his way around a canoe aplenty.
I’d paddle the river Styx with either of them. The master of the kayak though, is
AJ. Watching him approach white water, setting the kayak up and then slipping
into the rapids is a lesson in itself. Then, the slight course adjustments made
with a gentle sweep of his paddle is like watching peace amongst the chaos.
“Making it look easy like Michael Jordan”, I commented at one point. Ticks
don’t stick to him either.

We started our third and final day in the mountains where the amazing scenery continued with towering, sheer cliffs and rapid drops in elevation resulting in just a few more big’ish rapids. The terrain started to level out after a few hours but we still found plenty of smaller rapids to keep our focus and help make it fun. We eventually got down into jungle with cohune palms on the riverbanks, iguanas in the trees and AJ even hollered, “Look, a Tapir!” This of course scared it off before the rest of us could see it but we did get to hear it running off through the bush, terrified by the thunderous voice of Ajinder Garcha, wildlife guide. There were lots of laughs, kayak battles (“Prepare to be boarded!”) and an epic nautical engagement fought with figs. We abandoned our fig battle at the extraction point where we pulled our kayaks out lit more Cuban cigars and hitched a ride to the highway.

Two days after all that I sit here covered with itchy tick bites, sore muscles and fond memories that I am trying to recapture like a fading dream. It is always that way with adventures, everything alive and vivid as it occurs but as I settle back into home life the memories start to seem far away. This trip showed me a side of Belize I had never seen, a side of each of my friends I had not seen and of course a side of myself I had not seen. I am
pleased with all sides and grateful for the glimpse.

Here is the video I made documenting the trip.

Be sure to check it out if you liked this story.

Multiple day kayaking expeditions can be scheduled with Cowboys & Indians Expeditions, the fledgling endeavor of two very experienced, competent guides, Arran Bevis and AJ Garcha. Contact Arran through or AJ through .  Seakunga Adventure Center also runs trips throughout Central America and Cuba.

Posted in Belize, Belize Adventure, Belize Kayaking, Belize Tours, San Ignacio, Belize, Travel Belize | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Racism in Belize?

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In your home town, a black man and  a white man walk into a mechanic’s shop. They both ask what a brake job cost. The  mechanic tells the white guy $150, he tells the black man its $200.  Is that racist?

What if I, an American in Belize, am routinely charged more for the same service than a Belizean? (We call it, “Gringo Tax”.)  My Webster’s Dictionary says that the key point that defines racism is the intent to demean or subdue another because of their race. Does that mean the Gringo Tax is not racist? I don’t feel subdued, merely screwed. Could you implement that practice in your home town?   Maybe the Gringo Tax is simply charging what the market will bear. Customers that a merchant perceives
to have more, pay more. The driver of the new SUV pays more than the driver of
the old Datsun, regardless of race. Can you make a practice of that where you live?

What about the common practice of hiring a native born individual before a foreign born worker regardless of qualifications?  Personally, I am opposed to that practice in my home town and everywhere else. I think it has a negative impact on the business, the consumer and does not encourage excellence. Three strikes.

Regardless of whether or not those things are racist, and I don’t know that they are, racial tensions are commonplace here in Belize.  It may or may not be something you see as a tourist but it is absolutely something you become aware of living here.  As a friend of mine said yesterday, “You want to know about racism here? Just add alcohol.”  He was referring to the magical transformation of the seemingly friendly local turning hostile under the influence of alcohol. It is something most ex-pats here are familiar with. I’ve heard, “My parents would be ashamed of me if they saw me with you.” and “I’ll never apologize to a white man!” among many other such statements.  It is the consensus among most expats I know that Belizean government officials, for example, seem to go out of their way to give foreigners a hard time. The practice is not limited to Immigration, nor is it fair to say that every official there is guilty, but most agree that they appear to make things difficult on purpose.

Racism is not restricted to Belizean against North American. The Belizeans and Guatemalans don’t seem to like each other the Maya are treated badly across the board. We have a relationship with a Maya family in a nearby village and, because of their heritage, they have a long history of being treated poorly by their non-Maya neighbors. Physical abuse and exclusion are a part of their lives. Growing up as the victims of racism is a stark reality for them.

The Chinese own most of the grocery stores in Belize and it is common practice to walk in and call out, “Chineeee! Gimme 2 bag ice!” or “China-man! Where de Coke?”  I’m not sure if calling them “Chineeee” or “China-man” is racist but I know that if I walked into a shop in my home town and called out, “Chineeee! Where’s my dry cleaning?”  I’d turn some heads. What if I walked into Circuit City and said, “Hey black man! Where de flat screen?” How would that go over?

I recognize that the crux of the resentment between many Belizeans and North Americans is economic. “White people” come here, buy a lot of land, open businesses, own a bunch of things and, as a whole, have a better quality of life than the average Belizean. That’s a fact and it can, and does, lead to resentment. Is it racism if someone
resents a group of people for their perceived economic advantage? I have Mexican friend here who is sometimes called a gringo because he is perceived to be from the US. He is an outsider, a “gringo” to some locals. An American friend of mine was recently described as, “…the white, black guy.”  His skin is dark but he’s affluent and from the US so he’s described as white.

My last 6 & 1/2 years here have been an education on many fronts, not the least of which is being a minority. White North Americans make up about 1% of the population here. One of the many things I appreciate about Belize is that my children grow up around different cultures and have friends with a different color skin.  I didn’t grow up that way and I admit that I personally gravitate towards people like me, North Americans. I have Belizean friends but, to be honest, most of my friends are people from the US and Canada. It is how I grew up and I guess what I’m naturally comfortable with. I was only exposed to daily interaction with people of different color skin when I joined the military. Fortunately I wasn’t brought up to dislike people based on their
race (thank you Mom & Dad). If anyone in the military had inclinations toward racism the frequent training and instruction we received on the subject  would certainly have helped squelch, at least, the expression of it. After serving 12 years I can honestly say that I do not think racism was a problem in that environment. I think the reason is that we were trained to be respectful of others and evaluate people based on performance.  That might not be the perfect way to do things but it makes sense to me. I think people need to be trained how to act, otherwise fear and distrust, among other things, can become driving forces that lead to skewed thinking resulting in bad behavior.

There is obvious racial tension in Belize. Everyone who lives here is aware of that. I think economics are at the root of much of it and maybe the situation has as much to do with money as actual racial differences. Additionally, racial differences here seem to be more…out in front…people of different races are often called by their race, “Hey, white
man!”, or “Chineeee!”. Truthfully, I don’t mind being called “white man” and I know the Chinese don’t mind their tag.   Can we all try to be respectful of others, evaluate people based on how we see them act and treat others as we want to be treated? That might not be perfect but it makes sense to me.

Posted in Backpacking in Belize, Belize, Belize Adventure, Belize Culture, Ex Military in Belize, Ex Pats in Belize, Land in Belize, Living in Belize, Property in Belize, Racism in Belize, San Ignacio, Belize, Travel Belize, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 36 Comments

An American Ex-Pat in Belize, An Old Dog Learning New Tricks

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“What time is it?”

“Guess”, the beautiful blonde in my bed replies. The younger blonde stirs, not wanting to get up just yet.


“7:50, it’s late”, she says. The three of us have slept in a bit. My wife, 3 year old daughter and I get up to meet the day.

“Shhhh, listen”, our daughter Cyan says as she wakes, “I hear a toucan.” Living in the jungle has its advantages and waking up to the sounds of croaking toucans, screeching parrots and the bizarre “gobbling” of the cha-cha la-ka’s is a daily treat.

Logan, our 9 year old son, has pitched a tent a short distance away at our backpackers’ campground & hostel, Barton Creek Outpost. We walk down there to find that Logan got scared during the night and chose to sleep on the ground, near some backpackers in hammocks. He’s a tough little jungle boy but he’s still a little boy. Logan is sometimes called Mogley after the kid in “The Jungle Book”.  He has lived more than six of his almost 10 years here at the Outpost and is Mogley in many respects. He once offered to take 6 backpackers on a jungle hike and about 45 minutes into it three of them, convinced they were lost, decided to break away to find their way back. Logan returned to the Outpost 20 minutes later without them & told us what happened. I gave the wayward souls another hour or so and went looking for them. I found them a short distance from our place, exhausted and in agreement, “We shouldn’t have left Logan!” He was 8 years old at the time.

Our soon to be 13 year old daughter Kaitlyn is another child of the rain forest. Three years ago we had the opportunity to get her in a “Bush Medicine Camp” hosted by internationally renowned teacher and author Dr. Rosita Arvigo. After being there a day Kaitlyn told me that the best student in camp would receive the “Director’s Bush Doctor Award” and she wanted to win it. Kaitlyn is bright, funny, artistic and a beautiful person but she had never sat in a formal classroom at that point and I hoped she wasn’t setting herself up for disappointment. At the end of the 2 week camp I sat with tears in my eyes as I watched my daughter receive Dr. Arvigo’s Bush Doctor Award. She was invited back the following year to assist the counselors and has a special relationship with “Ms. Rosita”. Today Kaitlyn regularly shows people around the Outpost property identifying medicinal plants and showing then that termites are edible. She loves to chat with her friends on Facebook, helps take care of her 3 year old sister, minds her parents and has my respect and admiration. Why was I ever worried about having a girl?

My wife and I are about to celebrate 10 years of marital bliss, we’ve been married 16 years…..but seriously folks… Our 16th anniversary is coming up and we are waffling on what to do. We do know it involves leaving the kids with friends for 2 days.  It looks as though we’ll hole up in a hotel in nearby San Ignacio with AC, TV, new movies, chocolate and one another. It might not be glamorous but it sounds like an excellent way to spend a couple of days!

We recently got a couple of horses at the Outpost, a momma (Shady) and her 11 month old philly. I don’t know anything about horses but thankfully one of my best friends is an expert and we have a community of Mennonites nearby and much off their lives revolves around their horses. I am surrounded by good horse people.  Our 12 year old Kaitlyn loves horses and has been spending time at Mountain Equestrian Trails (MET) learning more about riding and, more specifically, caring for horses in preparation for their arrival.

A week after the horses arrived the philly was found lying in the pasture and it looked as though we would lose her. An expert horseman & elder Mennonite was kind enough to come look at her and he had some ideas but we also went meet with their resident horse & animal guy who prescribed some meds but was not confident that she would make it through the night. I also made contact with my friend at MET and he came down that night but made the same diagnosis, bad. He, like the Mennonites, suspected a stomach issue so with some difficulty, we ran a hose through the horse’s nostrils down to its stomach, ensuring we are not in her lungs, and put vegetable oil in her stomach in hopes of potentially loosening things up. This is also a procedure the Mennonites brought up and we saw it for what it was, grasping at straws.  There were no immediate results and the next morning I found that we had lost her. A sad day to be sure and digging a giant grave for a horse in hard rocky ground didn’t make the day any better. The dreaded task was accomplished with the help of a volunteer and towards the end a Mennonite neighbor came by and showed me how to really handle a pick and shovel.  Thank you, sir.

A week later Shady surprised us with the birth of a new philly that the girls decided will be named “Luna” because of her beautiful white color. Luna is in good shape, much loved and well cared for.

Apart from horses I figure I have become a moderately competent handy man since I’ve moved to the middle of nowhere. Last night our only source of electricity, the diesel generator, wouldn’t start so I hunkered down in front of that beast and began the troubleshooting. I used to call the path to the generator the “Trail of Tears”. Today I am slightly more proficient at this kind of thing and brilliantly deduced that the injector wasn’t working properly. Well, 1st I deduced that the fuel hose was leaking so I took 30 minutes to repair it only to find it wasn’t the main problem. I then removed the injector, cleaned it, reinstalled it and the generator started right up. I was a legend in my own mind and was, in fact, celebrated at the Outpost by the people who were, only moments before, preparing dinner by kerosene lanterns and candlelight.

Living in Belize has been a new chapter in my life, one that I started just 2 months shy of my 40th birthday.  Who says that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? In the last 6 years I have learned to dig a deep grave, build a website, construct buildings, install lighting, run a rubber hose up a horse’s nose and squeeze maggots out of the skin of my family. I also barely escaped a catastrophic outhouse collapse, teetered my Land Cruiser on the lip of a 25 foot sinkhole, had dengue fever (twice), a flesh eating parasite (twice), paddled in the longest three person canoe race in the world (twice) and have killed deadly snakes (many times). Who knows what tomorow will bring?

Crap! The generator just died again, I gotta go…

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Visiting Western Belize

Traveling to Belize without coming inland is like getting a soft serve ice cream and not eating the cone. Come on! Eat the cone!

I spent a significant portion of my life on, in and around the water and I readily admit that the Cayes of Belize are inviting and hard to leave once you get there. As a matter of fact, I suggest coming inland first. Inland Belize has a lot to offer and I do not claim to be familiar with all of it. A great source of information for all areas of Belize is  A great source for what western Belize has to offer is me.

Let’s start with leaving Belize City. I highly recommend it.  There are several ways to do that and your budget, schedule and desires all play a factor. Consider the following:

Bus. If you arrive at the airport, a taxi to the bus station is $25US (usually for 3 people) then a bus to San Ignacio will be about $5US, per person.  This entire evolution may take much of the day. It’s inexpensive but there are other reasonable options.

Private shuttle. A private shuttle from the airport to San Ignacio can be as little as $23-35US per person and takes about an hour and forty five minutes from the time you walk out of the airport doors. Try William, or Elias, I know them both personally and they can usually be booked for the prices mentioned.

Rental car. I have rented cars here in Belize many times but never from the airport so I’ll refrain from comment on who to rent from. I do know this, you want a good, mid-sized vehicle like an SUV or even a small truck like a Toyota Hilux.  The airport rental companies may try to put you in a mini SUV with 4WD. Many people rent them and they are good on gas but I prefer a more substantial vehicle for Belizean roads. I assure you that will wish you went with a larger vehicle if you intend on exploring a bit. Expect to pay about $75US per day. If you are going to be out and about, active and getting around the area, a rental is a good value. If you are going to arrive at a destination, pull the plug and vegetate you will be paying $75 a day for a rental to sit in a driveway and it’s not a good value. If you have no idea what you are going to do or you know that you want to alternately explore and vegetate you should take a shuttle to San Ignacio and consider renting a vehicle there, as needed. I use Matus Auto Rental   but Safe Tours Belize are good people with good vehicles.

Lodging. The San Ignacio area has a great deal  to offer, from high end resorts like the incredible Chaa Creek to a wide range of options for the traveler on a tighter budget. We are going to look at the less expensive options.

A great place to stay just outside of San Ignacio is The Parrot Nest Lodge located in the village of Bullet Tree Falls. The accommodations are simple, set among lush tropical gardens, and right on the Macal River.  There are even a couple of tree-houses you can stay in. Free river tubing and some of the very best food in the San Ignacio area are a couple more highlights. “The Nest” is owned and run great people and staying there is more like staying with friends than staying at a commercial establishment.  San Ignacio is a 7 minute cab ride away and it only costs a dollar or two to get to town. Expect to pay about $40US per night to stay at Parrot Nest Lodge.

Downtown San Ignacio is a very cool place and if you want to stay right downtown I recommend Rosa’s Hotel. Rosa’s has private bathrooms with hot & cold water, rooms with AC & cable TV or several even cheaper rooms without AC.  A free continental breakfast is available and the upper veranda, overlooking San Ignacio, is a great place to catch a nice breeze and enjoy the free wifi.  

Staying anywhere downtown has it’s advantages but one minor disadvantage is the noise that any downtown area brings. At Rosa’s I love that the AC or the fan helps drown that out. Rosa’s Hotel is run by the very competent Tony Hovis who is always ready to help visitors with local insight about tours, restaurants and nightlife. A room will at Rosa’s will cost you between $27.50 and $37.50US. It is a great value and puts you right in the heart of the action in San Ignacio.

If you are feeling a little more adventurous you should check in with local legend David Simpson of David’s Adventure Tours. Not only is he one of the longest established  tour operators in the area but his Maya heritage becomes readily apparent when you visit his family property, El Guaca Mayo (The Scarlet Macaw). Located on a very large, unexcavated, Maya ruin, you are unlikely to be able to see something like this anywhere else in your travels. Additionally, he has lodging available on site for $36US per night, per person. It’s a pretty rustic situation but it includes dinner, breakfast, transportation and a guided tour of the property which is only accessed by canoe. David’s office is easily found in downtown San Ignacio and the phone number there is 011-501-804-3674.

Ok, time for some shameless, self promotion. Barton Creek Outpost was named one of the top 5 “Highlights of Belize” by the Lonely Planet Guidebook and they also said, “It’s the kind of place you visit for a day and stay for a week.” The Outpost is a backpacker hotspot and is set in one of the most beautiful inland locations in Belize. Camping is super-cheap, rental tents are available and there is a new dorm-style bunkhouse that overlooks a beautiful creek in a jungle setting. The food is consistently amazing and the people that come through are usually as cool as the other side of the pillow. There are free jungle hikes as well as big adventure in the form of guided hikes to remote waterfalls, cliff jumping from another set of falls, rock climbing (nothing technical) & horseback riding is available through nearby Mountain Equestrian Trail (MET). Don’t take my word for it though, Google search Barton Creek Outpost Belize and see who is saying what. The Outpost is located about 16 miles outside of San Ignacio and is not always easy to get to but the website has a page devoted getting there. If you are coming to western Belize, check out the Outpost.

Maya Ruins. I enjoy exploring ancient Maya Runs as much as the next guy and the biggest one in Belize is Caracol. Having said that, I hardly ever go there because the 57 mile dirt road is usually like the surface of the moon.  If you want to go, driving to Caracol is an adventure within itself and there are several excellent spots to check out on the way back, more on that in a sec.  There are also several tour companies that will take you, more on tour companies in a sec. As an alternative to Caracol, the large Maya ruin Xunantunich (The Stone Maiden) is very impressive, easy to get to and about 7 miles west of San Ignacio on the highway. A taxi there can be as cheap as $2US per person and the bus is a little less. Some of the best trinket/craft shopping is also found right outside of the Xunantunich entrance.   

The Maya ruin Cahal Pech (Place of Ticks) is essentially in San Ignacio, small, very cool, generally tick-free and worth your time as well. Don’t be fooled into walking though, a cab is cheap and worth it. Entrance into these places in currently $5US.

These are not the only excavated ruins in the area. If you are student of the Maya and want more, more, more then you can easily find it.

Tour Companies. There are quite a few tour companies around here, some are very good, some are the opposite of that. I will recommend a couple that I know personally and have extensive experience with.  

Pacz Tours is a very good all around good company. They have good vehicles, professional guides, are safe and very well run. Pacz offers trips to nearly every site in western Belize and it’s hard to go wrong using them for anything and everything.

Kin Winik is small operation run by John Chuc, a Mayan tour guide with 20 years guiding experience. John offers personalized tours at good prices, is very knowledgeable, dependable and I highly recommend him.  Check out his website for more info.

David’s Adventure Tours has been around a very long time and is personally run by local legend, David Simpson. I spoke about him above and I recommend him for a memorable experience with lots of local flavor.  David can often be reached at 011-501-804-3674. His office is easy to find between the bus station and the market in San Ignacio.

John and David are each going to provide you with a very personal, customized, excellent adventure. Pacz tours is probably a bit more polished, has a bigger budget, a fleet of vehicles and you are likely to be on your very well run tour with a group of others. It would be difficult for me to choose any of these above the others. I highly recommend all three.

Day trips in the area.

ATM Cave. The crown jewel of western Belize. The most highly sought after tour in the area. The most marketed trip in the west. It’s worth it. Go see it. If you stay at the Outpost I can probably get it for you cheaper than you can get it yourself. I recommend Pacz for this tour. Cost: $65 – $85US pp.

Mountain Pine Ridge.  To come to western Belize and not see Rio On Pools and Big Rock Falls should be a crime. And by “see” I mean spend the day climbing on, swimming in, jumping from and physically enjoying.  If you stay at the Outpost we can help get you there. If not, I recommend David Simpson and John Chuc. Cost: $65 – 90US, pp and well worth it. If you have a rental you can find them both yourself.

1000 Foot Falls. Don’t be fooled. Miss it for sure! It’s a long drive to see something from a view point of 1000 yards away with no way to actually get to it and enjoy it. I’d decline to go if someone told me they’d take me for free and buy me lunch.

Rio Frio Cave. Worth a stop if you are already driving by it, coming back from Caracol for example. Worth a miss if you have to travel to get there.

Bol’s Cave. You will have to drive by it to get to the Pine Ridge. It’s warrants a visit and houses an amazingly large collection of Maya artifacts. Most tour companies don’t stop there because the people that run it do not offer reasonable compensation for tour companies to stop. It’s worth paying your guide to stop there. Try $7.50-10US for the guide and $15US to see the cave. It’s worth it.

Barton Creek Cave.  It’s 200 yards from the Outpost so if you are with us already you shouldn’t miss it. If you are not at the Outpost, truthfully, Big Rock Falls and Rio On Pools are a better time although more physically demanding. Cost: $50–90US.

Horseback Riding. Mountain Equestrian Trails was featured in the book, “1000 Places To See Before You Die” with good reason. If you like to ride you cannot do better than an adventure with MET. They have great lodging, excellent food, and the family that owns it are simply the best. The cost of lodging is a bit higher than some other places but let’s face it, quality is usually worth the price.

Ok, to review….eat the cone, miss 1000 foot falls and stay at Barton Creek Outpost. Any questions?

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A Couple Of Great Values For Exploring Belize

Even if you are not a stereotypical backpacker you can dress like one and do the whole backpacking thing through Belize on the cheap. Another option is to stay at some backpacking hotspots & then sneak off to more luxurious digs here and there.  Part of the attraction of these places is paying, for example, $15 a night on lodging and having money left over to get out on some excursions.  People who come to Belize and do not go on some of these trips are missing out on the best that Belize has to offer.

Since I live inland I know a great deal about what is available in this area. I have been in business here for over 6 years, primarily catering to backpackers, and have traveled around the country a bit myself.  I have some personal experience with a few things that I love to do and will limit my comments to those things.  There is a lot more out there than I am personally knowledgeable about and I certainly don’t intend this to be an all encompassing guide. Al Gore invented the internet for that.

In part 1 of this 2 part series we’ll look at exploring the islands along Belize’s barrier reef.

As much as I’d love to believe that Barton Creek Outpost is the highlight of Belize I have spent much of my adult life as a Navy Deep Sea Diver and a boat captain so there is a special place in my heart for turquoise waters, palm trees & warm island breezes. There are many inexpensive ways to experience all of this but here are a few that I have personal experience with.

Seakunga, Placencia. “Seakunga”, it’s fun to say the word and fun to stay there. We call Seakunga “Barton Creek Outpost on the beach”.  It is a great facility that offers beachfront cabanas w/private bathrooms ($60US a night) as well as a large dorm style cabana ($15US a night pp) and tent rentals on the beach ($15US per night). Showers with hot water & bathrooms are available for campers as well as in the dorm style accommodations.  Seakunga has been in business since 1994 and specializes in kayak adventures, both on the sea and inland whitewater trips.

Sea kayaking can be day trips from Placencia or fully equipped, guided, multi-day, island hopping trips. Island hopping excursions involve power boating to beautiful remote islands then deploying the sea kayaks to explore the area on your own. Guests snorkel & fish at their leisure then camp on the islands at night.  

The cost for island hopping is $150US pp, per day. That includes powerboat with captain, kayaks & gear, meals, unlimited rum punch & snorkeling. They do not have fishing gear but when I went I rented good spinning gear for $10 a day from another source in Placencia. This trip is an incredible value and can be overnight or several days.

Raggamuffin Tours out of Caye Caulker. Among other things, they offer an amazing 3 day sailing trip from Caye Caulker to Placencia with snorkeling and fishing along the way. The sailboat typically has about 12-14 passengers & remains in the inner reef to take advantage of the calm sailing waters.

Passengers camp on beautiful Rendezvous Caye and Tobacco Caye whilst visiting Goffs Caye or English Caye and South Water Caye. Cost: $300 per person for three days and includes, food, snorkeling (twice a day), fishing gear (including spear fishing), camping equipment & rum punch.

Both of these island hopping options are an incredible value. A significant difference between multi-day island hopping with these two is that with Raggamuffin you are on a sailboat with a group of people you just met (which can be great fun) and with Seakunga you can go with just you and a friend or a small group of people that you put together. Seakunga also provides the sea kayaks that allow you to go off on your own and explore a bit. It costs a little more but there is something to be said for a bit of privacy on an incredible, remote, Caribbean island. There are advantages to both.

Tobacco Caye. I love Tobacco Caye! It is a 5 acre island dotted with palm trees and surrounded by amazing blue tropical waters. If you like sun, sand, water sports, Caribbean style drumming & drinks this might be the place for you.  There are 5 inexpensive “resorts” on the island that are all a no frills type of situation. Prices start at $30US a day, per person, for a place to crash and three meals.  You can arrange inexpensive fishing & snorkeling from there for less than $30US per person for a half day.

Here are two places on the island I have experience with:

 Tobacco Caye Lodge: Probably the nicest place out there. Cost between $45-$55US, pp, per day. Includes three meals a day.  We stayed in pretty reasonable cabanas although the last time I was there I got my fishing pole stolen off the porch (I knew better than to leave it there, see my blog, “Dey teef me!”).  We had electricity about 1/2 the time and water for showers about 1/3 of the time.  Since I was having such a great time I didn’t care about showers & electricity. Fishing pole, another story.

Gaviota Coral Reef: The least expensive place out there, cost between $30-$35US pp, per night. Includes three meals. These are very simple accommodations, an island hut to crash in after you enjoy a day in paradise. Judy & Dean run the place and are very friendly, offering a warm, personal touch that is hard to find elsewhere. The adjacent volleyball court is always great fun too.

There are a couple bars on the island and, surprisingly, drinks are reasonably priced. The sounds of drumming fill the air every other night or so and the evening festivities are a blast!

Transportation leaves from Dangriga which is a place I would otherwise avoid but is a reasonable jump off point to the island. The 45 minute boat ride is about $35pp, round trip. 

There are cheaper places to stay around Belize but I find Tobacco Caye to be a very good value and they have what I’m looking for, amazing water, great fishing, aquarium-like snorkeling and a very cool island vibe.

In my next installment we’ll look at traveling inland and seeing the ruins and rainforest.

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Questions Of A Middle Aged Man

This aging thing is really a pain in my ass. Besides the numerous little aches, pains, injuries, loss of vision and hearing I am experiencing it seems my friends and family are getting older as well. Now I have friends with Alzheimers, breast cancer, friends dying and it is becoming very real to me that my parents will not always be around.  I have expressed my condolences to friends who have lost their parents but I am sure I have yet to truly consider how difficult that loss must be.  I am not ready for that.

Bitching about growing old is obviously not a new pastime but it always seemed like something other people did, old people. I just turned 46 and say what you will but the backside of your 40’s is old. Should I be changing my ways? My style, such as it were?  Be more distinguished? I still feel like a child in what is now an older guy’s body. Does everyone see my inner child and say, “He needs to grow up”? Is worrying about what other people think now in my best interest? Why start that again?

My wife recently  told me that a friend of ours said to her, “Jim’s not as sarcastic & grumpy lately…” or something to that effect. WTF? I readily admit to making it a point to act the way I think is reasonable regardless of what the droning masses think but have I come off as grumpy? I don’t feel grumpy except before 8am or so. Have I been a prick and now due to my advancing years have acquired a new tag, “grumpy”?

What about my children. I have 2 adult boys in the US and three kids here, 12, 9 and 3. How will I ever be able to relate to them? Do they know that I’m cool?

Is it too late for a mid-life crisis? I am sure my mid-life has passed me by, did I have a crisis? Am I in one? I don’t feel the compelling need to buy a sports car or divorce my wife. I am considering taking up golf, that can’t be good.

What kind of man am I? Why do I still feel the need for my Dad to be proud of me? Is death looming or am I the young man that my elders assure me I am? I often feel wise although I suspect a close examination would reveal a bumbling moron.  What, who is the true me? Am I thoroughly honest with myself? Do I put on airs? Am I keeping it real?  Is everyone else really so screwed up, why don’t they take my advice?

These are the things on my mind. Does anyone else think like me or even care?

Wondering WTF

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I Think My Flesh Eating Parasite Is Gone

I post this short note to simply follow up with my previous posts on this subject.

After a series of injections is looks as though my bout with Leish Maniasis is done. The sores are dried up & almost gone. I have high hopes of being off the leish. If anything changes I’ll keep you appraised.

Off The Leish

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Attacking My Flesh Eating Parasite

This is a follow up to the article I posted regarding my ongoing battle with leish maniasis.

My 12 week intimate relationship with leish maniasis is hopefully coming to a close. After trying 3 cycles of antibiotics, topical ointments and compresses with a local herb (Jackass Bitters) I have submitted myself to a series of injections with the drug Glucantime. Each treatment consists of 5-7 injections in each of my two sores, twice a week for 4 weeks. I have heard that the injections have a list of side effects that would make a crack addict squeamish but am forging ahead nonetheless. So far, and I just started today, the worst side effects seems to be the physical pain caused by taking 5-7 injections to an open wound. I have 2 such wounds. More to follow.

The day after…The side effects from the meds are more apparent. Achy flu-like symptoms and feeling especially run down. The sores themselves are nasty looking! Irritated, swollen, red, yucky… More to follow.

Next day…sores hurt & look bad but I feel fine in general.  I’ll update as anything changes.

Taking My Medicine

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I Think I Have a Flesh Eating Parasite

So, for the last couple months the festering sore on my wrist has at times grown, seemed to shrink, and oozed continuously but it has never healed. Oh yeah, I have two, one on my left wrist and one on my right elbow. Each one is slightly larger than a US silver dollar. Locals stop me all the time and ask, “You have a bay sore?” “…chiclero” “…leish?” “… had a blood test?” Anyone with past experience sees it and thinks, “Leish Maniasis”. Liesh is a disease caused by parasites and transmitted by a species of sand fly.  I get all kinds of

Leish Maniasis? Tropical disease.

Sore on Left Wrist

Bandaged Up

Leish Manasis, tropical disease.

Two Sores.

recommendations, “Pour bleach on it”, “Squeeze the berries that grow in the orchard on it”, etc…

My wound care treatment has been treating one wound while ignoring the other, a seldom used medical practice. Up to this point the sore on my left wrist has been covered with triple antibiotic, covered with guaze and wrapped with an ace bandage.  I also have been through a whole tube of Bactroban that a friend recommended. The sore stays covered maybe 80% of my waking hours. It always oozes, has not healed and is larger now, same as the one I have ignored. Oh yeah, 3 separate cycles of antibiotics haven’t helped either.

Probably 6 weeks into it I went to a local doc who sent me to get a blood test. After waiting a week for the results the 24 hour test they told me it’s not leish maniasis. I didn’t believe the lab for reasons that are not limited to the typical inefficiency we all experience here but also include a medical receptionist who seemed to hate me, a hurricane and numerous gory photos of other cases of leish. Additionally, the doc, prior to sending me to the lab, says he is sure it’s leish. I stopped him on the street after the test and conveyed the results.  He didn’t believe it either and asked me if I wanted to come in to receive treatment. I told him yes but first I’m going to try a treatment most everyone seems to agree on, Jackass Bitters.

Jackass Bitters is a local plant that seems to be good for your everything. I have personally experienced the positive effects of Jackass Bitters tea killing pesky stomach parasites but that ain’t all. These bitters are also used to treat everything from malaria to vaginal itching. In this case I will boil the leaves to a tea and apply the soaked leaves in a compress that I will change 3 times a day.

Fast forward, 2 weeks later….Turns out Jackass Bitters isn’t working. Yesterday a close friend of ours came by and checked me out. She has spent years in the jungle dealing with the many ailments that are inherent to living here and has treated leish maniasis many times. Mamma, as we call her, is also a registered nurse in the US, is exceptionally bright and probably is not proud of me for letting this thing go for so long.  She took some lovely pictures and told me she’d consult with a dermatologist she works with here and get me on the proper treatment. I meet with her for a follow up today.

I’m looking forward to progress. In addition to the obvious pain in the neck of having 2 large seeping sores on my body (seems you don’t really get used to that) I’m a bit self conscious about it. I usually have at least the worst one covered but as I sit here right now with 2 large bandages on I think I look like a car accident victim.  I mean, who wants giant bandages wrapped around their wrist on one hand and elbow on the other? The only thing worse is leaving them exposed and seeing the recoil from people who see my horrendous condition. I am not an animal!

I hope to start treatment soon and will keep you posted…

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